Saturday, October 19, 2013

Robin Sloan Chooses His Own Adventure Interview!

CYOAI is an interview series with authors, where I send them 10 questions, and ask them to answer whichever they feel inspired to tackle.  The questions are generally about the author's opinions and personal experiences, but are meant to be light-hearted and a window into a person's creative nature.

This month's interview features Robin Sloan, author of Mr. Peunumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore! A big thank you to Robin for humouring me in answering my questions!  Let's see what Robin’s answers were!
What's your first book-related memory?
I don't know if this is my first, but it's among them: ten or twelve years old, stretched out on a green couch under a tall lamp, finishing THE HIGH KING, the last volume in Lloyd Alexander's CHRONICLES OF PRYDAIN, and feeling sad—so sad—as the pages dwindled beneath my fingers, because it meant I wasn't going to get to spend any more time with these characters. It was the first time—not the last—that a book made me feel sad in that way.
Have you ever gotten a book hangover from a book?  If so, which one?
I'm actually feeling one right now from HILD, Nicola Griffith's historical epic due out in November. I read an ARC [advanced reader’s copy] recently, and it's one of those books that absolutely sucks you in, not only to its world, but to its protagonist's way of seeing that world. Hild starts the book as a child and grows into a prophet, largely because she's able to recognize patterns (political, natural) that her contemporaries can't. I've been seeing in Hild-vision, or trying to, for weeks.
Is there one word or turn of phrase that you've felt compelled to work
into your writing?
As soon as I encountered the word "Hadoop"—the name of a very popular piece of open source software used to analyze huge data sets—I knew I had to use it somehow. And sure enough, it plays a pretty significant role in the plot of MR. PENUMBRA'S 24-HOUR BOOKSTORE.
I mean, how can you resist a word like that? "Hadoop"!
Do you reread books?  If so, which ones?
I'm trying to do it more often. The book I've just been rereading is—you're going to laugh—SO MANY BOOKS by Gabriel Zaid, a book of brilliant essays, all about books and reading and (yes) rereading. This is probably my fourth or fifth time through. Right now, there are only a handful of books I can say that about, but I'm trying hard to increase the number.
If you weren't a writer, what would you do as a profession?
I'd probably focus more on digital stuff, either as a programmer or app-maker of some stripe. (I still do a fair amount of this now, but I
balance it with writing.) 
Use the word 'spatula' in a sentence.
My father's sword was called Doombringer; his father's before him, Doomsayer; his father's, Doom's Edge; but my blade, forged in the fires of the Darkmount, it has a different name. It is Spatula, flipper of souls.
(Okay, I realize that was actually two sentences.)

**If you’re an author that would like to participate in the Choose Your  Own Adventure Interview series, please contact me at**

Saturday, October 5, 2013

The Painted Bridge, by Wendy Wallace

When it comes to medical issues, very little scares me these days.  Science has made such strides forward over the last few decades that, to my mind, cancers are (for the most part) beatable, HIV/AIDS is treatable, and a whole host of other, lesser ailments are conquerable.  The only things that terrify me are illnesses of the mind.  We just don’t know enough about the brain to be able to successfully treat illnesses like Alzheimer’s or schizophrenia, and my worst nightmare is to loose my current capacities to such illnesses.  My latest read, The Painted Bridge, by Wendy Wallace reinforced just how precarious our understanding is of the brain and mental health, and it really brought my fears home to me.

The Painted Bridge is set in 1859 (Victorian) London.  We’re introduced to the main character, Anna, when her husband is taking her out to the country to ostensible visit some friends; in reality, he’s taking her out to a privately-run asylum to commit her.  As the story develops, we learn that Anna read about a shipwreck off the cost of Wales, and simply left her home to seek out opportunities to help the survivors.  When she returned, her preacher-husband found her explanation ludicrous and arranged to have her locked away for hysteria.  This brings the reader to the second main piece of this story, and that’s the Lake House, a privately-run ‘retreat’ for women just outside of London; in an era where the government is becoming increasingly involved in the administration of health-services to the population, Querios Abse’s retreat is standing on increasingly shaky ground, both financial and in terms of the methods he uses to treat his patients.  The rest of the story is Anne’s efforts to remain sane in world that believes her to be tottering on (if not already fallen off) the brink of insanity.  

