Reading update: Scalzi, Atwood, Leckie

It’s been a pretty good week in terms of reading. After deaccessioning some of my book collection, I once again picked up a pile of books at work because of the powerful bookstore mind control aura, and thus had to initiate a new phase of the ARC Pile Demolition Project.

I also realized that my job now includes a number of rather tedious solitary tasks that are perfect for listening to podcasts and short fiction. I have a notoriously bad history with audio books, but short fiction is just short enough to hold my attention. Clarkesworld is currently my favorite when it comes to short stories on audio.

Paper books were also consumed this week:

Lock In by John Scalzi. In my opinion, this is Scalzi’s best book so far. I’ve read most of his stuff, though I did not finish the Old Man’s War series (not because it wasn’t good, it just sort of went the way of all unfinished series, even good ones). I do not belong to either Scalzi super fan camp nor to his haters/detractors’ camp. I was not impressed with Redshirts, but I enjoy most of his books, and I definitely enjoyed Lock In. This one has great ideas and a setup that for the first 100 pages or so will make you feel like your brain is about to turn inside out.  As is with all Scalzi’s books, it’s fast-paced, dialogue-rich, and yet it’s much less funny than his other fare. It is very much social sci-fi, as it touches on health care legislation, minority group culture, and relations with Native Americans, among other things.

stonemattressStone Mattress by Margaret Atwood. Atwood is, as always, snarky, pithy, bold, and honest. This collection could almost have a subtitle of ‘people obsessed with sex’. Well, of course they are. In this case, most of these people are older, with a slew of marriages, divorces, children, and other assorted life experiences on their dance cards. The first three stories are interlinked, but the rest are standalones. Atwood is damn good whether she sticks to mostly realism, or wades into fantastical. This is out on September 16th (look! I read an ARC!)

My short story obsession continues with something like four anthologies and  collections in progress/rotation. I also rediscovered my long-dormant love of horror, so dark and disturbing tales will crop up in my post in the next few weeks. If short stories are your thing too, you can join Matt at Books, Brains and Beer for his Jagannath readalong, which is a fantastic little collection of stories.

I have also attempted to consume my bookgroup book for this month, Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice. This is my second attempt, and it is with great sadness that I announce my inability to get past page 50. This book is now officially the Ulysses of my genre reading. I really wanted to like it, and there are some interesting themes in it, but the prose seemed so bland that I felt my eyes just moving along the page without capturing any meaning.

Also, my laptop keyboard gave up the ghost and now types zeroes between every letter. Useful for my KGB missives, not so useful for blog posts. It’s going to be that kind of week.

Reading update: short fiction and Wonderbook by Jeff Vandermeer

This week, spurred by either a work-induced existential crisis or a well-meaning attempt to de-clutter both my space and my brain, I got rid of approximately 20 books (while proofreading this post, I realized I typed ‘I got read of 20 books’. Sort of true.). That’s 20 more than usual. I shoved a couple into my local tiny library. The rest went to the staff break room. I also decided I wasn’t going to bring books home. That resolution lasted exactly until I laid my eyes on this:


Oh, it was so pretty. Look at what was under the dust jacket:


Could you resist? I could not. I adopted it and brought it home. I had read it already (and here’s what I thought), but I wanted to own the book.

My only other acquisition was a collection of short stories by Atwood, with whose writing I have a conflicted and tempestuous relationship:


I am on some kind of mad and inexplicable short fiction kick at the moment, so I think this time we’ll hit it off.

The aforementioned short fiction obsession has so far resulted in a diligent reading of The Best Science Fiction And Fantasy Of The Year, volume 6, edited by Jonathan Strahan. I am normally quite bad at reading anthologies and short fiction in general. I like the fact that someone has already combed through various short stories of the year and picked what they thought were the best, but I never really read them. And yet here I am on story #22, with no sign of stopping. In fact, I have gathered a few other anthologies to feed my new-found short story love. I want to try and figure out who my favorite editor might be.

My other obsession in the past couple of days has been Wonderbook by Jeff VanderMeer. Commence incoherent gushing (which is ironic, seeing how it’s a book about writing). It is indeed quite wondrous and delightful. I love everything about it: writing advice, asides, examples, extras by some really great contributors, weird art.


So that’s what I’m doing with my tomorrow.

The photos in this post might lead you to believe I live in a lightless cave. This is not entirely wrong.

In Other Worlds by Margaret Atwood

atwoodMargaret Atwood and I made up. The quibble was rather one-sided, and Ms. Atwood has no idea we were not on best terms. The problem was all mine. I avoided her writing for years. You see, I went to University of Toronto, our mutual alma mater, and Margaret Atwood followed me everywhere. Her name was mentioned in every speech given at any official function, her face stared me from lamp posts. And so I stubbornly refused to read anything by her. Yes, even her sci-fi books. The resolution only grew stronger after the review by Ursula Le Guin of Year of the Flood, in which Le Guin took issue with Atwood’s avoidance of the term ‘science fiction’ to describe her work.

Then I read Oryx and Crake because somebody whose taste I trust implicitly put it in my hands and told me to read it. And it was amazing.

Thus I broke my running streak of avoiding books by Atwood. After reading Oryx and Crake and realizing that this geas was incredibly petty, I picked up her collection of writings about SF. ‘SF’, by the way, is intentional, I think. In the introduction, Atwood talks about Le Guin’s review and how this falling-out between her and the SF community was based on  a technicality and quirks of genre labeling.

In Other Worlds has three parts, the first being essays on the genre in general, second containing a few book reviews and essays about classics like Brave New World, and the third being a compilation of very short stories, each exploring some trope or sci-fi technology like cryogenics.

I found myself liking the Atwood in the book. I liked her voracious reading, which was similar to my own, and full of both literary and pulpy stuff. I loved her writing style and her sense of humor. She is definitely a master when it comes to phrasing. Her essays on the history of the genre and its cultural role are very astute and quite worth the read.

And yet… and yet I feel that I still have beef with Margaret Atwood. It might be the tone — occasionally I cannot help but think that she is making fun of the genre she purports to love, or making fun of people who are serious genre readers. I don’t want to get into ‘nobody understands us’  teen-like geek angst, but I feel like we’ve had these ‘is this sci-fi’ discussions so many times before that they are not useful anymore (‘is this sci-fi’ is now a running joke in my bookgroup — someone inevitably yells it out Freebird-style during any meeting that involves a book that is a little bit, let’s say, genre-bending). I also think the geekdom decided a while ago that multi-limbed aliens and purple squids from space are not what makes sci-fi actually sci-fi, and bringing up those or any reference to ‘gizmos’ up when classifying sci-fi is a mark of being somewhat behind on the discussion.

My other problem with the book is purely structural: mixing fiction and non-fiction in one collection just doesn’t work for me.  As I read, I kept wishing that the entire book contained essays and reviews.  I did not think that all parts of the book formed a coherent whole.

I also have to say that the publisher did Atwood a disservice by picking a cover that is both quite ugly and contains all the elements that are likely to repel readers who do not read sci-fi but we were willing to give this book a chance because they had read other Atwood’s works. That is, until they saw the android wearing what looks like a futuristic clothes hanger as a headpiece and an egg container as a bra.