Christina Vasilevski

Toronto Writer/Editor for Content Strategy, Content Design & UX.

Book Review: Cracklescape by Margo Lanagan

This is it – my 40th book review of the year! When I pledged to do 40 book reviews a year ago, I had no idea what I was setting myself up for. Now, with this final entry, we can all bask in the satisfaction of someone actually finishing what they start. But anyways, onwards to the review itself!

Cracklescape by Margo LanaganTitle: Cracklescape
Author: Margo Lanagan
Publisher: Twelfth Planet Press
Format: eBook
Rating: 3 out of 5

Cracklescape is a collection of four short stories by Margo Lanagan. They are not interrelated – even the word “cracklescape” makes no appearance within the collection – but they do share similar themes. Here’s a short summary of each story in turn.

The Duchess Dresser: Tanner, a young man living in a flat with several other tenants, has a ghost haunting his dresser. One particular drawer, locked tight, twitches and jerks ominously in its drawer tracking, and he’s reluctant to open it or fix the darned thing by calling a locksmith. Eventually, the scale of the haunting grows and he experiences a truly unusual form of inhabitation/possession by a ghost while being sick with the flu. Ultimately, the ghostly presence departs his life as quickly as it entered it.

The Isles of the Sun: Elric is a carefree boy like so many children are – he runs along the beach and plays pretend with his friends. But deep down, he realizes he wants something more. He fears the way that people get old and let the heaviness of talking and eating and watching TV weigh them to the ground. Why can’t he be like the spirits he sees flitting about in the sunbeams, who can make people feel happy and – even better – fly? He ultimately realizes he can be like those spirits, and convinces all of the other children in his neighbourhood to join him. His mother Jenny, sensing something different about her son, attempts to stop him, but is too late – and who would believe her story anyway that the sun-cast shadows of the birds heading out to sea look strangely like children?

Bajazzle: Women frustrate Don – or at least, his long-time (and now annoyingly svelte) partner, Su, does. Not to mention the Sheelas – those bratty, loud-mouthed girls who board trains en masse in black clothing and sequins, moaning and twirling and flaunting their bodies. However, Don meets a new and delectable woman at a beach party, only to have his encounter with her become far more incredible and gruesome than he expected.

Significant Dust: Vanessa is running away. Her fellow coworkers and backpackers at the roadside restaurant she works at don’t know this – and she doesn’t want them to know, either. All she wants is to forget that sunlit day in Perth when she went to the beach with her sister – the beach that only one of them was able to walk away from. Now running (physically, figuratively, however you want to put it) is the only method that Vanessa has to cope with the guilt of seeing her sister falling, falling, against the sand, able to talk and call for help, but not able to move…

Of these four stories, “The Isles of the Sun” and “Significant Dust” were the ones I found most affecting. The people within all four stories feel real and well drawn-out, but the characters of those two in particular were the most sympathetic. In contrast, Tanner from “The Duchess Drawer” and Don from “Bajazzle” both seem entitled and aggravating, especially in the context of how they perceive women – my preferred interpretation of both stories is that this entitlement lies at the root of the haunting phenomena that both men encounter. Do they emerge from those encounters changed for the better, though? It’s hard to say.

This leads to both the best and the worst aspects of this collection. All four stories show exceptional skill and craft in characterization and tone. They also mesh well because they deal with events that are haunting (both literally and figuratively) and ineffable. A strain of melancholy runs throughout all of them – Vanessa’s guilt over inadvertently causing her sister to become a quadripeligic; Tanner’s  shock upon experiencing a female body from the inside, aching all over from bobby pins and corsets; Jenny’s disbelief over the loss of her son; and Don’s revulsion over the ramshackle state of a beachside cabin.

However, this melancholy belies a larger problem: the endings of these stories often don’t have a point, and the background settings are sketched in so subtly that I have a hard time connecting them to the larger phenomena that Lanagan intends.

In particular, “Significant Dust” is supposed to (somehow) tie into an alleged alien abduction that happened in the late 80s in Australia –  or at least it should, given the epigraph she includes that gives the story its name. The ghost that haunts Tanner’s dresser in “The Duchess Dresser” manifests suddenly when he’s outside of the house, interacts with another tenant, and then suddenly walks out the door. Why is this? The woman who seduces Don in “Bajazzle” turns into a hideous demon-thing, and when he escapes her clutches, she reappears in the distance, looks at him, and then disappears again. What exactly is this sort of ending supposed to prove?

