Lands of Lost Borders by Kate Harris

Lands of Lost Borders: Out of Bounds on the Silk RoadLands of Lost Borders: Out of Bounds on the Silk Road by Kate Harris
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book was phenomenal. Filled with imagery that transports you across continents and historical knowledge that flings you through time, Harris’ delightful – if saddle sore – journey through Asia’s ancient Silk Road will make you swear to take your own trip. And swear off it on the next page. Freezing weather, rain, snow, terrifying traffic, washboard roads (when there were roads at all), an eternity of living on instant noodles, instant coffee, and instant oatmeal. Harris manages to communicate her deep joy and gratitude for this experience, for every bleak vista she cycles by, while not holding back her about exhaustion, aching muscles, illnesses, and fear of detention travelling through countries with restrictive and byzantine tourism policies. In every line her brilliant writing and lyrical imagery shines through, carrying you along with her on the back of her bicycle. I feel truly privileged to have gotten a chance to read this book pre-release, having won it in a draw, and I highly recommend it to any fans of travel writing looking for new lands to explore. Coming to a bookstore near you in January 2018.

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Bellwether by Connie Willis

BellwetherBellwether by Connie Willis
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

How do fads start? Does monkey group behaviour shed any light on chaos theory? Can you teach sheep to operate a simple feeder machine? If you can’t purposefully teach sheep to operate a simple feeder machine, how long until you accidentally teach them to open a gate and they rampage through your office building? Does management honestly know what facilitating empowerment, augmenting core structures, and implementing visioning even mean, or are they just making up phrases so it will sound like they know what they are doing? When the incompetence of the interdepartmental assistant injects chaos into the system at HiTek Corporation, it brings Sandra Foster and Bennett O’Reilly – researching how fads form and using monkey group behaviour to study chaos theory, respectively – together and implements a series of serendipitous chain reactions which eventually crystallizes chaos into criticality and brings our scientists the answers for which they have been searching. I promise there is little to no management jargon in this book, lots of science, and much to delight.

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A Town Like Alice by Nevil Shute

A Town Like AliceA Town Like Alice by Nevil Shute
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A treasure I had no idea existed. A Town Like Alice combines a war novel with a western/frontier story and then wraps the whole thing round in a lovely romance. It was published in the 50’s so it has the attitudes about race and pre-marital sex (referred to as “a fate worse than death” on page 198) from those times; when the setting moves to Australia and they mention the Aborigines things can get cringy. The book actually starts in England, in 1905, and is told from the point of view of an estate lawyer. Certainly not what I was expecting based on the cover picture of a young couple and their dog, standing outside with a prairie landscape behind them. Shute is setting up the story and after a chapter or two we meet the main character, Jean Paget, and as she shares the story of her death march in Malaysia – for by now we have moved past the end of the second world war – with our narrator Noel Strachan, we get to know her a little better. It was there that she met Joe Harman, an Australian soldier who was also a prisoner of war, and whom we think is the love interest mentioned on the back cover. But the war and tragedy intervene, and she returns alone to England. It is when Strachan’s client dies and Jean inherits his estate in trust that circumstances and coincidences conspire to place her on a ranch in Australia and bring to her the man she loves. The plot is laid out creatively and I was hooked before I was 30 pages in. Definitely add this book to your collection.

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Doubting Yourself to the Bone by Thomas Trofimuk

Doubting Yourself to the BoneDoubting Yourself to the Bone by Thomas Trofimuk
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

When Moira James dies in a car crash while taking a time-out from her marriage, her husband Ronin moves himself and his two daughters to a tiny town in British Columbia to try to reassemble their lives. The stunning mountain scenery makes an incredible backdrop to the grief Trofimuk explores in his incredible, heart-opening story. It has been one of my favourite books since I snagged it on a whim in the library one day. I liked the title. I love the writing. Every page has poetry on it. There’s weight to the grief, to the range of emotions. Depth to the confusion. There are also monks. Scotch. Wine. Music. This book always makes me want to put on some classical and pour myself a drink; I could see it being a problem for a recovering alcoholic. There is also a lot of emphasis on womens’ bodies that rubs me the wrong way. Of the five adult women in the story, four are depicted on the basis of their sexual attractiveness to Ronin. But I can’t tell you what Ronin looks like. This gets under my skin. As I mentioned at the beginning the novel is built around an automobile accident death, but there are also discussions of bombings and suicide. Some not-great language surrounding abortions. While Ronin doesn’t outright condemn abortions, the words he chooses when discussing them are pretty judgmental and someone who actually supported a woman having the right to choose what happened to her own body would most likely use different language. Again, not outright anti-choice, but not as good as it could have been. No book is perfect. For the delight I have gotten – and continue to get – from this wonderful work I am content to overlook a few flaws.

