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In the Valleys of the Noble Beyond – John Zada

December 8, 2019

In brief: A journalist visits the Great Bear Rainforest looking for Sasquatch and the folklore around them.

Thoughts: When I picked this up, I was expecting sensationalism, voyeurism, and adventurous gung ho. I was pleasantly surprised (and relieved) that this is much more actual travel writing, that there’s a lot more to the travelogue than just the search for Bigfoot, and that Zada spends a fair bit of time meditating on belief and consciousness and the nature of truth. The result is an illuminating, thoughtful book that doesn’t deal in firm answers.

The book has three main threads: nature writing, including ecological issues; the lives of the people living in the Great Bear; and Sasquatch. The descriptions of the rain forest ring true to what I know of other coastal rain forests, and are evocative without being rambling or poetic. He conveys an awe of the place, but also a sadness as he talks about pipelines and over-fishing and bear hunts and other resource issues in the area. And also hope, because he talks to eco-activists and Heiltsuk people who are working to protect the forest.

Similarly, the lives of the locals, who are largely Indigenous, are treated with care and open-mindedness and respect, regardless of politics or anything else. Whole scenes and even chapters are about talking, asking opinions, experiencing the towns and the cultures, and listening. Yes, Zada’s asking about Sasquatch and listening to what people say, but he’s also talking about poverty and hunting licenses and summer camps and grandkids. The portrait seems pretty rounded and pretty true to, again, what I know of BC coastal and Indigenous life.

That said, though, Zada does some things at a ceremony out of ignorance that he shouldn’t have done, but he apologizes when called on it and isn’t afraid to state the full facts in the book. It would’ve been very easy to drop that sequence completely and pretend he’s a perfect Western outsider, and I’m glad he didn’t choose that route.

And the Sasquatch? The reason why I read the book to begin with? The subject’s as rounded as the other threads. Zada talks to people who swear it’s a real animal, people who swear it doesn’t exist, and people who say it’s in the spirit realm. There are scientists and eyewitnesses and skeptics. He also adds some of his own history with Sasquatch lore, and the history of said lore, and also talks about trance states, tricks of the mind, and other bits of psychology as possible explanations. It’s an approach I’m not used to in Sasquatch books, and I found it very thoughtful and interesting.

In short, Zada tells a good story full of description and beauty and truth, and you get a good sense of his emotional as well as physical journey. It’s an enjoyable and thought-provoking read, timely as it relates to culture and ecology, and also a fast one. I think that’s partly due to length (this is not a hefty book) and partly due to the simplicity of the writing (not dense, not literary, just clear).  Also, the content was pretty darn interesting.

To bear in mind: Contains mention and discussion of racism, deforestation, and poverty. The racism does include but is not limited to some stark Islamophobia. The aforementioned intercultural screw-up.

7.5/10

Fortuna – Kristyn Merbeth

December 7, 2019

In brief: Scorpia Kaiser is a screw-up, the family pilot, and out to prove she has what it takes to take over smuggling operations from Mama. Corvus Kaiser, exiled from his family to fight a war he doesn’t believe in, is finally coming home. Then a smuggling deal goes massively south and suddenly, what was going to be a difficult time becomes much, much worse. First of a trilogy.

Thoughts: For a book that starts with a drunken crash landing, this did not go anywhere close to where I thought it would, and that’s a good thing. Of course, Merbeth delivers on space battles and smuggling shenanigans and everything else you’d expect from that scene, but this is also very much a story about trauma, family, interplanetary politics, ethics, and morality. It gets dark and deep, and it keeps you guessing as the problems just keep piling on.

Scorpia is by far my favourite character, though everyone with a lot of say in the story is well-written. She’s got this relentless optimism and creativity, but also a dark streak of cynicism and fear, and a lot of her arc is about dealing with the trauma of Mama’s parenting and what it means to be a good person. (She also makes poor choices when pretty girls are involved, which is endearing.) Corvus has a sadness and determination about him, Mama is objectively awful and terrifying, other characters show surprising depths just when you think they’re one-note, but Scorpia is definitely the star.

But it’s not the characters that shine here as much as it’s the solar system and the themes Merbeth’s exploring. She’s taken the premise of Single Biome Space Opera planets, added in “they will all kill you” and extinct aliens, and then delved into how the cultures and politics would shake out. It’s not good. Sometimes it’s genuinely bad. It’s entirely complicated, and the Kaiser family’s caught right in the vice between it all. In some ways, it’s like that gag of plugging one hole just for three more to open up, or maybe Whack-a-Mole, if the moles occasionally exploded.

And the themes? I’m used to space opera that’s either an adventurous romp or that really goes at some external issue. (See: the Expanse series and exploitative corporations.) This one goes into emotions a lot more, asks questions about the nature of humanity, and yes, also delivers a lot of the wild political ride that the Expanse does. I found some of the “oh but wait” moments a little hard to follow sometimes—there is sometimes a lot in play—but that didn’t stop me fearfully turning pages to find out what happens now.

Oh, and the family dynamics are something else. There’s so much fear and misinterpretation and distrust that those almost make for a satisfying story on their own. And family history, especially childhoods, factor into the intrigue and adventure surprisingly often.

