Friday, 14 April 2017

Bone and Bread by Saleema Nawaz

I have to admit, I struggled with this book. When I first picked it up, the writing style intruded itself too much on my notice, particularly when Nawaz stacked similes, giving us several options for what something was like at a time. Then I put it down for a while, and as often happens, when I came back, the writing had faded into the background (I only find it tends to continue to intrude when it is really REALLY bad.)

From there, I started liking the book a lot more. It's not an easy read, as we deal with two young women who lose both their parents, deal with the teenage pregnancy of one of them and anorexia of the other, culminating in the sister who struggled with anorexia dying of a heart attack in her thirties. (This isn't a spoiler, it's in the first chapter or so.)

It's a lot to deal with, and it's not unrealistic, but once emotions start to run high, after the two sisters are on their own, they just keep...running so high. High verging into shrill. There really aren't leavening moments of the two of them dealing with each other with kindness or compassion. There's no question they love each other, but it's such heightened emotion and fear and pain all the time, and I don't know. It's perhaps not unrealistic, but goddamn is it tiring.

Then we get into the part of the book where Beena, the surviving sister, starts treating her sister Sadhana's heart attack like a goddamned murder mystery, and I started to lose all patience. Let me qualify that. I entirely believe that, enshrouded in grief and guilt, she wants to find a reason for her sister's death. I don't have a real problem with her reacting that way. I do have a problem that everyone else seems to find that totally logical! She keeps saying to people "heart attacks don't just happen" - that someone must have scared her sister or angered her sister, brought on the heart attack. AND EVERYONE SEEMS TO AGREE WITH HER!

You need a counterpoint, a voice of sanity somewhere in this to say "you know what? Heart attacks sometimes do just happen. Particularly when there's a clear record of her having a weak heart." Somewhere, please god.

But then, it's worse, because not only do Beena and all the other characters seem to believe this, the author seems to as well, because by the end of the book, by damn, we find out who caused the heart attack, because heart attacks don't just happen.

Add that to Beena's irrational belief that her son's father is none of her son's business, and her overreaction every time her son is interested in finding out more about him. This is after a decade and a half of her she never telling her son what happened, but somehow just expecting that shrieking at him that it's none of his business should be good enough. Again, I know some people would have that kind of reaction, but Beena's the viewpoint character, and she's just kind of...unpleasant. We have people telling us she's a nice person - her son, anyway, and the guy she's been dating for a while, but really, there's very little evidence of her being someone you'd want to spend any time around.

There's evidence she loves her family, and would take care of them, and has, but she wields that like an edged weapon and lashes out, and man, I do not demand that main characters be entirely likeable, but there were plenty of times I found it actively uncomfortable and anxiety-provoking to be in her head.

Which maybe is what the author is going for, but what the book ended up making me want to do was set up strong boundaries and set it calmly down.

Wednesday, 12 April 2017

number9dream by David Mitchell

*Minor Spoilers Below*

I can smugly say that at this moment, I've read all of David Mitchell's novels there are. That is, except for the one I'll never get to read because it's part of this ridiculous novels-for-the-future project, which frustrates me with every part of my being, because I can't truly understand what possible benefit it endows to have books first read 100 years from now. No way that they're hurt by being read before now. I mean, they'll probably be hilarious in unintentional ways, as the world will have moved on, and maybe still good enough to stand the test of time, but as a voracious reader, the idea that those books are written and I will never read them, unless I believe in reincarnation or that immortality is coming far sooner than the best guesses? It makes me very stressed out and angry.

I mean, fuck your voracious fans of the present, right?

I think I have to go away and calm down for a second.

Okay, I've had lunch. I don't think this is any less of a bad idea, but let's get back to number9dream, the last book I had to read before I'd read all of Mitchell's books. I am a huge fan of his works, particularly as it becomes more and more obvious how they intertwine. With that said, it's interesting to go back to an earlier book where that idea is I think still there, but definitely in an earlier stage. We see here the playing with genre, although perhaps less obviously as in some of his other works. We see how stories interweave. And in this one, we get a rather enjoyable weaving between "reality" and many different kinds of dreams, from fantasies, daydreams, nightmares, fiction, memories, etc. I could go back and taxonomize them all, but you get the general idea.

We are with Eiji Miyake, who has recently come to Tokyo to find his father, whom he has never met. His mother was an abandoned mistress when she became pregnant with twins. She left Eiji and his twin sister Anju with their grandmother and likewise deserted them. Having lost Anju as well, Eiji is cast adrift, searching desperately for the father whose finding he thinks would ground him.

