Wednesday, 30 August 2017

What Belongs To You by Garth Greenwell

Ah, prose. There is prose that intrudes itself on my consciousness in lovely ways, taking my breath away with the aptness or lushness or spareness, those moments when an author is so in control of their words that it is truly stunning. Then there is prose that is workmanlike, and I barely even notice it, because it's there to move the story along, not as the point of the whole endeavour. Neither of those are bad things.

It is not a great thing, however, when what strikes me most about prose is "wow, this guy uses a lot of semicolons." Not "his descriptions are beautiful." Not "this plot is really tense." Not "these characters are great!" Nope, instead we get "really? Another semicolon?" It was disruptive when I noticed it, and I noticed it a lot. I mean, it's great that the author knew how to use them - goodness knows the semicolon is a dying art. But this reads so much like someone trying to show off just exactly how awesome they were at constructing semicolon sentences, and that definitely got in the way of me sinking into the story.

It doesn't help that there's not a lot of there, there. This is a book that is definitely all about the prose rather than the story, in that way that just screams being very young, without a ton of life experience, and possibly with a newly minted MFA. (I am not knocking MFAs in general, just that there's a clear stream of young people with that under their belt, and not a lot of story to tell quite yet.)  It also doesn't help that the areas of the story I was most interested in were the areas that the author gave short shrift, sometimes in ways that then made me wonder why those bits were even there.

I am making this sound like it was terrible. It was not terrible. But neither was it the lauded stunning new literary voice, which is pretty much the description that accompanied most of the the Top 10 lists from last year that included it. It's, you know, fine. For definitions of fine that include an abundance of semicolons.

It's the story of a young gay man who is in Bulgaria teaching, has an affair with a Bulgarian man that involves power imbalances of various sorts, goes home when his father dies, comes back, falls in love with someone else, the old lover shows up with a venereal disease, everyone gets treated, his mother comes to visit, we get to the end of the affair.

I know that what I just did was unfair. I know that one of the best ways to reduce a book to nothing (often unfairly) is to reduce it to bare bones. This isn't fair because what is important is not what a book is about. It is how it is about it.

Fine. Then I didn't like how it was about it. Every glimpse we got of the Bulgarian man's life as a hustler/grifter/prostitute was fascinating, and I was way more interested in that than the American guy teaching in Bulgaria, but the story stayed firmly with the main character. (It's one of those books that feels deeply autobiographical, even if it has no relationship to real life. What I mean by that is that it is so firmly rooted in that one person who is the stand-in for the author that there is little room for anything else. At its best, this can be fascinating. I didn't find it fascinating here.) It's an expat story, with Bulgarians there as a taste of the culture, but I was far more interested in what would have happened if that had been the meat of the book.

The same thing came with the main character's relationship with his parents. Going home as his father is dying is built up strongly, with stories of his childhood, and then...the book skips forward a year or so before the narrator even goes home, and it's really not mentioned again. Goodness knows, not every book by a gay author needs to be a coming out story and how difficult negotiating a relationship with parents is, but if you bring it up, you need to explore it? At least give your readers something rather than dangling this as a theme, then backing away as fast and as hard as you possibly can. (This happens again with the visit from the mother. Both incidents feel shoehorned in to a story that is not really about that. Short as this book is, trying to bring half a theme in to flesh it out is not really the way to go.)

So, in the end, there is some okay here. Some that is interesting. But there are threads that are left dangling, what feels like an intense lack of interest in the characters outside the main character (even the one the main character is obsessed with), and themes that are raised and dropped. And dear lord, so many semicolons.

Monday, 28 August 2017

I'm Thinking of Ending Things by Iain Reid

*Spoilers! Lots of Spoilers!*

I did not like this book. Nope, nope, nope. There were a few moments of genuine creepiness, but the ending squanders them all, and there are so many problems that at the end I was less intimidated by its subtle brilliance as I was angry at the book, the author, and the publisher.

It's trying to be some kind of riff on Gone Girl - not the plot specifically, but the thriller with a TWIST at the END and lots of AMBIGUITY along the way, with a WOMAN in DANGER who ends up not being in danger after all. I don't know why I felt the need to put those words in all caps, except that it feels like this was a book that was written with those as keywords and not a hell the lot else.

So, what is this book about? It's about a girl going with her boyfriend to meet his parents, all the while thinking about ending the relationship. Right? I mean, RIGHT?  Of course, the end of the book will reveal that none of this has really happened, so who the fuck cares? I certainly don't.

There are also mysterious phone calls she gets FROM HER OWN NUMBER leading up to the trip and during it. These will amount to absolutely nothing at all. Neither will the vaguely creepy parents, although there is a little more to them. But also nothing will be done with the stacked sheep carcasses by the side of the barn that left everyone who'd ever been on a farm howling with screams of "that would never happen!"  Nothing will also be done with the janitor in the creepy high school and the moment where he drops to the ground and wriggles away.

At the end, it turns out this is all nothing, a fiction written by said janitor as he (possibly high on varnish fumes), kills himself. And this is where my largest problem comes in. It is a two-fold problem.

ONE. This is not the first book where it turns out a male character in a novel with a first-person female narrator has actually been writing the story for her the whole time. The fact that I can point it out as A Thing (although Ian McEwan did it better), is getting to be annoying.

TWO. For this to work, there would have to be a damned point to the story. A pressing reason why this is the story that must be told, something at the end that makes the reader think "of course. He couldn't have written any story but this one, because this was the one that burned in his belly and needed to come out."  That is not the case. Even taken into account that the janitor is obviously deteriorating mentally, and has been for years, this is not the case. There's a difference between urgency, and trying to write like you're losing your mind without a sense of direction, or anything for the reader to latch on to.

