Tuesday, 28 November 2017

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

More Round One

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

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

Winner: Sunshine

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

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

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

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

Winner: Iron Sunrise

Bye: The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell

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

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

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

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

Winner: How To Be Both

Monday, 27 November 2017

Earth by David Brin

*Some Spoilers Below*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 24 November 2017

13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl by Mona Awad

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 21 November 2017

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

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

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

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

Winner: More Than Human 

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

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

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

Danger Planet by Brett Sterling vs. NW by Zadie Smith

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 20 November 2017

Envy of Angels by Matt Wallace

*Some Spoilers Below*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 17 November 2017

A Fire Upon the Deep by Vernor Vinge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 16 November 2017

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

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

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

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

Winner: Planetfall

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

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

Winner: Who Fears Death

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

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

Bye # 6: Halting State by Charles Stross

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

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

Winner: Aimless Love

Authority by Jeff VanderMeer vs. The Diviners by Libba Bray

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

Wednesday, 15 November 2017

The Mothers by Brit Bennett

I am normally one of the well-behaved members of my book club - I have virtually always read the book. I ran into a problem with this one. I was almost done it before I went on vacation, and intended to finish when I got back. I hadn't realized, however, that my electronic library book came due while I was gone, and when I got back and tried to finish off the last third, it had been returned, and all the library copies were taken (probably by other members of my book club.)  So I went to the meeting anyway and discussed without knowing how it ended up, although I was fine with it getting spoiled - you go to book club without being finished, that's what you get.

A week or two after the meeting, it finally was available again, so I snatched it up and sat down to read the last bit so I could finally write a review.

The Mothers is a book about two young women with absent mothers and their own tenuous connections to motherhood. It's also told through a Greek chorus of old women who go to the church that these young women go to.They are titularly called The Mothers, and act as a window to how the community regards the small dramas of these young people and their parents, gossiping and making assumptions, warranted and unwarranted, about them. I found them to be unreliable narrators, and thought that made the book more interesting, although at least one person in my book club thought that they were to be more trusted than I did. I thought they were a commentary on how communities understand the outside but not necessarily the why or how of what goes on around them. They aren't close to any of the main players, but they see themselves as experts nonetheless.

Nadia, one of the young women, lost her mother to suicide just a short while before the book starts. She doesn't know why her mother took her own life, or if it was her fault for even being born. Would her mother's life have been different if she'd had the opportunity to have an abortion instead of getting married? This is less than academic to Nadia, as when she gets knocked up, she definitely and quickly chooses her own future academic career instead of getting married to the pastor's son, Luke.

That doesn't mean she never thinks about it again, and Luke ruminates on the abortion even more. Nadia's best friend, Aubrey, who Nadia befriends after her abortion, eventually hears that there was one, but not the details. Aubrey has fled from a mother who didn't protect her from her stepfather, going to live with her sister and sister's girlfriend instead, finding the church as a haven of normalcy, where she can pretend life is simple and solvable.

The book follows these characters through many years, as Nadia leaves for school and returns home to take care of her father. Their relationships intertwine, and although they rarely talk about their shared history, it has an impact, for good and ill, on everything they do, and the further ways they hurt each other.

This is an interesting look at living in a tight-knit community, and what spaces still exist there. I can't say I loved it, but I did enjoy the book. It didn't, though, feel like it touched me on any level connected with the absence of my own mother, which I guess sort of feels like a strike against the story? I understood where the women in this book were coming from, but it didn't hit me where I've been dwelling in grief.  (Unlike reading Luka and the Fire of Life by Salman Rushdie after the death of my father, which had me positively sobbing with shared pain.)

But being motherless stays with you. Now I know being an orphan stays with you, and isn't limited to those who were young when you they were orphaned. This story was very particular in a way that was not congruent with my experience. Nevertheless, it was worth a read. I like reading stories different from my own.

Tuesday, 14 November 2017

Dust Cover Dust-Up 2017: Round One, Part 4

Round One Continues!

