Wolf Winter by Cecilia Ekback

Read: 3 September, 2017

I have such a long TBR list that I don’t often get to just pick a book up based on the cover and synopsis and just give it a try. But I had a gift card, I was in a book store, and I couldn’t find any more of the books from my list. I picked Wolf Winter because it’s a Canadian author born abroad, and that’s a niche I’ve been pursuing lately. Plus, I tend to enjoy Scandinavian literary sensibilities.

The story starts as a murder mystery, but in the small settler community of Blackasen, an investigation quickly starts to turn up secrets in every closet. As one character says, the settlers who choose such a harsh, isolated livelihood are all running from something.

The book is slow, and takes the time to build up its dark atmosphere. The mountain always seems to loom, the snow always seem to press in, and wolves stalk the forest. And in all of this is the hysteria that makes ones’ neighbours the greatest danger of all – precisely the kind of atmosphere that makes The Thing (1982) one of my favourite movies.

The characters are all flawed, but feel quite solid. They all make terrible mistakes, but their mistakes are earned.

I loved that the book never talked down to the reader, but never erred in the other direction, becoming inaccessible. It’s a delicate balance, but it really worked. Events will be described in vague terms, in allusions, approached sideways, but clear shapes emerge.

One of my favourite aspects was the handling of magic. I really enjoy ambiguous magic – magic that could be real, but could just be in people’s heads. And this balance is also deftly handled in the book. It’s never quite clear whether Frederika really is able to see ghosts and cast spells, or if she is just suffering from hereditary mental illness. The story works with either interpretation.

To sum up, I took a chance with this book, and it’s an absolute gem. It’s atmospheric and brooding, it’s ambiguous but not pompously so, and it tells a solid story about superstition and family and survival in extreme environments.

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Dreamweaver’s Dilemma by Lois McMaster Bujold

Read: 15 August, 2017

The book contains three of your standard “what if this weird thing were to happen in the real world?” stories, a Sherlock Holmes pastiche, two science fiction stories (both set in the Vorkosigan Saga universe), and a collection of essays.

The Adventure of the Lady on the EmbankmentAdvertised as a “never-before-published Sherlock Holmes pastiche,” this story was quite a shock for me. I had picked up this book after multiple people recommended the Vorkosigan Saga, and I had read that Dreamweaver’s Dilemma comes first chronologically. I had no idea that this was going to be short stories, and I was even more surprised when I started the first story to find Sherlock Holmes!

As I read, I kept expecting aliens to land, or the titular lady to be revealed as a time traveller. Something. But no, this plays it straight as a Sherlock story. And despite my confusion, I really enjoyed it. I grew up with Sherlock Holmes, and it was nice to revisit that world.

Barter: This is about when I realised what I was really in for with the book. Finally, here was some science fiction – albeit of more the “weird tales” variety. The story itself isn’t too memorable, except for the very amusing unrestrained self-indulgence. As a mother with writerly aspirations, it’s hard not to sympathise with the main character – nor with the author who dreamed her up.

Garage Sale: Another cutely self-indulgent piece. I don’t think this story would have worked without context (in this case provided by it following Barter). It lacks Barter‘s obvious genre markers, so the story twists very suddenly into absurdism. As it is, I found it entertaining (albeit a little horrific at times).

The Hole Truth: Many of these stories share an amusing sense of humour. In this case, we get this lovely pun to kick off a fairly run-of-the-mill “reap what you sow” story.

Dreamweaver’s Dilemma: This is where the book really picks up. It was clear from the Sherlock story that Bujold has an interest in mysteries, and this reads like a hard boiled noir. While the three “weird tales” stories were mostly about situations, Dreamweaver is about people. The characters are vivid, the plot is compelling, and the future-tech is a well-integrated part of the story.

The Mountains of Mourning: This story really hit me. It was thick with details, and all the details interconnected meaningfully. The characters are vivid and complicated, and the moral problem at the centre of the story is a truly difficult one. And maybe it’s just the PMS talking, but I found the ending absolutely heartbreaking, albeit satisfying.

Though I’ve read that Dreamweaver and Mountains take place in the same universe, I’m not sure how that will play out. There are similarities – largely in contrast with the other stories in the book – but they are few and rather superficial. I suppose this is a “backwoods vs developed centre” issue, and all will make sense as I explore the saga a little more.

The essays at the end of the book are all interesting and worth reading, and I appreciated the Vorkosigan trivia appendices.

