Experimental Film by Gemma Files

Read: 26 September, 2016

I picked up A Book of Tongues on a whim a few years ago, but I had trouble with the writing style and never really got into it. At that point, I had largely written off Files until a friend gave Experimental Film a good review. Even better? He mentioned that she’s Canadian! Well, it seemed rather clear that I would have to give her another shot.

Experimental Film is about Lois Cairns, a former film history teacher and current nothing. Out of work, and with her only experience in a field she isn’t qualified to work in, she finds herself stuck caring for her autistic son, and desperate to create an identity for herself.

The novel is a ghost story, but it’s also about the frustration of needing to mean something – particularly as a stay-at-home parent and the parent of a child who needs more than the average amount of attention.

It follows the standard psychological thriller of never being quite clear whether the supernatural enemy is really real, or whether the protagonist is simply losing her mind. I liked that, in this story, the protagonist is at the very centre of everything. There are characters who believe in the supernatural enemy and there are characters who don’t, but they all circle around the protagonist – they are all convinced, or not, by her (as opposed to the version of the story where the protagonist goes to the small town where everyone believes in the enemy but only she actually sees it, for example – such a town does exist in Experimental Film, but only historically).

Where Files adds to that standard horror trope is in having an enemy of a perfectly mundane sort – an obsessive and unpredictable stalker who is seemingly unstoppable. And while I wasn’t terribly impressed by Mrs Whitcomb/Lady Midday, Lois’s human enemy had my stomach in knots.

Which is as good a segue way as any to my thoughts on Lady Midday. In short, meh. There was some very creepy imagery, and I certainly felt primed to be scared several times throughout the novel, but there was never any “but whose hand was I holding?” moment. When I read The Woman In Black, I was forced to plough through a large portion of the book in a single sitting because I was too afraid to get out of bed, but Experimental Film never brought me anywhere close to that point. And at the end, when Lady Midday is finally confronted, she just didn’t live up to the hype. Files made the mistake of showing us the shark, and Lady Midday lost her creepiness.

I did really enjoy Experimental Film, even if it didn’t quite work for me as horror. The discussions of film were fantastic, and Lois’s descriptions of the Canadian film scene, in particular, were especially interesting. I have a friend who is a film-maker here, who participates in the festivals and such, and so I’ve gotten to see glimpses of that world through her. Getting to live it – albeit vicariously – here was a real treat.

I liked the writing style a lot better than A Book of Tongues. Lois is something of a meandering narrator, but it fit her character. In this case, the narrative style actually added something to the character development. It helped that her asides were often very interesting. This was one of those books that I fell into and read very quickly without needing to get myself another cuppa every few minutes.

The characterisations were, on the whole, excellently done. Most of the characters felt real – in that it was very easy to see myself in Lois (as a woman who was tricked into being a stay-at-home parent by economics and who is currently trying to re-enter the workforce and finding my self-confidence to be a little lacking), I’ve known Wrobs and Safies and Lees and Simons. They all felt like real people. Mostly. Doctors and cops felt a little removed, a little absurd. Dr. Harrison, in particular, didn’t act like any doctor I’ve ever met – he behaved so unprofessionally. But these are very minor characters that are only encountered briefly, and they are almost lost in the sea of excellent, rounded people.

The discussion of autism in the book was a little difficult for me. A large part of Lois’s character arc is in her coming to love (and be loved by) her autistic son, Clark. That acceptance of who he is is hard won, which means seeing a number of scenes in which she is demanding that he make eye contact, complaining about him, and even saying rather horrendous things about him while he’s right there on the assumption that he just won’t understand. This is an accurate representation of how many parents treat their autistic children, but it’s a painful one to watch. I can’t exactly fault a horror book for giving me the heebies, but this way of treating autistic children is so ubiquitous that it’s hard to tell if Files is refuting or simply parroting it. And, at some point, even unflattering portrayals are only adding to the noise. So even though Lois has her epiphany at the end, I still found the scenes discussing Clark to be very uncomfortable.