The Healer's War by Elizabeth Ann Scarborough vs. number9dream by David Mitchell 

There were moments in both of these books where I why they were unfolding as they did. But while Mitchell always makes me glad to be along for the strange and genre-hopping ride, I never did parse out why The Healer's War is a fantasy novel, other than that it's a genre Scarborough had previously published in, or at least an adjacent one. It's not bad, but even older David Mitchell is more likely to please me. That's not to talk down The Healer's War - I'm very glad I included it in my "Post-War Science Fiction" book club theme, and it gave us interesting things to talk about. It just doesn't go any further in this tournament.
Winner: number9dream

 I'm Thinking of Ending Things by Iain Reid vs. The Last Policeman by Ben Winters 

Well, there's really no contest here, is there? I hated I'm Thinking of Ending Things for a lot of reasons I go into in the review, so almost anything could have knocked it out. It's just chance that it's up against the first book in a trilogy I read all of and enjoyed thoroughly last year. There's really no question what the result is going to be. Bye-bye, I'm Thinking....

Winner: The Last Policeman 

The Dream Thieves by Maggie Stiefvater vs. They Left Us Everything by Plum Johnson

I think I enjoyed The Dream Thieves most of the three Ravencycle books I've read so far - with Ronan at the centre, the narrative had a real drive that I haven't necessarily felt otherwise. So that gives this book a fairly easy win over Plum Johnson's memoir of her family, which is interesting, but doesn't do quite enough to justify its own existence, other than the natural and understandable desire to commemorate family. 

Winner: The Dream Thieves

The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst vs. The Shore of Women by Pamela Sargent

Of all the first-round matches so far, this is one that is giving me pause - neither are books that I loved, both are books that I respected. So do I go with sexuality and hypocrisy in Thatcher's Britain, or a gender-segregated future? I think the writing style gives this one to Hollinghurst.
Winner: The Line of Beauty

The Apocalypse Codex by Charles Stross vs. Coming Home by Jack McDevitt 

I feel like I'm getting spoiled by the new seeding, even though I know full well that I'll pay for it when all the books I liked most come up against each other in a round or two. But for the moment, I'll remain happy that it's easy to knock out the Futuristic-Clive-Cussler Coming Home in favour of Stross' Laundry series. We're in the U.S. with this one, with evangelical Cthulhu cults trying some fairly nasty business.
Winner: The Apocalypse Codex

Monday, 13 November 2017

Radiance by Catherynne Valente

I am extraordinarily glad this book exists, even if I'm not entirely sure I understand it all. I mean, I understand what happens and how it fits together, but I feel like I'm probably missing a few thematic elements that would make it unfold like a flower (which is not an earth flower, more like a butterfly with a stem) in my mind. (See, I'm already making references that won't make sense to anyone who hasn't read the book.)

There are a bunch of different stories, but they're all stories about an absence. Not only that, they're stories about how we tell stories, about how we try to impose narrative sense on an inherently chaotic life, about how the movies structure thought, about how the gaze is directed, and getting back to the first point, about how stories can give the illusion of presence.

This is particularly striking because the main character, Severin, is never present during the book. I mean, she's frequently there, but in a news story, one of her father's movies, in the scripts he and his collaborator keep trying to write to make sense of her disappearance, and even in her own documentaries, but she's never actually there. This is a story that's being told because she is gone, and no one knows where, or whether she's alive or dead, or really whether or not that's a question that makes sense. What is a callowhale, anyway?

Let's take a step back. This is a book that is so entirely itself, exists so completely in a fully-developed world that is not our own, but has certain resonances with it. It means that when Valente lets us peek behind the curtain (behind the camera?), we have to open our minds and try to catch up. The sense of familiar alienness is not one that was exclusionary. Sometimes I find authors who develop their worlds so perfectly in their heads don't want to let readers in easily, or don't realize that they need to explain things that are so clear to them. That was not what I encountered here.

