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Laura van den Berg's debut novel Find Me is an engaging story about memory, forgetting, hope, and the search for identity, set against the sciencefictional background of a mysterious plague (which apparently only affects the United States). Joy, the narrator, is a woman who was abandoned as an infant, grew up in a series of foster and group homes, and is working retail (where she steals cough syrup which she uses as a drug). When the plague strikes, she is contacted by a dying woman who gives her some clues about her birth mother, including a photograph.

Not long afterward she is contacted by an organisation conducting research on the plague. As Joy was exposed to the plague early on but has not developed symptoms, it is possible that she is immune. She agrees to participate in the research, and is taken, with 149 other possible immunes, to an isolated hospital in rural Kansas.

There is an odd, almost dream-like quality to Joy's experiences before, during and after her time in what she refers to as "The Hospital," a quality accentuated by the non-linear narrative. Events seem fraught with symbolism, and the plague is itself a metaphoric sort of apocalypse that reflects Joy's own issues with memory and traumatic amnesia.

Interesting but ultimately unsatisfying, largely because of the author's choice to use sciencefictional tropes but not fully engage with them.
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Kallocain, by Karin Boye, noted Swedish poet and author, is a dystopian narrative that fully deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as Orwell's 1984, Zamyatin's We, or Huxley's Brave New World. That it is not part of the core lineage of 20th century political dystopian literature may be because it was not translated into English until 1966, or because it was written by a woman, or both. But it is unfortunate that even now, 50 years after it became accessible to English readers, it is still not better known and acknowledged.

Written eight years before Orwell's 1984, Kallocain place in a future in which the state - to be specific, the totalitarian police state - is all, and the individual nothing. Readers of 1984 will find much that is familiar; sparse living quarters, rationing, constant surveillance, the ever-present atmosphere of suspicion, politically correct expression, conformity of action and an on-going threat of war with other states about which nothing is known but that they are the enemy. There are no minutes of hate in Kallocain, but there are structured festivals that celebrate the state, weekly broadcasts in which people who have misspoken must make their apologies and corrections. The mechanisms of social control in the WorldState (so named even though it is just one of several states) are perhaps a little less dramatic, but no less all-encompassing.

But these are external manifestations of the totalitarian state. Kallocain concerns itself with the inner self under a social and political order that demands universal devotion and loyalty to the state and its ideology. As the novel's protagonist. Chemist Leo Kain, comes to realise, there are always those whose thoughts rebel, lack the singleminded purity required of them. Those who question, those who resent, those who watch and remember, those who imagine another way of being. And because he himself fears the embers of these thoughts in his own mind, he produces a drug, Kallocain, which relaxes inhibition and causes those under its influence to speak their inner truths, a drug which he offers to the state as the answer to identifying those committing these internal forms of sedition.

There is much that is chilling in the descriptions of how everything from family life to human scientific experimentation is handled in this future state, but it all follows quite logically from the basic premise of such systems, that the collective is all and the individual nothing.

I've long been fascinated by dystopian literature, and yet only recently did I learn of the existence of this novel. I'm very glad to have finally been introduced to it.

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Jokes and the Unconscious, a collaborative graphic novel written by performance poet Daphne Gottlieb and graphic artist Diane DiMassa (of Hothead Paisan fame) is a brilliant, sometimes savage, sometimes heartbreaking story about coming to terms with death, sexuality, and living in a horribly imperfect world filled with pain, cruelty, callousness, lack of understanding and empathy, ironic co-incidence, and sometimes love and tenderness and just enough transcendence to make it possible to keep on living.

The narrative is framed within one summer in the life of the protagonist, Sasha, during which she works as a billing clerk in the hospital where her oncologist father, now on his deathbed, formerly practiced. However, the time frame shifts through Sasha's life, telling her story, her family's story, and the story of her father's illness and death in a mostly non-linear fashion. Along the way, it also addresses misogyny, date rape, child sexual abuse, domestic violence, patients's rights, ablism, Holocaust survivor issues, and a host of other issues, some of which may be triggering.

It's not an easy book, especially for those who may be dealing with loss of a parent or some of the other situations dealt with, but it's honest and it's worth reading and thinking about.

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More short fiction from the vast corners of the Net.


"Sinners, Saints, Dragons, and Haints, in the City Beneath the Still Waters," by N. K. Jemisen (originally published 2010, The Company He Keeps, reprinted 2015 Uncanny Magazine Issue #6)
http://uncannymagazine.com/article/sinners-saints-dragons-and-haints-in-the-city-beneath-the-still-waters/

A good man and a family of miniature dragons face the evil that grows in the heart of the city drowned by hurricane Katrina. Powerful and painful.


"The Oiran's Song," by Isabel Yap, September 2015, Uncanny Magazine
http://uncannymagazine.com/article/the-oirans-song/

Akira, a former pageboy in a pleasure house is taken as a soldier, trained to fight but also used with casual brutality as a servant and sex slave. When they buy an unusual oiran (courtesan), Ayame, to serve them as well, a strange bond forms between the two victims of war. The subject matter is painful, but the story is both powerful and beautiful.