Experimental Film is a fun little horror, with an emphasis on the mystery rather than on the scares. It’s a psychological horror, too, with plenty to doubt about our narrator’s reliability. It’s a fast read, and it’s an interesting one. That it deals so authentically with Ontario and the Canadian film scene is an added bonus.

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    Graceling Realm #2: Fire by Kristin Cashore

    Read: 22 September, 2016

    In this sequel (or, rather prequel) to Graceling, we journey across the mountains to an isolated country where graces don’t exist. Instead, the Dells have monsters – variant forms of ordinary animals, but brightly coloured and capable of influencing the minds of those around them. Fire is the last of the human monsters, and it seems that everyone wants a piece of her powers.

    WARNING: This review contains a lot of spoilers.

    As I mentioned above, Fire is actually a prequel. The book begins with the birth of Leck -the Big Bad of Graceling – and his journey into the Dells. He disappears from the story, which then becomes more about Fire, her personal relationships, and her role in the bigger politics of the country. But the child Leck still hands around, skirting the edges, and seems to be pulling strings of one sort or another.

    Which leads me to my first complaint. For a while, I thought Leck was to be the Big Bad here, as well. As in Graceling, we don’t really meet the political enemies for a very long time. Rather, the story focuses on Fire working through her own life choices. So I was led to believe that Leck was somehow behind the rebel lords’ uprising, or was making them far more dangerous by getting them to work together. Instead of an ominous puppetmaster threatening from the shadows, Leck was a red herring.

    A red herring with very odd motives. Even though we first see his handiwork when he sends brainwashed archers to kill Fire, he only kidnaps her when he has a chance, with a story that he wants them to be partners. He seems to want to take over King’s City, but his actual role in the civil war is unclear.

    Maybe I just missed it because I wasn’t paying enough attention, but Leck’s presence in the story seemed superfluous – there only to tie Fire to Graceling.

    The novel also suffers from what I can only call a Love Octagon. Absolutely everybody is sleeping with absolutely everybody else, and much of the third act is devoted to uncovering everyone’s secret parentages so that everyone can have a supportive family as a reward for making it through the plot.

    The idea of not letting one’s parentage define us (as both Fire and Brigan work to forge identities for themselves separate from their fathers, and Archer’s own relationship with the father who raised him) is a good one, but it was all watered down at the end when all the characters get to be reunited with their unknown relatives, and Brigan gets to find out that he never was his father’s son in the first place!

    Aspects of the book do play out melodramatic, and the premise itself is rather silly. But the books are clearly intended for a younger audience – preteen or early teen girls – and for that audience, both Graceling and Fire are absolutely fantastic. When I think back to who I was at 12-13 and what books I loved, I can easily see how I would have adored Cashore’s works. Even better, these books are good for girls of that age, because they redefine what it means to be a woman, and they give girls options. Katsa didn’t want to marry or have children, Fire wants children but can’t have them. Their relationships are ones of mutual respect and caring, in which the women have boundaries and have them adhered to.

    That idea of priming girls to expect appropriate treatment from men is woven throughout the series. Fire, as a monster, is irresistible to men – they find her so beautiful that she is sexually assaulted several times in the story as they “lose control” upon seeing her. When King Nash does this, when he tries to defend his actions by explaining that he just can’t control himself when he looks at her, Cashore puts the perfect response in the mouth of his brother: “Well don’t look at her, then!” Never is their behaviour Fire’s fault, and she has the right to expect the men around her to behave. She has the right not to be jealously kept by someone, even if she does love him.

    Fire has a lot of flaws, and I wish that Leck were better integrated into the story, but it’s a good and healthy book for young girls to read, and I think it would be very well liked within that age bracket.

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      The Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum

      Read: 21 September, 2016

      Like most people my age, I grew up with the Wizard of Oz movie, but hadn’t read the book. It didn’t occur to me to until I met my father-in-law, who is somewhat obsessed with Oz. He grew up the book, but not our book. No, he grew up with the Russian Oz, written by Alexander Volkov, which features a young girl by the name of Ellie travelling to Magic Land with her talking dead. Imagine his surprise when he came to Canada and discovered a whole alternate universe of Oz, by a different author, and even a Hollywood movie!

