Silo #2: Shift by Hugh Howey

Read: 6 August, 2018

After finishing Wool, I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to continue the series or not. The “mystery box” plot type doesn’t hold all that much of an appeal for me beyond the initial read, and I felt that Wool had already answered the major questions I had. But then I found the audiobook of Shift at my local library and really needed something to listen to while I did the dishes, and here we are.

Shift continues as a “mystery box”, except that the mysteries are much smaller. We’re not longer wondering what the hell is going on, but rather what did So-and-so have to do with it, and how exactly will the thing we know will happen come about. Small mysteries.

These are interspersed with individual tales from the silos, giving us a picture of how experiences can differ from each other in similar situations.

The narrative is still very much obect-focused, so the POV characters have little in the way of individual personalities. That said, I did like the way Solo distinguished himself, even though it was merely you having experiences that were dramatically different from the other POV characters.

Overall, this was a good book to listen to while doing the dishes. The philosophical “truths” of the story are simplistic and overdone, and the characters aren’t particularly compelling, but the “mystery box” is at least an entertaining ride.

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    The Witcher, vol. 2: Fox Children by Paul Tobin (illustrated by Joe Querio)

    Read: August 6, 2018

    As with House of Glass, I appreciate how well Tobin has managed to capture Geralt’s voice and the general tone of Witcher series.

    The artwork, which disappointed me a bit in House of Glass, is still rather underwhelming. However, there is now a female character who actually wears clothing, so that’s at least a little improvement (have no fear – the central female character is still naked). This is authentic to CD Projekt Red’s vision of the series, so I can’t fault it for that, but it’d be nice to have a little more parity.

    The story works, for the most part. I liked the ending twist, and I thought that that Tobin did a good job of building a paranoid atmosphere.

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      The Witcher, vol. 1: House of Glass by Paul Tobin (illustrated by Joe Querio)

      Read: 5 August, 2018

      I wasn’t a huge fan of the artwork for this one. It felt a bit rough or lacking in detail, and there were several panels where I had a great deal of trouble figuring out what I was looking at. In particular, Vara’s body (her arms, especially) seemed all over the place, proportionally. It’s not bad art, per se, but it could have been a lot better.

      The story was okay. It definitely felt like a Witcher story, just not one of the better ones. There’s some good mystery and ambience building up, until Geralt finds the right person to talk to and they just infodump what’s going on. Which a lot of Sapkowski’s stories also do, so points for keeping it authentic, but those aren’t the stories that I really like.

      All that said, I did enjoy the writing. When Geralt speaks, he sounds like Geralt. His humour, his deadpan, the way he just goes along with what people saying – even while he knows that they are lying – just to see what will happen… that’s truly Geralt. Even the “twist” at the end that he had a good idea of what was going on the whole time, even while the reader was befuddled by the mystery, reads just like Sapkowski’s stories.

      I also liked the way Geralt bantered with Vara. They had a good rapport, and it worked better than just having Geralt wandering around by himself for half the story.

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        Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri

        Read: 31 July, 2018

        There’s a “third culture” aspect to these stories that I really enjoyed. The characters in each story are outsiders, they are Indians in America or American-born Indians in India, and there’s always a sense of looking from the outside in.

        That sense is amplified by the voyeuristic nature of the stories. In each case, the narrator is an audience, perceiving the subject of the story. It’s an interesting layering effect.

        This is a great collection. I hated some of the stories, some of them made me so angry or so sad, but every one affected me. And even the weakest entries are beautifully written with vibrant characters who seem to leap off the page.

        1. A Temporary Matter: A heartbreaking story about a couple trying to recover (separately) from a traumatic event, finally forced together to talk by a planned power outage. It’s a look at grief, and especially in the ways that our lives can impede the healing process (as we bury ourselves in work or hobbies).

        2. When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine: War in Daca, as seen through the eyes of a little girl in America. This story struck a real chord with me, as the narrator’s environment is totally unequipped to deal with what she is going through. She even has that particularly third culture experience of being punished for trying to learn more about a current conflict with direct relevance to her life because she should be studying the American Revolution.

        3. Interpreter of Maladies: A driver is giving a tour to Americanised Indians. This story is peak voyeur, as the narrator weaves an elaborate fantasy around the wife of the family. There were aspects of this story that were interesting, but I personally found it to be one of the weaker entries. Though perhaps it’s bias talking, as I found the narrator to be rather gross.

