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.

The Radium Girls by Kate Moore

Read: 21 November, 2018

Every so often, I come across someone who believes in the inherent goodness of The Market. Employers wouldn’t mistreat their employees or put them in danger, they say, because then the employees would simply go work somewhere else! And it’s true that, to an extent, the radium dial companies had trouble finding replacement workers after the dangers of the work became common knowledge..

But what about before? What about when only scientists in the field and the company executives knew about the dangers? And what if those executives had doctors in their pay who would give their workers clean bills of health even as those workers had already begun dying? And what if they were taking out ads in local papers declaring their products safe and their workers healthy?

And what if the Great Depression hits and workers just don’t have a choice?

The Radium Girls are the prime example of why strong legal protections for workers are so important. Not just strong protections, but protections that are flexible enough to grow with new technology (unlike, for example, the short statute of limitations that didn’t anticipate the slow damage of radium poisoning).

This book is horrific and inspirational. It’s full of heroes and selfless women who went to great lengths to ensure that future workers would be safe even though they themselves could never reap the benefits of their fight.

Irresistible Forces edited by Catherine Asaro

Read: 19 November, 2018

Like many others, I got this because I needed “Winterfair Gifts” – to come so far with Miles and then miss his wedding?? Of the other authors, only Catherine Asaro is on my radar (I’ve had her Skolian Empire books recommended to me, though I haven’t read them yet), so I was walking into this rather blind.

As I would have predicted, “Winterfair Gifts” was fabulous. It was absolutely everything I didn’t know I wanted. The rest, however, really weren’t up to that same quality. That’s not really fair, as I came into “Winterfair Gifts” with so much backstory that Bujold had the luxury of economy. All the other authors, however, had to build their worlds for me from scratch.

None of the stories were bad, by any means, but they also weren’t amazing. For the most part, I just didn’t find them particularly memorable. There were some good ideas, some bits I enjoyed, but I haven’t been moved to seek out any of the authors.

The book is worth getting just to have “Winterfair Gifts” on my shelf, and I am glad that I got to read some stories that aren’t in my usual wheelhouse. But if you buy this book, it’ll almost certainly be for Bujold’s story.

“Winterfair Gifts” by Lois McMaster Bujold

I knew coming in that this was going to be the story of Miles and Ekaterin’s wedding, but that’s it. I was prepared to revel some more in their relationship, with maybe a bit of plot on the side, but this delivered so much more.

I didn’t expect the POV shift. The protagonist of this story isn’t Miles, but rather his armsman, Roic (of bug butter fame). Having gotten to know Aral in Cordelia’s books, I enjoyed shifting to Miles’s perspective and getting to see how Aral appears from the outside. Now, we get to see Miles through Roic’s eyes.

The main highlight of the story, for me, was getting to spend more time with Taura. In particular, getting to see her in a social environment. I also loved the glimpse we get of Ekaterin, and how strong she is, as well as how perfect she is for Miles. She’s reminding me a lot of Cordelia, while also being her own separate self.

“The Alchemical Marriage” by Mary Jo Putney

Coming right after “Winterfair Gifts”, this story really didn’t have a chance. For one thing, it has to make me care about the lovers and their relationship in just a handful of pages, whereas I was already cheering in Taura’s corner before I ever started “Winterfair Gifts.” It almost seems cruel to put Bujold’s story first in this collection!

Trying to look at “The Alchemical Marriage” in isolation, it’s fine. It’s not my genre, so I’m less practiced at overlooking the genre’s conventions. Besides that, Macrae’s growly wildness struck me as a silly affectation (particularly since I don’t have much patience for that brand of masculinity).

I wasn’t particularly sold on the relationship, either. The lovers seem to have an attraction to each other, but it’s not really explored. We’re told that they are plumbing each other’s depths and vulnerabilities so that they can exchange magic more completely, but I didn’t get a sense of what that would mean to the characters. Isabel seems to struggle with sharing some parts of herself, but we are never told what those parts are and, in the end, she gives them up rather easily.