Sure, he writes about a girl he said hi to in a bar twenty years earlier, but that is not enough to make this an urgent story! What was it about that girl (he doesn't even give her a name, or much of a personality) that makes her, in his mind, his last chance at connection, destroyed when even his fictional character rejects him? Why her, why this story, why now, why do things play out the way they do? The "rejection" also never actually happens and is pretty mild leading up to never happening.

This is more like the author throwing stuff randomly at the wall with the excuse of "crazy main character!" for why none of it ever pans out. And that's cheap, and it's cheating. Even within psychosis, there is something that matters to the person, even if it doesn't reflect reality. This is not something.

And don't get me started on all the small errors in the book that drove me absolutely fucking batty. I don't buy the excuse that these mistakes are a reflection of the guy losing it. If he was the brother he tells a story about, he did have grad-level science education, and there's no particular reason he'd lose track of a detail like telling the girl impressively that he once saw Venus without a telescope. (So has everyone, dumbass, as long as they've looked up at the night sky.) Or that you don't do a postdoc and thesis at the same time. I don't find these convincing evidence of losing one's mind. I do find them irritating mistakes that made me angry at this book on more than one occasion.

Again, if they're supposed to be signs of the character's mental decline, instead of sloppy fact-checking, what do they mean? Why are they just left there with nothing made of them? Oh wait, this is the book where nothing that happens ever really pays off.

So, yeah. I really, really, really disliked this book.

Friday, 25 August 2017

The Enemy Stars by Poul Anderson

Goodness knows, I don't expect enlightened gender politics out of my old science fiction. I often mention how women are treated, because I think it bears mentioning, but I am also able to enjoy these old pulpy stories where women are absent, virgins, or sexpots. I don't need every book to reflect my ideas of gender - although if I go too long without a woman I can relate to, I get understandably twitchy.

So when I picked up this book by Poul Anderson, I thought I knew what to expect. I mean, this was written in the 1950s, and I wasn't expecting much. It wasn't a problem that it didn't offer much, except for one thing....

I read the back cover and got a little excited when the last paragraph of the blurb read: "Here is an absorbingly exciting tale of the far future and of the men and women who take part in one of mankind's most thrilling adventures."  Now look, I know authors probably didn't write the blurbs, but this got my hopes up, and then the book pretty much crushed them by being exactly what I would have expected it to be if the blurb writer hadn't added those two fateful words: "and women."

So I'd like to give a little fuck you to the blurb writer, for making it sound like women will get to take part in "one of mankind's most thrilling adventures" when the only goddamn thing the woman involved gets to do is get married, stay on earth while her new husband goes out to explore the stars, sit around under the thumb of her patriarchal father-in-law, have a baby, and get fed up and go live somewhere else, and then heterosexually pair up with someone else (it is strongly suggested.) Seriously, marriage, patriarchy, and childbirth are far from a new frontier in adventures for women.

Once I figured out the blurb writer was talking out their ass, I mostly enjoyed the rest of the book. It didn't rock my world, but it's a solid science fiction Man vs. Nature story. I am less baffled by why it was nominated for a Hugo at the time it was posted than I was by Danger Planet. 

This particular story is set in a world where matter transporters work, but are expensive, limiting quick travel between worlds. Of course, to get anywhere in space, someone has to get there the long way to set up the matter transporter. But they get around this by having transporters on ships as well as worlds, so men (and it is all men) go out for duty on a spaceship, then matter transport back.

And while it looks like immigration out is freely done, it is almost impossible to go back to Earth for colonials, causing unrest out there, while Earth itself is highly competitive, and under the thumb of the Protectorate, which, in addition to being more restrictive for women in almost every way, also oversees a hierarchical class system masquerading as a meritocracy.

That's all background, but I think fairly necessary background, because the story itself is fairly slight. A rich man on Earth discovers that one of those starships with a transporter is about to pass very near a super-dense star - not quite a black hole, I don't think, but close? He manages to get the ship diverted to do some scientific investigation, taking along a crew of three other men (all men! No women! I'm bitter, blurber!)

When they get there, their initial investigations nearly wreck the ship, and destroy the "web" needed for the matter transporter and any communication with the rest of the settled human worlds. It's now a race against time, dwindling supplies, and human psychology to get all or some of them out alive. They're entirely cut off, so this is not an Apollo 13 tale. It's a tale of survival against all odds, by men pitting their intellects and bodies against an uncaring and hostile universe.

It's also just a little bit about the stagnation of the human race if we curb the efforts to intelligent multi-tasking men - there's a team of four, but there's still that feel that it is rugged individualism that saves the day, now and always.

While the women get to stay at home, told to make the tea, and have babies. Bah.

(To be fair, the book doesn't show this as a good thing, but it's not much examined beyond that.)

Wednesday, 23 August 2017

Tigerman by Nick Harkaway

I enjoyed Nick Harkaway's first book, The Gone-Away World, and really, really loved his second book, Angelmaker. Now I am caught up on all the novels he has written, having picked up Tigerman a while ago, and finally gotten around to reading it. (When I die in a book avalanche, no one will really be surprised.)

Having read it, I'd have to say that it's weirdly closer in feel to The Gone-Away World, and that Angelmaker is still my favourite of his books, but I did enjoy Tigerman quite a lot. It's a weird mix of colonial/post-colonial lassitude mixed with comic books, fatherhood, and international dirty dealing. If Gone-Away World was, in part, about how corporate structures were set up to mean that no one had to take blame for ethically suspect decisions, Tigerman is about how nations might exploit weak spots in international law to do their own dirty deeds.

