Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie

Ann Leckie's Ancillary Justice is an absorbing interplanetary adventure starring an AI unit who had for thousands of years been just one segment of a sentient military spaceship. Now, One Esk Nineteen is the only surviving ancillary of the Justice of Toren. She is on a mission of personal revenge.

Seivarden Vandaii is an officer of the Radch empire who had once served on the Justice of Toren before being promoted to another ship. She later spent 1,000 years frozen in an escape capsule before being found. Seivarden had difficulty adjusting to the monumental cultural and political changes that occurred during her absence, and turned to drugs. On the remote planet of Nilt, One Esk Nineteen encounters Seivarden, nearly dead, and the pair become mutually mistrustful companions.

Leckie does a wonderful thing with language in Ancillary Justice, always using the pronouns she and her. It's written in the voice of One Esk Nineteen: "Radchaii don't care much about gender, and the language they speak--my own first language--doesn't mark gender in any way."

When One Esk Nineteen communicates in other languages, her errors tend to be that of misgendering people. "Cues meant to distinguish gender changed from place to place, sometimes radically, and rarely made much sense to me."

We know that One Esk Nineteen appears female, because a Nilter says to her: "Aren't you a tough little girl." But pretty much everyone else in the novel, including romantic partners, are of unknown gender, all called she. Foreigners to Radch space are unnerved by the ambiguous gender-expression of the Radchaai.

Leckie also expounds on the difference between thought and action. One Esk Nineteen is no believer in the power of wishful thinking.

"Thoughts are ephemeral, they evaporate in the moment they occur, unless they are given action and material form. Wishes and intentions, the same. Meaningless, unless they impel you to one choice or another some deed or course of action, however insignificant. Thoughts that lead to action can be dangerous. Thoughts that do not, mean less than nothing."

"If you're going to do something that crazy, save it for when it'll make a difference, Lieutenant Skaaiat had said, and I had agreed. I still agree."

One Esk Nineteen is a being of action. She's determined, honourable and loyal, using her superior strength and intelligence for higher good. Her quest is heartfelt. Ancillary Justice is thrilling, complex and intellectually stimulating. I loved it.

Readalike: Dreamships (Melissa Scott).

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi

Helen Oyeyemi amazes me with every new book. I admired The Icarus Girl and adored Mr. Fox.  Now, I wonder how Oyeyemi could possibly get any better. Boy, Snow, Bird is perfectly brilliant. It's an inspired re-imagining of Snow White, set in 1950s Massachusetts, exploring racism and gender identity.

A girl named Boy runs away from her violent father, a rat catcher in New York City. Boy eventually marries a widower named Arturo Whitman and becomes stepmother to his daughter, Snow. Arturo and Boy have another child, Bird.

"Mom looks foreign, like a Russian ice skater; her backdrop ought to be one of those cities that has a skyline topped with onion-shaped domes. I can just see Mom whizzing around with her hands inside a huge white muff, bloody sparks flying up behind her as the blades on her boots dig up all the hearts she broke before Dad got to her."

"I couldn't make up my mind whether the baby was male or female; the only certainties were near baldness and incandescent rage. The kid didn't like its blanket, or its rattle, or the lap it was sat on, or the world... the time had come to demand quality."

"I was new to champagne, but as soon as I tasted it, spark after golden spark, I thought, well, there's magic in this water, no wonder Mia said to wish on it."

Alecto (owner of the bookstore where Boy works):
"[M]agic spells only work until the person under the spell is really and honestly tired of it. It ends when continuing becomes simply too ghastly a prospect."

I remain under Oyeyemi's magic spell.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Starling by Sage Stossel

Sage Stossel's Starling is a lighthearted graphic novel in full colour. It plays with the superhero tropes of comics, turning them inside out and hanging them to drip dry on the shower curtain bar. It made me think of Michael Brennan's Electric Girl (minus her gremlin), grown into adulthood with a career in marketing. It also brought to mind the examined relationship between protector and protected in Steven Seagle and Teddy Kristiansen's It's a Bird.

Stossel's procrastinating superhero, Amy Sturgess, has supernatural strength and speed. She can fly and shoot electricity from her hands. Recruited by the Vigilante Justice Association while still in her teens, Amy takes on a secret identity: Starling. There's a hilarious sequence where the VJA sorts out her costume.
"Who's your costume designer? A thirteen-year-old boy?"
"Actually, yes."

Amy struggles to find balance in her life while being constantly interrupted by emergency calls. Xanax and therapy are her coping strategies. Crime never sleeps, but Amy gets tired of always being a hero. She also has to come up with a reason for constantly dashing off, so her excuse is irritable bowel syndrome.

