Friday, 29 September 2017

Acceptance by Jeff VanderMeer

Because life falls out the way it falls out sometimes, I ended up putting this book down about a hundred pages from the end, and picking it back up a week or two later. Most of the time, this is not a problem, and I can find the thread fairly easily. This time, though, I was left with a wistful regret that I'd pushed on and kept reading, because I was more lost than I thought I would be when I came back.

I think that's because of what this book is and what it is not. It is an intensely and enjoyably atmospheric experience, where you sink into the prose, and shudder at the turns of phrase, and get the tactile sense of what this very screwed-up (by human standards) place Area X is. It is not a driving plot book. It is sort of a character book. It is not, above all, interested in filling in all the blanks or answering all the questions.

From some authors, the lack would drive me crazy, because I would feel that without answers, there's not enough there. They'd be selling me short by not giving a solution when they're not giving me enough else, either. That is not the case here, and it's hard to put my finger on exactly why. I think the biggest thing is that to read this book for the prose and the characters alone is enough. The plot is a lovely cherry on top, but this is the type of story and manner of storytelling where leaving ellipses and questions fits the feel so well that it enhances rather than detracts from the story.

Unlike the two previous entries in this trilogy, Acceptance is not a single story. Annihilation was the story of the biologist, who went into Area X and came out somewhat changed, and Authority is about Control, the man sent to head up the Southern Reach after the previous director left her job. (It's hard to find the right word for what the previous director did without spoiling things, but we'll go with that.)

Here, though, we have the story of the previous director, both in the past and in the same timeframe, roughly, as Annihilation, as well as the story of Ghost Bird (the biologist-as-emerged-from-Area-X), and more from the perspective of Control. The new character introduced as a viewpoint character is Saul, the lighthouse keeper who was referred to in both of the previous books. His time period takes place, for the most part, before the event that caused Area X to emerge, and during the start of the change. He was a preacher who left his flock and came to this remote area of Florida.

There is faith mixed up in this in a lot of subtle ways. The words written on the wall of the tower, for one, which we now get the origin of, if not the meaning. Saul as a character. Control and whatever he has been and whatever he is becoming, and his crisis of faith as to both. It's not religion that is the theme, it feels more broadly the idea of faith or trust in a world tilted on its axis, and out of alignment with the time.

I know I'm not making a whole lot ore sense. It's hard to summarize this book, particularly that even  starting at the beginning would mean giving away things about the two previous books. You do get some answers about what Area X is, what caused it, and some of what it's trying to do, and whether or not it'll be successful. But if you're thinking of picking this series up, be aware that you won't ever be told exactly what happened and why in precise terms that also lay out all the implications. It is the journey that is the pleasure, and the creepiness, and the questions about faith and identity.

Wednesday, 27 September 2017

Wolf in White Van by John Darnielle

Wolf in White Van is a weird book, in that I'm not entirely sure what I want to write about it. And that's not made better by the fact that I've been in a bit of a funk about book reviews - I do enjoy writing them still, and I really like hearing feedback from people who find them helpful or amusing, but I don't feel like I've written a really inventive book review in a while. It feels like I've fallen into more of a pattern of writing a brief synopsis (not in and of itself a bad thing), mentioning a few things that I liked, but not really necessarily engaging in depth with the content.

Maybe it's the books I've been reading - really truly unique and wonderful books like The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin I wanted to write about so much. There have been a lot more that have been fine, but a little "meh."  Why is it that I feel like I'm not connecting with when I sit down to write? How can I find my way back into feeling this writing again?

One, the answer is probably to let it be okay that some of the books I read are just fine and don't provoke me to deep thought or attachment. That is fine. Not every book can be a gem, or a complete pile of horseshit. Two, don't make it an unattainable goal that I am going to feel inspired every time I sit down to write.

Three, let myself take these weird digressions again? I feel like I used to bring bits of my daily life and experience into these reviews more, and sometimes let them meander away from "this is the book, what it is about and whether or not I liked it" format. Sure, that makes it more about me, but this is a completely subjective experience anyway, and I liked letting people in on why I reacted to some parts the way I did.

I think part of the problem has been that I started to think about writing these book reviews for an invisible audience, and somehow that feels like it has standardized the format. Maybe it's as simple as trying to shift my focus to writing the review for me - I was saying to a friend this last week when we were talking about this very book that a year or two down the line, sometimes all I remember about a book is what I wrote in my review and not a lot else. (This was in the context of said friend saying he'd read Wolf in White Van a year or two before and didn't remember it very well.)

I don't know that I've gotten anywhere with this musing, but we'll see. I'm not really down, and I'm nowhere near giving up. I just need to revitalize the format for myself, break out of my rut.

So, imaginary future Megan who may have to talk about this book to someone (as I dream of getting to talk about all books to someone), what do we want to remember?

Well, first of all, let's still do the synopsis. It's helpful, and I may want to remember it.

This is a book about a young (youngish? The book spans quite a while) man whose face is disfigured, and how that came about will be gradually but not entirely revealed over the course of the book. To support himself/to find something in his world he can control after he got out of the hospital, he wrote a play-by-snail-mail roleplaying game that he placed ads for in various magazines, and now, many years later, still has people who mail him their moves and wait to get back what happens next.

I'm an avid roleplayer, which I think is hidden from absolutely no one, and this was interesting. What struck me, and maybe the early play-by-mail games were like this, is how non-reactive the game is. The main character wrote every possible answer at the beginning, and so what he does is parse out which of the options he gave was chosen, pulls out a sheet of paper from a file, maybe adds a note, and sends it back off. This world does not change and evolve with story as the player does, and none of what happened is aimed at the character or their actions or who they are and what they want to become. The players are playing in his sandbox, and it's all already decided.

At the start of the book, he's also being sued by the parents of a young person who, like all the worst urban legends of "Things Roleplaying Could Do To Your Children," got too into the game, and came to personal harm.

But most of this passes him by - he is curiously detached from the world around him, and the world is mostly content to let him alone. Even the world he created exists outside him - there is no more creation in him, no new worlds, nothing to explore beyond it, no way to make it change to complement the players. It seems to be about control, but it's control of the sort that means stasis.

There are lots of things people get out of roleplaying, lots that they can get out of it, or play for. But this seems so far to one side of the spectrum it kind of baffles me. Our style these days at the table is to have character-centred play, high on the drama, and everything in the world is aimed not at the heads of generic characters, but these specific characters and their foibles, desires, and histories. It sounds awfully lonely to have created the world and then stepped apart, except for photocopying and mailing. It's very theist, if you want to bring theology into it. It says something about this character, though, who he was before the incident and how he reacted to his life after it.

One other moment that I'd like future Megan to remember: Stardance by Spider Robinson is one of my favourite books. If I had to give someone one book to read that would explain who I am as a human being, it would be that one. It looms large in my personal mythology, and there is a quote from the end of it that is as close as I will ever come to having a defined philosophy of life.

And so it was particularly weird for me when the main character makes a reference to Stardance, saying that it was a book he read, and that he remembers almost nothing about it, except this one thing that is not at all what I would put top of my list of things to remember about it. This said more to me about this character and his approach to life than anything else, that he could read Stardance and just take away a part of it, and phrase it in the most pedestrian way possible. The wonder and challenge and pain and humanity appears to have made no impact on him. (Also, his philosophy of life seems to come from Conan, but even the character recognizes he ignored some of the underlying philosophy of those books.)