"September 1 in Tblisi," by Irakli Kobiashvili, Summer 2015, One Throne Magazine
http://www.onethrone.com/#!september-1-in-tbilisi/ccw8

A strong and discomfiting story about the often violent policing of gender norms, set in post-revolution Tblisi, Georgia. (Not sff.)


"Security Check," by Han Song (translated by Ken Liu), August 2015, Clarkesworld
http://clarkesworldmagazine.com/han_08_15/

At first, this story seems to be a typical dystopia. Louis, the protagonist, lives in New York, in a future America that has given up everything for security. People travel only by subway, and everyone must pass through a thorough security check to get to the subway system. The goal is to make everything - and everyone - completely, constantly safe. But to read further is to see each previous assumption about the country, the world, and ultimately the universe in which this is happening - and what is responsible - rendered an illusion, an experiment in reality. Thought-provoking, but ultimately not quite satisfying.


"City of Ash" by Paolo Bacigalupi, July 27, 2015, A Medium Corporation
https://medium.com/matter/city-of-ash-94255fa5d1a9

In an America devastated by climate change, where only the wealthiest have access to fresh water or greenery, a young girl dreams of a better future for herself and her father. As emotionally devastating to read as the future it describes.


"The Midnight Hour" by Mary Robinette Kowal, Uncanny Magazine Issue #5
http://uncannymagazine.com/article/midnight-hour/

A royal couple agree to pay an almost unbearable price for the wellbeing of their kingdom, and will do anything to keep their promise. The tragic elements - and they are many - are thankfully relieved by the strength of their love for each other and their people.


"In Libres" by Elizabeth Bear, Uncanny Magazine Issue #4
http://uncannymagazine.com/article/in-libres/

This is a wickedly funny story about a student of sorcery who needs just one more source citation to complete her thesis - but to get it, she must face the perils of the Special Collections Branch of the Library. To make clear the nature of the threat, the epigraph is from Borges, and the one essential thing needed to navigate the Library is a ball of twine.

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At one point in Margaret Atwood's The Robber Bride, the twin daughters of one of the three main point-of-view characters insist that their bedtime story - The Robber Bridegroom - be changed because they want all the characters to be women. Not just the hero, but also the villain, and the villain's victims.

This of course is Atwood pointing out to her readers that the book they are reading is in fact such a role reversal. Oh, there are male characters, but they are all secondary, all adjuncts to the lives of the women who are the real story - Tony (Antoinette), Roz (Rosalind) and Charis (formerly Karen) and (though we never see anything from her viewpoint) Zenia. They are fathers, uncles, lovers, husbands, sons, employees - and all we see of them is the role they play in the lives of women. It's a longstanding pattern in fiction - one gender has all the agency, the full lives, the rounded characters, is the centre of the story, the other exists only through their relation to one of the important characters. Of course, we're used to seeing the stories be about men, while the women are only there to move the men's story along.

The novel itself is based on the folk tale of the robber bridegroom, a tale akin to the Bluebeard tale, of a man who proposes to young women and then kidnaps and kills them. In The Robber Bride, the eponymous villain is Zenia, a manipulative femme fatale who spins tales about herself and has a penchant for seducing men in relationships with other women, devouring their souls, then leaving or betraying them. Tony, Charis and Roz are three women, college acquaintances, who are drawn together by Zenia who, at different times, has seduced a man loved by each of them. One she either betrays or corrupts (depending on how much the reader chooses to believe of what she says), one commits suicide after she casts him aside and later fakes her own death, and one survives, wounded but perhaps wiser, to return to the woman who loves him.

At the core of the story is the friendship that grows between these women as, one after another, their lives are thrown into turmoil by Zenia's manipulations and they find the only people they can turn to are other women who have been victims. The novel fills in the life stories of these three women, each in her own way wounded by her childhood experiences, making them vulnerable as adults to Zenia's schemes and lies. Yet these women are also survivors, and it is their strengths that enable them to survive.

The theme of duplicity and duality runs through the novel in many ways, not all of them malignant. Just as Zenia constantly rewrites her life stories to take advantage of others' weaknesses, so do Tony, Karen and Roz rewrite themselves, to become more who they wish to be. In childhood, each deals with secrets and mysteries, stories and lies, in their own families. Tony, left handed mirror-writer, suspects she is the surviving half of a mirror twin pair; Charis has a repressed alternate personality created as a result of childhood abuse; Roz is the mother of twins. Each of them has kept secrets and told lies in and about their relationships with the men Zenia took from them. And in various ways, Zenia is a dark mirror to each of them.

At the end of the novel, Tony asks: "Was she in any way like us? thinks Tony. Or, to put it the other way around: Are we in any way like her?" The question may be one for all of us to consider.

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Carol Shields is often seen as a minaturist, as a writer who writes about the small and homely details of life, rather than a teller of sweeping sagas about great and important doings, and this choice (as is suggested by a largely male group of great literary critics who control admission to the canon) limits the greatness possible in such work. Such tales are told in women's words, set in women's worlds, and thus cannot compare. Such novels, says the literary doyen, can at best be good (while, of course, bring womanly) and never great.