When the lovers do finally bone, it’s a matter of convenience – they have to bone to save England, you see! But then, suddenly, Macrae shows up at Isabel’s house all a-bluster, assaulting her servants and threatening her parents, because now they obviously have to get married. Isabel seems to think that Macrae’s approach is a performance to compensate for his own vulnerabilities, but is it? Really?

While perhaps more predictable, I would have liked more about the sharing of vulnerabilities. It’s mentioned how lonely Isabel was, as the only real magic user in her family. That should have been more central, I think. As it was, I got the feeling that the author was going for an exploration of the male/female dichotomy, but defined those terms too casually (like having Macrae be gruff), and then failed to make a compelling case for why these two essentialities should go well together.

I did like the insertion of magic into a historical event, though. That was fun.

“Stained Glass Heart” by Catherine Asaro

I found this one quite good. It was a little heavy-handed, but I did like the gender switching on the political marriage to a much older person plot, and I found that I quite liked the two main characters.

There was too much going on for a short piece, though. For example, having the main character’s whole family be empaths, including both of his parents. Having them be empaths at all was unnecessary to the story, and then it raises so many questions – such as why they are all empaths and why no one else is, even though his mother and father are from entirely different planets. The role of dance was a bit hamfisted as well. I liked that the main character had something “different” about him, and that he had a real dream that he had to give up if he wanted to stay with the girl he loved, but it was introduced a little late in the story. Also, given how many times the reader is told that “men don’t dance”, I feel like it should have been a more important part of the story before it becomes a plot issue.

All that aside, I liked the two main characters, and I liked that I could actually see why they liked each other. Giving Vyrl a shameful passion and having Lily happily accept it as part of who he is was a nice touch.

“Skin Deep” by Deb Stover

This one does pretty well with an absurd concept: A deceased husband is brought back to earth in a new body so that he can help his widow bone the man who had been his rival for her affections when they were first courting. Oh, also? There are male strippers, drug traffickers, and some sort of mob organisation complete with cops on the take. And all of that is crammed into a short story.

The story does well not to take itself too seriously, but it just doesn’t have much for substance. It’s competently written, but I’m sure I’ll forget all about it in a day or two. Except, maybe, for its cheesy early 90s set up.

“The Trouble with Heroes” by Jo Beverley

Not a bad story, but I felt that it was an awkward combination of too heavy handed while not having thought through what it was trying to say. There’s something there about soldiers being changed by war and coming back to a population that honours their heroism while also being afraid of what they’ve become. That’s all well and good, but then there’s the stuff about magic and controlling people’s minds, and it lost me.

It’s well written, and there are bits of the worldbuilding that have potential, but the story just didn’t work for me as a whole.

“Shadows in the Wood” by Jennifer Roberson

Nothing to write home about, but I did actually enjoy this one. I grew up on stories like Robin Hood and King Arthur, and seeing them combined was just good fun. I also liked the bits about old magic and the importance of blood and sacrifice, as well as giving the story to Marian.

The Six Directions of Space by Alastair Reynolds

Read: 17 November, 2018

When I picked this book up from the library, I was surprised by how small it was – coming in at only 85 pages. Given the scope of the book, it’s no surprise that it doesn’t really spend enough time with any one part: The characters are interesting at a glimpse, but we don’t get much depth; the worldbuilding is interesting, but we don’t get much of it; the multiverse concept is interesting, but we see very little of it.

I wanted so much more from the worldbuilding, because, I mean, Mongols in SPAAAAAACE! But this spacefaring civilization, that doesn’t have much in the way of planetary terraforming and therefore mostly lives on stations and in domes, has ponies. Why? Because the Mongols had ponies. There was an opportunity to do something neat with Mongols adapting from a pony-based nomadic society into a ship-based one, but instead they cart literal horses around on ships. Beyond that, because of the nature of the main character’s work, we get very little on what daily life would be like for the average denizen of this civilisation, despite that being the most interesting part of the story.