I had some trouble ordering this book within Canada (though listed on Amazon, I was getting emails every few months to inform me that they couldn’t find the copy they thought they had until, eventually, they simply told me to go look elsewhere), so I took a gamble on the strength of recommendations I’ve received for this author and special ordered it from the US. I spent a fair bit more than I usually do for books, but I don’t feel cheated in the least. Mountains, alone, would have made the whole book worthwhile, but I enjoyed my time with each and every one of the stories.

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Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

Read: 13 May, 2017

A young and inexperienced girl suddenly finds herself married to a widower twice her age. Right from the start, the relationship is utterly unequal – by age, by class, and by knowledge. While the girl struggles to find her place as mistress of a great house, she finds enemies in every servant, every neighbour.

This is something of a slow burn story, a “psychological horror” that relies far more on building a creepy atmosphere than on any overt sorts of scares. And du Maurier does it so very well.

Not only is the narration itself beautiful and poetic, every word has a place, every nuance and connotation and evoked imagery is used to great effect.

Du Maurier does an amazing job of controlling the tension in every scene. The most memorable example of this is the preparation for the costume ball, where it’s immediately obvious that disaster is coming. It’s even fairly obvious what that disaster will be (at least in its generalities). But du Maurier holds back, building and building the tension by describing how very happy the protagonist, and how very much she is not anticipating what we know is about to happen to her. I could hardly breathe through that entire, rather lengthy scene.

The characters are all – down to the very last speaking part – alternately monstrous and sympathetic. I hated Maxim, I sympathised with Maxim, I hated Maxim. My heart broke for the protagonist, I found her insufferable, my heart broke for her. The same again with Rebecca, with Mrs Danvers, with Favell… And it was all seamless, without any inconsistency in their characters.

This is, quite simply, what a masterfully written novel looks like. It may not appeal to everyone, particularly those who don’t enjoy the slow burn type or who have some sort of weird, quasi-inhuman aversion to gothic trappings, but it is a good novel.

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The Dresden Files #15: Skin Game by Jim Butcher

Read: 11 September, 2016

In this instalment, our intrepid hero is on loan from Mab for a heist. The problem? His new boss is Nicodemus, the host of the fallen angel Anduriel.

I’ve had the audiobook kicking around for a while, and it was hard to actually start listening to it. Even once I did, I almost switched to something else a few minutes in. After fourteen books, I think I may be suffering from a bit of Dresden fatigue. Once I got started, though, the momentum of the story and the familiar characters swept me up and I made it through yet another book.

The series has jumped the shark so many times, and Dresden’s litany of acquired roles is becoming ridiculous. I know that this series is a cash cow for Butcher, and I know that many people (myself included, sometimes) are comforted by being able to revisit the same familiar characters over and over again – they become like old friends, and there’s an appeal to being able to check in with them every so often, see what they’re up to. But, at the same time, I wish the series would end, already. I know we’re building to an Arch Big Bad, and I’d really like to see that happen in my lifetime. Before Harry becomes head of the White Council, is elected to join the angels, and is promoted to Winter Queen.

As for the book itself, it’s fairly run-of-the-mill Dresden. The difference, here, is that there’s a twist ending. The twist requires re-examining what had come earlier in the book and it just doesn’t match up. Dresden’s narration cheats – it tells that X is Y only to reveal at the end that X is actually X and that Dresden knew so all along. He does keep telling us that he’s “playing [his] cards close to his chest,” fine, but we’re supposed to be in his head. His being secretive isn’t supposed to apply to us.

I love this kind of twist in a movie like Fight Club, where you can watch it a second time and realise that it all fits together and makes sense with the new information. Skin Game is not that kind of story. Dresden just straight up cheated. It’s annoying.

I will say this for Skin Game – it’s the first time I’ve seen a Mystical Pregnancy inflicted on a male character! I think I would have just screamed if Butcher had given this to Karen or Charity!

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The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu

Read: 10 September, 2016

After Wang Miao is recruited by the Beijing police to infiltrate a secret cabal of scientists, he finds himself on the brink of madness.

The Three-Body Problem is a fascinating book. It’s a lot more “hard” scifi than I’m used to, and a lot less narrative. The characters spend a fair bit of their time simply sitting around a room explaining scientific concepts to each other.