Part of my dissatisfaction with these endings lies in the fact that I’ve been reading slush for Electric Velocipede for nearly two months now. Through working with EV, I’ve read my fair share of stories that employ vague, ambiguous, or poetic endings in a misguided attempt to sound profound or literary. Those kinds of endings don’t work – or if they do, they have to be handled with considerable skill. Margo Lanagan does have skill, but the endings of the stories in Cracklescape remind me of all of the other stories I’ve read in which the author uses ambiguity for ambiguity’s sake.


Book Review: The Empress of Mars by Kage Baker

empress_of_mars_coverTitle: The Empress of Mars
Author: Kage Baker
Publisher: Tor
Format: Print
Rating: 4 out of 5

Life on Mars is hard. Although the British Arean Company promised wealth, growth, and a new life to all Martian settlers, once it found out that it couldn’t terraform (and profit from) the planet quickly enough, it pulled up roots and stranded those left behind without providing enough money for a return trip to Earth. Now the BAC’s presence on the planet consists of a skeleton crew of ineffectual bureaucrats.

Mary Griffith has been forced to make do in the aftermath. Formerly a botanist on the BAC’s payroll, she’s reinvented herself as the proprietor of The Empress of Mars, the closest thing that the entire planet has to a hotel, bar, restaurant, or welcome centre. The Empress of Mars is all about Mary’s attempts to keep a roof over her family’s head – attempts which rapidly gain steam when the discovery of a huge red diamond on her land rekindles interest in the red planet’s resources.

One of the hazy, oft-quoted rules of novel-writing is to avoid prologues. I don’t understand why, because they serve a purpose. The prologue for The Empress of Mars is absolutely astounding – here it is, in its entirety:

There were three Empresses of Mars.

The first one was a bar at the Settlement. The second was the lady who ran the bar, though her title was strictly informal, having been bestowed on her by the regular customers, and her domain extended no farther than the pleasantly gloomy walls of the only place you could get beer on the Tharsis Bulge.

The third one was the queen of England.

That’s it. Three paragraphs. But those paragraphs pack a powerful amount of information. They tell us about the geopolitical structure of this story’s universe – that England has managed to rebuild an empire, and that it has sole sovereignty over Mars. They tell us about the mindset of the people who are settling Mars right now – that they’re playful and informal, but also just really want a beer. They also tell us that life on Mars is a scarce one – there’s only one settlement, and only one bar.

However, this excerpt provides only a taste of what Kage Baker’s Mars is really like. You’ve got abandoned BAC employees like Mary and her colleague Manco Inca, a terraformer who has built a shrine to the Virgin of Guadeloupe in an underground cave. There’s Chiring, a Nepali journalist whose dispatches from the bar have greatly increased the circulation of The Kathmandu Post. There’s Brick, one of the planet’s many sturdy ice haulers. There’s also Eli De Wit, the lawyer who has come to broker the sale of Mary’s new diamond, and Mary’s daughter Alice, who has always hated living on Mars and sees Eli as her ticket off the planet.

One of the things I like about The Empress of Mars is its exploration of what life is like in the frontier of space. Baker references this explicitly through the character of Ottorino Vespucci (Reno for short), a dreamer who has come to Mars to seek his fortune – his time spent as a stuntman at a Wild West amusement park acts as  his chief frame of reference for living on the planet.

This is not new territory for science fiction. However, Baker’s taken great pains to depart from Golden-Age space opera in other ways, most notably in the ethnic, religious, and linguistic variety of her characters. As mentioned above, we’ve got Nepalis, Peruvians, and more. Americans speak English, but other characters speak a new language called PanCelt, while Ottorino speaks Italian. Interestingly, Christianity is no longer a dominant religion in human society, having been replaced in many respects by a New-Age form of goddess-worship. Mary’s tangles with the Ephesian Church make up one of the story’s many subplots.

And what fun they are! They all coalesce towards the end, but there’s a lovely shagginess to the way that all of the book’s various subplots – Mary’s new-found wealth from  her diamond, the marriages of two of her daughters, her dealings with the local clan of Irish medievalists – interact and converge. The plot here is solid, but the throughline of the book moves laterally in all sorts of ways. This is a refreshing change of pace from the vast majority of novels, where it feels like you could render the book on a graph. In some ways, the plot of The Empress of Mars defies easy categorization. But sometimes it’s really nice to have a book like that.

Up next: Cracklescape by Margo Lanagan – my 40th and final book review of 2012!

Book Review: Westlake Soul by Rio Youers

Westlake Soul by Rio YouersTitle: Westlake Soul
Author: Rio Youers
Publisher: ChiZine Publications
Format: Print
Rating: 5 out of 5

Note: This review contains ruminations about Life, the Universe, and Everything.

Before I read a book, I tend to have an idea of what it’s about, because I like spoilers. Every so often, though, I’ll read a book “blind”. In many cases, these stories are the most satisfying, because they’re so unexpected.

