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.

An Absolutely Remarkable Thing by Hank Green

Read: 28 October, 2018

I didn’t realize that this was the beginning of a series until after I’d finished it. Though, to be honest, this works as a standalone story as well. Yes, the ending is ambiguous, but it’s a complete origin story arc. The mystery of the Carls is still open ended, but it’s almost better that way.

I loved how strong the characters felt. Even the “baddies” had a nuance and an understanding that can be quite rare. I loved that Green did not make compromises for his story – the fictional world is every bit as complicated as our real world, while still reflecting Green’s own stated faith in humanity (as per his other media, such as his YouTube videos).

Having this come from Green, who was himself shot into fame after one of his YouTube videos went viral (and then another, then another, etc), was especially interesting, because April’s musings on that aspect of her life had a lot of authenticity. There were times when this book felt downright autobiographical (plus giant alien robots).

The mystery of the Carls and the Dream was captivating. It was, essentially, everything that I had liked about Ready Player One, but without all the white boy nerd baggage. I loved that April herself didn’t solve most of the mysteries, but had to outsource and to cooperate with many other people to accomplish her goals. However much she wanted to be the hero, the mystery kept bringing her back down into humanity.

Overall, I found this to be a thoroughly enjoyable and very uplifting book. It’s full of hope for humanity, but without seeming saccharine or naive. I do think it fits in with a YA audience, but isn’t a YA book, per se; this is straight up science fiction. And more than enough to be found here for the more “mature” SF/F fans among us.

Pushout by Monique W. Morris

Read: 23 October, 2018

With the proliferation of mobile phones and social media, the mainstream is finally becoming aware that encounters with law enforcement are far too often fatal for black boys and men. Along with that, is the mainstream awareness of black incarceration and the school-to-prison pipeline.

But left out of this awareness is how the particular intersection of gender and race affects black girls. Not as likely to go to prison (though those rates are rising), Morris talks about the school-to-confinement pipeline for black girls – expanding the discussion to recognise other forms of restriction and surveillance, such as house arrest.

This is by no means a comprehensive book – in fact, each chapter could easily be a whole book on its own – but it is an excellent conversation starter about an issue that is too often ignored. Black girls are often left out of programs designed to help girls, as well as programs designed to help people of colour, and this book does a great job of looking at where this leaves kids who fall into both (and sometimes more) categories of oppression.

At the back of the book is some practical advice for kids, parents, and teachers who want to make a change – inclusion a description of two alternatives to punitive methods of school discipline.

Uzumaki by Junji Ito

Read: 19 October, 2018

The story isn’t particularly linear, with each chapter covering a new expression of the spiral obsession that kills the residents of Kurozu-cho. The main character, Kirie, is a witness to the goings on, and there are other recurring characters, but each chapter can otherwise function as independent short stories.

The artwork is incredibly creepy. Some of the imagery is downright haunting. I was particularly impressed by the subtle gauntness that the spiral’s victims take on, little by little, as they are overtaken.

The horror is very Lovecraftian. There’s no single monster that’s taking victims. Rather, there’s an obsession for spirals so extreme that a character will literally twist his body into a spiral, killing himself. There’s a scar on a girl’s forehead that grows into a spiral pattern and ends up consuming her entirely.

Stolen Words by Melanie Florence (illustrated by Gabrielle Grimard)

For Orange Shirt Day this year, I told my kid about residential schools. To help him understand the impact of cultural genocide, we read Stolen Words together.

This book is a fantastic help. I also really liked that it wasn’t just a story about a wise grandfather teaching something to the granddaughter. Rather, it’s the granddaughter who finds a Cree dictionary so that she and her grandfather could relearn their language together.

This is a powerful book that serves to both teach our history, and to offer hope for the future. The lost language can be recovered, and it’s recovered through community and family. Given the darkness of the subject matter, it was good to be able to present the story of residential schools with a positive ending, without sugar-coating it.

Karen Memory by Elizabeth Bear

Read: 9 October, 2018

Karen Memory has all the fixings for an amazing story – Wild West steampunk featuring lesbians and Bass Reeves and a mecha-sewing machine? Bring it on!

Unfortunately, while I liked just about every individual component of this book, the whole didn’t work for me. Whatever it was, something about it didn’t click, and it took me forever to read.

Part of it is that I struggled to imagine a lot of what was being described. I understand that the built up roadways are based on the way Seattle was built up, but I just couldn’t picture it. Similarly, I have no idea what the sewing machine is supposed to look like. I know what sewing machines look like, and I know what mechabots look like, but the two combined? Whatever tinkering the characters were doing, I just don’t understand how the proper use of a sewing machine could involve getting into it, nor why it would have been equipped with arms and legs.

The book still gets four stars because, as I said, there was so much awesome there, even if it didn’t work for me.

