Friday, 28 December 2018

The Year of the Quiet Sun by Wilson Tucker

At the moment, I've changed the thrust of my old SF reading to full novels, rather than short stories. As much fun as short stories are to dissect, they're time consuming, and I haven't really had time recently.. So with this, we go to a novel nominated for a Hugo in 1971, which isn't all that old, but still well before our current generation of Science Fiction and Fantasy.

I've had people question, every once in a while, why I read old science fiction. Why I sometimes put myself through things that make me cringe when it comes to how they portray women, or hamhandedly try to do something with race. I guess my answer is that because I still enjoy it. I don't think anyone should necessarily do this if they aren't getting any enjoyment out of it, but I still like reading old SF, seeing what was done well, seeing what wasn't, perhaps why, and enriching my overall concept of the field.

Besides, if someone isn't doing this, people are going to keep thinking they've just reinvented the wheel, much as how every generation seems to think they were the ones who invented sex. In other words, I'm a historian at heart, with a Ph.D. to show for it. (Not, you know, a Ph.D. in the history of science fiction, but a solid doctorate in historical research.)  Reading old and sometimes uncomfortable things, in search of why particular ideas took form at particular times, why people seized on this and not that, and what they did with it, that's all my bread and butter. I understand the present better by knowing the past, but more importantly, I understand the past better too, on its own terms and through my own.

Now that I've (somewhat defensively) gotten that out of the way, let's turn our attention to Wilson Tucker's The Year of the Quiet Sun. The first thing I have to say is that Tucker is not done any favours by whoever wrote the blurb on the back of the copy I picked up in my friendly local used bookshop. You know how blurbs are supposed to whet your appetite, and generally give you an idea of where the book starts and what the major thrust is going to be? 

Well, in this case, we reached the end of the blurb just as we reached the last page of the novel. I shit you not. The whole damn book took place before the blurb. When the blurb told me that this was about a main character jumping forward in time and finding the nuclear-wasted post-apocalyptic world of the U.S. in the early 20th-century, and that the main character decided to stay and see what the actions of his time had wrought in the world to come, I figured that that would be most of the book.

It was not. The last pages are him making that decision to stay. We never get to really see much of what his world had wrought. I guess that would be for a future book? (As far as I know, this is a stand-alone.)

Instead, we get a few jumps successively forward through the early 1980s, 2000, 2001, culminating in that last jump some time beyond that, where calendars may not be measuring anything anymore, and certainly not using the Gregorian Calendar.

This is, however, a pretty good book. Some things (*cough*handling of women*cough) are pretty bad, and I imagine a Black person might be able to tell me what Tucker got wrong about race, but there are also some interesting ideas - and perhaps most interesting to me, ideas that I've seen echoed in other science fiction of the 1970s and early 1980s, including a core concept I haven't seen much since.

I'm being oblique, so let me try not to be. At the core of this book is the idea that once the main character jumps forward a few different times, he ends up in a time period where a literal race war is just beginning, a second Civil War in the United States, along racial lines. In other words, Black men (sorry, there's no mention of Black women, which makes me sigh) are fighting back and with the help of the Chinese (!), they've got nuclear weapons to back up their guerilla tactics.

It's not this idea on its own that drew my attention, it's that it isn't the first time I've seen this posited. One of Spider Robinson's very early (and very hard to find) books, also is set against the potential start of a war between Black Americans (although there's at least one Black woman in that book) and whites. And another short story of Spider's that talks obliquely about the recent end of the second Civil War that insinuates heavily it was a war about race and racism.

Interestingly, it took me a very, very long time to figure out that the main character in The Year of the Quiet Sun was Black. I may have missed an early descriptor, but I don't think so. I think it's just not mentioned until quite far into the book, when he jumps forward into a world in which this civil war has started but not taken hold, and is regarded with suspicion in the primarily white Midwest city he jumps to. This is particularly interesting because it means that he integrates into a primarily military facility without encountering the slightest bit of racism, which...huh. And he competes for the affections of a white woman, and loses, but the book never ever brings his race into this. Which I suppose is refreshing, but also sort of smacks of the assumption that we could just decide not to see race, and that would make racism not happen, not have had an impact. In a world where you're positing things get so bad they lead to a civil war, does that seem likely?

Brian does experience some prejudice when he gets to the military installation, but it's because he's a historian who translated some explosive Middle Eastern pre-New Testament or early New Testament scrolls that call into question the ways in which myth and legend may have been incorporated into the eventual biblical canon.

It does make me sigh, however, that he's the brand of science fiction historian in which he's not only a biblical scholar and translator, but he's also a futurist, and also knows all about the history of the United States, and probably any other history you could possibly name. You know, because we're all generalists, instead of remarkably compartmentalized specialists. I just laughed when the book jumps from his translating scripture to writing remarkably accurate predictions of the future, wrong only because of a few unforeseen events. I wish I could do that!

The prediction that made me chuckle hardest was the idea of licensed nudists. It's hard to explain why, it's just the idea that a) nudity would be so common that nudists could roam the streets but b) they'd still have to have papers to prove it and c)...would have somewhere to carry those papers? (This prediction doesn't come true because of nuclear winter, but you know, best laid plans gang aft aglae.)

This was a solid, entertaining read, although the main female character was there to never travel in time other than at the usual one-minute-per-minute speed. She was really there to be wooed by two separate members of the time team, and doesn't so much choose one of them, as that one of them tries harder and that makes the difference - so while she's not a terrible female character, she's not one with any real kind of agency. And is frequently described in terms of how she looks in a swimsuit, which happens remarkably often for a book about a military installation devoted to going forward through time. You know how it is.

I would love to go through and talk about this book in more depth, and to trace some of the idea backwards and forwards. If I ever do start a science fiction podcast, I suspect I'd want to cover this book at some point.

Wednesday, 26 December 2018

The Dark Between The Stars by Kevin J. Anderson

I will, some day, read all of the Hugo nominees for Best Novel. I'm slightly over 50% done, and now that I'm voting each year, that means that I'm not losing ground to new nominees. I pick from here and there in the history of the award, and eventually I'll get there. So of course, that meant I came to one of the years where the nominations were gamed by certain groups that shall go unnamed. And this was one of the books that definitely made it on to the nomination lists because of that.

So I read it, with not a small amount of cynicism. And my verdict is, like with the Jim Butcher that got nominated the year after (or before?), that they're both fine, they're just not, in any way, great. There's nothing about them that makes me jump up and down and say "now this needs to be nominated."  Nothing that is "this is new and innovative," or even "I couldn't put this damn book down." It's just...fine. If you want a really really long space-bound story, this would be fine. (I like to reserve "space opera" to mean something more than just "story that takes place in space.") If you want vast casts of not-particularly-well-developed characters, this would be fine. If you have very little attention span and want chapters that rarely break five pages, this would be fine.

That's one thing that does bug me. Here, Anderson is falling prey to the James Patterson School of Writing, which is the idea that chapters need to be extremely short. All the time, not just to break up a flow. With so many characters, and not much to differentiate them outside of short descriptors (concerned father, ambitious overbearing mother, wife of the emperor, loyal son of king, cranky son of king, etc., etc.), it took me a long time to get a handle on the story. Of course, it does sound like I'm not exactly coming in at the beginning, but the book, for all its emphasis on short chapters, did not give me much time to catch up.

It's a story of, well, corporate malfeasance, loners in space, space plagues, killer robots, a blackness in space that wants to kill all sentient life (I was having major Babylon 5 flashbacks), compy resettlement programs, children at school, heirs dying of mysterious diseases, other royal children going off into the wilderness to find themselves, a disease-obsessed rich woman, the withholding of miracle cures, and...I mean, I could go on and on. Every time I paused in writing that last sentence, I remembered another plotline.

This really is less sprawling and more unfocused. But I'm sounding more critical than I want to. I mean, this is fine. It's a solid three stars. For all its length, I didn't mind reading it, but goodness, there was nothing that made me want to read it again! Neither am I eager to find the next in the series...but I enjoyed it enough that if it crossed my path, I would pick it up. I wasn't angry at it.

(Well, okay, sometimes some of the female characters got under my skin, not to mention the son who wanted to demand of his mother that she agree that when she was systematically raped during wartime to create babies, it was a good thing, which, WHAT THE FUCK? What is this even doing here? Trying to make all your women readers uncomfortable? Or just the author not realizing how intense that is to be a brief conversation that is never mentioned again? It's...not good. You want to have that shit as a plotline, it better fucking not be a throw-away, and you'd better have something new and empathetic to fucking say.)

