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.

                What Made Them Great: Marie Curie by Mary Montgomery

                Read: 29 September, 2017

                This is a biography intended for children. First published in 1981 (my edition was published in 1990), the writing and artwork for this book are a little dated, but there isn’t anything too offensive to modern sensibilities.

                I quite liked the emphasis on Marie Curie’s hard work, her perseverance. In fact, there was quite a bit there about her character – her generosity, her self-sacrifice for others, her dedication even when things were difficult, etc. For whatever reason, I haven’t been seeing that sort of explicit mention of character models in other biographies I’ve read with my kid. It was particularly good because some of the traits discussed are specifically things that my kid struggles with, so it gave us some nice ‘teachable moments.’

                There’s also a section at the end about radiation. While not exactly cutting edge, the information is no more dated than what most high school students would be exposed to.

                  Long Hidden edited by Rose Fox & Daniel José Older

                  Read: 22 September, 2017

                  This is one of the more consistent short story anthologies I’ve read – there are a few stories that I really didn’t like, but the writing quality is fairly consistent throughout. Like most anthologies, however, there are some stand out great stories, some weak entries, and a lot of somewhat unmemorable middling entries.

                  I really liked the variety of backgrounds and settings on display, and it was great to see cultures and experiences that I really haven’t gotten to see in fiction before. I also appreciated that the editors chose a variety of authors, from the well-known multi-published, to the first time sale – without compromising on quality.

                  “Ogres of East Africa” by Sofia Samatar

                  The collection opens with an interesting idea – the “story” is actually a catalogue of ogres, with the narrative taking place in the marginal notes. The ogres are creative, reminding me of Amos Tutuola’s ghosts, though they don’t have much bearing on the story beyond the set up. The narrative is a bit bare bones. It just presents us with a few interesting characters at a single point in time.

                  “The Oud” by Thoraiya Dyer

                  This story reminded me a lot of Wolf Winter. There was the same conflict between the personal story taking place within the household and the big political story taking place at a distance yet invariably spilling into the home. There was also the same competition between the old and the new religion, the same sense of isolation, the same smashing together of peasant and royal lives… It was sad, but in a dreamy sort of way. I really enjoyed this one.

                  “Free Jim’s Mine” by Tananarive Due

                  On the surface, this is a story about a young family trying to escape from slavery. But within that setting, Due has woven a fairy tale. It’s an interesting story with solid writing.

                  “Ffydd (Faith)” by S. Lynn

                  Set in Wales in the wake of the first world war, a family deals with the aftermath of their experiences. Shoehorned into this setting we get a vampire, who appears to be feeding off the chickens. I believe the family is meant to be Quaker, which I suppose have faced some amount of religious persecution in the past, and I guess you could say the same for the Welsh, but this comes right after a story about an escaping slave. It’s hard to see where it fits in the theme of the anthology. I found the story itself to be a bit of a slog – it just kept going and going, but didn’t have the either the writing or the characters to sustain interest in a “slice of life” narrative. Even the addition of a vampire couldn’t save it. As is, it felt like it was trying to be coy about the vampirism in lieu of having anything interesting happen, and I’ve just seen far too many vampires for that to work.

                  “Across the Seam” by Sunny Moraine

                  In this story, a trans coal miner is recognized as a woman by Baba Yaga. I wasn’t gripped by the story itself – it played out a little too predictably and there was quite a bit that I think just passed me by. But I really enjoyed the core premise. Knowing a few Baba Yaga stories, it fits quite well to have her recognize the woman inside the coal miner.

                  “Numbers” by Rion Amilcar Scott

                  Mobsters meet sirens! It’s an interesting idea, coming together to become a story about loyalty. The writing is good, just not to my taste.

                  “Each Part Without Mercy” by Meg Jayanth

                  The magic in the story happens through the use of dreams, as dreams are used in the conquest of a city, and then in an attempted assassination. I really liked the story, but I didn’t think it worked too well in that format. The world building was so interesting that I wish this were a novel – with more time to develop the characters and explore their relationships. But because the story tried to cover so much ground in such a small word count, it felt like the ending came out of nowhere and story lacked a satisfying resolution. I would gladly read this again as a full length novel.