Westlake Soul is one such example.

Westlake Soul has the most powerful mind on the planet. He can leave his body and let his consciousness travel across the world, understand what other people are thinking, and even communicate telepathically with animals.

You know the cliché that humans use only 10% of their brains, the tip of the iceberg? Westlake figures that somehow, he’s managed to access the other 90% – to “flip the iceberg” – and access the unconscious realms of understanding that float below the surface.

He is, essentially, a superhero.

The thing is, all superheroes have weaknesses. Westlake’s is his body. He was a surfer until two years ago when he encountered a wave too big to handle off the coast of Tofino, British Columbia, and nearly drowned. Deprived of oxygen for almost 10 minutes, the sections of his brain died off one by one. Although he was rescued, his body – and to all observers, his mind as well – lies in a vegetative state.

Superheroes also have nemeses. Westlake’s is Dr. Quietus, a grim embodiment of death that chases him throughout the ruins of his shattered mind. For two years, while his body has lain in a hospital bed, his consciousness has fought and held Dr. Quietus at bay.

However, bad things are brewing in the wider world: his family has finally reconciled itself to the fact that he may never recover. Now Westlake is in a desperate race to break beyond the confines of his body and prove to them that although he may be down, he’s not out.

Westlake Soul tackles a lot of the Big Important Questions we ask ourselves. Do souls exist? Can we truly know what is best for people trapped within their own bodies – people who may still feel pain and hunger and wonder, but who can’t move or communicate? What would life be like if we broke down the walls of rationality and “flipped” our own respective icebergs?

Most importantly, if broken, can those walls be mended?

In a weird way, this book is an amalgam of several others I’ve read and enjoyed. Westlake is a man with a beautiful soul, full of compassion and dignity, which reminds me of the main character Paama from Redemption in Indigo, one of my favourite reads from 2012.

Beyond that, some of the philosophical concepts that Westlake’s mind explores – the universal wave function, infinite universes and infinite probabilities – remind me of Neil Turok’s The Universe Within. In a sense, this book is what I was hoping The Universe Within would be more like – a book that examines the kind of cosmic internal potential we all have.

Most importantly, it reminds me of one of the best books I’ve read in the last 3 years: The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, by Anne Fadiman. That book is too amazing and heartbreaking to talk about in this post, but by the end of it Lia Lee, the focus of that book, had also entered a persistent vegetative state.

It took me a long time to form this mental connection between both books. Out of curiosity, I Googled Lia Lee to see what had happened to her, and found that she died just four months ago.

She lay in a seizure-induced coma for 26 years. Westlake hung on for only two before his family lost hope – but Lia’s never did.

Do you think that, like Westlake, she was on the inside looking out all that time, aware of her family’s hopes and frustrations? If so, I don’t know if I would consider it a blessing or a curse.

Several books have delighted me this year with the joy of their images or the audacity of their characters. This book was the only one that made me want to cry. It’s beautiful and sad at the same time. In particular, the closing chapters where Westlake makes his one last effort to defy his fate, and the book’s deliciously ambiguous last line, are masterful. It even made me think of the final scene of Inception, where the top is left spinning. Whether Westlake’s final attempt to break his confines succeeds is left unsaid. But somehow, I’m happier not knowing.

Up next: The Empress of Mars by Kage Baker

Book Review: The High Road by Terry Fallis

The High RoadTitle: The High Road
Author: Terry Fallis
Publisher: McLelland and Stewart
Format: Print
Rating: 4 out of 5

I read a lot of speculative fiction, as my past reviews clearly show – books about space zombies, ghosts, Russian mythological figures, and more. However, The High Road is speculative fiction of an entirely different sort.

It’s about an honest politician!

I mentioned Terry Fallis once on this blog a few years back when I bought his copy of The Best Laid Plans. The High Road is the sequel to TBLP and it picks up soon after where the first one left off.

Note: this review contains spoilers. Also, it will make more sense if you’re familiar with Canadian politics.

Mere months ago, maverick engineering professor Angus McLintock pulled off a stunning upset victory in the riding of Cumberland-Prescott, long a Conservative Party stronghold. However, election time has come upon Canada again due to a non-confidence vote from the House of Commons and Angus, now a Liberal MP, has decided to throw his hat into the ring once more.

This time, though, the guns are out for Angus, as long-time Conservative Party spin manager Emerson “Flamethrower” Fox has decided to turn the riding Tory blue yet again. Known for pioneering negative campaigning in Canadian politics, Fox will do anything to win. Angus himself has sworn to take the high road and avoid doing any mudslinging, but Daniel Addison, his trusty campaign manager, and Muriel Parkinson, a canny political veteran, have a few tricks up their own sleeves.

