Author: Shay Shortt

Seven Stones to Stand or Fall

Cover image for Seven Stones to Stand or Fall by Diana Gabaldon by Diana Gabaldon

ISBN 978-0-399-59342-0

Seven Stones to Stand or Fall contains seven works of short fiction set in the world of Outlander, including two that have never been previously published. The stories stretch across the span of the main series, filling in gaps here and there. The earliest story is a prequel set in 1740, covering Jamie Fraser and Ian Murray’s time as mercenaries in France. The latest recounts the story of how Roger Wakefield was orphaned during the London Blitz. The pieces range in length from long short story to meaty novella, and deal largely with secondary characters.

Diana Gabaldon is a very detail-oriented person, and her introduction helpfully contextualizes all of the stories, providing information about where they fit in the series timeline, which characters they deal with, and where they were originally published (if applicable). Given that the main series now stretches to eight books, and with several Lord John books on the market, this introduction will prove crucial for folks like me, who have not read the other books in a while.

For my own sanity, I threw over the arrangement of the novellas in the book, and used the information provided in the introduction to read the stories in chronological order. (If you’d like to do this as well, the order is: Virgins, A Fugitive Green, The Custom of the Army, A Plague of Zombies, Besieged, The Space Between, and A Leaf on the Wind of All Hallows.) This had the distinctly beneficial effect of allowing me to keep events and people relatively straight, and also bracketed the book with the two stories I was most interested in reading. The only downside to this order was that things got a little Lord John heavy in the middle, with three stories in a row based on his exploits.

Although many of these stories were originally published in anthologies where they would theoretically be read as standalones, many of them make most sense in the context of the series as a whole. However, my personal favourite in the collection was A Fugitive Green, one of the two original stories, and one which I think stands alone better than many of the others. It recounts the exploits of Minnie, a teenage forger living in Paris with her English father, who brought her into the family business. Readers of the series will know that Minnie eventually finds herself married to an English lord, and A Fugitive Green reveals just how that unlikely event came about.

Given the range of the timeline and characters covered in Seven Stones to Stand or Fall, it is unsurprising that the stories vary widely in tone and content. Some touch more on the supernatural elements of the series, and others are more pure historical fiction. Lord John’s stories tend towards military exploits and mysteries. In short, there is a little something for everyone, with the caveat that I don’t think this is how I would recommend introducing anyone to the world of Outlander. The main series is a much better place to start.

Arabella and the Battle of Venus (Adventures of Arabella Ashby #2)

Cover image for Arabella and the Battle of Venus by David D. Levineby David D. Levine

ISBN 978-0-7653-8282-5

“Her husband-to-be was a prisoner of war. This matter could not be allowed to stand.”

Arabella and Captain Singh’s wedding plans are put on hold when Captain Singh is sent to Venus by the Honorable Mars Company just as Napoleon escapes his prison on the moon. Captain Singh is caught in enemy territory at the outbreak of hostilities, and is promptly captured and held prisoner on the French colony. When Arabella learns that Joseph Fouché, the Executioner of Lyon, will take charge of the English prisoners on Venus, she engages the privateer Daniel Fox, and his ship Touchstone, to get her Venus first. With only her wits and a banknote for five hundred pounds, she must try to arrange the release of Captain Singh, and Diana’s crew before their brutal new gaoler arrives.

The first part of Arabella and the Battle of Venus focuses on the voyage to the French colony from Mars. Accustomed to the polished and well-oiled operation aboard Diana, Arabella finds herself displeased with Touchstone’s more slovenly crew. Worse, Captain Fox’s navigation skills cannot hold a candle to her own, and Arabella is desperate to reach Venus as quickly as possible. But Captain Fox will only agree to try her course if Arabella will wager a kiss and a private dinner if her plan does not bring them to Venus faster than his planned route. As in Arabella of Mars, Levine focuses a great deal of attention on the sailing aspects of the narrative, creating an atmosphere that might be best described as Patrick O’Brian in space.

