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.

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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.

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.