There are some books that it takes me nearly a week to get through. There are some books that take me several weeks to get through (cough cough, The Terror, cough cough). Then, there was The High Road.

I read it in less than a day.

This was both because I needed a break from the sci-fi and fantasy stories that make up my typical literary diet, and because the book is fun and compelling, yet easy to read. THR proved to be a wonderful palate-cleanser. There are several things to like about this book.

For example, Daniel Addison, our narrator, is clever enough to be likeable, yet neutral enough to offset the sheer charisma that author Terry Fallis imbues Angus McLintock with. As with its predecessor, this book showcases Fallis’s deep knowledge of Canadian politics – and also, perhaps, much of his frustration with it.

As befitting the sequel to The Best Laid Plans, there are plenty of funny movements, although they tend to be more of the slapstick rather than the intellectual variety. Put it this way: the opening pages feature a naked man accidentally locking himself out of his house during sub-zero temperatures. THR also gets substantial mileage out of the unruliness (and food-sticking-to-it-ness) of Angus’s beard.

However, this doesn’t mean that it’s without flaws. The book’s biggest problem is that it has to live up to the legacy of its predecessor without completely repeating the plot.

The whole purpose of The Best Laid Plans was to chronicle Angus McLintock’s unlikely yet integrity-filled campaign. Since making another long-shot campaign the sole focus of the sequel wouldn’t add anything new to the situation, Fallis understandably chooses to extend the book past the election – I’ll give you two guesses as to who wins. However, to heighten the drama, the plot demands that the election be a close call anyway.

In some ways, Fallis’s machinations to raise the stakes of the campaign work, but in other ways they fail. In particular, the nasty, knock-down-drag-em-out fight that readers anticipate between Angus and Emerson Fox turns out to be a non-starter. Whatever negative campaigning there is is drawn in broad strokes. Granted, this is a comedy, so that’s expected, but Emerson turned out to be a surprisingly toothless character.

Anyways. As I mentioned before, the book doesn’t stop with Angus’s campaign. Immediately after the election (literally hours after the votes have been tallied), an important commuter bridge collapses in downtown Ottawa. Angus, with his background in engineering, is hand-picked by the Prime-Minister-elect to investigate the causes of the collapse.

Angus being Angus, he takes his job seriously and ends up butting heads with several other politicians over the importance of infrastructure reform. Thus, the last major portion of the book manages to mix serious political commentary – the fact of Canada’s degrading infrastructure – with hijinks.

Ultimately, Angus’s crusade leads to increased infrastructure funding – see what I said about this being speculative fiction? – so at least the novel ends on a high note. It’s just that the book walks a fine line between wildly differing tones, especially at the end.

Up next: Westlake Soul by Rio Youers

Book Review: You’re Not Fooling Anyone When You Take Your Laptop to a Coffee Shop, by John Scalzi

You're Not Fooling Anyone When You Take Your Laptop to a Coffee Shop, by John ScalziTitle: You’re Not Fooling Anyone When You Take Your Laptop to a Coffee Shop: Scalzi on Writing
Author: John Scalzi
Publisher: Subterranean Press
Format: eBook
Rating: 4 out of 5

I read a lot of books about writing in 2012. Take a look for yourselves in the archives. Although the authors I read occupy different niches within the industry, they wrote mainly about the same thing: craft. They wrote about language, narrative, and the writing life. In Anne Lamott’s case, she even waxed rhapsodic about how to Being A Writer  is a Noble Calling.

Screw that. John Scalzi just wants to get paid.

Well, there’s more to him than that, but he definitely doesn’t want to be a Starving Artist.

In a display of how ever-pragmatic Scalzi isYou’re Not Fooling Anyone consists solely of his blog posts about writing, repackaged into book form. What’s refreshing about his posts, and what distinguishes them from the other books about writing that I’ve read this year, is that he doesn’t shy away from talking about money. In fact, he devotes multiple posts to talking about finances, and one post in particular to a breakdown of where his writing income comes from – even going so far as to state outright his average yearly incone.

This leads to another refreshing thing about Scalzi – he’s doesn’t hide the fact that he makes the majority of his money from corporate writing gigs. This is something that’s probably true of most fiction writers/novelists, but rarely have I seen one state so openly that the money they make from the publishing industry is the cherry on the sundae, rather than the sundae itself.

It’s also nice to hear some snark about author advances, and to hear him take a publisher, Night Shade Books, to task about its perspective on those advances. Interestingly, a few years ago Night Shade Books was placed on probation by SFWA a few years back for not meeting its financial obligations to its authors, although it’s now off probation. It’s hard not to wonder how this publisher’s contemptuous attitude towards authors in Scalzi’s post is related to its later financial troubles.