Reta Winters, Shields' protagonist, is a mother whose beautiful and intelligent daughter Norah has left home, left her boyfriend, left college, left the normal rhythms of life, to spend her days sitting on a busy city street corner with a sign around her neck that reads, simply, "goodness." Among the clues Reta has that may explain why Norah has taken this frightening journey away from life is this comment from one of her professors:
Well, yes, we did have one or two altercations, you know how things go these days. Could Flaubert possibly imagine himself into a woman’s life? The class divided on that issue, it happens every year. Norah saw Madame Bovary as a woman blandly idealized by Flaubert, and then reduced to a puff of romanticism, and capable of nothing else but kneading her own soft heart. Your daughter’s view, and it is a perfectly viable view, was that Madame Bovary was forced to surrender her place as the moral centre of the novel. Others, needless to say, disagreed.
Reta is a writer working on a sequel to her first novel, about Alicia a woman whose essential quality - according to Reta's editor Arthur - is goodness. But Arthur is pressuring Reta to make this new novel more "universal" - by making it not at all about Alicia but instead about Alicia's fiance Roman, because "A reader, the serious reader that I have in mind, would never accept her as the decisive fulcrum of a serious work of art that acts as a critique of our society while, at the same time, unrolling itself like a carpet of inevitability, narrativistically speaking." Because Alicia as a character, and hence any book about Alicia, possesses "goodness but not greatness."

And on multiple levels, that is precisely what Unless, Shield's final novel, is about. The exclusion of women from greatness, and the meaning of what, in the eyes of a patriarchal society, remains to them - goodness. Shields articulates this quite clearly in the novel, in a letter she writes (but does not send) to a literary critic:
It happens that I am the mother of a nineteen-year-old daughter who has been driven from the world by the suggestion that she is doomed to miniaturism. Her strategy is self-sacrifice. I know what that feels like. She can have “goodness but not greatness,” to quote the well-known Dr. Danielle Westerman. It is, as you say, a “tricky proposition.” And she has been tricked.
As it turns out, Norah has, instinctively, automatically, in the manner of a hero, tried to do something that is not only good, but great. But it has also been traumatic, physically and psychologically. And it has ben an event involving the silencing, the erasure, of yet another woman - and, for a time, of Norah herself.

In this, which has been described as Shields' most explicitly feminist novel, all the small daily conversations and observations of Reta's life as wife, mother, friend, author and translator, add up to one overwheming conclusion:
... the world is split in two, between those who are handed power at birth, at gestation, encoded with a seemingly random chromosome determinate that says yes for ever and ever, and those like Norah, like Danielle Westerman, like my mother, like my mother-in-law, like me, like all of us who fall into the uncoded female otherness in which the power to assert ourselves and claim our lives has been displaced by a compulsion to shut down our bodies and seal our mouths and be as nothing against the fireworks and streaking stars and blinding light of the Big Bang.
Unless is many things: it is a story about real people living the kind of lives any of us could be living, and the kind of loss and personal tragedy that any of us might face; it is an iteration of the value that is placed on women's lives, thoughts, feelings, place in the world, steeped in a feminist consciousness; it is an exploration of the nature of goodness. It is also an examination of the creative life. Shields's narrator is herself a writer - and during the course of the novel is working on a comic romance novel about a woman who writes. Shields draws attention to this, in Reta's thoughts about the novel she is writing:
I too am aware of being in incestuous waters, a woman writer who is writing about a woman writer who is writing. I know perfectly well that I ought to be writing about dentists and bus drivers and manicurists and those folks who design the drainage beds for eight-lane highways. But no, I am focusing on the stirrings of the writerly impulse, or the “long littleness,” to use Frances Cornford’s phrase, of a life spent affixing small words to large, empty pages. We may pretend otherwise, but to many writers this is the richest territory we can imagine. There are novelists who go to the trouble of cloaking their heroes in loose crossover garments, turning them into painters or architects, but no one’s fooled. This matters, the remaking of an untenable world through the nib of a pen; it matters so much I can’t stop doing it.
Unless is in many ways a litany of instances of women's words and women's silences, and at the end, a celebration of women taking charge of their own voices despite a world that devalues them.

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Talking about her debut novel, Midnight in the Dragon Cafe, Judy Bates Fong recalls a cross-Canada road trup she took while young.
During that long ago car trip I was inspired by the immensity of this country, its beauty and varied landscape. Yet there was one constant that made an impression on me then and stays with me today. Almost without fail, every small town we drove through had a local Chinese restaurant, and I knew, much like my family, the people who ran these restaurants would be separated from the community by language and culture, that their lives would be lonely, especially the older generation, and that work and home were melded into one, unchanging and monotonous.
Having gone on more than a few such road trips myself, I can see in my mind's eye the ubiquitous small-town Chinese restaurants Bates refers to, with their unvarying menu of standard North American greasy spoon cuisine and Westernised Chinese dishes. In the late 1950s - when this novel is set - the odds were that the owners and their families would be the only non-white immigrants in the town, isolated despite coming in constant contact with most of the people in the communities where they lived and worked.

