Thursday, 26 October 2017

The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker

Once upon a time, there was a golem. And a jinni, in New York City, around the turn of the century. That's the start of this book, where both mythological creatures find themselves immigrants to America, trying to live in New York without attracting attention until they can figure out more about why they're there and what they're doing. They don't come over together, but after they meet, they each find the other understands things the humans around them simply can't.

I know I talk a lot about the themes I love cooking up for my science fiction and fantasy book club. I'll never have a chance to get to a fraction of them, but with this book, I almost have a complete set to do a theme on golems. If the chance ever arises, which it may not. Still, I am ready.

Chava is the golem, created by a crooked almost-rabbi in Europe to accompany a man to America. He dies on the way, shortly after she is awakened, so she is a golem without a master. And golems are supposed to have masters, to be there to destroy them if they get out of control, which seems to be the fate of golems.

The jinni, in contrast (known as Ahmad here, but that's of course not his real name), is meant to be free as the wind, and is caged. He's a creature of fire, bound with iron manacles, unable to change shape, unable to live the life he chooses. He doesn't know how he got to the United States - he was brought over in a lamp that had never been rubbed since we has first bound long before.

It does not escape my notice that they both have to deal with gendered roles as well - Chava craves rules because she was made so, but as a woman, that makes her relatively unremarkable in the world of New York, where women are not supposed to be striking out on their own. (Of course, this does not mean they didn't do so.)  And the jinni, as a free spirit (almost literally) has full run of the city, fearlessly.

This points out gender roles in this imagined New York, but doesn't really do a lot with them. Chava doesn't buck the system, the jinni doesn't really change. Both fit those roles fairly perfectly, even if Chava could kill someone in an orgy of violence at any moment. I wonder what would have happened to this story if you'd reversed the genders?

But that is not the book we're reading.

For the most part, I enjoyed this. I wasn't set on fire by it, I wasn't ever champing at the bit to get back to it, but I did always enjoy sitting down and reading further, in what was really a very mellow way. Even when the bad guys appear, it's not really tension-filled, or at least, I didn't find it so. But it's nice to read something so thoroughly competent and pleasant once in a while.

The magic in this book is subtle, despite the two main characters being living incarnations of different kinds of power. The magic they have is mostly used to try to fit in (the golem), or to give them an outlet for otherwise unexpressed emotions (the jinni). Nothing here feels earthshaking, but it's solid.

Tuesday, 24 October 2017

Blue Lily, Lily Blue by Maggie Stiefvater

I finished this book right before I went on a week-long vacation, and one of the things I gave myself a vacation from was writing reviews. Now I'm back, eager to get back on the horse, and it's been more than a week since I finished this. Poor Maggie Stiefvater. This is the second book by her I've read when an unintended absence has interceded between me finishing and being able to write. The first book just never got written about. I feel like I remember enough to still write this one, but it's hard when there are more reviews than time.

We're now three books into the Raven Cycle, with one more to go. The search for Owen Glendower heats up in this book, and we can feel like we're getting closer. Yet again, like with the first book, there are certainly times when the pacing feels off. It sometimes takes a long time to get very far, and the telegraphing of where we are in the story is spotty. Maybe that makes it feel more realistic, but it also occasionally makes the books feel like they're dragging, or, to be more precise, like the payoff isn't enough at the end for the journey we've just taken to get there.

That's a quibble. But in all, I have enjoyed this series, and I'm looking forward to finishing it. I haven't loved it quite enough to add Maggie Stiefvater to my favourite authors list, and put her permanently on my reading radar, but for young adult novels with a distinctively mythological cast, I'm glad I've read them.

The reason is primarily the characters - if I occasionally have trouble with the pacing, the world and the characters who inhabit it are vivid and interesting. And big things do happen in this book, although at least one of the bad guys ends up being willing to back off with less fuss than I was imagining, even with the story reasons provided. Another villain with a weaker motive steps in, and I'm not sure that's entirely satisfying.

This is all making it sound like I didn't like this book. I did, I really did. Blue and the women who surround her are the heart of this book, and the Aglionby boys have grown on me. It still seems like the main one has not had time in his life to do all the things he's supposed to have done on the timeline he's supposed to have done them. I'm sure it's all plotted out somewhere, but it still seems unlikely. That's something I can overlook, though.

In this book, the search for Glendower continues. Blue's mother is still missing, and that hangs over much of the book. By the title, this one is supposed to be Blue's book, but she doesn't get as much to do in this book as Ronan did in his. There is much worry about her mother, but there isn't much of a "her own adventure" feel to this one, little about her discovering more about herself. She gets a name for what she can do, but mostly the adventures remain group adventures.