Oh yeah, and you might want to remember that the title is a reference to the Satanic Panic and the idea of playing records backwards.

You know what? I haven't said anything else about whether or not I liked this book. And because this wasn't a book that inspired particularly strong feelings one way or the other, I'm not going to. Screw that.

Tuesday, 26 September 2017

The Week in Stories: No One Gets Out Alive - "The Inevitability of Death"

Previous Recaps: 
No One Gets Out Alive Character Creation 
Episode 1: "The Drop Off" 
Episode 2: "Another Midnight" 

Episode 3: "The Inevitability of Death"

It had been almost two months since we'd last played No One Gets Out Alive, so I wasn't sure if we'd be rusty or find it hard to find our ways back into these characters. But while it wasn't quite the heady rush of the second session, it was easier than I expected, and some really good stuff hit the table. We're heading into the home stretch - Bill says one or two more sessions.


What Happened With The Haunting

Michael came downstairs the next morning to find Mr. VanKoughnett, the man who had brought them out to the island, having coffee with Michael's brother Matthew and son Tyler. Matthew said that Diana, their sister, had called Mr. Vankoughnett from the land line still in Miss Maudie's quarters for a ride into town for the day. Anybody else who wanted to go, could. Tyler was eager to get off the island, for one, still spooked by his experiences the day before.


Diana stalked into the room, and Michael asked if he could speak to her alone. She tried to fend him off, but Michael quietly asked the others to leave. (I think maybe Tyler stayed and Michael didn't notice?)  Michael asked Diana why she was doing this - she'd never cared about the company before. She'd always been happy to let him do the work. Diana slyly said that she just wanted to be more involved - the company was hers too, after all. Michael shot back that the company was his. And that she'd get money from it, same as always. Just trust him and let him handle it. Diana said that she just wasn't willing to do that anymore, and left.

Michael went out into the entryway of the house, to see Jo getting her things ready to go. Jo said she was going to go in and get a few things, and Michael reminded her about talking to her father. Jo said she'd try, but not to get his hopes up. Michael told her to invite her father for supper on the island, and the two would talk. Jo grimaced, but agreed to try. Maddy went too, glad to get off the island and back to cell signals.

At the boat, Lisette got on board too, saying she wanted to see her mother. The boat pulled away from the dock, leaving Michael and Matthew alone on the island. Lisette offered Jo coffee from a thermos, which Jo reluctantly accepted. Lisette spoke of hoping to see her mother again, and that she was tempted to just stay in town. Maybe that would be a good idea, Jo advised. Maddie, at the bow, stretched out her phone to try to catch the first signals. As they pulled in to the dock, everyone could clearly see that there was a cell tower on top of one of the local buildings - it was weird that it wouldn't cover the island.

Once in town, Maddy took off immediately. Jo asked Tyler if he'd like to come with her to see his grandfather. Tyler was enthusiastic - they almost never got to see him! Driving there in the car they'd left by the docks, Jo cautioned Tyler that sometimes his grandfather was...unreasonable. That he might say nasty things about Tyler's father. Tyler was confused as to why, but Jo told him that it was for reasons that had nothing to do with Michael, just an unreasonable grudge from the previous generation.

They pulled up to the gates for a huge house enclosed by stone walls, by the water with a view of Strathclyde in the distance. Jo pressed the button at the gate, and when her father's assistant answered, she said that it was Jo. He replied, "Ah, Miss Stewart," and Jo gritted her teeth and answered "Mrs. Ross." She was already regretting this particular promise to Michael. They pulled up to the house, and her father, Bruce Stewart, was standing on the porch. He called Tyler up and gave him a big hug, telling him that there was a Playstation in the house that he could go play if he wanted.

Jo and her father awkwardly hugged, and he showed off his new living room furniture, which looked expensive and Scandinavian. Jo complimented it hesitantly, and he said he didn't much like it, but it was what was in these days. Jo suggested maybe he could just decorate for his own comfort, but he treated that suggestion like it was nonsensical.

Jo finally broached why she'd come. She said it was time that her father finally accepted her marriage - a marriage that had been in existence for almost two decades! Michael wanted to talk to Bruce, so come to the island for dinner, Michael would cook, and they could finally put this insane vendetta behind them. (I maybe didn't say insane vendetta.)

Her father's face hardened. He would never trust a McBride. Jo tried in vain to protest that Michael was a Ross, his grandparents were the ones who were McBrides, and they were dead. It didn't make any sense to hold Michael at fault for the actions of his grandparents. And she was a Ross too, she had been for 18 years and that wasn't going to change. She chose Michael, she trusted him.

Bruce kept pushing: Jo thought she could trust her husband, did she? He was a McBride, he'd betray her in the end. Who would she trust, her father or Michael? How was the marriage, anyway? Jo, fighting far harder for Michael's request than she'd intended to, spurred on by anger at her father's disrespect for her entire adult life, said that between the man she'd been married to for 18 years and the father who'd refused to even meet her husband, she'd pick Michael to trust, thanks.

Taking a deep breath, Jo tried again. If he wouldn't go to Strathclyde on the island, then, for her, have Michael here at his house for dinner. Finally acknowledge her marriage, listen to whatever Michael had to say. Bruce turned her down flat, saying all the McBrides were the same, and he could tell her why. Frustrated, Jo said she didn't want to hear old family history, and she was done with her father. If he couldn't respect her choices, her life, then she was finished dealing with this. She collected Tyler and left.

Meanwhile, back on the island, Michael was pressing his brother Matthew on what their sister was planning. Matthew kept telling Michael that the easiest thing to do was just to let Diana have what she wanted. Just give her the financial info on the company! She'd back right off, and all this could go away. Michael was less than willing, partly because he'd been the only one to pour his time and energy into the company, but mostly because he'd been committing financial chicanery to hide the problems the company was having.

Matthew wanted a way to get Diana off his back, right? So why not just sign over the voting rights for his shares to Michael, just for now, and then Michael could make her back down. Matthew whined that Diana had made him promise not to, and Michael knew what she was like. Just give her what she wants, he repeated. Michael gave him the papers to sign, urged him to just go ahead, and he could keep on receiving the checks and not worrying about it, like always. Matthew looked tempted, but shook his head, obviously more scared of Diana than Michael.

Oh, Matthew added, I got that file you sent me, I just haven't had time to open it. Michael, who had opened his laptop on this island without wifi just to see his incriminating erased spreadsheet get sent to someone earlier in the morning, blanched. Don't worry about it, he told Matthew. He was going to go up on the roof to see what kind of work it might come. Matthew could come and help.

Back on the mainland, Lisette approached her mother's house, which was nicely maintained, with beautiful flowers. Lisette gathered a few for her mother, an old habit, before approaching the door. Her mother answered and happily gathered Lisette into her arms. Lisette was looking much better than the last time her mother had seen her, she was informed.

Lisette told her mother that she was here on the island because Miss Maudie had left her some money in her will, but she'd been surprised her mother wasn't on the island working. She'd been fired, her mother explained. Miss Maudie had grown increasingly erratic and was taking more medication than she should have been, so Lisette's mother had called her doctor, just once, to express concern. Dr. Skinner? Lisette asked, having seen the name scrawled in the back of Miss Maudie's notebook. No, her mother said, puzzled. But it had been the best day of her life, being fired. Now she was away from the island, which she said was growing increasingly evil.

