Dreams Underfoot by Charles de Lint

Read: 5 January, 2019

Rather than Urban Fantasy, it might make more sense to call this Urban Mythology. The world of Dreams Underfoot is one where the city is a living ecosystem of magical creatures.

I had read that ‘Nathan Burgoine was inspired by Charles de Lint, and I can absolutely see the connection. Both tell stories of urban magic and found family, and of people that have historically been outsiders coming together to form a new community within a city environment. Both also make magic of art.

There is rape and child abuse in Dreams Underfoot, which is something I really don’t enjoy. However, I did like that de Lint usually used these stories in the victims own character arc, with her being the protagonist of her own story, rather than using it to motivate someone else. Not only that, but victimhood is one part of these characters, not a backstory used in place of a personality. One story, that doesn’t end particularly well, has five (and then six) victims coming together to support each other, to create art, and to help others in similar situations. It’s an exploration of victimhood that does a lot more justice to its characters than I normally see, and I appreciate that.

The Expanse #1: Leviathan Wakes by James S.A. Corey

Read: 29 December, 2018

A hard-boiled detective story in space? Oh goodness, yes!

I loved all the little “space living” details, like the physical differences between people who grew up in different gravitational environments. I loved the interplay between Holden and Miller as they both grapple with complex morality in extenuating circumstances. Mostly, though, I loved the detective story elements.

I went into this without knowing what to expect, and I was pleasantly surprised.

More books in the Expanse series:

  1. Leviathan Wakes
  2. Caliban’s War
  3. Abaddon’s Gate
  4. Cibola Burn
  5. Nemesis Game
  6. Babylon’s Ashes
  7. Persepolis Rising
  8. Tiamat’s Wrath

Red Famine by Anne Applebaum

Read: 24 December, 2018

This is an excellent and thoroughly wrenching look at the holodomor – the artificial famine created by Soviet Russia as part of their genocide of the Ukrainian people.

Stalinist Russia was no stranger to famine, but the brutal and systematic starvation of Ukraine was something else entirely. There was food, but it was taken. Even the seed grain was taken. Those who were still surviving were suspected of withholding food and searched again.

Applebaum captures the background and the strategies, the ways in which the holodomor was different from the famine in the 1920s. She looks at the other acts of genocide, such as the burial of bodies in mass graves and taking down of communal centres. She describes the effects of starvation in vivid detail, as well as the horrific lengths to which individuals went to avoid death (including, in some cases, the consumption of their own children).

Much of what happened was hidden by the Soviet propaganda machine, but the effects are still being felt today. In fact, I think this is an essential book for understanding the background of Russia’s activities in the Ukraine today.

Vorkosigan Saga #20: Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance by Lois McMaster Bujold

Read: 16 December, 2018

This is one of the more casual of the Vorkosigan books, as the stakes never get particularly high. Even toward the climax when death is on the table, it’s a slow sort of death that leaves plenty of time for rescue.

I love this series for that frantic, ‘can’t turn the pages fast enough’ feeling, but this was nice, too. I like Ivan, and I enjoyed getting to spend so much time with him. I also enjoyed seeing him find love, at last. In typical Bujold humour, and so in keeping with Ivan’s character, Ivan gets married first and then does his courting. 

This is also a great story about growing up. Ivan has always been something of a Bertie Wooster, resisting all marks of adulthood. He was an committed bachelor who exerted a great deal of effort into avoiding career promotion or responsibility. Now, he’s coming to grips with just how old he’s getting, and finally ready to start thinking about what he wants to do with his life. Being about the same age, it was delightful to see that settling in process handled so adeptly. 

It’s a small story, but that fits Ivan. He’s never been the adrenaline junkie his cousin is. And, to be honest, it was just lovely to get to spend a little domestic time with old friends like Simon, Lady Alys, Gregor, and Ivan.

Read more in the Vorkosigan Saga series:

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Throne of Glass #4: Queen of Shadows by Sarah J. Maas

Read: 15 December, 2018

I’ve passed the series halfway mark and the books just keep getting longer! But while Heir of Fire felt unearned – the characters staying in a holding pattern through much of the book’s length – Queen of Shadows justifies its pages. 

Things I liked:
-Manon’s discovery of her inner humanity was interesting and heartfelt. While her interactions with Abraxos were the saving grace of HoF, it was her relationship with Elide that really made her narrative in QoS.

-Speaking of Elide, she’s just great. She’s a complex character, and her journey is an interesting one.

-Aelin gets some really badass moments in this book. Like, reallybadass.

-Aelin’s scheming. We get to hear a lot about how she’s such a great assassin in the previous books, but her rescue of Aedion was the first time I actually bought into the hype. Especially later on, when we find out the additional layers of that plan. 

-I’ve been a huge fan of Chaol’s devotion to Dorian. Intimate male friendships do not get enough love. In fact, I’d throw in friendships in general, because Aelin and Lysandra is a great relationship, too.

-Lysandra. Just, Lysandra. Even without powers, she’s badass and amazing. With powers, she’s magnificent. 

-The twist ending.

