Wednesday, 20 December 2017

2666 by Roberto Bolano

I need to write a review for this book. I've been putting it off for days. I'm not entirely sure that I'm smart enough - at least, to understand it fully, I feel like I'd need to read it in small chunks along with other very smart people and unpack it, bit by bit. Because, wow, do I ever know I'm missing things.

But hey, I finished it! That was an achievement in and of itself. It was one of those books I took out of the library, and proved not amenable to reading large chunks at a time, so I took it slow, renewed it three times, and still had to take it back to the library. Then, a month or two later, I took it out again and read the last book of the five that are contained here.

Let's start there, maybe. This is five books, which apparently Bolano thought would be published individually, one a year. They were connected, but not a series in any way that we're familiar with. After his death, his literary executors decided to publish them together as one. So we have five very different books in one novel.

The first is about academia and English professors and love triangles and obsession over one particular author and the battles that take place over interpretations thereof. It's exacerbated by the fact that the author is still alive (probably), but no one has ever seen him.

The second section is about another academic the four from the first book met in the town of Santa Teresa, in Mexico. It covers his life, his sort-of disgrace, the daughter he's trying to raise by himself, and the complicated relationship he had with his wife.

Then we skip in the third book to a journalist who comes to Santa Teresa to cover a boxing match, but ends up staying to try to hunt down a story of the many, many women who have been killed in the town.

The fourth book is all about the murders, a relentless litany of the dead and disappeared, those killed by one or more serial killers side by side with those women killed by domestic partners. This juxtaposition is stark - the mad killer(s) side by side with more prosaic and intimate dangers of men who have no problem taking out their frustration, anger, and jealousy on the bodies of women. We also follow along with the police investigation here. It's a difficult book.

The last book, the only one that I read recently, is about the mysterious author from the first story, and through that, we see how he's intertwined with the other books. We follow his early life in Germany and the many twisty paths he took to literary immortality.

Each is interesting in its own way, and there are obvious ways in which these books intertwine, but I also feel like there's a lot more just outside my reach, and to get it, I'd have to go back, and read more closely, and converse, and research. And...I'm not going to. Not right now. Maybe someday down the road, when I'm in the mood for that kind of deep, prolonged dive.

Tuesday, 19 December 2017

Top Ten of 2017!

Even though I didn't do the full Dust Cover Dust-Up this year, I still came up with a Top Ten list. As with every year, very few if any of the books on the list came out in the last year - since I get most of my books from the library, I'm always at least a few years behind. Still, no matter when they came out, these books are worth your time and attention. There are links to the full reviews if you want to read more of my thoughts on the matter.

10. World of Trouble by Ben Winters

I read this whole trilogy last year, and I enjoyed it from start to finish. But of the three, I think it was the last that struck me the most. It didn't flinch as the trilogy ended off, but Winters strung interesting ideas throughout about how the  world would react to an imminent end, and peppered through bits of hope and conspiracy that were powerful. It's the last few pages, though, that really elevate the whole damn thing.

9. Moby Dick by Herman Melville

This was the big classic I read this last year, after trying and failing to get through Don Quixote and The Brothers Karamazov. Moby Dick was the book I responded to, with all the varieties of obsession on display, including encyclopedic whale lore. I'd read it again, I really would.


8. A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson

I think of the two books in these companion novels, I liked Life After Life the best, but it got knocked out of a previous Dust-Up due to an unlucky matchup. Still, I have no problem putting A God In Ruins in my top ten this year. The story of Teddy, the brother of Ursula, and the parts of his life told all out of order, always circles back to the war and his experiences as a pilot. It is riveting, and the end is brutal.

7. Planetfall by Emma Newman

Wow, I did not see this book coming. For some reason, I thought it was YA - probably because it was in and amongst a bunch of other YA books on my library list. What it is instead is really insanely good science fiction, paired with an unsettling look at trauma and mental illness. It's set on another planet in the shadow of a huge building that the settlers below think was made by God. I can't even begin to explain why it is so good, but this book haunts me.

6. Ancillary Mercy by Ann Leckie

I just loved this whole series, and can't wait to read the related book. Of course, a language with only one gender, and that one translated into English as feminine, is interesting, but the books are so much more - about power, empire, inequality, and identity. We keep on following the ship in the body of a person as she tries to stay alive and fight off the woman who's trying to kill her.

5. The Yiddish Policeman's Union by Michael Chabon

I am sort of a sucker for noir mysteries paired with science fiction, although I'm not convinced this is science fiction. Alt-history, absolutely, and I guess the two tend to get lumped together. Either way, this is a mix of a detective trying to solve a murder in the last days before Sitka gets returned to Alaska from its time as a temporary Jewish homeland, to a conspiracy around the return, family drama, and a whole bunch more. It was so up my alley it wasn't funny.

4. My Real Children by Jo Walton

Oh dear, this was a year for books that just about destroyed me, and Jo Walton's My Real Children left me with tears running down my face. I guess we're sort of in alt-history again, as we follow a woman through two versions of her life. But this avoids the trap of the "good life" and the "bad life," and gives us something nuanced and difficult about individual action, and the way we live.


