What Made Them Great: Marie Curie by Mary Montgomery

Read: 29 September, 2017

This is a biography intended for children. First published in 1981 (my edition was published in 1990), the writing and artwork for this book are a little dated, but there isn’t anything too offensive to modern sensibilities.

I quite liked the emphasis on Marie Curie’s hard work, her perseverance. In fact, there was quite a bit there about her character – her generosity, her self-sacrifice for others, her dedication even when things were difficult, etc. For whatever reason, I haven’t been seeing that sort of explicit mention of character models in other biographies I’ve read with my kid. It was particularly good because some of the traits discussed are specifically things that my kid struggles with, so it gave us some nice ‘teachable moments.’

There’s also a section at the end about radiation. While not exactly cutting edge, the information is no more dated than what most high school students would be exposed to.

Long Hidden edited by Rose Fox & Daniel José Older

Read: 22 September, 2017

This is one of the more consistent short story anthologies I’ve read – there are a few stories that I really didn’t like, but the writing quality is fairly consistent throughout. Like most anthologies, however, there are some stand out great stories, some weak entries, and a lot of somewhat unmemorable middling entries.

I really liked the variety of backgrounds and settings on display, and it was great to see cultures and experiences that I really haven’t gotten to see in fiction before. I also appreciated that the editors chose a variety of authors, from the well-known multi-published, to the first time sale – without compromising on quality.

“Ogres of East Africa” by Sofia Samatar

The collection opens with an interesting idea – the “story” is actually a catalogue of ogres, with the narrative taking place in the marginal notes. The ogres are creative, reminding me of Amos Tutuola’s ghosts, though they don’t have much bearing on the story beyond the set up. The narrative is a bit bare bones. It just presents us with a few interesting characters at a single point in time.

“The Oud” by Thoraiya Dyer

This story reminded me a lot of Wolf Winter. There was the same conflict between the personal story taking place within the household and the big political story taking place at a distance yet invariably spilling into the home. There was also the same competition between the old and the new religion, the same sense of isolation, the same smashing together of peasant and royal lives… It was sad, but in a dreamy sort of way. I really enjoyed this one.

“Free Jim’s Mine” by Tananarive Due

On the surface, this is a story about a young family trying to escape from slavery. But within that setting, Due has woven a fairy tale. It’s an interesting story with solid writing.

“Ffydd (Faith)” by S. Lynn

Set in Wales in the wake of the first world war, a family deals with the aftermath of their experiences. Shoehorned into this setting we get a vampire, who appears to be feeding off the chickens. I believe the family is meant to be Quaker, which I suppose have faced some amount of religious persecution in the past, and I guess you could say the same for the Welsh, but this comes right after a story about an escaping slave. It’s hard to see where it fits in the theme of the anthology. I found the story itself to be a bit of a slog – it just kept going and going, but didn’t have the either the writing or the characters to sustain interest in a “slice of life” narrative. Even the addition of a vampire couldn’t save it. As is, it felt like it was trying to be coy about the vampirism in lieu of having anything interesting happen, and I’ve just seen far too many vampires for that to work.

“Across the Seam” by Sunny Moraine

In this story, a trans coal miner is recognized as a woman by Baba Yaga. I wasn’t gripped by the story itself – it played out a little too predictably and there was quite a bit that I think just passed me by. But I really enjoyed the core premise. Knowing a few Baba Yaga stories, it fits quite well to have her recognize the woman inside the coal miner.

“Numbers” by Rion Amilcar Scott

Mobsters meet sirens! It’s an interesting idea, coming together to become a story about loyalty. The writing is good, just not to my taste.

“Each Part Without Mercy” by Meg Jayanth

The magic in the story happens through the use of dreams, as dreams are used in the conquest of a city, and then in an attempted assassination. I really liked the story, but I didn’t think it worked too well in that format. The world building was so interesting that I wish this were a novel – with more time to develop the characters and explore their relationships. But because the story tried to cover so much ground in such a small word count, it felt like the ending came out of nowhere and story lacked a satisfying resolution. I would gladly read this again as a full length novel.

