Monday, 31 August 2015

Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine

I have been dragging my heels on writing this review. That would be because it's one of the dreaded reviews where I didn't dislike the book in any way, but neither did I love it. It left me fairly ambivalent, and while I'm willing to concede it's a sweet take on fairy tales, there was nothing that made me fall head over heels.

In case you haven't read it or seen the movie (I have not seen the movie), Ella Enchanted is about Cinderella/Sleeping Beauty with a pluckier heroine. Sleeping Beauty, because a fairy shows up at her christening, and gives her, well, it's supposed to be a gift. But when the gift is obedience, and that means anyone can order you to do anything...yeah. And her father remarries and an evil stepmother moves in with her two loafish daughters, and poof! We also have Cinderella.

So Ella is a fairy tale for a more feminist age, and that disappoints me even more, because I would like to love it because of that. There is nothing I really dislike about this book, and I would not be upset if hypothetical children of mine read this. (That bookshelf is getting a little crammed.) However, there are a whole raft of books I'd be pushing into their imaginary little hands first.

I do like the take on the problem of giving magical gifts to young girls at christenings, as well as the underhanded emphasis on the virtue of disobedience. Ella finds ways to be disobedient even as she's obeying, refusing to be the sweet malleable child some around her would want her to be. Even those who discover her secret and take advantage of it find that she'll still uncover ways to get them back.

The love story is cute, and founded in two people liking each other, sharing an interest in sliding down banisters, and developed through a long correspondence. The prince is similarly strong in having his own mind about things. The kingdom Ella lives in remarkably progressive in some ways, although there are still ladies' finishing schools, and jerks like Ella's father who are more interested in making money than they are in their families.

In this book, magic isn't the answer, and that's plain and it's clear, and it stands in stark contrast to The Uncertain Places, which I reviewed a few days ago. The latter book is for adults, but it caught me much more strongly by showing just why someone might resort to magic in the first place, creating a more complex tale. Because I read these two books almost back-to-back, it means that my lingering thoughts on Lisa Goldstein's book seeped into my experience reading this one. Ella Enchanted is already fairly slight, and it becomes slighter in my memory because of this reading coincidence.

I love reading books about fairy tales. I am a total sucker for them. That being said, Ella Enchanted just did not do it for me. There's absolutely nothing objectionable about it. There's just not enough charming to make it truly magical.

Friday, 28 August 2015

Kane & Abel by Jeffrey Archer

This may have been a book I needed to read to get closer to finishing the BBC Big Read, but it was definitely not a book for me. The writing is fine, and it's pretty much just a potboiler. I mean, seriously, it's okay. It's not great. But the great capitalist heroes at the centre are just a little hard to swallow.

Plus, it pretty much relies on a romantic comedy staple, the misunderstanding that would bring these business rivals together if one just told the other one simple sentence that there is no real reason to withhold. So the bromance is abortive, and they try to ruin each other's lives.

William Kane is a capitalist in the old school manner - he inherits it, and is such a financial genius that he surpasses his father, while being really a very nice guy. Abel is a capitalist in the new school manner - he immigrates to the States, and through hard work and determination, makes his millions. During the Depression, there is a misunderstanding that makes these fine, upstanding, moral bastions of society dislike each other.

(Well, Abel bribes a lot of people to get his hotels opened, but that's seen as a misunderstanding, a peccadillo.)

And of course, when World War II rolls around, like millionaires everywhere, particularly middleaged ones with wives and children, both Kane and Abel want to be on the front lines and enlist and are frustrated because they're not out there. I mean, they couldn't be masculine if they didn't fight, right? Every super-rich man did the same, I'm sure.

They're just both such good guys. I mean, yeah, the immigrant millionaire also cheats on his wife a lot, but she never understood his drive for success, so what's the problem? The native-born millionaire has a steady marriage. There is no real judgement in the book.

They make money, they take care of their employees, they pump money into the economy - of course they're heroes! God, this book is not for me.  There was much rolling of the eyes. So much rolling of the eyes.

Of course they're benevolent rich people. Of course they also want to enlist like patriotic men of course would. Of course the only real troubles in their respective worlds come from the two clashing when they should have been friends all along.

Really? That's it? That's your book? I just...I just don't care. I don't care about either main character, I don't believe in the myth of wealth proving worth, I don't really give a shit if they manage to work out their differences. The writing is fine. It's the content that's bothersome.

Read as part of the BBC Big Read

Wednesday, 26 August 2015

The Uncertain Places by Lisa Goldstein

It will probably come to no surprise to anyone that I love books that capture the rhythm and soul of a fairy tale. They're one of my favourite things to read, when it's done well. It's hard to think of a book topping, or even coming close to, Catherynne Valente's Deathless in that regard. But even if it's not that mindblowingly good, it's a genre I have a deep affection for.

When it comes to The Uncertain Places, it doesn't quite have the rhythm of a fairy tale, but it does do extremely interesting and provocative things with fairy tale ideas and imagery. It's a strong contender in this mini-genre, for several reasons. Firstly, Goldstein has a real feel for the capricious, and her fairies are not warm, fuzzy, or beautiful. They are other, and stay other, and the humans who walk in their world are not always smarter or more cunning than creatures who have been alive for centuries, and had all their bargains broken before. These fairies learned from their mistakes. For the most part.