                  “The Witch of Tarup” by Claire Humphrey

                  This one is a simple little story about witchcraft in rural Denmark. There’s no great twist or insight, just a solidly written little portrait. This is another one that I could easily see as a novel, where the author could better explore the relationships and setting. But while I liked the story, I really don’t see how it fits with the theme of the anthology.

                  “Marigolds” by L.S. Johnson

                  Lesbian prostitutes in Paris. The magic system is quite interesting – bringing together menstruation and female sexuality. It’s not something that I’ve seen too often in fiction, despite how much it comes up in culture studies. And while it’s lovely to get a story about lesbians with a happy ending, I’m rather put off by the “Paris prostitutes” setting. It just comes up too much and is way too fetishized.

                  “Diyu” by Robert William Iveniuk

                  The story begins as an interesting period piece set among the Chinese workers on the Canadian railroad, then gets some good Lovecraftian suspense going when an Eldritch horror appears (particularly satisfying given what a raging racist Lovecraft himself was)… But then the story ruins all of that built up good will by over-describing both the horror itself and its backstory. It even had the alien horror chatting! After such a strong beginning, all suspense was sucked right out of the story and it fizzles to a close.

                  “Collected Likenesses” by Jamey Hatley

                  This is a story about retributive magic and generational pain, exploring the aftermath of slavery. I found the second person narrative a bit jarring, as is the glimpse-by-glimpse narration. But despite these, it’s one of the collection’s strongest stories. It’s simple – easily summarised in a sentence – yet has quite a lot going on.

                  “Angela and the Scar” by Michael Janairo

                  In the Philippines, locals are losing the fight against the Yanquis until a forest spirit (kapfre) gets involved. This was one of the anthology’s middling entries – not great, not bad. It’s perfect filler. The idea of enlisting the land itself to aid in a freedom conflict is an interesting one (particularly in the context of guerrilla warfare), but the author doesn’t really do anything with it other than have it happen. I did like the way the kapfre was represented – it’s alien, and its help is very capriciously given. There’s a sense that it could just as easily (and happily) turn against the locals as against the Yanquis.

                  “The Colts” by Benjamin Parzybok

                  Another middling entry, this time about Hungarian zombies. The story takes place in a moment in time, as the main characters continue to act out the revolution that killed them while putting to rest the remainder of the living selves. The writing is solid, but this is another story that just doesn’t really do anything with its premise.

                  “Nine” by Kima Jones

                  I really didn’t like this one. The whole story seems to be exposition, yet I never actually got a feel for either the setting or the characters. The characters are puppetted through the story without appearing to really care about anything.

                  “The Heart and the Feather” by Christina Lynch

                  The story is about a family with Ambras Syndrome, or Hypertrichosis, which is characterised by abnormal hair growth over the whole body. This story didn’t really sit well with me. It uses real people and a real condition, but doesn’t really do anything with it – making it a bit of a spectacle. I struggled to see how this story fits with the theme of the anthology. The only thing I can think of is that it deals with the enslavement of the “Other” for entertainment, but the “Other” is presented as bestial, and that’s some very dangerous ground. There seems to be a lesson that the “Other” characters are good while it is the humans who are responsible for the evil happening in the story, but that’s undercut by having the responsible human be an actual, literal werewolf. So then what is the point, other than that some “Others” are fine, some are more at home in nature living as animals, and some eat children? I think this is the only story in the collection that I really disliked.

                  “A Score of Roses” by Troy L. Wiggins

                  This is a little story about two (magical?) people meeting and having a baby, and the baby is special in some way. The writing is solid and engaging, but the story doesn’t really go anywhere. It feels more like a first chapter than a complete story and, honestly, I can recall very little of this story now that a few days have passed since I read it.

                  “Neither Witch nor Fairy” by Nnghi Vo

                  This one is another story about a trans woman (or girl, in this case) being recognized by a supernatural creature. This time, the supernatural creatures are Irish. The setting lends a bit of an extra dimension to the self-discovery story, as the main character believes herself to be a Changeling, since she never feels like she fits as the boy she is thought to be. The story doesn’t stand out as anything special or particularly memorable, but it’s a solid entry.

                  “A Deeper Echo” by David Jón Fuller

                  This story read like heartbreaking wish fulfilment – a First Nations father, recently returned from fighting for the Canadian government, comes after his children who were stolen first by the schools, and then by a white woman. Oh, and also, he can change into a wolf. I’m attracted to the subject, so that may have carried me through a story that didn’t otherwise stand out. But this is certainly a solid addition to the anthology.