Things I didn’t like:
-Nesryn seems like she has potential as a character, but also feels like she was only added as a consolation prize for Chaol. I hope more gets done with her as the series continues, but this book certainly lets her down. 

-The way Chaol acts toward Aelin is annoying. I get what Maas was going for, and his reaction does make sense – especially when he questions the wisdom of a mageocracy. However, because we spend so little time with him, and spend so much time with Aelin, he just comes off as unreasonable and whiny. I’m not surprised that so many people were really angry with how this book treated him.

-The number of endings. QoS totally pulls a Lord of the Rings by giving us a fantastic ending, a nice fade-to-black, and then kicking right up again with another chapter. And another. And another. Each of these endings was great, but there were just too many of them, and my body just can’t process that many climatic tension releases in a row. It’s overwhelming, and it ends up lessening the impact of what should have been excellent triumphant moments. 

I’d put Rowan in a medium category. I’m really not a fan of that feral, aggressive, possessive masculinity. I do like the way Aelin keeps it in check, but not that she has to. 

Overall, I’d say this is my favourite entry in the series so far. It had the most plot, as well as the most interesting plot, and I’m getting pretty invested in how this will all turn out.

More books in the Throne of Glass series:

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There Is No Good Card for This by Kelsey Crowe and Emily McDowell

Read: 9 December, 2018

As the book itself says, “you can’t ‘cheat sheet’ your way into meaningful connections.” That said, the menu of ideas and empathy directory are extremely helpful.

I like the frank discussions of how our natural inclinations and helping strategies can often be counter-productive, as well as the reassurance that being there just a little bit is still better than not being there at all (and that we can still be there for people without making a huge commitment).

Of course, the sample phrases will need some wordsmithing before being used in real situations – I can’t imagine anyone I know responding well to me asking “How does that make you feel?” – but the ideas are there, and I’ve taken away a lot of food for thought.

Legacy of Orisha #1: Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi

Read: 1 December, 2018

Over the basic structure of your standard YA (chosen one goes on a quest to defeat the tyrant who killed her mother, finds love and friendship on the way), Adeyemi builds a fantastic story. The storytelling reminded me quite a bit of Avatar: The Last Airbender. In a good way. In a “this captured the spirit that I loved about the show, without coming off as trying too hard to be like it” sort of way.

The worldbuilding is refreshing, drawing from African history rather than European. Between this and the compelling characters, the story was able to sustain my interest fairly consistently, despite being rather on the long side.

There’s the central romance we’ve all come to expect from YA, but I was surprised by the depth and care given to Zélie and Amari’s platonic friendship. They have the same “hate at first sight” dynamic that romance often gets, as well as a very organic building of mutual respect and, eventually, intimacy. While I’m as disappointed as the next person about the lack of queer content, I do appreciate it when friendships receive serious attention in YA.

Shieldrunner Pirates #1: Barbary Station by R.E. Stearns

Read: 30 November, 2018

This story has a whole lot to love, like the space pirates, or the lesbians, or the genderqueer pirate captain, or the AI. I particularly loved the character development. Adda and Pel’s sibling relationship felt very authentic, and Adda’s social anxiety hit home. I also liked the representation of hacking, which had all the fun of movies like Hackers while still seeming plausible. And while I’ve never been much into running, Iridian’s sheer joy to be moving was palpable.

The writing style was a bit of a hurdle, unfortunately. I found that I was having trouble “seeing” the world that was being presented, which prevented me from staying immersed. It’s not bad writing, by any means, but it just didn’t flow very well. Regardless, the story has more than enough to recommend itself.

How to Make a Million Dollars an Hour by Les Leopold

Read: 28 November, 2018

Hot takes on recent events tend not to age too well. There are political movements discussed in this book that have definitely changed since 2012 (including the chapter that covers Occupy Wall Street), but How to Make a Million Dollars an Hour has more than enough enduring information to still hold a place of value in the 2008 Recession post-mortem canon.

Leopold does an excellent job of explaining complicated concepts, and I feel like I have a much better grasp of things like Ponzi schemes, High-Frequency Trading, Flash Crashes, and how mortgages were being packaged to investors during the fatal housing bubble.

My only complaint about the book is that it left me feeling rather depressed. The problems are discussed, but there isn’t a whole lot of practical “what you can do”, or even a “how we can fix it”. I understand why, but it made for tough reading.

Swallowing Mercury by Wioletta Greg

Read: 26 November, 2018

Taking place in the Soviet Bloc in the 80s and 90s, this is a collection of semi-autobiographical sketches that show life in rural Poland from the perspective of a child. It was interesting to brush up against big political events, like the Pope’s visit or martial law, from a perspective that doesn’t really understand and isn’t particularly interested in trying to.

As a main character, Wiola has a powerful inner life, translating her environment into quasi-mystical interpretations that sometimes seem to have stepped straight out of a fairy tale story (such as the locked door in the seamstress’s house that takes on Bluebeardian significance).

Given the setting, this perspective makes for an interesting combination of whimsy and darkness, particularly when the story touches on themes like child molestation, drug use, and accidental murder.