Tensorate #2: The Red Threads of Fortune by J.Y. Yang

Read: 11 June, 2018

One of my complaints about The Black Tides of Heaven is that the story was something of a whirlwind – we were whisked through the lives of Akeha and Mokoya, catching only glimpses along the way. This has been fixed in Red Threads, the entire plot of which takes place in only a handful of days. And while the goal of Black Tides was somewhat nebulous, Red Threads establishes its plot from the very first scene. It made for much tighter story.

I loved the exploration of gender in Black Tides, in which each character is gender neutral until they choose their gender for themselves. With that already established, we get a look at how imposed identity can clash with self-identity, as Rider is misgendered by another character.

Red Threads spent a lot more time delving into the magic system (the ‘Slack’) and how it works. It was nice to get a bit more detail, and I especially liked that different cultures might have completely different understandings of the same magic.

My main complaint is the same as it was for Black Tides – so much of the story could be explored in much more depth. I want to know more about Rider, I want to know more about their past, I want to know more about what Mokoya is thinking… Things happen, and it’s clear that Yang has a much bigger story imagined in their head, but those details just don’t seem to be making it down onto the page. So while I’ve enjoyed every bit of this series that I’ve read, I’m frustrated that the world isn’t coming to life for me the way it clearly is for the author.

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    Matilda by Roald Dahl

    Read: 7 June, 2018

    Overall, my seven-year-old and I found this to be an enjoyable read, though it lacked focus. The “main plot” doesn’t get started until about halfway through, and Matilda suddenly gets magical powers (the first hint of the supernatural) just a few chapters from the end.

    At the same time, the chapters don’t quite work for this to be an episodic type of story. Several stories span more than one chapter, and chapter lengths vary quite a bit – which meant that some nights we read long enough for my throat to get sore, while other nights we barely seemed to read at all.

    But for all that, the story is amusing, and I loved Matilda’s “get even” attitude. Both my kid and I thoroughly enjoyed the over-the-top baddies.

      (((Semitism))) by Jonathan Weisman

      Read: 3 June, 2018

      This book reads like an open letter to prominent Jewish groups like the Anti-Defamation League. It’s a call to action, an entreaty to re-expand activities beyond Israel and to take a meaningful stand against hate and the rise of fascism in the United States.

      This is a timely book – perhaps even a little too timely, as several points made are no longer true (such as the discussion of Trump failing to move the US embassy to Jerusalem). But while these minor points have weakened, the overall rise of fascism is a well-documented trend.

      The thesis of the book could have used a little tightening – while interesting throughout, it did meander a little, and it occasionally took some work to grasp what an argument was getting at.

      That said, I liked that Weisman’s focus went beyond anti-Semitism, tackling the interconnectedness of hate. No small part of the book is devoted to GamerGate, which was the canary in the coal mine as far as many in the internet generation are concerned. The call to action, therefore, is for Jewish organisations to use their expertise and resources to take a leadership position in the fight against hate.

      This is an important read. Weisman doesn’t provide answers (and, in fact, acknowledges throughout that there are sometimes no good responses), but the call for victimised communities to band together is essential.

        Leia, Princess of Alderaan (Journey to Star Wars: The Last Jedi) by Claudia Gray

        Read: 26 May, 2018

        This is a prequel to A New Hope, giving us a glimpse of Leia’s journey into the resistance.

        I had a little trouble getting into this book, though I don’t think it’s necessarily the book’s fault. The tone was so very much like the Vorkosigan Saga, and I’d just finished reading Mirror Dance, that I found it very disappointing. But if I judged all science fiction/space operas on the Bujold scale, I’d just be condemning myself to a life of disappointment.

        As it was, the book is fine. Absolutely fine. Doubly fine for YA. Once I was able to get over the fact that this wasn’t written by Bujold, I found myself enjoying it a lot more.