      He showed the movie to my son, and his enthusiasm must have been contagious (perhaps aided by the Wicked Witch popping up in LEGO Dimensions), because my son loved it.

      The time seemed as ripe as it would ever be to finally read Baum’s Wizard of Oz at bedtime.

      It holds up beautifully. The language is only very slightly Old Timey, but was modern enough to be perfectly comprehensible for a modern, 21st century kid (peppered with a few bigger words to help with a child’s expanding vocabulary). He enjoyed revisiting the characters, seeing their additional adventures, and even noticing the differences between the movie and the book (in particular with the pictures, drawn by David McKee, which are wholly independent from the Judy Garland movie’s imagery).

      For my own part, I enjoyed it. It was very whimsical, with solutions often popping out of thin air just as they are needed. It’s an episodic book, with creatures being introduced, dealt with, and then disappearing forever – so the book lacks much of a narrative build. That makes it quite perfect for bedtime reading, as sleepy kids aren’t great at keeping track of plot threads.

      I don’t know how well the book would be received if it were written today, just because we tend to be a bit more narratively demanding – even with out children’s books – but it was fun. It throws a lot of ideas around, but doesn’t overplay them or resolve things too neatly, so there’s a lot of room for imagination.

      In conclusion, we enjoyed it. It held my five year old’s interest, as well as mine, and it gave us a good way to finish up our day and prepare for bed.

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        The Dresden Files #15: Skin Game by Jim Butcher

        Read: 11 September, 2016

        In this instalment, our intrepid hero is on loan from Mab for a heist. The problem? His new boss is Nicodemus, the host of the fallen angel Anduriel.

        I’ve had the audiobook kicking around for a while, and it was hard to actually start listening to it. Even once I did, I almost switched to something else a few minutes in. After fourteen books, I think I may be suffering from a bit of Dresden fatigue. Once I got started, though, the momentum of the story and the familiar characters swept me up and I made it through yet another book.

        The series has jumped the shark so many times, and Dresden’s litany of acquired roles is becoming ridiculous. I know that this series is a cash cow for Butcher, and I know that many people (myself included, sometimes) are comforted by being able to revisit the same familiar characters over and over again – they become like old friends, and there’s an appeal to being able to check in with them every so often, see what they’re up to. But, at the same time, I wish the series would end, already. I know we’re building to an Arch Big Bad, and I’d really like to see that happen in my lifetime. Before Harry becomes head of the White Council, is elected to join the angels, and is promoted to Winter Queen.

        As for the book itself, it’s fairly run-of-the-mill Dresden. The difference, here, is that there’s a twist ending. The twist requires re-examining what had come earlier in the book and it just doesn’t match up. Dresden’s narration cheats – it tells that X is Y only to reveal at the end that X is actually X and that Dresden knew so all along. He does keep telling us that he’s “playing [his] cards close to his chest,” fine, but we’re supposed to be in his head. His being secretive isn’t supposed to apply to us.

        I love this kind of twist in a movie like Fight Club, where you can watch it a second time and realise that it all fits together and makes sense with the new information. Skin Game is not that kind of story. Dresden just straight up cheated. It’s annoying.

        I will say this for Skin Game – it’s the first time I’ve seen a Mystical Pregnancy inflicted on a male character! I think I would have just screamed if Butcher had given this to Karen or Charity!

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          The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu

          Read: 10 September, 2016

          After Wang Miao is recruited by the Beijing police to infiltrate a secret cabal of scientists, he finds himself on the brink of madness.

          The Three-Body Problem is a fascinating book. It’s a lot more “hard” scifi than I’m used to, and a lot less narrative. The characters spend a fair bit of their time simply sitting around a room explaining scientific concepts to each other.

          Yet, somehow, the plot manages to seep through and it’s fantastic. It’s a personal story of grief and revenge, it’s a secret society conspiracy story, it’s an alien invasion story, all pulled off in a compelling way.