3. The Accursed by Joyce Carol Oates

This was the first Oates book I have ever read, and it won't be the last. On the surface, it's a Gothic horror, set in Princeton against a backdrop of familiar historical figures. Underneath that, though, lie the horrors of gender, of race, of class, and violences done in the name of each. I was enthralled. It's another book I want someone to read just so I can discuss it with them.

2. The Parable of the Talents by Octavia Butler

Octavia Butler just about always knocks me on my ass, with her skill at delving into deeply uncomfortable power dynamics without ever being didactic. In fact, I've found that I disagree with some people on interpretations in ways that creep me out. In this second Parables book, we see the continued story of Lauren through the lens of her estranged daughter, as she struggles against the worst that fundamentalist Christianity can throw against her and Earthseed, her fledgling religion, both.

And that brings us to the book that knocked my socks off this last year, the book I have run out and buttonholed everyone I know to tell them to read it right freaking now. You should do the same.

1. The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin it. This is so good and so complex and so difficult. We are in another world where frequent cataclysms have created groups that are more or less protected during unstable periods, and many are cast out. In and among them are the orogenes, able to control seismic activity, potentially dangerous and therefore tightly controlled. This is all about power, of many sorts, and women who navigate tightly restricted worlds. It's so, so amazingly good. 

Friday, 15 December 2017

Pacific Fire by Greg van Eekhout

I have not been reading as much as I usually do the last little while. I'm not really sure why, except for the extreme busyness of the world, and the temptations of playing on an iPad when I get home instead of curling up with a book because my brain is just done. We'll see if it changes in the new year. However, I still manage to read on my lunch hours, and it didn't take very many of those for me to devour Pacific Fire.

It has been quite a gap since I read California Bones, but it was a book I recommended to several people who like weird Americana in their fantasy. Particularly my husband, since he's run games set in L.A. before, and I thought he'd enjoy the references very much indeed.

We are now more than a decade later, after Daniel Blackland devoured half the heart of the Hierarch of Los Angeles, and escaped with the golem that the Hierarch had been grooming to take over. The golem, Sam, is magic in his very bones, and almost everyone who is still a power in L.A. would like to consume him, and no, that is not an euphemism.

Daniel and Sam have been on the run for that long, moving frequently, when Daniel gets an inside tip that certain powers inside LA - including his treacherous "uncle," Otis, are trying to raise a Pacific Firedrake with which to bathe their enemies in fire of the most magical sort. Daniel is less than impressed with this plan, and decides to go stop it.

Before he can do so, though, he is gravely wounded, and although Daniel has been trying to keep Sam well away from those who want to eat his flesh to gain his magic, Sam decides that this danger is worth risking his own life, and with the aid of one of the Emmas (a group of women of various ages who are all sort of the same person but not - I know that's confusing, but read both books and it makes sense), Sam sets off for L.A.

Daniel wakes up and goes after him, and we have a mix of Daniel's old heist team and Sam's new venture, both vectors ending up where the firedrake skeleton rests awaiting incarnation.

Those are the bones of the story, but they're fleshed out with a story of surrogate family, and ways in which parents can hurt their children without meaning to, either involuntarily, or, in one case, entirely voluntarily. As a golem of someone else, finding an identity is more than complicated, particularly when the original is still around. Or when the original was the most powerful man on the West Coast for a very long time.

I think I may have liked the heistiness of the first book a little bit more than the adventures that happen in the second, but both are very solid books, and the world and magic van Eekhout creates around Los Angeles is really excellent. It's a nice twist, just a little off the real world, with a system of magic that is brutal and unique.

I can't talk about the ending without spoiling the whole book, but it was both a little unexpected and very fitting. Who knows what might happen next to those who remain?

Thursday, 14 December 2017

The Week in Stories - Masque of the Red Death

In personal stories, the last little bit has been rough. It's now been 7 months since my mother died, and this week is the 7 year anniversary of my father's death. I am getting through, but I've been erratic in keeping up on book reviews and the Dust Cover Dust-Up, and finally decided to scrap the latter. I went through all the books by myself in the same way, and will post a Top Ten Books of the Year list soon, but I don't have the mental energy to detail my struggles to pick between dearly loved books this year. I quit trying to make myself do it, and I feel a lot better for that decision.

Another part of having a tough go is that it had been a while between gaming sessions, and I find that when I go without gaming for a while, my grump quotient shoots through the roof. Nothing like slipping into someone else's problems to help me blow off steam. So I was extraordinarily glad when we sat down for the second session of Masque of the Red Death, our Victorian monster hunter game. Yes, it's supposed to be a lighter game, but my character has some juicy bits.

Previously on Masque of the Red Death....

After writing up last session, I thought a lot about my character. I liked how he came out in the first episode, but it was definitely Roydon at his best, and his best wasn't what I was interested in exploring. I figured out that if I wanted his traumatic past to come up, I needed to do some serious thinking about what, specifically, would touch on his past experiences and what reactions might be provoked.