Meanwhile, Amy has an ambitious colleague who wants her accounts; a deadbeat brother who's been crashing at her place; a former sweetheart, now married, who has rekindled her romantic interest; and a mother who lives with 36 cats. Luckily, Amy has a supportive circle of friends to help her out.
Not a good place to hide something valuable...
Stossel's paintings are charming and her dialogue is often very funny. I loved Starling.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Just Kids by Patti Smith

I kept wanting to do something special to mark the milestone of my one-thousandth blog post. Instead, I've written nothing for two weeks. So this is just another review.

The Harper Audio edition of Patti Smith's Just Kids [10 hr] is great. With memoirs, I like hearing the author narrate their own work, and this production is no exception. Hearing the way Smith pronounces certain words makes it feel even more personal. Examples: window, piano (windah, pianah); entered, filtered (en'ered, fillered); shelter (shelder); and drawing (drawling).

There's a part where Smith recites five lines from "Fire of Unknown Origin," which was the first of her poems that she turned into songs. I replayed it three times because I loved it so much. Then I searched for it in YouTube and listened to versions by Blue Oyster Cult (dimly familiar from my teen years) and sung by Smith herself. I like it best spoken.

Patti Smith's self portrait, Brooklyn, 1968
Since I listened to the audiobook some time ago, I had to use the print book to refresh my memory. Bonus! A lot of artwork is included there; drawings and photos.

Robert Mapplethorpe was Smith's close companion for years. They were lovers before he started sleeping with men. They created art in their shared living spaces when they were young and poor, in the 1960s and 70s. Their social circles included people like Janis Joplin, Allen Ginsberg, and filmmaker Sandy Daley. Daley lived in the room next door to Smith and Mapplethorpe at the Hotel Chelsea. Mapplethorpe started out taking photos with a camera he had borrowed from Daley.

In "Fire of Unknown Origin," the line Death comes sweeping down the hallway in a lady's dress was inspired by Daley's dresses. "Sandy didn't have a diverse wardrobe but was meticulous in her appearance. She had a few identical black dresses designed by Ossie Clark, the king of King's Road. They were like elegant floor-length T-shirts, unconstructed yet lightly clinging, with long sleeves and a scooped neck." This passage had me googling fashion designer Clark as well as Daley. Books that send me off on tangents are the best!

I was friends with kd lang when we were in our 20s. She used to cut her own hair, and that inspired me to do the same. I thought of kd when Smith described this:

"I realized that I hadn't cut my hair any different since I was a teenager. I sat on the floor and spread out the few rock magazines I had. I usually bought them to get any new pictures of Bob Dylan, but it wasn't Bob I was looking for. I cut out all the pictures I could find of Keith Richards. I studied them for a while and took up the scissors, machete-ing my way out of the folk era. I washed my hair in the hallway bathroom and shook it dry. It was a liberating experience."

From a young age, Smith was a bookworm with literary tastes. It's a pleasure to read (or listen) to her prose. She has lots of interesting anecdotes, many of them featuring interactions with cultural icons. What I liked most about Just Kids is gaining a greater appreciation and understanding of the artistic works of Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe.

Friday, April 4, 2014

The Bear by Claire Cameron

In 1991, a bear killed a couple who were camping on an island in Algonquin Park. Claire Cameron based her novel The Bear on this incident, but she added two young children. They survived. That's not a spoiler; this story is about how that might happen. It's also a portrait of the bond between siblings.

If you love unique voices in fiction and especially if you enjoy child narrators, The Bear is for you. The viewpoint is that of five-year-old Anna, who follows her mother's final instructions to take care of her two-year-old brother. Anna calls him Stick because he is always sticky. She has a believable love/hate relationship with him. Anna's voice is convincing and endearing.

Cameron drew me all the way back into the volatile emotions of childhood. I recognized the sibling rivalry, self-absorption, imperiousness, magnanimity, and pride in new accomplishments. Anna gets annoyed when she has trouble helping Stick to get his pyjama top off. "Stop growing your head." She gets angry that her mother isn't there to feed them when they are hungry. "Momma is the lunch."

Anna's terror at night, not recognizing the sound of her brother's snores, is palpable. "I can't see the animal but then maybe I can. A black shape is close to the tree and it has a low growl that goes grrrr gaaaa grrrr gaaaa to let me know that it is there. And it is going to eat me because I don't have an army or sword except the one in my mind and I can't find it."

I fondly remember camping with my family and cousins at Pinehurst Lake in northeastern Alberta in about 1970. It took several trips in a motorboat to get all of us and our gear -- including a metal Coleman cooler similar to the one described by Cameron -- to a secluded spot across the lake. How different that trip would have been if an atypical bear had been in the vicinity.