In Reading Midnight at the Dragon Cafe, by Judy Fong Bates, I was struck by the simplicity of a narrative that nonetheless manages to say so much, and in such a nuanced fashion, about a complex situation. The book is told through the eyes of six-year-old Chou Su-Jen, who with her mother Lai-Jing has come to Canada to be reunited with Hing-Win, Lai-Jing's second husband and Su-Jen's father. Chou Hing-Win, much older than his wife, has lived in Canada since before WWII, having returned to China only once, when he met and married Lai-Jing. With his best friend Doon-Yat Lim, he owns the Dragon Cafe in the small town of Irvine, Ontario; the son of his first marriage, Lee-Kung, lives in Owen Sound where he works in a Chinese restaurant.

As the novel unfolds, Su-Jen, now known as Annie because students must have "Canadian" names, is increasingly caught between the two worlds - her isolated and insular family, and the wider community of Irvine, which welcomes her on the one hand while reminding her of her difference on the other. Meanwhile, tensions with her family grow as her mother, isolated and unhappy, makes a choice that could shatter Su-Jen's world.
The quintessential Canadian immigrant experience, Midnight at the Dragon Café delicately traces the life of particular Chinese girl and her family in 1960's small town Ontario, but it also paints the broader picture of the difficulties faced by all newcomers, from casual racism to struggles with language acquisition and the balance between accepting new culture and not forgetting one's own heritage.(http://www.umanitoba.ca/outreach/cm/vol12/no15/midnightatthedragoncafe.html)
Bates' style is understated, but seductive. I read the book in one long session, unable to put it away until the story had run its course and the resolution known. Highly recommended.

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Although Winona LaDuke's novel, Last Standing Woman is written as fiction, the author states in a note that "the circumstances, history, and traditional stories, as well as some of the characters, are true, retold to the best of my ability." Indeed, Last Standing Woman tells with a sometimes searing truthfulness the history of the White Earth Anishinaabe people from the 1860s to the present, through seven generations, including three women named Ishkwegaabawiikwe, or Last Standing Woman.

The story of the White Earth people's resistance to racism, oppression and attempts at assimilation is told in an episodic fashion, tracing first the loss of identity and then the struggle to reclaim it despite such obstacles as land swindling, missionaries and their boarding schools, government housing projects, and alcoholism and sexual abuse.

As if to demonstrate the survival of her people, LaDuke writes the final chapter of the book - which deals with the vision of the newest woman to be named Ishkwegaabawiikwe - in Anishinaabe, declaring to the world that despite all the years of struggle, her people's language and culture survive in the young and will survive into the future.






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Say You're One of Them, Uwem Akpan

This collection of short stories and novellas by Nigerian writer and Jesuit priest Uwem Akpan is a stark and relentless look at the issues of poverty, disease and sectarian violence in modern Africa. Akpan has chosen as his central characters (protagonist smacks of too much agency) in these five pieces children caught up in genocidal violence, child slavery, poverty, prostitution - children who have seen too much to be wholly innocent, though they may not always comprehend the worst that can still befall them. Painful to read, and haunting.



Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures, Vincent Lam

A suite of interlocking short stories that follow the work and personal lives of four doctors, Lam's debut work is enriched by his own experiences as a physician. The medical aspects of these stories are familiar from countless television shows, but what Lam excels at is showing us the souls of both doctors and patients, the damage caused by both the powerlessness of being ill or injured, and the power of being the only one who might be able to help.



Peter S. Beagle, Sleight of Hand

Beagle is a master of the short story form. And a master of the fantasy genre. But you all knew that, right?

This is a collection of new and previously published stories. Some of them are merely good; the rest are hauntingly wonderful. My favourites were: Vanishing, a different kind of ghost story set on the Berlin Wall; Dirae, about a warrior-protector of the weak whose strength comes at a tragic price; the Rabbi's Hobby, about the quest of a rabbi and his young bar mitzvah student to discover the person behind an unusual cover model's face; and Children of the Shark God, about two youths who set out to find their mysterious father. In varied and sometimes surprising ways, the stories in this collection offer meditations on family and friendship, courage, loyalty and love, as told by a master of the art of portraying the human soul.

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Sherman Alexie's young adult novel, The Absolutely True Adventures of a Part-time Indian is by turns hilarious and heart-breaking. And while it may be fiction (though based at least in part on Alexie's own early life), it rings absolutely true.

The narrator is Arnold Spirit Jr., a young boy growing up on a Spokane reserve. He is charmingly geekish, isolated by his intelligence, his fondness for drawing cartoons, and the physical consequences of being hydrocephalic - seizures, an ungainly appearance with an overly large head. As narrator, Arnold speaks directly to the reader, sharing his sometimes funny, sometimes angry, often poignant observations about his life and the lives of his relatives and neighbours on the reserve. There is no sugar coating here; Arnold sees the ways in which his people are trapped in destructive patterns and second-class lives:
It sucks to be poor, and it sucks to feel that you somehow deserve to be poor. You start believing that you're poor because you're stupid and ugly. And then you start believing that you're stupid and ugly because you're Indian. And because you're Indian you start believing you're destined to be poor. It's an ugly circle and there's nothing you can do about it.
Early in the book, Arnold thinks about what his parents might have been like under different circumstances:
Seriously, I know my mother and father had their dreams when they were kids. They dreamed about being something other than poor, but they never got the chance to be anything because nobody paid attention to their dreams. Given the chance, my mother would have gone to college. She still reads books like crazy. She buys them by the pound. And she remembers everything she reads. ... Given the chance, my father would have been a musician. When he gets drunk, he sings old country songs. And blues, too. And he sounds good. ... But we reservation Indians don't get to realize our dreams. We don't get those chances. Or choices. We're just poor. That's all we are.
But Arnold does get a chance, and a choice, when he is suspended from the reserve school for throwing a book at his (white) teacher. (He has reason for his anger - he has just realised that he is studying from the same textbook his mother used in school, that no attempt has been made to give the Indian students an up-to-date education.) His teacher, despite his own anger at having his nose broken, sees in Arnold's anger a deeper emotion - hope. And the urges Arnold to "take your hope and go somewhere where other people have hope." For Arnold, that means the white school, 20 miles away, and there he determines to go, even though he must walk to school and back each day because his parents cannot afford the gas to drive him there.