I did this in concert with another player, since she's playing Roydon's lover, and was going to take the brunt of whatever reaction he had. I wanted to make sure I wasn't doing anything that would deprotagonize her character or make the game less fun! We both bought in to the idea of Roydon dealing with trauma, but we definitely needed to collaborate on what that would look like, with full veto power in her court.

Once the two of us were happy about the results, and excited to see them in practice, I forwarded the list on to the GM (also my husband), and he kindly included them on my updated character sheet for easy reference. This was good, since I came up with them about three weeks before we ended up playing and wasn't entirely sure I remembered them all!

I'll talk about them and how they ended up working so far, after a bit of a recap:

Episode Two: The Hampstead Horror

The episode began with our intrepid heroes being inducted into the Daedalus Lodge, the secret monster-hunting society behind the rather more pedestrian Icarus Club.

Lady Felicity decided it would be only kind if she picked up her brother and his paramour and gave them a lift to the club, although she started to rethink that as her carriage went into rather sketchy territory. Roydon was already in a bad mood, which had started when Abigail offered to fasten his cufflinks. He would treat her rather shabbily for the rest of the day, to her confusion and dismay.

Rather than talking for half an hour to give us exposition, Bill wrote a six-page scripted scene that we read each other, getting the lore we needed behind the organization we had just joined. (I think I love it more when the scripts are character flashbacks, but this was certainly an effective way to get that much info out in a way that engaged us all.) We also met the demon that had killed Hewitt's father, which he now carried in an "impenetrable" glass vial around his neck.

At the end of the vignette we read, there was a reference to a former monster hunter, Henry, who, despite being "the best of us all," still fell prey to corrupting forces. (I was delighted with myself that I figured out the reference from that alone.) After some in-character discussion with the members who welcomed us, we were taken on a field trip to see Henry's body - huge, distorted, who would have thought that Dr. Henry Jekyll would end up like that?

After our induction, we moved into a research phase, using Blades In The Dark-style clocks. We each got to come up with our own research project (or collaborate), and starting bringing in elements we wanted to see in the future stories. (I also got a clock for "Roydon Goes On A Bender," and that started filling up fairly quickly.)

Roydon started researching shapeshifters, looking for whatever had attacked him and killed(?) his fiancee. I made some minor progress, but nothing specific yet.

Then we want on to the third phase of the way Bill sees it going - personal scenes. We could either call for something or ask Bill for a suggestion. I did the latter, and he suggested we see Roydon and Abigail's stage magic show. That was a lot of fun, and went well at first. Roydon used his psychometry (I think this is my second character with that ability - apparently I find it particularly interesting!) to read the history of objects and stun his audience, although he was more cynical in an aside to Abigail than to the owner.

Then the whole performance went sideways. Roydon, looking up into the balcony, saw the pale face of his dead(?) fiancee there. He went white and walked down the stairs and into the crowd. Abigail tried to pass it off as part of the performance and bring him back, but he was somewhere else. The crowd came to their feet and surrounded him, and when he looked back, she was gone. After some stunned stillness, he stormed off, and Abigail managed to bring the show to a successful conclusion, but only with great difficulty.

Meanwhile, Hewitt went back out to Graydon House with his pet demon-in-a-jar and a magic detector. There, he was able to confirm that there was indeed a shit-ton of magic, but not a lot more. He tried to close the gap with magnets, but the sound of approaching heavy footsteps convinced him to beat a retreat.

Lady Felicity lunched at the Icarus Club, eating with a friend of her father, a rather pompous older man with an excess of harrumphing. From him, she learned more of the history of the past and present masters of Graydon House, as well as some tidbits from the less monster-hunty side of the world.

Kimball was walking down the street when he realized he was being followed. On eluding his first pursuer, he became aware of two more. Eventually, he decided to allow them to catch up, and found himself being ushered into a carriage occupied by Lord Somerset, head of the Foreign Office. Somerset had some questions about when Kimball had left the service and why. In particular, he wanted to know whether or not the experience Kim had had included seeing "the castle." Kim, confused, said no, and Somerset did not elaborate further.

We ran out of time for Abigail to have a scene, and she had been part of Roydon's, so we ended the game there. We're maybe hoping that Abigail can track Roydon down post-show and have it out at the start of next session.

Character Thoughts:

I felt like the triggers all worked fairly well, although at least one player took my shorthand list literally in a way that made me cock an eyebrow. One of them was written down as "cufflinks," and surprise, surprise, it doesn't mean that you show my character cufflinks, and he freaks out. It means that when a woman he cares about adjust his dress in a way that feels caring, that prompts memories of what he's lost and makes him push said woman (i.e. Abigail) away because he can't deal with the loss he suffered previously. It does not, oh hell no, excuse his behaviour, but it does offer some insight into why. (Amanda and I were all about playing out a relationship that might not be the best for the people involved.)

However, that shortform meant that one other player tried to show me his shirt sleeves at one point, going "ooh, cufflinks." Uh...yeah. That's...not going to do it.