We watch him storm in in a cyberpunk montage, and encounter the much more mundane repulsion by his father's legal wife. We read memories of the past, nightmares of the present, and possibilities of the future. Dreaming is woven through as Eiji is drawn accidentally into a Yakuza power struggle. (At least, I'm pretty sure that all actually happens, but there are moments of the book when I wasn't entirely positive.)

I really enjoyed the shifting genres, as well as the little symbols that separated sections and challenged me to try to put  name to different kinds of dreams, as well as the black diamond of reality. I have also read a number of books recently where a young man is determined that finding his father will answer all his questions - it is heartening that this was one book where the young man realized that it was perhaps not his father but his mother that held the promise of a renewed relationship. Most of the other books have had the father as the be-all and end-all.

I have no idea how accurately this depicts Tokyo, but I enjoyed this fictionalized version. But if there were connections to Mitchell's other books, I wasn't putting them together. (Maybe to Ghostwritten?)

Monday, 10 April 2017

Shadow of the Torturer by Gene Wolfe

I'm already a little ways into the second book, The Claw of the Conciliator, as I got the two volumes as part of an omnibus for last month's Tor.com book club. I had never read any Gene Wolfe before, but I'd seen his name come up repeatedly on the list of Hugo nominees in the past, the full list of which I'm still trying to work my way through. (I think I'm up to 46%!)

I think I sort of knew that it was an odd blend of science fiction and fantasy, if you look at it from the perspective of an era far in the future well in decline, with the scientific artifacts of a spacefaring society acting almost as magic for the people who have long ago come to see them as immutable facts of life and not as discoveries.

So, one book in, and where do I stand? I want to go on and read more - not because the first book filled me with enthusiasm and adoration, but rather because it was stand-offish without being downright rude. It didn't let me into its secrets or the stories behind the stories, keeping me at less than the level of knowledge of the main character, but it wasn't so opaque that it began to grate.

But still, the book is less than forthcoming. And weirdly paced. And kind of short, despite its length. A lot like the beginning of a story, but definitely not anything like an end. You might be able to make an argument for the middle. (Literally - the story just truncated in the middle of a scene with no real sense of rising action over the preceding pages, and certainly no denouement or resolution. It feels, in fact, like one book was hacksawed in two rather haphazardly, and no effort was made to alter the narrative structure so it fit two books instead of one. And yet, there are weird issues with the beginning as well.

(If I make typing mistakes, my old kitty is nuzzling one of my hands as I type, and occasionally resting her head on my fingers for prolonged periods.)

This is the story of Severian, the titular Torturer, from his early life being brought up in the guild of the torturers, his expulsion from them, and the start of his journey outside the city, but certainly not the journey in full. The prose is full of vaguely-archaic phrases used mostly to denote high science vestiges on this world (probably still Earth, although spelled Urth?). The city is ruled by an Autarch, but other than that that's the guy who is in control, we're not really given an in into the larger political structure of the world. We get what Severian chooses to think about as he's narrating, but growing up there, you'd expect him to know more than what crosses the story, so we know less than he does. It seems vaguely feudal with large doses of medieval guilds.

In the first few chapters, while returning to the guild of the Torturers after an illicit swimming trip, he comes across Vodalus in the cemetery and saves him from betrayal. If you ask "who's Vodalus?," you'd be in exactly the same position as I was when this happens. And then when Severian steps forward and professes his loyalty as a Vodalarian, willing to betray his guild and larger political structure, that means...well, it means very little. I'd need to know who Vodalus is and what he's doing and what he stands for for this to make sense. By slightly into the second book, I kind of know, but not really. I'm not thrilled with the choice to not let the reader into the world.

I get that Wolfe is trying to immerse us in something and leave us at sea. I even get that he wants his readers to only slowly realize that for all the trappings, this is not high fantasy, and the magic portals are teleportation of some sort, that some of the torturers' guild machinery uses radiation, etc., etc. I'm willing to put up with it for a bit longer, but not letting readers know what's going on is a trick that I am never fond of.

We then see Severian in his training, and his first betrayal of the guild, and how he is exiled to go and serve a far-off city. We begin to get peeks of how huge this city is, and how different this world is. But about a third of the book is taken up with his travels to the city walls, not even outside them, and I start feeling a little like I'm in a George R.R. Martin story, wondering if anyone is ever going to arrive anywhere. He meets a couple more buxom women on the way who try to seduce him and/or kill him, and the mystery behind one of them is interesting, but the bare bones of it easy to figure out. Not how it was done, but who she really is.

Of course, that interesting story of Dorcas is not, so far, followed up with at all. She just becomes part of Severian's story and puts all her needs and wants at his disposal. All the women are kind of props aimed at occupying various niches of Severian's tale.