The group delves underground and wakes a sleeper, with two left to go (one of whom they're told they should not wake). This causes complications, as does the arrival of the Grey Man's erstwhile boss in town, after the Greywaren. (If none of this makes sense, the previous books would make it clear.)

We're several books in, the mythology, personal and writ large, is starting to accumulate, and while I do wish Blue had more of her own plot in this, I'm enjoying the group plot, the women of her household, and I'll be interested to read the last book when it arrives.

Monday, 23 October 2017

The Shore of Women by Pamela Sargent

I have now read at least three books that are about a world without men. Or rather, if not a world without men, a world where women are the safekeepers of civilization, and men are exiled to short brutish lives in the wilderness. There's a distinct women/urban centers/civilization vs. men/wilderness/savagery vibe to most of them. (The third, to be precise, is about a world where a plague killed off all the men. Oh, and of course, there's Y: The Last Man as well. So, four.)  With the exception of the graphic novel, the three others were written by women in the late 1980s to early 1990s.

Leaving aside Leona Gom's The Y Chromosome, The Gate to Women's Country by Sheri S. Tepper and The Shore of Women, by Pamela Sargent, are remarkably similar in setting. After men have almost destroyed the world, the women have become separatists, exiling the men to live low-technology lives and only summoning them to the cities to impregnate the women, while the women have had many generations to consolidate their power and that of their daughters.

It's been long enough that some of the daughters question what is going on, the overall plan, and whether or not men are irredeemably hopeless. (To be precise, in Tepper's novel, there are a few men who are allowed to be in the city, but they are believed to be sexually uninterested in women. They live with the matriarchal families almost but not quite as servants. There's more to this, but for that, go read that book.)

What's interesting to me is that Tepper's book (if I'm remembering it correctly, I read it a long time ago) comes to the conclusion that the experiment, as it was structured, was and is a success - and indeed it's the only way women could ever be truly safe. (I haven't gone into all the details, so believe me that it's a bit more complicated than I'm presenting it here.)

Sargent's book comes to a very different conclusion. Not only does she end up arguing that the world it creates is less than optimal for everyone, in the end, it is the separatism that makes it even harder, perhaps even impossible, for men and women to be anything but at war with one another. Peace between the sexes  might be difficult, but domination of one by the other makes any moment where both sides see the other as human (in more than just individual cases) impossible. (No, these books do not at all go into anyone who doesn't conform to a gender binary, so there's obviously large swathes of the human condition that are being left out).

The Shore of Women is told through three viewpoint characters, so here's more proof that that narrative trick didn't just come into being in the last ten years, thank you very much. We have Laissa, the daughter of a woman who delayed sending her second son out to his father far later than is commonly allowed, and only ended up doing so under pain of exile. Laissa distanced herself from her mother to avoid sharing her disgrace and punishment.

Second is Birana, whose mother killed her lover (or lover's lover?). Mother and daughter were exiled together because Birana did not run for help at the critical moment. Her mother dies shortly after they leave the city walls, and Birana expects to die quickly herself.

Third is Arvil, Laissa's male twin, who has grown up most of his life outside the walls, in the company of a small band of men, who take on the roles of father/uncles, lovers, rivals, etc. He is quick and clever, but has no education or access to education. The reason that men are still living in such conditions after centuries? The cities of women seek out and destroy any attempt to settle or innovate, keeping the men tribal and nomadic.

Arvil is the only one left alive after such an attack, and in the wake of this, he finds Birana, who expects to be raped and killed. (Rape is frequently in the background, but never foregrounded. The threat, however, is very present.)  Over a very long period of time, in which Birana masquerades as a man to save her life, she and Arvil become closer.

Let's take a second to talk about sexuality. The men outside the walls take lovers amongst each other, but they are kept sexually attracted to women by mind links to the city in which the women feed them erotic dreams featuring the different aspects of "The Goddess," which is supposed to keep the men worshipful and subservient. Inside the city, women pair with women, and the idea of sleeping with a man has become utterly repugnant and taboo. So taboo that no one seems to have a kink that way, which...I find a little hard to believe. Not that culture would affect sexuality, but that no woman would have transgressive sexual thoughts. I'm not sure that's how that works.

At any rate, after surviving another attack, and Arvil being instructed by the city to kill Birana because otherwise, the men might discover she's just a person instead of a goddess, the two strike out on their own. They discover a remote tribe that has sheltered a woman for decades, at the cost of her sexual availability, although she's still seen as divine. Later, they find an even further tribe of men who have discovered their wives and daughters are humans, and therefore treat them as subhuman, and are slowly dying of inbreeding.

