A Door Into Ocean by Joan Slonczewski

Read: 4 December, 2017

I picked this book up after Lois McMaster Bujold mentioned it in Dreamweaver’s Dilemma. I can’t recall the context, but the mention was favourable, so I thought I’d give it a try.

The book’s synopsis feels a tad heavy handed – a planet of women must fend off encroachment from a patriarchal culture. And, yet, the feminist aspects almost seem to take a back seat to the pacifism. I found the characters were quite varied – the staunchest pacifists have their doubts, the Sharers have individuals who want to fight back, the aggressors doubt the ethics of their mission, etc. The book doesn’t have any simple answers, both between the two dominant sides and within each camp.

The first 2/3rds of the book is a little slow, as Slonczewski builds her picture of the characters and locations. Despite the pacing, the discovery of Shora (largely centred on the planet’s ecology) did keep me from getting bored.

Then it picked up. It so picked up. For the last third, I couldn’t put the book down. And then it ended, very suddenly. It was a bit disappointing, though I’m not really sure how a book tackling such huge impossibilities could have ended satisfyingly.

There are aspects of the book that reminded me quite a bit of Dune. There’s the quasi-feudal space culture, there’s the society of women with a keen interest in genetics, and there’s even an emperor-type figure who has ruled many planets for hundreds (thousands?) of years. But perhaps the biggest similarity is the way that the book tackles Big Questions without providing easy answers.

Despite being very much a product of ’80s feminism, A Door Into Ocean doesn’t feel too dated. And though some of it does feel clunky by today’s standards, there’s more than enough going on to make this a valuable addition to the science fiction canon.

    Ayn Rand and the World She Made by Anne C. Heller

    Read: 27 November, 2017

    I had a Libertarian friend in high school. While I was firmly in camp Nader, she was a Bush supporter, and even went so far as to buy me a gloating ice cream sandwich when Bush won the presidency. In the course of that friendship, I was convinced to pick up a copy of The Fountainhead.

    I tend to find passion infectious. While I found the book itself a tedious and poorly-written slog, the excitement it showed for architecture really spoke to me. I gave up on the book fairly early – I’m not even sure that I made it a quarter of the way through – but I started looking up information on architecture and even considered pursuing it as a career. As it happened, however, my talking about architecture infected my mom, who picked it as her second career (an excellent fit, as she’s always had a keen eye for shapes). Once she enrolled in an architecture program, I had to pick something else to avoid falling on the wrong side of her competitive streak, and that’s how I ended up with my BA in English Literature.

    The point of all of this being that Ayn Rand has had a fairly profound and wide-reaching cultural influence – even on those of us who had almost no interest in her work and found her writing unbearable. Whatever one thinks of her, or her philosophy, there’s no denying that she’s one of the last century’s Notable People.

    Rand popped into my Active Interest slot again when I came across an Atlas Shrugged read-along series on Daylight Atheism. It’s a great series that I definitely recommend. Adam Lee does a great job of thinking through the implications of the book and, as Rand would love to say, “checking the premises.”

    One of the sources Lee cites frequently is Heller’s Ayn Rand and the World She Made. Since, once again, passion is infectious, I took the book out of the library.

    A month ago, I couldn’t have told you anything about Ayn Rand except that she’d written The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, she was a woman, she is somehow related to the Libertarian movement, and she’s dead. So I came to The World She Made a fairly blank slate. Because of this, I can’t say how groundbreaking the research of the book is, and I see from other reviews that maybe there isn’t so much that is new here. But as a starting point, it’s perfect.

    Heller moves methodically through Rand’s life – from her childhood in revolutionary Russia, to her death in New York. At each stage, Rand is the centre focus, but Heller explores the broader context of who Rand was meeting, what her living situation was like, what ideas was she exposed to…

    On Rand herself, the book didn’t much improve my perception of her. In her early life, it’s easy to feel some sympathy towards her, but so much of her suffering seems to have been entirely self-inflicted. Worse, her life is, itself, the most damning argument against her philosophy.

    Worse, she strikes me as a shallow thinker. I’m sure that she was a fantastic arguer, and probably quite quick and witty. She must have bowled over people in person (even if only by virtue of her stamina for argument). But it doesn’t take much thinking through to realize that her philosophy is immature at best. Over and over again, The World She Made makes reference to Rand’s popularity among teenagers and young adults, as opposed to more mature readers. This isn’t surprising.