If last session was Roydon at his best, this was definitely getting closer to the worst. He kept pushing Abigail away, often without even realizing that he'd done it, so wrapped up in his own pain was he. And we got to push on a couple of the sore spots, both ones that make him edgy, abrupt, and leaning towards drinking a lot. The only one we didn't get to really explore was the one that will provoke a different reaction....

That one was a tricky one to work out. I wanted something that made him very overprotective of Abigail, but it can't be happening all the time - she's the most physically capable person in the party, and it's no fun for her player if I'm constantly acting like she can't do anything. (Historical accuracy be fucking damned - I hate using historical settings as an excuse to make sure women know they would be treated badly at the time. REALLY? NO FUCKING KIDDING.) It's happened to me while playing female characters, and now, with my first male character, I didn't want to turn around and do the same to someone else, unless that was the specific adversity they wanted.

I feel like we found a good way to work the overprotectiveness in, given that entirely voluntary restraint. We found a specific, limited, and evocative set of circumstances that would make Roydon act uncharacteristically - notably, his default is to believe that Abigail is entirely capable and doesn't need protecting, so this should stand out as strange. It will be triggered when he sees something supernatural looming over Abigail when she's in a vulnerable position. It's specific because it will remind him of what he saw when Carrie was killed(?), it won't happen all the time, and it will be distinctly different from the norm.

I really can't wait. Oh, this relationship is going to get messy, and that's going to be interesting.

Monday, 4 December 2017

The Facts of Life by Paula Knight

I am not a fan of trying to write reviews of graphic novels. That doesn't mean I don't like graphic novels, but the difficulty is similar to the one I have writing reviews of books of short stories. In both cases, the works I'm trying to comment on flash by too quickly. I do best when I stretch a book over several days - something I do quite purposefully, reading multiple books at once to prevent starting and finishing a book on the same day. I need the time and the space for my mind to stretch into the book, to think quietly about what I'm reading, to mull over what's going on. Only then do I feel like I can write a review.

With short-form fiction or graphic novels, it's so quick, and ephemeral. It feels like they go by in the blink of an eye and I'm on to the next one, and I don't retain enough to write good reviews.  In fact, just a few days ago, I gave myself permission to stop trying to write reviews of books of short stories. (This doesn't mean that I won't try to still write reviews of old science fiction stories - those are different, in that I'm reading them with purpose, and take my time to fit them into what I know and what I don't know yet, about the field.)  But for anthologies? I can read them and let them be quick and transitory. That's okay.

I feel a great sense of relief. I may eventually make the same decision about graphic novels - I never feel like I have much to write about them. I mean, look at the two and a half paragraphs I've used so far to avoid talking about this specific book!

It's partly because this was loaned to me by a friend, and it was evidently a book she responded to strongly, and I just haven't had the same reaction. It's not a bad book, per se, it's just so bloody straightforward - it feels like a pamphlet on infertility was extended to graphic novel length. There isn't anything here that makes it more than a straightforward recounting, I don't see anything that makes it feel like art, like it becomes more than just a set of "this is what happened" events.  I mean, except for the drawings, which are fine, but didn't strike me in any strong way.

It's so hard when my reaction is so much at variance with that of a friend who loaned it to me expecting, I think, a certain response.

Part of that is different life experiences. Neither of us have ever had children. I don't think she ever wanted to, and from what she's said, it sounds like she's gotten grief from plenty of people over the years who make her feel less a person because she isn't a mother.

My experience is very different, and I feel like I must know politer, less judgey people than she does. I don't have children, but it's not entirely volitional. There were infertility issues that made it difficult, and medical issues that led me to the decision not to pursue intervention in trying to conceive, and a lack of money and general contentedness with our life as it is that led my husband and I to decide not to pursue adoption. There were choices all the way along, and we made them.

They weren't easy, of course, but I'm at peace with all of them. That took quite a while, and many conversations, and a few years of it causing me some pain. But it's my own story, and honestly, I never feel like I've been judged for it. I don't think I've ever been talked down to by people because I chose not to have kids. People have asked, but generally once I've known them, and with delicacy and entire lack of judgement. So the whole "the world is full of pro-natalist pressure" just...doesn't ring true for me. I think that means I've been exceptionally lucky.

I've also never been bothered by other people having children around me. I love kids. I would have been a good mother, I think, but I'm also a pretty awesome me. And I'm happy being the cool aunt instead.

Which is to say that while I wanted kids, my self-worth was never ever tied up with being a mother in the way that the author of this book feels was foisted upon her by heteronormative family-obsessed family, friends, and culture. So...I don't respond to it. Sounds like I don't because I lucked the hell out.

Friday, 1 December 2017

Certainty by Madeleine Thien

I have not always been thrilled by the list put out by the CBC of the Top 100 Canadian Books. I mean, I'll read the whole thing if it kills me, but the list itself was far to heavily weighted towards books that had come out in the five years before it was compiled. And so, many of the books on it have left me a little baffled as to why they're there, other than that they're recent, and it probably pleased the publishers.

