Friday, 30 September 2016

Three Parts Dead by Max Gladstone

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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 Matt

Imagine magic as being something very much like the law - if you make a good enough argument and have the documents on your side, you can change the world. That's part of the premise of Max Gladstone's Three Parts Dead. When a god is killed in one of the last places to even have a god, lawyer-magicians on two sides show up to fight it out over how exactly he'll be resurrected, according to which contracts, and depending on what liability can be proved.

This sounds like something that, in the wrong hands, could be very dull, but it is not. Gladstone has created something here that is most similar to Earthbound urban fantasy, but set it in an entirely other world, one where humans figured out how to harness the beliefs that gave gods their powers, and bound it into contracts and power. This caused a war with the gods, in which most of the gods died at the hands of the upstart humans. 

One city's god had no part in the war, although his lover joined and died. Just as the dust is settling, many years later, Kos the Everburning turns up dead. An associate from a magical necromantic firm takes on a new apprentice, Tara, who had been a student at the school for magic, but was tossed out (literally, given that the school floated above the clouds and she was unceremoniously dropped over the side.) 

The counsel for the opposing side was the professor who dropped her over the side of the school to, presumably, her death, so she's got some scores to settle. But mostly, she needs to prove herself. Tara is an interesting main character - she's so invested in learning a kind of magic that will eventually strip the meat from her bones that she is willing to forsake family, connection, and almost anything to get back into that world.

Driven as she is, though, she's still sympathetic, human enough to be horrified at what one of her professors had "accomplished" to try to take him down. She's clever, and in way over her head, but knows enough to enlist the chainsmoking monk who was present when his god failed to show up, the monk's childhood friend, now an agent of Justice and also a vampire bite junkie, and a vampire pirate captain. 

This book was a great deal of fun, while also having some things to say about power, about religious presence, and the effect of the void on those who once had it filled and are now looking to reclaim what made them feel whole.

Add in to that some ravenous shadows, another murder, a gargoyle who has his face stolen from him, along with his will, and some pleasing twists and turns that you'd expect from a book that, after all, hinges on something like a court case. There's plenty of action as well, particularly when the gargoyles are involved.

The concept of Justice as it is expressed in this book was particularly intriguing - after Kos' lover was killed in the war, she was resurrected, but only partially - everything that made her a goddess, a personality, or capable of bestowing grace on her followers, was stripped away, and she was turned into a force that is only concerned with tracking down malefactors as designated by the contract that brought her back. When the officers are in the grip of Justice, they lose all sense of self and get a touch of wholeness, but always without the core of connection that would make it something warm. This is what leads the officer we meet to seek out the addictive pleasures of having her blood sucked by vampires, because otherwise, she is always empty when she isn't on the job. 

I don't know if this one is for everyone, but this was definitely a fantasy book meant for me. I'll be looking for the others in the series. 

Sunday, 25 September 2016

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

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It feels like it's been a while since I've read a book that makes me truly evangelical, the kind of person who buttonholes everyone she meets and tells them about this awesome book she's just read and if they haven't they really must right right now. 

So, are you listening? If you haven't read Kate Atkinson's Life After Life, you must, right right now. It swept me away, and every day I had it out from the library, I was eager for lunchtime to come at work so I could sit down and be sucked in again.

Ursula lives her life over and over again. It's not so much that she remembers it wholesale, although she feels echoes when emotionally charged situations come up in later lives, letting her steer her life into different paths, some better, some worse.

Of course, the whole book starts with her killing Hitler, which not only nails this book down to a particular time and place, it gives a hint of some of the major themes that will run throughout. She is born not long before World War I, and that means that she's an adult when World War II comes along. In almost every life where she survives that long, she resides in London, and lives through the Blitz, or doesn't survive the Blitz, depending.

It becomes in many ways a reminder of the monotonous and terrifying length of war, how she can never quite get away from it, no matter where she goes or what she does. Her life could be different but in every lifetime, the war looms as an event that changes everything.

This is, of course, not a linear book. It's not a steady uphill climb towards her perfect life - every time different mistakes exist to be made, although she is able to prevent a few of the most horrible. She is the sum of all her life, of all her past lives, and does things without even understanding their root causes.

I was taken near the end by the suggestion that she might not be the only person who is undergoing something like this, as the day of her birth suddenly takes a rapid turn that doesn't seem possible without someone else feeling the same echoes Ursula does.