Attending an off-reserve school brings with it many additional problems; to the white kids at school, he is an outsider - at least, until he displays an unexpected talent for basketball - while to his former friends on the reserve, he is a traitor - especially when he plays basketball against them. But he perseveres, takes this rare gift of a chance that has been denied to so many others, and makes his choice.
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Junot Diaz's remarkable novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, is one of those books that leaves me not at all certain of how to talk about it. I could talk about the characters, who are memorable and vibrant and clearly drawn, even those that would be caricatures in a lesser work. I could talk about the language, which is a mix of English, Spanish, and the evolving form of speech known as Spanglish (Wikipedia informs me that it is neither pidgin nor creole, but is more than just code-switching or jumbling phrases from both parent languages), which is engaging and creative and wholly apt. I could rave about the wide range of multi-cultural references from genre novels to literary classics, and how they mirror the same kind of rich amalgam between cultures that the use of Spanglish does. This is in many ways a novel of the post-colonial world in that it is a mosaic of multiple influences.

I could talk about the novel as an indictment of what Junot (in an interview in The Boston Review) calls:
The rape culture of the European colonization of the New World—which becomes the rape culture of the Trujillato (Trujillo just took that very old record and remixed it)—is the rape culture that stops the family from achieving decolonial intimacy, from achieving decolonial love. (http://www.bostonreview.net/books-ideas/paula-ml-moya-decolonial-love-interview-junot-d%C3%ADaz)
I could try to convey the plot - or plots - of this complex novel. There's the life of the young American-Dominican man who is steeped in popular culture and longs to be a writer, told by another young American-Dominican man who longs to be a writer, and the curse on his family and how that has shown itself though three generations, and then there is the story of life (and death) in the Dominican Republic under the rule of Rafael Trujillo, and all of this is tied together in a narrative that doesn't let you go even after you've finished reading.

Or I could just direct you to some more coherent reviews that will tell you that this is a great novel and one that deserves to be read, like these two:
http://www.nytimes.com/2007/09/04/books/04diaz.html
http://www.thenewcanon.com/wondrous_life.html

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Keri Hulme's novel about damage and redemption, The Bone People, is at once the story of three broken people who must be stripped down to the bone before they can begin to heal, and also a vision of the need for a cultural renewal for New Zealand's peoples that brings white and Maori together.

Set in rural New Zealand, the novel centres on the relationships between three people. Kerewin, mostly white with some Maori heritage, is an artist who has lost her ability to create; she has broken all ties with her family and lives by the sea in a tower (a Rapunzel who ultimately must cut her hair and tear down the tower she has built of her own volition, for the princes who come are too much in need of freeing themselves to free her as well). Joe, mostly Maori with some white heritage, has been damaged by childhood traumas, by the loss of dreams, and by the death of his wife and biological son; gentle when sober, jovial when drunk, with a core of violence that is unleashed by frustration and his sense of failure. His adopted son, called Simon Peter (a fragile rock to build anything on) is the only known survivor from the foundering of a small vessel off the coast, near the small town where Joe lives and where Kerewin has built her tower; a precocious white child of perhaps seven or eight, he is unable to speak (though not for any medical reason), and difficult to deal with, as he often skips school, roams the country side, steals, has seemingly irrational fears that send him into hysteria, and reacts to the frustrations of being misunderstood and unable to communicate with outbursts of violence.

When Simon breaks into Kerewin's tower, and Joe must come to retrieve him, a bond is formed among the three of them, and their interrelationships will ultimately result in stripping all three down to the bone and forcing them on journeys both physical and spiritual through which they may find the paths to healing, redemption and renewal.

Hulme does not hold back when dealing with the ambivalent nature of relationships - however loving - between people struggling with isolation, fear, frustration and loss. Both Kerewin and Joe abuse alcohol, a coping mechanism that Simon attempts when possible. All three resort to violence - in both word (or sound, in Simon's case) and deed - when pushed too far. And yet, with a wisdom that today's more simplistic models of behaviour have forgotten, she knows that when people are badly broken, violence and pain can co-exist with love, that when people are not whole there will be much that is bitter in the midst of sweetness.

What can redeem such relationships is finding the way to heal and be whole, and Hulme gives us some ideas about how that can happen, for individuals and for a people - through finding one's roots, one's centre and one's self, through spiritual renewal and reinvigorating old traditions in newer and more inclusive ways, through ending isolation and embracing family and community.