The second act is more about characters and intrigue, as Arabella arrives at Venus, only to have nothing go as planned. Adrift on a foreign planet, where she does not speak the languages or know the customs, and where her English banknote is no good, Arabella finds she may have bitten off more than she can chew. Not only is Diana’s crew being held prisoner, they are being forced to work in a labour camp that is contributing to the creation of a new weapon that may alter the course of the war. If Arabella can discover the details, she may be able to save English dominance of the skies from Napoleon’s rapacious appetite for conquest, but she cannot see how she will manage that while also getting two ships and their crews off a blockaded planet.

Fans of the dashing and honourable Captain Prakash Singh may be disappointed with his small role, especially in the first part of this narrative. Instead, Arabella makes her way to Venus in the company of the also handsome but not precisely honourable privateer and gambling friend Daniel Fox. With her chaperone Lady Corey constantly questioning Arabella’s choice of fiancé, and Captain Fox perpetually trying to get Arabella to gamble her favours in exchange for his cooperation, Arabella is unaccountably intrigued by the scoundrel. Even after her arrival on Venus, Captain Singh practically sabotages his own cause, refusing to entertain Arabella’s escape plans, or include her in his own doings. Unfortunately, Captain Fox looks set to make a prominent appearance in the third installment of the series.

Some quibbles about the romantic subplot notwithstanding, Arabella and the Battle of Venus is an excellent second outing in Levine’s original series, which combines adventure and intrigue with alternate history, as well as considerable character growth for the heroine. I’m thoroughly looking forward to the trilogy’s conclusion, which will hopefully be released next year.

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One Day We’ll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter

Cover image for One Day We'll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter by Scaachi Koulby Scaachi Koul

ISBN 978-1-250-12102-8

Mom talks about moving to Canada as though my father had requested she start wearing fun hats. Why not try it? she thought, instead of This fucking lunatic wants me to go to a country made of ice and casual racism.”

The daughter of Kashmiri Indian immigrants, Scaachi Koul was born in Canada, and grew up in Calgary, Alberta before moving to Toronto for university. There she became a writer and editor for BuzzFeed Canada, and started dating a white man more than a decade her senior who she kept secret from her parents for many years. She sparked on a storm on Twitter in 2016 when she put out a call for more diverse submissions. Her debut collection of essays addressing growing up at the intersection of two cultures, fighting for a place in either one, while constantly defending choices her parents do not understand or approve of. Koul approaches this subject with a biting humour that belies the seriousness of the subject matter.

Koul vividly sketches a portrait of her family, including her parents, much older brother, and young niece. Her father in particular is a vivid character, the kind of person who will decide a year later that he isn’t done being mad about something you did that he didn’t approve of, and abruptly stop talking to you for months at time. The intergenerational conflict is at once unique to her situation, and recognizable to parents and children everywhere. Her niece, nicknamed Raisin, also plays a prominent role, as Koul often reflects on her experiences through the lens of what she hopes or fears Raisin will face growing up as a young half-Indian woman.

Koul shares her complicated relationship with race in general, and skin colour in particular, a relationship that shifts depending whether she is in Canada or India. In Canada she is brown, yet just light enough to be ethnically vague, and constantly questioned about her identity. Racists casually toss the n-word at her, because “racism doesn’t have to be accurate, it just has to be acute.” In India, her family is pleased with, and occasionally jealous of, her pallor. There, her relatives casually touch her skin, as if hoping the colour will rub off. Koul worries over the value her family places on this lightness, and particularly what this emphasis on whiteness will mean for her half-white niece. This push-pull is constantly at play as Koul tries to parse out her place between the two worlds.