    On her emphasis on individuality, I was reminded of the ubiquity of the self-esteem movement during my childhood, and how – as a thoroughly weird kid – offensive I found it. Everywhere I turned, every school program, every TV show, ever fast food ad campaign was telling kids to “just be yourself.” And yet, the message I heard over and over again was “no, not like that.” And that’s Rand in a nutshell – her whole philosophy is wrapped around the idea of individuality and personal freedom, and yet she required that her followers only listen to certain types of music, only thought certain types of thoughts.

    I was both surprised and not surprised by the cult that sprang up around Rand. While I had never heard Objectivism described as a cult, its ideas – and the reverential way in which Rand is so often talked about – certainly smell of cult.

    But enough about the subject, what about the book? It’s good! It’s very readable, and it’s a great introduction to Rand and to her ideas.

      Triad Blood #1: Triad Blood by ‘Nathan Burgoine

      Read: 21 November, 2017

      Full disclosure: Burgoine is a friend of a friend. I met him at a birthday party and looked him up after he was introduced as an author. That said, I would have picked this book to read if I’d heard of it through other means anyway: It’s my genre, it’s not the straight white cis male fiction my reading list has historically been horridly over-saturated with, and it’s set right here in Ottawa. If there’s one thing I love more than anything, it’s local fiction!

      One cool thing about reading local authors – library copies are often signed!

      That said, the clunky writing in the first few pages had me questioning my choice. Given that the dialogue gets much better later on, I have to assume that the author was trying to use the speech tags to introduce the characters, but it very hard to get into.

      Still, I powered through, and I’m very glad of it. The writing quickly loosens up as the plot takes over. There’s another rough patch in the final climax, but that’s not exactly uncommon.

      Other than those two portions, I loved the book. The characters are interesting, the sex scenes are steamy, there’s tone-appropriate bits of humour, and the plot is intriguing. This may be a fairly genre-standard urban fantasy novel, but it’s a good one. I’ll definitely be reading the sequel.

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        The Red Tree by Caitlin R. Kiernan

        Read: 4 November, 2017

        At it’s most basic, the plot is about a writer who has hermitted herself to get away from a recent tragedy. It’s a common story, but Kiernan handles it well.

        I didn’t find the book to be particularly scary or haunted, unfortunately. I found that The Woman In Black got me quite a bit harder with the atmosphere (though Sarah and Constance’s picnic came close), and The Haunting of Hill House did a better job of getting under my skin. But I found The Red Tree compelling from start to finish. Even though very little happens, and we spend most of our time ruminating with the main character, I still had trouble putting the book down until I’d finished.

        …and even after. The ending is somewhat abrupt. I was expecting, and would have liked, a follow up from the ‘editor’ who wrote the preface. Just something to give us the reality anchoring – what does the evidence tell us about Sarah’s time in that house, and how does it differ (or not) from her own account of it? Or maybe that would have been spelling things out too much. I did re-read the preface after I had finished the book, though, and there were some interesting details in the wording, but without the answers I had been hoping to find.

        But other than my vague dissatisfaction with the ending (which, in addition to being very abrupt, also suffered from predictability), I enjoyed the book on the whole. I would have liked something a little more gut-grippingly scary as my Halloween read, but I’m not disappointed to have picked The Red Tree.

        Oh, and the cover design really is very unfortunate.

          Vorkosigan Saga #5: The Warrior’s Apprentice by Lois McMaster Bujold

          Read: 20 October, 2017

          I’ve seen Miles before (not counting his time as a fetus and small child in Barrayar) in “The Mountains of Mourning”. As a short story set in a very fleshed-out universe, “Mountains” didn’t give me too much to go on about Miles, except for his odd relationship to his people – as a mutant, as a half-foreigner, as a lord…

          Apprentice didn’t give me too much more to go on in understanding his relationships with his family members (Aral gets about as much page time here as he did in “Mountains”), but I did get to see a lot more of Miles himself. Much of the book is spent off-world, which was an interesting contrast to “Mountains” as it gave me a glimpse into how Miles is Barrayaran, as opposed to how he is not.

          A big focus of the story is on his relationship with Bothari. In fact, Bothari’s been fairly central to all three of the books I’ve read so far, with Escobar as the linchpin to many of the central events in all three. Miles’s relationship with Bothari is, of course, very different from Aral’s or Cordelia’s, and that added an interesting dynamic.

          Mostly, though, this book is funny. Bujold is great at this deadpan absurdism – in this case as Miles accidentally builds an army. Throughout the first 2/3rds of the book, Miles just goes from situation to situation, snowballing his successes well beyond what he’s able to handle. It’s like the Chosen One trope, but self-aware.