Luckily, although Certainty is still fairly recent, this was not a book that left me rolling my eyes in disbelief and wondering who the heck picked it. I can't say I loved it with the deep-down love I reserve for a few books every year, but it's definitely one that I might recommend to someone if I thought this was up their particular alley. Phew! It's nice to be able to say nice things about these books. I want to support Canadian literature. Just not, you know, if it's terrible.

We have a bunch of interlocking stories here - the story of Gail, a radiojournalist obsessed with the stories of people's lives, and not knowing what is not told. (As made material by a diary written in a Vignere code.)  Then stories of her parents, particularly her father - growing up in a Malaysia at war, negotiating terrain of loyalty and collaboration that have deadly consequences, and then later, when her father meets her mother and they go to Australia as students. And the story of Gail's partner, Ansel, coping with grief after Gail dies unexpectedly in her 40s. As a doctor, he searches for a way he could have prevented a freak occurrence, while trying to help a tubercular patient with AIDS negotiate his last days.

It's a lot, and these stories do not interlock in neat ways, perhaps trying to avoid the certainty of the title in favour of different stories with different meanings. This does, however, make it a bit harder to pick out themes that are universal to all the stories in the novel. The back-of-the-book description makes this all seem neater than it is - like Gail goes to Amsterdam in search of the woman in her father's past, where in the actual novel, she goes following an unrelated story, and ends up contacting a man there who married her father's childhood sweetheart without really have any idea of the full sweep of the story. It's more than that she's curious than that she knows the precise outlines of the mystery.

In fact, the back of the book prose makes this all seem like the emotions in this book are more tempestuous and passionate than they are. This isn't the story of raging feelings. It's the story of adults dealing with deep feelings, mostly well. They don't really act out. They try to work through their emotions, even when they are emotions not easily handled. Ansel still goes to supper every week with Gail's parents, and they are together, even when grief sweeps through. When it does, there isn't any gnashing of teeth or rending of clothes, and this is closer to my own experience of grief - it colours everything, but doesn't necessitate destroying what still remains.

Does what Gail finds out give her any closure? Did it her father? Ansel? They all go on, as long as they can, until death ends one of the stories. And the discovery of secrets doesn't really end anything, it just alters the circumstances.

So, because these stories don't neatly interlock, don't unfold a secret at the centre, they're a quieter story. Much like what Gail finds when someone decodes the Vignere cipher for her - life is more mundane, more able to go on, more constant than you might expect. That sense is what I responded to most strongly in this book.

Tuesday, 28 November 2017

Dust Cover Dust-Up 2017: Round One, Part Seven

More Round One

The Mistress of Nothing by Kate Pullinger vs. Sunshine by Robin McKinley

I didn't dislike The Mistress of Nothing, about gender politics and women in England and Egypt, but I liked Sunshine quite a lot more. It was a little cheesy, a slightly darker version of Charlaine Harris' Sookie Stackhouse books. The human and vampire didn't quite get it on in the first book, but it was a lot of present-day fantasy fun.

Winner: Sunshine

Come, Thou Tortoise by Jessica Grant vs. Yes Please by Amy Poehler

Here we have one of the few books I really disliked this year, for a whole lot of reasons that I go into in the review. You can click the link if you're really interested. So it's definitely getting knocked out. Amy Poehler's Yes Please wasn't the best thing ever, but it was a hell of a lot more fun than inconsistent characters and tweeness.
Winner: Yes Please

Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson vs. Iron Sunrise by Charles Stross

A nice pairing of science fiction - the futility of generation ships up against spreading Nazis in a world where light-speed is possible but highly regulated. Aurora characters bothered the heck out of me, handing an easy win to Charles Stross here.

Winner: Iron Sunrise

Bye: The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell

The First Lensman by E.E. "Doc" Smith vs. Shards of Honor by Lois McMaster Bujold

Let's book that ignores the valid concerns of a cabal of men taking over all government because they have magic devices that say they're virtuous, against a book that is far from my favourite of the Vorkosigan saga, but gives interesting insight into early Cordelia and Aral. Again, easy.
Winner: Shards of Honor

How To Be Both by Ali Smith vs. Winter Rose by Patricia McKillip

This is a complex choice. In the one corner, we have a story that can be told in one of two orders, about a lost mother and a female Renaissance painter, in the other, we have a retelling of a number of story tales that was less Tam Lin that I was hoping. I liked Winter Rose more than the rest of my book club did, but of the two, I think this has to go to the experiment that is How To Be Both.

Winner: How To Be Both

Monday, 27 November 2017

Earth by David Brin

*Some Spoilers Below*

I was trying to describe this book to people at my book club last night, and as I went through all the things it tried to incorporate, one person asked if this was a humourous book? It is not, but I can see how the hodge-podge I was listing might make it sound like a book where piling all these themes and technologies were be used to highlight absurdity.

This is...not that book. That book might have been more fun.

