Wednesday, 16 August 2017

Unexpected Stories by Octavia Butler

A large part of the reason I picked up a particular Humble Bundle was because it included several Octavia Butler books, including the two Parables, one of which I'd read, and one of which I hadn't. I wasn't sure what Unexpected Stories would be, but my general theory is that if it's Butler, I'm in.

I guess I hadn't really been aware that Butler had written short fiction as well as novels, but it doesn't really surprise me. It did surprise me that these were two as-yet unpublished short stories, and I wondered if they were ones that were unpublished for a reason. Having read them, the first one is good, but shows some rough edges, while the second is much shorter, and a gut punch of a story. It's really great.

If you've read a bunch of Butler and are hungry for more, you'll probably want to read these. I'm not sure I'd recommend them as a place to start, but it's definitely a worthy way-station on my way through her work. I can't wait to get to the novels of hers I haven't read, although I think they're dwindling in number.

The first story, "A Necessary Being" is about leadership and difference in a world that seems in some ways post-apocalyptic, although the people populating it are so different it's hard to know if they're descended from humans, or if we're on an entirely different world with entirely different aliens. It doesn't really matter, I suppose.

Wherever we are, the tribes that remain live precariously, vulnerable to drought or famine from year to year. The tribe we meet first has been suffering from a drought, which may or may not get better. Their Hao worries about what to do when the news comes that another Hao from another tribe has been sighted. Which needs some explanation.

In this society, the colour of your skin determines your caste status, which seem to be mostly warriors or judges, with another mass of people of no particular caste. The colours, though, are what take this into the alien. One is yellow, and I think the other green? The Hao are those who are blue, and the bluer they are, the stronger they are believed to be. The Hao are the leaders, and a tribe without one regards itself as doomed.

So when the new Hao comes into their territory, the river tribe decide they must capture him at any cost, as their present Hao has had no children. Their Hao hates the necessity, having watched her father go through a crippling ritual to bind him to the new tribe and prevent his escape back to his former people, but does believe that a Hao to pass on her authority to is necessary.

What follows is a dance of personal loyalty, tribe loyalty, and some sort of racial loyalty, although the Hao can come, it seems, from any couple, although children with each other have a higher chance of being the blue. (I didn't mention that these people can all change their colour, voluntarily and involuntary, which makes emotional states easier to discern.)

It's a good story, but it doesn't feel like Butler quite at her best. Certainly worth a read, but it's the second, much shorter, story that is the one I'd go back to. "Childminder" was apparently written for a legendary and unpublished Harlan Ellison anthology, and as such, feels like it was more ready for publication than "A Necessary Being."

This one is recognizably set in a version of our world, albeit one where psi powers have been discovered, and are in the process of being bureaucratized and controlled. The lead character is a childfinder, able to find nascent psi powers. But those who set up the organization she left were more interested in people whose powers had fully manifested, and, not coincidentally, were white and of a higher class. The main character decides that she wants to find those whose powers were almost never nurtured or allowed to blossom, moving to something like a housing project to work with the Black children there.

Then, one day, the organization shows up on her doorstep, having decided they were interested in those children after all.

And I'm really not going to say any more than that. Seek out this story, in particular. It's so amazingly good and complicated, particularly by the mini-epilogue. I'd love to talk to people about it.

Tuesday, 15 August 2017

The Victim by Saul Bellow

I had never read any Saul Bellow books before, but I picked this one up from a large 1001 Books To Read Before You Die list, which is one of the many sources from which I pick books. They tend to be quite different from my usual science fiction fare, and that's partly why I like them. It's good not to get too settled into one genre.

So with this one, I moved away from my genre fiction, and more recent works, back into mid-20th century literary fiction. I knew very little going in, only that Bellow was a Jewish author, and I feel like I might have heard that he wasn't particularly good at writing rounded female characters. Now, having read all of one of his works, I can say that in this particular book, women are so far to the side that it's not like they're being treated badly, but that they're barely present. Even when they are. The Victim is so firmly rooted in male experience it has little space for women.

It wasn't particularly offensive, but that when the women characters were around, there wasn't a whole lot to them, with the possible exception of the sister-in-law. She has more to do in the novel, but it's mostly to be irrational about the care of her sick son and accusatory after his death. She's there to be Emotion with a capital E.

The main character is Leventhal, a Jewish man in New York City, employed for several years now after a long stint of unemployment, still feeling uncertain of his place and status. The book was published in 1947, so also written with the uncertainty of WWII and the Holocaust. During his time unemployed, he became frustrated and even belligerent over the treatment he received from employers, which may or may not have been tinged with antisemitism. (This feels like a recurring theme - some things Leventhal experiences are undoubtedly antisemitic, but others are far more nebulous, and it feels like he spends a lot of time biting his own tail trying to figure out if a certain action belongs in one category or the other.)

At one point during this search, he became aggressive with the man who was interviewing him. Shortly afterwards, the man who'd gotten him the interview, Klein, was fired, probably because he wasn't any hot shit at his job anyways, but Klein fired holds Leventhal solely responsible for the wreck his life became after he lost his job, his wife left him, and then was killed in a car accident. He has taken to drinking, and comes to Leventhal with his accusations and an offer to let Leventhal make it right.

Leventhal rejects the assertion, but not entirely. He lets Klein bother him, and even stay with him while his wife is away visiting her mother, and wow, does the guy who holds him responsible lack every kind of boundaries, and there were plenty of red flags that should have had Leventhal changing the locks and possibly calling the police. Maybe levels at which your warning bells should be going off are different for men, but yikes!

In the meantime, Leventhal has to negotiate the sickness and death of his nephew, who dies before his brother can make it back to his son's side. That this pales in comparison to the issue with Klein is, I think, deliberate, and unsettling.

His social life is full of people who make random comments about you people and how everything is controlled by Jews that is blatant, but then there are moments where you doubt his reactions, because he's assuming he's the centre of other people's lives the same way he is the centre of his own. It's complicated and well done.

The question that came to my mind after the end was who the titular victim was. Leventhal, hard done by and doing hard by himself? The man who depicted himself as Leventhal's helpless victim? I kept coming back to Leventhal's brother, who makes no such claims, but is the one dealing with devastating events without crying out.

Friday, 11 August 2017

Reading the Bones by Sheila Finch

*Some Spoilers Below*

I had a very up and down relationship with this little novella. At the beginning, I was irritated with it, then I mellowed and decided it wasn't that bad, and by the end of the book, had gotten thoroughly aggravated again. In the end, it feels like something with a lot of potential, but with a trick ending that undermines most of what has gone before, and some troublesome colonialism to boot.

It's not great. It's not terrible either, and there are some good ideas here, even if they're not always executed well.

The novella is set on the planet that colonization forces have named Krishna, which is a good sign that Indians are the colonizing force here. This was the first thing that irritated me - it's very hard to lift what is essentially British colonialism, wholesale, transport it to another planet, but make the colonizers Indian and therefore...what? Less colonialist? Not really. It made me angry, that she just substituted Indian names into a setting with amahs, native markets, and rebellions that take place in prose that matches so closely fiction I've read set in British-ruled India, without real thought given to it. (Or at least, thought isn't evident.)

It doesn't suddenly make it okay, if you just replace the British with British-acting Indian colonial powers. It doesn't make it something you can not pay attention to - you want that in your story, you'd damn well better grapple with it honestly, not just state it and try to move on. It's enough to derail what you're doing, and it took me a long, long time to get over it. Add in the drunkard linguist looking at the 16-year-old daughter of the governor and remembering his dead wife, and I had a very hard time getting into this. And the casual description of watching a rape that shocks the viewers, but has no effect on the woman raped. I'm not sure the later explanations of biology make this any clearer. (And we all know how I feel about the overuse of evolutionary psychology.)

It got better, though, when the action jumped forward a few years, and we were with that daughter of the deceased governor as she attempts to become a linguist (lingster) as well, too old for most of the training, but taken under the wing of a lingster looking for universal sounds between alien languages that arose on different planets.