So, yeah. If you like a certain kind of space-centred story, and you want big and sprawling and interconnected, this is fine. Except for all the things that bugged me. But it only rarely made me angry, and it if you want? A Hugo nominee, though? Really?

Monday, 24 December 2018

I'll Give You The Sun by Jandy Nelson

Oh dear. This is one of these books that I keep putting off writing about. The problem is that it was a perfectly pleasant and easy read, but it didn't really spark anything in my head, didn't connect any two ideas I want to pull out, didn't piss me off so I want to rant. I was fine? Better than fine, even, although I also never felt as emotionally connected to the book as I felt like I was supposed to. I felt like this was supposed to be a tearjerker, but nary a tear was jerked.

Maybe I'm just too old for this kind of YA. It's better written that some I've read! The conflicts are real conflicts, and could not be solved by two people just talking to each other. I mean, some of them could be alleviated by that, but not solved, and the reasons for withholding information were better than "because the plot demands you be kept in the dark." I hate that so much, and I've seen too much of it recently. (I'm looking at YOU, Queen of the Tearling.)

And I remember enough of being a teenager to get it that everything is  hard, and you don't know who you are and it's all the angst, and hurt, and hurting each other because you don't have enough social skills to get out of situations otherwise. I get feeling that if you don't get this opportunity right here, the world is over.

While I remember that, oof, I don't really want to spend any more time there. I did my years of teenagehood, and I'm much happier as an adult. And yet, Nelson does a good job of capturing something about adolescence, and her characters are really solid.

We have here a pair of twins, Noah and Jude. They are very close, but are growing apart, and Noah deals with self-loathing around his sexuality, while Jude explores hers in ways that make her mother unhappy. They're both artistic, Noah drawing and Jude sculpting, and there's also a contest there for capturing their mother's attention and approval. Their mother is a flawed character, whimsical, loving, but capricious and somewhat self-centered. And she's missing for half the book - stylistically, the book is broken up into chapters Noah narrates in the past, and chapters Jude narrates, in the future, three years after the death of their mother in a car crash.

Both have information they haven't told each other, but it's less "let's slow down the plot and create false tension" and more "I don't know how to say this so I don't," and I was much happier with that. Both twins have ended up doing hurtful things to each other, some on purpose, some through misunderstanding. Their father is present but hurting as well after the loss of his wife, and confused over what was going on before that.

There's a streak of magical realism in here - Jude follows her grandmother's "Bible," a collection of spells and folklore to the letter, and thinks her mother's ghost is breaking all her pottery sculptures. Noah seems to be able to delay his leaps over a cliff in mid-air. But it's there more as flavour than any real point to the book.

Of course, since it's about the loss of a parent, I find myself doing what I always do these days - assess it against my own experiences. This one wasn't terrible. It didn't make me angry. It didn't touch me deeply either. There's something about this book that never let me forget it was a book, whereas something like Miriam Toews' All My Puny Sorrows gutted me with how real it felt. It's not bad. I didn't mind reading it. I just am left feeling a little empty at the end.

Friday, 14 December 2018

Top Ten Books of 2018

It is once again time to compile a list of the top ten books I read this year! As always, very few books on this list came out this year, as I am not that abreast of what's going on. This was the first year in which I voted for the Hugos, so I'm closer to being with it than usual. The one thing that most delighted me about the voting process was how good so many of the nominees were, and you'll see them pop up here several times. As a result, the whole list is even more weighted towards genre fiction, but I feel pretty good about it.

10. Summer in Orcus by T. Kingfisher

This was just so utterly delightful. Only my second venture into Ursula Vernon's oeuvre, and I'll be going back often. We have here a portal fantasy, but with such invention and enthusiasm that every bit of it made me happy. With a werewolf who turns into a house by night, a high society Ton of birds, and the fact that you can't trust antelope women, there's so much to love here.

9. Radiance by Catherynne Valente

Radiance is strange and wonderful, and I'm still not sure I entirely understand it. That doesn't mean it hasn't stayed with me though, and so it enters this list at #9. We dance between planets and genres through a golden age of silver screen moviemaking, with space whales and the mystery of the death of a promising young filmmaker. Absence is presence, and no one can decide what genre this story should be.

8. Spoonbenders by Daryl Gregory

This is a weird and awesome mix of conventional family drama and sort-of science fiction, as we're drawn into the family life of a group of formerly famous psychics - or were they always just con artists? And does it really matter, if the CIA wants to continue to do experiments on you?

7. Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

I loved this twist on a literal Underground Railroad, with stops in all sorts of forms of historical (and present) racism. Like a lot of books this year, difficult at times, but so worth it. A lot of my top books this year are interesting twists that use some aspect of genre fiction to great and unusual effect, and that helps brings the ring of truth to something entirely metaphorical in this case.

6. The Black Tides of Heaven by JY Yang

I was utterly astounded by this book when I reaad it as part of my Hugo voting this year. Just blown away. Silkpunk, power struggles, revolution, twins, and a whole lot more. If you want good fantasy that is a little bit unlike anything you've read, start here. And then go on to the other books. (I haven't taken my own advice yet, but I will!)

5. The Obelisk Gate by N.K. Jemisin 

I am not sure how my heart made it through the last two-thirds of this trilogy this year, but I am grateful that it did. (You'll be seeing more of Jemisin a few books from now.) The Obelisk Gate occupies that middle spot in a trilogy with such power that it knocked me off my feet with its depiction of community forming even under the worst of pressures.

4. Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

It made me so happy that the big book from last year was one that I thoroughly and unreservedly enjoyed. As soon as the book clicked for me, I was in no matter where it went from there. And where it went was a lot of enjoyable places meditating on the core of identity, the power of grief, and the fallacies of memory.

3. The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal

It might be impossible to craft a book that hits more of my personal buttons and to do it with such grace and aplomb that I started crying in the first few chapters? I'm blown away. This was a page turner and something more thoughtful, all at the same time.

2. All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews

Will it sound weird if I say that I hope I never read another book this devastating again? This book broke me, over and over. Some of what she wrote I hadn't experienced and appreciated, and some of it I had, or versions of grief close enough to feel the truth underlying every word, phrased directly and without obfuscation. This is wondrous and traumatizing. 

1. The Stone Sky by N.K. Jemisin 

The choice for the best book I read this year was not easy, but it should come as no surprise. I do not think you can overstate how important, and even more, how good these books are. The Stone Sky brings it all home in such a way that it hurt to read, but wrapped everything up in a way that did service to all the history that had brought these characters to that place. Astounding.

Honourable Mentions: (AKA Books It Hurt Me To Cut From The Top Ten:

Under the Pendulum Sun by Jeannette Ng
An Unkindness of Ghosts by Rivers Solomon
Down Among the Sticks and Bones by Seanan McGuire

Two Books That Got Screwed Over by Chance and the Tournament Format:

All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders
The Stars Are Legion by Kameron Hurley

Wednesday, 12 December 2018

The Paladin of Souls by Lois McMaster Bujold

I virtually always love Lois McMaster Bujold's books, and I'm happy to report that Paladin of Souls was no exception. It's a follow-up to her Curse of Chalion, set in a fantasy kingdom that is ruled by five gods (although some say only four), in which a curse has come down through the generations and may doom a couple of young people in line to the throne.

In this book, we turn to their mother, Ista. She's in her mid-forties, free of the madness the gods inflicted on her for decades, and finally out from underneath the stifling will of her mother. For the first time in her life, she can actually choose her own path - which naturally cause great consternation in everyone around her - she's the queen's mother, for goodness sake! She should sit meekly in a castle and be unobtrusive!

Ista, fortunately, has other ideas, and embarks on a desperate forgery of a pilgrimage to the holy sites of the Five Gods, mostly in order to get the hell away from people who think they know either who she is or what she should be doing with her time. She enlists a cleric of the Bastard, the most disreputable of the gods, to be her guide, a young female courier to be her handmaid, and a small cohort of soldiers are sent to keep her out of danger.