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All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews

All My Puny SorrowsAll My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A book as full of tragedy as this one should not be so uplifting. I’m really not clear on how Toews did it. She weaves this story around two sisters; Elfrieda and Yolandi. Yolandi accompanies us through Elfreida’s multiple hospitalizations for suicide attempts as the Von Riesen clan rallies around her. While Elf clashes with the nurses, Yolandi fills us in on the family history. The Von Riesens grew up in a Mennonite colony and Elf especially fought against the restrictions and close-mindedness. We also learn Elf is not the first in the family to attempt suicide, despite what seems like a jackpot adulthood. Toews treats both sisters with kindness and respect even though they are on opposite sides of an emotionally fraught issue. Euthanasia. Elfreida is determined to end her life. Yolandi is determined to save her. Their relationship is the eye of a hurricane and we are reading to find whether it will make landfall or dissipate over the sea.

Even though this book is the literary equivalent of a category 1 hurricane, it’s still a wonderful read. I had to keep reminding myself I wasn’t reading an autobiography. Yolandi felt like she was Miriam Toews. As if she was recounting Toews’ own childhood, failed marriages, and personal griefs. That’s definitely a possible explanation for how Toews managed to create something so real that isn’t technically true. It took me a couple of pages to get used to her writing style – at first I thought it was going to drive me crazy – but by the third chapter I had acclimatized to it. Her sentence structure reminded me a lot of Gabriel García Márquez, the same sort of almost-run-ons-but-not-quite that populated One Hundred Years of Solitude. Fewer metaphors, though. There’s a wonderful segment on pages 45-46 about how whether or not something is “working well” is relative; depending on your current life challenges circumstances that are typically disastrous or ludicrous may barely merit attention. When you have family unwillingly clinging to life, showering without a curtain can easily get bumped from the “disaster” category into the “functional work around” category. (Of course, it can easily go the other way too. The most minor set back or inconvenience can get abruptly upgraded to epic level catastrophes. I’d rather have the former than the latter, but sometimes you don’t get to make that choice.) All My Puny Sorrows also has poems recited by several characters, strange dreams, and poignant letters. There is so much love and tenderness in spite of all the sadness that against all odds, I felt better after reading this book. Few are the books about suicide that I can say such a thing about.

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The Shipping News by E Annie Proulx

The Shipping NewsThe Shipping News by Annie Proulx
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Mired in the throes of grief after his despicable wife dies unexpectedly, Quoyle moves his damaged family to his ancestral home in Newfoundland. He manages to get a job at one of the local newspapers reporting on two subjects: car crashes and the shipping news. Whence the title. Driving around the rock he acquaints himself with the locals and the scenery, both of which are larger than life. To this point Quoyle has existed as a put-upon, fearful lump of a person and yet surrounded by these strange people and awesome weather events we finally begin to see him confront his personal demons and come into his own as a human being. It’s actually kind of inspiring. The changes arise because, for the first time in his life, he isn’t surrounded by people who treat him like dirt. There’s a lot to be said for extricating yourself from toxic relationships.
Proulx’s book really shines when you can immerse yourself in the prose for hours. During Quoyle’s first kick at the can as a newspaperman, one of his co-workers tries to explain to him how to write good copy. Short sentences. Short words. Snappy. Stylish. Proulx must have written The Shipping News with those instructions taped to the wall in front of her. Blunt sentences. Snappy dialogue. Unique descriptions. Unlike a newspaper, you may want a dictionary to read this book. It’s chock full of uncommon words. Ruvid. Pellucid. Caliginous. Endless lists of events and lists of nouns speckle the book. Reams of stories, some true and some certainly not. Some comical and some not and some outright horrifying. There’s drownings, suicides, murders and deaths. Domestic violence, several types of child abuse, rape, drunkenness, etc etc etc. It would probably be faster to list the things you won’t need a content warning for. I did appreciate Proulx’s minimal details and matter of fact tone when relating the difficult portions of the story, it definitely made them much easier to get through. But still, if any of the above is something you are sensitive to know that parts of this book may be very challenging. But then there’s Proulx’s prose. It’s staggeringly good. She represents the Newf accent so well I can’t believe she didn’t grow up there. Every oceanic ripple and breeze is photographically depicted in two words or less. Brilliant sentences, like “By January it had always been winter,” (284). “Two cribs jammed close like bird cages,” (15). The more you read the more her writing sinks in to your system. After a couple of hours you may find yourself thinking like Proulx writes. Although this novel won a Pulitzer, so maybe that’s not so bad.