Which isn't to say this is a bad book, this is just a book that is trying to do so much and get through it as efficiently as possible that it's a perfectly serviceable, and, indeed, ambitious standard science fiction novel. But it's not heavily a novel of character (although the characters aren't terrible), or of prose styling. It's plot, and that's not uncommon, and it's a pretty good plot, but oh my, are we ever trying to mash a whole bunch of things in there:

Climate Change
Black holes in the centre of the Earth
Abolition of privacy by law
Gaian Theory
A floating nation-state
A conspiracy of the rich
Gazerbeams (gravity something something something)

It's a lot, even for a book that approaches 600 pages in mass market format. Does it all hang together? Kind of? Each of the stories is more or less hung on a different person, not to mention the young men who die along the way, and we go back and forth between them at what is sometimes whiplash speed. Chapters are often only 5-10 pages long, which at least is better than those books that have 2-3 page chapters. I hate 2-3 page chapters.

Let's see, can I make the plot make sense? The world has already suffered through drastic effects of climate change, leading to a lot of climate refugees, hence the floating state. Privacy has been abolished, and old people with cameras are everywhere, monitoring the young. One of the prime movers behind Gaian theory is an old woman, with radical ideas that are both lauded and decried by the political/religious movement she started inadvertently.

But none of that is the main story. The main story is about the Gaian scientist's grandson, who was a physicist, who accidentally created a small black hole that escaped and entered the centre of the Earth. When he goes looking for it to find out how screwed the planet is, he finds that it's benign and failing, but a much larger and malevolent (does cancerous work as an analogy here?) one was already there. How did it get there? Aliens, maybe? (This thread is not much followed up beyond the theory and then a later encounter with a character that another character thinks is probably a benevolent alien in disguise as a human.)

The grandson embarks on a conspiracy to slowly move the black hole out of the Earth into space, where it'll dissipate harmlessly. To do so, he invents gazers, a gravity-beam that could launch spacecraft without any worry about rockets or combustion. He needs to keep this secret because...reasons? Because people might try to stop him? To provide some tension for the plot?

See, it's just a lot. I mean, A LOT. While reading it, it all hangs together fairly well, although there were moments where if ONE MORE PERSON decided they needed to put their hand on the wheel I was going to scream. Not everyone needs to interfere. We don't need a list that approaches double-digits. It's okay to focus.

So, yeah. This is a perfectly serviceable science fiction story, but it's trying to do too much, and ends up feeling, not meandering, but more that it expects readers to follow along as yet another person decides to poke their nose in the same business. It's a well that is gone to several times too often. Readable but not stellar.

Friday, 24 November 2017

13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl by Mona Awad

This will be the 1000th post I've made on this blog. Happy blogiversary to me! There's a small part of me that is wistful that this doesn't line up with one of my favourite books of the year, that I don't get to gush over a book that you all totally need to read, guys. It's not a bad book, but I didn't love it, and for several days I've sat down to write this review and been absolutely stymied.

Time to break through that barrier, even if I have to drag myself through this review bodily.

13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl is my book club's selection for this month. I ran into another member of the club a few weeks ago, and he asked if I'd started the book yet, which I hadn't. He said it was a difficult book. Heavy. So when I sat down to read it, I was expecting this book to weigh on me, but I never really ended up feeling it in that way.

I mean, the character is buried under a large portion of self-loathing, but I didn't feel like I tapped into that myself, I didn't feel like there was that much fat phobia in the book that didn't come from the main character herself (and maybe her mother), I didn't feel like the issues with weight were transitive, if that makes sense. I'm far from a thin person myself, but I didn't take on any of the main character's issues as I read.  (However, one person in my book club who had struggled with disordered eating found that it was strongly resonant with her own experience.)

Writing the previous two paragraphs, I'm aware of how many of our words for difficult or traumatizing are connected to weight. Huh. I suppose that shouldn't shock me.

As the title suggests, this book is made up of thirteen short stories. Over half of them are from the point of view of the main character (I honestly can't remember her name, but I'm bad with character names), the others scattered ones from men she has slept with.

So, is it good? Does this book do what it's trying to do? What is it trying to do?

It's examining how this one woman moves through life, as an overweight teenager, and then as a woman who pushes her body into thinness through self-deprivation and excessive exercise. Who never believes that anyone could be attracted to her just as she is, even as her husband is wistful for a wife who knew how to let go and enjoy herself instead of being brittle all the time. For more than half the book, she is, it sounds like, quite skinny, but always sees herself as the fat girl from her childhood. Which, apparently, was so awful that she'd do anything to escape it.

It's heavily insinuated she inherited this from her mother, who was overweight, died too young, and measured everything by what size clothes her daughter could fit into. But although the young woman's early relationships are complicated, she doesn't seem to have nay trouble finding men who are attracted to her.

It's also about the female friendships she doesn't have, in addition to the relationship with the husband she pushes away, because anything soft smacks of weight? I guess? Awad doesn't really let us that far into the character, even though the stories are largely written in the first person. Maybe the character doesn't let herself see that far into what she does either. But all the women around her are competitors, either those who are effortlessly thin to spite her, working as hard as she is and thus rivals, or failures who haven't conquered their bodies.