In this world, demon possessions used to be extremely few and far between, but they're on the rise. As Ista finds out about this, she also starts having prophetic dreams that suggest that the gods aren't done with her yet, which is is very much less than happy about. Then she starts dreaming of a handsome man bleeding in a bed, and after some misadventures, is brought to a castle where he resides, in a sleep that is not natural, but which I will not explain.

The master of this castle is the son of the man who was rumoured to have been her lover, back in her very much younger days, although he was actually her husband's lover. Stories of the triangle between the three have been circulating for decades, and in true Bujold fashion, they are worked through in more thoughtful and interesting ways than you might expect.

The castle's master has a wife as young as Ista was when she was first married, and young Catilara loves her older husband with a fervour that has led her into some very tricky territory, theologically. This, of course, relates to why the other man lies sleeping.

There's an enemy on the doorstep as well, a foreign power who would kill them all merely for acknowledging the Bastard as a god, and the feints they are making look very much like the start of a larger invasion of her daughter's kingdom. So there's a lot at stake as Ista has to try to figure out how to untangle the depths of the snarl that has been created within the castle, while still protecting them all from the dangers without.

It's not done by making her a warrior all of a sudden - she isn't. But she's stronger than she knows, carrying all the experience of her years of madness and choices she made that have haunted her through all the years. It was delightful to have someone like Ista be a hero in her own right, in her own way, without trying to make her fit any usual archetypes. Since I've entered my forties myself, I appreciate the nod that adventures do not end with your twenties. And you don't always know who you are by then, either.

Friday, 7 December 2018

De Niro's Game by Rawi Hage

Unfortunately, this was another book from the CBC list of the "100 Novels That Make You Proud To Be Canadian" that I really didn't like. At this point, the tally is a few books I've liked a lot, several that were meh, and almost as many that I strongly disliked. Unfortunately, De Niro's Game was one of the latter, and I can say that whoever compiled this collection has vastly different taste from mine. I'd drop the list, but I'd like to keep some Canadian content in my reading cycle. If you know of a better list of Canadian books, send it my way!

This was a book that I pushed through to the end based on spite, wanting to write this review. And also because it was relatively short.

My problems with the book are pretty much twofold. One, there are an absolutely inordinate number of references to women's tits, for no particular reason. Also legs. Also some sexual coercion and possibly rape. And none of that was the point of the book, taken seriously by the book, it was just background noise in the lives of these young men. I get that they're young men. I get that they're horny. Just trust me that even by those standards, it was excessive, like the author worried we'd forget that they were horny, even in the middle of a war zone, if he didn't mention women's breasts or thighs every other page.

The second problem was just the writing. This was so overwritten, folks. So, so, so overwritten. Sentences that had so much unrelated imagery, it practically gave me a headache. Here's an example:

"White and red meat fell from above, pieces were cut, crushed, banged, cut again, ground, put in paper bags and handed to the women in line, women in black, with melodramatic oil-painted faces, in churchgoer submissive positions, in Halloween horrors, in cannibal hunger for crucifix flesh, in menstrual cramps of virgin saints, in castrated hermetic positions, on their knees and at the mercy of knives and illiterate butchers."

I mean...I don't even know what to do with this. I just don't.

The topic of this book is interesting, but unfortunately how it is about it is all tits, thighs, and prose that made me wince. It's unfortunate. I've been told that a friend really liked a later book by this author, so maybe Hage got it all out of his system with this one?

It's the story of two young men in wartorn Beirut. Many members of their families have been killed by shelling. The city itself has its own dangers, with the militia willing to enforce itself with guns and violence, and the young men doing no less. One, George, joins the semi-military group, the other, the narrator does not, and dreams of leaving Lebanon for France. He doesn't really do a lot to do that, though, just talks about it a lot. The two try to defraud the casino controlled by the military, that doesn't go well. Other things don't go well.

There are ways in which this could have been really compelling. There are ways that this could have engaged with paralysis in the middle of overwhelming odds. There are ways this could have talked about breasts less and still left us in no doubt that this was a young heterosexual man. But no.

This book was not for me. Many books on this particular list of Canadian novels have not been for me. Someday, I'll do my own, although I certainly don't specialize in Canadian fiction.

Wednesday, 5 December 2018

The Rift by Nina Allan

If your entire teenage years were lived in the shadow of your sister's disappearance, who would you be? What would you do? And what would you do if she came back twenty years later, telling tales about having been on another planet all that time?

This is more or less the premise of The Rift, and Nina Allan does a competent job with these ideas, although, for some reason, the book never really soared for me. It's so close, but it doesn't quite get there. I think that's because there are aspects of the story that aren't as fully explored as I'd need them to be to feel emotionally connected. There's a distance here, from the past, and from the characters, and I felt similarly held at arm's length.

So, it's good, and I think worth checking out if the premise intrigues you, but unfortunately, the comparison that kept popping unbidden into my head, was with Slaughterhouse Five and Tralfamadore, and that's not a comparison that is going to do The Rift any favours. But that a person who went to another planet (or possibly is fantasizing their way through trauma), comes back and no one believes them feels quite similar.

I guess the question is what is done with it. This is definitely a book that does not want to give you a complete answer, and I applaud the ambiguity at the end. It's something in the lead-up that didn't quite make that final ambiguity pack as large a punch as it might have otherwise. I think it may be that, in a story that should have a lot of emotional punch, it's so cerebral that this all feels like an interesting mental exercise.

But let's talk about the book a little bit more. Selena is in her thirties, working at a jewelry store, resistant to making any firm plans for her life, drifting away from a boyfriend, and avoiding doing any further training in gemology, which she would enjoy and be good at. This might be because her sister Julie disappeared when she was sixteen, and was never found again. Her father drove himself to death trying to find her. Her mother is a bit of a cipher, although we do actually spend some time with her in a couple of pivotal scenes. But again, it's at a bit of a distance. Her decisions, which should feel more intense, occupy a place that is interesting, but not emotional.

Then Julie gets in touch with Selena, and they meet, a few times, and gradually Julie tells her story to Selena, which is that she was picked up by the serial killer everyone feared killed her, but managed to escape, and slipped through a rift to another planet, Tristane. There she lived for a while, with Cally and Noel, two characters we don't get to know very well. This entire life is also at a remove - we do not get any intense scenes of her time there, just some rather mundane ones where Cally tells Julie Julie has always lived there, while Julie remembers her time on earth. There isn't any real drama between those three characters (if there was, that section might have been more vivid and allowed readers an in, but no).

The only real drama on Tristane, which otherwise seems like a perfectly pleasant planet that we don't find out that much about other than the geography, is that there was a sister planet that cut off communication some time ago. A novel was floating around claiming to be a first person account of a man who was on the sister planet with an expeditionary force that came into contact with parasites that live inside a human for quite a long time, animating their bodies, and then subsuming them. There is no recovery.

This is probably the best part of the book! It's interesting and emotional, and unfortunately, it only occupies a relatively small number of pages. So there's the fear on Tristane, or at least Julie fears, that the worms that animate your body will eventually take over Tristane again. But, doesn't happen, that we see.

(Then there's a side story about a teacher Julie flirted with who is hauled in for questioning after Julie disappears, and it is not that it isn't interesting, it's just that it's shoehorned in, and nothing much is done with it.)

So, back on Earth, there are questions about Julie's identity, about whether or not she's someone insane who has latched on to Julie's story, and about whether or not Tristane is real, or a post-traumatic reaction. And then, whether or not there are brain-eating worms on Tristane and might make their way to Earth at some point.

This is a very far away place to put the danger. It's an interesting danger, it's just not anywhere near what should be the emotional core. It's just a lot of weirdly placed attention. I like the genre switching, the integration of newspaper stories and movies with the text, but the story itself needs some serious tightening up.

Monday, 3 December 2018

The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal

InSight landed on Mars this week. It had been so long since I submitted my name (as 1.6 million people submitted theirs) to be put on a microchip that would make its way to Mars that it took me a bit, as I was watching the landing, to remember that this was why. It's not a person, it's not me, but my name is on a freaking other planet.

Because I'd just read The Calculating Stars the week before, I kept an eye on Mary Robinette Kowal's twitter feed while the landing was underway, because after reading the book, I knew that she'd be watching as avidly as I was.