        I liked the bracketing of the story – the whole plot happens in between the ceremony where Leia announces the challenges she will undertake to prove herself as heir to the throne, and the ceremony where her challenges have been completed. Integrating Leia’s coming of age into her actual coming of age ceremony was a nice little touch. It worked for me.

        Leia in A New Hope was kickass. She was the regal princess, she was the composed diplomat who could stand up to Tarkin, and she was the fighter who could hold her own with a blaster and didn’t hesitate to jump into a garbage compacter. She was everything (#LifeGoals). This book did a pretty good job of getting her to that point. We see her working hard to become that badass, and her motivations always struck true to the character I got to know in the movies.

        Holdo was a tantalising character in The Last Jedi. The movie made it clear that she was close with Leia, and that the two women trusted each other, yet we got so little else about her. So it was neat to see so much more of her here. I also found that her attitude toward danger and fighting for justice added some weight to her actions in the movie. I’m looking forward to it coming to Netflix so I can watch it again, this time knowing so much more about her character.

        Reading this as a prequel added a great deal of subtext. There was a certain fatalism to reading the descriptions of Alderaan, knowing that the planet – and everyone on it – will soon be gone. In particular, I found it difficult to read about Leia’s relationship with Kier. I know he isn’t in the movies, so I was just waiting for him to either betray her or die (or both). And, of course, the eventual destruction of Alderaan added so much to weight to Leia’s disagreement with Kier about protecting the planet (and to Leia’s choice to sacrifice the planet in A New Hope).

        Overall, I enjoyed the book, but I don’t think I would have enjoyed it nearly as much if I weren’t already invested in the characters. I’m glad for the insights, such as they were, into Leia and Holdo, as well as the Star Wars universe as a whole, though I would have liked a little more substance.

          The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

          Read: 15 May, 2018

          I picked this book up without knowing a thing about it, except that I was somehow under the impression that it was autobiographical. In fact, I put off reading it for a while for that exact reason – I almost always enjoy Gaiman’s writings, but I wasn’t particularly interested in the author himself.

          Some weird stuff started happening, but it was all fairly plausible. And I figured it was just some writerly hyperbole.

          Then some really weird stuff started happening, and only then did I figure out that I was reading fiction. So that was a pretty fun trip!

          On the story itself, I loved the realism of it – how well the mythology was integrated into the “real world” of the story. I would have liked a more active protagonist, and I think that the Hempstocks did a bit too much infodumping (two problems that could have solved each other, if the protagonist could have used all his reading about mythology to figure out some of what was going on), but it’s a small complaint.

          Overall, this is a lovely little story with some surprisingly dark turns.

            Vorkosigan Saga #14: Mirror Dance by Lois McMaster Bujold

            Read: 9 May, 2018

            This is the first time since Barrayar that we’ve had a book that focuses on the Vorkosigans but not on Miles. We met Miles’s clone/brother in Brothers in Arms, but there wasn’t much to him – he’d been conditioned and trained to imitate Miles, and had never been given much space or encouragement to develop a self of his own. At the time, it was so significant just for Miles to give him a name.

            So it was really quite a joy to see the birth of Mark as a real, distinct person. Bujold has done a fantastic job of showing that split between the two of them, while also showing us the aspects of them that remain very similar.

            I normally find the series to be very comedic – largely driven by Miles’s deadpan commentaries. But without Miles, much of that comedy was missing as well. Combined with a rather uncomfortably long torture sequence, this was the hardest book to read in the series. Still enjoyable, but boy did it ever get dark.

            One of the recurring details in the book is Mark’s weight. His metabolism is much slower than Miles’s, plus he has an eating disorder. I’m rather conflicted about this. On the one hand, I really didn’t appreciate all the characters staring at Mark’s body in disgust, nor all the times characters talk about their concern for their health (presented matter-of-factly, as though it were a scientific truth that fat=ill-health, absent other factors). Enough of that, thanks.

            On the other hand, Mark’s weight is an important means for him to forge his own identity, and I did like that, in the end, he chose to remain fat and seems quite happy with his body.