This is not our solar system, but we're brought into it gently enough that even when we don't know everything, we aren't entirely adrift - or at least, not any more adrift than the characters who were born there. They aren't entirely sure what the callowhales are either, even though they drink their milk in many forms, needing it to survive in interplanetary space.

The callowhales live on Venus (or do they?), floating in the seas there, either animal or vegetable or possibly island? (There almost feels like there's some distant kinship to C.S. Lewis' Venus.)  They give off something that is called milk, like many things in the solar system have been named after very different but sort of similar Earth analogues. Something in it makes life on other planets and in the vast spaces between the planets possible, and humankind has spread.

The movie business has taken over the moon, in this strange Art Deco-punk world, where something in the soil turns everyone blue, but everyone paints their skin so as not to show up strangely on screen on the other planets where they are not blue. There's this basic artifice at the movies before the first word is written or the first camera run.

Severin grew up in front of the camera, left on her famous director father's doorstep one stormy night, and the arrival was promptly restaged for his favourite camera, Clara. She turned away from his silent dramas to her own talkie documentaries, but Radiance makes the point that there are still choices in documentaries as to what is filmed and what is shared. We don't get to know Severin, we get to know the version of herself she chose for the world to see, the version that her audiences would never get to interact with. And we get the stories of her fated last documentary expedition, from those who loved her and possibly those who loved and hated her at the same time, as well as the young boy in the deserted town she found on Venus. We get all the lead-up to her disappearance, and we get her father's scripts trying to fit her story into a noir mystery, a fairy tale, a historical drama, and back to a mystery, one where all is revealed in one drawing-room scene.

But his answer to what happened to her, and indeed, to the secrets of the solar system, the callowhales, and the universe(s) aren't any more definitive than any of the movie transcripts, interviews, gossip columns or other accounts of which book is made up. This book is all about the gaze, but the person everyone is gazing at is gone, and as after every death, there are hanging threads and stories that are unfinished, there are questions unanswered. There is absence in the presence of all the material world they left behind. We turn our gaze on what's left behind, trying to make it make sense.

And the callowhales swim(?) on.

Friday, 10 November 2017

The Children Act by Ian McEwan

 *Some Spoilers Below*

McEwan is very interested in obsession, in small events that mean little to one person, but everything to someone else. (Also in narratives told by people trying to make sense out of a situation by reconstructing what they think might have or could have happened, but that isn't as applicable here.)  In this case, the moment that spurs obsession is important to both people involved, but one is able to walk away and the other follows, with repercussions that are troubling in their mundanity and lack of poetry.

In the Children Act, Fiona is a judge in family court in the U.K. She mostly oversees divorce cases, custody agreements, separation and alimony. A few of her cases reach the level of national news, as she is a judge at the highest level of this court.

Her home life is a mess - after a protracted period of sexlessness, her husband proposes that they stay together but open their marriage up. AKA, he wants to have sex with someone, and if she's not interested, he has a someone in mind. Fiona does not take this well, with an anger and betrayal that is both understandable and frustrating when she refuses to consider any valid points he might be making as well. It is an anger that only admits of one side, unlike her work, where she tries to balance competing interests and come up with answers that leave both feeling like they didn't quite get what they wanted. She won't go anywhere near that as a solution here though - it's all or nothing, and no in-between is possible.

As she's reeling from this, she's faced with a new case - a young Jehovah's witness, only three months under the age of majority and full control over his own medical decisions, has leukemia, and is refusing treatment. The hospital is suing to gain temporary custody, to force treatment that includes blood transfusions.

I'm not going to talk about the eventual ruling she comes to too much, but it does feel like this is very different in British law than Canadian. Because I've played a Jehovah's Witness for medical students many times, I know that there isn't a clearcut age at which people get to make their own medical decisions - there are guidelines, but a great deal of it rests on the ability of the person to recognize both the dangers and possible outcomes, and to make a decision that could be accepted as reasonably adult. It's a sliding scale, and assessments like Fiona does here (I keep wanting to call her Ruth for some reason - why is that?)  would be part of the process, absolutely. But the letter of the law wouldn't be that much help. (And honest to goodness, being three months too young to make your own medical decisions would be extraordinarily likely to be deemed competent.)