What I think I'm trying to say with this is that I don't know if you could have pulled out a list of ingredients more likely to make me excited about and engaged in a book if you'd tried. Earlier race to put settlers on the Moon and Mars in the 1950s, revolving around the efforts of women to be considered as astronauts? Careful consideration of the ways in which the selection process was not only gendered but racialized? Anxiety as a fact of life for the main character, not a disability? All of this in one of the best written, most exciting and enthralling books I've read all year? In a book I really hope is on the Hugo ballot next year because it so fucking deserves to be?

Yeah, that's The Calculating Stars. And I feel like I've only scratched the surface. The book starts with a catastrophe - a meteorite hitting the water just off the East Coast of the U.S., obliterating millions and starting a chain reaction that will lead to global warming on a scale that may well make human existence on the planet untenable. The main character, Elma, was a World War II Women's Air Service Pilot (WASP). When the meteorite strikes, she and her husband are just barely in a survivable range, and only because light travels so much faster than the force blast and they have time to get to a reasonably safe location.

These chapters start the book, and they are heart-wrenching, terrifying. Kowal has done such an amazing job of bringing this to life, and Elma's grief at losing her family was so real.
The moment where Elma finally gets her brother in California on the phone, when he had thought his entire family had perished, had me in tears.

Elma is also a calculator for this version of NASA, and she and her husband get involved with trying to convince the new president (the only member of the cabinet left alive), that resources need to be put towards getting humanity off-planet, now. Because she suffers from anxiety, this is difficult, but she does it. The moment when she realizes that medication is a treatment that doesn't make her a failure was profoundly moving. I also like how perceptive Kowal is about both anxiety disorders, and the ways that specific anxieties can be created by circumstances - in Elma's case, being young and female and used as a prop by a math prof to shame the young men in college classes.

Elma is in the running to become a lady astronaut, although that's as much as a publicity stunt by NASA as anything. She and the other women take it seriously. But the book does not shy away from how this intersects with race in the 1950s. There are pointed and devastating comments on how refugee missions to the meteorite-affected zones are carried out to white areas, without perhaps conscious bias, but Black people end up just as dead as if it were done maliciously. Elma messes up herself as she meets the members of a Black Women's Flying Club, but is at least able to apologize and mend fences with some of the members - but some never forgive her, and that's their right too. White lady apologies are not a get-out-of-jail-free card.

When the requirements for the women's astronaut program go out, Elma's friends are quick to point out how they are covertly racialized, excluding women who don't have experiences that were only open to white women.

Oh, I could rave on and on. I love this book, folks. I just loved it. It made me cry, it made me happy, it made me angry, and it felt so true to this alternate version of a time and a place. There are some books that are not convincing. This one is, every moment, and I can't wait to read the next book in the series. I'd never read Mary Robinette Kowal before, but now she's on my list of authors to follow.

Friday, 30 November 2018

The Charwoman's Daughter by James Stephens

Sometimes, my lists just throw the strangest books in my lap. Mostly, if I'm pulling from one of the many editions of 1001 Books to Read Before You Die, I get why they're on the list, whether or not I like them. (I'm around 20% done with that one.)  This book, though, I am a little baffled by. It's not very long, and it feels like there's not a lot too it. As a look at poverty, it's no Ragged Trousered Philanthropists. As a slice of life in Dublin, it's no Ulysses. As a novel about the plight of women, it's...well, it's just a bit strange.

It does not help that the main character is named Mary Makebelieve.

I just did some research on the author, and it sounds like James Stephens is best known for retellings of Irish myths and legends, and frankly, I would far rather have read one of those. Unless this is supposed to also be one, but I'm not sure which myth or legend it would be. He also claimed to share a birthday with James Joyce, who was a friend of his, but he was likely wrong. In the end, I didn't mind reading this, but I didn't get it.

Mary is a sixteen year old girl. She does not seem overly prone to fabulizing, despite her name. She is not particularly educated, nor does she work. Her mother, as the title of the book indicates, is a charwoman, but frequently gets fired from her housecleaning jobs because she does not like employers who look down on her. She makes enough so that Mary doesn't have to work. While she is at work, Mary wanders the streets of Dublin, in a fairly innocent way.

That's pretty much her whole life - evenings with her mother, days looking in shop windows and at people as she promenades.

The first thing that changes is that she notices a burly policeman, which leads her to a fairly disturbing moment where she asks her mother if it is nice to be hit by a man. Which...kind of makes her a little dull - her mother is profoundly upset by the question, and I'm not sure what in Mary's life was supposed to give her the impression domestic violence was awesome.

She's innocent of sex, pretty much, but it doesn't seem due to religion, but more that her mother wants to keep her a little girl. She meets the policeman a few times in the park, but nothing much happens other than that he talks and she listens. He gets a bit more aggressive when she has to fill in for her mother cleaning and he sees her class, but that causes her to pull away, causing him to propose.

But that scene isn't that stressful either - Mary's mother leaves it up to her, she says she doesn't want to marry him, that's about it. The policeman does go and beat up the other young man he's seen her with, but that's about the end of it. Mary seems like she'll end up with the other young man, and that seems like it would be okay.

I have been saying "seems" a whole lot, and that's because we don't get much inside these characters, nor is the action particularly compelling. I'd guess it's supposed to be a slice of life in Dublin, but it's a pretty mundane one. And the writing isn't enough to propel me through - there's no engrossing prose to make this daily life mean something more.

In the end, I don't get it. I just don't.

Wednesday, 28 November 2018

The Broken Crown by Michelle West

People recommend books to me a lot. It's hard to know when or how to fit them all in! And then there's the worry I won't like a book that is very dear to a dear friend's heart. For a long time, I just avoided reading books that had been recommended to me, unless someone pushed a physical copy into my hot little hands. (This is still the fastest way to get a book to the top of my list.) So I started a new list to read of books friends recommended. If you want to get in on this, you can recommend a book on this post.

This book was recommended to me by Shawn

There are a lot of things I liked about this book. I can be seduced by sprawling fantasies (more so if they're not a quest narrative), strange lands with political intrigues, magic that is secondary to politics but not irrelevant, and interesting gender politics. The Broken Crown has that, in abundance. And yet, at the same time, I don't know if I'm running right out to get the next one. I haven't quite been convinced to add Michelle West to my list of authors I need to follow fervently. That might happen eventually, and I'm certainly happy to read more in this world, or more of her books, but I have not yet hit the point where a switch is flipped and I become evangelical.

(Oh, oh, just wait for a review next week of a book that immediately did make me evangelical. I can't wait to tell you all about it.)

I think where I did struggle a bit was that this was one of those books with such a huge sprawling cast across countries and principalities, and a few names or ways of naming each character, that it took until I was a good 500 pages in that I really felt like I had a grasp on what the everloving hell was going on. I got there eventually! But it was a bit of a slog and a lot of "who the heck was this again?" The cast of characters included at the front of the book was very much less than useful - I think everyone I tried to look up I couldn't find there.

Now having a bit better grounding of the history and sort-of the geography of this world (as good as my not-visual-thinking self will ever have), I might do better with the next book, now I know the players and the fault lines. There were times near the beginning where being a bit more straightforward would have been good.

But let's go on to what I did like. I really liked the juxtaposition of the relative powers of men and women in this largely patriarchal society, but one in which there are kinds of power, oblique though they may be, to which women have recourse. And I particularly liked the nuance West threw on to the harem - that it is the primary wife's harem. Her husband may have access, and use his other wives for whatever he wants, and that is ugly. Despite this, they are her wives, first and foremost, and the women know what that means, but the men might go their entire lives unawares of the primary emotional and sexual attachments within the harem.

The world in the north, too, seems to be more egalitarian, which pisses off those in the south to no end. So much so that some are willing to ally with demons in an attempt to further enforce the rule of the solar Lord at the expense of the Lady. The women aren't too fond of that idea, obviously, and neither are some of the southern subjects, but those in power will trade much to get more authority. It's all heading to war.

In this, there are a couple of women around who the story revolves, although they are not always present. Primarily, it is the story of Diora, the most beautiful young woman in the South, married to what is more or less the high king's son. A coup leaves her alive, but she's meant to be a pawn in the struggles for control after the royal family is all but wiped out. She's not, but the weapons at her disposal are subtle ones.

Now that I get what's going on, I am willing to go further in this world. Just maybe not right away.

Monday, 26 November 2018

The Waking Land by Callie Bates

It is a very bad mistake to have two female characters in your YA fantasy novel who are far more interesting and less whiny than your main character. I know you might think you know the story you want to tell, but if there's one that looks way better in the background, all the flaws of the foreground are going to show up rather blatantly. And that, unfortunately, is the problem there.