Yet, somehow, the plot manages to seep through and it’s fantastic. It’s a personal story of grief and revenge, it’s a secret society conspiracy story, it’s an alien invasion story, all pulled off in a compelling way.

The writing style is quite unusual. Ken Liu, the translator, has done an amazing job of preserving “an echo of another language’s rhythms and cadences” (his words, from the translator’s postscript).

The main character, Wang, is a little flat. He has details added – a wife, a child, a photography hobby – but these only come up when necessary to the plot. Most of the time, he’s reactive, following along as other characters take him on a journey. But those other characters are so expressive and memorable that Wang’s comparative blandness doesn’t detract. Rather, he serves as a fantastic reader insert as we get to meet all these different interesting people and try to solve the great mystery.

I did feel like the third act was on the weaker side. The climax itself was great, but the reveal at the end where all the remaining plot lines are tied together felt forced and rather info-dumpy. This style had been used before, primarily in the sections where Ye Wenjie’s history is revealed. The difference there, though, is that Ye is a very interesting character. Whereas in the final portion, we’re with the aliens – characters we haven’t gotten to know and are explicitly meant to feel alienated (see what I did there?) from. Each character therefore serves only as a role needed to expose the plot, and it doesn’t work anymore. I have to admit, the final 40 or so pages took me about two days to get through. That said, it’s only 40 pages out of an otherwise fantastic 400.

There are apparently two sequels available. But for those of you suffering from Serial Burnout, don’t worry. The Three-Body Problem has a very satisfying end. It’s open, but it’s not a cliff-hanger.

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Blood Relative by Crocker Stephenson

Read: 23 August, 2016

On the fourth of July, 1987, Kenny Kuntz came home to find his mother, brother, uncle, and two aunts brutally murdered. In Blood Relative, Stephenson tracks the events of that night, along with the subsequent investigation and trial.

The murder itself is disturbing, as is the family’s history (though somewhat glossed over, there are strong hints at generations of abuse, alcoholism, and mental illness). As far as voyeuristic summer reading sensationalism goes, Blood Relative gets the job done.

Stephenson has, for the most part, arranged the book as collections of facts – snippets from autopsy reports, transcripts from interviews, etc. But every so often, the narrative voice interjects, providing imagery that could not possibly have been known by the author, and the words chosen are heavy with connotations (even if I didn’t perceive any particular strong bias). I didn’t get the sense that I was being intentionally misled, but the difference between the two styles was very jarring.

Because Stephenson apparently wanted to privilege “unabridged first sources,” there are times when context is really lacking. For example, someone might be quoted, but with no explanation of who they are, or an autopsy report quote might be presented with no explanation of the medical jargon. Given Stephenson’s narrative intrusions elsewhere, I was rather miffed by their lack in these areas.

Due to the nature of the True Crime genre, the ending is understandably unsatisfying. The mystery is presented and explained, but it isn’t resolved – it ends in the lead suspect’s acquittal. At least Stephenson is very upfront about this, warning readers that they will leave the book confused.

Still, it would have been nice to have seen some more follow-up. The book came out several years after the events described, but we have no more information about how Kenny Kuntz is doing, or whether Chris Jacobs III had been convicted of further crimes (and, in fact, he purportedly confessed to the murders two years before Blood Relative was published – information that should have been included!). That said, I do realise how difficult it would have been to negotiate the ethics of a “where are they now” section.

Which brings me to my final issue: The impression I got from the lack of statements from the surviving family members, plus the afterward “provided” by the sister, Germaine, suggest that the book was written and published without their consent or support. I’m glad to have had it to read, but that does make me quite uncomfortable. Besides which, it seems that it would have been a better book had Stephenson courted the remaining family members for their input.

Reading this soon-ish after watching Netflix’s Making of a Murderer documentary was an interesting experience. Both involve fairly similar families (socially isolated WIsconsin families with a lot of mental illness and suggestions of abuse), and it was easy to read the Avery family into the Kunzes.

Blood Relative is a quick read, and surprisingly light on the gruesome detail. It doesn’t have a satisfying wrap-up, but that does provide a lot of fuel for discussions on a long Wisconsin evening with others who have read the book. As ever, there are aspects of the True Crime genre that make me uncomfortable, and this book seems to take those issues to a bit of an extreme. It does feel exploitative, though I’m somewhat assuaged by the fact that the other doesn’t seem to be pointing any definitive fingers.