          The writing style is quite unusual. Ken Liu, the translator, has done an amazing job of preserving “an echo of another language’s rhythms and cadences” (his words, from the translator’s postscript).

          The main character, Wang, is a little flat. He has details added – a wife, a child, a photography hobby – but these only come up when necessary to the plot. Most of the time, he’s reactive, following along as other characters take him on a journey. But those other characters are so expressive and memorable that Wang’s comparative blandness doesn’t detract. Rather, he serves as a fantastic reader insert as we get to meet all these different interesting people and try to solve the great mystery.

          I did feel like the third act was on the weaker side. The climax itself was great, but the reveal at the end where all the remaining plot lines are tied together felt forced and rather info-dumpy. This style had been used before, primarily in the sections where Ye Wenjie’s history is revealed. The difference there, though, is that Ye is a very interesting character. Whereas in the final portion, we’re with the aliens – characters we haven’t gotten to know and are explicitly meant to feel alienated (see what I did there?) from. Each character therefore serves only as a role needed to expose the plot, and it doesn’t work anymore. I have to admit, the final 40 or so pages took me about two days to get through. That said, it’s only 40 pages out of an otherwise fantastic 400.

          There are apparently two sequels available. But for those of you suffering from Serial Burnout, don’t worry. The Three-Body Problem has a very satisfying end. It’s open, but it’s not a cliff-hanger.

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            Dune #6: Chapterhouse: Dune by Frank Herbert

            Read: 1 September, 2016

            I’m done! This journey a decade in the making has finally come to an end! Freedom!

            Some reviewers have said that there are really two series in Dune – the first involving Paul and his immediate family, and the second involving the Bene Gesserit. That certainly seems to hold true, as Heretics and Chapterhouse have a very different feel. They are less personal, less interested in individual characters. Characters themselves can die but live on in Other Memory, interacting with the characters that still live. This means that the stakes are very different, as we fear for the safety of humanity itself, with little care of any individual players.

            In many ways, Chapterhouse is a continuation of Heretics, which had ended on something of a cliffhanger. While I’m given to understand that this is supposed to have been a trilogy, it ends well. Leto II’s plan seems to finally be understood, the Bene Gesserit leadership understands its role in relation to humanity, and Duncan Idaho begins a new Scattering. It’s open-ended, sure, but it’s open-ended with a sense of finality.

            I grew to like Odrade in the last book, and I was glad to spend so much more time with her here. Murbella got quite a bit of the second half, and I was glad to get to know her as something more than just Duncan’s sexual conquest and Odrade’s pawn. Rather, she starts to show agency, and she makes some very important decisions. She also becomes interesting, as she comes to embody a kind of synthesis between the Honored Matres and the Bene Gesserit. In no small way, she reshaped both sisterhoods into her own image, just as Odrade had initially shaped Murbella.

            Miles Teg, whom I had so enjoyed in Heretics, took a back seat here. He’s present, but he’s more of a function – he carries out the plans of other characters. Where he is interesting is where we don’t know quite where his loyalties lie between Odrade and Duncan – in other words, he is interesting because of the conflict between Odrade and Duncan.

            It’s difficult to say too much about this instalment because it lacks so much of what we might call storytelling. Things happen, the story moves on, but it does so without structure. It’s almost more like a meditation on the conflict, rather than something that could be properly called a novel. Still, the writing style and the characters sustained me, and I enjoyed listening to it every evening as I fell asleep.

            Before I close up, I wanted to point out a very interesting quote in light of a Trump presidential candidacy:

            “Democracy is a stupid idea anyway!”

            “We agree. It’s demagogue-prone.That’s a disease to which electoral systems are vulnerable. Yet demagogues are easy to identify. They gesture a lot and speak with pulpit rhythms, using words that ring of religious fervor and god-fearing sincerity.”

            I don’t think there can be any question that, whatever flaws he may have had as a writer, Herbert was keenly observant.

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              Native Tongue by Suzette Haden Elgin

              Read: 20 August, 2016

              Sometime in the future, women are once again refused legal adulthood, are functionally the property of men, and are denied explicit participation in their society. In this environment, beliefs about women’s supposed low intelligence provides the perfect cover for a quiet revolution.