In this case, we got her story juxtaposed with that of her younger sister, who had grown much older because she had not travelled relativistically, left on the planet in a hurried evacuation. The younger sister had been adopted into the alien (Frehti) female priesthood, and sought to solve a problem of a racial split that had lost half the males and much of the possibility of procreation, through recovering and codifying a language the Frehti had brought with them from another planet.

Of course, both sisters end up on the planet at the same age, the older scarcely aged from when she left, the younger nearing her death from old age. The crisis of the Frehti nears, and the younger ancient sister is bound and determined to be the one who solves it, having struggled for her place in Frehti society.

But of course, when they come face to face with a new language from the fallen/altered Frehti, the one who can learn to speak it in barely moments is not the one who has spent her life with the unfallen Frehti, it's the one who has been off-planet for years, but has been educated. This didn't sit that well. Particularly when it all shakes out, and then the older offworld sister shrugs and says "well, it wasn't a problem of linguistics at all. Too bad she wasted her life."

Which...this whole book is about linguistics. Most of the characters are lingsters, or Frehti elders obsessed with language. I mean, I'm fine with not everything having a linguistics answer, but when all you get is a hammer, over and over, it doesn't feel like an unreasonable expectation that there will be a damned nail somewhere.

So, the middle was pretty good, but the beginning didn't show enough thought, and the end was all about giving a middle finger to the characters and the readers, who hadn't been given any hints of any other options all the way through. And this is a plot problem that could have been solved so easily. Have one scene, a couple scenes, where another one of the Frehti elders questioned whether it was about language, who came up with a different idea. Use it as a way to show how orthodoxy works or doesn't in Frehti culture, and then you've at least left the possibility that lifelong obsession might be wrong.

But as a "Psych!" moment right at the end, it's more frustrating than it is interesting or intriguing.

Wednesday, 9 August 2017

The Hanging Tree by Ben Aaronovitch

*Some Spoilers Below*

I find it hard to write reviews for books far into a series that I've read, loved, and reviewed. I start to feel like I've run out of new things to say about a milieu that's familiar, with characters I know and enjoy, and stories that all identifiably come from the same pen. That being said, the Peter Grant series is one of my favourite comfort reads on the market today, and it jumped into that category almost as soon as finished the first one.

These are exactly the sort of books that I want to own and have on hand, and in the morning, when I'm not up for something new, but want something to read while I'm eating my oatmeal, I reach for one. I've read each of the first five several times each, and when I want an audiobook comfort read, this is also where I turn. I haven't listened to this book yet on audio, but the series narrator has some of the best audiobook chops I've ever heard.

What I'm saying is, if you're looking for enjoyable urban fantasy, this is probably what you want. That being said, don't jump in with this book. Where the other ones have strongly centered around one police case, this one is much more about gathering together all the disparate threads that have been emerging over the last several books, and weaving them together.

There is a case at the centre, but compared to the attention on Lesley and on the Faceless Man, it gets comparatively little screentime. It's mostly notable for how much it pisses off Lady Tyburn, given that it concerns her daughter, Olivia. Olivia is present at a party where a girl ends up dead from a drug overdose (and, thanks to Dr. Walid and his new associate's work, we also know due to thaumatological damage) (brain damage from Too Much Magic.)  Tyburn calls up Peter to lean on him to keep her daughter out of the police investigation, which is promptly scuppered when Olivia blurts out in a formal interview that she supplied the drugs.

That becomes less important as we discover that the dead girl had been involved with a French trickster fox character in selling the prized possessions of the Faceless Man on eBay, which means that both the Faceless Man and Lesley start interfering the investigation in fairly major ways.

Both my husband and I were seriously worried for Nightingale, and Peter has been emphasizing for a couple of books now how slow the process of learning magic is, and how Nightingale is all that stands between the forces of evil and annihilation. I would be very upset if Nightingale is eventually killed off, but not all that surprised.

Let's see...Peter is happily mostly shacked up with Beverly, which worries her sister Tyburn, given that Tyburn will outlive her husband and children. Although I'm not sure that's as much a worry with Peter, given that Nightingale has been aging backwards for decades. With an absolutely mundane man, sure, but does it really apply in this case?

At any rate, there are showdowns and near misses as Peter and Nightingale, and Peter's new de facto partner, Sahra Guleed, who I like quite a lot, get ever closer to the Faceless Man, and his mundane identity is revealed in this book. There's also a very interesting discussion between Peter and the Faceless Man at the end of the book that offers some clues to what the master plans might be (and they sound just a little racist to me, and I'm quite sure that's deliberate).

All in all, I enjoyed this one, but I wasn't in it for the mystery, which is largely shunted off to the side in favour of the larger overarching plot that is quickly getting nearer a boil.

Tuesday, 8 August 2017

Danger Planet by Brett Sterling

I am somewhere over 40% done reading all the Hugo Best Novel winners and nominees. I hadn't quite realized that the list I had grabbed from the internet all those years ago included the Retro Hugos that had been handed out by that point, until I finished this book and went looking for the year Danger Planet had been nominated. I kind of like picking up the Retro Hugos in this list, but knowing that this award was handed out in 1996 makes it a little bit more baffling that Danger Planet made the cut. Perhaps there weren't that many novel-length SF books to pick from.

Which is not to say that Danger Planet is a bad book, precisely. It is a rollicking space pulp adventure, with a stalwart genius scientist/adventurer/atom gun quickdraw master/mastermind hero, as muscled and adoration-worthy as any other I can think of. But that is exactly what this book is, and it's not a lot more. It's not bad as science fiction pulp. As an award winner? Well, I like to see nominees that are trying something a bit more ambitious, although it's true that in every given year there are books nominated for all sorts of reasons, some better than others.

This is a book that bops along nicely, and doesn't bear thinking about for more than a second, although I'll go ahead and think about it regardless. And it was one absolutely terrible bit of wordplay at its core. That alone should have disqualified it, as far as I'm concerned. (I'm joking. Mostly.)

But I'll tell you, so you can decide for yourself. Most of the action takes place on the planet of Roo, where the herb that, scientifically treated, gives all of humanity incredible longevity. Roo is a terrible name for a planet, and you can probably see where this is going.  We eventually find out that the long-gone evil race that used to rule the galaxy might still have some sleeping members on Roo's moon.

They are...wait for it...the Kanga.

Yup. This is all an elaborate kangaroo joke, with no real reason for it. It doesn't really pay off in anyway, other than to make me shake my head when they revealed the name of the evil race, a name that does much less than strike terror in any heart.

It's also one of those pulp books where the hero is a genius scientist in both biology (having invented the longevity treatment) and physics (invented the drive that gives humanity interstellar travel), as well as being the best quickdraw on the atom gun in the galaxy, and strong and stalwart, and deeply in love with his best gal, who follows along, and gets herself in some danger by being plucky, only to be rescued at the end.

He doesn't do this all by himself - Captain Future has the Futuremen. Oh, didn't I mention that his title is Captain Future? Curt Newton, Captain Future? In addition to being all that himself, he has a brain in a box, a coarse robot who gets as near to cussing as you can have in the 1940s, and an android who is a master of disguise. Together, these four (and his best gal Joan when she can follow along) travel to Roo to find out who is stirring up the natives, who burning down the plantations of the vitron (longevity plant) farmers. They're also the workers on those plantations, I think, and certainly the impact of out-and-out colonialism isn't examined in this particular book.

(But it made me more sympathetic to the Roon. Why should they work for humans hellbent on controlling a crop on their own planet, making huge profits and shipping it all off-world? Of course, they're not rebelling because of that. They're rebelling because they're superstitious uncivilized people, easily bamboozled by those occupying their planet. I was going to say by the White man, but although most of the human inhabitants of Roo do seem to be male, the names are split between names that read as White and those that deliberately give the sense of being Asian.)

A lot of this seems very much like a Western, transported to space. Of course, Captain Future manages to save the day at the end, even though the dread Kanga (I can't even type it with a straight face) do awake at the end, and are fairly quickly dispatched by Captain Future, even though it took the old good race the Denebians, a long time to fight them into stasis.

It's fun, but it's also one of those older science fiction books that, once you start thinking about it, is chock full of assumptions and tropes that make it a bit troubling.