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Gaius Ruso Mystery #6: Tabula Rasa by Ruth Downie

Read: 3 June, 2016

Ruso and Tilla are back up in northern Britannia where a rumour has it that there’s a body buried in Hadrian’s wall-in-progress.

Downie’s writing is consistently solid, and I really enjoyed this latest addition to the series. It follows the familiar format of Ruso stumbling into the middle of a mystery – helped along by Tilla’s meddling. He then proceeds to bumble around for 200 pages until, in the final few pages of the book, the mystery largely solves itself. It makes the series a little less than satisfying as a procedural because there’s little to follow on – when I can’t guess the answer, it’s because all the salient information is being withheld.

There’s humour in this format, though. Ruso is building a reputation as a crime solver, and yet he actually does very little. Tilla is the more active agent, and much of the most important comes through her investigations. Beyond that, it is Ruso’s reputation that positions him to receive the information he needs for the mystery to be resolved.

The real appeal of the series is the setting, and how beautifully Downie is able to bring it to life. The world of these novels feels populated, and even background characters have tangibility. The world also plays out in our two main characters and how they interact and negotiate each other’s cultural differences (and the differences really are cultural, because both are as stubborn and curmudgeonly as each other, much as they might protest otherwise).

SPOILERS: I was concerned about how the couple’s infertility would play out, and had some concerns that Tilla would suddenly find herself pregnant after receiving the marriage blessing. I shouldn’t have worried, not after how deftly Downie handled the issue of religion in Persona Non Grata. She is very deft at navigating fraught themes. Getting a replacement baby from Virana skirted the groaning border, though. The choice to give up her baby isn’t contrary to Virana’s established character, but it still would have been nice to see a little more build up. As it was, there was really only the mirroring with Conn’s fiancée’s refusal to do the same. Still, it’s easy enough to see how the decision would have made sense to Virana, so I’ll accept it. And it’ll be interesting to see how the addition of a baby to the family changes the dynamic between Ruso and Tilla.

Overall, I found this to be a fine addition to the series. I actually bought Tabula Rasa when it first came out, but was afraid to read it and no longer have it to look forward to! But with Vita Brevis coming out soon, I took a chance and was not disappointed.

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Wool by Hugh Howey

Read: 18 April, 2016

Wool has been on my radar for a little while – at least since Hank Green mentioned it in one of his Stanley Parable videos. Every so often, I’d go to the book store with a little spending money and check a few sections for it (is it fiction? is it science fiction? is it… fantasy? mystery?) and always left with something else instead.

After at least a year of this, I finally looked it up. Apparently, Wool isn’t sold in stores. You have to buy it online. Well, that’s nice, I got it from the library.

A lot of the buzz surrounding the book is that its world is immersive (as Justin Cronin’s blurb on the front cover has it: “You will live in this world”). And that’s certainly been my impression. The location does feel very tangible, even if there were a few fuzzy areas. Namely, that each level seemed to be very single purpose, but surely that must mean that some levels are much smaller than others. Would a nursery floor (what the maternity wards seem to be called – the practice of segregated nurseries seems very odd and out-dated) be as large as the farming floor? Are there apartments beyond the nursery? Do people trying to get home after a shift have to walk through the nursery in order to reach their homes?

But the fact that I spent so much time trying to envision the silo and how it’s supposed to work isn’t really a strike against the book. It means that the silo felt real enough for something fuzzy to stand out.

There were a few weak moments in the book. One was with the characterization of Jules – I found it difficult to really grasp her. When she’s first introduced, she’s completely uninterested in the outside. She can’t be bothered with it, she can’t understand the obsession with seeing the screens or cleaning the sensors. She’s happy in Mechanical, and she urges other characters to focus on the silo, not on the outside. But then, soon after she takes over as the POV character, we find out that she used to pour over children’s picture books and dream of the outside. Right from childhood, she is described as having been a dreamer for the broader world. This is a detail that doesn’t come up again. It is merely brought up, out of the blue and contrary to the character we’ve been getting to know up until that point, and then dropped.

This grasp of characters may be a bigger problem. I noticed it with other POV characters, like Jahns and Holsten. They seem distinct when we first meet them through the eyes of a different character, but once they slide into the control chair, they all start to seem very much alike. Jahns becomes very much like Holsten, and Jules becomes very much like them both. By the end, where the narrative bounces back and forth between two primary POV characters, they are largely indistinguishable in voice.