It all revolves around a question of fatherhood - the last British consul (Lester Ferris) on a doomed island (Mancreu) has made friends with a young teenager, and given that the island is about to be evacuated and nuked, wants to try to adopt the boy when they have to leave. Mancreu is doomed because years of biochemical experiments have been breeding under the island near lava vents, evolving into something that terrifies the world governments, occasionally being released in Capital-C Clouds of gases that do unusual things, although not quite as unusual as the things in The Gone-Away World. The lead scientist on the island warns that nuking will not help the problem and may even exacerbate it, but nuking is a simple-sounding solution for governments that want to make this problem disappear.

Or do they? Given the uncertain state of the island, it's become a convenient parking spot for what has been dubbed The Black Fleet - ships doing shady things in an area that belongs under no national or international law, while different groups debate the fate of the island and islanders. It's convenient, and being convenient, is used. For drugs. For extraordinary rendition. For just about every unsavoury thing you think a government might want convenient deniability around.

Lester is a good man, a former army sergeant, sent to Mancreu to do nothing at all except hold the fort ceremonially. Certainly not to get involved. But when one of his friends on the island is killed right in front of him, urged on by the boy he wants to think of as a son, he dons the mask (and body armour) of Tigerman, to instill fear into the hearts of evil-doers and avenge his friend.

Most of the book is about Lester's desire to be a father to this child he has befriended. It's a dream he holds so closely he hasn't even asked if the boy has parents, because that would feel like rejection and break his heart. His emotions are so submerged under British army discipline that he takes the long way around to every aspect of this question.

Why isn't sonhood a world? Because that's really where the heart of this novel is. We're very clear on Lester's desire to be a father, but what the boy wants, his sonhood, if you will, is a much greater question. Relationships like that are by definition two-sided, and you cannot simply decide to be someone's father and have that be the first and last step. Which Lester knows, but won't act on, less scared of uncertainty than the potential certainty of hearing that the boy already has parents.

This book is less full of whimsy than Harkaway's two previous books, a little less weird, which is not the same as saying not weird at all. It's an entertaining read, and I enjoyed it, but Angelmaker is still my favourite of his books so far.

Monday, 21 August 2017

Shards of Honor by Lois McMaster Bujold

After having read almost all the Miles Vorkosigan books, I finally managed to find a copy of one of the two about his parents, hidden away not under the author's section in my favourite used book store, but shelved after it, with the miscellaneous "B" SF/F authors who didn't merit their own names on the shelf. I'd never thought to look there before, foolishly assuming that all Lois McMaster Bujold's books would be under "Lois McMaster Bujold." It seemed like a logical assumption at the time.

No matter how it came to light, though, I found it, and was delighted. I have loved Cordelia in particular, as a minor character in Miles' stories, and so I was eager to sit down and read these early entries, these glimpses into how she became who she is.

I think that's why reading this was a bit disconcerting. Not bad, just slightly off-kilter. Cordelia as I've come to known her might emerge from the character I encountered here in Shards of Honor, but she's definitely not the same. It's hard to know yet, still not having read Barrayar as the last book needed to connect this bridge for me, if it's that the character evolves because of the plot to become the Cordelia I know, or if Lois McMaster Bujold gains a greater writerly sense of who she is over time.

After all these books, I know a Cordelia who is devastatingly incisive - not unkind, but so perceptive it's a little terrifying. She wields that knowledge wisely, but it's there all the time, and the light she shines on dark corners is turned on herself as well. She knows who she is and what she can do, and one of the things she can do is analyze people without illusion.

That's not Cordelia as she appears here, and I like the Cordelia I meet here, but she's not as strongly drawn as she will be, and having encountered her in reverse order, so to speak, I felt a bit at sea. Nonetheless, I enjoyed very much the first meeting of Aral and Cordelia, and the slow progression by which they became entangled.

Cordelia Naismith is part of a planetary survey when her base camp is attacked and massacred by Barrayaran soldiers. One of their own is left behind for dead, the victim of a mutiny. This, of course, is Miles' eventual father, Aral Vorkosigan. Cordelia and Aral must find a way to survive on a planet with a small visiting population, most of whom would be more than happy to kill either one of them.

We also get to see the two in space in various parts of a war between the Barrayaran Empire and Escobar, with Escobar getting Betan support. I'm not going to get into the nitty gritty. On a thematic level, this is, as the title suggests, about honour, and war, and pressing needs that may go above and beyond official loyalties, and situations that test loyalty to one thing when another unexpected factor enters the question. How do you maintain loyalties when they conflict?

My one moment of particularly weird dislocation was at the first introduction of Illyan. I've known him for so long now as the head of ImpSec that it was genuinely shocking to see him as a rookie out on a spaceship. That's another case where where he'll end up makes the earlier version strange to encounter, but I felt less incongruity with Illyan. The two versions are vastly different, but the trip from this to what he'll become feels more right than Cordelia's ever quite did.

So, now I guess I really need to find Barrayar, to see how she changes then, before Miles is born.

Friday, 18 August 2017

The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro

While I was reading this book, I was swept along, absolutely enchanted. I wasn't sure where it was going, and it was entirely unlike anything I'd read before, and I was loving it. Now I'm done, and I'm perhaps a little perplexed about where we ended up, or what it all meant, but the journey was so enjoyable I would have a hard time regretting the ride. And perhaps the feeling like the meaning is a wisp of fog just out of reach fits very well with the book as a whole.

In the way that life has of handing you little synchronicities, I have just started working on learning a new Tarot deck, one that came my way when a coworker said that she'd had it for a while and would never use it, would I like it? I gave it a good home, and am now finally settling down to familiarize myself, in a long process that will take me months to a year before I feel anywhere near comfortable enough with it to read for others using that deck. The synchronicity comes in because it's the Arthurian Tarot, so I was reading The Buried Giant while learning that the Knight of Pentacles in this deck is Sir Bors, and the Emperor is, predictably, Arthur. Or last night, when the card that came out of the deck for me to think about was Stone Five, a card of a standing stone in a barren field during a blizzard, with no shelter and nowhere to hide from the elements that batter it.