        4. A Real Durwan: A relentless story of someone who has already lost much losing everything else. It’s a story of casual cruelty, of the way people can simply toss away human beings who are no longer useful to them. And, perhaps, a story about people who are unable to adapt as situations change, and who find themselves left behind.

        5. Sexy: A little on-the-nose, redeemed by good writing. A woman is in an affair with a married man while her co-worker’s cousin is the wife in a similar situation.

        6. Mrs. Sen’s: One of my favourite stories in the bunch, though the foreshadowing is somewhat anxiety-inducing. This is a fantastic meditation on the experiences of middle aged, unwilling immigrants (spouses of people who’ve immigrated for work, for example). Mrs. Sen has been taken from everything she knows, and finds that she cannot adapt to her new way of life. Her loneliness in the story is palpable.

        7. This Blessed House: This one is a story about a jerkass husband who doesn’t deserve his magnificent wife. She sounds lovely – vivacious, curious, interesting – while he offers absolutely nothing.

        8. The Treatment of Bibi Haldar: The voyeur aspect is taken so far in this story that the narrator is barely even a character at all (they are part of a neighbourhood “we” who observe the events of the story). This is something of a mirror story of “A Real Durwan” – while that one was of a woman who had found something of a place and then loses it due to the cruelty of those around her, “Bibi” is about a woman who is a victim of cruelty but who finds her place. The surface message that having a baby can cure epilepsy seems rather odd, though it’s hard not to root for Bibi as she builds a life for herself out of terrible circumstances.

        9. The Third and Final Continent: An interesting story about love and emigration. The narrator’s marriage is arranged, so he doesn’t have a chance to get to know his wife until after they are already married. It’s interesting to see how tentatively they get to know each other, and how the conservatism of the immigrants can mirror the conservatism of the elderly.

          The Big Necessity by Rose George

          Read: 28 July, 2018

          I, appropriately, found this book in a friend’s bathroom while staying as a guest. But this is no Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader!

          The book covers a lot of the sanitation issues “elsewhere” – such as the rape risk in India and the menstruation barrier to education in parts of Africa – but I was surprised by how precarious sanitation systems are in Europe and North America. We have local issues caused by a growing population that depends on an ageing system (which happens to also have an antiquated design that overflows with raw sewage in rain storms), but I had imagined this to be a problem particular to here. Turns out, it really isn’t. And, in fact, the precariousness of the sanitation situation worldwide is rather terrifying.

          I particularly enjoyed the toilet tech talk – from different types of affordable latrines, to biogas digesters, to Japanese washlettes.

            Walking the Rez Road by Jim Northrup

            Read: 25 July, 2018

            The stories are very loosely connected. While the blurb on the back puts a lot of emphasis on the effects of the protagonist’s experiences in Vietnam on his post-service life, I found that only the first third of the book dealt with the war at all. After that, the stories had more to do with Rez life generally. Not that that’s a bad thing at all, and I did enjoy the expanding of Luke Warmwater’s identity – especially since we only catch glimpses of him across decades.

            The stories themselves are short anecdotes, taken seemingly at random from a whole lifetime of experiences. They cover everything from being a soldier to playing Bingo with his wife to harvesting wild rice. They are “slice of life” stories, mostly without a specific point (at least at a surface reading) other than to simply exist in that moment. I enjoyed the writing style, which has a strong narrative voice, as well as the sense of humour.

            I was really impressed by a few of the poems, too. Several of them packed quite an evocative punch.

            The edition I read also had a number of non-fiction articles by the author, which helped to provide some of the context and subtext for the preceding stories.

            Overall, this is a fairly short read, but an interesting one. Northrup’s individual perspective on Rez life is a valuable one.

              The Graveyard Apartment by Mariko Koike

              Read: 20 July, 2018

              Written in the ’80s, The Graveyard Apartment is a little dated. Its formula is a staple of the horror genre – family with a rocky history moves into a new home, then the hauntings start. There’s even a dead pet (Pyoko, their pet finch, is found dead in the opening paragraph), a mention of a child dying in a tragic car accident on the family’s route, a scene where one of the main characters goes to the library to research the haunting, etc. Basically, this is a pretty solid collection of horror’s common tropes.

              What I liked about the book was it’s pace – slow and creeping. There are few real scares, but the whole atmosphere of the story is quietly oppressive. The sense of dread I got every time the elevator gets mentioned – especially after about 2/3rds of the way through, whenever they’d get into the elevator and the narrator would count off each floor they pass…

              The translation, done by Deborah Boliver Boehm, seems pretty solid. She’s managed to preserve something of the Japanese speech patterns and mannerisms, which I appreciate. But then there are some word choices, like when a character is described as “copacetic”. A word like that just doesn’t get used, so it stands out when it is. Given that several other words could have fit in that context, I’m baffled as to its choice. Unless it’s an ’80s thing, and the original Japanese version was alluding specifically to that word. There are a few such choices that struck me as odd as I was reading, but it’s hard to tell whether they were the correct choices or not when I can’t compare them to the original.