Friday, 4 August 2017

The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter

My themed-read Science Fiction and Fantasy book club is in the midst of a theme on Fairy Tales, and although I'd never read The Bloody Chamber, I knew I had to get Angela Carter in there somewhere. All I've read of her before is Wise Children, so, with the help of google, I picked this set of short stories for her inclusion in the theme, crossed my fingers, and hoped.

We had the club meeting last night, at the time of writing this, and overall, I think it ended up being a good pick. There were some questions about the order of the stories and some of the stories within, and it sparked some good conversations, although I forgot to try to link it to the previous book so we can build on what we've talked about each month as we go. Ah well, next month.

For a retelling of fairy tales, this is long on sexuality, budding bodies, potential sexual violence, and self-discovery. That's not particularly unexpected, as these are often the subtext of fairy tales, brought into text forcefully. There are a number of stories that mash together a couple of fairy tales to create something unsettling, like the story where Little Red Riding Hood meets a classic werewolf folk tale. 

It is odd that the stories are grouped so that every run she makes at a particular fairy tale comes one right after the other. There are back-to-back Beauty and the Beast stories, and three or four Little Red Riding Hood/werewolf stories, one right after the other. This felt a little odd, more like you were reading someone's drafts that truly different stories, even though each was a distinct take.

I don't know if any of us knew quite what to make of the Erl-King story, other than what it was on its face, a story of sexual obsession and submission.

While these are stories that come from a feminist root, they're not so much stories of female empowerment. Some of them are stories of male violence, and in others, while the women end up in better positions than they started, it tends to be less because of actions they themselves have taken as because those around them have supported them in becoming who they would like to be. There are a bunch of stories of women with animal or part-animal lovers that allow them to indulge and discover their sexuality without restraint. But these are not stories of women actively changing their own destinies, for the most part. The opportunity to embrace a new destiny comes to them, mostly unsought, and they seize it.

Animality and humanity are common themes, with animals or half-human animals often being portrayed as more honest (although not all - that one werewolf!) than humans. "Wolf-Alice," the last story, is probably the most explicit exploration of this, with the feral girl learning gradually how to think in the future and past, sadly distancing herself from who she was when she was raised by wolves. But it's there in the Beauty and the Beast stories as well.

Then there's the one Dracula meets Sleeping Beauty meets The Boy Who Couldn't Shudder story, where a lonely vampire lady lives in her crumbling Bulgarian castle, draining those who stop by unwittingly, until a young blond male virgin soldier comes by. At my book club meeting, we had different opinions of what the ending meant, with my husband coming up with a far creepier interpretation than the rest of us. I'm not sure he's wrong, and shudder.

Reading this book often left me unsure what I wanted to say about it, and I find that continues. There's a lot here, but there doesn't feel like one big cohesive point. This is not unexpected, given that it is made up of short stories. There are a lot of little points to consider, and I feel like I've barely scratched the surface. 

Wednesday, 2 August 2017

Transcendental by James Gunn

A little while ago, I decided to try an experiment, as I am fond of doing. I looked at my Top Ten lists from the last few years, and decided to check out "read-alikes" of my favourite books of the last little while, using NoveList's handy sidebar for suggestions.  So far, the results have been mixed. I think this is the fifth book I've read as a "read-alike," and there has really only been one that I've loved - Michael Chabon's The Yiddish Policeman's Union as a readalike for Jo Walton's Farthing. Oh, and I guess I really enjoyed John Steinbeck's To A God Unknown as a readalike for Marilynne Robinson. But at best, we're batting less than .500. Still, I'm enjoying the experiment and intend to continue.

However, after reading and loving Hyperion, (it topped my first Top 10 list, back in 2013,) Transcendental had a lot to live up to. Why it was picked as readalike wasn't hard to figure out. Like Dan Simmons' truly excellent novel, this is a "Canterbury Tales in space" - pilgrims on a dangerous voyage, each taking a turn to tell their story about who they are and why they're going where they're going.

Unfortunately, it's also nowhere near as good, and when I have such an easy benchmark to examine it against, it's not hard to figure out why. First, in Simmons' book, each short story can absolutely stand on its own (with perhaps the exception of Lamia's story, which is the weakest). They are each little urgent masterpieces of short fiction, tied together in a way that heightens the tension. In contrast, in Gunn's novel, each story is essentially the same story, and not a one of them could stand as something you would want to read outside the context of the book.

Almost every single story is a story of the evolutionary psychology of a different alien race, and how each of them is locked into biological patterns, and is looking for the Transcendence Machine to make their race something more. (The whole story is of a ship jumping through hyperspace to try to find this mythical machine. There's a "Prophet" involved, but since that role involves no speaking, recruiting, or prophesizing, it's a little bit of a dubious title.)

That's largely it. So, the stories are a bit simplistic, tending to all be about how evolution set psychological patterns, to a degree that pretty much obviates any kind of personality or choice, and the background story is not anywhere as interesting as Hyperion, either. There's no real pressing reason - I mean, in theory, there's the threat of a possible war if they fail, but it's very hypothetical, not at all an imminent thing they're trying to thwart. There is an enemy trying to make the attempt fail, but we learn very little about who those enemies might be, or what they want.

Of course, I could have told you that if you were starting off trying to do something similar to Hyperion, odds were that you would come up short, and the comparison just makes the shortcomings more obvious. If I try to look at this book without that lens, as just a science fiction book, how does it fare?

I would probably be less critical in the specifics - the writing is serviceable, and the story moves along quickly. It's never a slow book. It just really feels like there isn't a lot there. The stories are repetitive, and the search for the machine even more so, unmarred by anything deeper that would provoke or reward thought. And I was disappointed by the meaning of transcendence, which ended up just meaning physical optimization. The answer as to what the Transcendence Machine was was similarly a bit reductionist, and probably the least fun answer it could have been.

This all sounds like I hated the book. I didn't. However, it wasn't a great book, even before I tried to compare it to the superlative Hyperion.

Tuesday, 1 August 2017

The Week in Stories: No One Gets Out Alive - "Another Midnight"

Episode 2: "Another Midnight"

Just an addendum to the start of my recap of the last session. Lisette's player filled up her spooky-stuff clock in the very first scene she was in, so she joined the other two of us in picking a ghostly manifestation. So, joining "The Mirror" and "The Door," we added "The Whisper." Some of what that means is already becoming apparent!


Character and Session Thoughts

First of all, it was truly amazing how much we managed to pack into about two and a half hours of play. Below is one of the longer recaps I've ever written, and it all happened, dramatically and often quickly. In fact, I'm not sure a longer session would have been any better - by the time we'd gone around the table twice for scenes, my dramatic ideas for the evening had been exhausted, and everyone seemed to agree that that was enough.

I think there are two reasons why we got so much done in so little time. First of all is that we only have three players, plus the GM. That means, in general, that every player is in at least every other scene. There's a lot of screen time, and even when there are scenes with NPCs, it's often not long until one of the other two PCs enter. This means we have lots of opportunities to get our stuff on the table, both the things we'd thought about, and those that just come up in the heat of the moment.

The second reason is the explicit social contract we had going into this game - that this was going to be a drama-heavy game, that we were going to commit and go deep into character and play hard. We're all here for the same thing, and have all played together for a long time, and have that level of trust and comfort that when you're playing a difficult scene, the other person is right there with you.

After a first session that had little of the supernatural, the horror elements are starting to manifest, big time. I'm sure it only goes downhill from here. We needed that first session to see what these people were like when they weren't being haunted, now we get to see them starting to be under pressure, which will no doubt continue. Which relationships will crack when danger rears its head? Which ones will be revealed as strong, or become stronger?

Bill had more to do as the GM for this session, as in the first, he'd largely sat back and let us explore the character dynamics. That came through in both the supernatural, and the interactions with NPCs - Michael's incredibly irritating and selfish siblings, and Michael and Jo's kids, one of whom seems to be a sweet but scared young man, and the other where Bill is channelling his inner 16-year-old girl who hates her parents to great effect. There were visible winces and muttered oaths during the evening as Madeline said cutting things about her parents and their relationship.