What I'm getting at, in addition to my excitement at embarking on learning a new Tarot deck, is Arthuriana, and trying to interact with it in a way that is open to interpretation and movement of meaning, which I feel this process has in common with Ishiguro's work. The Buried Giant is set in post-Arthur Britain, with Briton and Saxons settlements side by side, and a mist over the land that shrouds memories and dulls disagreements, paralyzing and soothing at the same time.

This is the story of an old Briton couple, Axl and Beatrice, who are unhappy in the community in which they live, cold and no longer allowed to have candles in their small dwelling. They resolve to walk to their son's village, which is, they're sure, not that far away. Most of their past has faded in the mist that surrounds the land, but nevertheless, they set out.

On the way, they  meet a Saxon warrior, a boy who his village believed to have been bitten by an ogre, a monastery with some very odd practices, and, oh yes, Sir Gawain. The warrior is there to kill the dragon whose breath covers the land and causes the amnesia, but Gawain claims that quest as his own.

In between moments of forgetfulness, vague hints of the shared past of Axl and Beatrice emerge, worries that they would not be as dear to each other with full memories as without, and this is a microcosm of the larger theme of the impact of forgetfulness on the world. Would it solve divisions of tribe and history? Would it take away more than it gives? Would people still be whole people without substantial parts of their memories?

What we see may not be warfare, but it's far from free from petty suspicion and even mob justice. The boy bitten by the ogre is almost killed by villagers who suspect that he may turn into an ogre himself. They are suspicious of strangers, but know not why.

What could be bad enough to want a cloud of forgetfulness to settle over the land? Ishiguro carefully does not say, but knowledge of the Arthur myth and several hints in the book lead in a certain direction. Look for the worst thing King Arthur is ever reputed to have done, and you have a place to start.

The question I'm left with is...is there more? I liked this book a whole lot, and yet I wonder if I missed something. Were Axl and Beatrice supposed to be larger figures from the Arthurian myth than is completely obvious? There's a reference to adultery, which leads me down one path, and a bit at the end about recognizing the boatman who is going to ferry them across the water to and island. I just don't feel like I know, and I'm not sure if I should know.

But I'm okay if I don't. This is strangely about memory collective and personal, about old age and love, about life coming to a close and what comes after, all in elegant prose that was delightful to drift through.

Wednesday, 16 August 2017

Unexpected Stories by Octavia Butler

A large part of the reason I picked up a particular Humble Bundle was because it included several Octavia Butler books, including the two Parables, one of which I'd read, and one of which I hadn't. I wasn't sure what Unexpected Stories would be, but my general theory is that if it's Butler, I'm in.

I guess I hadn't really been aware that Butler had written short fiction as well as novels, but it doesn't really surprise me. It did surprise me that these were two as-yet unpublished short stories, and I wondered if they were ones that were unpublished for a reason. Having read them, the first one is good, but shows some rough edges, while the second is much shorter, and a gut punch of a story. It's really great.

If you've read a bunch of Butler and are hungry for more, you'll probably want to read these. I'm not sure I'd recommend them as a place to start, but it's definitely a worthy way-station on my way through her work. I can't wait to get to the novels of hers I haven't read, although I think they're dwindling in number.

The first story, "A Necessary Being" is about leadership and difference in a world that seems in some ways post-apocalyptic, although the people populating it are so different it's hard to know if they're descended from humans, or if we're on an entirely different world with entirely different aliens. It doesn't really matter, I suppose.

Wherever we are, the tribes that remain live precariously, vulnerable to drought or famine from year to year. The tribe we meet first has been suffering from a drought, which may or may not get better. Their Hao worries about what to do when the news comes that another Hao from another tribe has been sighted. Which needs some explanation.

In this society, the colour of your skin determines your caste status, which seem to be mostly warriors or judges, with another mass of people of no particular caste. The colours, though, are what take this into the alien. One is yellow, and I think the other green? The Hao are those who are blue, and the bluer they are, the stronger they are believed to be. The Hao are the leaders, and a tribe without one regards itself as doomed.

So when the new Hao comes into their territory, the river tribe decide they must capture him at any cost, as their present Hao has had no children. Their Hao hates the necessity, having watched her father go through a crippling ritual to bind him to the new tribe and prevent his escape back to his former people, but does believe that a Hao to pass on her authority to is necessary.

What follows is a dance of personal loyalty, tribe loyalty, and some sort of racial loyalty, although the Hao can come, it seems, from any couple, although children with each other have a higher chance of being the blue. (I didn't mention that these people can all change their colour, voluntarily and involuntary, which makes emotional states easier to discern.)

It's a good story, but it doesn't feel like Butler quite at her best. Certainly worth a read, but it's the second, much shorter, story that is the one I'd go back to. "Childminder" was apparently written for a legendary and unpublished Harlan Ellison anthology, and as such, feels like it was more ready for publication than "A Necessary Being."

This one is recognizably set in a version of our world, albeit one where psi powers have been discovered, and are in the process of being bureaucratized and controlled. The lead character is a childfinder, able to find nascent psi powers. But those who set up the organization she left were more interested in people whose powers had fully manifested, and, not coincidentally, were white and of a higher class. The main character decides that she wants to find those whose powers were almost never nurtured or allowed to blossom, moving to something like a housing project to work with the Black children there.

Then, one day, the organization shows up on her doorstep, having decided they were interested in those children after all.