In the middle of this, Birana gets pregnant, as she and Arvil have managed to start a relationship that is fairly equal, in which he understands that she is a person, and eventually manages to understand why the cities have treated men the way they do. But this is fragile, and localized to two people, and the distance between men and women has been created to be so vast, that it seems like any reconciliation on a wider scale would be nearly impossible.

Laissa comes back into the story at the end, having bucked the system enough to get permission to go out and get stories of the men, look for some redeeming features to see if they should revisit the experiment. Of course, she runs into Birana and Arvil and their new daughter.

There is no neat resolution to this story, just a feeling that women's society has become stagnant in their attempt to not go down the paths of war, men's society is brutish and short, and never the twain shall possibly meet. The overwhelming sense is that this experiment means that there will never been a way for men to accept women as equals, once they've seen them as goddesses. If humanity were revealed, subjugation begins again.

Are there more books on this topic out there in the land of science fiction? Let me know!

Friday, 13 October 2017

No One Gets Out Alive: Final Character Thoughts and Bonus Backstory!

Character Thoughts - Jo

I think this may be the first time I’ve had a character really and truly die in a game. Sure, I had a monster hunter die at the end of a campaign and be brought back to life. I also had a character who was the only one to survive a Deadlands game, with the mission of telling the tale so her companions wouldn’t be forgotten. But as far as campaigns go, I think this is the first time death was absolutely the end. I tend to be very attached to my characters, and hope for happy endings. I’m okay with this death, though. I mean, given the title of the game, it isn’t like it wasn’t telegraphed.

At the end, it all came down to a couple of dice rolls - I rolled to see if Jo could get everyone out, and only partially succeeded. She went back in anyway, and Bill had Michael’s player roll to see if I survived, and he failed. (He'd already spent all his tokens on resisting Miss Maudie’s ghost ordering him to kill my character.) Michael survived, but that may not be a blessing - he’s badly injured, lost his wife, and guilty of two murders and massive financial fraud.  It’s a sad but fitting end to our ghost story.

Going into the last session, I knew there were two huge reveals on the horizon, and I had no idea how Jo would react to either of them, and I really didn’t want to decide in advance. I thought about them, but figured that we’d see how it felt in the moment. Then, in the same scene, we finally hit the reveal that Michael knew about Jo’s affair, and that Michael had killed his brother earlier that day. I was a little surprised but pleased with the way both went.

For the first, when Michael told Jo he knew about her affair, I had at least half expected that I’d get really defensive and belligerent - it’s how Jo reacted to Lisette trying to make her feel remorse for her actions as a teenager, after all. But with this, a betrayal she knew was a betrayal, and her husband finding out, the reaction was much quieter, with no real defense of her actions offered. She didn’t push back, and she didn’t really ask for forgiveness. She did say she’d fucked up. I liked the quiet reaction more than the defensive one I’d been expecting to have. Of course, it wasn’t the time to sit down and hash out their entire marriage, but I came out of that thinking that things weren’t good, but they weren’t necessarily entirely doomed? At least, you know, until Jo died twenty minutes later.  

As to the second reveal, how Jo would react to finding out her husband was capable of murder, it was a lot less clear-cut than I’d been expecting. When it came right down to it, Michael didn’t say the words explicitly, and the obliqueness was enough that Jo got it, but didn’t have to get it entirely. She knew what he was saying, but she could hear it and yet not process it. I had a feeling that her initial reaction would probably not be entirely condemnatory - it’s hard to switch gears that quickly about someone you love and have been with that long. In the long run, though, if she’d survived and had time to think about it, the horror would have slowly grown.

A large part of why Jo could more or less understand what Michael had done but not deal with it yet was a personality trait that she had through the entire game, but which really took control in the final episode. As a surgeon, and because I thought it would be very useful in a haunted house game, her secondary trait was “Calm Under Pressure.” When faced with everything going to shit, Jo was constantly triaging, putting her emotions aside (and frequently last) in order to do what needed to be done.

In many ways, this was a microcosm of the entire character, and a look at how that ability could serve her well in short term emergency situations, and yet be the same trait that screwed up her life when constantly applied to a very busy life, when it always meant putting the less urgent things (her marriage, time to relax, self-care) last. Her dramatic poles were Bulling Through vs. Taking the Easy Way, and except for that affair, she never took the easy way. In fact, it’s probably what killed her, in the end. She’d saved her kids and her husband, but there was one thing left she could try to do, and she did it. Poor Jo.