Of Echoes Born by ‘Nathan Burgoine

Read: 7 October, 2018

This collection absolutely blew me away. I tend to struggle a lot with short stories – by the time I’ve found my footing with the characters and the setting, it’s already all over. Things happen to characters and I just don’t really feel what I know I’m supposed to be feeling because they are still strangers.

But Of Echoes Born was more like Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri. The characters were so strong that I got an immediate sense of them. Burgoine will give me a whole love story in a handful of pages and I will feel it – I will feel that attraction the characters have for each other, I will understand their little inside jokes, I will totally buy into the love that they share.

Which, of course, just made my heart so much easier to break – which Burgoine did, again and again throughout the book. It never felt gratuitous or manipulative, though. Burgoine breaks, but he also heals, and nearly every story feels redemptive.

I really love that characters and locations come back through the stories, giving the collection a feeling of community. I’m pretty sure I also recognised at least one character from Triad Blood, though it’s been a while.

I  also love the way that art is used in these stories – and not just one type of art, but everything from painting to clothing design.

There & Then

I’m not a terribly huge fan of rape being used as a plot point, and I do think that this story could have worked without it. That said, I did really enjoy the story. I loved the magic system, and the way that the story taught me to feel for characters just based on what colours were named. I also enjoyed the origin story aspect of having the character discover what his powers mean and what he can choose to do with them.

Time and Tide

There’s a romance trope where a character comes home and is forced to confront a love from the past. I didn’t like this story as much as others in the collection, mostly because the magic and the art didn’t blend into the story the way they do in the other stories.

Pentimento

This isn’t a story where the characters happen to be gay, but a story where the homosexuality is the story. There’s the enforced closet, all the relationships that were never given a chance out of fear, and the complicated relationship between generations. But instead of being a sad, dark story – which it got very close to being – this is a story about magic art that heals history. I felt so uplifted when I got to the end, which was a wonderful feeling after a story that had, up until then, been so dark.

A Little Village Magic

Pentimento moved me, Village Magic outright had me blubbering. There’s the surface story about budding magical powers and a romantic relationship, but the backdrop is the restoration of a defaced LGBTQ+ monument. I love the message of found family.

The Psychometry of Snow

A twist on the ‘going home’ romance story, but again with the addition of magic. I liked this one a lot more than “Time and Tide”, if only because the magic system worked a bit better for me. I felt like “Time and Tide” needed too much exposition, which bogged the story down a bit, whereas the magic in “Psychometry” was pretty easy to grasp and then we had time to get on with things.

The Finish

This one was intense. Right from the beginning, we know that something will go terribly wrong, and that anticipation just gets ramped up with the time skipping and the frantic sex. The payoff was upsetting, of course, but it worked.

Here Be Dragons

Another one that had me crying. This might be a book written by a young(-ish?) author, but the sensitivity and feeling of what mental loss does to a couple is all there.

Struck

This one is a kinda funny story with a creepily laughable character, but then it sneaks in this delightfully heartfelt story about finding love and I really enjoyed it.

Heart

Burgoine is fantastic at evoking deep emotions in the limited format of a short story. I really fell for Miah and Aiden, and I bought them as a couple. Within a handful of pages, I cared enough for them to be really struck by their loss.

Negative Space

This could have been just another urban fantasy story about solving crime through magic. But Burgoine focuses all the attention on the main character, André, instead. So what we get instead is a story about suffering turned outward to help others.

Elsewhen

The main “character” in this one is Ottawa, as the protagonist helps spirits “cross over”. It was neat to see some of the city’s history. Mostly, though, this is another story about the queer community, and all those relationships that were stifled by bigotry. Like “Pentimento”, Burgoine doesn’t just wallow in the sadness of it, but rather redeems his lovers. It’s beautiful, and sweet, and sad, and it’s healing in a way.

Here & Now

A book end story, we come back to Christian (now Ian) and Dawn from “There & Then”. There’s enough here for the story to stand on its own, but it works beautifully as a sequel – answering questions that had been raised in “There & Then”, and finishing off the arcs for each character. I particularly loved that, while Ian was healing for Christian in “There & Then”, that very same interaction is shown to be healing for Ian, too. Both versions of himself needed help, and they were there for each other. Which is just such a wonderful metaphor.

Murder in the High Himalaya by Jonathan Green

Read: 4 October, 2018

Survival, human rights abuses, friendship… this really is a story that could practically tell itself. Or, at least, it could if the truth weren’t so obfuscated. There are so many little stories of heroism, starting right at the bravery it takes to escape from Tibet.

I appreciated how much time Green spent on Kelsang and Dolma’s lives with their families in Tibet. The juxtaposition to Benitez’s story highlighted the risks Kelsang and Dolma were taking.