Unfortunately, since these are blog posts, they’re also quite topical, which means that they date themselves quickly. The publishing wisdom that held true six or seven years ago when Scalzi first wrote these posts doesn’t necessarily hold true now. I bet a new edition of this book with more current posts would have a lot more to say about ebooks and Amazon, for example. But this is a problem inherent to blog posts in general; it does nothing to diminish Scalzi’s skill as a writer.

So, in short: if you like snark, you’ll like this book. If you like up-front discussions of the financial aspect of being a freelance writer, you’ll like this book. But if you do like this book, you owe it to yourself to check out Whatever to see the new stuff that Scalzi has brewed up.

Up next: The High Road by Terry Fallis

Book Review: Ironskin by Tina Connolly

Title: Ironskin
Author: Tina Connolly
Publisher:  Tor
Format: Print
Rating: 4 out of 5

Note: this review contains spoilers.

Jane Eliot is a veteran of The Great War against the fey. The five years since the end of the war have not been kind to her, however, as the lingering scar on her cheek – as well as the iron mask she wears to cover it – signal to all that she has been cursed  by fey magic.

After failing to hold down a string of teaching jobs, Jane has only one option left: to become a governess. In particular, she’s found a delicately-worded listing asking for assistance with a “special” child – one born during the Great War. Jane has pieced together the signs and realizes that the child, like she, is fey-cursed. She takes the job because she’s convinced that she can help this child overcome the same problems she has had to face.

Of course, life in her new home at Silver Birch Manor is more difficult than she imagined. For one thing, Dorie’s fey abilities are both unique and frightening. For another, Dorie’s father, Edward Rochart, is a distant, forbidding man, and the moors outside his house hold many secrets. How exactly does Silver Birch Manor get its inexhaustible supply of fey technology when it is so scarce everywhere else? Why do Rochart and his servant Martha constantly go into the forest bordering the manor? And why does Rochart host so many other women at his house, only to release them back into the outside world looking as beautiful as the fey themselves?

As Jane encounters these and other mysteries, she realizes that there may be a way to shed the fey curse that has ruined her face – although, as always, things aren’t quite what they seem.

So, before I go any further here, let me state a few things up front. Yes, this story is a retelling of Jane Eyre. Yes, it involves fairies. Yes, it also involves steampunk. If you have a problem with these things, stop reading now – because goddammit, this book is fun. Go find a mouldering library to sit in and grumble about literary purity for all I care, because you won’t be missed.

There. Now that we’ve got the Sacred Arbiters of English Literature off our backs, let’s get back to business.

Ironskin is a fun book. It plays with the plot of Jane Eyre, but takes it in new directions, reinventing some aspects of Jane’s background from whole cloth. For example, gone are her miserable extended family and her subsequent education at Lowood. Instead, Helen, the saintly classmate from the original book, is now Jane’s sister and has been radically re-imagined as a woman desperately trying to come to terms with her own cowardice in the face of Jane’s iron resolve.

However, certain story beats remain the same. The mysterious forest on the edge of Rochart’s property, as well as the its inhabitant, are a direct analogue for the attic originally found in Jane Eyre. Although I deduced the true nature of the forest early on in the novel, this was no doubt intentional on Connolly’s part.

I’ve mentioned Tina Connolly elsewhere on my blog. Having read a few of her stories, and having listened to all of the episodes in her Toasted Cake podcast, it was remarkable to realize how entrenched her voice has become in my head. When I was reading Ironskin, I could tell that it was her writing it, and it was her voice delivering the descriptions and dialogue in my mind.

The book’s biggest strength is its world-building. Five years ago, British society depended on fey technology, but the Great War’s onset spurred Britain to restart the Industrial Revolution. In this story, the fey are incorporeal, immortal beings who can inhabit the bodies of dead humans. Of course, doing so gives them human frailties; the only way to kill a fey for good is by jabbing some sharpened iron into the vein of a fey-ridden corpse.

On top of all that, dwarves exist (though they’re called dwarvven here) and have closed themselves off from both fey and human interaction. Although they are master craftsmen, they also love stories and poetry, the more outsized and romantic the better – they were even important cultural figures in Queen Maud’s court back in the day. Jane uses this fact to her advantage when she bribes a half-dwarvven character with a copy of The Pirate Who Loved Queen Maud in exchange for some finely-wrought iron. And, of course, as the author mentions in her recent “My Favourite Bit” post on Mary Robinette Kowal’s blog, Shakespeare’s plays have been reimagined so that A Midsummer Night’s Dream is now A Midsummer Night’s Tragedy.