Readalikes: Room (Emma Donoghue); The First True Lie (Marina Mander); The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon (Stephen King).

And for francophones, here's a link to one of my favourite Tetes-a-claques videos, the one where Lucien and Monique are camping and argue about whether or not a bear will eat toothpaste:

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Frog Music by Emma Donoghue

Emma Donoghue's Frog Music is a raunchy romp closely-based on historical fact. A chance encounter in 1876 San Francisco upsets a menage-a-trois and ends in tragedy.

Blanche, Arthur and Ernest are three former circus performers from France. In San Francisco, Blanche supports the men with income from burlesque dancing and prostitution. When Jenny, dressed in men's clothing and riding a stolen high-wheeler bicycle, bumps into Blanche, it's like she has knocked over the first domino in a set. Jenny's friendly curiosity goads Blanche into some serious soul-searching. Question: Where is Blanche and Arthur's infant son? Question: Is Blanche's love for Arthur reciprocated, or is he more interested in Ernest? During a smallpox epidemic in a summer heatwave, resentments simmer to the surface.

Donogue is great at evoking the details of time and place, immersing readers in the setting. Her characters are fascinating because of, rather than despite, their flaws. Amidst the almost vaudevillian narrative drive, Frog Music also addresses social and environmental issues like racism, misogyny, child welfare, and species extinction. Plus, Donogue takes a plausible crack at explaining a murder that has never been solved.

"There is one myth I would like to put to rest. Jenny Bonnet shows up all over the Internet these days as a proto-trans outlaw: presenting as male, persuading women to give up the sex trade and forming them into a thieves' gang. Attractive though this image is [...] I have found no evidence to substantiate it." - from Donoghue's afterword. Nevertheless, Jenny is my favourite character in this very entertaining novel.

Readalikes. Although I can't think of anything that's a close match, there are some similar elements in: Tipping the Velvet (Sarah Waters); Miss Don't Touch Me (Hubert & Kerascoet); Instructions for a Heatwave (Maggie O'Farrell); The Good Thief (Hannah Tinti); The Coral Thief (Rebecca Stott); and maybe The Little Shadows (Marina Endicott).

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Abandoning Books

I abandon books freely, but not frequently. Any book that I start has already passed my personal, idiosyncratic appeal test. There are mistakes, of course. Sometimes I can check off a whole bunch of factors in a book's favour and I still put it down after a few pages.

Cockroach by Rawi Hage is an example:

  • loved previous book by same author (De Niro's Game)
  • topic of mental health
  • immigrant experience
  • stylish, literary prose
  • Canadian

... and yet I didn't get past the first chapter.

In a different mood, I might react differently and be immediately drawn in, but once I abandon a book it is rare for me to pick it up again.

Today I abandoned a book before I even got past the front matter.

I had waited for it to come on hold at the library, then thought something along the lines of "Oh, here is this book I've heard good things about," then brought it home, so it was with a feeling of pleasure that I picked it up to begin reading. I started with the epigraph:
"here is the deepest secret nobody knows
(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud
and the sky of the sky of a tree called life; which grows
higher than soul can hope or mind can hide)
and this is the wonder that's keeping the stars apart
i carry your heart (i carry it in my heart)"                 - e. e. cummings
Cue shivers of delight. Love this poem.

Next is the half title page.

Next is a brief preface:

"By the window, she sits in her favorite chair, jumping a doll up and down in her lap. A shadow flickers in the doorway behind her. Someone else is watching her, too."

At that point, I shut the book. Nope. Not for me. Not my taste. I'm not reading this.

And then I got curious about my own negative reactions. Why had I assumed it would be for me in the first place? On the back cover is praise from authors (Lisa Gardner, Luanne Rice, etc.) with familiar names, but I haven't read their books. Because not my taste.

I flip to the copy on the inside cover and there's enough there to justify my interest: "intimate family drama;" "profound power of the truths we're scared to face;" "deeply moving;" "hope and forgiveness." I've loved plenty of family dramas involving secrets: The History of Love; The Little Girl Who Was Too Fond of Matches; The Almond Picker; The Good Parents; and Swamplandia are just a few.

The book in my hands is described as "stunningly suspenseful" and a thriller. Again, I can think of many that I've loved that are like this. Gone Girl. The Passage. Before I Go to Sleep. The Expats. Apple Tree Yard. So Much Pretty. I've got nothing against page-turners, per se.

But now I remember reading a review that recommended this to readers who like Jodi Picoult. Red flag. Wooop, wooop, wooop. I read two of Picoult's books and disliked them both. Enough already. There are too many great books waiting. My good feelings of anticipation about this book have completely evaporated. Carla Buckley's The Deepest Secret is going back to the library today, where I know that other -- more appreciative -- readers are waiting for it.