I have in the past dinged Atkinson for writing really good books that rely on gimmicks that don't add anything right at the end. They've seemed somewhat forced and out of place, and the books were strong enough they didn't need that. In Life After Life, she finally nails it - the gimmick, if you call it that in this case, is evident from the beginning and enriches the book and the characters, instead of feeling tacked on and unnecessary. This feels like a story that could only have been told this specific way, and I am so so glad that I finally sat down and read it. I could barely catch my breath.

Saturday, 24 September 2016

Zeroes by Scott Westerfeld

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People being born in years ending in zero, particularly those years at the end of a century, are popular in superhero origin stories. Well, at least, it's a major part of a couple of characters' backstories in Warren Ellis' Planetary. It happens again here, with a bunch of teenagers born in the year 2000, who all have superpowers. 

How and why they don't know, nor do we know if this is a worldwide phenomenon, or just something that happened in this one city. The other part of their powers that is fairly innovative is that for most of them, their powers grow stronger the more people are around. Of course, as teenagers, they're not exactly adept at negotiating tricky social situations this might cause, nor about knowing what they want to do with their lives.

Zeroes is fairly solid YA, unobjectionable and interesting, if not challenging. Westerfeld's take on superpowers and their association with crowd energy is interesting, and it is explored in intriguing ways. I haven't seen anything quite like this before. The leader of the group (a group on the verge of fragmenting) can talk so he can convince crowds of anything. One of the young women in the group can destroy electronics, and that gets stronger the more of them she is around. Another is blind but can move her consciousness to other people's eyes. Another can't hold on to people's attention, and the more people there, the more likely they are to not remember that he was ever there.

One, however, has a power that works best one on one - an alternate voice that can talk its way out of almost any situation, or, to be more precise, say exactly what needs to be said to achieve what Evan wants. Mostly, it seems to concern having information about people that seems impossible, or implies telepathy. As the book starts, the Zeroes are barely speaking, Evan having lashed out and destroyed each other member's weak spot, leaving them scattered.

And make no mistake, he's a prick in what feels like a convincing teenage manner. Short-sighted, selfish, and his lack of anything resembling long-term consideration means that what he wants the voice to do is always to solve the immediate problem, no matter how many others it creates. That leads him to a point where he's trying to put a bag of drug money in a safety deposit box as the bank gets robs, then gets him detained in custody, then broken out in a flood of mayhem.

What power can do, and its destructive potential, is the thread that holds this book together. Between Evan and Crash, the young black woman who can take down computer systems (and wants to but refrains), we see the flip sides of destructive power and either responsibility or irresponsibility in its use.

Anonymous has the most tragic story, which includes his own family forgetting he exists after he's admitted to the hospital. He starts to be able to create connections again over the course of the book, though not without difficulties.

I feel like Zeroes doesn't remarkably change the game in any way, but it's fun YA, the characters are engaging enough, and the core ideas are explored fairly well. Most of all, it bops along easily. 

Thursday, 22 September 2016

Rainbows End by Vernor Vinge


It took me an absurdly long time to track down this book, and then when the dust settled, I somehow found myself in possession of two mass market editions. (I bought one at the big library sale last year, but forgot I had done so, and then picked it up again at a used bookstore.) None of the libraries in town had it, even though it was a Hugo nominee not all that long ago.

Even then, it took me the better part of a year to actually sit the hell down and read Rainbows End. It languished in my purse for a while, only having a page or two read at a time when I found myself somewhere with a few minutes to spare and nothing else on hand.

This all makes it sound like I didn't like the book, but I actually did. It was largely that it was the only mass market book that fit in my purse that I had around for a long time, so it got relegated to back-up book mode through no fault of its own.

Then I finally sat down and started it again from the beginning, and I have to say that this is solid science fiction. The main character is fairly unlikeable, but it's done well and everyone else around him knows that he's an asshole and treats him as such. (Pay attention, Jonathan Franzen.)

Robert Guo was a poet and noted bastard, who took great pleasure in using his facility with words to flay the skin off people in their most vulnerable places. His wife and son came to hate him. Then he got Alzheimer's. He reemerges from that much later, the beneficiary of new treatments that reversed the Alzheimer's and also turned back the clock on his appearance.