              My major complaint with the book is that things don’t really tie up together. For example, Teppei’s first wife committed suicide, and it would have been narratively satisfying for that to pay off in the ending in some way. Same with the little boy who was hit by a car while crossing the road to get to the kindergarten (there is an incident where Misao is nearly struck by a car as well, but it isn’t given enough weight to have been foreshadowed deliberately). Maybe that’s unfair, and maybe the sheer randomness of the evil presence was a narrative choice in itself, but it would have been more satisfying for me to see more payoffs.

              I also wasn’t a fan of the death-ray toward the end. I get how seeing it happen was traumatising for the characters, but it just seemed rather absurd. There were other ways to make the family feel trapped in the building that would have been much creepier – at least for me. Though the specific mentioning of Hiroshima may be a clue for me that the creep factor of the death-ray is relying on a cultural fear that I simply don’t have access to.

              In conclusion, this was a nice creepfest. I didn’t find it particularly scary, but I did like the pace, and I felt quite invested in Misao and Tamao (Teppei I could take or leave). Koike builds a pretty good atmosphere, and I did have moments of feeling legitimate dread. I knew going in that it would feel rather cliched and dated, so I had no expectations to let down, and, as such, I enjoyed the book for what it is.

                Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke

                Read: 15 July, 2018

                Set in the early part of the 19th century, this book does a magnificent job of capturing the narrative style and tone of books from that period. Of course, that means that it’s a bit of a slog – at around 800 pages, this book makes a great door stopper, and the pacing is very slow.

                However, I found that listening to it on audiobook was perfect. I got to sit back, relax, and absorb the atmosphere of the period and worldbuilding – which is what most of this book is. There is a rescue/defeat the baddy near the end, but it’s not particularly climactic. For the most part, the book is about creating an alternate 19th century England with plausible magic.

                I adored the worldbuilding. Clarke did a really good job of blending magic into the real world world history. Best of all, she did so in such a very British way – with a magic system that draws from both the common fairy stories as well as the more “noble” pursuit of alchemy.

                The world felt complex and alive, and the slowness of the narrative gives the reader a change to settle into it. I do, however, recommend the audiobook, as the book is heavy enough to put wrists at risk.

                  Star Wars: Lost Stars by Claudia Gray

                  Read: 9 July, 2018

                  I’ve read a few of the Star Wars books now, and I haven’t been overly impressed. For the most part, the books are fine, but I wouldn’t read them if they weren’t Star Wars.

                  This one, however… this is the Star Wars book I’ve been waiting for.

                  Both main characters – Thane and Ciena – start off believing in the Empire. They willingly enter the academy, even working hard to get there. They fight on the Empire’s side. Throughout, their reasons are believable. Even when Thane becomes disillusioned, Ciena stays on, making excuses for the bad side of the Empire, and overemphasising the good. Even when the evil of the Empire becomes more visible and personal, Ciena’s reaction is so recognisably human.

                  It’s so timely (perhaps it’s always timely) to see how good people can serve evil power structures, and how interlaced their reasons can be.

                  I enjoyed seeing the major events of episodes 4-6 again through new eyes. Finally, we get a frank discussion of the Death Star, and the moral calculus that went into destroying such a powerful weapon at the cost of so very many lives.

                  I would have enjoyed Lost Stars without it being set in the Star Wars universe. As it is, that only makes it better.

                    Throne of Glass #2: Crown of Midnight by Sarah J. Maas

                    Read: 6 July, 2018

                    Friend and I are still deep in discussions about the pronunciation of Chaol. Since the guide Maas provides gives it as “Kay-all”, I started calling him “Kale”, which then led to calling him “Salad”.

                    I noticed a definite improvement in the storytelling from the first book. The anachronistic elements (whatever that means in a fantasy setting) that bothered me in Throne of Glass – like the pool table – are entirely absent here. Characters are also starting to get a bit more depth, and I appreciated how raw Celaena’s emotions were.

                    I like how much more of the worldbuilding is evident in this book. I’m still rather uncertain about how each part connects (I’d like more details on the Crochan family, for example), but the stitches are starting to form and I’m now fairly well invested in finding out.

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