Saturday, December 26, 2015

seven years is what it is

Seven whole years! Well, this last year was more like... a third of a year, by the output. But I'm still here and still thinking about writing about what I read. The days somehow seem shorter and the time is going faster, and I get neither as much reading nor anywhere close to as much writing done as I'd like to.

I'm hoping to at least participate in Long Awaited Reads month, in what ever form that takes this year - I've got both Aldo Leopold's Sand County Almanac and Italo Calvino's If on a winter's night a traveller sitting ready to go. I've been reading widely, trying to keep up with my book club at work; I've started A Reunion of Ghosts by Judith Clare Mitchell for our February meeting already, which is way out of my normal reading way, but I'm cautiously optimistic that I'll get through it. Although I have been not-finishing a lot more than I used to not-finish too. I think if I can try to take notes on and write here about the book club books I'll lead a better discussion; that's how it seems to work, usually.

So yes. You can be forgiven for wondering if anything was happening here at all lately. But it's been happening for seven years. Can't stop now!

Thanks for reading, if you do, and wishing you all a happy holiday season and a new year full of good people and good books!

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Kiss of Steel by Bec McMaster

Kiss of Steel
by Bec McMaster
Sourcebooks Casablanca, 2012
423 pages

Let me talk about the benefits of proper world-building in science fiction and fantasy.

So in case you were thinking I've gone all Canliterary, with my Humphreys and my Thuy, I shall now discuss my most recent read, which was Kiss of Steel by Australian paranormal romance author Bec McMaster. I'm going to be honest: I picked it almost as a joke, because - well, look at that cover. Right? What is Honoria even wearing. And I know that authors don't always (very rarely?) get a lot of say in their covers, and frankly this is not the worst of the romance covers out there (so very not) and it obviously did its job. I wanted something over-the-top and steampunkish. I downloaded the eBook. I started reading it.

And damned if it wasn't actually quite good.

Soapbox time: one of my biggest problems with fantasy or sci-fi (or in this case, steampunk) in the Romance genre in general is sloppy world-building. I've just recently become familiar with the term "wallpaper historical" to describe [some of my favourite] historical fiction and it is exactly appropriate. And if "wallpaper sff" isn't a term it should be - the trappings can be there, the magic and/or the spaceships - but a lot of the time the world-building in books that are Romance first and sff second is hasty and extremely cliched. This always kind of breaks my heart because I happen to really love my fantasy with a strong romantic component. But it has so rarely worked the other way for me that I've kind of given up.

The problem for me is that I am extremely familiar with the fantasy genre. I grew up with it. It's in my blood right there with my haemoglobin. So I know when an author is just wallpapering over their books with fantasy cliches - they may be well-intentioned, they may even have a true fantasy story in mind - but dammit, pay attention to your world. If you have a Chosen heroine and a banished berserker hero, I want to know why she was Chosen and what for, I want to know about berserker culture, and I for sure don't want an Evil Mage arch-bad-guy. That's been done, and better than most people can do it. Your characters need to be a product of their environment, not the other way around.

Steampunk, in my limited experience, can be a bit better at this - generally people who are writing steampunk are totally in love with their own worlds, fascinated by the ideas and the intersections of human stories and technology and history. Maybe it's too newly popular a genre to have spawned the same wealth of cliches that fantasy and science fiction have, forcing people to come up with their own ideas and explanations, not allowing them to use shorthand.

Whatever the reason, McMaster has done it well. She doesn't do everything well. There was a bit too much repetition - I don't need to be reminded, all the time, that Honoria grew up in the hallowed halls of the Echelon, or that Blade killed his own sister. I got it the first two or three times. Also I actually really wanted more of Honoria teaching Blade how to read - that particular plot contrivance vanished, never to be seen again, after the scene where it first appeared. There are times when things go on a bit longer than they should.

But the setting... McMaster's London is gritty, ugly, violent, and sometimes beautiful, and it makes sense. And Honoria and Blade and the rest of the characters make sense in the world. They've come out of it. This story wouldn't make sense anywhere else. And that, as much as anything else McMaster has done, makes this book worth the read.

Setting/world-building isn't everything, to be clear. McMaster also has a good handle on the English language and uses it to her advantage; the prose is clear, quick, and supports the wonderful descriptions; the characters are entertaining and consistent; the plot is dramatic and clever, if a bit packed.

The key here is that this book is a romance novel first and foremost. Even with the detail and depth of the world and the politics, this is essentially a book about two people finding each other, falling hard for each other, surmounting some critical obstacles, both internal and external (and the external ones come straight out of the world they live in), having some sex, and getting a happy ending. (Not uncomplicated happy. But happy.) Which means that it's got to be possible for someone out there to do the same thing with fantasy, too.