Finally, on a more personal note, I had had a rough couple of weeks, and I kind of let it all loose at the table when Jo got angry. It was more an icy cold anger, than a hot one, although Bill said I was still loud, which I can believe. Poor Lisette got the most of it, and I certainly had fun, but there was at least one moment where I know Lisette/her player decided to keep a secret rather than accidentally spill it, because Jo getting even angrier was a terrifying prospect. (It is not the first time I've been told I'm terrifying when I'm acting angry. Bwahahaha.)

Also interesting was that while Jo was so angry at Lisette (was already angry going into that scene), when both Lisette and Michael gave her roughly the same explanation of what they had been doing (and lying through their teeth!), she got a lot softer towards Michael than I was expecting, willing to cut him a break when she wasn't for Lisette. Which makes a certain amount of sense - Michael's her husband, and she's been with him for two decades or more, while Lisette wants to be part of the family so desperately Jo feels threatened. Still, it's not a great impulse, to forgive the husband for transgressions while punishing the person he transgressed with more harshly. No solidarity of sisterhood here, which is interesting to explore.

Lisette's player and I talked at length before the session on the dynamic between the two characters, and how it might change - we'll see what happens as the island becomes more dangerous and Jo feels scared and vulnerable!

I usually put the recap first, thoughts second, but the recap is very, very long, so I'm putting it after the cut, for those who are interested. It was such a good session, so intense, with so much going on, that I wanted to get it all down.

To get to the Recap, click below!

Monday, 31 July 2017

Aimless Love by Billy Collins

Reading this book was an object lesson how much of the experience is not only the words on the page, but all that the reader to them. How much can be changed when the reader has been changed, when experience puts things into new, starker relief.

I have always enjoyed Billy Collins' poetry a whole hell of a lot. I absolutely fell in love with Sailing Alone Around the Room, and have very much enjoyed the other two collections of his that I've picked up over the last few years. I bought Aimless Love in the early months of this year, and dipped into it, finding a couple of poems that hit me, at the time, like a ton of bricks. I was going to love this, I was sure, just as much.

One of the things I always liked best about Collins' poetry is the sense of the present woven with delicate intimations of mortality in the future. Hypothetical ones, brought to mind by the mundane. The poems haven't changed since then, but I have. Since then, I've lost my mother. And melancholic considerations aren't what I want anymore.

I found myself irritated by the distance and delicacy. What I wanted wasn't to think wistfully of my own eventual death. I wanted poetry that approached death with emotion and grief. I wanted some reflection of what death is when you get a horrible phone call. When you try desperately to find a rental car before all the branches close. When you sit vigil in a hospital. When breathing changes and you watch one of the most important and beloved people in your life die right in front of you. There is no distance. There is no delicacy. And right now, I can't take poetry that wants to consider death as something ephemeral and weightless, disembodied.

I want poetry that tackles the body, its strength and fragility. I want loss. I want pain. I want to see something of what I feel reflected in words on a page. To find someone who understands, who captures far better than I can, how much this hurts, how long the pain persists, the dimensions of that howling void that lies in wait around unexpected corners, and when an errant thought leads me to the edge, swallows me whole in gut wrenching grief.

And if I can't see my exact experience, I want something that is more visceral right now. So this book came to me at exactly the wrong time. It's not that the poetry is bad. It isn't that I wouldn't love it again in maybe a year or two, or hadn't loved the poems I read back in the months when I still had a mother.  It is that where I am right now can't handle what this book is bringing to me.

It feels so odd, to be frustrated at a book for being good at what it is, because it is not what I want it to be. There were still moments I liked. The cheeky poems about writing still made me smile. The moments of finding oneself just precisely where one is, and rooting the self in a singular moment, were still poems I enjoyed. But there were so many that touched on mortality, and they did so in a way that is far more abstract and distant that I can stomach at the moment.

So I brought myself to this book, and found frustration, when I know that other mes to come may reread and find something quite different, when death has receded from the tides of my daily life.

Friday, 28 July 2017

The Dream Thieves by Maggie Stiefvater

I read the first book in this series right around the time my mother died, and so it was one of the three or four book reviews that just never got written. It was a pity, as I had things I wanted to say, like that I enjoyed it, but that the pacing felt strange. The start of the book had led me to expect a specific arc, and by the end of the book, a much smaller arc was all that got resolved, and it became apparent that the thing I was expecting would be the end of the series. It wasn't well telegraphed as the "season-long" arc instead of the individual book plot, was my point, and I was a bit irritated. Not enough to not have enjoyed the first book, on a mostly superficial level, but enough that it stuck with me even though I never put words to the page and reviewed it.

Now we're on to the second book, and the other niggling things that bothered me - the problems of the rich prep school boys, the reemergence of the trope of the one girl/woman in a group being enough - have mostly resolved, and I have to say, I quite enjoyed The Dream Thieves. Make no mistake - it's YA, and it's not that deep. But it's fun.

Anything to do with the school has receded into the background, although the financial concerns of one character are still very much on the table. And there are many more female characters who take a larger role - but instead of being Blue's peers, they're her mother and aunts and family friends and cousin. They were all present in the last book, but they're becoming much stronger characters in their own rights, with their own stories, and I'm kind of digging that multi-generational dynamic.

Oh, right. What's the story? Well, Richard Gansey III, the rich and privileged and insanely well-read and educated scion of a wealthy family, is looking for the lost resting place of a Welsh king, who seems to be something like an Arthur figure. He's been tracing ley lines and scraps of mystery. That led him to Henrietta, a small town with a prestigious school.

In the first book, we learned that he's going to die within a year, and that's the storyline I was expecting to play out by the end of the first book. Instead, I'm figuring it'll be somewhere in the fourth book, given the titles of the others. It seems that each of the main characters is given a book in which, in and amongst all the doings of the other cast members, they discover who they are in the mythological scheme of things.So yeah, now that I've seen the pattern, it's probably a bit predictable, but it's done well enough that it is enjoyable nonetheless. Sometimes things unfolding deftly as they should can be very satisfying.

In this one, Ronan, the most out of control of Gansey's crew, is discovering who he is and what he can do (after Adam, the poor kid, took on certain attributes at the end of last book). He goes into dreams, and sometimes he brings things out, and sometimes things follow him out. Or hurt him in the dream, with wounds that carry over to the real world. His father may have had some of the same powers. So does a classmate. Are his powers any different? Controllable? And what about his mother, who has stayed on the family farm he's not allowed to visit since his father's death?

Again, none of the answers were really surprising, but nonetheless enjoyable. There's real skill in drawing characters you care about, and a good grasp of complexity. The characters are really the reason to read these books, and the plot tugs them along quite satisfactorily.

Wednesday, 26 July 2017

The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin

There has been an N.K. Jemisin book on my Top Ten of the Year lists for two of the last three years. (The year there wasn't one was just because I hadn't read one of her books that year.) She has fast become one of my favourite authors, one I expect great things from, and regularly find them. She's so good at complexity, at innovation, at examining power, at telling damn good stories. I will predict now that this year will be another that will find one of her books in my top ten.

Because Fifth Season is so fucking good, guys. I've been trying to explain why to people without spoilers, for the better part of a week, and it mostly comes down to earnest gestures and repetitions of how how fucking good it is. It is. Read it. My god, this book is good. It's not easy - it's more often devastating than anything else. It's one of those books that guts you even as you enjoy it.

One of the aspects of Jemisin's writing that I enjoy much is how complex the cultures she creates are, how thoughtful their outgrowth from a history she has created, and most specifically, how, when there is more than one culture in the mix, one is not the "good one," and one the "bad." That shit will not fly here - she's really good at finding knife's-edges of difficult ethical dilemmas, and creating characters for those dilemmas to imprison, injure, or alter. But it's never as simplistic as just wanting one side to win.

Take, for example, orogenes, those who can control the seismic movements of Father Earth. Okay, let me take a step back to explain about the world, before I can talk about orogenes. It is a world that has survived many Fifth Seasons, although many civilizations and settlements (deadcivs and comms) have fallen in the process. The Fifth Season is a term for a winter that lasts longer than six months, says the glossary, and sometimes much longer than that. In a world with frequent seismic disruption, ash clouds from volcanoes covering the sky, and other manifestations that make a convincing case that Father Earth hates the people who live upon him, much has been lost, and what is salvaged is held in those places that have survived multiple Seasons.