There is little didactic in this book, for which I am grateful. It doesn't hit you over the head, but once you've seen how she reacts to all the other women around her, like everything in life is a zero-sum game centered around weight, it's not hard to pick up the theme. She hates herself, she hates all other women, she's not too fond of men. She is, quite frankly, miserable. But there's no self-awareness there. There's no glimmer of hope. Even at the end, when she starts eating more again (right at the very end), it's not out of an epiphany that all that misery isn't worth it. It's, yet again, as a failure.

So yeah, this is a bleak world. This character has issues on top of issues on top of issues, all dressed up in a fat suit. No progress is made towards addressing them, and the main character never seems to really see them as issues. It's not really fun to read, but I didn't find it particularly traumatizing either.

Tuesday, 21 November 2017

Dust Cover Dust-Up 2017: Round One, Part Six

We're halfway through Round One! Future rounds will be faster.

The January Dancer by Michael Flynn vs. More Than Human by Theodore Sturgeon

I never thought I'd say this, but I'm actually looking forward to the next round, when the choices aren't quite so clearcut. I think this is a better way to arrive at a top ten, but the vast majority of the choices are foregone in the first set. Like in this case, where I was not really fond of The January Dancer, (and in a couple of books, Michael Flynn has gotten wrong things I am familiar with), and I really quite enjoyed the experiment Sturgeon was trying in More Than Human.

Winner: More Than Human 

Bye #Something or Other: The Accursed by Joyce Carol Oates

Foucault's Pendulum by Umberto Eco vs. The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker

This is actually a harder decision than most in this round. I didn't love The Golem and the Jinni, but so far it has stayed with me (keep in mind I only finished it a month or so ago). Still, if it's up against Foucault's Pendulum and Eco's meditations on history, conspiracy, and belief, I do know which wins. 
Winner: Foucault's Pendulum

Danger Planet by Brett Sterling vs. NW by Zadie Smith

Kangaroo puns. Kanga Roo puns. That alone would be enough to disqualify one of these books, even if otherwise it was perfectly serviceable swashbuckling space adventure. I can't quite forgive the central wordplay, and Zadie Smith's N-W was really great.
Winner: N-W

Farmer in the Sky by Robert Heinlein vs. Furiously Happy by Jenny Lawson

Easy peasy choices continue. Heinlein is always at least readable, but Farmer in the Sky is pretty slight, and it's up against some very funny Jenny Lawson and her further adventures with being herself.
Winner: Furiously Happy

Transcendental by James Gunn vs. When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

Although I read the second quite a bit before my mother died (she's the one who gave it to me to read, at a time when neither of us knew how close death hovered), it, combined with the experiences of the last year, have given me a curious freedom from propitiatory anxiety. There isn't going to be any being ready for the moments that change everything, no matter how much you try to live it in advance. You come away with something like that, a science fiction book that sees transcendence as physical optimization and nothing else is not going to be the winner.
Winner: When Breath Becomes Air

Monday, 20 November 2017

Envy of Angels by Matt Wallace

*Some Spoilers Below*

If I hand you a book and tell you it's about the adventures and misadventures of a supernatural catering company, that pitch would probably give you certain expectations. Like, this probably isn't a super serious book. That it's a little light and enjoyable, probably with some good action set pieces and plenty of banter.

And that's precisely what you get out of Envy of Angels.This book is so thoroughly what it says on the box, and that was a lot of fun. I was in the mood for something light and frothy, and this novel was never too serious, even though a lot of it is about how they try to get away with not serving up angel at a demon's peace summit.

I got this free from during one of their giveaways of an older book to whet the appetite for a newer addition to the series, and like most of the books I've picked up that way, I enjoyed it quite a lot. In this case, I don't know if I enjoyed it enough to now go out and pick up everything else in the series, but this is very firmly in "if one of the other books comes to my attention, I would be more than happy to read it."

It's more than "liked but didn't love," verging into "thoroughly enjoyed but am not emotionally attached to" territory. If you're looking for something that's a bit caper, a bit funny, and not really heavy and you like food and weird shit going on, then this is probably a series for you. You know who you are.

To venture into this world, we're given a couple of characters to whom this is all new as well - two chefs who recently quit the restaurant they both worked at because the head chef was such an asshole. They get an offer they can't refuse, like you do, from Bronko, the head of the catering agency that secretly does most of their work catering for supernatural beings (oh, you thought I meant serving supernatural beings? Well, there's that too. These are a carnivorous group of customers.)   They come in just as the crack catering ingredient retrieval team comes back from a mission getting some delicacies that are grown in the bodies of creatures we'd rather think exist only in our nightmares.

Just then, the government shows up with a trussed angel. They'd like the catering company to serve delicacies of angel for a summit between two warring demon clans. If they don't...well, there'll be at least three powerful enemies trying to kill them all. So they decide they'll serve a fake, and discover that angel tastes a lot like...well, this world's version of Chicken McNuggets.

This sends that crack team out to infiltrate the corporate headquarters of the fast food chain, and what they find is behind the secret recipe of "Nuggies" has stranger origins than anyone has ever suspected.