And she worked for Bruce Stewart, Jo's father, now, and he paid twice what the McBrides ever had. She was doing well. But Lisette should stay in town, and not go back to the island. At all. Lisette's mother's voice grew more urgent as she spoke. Lisette looked around at the cozy little house, and said she wanted to stay, but she'd at least have to go back to get her stuff. Her mother suggested having Mr. Vankoughnett get her things for her, but Lisette demurred. She'd have to talk to Michael briefly, and get her suitcase, and then she'd come right back. She'd stay here after that.

On the island, Michael and Matthew walked on the roof, at the tallest part of the building. Michael bent to pull up a couple of shingles, to see what kind of damage there was. Matthew stood near the edge, looking across the water at the town. What a dump. He'd be glad to get out of here. Why were they looking at the roof anyway? To see if it could be fixed, Michael said with some ire. He asked once again about the papers.

Matthew gave the same answer he had downstairs, walking closer to the edge. Michael stared at him. As Matthew turned back, Michael lunged and hit Matthew across the midriff. Matthew teetered on the edge of the building for a moment, and Michael could have reached out to grab him, but he only watched as Matthew finally lost his balance and fell several stories to the ground.

Michael crept to the edge of the roof and stared down at his brother's body, crookedly lying on the ground. He climbed downstairs and went over to the body, and it was more than apparent that Matthew was quite dead.

He called 911, explaining that he was at Strathclyde, he was Michael Ross, Michael McBride Ross, and there'd been an accident. His brother had fallen off the roof and wasn't moving. The person on the other end asked a few questions, and reassured him that there'd be a boat along shortly with a paramedic. Michael hung up the phone and drank from a whiskey bottle. When he opened his eyes, there was a word scrawled on the wall across from Miss Maudie's chair that he hadn't seen before. It said MORE.

Later, the boat finally pulled up by the dock, and Perry Snider, a paramedic, came on shore. He looked over Matthew, and tried to do what he could, but it was obvious he was dead. He didn't seem to have any suspicions about the death, when Michael explained that they'd been up on the roof looking at the shingles, and he'd turned around, and Matthew was just...gone.

Back in town, Jo had dropped Tyler off in the small downtown before driving out of the ways. She stopped the car by the side of the road and got out of the car, leaning against the hood. She called Adam, the man with whom she'd been sleeping. He answered casually, asking how she was, and she wasn't quite sure how to answer. They talked easily for a while, and he told her to make an excuse and come back to the city. Jo was tempted, but temporized, saying there were a few more things she needed to sort out here.

Adam urged her not to always make things so difficult. She could just walk away, come to the city, the two of them could fly off to Europe or wherever she wanted. Jo paused for a long time, weighing her options. Perhaps it was having just so vehemently defended her husband to her father that made her finally say that she wasn't good at taking the easy way. Adam didn't sound hurt, but he did end the conversation quickly.

Jo headed back to the dock and rounded up her children, joining Lisette on the boat. Diana was nowhere to be seen. Jo was glad to hear that Lisette was planning on just picking up her things and going back to town afterwards. Lisette wasn't surprised. But when they got to the island, the emergency boat was just pulling away. Michael stood on the docks, looking white.

Michael sent the kids up to the house before telling Jo and Lisette about Matthew's death. It was perhaps notable how little grief either woman expressed, but Jo was worried about Michael, who looked haunted. She also thought she heard a whisper in her ear that Michael had killed Matthew, but shook her head, wondering where that thought came from. She told him to come and sit down and they'd talk. Lisette had a breath of air go past her ear, saying "he was pushed." Michael heard a whisper in his ear, telling him "they know."

Lisette offered to get her bags and go, but Michael reacted strongly. She needed to stay and with her part in the will, he'd need her support to stop Diana. He needed her there. Jo glared daggers at Lisette, but Lisette relented and agreed to stay.

Jo told Michael that he could worry about the company tomorrow, or in a couple of days. Tonight, she'd give him something to make him sleep, and he needed to eat - he was obviously in shock. Michael kept fixating on Diana not being there.

Lisette went into Miss Maudie's rooms to call her mother and let her know that she'd be staying. Her mother wasn't happy, but there wasn't much she could do. She started to tell Lisette something, urgently, but the line went dead. Lisette couldn't get back through, then in frustration, went through Miss Maudie's pill bottles, looking for more than what she'd taken the day before. All the bottles were empty.

As evening fell, Michael's phone buzzed, as a bunch of pictures started to come in - pictures of Tyler, looking scared and lost. The word MORE was superimposed on the picture.

Cut to black.

Character Thoughts:

It's interesting to me how apparent it is that the harder people push on Jo's marriage, try to get her to admit that there are problems, the more she digs in her heels and defends it. More than that, while she was just under pressure from life and busyness and responsibility and an absent husband, she was thinking of breaking up her marriage, but when that pressure is put on her marriage itself, she turned around and more or less recommitted to it - even if only in front of other people and in her own head.

She came to the island to try to see if there was anything left of her marriage to salvage, and while there hasn't been a real rekindling of the relationship, it hasn't felt a lot worse. And she's been surrounded by people asking solicitously if her marriage is really okay (Lisette), with all the attendant suggestion that it isn't, or by people straight out telling her her marriage was wrong from the beginning (her father), and in both cases, the reaction has been to shut the other person down and defend her husband and her life with all her might.

Of course, if she actually wanted to see if there's something to salvage of her marriage, she'd have to have an honest talk with her husband about it, and they haven't gotten there yet. Ah, characters who are not good with their emotions.

Also of interest to me is that I really have no idea how she'll react when she finds out her husband killed his own brother. I will be very interested to see. I think I may need to push on that, ask questions that that whisper may have sparked, push Michael on his attraction to Lisette - which may in turn get Jo pushed back on the fact that she's been cheating.

Bill tells us we have only one or two sessions left, depending on how hard we play next time, so we're scheduling the next sitting soon to keep up the momentum. I'm expecting the supernatural to get ramped up, and I look forward to the emotional conversations that will happen surrounded by spookiness and fear.

Monday, 25 September 2017

Foucault's Pendulum by Umberto Eco

People recommend books to me a lot. It's hard to know when or how to fit them all in! And then there's the worry I won't like a book that is very dear to a dear friend's heart. For a long time, I just avoided reading books that had been recommended to me, unless someone pushed a physical copy into my hot little hands. (This is still the fastest way to get a book to the top of my list.) So I started a new list to read of books friends recommended. If you want to get in on this, you can recommend a book on this post.

This book was recommended to me by Amy.

For some reason, this is the second book in this series of reviews by Umberto Eco - apparently my friends are collectively convinced I need to read more of his books. I can't disagree - I've quite enjoyed all of his books that I've read. What's more, I found this one really funny. I mean, it wasn't a barrel-of-laughs-a-minute, but there were frequently bits that made me laugh out loud. Often enough that this will stick in my head as a very funny book.

Which is weird, because I'm not sure it would hit most people that way. It's fairly dense prose, and I think you have to know a certain amount of what he's writing about to get the parts that are amusing. Or maybe they would be funny to everyone, I might be underestimating people. I don't think I am, though.