              At this moment, I am sitting at my desk, poised to write my review, with two full pages of notes before me (double-sided). I know my reviews are always a little scattered, but this book really has me going, and I just don’t know how I could possibly impose even the slightest pretence of order onto my thoughts. So, consider this a warning – this review will be both long and meandering.

              My first impression of the novel is that the writing style reminded me a bit of Isaac Asimov, in that the characters take a backseat to the story. Nazareth, the woman who has the greatest claim to being the main character, is discussed in the first chapter, seen in the second, and then disappears until chapter nine, 80 pages later.

              Yet, at the same time, I found that most of the named characters have a very strong presence, making them memorable and feel like they occupy much more narrative time than they actually do. Any time the story was with Michaela, I really felt like I was reading about Michaela, not about Plot Device #35.

              Even in groups, I found the characters to be very well fleshed out. Groups hate each other believably, and there’s a lot of dark humour as the narrator switches sides. In every case, Elgin shows us that there’s a kernel of truth to the stereotypes groups have of each other, but also a lot of projection.

              The book is unquestionably stemming from some-wave feminism, but I’m somewhat saddened by many of the reviews I’m seeing. In particular, I keep seeing the claim that this book is “man-hating,” or that all the female characters are good while all the male characters are bad. These same complaints are brought up, and I can only conclude that these reviewers aren’t engaging with the plot, and are burdened with an overdeveloped sense of entitlement. It’s a fairly well-studied phenomenon that, as women approach equatable talking time, they are perceived to be dominating the conversation. I think a similar dynamic is in evidence here – when a story centres on women’s experiences, it is perceived as being at the expense of men’s experiences.

              In this case, it’s far from true. Nazareth is, perhaps, the only innocent. She is abused, she is isolated, she is oppressed, and she perseveres with an almost saintly serenity. But Michaela, far from being a “goodie,” is in fact a terrible person beaten down by her guilt who seeks redemption in the end by using her sins to serve the purposes of her fellow-women. That’s a complex character, one who is unquestionably bad, yet who also perhaps has a shot to redeem herself a little (only a little, though, because she is never allowed to join the group of women she kills to protect). Beyond Michaela, we have Aquina, who is consistently shown to be rash and overzealous and whose actions hurt and essentially kill other women. Even the other women of the Barren House behave abominably toward Nazareth – believing it to be out of necessity, sure, but they still make the conscious choice not to provide comfort to a young girl who desperately needs it.

              As for all the men being bad characters, that’s equally absurd. Where I imagine these reviewers are tripping up is that the “good” men (like Showard, who hates killing babies in the names of economics/science, and who consistently expresses his moral objections) are just as much a product of their environment as the women. They may feel that their society is wrong, but they can’t put that feeling into words and, even if they could, they lack the drive to do so because they, too, benefit from the very structures of oppression that discomfit them. Just as was the case through the very long period of European history where women were – as in the book – not considered legal adults and forbidden from direct economic participation. These good men may treat their own wives well, they may encourage their daughters, they may make half-hearted arguments to other men, but they so rarely press any further. If accurately portraying a very real social arrangement, one that was the standard in the western world for centuries, is “reverse sexism,” we have problems.

              We have problems because what we are seeing is men so coddled by literature, so accustomed to being presented with Gary Stu characters who transcend their cultures to be perfectly enlightened in the most unchallenging ways, that they can’t handle an accurate portrayal of socialisation and internalised power structures.

              Given how little of the social aspects of the novel are without historical precedent, it really does seem disingenuous to demand that we spend our precious narrative real estate on unrealistic men who magically shed their culture’s mores to go around saving the women from sexism. I can only conclude that, for some readers, anything that isn’t specifically about men must be against men. Because the best way to prove that Aaron Adiness is an ugly caricature is to pantomime him in GoodReads reviews.