For his recovery, Robert lives with his son, son's wife and daughter, Miri. He is told his wife died years ago. As he recovers, he finds that his facility with words is gone, although he still has flashes of his ability to eviscerate someone's self-confidence with a few well-placed words.

That story takes place against the backdrop of international espionage, particularly counterespionage aimed at preventing random terrorist attacks caused by the easy availability of dangerous substances. In particular, one expert happened upon a correlation that suggests someone was testing out a mind control virus at a soccer match.

The trail leads back to a biotech company quite near where Guo lives. There are also subplots about overlays of VR through smart clothes/contact lenses, and the retention of real books versus the digitization of information.

Vinge is ambitious in his scope, and at times that feels like some aspects get short shrift, but overall, the cadre of people who are either old or unable or unwilling to fully use the new tools that permeate their world is strong. Repairing the ravages of age means that suddenly many older people are having to retrain to deal with a world that has changed on fundamental levels - almost no one interacts with the world without mediation of one kind or another.

There are some interesting speculations here, on what that does to knowledge acquisition and retention - when you know you can look up anything at any time, why would anyone bother trying to retain anything, no matter how smart and capable of it they were?

The threat to the world frames the book, but although it plays out in a satisfactory way, the reader is kept largely apart from knowing what the larger picture is - we know attacks happen, security is tight, but that world mostly comes through in the shady background.

Saturday, 17 September 2016

Purity by Jonathan Franzen



I just don't know what to do about Jonathan Franzen. I've read three of his novels, and there is a lot to enjoy there - he's good at turning a phrase, at creating absurd characters with absurd obsessions. On the other hand, his characters are so over the top it gets more than a little ridiculous. The drama level is turned up to 11, and most of the characters are busily creating their own angst.

There are a few problems here. I feel that if he's going for absurdism, this is mostly fine, although I would still have some quibbles. If he's going for any semblance of realism, it's a big big fail. Everyone operates in the key of shrill, nerves and emotions strung out on a level that would be exhausting to sustain - and it's not that I don't believe one character might be that way, but to believe all of them are?

Also, going back to Freedom and comparing the two, Franzen's also got a habit of painting left-wing strawmen and then showing how ridiculous they are. Of course they are - you've made them ridiculous. You've gone to the extremiest extreme, but don't seem to realize it. Of course there are people who take ideologies to absurd places - we see them all the time. But to then paint them as somehow representative? You can't have it both ways.

This works least well when it comes to feminism. There is one female character, Anabel, who is a feminist straw-woman par excellence. She's the one who resents that her husband can pee sitting up, and so makes him sit down. She's the one who farts around on a project filming her own body, and resents it when her husband tries something creative himself or is successful. Completely unable of coping with the world, she makes impossible, insane demands of everyone around her.

Now, it's fairly clear she's mentally unstable, so there's an easy out for Franzen where he can say that she's not supposed to be representative. The problem comes when you being to realize that the extreme and extraordinarily male-focused feminism she exhibits is more or less presented as a symptom of her mental illness. We end up having that association subtly assisted by other less extreme female characters - when they are feeling least secure and rational, that's when they start to turn to their feminism to help them figure out how the men around them are wrong.

Or, as Kate Beaton puts it, Straw Feminists in the Closet. There's something that I don't think Franzen quite gets about feminism in general, and certainly that none of his feminist characters do. Feminism...isn't all about the mens. What are we, Freud? What comes across in this book is an insane penis envy, and all of the feminism we see is focused on men and how horrible they are and men trying to feel horrible about their maleness to appease the feminists in their lives.

Newsflash: systems of gender interact, and part of that will include men, but how about the radical idea that feminism might not be all about guys? Maybe, just maybe feminism is primarily about women. And how we'd like control over our own reproduction, equality of opportunity and compensation, not to be raped, and the list goes on. But see? That's about what women want. When we talk about feminism, can we do it in such a way that doesn't make it all about men? Sorry, Franzen, as a guy, you don't get to make yourself the centre of feminism.

And then there's of course all the rest of the extreme left wing views, which are pointed out as ridiculous, but again, these characters are so extreme that it's hard to put them anywhere near reality. Of course, there are people like that in real life, but although they're loud and noisy, they're not the majority. Of anything.

Which is why it's disappointing. Franzen can certainly write, and I'm always amused by his books, but they become more irritating the more I think about them. At this point, if he wants extreme caricatures, I wish he'd just embrace that wholeheartedly and go for more of the absurd than trying to find the profound and missing not only the mark, but the entire target.