What I kept telling people about this book when I was midway through it is that it reads like it's one of two possible results of having read a bunch of those Templar/Rosicrucian/Blood of Christ conspiracy theory books (like Holy Blood, Holy Grail) that were all the rage. One way to go would be completely unironically, a la Da Vinci Code, a treasure hunt with a material ending. The second way, the way of Umberto Eco here, would be with an extremely liberal dollop of irony, humour, and literary analysis.

In Foucault's Pendulum, the main character and his two friends work for a dodgy publishing house - one side self-publishes authors and pockets most of the money, the other puts out a few genuine publications, and is moving into the realm of the occult. The main character (whose name I don't remember!) did a very sober, scholarly thesis on The Templars, so as the book begins, he is called into his friend Belbo's office to go over a manuscript someone has submitted to the self-publisher.

It's a mishmash of conspiracy theories, all held together by duct tape and string. This leads to some delightful talk about truth and belief, and how people sometimes convince themselves that "able to be conceived of" is the same as "true."  If they can think of something that might have happened, that assumes the same force as it having happened.

Eventually, the main character and his two friends start to come up with their own Templar conspiracy theory in jest, bringing together disparate bits and pulling them together into something that sounds coherent but is really a big mess. And it was mostly through these sections that I kept finding funny bits - logical leaps that are breathtaking, stated plainly, and then people taking them as givens. Or the fake plan, the creators mimicking that, but almost falling into the fallacy as well.

It's a tour of all the weirdness in historical conspiracy theory, blown up to extreme proportions. I'd tried to read it years ago, but I was certainly much more ready to actually plow through it this time. And I'd read the last few pages before embarking, so I knew the ending, and that certainly helped, giving everything that happened a slightly different feel.

Friday, 22 September 2017

By the Mountain Bound by Elizabeth Bear

When I first read All the Windwracked Stars, I liked it quite a lot, but I never felt quite like I entirely understood the world or what was going on. In that book, Elizabeth Bear throws you in at the deep end, and I was always working to try to put together how the world had gotten to the place it was, and what the intense backstory of the characters was.

Reading By the Mountain Bound first would have helped a lot. I know it was written later, but I feel like I have a much stronger footing in the basic assumptions underlying this world, and would be able to see how it had changed between this time and the much later All the Windwracked Stars.

In this much earlier story, the new world created after what was probably our world fell in Ragnarok, humans live brief flickers of lives while the waelcyrge and einherjar live longer ones, avenging wrongful deaths and creating a society in their own holds, mostly apart from the humans around them. They are led by Strifbjorn, an unmarried einherjar who knows he should wed to help maintain the numbers of his people, but has secrets holding him back.

Then a woman washes up on shore, seemingly human, but also more. Not one of them, but perhaps a manifestation of the Lady they were waiting for to lead them. Definitely with some powers at her disposal, different from the arts of the waelcyrge and einherjar. She prepares them for a coming war, and in the process, starts to change who they are and what is permitted them. Some embrace the new license, others are repulsed.

This story is told through three characters, two of them in first person, one in third. Strifbjorn's sections are told in third person, so we get to know him, but not too close, nowhere near as close as we get to the smallest waelcyrge, Muire, a historian and smith, in love with Strifbjorn, but not blindly so. Or to Mingan, the chained wolf, the Suneater, Strifbjorn's lover and love, who is not quite anything entirely, apart and hurting, causing hurt and taking it in.

The smaller scale emotional upheavals take place as these people try to find or maintain their honour, their places, their homes, and their sense of self in a world that increasingly is upending any stable ground under their feet. These three and the waelcyrge and einherjar who surround them fight, plot, collaborate, are suspicious or jubilant, unleashed or are grimly sure they need to keep their powers under control.

The relationship of these mythological figures to humans comes in to the story as well, as the waelcyrge and einherjar live apart from the human settlements, but venture in, as figures of legend, of vengeance, and, once Heythe, the ostensible Lady enters the scene, of fear. When is it permissible to take a life? What is vengeance and what is revenge? When one is hurt, how much hurt can one impose on others? Is it somehow better if it is done dispassionately, or from a lust for power?

Bear is going for as complicated and deep hurting issues as ever, which is one of the main reasons I love her books (although Karen Memory, of late, was a delightful diversion into lighter territory, and I am fond of both modes). Few authors go this deep, think this hard, and create characters to whom these issues are not abstract concerns, but the pressing matter of their lives.

Thursday, 21 September 2017

The Week in Stories: Strange Attractors

All Strange Attractors Recaps 

Episode 5: "Forking Paths"


Don't drink the frog juice! Or do, I'm not your mother.
Yes, I missed Episode 4. I tried to sit down and write it, but it was a hell of a summer, and by the time I sat down to take a crack, I'd forgotten half of the session. Highlights: Gerald was erased from most people's memories, and took a trip to Libertalia, met an older Peter-turned-pirate, and drank some golden frog juice that took him on a trip to alternate timelines. And when threatened with "recalibration" by TimeWatch, Jack and Peter said "fuck no" and took off, pursued by Millie.

(Below is likely all out of order, as we kept skipping from story to story, and I know I've combined some scenes.)

The episode opened with Walter walking through Greenwich Village in the middle of the day, and, apparently on a whim, entering a gay bar. It was quiet, but when he approached the bartender, the man told him that the person he was meeting was already over in one of the booths. This surprised Walter, as he had never been in this bar before.

Waiting for him in the booth was Robert Heinlein, with two glasses of whatever Walter had been about to order sitting in front of him. Heinlein observed that when he'd joined up, a place like this would have been seen as a security risk. But now it was the safest place to meet up. Heinlein disclosed some doubts about what the Admonitories overseeing TimeWatch from the future wanted.

Walter tried to pump Heinlein for information about his parents and what had happened to his father, Heinrich. Heinlein admitted that he'd been the one who reported Heinrich, and pulled out a few photos of Walter meeting with Heinrich in 1943. Couldn't Walter have at least cut his hair when he went back to meet with his father? At the time, Heinlein had only seen a man with bushy hair and long sideburns, and assumed he was a Communist agent, and that Heinrich had been compromised.

Heinlein also dropped some hints that might seem to suggest that Heinrich was hard at work on Project Rainbow around the time Walter was supposed to have been conceived, and Jack Parsons and L. Ron Hubbard were around his mother an awful lot more....

Heinlein and his wife recalibrating something, I figure
In the meantime, they needed to discuss the fact that TimeWatch wanted to recalibrate Walter, and we got a little more detail as to what that means. When paradox mounted up too far, TimeWatch would go back to a version of Walter from this time period, and use that to replace the present Walter. The question was whether or not the deletion of the present Walter was incidental, due to changing the timeline, or active. Like, murder.

(I am sort of terrified by how much this would not bother Millie. Doesn't say good things for her emotional state, if having her present self and part of her memories deleted doesn't sound like the worst idea in the world.)

At any rate, Heinlein proposed that they could either pretend to have recalibrated Walter, or actually create the alternate Walter and have two Walters running around time. Walter seemed to prefer the first option, and they continued planning. Heinlein thought he could send Walter to the Royal timeline, to track down this Gerald person that Heinlein had no memory of.

Meanwhile, we moved to where Jack, Peter, and Millie had jumped. It was Chiba City, 2052, and the world around the three looked like a cross between Neuromancer and Blade Runner. Small stalls, people cooking their own circuit boards, bad smells, and a giant billboard with L. Ron Hubbard/The Comte de St. Germain on it advertising emigration via "Clear."  Just about the first thing Jack noticed was a RazorGirl on a motorcycle. And just about that time, the RazorGirl noticed him, too.