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One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez

One Hundred Years of SolitudeOne Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

When, many years ago, I read this book for the first time – on a recommendation in Cosmopolitan*, of all things – I was awed. One Hundred Years of Solitude was my introduction to magical realism, to García Márquez, and South American literature as an entity in the world of books. The story covers the founding and falling of the fictional town of Macondo, established by the matriarch and patriarch of the Buendía family, José Arcadio Buendía and Úrsula Iguarán. The story tracks their lives and the lives of their children and grandchildren in a family tree – thoughtfully included at the front of my edition – that would be straightforward if not for the continuous repetition of names. Twenty-two Aurelianos! The Buendías go through all manner of trials in their lifetimes. Most of their suffering is self-inflicted. As a more mature reader, I can see the flaws I missed previously. Women are represented somewhat narrowly, with lives that revolve around childrearing, housework, or sex; even the ones who are independent and struggle against all the restrictions. Often, they are blamed for men’s poor behaviour, as if their very existence could control anothers’. Though this could have been more an extension of the time the book is set in than Márquez’s personal attitudes. Toxic masculinity is rampant. Other potentially cringe-inducing parts include the mention of infanticide, and instances violence; murders, sexism, sexual assault, rampant infidelity, and incest. Lots of incest. Márquez’s inimitable writing style flourishes in this book. Despite having regular punctuation, it seems to have been constructed almost entirely of run on sentences. Periods melt in the South American heat. The language is some of the most beautiful I’ve ever read; metaphors drip from the pages as if mere paper can’t possibly contain so much creativity. Every line is magic. While the characters are frequently terrible, One Hundred Years of Solitude is just so incredible, and so different from anything I had read until that point I can’t not recommend it. If you’re looking for a voyage through a surrealist pseudo-history, or to expand your literary horizons, definitely add One Hundred Years of Solitude to your list.

*This was way back when Cosmopolitan had a section with book suggestions in it. That issue had three books and I eventually read all three. The other two were Hula by Lisa Shea and The Pillow Book of Sei Shōnagon, of which I was fortunate enough to track down a wonderful edition that translated ALL of Shōnagon’s witty, fantastic book, and not the shrivelled, eviscerated cop-out translated by Arthur Waley and presented as a complete work. (Pro-tip: if your copy of The Pillow Book is less than two centimeters thick it’s missing something. Like the rest of the book.) I’m still surprised that a magazine like Cosmo had book recommendations pulled from the canon of classic literature and authors who weren’t all white male Europeans; instead of only books culled from contemporary pop culture.

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The Year’s Best Science Fiction & Fantasy 2016 edited by Rich Horton

The Year's Best Science Fiction & Fantasy 2016The Year’s Best Science Fiction & Fantasy 2016 by Rich Horton
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

What makes a great story? Plot? Suspense? Characters? Dialogue? Each of these is present in The Year’s Best. Some of the stories are perfect snapshots of an unseen world. Others develop like flowers: bud swelling and expanding, bursting open into an explosion of petals, and then the whole thing folding in on itself. Dark, violent tales like Vonda N McIntyre’s Little Sisters and And You Shall Know Her by the Trail of the Dead by Brooke Bolander. Those are balanced by cheerful, sweet stories such as Cat Pictures Please by Naomi Kritzer. My favourite story was Catherynne M Valente’s remarkable The Long Goodnight of Violet Wild. Valente’s writing is rich and delicious; she takes the dictionary, rips all the pages out and replaces them with her own. The countries in Valente’s world are described and delineated by their colours: blue, red, yellow, orange, green, and purple. Violet Wild has grown up in the country of purple with her wealthy parents on their estate, but after a tragedy occurs when she is watching the herds one day she abandons her home to search for healing in the country of red. Her journey takes her through each of the other colours and their exceeding strange customs and wildlife. Valente deftly straddles the line between an overwhelmingly complex fantasy, and one you can flip through with only half your brain registering sentences. It’s a truly magical universe.