As I said in my review of Seraphina, it’s the inventive details like this that make me love fantasy books so much.

However, despite these delights, the ending is rushed. Jane’s eventual discovery of Rochart’s true profession (he employs magic to make women beautiful using fey-infused masks of clay) dovetails with her revelation that her disfigured face allows her to manipulate magic herself. The Fey Queen then emerges to reveal her true plans: the masks that Rochart has been making are the perfect conduit to allow the fey to take control of living bodies, and not just the dead. As Rochart’s masks have now been fused onto several members of Britain’s ruling class, this spells disaster.

The final events of this book – the revelation about the Fey Queen, the true importance of Rochart’s masks, Jane’s attempt to claim a mask for her own, and a mad dash to London and back – are all crammed into the last 60 pages. Compared to the slow, atmospheric buildup of the book’s opening, I felt its climax – which includes an extremely gory scene I’ll let you discover on your own – should have been a chapter or two longer.

This is convenient for Connolly, though, as it leaves the closing passages open enough to accommodate the sequel that will be coming out next fall. First The Hum and the Shiver, then Seraphina, and now this – it seems I’m unconsciously committing to all sorts of series which will continue in 2013.

Up next: You’re Not Fooling Anyone When You Take Your Laptop to a Coffee Shop, by John Scalzi


Book Review: The Universe Within by Neil Turok

Title: The Universe Within: From Quantum to Cosmos
Author: Neil Turok
Publisher: House of Anansi
Format: eBook
Rating: 3 out of 5

I have a hard time understanding the universe.

Not in the figurative “why don’t things work the way I want them to” sense, but in the literal “why do things even exist” sense. I try to imagine what could have been before the Big Bang, or what could possibly occur after the Big Crunch, but all I see is a vast, incomprehensible nothingness that terrifies me.

It amazes me that there are men out there like Neil Turok, head of the Perimeter Institute, who can devote their time and effort to understanding these issues without going mad.

The Universe Within is the print version of this year’s CBC Massey Lectures. The lectures focus on a different theme with a different speaker each year, and in 2012, the CBC chose Neil Turok to talk about the development of quantum physics. I listened to the first lecture on the radio one night before going to bed, and found Turok’s description of Michael Faraday‘s insights about electromagetism so fascinating that I had to buy this book.

Unfortunately, much of the book’s subject matter after this point was beyond my level of understanding. This is not to slight Turok’s attempts to write about quantum physics; in many ways he’s a good communicator, and able to provide unusual real-world examples to explain complex concepts within theoretical physics. However, this subject is so abstract to a layperson like me that a lot of the time I was scratching my head.

The academic denseness is leavened by Turok’s discussion of other topics, though, like his childhood, his family’s attempts to resist apartheid, and his current efforts to improve science education across Africa. These topics, even more than his understanding of quarks and the Higgs Boson and what-have-you, have caused him to gain my respect.

One final note: although the title is The Universe Within and the cover shows a stylized drawing of a brain, this book doesn’t talk about how biological systems could interface with quantum ones. It does talk about the vast potential that quantum computers have to change our lives, but the cover gave me the idea that there would be some discourse within about  the link between quantum activity and human biological activity. Although this is a misinterpretation on my part, let it be known that a book or chapter discussing this topic would be absolutely awesome.

Up next: Ironskin, by Tina Connolly

Book Review: Seraphina by Rachel Hartman

Title: Seraphina
Author: Rachel Hartman
Publisher: Random House
Format: Print
Rating: 5 out of 5

One of the chief things I measure in a novel is how it affects me when I read it. Do the book’s events wend their way into my dreams? Am I compelled to keep reading? How concerned am I with the characters? Are there any scenes I can return to and re-read, savouring the prose on my tongue or goggling about at the audacity of the images that the author presents?

In other words, does the book that I’m reading make me feel delight?

Seraphina did. This book was part of the bag of free books I got at the World Fantasy Convention. However, I didn’t look at it closely until after WFC was over and my fiance and I were evaluating our respective hauls. Rarely am I held fast and astonished by a book’s very first passage, but then I came across Seraphina‘s opening lines:

I remember being born.

In fact, I remember a time before that. There was no light, but there was music: joints creaking, blood rushing, the  heart’s staccato lullaby, a rich symphony of indigestion. Sound enfolded me, and I was safe.

Then my world split open, and I was thrust into a cold and silent brightness. I tried to fill the emptiness with my screams, but the space was too vast. I raged, but there was no going back.

I remember nothing more; I was a baby, however peculiar. Blood and panic meant little to me. I do not recall the horrified midwife, my father weeping, or the priest’s benediction for my mother’s soul.