A large city houses a civilization that has lasted, so far, for hundreds of years, which is quite an accomplishment in this world. Part of why they have is the orogenes. The orogenes can sense and tap into seismic energy (to what extent varies by person.)  The survival of people depends on the orogenes, and to what extent does that justify the ways in which they are used and abused? Because essential as they are to continued survival, orogenes are also enslaved, denigrated, and frequently, killed.

But it's not that simple - orogenes are dangerous. Control can be lost, and an orogene losing control can mean a lot of dead people. The fear that leads to how badly they are treated is, in part, earned.  But not all. It has grown, as fears do, and the more power the orogenes can wield, the more intensely they are hunted and controlled. There is no easy here, and much that is obviously wrong, and yet, it is never quite as simple as you might like it to be.

In this, we follow three orogene women - a mother who has hidden her abilities, mourning the loss of her child to murder when someone found out what he was; a girl taken from her family under the control of the Guardians and trained; a student, earning the rings that denote her ability, sent out on a mission under one of the more proficient orogenes ever - and expected to get pregnant and bear a child by him, to be turned over to the Guardians.

Much of this book is about motherhood, in complex ways, and how these women's lives are shaped by what they are and what they can do. How they connect, I will leave for readers to find out. Which, if you haven't read this yet, please do so immediately. It's just that fucking good.

Monday, 24 July 2017

Brain on Fire by Susannah Cahalan

Medical memoirs are a very certain genre. They demand someone with writing skills and the penchant to use them, but even more than that, they demand an illness that the author can recover from and look back upon, or something that takes long enough to progress that there is time to write. As such, they can be powerful looks at illness, mortality, suffering, and living, but I'm suddenly wary of positing them as universal experiences, because they are truly coming out of a very specific experience of illness and/or death.

Given that my parents both died very suddenly and quickly (we had less than two weeks knowing it was coming for my father, less than 48 hours for my mother, and for both of them, the vast majority of that time was spent unconscious and unresponsive. There was no time to collect thoughts, to meditate on sudden mortality, or grapple with the healthcare system. It was, and then it was over.)

This is not to say that people shouldn't write about their experiences of illness - it can be powerful both for the author and the reader. I'm just making an argument that we shouldn't universalize that as an expression of all illness, of all death. It captures a specific kind of experience, but one that is not necessarily reflective of all. It's just all that's ever likely to get published, for very obvious reasons.

Which brings me to Brain on Fire, which falls into "the author was lucky enough to survive" category. She, a New York Post reporter, spent a terrifying month that she doesn't remember, after an initial descent into hallucinations, paranoia, and aggressive behaviour, accompanied by seizures. The seizures were, weirdly, the lucky part, as it got her housed in an epilepsy ward instead of a psychiatric one, and under the attention of neurologists.

Still, it took one particular neurologist to diagnose her with an autoimmune encephalitis that had only been recently recognized as a thing - which, as Cahalan brings up, raises the question of how many psychiatric break diagnoses might be unrecognized autoimmune disorders similar to what she suffered.

This was the part I found most interesting - Cahalan and her parents both refer to this neurologist as her own Dr. House, in that he figured out an answer no one else could. But while it's plain in what she writes, less obviously explored are the ways in which her medical mystery was not solved by medical genius and irascibility and fundamental mistrust of patients - that seems to be have been the treatment she got from everyone who didn't figure out what she had. What set that neurologist apart was not only that he was familiar with the recent literature, but that he was the first one she ran into with good communication skills, who sat and took a full history, who listened instead of judging, who wasn't in a hurry and paid attention.

Yet we keep attributing good medical care to the genius figuring out the puzzle, when this book hinges upon much softer skills - good communication skills. As someone who has spent years helping teach communication skills to medical students, this made me nod my head fervently, and then be disappointed that we kept coming back to the Dr. House metaphor. Because communication skills really can be the difference between good medical care and poor medical care, between an experience that heals and one that adds to wounds. This can happen in ways small and big, and in Brain on Fire, it was in a very big way. So, while her talk of insurance for all is needed and timely, there's the role for communication skills that is present but not quite as much in the forefront of the book.

Friday, 21 July 2017

Moby Dick by Herman Melville

I have to confess that my last two attempts to read works of classic literature have not gone that well. I've gotten bogged down, a little bored, and run out of time to push through and finish. So when the next classic turned up on one of my lists, I was a little worried. Was this going to be another chance to break a tooth on these huge tomes? At least we owned our copy of Moby Dick, I reasoned.

Turns out I needn't have worried. It did take me a while to read, but there really wasn't a time where I was bored, or felt like I needed to put it down and walk away, possibly for a few years. It's hard to say that Moby Dick is engrossing, but it's consistently interesting, and more than that, it felt like it rewarded thought about what Melville was trying to achieve.

We likely all know the story, of course, of Captain Ahab and his chase for the white whale, even if only through Futurama's venture into these pages while under Giant Brain Attack. What's remarkable is how few pages of the book that actually takes. I mean, it's always on Ahab's mind, but the actual whale only showed up on around page 650 of the 685 pages in my edition. The chase itself is packed into the last thirty pages or so, and most of the rest of the book is devoted to the practice of whaling.

I had been told about the intensive detail into whaling and this was, frankly, part of my worry that this book was going to be a slog.  I was pleasantly surprised to find that all that exhaustive detail of the history, taxonomy, and logistics of whales and whaling was never something that felt burdensome. It wasn't a fast moving story, but it was written in such a way that I was never bored. That, my friends, is an accomplishment.

While Futurama may be the most obvious pop culture nod, I came to this book having already read and loved China Mieville's marvelous Railsea, a take on Moby Dick, except on trains, and chasing the great white mole. Mieville's book is even more pointedly about obsession and what the objects of obsession come to symbolize for the various moling train captains.

It may be because of that, in the middle of some discussion of whales or some minute aspect of whaling, that I started to think about all this exhaustive detail, and why it's there. You could say Melville's just obsessed with whaling, but that misses the point - all that detail is not thrown in there without obvious author, it's being related by Ishmael, who cares passionately about whaling, and wants to make specific points about it, and dismiss others. That detail is his obsession, as much as Moby Dick is Captain Ahab's.

That the big, life-altering, sea-shaking, deadly obsession of Ahab's is juxtaposed with the quieter, but not less intense obsession of Ishmael's is what really ended up selling the book to me. When you read those sections and remain aware that they're a character telling you what he thinks is important about the world, and yet when you read it, you become aware that it's such a small segment, and yet all the world to him. It's fascinating.

That pulled me along until Moby Dick finally surfaced in those last 30 pages or so, and led the crew of the Pequod on a merry chase, and certain death. And I was delighted to find that of all the classics I've failed to finish recently (Don Quixote and The Brothers Karamazov), I found this one delightfully easy to get through.

Wednesday, 19 July 2017

Jaran by Kate Elliott

When I try to think about what I want to write about in this review, I have to keep coming back to Roger Ebert's famous and useful maxim "it's not what it's about, it's how it is about it." He's talking about movies, of course, but it's just as applicable to books. And that's where my troubles lie. I will defend strongly the idea that science fiction and romance should not be mutually exclusive categories, although I have to admit that I haven't loved the couple of entries into that hybrid genre I've read so far. I do not, however, think that good romance science fiction books can't be written.

I just...I'm not sure this is one of them. In many ways, the romance part is fine, with some major quibbles about tropes it embraces wholeheartedly instead of interrogating. But you bill a book as science fiction, it somehow makes it more difficult to turn my brain off and just float along in romancey goodness. (I'm not that good at floating along in romancey goodness anyway, but for a select few authors, I can manage it.)

If it's science fiction, I want to be engaged with the universe being built, with the underlying ideas, and how they're used, and whether the author is exploring the boundaries of their creation, or is content to build science fiction dressing on older tropes based on race, civilization, and what my husband aptly dubbed "simplicity porn," and ignoring anything problematic in favour of a passionate tale of love across cultural lines.