I also found that the narrative loses a lot of focus near the middle. There are a few chapters there (I noted this observation on p.282 in my copy) where the writing quality drops very suddenly. Throughout that portion, characters seem to be acting based on authorial need (like when Jules doesn’t wonder how the plants could be growing in pitch dark – since the author knows that the silo does in fact still have power), rather than their own drives.

But these are relatively minor gripes. The world is compelling, and the mystery carries the story quite well until the characters grew on me. There were times when I found myself reading almost breathlessly, desperate to see how the characters get out of the latest jam. Setting up a few POV character deaths early on, combined with some flash forward trickery, raised the stakes. I couldn’t trust that the main characters would survive, and had evidence to believe that they wouldn’t. It made reaching the end quite thrilling.

Where the book suffered, it seems to have been a victim of its publishing history. The serial aspect of it, combined with the lack of an editor, would explain the variations in quality and occasional lack of consistency. But I am, of course, being nit-picky, as usual.

Having now read the book, I’m not sure whether I will be ordering it or not. It was an enjoyable read, but I don’t know if it was an enduring read – something I’ll want to come back to again and again in future, something I’ll want to lend out for others to share. That’s the trouble with novels that rely too strongly on a “mystery box” – once the answer is known, there needs to be something else for readers to come back to. I think that Wool comes close, and does try to have some profundities about human nature and such, but the ideas were too shallow, too overshadowed by the mystery to stand on their own.

On the name: Like others, I puzzled over the name. It’s strange, and there’s no wool in the book (as far as I can tell). There is, however, the expression “pull the wool over their eyes,” which is the central theme of the book.

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The Dresden Files #14: Cold Days by Jim Butcher

Read: 31 January, 2016

At the end of Ghost Story, Harry Dresden’s tenure as the Winter Knight began. Now, Mab has given him his first assignment, and it’s a doozy!

Butcher’s favourite word this book is “oblique.” There was one page where it appeared three times, and it just kept coming up again and again. It was bad enough to be a drinking game!

Then there was the casual sexism. It’s been toned down over the last several books, but Dresden’s claim that women have up to five levels of conversation at the same time was just ridiculous. Worse yet, it just went on and on, this was only a few pages after Dresden goes to a place where men look for casual sex and has a whole conversation with Titania about how he’s totally okay with the gays because freedom is important. It was so cringe-inducing, and sadly immature.

But other than that, I enjoyed the book. Dresden’s changing roles keep the series from getting stale. And it’s been interesting to see him do without more and more of his standard tools.

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The Dresden Files #13: Ghost Story by Jim Butcher

Read: 4 January, 2016

Changes, the last book in the series, ended on a bit of a cliffhanger. Specifically, the main character was shot and died.

Well, this is Dresden, so it’s not like a little thing like death is going to stop him. He’s back in Chicago for Ghost Story, kicking ass, solving mysteries, saving the world… only, this time, he’s a ghost.

It’s an interesting premise. The “ghost comes back to solve his own murder” thing has been done before, but you don’t see it too often with the main character of a series, over a dozen books in.

And it was good to see Dresden have some new challenges for a while. He’s always so powerful that he just blasts through enemies, but in Ghost Story, he can’t. Suddenly, he has to sneak around and let others do a lot of the direct action. And Butcher makes a big deal of this – having Dresden note over and over again about how his perspective has changed, and how he can’t just kill the enemy henchmen anymore because they can’t kill him, so he’ll have to find another way. It was a little preachy, but this is Dresden.

The action and pacing are as exciting as ever, and I did enjoy all the new discoveries Dresden made about the magical world now that he got to see it from a different angle.

My only problem with the book (other than the Catholic priest with a KJV on his nightstand – what was that about?) was that nothing that happened actually matters in the long term. His brief interlude as a ghost (no spoiler tags because of course Dresden isn’t really dead) is all about revisiting the repercussions of his choices in Changes. Which fits with the ghost motif, but leaves us with a book that doesn’t really advance the plot. Two baddies come back and are defeated, but we’d thought them both defeated anyway so it’s not like any plotlines are resolved. We get to see the changes in Dresden’s allies, but that could have been divulged differently, and in the next book. And while dying is a pretty big deal in character arch terms, it gets taken back at the end so what was the point?

Overall, the book felt a bit like a filler episode. Not that I’m complaining, per se, since Dresden is my filler reading when I need something light and fun and exciting. But it would have been nice for there to have been more long term meaning to the events of the book.

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