As someone from a white settler culture living in a country where, like New Zealand, the aboriginal people have been marginalised and in many cases divided from their roots and traditions, the portrayal of the Maori peoples and their relationship to the white settler culture in this novel was of particular interest to me. Hulme, who is herself biracial and identifies with her Maori heritage while also embracing her European background, seems to me to be making a bold proposal for healing and community in settler nations - instead of assimilating aboriginal peoples into the primarily European culture of the settlers, assimilate the settlers into a vibrant and growing aboriginal culture that can incorporate both settlers and aboriginal peoples into one whole and healed community.

(For more thoughts on The Bone People, may I suggest checking out Jo Walton's review at Tor.com? http://www.tor.com/blogs/2009/03/maori-fantasy-keri-hulmes-the-bone-people)

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Margaret Atwood's short story collection Moral Disorder is something both more and other than a straightforward collection; many of the stories seem to be explicitly about a single main character and her friends and family - certainly the names and backstories of the characters are the same, one assumes they are about the same people. As for the other stories - they all feature a protagonist who very well could be the same woman as in the linked stories, all but one of the stories are arranged as if to tell the tale of a single life from one end almost to the other, for the stories that tells of the protagonist's twilight days is actually the first story in the book. But it's never made clear. Ursula Le Guin, writing about the collection in a review in The Guardian, comments on this quality of the stories:
Most collections of short stories by a single author are grab-bags, but some approach or achieve real unity; this is a different unity from that of the novel, and deserves some attention. The gaps between stories preclude the supporting structures of conventional plot. If the stories tell a story, it must be read in glimpses, and through the gaps - a risky gambit, but one that offers singular freedom of movement and ironic opportunity. In such episodic narratives, character, place or theme replace plot as unifying elements. Many collections that pretend to unity merely fake it, but we need a name for a book that is truly a story told in stories. Could we call it a story suite?

Moral Disorder is such a suite, consisting of 11 short stories. Place, perhaps the commonest cement of the story suite, is not very important, but the stories have a single protagonist, a central character- or I think they do. She is variable, elusive, even a bit slippery. This is, after all, a book by Margaret Atwood.
At first I thought, as does Le Guin, that these stories do have one continuing central figure. I even thought for a while that they were semi-autobiographical, and that the figure was Atwood herself. Then I got tangled up in realising that some of these stories could have been about me, in that disguised way that fiction inspired by real events sometimes has. But then, I am, like Atwood, a woman with roots in Nova Scotia who is now planted firmly in Toronto, I spent time in Northern Ontario as a child, and so on. But surely there must be many other people who share some experiences - not necessarily the same ones - with Atwood, or with the protagonist/s of these stories. Perhaps the deeper truth is that the stories are not about one woman's life, but Everywoman's life, particularised into sketches that have some details in common with Atwood's life, or mine, or a million other peoples'.

And then I looked again at the first story in the collection, The Bad News. It is about Nell, she of the stories that seem fully linked, and her mate of many years, Tig. They are aging, retired, contemplating the morning news .... And suddenly time shifts, and the protagonist - still an aging woman discussing the deplorable state of the world with her mate - is living in the third century Roman town of Glanum in the south of what we now call France. And I think that Atwood is indeed slippery, and these stories are indeed about one woman, and Everywoman. And that's the point.

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Everything is genre these days. Literary fiction is a genre now. While some of the novels I read that I'm calling literary fiction have some highly fantastic elements, I think they are more this than that.

Margaret Laurence, This Side Jordan
Margaret Laurence, The Fire-Dwellers
Margaret Laurence, The Stone Angel

I've been re-reading Laurence's works over the past few years, those that I had read before, and reading the handful I had somehow overlooked in the past. The Fire-Dwellers and The Stone Angel are old friends, part of Laurence's Madawaska sequence that culminates in one of my favourite books, The Diviners. This Side Jordan was new to me, despite being her first published novel. Set in colonial-era Ghana during the lead-up to independence, it looks at the contradictions in the lives and thoughts of both the Ghanese people - torn between their tribal pasts and ancient traditions, their circumscribed and subservient present as second class citizens in their own land, and their varied dreams of an independent future - and the white colonists who are at home neither in the colony they have come to work in nor the Europe they have left behind. in this, her first published novel, Laurence has already become the adept unraveller of inner struggles and social conditions that are so much a part of her oeuvre.


A. S. Byatt, Possession

I saw and loved the movie that was based on this book and always knew I'd get around to reading it. And having done so, I am impressed and delighted by it. There's sonething delightful about the uncovering of a dark literary mystery and the politics of the academy that surround the adventure that deeply appeals to me, and the past that is so revealed, the story of two poets who have a brief affair, and how it affects their lives, their work, and their partners, is well told and strikes true. But the best part among so much goodness was the way that Byatt creates all the primary documents - letters and poems - in the varied voices and styles of the poets and their associates. It was exciting to be able to read the poetry of the two past protagonists and see, not just told, how they influenced each other's work, to examine for myself the little clues to their shared history in their writing.