Wednesday, 14 September 2016

Living the Good Life by David Patchell-Evans

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This book. Oh god, this book. It's very far off the beaten track for what I would normally read, but I've generally said that if someone puts a book into my hands, it jumps onto my immediate to-read list. This one was given to me by a friend who was in the process of quitting GoodLife home office, which is of course in the city where I live. They requested that I tear it apart on my blog.

It's hard to resist the challenge. However, even though I already know I don't like GoodLife as a workplace, having heard terrible stories from the three or four people I know who have worked there, I tried to at least start the book with an open mind.

I mean, it's a self-published, self-congratulatory treatise on living by a millionaire. What could, uh, go wrong?

The person who gave me this owes me a beer. They're aware of this. This book is very bad, for a number of reasons. Let's narrow it down to three.

First of all, the chapters on creating or working in a good workplace had me sputtering and developing a severe eye twitch. Everything I've heard about the workplace that his company has created sounds as bad as the worst place I've worked. It may even surpass it. They aren't my stories, so I'm not going to relate them here, but the pay is not great, the top of the pay scale absurdly low, overtime expected, and it sounds like one of those environments where high pressure meets huge workloads, and all the resultant stress from that.

Not to mention turnover, except that it's apparently company policy that they won't give references. 

Let's go back to the book. The bits on the workplace made me angry, because I know he doesn't practice what he preaches - or maybe he means to, but it's not what his company does, and that buck has to stop right about on his doorstop

However, even if you put that aside, there are two other problems that are solely with the book: Positive thinking bullshit and a complete lack of context.

So much of this book reads like it comes from having read a not-very-good magazine article on something to do with positive thinking and writing about it with about that level of understanding. Nothing is cited, things are simply asserted, and there's no deeper consideration of causation or external factors or really anything that would make any of these assumptions worthwhile. Instead, we end up with a positive thinking mishmash that insists, like so much other positive thinking bullshit, that everything is under your control.

I mean, there is lip service to the idea that you're not going for physical perfection, just being healthier, but then we get absolutely baloney things about how half of what happens to you is genetic, 40% is voluntary and 10% comes from external circumstances - but that you can change your external circumstances, so it's really 50/50. Aargh. I hate this so much, and did even before I'd read Barbara Ehrenreich's devastating takedown of this culture, Bright-Sided.  Thank you, for yet again telling people that if they have no money, a shitty job and few resources, it's all their own damn fault.

And beyond that, a problem of writing first and foremost is how entirely weightless this book is. There's no context for anything. It can't quite decide what it is - part memoir, part positive thinking encouragement to start exercising in such a way that will make the author money, part testimonial. For every time he talks about it not being about losing weight, there's a testimonial about how much weight they lost. For every positive thinking anecdote or piece of information, there's no context.

His life sort of floats around the story, but isn't anchored to anything. There are vague references, but no storytelling. There is no mention of a spouse. No mention of the other three children listed in the dedication, just a reference to the one who is autistic. You don't come away from this knowing anything concrete about him, other than that he's great at business and overcame physical disability through exercise.

Make no mistake, this book is a sales pitch. But it's one that does so through ignoring externalities and context, at virtually every step.

Tuesday, 13 September 2016

Castle Hangnail by Ursula Vernon


Recently, it feels like I have read a number of very good books that have nonetheless been a little heavy, and another bunch of books that have been frustrating. It's been a while since I read something that was just thoroughly delightful in almost every way. So I am delighted to report that as a young adult fantasy novel (or perhaps even younger), Castle Hangnail was so much fun to read from beginning to end.

The story was entertaining, the characters positively delightful, the central emotional core strong - pretty much everything I'd want out of light YA. Give this one to your daughters and sons (and in particular your daughters.)

What's it about? Well, Castle Hangnail has been without a master or mistress for a long time, ever since the last Sorceress suffered from dementia. It's in the market for a new Master or Mistress - a Vampire perhaps, or a Mad Scientist, or Evil Sorceress. Or a Wicked Witch, that would do just fine. They've sent out invitations, and the minions are on pins and needles as to whether they'll attract someone before their magical castle gets decommissioned. (Well, Pins, the small burlap man who is a really excellent tailor, is probably always on pins and needles, but now everyone else is too.)