And I'm really not going to say any more than that. Seek out this story, in particular. It's so amazingly good and complicated, particularly by the mini-epilogue. I'd love to talk to people about it.

Tuesday, 15 August 2017

The Victim by Saul Bellow

I had never read any Saul Bellow books before, but I picked this one up from a large 1001 Books To Read Before You Die list, which is one of the many sources from which I pick books. They tend to be quite different from my usual science fiction fare, and that's partly why I like them. It's good not to get too settled into one genre.

So with this one, I moved away from my genre fiction, and more recent works, back into mid-20th century literary fiction. I knew very little going in, only that Bellow was a Jewish author, and I feel like I might have heard that he wasn't particularly good at writing rounded female characters. Now, having read all of one of his works, I can say that in this particular book, women are so far to the side that it's not like they're being treated badly, but that they're barely present. Even when they are. The Victim is so firmly rooted in male experience it has little space for women.

It wasn't particularly offensive, but that when the women characters were around, there wasn't a whole lot to them, with the possible exception of the sister-in-law. She has more to do in the novel, but it's mostly to be irrational about the care of her sick son and accusatory after his death. She's there to be Emotion with a capital E.

The main character is Leventhal, a Jewish man in New York City, employed for several years now after a long stint of unemployment, still feeling uncertain of his place and status. The book was published in 1947, so also written with the uncertainty of WWII and the Holocaust. During his time unemployed, he became frustrated and even belligerent over the treatment he received from employers, which may or may not have been tinged with antisemitism. (This feels like a recurring theme - some things Leventhal experiences are undoubtedly antisemitic, but others are far more nebulous, and it feels like he spends a lot of time biting his own tail trying to figure out if a certain action belongs in one category or the other.)

At one point during this search, he became aggressive with the man who was interviewing him. Shortly afterwards, the man who'd gotten him the interview, Klein, was fired, probably because he wasn't any hot shit at his job anyways, but Klein fired holds Leventhal solely responsible for the wreck his life became after he lost his job, his wife left him, and then was killed in a car accident. He has taken to drinking, and comes to Leventhal with his accusations and an offer to let Leventhal make it right.

Leventhal rejects the assertion, but not entirely. He lets Klein bother him, and even stay with him while his wife is away visiting her mother, and wow, does the guy who holds him responsible lack every kind of boundaries, and there were plenty of red flags that should have had Leventhal changing the locks and possibly calling the police. Maybe levels at which your warning bells should be going off are different for men, but yikes!

In the meantime, Leventhal has to negotiate the sickness and death of his nephew, who dies before his brother can make it back to his son's side. That this pales in comparison to the issue with Klein is, I think, deliberate, and unsettling.

His social life is full of people who make random comments about you people and how everything is controlled by Jews that is blatant, but then there are moments where you doubt his reactions, because he's assuming he's the centre of other people's lives the same way he is the centre of his own. It's complicated and well done.

The question that came to my mind after the end was who the titular victim was. Leventhal, hard done by and doing hard by himself? The man who depicted himself as Leventhal's helpless victim? I kept coming back to Leventhal's brother, who makes no such claims, but is the one dealing with devastating events without crying out.

Friday, 11 August 2017

Reading the Bones by Sheila Finch

*Some Spoilers Below*

I had a very up and down relationship with this little novella. At the beginning, I was irritated with it, then I mellowed and decided it wasn't that bad, and by the end of the book, had gotten thoroughly aggravated again. In the end, it feels like something with a lot of potential, but with a trick ending that undermines most of what has gone before, and some troublesome colonialism to boot.

It's not great. It's not terrible either, and there are some good ideas here, even if they're not always executed well.

The novella is set on the planet that colonization forces have named Krishna, which is a good sign that Indians are the colonizing force here. This was the first thing that irritated me - it's very hard to lift what is essentially British colonialism, wholesale, transport it to another planet, but make the colonizers Indian and therefore...what? Less colonialist? Not really. It made me angry, that she just substituted Indian names into a setting with amahs, native markets, and rebellions that take place in prose that matches so closely fiction I've read set in British-ruled India, without real thought given to it. (Or at least, thought isn't evident.)

It doesn't suddenly make it okay, if you just replace the British with British-acting Indian colonial powers. It doesn't make it something you can not pay attention to - you want that in your story, you'd damn well better grapple with it honestly, not just state it and try to move on. It's enough to derail what you're doing, and it took me a long, long time to get over it. Add in the drunkard linguist looking at the 16-year-old daughter of the governor and remembering his dead wife, and I had a very hard time getting into this. And the casual description of watching a rape that shocks the viewers, but has no effect on the woman raped. I'm not sure the later explanations of biology make this any clearer. (And we all know how I feel about the overuse of evolutionary psychology.)

It got better, though, when the action jumped forward a few years, and we were with that daughter of the deceased governor as she attempts to become a linguist (lingster) as well, too old for most of the training, but taken under the wing of a lingster looking for universal sounds between alien languages that arose on different planets.

In this case, we got her story juxtaposed with that of her younger sister, who had grown much older because she had not travelled relativistically, left on the planet in a hurried evacuation. The younger sister had been adopted into the alien (Frehti) female priesthood, and sought to solve a problem of a racial split that had lost half the males and much of the possibility of procreation, through recovering and codifying a language the Frehti had brought with them from another planet.

Of course, both sisters end up on the planet at the same age, the older scarcely aged from when she left, the younger nearing her death from old age. The crisis of the Frehti nears, and the younger ancient sister is bound and determined to be the one who solves it, having struggled for her place in Frehti society.

But of course, when they come face to face with a new language from the fallen/altered Frehti, the one who can learn to speak it in barely moments is not the one who has spent her life with the unfallen Frehti, it's the one who has been off-planet for years, but has been educated. This didn't sit that well. Particularly when it all shakes out, and then the older offworld sister shrugs and says "well, it wasn't a problem of linguistics at all. Too bad she wasted her life."