For all that I’m glowing about this book, though, I didn’t love-love. Some of the narration kicked me out of the story, there were the moments I couldn’t always follow, and some of the more minor characters and moments just didn’t work for me. That said, it’s definitely a series I’m going to keep following and one I recommend, especially to fans of James S.A. Corey.

To bear in mind: Alcoholism. Maternal abuse. A really nasty bioweapon. A government that, if not fascist, is definitely getting there. PTSD and survivor’s guilt. Genre-typical violence and injury.

7.5/10

Rivers of London, Vol. 7 – Ben Aaronovitch

December 6, 2019

In brief: A funeral sends Peter into the Folly’s archives, where he reads through one of Nightingale’s old cases. Seventh in a series.

Thoughts: Another good installment! I really liked seeing Nightingale solving a crime in the 1950s and getting some more of his backstory at the same time. It’s a good mystery, going into bits of British history that don’t get talked about much and putting a magical spin on them—though of course, this being Aaronovitch, there’s a certain amount of darkness and gut punching going on at the same time. He even manages to flesh out Molly’s character a little bit more.

I don’t know if I can say a whole lot more without spoiling the book, but it’s certainly nice to see Nightingale hunting a murder on his own (or at least without Peter) and I really hope that we get to see more fragments of the past as the Rivers of London universe develops.

To bear in mind: Contains Nazis and serial killers.

8/10

Amberlough – Lara Elena Donnelly

December 5, 2019

In brief: Cyril DePaul, spy, is not alone in disliking the fascist Ospies but when a mission goes bad, he finds himself blackmailed—help them to power or be killed for his relationship with Aristide. Helping now might mean escaping with Ari later—but who to trust in Gedda and will Ari forgive him? First of three.

Thoughts: This book is full of hard choices and vibrant world-building. Hard choices not only because of the set-up for the story and the way things fall from there, but because all three POV characters have had rocks and hard places in their pasts and a lot of the secondary characters get in on the act too. Cyril loves Aristide but must pretend he doesn’t. Aristide has a Past™. Cordelia, a dancer at the club, has clawed her way out of a slum. There are street urchins and fences and people targeted for their race or religion, and that’s not even starting on the people Cyril has to turn. It makes for a greyer, grittier story than the cover might suggest.

And the world-building? Think Weimar Berlin, but in a secondary world with its own politics and tensions and history. Think Art Deco and black-tie dinners and streetcars and kids hawking papers on every corner. Think Gatsby slang but slightly tilted. Then add a culture of smuggling and corruption that’s pretty cheerfully ignored, and everyone (except the Ospies) not caring what anyone’s skin colour, gender presentation, or sexual preferences are. And then, as the fascists start to descend, I had to remind myself this wasn’t a historical place, and this beautiful, complicated city wasn’t being overrun.

Which is definitely a tribute to Donnelly’s writing. You really feel the love the characters have for their city, their hopes and fears, their pain and sorrow and anxiety. While I didn’t experience the distrust everyone has for each other the same way as I did the above, that’s still well-realized, and the interpersonal tensions that result from them ratchet the story up nicely as it goes along.

It’s definitely a bit of a slow build, though the handful of spy thrillers I’ve read suggests that’s genre-standard. It never quite felt like things were genuinely happening even though the story moved forward, and even though I read it pretty quickly, I never felt like I was flipping pages needing to know what happened next. But then the climax came and oof. (And this is just book one.)

So. I found this surprisingly rich in character and world and theme, much more complicated than I’m likely making it sound, and delightfully queer and quasi-historical. I enjoyed the read but, because I wasn’t caught up like I wished I was, probably won’t be reading the sequel. That doesn’t stop me from reccing it, though!

To bear in mind: The aforementioned fascists, doing the sorts of brutal, racist, homophobic things that fascists generally do. A gay man having to go in back in the closet.

7/10

The Survival Guide to British Columbia – Ian Ferguson

December 4, 2019

In brief: An Albertan pokes fun at a wacky province.

Full Disclosure: I’m a BC-er and I’m honestly feeling so attacked right now.

Thoughts: This is about on par with a lot of satirical non-fiction I’ve come across, which means that it’s solidly entertaining with some good jabs at current issues and culture, but also isn’t particularly deep or nuanced. (Then again, I imagine that’s pretty hard to do.) I think the best thing, the most important thing, about this book is that Ferguson is not wrong. Not even close to it. And he really does tell you everything you need to know to fit in.