The problem is not the world! The world is interesting, this form of magic is interesting, the world history we find out about is interesting, and many of the minor characters are interesting! It is mostly that the main character is irritating beyond belief, holding tenaciously to views long past when she should have at least started to question them, and worse than that, many of the conflicts in this novel are the kind where they could be solved by two people sitting the fuck down and talking to each other. Just...talking to each other and saying things honestly, and if that is all that is supplying your damned tension, then there is something very, very wrong here.

This is a story of a divided and conquered land. The king in the south brought together two previously united lands, but by claiming one as the home of civilication, and the other the home of barbarism, only in need of subdual. This is colonialism, at least in part, but that's not really ever grappled with. I suppose it has most resonance with the British and Ireland, not least because of all the standing stones and the place names that sound vaguely Irish.

Elanna is the daughter of the lord in the north who tried to raise a rebellion, taken as a hostage by the king in the south. The inside cover blurb talks about how intensely devoted she is to this substitute father, but on the page, it really comes down to a relatively tepid dinner. Her allegiances more circle around how she has been taught to feel shame at her heritage and hates her parents for letting her go, than that she really loves or does more than like the king. At any rate, it's not long until he's dead, and she's on the hook for his murder, framed by the king's daughter, the new Queen, and her minions.

One of the problems is that Elanna is supposed to be around twenty here, and acts like she's twelve. She believes everything she's ever been told by the king, and nothing she's ever heard otherwise. If we had some more exposition about why she's this sheltered, particularly when her best friend is a revolutionary firebrand, that might help. As it is, it seems impossible that she's been best friends with Victoire, who as soon as the king is dead, heads out on the road to start leafleting about how corrupt the king was, his daughter will be, and the ways in which the taxes on the subjects have been misused. With all the facts at her disposal. Not once in more than ten years of friendship did Elanna ever have a remotely political discussion with her entirely political friend? Not once?

(And that's a big part of the problem - Victoire is way more interesting and intelligent, and able to see what's in front of her face, and analyze what's going on. I wanted to be with her, as she struck out on her own to foment rebellion, leaving the story for a while. It sounded far, far more fun.)

Elanna escapes and is reunited with her parents, at whom she is mad for...I'm not sure? Having let her go to be a hostage, even though Elanna well remembers how the king (whom she's supposed to love like a father, remember) put a gun to her head to force her father to give up a hostage. I mean, if we were into Stockholm Syndrome, that would be one thing, but nothing happens to make that make sense. It seems like she's had a distant life without too many fetters, or too many freedoms. Nothing that wouldn't let her talk to others and make up her own mind about things.

She goes to the north, to Caeris, and harnesses the magic she has long hidden (and wouldn't that also give her some questions about where she's lived for half her life?) to become one with the land, bringing the very rocks and trees to bear in the ensuing battle. But not before a bunch of times she decides she hates her parents and whines. (Another young woman shows up, from the tribes to the very north of Caeris, and she's more interesting than Elanna too.) Oh, of course, there's a young male magician for Elanna to swoon over, and I just...I don't mind romance, but this was so rote, while somehow thinking it was inventive.

The publisher tries to compare this to Naomi Novik's wonderful Uprooted, and I picked it up because it was recommended as a "Read-Alike" for Catherynne Valente's masterpiece, Deathless. Those are poor books to compare this to, because next to those two very assured fairy-tale-like adventures, this looks even dingier. It is another in my series of reading Read-Alikes where I am reminded, yet again, of Ebert's Law. It's not what it is about, it's how it is about it.  What The Waking Land is about is interesting. How it is about it is not.

Thursday, 22 November 2018

All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews

This book broke me apart, numerous times. Every time I read some of it, there was a turn of phrase that just flayed the skin off my bones. Once, I sat stuffing my fist into my mouth and silently screaming, because the feelings it provoked were so intense. This is probably not a book you want to read if you've recently lost someone or are dealing with the prospect of losing someone. Unless you need that process to be seen, to find your experience reflected. This book does that. I do not think I could have read it a year ago, but I'm very glad I read it now.

Look, if you'd asked me a month ago what my top book of the year was going to be, there would have been only one candidate: N.K. Jemisin's The Stone Sky. Now there are two candidates and I do not know which one I will pick.

Miriam Toews is always an amazing author, one who frequently brings me to tears, and so it is with that in mind that I say that this is the best book of hers I've read. It is so raw, so visceral, so mundane in its capturing of the strange twilight world of hospitals and of dread and of grief. There were things I recognized on a molecular level. There were aspects of it that were not part of my experience, but which she captured so clearly and so unsparingly that I ached.

I have grief in common with the narrator (and there are certain similarities to Toews' own experiences, but I am not going to psychoanalyze what is fictional and and what is not. I'm not sure it's a useful distinction here, and at any rate, it's a fool's game.)  I have had days that rotate around the hospital, around a hospital bed.

I do not have in common the experience of being with someone I love dearly when they are suicidal. I do not know what it is like to watch them try, again and again and beg you to help them by taking them to Switzerland where they could kill themselves legally and peacefully. I do not know what it is like to be so pulled between a desire for the person to stay and a desperate knowledge that they will never want to. (I mean, I know the desire for the person to stay, but every time it's been a process where nobody's wishes had anything to do with the outcome.)

Yoli, the main character, a novelist, is with her sister, Elfrieda, intermittently, through suicide attempts. So is their mother and her sister's partner. They all struggle with wanting her to live without being able to do anything to get her to want to live. And this is not a book where it's about volition or selfishness. It's not simple at all. It's desperately complex, and the knotting up of the main character over whether or not to help her sister is brutal. To be asked to do something that would remove someone you love most from the world, to be asked in the process to damage all the relationships you would be left with afterwards, if you helped a loved one die by suicide without their knowledge. I cannot see a good answer, and it is awful.

Elf's struggle to find a way to die is juxtaposed with other sudden health crises, as the world does not patiently wait for one catastrophe to resolve before another happens. And there is a similarity and yet a difference between Elf's experience in hospital and that of Yoli and Elf's aunt. The body betrays us. The mind betrays us. The world is inexorable, and what you want has so little to do with it. Except for Elf, who wants above all to die.

It is the medical professionals who treat Elfrieda like she's being selfish, who reproach her for not getting better, not her family. Yoli and Elf have already lived through the suicide of their father, they know the terrain. Yoli's mother weathers all these losses, and one of her daughters trying desperately to leave the world, and it hurts.

It is how clear and how direct Toews' prose is that makes this devastating. It isn't flowery, it isn't trying to make this more tragic by piling on poignant details. It relies on little observations, the ways in which real life continues, in which the world is what the world is, the way the times when you are not at the hospital coexist with the times that you are. And every one of those observations is a knife that cuts.

Near the end, Yoli talks about her mother moving to live with her in Toronto, and there's a line about three women circling the wagons and coping with their dead, and I lost it. I'd lost it before, but this line cut right through everything in the world, all the grief I'd been able to carry more lightly, and made me want my sisters, made me want the women of my family and our partners, and to have us all together. We've been together, online, but I wanted so strongly to have them here, right now.

And then, of course, there's watching the Blue Jays as a grieving technique, and I know that so intimately as well. So much of this resonated, despite the different circumstances. I have rarely read a book this powerful. I don't know that my heart could take reading a novel like this often, so that might be a good thing. It is so good, and so painful.

Tuesday, 20 November 2018

Nora Webster by Colm Toibin

When you lose someone central to your life, who you are changes. It's not on purpose, not precisely, and it's not to suggest that you deformed your life around that person, but there is a truth that the people you are around do have an influence on what you do, and where you go, and who you are. It's not necessarily negative, it's just life. It's part of being part of a family  When they are gone, it's not that you flower or blossom, it's that the way you grow is going to be fundamentally different from the way you would have were they still there.

That's where we are with Nora Webster, the eponymous character in Colm Toibin's novel. Living in Ireland in the late 1960s, right around the start of The Troubles, she is a mother of four, none of them very small children, who has recently lost her husband. We only meet him through her memories of him, and one encounter that was either a dream or a ghost.

