Wednesday, 20 December 2017

2666 by Roberto Bolano

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 19 December 2017

Top Ten of 2017!

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

10. World of Trouble by Ben Winters

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

9. Moby Dick by Herman Melville

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


8. A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson

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

7. Planetfall by Emma Newman

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

6. Ancillary Mercy by Ann Leckie

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

5. The Yiddish Policeman's Union by Michael Chabon

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

4. My Real Children by Jo Walton

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


3. The Accursed by Joyce Carol Oates

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

2. The Parable of the Talents by Octavia Butler

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

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

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

Friday, 15 December 2017

Pacific Fire by Greg van Eekhout

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 14 December 2017

The Week in Stories - Masque of the Red Death

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

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

Previously on Masque of the Red Death....

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

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

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

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

Episode Two: The Hampstead Horror

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Character Thoughts:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 4 December 2017

The Facts of Life by Paula Knight

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 1 December 2017

Certainty by Madeleine Thien

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

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

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

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

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

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

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