“The Witch of Tarup” by Claire Humphrey

This one is a simple little story about witchcraft in rural Denmark. There’s no great twist or insight, just a solidly written little portrait. This is another one that I could easily see as a novel, where the author could better explore the relationships and setting. But while I liked the story, I really don’t see how it fits with the theme of the anthology.

“Marigolds” by L.S. Johnson

Lesbian prostitutes in Paris. The magic system is quite interesting – bringing together menstruation and female sexuality. It’s not something that I’ve seen too often in fiction, despite how much it comes up in culture studies. And while it’s lovely to get a story about lesbians with a happy ending, I’m rather put off by the “Paris prostitutes” setting. It just comes up too much and is way too fetishized.

“Diyu” by Robert William Iveniuk

The story begins as an interesting period piece set among the Chinese workers on the Canadian railroad, then gets some good Lovecraftian suspense going when an Eldritch horror appears (particularly satisfying given what a raging racist Lovecraft himself was)… But then the story ruins all of that built up good will by over-describing both the horror itself and its backstory. It even had the alien horror chatting! After such a strong beginning, all suspense was sucked right out of the story and it fizzles to a close.

“Collected Likenesses” by Jamey Hatley

This is a story about retributive magic and generational pain, exploring the aftermath of slavery. I found the second person narrative a bit jarring, as is the glimpse-by-glimpse narration. But despite these, it’s one of the collection’s strongest stories. It’s simple – easily summarised in a sentence – yet has quite a lot going on.

“Angela and the Scar” by Michael Janairo

In the Philippines, locals are losing the fight against the Yanquis until a forest spirit (kapfre) gets involved. This was one of the anthology’s middling entries – not great, not bad. It’s perfect filler. The idea of enlisting the land itself to aid in a freedom conflict is an interesting one (particularly in the context of guerrilla warfare), but the author doesn’t really do anything with it other than have it happen. I did like the way the kapfre was represented – it’s alien, and its help is very capriciously given. There’s a sense that it could just as easily (and happily) turn against the locals as against the Yanquis.

“The Colts” by Benjamin Parzybok

Another middling entry, this time about Hungarian zombies. The story takes place in a moment in time, as the main characters continue to act out the revolution that killed them while putting to rest the remainder of the living selves. The writing is solid, but this is another story that just doesn’t really do anything with its premise.

“Nine” by Kima Jones

I really didn’t like this one. The whole story seems to be exposition, yet I never actually got a feel for either the setting or the characters. The characters are puppetted through the story without appearing to really care about anything.

“The Heart and the Feather” by Christina Lynch

The story is about a family with Ambras Syndrome, or Hypertrichosis, which is characterised by abnormal hair growth over the whole body. This story didn’t really sit well with me. It uses real people and a real condition, but doesn’t really do anything with it – making it a bit of a spectacle. I struggled to see how this story fits with the theme of the anthology. The only thing I can think of is that it deals with the enslavement of the “Other” for entertainment, but the “Other” is presented as bestial, and that’s some very dangerous ground. There seems to be a lesson that the “Other” characters are good while it is the humans who are responsible for the evil happening in the story, but that’s undercut by having the responsible human be an actual, literal werewolf. So then what is the point, other than that some “Others” are fine, some are more at home in nature living as animals, and some eat children? I think this is the only story in the collection that I really disliked.

“A Score of Roses” by Troy L. Wiggins

This is a little story about two (magical?) people meeting and having a baby, and the baby is special in some way. The writing is solid and engaging, but the story doesn’t really go anywhere. It feels more like a first chapter than a complete story and, honestly, I can recall very little of this story now that a few days have passed since I read it.

