Books: An Ocean of Minutes

36622743An Ocean of Minutes by Thea Lim
Published July 10, 2018
star-3
I don’t read a lot of literary fiction by Canadian authors, but An Ocean of Minutes was one of a few titles on the Giller Prize longlist last month that caught my eye. When it made the shortlist as well, I knew I had to read it. A meditation on the malleability of time, An Ocean of Minutes offers some striking commentary on immigration and class-ism told through often lovely prose, but the characters and the love story at its core fall flat.

The premise reads like a cross between Station Eleven and The Time Traveler’s Wife; In 1981 a pandemic devastates the American south, and infects Polly’s boyfriend Frank. A corporation that has invented short-range time travel offers to pay for his life-saving treatment, but only if Polly takes a one-way trip 12 years into the future to work for them. When she is re-routed a further 5 years to 1998, Frank is nowhere to be found and Polly must navigate a changed and divided America alone. Yet An Ocean of Minutes is more than the simple(ish) dystopian love story it appears to be on the surface, it’s also a commentary on the immigrant experience.

When she arrives in 1998, Polly is a refugee from the past, a non-resident who no longer has the citizenship she took for granted, or any of the rights that come from being a citizen. Under the terms of the contract she hastily signed to save her boyfriend’s life , she is an indentured labourer, with a bond of time owed to the corporation that she must work off before she can leave. Initially Polly holds a special skills visa, which grants her certain privileges over other refugees, but events later put her among the least valued members of society. Stripped of her privileges, she lives in a crowded shipping crate without plumbing or electricity and works seven days a week.

Lim’s novel holds a mirror up to present-day American society, in its treatment of immigrants, particularly Spanish-speaking ones, and, although it’s not remarked on explicitly in text, the lack of healthcare and pharmacare that forces Polly to time travel in the first place.

“Just as the invention of air travel had made it easy to go, but no easier to leave, the invention of time travel made time easy to pass, but no easier to endure.”

Lim’s prose is often thoughtful and elegant, but in this debut novel she makes the mistake of not trusting the reader enough to come to their own conclusion. Instead, she has Polly come to realizations on page that rob the narrative of subtlety.

Unfortunately where the novel falls flat is in its character-work. Although I sympathised with Polly, the protagonist who finds herself in a completely changed world with no resources and no support system, I never connected with her. Besides her devotion for Frank, we never get much of a sense of who she is as a person. I also found Polly so unbelievably naïve that it was difficult to comprehend her choices!

The relationship between Polly and Frank, told in flashbacks throughout the book, lacks any spark to the point where I wasn’t sure if I wanted Polly to find Frank again in the end or not. I did warm to Polly’s aunt Donna, but otherwise the minor characters aren’t fleshed out enough and feel hollow.

Like another hyped literary speculative fiction novel, Omar El Akkad’s American War,  I was left disappointed by An Ocean of Minutes. A terrific premise is let down by a cast of characters who never come alive and a love story that fizzles out.

Top Ten Tuesday: Longest Books I’ve Ever Read

When someone asks ‘what’s the longest book you’ve ever read?’ I don’t have to think about my answer. Both as an avid reader of fantasy, and as someone increasingly trying to read works of classic literature though, I was curious about which other books on my goodreads read shelf would make it onto a list of the longest books I’ve ever read. Read on to find out which novels I’ve read most closely resemble a brick!

Note: Since word counts are a little harder to come by, I’ve measured using (mostly) mass market paperback word counts according to goodreads. It’s not a perfect system of measurement, but it provides a good idea of the lengthier novels I’ve completed.

Want to join in the fun? Head on over to Top Ten Tuesday, hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl!

alittlelife10. A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara
720 pgs (Hardcover)/816 pgs (Paperback)

I’m currently tackling Anna Karenina for the first time, so A Little Life may be bumped off my top ten by next year, but until then I’m going to enjoy the presence of this long, brilliant, heartbreaking book. A Little Life has the distinction of being hands down the book that I finished the most quickly on this list (I read it in about half a week) and one of the ones I was most affected by. It’s a painful book, at times challenging to read because the trauma Yanaghihara writes about is so intense and graphic, and it’s not a novel that I would recommend to everyone, but it’s one of my all-time favourite books.

1530089. Kushiel’s Dart by Jacqueline Carey
901 pgs 

When a close friend of mine moved half-way around the world, she left a few bags of her books with me. Some were books that I had mentioned, others were favourites of hers that she thought I might enjoy. Kushiel’s Dart was one of her favourites. I liked it too, despite the dirty looks I got for reading it on the subway (apparently some people DO judge a book entirely by its cover!), but at 900 pages it’s a pretty big time investment. I wasn’t interested enough to read the rest of the series, but I’m glad I tried this first book out.