In this book, a young man named Will falls in love with Livvy, the middle daughter in a strange old family filled with grace and luck. They live in an old house with strange juxtapositions of design, off the proceeds of a winery. Turns out, they're blessed with fairy luck, but at a cost. In every generation, one young woman will fall asleep for seven years and fight with and for the fairies.

Can we guess which daughter falls asleep? Will suddenly has a very pressing need to figure out how to break fairy bargains, but learns that there are fewer rules in fairyland than the stories assure us there are. Some of the stories still work, while others...well, let's just say that the fairies have found workarounds.

That's all well and good, but if that were all the book was, it would be a stirring adventure yarn about winning back fair lady. It's more though, as it becomes a meditation on the bargain itself, and the ethics of it. Would you bargain away seven years of a family members life for comfort? Will is outraged at the very idea.

But then it becomes more complicated. What if that luck covered safety as well? What if it meant you knew, knew, that no one you loved would be killed or hurt in an accident? Or develop cancer? If it would give you the means to keep those you loved safe and whole and with you? Would it be ethical then? What if they knew it was coming? 

This gets twistier and more difficult as it goes, and hit me hard. My husband and I have been struggling with financial instability for six years, as I've worked away on my dissertation, and he's had to deal with ever-more precarious temp work that pays less than it used to. Of course I would never trade away years of my life, or his, but the overall question of, if magic offered an answer to all these stresses and worries, what would you give up? It's a particularly poignant dilemma.

Not to mention the knowledge that those you love would be safe. This is a book that challenges, even as it weaves, embroiling the characters and readers in circumstances where, because there is magic, there are possibilities that we might be happier not knowing exist. Because if we could do something about them...would we?

Monday, 24 August 2015

All My Friends Are Superheroes by Andrew Kaufman

At first, my review was going to be that this book was cute but slight. After discussing it with my husband, who has not read it, that's actually shifted into more discomfort. Still, my first impression stands. It's fairly cute, but incredibly slight.

This is a short book. It is just over 100 pages, but there are a lot of blank pages between chapters in between. So understand what I mean when I say that there is not enough story for the length of this book. There is maybe a short story's worth of material (maybe!) and when the effort to stretch something to 100 pages is evident, then you know that there's something wrong.

It's about a guy who knows a lot of superheroes. In fact, he marries one. But at their reception, her ex-boyfriend hypnotizes her into not seeing her new husband, and as a result, she's about to move to Vancouver. Her husband has the length of the trip to figure out how to break the hypnotism.

Now let's see. The book is fairly insistent that there are no supervillains, just superheroes with differing opinions. But I would argue that Hypno is pretty obviously a supervillain, given his propensity for hypnotizing women into having sex through convincing them it'll be the best sex ever, and, oh, an attack on his ex-girlfriend's mind on her wedding day. What else do you need for supervillainy?

Let me come back to that. I have one more point first. If you're going to be nitpicky about there not being any supervillains, why are you even calling these people superheroes? Their powers are not the type to be used in combatting crime. In most cases, they're just slightly weird abilities. No one seems to use them for good. So if we're being nitpicky, these are people with superpowers, not superheroes. Villain means something, but you know what? So does superhero.

Back to Hypno. Given that this book is about mental invasion and coercion into sex, the author never really seems to notice how troubling that is. She consented to sex after being hypnotized, right? And that's not coercion because people can break hypnotism if they don't want to do the thing they're being hypnotized, right? (So why can't the Perfectionist break the hypnotism that makes her not perceive her husband, since it's clearly making her miserable?)

So yeah, that's troubling, but sacrificed in favour of cute. This is actually not my biggest problem with the book. My husband was able to put his finger on what was going on when I told him this story, and made it clear that it's all about how the husband is dealing with it.

He told me about a writing teacher giving him a valuable piece of advice:  the character who has the most at stake is the person the story is about. Of the two characters, the husband and the wife, well, they probably both have a lot at stake, but the author seems to never have considered that this story might not be about the husband and how he feels being unnoticed. Instead of, say, the woman who was mentally attacked, and her whose new husband is missing.


At any rate, this story tries too hard for cute, has not enough depth for what it wants to be, and glosses over some truly troubling stuff that might have strengthened it if it had taken it seriously. You set it up, you knock it down. Otherwise, what's the point?

Friday, 21 August 2015

The Puppet Masters by Robert A. Heinlein

Huh. I was just sitting down to write this review, having finished the book a week or so ago, but before I did, I read some more stuff on the continuing Sad Puppies saga, and found a name popping up of a woman who also wrote the afterword to this edition. Doesn't surprise me, because while I enjoyed the book for the most part, reading the afterword made me think "wow, this woman and I would not agree on anything" and back away slowly.

Will that affect the review I'm about to write? Let's see. Because, honestly, I probably am one of the people the Puppies would hate, and when books bother me, on a personal and political level, with how they handle, in this case, gender, I'll talk about it. On the other hand, I'm also not a fan of throwing out an entire era of literature and science fiction because people didn't handle writing women well. It depends on how bad it is, and how good the rest of the book is.