Not a whole lot makes it out of China (and its controlled territories) that doesn’t fit with its benevolent super power narrative. But every so often, proof of the totalitarian brutality seeps out, and it’s important for the world to take real notice.

So You Want To Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo

Read: 23 September, 2018

I wish that this had been available when I was a teenager. I had a feeling that something was wrong when I got caught up in all the post-Columbine and 9/11 “Zero Tolerance” theatre. Everyone I met, from school officials to probation officers to social workers to casual bystanders who heard about my situation, would repeat the same line: “You don’t belong here.”

Of course I didn’t. That’s the whole point of Zero Tolerance – you take kids who haven’t done anything violent, who haven’t endangered people, who are at most guilty of minor disciplinary issues, and you whack at them as hard as you can. But why was I singled out as the one who “didn’t belong” and not all the other kids in the same boat?

Even then, in the infancy of my awareness, I knew what set me apart. I was white, female, middle class, and spoke like the child of an academic. The other kids who went to the same mandated group therapy meetings? They were black and/or lower class. They “belong”.

Eager to get out of that mess, I played up what set me apart. I dyed my hair back to a natural colour, I changed my wardrobe to brighter colours, I smiled a lot and pitched my voice a little higher. I did my year, then I got to finish high school and go to college and, still, every time someone finds out about my past, it’s a big surprise. “You were expelled?!” I could perform people’s expectations of the “good kid” because my skin and my upbringing didn’t betray me. And, because of that, I had strangers fighting for me, fighting to get my record expunged so it wouldn’t affect my future. Because of the way I looked, I was deemed to have a future worth saving.

I highly recommend this book. Each chapter is a different issue, phrased as a question, that Oluo responds to in a perfect combination of personal experience and “high level” trends. She shows the big picture, but her examples are grounded and realistic, and bridge that difficult gap between understanding a concept and understanding it.

I love that Oluo takes intersectionality seriously. She devotes an entire chapter to the “model minority” myth that affects Asian Americans, and brings up multiple examples throughout the book of ableism, sexism, homophobia, etc. She examines, with depth and frankness, her own baggage and her own hard-won lessons. This is a book for everyone. On any given issue, there will be either a lesson or a validation no matter what your identity.

I Can’t Think Straight by Shamim Sarif

Read: 13 September, 2018

Romance isn’t my normal genre, but a book about a Christian Palestinian woman from Lebanon falling in love with a Muslim British Indian woman? I mean, how could I pass something like that up?

I was a little disappointed that, for a romance book, this had almost no romance in it. Tala and Leyla are ostensibly in love, but they spend no time together. They get into a “debate” when they first meet, which consists entirely of Tala being a prat and needling at Leyla about her beliefs. They go on a date that we barely get to see, spending more time on a summary after the fact than in the moment. Then they go on a weekend trip where they have sex for the first time and everything else that happens is off-stage. For the rest of the book, Tala and Leyla are separated (mostly in entirely different countries) and not interacting at all.

We are told that they are in love, but we don’t get to see them in love. If they aren’t fighting, Tala is stalking Leyla while Leyla tries to avoid her. They have very little chemistry, at least as far as I could tell.

Then again, it would be hard for them to have chemistry when they barely have personalities. Both seem to act, feel, and say whatever the plot needs them to, and, when we do get personal details about them, those details are frustratingly superficial. Leyla is a writer, but a writer of what? Tala loves her two published stories, but what are they about? What does she like about them? What do they tell Tala about who Leyla is as a person?

Tala, for her part, is starting a business to sell candles and things manufactured in Lebanon. She talks about how much of a difference this could make to the lives of the people making her products, but then it’s dropped and she never really seems to care about the poor after that. She never seems to have any particular interest in the things she sells, either. She never shows some of her wares off to Leyla, never tells her about the sweet old widow who can afford to care for her grandson now that she’s picked up candle-making, never brings Leyla to meet a family making her products.

The story is more about Tala and Leyla’s families. They are mostly one-dimensional, but they are interestingly so. There’s a good story to be had in how each individual family member reacts to Tala and Leyla’s relationship. Some of it has made it onto the page, but the story ends quickly after the women come out, so we don’t get to spend too much time in each family member’s head.

My last complaint is that the book really could have used an extra round of editing. There are some questionable word choices, as well as some muddled timelines (the example the pops immediately to mind is in chapter 5: Ali calls Leyla on Sunday night, then Leyla and Tala go on a date the next evening, and then Leyla goes shopping with her mom the day after that, a Monday). These are silly issues that shouldn’t have made it into final print.

All that said, the book is competently written. This was in no danger of going into my Did Not Finish pile! I was interested from start to finish, and I wanted to see where it was going. I liked most of the characters, I just felt that Leyla and Tala were short-changed. Ideally, this book would have been 100 pages longer, with a nice big section near the beginning where Leyla and Tala see each other and talk, and where we get a chance to understand why they love each other.