Can they fool the demons? Get out alive? Escape the horrors that lie behind the corporate facade of Big Fast Food? Again, you'll know if this is up your alley. If it sounds like it might be, this is exactly what the box promises. Unlike those Nuggies.

Friday, 17 November 2017

A Fire Upon the Deep by Vernor Vinge

Just recently, when I was writing my review of Catherynne Valente's Radiance, I spoke of books where authors decide not to let readers entirely into their worlds, whether deliberately, to make the readers work for it, or accidentally, because things that are perfectly clear to the writer in their head don't quite make it to the page.

This book, uh...this book falls into the latter category. Not in terms of the characters or what's going on between them; I was able to figure out the general social structure of the universe as it exists in this book. It's the physics I don't freaking understand. That may not be essential, but I don't. I was halfway through the book when I was talking about it with a friend, and he was enthusiastic about this being a book where being in different parts of the galaxies meant that the speed of light was different.

I paused, because that wasn't how I understood what was going on at all. He may indeed be right! But I'd seen the inability to go the speed of light, or several times it, as what was changing, not the speed itself. And if it is different, what does that mean? I'm so lost.

Practically, what this means is that there are parts of the universe where technology is insanely advanced  and AIs are very, very smart and sometimes galaxy-spanning and dangerous, but then there are parts in the "Slowness" where they just...aren't. They can't. The ships can't. I don't get why. I'm sure it's in there somewhere, but it was oblique enough that I didn't fully understand why the basic rules of the universe differed based on physical location. I got that they did, but it never felt like Vinge let me in on the reasons.

So, in this universe I don't understand, there are a ton of races, most of them not even remotely humanoid. Civilizations rise and fall quickly out where technology works really really well, and the remnants of a past one are discovered by a human colony excavating old ruins. Old ruins are really fucking dangerous here. They unleash an old Power that has killed civilizations before, and starts to do it again, attacking information nexii in search of the humans who got out with something that could stop it.

People die, stations perish, and one ship makes its way into the Slowness in search of the weapon to use against the Power. The weapon, along with that refugee human ship, had crashlanded on a planet where the dominant species are packs of dogs. Not dogs, individually, and not, of course, quite dogs, but groups of "dogs" acting telepathically in concert. As singletons, they don't have enough brain power to sustain a thought, but as packs, they can think, and their identities can change as pack members die and new ones are added. This means that they're smart, but all their geniuses work in isolation, so progress has been slow.

Recently, a couple of powerful packs have been heavily engaging in eugenics as it would apply to such a society, often in extraordinarily cruel ways. The two children who survive the first attack of the packs on the ship end up with different sides, unaware of each other's continued existence.

Meanwhile, on the ship coming after them, we have a human, a sort-of human partially occupied by another Power, and two skrodes, which are plant-like ocean creatures on...skateboards? Kind of?  The skateboards are their external memories?

It's all intrigue and exploring pack dynamics, and it's all very interesting, but there's a little part of my brain that argues that it doesn't hang together as a story all that well. That there are pacing issues, and unexplained assumptions about the world that I didn't get.

It's...okay. It's interesting. There are really good bits. And yet.

Thursday, 16 November 2017

Dust Cover Dust-Up 2017: Round One, Part Five

We're...not quite halfway through Round One. It's a long one, to give every book I've read this year a chance.

The Dog Stars by Peter Heller vs. Planetfall by Emma Newman

This is too easy. I didn't really like The Dog Stars. I really liked Planetfall, and I continue to think about the portrayal of trauma and grief that is portrayed there, as well as the effects of living in a society based on some fundamental lies that have become articles of faith.

Winner: Planetfall

What Belongs To You by Garth Greenwell vs. Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor

I found Garth Greenwell's first novel okay, but far too full of semi-colons that kept intruding onto my thoughts; Nnedi Okorafor's book was haunting and difficult and if there was a semi-colon, I didn't notice it.

Winner: Who Fears Death

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins vs. Lagoon by Nnedi Okorafor

It's funny that my elaborate seeding scheme ended up putting two Okorafor books back to back in this competition, although not yet against each other. The randomness has been a little weird, but I think in a good way? This is all a digression, because again, this isn't a hard choice. The Girl on the Train was fine, Lagoon was really damned good, about aliens landing just off the coast of Lagos.
Winner: Lagoon

Bye # 6: Halting State by Charles Stross

Aimless Love by Billy Collins vs. Market Forces by Richard Morgan

Huh. This is actually a harder choice than it would appear. But as much as I've loved Billy Collins in the past, this year I'm less in the mood for melancholy exploration of theoretical mortality than I am for a deep painful dive into loss. Hypothetical doesn't cut it at the fucking moment. (They're still good poems.) Morgan's book is fun corporate state/Mad Max fun, but it's not deep. So, which do I pick? 

Winner: Aimless Love

Authority by Jeff VanderMeer vs. The Diviners by Libba Bray

I will admit that The Diviners snuck up on me. I liked it more than I should have, despite glaring flaws. It's not going to win, though, because it still doesn't measure up to the second Southern Reach book, with its dive into spy novel environmental SF.
Winner: Authority