Honoria Todd and her two siblings have fallen on very hard times, since her scientist father was murdered and a price put on her head by the villainous but politically well-heeled Vickers, a duke and leader of one of the seven ruling houses. Vickers and all the other rulers of London are blue bloods - humans who have been infected with the craving virus. Yes, it makes them drink blood to survive, heal quickly, have incredible strength and agility. It also happens that Blade, the Devil of Whitechapel, ruler of the most powerful gang in the city outside the city, is a rogue blue blood - he was pulled out of the gutter, infected, and enslaved. But Blade escaped. He knows who Honoria is, and he's going to use her to get at Vickers; she needs his protection to survive in the extremely dangerous slums. Cue the romantic tension as Blade discovers Honoria is more than she appears on the surface, and Honoria discovers that Blade isn't like the other blue bloods she's known.

Blue bloods are not vampires, exactly - vampires are blue bloods whose virus has finally run its course, who no longer have control over their urges, who hate sunlight. They are extremely dangerous predators. And when a blue blood is to the point where he's (they're all men, because of Victorian ideas of female fragility) about to start turning vampire (determined by blood tests) he's beheaded. That's always going to be the end game for a blue blood, eventually. And once infected, there is no cure.

What McMaster has done here is taken an idea - what if England was ruled by "vampires" - and spent a lot of time figuring out what the logical conclusions would be. Of course Victorian London would be home to "draining factories" where people go to pay their blood tax. (Of course taxes would be paid in literal blood.) Of course people who couldn't afford to eat would sell their blood to unscrupulous Drainers. Of course there would be roving gangs of Slashers, who pick the impoverished off the streets of the slums - or out of their own homes - at night and kill them, draining them of blood entirely for sale to the factories. Who of course wouldn't condone that sort of thing, but would pay for it quietly anyway.

And it's all like this - all the little details thought out. Everything comes from somewhere, and everything makes sense. And that means the characters make sense, and the story makes sense, and since it's written well and the plot is interesting and the characters have depth - well, there you have it. A read I enjoyed far more than I thought I would, for more reasons than I expected to.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

The River by Helen Humphreys

One of the things I'm going to have to do if I'm going to start updating again is be a little less rigid about how I update and when and for what. I used to go at this chronologically - that is, whatever I read first, I'd write about first. And I wrote about everything I read, regardless, except for the books I didn't finish. I have about 30 books I still need to write about, going all the way back to January of this year. I say "need" - but do I need to? Perhaps, at this point in my life and writing, the more appropriate criteria is "want" - which of these books that I have read do I most want to write about right now.

And right now, I want to write about The River.

The River
by Helen Humphreys
ECW Press, 2015
224 pages

I have an odd reading relationship with the work of Canadian author Helen Humphreys, and this is yet another entry into that ongoing weirdness. (The weirdness is with me, not her books.) Previous to The River I have read The Frozen Thames and loved it, and The Lost Garden and wanted to love it but had trouble with the subject matter and the prickly main character, Gwen. Humphreys tackles subject matters and writes characters that I find uncomfortable, and yet - I keep going back. I don't usually do this with authors who write characters I find uncomfortable or books that make me sad.

I'm going to keep going back to her, too. There's no question. Even though I know what I'm getting into.

I do this for the writing. Helen Humphreys is a poet and she writes prose like a poet. This will get me every time. I like good writing. A book doesn't tend to make it with me without it, regardless of how excited I am about the characters or the plot or the concept. And apparently really beautiful writing will draw me in regardless of how unexcited I am about the characters or the plot. So despite the detachment Humphreys writes with, and the often melancholy (sometimes very melancholy, sometimes downright sad) tone, and despite characters who can be hard to love, I read Humphreys.

The River itself is as odd a piece as The Frozen Thames, a book that defies cataloguers to put it in a specific place on the shelves. Our library has decided it is a biography. Of... a river I guess? Because that is what it is - a word portrait of a river. In short passages, some a few pages and some a single line, Humphreys introduces the reader to Depot Creek, specifically to a little plot of land - her little plot of land - on the banks of said Creek. Using this as a jumping off point, we are introduced to the creek itself, the Napanee River, the town of Bellrock, the people who have used the river and inhabited the land where Humphreys lives now, the wildlife that use the river, and so on. In some cases she just describes something - the river, the history, a creature on the river - and in others she has written pieces from the perspective of someone who may have existed, or who did exist. These would be fiction, but they're still trying to do the same thing that the nonfiction descriptive passages are: get to the heart of what the river actually is, what it truly means.