Jack dashed through the stalls, trying to get away, only to find another RazorGirl waiting for him. As he looked for a way out, a small bubble car pulled up beside him, and a man leaned out and told Jack to jump in. Jack took the driver's side, and found that the controls were similar to an NES. The man urged him to drive them away, pronto. Jack realized that the man was an older version of himself, dressed pretty much exactly the same.

Meanwhile, the first RazorGirl came right at Peter and Millie with her motorbike. Peter managed to catch her in the stomach with his fist, while Millie grabbed a piece of metal and stuck it in the spokes of the front wheel, sending the woman and her bike flying. Jack finally got the basic hang of the car, and backed it up to where Millie and Peter were, urging them to get in. There really wasn't enough room, but they all got very snug.

However, Jack didn't manage to find the forward button, and they continued to rocket backwards through the market, mowing down stalls as they went. Eventually, he got control, found forward, and off they went.

We then jumped to where Gerald was, in Egypt in the shadow of the Sphinx. A huge zeppelin with the Union Jack on its side darkened the sky above him. This all looked remarkably like his own lost timeline (codename: Royal). He stumbled into the city, finding a hotel and entering. A dog ran up to him, ecstatic. It was his old dog, Balthazar. Suddenly, he remembered this day. It was the day he'd met his older self, and his older self had stolen his time machine and his dog!

And at that moment, his younger self came around the corner, and the dog went back and forth in an ecstasy of delight and confusion. After recognizing what was happening, the older Gerald began to exhort the younger Gerald to give up time travel altogether, saying it was far too dangerous. The younger Gerald agreed, saying that it needed to be kept in the strict control of the British Empire, and that he'd already started an organization of trustworthy blokes to control it: TimeWatch.

Gerald shouted at his younger self not to be a fool. He had no idea the lizard people he was risking letting lose on the world! His younger self stared at him, evidently convinced his older self had lost it. That was not helped as Gerald tried to tell younger self about his golden frog juice experiences.

Younger Gerald suggested that Gerald make the timeline-hopping changes to his time machine, then go home to Britain for a long rest cure, leaving the multiverse in the capable hands of good, solid Brits. Gerald was furious at the obtuseness of his younger self, and abruptly knocked himself out. He called Balthazar and headed for the time machine.

Meanwhile, back in Chiba City, the group had pulled up to a houseboat in the harbour. The air was rank and the water sullied by cadmium slicks. Jack went down into the houseboat with his younger self, while Millie and Peter stayed abovedecks. Downstairs, older Jack tried to talk to Jack about the choices he was going to make, and that he remembered this meeting.

Abovedecks, Millie wanted to know what Peter was going to do now, her hand hovering near her lasergun. He said that he didn't know, but he wasn't up for "recalibration," whatever that was. Millie asked him why not, wondering why he didn't trust TimeWatch. Why would he?, Peter retorted. No one knew why they were doing what they were doing. Making history a better place, Millie asserted.

Peter tried to shake Millie's blind (and somewhat unreasonable) faith in TimeWatch, but she dug in her heels. He said that TimeWatch must have promised her something pretty good, to get this kind of loyalty. Or to her brother. Millie was struck speechless as the memory of the first time she'd lost Miles in a murder-suicide hit her again, and the knowledge that she had found a new version of Miles, but couldn't risk talking to him. When she found her voice, she said that she hadn't gotten anything from TimeWatch. That was why she trusted them - they hadn't promised her anything good, or given her any false promises. They'd asked her to do things that hurt, and not sugarcoated them.

She accused Peter of only looking out for himself, and Peter seemed nonplussed that she thought there was another way that made any sense. He wasn't out to hurt people, but you had to look out for yourself at the end of the day. Millie disagreed. Peter promised not to mention her brother to anyone, and Millie hesitated before demanding Peter's autochron. He could do whatever he wanted to himself in 2052, but she wasn't going to let him run amok through history. He gave it to her without hesitation (but the audience could see that he gave her a fake and kept the real one.)

Just then, an expensive yacht pulled up through the nasty waters of the harbour, another older Jack on the prow, dressed much more slickly and surrounded by armed RazorGirls. He shouted for Jack and Jack to come out. Downstairs, older grubby Jack pulled out a gun and said that he'd intended to shoot younger Jack, but he remembered this meeting, and wasn't able to make himself do it. Younger Jack went above decks, and a couple of the RazorGirls hauled older grubby Jack away. Older slick Jack greeted his younger self, saying this was the world they'd built, and that it was all Peter's plan, the long con. Older Jack pointed at the poster of L. Ron Hubbard/Comte de St. Germain, saying it was all about power.

Younger Jack talked to his older slick self, and older slick Jack kept showing off his lifestyle, inviting younger Jack to join him. Jack demurred, and that's when older slick Jack also pulled out a gun and said that he didn't remember this meeting, so he was free to kill younger Jack without affecting this timeline they'd created.

Millie, having been stewing about her argument with Peter and her own need to believe she was doing the right thing, grabbed Peter's arm, saying that if he didn't believe TimeWatch was doing everything for a reason, she'd show him. They'd go to the far future and see what the future the Admonitories was building was. She invited Jack to come along, and he agreed quickly, not really wanting to get shot. They jumped away....


Wednesday, 20 September 2017

Howard Who? by Howard Waldrop

I find writing reviews for books of short stories really hard. I read quickly, so I tend to burn through a story before it's had time to seep into my long-term memory. This means that I'm not doing the kind of memory reinforcement that happens when I read a novel over several days - each new day helps consolidate things about a book in my head. With short stories, that second crack at it never comes, and I'm not really interested in reading each story twice just to combat this.

In other words, short stories aren't really my favourite fiction conveyance. I do like some short stories, but they have to be really boffo to stick in my head. And when you read a whole bunch of them, and then sit down to write a review - particularly when you read another book of short stories just a few days before, and find they're blurring together in your mind...I'm just saying, it's not the easiest of tasks.

Of course, no one is making me write this review, or even making me read this book - both are things I freely and willingly chose. So let's get down to brass tacks and try to figure out what I thought of Howard Who?

Let's start this off by saying that I didn't have the same trouble with his female characters that I did with Mike Resnick's. Most of the stories are focused on men, but when the women appear, they are more interesting and varied, less caricatures. In fact, most of his characters have more to them than caricatures, given the space restraints inherent in short story writing.


Still, there were a couple of stories that I found troubling - not troubling as in "this makes me worried about the author and his viewpoints," but more "stories that made me uncomfortable and stuck with me." That's compounded a bit since both of those stories were about Jewishness - one is about a vampire attack in Germany that Hitler and his cronies use as an excuse to start the horrors of the Holocaust, and another about a Jewish elite time travel team that have a terrible, cruel plan they are carrying out in order to put their leaders in the present in the best possible position. I am not entirely sure what I think of either story, and I'm not entirely sure that what I got from them was worth the distress of reading them, but...I just don't know what I think yet, and will need quite a bit more time to mull it over.