              Before I leave the subject of sexism, I was wowed by Elgin’s depiction of emotional labour. It’s a concept that I’ve only recently started to encounter, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen it highlighted (and certainly not to this extent!) in fiction. The idea is that there’s this To Do list of chores that women are expected to do, and expected to do quietly so as never to attract notice to the doing of it, in order to regulate the emotions and egos of men. We first see this with Michaela, who is prized for the way she listens quietly to her husband as he talks through his problems – essentially acting as his sounding board / therapist. Again and again, Michaela’s ability to make men feel like they are heard when they have problems is remarked upon, and yet never is there any sense that she may also need to feel heard. There’s no sense of reciprocity, no awareness that her gift is anything but men’s due. (SPOILERS: In the climax of the book, women stop performing this emotional labour. They will sit still while men talk because they are compelled to do so, but they stop listening. Only in its absence is emotional labour finally noticed, by which time it’s too late. Suddenly, men are left with the choice of either simply going unfulfilled, or of learning how to perform emotional labour for each other, with reciprocity.)

              I have a few complaints about the book, of course. One is the use of “perceive this.” According to one of the characters, phrases like ‘see here’ are “biased manner(s) of expression” (p.13). The idea being, of course, that these dynastic linguists opt for more precise turns of phrase. Except that, on the whole, they don’t seem to. Sure, they will frequently say “perceive this,” but they seem to just use it in place of the old timey phrase “now see here” – rather than specifically when they want someone to actually perceive something. Other than that, the linguists’ speech is indistinguishable from the non-linguists’ speech, using plenty of colloquialisms and other “loose” language. Because of this, it made the phrase “perceive this” feel very gimmicky, used just to remind the reader that it exists. I found it either very annoying or absolutely hilarious, depending on whether Elgin intended it as an in-group / out-group affiliation identifier.

              There are essentially two plots in the novel. In the first, we see the women of linguist families developing their own special ‘women’s language’ (called Laadan). The other plot is the government quest to bypass the linguists by developing the technology to communicate with non-humanoid aliens. They only really intersect once (through Michaela’s subplot), though there are some character cross-overs. Both plots are compelling, but they just don’t mesh well. Ultimately, the Government Work plotline feels like filler to beef out the page count.

              The plots also relied on certain assumptions that I didn’t feel were properly communicated. For example, if the point is to end the government’s dependency on the linguist families, then why focus exclusively on communication with non-humanoid aliens? They know how the linguists do what they do, so why not simply raise their own crop of linguists, who can speak with the humanoid aliens, and start with that? One of the linguists hints at one point that they plan a union strike if the government were to ever do such a thing, but it seems that the government could easily build up a fairly large army of translators in secret and then unleash them all at once. Sure, they’d lose some coverage, but wouldn’t it be worthwhile if it meant no longer being dependent on the linguists?

              Much is made in the story of “interfacing,” though it isn’t really explained until about halfway through. Basically, the idea is that a human baby is placed in close proximity to an alien for several hours a day, until it absorb’s the alien’s language as its own native tongue (“roll credits”). But until that point, I was under the impression that it was something far more tech-y, like a laser brain imprinting or something. Because interfacing, as it actually stands, doesn’t make sense. In the book, interfacing with a non-humanoid alien causes a baby to turn itself inside-out – the explanation is that human brains aren’t equipped to perceive the world in a non-humanoid way, causing the human body exposed to non-humanoid worldviews to explode.

              Well, I gotta tell you, I have a cat that my son has been in very close quarters with since he came home from the hospital, and he has yet to explode. In my experience, it’s absolutely true that humans have these experiential walls beyond which they cannot peak. But when babies (or young children, or adults) hit these walls, they merely ignore whatever is beyond them. They filter it out. A baby trapped in a glass box with a non-humanoid alien wouldn’t explode, it would simply be developmentally delayed from the lack of human interaction.