The rest of my favourite titles were (in no particular order):
Cat Pictures Please by Naomi Kritzer
-a helpful AI discovers its favourite thing about people. LGBTQ characters.
Mutability by Ray Nayler
-wherein people live centuries but don’t get better at chess.
This Evening’s Performance by Genevieve Valentine
-explores the possibility of robots replacing actors.
Endless Forms Most Beautiful by Alvaro Zinos-Amaro.
-wealthy art collectors vie to create the most perfectly beautiful painting. Only male characters, fails the Bechdel test.
The King in the Cathedral by Rich Larson
-classic fantasy with an exiled king who plays war games with his robot guard. LGBTQ main character, fails the Bechdel test.
Hello, Hello by Seanan McGuire
-a scientist and her deaf sister are fine-tuning the ASL-speech translation program they created, when they discover it has unexpected abilities. LGBTQ main characters, majority female characters.
The Heart’s Filthy Lesson by Elizabeth Bear
-a bitter scientist denied funding to find ancient aboriginal settlements on Venus strikes out on her own. LGBTQ characters, disdains binary gender systems.
The Deepwater Bride by Tamsyn Muir
-Lovecraftian fantasy with a twist. All female characters, LGBTQ.
Botanica Veneris: Thirteen Papercuts by Ida Countess Rathangan by Ian McDonald
-the lost diary belonging to a famous artist is finally found. LGBTQ characters. Gets my award for most complicated title.
The Two Paupers by CSE Cooney
-an author and a sculptor team up to stop a coup in the fairy realm.

Content warnings for the following:
And You Shall Know Her by the Trail of the Dead by Brooke Bolander
-a mercenary and a programmer take a job rescuing a mob boss’ kid whose consciousness has gotten trapped in cyberspace. As the title suggests, there’s violence and gore. Fails the Bechdel test.
My Last Bringback by John Barnes
-a neuroscientist specializing in rebuilding the brains of Alzheimer’s sufferers reconstructs her own memories. Not just violence, but reveling in the commission thereof.
Please Undo This Hurt by Seth Dickinson
-a burned out paramedic looks for a reason to keep going. Depression, some gore, and suicides. Fails the Bechdel Test.
The Game of Smash and Recovery by Kelly Link
-a brother and sister on a lone planet discover the real reason for their existence. One instance of violence against a child.
Little Sisters by Vonda N McIntyre
-a galactic conquerer returns disgraced and bankrupt to the company that bankrolls his expeditions, where the chairman makes him an offer he can’t refuse. Coercive reproduction/childbearing scenes. Only male characters.
Drones by Simon Ings
-a dystopian future where bees and women don’t exist. Respect and honour are shown through spitting in someone’s mouth and drinking pee. Only male characters.
The Ashtrakhan, The Homburg, and the Red, Red Coal by Chaz Brenchly
-a group of men join an experiment to try to contact an alien species. Only male characters. Drug use.
Asymptotic by Andy Dudak
-in an era of space travel, speed traps have evolved to stop violations in faster-than-light travel, in case they collapse the universe. One instance of murder. One female character, fails the Bechdel test.
Acres of Perhaps by Will Ludwigsen
-a washed-up writer of a once popular television series reminisces. Alcoholism. LGBTQ characters, fails the Bechdel test.
Consolation by John Kessel
-an activist questions her support for a cause. Bombings.

Other Interesting Notes:
The Karen Joy Fowler Book Club by Nike Sulway
-anthropomorphized animals grapple with finding value in life, knowing their species is going extinct. LGBTQ characters.
Unearthly Landscape by a Lady by Rebecca Campbell
-a governess remembers a student’s childhood and her unsettling artwork. All female characters.
The Graphology of Hemorrhage by Yoon Ha Lee
-a magician and her trainee work to cast a spell to crush a rebel army. Reverses the traditional mentor-trainee dynamic: male trainee and female mentor.

Stories that didn’t fit in other lists:
Capitalism in the 22nd Century, or Air by Geoff Ryman
-twin sisters embark on a long-awaited escape to a different planet, when one backs out at the last minute.
Time Bomb Time by CC Finlay
-a university student experiments with social activism by creating a bomb that loops time.
Folding Beijing by Hao Jingfang, translated by Ken Liu
-a pauper smuggles messages into Beijing’s upper class regions.
Today I Am Paul by Martin L. Shoemaker
-AI provides homecare for dementia patients
The Daughters of John Demetrius by Joe Pitkin
-a mysterious wanderer searches Mexico for the children of a god
Twelve and Tag by Gregory Norman Bossert
-Ice miners on Jupiter’s moon Europa swap stories and play word games in the bar to unwind after work

And that is it! If you want any more information on a particular story, you’ll have to read this yourself.