60416898. A Clash of Kings by George R.R. Martin
969 pgs

A Clash of Kings is the first ASoIaF novel to appear on my top ten list, but it’s not the last. For a long time it felt like a big part of being a fantasy fan was waiting years for a new book in a series to be published, devouring it’s huge page count in a relatively short period of time, and then waiting all over again. As much as I love this series, and big books, I’m definitely relieved that we’re moving into a stage of fantasy where series can be shorter and more concisely written. That said, if Martin ever finishes The Winds of Winter, you can bet I’ll be lining up to buy it!

JonathanStrange7. Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke
1006 pgs

I LOVE this book. Set in one of my favourite periods, Georgian into Regency England, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell employs a dry sense of humour, detailed footnotes about the in-novel history of English magic, and an early scene set in York Cathedral that put visiting it on my bucket list of bookish trips (one I finally crossed off in May – 8 years after reading the book!) It is a little slow moving at times, but I was drawn in from the very first line, “SOME YEARS AGO there was in the city of York a society of magicians.”

lotr6. The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien
1031 pgs (50th anniversary edition, not including appendices)

Tolkien intended for his epic to be published in one volume, but for economic reasons the book was originally published in three volumes from 29 July 1954 to 20 October 1955.  Why include it on this list then? Because the edition I have, the one I re-read for a University English course in Science-Fiction & Fantasy, is published as one 50th anniversary mass market paperback. Since the author intended it to be read as one volume and that’s the way I (re-)read it, I’ve decided to include it here. Although it takes awhile to get going, Tolkien’s epic is a classic for a reason and is well worth reading.

12150325. The Wise Man’s Fear by Patrick Rothfuss
1107 pgs

I love Patrick Rothfuss’ prose, his ingenious magic systems, and the loving way in which he writes about books and stories, but let’s be honest, there’s really no reason that The Wise Man’s Fear should be as long as it is. I realize that could be said about many books on this list. Could Tolkien have moved things along before the hobbits met Strider to improve the pace? Probably. Could Susanna Clarke have tightened things up? Again, probably. But from what I recall of The Wise Man’s Fear, a good third of the book was spend on sex with a faerie. I haven’t re-read the series, and probably won’t until there’s a firm publication date for the third book, but I can’t say I’m hugely looking forward to wading through that part of The Wise Man’s Fear again!

106641134. A Dance With Dragons by George R.R. Martin
1016 pgs Hardcover/1113 pgs Paperback

After such a long wait for a book, opinions will inevitably be divided, but I’m in the camp that loved A Dance With Dragons and found it a more satisfying installment than A Feast For Crows. I loved that Martin, a master at cleverly revealing the backstory of a character previously only viewed through other people’s points-of-view in a sympathetic way, once again proved that he could make us love a character we’d previously hated. I also enjoyed watching Dany, a fairly static character of late, have some moments of growth. I’m not keen on having to watch Game of Thrones to find out how it all ends (although there are enough differences between the books and the show to mean things may play out differently), but I need to know what happens next!

133554513. A Storm of Swords by George R.R. Martin
1128 pgs

Often long installments in a series carry some dead weight, but A Storm of Swords is the rare example of the longest book in a series also generally being regarded by the fanbase as the best written of the series. Featuring a certain shocking rite-of-fan-passage moment, as well as PoV chapters from many of the series’ most loved characters, A Storm of Swords is a hell of a book!

6352222. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
1392 pgs

If you’ve been reading this book for awhile, you’ll have either read my review of the disappointing non-fiction work disguised as a novel that is War and Peace, or you’ve heard me complain about it. For the uninitiated, somewhere around the middle of the novel Tolstoy drops all pretense that he’s writing a novel with actual characters, and delivers page after page of Russian military history. Since I’ve never been particularly interested in war, this made my eyes glaze over. Basically, I liked the peace parts but since the book would more accurately be titled War & War & War & War & War & War & War & Peace, it was a dud for me.