So when Molly shows up with someone named Eudaimonia's invitation and explains that Molly is short for Eudaimonia, the minions accept her, even though the main minion, a man made up of other people's parts, put together by a former Master of Castle Hangnail, is a bit suspicious. Then Molly helpfully gives him a name, (Majordomo), and he's not less suspicious, but he likes her.

They all like her, as a matter of fact. She's very young, she's overweight, and a little too cheerful, but then the minions actually like the people in the village down the way, and aren't really looking forward to a truly Evil master coming and smiting everyone. Now, someone Wicked who smites them that deserves it, that would be okay.

Molly is learning magic as fast as she can, and comes quickly to love the castle and its minions, which also include George, an enchanted suit of armour, Cook and Angus, a minotaur and her son,  Serafina, a steam spirit who lives in a kettle, and Pins' goldfish, who is a bit of a hypochondriac, but a good soul.

There are tasks to complete before the castle is safe from being decommissioned, and a boiler to fix, even though they don't have the money. Molly befriends the bats and the moles, and starts staking out her place in the town by threatening a farmer who is abusive to his animals with a dragon, and opposing a land developer who would really like to buy her castle, tear it down, and put up a suburb.

Then Eudaimonia the real Evil Sorceress shows up, and the minions have to decide where their loyalties lie, and Molly has to decide whether or not to fight for her castle.

Nothing here is probably revolutionary, but it's all just so much fun. The characters are lovable right away, and you want them to succeed in fending off evil and encroaching developments from the castle. 

If you're looking for a book for a young person in your life, or even just a light break from other doom and gloom, I really highly recommend Castle Hangnail. It was a delightful surprise in my summer reading.

Sunday, 11 September 2016

Clockwork Lives by Kevin Anderson

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Based on a Rush concept album, huh? Second book in the series? There's actually quite a lot to like here, and the central conceit is interesting enough, but it suffers by never quite bringing the disparate threads together to become a cohesive whole. Also from having a main character who is initially so single-mindedly conformist as to be cartoony.

In other words, this is just okay.

Part of my difficulty may be that this is the second book in the series - perhaps some of what felt like gaping holes were actually addressed in an earlier book. But even if books build on their predecessors, they should not feel like there is at least a third of the book missing.

Marinda Peake is the daughter of an inventor who was exiled to a small town by the Watchmaker, the man who conquered the land with regularity, and keeps it all ticking. When her father dies, she not only doesn't expect her life to change, she actively believes that change cannot possibly happen to her. This is not portrayed well. I can see someone not having thought their life would change being shocked, even a bit resistant. But it doesn't ring true the way it is portrayed here. It's a heavy hand of an author keeping her in place, not something that feels like it wells up from a completely realized character.

Her father leaves her a book that transforms a drop of blood into someone's life story on the page that Marinda must fill before she can move back into her house. Furious, she sets out, finding out that most people's stories are extremely boring. (That's sort of an unfortunate choice, but otherwise she wouldn't journey, I suppose.)

The problem comes when you start to expect all these disparate stories to eventually weave together to describe a greater whole. I might have had trouble keeping all the stories straight in Catherynne Valente's Orphan's Tales, but in the end, they all did weave together into a very satisfactory whole, allowing lovely moments of pleasure as stories started to click into place and the relationships between them became apparent.

You could also take the conscious tack of deciding that stories are just sometimes arbitrary and don't interact, but you'd have to be aware of it, and weave that theme into the story you're telling.

Neither happens here. At first, it seems like Marinda is on the track of her mother, who ran off from her father in search of adventure. The first person whose story she gets after she leaves was the man her mother ran off with, and I expected this thread of discovering different facets of her mother's life and personality to keep coming to light.

Nope. In his tale, you find out she was more or less addicted to danger and died. Even after that, I was hoping another story would come around to her, that her death wouldn't have been real, and Marinda would find more than that fairly flat portrait, but nope. Never comes up again.

Okay, fine. The next few stories each have a central or tangential aspect of what the Watchmaker most craves, and disturbing hints of how he's tried to obtain it. What he thinks life should be like. With that, and given that Marinda meets the Anarchist, wo is a terrorist opposing The Watchmaker, it feels like maybe this is the point of the book. Marinda will come to understand that the Watchmaker's plan is really not that great a one, and to be perfectly fitting, at the end, she'll get the Anarchist's story to pull it all together and launch her on the next adventure after the book is full. Maybe the Anarchist will even be her mother, or someone who knew her mother. Would make sense, right?