“Neither Witch nor Fairy” by Nnghi Vo

This one is another story about a trans woman (or girl, in this case) being recognized by a supernatural creature. This time, the supernatural creatures are Irish. The setting lends a bit of an extra dimension to the self-discovery story, as the main character believes herself to be a Changeling, since she never feels like she fits as the boy she is thought to be. The story doesn’t stand out as anything special or particularly memorable, but it’s a solid entry.

“A Deeper Echo” by David Jón Fuller

This story read like heartbreaking wish fulfilment – a First Nations father, recently returned from fighting for the Canadian government, comes after his children who were stolen first by the schools, and then by a white woman. Oh, and also, he can change into a wolf. I’m attracted to the subject, so that may have carried me through a story that didn’t otherwise stand out. But this is certainly a solid addition to the anthology.

“Knotting Grass, Holding Ring” by Ken Liu

This is the first original story I’ve read by Liu, though I have read a few of his translations, and I absolutely loved it! The writing is lyrical, the setting is vivid, and the characters shone through brilliantly. This was by far one of my favourite stories in the collection!

“Jooni” by Kemba Banton

Another story with a bit too much exposition, but otherwise quite solid. The story takes place in a single moment as a freed slave deals with her trauma and recovers her sense of hope.

“There Will Be One Vacant Chair” by Sarah Pinsker

Hungarian Jews fight in the US Civil War while a disabled brother is forced to stay at home. The magic in this story involves reincarnation. This is another one that I think would have worked better as a longer piece – perhaps a novella. I would have liked more exploration into Julius’s theology.

“It’s War” by Nnedi Okorafor

This is another story that shows us its characters in a single moment, implying rather than narrating all that comes before and after. There’s a girl who can fly, there are women protesting taxation, and it all just kinda gets thrown together without explanation. It had a very similar feel to Okorafor’s Who Fears Death. The writing is fantastic, but I found something lacking in it as a story. I wanted either more about the protesters or more about the girl, but the two threads just didn’t seem to fit together.

“Find Me Unafraid” by Shanaé Brown

Booker warns Charlotte that the Klan is coming and holds her door strong against them. In the daylight hours, he gives her the money she will need to get herself and her family out of the small town where the mob in white sheets prowl. I enjoyed most of the story, but found the reveal at the end to be a little obvious and forced (the dialogue exposition, in particular, was clunky – especially since I had already picked up on most of the information that was being revealed). I’m also not sure how I feel about Charlotte having magical powers as well. I understand why she did, but it felt like a bit too much supernatural in a story that was otherwise more on the pleasantly ambiguous side. Overall, though, I found this to be one of the anthology’s stronger stories.

“A Wedding in Hungry Days” by Nicolette Barischoff

This was one of my favourite stories in the anthology! It’s the story of a ghost girl in rural China who marries a living boy. It’s practical and hard, but also very tender. It’s about caring for one’s family and creating a community. The narrative voice skipped around a bit, which I don’t like much in general and especially dislike in a short story, but that’s really my only complaint.

“Medu” by Lisa Bolekaja

What if Medusa the Gorgon were a black cowgirl? On the surface, the story is about a conflict between two types of magical humans (the Medusa-like and something like a xenomorph), but I felt a strong “natural hair movement” vibe from the story as well.

“Lone Women” by Victor LaValle

Adelaide is a settler heading out to her claim in Montana. With her is a creature, locked up in a trunk. As I was reading the anthology, I tried not to look at the author names or biographies before I read the stories so that my assumptions about their identities wouldn’t colour my perceptions. But when Adelaide turned out to be pregnant from a one night stand, I rolled my eyes and was utterly unsurprised to find that the author is a man. It’s not so much what happens as how, and the way in which it’s told. The story is fine, but suffers from both too much and not enough going on. There’s the story of the four boys, but that doesn’t get the ominous buildup it should have had and feels more like sequel-baiting rather than being impactful to this story. Then there’s the sisterhood angle, that seems to be looking disability and Otherness, but concludes by implying that disabled people are okay as long as they can be useful. I liked some parts of this story, but others made me quite uncomfortable.