While triaging like that is a character trait I share, I’m also a much more emotional person than Jo, and less able to put everything off until an easier day that will never come. It was interesting how, during the finale, I was often tense, but never on the verge of breaking down. Every supernatural thing Jo saw unsettled her, but she would deal with it by refocusing on the matter at hand. It might have scarred her for life, but at the time, she did what she had to do.

Was that the best choice? Lisette and Michael’s players both went to incredible places dealing with the fears and stresses and breaking down, becoming more and more unstable, while I never felt like Jo lost her stability. That makes her good as a foil, but maybe that’s a hint to trying playing someone less stable in a future game. (On the other hand, I might already be doing that in TimeWatch, where I feel like Millie is constantly teetering on the edge of a breakdown.) Still, it’ll be a challenge, to try another character where triaging is not part of her innate abilities, someone who has more potential to be overwhelmed.

If we’re talking about playing characters who differ from myself in some important way, let’s go back to one of my primary stated goals in playing Jo. I am fairly in touch with my emotions and sometimes far too attuned to the emotions of people around me. So I had wanted to play a character who was not that, someone who was not emotionally intelligent, not nurturing, who might be surprised by what she actually felt, if she ever understood she felt it.

I feel like I succeeded moderately well. Jo as a parent was definitely not nurturing, although I also don’t think she was a terrible mother, either. She made some fairly obvious mistakes that she wouldn’t understand, including her confrontational manner in regards to her daughter acting out. She never understood that Maddie was acting out, in part, because she knew her mother was having an affair, and saw it as a betrayal of her father. (Which, of course, it was.) And when Tyler had been scared by the apparition at his window, she wasn’t as understanding as she could have been, but she didn’t belittle him, either. She tried to direct him to what she thought was the most likely answer, and that was probably not as helpful as a hug would have been.

As a wife, Jo was also certainly not emotionally intelligent - her marriage was crumbling, and she had no idea what to do about it. She even thought her husband wouldn’t realize she was having an affair. When on the island, she was trying to reach out and find a common ground and history, to rekindle a romance. It felt like Jo and Michael were never actually adversaries, but they didn’t remember very well how to be allies anymore. The possibility was there, the past had proven it could be done, but neither had the resources to figure it out in the present.

And as a friend, Jo sucked. She fought like hell to have no space for Lisette, at the cost of hurting Lisette time and time again. Renewing that friendship would have meant examining some painful things about herself, and some unlikeable things she’d done. Given her jealousy over Lisette and Michael’s connection, it was much easier to decide Lisette was the enemy and treat her as such. I was delighted, though, by the small moments of friendship that snuck past her armour. The closeness never lasted long, but these were two people who remembered the patterns of friendship on a cellular level.

Outside of musing over the psychology of my own character, one thing I never realized until after the game was that when the three of us picked the evocative phrases for the haunt, we were also picking mechanical aspects. Each of those phrases (ours were “The Whisper,” “The Mirror,” and “The Door”) meant that the ghosts had a specific power. Bill says he did this so the ghosts weren’t all powerful and there were rules he had to follow. I thought that worked well, and we inadvertently picked some of the most psychological of the powers!

We have certainly had a history of great drama-heavy games before, and I am so privileged to be playing with this awesome group of people, all of whom I trust so much to do interesting things, be interesting characters, and to explore bravely together in scenes that can get into emotional territory.  This particular game started with a mandate to have drama-centric game, to play hard and with passion, to embrace characters and a situation that would put pressure just about everywhere. It did not disappoint. So this is my personal thank you to my husband, for being an awesome GM, and the other two players for being so astoundingly daring and kickass in what they bring to the table.

The "Official" Backstory, direct from the GM's pen:

In the Prohibition era, Maudie and Galen McBride were smuggling alcohol into northern New York State with the Stewart brothers, Ewan and Neil. They secured their hold on the liquor rackets with acts of horrifying violence, cowing their enemies. Maudie ran the "business" side, managing the money, while the men got their hands dirty. The distillery that supplied the operation was built into the foundations of Strathclyde House, in a secret sub-basement.

Neil was the most dangerous member of the operation, leading brutal attacks on their competitors, often leaving his mark with a curved skinning knife (which gave him his nickname, "Skinner"). The most notorious of these was a raid on a rumrunning operation in New York where he arranged for their competitors to be strung up from a tree outside a country garage they used as a distribution point and skinned alive. The incident loomed large in the news, as a boy in the employ of the Americans hid himself when he saw a car full of masked men approaching. He reported the incident in gruesome detail, including the quote (from Neil) that became a sensational headline: "No one gets out alive."