Nope. All these threads are just left there, not pulled together. The individual stories that make up the book are entertaining, and I can see how they could be woven together to make a more impressive whole, but it just never bloody happens.

At the end, after all that, Marinda is happy to have had her adventures, but now she's going to settle down and marry and return to her small town. And that is just...it. All the stories are just in a book on the shelf, the Watchmaker is still in charge, her mother is still a caricature, and that's just it.

Disappointing.


Saturday, 10 September 2016

Saga Vol. 6 by Brian K. Vaughn

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Finally, we're back to something happening in this universe again. The last couple of volumes felt like just treading water, creating drama rather than exploring it. While some good downtime is possibly essential in a long journey like this, this wasn't the satisfying kind.

We pick up years later, when baby Hazel isn't so much of a baby anymore. She's been living in a converted prison/refugee/prisoner of war camp, with her grandmother and ghost babysitter. She's been hiding her wings and going to school. But she's at the age where she wants to tell someone about who she is, and picks her teacher, almost killing her in the process.

Meanwhile, her parents have reconciled over the years they have spent trying to find her, although have not renewed their sexual relationship. You know, at least not until it can be captured on the page. Other new characters included a transgender prisoner who thinks that Hazel is probably the result of rape during war, and is willing to help her because of that.

We also return to the small seal creature whose name I can't remember but enjoy, to the bounty hunter who is out of his mind on a drug that makes him hallucinate the woman most important to him, and the Prince and his son. The Prince is coopted into helping Hazel's parents rescue her from the internment camp.

Lots more happens, and the emotions are stronger, and it doesn't feel like they're trying to force story into a pause that doesn't quite match up. Vaughn is very good at writing connection, and Hazel reuniting with her father is truly moving. (Too bad we don't get any real reunion with her mother - it's broken up by one of the new characters mistaking her for an enemy, but you'd think we'd get something after that. But instead we're on to a reveal which is interesting but...still. She hasn't seen her daughter in years, hasn't stopped looking for her. I know it would mean we get two reunion scenes, but don't you think maybe the story has earned that?)

So, now that the family's back together, let's see what happens next? And I fervently hope we don't go down the same path of them apart/together/apart/together. This is an interesting universe. Hopefully the plotlines will go in unexpected directions.

But in general, it feels like Saga's back on track, and I'm glad I stuck it out. It doesn't hurt that a friend is a big fan who loans me each trade as it comes out. 

Thursday, 8 September 2016

A Complicated Kindness by Miriam Toews

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This was a reread, but it had been many years since I'd last read A Complicated Kindness. When I sat down with it again, I remembered that I'd thought it was great, but not many of the details why. It didn't take long. About three pages in, there was a line that nearly took my breath away, the main character measuring how long it's been since she last saw her mother by how many times she's had her period. The idea is powerful, the way it was phrased utterly heartbreaking.

Much of the book is like that - Nomi, the main character, is not given to flowery language. It's often stark and straighforward, as though her life is only possible to deal with when presented in short, brutal spurts. 

She lives with her father in a small Manitoba Mennonite town. It isn't Old Order Mennonite, although her uncle has been tightening the restrictions on what people can and cannot do. Nomi's sister and mother are both missing, or so we know at the start of the story. The stories of why they left and what might have happened are only slowly revealed.

Nomi's father, Ray, is loving and devout, struggling as much as Nomi is with the absence of his wife and older daughter. The two pass by each other as Nomi goes to her last year or so of school before inevitably, she figures, starting work at the chicken processing plant down the road. That is the life she sees before her, with a past almost too painful to contemplate, and so she spends a lot of time getting high and spending time with her boyfriend, pushing the limits of being a teenager in a Mennonite town, even when teenagers are expected to act out before settling down.

This probably sounds more dour than it is. There are moments of surprising humour, many lines that are utterly heartbreaking. How and why this family fell apart is paced out perfectly.

Reading this not long after Housekeeping made it even more striking, I think, these books that both centre around a home where the defining feature is absence. Nomi and her father are almost as bad at housework as the aunt in Housekeeping, with Nomi making alphabetical suppers that neither eat, and Ray selling pieces of the furniture at, it seems, random.