But there's something here. I'm interested enough to see where it's going, but this is not a book to go to if you like something tightly plotted or in any kind of real narrative structure. Once I've finished the second, I'll report back if the structural problems are fixed (i.e. If it really were one novel broken into two, which I'm sure I could just look up) or what else might be going on.

Friday, 7 April 2017

Furiously Happy by Jenny Lawson

If you put Jenny Lawson in a cage match up against Dostoyevsky, Dostoyevsky is going down! I don't say that just because he's dead and isn't in any shape to fight, although that is undoubtedly the case. No, I speak from experience.

To wit: I had Furiously Happy and The Brothers Karamazov on the corner of my desk for most of the past month. Every lunch time, I'd get up and have to decide anew which one I would read that day. Would I be virtuous and continue slogging my way through a 900-page book in which I was on page 500 and the murder referenced on the back cover hadn't even happened yet? Or would I give in to the book that I wanted to read, that didn't tax my wrists with its sheer weight, that made me laugh out loud so hard every lunch I'm sure most of the people in the building complex where I work think I'm missing a few marbles?

I'll let you guess which one won.

I finished Furiously Happy quite happily and consigned The Brothers Karamazov back to the library, uncompleted. I don't know who did it. I only vaguely even know what "it" is. Move over, Russian classics! There's another book in town. And this one has a delighted taxidermied raccoon on the cover. I'd like to see you do that, Dostoyevsky!

(I should also state that while I was reading this, I'd loaned my copy of Let's Pretend This Never Happened to a coworker, and she came in every morning telling me which hilarious bit she'd read the evening before.)

Furiously Happy feels more personal, even, than Let's Pretend This Never Happened, probably because it's closer in time. Lawson is frequently letting people in on recent and ongoing issues with her mental health and body, and there's a vulnerability there that makes the humour sharper and more poignant.

But, of course, there are also stories about someone sending her a knitted vagina, and and a trip to see koalas in Australia while dressed like a koala, and more amazing discussions with Victor. It's so funny, and yet it's so jagged around the edges in a very good way, because the humour doesn't mean that the difficult bits aren't there.

It is exactly the sort of book where you read it voraciously, and know full well that it'll make you look slightly unhinged in public as you laugh while trying to eat soup and almost cause a catastrophe. (Just me?) Where you can't wait to get back to it every day. Where, when put up against The Brothers Karamazov, it's an easy choice.

Sorry, Dostoyevsky.

Monday, 3 April 2017

The Week in Stories: Strange Attractors - March 25

Last night, we finished our first mission as members of TimeWatch, played using Cortex Plus rules. It was a great deal of fun, and then afterwards, Rob reminded us to regard what we'd just played as a pilot episode, complete with the freedom to alter things about our characters before the next session. He then asked a lot of very good questions aimed at both uncovering the things our characters can't walk away from, (AKA buttons to push for drama) and to develop connections between the PCs.

This is going to be a mission-based game, but with still trying to incorporate some of the character interaction and drama so dearly beloved by our group. Without, hopefully, overloading two new players (to the hobby as well as the table.)

All Strange Attractors Recaps

The Mission, Part Two

Our characters relocated to the NY Public Library in 1937, trying to find the earliest divergence that had led to this grubbier, more fascist U.S. with Charles Lindbergh as president. The most obvious divergence was the assassination of FDR in 1932 or 1933, although we also found about six total assassinations/faked suicides, including Winston Churchill and Alan Turing.

However, given that TimeWatch protocol is to find the earliest divergence and address that, we were led to the marriage of Amelia Otis to Gunter Frank in 1893, and the birth of, not Amelia Earhart, but Greta Frank in 1897. Followed by the disappearance of father and daughter in 1912.

A visit to the 1937 Amelia Otis Frank led to at least one hint of paradox, as she seemed to remember Peter and Millie (my character). But we found out enough that, with the research done by Gerald and Walter, we could come up with more than one plan to interfere in Gunter Frank going to Kansas, setting himself up as an inventor (of the mousetrap and zipper, among others), and marrying Amelia Otis.

We went back a year before he was supposed to arrive and interjected ourselves into the lives of the small town in various ways - Walter, with his CIA music background, got himself hired as a piano teacher to the town's young women, injecting a little Philip Glass into their lives. Gerald tried to ingratiate himself with Judge Otis, Amelia's father, but failed miserably at it, getting tossed out on the street and using that to great effect later. Millie started volunteering at the same orphanage as Amelia, while Peter made friend with Sam Earhart, encouraging him in his courtship.