After the publicity, Maudie told Galen that they would need to get rid of Skinner. He was too dangerous, too unpredictable, and her plan had always been to sink the profits of their illicit enterprises into legitimate business ventures, expanding the McBride family fortunes. Galen killed Skinner, walling him up in a recess of the basement distillery, which would soon be bricked up and forgotten as Prohibition wound down. Without Skinner's muscle, Ewan was no match for Galen, and agreed to a payout that was a small fraction of what he believed he was owed. He took his money and put it into a shipping business, which his son Bruce would build into an international empire.

But Skinner wasn't quite done with the McBrides. Maudie and Neil had been sleeping together for years, under Galen's nose, and Maudie found herself pregnant. She quietly dealt with the inconvenience herself, and hid away the mortal remains of Skinner's child in the walls of Strathclyde House, where no one would ever find it. With that small detail accounted for, she was the sole proprietor of a financial empire... all of it in her name, and under her control, which would leave Galen a bitter and hateful man until his death.

The Week in Stories: No One Gets Out Alive - "Here in the Dark"

Previous Recaps: 
No One Gets Out Alive Character Creation 
Episode 1: "The Drop Off" 
Episode 2: "Another Midnight" 
Episode 3: "The Inevitability of Death"

Episode 4: "Here in the Dark"

And with this, our fourth sitting, we wrapped the whole damn thing up. We knew it was a possibility going in, everyone played hard, the ghosts came out to play, as did the secrets, and, as hinted all along in the name of the game, some of the characters died in the gloriously messy finale. Here's the recap, and I'll put up a second post shortly with all my character thoughts and some bonus backstory written by the GM!

The session opened right where we'd left off, just after Michael had gotten a series of texts and photos on a phone that wasn't supposed to be getting reception, of his son, alone and terrified against a red brick wall, and the word "MORE". He asked Jo, urgently, where Tyler was. Jo said she presumed he was in his room, but Michael said no, there was someone on the island, someone evil, and he'd taken Tyler.

Michael passed Jo his phone, but when she took it, the screen was dead. Worried that witnessing his brother's death had been too much for him, Jo asked Michael to sit down, and for Lisette to go upstairs and check if Tyler and Maddie were there. Michael protested, saying that they had to figure out what to do about the company, but Jo said that they could deal with that tomorrow. Getting his phone back, Michael could clearly see the photos of Tyler, and said he had to go out and find his son. He was somewhere on the island, scared. Jo let him go, worried.

Michael grabbed a flashlight and headed off into the rain that had started to pour down on the island. He convinced himself that the background behind Tyler in the picture was from the foundation of an old ruined house in the woods.

Meanwhile, Lisette found no one in Tyler's room, but could hear Madeleine crying through the door. She knocked tentatively, and Maddie came to the door and threw herself, crying, into Lisette's arms. Lisette held her uncomfortably, and asked what was wrong. Maddie was incredulous as she said, tearfully, that Uncle Matthew was dead, that's what was wrong.

Lisette tried to comfort her as Jo came upstairs. From where she was down the hallway, Jo could see Lisette reach into her pocket and pass something small to Maddie. Jo called out to ask if Tyler had been in his room, and when Lisette replied that he wasn't, she walked down the hallway and briskly held out her hand, palm-up, to Maddie, asking her for whatever Lisette had just given her.

Maddie stared at her mother, confused. Lisette said that she hadn't given Maddie anything, but Jo clearly didn't believe her and continued to ask Maddie to hand it over. Now. As Lisette reached out to try to explain, a pill bottle fell from her pocket on to the floor. Jo's lips thinned as she picked it up, seeing some of Miss Maudie's pills. She looked at Lisette, noting her large pupils, and asked if Lisette were high. Lisette protested, unconvincingly, that she wasn't. Maddie pulled away from her mother and spat something horrible and teenager-ish at her, before running off.

Lisette tried to explain that she hadn't given anything to Maddie, that she didn't remember putting those pills in her pocket. She said she hadn't even wanted to stay on the island, that Michael had convinced her. This did not impress Jo. Lisette said mournfully that she didn't want anything to do with this family anymore.  When Jo stalked off, Lisette looked down and when she looked at it, now the name on the bottle of pills read Jo Ross.

Somewhere around this point, the lights went out, as claps of thunder and lightning lashed the island.

Meanwhile, out in the driving rain and dark, Michael trekked through the woods, yelling for Tyler. When he got to the foundation of the ruined building, he couldn't see anyone, but climbed over the low remaining wall anyway, jumping in, and landing on a ripped tin can, which pierced his foot through.  There was no sign of his son. Bleeding and swearing, Michael tried to make his way back out, but slipped on the mud. His phone lit up again and two more images appeared, of Jo with Adam, her colleague (and the man she was having an affair with), smiling a smile that she used to turn only on Michael. Michael scowled, and resumed his painful struggle out of the foundation. When he got out, he realized he had a knife in his hand, the skinning knife that the man with the burlap sack had carried.

