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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer & Annie Barrows

Read: 9 September, 2018

A little while ago, I had friends over for dinner and one casually mentioned The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society as a favourite. So, of course, I made a mental note and tracked down information about the book and now have read it. Because my love-language is apparently knowing people’s favourite books, even if I never talk to them about the books or even mention that I know.

Amusingly, I mentioned to the same group of friends that I had started reading it, and her wife said, “That sounds familiar.” Clearly, she has a different love-language.

I loved this book. I could complain about it being a bit saccharine, but, honestly, I needed that to recover from the sprinklings of horror. I truly enjoyed Juliet’s humour and getting to revel in goodness for a while. That goodness never seemed particularly naive anyway, given the backdrop of World War II with its “Todt workers” and malnutrition and fascist policing.

The format worked really well. There are moments where characters are telling each other things that they already know for the reader’s benefit, but I was enjoying it all so much that I hardly noticed.

I was a little worried that the epistolary format would get dropped once Juliet actually went to Guernsey, but the authors had cleverly established the characters of Sidney, Sophia, and Susan before that point, so format could continue seamlessly.

There is romance, but it’s understated. Front and centre are the friendships, the history, and the piecing together the missing Elizabeth McKenna’s story. The “will they, won’t they” could have gotten annoying, especially as the two characters refuse to actually talk to one another in favour of making wild assumptions, but it’s so far in the background that it only feels joyful when they finally come together.

Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi

Read: 5 September, 2018

This book is so many things. It’s the story of growing up during a war, of living under fundamentalism, of the immigrant experience, or family, of being punk in the ’80s – all together at the same time.

Satrapi’s consistent mouthiness is a joy to read. I also appreciated her vulnerability as she tells us about the time she falsely accused someone else of a crime to avoid being accused herself, or the time she bullied a boy for his father’s political activities. She talks about feeling ashamed of wanting sympathy for how hard it was for her to spend her teens along in Vienna while her family and childhood friends were living in a warzone.

The artwork is perfect. The black-on-white is deceptively simplistic, while conveying a great amount of expression.

Be Prepared by Vera Brosgol

Read: 3 September, 2018

I really enjoyed this. It’s your normal coming-of-age story about going to camp for the first time and having trouble adjusting, but with the special twist of coming from an immigrant experience. Vera is a first generation Russian immigrant whose language is half in/half out, going through all those painful third culture kid problems.

I really enjoyed being able to share this with my son, who is a second generation immigrant. It’s hard to explain what being a third culture kid is like, but books like these really help.

Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman

Read: 1 September, 2018

I’d be really interested to find out how Pratchett and Gaiman collaborated on this book, because the narrative is a perfect meshing of their two styles. I recognised so much that was distinctively Pratchett or distinctively Gaiman, but all blended together to make a fantastic amalgam style with both footnote humour and mythic humour.

Some of the jokes haven’t aged too well, particularly where gender is concerned. The book also has a very ’90s/Fern Gully sort of environmental message that dates it rather unmistakably.

Other than that, though, this was wonderful.

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.