The point, I guess, is that I can identify out how problematic and occasionally upsetting ways women were handled, and still have liked the book overall. And you know what? I did. The treatment of women was more bothersome than it usually is in Heinlein, and I am normally someone who defends him against complaints in the area. (The defense goes something like: yes, his women are all highly sexual and sexualised, but they are also strong, interesting, capable, intelligent and full of character - and in an era of science fiction where the choice is that or housewives who "gurgle happily," I know what I'll pick. I'm also fine with women having strong sex drives, although sometimes it does become much of a muchness.)

Dammit, that isn't where I intended to start. Maybe let's go back to the planned start of the review, and work our way back around to gender. Because, honestly, I intended to start by asking about the movie version. My husband said it was pretty good, but reading this book, the question that came to mind was...did it have any nudity? Because nudity is such a huge part of this book, could you make a movie without it?

Look, if people are being controlled by slugs that attach to the spinal column, and you need to see who is and isn't infected...you make everyone strip down, and Heinlein has his government enact that by law. I am fascinated by this, and think it's a really interesting choice, complete with people trying to push back.

The other part of the book that I was really taken by was the device of having the narrator be controlled for a stretch of the book. I thought that was so interesting - the alien takeover from the inside, so to speak. I was a little bit sad when it ended. It's something I've never seen before, and reading it, hearing those differences in the narrative voice from free and controlled were fascinating. It was so cool, I wanted to see more done with it. I suppose it might have gotten wearing over time, but it's a great experiment, and works very well.

So yeah, back to gender, I guess. Mary is the main female character, and she's strong and capable and a better shot than the main character, and possibly also a better secret agent. That's all pretty much de rigueur for a Heinlein female. The part that was sticky for me was that once she was married, she became so damned passive, waiting for her husband to to defend her or stand up for her, becoming suddenly incapable of doing so for herself.

It's a troublesome version of marriage, not least so because it depends on a benevolent husband who is always present and always does the right thing to take care of his wife. Lovely if you can get it (and Mary has it), but subject to the potentials of tons of abuse. (Look, I spend all my time analyzing masculinity in temperance narratives, and it's very similar, except there they emphasize the men whose masculinity is simultaneously degraded and unleashed by drink, causing them to forsake their duties to wives and family. It's the next leap that's important - that maybe what you need is the ability to advocate for your own fucking self.)

That's where the book bothers me, not with all the "ain't Mary a dish" stuff.

Back to smaller questions - were the slugs actually from Titan? The creatures they were riding were, but it seemed like it would have been an even more interesting answer if the slugs had come from even further out, and co-opted an entire planet of Titans before trying to do the same to Earth.

And, of course, it's a huge commentary on Communism, with the characters discovering that the USSR had been infected months before the U.S. - and it made no noticeable difference there, since they had already been enslaved.

As an adventure yarn, it's a fun one. There are a few experiments that I think really pay off. It's not going to go down as one of my favourite Heinleins, though.

Thursday, 20 August 2015

"The Good Neighbors" by Edgar Pangborn

Hey guys! Did you realize that the Gutenberg Project has old science fiction? It does! (I don't know why this surprised me, but it did.) So, hey, why not read some of them and review them? Not to poke fun at the old science fiction, although there might be a little of that. No, I'm more interested in looking at what this old science fiction tells us about the worlds that were being imagined at the time. What did they think about science? Gender? Race? The eventual fate of the world?

From: Galaxy, June 1960

This story was a very pleasant surprise. I'd heard of Edgar Pangborn, but other than that he was a science fiction author, knew very little about him. Now I sort of think I should read more, because this was a very short story that had all the things I like.  It's not, however, a character-heavy story - there's really only one human character, and he's only in it briefly.

But it's witty and snarky and entertaining. A huge creature (imagined above, which seems to have been the accompanying illustration) appears in the sky over the West Coast of the U.S., in distress, and clearly not of terrestrial origin. It flies, crying, lost and lonely, across the country, where they dare not shoot it down lest it crush a good portion of a city.

It doesn't attack anyone, it just cries and flies, and the government sends up airplanes to see what it is and is made of. The descriptions are not too purple. They are evocative without being over the top, and given the general quality of many of the stories I've read, I was impressed.

When it gets near the Atlantic, there are plans to shoot it down over the ocean, but one trigger happy guy (the only named character) lets loose before it's quite past New York. That's not great.

The punchline of the story is that the aliens responsible for having one of their livestock get out and do this leave a note of apology and what they hope is suitable recompense for the damage, before flying off to other parts.

It's not deep, but it's got that short short story knack of being interesting and giving a bit of a twist of the knife at the end. The lack of almost all human characters means I won't pick on the fact that there aren't any female characters in it.

All in all, probably one of my favourite short stories I've read so far from this project.

Wednesday, 19 August 2015

Skylark Duquesne by E.E. "Doc" Smith

Despite the controversy this year, I push on with my efforts to read all the Hugo nominees for best novel. It's coming along, I jump around in time a lot, and I enjoy doing it. It's great fun getting a larger sense over how science fiction has changed, and what sorts of books were being nominated at any given time.

