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.