This book brings up several historical issues and beliefs about women that are heart-breaking.  The first issue is that women were subject to the whims of the men in their lives.  Anna went from her parental home to her husband’s without much of a chance to learn about him, or vice versa.  As soon as Anna exhibited a bit of independence (and a lack of due deference to the men in her life), she was labeled as a hysteric and locked away.  The women she met at Lake House further prove the above points – one was locked away by her family for daring to have a relationship with a man from India, another was locked up for years for exhibiting signs of post-partum depression.  Now, I’m not going to judge the past on modern standards (especially given that psychology was a fairly new science in that era), but I read these stories with a feeling that a good dose of common sense could have prevented a lot of these incarcerations.

What I really enjoyed about this book was Wallace’s ability to raise questions about almost all her characters’ sanity.  Anna seems sane, but she admits to having had visions since a young age; Abse seems reasonable, but he’s able to studiously ignore everything around him that doesn’t fit into his world-view; and Abse’s daughter, Catherine, seems like she would be a better fit with her father’s patients that Anna, but as daughter of the house, her behavior is forgiven as ‘quirks’ of character.  It’s a really slippery slope for the reader to manage – what were the true symptoms of Victorian insanity, and where does sanity and character flaws/quirks begin.  

I think what struck me so strongly about this book is that mental health (especially in this era) is/was so much about perception.  Anna found herself in an untenable position of being believed to be insane, but any emotion she exhibited over the question of her sanity was interpreted as a worsening of her hysteria, and made her vulnerable to continued incarceration.  However, while displaying calmness and acceptance, it was interpreted as progress in curing her that required extra time.  She was damned if she did, and damned if she didn’t.

So, final verdict?  I’d say this is a book to read.  The internal push and shove of the struggles of most of the characters are interesting and intriguing, and well worth the effort.  I’ll admit though that this won’t be a book for everyone – there are long passages on reflective thought and information about the Victorian sentiments that slow down the forward movement of the plot.  That having been said, the entire work challenges the reader’s understanding of sanity and insanity and, if you’re like me and fear the loss of your mind, it’s a stark reminder of just how tenuous all our lives are.

The Flappers: Vixen, by Jillian Larkin

I’m an eclectic reader who loves a good deal on a book.  I find a lot of my reads in the discount fiction section of Chapters, and I’ve always got my eyes peeled for a historical fiction, whether I’m familiar with the era or not.  That’s how I stumbled on my latest read, The Flappers: Vixen, by Jillian Larkin.  It wasn’t until I got the book home that I realized it was a teen-read; at least, that’s how the publisher classified it…  But still, I powered through and read it.

A word on plot: this book tells three stories, all set and intersecting in Prohibition-Era Chicago.  The first story is Gloria’s, a rich white girl from the debutant scene; Gloria is recently engaged to one of the most eligible bachelors in town, but she longs for something more than the proscribed life unfolding in front of her.  The next story is Clara’s, Gloria’s cousin; Clara is from rural Pennsylvania, but ran away from home for the fast life in New York, only to be disgraced and sent to live with her aunt (Gloria’s mother) in Chicago.  The final story is Lorraine’s, Gloria’s best friend; from the same social strata as Gloria, Lorraine’s life is a little less decided, and she’s desperate to emulate the flapper girls who are making all the headlines.

I’m not exactly sure where I come down on this book…  The minutia of the plots are clearly designed for teens, and the resolution of them read a bit too much like ‘they lived happily ever after.’  What’s more, I couldn’t resolve the age of the characters with their actions.  Gloria and Lorraine are still in high school, but Gloria is engaged and both girls are already living as if they’re 20-somethings.  I’m not well-versed enough with the history of the era to know if this is plausible, but if feels odd reading about how Gloria was eating lunch in the cafeteria at school, then dinner with her fiancĂ© at the swankiest restaurant in town… something felt disingenuous, and I’m not sure what it was.

The characters were, for the most part, really annoying.  I stopped hanging out with high schools girls years ago (thank god), but this book put me right back in the middle of that mess.  “I love him, but he doesn’t notice me!”  “I don’t love him, but I feel I can’t break up with him!”  “How can I best pull the wool over my parents’ eyes?”  Blah.  I’ve been through that shit-show, and never want to go back.  The characters, other than the three main girls (i.e. the men in their lives) are actually pretty well written and dynamic, but as they are only supporting characters, they’re presence isn’t weighty enough to temper the girls’ stories enough for me.

So, final verdict?  Even though I seem to trash the book, in the end, it’s a nice little step into the speak-easy world of Chicago.  If you’re interested in the era, then you could do worse in finding a read.  I take it from the title and where the book left off that this is a series, but I don’t think I’ll be hunting down the rest of the books.  If I stumble across them on the sale table at Chapters I might pick up the next one.  So, that’s not much of an endorsement, but they can’t all be winners.