It does, however, also mean that sometimes I read things that are old but not that good. Take this book, for example. It doesn't help that in reading this book, I am coming in at the end of a four book series, and Smith does very little to make the book accommodating to a new reader. At some point, some guy became, well, not ruler of earth, but ruler of...the galaxy? Sort of? Bureaucratic administrator? I'm not sure, but other races defer to him.

There are many problems here, but the biggest one is that the writing just isn't very good. The plot veers wildly from alien race to alien race, most of which want to kill all humans (excuse me: Jelmi. Jelmi is the catch-all term for humans wherever they may be found in the galaxy. Non-Jelmi seem to always want to kill or enslave them all.) It's dull, a lot of the time. The prose isn't purple, but it isn't engaging, either.

The plot is too complex. I lost track of whether or not there were three or four different races who wanted to kill all Jelmi, and were throwing all their power against the various defenses of various ships. Seriously. No clue. There were the...Chlorans, who they exterminated. The...Fer...these other dudes, who wanted to enslave Jelmi to capture their genius for invention, and then didn't realize why that didn't work. There was a rogue group of Jelmi that wanted to kill all other Jelmi. (Maybe that was the one that started with Fer, I don't remember.) There might have been another one? That might have gotten exterminated as well?

And then there's the titular character, who I guess has been the villain all the way along, and he has to work with the heroes to save mankind so he can try to take over the galaxy, and things written on the internet make this sound like it's the redemption of Mark Duquesne. Given that his final plan is for a mass eugenics program complete with death camps for the weak (although not dependent on race, and we'll talk about that in a minute), redemption...seems to me to be the wrong word. Unless we're supposed to cheer for death camps? And I really hope we never are?

The characters are pretty cardboard. Smith is, however, almost, almost, almost good with women characters. They're good shots, ninjas, scientists. One woman discovers that her true place has always been beside her husband on the battlefield instead of waiting at home. Then again, they're always the ones making the sandwiches while the men are talking, which seems depressingly accurate for the time at which this was written, if the memories of a friend about working in activist circles tell me anything.

So...is Mark Duquesne black? He's referred to as "Blackie" almost constantly. When, and incredibly lamentably, he isn't being called a "big black ape" by the leader of humanity. It seems pretty clear that he is, and the way people refer to him kept making my skin crawl. On the other hand, he is equally as intelligent, powerful, and good at planning as all the good guys, who are, naturally, white. Oh, and Asian. But "big black ape"? Did we really need to go there, Doc Smith?  So, the villain is black, but the mentions of the blackness are really all the consideration of race with humanity...I mean, Jelmi.

I have read this, getting me one step closer to reading all the Hugo nominees (I'm a long way from complete, having read 112 books out of over 300.) But if you're reading this review to find out if you want to tackle this one, my advice is that it's one you can safely skip, unless you are as stubborn and as much of a completist as I am.

Booklinks:

I read this book as part of an attempt to read all the Hugo Nominees

Monday, 17 August 2015

Seconds by Bryan Lee O'Malley

Virtually every graphic novel you see me review on this blog was probably loaned to me by my friend Melissa, and this one is no exception. It was one I was looking to read eventually, but got bumped up the list by the fact that it, along with Saga Vol. 4, was handed to me as I was leaving gaming one night.

I thoroughly enjoyed the Scott Pilgrim books, so I was pretty sure I wanted to read what else Bryan Lee O'Malley had done. I was not disappointed. There's a lot here, underneath the fun drawings, and fascinating house spirits, and quirky characters. The last of which is pretty much what O'Malley is known for.

Like Scott Pilgrim, this is about a young person teetering on the edge of growing up, but leery of taking on too much responsibility for her own shit. She wants control of the world, while pushing away deep thought about what she's done to get herself where she's gotten. She's older than Scott Pilgrim, but has some of the same desire for an easy way out.

Katie was the chef at a restaurant that she was a partner in. She still lives upstairs, and schmoozes the customers, and bothers the wait staff and the new chef while she works on opening a new restaurant, one that will solve all her problems. Seconds wasn't perfect? The new one will be.

Of course, it's not. The contractor is taking longer and needing more money than she really has. And isn't following your dream to have everything exactly your own way supposed to be easy?

After an accident at the restaurant involving a new server, Katie wakes up to find a house spirit sitting on her chest of drawers. Inside a drawer, she finds a mushroom and a small notebook that instructs her to write down what happened on the premises that she wants changed, and to eat the mushroom. She does, and the accident is erased.

That's supposed to be the end of it, according to the house spirit. One mushroom, one change. But Katie gets greedy. If she could make an accident not happen, why couldn't she alter all the things that irritate her in her life? She finds a patch of mushrooms, and starts making changes. Love life, business life, surely it's as easy as making one change and everything will be easier! Of course, it isn't, and things unravel as she becomes more desperate to make everything easy, even when it starts to mean she has to squish herself down on things she truly does want.

The characters are enjoyable, and I particularly liked Katie talking back to the narrator - mostly when the narrator is telling us about any misgivings Katie might be having, and Katie fervently denying there are any such feelings.