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            Gaius Ruso Mystery #7: Vita Brevis by Ruth Downie

            Read: 15 October, 2017

            Ruso and Tilla head to Rome, their new baby in tow.

            I like that Downie changes up the scenery every now and then. Britain is great, but it was nice to see Gaul in Persona Non Grata, and it’s lovely to see Rome here. And while Downie doesn’t exactly do vivid detail, the city certainly managed to come across satisfyingly noisy, dirty, and smelly.

            As usual, the mystery is something of an afterthought. The main attraction is Tilla and Ruso, and now their expanded household. Adding Mara and the two slaves creates a whole new dynamic – not to mention nearly tripling the number of people Ruso has to support… somehow.

            Narina has a lot of potential as a character, particularly with her tribal background. In Rome, Tilla seemed willing to ignore the traditional dislike between their tribes because Narina was, at least, from Britain. By the end of the book, the two women seem to have formed something of a friendship as they co-parent and face the dangers of Rome together. But I imagine that going back to Britain will highlight their tribal differences, and perhaps put a strain on their relationship. It’ll be interesting to see how that plays out.

            The series is still going strong, and I can already see the threads of many new interesting plotlines starting, so I don’t see me losing interest any time soon.

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              Vorkosigan Saga #4: Barrayar by Lois McMaster Bujold

              Read: 12 October, 2017

              Shards of Honour gave us the Cordelia and Aral’s ‘meet cute’, and now Barrayar gives us Miles’s origin story. But, of course, there’s so much more.

              I loved this book. Cordelia and Aral mesh together so much better than they did in Shards, even though they spend so little time together. I loved Cordelia’s commitment to her son, in a society where he is seen as disposable at best. I loved the description of childbirth, which is hands down the most relatable labour scene I’ve ever read (and that includes descriptions in childbirthing non-fiction books). And I loved the ending, which resonated with Shards in an almost comical way.

              The only weakness that I could see was Droushnakovi and Koudelka’s relationship – and then not for any literary reason. I just found Koudelka, who started off sympathetic, to be utterly aggravating.

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                The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander

                Read: 9 October, 2017

                In this book, Alexander describes the ‘New Jim Crow’, in which blackness is linked with criminality, and criminality with inhumanity – giving the perfect ‘colourblind’ cover for policies that disenfranchise huge numbers of African Americans.

                Alexander’s writing style is very readable – which is great, because the subject matter is so relentlessly depressing. If it were a slog to read through as well, I don’t know that I would have been able to finish it. As it was, I slipped my way through the whole book, wide-eyed and feeling rather ill, in just a few days.

                On a simple style level, this is also one of the best written non-fiction books I’ve read in a while. Every point is brought up exactly where it needs to be, and every question that occurred to me was anticipated and answered. Each chapter serve a purpose and builds to form a strong whole. I’m always complaining that non-fiction books often lack a targeted focus, seeming to blunder through a variety of somewhat related points with no clear focus on a thesis. The New Jim Crow is the opposite – for such a huge, systemic issue, Alexander strictly trims the tangents and focuses with laser-like precision.

                It’s an interesting experience to be reading this book – which is all about ‘post-racist society’ and ‘colourblindness’ – in Trump’s America. I woke up this morning with a few pages left and headlines in the news about a follow-up neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville. Alexander spends so much time trying to explain that the racism is still there, merely disguised as colourblindness, and I can’t help but wonder what the book would look like if it were written today.

                I highly recommend this one. In fact, I wish it were required high school reading. It’s well written, well researched, and thoroughly heartbreaking.

                  Vorkosigan Saga #3: Shards of Honor by Lois McMaster Bujold

                  Read: 4 October, 2017

                  This is my first full-length Vorkosigan novel (Falling Free not counting as there are no character cross-overs, as far as I can tell), and it’s exactly what I was expecting: Great.

                  There’s an odd flippancy to Bujold’s characters. They don’t have that lofty, quasi-archaic, a little too serious speech that genre fiction characters have. Nor do they have the immature, overly casual speech that the other major portion of genre fiction characters have. Instead, they hit the sweet spot – sounding like the middle aged veterans that they are, but also capable of being casual when appropriate.

                  Having accidentally peeked ahead with “Mountains of Mourning”, it was interesting to return to some of the events and characters that had been alluded to – namely, Aral’s regency. I also got a very difference sense of Aral and Cordelia, who I had pictured as more the Leto and Jessica types. But while he is very stoic and she is incredibly clever, their tone and bond is much different from Herbert’s characters.