The discovery of a multiverse is interesting, but it’s been done. The idea of alternate histories being formed around singular events gone differently is interesting, but that’s been done too. Without something more, this reads more like an outline or a pitch than a completed story. A story – both what we actually see covered in this book, plus its implied continuation – that could easily be a whole series. Instead of that, we get 85 pages. It just barely whets the appetite, then pulls the meal away at the last second. I’m greedy, and I want more.

Dead Wake by Erik Larson

Read: 16 November, 2018

Knowing that the boat would sink, the slow build (perhaps about 70% of the book) was anxiety inducing. Larson alternates between the Lusitania (stories of the boat itself, or the domestic everyday lives of its passengers) and U-20 (primarily its captain and movements, but also a little history on what submarines were like in the first World War). It’s like a slow-motion dance between predator and prey, and, knowing how it would all end, I was still watching, through fingers, as it plays out.

In the end, however, the boat must sink. I was listening on audiobook while driving to work when it came to the story of a little boy who saw a woman giving birth in the water, and was haunted by the possibility that it had been his own mother – a heavily pregnant woman who died with the sinking. I pulled into the parking lot at work with tears streaming down my face.

Larson does a good job of focusing in on each little tragedy during the sinking – many of people we’ve come to know over the course of the book. It’s heartbreaking and terrifying. Leading up to that awful day, I found the stories of the individuals involved (passengers and crew of the Lusitania, as well as Schwieger, captain of the U-20) very compelling. There’s a good cross-section of gender, class, and career, giving a well-rounded picture of what every day domestic life would have looked like around the beginning of World War I.

I was particularly interesting in the history of these early submarines – before so much of the technology (such as sonar!) was ready for such a ship. It really did revolutionise naval warfare, and Larson spends some time on the high-speed armsrace (of both technology and tactics) that these new ships forced in.

Vorkosigan Saga #19: Diplomatic Immunity by Lois McMaster Bujold

Read: 11 November, 2018

Over the course of the Vorkosigan series, there have been quite a number of details (people, places, ethnic groups..) that have popped up and then disappeared as attention moved elsewhere. The Nexus is big, and Miles always has to keep moving. I could read a whole series devoted entirely to Cetaganda, for example, but I also want Miles to explore Jackson Whole. Invariably, each individual story gives the reader only as much of the characters and setting as is necessary for that particular story, and then we – and Miles – move on.

But, sometimes, we get to another encounter, a little follow up. Diplomatic Immunity has that in heaps.

For one thing, I loved the Quaddies in Falling Free, when they were just a little group of hopefuls heading out into the cold universe to try to make a little home for themselves. We did get to see one Quaddie, Nicol, briefly in “Labyrinth”, but she was out of her element and under stress and, anyway, we didn’t get to spend a whole lot of time with her. Now, however, we get a whole story set in Quaddie-space!

It was fantastic to see how the ideals of the original community translated into an organic culture with history behind it. It was also lovely to see the Quaddies with more agency and power (as they were treated in a very child-like way by the downsider characters in Falling Free), while still retaining that essential communal nature that had made them so unique.

I was also so happy to see Bel Thorne again. I’m so glad that it landed on its feet (so to speak) after everything that went down, and I’m really happy that it was able to find Nicol again.

I did notice some growth in how Bel’s gender is treated. For one thing, Miles seems to have retconned some mutuality into their sexual chemistry, and seems to regret that they hadn’t had a relationship when it was possible. Perhaps that’s just a sign of Miles’s own growth and maturity. I noticed, also, the term “herm” being used quite a bit, which I think is new? I don’t recall it leaping out at me previously, though of course Bel wasn’t the focal point of a story until now.

I would have happily read a book about Guppy’s life, and his time with Gras-Grace and the others. I wish we’d had a little more closure with regards to his fate, because he deserved so much more than what happened to him in this story.

Lastly, babies! Twins! Oh my goodness, I’m so excited!

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