Likewise, the mythology of the house spirit, and what it is that Katie's now letting in to the house with repeated mushroom usage, and the way she's using the people around her, using them as puzzle pieces in creating her perfect life. In the end, the message is fairly simple - you need to grow up and look beyond yourself. And accept imperfection.  

This was a lot of fun, and the colour added to this book really made it pop. It was enjoyable to see what life after Scott Pilgrim looks like.

Friday, 14 August 2015

Written on the Body by Jeanette Winterson

I was less than two pages into this book before I found a sentence that so utterly took my breath away that I sat staring at the page, and eventually had to walk up the stairs so I could show it to my husband. This was merely the first time - every couple of pages collections of words that were like a punch in the gut kept coming, and each time, I fell a little more in love with this book.

There is just something bold and difficult and straightforward about Winterson's writing that hits me really hard. I'm contemplating recommending this book for our next round at the book club, because I so desperately want to discuss it with people.

(That first sentence, if you are interested, was:  "I used to think of marriage as a plate-glass window just begging for a brick.")

I am so intoxicated by this book. It's sardonic, it's sexy, it's difficult. It's about love, and cheating, and grief, and loss, and realizing that what you thought was heroism wasn't. It's not easy, at any point. It's thorny, and that reminds me of another paragraph that almost had me gasping for air, about the difficulties of outdoor sex. 

Winterson just keeps pushing, past platitudes, past pat phrases, past what we think is going to happen or how it should happen to create something so raw, so intense, so hard, and loving, and contradictory. 

I am trying to tell you why I loved this book, and I feel like I'm doing a terrible job of it. Yet I don't think a synopsis is going to help. I will try anyway. 

The narrator is genderless, but I will fully admit I always perceived them as female. Perhaps because of what I know of Jeanette Winterson, and reading that into the text. Still, the entire book never genders the narrator, although it definitely does gender their lovers, predominantly but not entirely female. 

The narrator has had a lot of affairs with married women, and we hear about many of them, but then there is one who means it when she says she'll leave her husband and go away with her lover. There is the messiness of that emerging relationship, what it does to other relationships, the joys and sorrows and mundanity of breaking someone's heart while finding your own.

And then there is illness, and tough decisions, and mourning, and trying to do what's right, but realizing later that there is no such thing as right, and your decisions were not heroic but brutal.  

That's about all I can give you. This book, it's all about the prose. The prose and the way it made it difficult for me to breathe as I negotiated my way through it. (It's also far far sexier than the book of erotica I just posted a review of before I sat down to write this.) Just...read it. I finished it a few days ago, and there are still not the words. It has taken the words from me.

Wednesday, 12 August 2015

The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson

In a way, it's amazing it took me this long to get to this book. My husband and one of my best friends had both read and really enjoyed it. It's about cholera in England, and I have that weird sort of interest that comes from having played a roleplaying game in which my teenage vampire slayer and her cohorts in the Royal Magisterial Corps were tracking a vampire who had been possessed by a cholera spirit. Plus, it's history.

Still, I felt a bit reticent to start it. The Devil and the White City was okay, but didn't really hang together. (I know it's by a different author. I'm not saying this was a logical reaction.) Mary Roach's books are popular science, not popular history, but I've gotten tired of how surface her books are, refusing to engage with complexity. And I'm a historian by training. Could I possibly enjoy this one?

Well, the answer ended up being yes, I could enjoy it quite a lot. Johnson is a much better writer, and manages to grapple with difficult issues accessibly. And, endearing him to me forever, he doesn't stop at "weren't people in the past silly?" that so much popular history falls prey to.

He actually does a very good job of looking at miasma theory, and instead of using that as a whip to lash the doctors of the past for being stupid, takes a look at why it was so widespread, why it was so powerful, and what was strange about the mavericks that let them look beyond it. That takes nuance, and I appreciated it a lot.

This book centres around a cholera outbreak in London, spread through a pump that had waste from the first victim seep into its source water. Poverty and cleanliness had no connection to who died and who lived, confounding the theory that the poor were just dirtier, if people had been able to see it.  One doctor, who had already had the theory that cholera might be waterborne, was able to track virtually every case to one pump that was known for having particularly pure water, and hence, used by some people outside the geographic district, who also came down with cholera.

He was challenged by many, including the medical establishment, but also by a minister who had been on the ground during the outbreak. The minister set out to prove him wrong, and ended up believing he was right. The two of them worked on the map that would, over time, come to prove the theory of how cholera was spread.

Johnson argues that it took both the ability to think outside the box and the individual knowledge of the streets, using the strengths of both men, to accomplish the task. He looks at who they were, their backgrounds, and their actions. It's all readable.

The epilogue is a bit long-winded. Johnson is passionately pro-urban, which is nice to see, in a world that still has a remarkable bit of 19th c. idealization of the pastoral hanging around it. He goes through what he sees as all the potential dangers to urban space and ways that where we are now might counteract them. It's interesting, but it's very long.

Overall, good popular history that embraces complexity instead of trying to make us laugh at those silly people in the past.

Monday, 10 August 2015

People of the Book edited by Rachel Swirsky

Another collection of short stories I picked up on sale at the local comic book store during that one sale every year where such things appear. I thought Jewish science fiction sounded really interesting, and the authors on the cover sold me.