                  I go back and forth on how I feel about the speedy romance. On the one hand, I think we get far too much of that kind of romantic love in our media (even if it’s the kind I most identify with). On the other hand, it works for these characters. It’s clear what they are attracted to in each other, rather than simply being slaves to the author’s machinations.

                  The last thing I want to touch on is something I’ve noticed in Bujold’s other works – the care she takes with the reality of Big Events. The war for Escobar doesn’t just end when the action ends. Instead, the final scene of the book is given to a corpse recovery and identification team, combing over the wreckage of a ship and trying to construct a narrative for each of the people they find. It’s short, but it’s a loving tribute to the realities of the sorts of big conflicts with which we are so often entertained. It’s a fitting end, and a good way to ground a story that could have lent itself to misinterpretation.

                  I’m absolutely in love with this author, and endlessly grateful to the people who brought her up so much that I was compelled to give her a try.

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                    Jews Versus Zombies edited by Lavie Tidhar & Rebecca Levene

                    Read: 1 October, 2017

                    This is a wonderfully “niche” anthology, for that handful of people interested both in Judaism and zombies. Only two of the stories are the kinds of zombie stories you might find in Best New Zombie Tales, though even those have a very particularly Jewish flavour to them. The rest more explicitly use the undead concept to explore philosophy and Jewish identity.

                    I found that most of this collection is way over my head, and many terms are used that I’m simply not familiar with. This was clearly not compiled with a gentile audience in mind. That doesn’t mean that it isn’t worth reading as a gentile, however – even when I don’t feel like I really grasped a story, I still found something to enjoy in every single entry.

                    “Rise” by Rena Rossner

                    This story is essentially “12 Dancing Princesses,” except that the princesses are yeshiva students, and their partners are the corpses of holy rebetzin. While they dance, the zombie partners teach the boys about theology and philosophy. The eroticism and physicality of the learning reminded me quite a bit of some mystic cults.

                    “The Scapegoat Factory” by Ofir Touche Gafla

                    The central joke of the story is that all things are temporary – even death. A group of scientists use this assumptions to bring a group of dead back to life as zombies. Only, these zombies can’t simply return to their old lives, and they can’t die either. At the same time, there’s this whole other joke about a company called the “Scapegoat Factory” that supplies willing scapegoats for cold cases, to give the families a sense of closure. The story is very funny, but perhaps has a bit too much going on. The whole Scapegoat Factory bit could be written out entirely without affecting the story much (though, I suppose it would need a new title…).

                    “Like a Coin Entrusted in Faith” by Shimon Adaf

                    I think this one went a bit over my head. There are two stories: In one, a woman is chatting with an artificial intelligence when it “dies”. Meanwhile, a midwife is delivering demon babies. These two stories are related through the letters that two characters write to each other. It’s a bit odd, and I had a hard time separating what was reference and what was fiction.

                    “Ten for Sodom” by Daniel Polansky

                    The first real “zombie apocalypse” story in the collection, a lapsed Jew grapples with this faith as he faces the end of the world. While short and much more similar to the zombie stories I’m familiar with, this still offers an interesting and uniquely Jewish (albeit lapsed Jewish) perspective on the genre.

                    “The Friday People” by Sarah Lotz

                    The zombies are more ambiguous in this darkly amusing entry. The titular Friday People are the younger generation who meet briefly on their weekly visits to their older relatives – many doing so in the hopes of a future inheritance. Except that their relatives just won’t die, no matter what.

                    “Tractate Metim 28A” by Benjamin Rosenbaum

                    A lot of this one went right over my head, but it was still extremely amusing. A group of rabbis argue over matters pertaining to the purity of the undead. I’ve seen similar types arguments on the internet, and they are just wonderful.

                    “Wiseman’s Terror Tales” by Anna Tambour

                    A young man wants to design rockets, but seems destined to design bras instead. The zombies (again, somewhat ambiguous zombies, who seem far more explicitly metaphorical than they usually are) try to persuade him to choose a career. I enjoyed elements of this story, but something about it just didn’t grip me. Perhaps because the imagery, that would have worked better as a subtle pattern in a novel-length story, was too condensed, too thrown together. The final reveal went a long way to endear me to the story as a whole, though!

                    “Zayinim” by Adam Roberts

                    The collection ends with another ‘typical’ zombie story – this time we have some alternate history where Hitler wins WWII and gives everyone except the Jews an immortality drug. When the immortals’ minds degrade and they become zombies, the only true humans left are Jews. It’s an interesting consent, and a novel spin on an old idea. It didn’t hurt that the characters were fairly interesting as well.