It's lovely. It's melancholy. It's a unique gem of a book. It's also beautiful as a physical item; the photographs and drawings strategically placed through the pages are perfect. This is not one to e-read; you will be much happier if you can have it in your hands. Recommended for anyone who loves beautiful words and is interested in history, natural history, and the attempt to peer into the heart of something so prosaic and so unknowable as a river. I didn't love it, because it's not exactly a loveable book. It's a bit prickly, a bit detached. But I will remember it and I will come back to it.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

two books by Kim Thúy

by Kim Thúy, translated by Sheila Fischmann
Random House Canada, 2012 (originally published in French in 2009)
141 pages

by Kim Thúy, translated by Sheila Fischmann
Random House Canada, 2014 (originally published in French in 2013)
139 pages

Here's a thing I don't do often: read a book, and then immediately go out and find whatever I can by the same author and read that too. I did it in this case. And the strange thing is that - I liked Ru. I respected Ru. I didn't think I'd loved it. But perhaps, in some way that my own brain didn't quite clue in to, I did? It helped, too, that Mãn had just come out very recently, and working in a library, I had it to hand immediately.

It's a little hard to hang on to either of these books in specifics, in that they don't have much in the way of characters or plot. But they do have imagery and tone, and somehow Kim Thúy has managed to make those the driving force of Ru, and to a lesser extent Mãn. The latter does have more plot, and significantly more character. This may or may not be a good thing; I liked them both, and originally thought of Mãn as being the stronger, and underrated. But it's Ru that has stuck with me more clearly. Both explore the life of a woman who has come from Vietnam, as a refugee (in Ru) or after the war (in Mãn). The war plays a large role in both these novels, as does the experience of coming to a new country - in this case, Canada - and making a life here.

One of the meanings for the word "ru" is lullaby - Thúy explains this at the beginning of the book. In many ways, Ru struck me as a series of images that might bubble up before sleep. Ru and Mãn don't even really have chapters; they have paragraphs, or sections. Sometimes a section is a line or two long. Sometimes it's three, maybe five pages. I'm not sure there were any sections longer than that. Each is a painstakingly crafted image, memory, or moment, from a first person perspective. The narrator can be a bit dry, or maybe a better way to describe her is "reserved," but one gets the impression that she is always trying to be honest. Some of the sections are connected. Some of them are not, other than they have the same narrator.

Both start fairly slowly, especially because (to me at least) the format can come as a bit of a shock. Because neither book is structured as a typical novel, and without the usual components like a solid, chronological plot or dialogue or conventional characterization to hang on to, one can feel a bit adrift for the first little while. I worried about this, when I started Ru, because it's not a long book. I needn't have worried.

The books - most especially Ru, but Mãn as well, to a lesser extent - unfold like a series of beautiful blossoms, each page or section a memory, hanging off each other like a delicate string of pearls. If you hold them lightly, something wonderful happens. The reader does a lot of the work, filling in blanks. Nothing is explicit. But gradually a picture begins to develop - of Vietnam, of the life of a "displaced" person, of how a person can break apart and slowly be put back together, but never again without scars. Mãn, with its more explicit plot, does a lot more of the work for the reader. Which means that though I think it's stronger in some ways - it gives one more to sink one's teeth into - it also imposes itself on the reader, where Ru almost feels like it comes from within.

Neither one of these books will take you very long to read. And both are worth it. But if you're going to read just one, read Ru. Be prepared to open yourself to it, no matter how slow or odd it seems at first, as a reading experience; you will be rewarded.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell

I have this little thing, called a blog? And I used to write about books? And then one day I just stopped.

And then one day I just started again. So here we go. Bear with me, I'm incredibly rusty.

by Rainbow Rowell
St. Martin's Griffin, 2013
422 pages

Once upon a long time ago I read a book called Fangirl. It was one of the first books I read this year, in fact. And I loved it. The end.

No no, there's more - and I'm not going to do the book justice, of course, because I read it nearly a year ago, but here's the thing: I read this nearly a year ago, quite quickly, and I still think about it regularly and with a fair amount of clarity. The thing is, it's not just a nice book - and it is, a really nice book, where nice things happen and people are kind and awkward and lovely and maybe sometimes a bit mean but they aren't just awful for no reason. They all have reasons, and they are all sympathetic, even when they are not good reasons. There's no forced love triangle, there's no insta-love, there's no easy answers; there are just good people trying to work their way around being individuals and members of families and friends, which is not always easy and provides enough drama to make an engaging, charming, intelligent book.

More than just being a nice book, Rowell's writing makes the reading of it seem effortless. It's an easy read. It goes down smoothly. It's funny in the right parts, and tense in the right parts, and moving in the right parts. The pacing is absolutely dead on. I was worried that the excerpts from Cath's fanfic would stall things, or be uncomfortable to read (in the way that fiction-within-fiction can sometimes just be... weird) but those excerpts were delightful. I can see why people want to read more Simon Snow.