This is not a book fully of overflowing emotion and grief. It is a smaller, quieter grief, a numbness that doesn't ever entirely go away, even though Nora gradually gets to a point where it is less on her mind. Her husband died in an illness that took a few weeks, but no more. She doesn't angst over it, but that doesn't mean it doesn't cause her pain. She doesn't want to go back to the cottage they spent happy summers in, so she sells it. She doesn't agonize over it, she just does it. More on her mind is the judgement she might face from family and neighbours over disposing of the property.

We quietly go with Nora as she faces her new life - getting a job, or rather, getting back an old job, with a supervisor who hates her, working for people she went to school with, who do not know how to approach her. We see as she gradually enlarges her social circle, as well as seeing her discomfort around her own sisters, and greater comfort around her in-laws, who were there as her husband was dying, and with whom she shares the knowledge that they all know all there is to be said about that.

Her older daughters are already away from home at school and college, and figuring out what their own lives look like, while her two sons are younger, although still old enough to be left on their own if necessary. There are no stereotypical struggles here. These relationships are not always easy, but they are not always hard, either.

Nora is invited out to help score a trivia night in a nearby town, and through that, is invited to both a music appreciation society that her husband would have scoffed at, and singing lessons. She finds both difficult and satisfying, and again, I like it about the book that everything is quietly complex. Not emotionally or disproportionately difficult, but just a little bit complicated.

We also get the ways in which women in this world navigate the people around them, and how that differs from men. Everyone seems to go through a local nun, for one, if they need something communicated that, for whatever reason, they can't say themselves. Then there are divisions of class power that govern relationships, and far away, are the start of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, protests in support of which Nora's younger daughter gets involved.

This is one of those slice of life books, but it's a very particular life, in a very particular moment. It made me think about my mother, and her experiences after my father died. I think there was more obvious emotion there, but there were all the small moments that were her figuring out what her life was going to look like without my father, and although my parents had complemented each other amazingly, there were things she could then do that were not what she would have done before, and were part of her figuring out her new day-to-day. It's not an easy process, but it goes on all the time, and it's not something we think about.

Friday, 16 November 2018

Robopocalypse by Daniel H. Wilson

If I really liked Charlie Jane Anders' take on the emergence of artificial intelligence, alas, the same cannot be said for Daniel H. Wilson's Robopocalypse. I wanted to like this, really I did. I was hoping to include it in a proposed theme for my SF/F book club of science fiction and fantasy written by Indigenous authors. And while there are a lot of interesting Native characters here, unfortunately, the book itself just wasn't that good, and had a few major problems that drove me bonkers.

I mean, this book and I got off on the wrong foot right away. (I almost wrote wrong foot right off the bat, but that was a little too mixed-metaphor.) I am not fond of AHHHH KILLER AI!!! books. I don't ask that all AIs be benevolent, but I do like a less extreme view than THE ROBOTS ARE COMING TO KILL US ALL.  It feels a little lazy. And a lot extreme.

But really, my main problem is that Wilson sets up a central conceit for the format of the novel, and then breaks it, repeatedly, in very distracting ways. It doesn't work, and if the format means you can't tell the story the way you thought you were going to without throwing in stuff that could not be known at the time by the people who knew it, then throw that format out the damn window and find something else. Experiments in form are great. When they hamstring and undercut your story? Not so much.

So what is the format? Well, we begin at the end - we know, from the first chapter, that humans have just defeated the master AI, known as Big Rob. This is also just a weirdly disconcerting name, but I'll let that one pass. It was a long and gruesome war, but we won. (Which does interesting things to the narrative, but it does undercut tension, which, given that this is more a thriller than anything else, is kind of a strange choice.)

Last out of the hole in Alaska that the humans just bombed the shit out of is a black box, with footage of most of the robot war. So the rest of the book is the narrator narrating what he sees on the black box, sometimes supplemented with his own recollections of these events. It's a neat conceit, doesn't work.

It doesn't work because these characters often seem to have knowledge they cannot have had, and for no good reason. It doesn't work because while sometimes Caleb (I think that's his name, I'm not that sure), the narrator, just tells what he sees, more often as the book goes on, we're inside the heads of humans and robots, hearing things in the first person, in a way that is not possible given the central conceit of the book. If this had just been a collection of narrators, that would have been fine. Trying to shoehorn them into this structure caused more confusion and annoyance than it added sophistication.

Take, for instance, Paul. Paul is Lakota and a soldier of the United States in Afghanistan. He operates a mobile unit that interacts with the Afghani population, and so sees the moment when the robot is infected with the AI's virus and turns violently on the people among which it's supposed to live. We see Paul's congressional hearing into the incident, and that all works fine. Then he returns to Afghanistan, and is there when communication between humans is cut off, and survives by allying with Afghani hill fighters, taking out the robots from a distance and triangulating their sources. While he might hear the broadcast that comes from England that tells the world about Big Rob, it doesn't make sense for him to then have the level of knowledge about the AI, its location from what we see him able to do, and it doesn't make sense for us to be in his head.

Because he and his closest ally manage to triangulate where the strongest signal coming to the local robots is coming from, which is Alaska, and it would be fine if he just broadcast that - strong signal, going to all robots, don't know what it is. But for some reason, the author has decided to have him broadcast far more information that he has no way of knowing and is actually irrelevant. Let the people in Alaska put two or three pieces together themselves. There's no reason this guy who hasn't had contact with anyone but a few fighters for months to be the strategic commander when there is no back and forth.

And then later, we get sloppier. A robot who is not under control of Big Rob (god, I hate that as a name for the AI. The one it gives itself, Archos, is at least not irritating), joins a human contingent. He says, he says, when he joins that he found out where they were from the human girl named Maria who can interface with the robots. But then, one chapter later, someone introduces him to Maria and he and Maria both make nice, and there's no evidence he ever knew about her. I started to flip back and forth to make sure I wasn't losing my mind, but nope! It's a bad editing mistake.

There are a few good things in here - Maria's story is interesting, although the recounting of her mother's final hours is marred by the same issues, coming from a first-person perspective that a person watching satellite or video footage could not have known. The humans are remarkably willing to accept other humans who have been altered by the robots to include robot parts, and to accept the free robots who join them later. I like the sense that not everything would become xenophobic, but given the rest of the world that Wilson has posited, I'm not sure I buy it. I bought it in Charlie Jane Anders, because that was the world she'd created, and I loved it. I don't buy it here, because it feels incongruous, or at least in need of further explanation than it gets.

I'm disappointed. I wanted to really like this book, but I was far more frustrated by the inconsistencies and overall feel than anything else. I mean, this book drove me to italics. What else do you need to know?

Wednesday, 14 November 2018

All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders

I read two books around the same time that had, as part of the plot, the emergence of an AI. I have to say, I must prefer this one to the other - you'll see in a couple of days why. It's by no means as big a part of this book as it was the other, but this was a much more measured and hopeful book, and so it may be no surprise that I enjoyed that quite a lot. Honestly, this was just a great read, and I can't wait to read more of Charlie Jane Anders' stuff. I can see why this was on so many award short lists for SF/F last year, and why it won the Nebula. So I'm particularly grateful that made it one of their book club picks, which meant I was able to move it to the top of my list!

First, let's talk about the writing style. It isn't ornate, and doesn't really draw attention to itself, but as soon as I started reading, Anders' authorial voice immediately made me feel comfortable, like I was entering a conversation with an old friend. I'm trying to think if there's another style it reminds me of, but I'm not sure. It just felt immediately familiar and cozy, and that feeling pulled me through the whole book.

The story is one of a war between science and magic, fought on in a world very like our own, although perhaps a step or two (or not!) closer to climate catastrophe. But before that happens, we spend quite a lot of time with Patricia and Lawrence as children, when they each first discover what will become their lifetimes of endeavour. Patricia, in trying to help animals get away from her psychopathic sister, finds a magic tree that speaks to her, and a Parliament of Birds, but has trouble recapturing it. Lawrence, with parents who want him to never make waves, makes a small time machine that can jump him forward five seconds, allowing him not to get too bored. He also creates the seed of an AI in his closet.

The two bond, becoming friends, although Patricia's magic weirds Lawrence out enough that he distances himself from her. She talks to the AI as well, and Lawrence and Patricia find that they're the only two who understand each other. (They're also being stalked by an assassin under strict orders not to assassinate children, but who is willing to try to break that in order to avert a coming war between science and magic with the potential to destroy the world.)