Uh...yeah. I guess that previous paragraph sets out many of my problems with this book. There are a lot of ways in which I feel like I'm being too critical. It's obviously supposed to be fluffy and fun, and I really wish I could treat it that way. But once I started to notice the similarity in narrative to colonial/race-based tropes of finding freedom from the horrible cities in the simpler, purer culture of the natives...I was sunk. You start to see it, you can't unsee it.

And here is my primary problem with it, and why I dragged Roger Ebert into it. I do strongly believe that there might be a story to be told with science fiction, and maybe even with romance, that tackles these kinds of issues in ways that are engrossing and powerful. A book that takes its "how it is about it" in incisive ways to write something really interesting. But that's not the "how it is about it" that happens here. Here, we pretend that it's okay to play around with the tropes being used without ever considering issues of race and/or discourses of what is "civilized" and what is "savage" because science fiction gives you the freedom to just make everyone white.

This is an answer that is not okay.

(To be fair, everyone in the tribes the main character ends up with is very white and if I remember correctly, blonde. Tess, the main character, coming from off-world, is a brunette. I believe she is also white, but I will admit that I am not entirely sure, because I read this digitally, and in that format, it's a hell of a lot harder to flip back through quickly and look for a description. I will concede that she might not be white, but even so, I'm not sure that would make anything better. Using science fiction to make it so that white people are the tribal people without ever really engaging in any thought about the historical and cultural baggage wrapped up in stories of the freedom of the plains and the tribes who ride there is not clever. It's simplistic, and it tries to use cultural tropes without dealing with the history or weight of those tropes.)

So, what's the story about? Humanity has long spread to the stars, but ran smack into a race, the Chapalii, who already control most of it. After hundreds of years, one human led a rebellion against them. He failed, but was rewarded with a dukedom in the highly hierarchical society of the Chapalii, in which deviance from hierarchical norms is perverted and unthinkable. (I'd have to go into a very deep read to parse out why the way in which they are talked about made me think uncomfortably about late nineteenth-century North American ideas about Chinese culture, so I'm not going to pursue it at the moment.)

His sister and heir, Tess, is coming home after a failed relationship at school, and she hates the responsibility she's going to have to assume as his heir, and doesn't seem too fond of intergalactic "urban" culture. On her trip, she becomes aware of some shadiness on the part of Chapalii on a world that is part of her brother's demesne, and follows them down, finding herself adrift in a vast plain, where she is picked up by a horse-riding nomadic clan.

Does she become accepted into the clan with open arms because they're less suspicious of outsiders and frankly a little naive? Of course.

Does she find lots of freedom in their gender norms, more than she would have found out in the stars? It seems so, even though what the intergalactic gender norms are is more than a little sketchily drawn.

Does she break the gender norms in the tribe she's adopted in ways no woman ever has before, becoming more proficient than any woman before her in horse riding, sabre fighting, and travelling, while still being totally accepted? You bet your sweet bippy.

In other words, does she Dances With Wolves the shit out of this?

Oh, and because this is a romance, does she fall in love with the hotheaded leader of the nomadic tribe and he with her, even though they are both too damned stubborn to admit to it for most of the length of the novel?  Do you even need to ask?

The writing is not bad. The romance is not bad, if you could truly divorce this plot from the stories that we have told over and over again in our culture about the decadence of civilization, and the purity of the uncivilized life. Which you can't. You really, really can't. Or rather, you shouldn't. This draws so heavily on familiar stories from Earth that are so steeped in racial and cultural assumptions that to use them while trying to ignore those assumptions made me so frustrated, again and again.

It's not that a book can't be written about these themes. But how this book is about it, or rather, how it tries to have its cake while ignoring it too, is the problem. You want the cake, you've got to deal with the history of the cake, and how it tastes, and what the cake does to people.

Wednesday, 12 July 2017

Farmer in the Sky by Robert Heinlein

It is remarkably hard to hunt down some of the earliest books that were nominated for a Hugo at either of the libraries I have access to, but I assumed that one of Heinlein's juveniles would not particularly pose a challenge. Turns out I was wrong. Then again, it popped up at a local used bookstore, and so it was, in the end, not really an issue. I was just surprised that it had been a problem at all, particularly since the one I picked up used was a recent re-issue.

So I carried my new find around in my purse for about a week and a half, and when I was out and about and had a few minutes, read a few pages. It went by remarkably fast, which was pretty much what I expected from a Heinlein juvenile. I generally find Heinlein remarkably readable, even when I have other quibbles with his writing.

This was apparently written to be a serial about Scouting on places other than Earth. Venus and Mars being at least partially occupied in Heinlein's ficton, humans look to settle on Ganymede, eking out farms from the rock, seasoned with bacteria and worms.

The main character was an Eagle Scout on Earth, and due to rising population pressures, rationing, and crowding, decides to go with his father and his father's new wife and stepdaughter to Ganymede to homestead. Of course, with the sensitivity of many policies, many more settlers are sent than the planet is really ready to handle, given the entire dependence on Earth for just about everything but food.

(Spider Robinson makes some nice allusions to this book in Variable Star, the book he wrote from Heinlein's notes. I didn't know there was that particular homage until I read this.)

 (I do not remember the main character's name, which is a pretty good sign that there's not much of a character there other than upstanding Boy Scout with the usual attributes of a juvenile Heinlein hero - that's not a bad thing, necessarily, but it does mean that character is not the story here) On the way, the main character runs into a lot of people who are dipshits. That's not of course the language that is used - these were marketed to kids, after all - but people who are too dumb to research, question, or accept that there might be reasonable boundaries on their behaviour. Main Character Dude, though, is the opposite. For the most part.

He's quite stubborn when it comes to his father, who wants Main Character Dude to go back to Earth for his education, even if he ends up settling on Ganymede in the long run. But he's not dumb, and while his father works in the town to handle the influx of settlers, he's the one who breaks ground on their family farm. He's helped by a nearby family that is one of the most prosperous settlers.

There are disasters of early settlement, including an earthquake knocking out the power source that keeps Ganymede from freezing all the pioneers to death. There is family sickness, there are difficulties in obtaining equipment, and the question runs through it whether hewing our own homestead out of the barren wilderness of another planet is worth it.

Is there really a question there? This is a Heinlein juvenile novel, after all. Do you really expect anyone to decide that roughing it isn't worth it? That living in urban surroundings might be a more pleasant choice?


Wednesday, 5 July 2017

The Week in Stories: No One Gets Out Alive Episode One - "The Drop Off"

We sat down for the pilot episode of this haunted house campaign last week, and it feels like we hit the ground running. The supernatural manifestations haven't shown up yet, but Bill kept a sheet where he conspicuously marked down at the end of every scene how close each character was to unleashing the supernatural on a PbtA-style countdown clock. Two of us filled up our clocks by the end of the evening, and the third was only one pie-piece away from joining us.

Because it was the first episode, it felt like a lot of the evening was setting up how the characters interacted, and feeling out relationships. Even more than that, and a little surprising-but-gratifyingly, we started pushing on the secrets and deep divisions right away. To be precise, some of the major underlying secrets came out, but each of our characters held on tightly to their personal secrets. There were hints, but there's plenty of stuff to be revealed. And then, of course, tasty, tasty aftermath. And ghosts. And probably death.

It wasn't plot-heavy, so I'm not sure I can tell you what happened chronologically in the session, but if I take it by two-character interactions, I can probably remember most of it.

Oh, and Bill has decided that the name for each episode will be the title of a Tragically Hip song.

The Characters:

Michael, the "good son," head of the family whiskey company (with roots back in Prohibition, when it was legal to make alcohol but not sell it), and the only one who really knows that the family is in deep financial shit. The company's on the verge of going broke, and he's committed fraud to try to hide that for long enough to sell the company and make amends. His brother and sister don't know this, and have continued to go through money like water. More notably, his wife doesn't know this. He has a lot invested in being the good man in the family, and might go to some bad lengths to maintain that image.

Jo, (Me!) Michael's wife, is up to her neck in stress, and isn't really good at recognizing that or taking constructive steps to deal with it. She's a very good surgeon, mother to two teenage kids, and has been helping take care of Michael's mother, who is very ill and living with them (I think living with them?), nursing her through failing health. Jo's driven, not very good at recognizing her emotions, can be aggressive, and while her marriage used to be good, it's gotten very strained. She slept with a colleague recently, and I think that she feels guilty about it, but also that it was such a break from the usual stress in her life that there's a huge temptation to burn everything down and walk away. More about her later, when I get to character thoughts.