Me, I'll be reading more Rowell, regardless of whom she's writing about. Thoroughly enjoyed, highly recommended.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

Life After Life
by Kate Atkinson
Hachette Audio, 2013
12 discs, unabridged

I'm really glad I chose to listen to this as audio versus reading it. This book tends to be a bit polarizing. People I talk to at the library seem to either love it or dislike it in the extreme, and I will be honest: I thought I'd be in the latter group. The last time I read some sort of critically acclaimed literary novel with some sort of fantasy/sci-fi time-bending twist it didn't really go well. Which is an understatement. So I was prepared for that this time, too. Also, I was pretty unexcited about reading a book where a child/young woman dies all the time - specifically, where the author has thought about all the terrible things that can go wrong, and variations on that theme. As the mother of a young child there are some things I don't really need help feeling anxious about.

This was so different from what I expected, and part of it was the narration. Fenella Woolgar does an astounding job: she's pleasant to listen to, her inflection is perfect and added to my understanding of the story, and I never got tired of listening to her read to me. And because of the way I process audio information, the repetition seemed rhythmic. I think reading it I might have gotten bored with the repetition, but listening to it gave it a lovely sense of overlapping variations, like a fugue.

I imagine most people are familiar with this book and its premise, but in case you are not: Ursula Todd dies a lot. Or she doesn't, really. What happens is that each time she does die - from the moment she dies at birth, the umbilical cord wrapped around her neck, to the times she dies of Spanish Flu, to the times she dies throughout WWII - she starts over again. But Ursula sort of remembers some things, gets a feeling of dread when bad things are about to happen and is thus able to avoid them, is able to change things, is able to try and try again until she gets it right. Some things are harder to get right than others. It takes a long, long time for her to get through the Spanish Flu. It takes a longer time for her to get through WWII.

But as morbid as that sounds, this isn't really a book about death so much as it is a book about life. It's a book about history, and a book about people. The fact that this is a concept book that is so well-rounded makes me understand why it's so successful. The concept is interesting (though don't go into this thinking it will be explained, or that it's a sci-fi or fantasy novel. It's not.) The characters are fleshed-out. The language is lovely. The history - it is so steeped in history without feeling like Atkinson wrote with a textbook beside her, I loved that. The plot is broken into tiny little pieces a lot of the time, and I find that interesting, not frustrating. But of all the things about this book that people might not like, I can see why that in particular is polarizing. In short, I think this book does have the total package: complex, in-depth characterization, interesting setting(s), great writing, and what I thought was an interesting plot.

I loved the little things that changed, or the not-so-little things. I loved that one got the impression that Atkinson could have just kept going. Though I was pleased with the way the 11th disc ended, I wasn't exactly disappointed there was a 12th disc - though I wasn't exactly delighted with the prospect of what I knew was coming. More about the ending at the end of this review, with very mild spoilers.

I found the characters captivating. Ursula herself is an intelligent, practical, only slightly odd protagonist; it is often (though not always) easy to sympathize with her and easy to root for her, to want this time for her to get it right. Atkinson doesn't go into detail with all Ursula's lives, but some of the things Ursula goes through are just brutal (another reason listening was a good choice for me - I didn't chicken out) and as a reader I was almost frantic that she not go down that path the next time.

Further on the characters, I loved how we were allowed to get to know Sylvie, which allows us to have some sympathy for her when she is really unlovable, and how at the very end we see Hugh a bit better and he is a little less wonderful than he was. (And the mental gymnastics this then makes us do.)

Now. The ending. It's hard to say whether there are plot spoilers, but there might be, so if you don't want those, be prepared to stop before the last paragraph. Just know that overall, I was so concerned about where things were going that I was wondering if I would actually end up liking the book. And by the end, I was so impressed that even though I didn't love the ending exactly, I was kind of amazed by the entire book. Books that amaze me are not as common as one might think from my sometimes superlative language when it comes to talking about them. This one left me feeling a little awestruck. Well worth the effort it takes, I'd say, though I think if you're the sort of person who requires an action-packed, linear plot, you'll be too frustrated to get much out of this one. Because really - it's not the ending that matters at all. It's all about the journey, again and again.

Aarti also just recently wrote about the audio version of Life After Life, and had a different experience (though gives lie to my "love it or hate it" thought, too.) Go see!