Barbara Gowdy, Mister Sandman

Gowdy's work is often surreal, and Mister Sandman is no exception. But as surreal as it is, it is a profound examination of the liberation that comes from being truthful and honest to one's self, and those close to one.


Hiromi Goto, Kappa Child

Goto's novel about a Japanese-Canadian woman from a profoundly dysfunction family who, through a fantasy pregnancy in which she bears the child of a kappa, or water spirit, also bears and re-births herself, is both funny and moving, and very, very good.


Jo Baker, Longbourn

As an Austen fan, I was really looking forward to this book - a revisioning of Pride and Prejudice from the perspective of those at the bottom of the social ladder, the servants, the enlisted soldiers. And my anticipation was rewarded. Baker looks closely at the lives of those who toil from sun-up to sun-down so that Austen's gentlemen and gentlemen's wives and daughters can live lives of luxury. By introducing a black servant into the Bingley house staff, Baker also lets us examine issue of race in the era of Austen. Much richer and more rewarding than the last big-nane Austen hommage, Death Comes to Pemberley, Longbourn made me look twice at much I'd simpky taken for granted in Austen's novels, and put them into a class perspective. Highly recommended.

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Some interesting anthologies and collections of short stories came my way last year. The anthologies included two nicely edited theme anthologies by John Joseph Adams (dystopias and homages to Barsoom), a vamipre themed antholgy edited by Nancy Kilpatrick, a survey of urban fantasy edited by Peter Beagle and a dragon-themed anthology edited by Jack Dann.

Of particular interest were two volumes edited or co-edited by Connie Wilkins: the second volume in a new annual series of anthologies featuring short stories with lesbian protagonists; and an uneven but engaging selection of alternate history short stories with a focus on queer protagonists as nexi of change.

I was also delighted to be able to obtain a copy of an anthology edited by Nisi Shawl of short stories written by authors of colour who attended Clarion as Octavia E. Butler Scholars. The anthology was offered by the Carl Brandon Society for a limited time as a fund-raising project and is no longer available.

Peter Beagle (ed.), The Urban Fantasy Anthology
John Joseph Adams (ed.), Under the Moons of Mars
John Joseph Adams (ed.), Brave New Worlds
Nancy Kilpatrick (ed.), Evolve: Vampire Stories of the New Undead
Jack Dann (ed.), The Dragon Book: Magical Tales from the Masters of Modern Fantasy
Nisi Shawl (ed.), Bloodchildren: Stories by the Octavia E. Butler Scholars
Connie Wilkins & Steve Berman (eds.), Heiresses of Russ 2012
Connie Wilkins (ed.), Time Well-Bent: Queer Alternative Histories


I also read several collections this year, including two more volunes from PM Press's Outspoken Authors series, featuring work by and interviews with Nalo Hopkinson and Kim Stanley Robinson.

Other collections of works by SFF writers included: a set of novellas from Mercedes Lackey featuring two familiar characters, Jennifer Talldeer and Diana Tregarde, and a new heroine, techno-shaman Ellen McBride; a collection of short stories by Elizabeth Bear featuring forensic sorcerer Abigail Irene Garrett; short stories by Maureen McHugh; and forays ibto the fantasy realm of Prydain by Lloyd Alexander.

In honour of Alice Munro, this year's recipient of the Nobel Prize for literature, I read a collection of her more recent short stories (and plan on reading several more in the coming months - I've always loved her work and am delighted that she has been so deservedly recognised). Also worthy of note was Drew Hayden Taylor's collection of stories set among the residents of the fictional Otter Lake First Nations reserve, and Margaret Laurence's short stories set in Ghana. In the realm of historical fiction, There were stories by Margaret Frazer featuring medieval nun and master sleuth Dame Frevisse; I discovered and devoured Frazer's novels last year, and will speak of them in a later post.

Kim Stanley Robinson, The Lucky Strike 
Nalo Hopkinson, Report from Planet Midnight
Mercedes Lackey, Trio of Sorcery
Elizabeth Bear, Garrett Investigates
Maureen McHugh, After the Apocalypse
Lloyd Alexander, The Foundling and Other Tales of Prydain

Margaret Laurence, The Tomorrow-Tamer
Margaret Frazer, Sins of the Blood
Drew Hayden Taylor, Fearless Warriors
Alice Munro, Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage

All in all, I found a wide range of short fiction to enjoy this year.

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After watching the first of the CBC's movies based on Lucy Maud Montgomery's Anne books earlier this year, I decided that it was time to re-read the ones I'd read several times before - the first four - and to finally read all the others.

I'm not sure why I had never read the whole series before. Perhaps to a much younger and very single me, the idea of Anne with husband and children didn't appeal. Anne and Gilbert were ready to enter upon their happily ever after at the end of Anne of Windy Poplars, and the younger me wasn't all that interested in the details.

But this time I was more than ready for the domesticity and all the children, the joys and sorrows, large and small, of a maried couple's life. And I enjoyed all the books.

I must say, though, that my favourite of the later books is Rilla of Ingleside. I did not know before starting it that it is the only Canadian novel dealing with the WWI era from a woman's viewpoint written by a female author during that era. Well worth reading.