There isn't any psychoanalyzing in this book. It is presented as a life as it is lived, and is more powerful for its refusal to try to pathologize or even to let the readers too close to the characters. Yet, it's done so skilfully that you love the characters anyway, understand why they do what they do, if not necessarily who they are. They make questionable decisions, but you understand and empathize with every single one. 

Much of this book is rooted in the mundane, and the heartbreak of the mundane. The ways in which is imprisons and confines, with glimpses of a larger world which may not be freeing, but would not bind tight in exactly this way. The impact of religion is woven through, part of the strictures of the town that bent this family to the breaking point. 

It's a powerful book, and I was moved by nearly every page, amused by many of them, and feeling at the end that there were many complicated kindnesses going on. I highly recommend this one for everyone.

Sunday, 4 September 2016

Skin Game by Jim Butcher


I skipped a lot of books in this series to sit down with Skin Game as part of my ongoing attempt to read all the nominees for best novel Hugos. I'd read the first three or four Dresden Files books, mostly but not entirely enjoyed them, and really hadn't been eager to plow through the next, oh, 20 or so. (Or however many there are.)

But due to the kerfluffle last year, this ended up in the nominees, so I just went ahead and read it. I knew the big thing that had happened to Dresden over the last few books, as my husband has read them all, so some of what had happened was already spoiled. 

It kind of feels like there are two things to consider here - how is this is a book, and how is this as a Hugo nominee? Because it's perfectly possible for something to be fine and even enjoyable as a book, and still not something that really feels like a worthy nominee for a major award in the field. And I guess that's pretty much where I fall.

This was a perfectly acceptable and enjoyable heist novel, Butcher seems to have mostly abandoned the way he always had Harry say some variation of "yeah, I'm a chauvinist, what of it?" in every damned book, and it depicts a world that keeps changing in major ways and isn't afraid to move the story forward. It's a fun adventure novel.

That is pretty much all it is, and all it tries to be. It's the 20th book in the series, and by itself, there's nothing that makes this one stand out from the rest. (In a way, it's a pity, because the nomination of this book means Butcher can't be nominated for a Hugo for the series as a whole when he's done with this universe. As an overall achievement over many many books, I'd probably see that as more deserving of at least recognition, if not a win. But that's not going to happen now.)

It's of course not to say that books that aren't necessarily deserving haven't made it on the Hugo shortlist before - they obviously have, although not as part of such a concerted effort to seize control of all the nominations, instead of a push to get a single author recognized. I have more sympathy with the latter, although I really prefer the chaos and disagreement of a democracy.

So, if not really a worthy Hugo nominee, is Skin Game a bad book? Definitely not. As I said, Harry didn't once go for the bullshit "it's your fault if you care about my chauvinism" defense, nor did he act it out in those ways that were so very irritating, and that's a lot more pleasant. I'm also a sucker for heist stories, and Skin Games pulls it off well. The story moves along, the reversals are convincing and satisfying, and by the end of the book, I was well pleased, if not moved or in any way expecting the book to stick with me for a long time to come. 

Booklinks:

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

Saturday, 3 September 2016

Afterparty by Daryl Gregory

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 When I went to see Alfonso Cuaron's Gravity, it was right in my wheelhouse. I am obsessed with space, and captivated with zero gravity, and attempts to capture the same on tape. (Stardance by Spider and Jeanne Robinson is one of my favourite books, sparking this particular interest.) It's a darned good movie. It's solid, it's tense, and when I left, I was vaguely disappointed.

It wasn't the movie itself. It was the expectations I carried in. I know Cuaron can make movies as intense and difficult and amazing as Children of Men, and in comparison, Gravity feels like more of an exercise in action - well done action, but not what I'm looking for from that particular filmmaker.

I have a little of that feeling about Daryl Gregory's Afterparty. This is really a very good book. It's tense, it moves quickly, the characters are interesting and my attention certainly never flagged. But it also doesn't do what I've come to expect books from Daryl Gregory to do, the reason I most look forward to reading everything he's written.

To be specific, what I've been most enthralled with is Gregory's ability to take an idea and not only tell an engaging yarn with it, but to continue to push the idea and the implications of that idea further and further, beyond what I'd even conceived of, and into the truly tricky, metaphysical, and fascinating. 