Back at the house, Lisette grabbed Jo’s purse, intent on proving that Jo was trying to frame her again. With the lights out, she went into the kitchen and lit a candle. She looked at the knives in the kitchen, feeling like she needed a weapon, but decided that something blunt would be much better. She went into the dining room, intending to pick up a poker that was leaning against the fireplace. Suddenly, the lightning flashed, and Lisette was surrounded by people in the room. She shrunk back, but as the light faded, so did the people. She made a dash for the poker, then back to the kitchen and out into the night to find a lantern in the gardener’s shed.

Jo was in search of Maddie when she heard the distinct sounds of two people having sex in her and Michael’s bedroom. Thinking it might be Michael and Lisette, she opened the door angrily, only to see a very large man having enthusiastic sex with a small woman - Miss Maudie, when she was very much younger. Jo could see clothes strewn over the floor, including a burlap sack with two holes cut out for eyes. After finishing, Miss Maudie cast her eyes towards the door - but clearly didn’t see Jo standing there.

Lisette had made her way to the gardener’s shed and found an oil lantern and lit it. With that in one hand and the poker in the other, she started back to the fence, only to see Skinner, the man with the burlap sack over his head and a skinning knife in his hand, heading towards her. The camera flipped, and we saw from Michael’s perspective that he was heading towards the light, and calling out for Lisette while she saw something quite different and fled for the house. He pursued her, worried that she was going to betray his trust and the family.

Losing sight of Lisette, Michael come up to the kitchen window, seeing Jo standing there with a butcher’s knife in her hand. For her part, Jo saw the figure on the other side of the glass as the man with the burlap sack, complete with knife. She pulled back and yelled at him to go away. Michael, frustrated, called out to Jo to let him in, and she recognized him, but he looked even more dishevelled and crazy than he actually was. She hesitated, then finally unlocked the door.

When Michael stumbled inside, Jo tried to see what shape he was in, physically, but Michael was fixated on the idea of finding Lisette, and needing to determine where her loyalties lay. Jo didn’t understand why this was so important, tonight, when their son was missing, so Michael finally told her about the financial trouble the company was in, the trouble he was in, that he could go to jail. Was she with him? Loyal to the family?

Jo pushed back - how could he not have told her this? How could he have kept this secret? Michael narrowed his eyes. She was one to talk about keeping secrets. Jo demanded to know what he meant by that. He knew about Adam, Michael replied. Did she really think she could keep that secret? That he wouldn’t know?

Jo stilled. She really thought he didn’t, she said softly. Come on, Jo, Michael said. He wasn’t an idiot. So, where did she stand? Was she loyal to the family? Jo looked at him, still confused. What did he mean loyal to the family? Michael said, with difficulty, that they all needed to pull together to survive this. He strongly hinted, but didn’t say outright, that he’d had to kill his brother Matthew to keep the family going, and that he’d do anything to protect Jo and their kids. Jo could guess at what he meant, but the ambiguity let her put it aside for the moment. She continued to triage the situation - they had to find their kids, first. Then they could talk.

Outside, both Jo and Michael could see a figure run across the lawn - it looked like their daughter, Maddie. Jo sighed and picked up the kitchen knife again. She’d go after their daughter, and wanted defence against whatever was stalking them. At the door to outside, she paused, and haltingly, tried to explain. She’d wanted to come to the island to see what she and Michael still had between them, what might be possible. But she’d screwed it all up.

Back with Lisette, as she ran from the figure of Skinner. She ran into the building on the other side. But where she ended up as she went through was not where she intended. She was suddenly in the secret passage, between floors. Lisette started shaking, terrified. Noises echoed around the small staircase, and Lisette started to head up towards the attic, but stopped when a stone fell right past her and landed at her feet. In the brick wall in front of her face, there was a small hole, and inside was a package of small bones, wrapped in paper. The newspaper showed three bodies hung up like in an abattoir. It dated to Prohibition, and heavily implicated Michael’s grandparents and their enforcer in the murders. A headline read “No One Gets Out Alive!”

Lisette recoiled and started moving rapidly down the stairs to the creepy basement. Once there, the lantern-light glinted eerily off the walls.  She shrank down, against the wall, trying to block out the manifestations, utterly lost.

The sound of a phone ringing lured Michael, still bleeding and limping, into the east wing of the house. There he saw Miss Maudie. She praised him for being a good boy, the one she could always count on, but now demanded that he take care of Josephine. She wasn’t really part of the family, after all. Never had been. And now she’d shown her true colors. Michael resisted, swearing to his grandmother that Jo loved this family. Miss Maudie’s eyes narrowed in scorn. She demanded more.