Of course, having read it, this book is mostly Jewish fantasy, folklore brought to life. There are only, if I'm remembering correctly, two science fiction stories in it. That's a little disappointing, but in general, the quality of the stories in the collection was very high. Still, there isn't more Jewish science fiction out there?

Of what stories there are in this books, some are historical fantasy, like Rachel Pollack's take on Jacob. A fair amount is set during the Holocaust, including a really interesting story about cities dancing that I quite enjoyed. The Niels Bohr story was not as interesting, although not terrible.

Much of it is modern, relying on aspects of Jewish folklore coming into the contemporary world. There are a bunch of golems, at least two dybbuks, and one kibbutz. (Although that one is actually one of the two science fiction stories, written by Lavie Tiddhar. Also one I liked a lot.)

There is a sense of melancholy about many of the stories, of separation from the world. I've been trying to put my finger on it more precisely, but I wouldn't want to rely on stereotypes instead of puzzling it out, and so I will only say that as a collection, there is something in the writing that makes this hang together than some other anthologies I've read.

Perhaps my favourite story, though, deals with a classic of Christian children's literature. I love C.S. Lewis' Narnia book, but apparently Gaiman was bothered by the same aspect of it I am - that Susan gets exiled from Narnia because she becomes too obsessed with material things. For circumstances in which "material things" are synonymous with "girly things," bringing a troubling level of gender judgment into the mix.  His short story deals with that, and I don't know if it would be appealing to someone who didn't know the Lewis books, but I was very taken by it.

I've read very little Michael Chabon, which is strange, given how much I loved The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. It would perhaps surprise no one that his story circles around golems. It's presented as a non-fiction Golems I Have Known. And who am I to nitpick his stories of finding golems and having their power sources show up in his mail?

I realize I am pretty much just talking about the big name authors, and that's fine, because I'm not going to stop when I get to Peter S. Beagle's short story, which is an interesting mix of angels, art, and something else. I liked the twist, is all I'm saying, and I will not give it any more away than that. But if an angel shows up claiming to be sent by God to be a Jewish painter's muse, what are you going to do?

Overall, a strong collection. I just wanted a teensy bit more science fiction. (I'm not counting that sort of steampunk tale as science fiction. To me, that's still fantasy.)

Friday, 7 August 2015

Chasing Vermeer by Blue Balliett

*Some Spoilers Below*

Chasing Vermeer is a fun children's book, easy to read, with pictures that involve some thought, if you want to put that thought into it. (I am lazy, I did not.) I have some overall questions about the tack the book takes on Charles Fort and how it veers a little bit into magic without ever exploring that, but hey, a children's book that might introduce kids to Charles Fort? I'm pretty much in.

The two main characters, Petra and Calder, are those kids who don't quite fit in. Petra is interested in art, Calder in math and puzzles.  They go to a Montessori school, it appears, but with a new teacher? Wait, that doesn't make sense. Unless I missed the part where their old teacher left for some reason, because my understanding of Montessori schools is that the teachers move with their classes through the grades. Yes? No?

At any rate, they have an awesome teacher who lets the kids explore and get excited about learning and that all sounds great. Then, out in the real world, a Vermeer painting is stolen, and letters are sent to the newspapers saying the painting won't be returned until all the galleries of the world look carefully at their Vermeers and reattribute some of them.

Three people in their neighbourhood are somehow involved, and Petra and Calder set out to figure it out, and find the painting. On the way, they run into a book by Charles Fort and his ideas about ideas science damns because it can't explain them. Including synchronicity.

However, the author's idea of Fort tends to shade over into magic, without acknowledging that that's what's happening. The kids start to dream about paintings they've never seen, figuring out where to look for the painting by looking at unrelated puzzle pieces and just knowing. That's intuition, not damned science. Fort was about examining the actual evidence and then drawing conclusions based on that, not necessarily on the next clue just literally popping into your head, and you knowing, not based on evidence you didn't know you had, but based on nothing at all.

If you want to go this way, explore it. Just shouting "Charles Fort!" at the page doesn't really further anything.

There are lots of puzzles including a cipher to figure out, and shapes and animals in the pictures that are supposed to reveal something, but I was not curious enough to find out. It's a cool idea though, and great for kids with that kind of bent.

However. The blurb talks about the mystery coming together with a satisfying "aha!" and I would disagree. Having mentioned the person who will turn out to be the art thief just once at the start of the book completely incidentally does not make this into a mystery the reader feels like they could solve. The fact that the characters have never really met the person who turns out to be the art thief (well, Calder may have, but the readers certainly never do) makes this not so much a mystery, more an adventure story.

In conclusion, it's not superb, but it is a fun children's book, and it makes art attribution interesting, which is a bit of a feat. If only they'd stop using Charles Fort as a shorthand for otherworldly knowledge, I'd be happier. (Fort still wanted explanations, he just didn't want to dispose of evidence that didn't fit the theory. So get into some explanations, please. There is no theory as to why the kids know where the painting is hidden. They just suddenly look at an unrelated puzzle piece and know it's somewhere they didn't even know existed.)