Lisette, the unacknowledged granddaughter of Miss Maudie, the recently deceased matriarch of the family. She is the child of Miss Maudie's son-out-of-wedlock, and the woman who became the groundskeeper on the island. As a teenager, she and Michael had a fling, not realizing they were half-cousins. Urged on by Miss Maudie, Jo framed Lisette for stealing, and that was used as an excuse to send Lisette away. Later on, Miss Maudie sent Lisette money regularly, and has written her into a large chunk of the will. In the intervening years, Lisette battled drug addiction, but has been clean for the last few years. She's been working on her career as a singer-songwriter.

"The Drop Off":

We opened with a tense ride across the water to the island, with Michael, Jo, and their kids, Madeline and Tyler, at the stern, and Lisette alone at the bow. As they neared the shore, the kids started whining about the lack of reception out here, and their mother encouraged them to think positive about their time on the island. She brushed past Lisette to get on shore, and Lisette asked Michael caustically if Jo remembered this was a funeral, right? Jo's face was visibly softened by the sight of the island.

Michael and Lisette

Michael and Lisette had a couple of scenes together, both around the reading of the will, and when he sought her out in the gardener's shed before the service scattering Miss Maudie's ashes. Michael was obviously probing to find out why Miss Maudie had written Lisette into the will on an equal footing with his own mother and aunt (she's actually the only child of Miss Maudie's deceased illegitimate son), even though it was the kind of family secret where there were enough hints that he'd more or less pieced it together.


Lisette, for her part, wanted to know how much Michael knew about her disgraced exile from the island back when they were teenagers. He knew that she'd been sent away, even that it was for stealing, but didn't know Jo's part in the whole affair. There was a lovely moment when Michael was asking if Lisette might prefer just being bought out rather than going through a court battle when his siblings challenged the will, and she accused him of going right for the money, not even asking how she was. With perfect timing, he asked "How are you?"

The scene almost ended there, but I wanted to see what happened next, so I used our table shorthand and pleaded that was only the "first pause" and the scene continued and it was so great! It was tense, with obviously some feelings underlying the interaction, even with the new knowledge that they were half-cousins. Lisette pushed Michael hard on whether or not he was really happy in his life, with Jo, with the business, and he couldn't say yes.

Lots wasn't said in these scenes, and much implied! (Also, for the first pause/second pause thing, I can't remember quite where we got that from - possibly Graham Walmsley's wonderful Play Unsafe. The idea is that often, the first pause in a scene is not where the scene should end. A lot of the time, that pause happens because the weight of what really needs to happen in that scene is looming, and people need a second to gird their loins before going after it. It's after the second pause you can break, because then probably what needs to have happened has happened. It's not set in stone, but it's good shorthand for keep pushing/we're done.)

Lisette and Jo

I found the interactions between Lisette and Jo very interesting! They used to be friends, you know, before Jo set Lisette up as a thief when they were teenagers. When we were writing down character goals for the episode, Lisette's player wrote down that she wanted to hear that Jo felt remorse for what she'd done. I wrote down that Jo wanted to provoke Lisette to lose her temper in front of Michael. Neither of us succeeded. (But there's always next session!)

Every time Lisette pushed Jo on the guilt front, Jo pushed back hard, claiming it was something she barely remembered. When Lisette tried to explain what it had done to her life, Jo said she must be lucky if the worst thing to ever happen in her life was being sent away from the island when she was a teenager. (Yeah, I'm not playing a character who is great at being vulnerable or open.)

But even more interesting was that as soon as Michael's siblings arrived on the island, Lisette, who desperately wants to be acknowledged as part of the family, got to see that even though Jo has been married in for 20 years, she isn't treated as part of the family either. Weirdly, this got the two of them relating to each other in friendlier terms, like the patterns of conversation set down when they were teenagers were coming back unconsciously.

In fact, by the end of the evening, they were almost warming to each other - and then something happened with Michael that will have Jo being even frostier to Lisette the next morning.

Jo and Michael

Even though Jo isn't the nicest person in the world (particularly when she feels guilty - not a great trait!), I had to start her off softer than usual, because coming back to the island strikes such a chord with her. And since Michael wants to sell the island and house, and she wants to keep it, I felt like I had to have how intense her attachment to it is, right away. So the first interaction between Jo and Michael had her being much sweeter than usual - reminiscing about the island, the summer they fell in love, and trying to get him to join her in swimming or just enjoying the island like they used to. Without realizing it, she was asking him to rekindle their relationship. He sort of uneasily agreed, and it felt like she got to him a bit. 

In retrospect, that's probably good. The other part of that first scene between these two was Michael pressing Jo to go to her father to invest in his family business. Her father hates his family, and she argued that even her being married to Michael hadn't changed that. She reluctantly agreed to talk to him, but I also feel like she won't try very hard to convince her father.

 Then, of course, she felt excluded around his family, and we closed the evening with the two of them before bed, and what had been a little bit sweet before turned ugly, fast. When talking about Lisette, Jo dodged talking about her involvement in the long ago scandal, but she was more than willing to talk about Lisette being Michael's cousin - she found Lisette's inclusion in the will more amusing than anything else.

There were two phrases I kept using, knowing they would be upsetting for Michael - the first, whenever money came up, was to have Jo keep telling him that she trusted him to handle the money stuff - after all, they're very comfortable. She makes quite a lot of money, and he runs a large distillery business.  (Of course, he hasn't told her the company is in huge financial trouble, so emphasizing the trust was twisting the knife just a little bit.)

The second was, once the details of the will came out, and she figured out that Lisette was related to Michael, was that Jo kept calling Lisette his cousin, and every time, he countered with "half-cousin" - it's important because to her, it's vindication that Michael and Lisette should never have been together. And for Michael, the "half" is important because that way he can hold on to the fantasy of a life as it wasn't.

And then, at the end, talking about Lisette revealed that Michael had been keeping track of her all these years, googling her to see what she'd been up to - he knew about her music career. Jo took that like a blow and got angry that he was googling old girlfriends, which led Michael to counter something that insinuated he knew about the affair she's been having, or at least suspected. She didn't quite twig to that, and they went to bed angry.

So...yeah. The next morning, Jo's going to be frosty beyond belief to Lisette, and Lisette will have no idea why.

Mechanics

Broadly speaking, we're using DramaSystem for interpersonal conflicts, and in theory, a knockoff of PbtA for anything procedural, but nothing procedural happened in the first episode. We had scenes where tokens were slid across the table during play, and some where after the scene was over, Bill identified where he thought the asks were, and tokens exchanged accordingly. Both ways seemed to work.

Bill also asked each of us to write down a goal for the episode - I think most of us wrote one down for each of the other two players. After the session was done, we shared our goals to see how they'd played out. If we'd gone after them, whether or not we succeeded, we got a drama point to go towards seeing who got the benny to keep for next time (and naming rights for the next episode!)

In another homage to some PbtA games, we each had a countdown clock to the first manifestations of the supernatural. Bill told us one of the triggers, but kept others secret, and at the end of every scene, we could see them filling up! At the end of the evening, Jo and Michael's clocks were full, and Lisette's was one-pie-piece from completion. So two of us got handed a small deck of index cards, each with a different manifestation written on them, and Lisette will get to pick hers probably at the start of the next game. I picked "The Mirror" and Michael's player "The Door." Eep!

Character Thoughts 

Jo is not one of my nicer characters. There are ways in which she's not terrible - she cares for her mother-in-law, she's dedicated to her job, she and her husband used to have a good marriage. Strangely, it's becoming apparent to me that the harder she pursues "being a good person," the worse she is. She needs that part of her identity so badly, she pushes back hard when people call her on bad things she's done - how can she have done bad things if she's a good person? It's interesting to play someone who is more interested in the self-identity than the actual acts she commits.