/begin mild spoilers

The ending: SO INTERESTING. Really. Structurally, the ending ... kind of ... left me speechless? So here's the thing: when Ursula got to the point of killing Hitler, I thought, right. Yes. We knew this was going to happen, it happens in the first paragraph of the book, though I partially spent the entire book trying to forget about that. Because of course Atkinson would go there, and I was disappointed, because why wouldn't you go there - the predicability was disappointing. But then that wasn't the end, though it was the end of that particular life. Atkinson kept going, and I was really relieved that we weren't ending on that note, because the book got interesting again, immediately. And though the ending was confusing and maybe bit off a bit more than it could chew, it was braver than I thought it was going to be in my wildest dreams. I love unfinished business in an ending: this ending was entirely unfinished, and I loved it for trying that.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

three great graphic novels

Daisy Kutter 1: The Last Train
by Kazu Kibuishi
Bolt City Productions, 2012
153 pages

So, I hadn't realized this was re-released. I first started following Kazu Kibuishi online years ago, before Amulet was a thing, by reading his Copper comics. (I've got those in printed form too, now, so that will be reviewed here at some point.) But by the time I realized I was in love with his style and his sensibilities, his first graphic novel, Daisy Kutter, was no longer in print and unavailable anywhere. I was always sad about that because it looked fantastic.

Well, it is. One of my local comic stores supported Kibuishi's Kickstarter to reprint Daisy and I got their last signed copy, which you can imagine made me feel like queen for a day.

It's a steampunk western. Daisy is an ex-con who owns and runs a general store. It's pretty clear she's bored out of her skull by it, but it's a legit living. Her excitement comes from playing poker. So when she loses the store in a high-stakes poker match, she has no choice but to take up the winner's offer to give her the store back - if she participates in one last heist.

There are a few plot holes and the ending wraps up incredibly quickly, but this is the first in (I hope!) a series, and it was extremely enjoyable. Daisy's got depth, as does Tom McKay, the local sherrif who also happens to be Daisy's ex-partner in crime, and ex-partner, period. There are lots of questions to be answered, lots of fleshing out to happen with both characters. The world, while somewhat sketched-in for this first instalment, has a huge amount of promise. Very much looking forward to the next book.

Friends With Boys
by Faith Erin Hicks
First Second, 2012
220 pages

I find it hard to write about this one because all I want to say is LURRRRVE. This is a sweet, funny, quirky, sensitive, wonderfully-drawn coming-of-age graphic novel about a girl who is starting high school after being homeschooled her whole life. She has three older brothers whom she adores, and hasn't really ever felt the need for any friends outside of them. But they've all got their own lives and challenges at school, so she's kind of on her own. Lucky for her, she's not the only one in need of a friend.

What's nice about this is that it's not really deep or difficult, but it's still a portrait of a kid trying to find her place and fit in, while dealing with stuff - some mundane stuff, like dealing her mother's decision to leave the family or her first year at school, and some not at all mundane stuff, like the strange ghost who keeps following her around. Maggie's got challenges but she's competent, and her family (with the notable absence of her mother) is loving and supportive. This makes the book feel safe and a bit gentle, which is sometimes a nice thing in a coming-of-age book about outsiders.

This book is also really funny. The art supports the characters' development in the best way possible. Hicks can express a huge amount about a character just with facial expression and small gestures, and she uses that to full effect. It's an easy-to-follow style, too, meaning this is a great entree into the world of graphic novels. Excellent amounts of geek humour and an affirming message that being "weird" - however one defines it - is okay.

Ms. Marvel Vol. 1: No Normal
by G. Willow Wilson and Adrian Alphona
Marvel, 2014
120 pages

I'm not sure I really need to introduce this book. It's gotten a lot of attention because Ms. Marvel is Kamala, an American-born Muslim teenager of Pakistani decent, who in addition to having to deal with the sudden onset of superpowers and the appearance of a supervillain, has to deal with obnoxious, racist classmates, a fairly traditional family, a diet that forbids bacon, and a curfew. It could have smacked of diversity lip-service, but it was so well-written it didn't.

The book lives up to the hype. There are a lot of things to like here, from the fast-paced plot and the bright, stylized art, to the way it handles what shouldn't be a sensitive issue (Kamala's race and religion) but really is. But what I really appreciated was how realistic the whole thing feels from an emotional perspective, which is not something one can always say when reading superhero comics (or fantasy novels, for that matter.) While the title of the volume is "No Normal" what is refreshing is just how normal Kamala is, right down to the fights she has with her parents when she breaks curfew and is then punished for it. She's got superpowers and she handles their onset in a believable way. She's a teenager and she feels like a teenager.

Also, on a very frivolous note, I dare you to read this one and not fall a little in love with Boris.

Will definitely be following this series.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

I wrote a little thing...