Wednesday, 5 August 2015

S.E.C.R.E.T. by L. Marie Adeline

I was wrong. This was the last of my reviews of books picked from bestseller lists, not The Rosie Project. I figured, given how much smack I talk about Fifty Shades of Grey without having read more than small excerpts, I should read this. Particularly given that my normal line is that it's great if people are reading erotica, but couldn't they read good erotica? So this book was on the Globe & Mail bestseller list for quite a while, and it's erotica, so why not give it a try?

On the plus side, this book is super consensual! It's all about getting explicit permission before any sexy times take place, and checking on the other person's boundaries every step along the way. The main character is a divorced widow (yeah, I had to puzzle that one out too - she only had one marriage) who has sexually shut down. But then she gets invited to join a sexytimes club run by women who are out to create situations to reawaken (or awaken) her  sexual self.

She gets nine sexual situations set up, then for the tenth charm on the bracelet (see the cover, above), gets to decide whether to leave the club behind, or join it to help other women out. As far as ideas for erotica go, not bad. And it isn't that this is bad, per se.

It just didn't do anything. I read it, sitting in the living room, and my husband across the room was disappointed that it provoked nary a reaction from me. It's just a little too nice. I like all the consensuality, but then the sex was just a little too pedestrian. Or the fantasies not my particular thing. Or the description just kind of lacking.

It's just a tiny bit coy, and that's kind of the death of erotica. There are also ways to be absurdly explicit, but too coy is not great either.

Let's take the first situation. This is so damned nice. A guy shows up to her house with a massage table and gives her a back massage and oral sex. That's lovely. In real life, I'd totally be in for that (are you reading this, honey?) (I'm kidding, he already knows.) She's never had either before, ever in her entire life. Which makes me very sad.

But the way it's written, it just didn't really...do anything for me. It's a situation that would be lovely in real life, and maybe I want my erotica to be a little further out than that, or maybe it was how it was written. On the other hand, if that's the kind of scenario that gets you going, read this book!

There's absolutely nothing objectionable about this book. No abuse of power, just situations set up in totally safe ways for the main character to relax and enjoy. No BDSM, so no perversions of kink that involve no conversations or give and take at all. It just comes down to personal preference.  I don't think I'll bother to read the sequels.

Interestingly, or perhaps weirdly, or maybe...look, I don't know if I'm cool with this or disturbed by it. Women looking great and enjoying looking great, I'm all for it. But there's this equivalency of being sexual with being a knockout, and the book spends as much time describing the outfits she's wearing as it does the sex. The fashion is as sexual as the sex, and there's this equivalency of being all dolled up with being sexual.

Which is not to say that being dolled up can't be fun. However. However. I don't know. I'm just vaguely uncomfortable with the idea that you have to be the kind of woman who just doesn't realize how beautiful she'd be in a tight dress and some makeup to have a sexual awakening. Or to really enjoy it. (I mean, there is that one scenario where she's dressed up as a soccer mom, so maybe I'm making too much of this. Still. There's enough that...oh for goodness sake. I don't know what I'd be happy with.)

I'll just say that while I haven't entirely worked out my feelings on that one, I'm still a bit uneasy. But, lamentably, not turned on. However, that is such an individual thing that this may indeed do it for other readers. Be assured that the prose is not painful, and the sexual politics not troubling.

Monday, 3 August 2015

The BBC Big Read

I read a lot of books, and a lot of different books. I like to mix it up, and draw from a bunch of different sources. One of those sources is the BBC Big Read list, which I am getting very close to being done. I started it because my sister had read many more on the list than I had, and I'm just a teensy bit competitive. Now I'm winning!

Thoughts on this list: obviously a lot of books that have the popular support to win a list like this are children's books, classics, and a certain kind of bestseller. Overall, though, I've enjoyed a lot of the books I've read on it!

Many of the books on this list I read before I started writing reviews, but I've added links to the ones I have written. (unread) marks those few I still have left to go!