Afterparty gave me hopes of that - it seems to be building on at least one idea from a short story in his collection Unpossible, around the idea of religious belief, or a connection to a Divine, through pharmaceutical/biological ingestion. I was delighted - I liked his short stories but think he really shines in long form when these ideas are really taken out and aired.

And that is what this book is about - a biochemist in a mental institution in Ontario (like all Canadians, I like to point out when people who aren't Canadian notice us), with persistent delusions of an angel, after a massive overdose of a drug that triggers religious experiences, a feeling of connection. Numinousness, if you will, since Numinous is the name of the drug. She's been locked up since she and her co-creators all accidentally OD'd on it, with differing effects, but all of them with persistent hallucinations of a connection to the Divine, and a physical manifestation of it. 

Lyda, the main character, believes it's a hallucination. She knows how the drug works, and is still, despite everything, an atheist. Her angel will not, however, quit hanging around. On the night of the overdose, she lost her wife, but doesn't entirely remember what led to her wife's death. When Numinous, a decade later, hits the streets, she gets herself released and convinces her sometime lover, a former (CIA?) operative named Ollie to break out and join her in hunting down a drug she believes is far too dangerous to hit the streets. It's not the high, it's the withdrawal. 

This all sounds great, and it is really good. I buzzed through this book quickly, and enjoyed it a whole hell of a lot. But...that next step, where the idea itself goes in unexpected directions, both to the point I expected and then far, far beyond it? Didn't happen. We got to the point I expected, but that's about it.

I am being ungrateful, I know. This is a solid science fiction thriller, with a satisfying whodunnit thrown in, great characters, set in my country, and some provocative ideas. Not every movie can be Children of Men. I do know that. 

So I recommend this. Strongly. I just hope there's more of what I most enjoy about Gregory's work out there waiting for me.

(Oh, and just one quibble, because a lot of it is set in Toronto - here, they're called universities. Colleges are quite different. And frats aren't nearly the huge part university culture they are in the States. That was the only thing that bugged me.)

Thursday, 1 September 2016

East of Eden by John Steinbeck

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Oh sure, let's review East of Eden, and give my two cents on a classic. Well, actually, that's never stopped me before, and won't necessarily now. Also, this was a reread of East of Eden, and because I read it when I did, in concert with a couple of other books, there are a few comparisons I want to make.

It goes without saying that there is a damn reason this book is a classic. It's magnificent. It takes my breath away. The first time I read it, I felt stunned, and coming back to it after several years have passed, my reaction is almost as acute. One thing I was stunned by was that I'd forgotten one of my favourite characters in the intervening time - Lee, who he was and why I loved him, had completely gone out of my head.

When you first encounter him, it's cringeworthy - stereotypical Chinese broken English and I sighed, and though "Oh, Steinbeck." And then you find out more and more and it's hard not to love him.

There are two things that struck me this time for, I think, the first time. One is because I'm in the middle of reading a lot of books about children whose mothers have left - not just died, but left, either by deserting their husbands and children or by suicide. Put East of Eden right smack in the middle of Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson, and A Complicated Kindness by Miriam Toews (as my reading list fell out), and you've got a row of intense punches to the gut about what being left behind does.

I'm not sure yet what exactly I have to say on the topic, but the haunting and long-term effects are strong, even as the Trask children in East of Eden do not initially know their mother left, thinking she died of natural causes, a much less complicated story for why she is not in their life. Adam Trask's wife shot him and left to become a madam in the next town, a much more cold-blooded act than in either of the other two books that have leaving mothers as a theme.

The way Steinbeck weaves this into his retelling of a Cain and Abel story is nuanced - it doesn't happen the way you sort of expect when you first get to know Trask's children. They are both given more agency than you might expect, not propelled along by fate. They are both responsible for their acts, and neither, in the long run, is the one who is good or evil.

The other thing that strikes me, particularly after reading Housekeeping, is about growing up in a single-gender household. Ruth and Lucille are surrounded by other women, Cal and Aron by men. In both cases, the loss of parents and grandparents has left them in homes that are no less homes because they are unusual, and I am struck at the portrayal of the family as it develops - particularly the once that Lee tries to leave and come back, realizing that he's spent a long time denying that his home was his home.

There are both fracture and wholeness in these homes, along with silences of things not being said or expressed that widen into cracks and lead to the inevitable playing out of ancient myths in California. I'm not sure what to do with any of these thoughts, but rereading East of Eden was a pleasure precisely because it did evoke thought and meaning.