L. M. Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables
L. M. Montgomery, Anne of Avonlea
L. M. Montgomery, Anne of the Island
L. M. Montgomery, Anne of Windy Poplars
L. M. Montgomery, Anne’s House of Dreams
L. M. Montgomery, Anne of Ingleside
L. M. Montgomery, Rainbow Valley
L. M. Montgomery, Rilla of Ingleside
L. M. Montgomery, Chronicles of Avonlea
L. M. Montgomery, Further Chronicles of Avonlea

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Like many other people these days, I have a deep appreciation and affection for the work of Jane Austen. I've re-read all of the published novels several times, and collect the various versions of the films and TV movies that have been based on her books. I am a little more picky about which of the many "inspired by Austen" novels that have been hitting the market in ever-increasing numbers, but I do read some, when the fancy takes me.


Jane Austen & Seth Grahame Smith, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

This was, as many people seem to agree, a lot of fun, but I fear the idea did not delight me sufficiently to cause me to go and buy all the other versions of classics with interpolated fantasy elements that are (were?) such a fad for a while. Best part of this one? - the martial arts battle between Lady de Burgh and Elizabeth Bennett.


Carrie Bebris, Suspense and Sensibility

Bebris has written a series of mysteries in which Elizabeth and Darcy solve crimes involving both the other characters from Pride and Prejudice and characters related to or featured in the other novels. I rather enjoyed the conceit of this one, in which a member of the fictional Dashwood family from Sense and Sensibility is possessed by his ancestor, the historical Francis Dashwood, notorious founder of The Hellfire club (well, one of them, but certainly the one best known to posterity). Unfortunately, Bebris does not, at least in my opinion, get the "voice" of the Austen characters quite right and this left me a little disappointed. I may or may not investigate the other books in this series.


Michael Thomas Ford, Jane Bites Back

This was delicious. Jane Austen as a vampire, turned by no other than Lord Byron, living in modern times and trying to get a new novel published. I enjoyed Ford's take on an Austen who has survived into modern times and seen her books rise in popularity and critical acclaim, and plan to pick up the sequel.


Karen Joy Fowler, The Jane Austen Book Club

Fowler's conceit in this book is fascinating - the novel follows a diverse set of characters in a book club devoted to Jane Austen, their interactions with each other and with the texts they are reading and discussing. Parallels naturally emerge, but the relationships and resonances are subtle. Well worth reading.

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Sarah Schulman, People in Trouble
Sarah Schulman, The Child
Sarah Schulman, The Mere Future

2011 was the year in which I discovered Sarah Schulman. Her work focuses relentlessly on the lives of lesbians and gay men, and she tackles hard subjects with uncompromising honesty. Her work can be stylistically difficult, and is often controversial, but I have found the three novels I of hers that I have read so far to be both compelling and rewarding.

Jeanette Winterson, Written on the Body

Winterson's classic examination of relationship did not draw me in quite as strongly as some of the other books of hers that I have read, but was still in my mind worth reading.


Laurie R. King, The Language of Bees

My Sherlock fetish, let me show it to you again. I found this volume of King's Mary Russell/Holmes mysteries to be harder to get into than earlier books in the series, but it did start to pick up at the end. And being essentially the first half of a much longer mystery, and thus incomplete, I suppose that makes some sense. On to God of the Hive!


Margaret Atwood, Good Bones

oh my, was this a fun book to read. A slim volume, full of very short fables and vignettes, all of them overflowing with Atwood's delicious and acerbic wit. There is a great deal of critical social commentary and trenchant feminist analysis buried in these small gems.

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Sometimes I do read things that are not science fiction or fantasy. In 2010, I read some historical fiction based on the lives of Jane Austen and on the lives of various women in the court of King Henry VIII - two of my favourite subjects. I also read a very funny modern feminist novel. And I decided that since I had read Alcott's Little Women so many times, I really ought to read the other books she wrote about Jo March. While reading Little Men, I encountered reference to a play by Edward Bulwer Lytton which was somewhat pivotal to a full understanding of what was happening, so I hunted it down on the Gutenberg Project and read it.


Syrie James, The Lost Memoirs of Jane Austen

Philippa Gregory, The Boleyn Inheritance

Molly Hite, Class Porn

Louisa May Alcott, Little Men
Louisa May Alcott, Jo’s Boys

Edward Bulwer Lytton, The lady of Lyons, or Love and pride: a play in five acts

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As Constant Reader has probably noticed, I don't read a lot of mainstream fiction, but I do read some. The remaining books in this category to be recorded in my reads for 2009 are:



Tracks, Louise Erdrich - I enjoyed this thoroughly. Erdrich tells a most engaging story and writes compellingly of the circumstances of First Nations people forced to live under the oversight of white settler law and authorities.


Feminist Fables, Suniti Namjoshi - A collection of short - often very short - narrative pieces that are a combination of keen observation informed by feminist vision, and adry and delightful sense of humour.


Bird in the House, Margaret Laurence - another collection of shorter, linked narratives, set in the fictional town of Manwaka which serves as the nexus from many of the characters in Laurence's fiction.


One Good Story, That One, Thomas King - collection of short stories that explore the relationships between First Nations and settler peoples and their perceptions of each other, told with King's trademark piercing humour and truth.

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