Humans and dragons have been coexisting in uneasy peace for decades. Dragons, imagined here as keenly rational, analytical beings – think Vulcans with scales – have the ability to alter their forms to look like humans.

Such dragons, called saarantrai, live alongside humans and have carved out a respectable niche as teachers and academics. The heart of this coexistence lies in the court of Goredd, the kingdom that brokered the human/dragon peace treaty – the court that Seraphina Domberg, a talented young musician, now finds herself in.

However, merely weeks before the 40th anniversary of the treaty, Prince Rufus, the son of Queen Lavonda, has been murdered in a manner that looks suspiciously draconic. With tensions rising between the upholders of the treaty and anti-dragon zealots, Seraphina finds herself in the middle and teams up with Prince Lucian, the queen’s grandson, to uncover the truth behind Rufus’ murder.

Seraphina is caught in the middle in more ways than one. Not only is she a musician in a court composed of both humans and saarantrai, but she holds a secret that could lead to her death if it were found out: she’s half-human, half-dragon. Now that she’s joined Lucian’s investigation, she must find a way to preserve the peace and avoid the attention that her prodigious musical talent attracts.

I’m drawn to fantasy and science fiction because these genres examine interesting ideas in ways that others choose not to. In its own way, Seraphina tackles how racism affects people by taking it to literal extremes and imagining the external pressures faced by someone who is only half human. However, science fiction and fantasy also describe things that other genres can’t, like the internal pressures that Seraphina faces.

In particular, she experiences crippling migraines and strange visions, and the only way she can manage them is to spend time alone every day to meditate. Her meditation takes an extremely peculiar form, though, in that she visits a garden in her mind and talks to the people who live there – the people she sees in her visions, although she has no idea what is so significant about them. One of her vision-people lives in an orchard and litters orange peels along the ground. Another is locked inside a cottage. A third gazes up at a sky full of stars.

These people and these environments are all inside Seraphina’s head.

Think about this for a minute. How many mush-mouthed “important” literary works out there are willing to be as inventive as this? Would an author like Jonathan Franzen ever attempt to portray the mental state of one of his characters in such a literal fashion? More importantly, would they use such concrete imagery – orchards, observatories, ponds, walled gardens – to describe that state? Would they even consider the idea of the mind as a physical space, capable of being walked around in?

This is why fantasy and science fiction are important. This is what I look for when I talk about delight.

Hartman’s descriptions of the world her characters live in, and her unique depiction of dragons, are fascinating. Her world feels lived-in and filled with detail around the edges, like the fact that dragons bleed silver blood, and thus exhibit white bruises white when they get hurt. I also loved how hyper-aware Seraphina is of the draconic mindset, which is focused on patterns and angles and logic. Whenever she’s in conversation with a dragon, she automatically adjusts her speech so that it becomes more factual and less focused on intonation to convey meaning.

This highlights one of her greatest traits:  her intelligence. She’s not only smart, but she’s determined, too, and uses her unique knowledge of  dragonkind to become an important political player by the end of the novel. While she is prickly and unfriendly, this part of her personality springs naturally from her overwhelming need to hide her parentage.

However, this note leads me to my very few complaints about the novel. While she is considered prickly and often second-guesses herself, this is one of Seraphina’s only flaws. Otherwise, she’s a gifted musician who is brave and observant, and she even turns out to have psychic powers. (Hint: it turns out those people in her head are there for a reason.) In other words, she’s very close to being a Mary-Sue character.

In addition to that, Seraphina’s burgeoning relationship with Prince Lucian is telegraphed far too easily early on in the plot, and I despaired at the presence of the Obligatory Romance in this otherwise fine novel. Although Hartman sidesteps this by having Lucian choose to stay betrothed to his royal cousin, the potential for a romantic triangle is set squarely in place for the sequels. I wish that the relationship between Lucian and Seraphina stayed platonic instead. However, I will eagerly read the sequels in the hope that this development is replaced with something more satisfactory before the end.

Up next: The Universe Within, by Neil Turok.

Book Review: Every House is Haunted, by Ian Rogers

Title: Every House is Haunted
Author: Ian Rogers
Publisher: ChiZine Publications
Format: Print
Rating: 3 out of 5

Full disclosure: I’m friends with the author through Goodreads and Facebook, and am familiar with some of ChiZine’s staff;  although I have tried to remain neutral in this review, these circumstances have probably informed my opinion of this book.

Every House is Haunted is a collection of 22 short stories by Ian Rogers. Loosely arranged around the theme of homes – as both places and ideals – each story rubs up against the threshold between the real and the unreal. Although most of these stories are horror stories, they traffic more in the subtle dread of the soul than in gore.