242801. Les Misérables by Victor Hugo
1463 pgs

It’s no wonder Les Misérables is affectionately referred to by the fandom as “the brick” – its physical dimensions closely resemble a standard exterior housing brick! Since I read the unabridged Signet Classics edition in 2011, I’ve always had an immediate answer to the question, ‘what’s the longest book you’ve ever read?’ Les Misérables isn’t just the longest book I’ve read though, it’s also one of the best I’ve ever read. Unlike War and Peace, which spends little time on its characters, Les Misérables introduces a set of complicated, flawed, terrifically sympathetic characters. Hugo then proceeds to tell their stories through gorgeous prose and using themes that still resonate today. It’s unlikely that I’ll ever read a novel longer than Victor Hugo’s 19th century masterpiece, but it’s very likely that one day I’ll tackle it again. It’s well worth the work.

What are the longest novels you’ve ever read? Which lengthy books do you have on your TBR? Let me know in the comments!

Monthly Wrap-up: September

With one notable exception, September was a consistently great month of reading for me. I was productive, reading 8 books and nearly catching up on my goodreads goal for the year, and rated 7 of those 8 books four stars or higher! Despite the great ratings, I’m still lacking in memorable 5 star reads for the year and hope that I find some of those in my selections for October.


Foundryside by Robert Jackson Bennett  small 4 half stars (RTC)
From a Low and Quiet Sea by Donal Ryan  small 4 stars + Review
The Marrow Thieves by Cherie Dimaline  small 4 stars + Review
A Ladder to the Sky by John Boyne  small 4 stars (RTC)
Warlight by Michael Ondaatje  small-2-stars + Review
The Black God’s Drums by P. Djèlí Clark  small 4 stars + Review
If You Leave Me by Crystal Hana Kim  small 4 stars (RTC)
Vicious by V. E. Schwab (re-read)  small 4 stars + Review (from 2017)

Book of the Month: Foundryside by Robert Jackson Bennett. It was nothing like what I expected from the author based on his previous series, the Divine Cities trilogy (which rank among my all-time favourite books), but I absolutely loved it. Featuring one of the most original magic systems I’ve encountered in a fantasy novel and themes of capitalism, intellectual property, and slavery, this is a promising start to a new series and I can’t wait to read more!

Honourable Mentions: I read a lot of solidly great books this month but nothing that blew me away the way that Foundryside did. Although it didn’t live up to his previous book, The Heart’s Invisible Furies, and I had some issues with it (which I’ll discuss in the review later this week), I did enjoy John Boyne’s latest, the twisted A Ladder to the Sky. Although I found Crystal Hana Kim’s If You Leave Me a little melodramatic, I was involved enough to read it very quickly.

Least Favourite: To no one’s surprise, it’s Warlight. Lacking in character development, plot, and any tension, I found this one a slog despite the eloquent prose.

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Out and About: I’ll admit it, I’m one of those people who LOVES the fall season. It’s partially the pumpkin and squash flavoured foods, the predominance of hot apple cider, the leaves changing, and the cooler temperatures providing relief from the awful humidity, but it’s also partially the fact that fall is when the Toronto theatre season gets going. I didn’t see a single play or musical on stage this month, but hopefully I’ll have more to report back on and review in October and November!

One very exciting thing did happen in September though – Steph of Lost Purple Quill came to visit and we spent a great day browsing so many of the city’s bookstores and capping it off with a drink at The Lockhart, the Harry Potter-themed cocktail bar! Thanks Steph, it was a blast showing you around my city!

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Coming up in October: Apparently I’m a masochist, because despite last fall’s long, dull War & Peace read, I’ve decided to pick up yet another Tolstoy book. That’s right, I’ll be reading Anna Karenina for the first time through October and early November. I know it’s been revered as his finest novel, so here’s hoping it’s more interesting going!

I’d love to fit in a seasonal read or two, but I have a bunch of books out from the library that I need to get to first, including Giller shortlist entry An Ocean of Minutes by Thea Lim, Son of Trickster by Eden Robinson (for Toronto Public Library’s Read Indigenous Month) and V.E. Schwab’s Vengeful, which I’m halfway through and loving! I’m also hoping to do a few buddy reads, of Frankenstein (which I haven’t read in more than 10 years) so I’m prepared for The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein, and of Seth Dickinson’s The Traitor Baru Cormorant (re-read in preparation for the sequel).

Did you read any new favourites in September? Are you planning any seasonal reads for October? Let me know in the comments!

