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.

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.

So You Want To Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo

Read: 23 September, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

Horrorstör by Grady Hendrix

Read: 7 September, 2018

Something isn’t right at the new Orsk (a knock-off IKEA style store). When the morning shift comes in to find what appears to be poop on a Brooka sofa, three employees decide to come back after the store closes to find out what’s really going on.

This is a high concept horror story, and the publishes have really gone all in with the illustrations. I really enjoyed the way that each chapter begins by highlighting a particular furniture item, complete with IKEA-ese description. Except that these pieces of furniture get creepier and creepier, starting with an ordinary sofa and ending with actual torture devices. It was a neat touch.

I also really enjoyed all the retail-speak. You know, the way you can’t just say “small item”, you have to say “impulse”. Listening to retail workers talk shop is a surreal experience – not only does everything have a special name, there are whole special phrases (like the Orwellian banner proclaiming the value of hard work that pops up a few times in the story).

That’s where this story really shines. I loved the IKEA-ness of it (of referring to all items by their branded name, like consistently calling the sofa a “Brooka” instead of just a sofa), and the retail-ness of it.

Because that stuff is creepy. That’s what horror is made of.

I really enjoyed the horror story aspects, too, when they focused on that theme. When Amy and Matt get lost in their own store because the sections appear to be moving around on them? Terrifying.

But then there’s this whole other book in here, a trite story about some evil prison warden who got off on torturing prisoners so now he, and his captives, are haunting the building that was built over the ruins of his former prison. OoooOOOoooo. Even the half-hearted “big box stores are just like prisons!” message at the end feels cheap and heavy-handed.

Every time the narrative focused on Amy getting out of the latest torture device or being grossed out by swamp smells, I felt so bored. It doesn’t connect thematically – the by-the-numbers haunted house is a totally different story, and it just doesn’t fit with the existential creepiness of retail. Even the characters all seem to have stepped out of your average January release horror movie.

Overall, this was an enjoyable read, but not something that I would recommend to friends. Hendrix came up with a great idea, but didn’t follow through.