The tales are broken up into five groups that refer to different parts of a house: “The Vestibule,” “The Library,” “The Attic,” “The Den,” and “The Cellar.” Those words alone should give the attentive reader a clue about what to expect, as they aren’t typically associated with modern-day housing. Instead, they make us think of houses that are old, or dark and decrepit – of places where dust and stale air linger.

Every House is Haunted has a few stand-out stories, such as the opener, “Aces,” about a teenage witch and her older brother, and how they each come to terms (or not) with her abilities. Other highlights include:

  • “Inheritor,” a mirror version of “Aces” that deals with a much more sinister brother-sister pairing;
  • “Cabin D,” about a man planning to destroy a haunted cabin as his heroic last act;
  • “The Nanny,” about a psychic investigator helping two murdered children enter the afterlife; and
  • “The Tattletail,” a winsome little story about a boy who wants to have a pet demon.

Other stories, like “The Currents” and “Leaves Brown,” are more subdued and could even fit comfortably within the traditional confines of Canadian Literature. “Leaves Brown” in particular is interesting because it’s the second of two stories in this collection (the first one being “Autumnology”) to talk about the impermanence of autumn compared to the other three seasons:

“You can travel to places in the world where it feels like summer all the time…or spring…or winter. But there isn’t any place on the planet where it’s always fall. That’s what makes it special. Fall is meant to be enjoyed in small doses. If the seasons were a four-course meal, then fall would be the dessert.”

Part of me wonders whether this passage should be taken as the book’s manifesto: things fade – especially things like sanity, the sanctity of life, and your ability to protect those you care about. Your choice to take those things for granted only puts you in peril.

Some of Rogers’ stories also contain well-realized characters, like the protagonist’s annoyingly hapless neighbour in “Charlotte’s Frequency” and Soelle, the main character in “Aces.” More often though, the characters remain ciphers and it is the situation itself that contains the story’s meat.

However, one of the main problems with this collection is that many of the story endings are either neutral towards, or in conflict with, the main plots. Sometimes, the tonal shift can be jarring, as at the end of “The Dark and the Young.” At other times, like in the story “The House on Ashley Avenue,” the ending is downright unsatisfactory; it’s open-ended and refuses to answer the questions introduced during the rising action and the climax. Perhaps this open-endedness is an attempt to make the stories sound more literary, but I prefer for these things to be more definitive.

Overall, though, I liked this collection, and was delighted to meet Ian in person at the World Fantasy Convention. I look forward to reading his other recent release, SuperNOIRtural Tales.

Up next: Seraphina, by Rachel Hartman

Book Review: The Shadow Scholar by Dave Tomar

Title: The Shadow Scholar: How I Made a Living Helping College Kids Cheat
Author: Dave Tomar
Publisher: Bloomsbury
Rating: 3 out of 5
Format: eBook

Something interesting happened when I publicized my decision to become a freelance writer: more than one person told me that I should consider writing papers for university and college students.

I, being the kind of university student, who, you know, actually wrote all my papers myself, was shocked at this suggestion, and dismissed it out of hand. Now I have Dave Tomar to thank for showing me what a world of frustration, indignation, and heartbreak I’ve avoided.

The Shadow Scholar is an in-depth look at what it’s like to be a writer for a paper mill, and what circumstances drove Tomar to, and kept him in, the industry. Student debt. A lacklustre education that left him with few marketable skills. (Incidentally, this book is the second story I’ve come across that makes Rutgers University sound like an absolute shithole.) A bad economy.

It’s also a portrait of desperation, as well as an exposé of how truly messed-up the modern education system is. However, despite the sense of crusading against corruption that his book exudes, Tomar himself doesn’t come out looking like the best of people. He hates his job and the toll it takes on his body. He has contempt for his clients. He uses drugs to either keep himself alert or to dull the meaninglessness of his existence. He also gets into long digressions about his on-again, off-again relationship with his future wife, which lends an unnecessary whiff of soap-opera drama to the proceedings.

This brings me to the heart of The Shadow Scholar‘s problem: its author. Most people assume that the paper mill business a seedy one, and so it makes sense that Tomar himself is more than a little seedy – who else but a cynical opportunist would take this sort of job on? But a large part of the book’s focus is spent on arguing exactly how and why America’s higher education system needs to change. This in and of itself is a respectable goal, but Tomar tries very hard to make himself out as a tortured, Charles-Bukowski-like figure – in short, exactly the kind of person whom it would be best not to take advice from. Tomar’s paper mill career already turns him into an unsympathetic narrator – he just makes it harder for himself by sounding like a self-absorbed jackass.

Up next: Every House is Haunted, by Ian Rogers