Which...this whole book is about linguistics. Most of the characters are lingsters, or Frehti elders obsessed with language. I mean, I'm fine with not everything having a linguistics answer, but when all you get is a hammer, over and over, it doesn't feel like an unreasonable expectation that there will be a damned nail somewhere.

So, the middle was pretty good, but the beginning didn't show enough thought, and the end was all about giving a middle finger to the characters and the readers, who hadn't been given any hints of any other options all the way through. And this is a plot problem that could have been solved so easily. Have one scene, a couple scenes, where another one of the Frehti elders questioned whether it was about language, who came up with a different idea. Use it as a way to show how orthodoxy works or doesn't in Frehti culture, and then you've at least left the possibility that lifelong obsession might be wrong.

But as a "Psych!" moment right at the end, it's more frustrating than it is interesting or intriguing.

Wednesday, 9 August 2017

The Hanging Tree by Ben Aaronovitch

*Some Spoilers Below*

I find it hard to write reviews for books far into a series that I've read, loved, and reviewed. I start to feel like I've run out of new things to say about a milieu that's familiar, with characters I know and enjoy, and stories that all identifiably come from the same pen. That being said, the Peter Grant series is one of my favourite comfort reads on the market today, and it jumped into that category almost as soon as finished the first one.

These are exactly the sort of books that I want to own and have on hand, and in the morning, when I'm not up for something new, but want something to read while I'm eating my oatmeal, I reach for one. I've read each of the first five several times each, and when I want an audiobook comfort read, this is also where I turn. I haven't listened to this book yet on audio, but the series narrator has some of the best audiobook chops I've ever heard.

What I'm saying is, if you're looking for enjoyable urban fantasy, this is probably what you want. That being said, don't jump in with this book. Where the other ones have strongly centered around one police case, this one is much more about gathering together all the disparate threads that have been emerging over the last several books, and weaving them together.

There is a case at the centre, but compared to the attention on Lesley and on the Faceless Man, it gets comparatively little screentime. It's mostly notable for how much it pisses off Lady Tyburn, given that it concerns her daughter, Olivia. Olivia is present at a party where a girl ends up dead from a drug overdose (and, thanks to Dr. Walid and his new associate's work, we also know due to thaumatological damage) (brain damage from Too Much Magic.)  Tyburn calls up Peter to lean on him to keep her daughter out of the police investigation, which is promptly scuppered when Olivia blurts out in a formal interview that she supplied the drugs.

That becomes less important as we discover that the dead girl had been involved with a French trickster fox character in selling the prized possessions of the Faceless Man on eBay, which means that both the Faceless Man and Lesley start interfering the investigation in fairly major ways.

Both my husband and I were seriously worried for Nightingale, and Peter has been emphasizing for a couple of books now how slow the process of learning magic is, and how Nightingale is all that stands between the forces of evil and annihilation. I would be very upset if Nightingale is eventually killed off, but not all that surprised.

Let's see...Peter is happily mostly shacked up with Beverly, which worries her sister Tyburn, given that Tyburn will outlive her husband and children. Although I'm not sure that's as much a worry with Peter, given that Nightingale has been aging backwards for decades. With an absolutely mundane man, sure, but does it really apply in this case?

At any rate, there are showdowns and near misses as Peter and Nightingale, and Peter's new de facto partner, Sahra Guleed, who I like quite a lot, get ever closer to the Faceless Man, and his mundane identity is revealed in this book. There's also a very interesting discussion between Peter and the Faceless Man at the end of the book that offers some clues to what the master plans might be (and they sound just a little racist to me, and I'm quite sure that's deliberate).

All in all, I enjoyed this one, but I wasn't in it for the mystery, which is largely shunted off to the side in favour of the larger overarching plot that is quickly getting nearer a boil.

Tuesday, 8 August 2017

Danger Planet by Brett Sterling

I am somewhere over 40% done reading all the Hugo Best Novel winners and nominees. I hadn't quite realized that the list I had grabbed from the internet all those years ago included the Retro Hugos that had been handed out by that point, until I finished this book and went looking for the year Danger Planet had been nominated. I kind of like picking up the Retro Hugos in this list, but knowing that this award was handed out in 1996 makes it a little bit more baffling that Danger Planet made the cut. Perhaps there weren't that many novel-length SF books to pick from.

Which is not to say that Danger Planet is a bad book, precisely. It is a rollicking space pulp adventure, with a stalwart genius scientist/adventurer/atom gun quickdraw master/mastermind hero, as muscled and adoration-worthy as any other I can think of. But that is exactly what this book is, and it's not a lot more. It's not bad as science fiction pulp. As an award winner? Well, I like to see nominees that are trying something a bit more ambitious, although it's true that in every given year there are books nominated for all sorts of reasons, some better than others.

This is a book that bops along nicely, and doesn't bear thinking about for more than a second, although I'll go ahead and think about it regardless. And it was one absolutely terrible bit of wordplay at its core. That alone should have disqualified it, as far as I'm concerned. (I'm joking. Mostly.)

But I'll tell you, so you can decide for yourself. Most of the action takes place on the planet of Roo, where the herb that, scientifically treated, gives all of humanity incredible longevity. Roo is a terrible name for a planet, and you can probably see where this is going.  We eventually find out that the long-gone evil race that used to rule the galaxy might still have some sleeping members on Roo's moon.

They are...wait for it...the Kanga.

Yup. This is all an elaborate kangaroo joke, with no real reason for it. It doesn't really pay off in anyway, other than to make me shake my head when they revealed the name of the evil race, a name that does much less than strike terror in any heart.