But let's talk about the rest of the stories! They are mostly very fun! The first one in the book is about The Ugly Chicken, which is apparently his most famous story, and was a whole barrel of fun. It is about a...dammit, the word for scientist who studies birds is escaping me...bird scientist who runs into an older woman on a bus who identifies the dodo in the book he as looking at as one of those "ugly chickens" her neighbour used to have. This sends the scientist on a goose chase through Appalachia, trying to find out if the dodos really do still exist. The kicker to this story is delightful, if a little depressing. It does feel quite right.

There's also a lovely story about 19th century inventors who discover that one of the crackpot inventions that didn't work in our timeline does in theirs, with terrifying results. And one about a post-apocalyptic society where tractor pulls settle serious disputes, another with alt-history where Eisenhower was the musician and Elvis Presley the politician, and yet another where sumo wrestlers fight telekinetically, and the last, sad and yet hilarious story where Goofy, Donald, and Mickey go searching for a time capsule to tell them where all the humans went.

Most of these stories are humorous, but with an underlying elegiac, even mournful, undertone. Outside of the two stories that unsettled me, the rest were quite delightful.

Monday, 18 September 2017

The Darkest Part of the Forest by Holly Black

It feels like I've been reading a lot about fairy tales recently.My themed SF/F book club is in the middle of five months of reading books with fairy tales for the themes, although when I was choosing books for that, I tried to steer clear of books that were about fae coming into our world. (I made one exception.) I did so because I felt like there were enough of those that it could be its own theme, so this collection was fairy tales in fairy tale worlds. I wasn't dogmatic about it, but it was one of my guiding principles.

This book definitely belongs in the fae-coming-into-our-world category. It happens in a small town called Fairfold, where the fae never went entirely away. Those who live there all their lives all know those who trespassed into Fairy and never returned. Tourists come, and sometimes disappear. A changeling is left with a local family, and when the human mother figures it out and when she gets her own child back, she refuses to give up the changeling either. There is an equilibrium.

In this world, Hazel used to think of herself as a knight, wielding a sword she found by a lake as a child. With her brother as troubadour by her side, making magic music, she fought the fae who tried to prey in more malicious ways on the people of her town. But then she made a deal with the fairy king for her brother's sake, and nothing has quite gone right since. They're both in high school, and Hazel doesn't know how to be who she is anymore, and has her own reasons for keeping her heart far away from anyone. She doesn't know when her debt (seven years of her life) will come due.

One of the notable features of her town is a Sleeping Beauty - but a guy Sleeping Beauty, under glass like Snow White in the Disney film. Generations of teens have partied on his magical glass coffin, but he hasn't woken up. Then, one morning, the case is broken and the boy is gone. Both Hazel and Ben, her brother, are attached to what they'd made of the boy in their heads.

And then kids in the town start being found asleep and not waking up. With the help of Ben and Ben's best friend, Jack (Jack was the changeling who was kept), Hazel has to figure out who let the boy out, who is threatening her town, and what happens at night when she's not conscious to see it.

This is definitely YA, but it's good YA. The characters are strong and interesting, and the writing pulled me along eagerly, wanting to know what happened next. Things are messy and difficult, but none of the conflict feels forced or out of character.

However, I think the strongest part of this are the relationships. Borderline neglected by loving but careless parents, Hazel and Ben have one of the most interesting sibling relationships I've read in a while, and Hazel and Ben's relationships with their parents, with Jack, with the boy under glass, all are interesting and avoid simplistic answers.

I don't know if I'd call this my favourite of the numerous stories that are out there about the fae entering a version of our world, but it's very solid, and certainly up there.

Friday, 15 September 2017

First Person Peculiar by Mike Resnick

I picked up this collection of Mike Resnick short stories in a Humble Bundle a while ago - I'm not sure which one, but I'm guessing the Nebula bundle, as I believe at least one and perhaps more of these stories were nominated for and/or won that award. Weirdly, I read this in close proximity to another book of short stories by another author that came in the same bundle, and the two started to blend together in my head.

So, not having read any Resnick before, what's the verdict? The first thing that strikes me is that a lot of these stories are genuinely funny. Resnick tends to have a humorous touch, even when the stories themselves get a little dark. They're often about incorporating elements of other genres - hardboiled detectives, heists, Casablanca, romantic comedies - into a science fiction (and less often, a fantasy) world. A lot of these I really enjoyed.

That's the good side, and we'll get back to it when I talk about a few of the stories I really enjoyed. The not so great side is that, well, his female characters are not great. I mean, most of the characters in these stories are kind of caricatures, so I'm not looking for deep understanding, but after we got through the second Jewish mother, the Jewish American princess and the fourth or fifth dead hooker...well, it felt like even for caricatures, the women were getting absurdly short shrift. Particularly the dead hooker aspect. (Three of those turn up in a story about Jack the Ripper, but it was only shortly after a spooky little story where violent criminals have their minds wiped and are supposed to be unable to regain memories, but one guy does, and starts his new killing spree with...you guessed it.)

It's unfortunate, because otherwise, I would have thoroughly enjoyed myself. A lot of these aren't deep (although a few are), and I can definitely be sucked into enjoyable little short stories. If, you know, the humour included fewer dead prostitutes and parodies of Jewish women.

If you can put that aside, (and I mostly can but not entirely,) I did enjoy the rest of the stories. They sometimes play with religious ideas, such as Resnick's take on the Wandering Jew of legend, and his actual enjoyment of an incredibly long life, or the later story where the Creator turns out to be a not-very-bright student in a galaxy creation class.

And many of his stories exist in interaction with popular culture, like the one where Rick Blaine is hoping to finally get the girl THIS TIME the movie comes around on the eternal reel. Or the one where a guy winning a lot of money gets mobbed by a host of gold-diggers (sigh), each with their own magician to help them turn the odds in their favour. Or the one where a hard-boiled detective is sent off with a beautiful dame in search of the sheet music for Leibowitz's Canticle, except the dame has plans of her own. And the last story, where John Carter shows up in an aging man's backyard, searching for the way back to Mars, and the narrator, having lost his own wife, beings to hope maybe she's out there with Dejah Thoris somewhere.

But I think my favourite story is a fairly short one where a travel agent robot is programmed with enthusiasm, and then gets up and walks away from his desk one day. It's short, and powerful, and the ending a bit depressing. It's one of the strongest stories in the book.

On the overall topic of recommending the book or not, though...I don't know. If you have a lot of time and love short stories, and can hold judgement on gender stereotypes in abeyance, maybe. Otherwise, there are a lot of great short stories out there. There are some really good ones here, but also some stuff that made it less thoroughly enjoyable than I'd have liked it to be. (AKA write about fewer tortured and murdered prostitutes in your funny stories, thank you!)

Wednesday, 13 September 2017

Planetfall by Emma Newman

I picked up Planetfall more or less randomly, not knowing what to expect. I had the feeling that it was young adult, but the story within didn't seem YA at all - older characters for one, but also deep dives into mental illness and trauma that I had not been expecting. Best of all, this all felt done well, and urgently, and the story pressing. Honestly, it was one of the most pleasant surprises of the year.

Emma Newman knows how to write, guys. Reading this was an intense experience, as she took us inside the main character Ren, in the grips of PTSD and hoarding, and didn't let go the whole way through. Those mental issues aren't all of who Ren is, but she's been struggling so long that one more stressor is about all it would take to break her. She's strong, but fraying, and the way the readaer is taken along on that journey with her is powerful and internal. And stressful.