              I never understood why the women’s language, Laadan, was taken so seriously by the men, how it was supposed to “change reality.” I understand that they have words to express a more nuanced emotional landscape, sure, but why would the men ever find that threatening? They didn’t take Langlish seriously, so why would they take Laadan seriously – even if it’s a better constructed language? I understand the exploration of the theory that language helps to shape culture, but the whole point of the sexism in the novel is that the men just don’t take the women seriously – so why would they take a women’s culture any more seriously they did the Encoding Project? How does Elgin account for the long history of other women’s languages/scripts, such as Nüshu? Worse, when a character voices my questions, the only explanation offered is: “Never mind why, Michaela. It’s complicated. It’s way beyond you” (p.281). I would have enjoyed the ending more if the men just continued in their assumption that women’s personal lives were below notice, while the women developed a hidden-in-plain-sight culture of their own. It seems like that would have been more plausible, and more interesting.

              My last complaint is with the preface, which really bothered me. It establishes the novel to follow as fiction within its own fictional universe, and what the H-E-Double Hockey Sticks was the point of that? All it did was collapse the novel’s meaning, because we know that any impact that the plot might have within its world is a fiction within a fiction. It’s not even meaningful within the realm of suspension of disbelief. And it’s wholly unnecessary. The novel would have been much stronger as a first level fiction, without the silly framing device – particularly as it raised so many unnecessary questions. Did Laadan exist in the real fictional universe? Did the women ever achieve the things they achieve in the end, or was that only in the novel’s fiction? Why even raise the spectre of such questions?

              I’m complaining a lot, as usual, but I did love this novel. It had strong characters, a very interesting perspective, a really cool take on the science fiction genre (linguistics!), and it was so so funny, too. It was a very black humour, certainly, but it was wonderful. I found the novel to be very cynical, but also very incisive and perceptive. And while I certainly disagreed with Elgin on a number of points, it was so refreshing just to see her perspective. I’ve just read so many unabashedly misogynistic science fiction and fantasy novels that it was a breath of fresh air to read something that just turned around and confronted those ideas head on.

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                Blood Relative by Crocker Stephenson

                Read: 23 August, 2016

                On the fourth of July, 1987, Kenny Kuntz came home to find his mother, brother, uncle, and two aunts brutally murdered. In Blood Relative, Stephenson tracks the events of that night, along with the subsequent investigation and trial.

                The murder itself is disturbing, as is the family’s history (though somewhat glossed over, there are strong hints at generations of abuse, alcoholism, and mental illness). As far as voyeuristic summer reading sensationalism goes, Blood Relative gets the job done.

                Stephenson has, for the most part, arranged the book as collections of facts – snippets from autopsy reports, transcripts from interviews, etc. But every so often, the narrative voice interjects, providing imagery that could not possibly have been known by the author, and the words chosen are heavy with connotations (even if I didn’t perceive any particular strong bias). I didn’t get the sense that I was being intentionally misled, but the difference between the two styles was very jarring.

                Because Stephenson apparently wanted to privilege “unabridged first sources,” there are times when context is really lacking. For example, someone might be quoted, but with no explanation of who they are, or an autopsy report quote might be presented with no explanation of the medical jargon. Given Stephenson’s narrative intrusions elsewhere, I was rather miffed by their lack in these areas.

                Due to the nature of the True Crime genre, the ending is understandably unsatisfying. The mystery is presented and explained, but it isn’t resolved – it ends in the lead suspect’s acquittal. At least Stephenson is very upfront about this, warning readers that they will leave the book confused.

                Still, it would have been nice to have seen some more follow-up. The book came out several years after the events described, but we have no more information about how Kenny Kuntz is doing, or whether Chris Jacobs III had been convicted of further crimes (and, in fact, he purportedly confessed to the murders two years before Blood Relative was published – information that should have been included!). That said, I do realise how difficult it would have been to negotiate the ethics of a “where are they now” section.

                Which brings me to my final issue: The impression I got from the lack of statements from the surviving family members, plus the afterward “provided” by the sister, Germaine, suggest that the book was written and published without their consent or support. I’m glad to have had it to read, but that does make me quite uncomfortable. Besides which, it seems that it would have been a better book had Stephenson courted the remaining family members for their input.