At a certain point, Patricia goes off to magic school, and Lawrence is able to get into a math-and-science school, and they lose track of each other, each developing their skills. As adults, they run into each other again, Lawrence working for a think tank that pretty much presumes the eventual demise of the planet, and is working to save at least a few people from the death throes. (But doesn't think about the animals.)  Patricia is doing small magicks and being constantly advised against aggrandizement by her fellow magicians. (And there are two schools of magic, which intertwine, which I found interesting.)

They become friends again, and various things happen. Patricia pulls Lawrence's fat out of the fire when one of his inventions yanks one of his coworkers and willing guinea pig out of our reality and into some other space. He's dating someone else, but it always feels like a trick that he's not quite pulling off. Patricia heals the sick and turns the wicked into various animals or other things, and goes to meetings where she always feels like people are ganging up on her for committing a crime she doesn't even understand.

Yet again, these two become the only two to understand each other, and what that means when they are suddenly at war I'll leave you to find out, except to say that I found it all immensely satisfying. There's a real sweetness and warmth to this book, a glowing humanity that permeates a world on the brink of collapse. When we presume the world is going to end, do we help to cause it? And how do we treat the people we see as their opposites? And how does the AI come back into it?

For me, this book was all about the journey and the characters and the prose that felt like home.

Wednesday, 7 November 2018

Hild by Nicola Griffiths

I remember reading another review of this book, years ago, probably not long after it came out. That reviewer found the prose almost unendurably turgid, and I remember reading the sample she'd given and shuddering in agreement. Still, when Hild popped up on one of my lists, I still figured I'd give it a chance, although I was ready to give it up more quickly than I might in other circumstances. When I sat down to read it, though, I found that I had little trouble sinking into the prose and reading. It was just difficult enough that I never lost awareness that I was reading, but not so difficult that I tossed the book aside.

This is going to be a review of damning with faint praise, I'm afraid. This book was better written than I was expecting, but what got me was the plot. This book took an awfully long time to get where it was going, and I'm still not sure it knows. It read to me a lot like an author writing to find out, writing around her topic to flesh out the world for herself, doing the work on the page that authors frequently do in their heads, to make the world pop into life.

Unfortunately, all those long sections that don't seem to be there for any real purpose other than to explore some other small piece of medical life are all in this book, and this is a long book. It's not that she's wrong about anything - the research, as far as I can tell, was very well done. And it's exhaustive.

And it is all, all, on the page. On many pages. On page after page after page. It's hard to ding a book for completeness, but oh my goodness, there were so many sections here that felt like they weren't necessary in the final product, as necessary as they might have been for the author to root herself in the setting. It takes so long to get anywhere, and while it's hard to pick out quite which moments could have been trimmed away, it does feel like this could have been so much shorter.

If what you want to read is a very slow trek through medieval life if you're part of a royal family, in a world where who is in power changes frequently, and go with agonizing detail through the years of young Hild's life, in the years before she founds a sanctuary and becomes St. Hilda, before she becomes Christian, when she's seen as a prophet to the king, and grows tall and learns to fight, and card wool, and spin wool, and travel with the retinue, and endure all the politicking of twenty years in minute detail...well, that's what this book is.

It's not terrible. It's just too much, like the author couldn't tell the difference between what was important and what wasn't, and so presents absolutely everything like it's the same level of urgent. There's no real sense of forward momentum of the plot, no sense that we're driving towards anything, because it's all moment to moment, and even in Hild's life, it's hard to tell which thing is most important to her. We know all the things that are important, but even those seem to have such an even distribution of interest and passion that it's hard to parse them out.

I'm good with complex. I am. I like meandering. But this story doesn't seem to know what it is, and where it ends up, there's never a moment where it feels like anyone was in any real danger, even though Hild as a character certainly thinks that there is danger around every corner. But the story is weighted down by so many details that her urgency doesn't come across on the page.  I made it through the more than 700 pages. I didn't hate it while I read it. But I have no interest in finding out what happens on every day after to Hild, not if every day is given the same attention they get here.

Friday, 2 November 2018

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

Whenever I sit down to read the book that appeared on the most Top Ten and Best of lists of the previous year, I am a little unsure whether or not knowing the hype will harm my experience of the book. It's certainly been the case that sometimes my expectations have been sky-high, and the book merely competent. While that might have been a delightful surprise if I'd happened upon the book by accident, when bearing all the weight of the accolades, it ends up being disappointing instead.  I'm very glad to say that that is not what happened with Lincoln in the Bardo.

It took me a little bit to get into it, which is no surprise, given how experimental the book is in many ways. It is all told through voices, but not presented as lines in a play, but more like long quotes that are popped out from a text, with the speaker noted beneath. Indeed, this is introduced with snippets from histories of Lincoln's administration. I was never entirely clear on whether or not all these snippets were real or fictional, but it didn't matter to me while I was reading, as I grasped what Saunders was doing.

What we get through these historical snippets is a widely varied account of the days leading up to the days of Lincoln's son, or of Lincoln himself, They disagree on nearly every point, leading to a cacophony of opinion on the man and the events around his son's death. This is unsettling, in a very good way that destabilizes the notion of an objective account.

Then we flip to interspersed chapters in the graveyard where Willie Lincoln has been laid to, well, not quite rest. While most people who are dead disappear quickly, there are those who have not relinquished their hold on the material world, who, indeed, seem often not to realize that they are dead, because the act of realizing that would be the start of a movement away from the world, and they cling to something about what they were so strongly they will not be moved. Not right away, anyway.

These sections look very similar to the historical snippets, and for some reason, once I recognized the form of this book was going to take, it was like the whole thing clicked into place, bam, and I was in. We hadn't even gotten to most of the themes, but it didn't matter. It was that incredible feeling you get sometimes when you're reading a story or watching a movie, and this utter certainty that the creator knows what they're doing and will in no way fuck this up settles over you. It doesn't happen often. (These are often difficult stories! It's not about content, it's about this strange feeling I get sometimes that this storyteller will lead me through these events just perfectly.)

From here, the book is about grief, about shock, about the difficulties these shades have in giving up their lives. (One keeps referring to coffins as sick-beds, and other euphemisms to disguise the fact he died many years before.) In the process, they are no longer whole beings, whittled down to an idee fixe that is keeping them tied to the ground of the cemetery. Willie, being a child, should have left right away, but does not. This is partly because his father keeps coming to visit him, and even pulls the child's body from the coffin in the mausoleum to cradle him, thus shocking and impressing the ghosts.  The long-term ghosts have incorporeal bodies that are distorted to reflect what they have become, exaggerated features that evoke both obsession, and, in some strange way, the way our memories of the dead get shaped by the years.

Willie is in danger of being enclosed in some ethereal stone, trapped, and the ghosts try to free him. At the same time, we get glimpses of the Civil War, and the racism that attends even the dead, with the separate burial ground for Black men and women, and the ways in which prejudices do not disappear. In many ways, to speak no ill of the dead is to do them a disservice in all their complexity.

We also have elements of the Tibetan Bardo, as the spirits are bombarded by voices, pulled by winds, tempted to go beyond by voices that are likely not those of their loved ones. Some succumb, no one knows what waits after, and with one exception, none have the faith to make that move. (The one who has faith also has knowledge and is terrified of what lies beyond.)

Lincoln in the Bardo is such a weird and wonderful book, and I was completely engrossed the entire time I was reading it. There's so much here, so much complexity, that I will want to read it again at some point. And then possibly again.

Thursday, 1 November 2018

Updraft by Fran Wilde

Okay, if you don't need to know a lot about how societies got the way they are, or more specifically, if you need to go further back to get to the whole underlying structure of the society, and need to know if this is an evolution of some form of our world or an entirely fantasy setting, then this might not be the book for you. If you're okay with fiction that will never really tell you why people came to live the way they do that is drastically different from everything we know, then...this book is pretty good. It's solid mostly-YA, about a young person finding that they are assigned to a place in society they hate, and in bucking that, starting to tear down the entire structure and exposing long-hidden inequities that adults just don't perceive or do anything about.

I wouldn't say that Updraft transcends those YA dystopian tropes, but the world Wilde has created is very interesting, if ultimately unexplained. It's partly because it's so interesting that that lack of information is so frustrating. I'd like to understand, and maybe in later books, if there are to be any, we'll get to see below the cloud line. (Also, permanent clouds? Hmm.)