It is the letter of the law Fiona relies on here, when she decides that those three months make all the difference. The boy, Adam, lives, and when he realizes his parents are happy he did so, loses his faith. He pushes them away, but as much as he might see it as a freeing of himself, he's trying to exchange one authority for another. That's where the obsession comes in. He starts to see Fiona as wise beyond just the parameters of her decision - someone who could teach him how to live, if she'd just let him come and live with her and learn from her.

While the decision was important to Fiona, Adam's life isn't important to her own in the same way, and she, with a few missteps, does not incorporate him into her life. Adam, who really is very young, sees that as another authority rejecting her, and what he does next proceeds from there, and from being at sea in a world drastically different than the one he thought he was living in. Wanting certainty, he doesn't get it in the judge who made the decision that changed his life.

It's an interesting book, with tension and things not said, expectations not expressed, running all the way through it. Probably firmly on the liked but didn't love scale.

Tuesday, 7 November 2017

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


Round One Continues!

Bye #3 - The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu

Unexpected Stories by Octavia Butler vs. Waistcoats and Weaponry by Gail Carriger

I am a huge Octavia Butler fan, and like to talk about the five books of hers that I've read as often as I can gracefully  haul them into conversation (or ungracefully, I'm not really a subtle person). So I was delighted to pick up this collection of two previously unpublished short stories. The second shorter one is the real gem, but there is no doubt that this is going to win out over Waistcoats and Weaponry. I liked this Gail Carriger more than I did her -less series, but it's fluff. Nothing wrong with fluff, but that can't come anywhere near Butler's chops.
Winner: Unexpected Stories

 First Person Peculiar by Mike Resnick vs. The Speed of Dark by Elizabeth Moon 

This is an oddly difficult choice. I think I gave Elizabeth Moon's book four stars when I initially rated it on Goodreads, and definitely my review was more favourable than my one for First Person Peculiar, which I found distressing in a few ways. But as I've sat with The Speed of Dark, my discomfort has grown, and so this is one of those cases where the space between reading and considering it in this competition hasn't cemented a book in my favour. Still, there are a whole lot fewer (read: none) dead prostitutes in The Speed of Dark. But don't count on it sticking around in the competition for long.
Winner: The Speed of Dark

A God In Ruins by Kate Atkinson vs. The Hidden Family by Charles Stross

In very general terms, I like Charles Stross a lot, and I think he's had at least one book on my top ten list in the last few years. That being said, this is not my favourite series of his - it's very early and his writing skills are not as developed as they will be. And in this battle, it's up against Kate Atkinson, whose Life After Life (a related book to this one) just destroyed me. I might not have been quite as intensely affected by A God in Ruins, but it's so good, and so difficult. 

Winner: A God In Ruins

 Bye #4 - The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin

Cereus Blooms at Night by Shani Mootoo vs. The Darkest Part of the Forest by Holly Black

Oof, this is one of those cases where I barely remember one of the books. I think I remember a few of the specifics of the plot of Cereus Blooms at Night, but since I read it earlier this year, it has left barely a ripple on my consciousness. In contrast, Holly Black's book wasn't high literature, but it was solid YA with a fairy tale tinge, which everyone knows is one of my favourite subgenres.

Winner: The Darkest Part of the Forest

The Enemy Stars by Poul Anderson vs. Greenglass House by Kate Mitford

I have, in general, enjoyed the Poul Anderson books I've read to date. This is very, very early Anderson, and it shows. It's...not great. Really not. In the other corner, we have a book that I enjoyed a great deal more than I expected to. I liked the integration of roleplaying into the story, and was comforted by the warmth running through the whole book. This is a great one for kids and almost-young-adults.

Winner: Greenglass House