The Blood of Emmett Till by Timothy B. Tyson

Read: 19 January, 2019

On this story, Faulkner wrote: “if we in America have reached that point in our desperate culture when we must murder children, no matter for what reasons or for what color, we do not deserve to survive and probably won’t.”

To which Tyson responds: “Ask yourself whether America’s predicament is so different now.”

This is the story of a gruesome murder, a complicit culture, and a miscarriage of justice. While the United States was fighting its cold war in the name of democracy, it allowed two men to be acquitted of a murder that every single juror knew perfectly well they had committed, simply because their victim – a child – was black.

And have we changed? Really?

In a time where “Black lives matter” is a controversial statement and Trump is president, I can’t see that we have. As the author puts it, “we cannot transcend our past without confronting it.”

Apart from the subject matter, this is an excellent book. It covers Till’s life, giving a good sense of who he was as a unique person. Tyson also spends a good deal of time setting the stage, going into some of the recent events of the time. After going over the murder and the trial, Tyson covers the aftermath – both immediate, in the civil rights movement, and more long term, in Till’s memory in the Black Lives Matter movement. The book is a good coverage of what happened and why it matters, without that “true crime” fetishization.

Dreams Underfoot by Charles de Lint

Read: 5 January, 2019

Rather than Urban Fantasy, it might make more sense to call this Urban Mythology. The world of Dreams Underfoot is one where the city is a living ecosystem of magical creatures.

I had read that ‘Nathan Burgoine was inspired by Charles de Lint, and I can absolutely see the connection. Both tell stories of urban magic and found family, and of people that have historically been outsiders coming together to form a new community within a city environment. Both also make magic of art.

There is rape and child abuse in Dreams Underfoot, which is something I really don’t enjoy. However, I did like that de Lint usually used these stories in the victims own character arc, with her being the protagonist of her own story, rather than using it to motivate someone else. Not only that, but victimhood is one part of these characters, not a backstory used in place of a personality. One story, that doesn’t end particularly well, has five (and then six) victims coming together to support each other, to create art, and to help others in similar situations. It’s an exploration of victimhood that does a lot more justice to its characters than I normally see, and I appreciate that.

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.

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.

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.

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.