So, the story. A small settlement of people live on a planet in the shadow of a huge building/growth/shrine/monolith called God's City. They followed a woman from Earth to this place, when she believed she was on a divine mission, led to these coordinates. She is said to live within the monolith, and sends out yearly  messages to the people still living in the village below.

Right near the beginning, though, we learn two things from Ren, short for Renata. Suh, the prophet and her friend and perhaps lover, isn't alive in there or isn't quite alive - we know something happened to her, but not what. She's definitely not sending those yearly messages. Another occupant of the village is, and he and Renata are also in some way implicated in an accident that killed a bunch of the seekers.

We get this through Ren's eyes, so burdened with guilt and stress over these long-ago events, she can barely look at them head-on. Life goes on in a holding pattern in this village, supported by matter printers, which Ren maintains - and raids the discards for bits she can salvage and fix, driven to try to make things better. Even if she never gets around to it. It's an impulse without a good outlet, because she can't even think about the things that need the most fixing.

Then a strange human comes, on a planet that should have no other humans. He's a survivor of the pod lost or purposefully destroyed, alone. The society tries to find a place for him, while writing meaning over his arrival. He is the first to realize that Ren's introversion is hiding deeper problems and strives to bring them to light.

Meanwhile, Ren ventures into God's City on illicit investigations, and finally, after many years, starts to gain some insight into what the city might be and what brought them there.

I don't want to give more away, because a great deal of the pleasure of this book was in the journey. It's interesting - you know you're in the mind of an unstable narrator, and it's stressful to be there. Even as people reached out to help her, the prose was such that I felt her anxiety and understood it from the inside, rather that just seeing it from a distance. That's a huge thing to be able to do, to take a reader into the mind of someone who is acting in ways that seem irrational, and make them understandable. To make me want to protect her.

There are points at which each of us would break, and I've always thought that that adage about God never giving anyone more than they could handle was bullshit, and I think I would think so even if I were Christian. It's perfectly possible to have more happen than can be borne, for anyone, and sometimes it does. What do you do in the aftermath? And when you live in the shadow of the unknown?

Monday, 11 September 2017

Half The World by Joe Abercrombie

I came back to Joe Abercrombie's books ready to find them too nihilistic and grim, and give them up again. (To be fair, I found the the first book in The First Law series fine, but by the end of the second book, the unrelenting bleakness had gotten to me. It wasn't that I disliked his writing or even the books, but I found the mood too much to take on willingly.)  I had hoped that his series written for a slightly younger audience might let up on the darkness, just a little bit? I wasn't expecting sunshine and puppies, that's for damned sure.

Which is good, because I found neither, although my fears about tone didn't come to fruition either. It's still dark, but not as relentlessly dark. I'm intrigued enough that I'll read the third in the series eventually. I'm not sold to the point of adding Abercrombie to my personal list of authors to follow enthusiastically, but he's back on the list of those I certainly don't mind reading more of if his books cross my path. Although that might be restricted to the vaguely Young Adult-type ones.

In this second book of the trilogy, Yarvi, the main character of the first book, is back, now installed as a Minister to his uncle and new step-father, the King. Yeah, the same person - his mother married his uncle, her first husband's brother, at the end of the last book, to cement his claim to the throne. Their kingdom is threatened by the overreaching hand of the Emperor and his ministers, and Yarvi is given the task of creating a coalition to stand against the largest power in the region. (I'm very fuzzy on geography and thinking visually, so where all these bits of the world are in relation to each other is more than a little opaque to me.)

In amassing a crew, he picks up a motley crew of sailors, then extends himself to take with him two who otherwise would be left to moulder, in various ways. Thorn, a young woman who had been training to become a soldier, despite the disdain and cruelty of her teachers, accidentally kills one of the other trainees when three of them are set on her at once by her trainer. She is in prison, likely to be executed, but Yarvi intervenes to pull her out and take her with him, putting her under the tutelage of one of the characters from the previous book, a fearsome woman warrior.

When Thorn killed, there was only one who spoke in her defence, another trainee named Brand. He was ostracized for his efforts to do the right thing, but Father Yarvi noticed, and takes him with the ship as well. Much of the book is spent on the voyage, with Thorn training, and various feats of heroism done as hostile lands are crossed.

Repeatedly, Brand and/or Thorn are called upon by circumstances to display their valour and skill/strength. Thorn, in particular, becomes the object of stories, particularly when she meets the young new Queen of the place to which they were travelling. This story meanders, much as the trip that the characters undertake does, but also manages to pull the reader along, feeling that there's an underlying purpose.

Yarvi's eventual purpose, or rather, one circumstance he was ready to deal with, is revealed at the end, in a very Macbeth/Eowyn type of ending, when Thorn seems to stand ready to thwart a prophecy. However, since it was Abercrombie, and I wasn't sure how dark this book was going, I wasn't sure how it would turn out. In that, I was surprised, and that was interesting. So, I'm intrigued enough to keep on and finish.

Friday, 8 September 2017

Book Lists: Even The Land Has Changed

I had a few ideas for the next theme for my book club, but when I asked for additional suggestions, I got a truly staggering number of responses on Facebook! This theme is somewhere between cli fi and post-apocalyptic - the proviso is that it has to be about a world where the physical landscape has changed or is changing, not just human society. (I said I would also perhaps include books on terraforming, where the change is intentional.) I haven't had a chance to research all of these, but including my own ideas, these are the books that were suggested:





The Fifth Season - N.K. Jemisin
Annihilation - Jeff Vandermeer
The Wind-Up Girl - Paolo Bacigalupi
The Gone Away World - Nick Harkaway
Oryx and Crake - Margaret Atwood
The Stone Gods - Jeanette Winterson
The Water Knife - Paolo Bacigalupi
Red Mars (and the other books in the trilogy) - Kim Stanley Robinson
Forty Signs of Rain - Kim Stanley Robinson
Seveneves - Neal Stephenson
Ship Breaker - Paola Bacigalupi
The Drowned Cities - Paola Bacigalupi
Dune - Frank Herbert
The Book of Strange New Things - Michel Faber
Neuropath - Scott Bakker
The Family Tree - Sheri S. Tepper
The Swarm - Frank Schatzing
A Scientific Romance - Ronald Wright
Timescape - Gregory Benford

Any suggestions to add to the list?

Thursday, 7 September 2017

Winter Rose by Patricia McKillip

I intended to write this review yesterday, before the book club that was going to discuss it in the evening. But it didn't matter how many times I opened this page, I just sat there, unable to think of the words I wanted to say about this book. I'd liked it well enough, but damned if I could think of a single thing to say.

So it was a little helpful when I went to my book club and discovered that the other people there had pretty much hated it. I still would say that I liked it overall, but I also can't say that a single one of their criticisms were wrong, and often, what they had to say sparked similar annoyance in me. I'm still not in the "hated it" camp, but, influenced by those around me, I could see why my initial attempts to write about this book were met with difficulty, because I was having trouble thinking of specific things I liked.

Which is too bad, because I sort of liked the writing style. That being said, the story itself was very repetitive. I agreed totally when that came up as a criticism. The more I think about it, the more the middle-to-the-end of the book goes over and over the same territory, even literally, as Rois, the main character, goes from her house to the house of the man who has disappeared to the woods three or four times.