                  “Knotting Grass, Holding Ring” by Ken Liu

                  This is the first original story I’ve read by Liu, though I have read a few of his translations, and I absolutely loved it! The writing is lyrical, the setting is vivid, and the characters shone through brilliantly. This was by far one of my favourite stories in the collection!

                  “Jooni” by Kemba Banton

                  Another story with a bit too much exposition, but otherwise quite solid. The story takes place in a single moment as a freed slave deals with her trauma and recovers her sense of hope.

                  “There Will Be One Vacant Chair” by Sarah Pinsker

                  Hungarian Jews fight in the US Civil War while a disabled brother is forced to stay at home. The magic in this story involves reincarnation. This is another one that I think would have worked better as a longer piece – perhaps a novella. I would have liked more exploration into Julius’s theology.

                  “It’s War” by Nnedi Okorafor

                  This is another story that shows us its characters in a single moment, implying rather than narrating all that comes before and after. There’s a girl who can fly, there are women protesting taxation, and it all just kinda gets thrown together without explanation. It had a very similar feel to Okorafor’s Who Fears Death. The writing is fantastic, but I found something lacking in it as a story. I wanted either more about the protesters or more about the girl, but the two threads just didn’t seem to fit together.

                  “Find Me Unafraid” by Shanaé Brown

                  Booker warns Charlotte that the Klan is coming and holds her door strong against them. In the daylight hours, he gives her the money she will need to get herself and her family out of the small town where the mob in white sheets prowl. I enjoyed most of the story, but found the reveal at the end to be a little obvious and forced (the dialogue exposition, in particular, was clunky – especially since I had already picked up on most of the information that was being revealed). I’m also not sure how I feel about Charlotte having magical powers as well. I understand why she did, but it felt like a bit too much supernatural in a story that was otherwise more on the pleasantly ambiguous side. Overall, though, I found this to be one of the anthology’s stronger stories.

                  “A Wedding in Hungry Days” by Nicolette Barischoff

                  This was one of my favourite stories in the anthology! It’s the story of a ghost girl in rural China who marries a living boy. It’s practical and hard, but also very tender. It’s about caring for one’s family and creating a community. The narrative voice skipped around a bit, which I don’t like much in general and especially dislike in a short story, but that’s really my only complaint.

                  “Medu” by Lisa Bolekaja

                  What if Medusa the Gorgon were a black cowgirl? On the surface, the story is about a conflict between two types of magical humans (the Medusa-like and something like a xenomorph), but I felt a strong “natural hair movement” vibe from the story as well.

                  “Lone Women” by Victor LaValle

                  Adelaide is a settler heading out to her claim in Montana. With her is a creature, locked up in a trunk. As I was reading the anthology, I tried not to look at the author names or biographies before I read the stories so that my assumptions about their identities wouldn’t colour my perceptions. But when Adelaide turned out to be pregnant from a one night stand, I rolled my eyes and was utterly unsurprised to find that the author is a man. It’s not so much what happens as how, and the way in which it’s told. The story is fine, but suffers from both too much and not enough going on. There’s the story of the four boys, but that doesn’t get the ominous buildup it should have had and feels more like sequel-baiting rather than being impactful to this story. Then there’s the sisterhood angle, that seems to be looking disability and Otherness, but concludes by implying that disabled people are okay as long as they can be useful. I liked some parts of this story, but others made me quite uncomfortable.

                  “The Dance of the White Demons” by Sabrina Vourvoulias

                  The anthology ends with a strong story about native South American resistance against Spanish invaders. The story itself is great (and I would gladly read a novel-length version), but it’s also the perfect choice to end the book. It closes the anthology with a message of hope and survival even through times of oppression.

                    The Tale of Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo

                    Read: 12 September, 2017

                    This is a rather sweet story about a mouse who loves a princess. Though written for the younger set (at 6, I’d say my kid was just the right age), there are some rather brutal moments: Tails are chopped off, parents die, children are beaten so badly that they go partially deaf, someone dies of fear… The book doesn’t really hold back, and I can see some parents (and perhaps more sensitive children) being put off by it.

                    As it is, the central message of the book is one of empathy. Having most of the villains be hurting, and even the “good” characters doing bad things because of their grief, generated a number of good teachable moments about that empathy theme.