The pieces in this collection range in tone, but even the essays that are pure humour have an undertow of cultural commentary. As she recounts getting stuck in a skirt in the fitting room of a clothing store where she used to work—and having to be cut out of it—Koul manages to perfectly capture the tendency to pin our hopes on the perfect wardrobe. Even as she is getting stuck, she thinks this is “The item, the big item that changes the way I dress and thereby changes the way I am as a person. It’s not just a skirt; it’s the entry fee for a better existence. I would exude a new confidence, it would smooth out the wrinkles in my body, it would hide all the ways I have disappointed and failed people in the past.” Body image is never far beneath the surface of these reflections, with race and gender only serving to further complicate matters. And this piece fits into the collection right alongside more serous pieces, such as the dissection surveillance as an aspect of rape culture, showcasing Koul’s diverse range and deft hand with a variety of subject matter.

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Always and Forever, Lara Jean (To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before #3)

Cover image for Always and Forever Lara Jean by Jenny Han by Jenny Han

ISBN 978-1-4814-3048-7

“We’re all just counting down, passing time. Everyone knows where they’re going, and the right now already feels like it’s in the rearview. Suddenly life feels fast and slow at the same time. It’s like being in two places at once.”

It’s senior year, and Lara Jean Song Covey is anxiously awaiting her college acceptance letters, and looking forward to participating in traditions like the senior class trip, prom, and Beach Week. Her boyfriend Peter has already accepted a scholarship to play lacrosse for the University of Virginia, but Lara Jean is worried her grades aren’t good enough to into UVA. She’s keeping busy helping plan her father’s wedding to their next door neighbour, Ms. Rothschild, but sooner or later, the letters will come, and Lara Jean will have to make some big choices about her future.

As in previous installments, the Covey family dynamic is one of the standout aspects of Always and Forever, Lara Jean. Kitty and Lara Jean have both adjusted to the presence of their father’s new girlfriend in their lives. But Margot has missed that adjustment, and so when she comes home to visit, Trina’s presence in their house suddenly feels tense in a way it never did before. For Kitty and Lara Jean, everything has changed slowly, but from Margot’s outside perspective, her family is changing at the speed of light. Each in their own way, the Song girls have to face what this means for their mother’s memory, and their family going forward.

Back at the beginning of the series, the action began with Margot breaking up with her long-term boyfriend, Josh, before heading off to college in Scotland. Before she died, their mother advised Margot, “don’t be the girl who goes to college with a boyfriend.” Now Lara Jean finds herself in Margot’s shoes, facing down her last year of high school, and her dead mother’s advice. Will she follow in Margot’s footsteps, or carve her own path?  Big decisions about her future lie ahead, and Jenny Han has placed this dilemma at the heart of the plot.

Unlike the previous two installments in the series, Always and Forever, Lara Jean has no embarrassing plot catalyst, which was a relief to me as someone who suffers from vicarious embarrassment. In To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, Lara Jean was forced to face up to her past crushes—including her sister’s ex-boyfriend—when a box of her old love letters got mailed out. In P.S. I Still Love You, her tentative new relationship with Peter was tested when a video of them making out in a hot tub on a school trip was posted to an anonymous Instagram account. Always and Forever, Lara Jean doesn’t rely on any such device, and the book does not suffer for it. Jenny Han really captures the essence of senior year, and strikes the perfect balance in her conclusion to this series.

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On Tyranny

Cover image for On Tyranny by Timothy Snyderby Timothy Snyder

ISBN 978-0-8041-9011-4

“The mistake is to assume that rulers who come to power through institutions cannot change or destroy those very institutions.”

In On Tyranny, Yale History professor Timothy Snyder offers twenty principles for resisting authoritarian government, drawing cautionary examples from twentieth century European history. It grew out of a Facebook post Snyder made in the aftermath of America’s 2016 election. In it, he attempts to bring his wide knowledge of European history, and the collapse of democracies, to bear on the current political moment.

On Tyranny follows an arc that moves from the early days of rising authoritarianism, through the arrival and culmination of overt authoritarian government. Snyder’s first principle is “Do not obey in advance,” and the final principle is “Be as courageous as you can.” On that last point, he offers only one sentence of explanation: “If none of us is prepared to die for freedom, then all of us will die under tyranny.” In between, he offers, and expounds upon, suggestions such as “Remember professional ethics” and “Investigate” the truth for yourself, detailing how the compromise of such values led to problems in the past.