... for another blog, in which I discuss the top five picture books I'm enjoying reading to smallfry right now. You can go over there and read it if you'd like.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Rose in a Storm by Jon Katz

8138952Rose in a Storm
by Jon Katz
Villard, 2010
240 pages

This was a fun and different quick read, good for a book club read over Christmas. It's a good winter read, too, for those of you who like reading "in season" - which is an interesting concept in itself. I generally prefer to read cold and snowy books in the winter; also I've noticed that in books set in the cold and snowy winter, the authors make the weather a big deal, not just background scenery.

For a book that wasn't terribly difficult to read it did get off to a slow start. I'd say it took me close to 50 pages to really get into it, but once I got rolling it went fast. Rose is a dog, specifically a working dog on a small farm, where she helps farmer Sam keep the animals in line and occasionally does other useful things as well. She is more of a partner than a pet, and Sam tends to see her as such; she is useful, not to be coddled. One winter, some time after Sam's wife Katie has died of an undisclosed illness (cancer, almost certainly) there is a tremendous, days-long, dangerous winter storm. It's up to Sam alone - and Rose - to keep the animals (sheep, dairy cows and some steers, chickens, a donkey) safe and alive through it as one disaster after another strikes.

The book switches easily and rapidly between perspectives - almost always Rose and sometimes Sam and occasionally a few other perspectives for a very short time. Katz knows dogs, and has done a lot of research and work in the area of dog psychology, and Rose's perspective is as close to what a dog's might be as Katz can possibly make it, while still making it readable. We still understand Rose, while recognizing that she's a different creature from a human, and has motivations and ideas and understandings about the way the world works that are different from what a human's might be. I'd say this was really successful, and while I've always quite liked dogs I came away with a lot more respect for them as separate creatures with agency and intelligence than I had before.

It's possible this was one of Katz's main aims in writing this book - and it occasionally reads like that, too.

One of the things that came home to me is just how dangerous a big winter storm can be, especially to farmers. I think it's easy to forget this, living in the middle of a city where your water pressure isn't dependent on the power being on, and your house is insulated (mostly), and the only creatures dependent on you to survive are in your immediate environs. The chances of a coyote getting in to eat your fish are small, and the most personal danger you're likely to see (except perhaps carbon monoxide poisoning) is having a heart attack from shoveling too much snow, and if you're hurt your neighbours are right next door. In short, it's easy to forget, being in a city, just how powerful and powerfully dangerous nature can be.

Even the problems I had with the ending didn't spoil the read for me. But the ending did unfortunately have some issues. Slight spoilers for the ending follow...

... ready?

This is the most blatant example of a deus ex machina I've seen in a novel in ages. I'm pretty sensitive to these, and I don't like them at all. If anything is swooping out of the snowy wild to save Rose and the farm it had better be set up well ahead of time. (Interestingly, my book club actually had significantly less trouble with this than I did: they thought the deus was clearly Katie, the deceased wife. I can see where they're coming from but I didn't see it clearly enough ahead of time to make it better, and I'm still skeptical.)

The other thing is that I don't think a rescue was necessary; I did think Katz had built up to an unsustainable level of tension and conflict, and I think if he'd dialed things back a bit before the climax he wouldn't have needed a deus ex machina, explained by Katie or otherwise, to wrap things up. He could have dialed things back without losing the forward momentum or the dramatic tension, too; things were plenty dramatic as it was. And then he wouldn't have needed something out-of-the-ordinary to rescue his happy ending.

... /end spoilers

Overall, aside from the ending, this is an entertaining and interesting book, something outside the ordinary. Recommended to animal lovers for sure, and people who like snowy rural stories. It's an easy read and a worthwhile one. I'll definitely be reading more of Katz, though I think I may stick to his nonfiction.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Kim by Rudyard Kipling

by Rudyard Kipling
Vintage Books, 2010 (originally published in 1901)
265 pages

Full disclosure: my favourite audiobook of all time is the reading Jack Nicholson did of Kipling's story The Elephant's Child, with music by Bobby McFerrin. Ever since that transcendent experience as a child, I've been rather predisposed to like Kipling, warts and all. (All that spanking = not cool, Rudyard.) When a friend mentioned I should read this and then provided a copy, I took a long time to get around to it - but I'm glad I finally did.

Kim is the tale of young Kimball O'Hara, an orphaned white boy living and thriving on the streets of Lahore. His life changes forever when he is about ten years old and attaches himself to a naive but wise elderly lama from Tibet, who is searching for the river created by the Buddha's arrow so he can immerse himself in it and become enlightened. Kim also attracts the attention of the British spy network in India, earning himself a place of respect through his escapades running messages.