 

T5W: Favourite Magic Systems

As an avid reader of fantasy books, I love a good magic system! I’m often drawn to books that are creative or original in some way, and a magic system is a great way to showcase these qualities. Without further ado, here are a few of my favourites:

nico minoru5. “The Staff of One” wielded by Nico Minoru
Marvel’s Runaways, created by Brian K. Vaughan and Adrian Alphona

I’m cheating a little with this selection because it’s less of a system of rules governing magic in a fictional world and more a set of rules that governs one magic user’s abilities, but I couldn’t resist a shout-out to one of my favourite magicians, Nico Minoru. She wields the Staff of One, a magical weapon that operates through blood magic. In order to conjure the staff, which resides inside her body, and use its powers, she must make a blood sacrifice, which can be from a wound, a small cut, or even from menstruation or bleeding gums. Spells are cast by speaking a single word or phrase, but a spell can only be cast once. Repetition results in unpredictable feats of magic – for example, summoning a flock of pelicans! Comic books can often be places where powers are nearly limitless – like Superman whose only weakness is kryptonite – so I love that the Runaways creators have not only capped the strength of what could be a very powerful weapon, but have done so in such a creative way. Being able to only cast a spell once means that Nico has to think fast, even in battle. I understand why the cutting to bring forth a weapon was changed in the TV show, so as not to send the wrong message, I love how this blood magic functions in the book.

The Killing Moon4. “Narcomancy”
The Dreamblood Duology by N.K. Jemisin

I love an original magic system and I’ve never encountered anything quite like N.K. Jemisin’s “narcomancy” in her lesser known, but absolutely brilliant ancient Egypt-inspired The Killing Moon and The Shadowed Sun. Priests, known as Gatherers, harvest the magic of the sleeping mind, known as “dreamblood”, and use it to heal. Since the act of collecting dreamblood usually kills the dreamer, Gatherers collect only from the dying – a serene process in which the guide the dreamer to a peaceful death – or from those judged corrupt. But when a conspiracy blooms and someone is killing innocent dreamers in the name of the dream-goddess Hananja, it makes the Gatherer Ehiru question everything he knows. Did I mention that dreamblood is also highly addictive, so Gatherers must be careful not to be consumed by their need for the original substance.

361593. Manipulation of the Fae
The Coldfire Trilogy by C.S. Friedman

Combining elements of fantasy, science-fiction, and even horror, C.S. Friedman’s Coldfire Trilogy has one of the most fascinating, and complex, magic systems I’ve encountered. The books are set on the distant planet of Erna, colonized centuries ago by humans. The original colonists quickly realized that a mysterious force originating from the planet, known as the fae, had the power to let the humans’ subconscious fears and desires affect the environment around them. The impact of the fae on the planet ranges from making the use of technology near impossible (human fear makes operating technology unpredictable) to giving form to embodied faeborn or demons, creatures who feed on humans (either literally or in subtler ways).

After centuries on Erna, some humans have adapted to the point where they are born with the ability to perceive the fae and manipulate it in some ways, while other humans have managed to manipulate the fae to get their way through practicing sorcery and making sacrifices in exchange for power. The idea of a magic system based on our subconscious thoughts and fears is so interesting and offers such a threat of malevolence that it makes for a really interesting read, and Friedman imbues her magic system with such complexity and unpredictability that The Coldfire Trilogy is an unforgettable ride!

24955672. “Sympathy”, “Sygaldry” and “Naming”
The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss

I have my quibbles about these books over their portrayals of female characters, but I have only glowing words to say about Patrick Rothfuss’ magic systems. To begin with, these are just three of the types of magic found in his Kingkiller Chronicles, but they’re the ones that interested me the most.

“Naming” is the, fairly straightforward, practice of a magic user invoking the True Name that he has learned and commanding the named thing to behave as he wills.

“Sympathy”, my favourite type of magic in these books, is the art of energy manipulation. The user creates a sympathetic link between two objects so that whatever is done to one object will affect the other, for example: creating a link between two boulders so they can be moved equal distances with only the effort needed to move one boulder. More deviously, a magic user could create a link between a person and a doll of the person and then raise the person’s temperature by placing the doll near a heat source. The energy for a sympathetic link must be taken either from the magic user’s body, or from a nearby source of energy (like a fire).

Finally, “Sygaldry” is the use and application of runes, which creates effects similar to a permanent form of “Sympathy”. The thought that went into creating each of these forms of magic is evident and combined with Rothfuss’ gift for storytelling, it makes for an entrancing magical world.

Foundryside RD4 clean flat1. “Scriving”
Foundryside by Robert Jackson Bennett

A recent edition to my list of favourite magic systems but a great one!  Basically, the consciousness of objects in the world can be manipulated when they are inscribed (‘scrived’) with a set of magical symbols and codes. Operating like the rules of computer programming languages in our world, objects are scrived in a way that tricks, for example, carriage wheels into believing they are going downhill even on a flat road, which increases the carriage’s speed. Like coding, making a logic error can result in terrible consequences, only the practical application of this system means it’s less a website crashing and more, well, possible death. The more complicated the effect that is being produced, the more complicated formula necessary, and when these formulas are too large to be inscribed on an object directly, they’re stored in lexicons, a physical version of a database that is stored nearby.