In a way, that makes her an interesting foil to Millie, my TimeWatch character. Millie is a genuinely good person who is doing bad things because she's been entirely taken in by someone who is manipulating her when she's emotionally vulnerable after the suicide of her brother/lover.  Jo, on the other hand, does dicey things because she wants so badly to preserve the image of herself as a good person. To protect that image, rather than the reality, she's capable of being fairly nasty - in a way, not unlike her husband.

Jo and Michael both want to retain their self-images, and because of that, they've hidden so much of themselves from each other, which has taken a huge toll on their marriage. Too great a toll? Things aren't looking great at the moment, but I don't think we know yet. The answer is very possibly yes, but not inevitably so. Of course, now the haunting is coming for us all, and some of that may be moot! Or not. We shall see.

Monday, 3 July 2017

Sunshine by Robin McKinley

I picked up Sunshine through a Humble Bundle several months ago. This particular bundle had enough books I was interested in reading, and a couple I really wanted. In this particular case, I’d heard the name of the author before, but knew very little about her or her books - I had no particular objection to reading them, but it wasn’t one of the reasons I was buying the bunch.

Having read it, it was a fairly light and enjoyable experience - that is to say, the protagonist goes through harrowing experiences in the books, but I didn’t find that I was harrowed along with her. I always felt enough detachment to figure that things were likely to be okay in the end, even if there were some difficulties along the way.

But the one thing this book feels like, more than anything else, is a response to Charlaine Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse books. I can’t check publication dates at the moment, but I apologize if it turns out this one came out first because, damn, does it ever feel like it came out second.

We have a main character who works in a cafe as a baker, not a waitress. She lives in a world where it has recently become apparent that vampires and other supernatural beings are very real - although in this case, McKinley is obviously trying to go a bit darker, having a human world that is just barely recovering from “The Wars,” against primarily but not only vampires, and hanging on by a thread.  Much of the world was destroyed, and vampires as a whole are definitely less interested in integrating than in conquering. But of course, the main character, Rae, is, like Sookie, interested in the idea of vampires. Also of course, even though vampires are supposed to be much more dangerous and evil here, Rae manages to find the one who is really not all that evil after all, and maybe even has sexy feelings towards him.

See what I mean? It’s not out-and-out as much a romance as the Sookie books, but there are some definite and strong similarities. Oh, and did I mention that as the book goes on, Rae starts to discover that she has more than a few supernatural powers of her own, coming from both her father, who was a sorcerer, and possibly some demon blood in her aggressively normal mother?

At any rate, Rae is kidnapped by vampires who think she's just a normal human, and left as lunch for a chained-up vampire, who ends up being the one vampire who can control his hunger and ally with her, at least as long as it takes them to escape, and then as many times afterwards as the plot makes possible.

Rae, as the title and her name suggest, turns out to have a particular affinity for sunlight, which makes her a little deadly to vampires, even as she tries desperately to hang on to normalcy. Her experiences bring her to the attention of the SOF, (I forget the meaning of the acronym), which are special forces trying to bring down otherworldly creatures that threaten what remains of humanity. But she knows that there’s one vampire on her side, even if there’s not supposed to be any such thing.

So, yeah, it’s a wee bit predictable. But for what it is, it’s entertaining. I was never bored, often amused, and it went down smoothly and without making me angry because characters were being stupid, which is a bit unusual for paranormal almost-romances. (This doesn’t go down the full path of romance. Yet. If there are later books, I presume that what in this book is only rubbing up against each other turns into full-on vampire sex.) We don’t by the end know why Con the vampire doesn’t seem as vampirey-evil as the others, but the convention is well worn, and if it’s a little old, at least it’s not bad.

Friday, 23 June 2017

Hyperbole and a Half by Allie Brosh

I've been wanting to read the book of Hyperbole and a Half for a while. I'd read some of what appears between these pages on her blog, and have always enjoyed them. So I knew that eventually I'd get around to a collection of the old favourites and probably some that I've never seen before, but wasn't sure when. Then my sister pulled it off her shelf and told me to borrow it, in the days immediately after our mother's death. She figured it might be a good diversion.

It took me a while to sit down with this book, for no particular reason, but I finally did. It was, of course, a quick read - I tend to buzz through books with pictures, as much as I think that I should slow down and linger over the illustrations - although with Brosh's drawings, there's not a lot of intricate background detail I'm missing.

Indeed, the roughness is part of the appeal - as she herself appears in her drawings, she's more a child's abstract human than a real one, and yet capable of conveying great amounts of emotions. It's fascinating.

My favourite one (other than the iconic "Clean All The Things!") is the Cake series. I laughed myself silly the first time I read it - the look of absolute determination to die of sugar overload. The vindictiveness when she did get the cake. The way she captures in words and images those moment when a child decides an adult is the enemy.  It just kills me. It perhaps didn't make me laugh as hard as the first time I read it, but I still enjoyed it thoroughly.

There were others I already knew and liked, including the pair of stories about depression that were difficult and powerful explorations of that experience. (Or at least, they seemed that way to me, who has only ever experienced it from the outside.)

And then there were new ones, about the helper dogs, and how both her dogs think (or fail to do so) or letters to herself at various ages, or her mother taking them out for a walk in the woods and trying to hide that they were very, very lost. Brosh as a child misunderstanding what her parents wanted and needed and thus tormenting them more or less accidentally is a common theme.

So is self-judgement, with a couple of stories about how her mind works and resenting the world when it doesn't behave in the manner she unconsciously assumed it should, as well about wanting to be a good person when she has thoughts of doing things that are not so good, and how fear of social judgement is pretty much the only thing that keeps her from doing them. It feels like she's a little hard on herself for having thoughts at all in these sections, but it also feels quite vivid and real, the battle between wanting, thinking, and doing.

As I fully expected, this book was entertaining, and it was not a surprise that I'd probably read between a third and a half of it before on the internet. I certainly don't begrudge her that! Most particularly, it was a welcome break from the general difficulty of the world right now.

Wednesday, 21 June 2017

Zoe's Tale by John Scalzi

Companion novels are a tricky business. If you want to write a second book that goes over most of the same terrain as a previous book, you really need something new you're trying to say, some way in which reading the second book will irrevocably change your experience of the first. Otherwise, it's an exercise, it might even be fun, but it's not necessarily going to stand up to the weight being placed upon it.

Unfortunately, that's about how I feel about Zoe's Tale. It was fun to read - I think John Scalzi's pretty much incapable of writing something that isn't enjoyable. It slipped by quite unobjectionably, and there's nothing specifically wrong with it, but that is damning with faint praise. It's not really very different from the first book that covers the same territory, The Last Colony. It covers the same time period, but more importantly, it doesn't really reframe very much from the previous book.

When I read The Last Colony, it was long after it had been published, and I knew that Zoe's Tale was out there as a companion novel. Given the events that happened in the first book, I expected the vast majority of this to take place during that time period where Zoe's off-world and the narrative stays with her parents. So I waited for that to come. And waited. And waited. And sure enough, it's there, but it's really such a thin segment of the book overall that I was let down. Interesting things happen, yes, but I was expecting and hoping the bulk of the book would take place in that time we hadn't seen.

And yes, we get more of an explanation for what the other creatures living on Roanoke are, and why they suddenly disappear from the narrative, but even with more of an explanation as to why, I'm not a lot happier than I was the first time. I get what happened - but wouldn't it be more interesting if we kept exploring that difficult relationship that started in death? Rather than having it fade into the background? Why they go away is not the more interesting answer.

Other than that, the book is entertainingly about life on the colony from the teenage perspective, and there's nothing really wrong here, just not really enough right. It's fun to read. It's not taxing. We see how the teenagers discover that the planet is not the one they thought they were going to, and dealing with the loss of electronics that ensues. Zoe's an entertaining precociously smart teenager, and she falls in love, and she rebels against being just what she is, as the living embodiment of the aspirations of an entire other alien species, who made a treaty with Earth to have representatives with her more or less constantly.

That's all good stuff, and I can't help but think that if it happened around new events that weren't quite so familiar, accompanied by Zoe figuring out both who she is and the limits and possibilities of what she is, this would be stronger. As it is, it's fun, it fills in some blanks, but it doesn't make me reframe how I see the original book, which I think is the greatest weakness. Zoe and her parents are just too close, have too good a relationship, to really allow for vastly different interpretations of what went down.