“The Dance of the White Demons” by Sabrina Vourvoulias

The anthology ends with a strong story about native South American resistance against Spanish invaders. The story itself is great (and I would gladly read a novel-length version), but it’s also the perfect choice to end the book. It closes the anthology with a message of hope and survival even through times of oppression.

Omon Ra by Victor Pelevin

Read: February 26, 2017

A young Russian dreams of flight, but everything crashes and burns in the familiar Soviet style.

This novel has a lot going for it. I enjoyed the absurdist imagery of the criticism – the sham within a sham that so perfectly captures Soviet Russia. A few of these images (such as the one in which Kissinger kills the bear) are haunting, and will probably stay with me.

Overall, though, I can’t say that I enjoyed the book much. I’m not sure if I’ve just been tired lately and haven’t had the concentration to read it properly, or if the translation fell short, or if the writing itself is flawed… or maybe it’s a combination of all three. But I found the narrative to be a bit disjointed. Sometimes things would be happening and it would take me a while to figure out what and why.

I also never connected with the main character. Despite the fact that we’re in his head, his voice just isn’t that strong. We’re told the story of his life, but with a remove that prevents the emotional weight from really making itself felt. Even when his mind circles around particular images, and I could sense the significance (the little trapped pilot, the bear), I never knew why these images were significant to Omon. From my bird’s eye perspective, I know that the trapped pilot is foreshadowing, and I know that the bear represents the common people in the USSR, but Omon doesn’t seem to draw these conclusions. So why does he keep the pilot? Why does he think of the bear? It’s that lack of distinction between what the reader knows and what the character knows that made it difficult to connect with Omon’s humanity.

It’s a fine book, an interesting read, another example of absurdist social commentary. The “sham within a sham” aspect was particularly biting. But, overall, this one just didn’t do it for me.

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The Blizzard by Vladimir Sorokin (Jamey Gambrell, trans.)

Read: 13 February, 2017

How appropriate to be reading this as my home is slowly buried in snow…

This is a very Russian novel. It’s bleak, it’s unkind, and it’s fantastical. That 50 horse power sled? Powered by 50 miniature horses. Don’t bother with this book unless you’re a fan of depressing Russian absurdism.

As it happens, I am, and I enjoyed Blizzard. 

Spoiler talk ahead: The absurdisms don’t really add anything to the story. I picked this book up because of the promise of Russian zombies, but there are no Russian zombies. The zombie plague could have just as easily been whooping cough.

In a way, it reminded me of the movie Stalker, which builds up all the dangers of the Zone, describing how they kill, but then there’s no pay off. The goal is reached without incident, and the travellers decide they’d best not make use of it, and they go home.

That’s what happens here. The zombies are played up throughout the story. Again and again, we hear of their inhuman claws and the the way they burrow underground to pop up on the other side of barricades.

Do the zombies ever do this? Do they ever even appear? Of course not, because modern Russian story telling hates its audience, and hates Chekov’s gun.

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Wenceslas by Geraldine McCaughrean, illustrated by Christian Birmingham

The story of Wenceslas is fairly normal Christmas fair – a king (who has light shining out of his cloak and footprints) leaves the comforts of his castle in the middle of a terribly cold night to bring food to one of his peasants.

From a lessons standpoint, the message is fine for a picture book. Never mind that, as king, he runs a country where the hunger and poverty of his peasants exists in the first place, or that the comfort he provides is only to one family of peasants and not to the thousands of others who will simply suffer while the nobles enjoy their party. It’s also something of a monarchist message, practically deifying the king by no virtue other than basic human decency (backed with the money and power to act on it).