                Reading this soon-ish after watching Netflix’s Making of a Murderer documentary was an interesting experience. Both involve fairly similar families (socially isolated WIsconsin families with a lot of mental illness and suggestions of abuse), and it was easy to read the Avery family into the Kunzes.

                Blood Relative is a quick read, and surprisingly light on the gruesome detail. It doesn’t have a satisfying wrap-up, but that does provide a lot of fuel for discussions on a long Wisconsin evening with others who have read the book. As ever, there are aspects of the True Crime genre that make me uncomfortable, and this book seems to take those issues to a bit of an extreme. It does feel exploitative, though I’m somewhat assuaged by the fact that the other doesn’t seem to be pointing any definitive fingers.

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                  Sex, Drugs, and Sea Slime by Ellen Prager

                  Read: 24 August, 2016

                  Despite its racy, Sex, Drugs, and Sea Slime is actually a fairly tame overview of marine life. Each chapter features a group of species sharing some common trait, giving a few facts for each before the chapter closes with a “why they matter” section (which usually covers edibility and medicinal uses).

                  As intended, it was the title of the book that really caught my attention. Unfortunately, I only got a few paragraphs in before I knew that I was in trouble. While the title promises humour, the narrative style is really lacking. The book is written in bullet list style, except without the benefit of bullets. Because I was never given any time to process each fact before being ushered along to the next one, I found it extremely difficult to absorb anything that I was reading. It made reading about the dietary habits of the hagfish feel like work, and failed to convey a solid impression of Prager’s subjects.

                  The “why they matter” sections were very meh. The lists of ‘things you can make with a hagfish’s skin’ quickly grew tiresome and uninteresting. The stated goal of the book was to make me care, but lists of how a particular fish’s various parts are used in Chinese medicine to cure impotence does not, actually, make me care. Rather than throwing reasons at me, Prager’s time would have been better spent using her narrative descriptions to evoke my feelings. It’s a classic issue of “show don’t tell.”

                  The book’s strength is that it is full of facts. If I had a burning desire to know about seahorses but didn’t know where to start (and, for some reason, had access to Prager’s book but not to Wikipedia), the encyclopedic nature of the book would be perfect. Unfortunately, I don’t see that being a very common scenario.

                  I did really like Prager’s “what you can do” section at the very end of the book. In it, she lists a number of ideas, organized by participation level. There are ideas for people who want to run for congress, and then there are ideas for people who just want to know what to buy when they go to the supermarket. If she expanded that section a little, maybe added a few narrative touches, it would have worked very well as an article.

                  I don’t want to come down too hard on Prager, because she clearly knows her stuff and the book is nothing if not well-researched. Besides that, it’s obvious that she’s passionate about the subject, and I can never fault passion. It’s just that you can’t make people share that passion by trying to trigger their selfish consumptive desires – and certainly not in the same book where you are trying to convince people to participate in preserving and protecting our oceans! Rather than trying to convince her readers to care about our oceans through rational arguments, I wish that Prager had just unleashed the passion she so clearly has, and let me feel it for a little while.

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                    Young, Sick, and Invisible by Ania Bula

                    Read: 15 August, 2016

                    Full disclosure, Ania is a close friend and I read an early draft of the book back in 2014 (I’m even named in the acknowledgements, albeit with a slight misspelling!), so this is my second read through.

                    In Young, Sick, and Invisible, Ania tells the story of her illness – from the first aches and pains, though the diagnosis, and on to coping. She talks about dealing with doctors (the good and the bad), navigating school and employment, relationships and sex, family, and even the occasional excursion into “alternative medicine.” She offers helpful tips for other sufferers of chronic illness, and tips for those of us who want to help but don’t quite know where to start.

                    The writing style sometimes lapses into a laundry list with too little narrative scaffolding. It would have been nice if the book could have focused more on Ania’s experience, rather than her experiences, because that’s where the book is at its most interesting.

                    Even so, Young, Sick, and Invisible is a good primer on disability issues (including accessibility, ways in which the Canadian medical system needs improving, and how Canada handles long term unemployment for medical reasons), all wrapped around an interesting personal account.

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