Outside, Jo continued toward the dock, looking for Maddie. On the dock itself, she stared out into the water, then noticed something just below the surface of the water. It was a face. It was many faces, glinting just below the surface. They were watching her, and began to break the surface in pursuit of her. Jo stumbled backwards and ran up the hill, back towards the house.

Lisette heard the sound of someone scared in the basement, and found Maddie there, trembling. Maddie was scared, and Tyler was missing, and her parents were upsetting. Lisette hugged her close, trying to comfort her.

Just then Michael heard the noises coming from the basement. Still clutching the skinning knife he’d found in the ruins, he ventured down the slippery stairs, and found Lisette and Maddie. He was bloody and looked crazed. Lisette pushed Maddie behind her as she got to her feet. With a shaking voice, she said she didn’t want to be part of the family any more, she just wanted to leave.

Michael asked how he could know that she wouldn’t betray the family, tell everyone about what had happened with the company. Lisette swore she wouldn’t, clutching the poker tightly. She just wanted to go to her mother, and be done with this entire family forever. Michael got angrier at this, accusing Lisette of never caring about the family, of never really being a part of it. Maddie whimpered behind Lisette’s back. Scared, Lisette told Michael to move so she could leave. He couldn’t do that, they needed to talk.

Lisette lashed out with her poker, catching Michael on the side of the head. Startled, he jabbed out with the knife, stabbing Lisette in the stomach. They both fell to the floor. Lisette crawled her way over to him, painfully, and threw the knife across the room away from them both. Maddie shrieked and ran up the stairs. As Lisette had fallen, she had dropped the lantern, which broke and started a fire.

Maddie ran to the door and almost straight into her mother on the porch. Maddie was nearly incoherent, talking about her father and Lisette and people going crazy. Jo told her to stay on the porch or the lawn, where she could see the door. She’d be right back. As Jo entered the basement, she could see her husband and Lisette on the floor, and assessed that both were in danger of dying if not treated quickly. Just then, though, she heard Tyler yelling.

Jo ran to the wall, seeing the red brick, and a spot that looked different from the rest. Picking up Lisette’s poker, she started to smash at the wall, getting through it relatively quickly. The fire was spreading, though, starting to fill the basement with smoke. Covering her mouth, Jo went through the hole she had made, to see her son in an alcove, with the hand of a skeleton of a very large man with a burlap sack over his face on Tyler’s shoulder. Jo broke the hand away and she and Tyler climbed out rapidly.

As the fire spread, Jo had Tyler help her lift Michael to get her up the stairs, and looked at where Lisette was lying unconscious, biting her lip. But between her husband and former best friend, she made her choice. She, Tyler, and Michael made it out onto the porch and down the stairs to Maddie, watching as the fire spread through the house.

Jo left Michael alone on the lawn, and ran back up the stairs to the porch. She hesitated and went in, intending to go no further if it was too dangerous. However, Michael watched, horrified, as the house collapsed around his wife.

An emergency boat pulled up at the dock, and Michael could see Perry and others running up the hill. Maddie started to shriek about her father being a murderer, Tyler was huddled in a ball, and the house continued to burn.

Thursday, 5 October 2017

The Diviners by Libba Bray

This is a curious book. There are so many things about it that should irritate me, that did consistently have me rolling my eyes at the pages. And yet, despite all that, despite all the flaws I'll tell you about, in the end, I kind of enjoyed this. Not on any deep level, oh no. But as a piece of enjoyable YA fluff, I ended up feeling more kindly towards it than it perhaps deserves.

The Diviners is set in the 1920s. Boy howdy, is it set in the 1920s. It is set in the 1920s of overzealous authors eager to show how much research they've done, who never found a piece of slang or stereotype they didn't try to hang on a character. Many of these characters feel like they might buckle under the strain.

A friend of mine got to watch as my husband and I traded back stereotypes of flappers and 1920s Jazz culture, and I could tell him where each one was in this book in the first few bloody chapters. She said it was amazing and hilarious. There wasn't a single thing that Libba Bray hadn't crammed in here, and the overall effect is...well, it made me feel like the author was trying way too hard.

I am not a fan of these kinds of data dumps, and as a historian, trying to stuff every historical detail into the speech patterns of a few main characters makes my skin crawl. For the first third of the book, I have to say, this was all driving me crazy. The flapper doesn't have to be all flapper, all flapper slang, all flapper clothes, all the time. It's okay if she's a bit frivolous and needs to party, but this was flapper turned up to eleven, and it was wearing.