Because when we're with these characters, we live far above the cloud line. Not a person living, not for many many generations, has seen the land below. They live in bone spires, but despite the part where it seems like they live in a skeleton, the bones continue to grow. The people were fleeing something below the clouds when they came up here to live, but we don't know what. We also don't know why these bare bones act like bare bones don't generally, at least in our world. By the end of the book, we will be no more enlightened. There are also invisible monsters that act like toothed rips in the sky, than can kill quickly and ferociously.

People fly from Spire to Spire, or at least traders do, and others if they pass the necessary tests. The Spires used to be politically fractured and are knit back together by the traders and by the work of the Singers, who administer the law, which is very binding in some areas, including keeping shutters closed. Disobedience can be punished immediately and punitively, attached laws as weights to the arms of the people that would keep them from flying. Or might cause them to plummet to their unseen deaths.

The main character is Kirit, the daughter of a trader. She is only days from taking her flying tests. Her mother is away visiting other towers, making trades that are seen to knit the society together, when Kirit breaks a law, and she and one of her dearest friends are held responsible. While carrying out their punishment of cleaning the lower levels of her Spire, they are given some old bone chips that might have belonged to her friend's father, who was sentenced to death many years previously. They look like they might describe the bone that holds the Singers.

We go through the testing, the consequences Kirit doesn't expect, then follow her as she joins the Singers later than most do, and as she learns about their world and whether or not she agrees with it. (I'd spoiler alert here, but I feel like you can draw your own conclusions.) She discovers many of the hidden depths of the Singers' home bone, but still not really anything about the basic makeup of her world, just more how the current social order came to be.

So, overall, this is perfectly adequate, but it doesn't feel like it's doing much to stretch beyond the conventions of the YA dystopia. The world is certainly interesting and intriguing as hell. That's about as much as we get about it, although Goodreads does label this as Book 1. Presumably there will be more books in the future to explain the sky, the constant clouds, and how these giants bones keep growing unconnected to any sort of skin or body that we can see.

Monday, 29 October 2018

Children of Earth and Sky by Guy Gavriel Kay

Guy Gavriel Kay writes marvellously. That can be pretty much taken as a given. He's one of the few authors where I think I've actually read all his extant novels. So then it becomes less a question of "is this a good book?" than "how does this stack up against his other books." He's created his own style in such a way that I have few good comparisons other than to his other work. No one else writes quite like this - almost historical fiction, but not. Taking religious and magical beliefs seriously and as written when going into a certain time period and location of the world. I love that he does it.

Which means that when it comes to Children of Earth and Sky, I'm asking myself how it stacks up. It is in the same general part of the world as the Sarantine Mosaic, or not that far off, and the fall of Sarantium happened within living memory. Those are not his favourite books of mine. While they have moments as crystalline and perfect as any he's written, on the whole, I haven't found them as compelling as, say, the couple he's written in his not-China over the past few years.

However, while I'm not sure this ranks up there with my very, very favourite of Kay's works, it's really very good, and I was always thoroughly engaged while reading it. I am a fan of the way he's been playing with authorship and history, different ways of recounting and remembering events in many of his recent books, and he's at it again here, but it's subtle in a way that I really appreciated. There are a few times we see the same event through different eyes, and the accounts are different, the words one person remembers speaking not quite the same as the words another person remembers hearing. It's not overdone, but brings an interesting sense of Brechtian alienation to the narrative, calling to attention the subjective nature of the novel and the narrator as the story unfolds.

Where are we in this version of not-quite-our-world?  Well, we're partially in not-Venice and not-what-will-become-Croatia, and this world's analogue of real, historical pirates from Croatia who started out attacking Muslim ships in the Adriatic, but also weren't above going after Christian ships as well, particularly from those cities that traded freely without worrying about religious affiliation. We also visit the home of the not-Ottoman Empire in the time after the conquest of Sarantium, when an artist from not-Venice is sent to paint a picture of the Emperor in the not-Venetian style.

(I honestly don't know whether or not to dump all the book names on you, or keep referring to them as not-whatevers, because this is so strongly but not entirely rooted in the history and geography of the time period.)

As is fairly common in a Kay book, we are in and among a large group of characters - a Seressinian painter on the way to the Ottoman Empire. A young woman posing as a doctor's wife who is actually a spy for Seressa. A merchant son from not-Croatia (I just don't remember the name of the top of my head.) Another young woman, the first ever to sail with the Senjan raiders. Others, who interweave with them. The young woman from Senjan has the ghost of her grandfather in her head, and that is not metaphorical or illness.

These people all come together first on the ship of the merchant son, when it is attacked by Senjani raiders. Things go very wrong, very quickly, and then action is arrested, twice, by unexpected developments. When it is over, all four travel with others to the merchant son's city, to find out what happens when their worlds are upended.

Oh goodness, how much more of the plot do I want to go into? These paths diverge and converge, there are machinations galore, there are moments of affection and moments of duty and moments where one makes the other impossible. There are really great bits, and as a whole, this is a very strong book. Perhaps not quite reaching the lofty heights of Under Heaven, which is still my favourite of Kay's recent works. But it was well worth reading this new chapter in his not-Our World.

Monday, 22 October 2018

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

It has been a few weeks since I finished The Goldfinch, and that is not going to help in this review. I sat down and wrote a review yesterday in which the length of time was no issue, but I'm finding that this particular book is fading in my mind. That's what happens when you go on vacation with five book reviews backed up, and no real drive to write them instead of visiting friends and relaxing and doing some cross-stitching. Some books stay vivid, some start to fade.

The thing is, I enjoyed every minute of The Goldfinch while I was reading it, yet when I wasn't and had time to think about it, the less and less I felt like I liked it. The writing is good, and enjoyable, but when you stop and ruminate, not that much happens, or at least, not that much in which the main character is actually involved. And this is a huge doorstop of a book. Good writing is great, but as far as plot and character go, it gets a little rockier.

Does that make it like certain paintings? Great up close, but not so great from a distance? Or am I reaching for a metaphor to suit the plot?

This is another Donna Tartt book about the world of the rich, or rather, the outsider in the world of the rich, who is there, but not of, who doesn't have a lot of money, who is desperate to stay there, but keenly aware of the vulnerability of his position. She's good at this, and it's interesting. But it also feels a bit repetitive.

The main character is in his early teens when his mother dies in a terrorist attack on a museum of art in New York City. (I haven't retained the name of which museum.)  He was there too, and woke up after the explosions to find a world of bodies and dust, where an old man was dying. He shared the last moments of that man's life, gave him water, and was given a painting that apparently the old man had taken off the wall. Before the explosion, presumably, because he didn't seem able to move afterwards.

As Theo learns to live without his mother, first with the wealthy family of a school friend, then with his con artist/gambler dad and dad's girlfriend. He makes a friend in Las Vegas, a Russian boy  named Boris, with an abusive, mostly-absent father, and they do a lot of drugs together. Actually, after this point, you can pretty much just assume that Theo is probably doing a lot of drugs. Then his father dies, and he runs away from home so he can't be placed in the foster care system.

He makes his way back to New York City, a place that is practically a character here, and eventually, to the home and shop and workshop of the business partner of the old man who gave him the Goldfinch painting that he's been hiding since the attacks that killed his mother. The business partner is terrible at business, a kind, gentle man who makes and restores beautiful furniture. Theo lives with him, eating his heart out about the granddaughter of the dead old man, who was also present in the museum at the time of the explosions. She and Theo are both scarred mentally, but she also carries physical scars.

Theo also reintegrates into the sphere of the wealthy family he stayed with in the immediate aftermath of his mother's death, putting him closer to the world of the wealthy, while always feeling slightly insecure himself. And this is all interesting, really it is, but it's all wrapped in a bookend of an art heist gone wrong, of big things happening happen, but Theo doesn't have much to do with them. In a meditative tome on loss and insecurity and trauma, do the parts with guns really add much? I mean, they do bring Boris back in, and he's an interesting character, but overall I'm not convinced they add to the narrative, which may point to there being something off about how it is structured.

This book is made up of very short chapters, but it doesn't move quickly. It lingers, and the lingering could work, I think, does work in some ways. But the juxtaposition with blood and guns doesn't do the book any favours. It's such a small part of the narrative, so little of what's going on, and when the ending does arrive, it's not as satisfying as the process of reading was.