It's also one of those pulp books where the hero is a genius scientist in both biology (having invented the longevity treatment) and physics (invented the drive that gives humanity interstellar travel), as well as being the best quickdraw on the atom gun in the galaxy, and strong and stalwart, and deeply in love with his best gal, who follows along, and gets herself in some danger by being plucky, only to be rescued at the end.

He doesn't do this all by himself - Captain Future has the Futuremen. Oh, didn't I mention that his title is Captain Future? Curt Newton, Captain Future? In addition to being all that himself, he has a brain in a box, a coarse robot who gets as near to cussing as you can have in the 1940s, and an android who is a master of disguise. Together, these four (and his best gal Joan when she can follow along) travel to Roo to find out who is stirring up the natives, who burning down the plantations of the vitron (longevity plant) farmers. They're also the workers on those plantations, I think, and certainly the impact of out-and-out colonialism isn't examined in this particular book.

(But it made me more sympathetic to the Roon. Why should they work for humans hellbent on controlling a crop on their own planet, making huge profits and shipping it all off-world? Of course, they're not rebelling because of that. They're rebelling because they're superstitious uncivilized people, easily bamboozled by those occupying their planet. I was going to say by the White man, but although most of the human inhabitants of Roo do seem to be male, the names are split between names that read as White and those that deliberately give the sense of being Asian.)

A lot of this seems very much like a Western, transported to space. Of course, Captain Future manages to save the day at the end, even though the dread Kanga (I can't even type it with a straight face) do awake at the end, and are fairly quickly dispatched by Captain Future, even though it took the old good race the Denebians, a long time to fight them into stasis.

It's fun, but it's also one of those older science fiction books that, once you start thinking about it, is chock full of assumptions and tropes that make it a bit troubling.

Friday, 4 August 2017

The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter

My themed-read Science Fiction and Fantasy book club is in the midst of a theme on Fairy Tales, and although I'd never read The Bloody Chamber, I knew I had to get Angela Carter in there somewhere. All I've read of her before is Wise Children, so, with the help of google, I picked this set of short stories for her inclusion in the theme, crossed my fingers, and hoped.

We had the club meeting last night, at the time of writing this, and overall, I think it ended up being a good pick. There were some questions about the order of the stories and some of the stories within, and it sparked some good conversations, although I forgot to try to link it to the previous book so we can build on what we've talked about each month as we go. Ah well, next month.

For a retelling of fairy tales, this is long on sexuality, budding bodies, potential sexual violence, and self-discovery. That's not particularly unexpected, as these are often the subtext of fairy tales, brought into text forcefully. There are a number of stories that mash together a couple of fairy tales to create something unsettling, like the story where Little Red Riding Hood meets a classic werewolf folk tale. 

It is odd that the stories are grouped so that every run she makes at a particular fairy tale comes one right after the other. There are back-to-back Beauty and the Beast stories, and three or four Little Red Riding Hood/werewolf stories, one right after the other. This felt a little odd, more like you were reading someone's drafts that truly different stories, even though each was a distinct take.

I don't know if any of us knew quite what to make of the Erl-King story, other than what it was on its face, a story of sexual obsession and submission.

While these are stories that come from a feminist root, they're not so much stories of female empowerment. Some of them are stories of male violence, and in others, while the women end up in better positions than they started, it tends to be less because of actions they themselves have taken as because those around them have supported them in becoming who they would like to be. There are a bunch of stories of women with animal or part-animal lovers that allow them to indulge and discover their sexuality without restraint. But these are not stories of women actively changing their own destinies, for the most part. The opportunity to embrace a new destiny comes to them, mostly unsought, and they seize it.

Animality and humanity are common themes, with animals or half-human animals often being portrayed as more honest (although not all - that one werewolf!) than humans. "Wolf-Alice," the last story, is probably the most explicit exploration of this, with the feral girl learning gradually how to think in the future and past, sadly distancing herself from who she was when she was raised by wolves. But it's there in the Beauty and the Beast stories as well.

Then there's the one Dracula meets Sleeping Beauty meets The Boy Who Couldn't Shudder story, where a lonely vampire lady lives in her crumbling Bulgarian castle, draining those who stop by unwittingly, until a young blond male virgin soldier comes by. At my book club meeting, we had different opinions of what the ending meant, with my husband coming up with a far creepier interpretation than the rest of us. I'm not sure he's wrong, and shudder.

Reading this book often left me unsure what I wanted to say about it, and I find that continues. There's a lot here, but there doesn't feel like one big cohesive point. This is not unexpected, given that it is made up of short stories. There are a lot of little points to consider, and I feel like I've barely scratched the surface. 

Wednesday, 2 August 2017

Transcendental by James Gunn

A little while ago, I decided to try an experiment, as I am fond of doing. I looked at my Top Ten lists from the last few years, and decided to check out "read-alikes" of my favourite books of the last little while, using NoveList's handy sidebar for suggestions.  So far, the results have been mixed. I think this is the fifth book I've read as a "read-alike," and there has really only been one that I've loved - Michael Chabon's The Yiddish Policeman's Union as a readalike for Jo Walton's Farthing. Oh, and I guess I really enjoyed John Steinbeck's To A God Unknown as a readalike for Marilynne Robinson. But at best, we're batting less than .500. Still, I'm enjoying the experiment and intend to continue.

However, after reading and loving Hyperion, (it topped my first Top 10 list, back in 2013,) Transcendental had a lot to live up to. Why it was picked as readalike wasn't hard to figure out. Like Dan Simmons' truly excellent novel, this is a "Canterbury Tales in space" - pilgrims on a dangerous voyage, each taking a turn to tell their story about who they are and why they're going where they're going.