I really, really liked this book. It's a fascinating and vivid window into a time and place that really does not exist anymore. It's also a bit of a primer on how colonial racist attitudes were so commonplace and ingrained that someone like Kipling, an intelligent, compassionate man with a deep respect and love for the culture he's depicting, could still say things that are glaringly patronizing, ugly, racist, or pseudoscientific, and his audience would be right there with him. It makes me wonder, sometimes, what prejudices and errors will be exposed when someone looks at our contemporary literature one hundred years from now. Maybe (one hopes?) the idea of a person's physical sex determining their behaviour and outlook on life will seem as ridiculous and wrong-headed?

As an example of the sort of thing I mean, Kipling relies, sometimes quite heavily, on Kim's "white blood" to form his character. This is a child who has grown up on the streets of Lahore with children of many races and religions, has next to no experience of white culture or people, and yet does things that Kipling ascribes to his being white despite the fact that Kim himself doesn't realize he's white. Being white is almost a kind of short-hand for Kim being brave and clever, superior in these qualities to the "natives" around him. This despite the fact that Kim is surrounded by brave and clever people who are not white; I guess those characters had to earn their badges, rather than being born with those traits. And sadly Kipling also occasionally falls into using other characters' races for short-hand for their less desirable qualities - being deceitful, belligerent, or cowardly, for example. Ouch.

Clearly, for Kipling to write that so blatantly and unironically, he understood that being white included certain personality and biological traits other than skin colour. This was a common view supported by scientists of the time, and frankly still is in certain dark corners. The idea of biological determination is insidious and hard to shake. These days, many of the characteristics that Kipling ascribes to racial biology would be ascribed (and described, in building a character in a reader's imagination) to nurture, environment, and societal structures.

But all of that considered and aside - this book is a joy to read. Kipling's language is perhaps not quite as inventive in Kim as it is in some of the Just So Stories, but it can be, and it is always beautiful. The plot is, for a spy adventure, rather slow; but I drank up the descriptions. The colours, the smells, the tastes, the voices and beliefs, the multitude of people and the delight Kim (and Kipling) takes in the diversity. This world is messy and beautiful. And it doesn't exist anymore, except in books, and this is a good one to immerse yourself in whether you're interested in this time and place in history or not.

The characters are as bright and vivid as the rest of the book. Kim is a fantastic lens to experience his world through. And though, as above, the plot is a bit slow, it is not boring if you adjust your expectations to its pace. Very glad I read this, and recommended for the armchair time-and-space traveller, among others.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

the wild reading yonder was kind of tame actually

This time of year tends to have a lot of expectations heaped upon it. We're to celebrate, enjoy the magic, love the togetherness, and eat the food - and that's just the secular bits. Once we're through with that, we're to take stock, set goals, reflect on the year that was, and ruminate on the future. Currently all I want to ruminate on is the leftover cheese and cookies and chocolate and whether or not it will make me desperately ill if I attempt further eating. My poor overfed brain is barely up to the task of celebrating, much less ruminating on the future. All it thinks is: cheese cheese cheese sleep cheese chocolate? cheese...

But let us attempt this anyway! First, the taking stock:

This has been an interesting reading year for me. It's hard not to feel that I have failed a little bit; I haven't managed to read as much as I wanted to, numbers-wise. (I will never read as much as I want to, numbers-wise. There are just not that many minutes in the day, or days in the week, or weeks in the year, or years left in my life.) But I have noticed a shift in my reading, something that hadn't really dawned on me until a couple of weeks ago. My reading, though quantitatively not stellar, has been qualitatively really interesting this year: I'm reading much more widely, and much more challenging stuff, than I have in years.

What many term "escapist reading" is great and I enjoy it - my easy and happy and predictable romance novels, my genre-conforming, conventional, not-too-gritty fantasies, my cosy, comfortable mysteries. I know what I like in those books and generally "challenging" is not it, and those books hold a very important, and fundamental, place in my reading. But what seems very strange to me is that lately I have enjoyed those books less, and actually found "challenging" to be more enjoyable.

Unpacking "challenging": I think what I mean by this is books that require a little bit more mental attention, books that maybe have dense language (I'm reading Proust, and loving it) or that have complicated, unpredictable, and not always snuggly-puppy-happy plots (there will, eventually, be a review of Kate Atkinson's Life After Life, and the plot-light but language-and-image-heavy Ru by Kim Thuy). I had been staying away from books of this type, that will require close attention or demand some sort of emotional toll of me, because those books have not made me a happy reader for a long time. I think that's changing. 