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Feed by Mira Grant

Feed (Newsflesh Trilogy, #1)Feed by Mira Grant
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is now one of my all time favourite books. I was almost physically incapable of putting it down this weekend, to the chagrin of anyone who wanted to have a conversation with me. Grant has written a dystopian future zombie sci-fi thriller that’s so good it’s not gripping. It’s throttling. Every chapter was better than the last. The brother-sister team she builds the story around are the sort of characters that get made into action figures. I want someone to make this book into a movie. And then I want them to make the rest of the series into more movies. And then make them into extended cut DVDs so I can buy the box set and watch them until I wear that shiny coating off the disc. That’s assuming the rest of the series is only as good as Feed was, and Grant didn’t get even better writing the rest of it. If she has I may have to see about having the books surgically implanted into my brain, or something.

At least, the parts of them that aren’t already. Gripping books have that danger. If you can’t look away, you can’t blink at the tragic, bloody parts. There are a lot of deaths in this book. Zombies show up a lot, so there are guns and gunshot wounds and murder. Like many popular zombie stories, the apocalypse is caused by a virus. Anyone can catch a virus, and in Grant’s world anyone does. Youth is no protection. I’m grateful there are only casual mentions, background details filling in the twenty years between the outbreak and the story’s present. But if you’re sensitive to that at all, there are going to be hard parts. I guess it’s all part of writing a believable, enthralling story. On top of that, Grant uses the plot and the world she’s constructed to get you to think about some hard questions: what sacrifices to your freedom are you willing to make to guarantee your safety? How much does the environment you live in shape your opinions on social issues? Do people have a right to the truth about things that could endanger them? When do laws to contain, control and respond to disasters cross the line separating reasonable from paranoid? If you can sacrifice one person to save a country, do you? If your answer to that question is yes, at what number does it change to no? Who should have the power to make those choices? What happens when someone disagrees with your answers?

Is it a privilege to live in a world where you don’t have to worry about the answers to those questions? Or is it naive to think that anyone lives in that world? It’s been a long time since we lived in the kind of world where a disaster in one country doesn’t reverberate globally. Where an outbreak in…say, Africa, couldn’t possibly cross a couple oceans. Part of being a mature adult involves recognizing our interconnectedness. Our responsibility to each other. And choosing leaders who respect and reflect that we are all connected, and that if one of us goes down, all of us will. We do not have infinite lives. Let’s not screw this up.

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A Severed Head by Iris Murdoch

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
I only need two words to describe this story: strange and wonderful. (I’m still going to write a whole review, I just wanted to show you I could be concise if I felt like it.) It’s a veritable train wreck of a relationship; you can’t look away. And maybe you don’t want to, schadenfreude kind of shows up here too. Martin Lynch-Gibbon isn’t as unlikable a character as Charles Arrowby was, (The Sea, The Sea) but he’s still a bit of a tool. He’s done much less to bring it on himself, so it’s easier to sympathize. Murdoch has also created an excellent primer on how not to open your marriage! (A primer on the wrong way to have any sort of marriage, really.) While this may or may not have been something you were wondering about, rest assured Murdoch’s characters have done the hard work for you and made almost all of the mistakes – sometimes several times over – so you don’t have to! If only all fictional characters were so thoughtful, the world would be a much better place. Thinking about cheating on your significant other? Read this book, and then don’t! It won’t end well! I’d get more specific, but it would spoil things and there were some good surprises in the story. Just be aware that these seemingly rational characters are, well, not. Murdoch does a brilliant job of writing characters at the limits of their emotions. She wraps their antics in this incredible writing that wouldn’t be out of place in a book of poetry. I started out reading A Severed Head missing her wonderful descriptions of the sea, but after a chapter I didn’t notice they were gone anymore. She’s filled this story with details about light, fires, and decor. It makes the landscape positively luxurious. It’s becoming one of my favourite things about her writing.

You know what bothered me even more than the rampant cheating did? This one tiny tidbit: the claim from the back cover blurb that Martin Lynch-Gibbon is married “to a woman old enough to be his mother.” We are told Martin and his wife’s respective ages in the story. Martin is 30 when he and Antonia get married. Antonia is the staggering age of 35. Five years older than him. How is that old enough to be his mother?? How is that an age difference even worthy of notice? Murdoch doesn’t speak of the age difference as though it matters, and while Antonia does mother Martin a bit he also “fathers” her (in the parental and not generative sense; how strange that those two terms have such vastly different connotations!) It’s obviously just the opinion of the individual who wrote the synopsis. If I ever meet them they are going to get a stern talking to. There’s no need for attitudes like that.

In spite of the gruesome title, there’s minimal violence in this book. Fisticuffs, mostly, but one attempted suicide that could be painful for sensitive readers. There’s a lot of emphasis on the womens’ appearances, but it’s matched pretty evenly with descriptions of the male characters so it’s not as grating. There is some suggestion of drunk driving.