When Gunter Frank showed up, all the plans went off at once, more or less. Peter, Walter, and Gerald intercepted him on the way to mess with Sam Earhart, getting him drunk and taking him wagon racing, then sending him to church in front of Amelia and her father. At the church, Frank seemed to become aware something was wrong and called in the time coordinates for a hit in blue energy that Peter only narrowly dodged when Millie tackled him to the ground, then restrained Frank. Gerald showed up and told Frank the jig was up, get in the carriage, thus further ruining him in the eyes of Judge Otis.

Gerald caught a glimpse of the time assassin, and we're pretty sure it's Greta, the Nazi version of Amelia Earhart.

After Frank was remanded to TimeWatch custody, the rest of the timeline seemed to sort itself out, and we recruited Amelia Earhart, partly with the promise that she'd get to fly rocket planes. (Frank Noonan was recruited as well.)

Character Thoughts

It is often only in retrospect that I notice that I'm playing a streak of characters with something in common - often the characters are all dramatically different from each other, but there will be a theme or trait that keeps coming up. I haven't had a ton of gaming recently, but just from the characters I played at the convention a couple of weeks ago, I think Millie is a more complete examination of one of the themes that two of my one-shot characters fell into.

That is to say, I think I'm in the middle of a streak of characters who are faking it. Not characters who are fakes, but characters who, for one reason or another, are having to fake it - in at least one case, so well that she herself believes it. (That would be Millie.) At the con, I played a character in The Veil who was part of a religious faith that believed in serenely intervening in dangerous situations, but was never serene about it. She was always terrified, so she put on a show of serenity and bravery in order to do what she truly believed needed to be done.

Then, in The Watch, I was playing a new officer with nowhere near enough training to be in charge of anyone - but in desperate times, sometimes there isn't anyone with the experience. She made major mistakes, partly trying to hide her inexperience and uncertainty.

Now there's Millie, and it's a little different - it's not that she's faking who she is, it's that she is working so hard to be okay with her own actions that it's led to her faking it to an extreme degree. She helped terminate her own timeline, losing all the people who were important to her, because she truly believed it was the right thing to do. Or, at least, that's what she's trying to tell herself. As a result, she comes off as the ultimate True Believer, and would even agree with that if you used it to describe her. The doubts, the faking it to get through the day are buried pretty far down, but they're there.

On the mechanical level, it's part of why it was important to me to have history as the lowest stat for Millie. Part of why it was possible to convince her is that, although she's very good at many things (punching Nazis being high on the list), she doesn't and didn't know enough about the timeline to really able to evaluate what she was told about why her timeline was doomed. It's very possible that the reasons for destroying her timeline were not what she was told.

(I was asked that by another player, if the TimeWatch operative had been lying to me, and replied that that was entirely up to Rob. Coming up with backstory and ideas for a character arc are important, but holding them lightly are part of sharing authorial control and approaching this as a collaboration.)

All in all, I'm looking forward to more missions and to getting to start integrating personal character issues into what happens. I'm a little worried that my character is a little off, tonally, from the rest - I've certainly gone whole hog for the angst, even though in daily life, Millie comes across as cheery and lost in a different timeline in a humourous way. We'll find a middle ground, I have confidence.

The other part of this is figuring out what she wants from the other characters that might be difficult to obtain, and to develop relationships that will lead to good play with them. I have some preliminary ideas, but I think all of them will change as we go on. Because Millie is from such a dramatically different place and time, she's a bit of an outsider character, but she's also gregarious and lonely.

To a God Unknown by John Steinbeck

I feel like I start a lot of reviews these days by explaining how and why I picked a particular book up, and I'm not sure it's useful to anyone else, but it's certainly useful to me. I like to be able to trace back where each book came from. So, in that vein, this book came as part of an experiment I've been doing with the database NoveList, which I like for a lot of reasons. To be precise, I'm taking books I've really loved from previous years and looking at their "read-alike" recommendations.

Sometimes, this is a massive misfire, as a few of the surrounding details might be similar, but the tone so different that the read-alike book does little for me. (This happened the time that The Magicians led to The Murdstone Trilogy.) This time, though, the likeness is a little less obvious but feels more profound. To A God Unknown was the recommended read-alike for Lila, a book I entirely and completely adored. It's an interesting choice - in some ways, The Grapes of Wrath feels like the Steinbeck that might have popped up as a result, as both have characters who travel out of extreme poverty, sometimes looking for agricultural work.

In contrast to Grapes of Wrath, To A God Unknown is about a settled family in California, moving from New England to the rich fields of California in a time of plenty, and then leads through a time of famine. It is also a mingling of belief in various forces unknown and deep connection to the land.