But still, it’s a Christmas story and we don’t expect too much depth from these things – certainly not in a picture book. And the artwork makes whatever flaws in the story entirely worthwhile. Christian Birmingham’s images are stunning – so gorgeous that there were several I’d love to just hang on my wall. He uses the contrasts between warm colours (representing the Wenceslas’s quasi-divinity, warmth, fire, happiness, safety) and cold (representing, obviously, the cold) to give his images great depth and resonance.

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Roadside Picnic by Arkady & Boris Strugatsky

Read: 19 January, 2013

My first introduction to this story was watching the 1979 film Stalker, directed by Andrei Tarkovsky. It’s a weird movie and distinctively Russian in its “let’s just give up and go home” mentality. I found it boring and silly the first time I watched it, but it stuck with me. Finally, I decided to watch it again and I fell in love. It’s an interesting movie and well worth watching if you come across it. Just be forewarned: Nothing happens. I mean that. Nothing happens. If you expect stuff to happen in movies, you’ll be disappointed.

Next, I played some of the games. Same world, same concepts, but totally different. For one thing, all those dangers that the stalker warns his guests about in the movie but that never amount to anything actually happen in the game. Between the three of them, there’s quite a bit of fun to be had. Gameplay is good (especially after the long-awaited patch for Clear Skies), storyline is interesting, environment design is amazing. Also worth it if you’re into FPS games.

All this is just to say that I’ve been familiar with the the Stalker setting for many years, so I was excited to see where it all began.

The book follows Redrick Schuhart, a stalker, over the course of about a decade. A stalker is an individual who goes into the Zone illegally to collect alien artefacts for black market sale. Through Schuhart, we get to see the threat and terror of the Zone, and of the people who seek to profit from it at all costs.

It’s a very short novel, but a slow read. The translation wasn’t particularly good, keeping idioms and word orders from the original Russian, but the story was very interesting and compelling. And, of course, the novel is sprinkled through with philosophical discussions, often about how absurd people are and how futile are their aspirations – it is a Russian novel, after all!

If you are into science fiction or Russian literature, I highly recommend giving this book a read!

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Dracula by Bram Stoker

Read: 7 February, 2010

I took a course during my university career on Science Fiction and Fantasy, taught by a heavily accented Ukrainian woman with very little qualification in the subject other than personal interest. The class structure was very informal. We had a reading list, but the syllabus included notes for each book where watching the movie would be a suitable alternative. Dracula was one such book, although the syllabus stipulated that only one version would be acceptable.

This was the same year that I was taking Victorian Literature and Colonial Literature, both courses assigning full length novels on a bi-weekly basis. I read so much that I got eye-fatigue and had to wear glasses for the rest of the year. I read so much that one of the professors (the Victorian Lit one) apologized to my mother at graduation. If I could lessen me reading load by one book, all the better.

I’m glad that I took advantage of the movie option because  I was so harried by schoolwork at the time that I was reading far too superficially – skimming to intake just enough for the tests but not enough for enjoyment. So I was able to approach the book a few years later with a clean impression and all the time chance and nature give us.

I didn’t realize from the movie or pop culture that the book is written entirely in letter, news articles, and diary entries. In the story, this style is explained when one of the main characters collects all the story’s fragments from the other characters and compiles them chronologically (so that they can examine and compare what they know so far about the story’s baddy). It’s done wonderfully, adding a sense of realism to the story.

The epistolary style is rarely done well. With the more usual narrative style, characterization is easier to fudge. But when characters are given their own voices, it suddenly becomes much more obvious if the author fails to give them unique personalities – or, just as bad, tries to differentiate them with the use of cheap gimmicks. But Bram Stoker pulls it off perfectly, making Dracula the single best example of the multiple narrator style that I’ve ever seen.

I really can’t emphasize how much I enjoyed this book. It’s brilliantly written, the plot is interesting, the characters have depth, the suspense is maintained, and there’s an actual ending (something of a rarity among those easily-distracted Victorians). Other than a few points of plot, it’s really nothing like any of the pop culture we’re all familiar with.