(This is both a Snow White and Rose Red tale, and, slightly, a Tam Lin tale. The Tam Lin aspect was why I'd picked it for the group, and I was disappointed more wasn't made of it.) Two sisters live in a peasant town, and are relatively happy. One is content to marry her childhood sweetheart, the other likes running around barefoot in the woods too much to be truly normal, although everyone seems to know her eccentricities and love and accept her anyway. It's very much Belle from Beauty & the Beast syndrome - she doesn't fit into this provincial life, but really, the life isn't that bad (in this story). It's kind of frustrating when we get the leads in these fairy tale stories that aren't so much critiques of fairy tale life as they are interested in telling the story of the "girl who isn't like other girls." The one who runs wild in the woods and Has Opinions.

This wild girl is named Rois, and no one was quite sure how the hell that was supposed to be pronounced. Rose? Like Lois, but with an R? Royce?  A mysterious man comes to their town to rebuild his ancestral manor, and maybe he's actually come from the land of the fairies. Rois falls in love with him, and then her sister falls in love with him, with the whole "wastes away staring out the window when he doesn't come" thing going on. 

What frustrated me about the Tam Lin elements is that Rois is told what she needs to do to free him about a third of the book in, and then proceeds to not do anything about it until the last 30 pages. And I'm not sure why the Fairy Queen who was trying to hold him told her what to do - it would have made more sense coming from other lips. But if we're billing this as a Tam Lin story, let's go right into that. And maybe instead of going over the same ground over and over again in the mid-to-end of the book, you could have the Tam Lin stuff happen and then write about what the consequences are after it's officially over? I mean, if you're looking to fill space, you could have a third act.

Tuesday, 5 September 2017

American Craftsmen by Tom Doyle

This is an interesting concept, and the execution is, well, it's not great. It's not execrable, either. It's the kind of book that you don't mind reading, but really wish that it was about 30% better, and then it could get an enthusiastic recommendation as a good pulp read. I like good pulpy fun, but those books really have to embrace that aspect of themselves. This comes so close to being rollicking, but not quite, and at times, it tries a little too hard to be serious, and it's not that either.

So this book is about a world where the CIA has a magical branch of operatives. All well and good, right? I even like that a good part of the book is about a hangover of Puritan magical attitudes, as two of the major families originate in that time period. That would be fine, except that then it seems that ALL the magic users employed by the CIA and indeed, that exist in the continental U.S., come from Puritan families. Except for the first family the main character meets who aren't Puritan are immigrants from Iran. In this family, the young woman has magical powers unlike anything seen before, and of course she and the main character fall head over heels.

So, wait a second. In all this time, all hundreds of years of U.S. history, magic users who came from immigrant groups never materialized? Not at all? Not even from white immigrants of British Isles ancestry who DIDN'T come over with the Puritans? Not one? Except the first woman he meets outside that group is one? That's the kind of logical leap that beggars the imagination. Particularly when the story seems to state that the CIA was formed in part to control magic users who weren't their Puritan lackeys, which seems a) super racist and b) unlikely, given that the CIA was created in the 1940s, and that leaves a whole century and half at least where non-Puritan magic users could be running around, and they suddenly and definitively managed to take control in such a way it's not even remarked upon? It's either rare, or it's not, and trying to say it's all Puritan except for this plot-convenient Iranian beauty for the main character to fall in love with is...not really the greatest way to handle this.

I mean, I am all for books about an occult secret service. I'm even okay if it's a little more rah-rah than, say Charles Stross' Laundry books, although I will always love sardonic skepticism of intelligence services more than All-American Puritan boy toys.

So, how is the prose and how are the characters? Well, the prose is unobjectionable - it's not great, and weirdly, it is mostly written fairly colloquially, with very occasional erudite words thrown in, and it almost always struck me as odd. I like vocabulary, but it didn't seem to match the rest of the book. As for the characters, well....  They're...fine? Pretty one-dimensional? They all fight ancestral battles over two centuries old like it happened to them? There doesn't seem to be much room for variations of human experience, or even one person thinking "hey, that doesn't make much sense, does it?"

They are pretty much what you would expect to find if you really thought that personality traits were handed down through families, and that family history would always be as vivid to later generations as it was to those who experienced it. It's not that people can't get obsessed over the past, and I supposed having ghosts around might not help the issue, but there's been remarkably little drift over the centuries. And Scherie, sure, she's powerful, but she's mostly there to be gorgeous, the object of the main character's affections, and to be a weapon at the end. Even her stated goals of going back to Iran to fight against oppression there fall by the wayside once she falls in love.  (There are a number of secondary female characters, and they're no better or worse than the male ones.)

I'm struggling with the part where this was just okay. It was okay! But it's not a lot more and that's too bad, because it could have been 30% more fun and I would have been telling lots of people to read it.

Friday, 1 September 2017

The Refrigerator Monologues by Catherynne Valente

The Refrigerator Monologues was a birthday present from my wonderful husband, along with a Funko figure of Louise from Bob's Burgers. I have an affinity for small angry ids in character form. I don't let anger out very often in my real life, so roleplaying games and identification with angry women/girls is pretty much where it makes its place in my life. So, in as far as that is concerned, this was a particularly good pairing, because The Refrigerator Monologues is both angry and heartbreaking.

It comes from that particular pain of being a female comic book fan. I'm one myself, so there was so much I responded to here, about a medium I enjoy, but which frequently makes me uncomfortable. Particularly when you read a story and realize it sounds a lot like another story, and in both, women are treated in less-than-optimal ways. Suddenly, it's not just a single story anymore. It's a theme. And what you wanted to enjoy ends up in a place where women are punished/killed off/sidelined because of their gender, and it may be unconscious, but it's sure as hell not accidental.

So here we have Catherynne Valente's reaction to yet another girlfriend in a superhero movie dying to motivate a hero, which comes out as a visit to the land of the dead, where all these women congregate, dance, and tell their stories - at least until a reboot, when they get pulled back out to fill their roles again. All the characters are her own, but there are obvious parallels to the stories of Gwen Stacy, Jean Grey, Harley Quinn, Mera, Karen Page, and Alexandra DeWitt. And seen all together like that, around the table in a cafe or nightclub in Deadtown, it's overwhelming and infuriating.

We get these women centered in their own stories, aware of the way they've been subsumed in the stories of the men around them, decentered and sidekicked, murdered and committed to insane asylums, with their power unrecognized or terrifying. Goddammit, we need to do better, and some do. Thankfully. (There's a lovely nod to Gail Simone and a few other comic book creators.)

And because this is Catherynne Valente, it's all written so very beautifully. Not lushly this time, but with words that are sometimes like a punch, and sometimes a scalpel, cutting through the excuses around this topic and laying bare the underlying assumptions about women and their roles in stories. Particularly heroic stories.

Some of the stories I didn't know, and had to search out their our-world equivalent - Bayou, first of all. I never read much DC, and certainly knew very little about Aquaman, but reading even just the wikipedia article on Mera made me see red in the same way the story did. There's so little that Valente is adding to most of these stories, so many of them are the bare bones just as they were in the comics, but treated without sentiment and more thought, so what was thrown in without thinking is exposed like a nerve.

I want more. I want women at the centre of stories with superpowers, I want them to be less props, more people, whose stories are not just there to highlight the more important male stories beside them. Thankfully, some of those comics are being written these days, and maybe someday this book will not resonate with female comic book fans and aware male ones quite so much as it does at the moment. But until then, pull up a chair and prepare to get angry.