Joseph, the main character, is the first to go west, which he does before his father dies. He finds a land of plenty and homesteads, discovering a huge tree on new property just as his father leaves this life, and becomes, half in jest, but really entirely in earnest, convinced that his father's spirit is in that tree, just as it used to be connected to the land he left.

His brothers follow him with their wives, and none have the deep connection to the land and the landscape Joseph does. One has an unsentimental understanding of animals, but not the land itself. Another only understands his own libido and the last cleaves to the laws and precepts of evangelical Christianity. He is particularly disturbed by what he perceives as a pagan attachment to the land.

Joseph marries, has a child, and the land flourishes, even as dissension grows between the brothers and the others who live nearby. A couple of crises bring things to a head, and the tree is killed, and the connection to the land fundamentally severed. The disconnection from the divinity in nature is then reflected as a famine comes.

There are many reasons as to why this wouldn't be regarded as classic as some of Steinbeck's other works - The Grapes of Wrath is more political and angry, East of Eden more sprawling and mythic, Of Mice and Men more straightforwardedly tragic. But I liked it a lot, all the same. It's one of those books where merely trying to explain what it's about or what happens feels like I'm flattening out a lot of the depth, merely grazing the surface of a deeper pool.

Being pagan myself, I had a lot of sympathy for Joseph, and his brother is so self-righteously sure his ways are best, acting unilaterally to enforce his will because he believes it is right, that I wanted to smack him up the side of the head. It's a smaller tragedy, but one all the same, and brings of issues of disconnection and meaning that still resonated.

Friday, 31 March 2017

Countdown City by Ben Winters

I'm now two books into this trilogy about a policeman/private detective (sort of) in the months leading up to the end of the world by asteroid collision. I quite enjoyed the first one, but I think I like Countdown City even more. The world is now well established, and Winters is going some interesting places with a fairly traditional mystery as the vehicle.

There's more going on, though, under the surface, about family, about routine, about chaos and hope and despair, and there's a little part of me that says that it's the third book that's going to tell the tale. With something like this, you wonder if there's going to be a miraculous way out at the end of the third book, and I don't mean to be morbid when I say, from the perspective of the end of the second book, that's it's going to be a shame if the world doesn't end.

Let me see if I can pull apart why that is.

In this book, the main character, Hank Palace, is off the force and just trying to live out his remaining days in relative peace before the asteroid arrives. Everyone knows now that it's supposed to hit on the other side of the planet, killing most people there quickly, and on this side, slowly, through a long dust winter and famine. Many people have run off to seize some moments of joy before the end. Some are violent. Some are just there, barely. Some have committed suicide.

A woman who babysat Hank and his sister Niko as children comes to him, asking for help finding her husband, who disappeared a few days before. She is adamant that he's a fine, upstanding man who would never have just left her, and surprisingly, when Hank starts to investigate, everyone he talks to more or less agrees. And yet, he is gone, with no obvious sign of foul play.

Hank follows the trail to a campus that has been taken over by the students, then off into the wilds to track Brent, the missing husband. It's part police work, part exploration of the ways in which people deal with impending doom. And I think it's perceptive about it - if one person is facing mortality, they're still in a world that will continue to go on, but when the whole world is about to end, even if some people survive initially, everything is irrevocably changed.

Hank, obviously, wants there to continue to be some structure or order. The students at the college want to try out their most utopian concepts, which sort of works and sort of doesn't and occasionally falls apart in a big haze of weed. Many people walk away from their lives. Some turn violent. And then, as shortages start to happen, things get uglier.

But not universally uglier, and this is an important point. When we look at pre- or post-apocalyptic novels (I'll admit the former is a smaller genre), we look at how authors think humans would respond to the world coming to an end or having ended. I get frustrated when it's unrelentingly grim - it becomes a pessimism about human nature that's so deep that I don't know how to deal with it. It can become an idea that we are, fundamentally, always awful. And while we are definitely sometimes awful, we are also sometimes kind and generous, and showing one without the other shapes our cultural conversation about who we are, and what we owe to each other.

When we find out why Brent left, another piece falls into place, and I'm certainly not going to spoil it, but yes, some people would react like this, under pressure. With a world falling apart, this is one of the reactions there would be.

The mystery part of it is well done, for what it is, but the meat of this book is a world that is getting ever closer to collapse. Hank's sister is convinced this is all a government conspiracy, that the asteroid could be easily diverted if they can just do x, y, and z. I presume we'll find out in the next book, but I think it would be a letdown if there was a deus ex machina. But on the other hand, I've grown awfully fond of these doomed characters.