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.

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.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

Read: 30 August, 2018

When I was a kid, The Haunting of Hill House was my favourite book, and is – to date – the only book that I’ve read at least a dozen times. And yet, for some reason, I haven’t sought out Jackson’s other writings. I did come across “The Lottery” in school, but I was rather primed to hate everything that I came across in school.

The Haunting of Hill House has a plot to it, whereas We Have Always Lived in the Castle is more of a meditation. Things do happen, but the main characters actively resist reaction. Even their way of speaking has a certain out-of-timeness that doesn’t seem to quite respond to what has been said to them. In a lot of ways, Merricat, Constance, and Uncle Julian are living ghosts, all stuck on that day when the rest of their family died.

There’s a mystery of sorts, as we try to figure out just what happened to their family. But while we do get answers, they barely seem to matter when they do come. The point of this story is, rather, the atmosphere, and the atmosphere is very, very creepy.

I really enjoyed this. I thought it would be a bit too long to just evoke a creepy feeling without much in the way of plot, but it does work. And just when it might have started to drag, Jackson gives us a “normal” person to show us just how thoroughly we’ve immersed ourselves in the Blackwoods’ mindsets. Cousin Charles and the villagers all seem irredeemably horrible, like zombie hordes trying to get at the Blackwood sisters. So when the sisters build a barricade in the garden, it seems to make perfect sense.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle is a feeling, and it’s evoked expertly.

Silo #3: Dust by Hugh Howey

Read: 21 August, 2018

With 2/3 of the series read, I couldn’t very well stop there!

I quite liked this one. The philosophical stuff takes a back seat (beyond the extremely general “people should get to make the big decisions that shape their own lives), so the story was easier to enjoy.

There’s also more religion in this one – with a cultish sect that gets in the characters’ way. This felt a bit ham-handed, and I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that the author is, himself, an atheist. For one thing, this religious sect basically kidnaps a seven year old girl and forces her to marry an adult man. The only other time we see them, they are burning books. This could have worked for me if we got a bit more into what they believed and why they were doing what they were doing, but it just seemed to be a bunch of stereotypes all rolled into one.

This is made worse by the fact that the religion itself is so underdeveloped. There are references to “the gods” multiple times throughout the book, but then the sect is suddenly talking about a single deity, which comes off way more Christian than the religion we had seen previously.

But then there’s a religious character who “sees the light” just as Jules comes to realise that religion has a function in her society. It sends a rather mixed message.

There’s quite a bit of payoff, like explaining how Solo managed to survive Silo 1’s initial attacks. I’d written this at the time as lazy writing, but it worked. I liked that many “bad” characters were redeemed through the story, particularly Anna.

Overall, it’s a satisfying end to the series. I felt like my major questions were all answered, and there’s a somewhat happy ending (at least until genetic issues start to crop up due to population bottle-necking, or the whole group starves to death in their first winter), so I can happily say that I’m done with the series.

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The Heart of Everything That Is by Bob Drury & Tom Clavin

Read: 14 August, 2018

A little misleading, since there isn’t actually too much about Red Cloud’s perspective. Mostly, the book sets the stage for the Fetterson Massacre, which includes brief overviews of native/white relations leading up to it. There is some biographical information about Red Cloud’s family and his rise to power (as well as similar information about other key players, such as Crazy Horse), but it all feels like part of the background.

Once the story shifts to Fort Phil Kearney, the whites take the centre stage. We learn a great deal about the officers, about their supply situation, about internal military squabbling, etc, but Red Cloud and his warriors are on the outside, as a threat. Then, once the Fetterson Massacre is over, the entire rest of Red Cloud’s life is summarized quickly in the Epilogue.

The history was interesting and reasonably well-written, and I did like what there was about Red Cloud and the political/social scene he navigated, but I wanted much more about him. I would gladly have read a book about the Fetterson Massacre from the white perspective, but this shouldn’t have been it.

I found this to be an interesting book with interesting history, but not has focused as it should have been. It also ended rather abruptly with much of its stated story still left to tell. As a biography of Red Cloud, it leaves much to be desired.