Foundryside is set in a captitalist society based on a modernized version of the Italian City States, so a few large companies have a monopoly on the market and hoard the resources, including the intellectual property (certain scriving formulas) needed to create and maintain scrived devices. The poor are left to trying to cobble together their own formulas to produce the same effect (some with more luck than others) because they don’t have the same resources as the wealthy and powerful. Comparatively little fantasy these days is post-industrial and using it as a basis of a magic system that parallels our own use of technology is brilliant. I’m a devotee and I can’t wait to see where further books in the series take this intriguing magic system!

What are some of your favourite magic systems?

Top Five Wednesday is currently hosted by Sam from Thoughts on Tomes. Want to join in the fun? Check out the goodreads group!

Reading Diverse SFF: A Response

SFF

“If we can’t write diversity into sci-fi, then what’s the point? You don’t create new worlds to give them all the same limits of the old ones.”
– Jane Espenson

If you’re a big science-fiction and fantasy fan, you may have stumbled across a particular Tor.com article in the last week. The title, “The 10 Best Completed SF and Fantasy Series (According to Me)” was clickbaity, but I couldn’t resist. Tor.com, the online science-fiction magazine published by the world’s most successful SFF publisher, is usually a reliable source of content after all. How disappointing that the article was nothing more than a list of Boring McWhiteman’s favourite high fantasy reads!

Yes, any list of ‘best’ books is subjective. To give the author of this drivel some credit, he does make it clear that this is his list of favourites and not an objective ranking. What he doesn’t do though, is give any impression at all of self-awareness. Drew McCaffrey acknowledges that his list is heavily focused on the late 20th century and does at least mention the most obvious omission  – N.K. Jemisin’s triple Hugo-award-winning Broken Earth trilogy (which he hasn’t read yet) – but offers little in the way of an explanation or indication that he’s conscious of the composition of his list: 9 white men, 1 one women.

There are a number of issues with a regressive, 90% male, 100% white list of science-fiction and fantasy titles like this being published on a major platform like Tor.com. Surely Tor.com has other, more well-read contributors. Wouldn’t one of them be a better fit for an article like this than a man who, by his own admission, hasn’t gotten around to reading the last three Hugo award winning books (all by N.K. Jemisin)? I notice he managed to find time to read all 14 books (nearly 12,000 pages) of The Wheel of Time though.

And look, I love Harry Potter as much as the next millennial, but the inclusion of J.K. Rowling, who has recently received backlash over the lack of diversity in her world, as the sole woman on this list isn’t great from an optics point of view either.

The publication of this list also gives credence to the idea that it’s only in the last few years that women and people of colour have begun writing fantasy. This is patently untrue. 2018 marks the bicentennial of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein,  widely regarded as one of the first science-fiction novels.

Even putting aside Mary Shelley, consider authors like Samuel R. Delany (nominated multiple times for Hugo awards in the 1960s and 70s), Octavia Butler, and Ursula Le Guin. How about Ellen Kushner, Robin Hobb, C.S. Friedman, or Lois McMaster Bujold, who has written both a brilliant science-fiction series and a stunning fantasy series?

More recently, Robert Jackson Bennett’s Divine Cities trilogy included two of the best women of colour protagonists I’ve ever read. So Drew McCaffrey didn’t have time to get to N.J. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy, what’s his excuse for not picking up her brilliant Dreamblood duology, published in 2012, before the last Wheel of Time book?

The exclusion of Ann Leckie’s brilliant, complex Imperial Radch Trilogy alone is enough to make me rage, let alone the omission of so many brilliant books by women and people of colour. Going beyond completed series opens a whole new set of possibilities: R.F. Kuang’s brutal military fantasy The Poppy War; Lara Elena Donnelly’s tense Weimar-Berlin inspired Amberlough, Becky Chambers’ cozy, welcoming Wayfarers series, and S.A. Chakraborty’s glittering City of Brass.

If reading diversely doesn’t come naturally to you, if you’ve grown up under the myth of “boy books” and have always read stories written by people like you, about people like you, intended for readers like you, fine, I get it. But you know what? You need to make time. Make an effort to read women, to read people of colour, to read, as author Victoria Schwab put it, outside your lane. Women and people of colour have been doing it for decades, so men? It’s time to step up.