            I just wish that there had been some character other than Mark himself who could recognise that fat isn’t disgusting or necessarily unhealthy. And I wish that the focus of people’s shock was more on the speed of his weight gain or the difference between his body and Miles’s, rather than disgust at his corpulence.

            I don’t think I’d want to spend a whole series with Mark, but I’m glad that I got to spend more time with him. And I loved the way his budding self-hood was handled. He has the typical Vorkosigan Extreme Excellence, but I really liked that it’s a very different kind of excellence from Miles.

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              Coraline by Neil Gaiman

              Read: 8 May, 2018

              I read this with my seven year old. About half way through, he told me that the book was giving him nightmares. When I asked him if he wanted to stop, he said: “No. Like, good nightmares.”

              And I think that just about sums up the book. Good nightmares.

                Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

                Read: May 6, 2018

                This is a bunch of interconnected lives, both pre- and post-apocalypse. I found both sections engaging, and I really enjoyed seeing the points where they intersect.

                It was an interesting choice to combine a story about Hollywood discontentment and loss of privacy with a more traditional dystopian run-in with a totalitarian cult leader. I don’t know how big the overlap is between the two audiences. But, somehow, it worked. It worked best as neither plot overstayed its welcome. Although there was a certain whiplash as I was taken away from a plot line – sometimes for multiple chapters – that I was interested in following.

                I did appreciate what the pre- storyline added, but I did come here for the post-, and that was a bit thin. As a story-driven story, it needed much more story. As a character-driven story, much of the character development occurred in the pre- storylines, so characters that didn’t feature in both ended up not getting a whole lot of development.

                Despite my complaints, I did enjoy myself throughout the whole book, and the writing style was quite excellent.

                  Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH by Robert C. O’Brien

                  Read: 23 April, 2018

                  I read this with my seven year old son. We both really enjoyed the first bit of the book, which is about Mrs Frisby and her sick child. The stakes felt very real, and we enjoyed all the characters she meets (the helpful crow, the wise owl, the mouse doctor, the shrew neighbour, the scary cat, etc). There was whimsy there, even as we fretted over little Timothy.

                  But then came the titular rats. Most of the second half of the book is the backstory of the rats, as told by Nicodemus. The narrative voice gets very removed, and we just weren’t given any time to care about any of the characters. And the characters we did care about, and spent the first half of the book getting to know, disappear almost entirely until the very end.

                  So we found the story to be very uneven. I think we would have liked both sections of it if they had been in different books, but we just spent too much time waiting for Mrs Frisby and Jeremy and all the rest of them to make a reappearance for the second half to be much fund.

                    The Troop by Nick Cutter

                    Did not finish: 21 April, 2018

                    This is my first “did not finish” in quite a while! I normally know within a page or two if I’m even going to bother with a book, but I made it a whole 240 pages with this one.

                    The writing is fine – the gross-outs are legitimately gross, and the characterisations are solid if pessimistic. But then there are the intrusive flashbacks. The characters see something. What do they see? Well, it looked like the balloons they make animals out of at the fair. Little Timmy could remember the last time he went to the fair, it was… Oh my ghawd, just tell me what they see!

                    The plot reminded me a lot of Lord of the Flies. It had the same savagery.

                    Which was part of the reason why I didn’t finish. I’m in the beginning stage of one of my week-long anxiety attacks, and I just can’t handle the total lack of likeable characters. Especially combined with the contagion threat, which just hits every single one of my buttons. So it’s not that this is a bad book – as I said, I did make it about 2/3rds of the way through – it’s just a difficult book. And that’s just not something I’m up for these days.

                    A few content notes: One of the characters is a violent psychopath who literally gets off on causing pain to others. He kills animals (including a kitten, in a rather graphic scene), and deliberately manipulates other characters. Also, Big Bad of the story is a worm-like parasite, so there’s all the content warnings about contagion, infestation, parasitism, and the body-horror that accompanies these things. Also, it’s set in Canada.