I really wish I’d planned ahead and had a copy of the book to reference while I was writing this. Or (gasp) taken notes while I was reading. There are so many little jabs and asides and full-on Truths in this book, and I can’t mention every one of them because I’ve forgotten. However, I can say that Ferguson sticks to his title, writing this for every outsider trying to pretend they belong here, and that his good advice and hard truths includes:

  • it is appropriate to wear a loud floral dress with a jean jacket to a wedding
  • highways are not actually highways and also they are bendy
  • move to Victoria because weather
  • don’t bring up environmental or diversity issues because everyone has an opinion and yours is going to be wrong
  • if you’re going to name an educational or government institution or a similar body, be sure to include the name of the city or province it’s located in
  • how to identify a tree-planter
  • travel destinations
  • carry pepper spray in the woods so that when a bear attacks, you can spray your companion and escape
  • the great outdoors is dangerous, why would you go there?
  • lists make it look like you’ve done research and not like you’re cheating for page count

Guys, I felt seen and I’m not even one of the British Columbians he’s describing. Much. And I know that’s exactly what those British Columbians would say. (Also, I feel like a lot of what he’s commenting on culturally is a Western Canada thing, not a BC thing, but what do I know? It’s not like I’ve ever lived elsewhere.)

So yeah, if you want to laugh at this province and its people, this is a great book to pick up. If you want advice on how to navigate intersections, order coffee, and shoplift works of Canadian satire, this is also a great book to pick up. If you want actual, genuine survival tips such as how to properly layer for cold weather or build a lean-to when lost in the woods, hoo boy, is this not what you’re looking for.

I am, however, docking this half a point because, as confident as Ferguson is about how timeless and undated this book is, I think he’s wrong.

To bear in mind: May offend some British Columbians, but in a nice way. Mentions of Kamloops.

7.5/10

The Alienist – Caleb Carr

December 3, 2019

In brief: In Gilded Age New York, a psychologist, a reporter, two detectives, and a secretary invent serial killer profiling, subtly assisted by a President-to-be. First of two.

Thoughts: This is a really good historical mystery. The characters are interesting and feel appropriate to the times, the setting is impressively detailed, the pacing works, and I experienced not only the richness of the world but the emotions that went along with the story—fear, outrage, boredom, desperation, disgust, excitement…. Carr does a good job of evoking things in general, in other words. He’s also really good at keeping the twists and turns coming steadily and building that tension of getting closer and closer to a solution.

I think this might also be the first time I’ve read a book where the protagonist isn’t the point-of-view character, and enjoyed it. The choice to only see Laszlo Kreisler only through the eyes of the other characters, and especially the reporter who’s narrating things, makes him a more interesting, inscrutable character, which is really compelling. (The retrospective narration, told from the story’s future, also deepens things, though not necessarily in terms of Kreisler’s character.)

I also liked that Carr took care to highlight the diversity of New York at the time, the attitudes of the day, and the problems they caused (homophobia and sexism, among other examples) while having his protagonists or even many of the antagonists point out that those are problems and yes, gay people are normal and shouldn’t be shunned. For one example.

Two things kicked this down from a 9 for me though. One is totally my fault, and that is that I read this too close to finishing a binge of Mindhunter, so that every bit of clever profiling in the book felt both unbelievable (they came up with that in the 1980s, not the 1890s!) and too by-the-book. The other is that I could never quite get behind the character of the killer. At times he felt a little too out there, like Carr had chosen traits for coolness factor over believability, and at others, I found myself questioning how the killer’s past could really create the present man.

But I understand that serial killers aren’t necessarily rational or fit neatly into boxes, and that everyone’s mileage varies for that sort of thing, so that’s something I’m willing to shrug past. And all the detective work and profiling is period appropriate, they’re not out there with their steampunk DNA databases or anything.

Even with that said, this is still a good story. It still drew me in. I think I enjoyed the historical context—detective work and setting—more than the mystery itself, though, but only by a smidge. Can and will definitely recommend, if this is a subgenre you’re interested in.

To bear in mind: The serial killer in this targets adolescent male sex workers wearing drag and the bodies are very graphically described. Characters deal with abuse and sexism, and witness scenes of poverty, racism, and sexual slavery. Book also features violent scenes and corrupt cops.

8.5/10

The Unwritten, Vol. 7 – Mike Carey

December 2, 2019

In brief: Tommy Taylor might have saved the day, but that doesn’t mean everything’s resolved. People are going missing, there’s a new cult, and Tommy still has his past to reckon with. Seventh in a series.

Thoughts: This was a really cool expansion of the world and a great “where do we go from here?” for the characters. I’m continually impressed in this series with Carey’s inventiveness around what can be done with the world he’s created, what sort of things can push through the borders between the fictional and the real, and this volume is no exception. Between that and the plot itself, I was pretty much going from one grin-inducing moment to the next, except for when the emotions swung the other way and I was going “What? No.”

I really liked the new characters, especially Didge, who leads a lot of the plot in this one. She’s exactly the sort of person needed to carry things forward. (And the cult she’s trying to infiltrate is suitably creepy and cultish.) I’m not sure how I feel about Tommy’s part in things, especially with the final chapter in the mix, but I’m glad that he seems to have found a decent life, to an extent, since the events of Volume 7, and still has a very central role to the story.

Actually, one of the things I like about this series is that while Tommy might be the main character, we’re frequently seeing him on the sidelines and through other characters’ eyes.

One of the things I dislike? The fact that Carey keeps inserting weird and ominous things that keep me wanting to read on. (Not actually a problem.)

So yeah, another two-thumbs up from me on this one!

To bear in mind: Contains a badass indigenous Australian cop, and no, that’s not actually a warning. Also contains a cult, which might be.

8/10