Unfortunately, it's also nowhere near as good, and when I have such an easy benchmark to examine it against, it's not hard to figure out why. First, in Simmons' book, each short story can absolutely stand on its own (with perhaps the exception of Lamia's story, which is the weakest). They are each little urgent masterpieces of short fiction, tied together in a way that heightens the tension. In contrast, in Gunn's novel, each story is essentially the same story, and not a one of them could stand as something you would want to read outside the context of the book.

Almost every single story is a story of the evolutionary psychology of a different alien race, and how each of them is locked into biological patterns, and is looking for the Transcendence Machine to make their race something more. (The whole story is of a ship jumping through hyperspace to try to find this mythical machine. There's a "Prophet" involved, but since that role involves no speaking, recruiting, or prophesizing, it's a little bit of a dubious title.)

That's largely it. So, the stories are a bit simplistic, tending to all be about how evolution set psychological patterns, to a degree that pretty much obviates any kind of personality or choice, and the background story is not anywhere as interesting as Hyperion, either. There's no real pressing reason - I mean, in theory, there's the threat of a possible war if they fail, but it's very hypothetical, not at all an imminent thing they're trying to thwart. There is an enemy trying to make the attempt fail, but we learn very little about who those enemies might be, or what they want.

Of course, I could have told you that if you were starting off trying to do something similar to Hyperion, odds were that you would come up short, and the comparison just makes the shortcomings more obvious. If I try to look at this book without that lens, as just a science fiction book, how does it fare?

I would probably be less critical in the specifics - the writing is serviceable, and the story moves along quickly. It's never a slow book. It just really feels like there isn't a lot there. The stories are repetitive, and the search for the machine even more so, unmarred by anything deeper that would provoke or reward thought. And I was disappointed by the meaning of transcendence, which ended up just meaning physical optimization. The answer as to what the Transcendence Machine was was similarly a bit reductionist, and probably the least fun answer it could have been.

This all sounds like I hated the book. I didn't. However, it wasn't a great book, even before I tried to compare it to the superlative Hyperion.

Tuesday, 1 August 2017

The Week in Stories: No One Gets Out Alive - "Another Midnight"

Episode 2: "Another Midnight"

Just an addendum to the start of my recap of the last session. Lisette's player filled up her spooky-stuff clock in the very first scene she was in, so she joined the other two of us in picking a ghostly manifestation. So, joining "The Mirror" and "The Door," we added "The Whisper." Some of what that means is already becoming apparent!


Character and Session Thoughts

First of all, it was truly amazing how much we managed to pack into about two and a half hours of play. Below is one of the longer recaps I've ever written, and it all happened, dramatically and often quickly. In fact, I'm not sure a longer session would have been any better - by the time we'd gone around the table twice for scenes, my dramatic ideas for the evening had been exhausted, and everyone seemed to agree that that was enough.

I think there are two reasons why we got so much done in so little time. First of all is that we only have three players, plus the GM. That means, in general, that every player is in at least every other scene. There's a lot of screen time, and even when there are scenes with NPCs, it's often not long until one of the other two PCs enter. This means we have lots of opportunities to get our stuff on the table, both the things we'd thought about, and those that just come up in the heat of the moment.

The second reason is the explicit social contract we had going into this game - that this was going to be a drama-heavy game, that we were going to commit and go deep into character and play hard. We're all here for the same thing, and have all played together for a long time, and have that level of trust and comfort that when you're playing a difficult scene, the other person is right there with you.

After a first session that had little of the supernatural, the horror elements are starting to manifest, big time. I'm sure it only goes downhill from here. We needed that first session to see what these people were like when they weren't being haunted, now we get to see them starting to be under pressure, which will no doubt continue. Which relationships will crack when danger rears its head? Which ones will be revealed as strong, or become stronger?

Bill had more to do as the GM for this session, as in the first, he'd largely sat back and let us explore the character dynamics. That came through in both the supernatural, and the interactions with NPCs - Michael's incredibly irritating and selfish siblings, and Michael and Jo's kids, one of whom seems to be a sweet but scared young man, and the other where Bill is channelling his inner 16-year-old girl who hates her parents to great effect. There were visible winces and muttered oaths during the evening as Madeline said cutting things about her parents and their relationship.

Finally, on a more personal note, I had had a rough couple of weeks, and I kind of let it all loose at the table when Jo got angry. It was more an icy cold anger, than a hot one, although Bill said I was still loud, which I can believe. Poor Lisette got the most of it, and I certainly had fun, but there was at least one moment where I know Lisette/her player decided to keep a secret rather than accidentally spill it, because Jo getting even angrier was a terrifying prospect. (It is not the first time I've been told I'm terrifying when I'm acting angry. Bwahahaha.)

Also interesting was that while Jo was so angry at Lisette (was already angry going into that scene), when both Lisette and Michael gave her roughly the same explanation of what they had been doing (and lying through their teeth!), she got a lot softer towards Michael than I was expecting, willing to cut him a break when she wasn't for Lisette. Which makes a certain amount of sense - Michael's her husband, and she's been with him for two decades or more, while Lisette wants to be part of the family so desperately Jo feels threatened. Still, it's not a great impulse, to forgive the husband for transgressions while punishing the person he transgressed with more harshly. No solidarity of sisterhood here, which is interesting to explore.

Lisette's player and I talked at length before the session on the dynamic between the two characters, and how it might change - we'll see what happens as the island becomes more dangerous and Jo feels scared and vulnerable!

I usually put the recap first, thoughts second, but the recap is very, very long, so I'm putting it after the cut, for those who are interested. It was such a good session, so intense, with so much going on, that I wanted to get it all down.

To get to the Recap, click below!