The Lord of the Rings - J.R.R. Tolkien
Pride and Prejudice - Jane Austen
His Dark Materials - Philip Pullman
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy - Douglas Adams
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire - J.K. Rowling
To Kill A Mockingbird - Harper Lee
Winnie-The-Pooh - A.A. Milne
1984 - George Orwell
The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis
Jane Eyre - Charlotte Bronte
Catch-22 - Joseph Heller
Wuthering Heights - Emily Bronte
Birdsong - Sebastian Faulks
Rebecca - Daphne du Maurier
Catcher in the Rye - J.D. Salinger
The Wind in the Willows - Kenneth Grahame
Great Expectations - Charles Dickens
Little Women - Louisa May Alcott
Captain Corelli's Mandolin - Louis de Bernieres
War and Peace - Leo Tolstoy
Gone With The Wind - Margaret Mitchell
Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone - J.K. Rowling
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets - J.K. Rowling
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban - J.K. Rowling
The Hobbit - J.R.R. Tolkien
Tess of the d'Urbervilles - Thomas Hardy
Middlemarch - George Eliot
A Prayer for Owen Meaney - John Irving
The Grapes of Wrath - John Steinbeck
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland - Lewis Carroll
The Story of Tracy Beaker - Jacqueline Wilson
One Hundred Years of Solitude - Gabriel Garcia Marquez
The Pillars of the Earth - Ken Follett
David Copperfield - Charles Dickens
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory - Roald Dahl
Treasure Island - Robert Louis Stevenson
A Town Like Alice - Nevil Shute
Persuasion - Jane Austen
Dune - Frank Herbert
Emma - Jane Austen
Anne of Green Gables - L.M. Montgomery
Watership Down - Richard Adams
The Great Gatsby - F. Scott Fitzgerald
The Count of Monte Cristo - Alexandre Dumas
Brideshead Revisited - Evelyn Waugh
Animal Farm - George Orwell
A Christmas Carol - Charles Dickens
Far From the Madding Crowd - Thomas Hardy
Goodnight, Mister Tom - Michelle Magorian
The Shell Seekers - Rosamunde Pilcher
The Secret Garden - Frances Hodgson Burnett
Of Mice and Men - John Steinbeck
The Stand - Stephen King
Anna Karenina - Leo Tolstoy
A Suitable Boy - Vikram Seth
The BFG - Roald Dahl
Swallows and Amazons - Arthur Ransome
Black Beauty - Anna Sewell
Artemis Fowl - Eoin Colfer
Crime and Punishment - Fyodor Dostoevsky
Noughts and Crosses -  Malorie Blackman
Memoirs of a Geisha - Arthur Golden
A Tale of Two Cities - Charles Dickens
The Thorn Birds - Colleen McCullough
Mort by Terry Pratchett
The Magic Faraway Tree - Enid Blyton (unread)
The Magus - John Fowles
Good Omens - Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman
Guards! Guards! - Terry Pratchett
Lord of the Flies - William Golding
Perfume - Patrick Suskind
The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists - Robert Tressell
Night Watch - Terry Pratchett
Matilda - Roald Dahl
Bridget Jones' Diary - Helen Fielding
The Secret History - Donna Tartt
The Woman in White - Wilkie Collins
Ulysses - James Joyce
Bleak House - Charles Dickens
Double Act - Jacqueline Wilson
The Twits - Roald Dahl
I Capture The Castle - Dodie Smith
Holes - Louis Sachar
Gormenghast - Mervyn Peake
The God of Small Things - Arundhati Roy
Vicky Angel - Jacqueline Wilson
Brave New World - Aldous Huxley
Cold Comfort Farm - Stella Gibbons
Magician - Raymond E. Feist
On the Road - Jack Kerouac
The Godfather - Mario Puzo
The Clan of the Cave Bear - Jean M. Auel
The Colour of Magic - Terry Pratchett
The Alchemist - Paulo Coelho
Katherine - Anya Seton
Kane and Abel - Jeffrey Archer
Love in the Time of Cholera - Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Girls in Love - Jacqueline Wilson (unread)
The Princess Diaries - Meg Cabot
Midnight's Children - Salman Rushdie (unread)

The Lorax by Dr. Seuss

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 from which to pick, 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 Chris.

It has driven the recommender a little crazy, I think, that it has taken me so long to get to this one. It's just a picture book! I could read it in about 10 minutes! He's not wrong, but I'm stubborn. I waited until it came up on my list, and then I read it. Which is now. Over a year after he recommended it.

Of course, this all leads to the question, how do you review a picture book? They're short, they're mostly pictures, and I'm pretty much the opposite of a visual thinker. (Doesn't mean I can't see the pictures when I'm reading, but it does mean I'm unlikely to retain more than a very fuzzy memory.) (Seriously, I've filled out questionnaires for the aphantasia study going on right now, and everything.)

Of course, even without remembering exactly what the pictures looked like, I have a sense of Dr. Seuss and how he draws in general. I mean, just look at that little guy up there! It's all shaggy and fuzzy and pretty damn adorable, and probably bends in interesting ways. Wow, do I not have a lot more to say, except that how can you not love Dr. Seuss illustrations.

This is not one of his books that formed a big part of my childhood, although I do remember reading it before, probably past childhood. It is, of course, the most overtly environmental of Dr. Seuss' books, with the ongoing rapaciousness of capitalism making goods no one wants moving into an area, stripping it of everything, displacing the animals, and cutting down all the trees, and then moving on, leaving it barren and sterile.

It's not a subtle message, although it is probably a necessary one. Let's bootleg a little anti-uncontrolled capitalism into every child's life, shall we? (I'm serious. We should.) It's accessible, and I'm pretty sure kids reading this book would be outraged at that damned Onceler.

The biggest thing, though, is the ending, which is catchy and memorable, and would be great if it stuck in everyone's mind. I've seen it since, just as a quote. It's the part that goes:

Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, 
Nothing is going to get better. It's not.

Bringing it back to the reader, even as a child, that this is something preventable, and encouraging them to see themselves as part of the solution as well. It's a good message.  So yeah, I like this picture book. If I had kids, I'd get it for them. (Of course, were I a parent, I'd eventually probably get very boring and talk about how that individual action has to be gathered into collective and governmental action, and my kids would probably start rolling their eyes pretty damn hard.)

I'm very glad I never saw the movie that was made of this. I don't really intend to ever see it.