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The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

Read: June, 2004

The devil has arrived in Moscow, and he’s there to wreak havoc. Meanwhile, a writer obsesses over Pontius Pilate while a young woman obsesses over him.

I read Master and Margarita for a course I was taking in university, and it was one of my favourite books of the whole year. I found the obsession with Pontius Pilate to be rather contagious. I was taking another course on the New Testament, so I was able to get it out of my system by writing a rather lengthy essay on him.

This was all a couple years ago, so my memory of the book is a little hazy, but I remember finding it very funny and interesting, mixed in with that depressingly lethargic outlook on life, society, and government so common to Russian writing.

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Night Watch #2: The Day Watch by Sergei Lukyanenko

Read: 19 December, 2010

During a battle with a powerful witch, Day Watch witch Alisa is drained of all her power. She is sent to a children’s summer camp to work as a councillor while she recovers and, there, falls in love with a young man. Everything seems to be going well until her powers start to return and she realizes that her lover is a witch with the Night Watch!

In Night Watch, we got to see how the Others on the side of the light operate. Now, we get a glimpse into their enemy organization, the Day Watch.

This was a great addition to the series! I really enjoyed how the Dark Others were presented. They aren’t evil, per se, they are just approaching life and relationships differently. In fact, I think that many people would agree with their individualistic philosophy. Lukyanenko did a great job of making the two sides distinct, with thoughts and motives that are diametrically opposed, while at the same time making them eerily similar. I think it’s a mark of a master writer to be able to convincingly write about a feud between two enemies while convincing the reader that both are entirely justified.

As with Night Watch, the book is composed of several short stories that don’t seem to have a whole lot to do with each other. But by the end, it becomes apparent that each has actually been building up towards a particular climax, that every seemingly unrelated event has actually been part of the leaders’ strategies. Again, it’s truly impressive how Lukyanenko is able to pull this off without it ever feeling contrived. The climactic reveals are truly revealing, and not in a cheaty way.

The setting is wonderful. It’s a magical world laid over our own modern day one, and this is done very creatively. But most impressive is how very Russian the magic system is! There is little natural limit to what the witches can do, something that would be a recipe for Mary Sues in the hands of most other authors. But here, the use of magic is restricted by a complex hierarchical bureaucracy. It’s like something straight out of Brazil!

And, as a fan of Russian music, I’ve been having a great time trying to match up the translated lyrics with the original songs.

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Night Watch #1: The Night Watch by Sergei Lukyanenko

Read: 12 May, 2009

Anton Gorodetski is an Other, a person with magical abilities. In his world, Others come in two types: those who belong to the Light and those who belong to the Dark. These two sides are in a sort of cold war against each other, each polices the other and ensures that neither breaks the terms of their uneasy truce.

Night Watch is arranged in three parts, each an independent story in which Anton must solve a mystery and encounter the Dark Ones. The great twist of the third story is, of course, that the events of all three are actually all related, part of a great plot, and Anton must make an impossible choice that could either save the world or destroy it.

The novel is unmistakably Russian. The magic system, not to mention the model of the truce between the two factions of Others, is ruled primarily by bureaucracy. The sense of humour, too, is fundamentally Russian – as are the character personalities, the descriptions, and even Anton’s final decision at the climax of the novel. All are so adorably Russian.

The bureaucracy makes the magic system interesting. While the magic system itself could allow for limitless power (something generally considered a no-no in the Fantasy genre), the bureaucracy keeps the amount of power any one individual can hold in check. It’s a very unique (and uniquely Russian) solution to a common problem in Fantasy stories.

I found Night Watch to be a delightful novel. It was funny, it was interesting, it was suspenseful, clever, and so very very Russian (can I say this enough?). I highly recommend it for fans of the Fantasy genre (especially the subgenre of Urban Fantasy), as well as any Russia-aficionados.

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