Some things are not changing. Language is important in a book for me - I want good writing. That's pretty key. But also incredibly important is characters. I need to like the characters. I need to be able to get behind them. I need to connect with them in some way. I can't get around this. I am not one of those people who can honestly say "I don't have to like the characters as long as..." because every time I've tried that, I've disliked the book. I also generally don't want my likeable characters to suffer horribly or die in some sort of unredeemable way. I recognize this makes me a bit of a chicken, but I'm prepared to live with that. I can read about a character going through something difficult, but there had better be some hope at the end of the tunnel; otherwise the book isn't for me.

Next: numbers, numbers, numbers!
(Feel free to skip this part. I record this for my own benefit. Numbers are fun for me; I am one of those people who likes data entry and pretty graphs. I also find it interesting to summarize my year in reading this way, because it helps me see the bigger picture.)

Books read in the past year: 40
Fiction: 36
Nonfiction: 4
Adult books: 27
Young adult books: 8
Middle grade books: 5
Graphic novels: 7
Audiobooks: 6
eBooks: 10
Series started: 12 (Oh man. Ouch.)
Series finished: 1 (WOOOO!)

Author's nationality: 
Canadian: 6 (incl. 1 French-Canadian novel)
American: 21
British: 9
Japanese: 3
French: 1

Decade of first publication:
2010: 22
2000: 10
1990: 3
1980: 1
1950: 1
1900: 2
1870: 1

One big change, though it doesn't show so much in the numbers, is that I'm not reading nearly as much middle grade fiction. In fact, all five of those books were read before March of this year. This has to do with some changes at work: I'm not currently running a middle grade book club. My ratio of eBooks to traditional formats is exactly the same, which is kind of an interesting trend to note too. Perhaps that's my threshold?

My favourites of the year (more reviews forthcoming):

  • The Age of Wonder by Richard Holmes is my clear top book of the year. It's hard to choose favourites, but this book really stood out. Marvellously well-written, fascinating, well-researched, and while it was long I enjoyed all of it. Science biography mixed with history and synthesis of culture and scientific discovery. Incredibly well done. Excellent as audio, too.
  • The Bird of the River by Kage Baker is for sure my top fiction. It's a perfect coming-of-age fantasy, without the epic trappings of many of these sorts of books. No giant world-shaking quests here, though the main character is an orphan, and she does have a role to play in connecting and stopping a series of bandit raids. I loved the world-building and I find Baker's writing goes down really smoothly.
  • The Governess Affair by Courtney Milan was excellent, even though I squished it into a review with two other not-as-great books. My favourite romance read of the year and maybe of the last several. Smart, funny, thoughtful, and exceedingly well-written.
  • Friends With Boys by Faith Erin Hicks was my top graphic novel of the year, which is saying something since I finished Cardcaptor Sakura finally. (Loved those too.) It was sweet and funny and interesting and I love Hicks' drawings. It made me laugh out loud without being too saccharine or trying too hard. Some of the solutions and resolutions seemed a bit too easy, but that didn't ruin the read for me.
  • Life After Life by Kate Atkinson was just spectacular. I listened to it, which I think helped; the repetition was rhythmic, not tedious, and Fenella Woolgar is a perfect narrator. The concept never got old for me, Atkinson's writing style agreed with me, and the historical detail was really interesting. I liked Ursula more and more as time went on and I kept listening even through the really emotionally difficult parts. Pitch perfect.
  • What If? by Randall Munroe is more popular science. The subtitle says it all: Serious scientific answers to absurd hypothetical questions. This is science writing at its absolute best and the only thing wrong with it, as far as I can tell, was that it ended.

Finally, here's what's up next. Last year's list got polished off with the exception of five... uh, I guess that's half of last year's list? But some of those I'm still working on, like the Virginia Woolf. I'll finish it one of these days. Let's put her first, anyway.

  • The Common Reader Volume 1 by Virginia Woolf
  • Swann's Way by Marcel Proust (the Lydia Davis translation)
  • Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell
  • The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss
  • Sanaaq by Mitiarjuk Nappaaluk
  • Us Conductors by Sean Michaels
  • The Sea Among the Rocks by Harry Thurston
  • The Duchess War by Courtney Milan
  • The Anvil of the World by Kage Baker
  • The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins

Lots there to look forward to. My book club is reading heavy on the WWII stuff this coming year, which will be interesting, I think. Even though I'm not actually attending the meetings currently I'm trying to keep up with the reading, and I've been really enjoying that exercise too.

So, as previously discussed... it's not likely to get a lot more rowdy over here any time soon, but I'll keep plugging away. Thanks everyone for reading and for dropping a line every once in a while. I think a common theme with my generation of book bloggers (we can call ourselves a generation, right?) is that many of us are slowing down a bit, finding it harder to keep up with both reading and with the blogging especially, as our lives and priorities change. I don't think this is a disaster, but I'm certainly glad people keep posting. I'll try to keep up my end too. Happy new year!