Plus, it's not that fun to be hanging out mostly with someone who's selfish as shit. Thankfully, she (mostly) improved over the book. I don't need her to be a paragon of anything, but damn it, give me something to like!

This is the story of said flapper, whose name escapes me. On looking it up, it's Evie. Her brother died during the war. She's partying as hard as she can, and gets sent away from her small town to New York City when she causes a local scandal by accusing the local rich man's son of knocking up a maid. She's right, of course, and found out because she's also a psychometrist. That is to say, she can find out things about peoples' pasts by touching objects that belong to them.

So, apparently New York City seems safer to her parents? She's got an uncle there, who runs a museum of the supernatural along with his young assistant, Jericho. Shortly after she gets to New York, a serial killer starts preying on the people of New York, taking various parts of their bodies as trophies. Mixed up into this comes a Ziegfeld girl (of course), and young black poet, presumably to signify the Harlem Renaissance, and Mabel, the daughter of Jewish radicals. Or at least, I think Jewish? Radicals of the communist sort, at any rate. We can't possibly miss a chance to get everything about the 1920s in there!

I wish Bray would trust herself and not need to prove how much research she's done and stop with the absurd amount of strained data dump (if Evie said "posi-tutely" one more time, I might have smacked her, and she's fictional.) But weirdly, this book ends up working despite that. Not because of it.

It ends up feeling like Bray's stealing a bit of H.H. Holmes and his murder hotel of Chicago as she develops this story of the occult and serial killers. (There are more powers going around - the young poet can heal, his younger brother has predictive powers, and more.)  The book ends with one menace averted and the promise of more to come.

Let's get one thing straight. I didn't love this. I wouldn't be running out to tell you to read this. But to give the book its due, I enjoyed more than I expected I would.

Wednesday, 4 October 2017

Fifteen Dogs by Andre Alexis

I think I was expecting to be more deeply affected by this book. I finished it over the weekend. My overwhelming feeling was polite interest, and then when I sat down to write the review yesterday, nothing came. And nothing good ever comes of pushing myself to write a review when I'm not ready, so I closed the tab and walked away, figuring I'd write about it today.

I spent a good portion of my walk to work pondering the question, and I'm not sure I'm a whole lot closer, although the words are coming out more easily. I feel like maybe this itself is the answer - this just isn't a book that I had a strong reaction to, for good or for ill. There wasn't much I didn't like, but there also wasn't much I loved. It unfortunately falls about directly in the middle of the road, a book that I recognize has value, but which never latched onto my soul and made me care.

Maybe it's that I'm just not really a dog person.

Cats, now, cats would be different - but cats are so fundamentally different from dogs that the issues wouldn't be the same. If you gave cats human capabilities, cat already figured out how to open the refrigerator door, although thankfully she seems to have forgotten in her old age.

This book is about a deal between Apollo and Hermes in present-day Toronto. While sitting at a bar, they decide to give fifteen dogs (hence the title) human capabilities and see if they could be happy. Now, this doesn't seem to be a particular referendum on humanness, or if it is, it's not really a good one. What Apollo and Hermes do does not substitute humanness for dogness, it adds the former to the latter, so that these dogs, who are still dogs with all that entails, suddenly also have human capabilities and must figure out how to reconcile the two.

The other gods get involved - well, Zeus gets involved. There is mention of the other gods becoming interested and making bets, but nothing about them as individuals, which is a bit of a pity. Really, they're there to be a literal deus ex machina - both setting things in motion, and on several occasions, not being able to refrain from interceding further in these dogs' lives.

Some of the dogs don't even leave the pound where they are first given this massive change, staying and falling out of the story immediately. Most leave, but fall quickly prey to pack dynamics and the struggles to integrate human capability into doggish minds. There is a quick split between those who embrace their new abilities and help develop a new language, and those who want to return to being just dogs, with the problem that they do not necessarily entirely remember what that is. It becomes something like Judith Butler's theory of performative gender - these dogs pretend to be dogs, but with a dissonance between when they did so naturally and the artificiality of doing it now.

This causes distress, and eventually fratricide, as the changed dogs turn on each other in various ways, unable to sort out hierarchy in a more complex world. (Although one of the dogs who most embraces his new capabilities does so with humans.)

The question at hand, due to Hermes' agreeing to particular terms, is whether or not any of these dogs will be happy when they die. It's not a smart bet to have made, and how many centuries would Hermes have had to learn the ropes when bargaining with Apollo?  The answer comes, at the end, and on the whole it's not a bad one. I just wish I'd been more moved or engaged by the book as a whole.