A significant number of the examples used in On Tyranny are drawn from Nazi Germany. This makes sense given that this is part of Snyder’s area of expertise, but will no doubt prove problematic with some readers, for whom comparing anything at all to Hitler or Nazism is tantamount to hysteria. But central to Snyder’s argument is that the collapse of German democracy is not as unique as we might like believe. “Never again” is a commitment to remember and prevent such tragedies, not a statement that such things are no longer possible. Combine that with a certain strain of American exceptionalism that holds that the United States’ love of freedom makes such a thing impossible, and you have a dangerous brew. However, fascist Italy, Communist and modern Russia, and Czechoslovakia also provide cautionary examples that show this is not merely about the Holocaust. Synder is also explicitly concerned with the current political moment, and when relevant, he provides contemporary American examples of things that might be cause for worry.

Snyder is perhaps a little too dismissive of the internet. This is not to say that he does not make valid points about the vulnerabilities it opens us up to. But he warns against it even as he cites the example of Ukrainian success at countering Russian attempts to disseminate misinformation online. Moreover, he completely misses the warning sign that authoritarian states often seek to control the internet, in order to keep dissidents from sharing information, or spreading the truth about what is occurring in their country. Whereas the Nazis only allowed state-sanctioned radiobroadcasts, and banned listening to overseas stations, modern dictators seek to control television programming and internet access. We should be just as concerned about authoritarian attempts to control the internet as we are about curtailments in freedom of the press.

On Tyranny is a brief tract that can be read in an hour, but offers up thoughts and ideas that deserve much longer attention and consideration. It is a very short and accessible primer on the warning signs of authoritarianism, and the early actions that can be taken by ordinary people to guard against it. It is by no means comprehensive, but is excellent food for thought nevertheless. Think of this as politic disaster preparedness. You hope that you’ll never need that earthquake kit in your closet, but if the big one hits, you’ll be happy you prepared.

Down Among the Sticks and Bones (Wayward Children #2)

Cover image for Down Among the Sticks and Bones by Seanan McGuireby Seanan McGuire

ISBN 978-0-7653-9203-9

“Some adventures require nothing more than a willing heart and the ability to trip over the cracks in the world.”

Once upon a time, twins Jacqueline and Jillian Wolcott opened a trunk in their attic, and found an impossible staircase that led down, down, down, to a magical world called The Moors. A world where Jack didn’t have to be the perfect girly girl for her mother, and Jill didn’t have to be the sports-loving tomboy standing in for an absent son. But still a world where they would have to be polar opposites in a different way, choosing between The Master and Dr. Bleak, the vampire, and the mad scientist. If they still have one thing in common, it is that they want to stay on the Moors forever. But we all know that doorways come calling when you least expect them.

Every Heart a Doorway was a fan favourite last year, and went on to win the Nebula Award for Best Novella. I’ve seen very few complaints about it, but I do remember some laments about the fact that it was not in fact a portal fantasy, but rather the aftermath of one. Down Among the Sticks and Bones scratches that itch, while also further developing Jack and Jill’s backstory, and how they got to Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children. Getting a better look at their family background is particularly enlightening, and indeed proves to be a main theme of the novella.

Down Among the Sticks and Bones is very much about relationships between parents and their children, the delicate balance of hopes and expectations, and how easily children can be suffocated beneath them. “It can be easy, when looking at children from the outside, to believe that they are things, dolls designed and programmed by their parents to behave in one manner, following one set of rules. It can be easy, when standing on the shores of adulthood, not to remember that every adult was once a child, with ideas and ambitions of their own,” writes McGuire, in the voice of someone who clearly remembers. This dynamic not only warps Jack and Jill’s characters, but also their relationship with one another. The Moors is the first place where they can define their own siblinghood, beyond the parameters their parents set out for them, but they find that they don’t really know how. And of course, part of adulthood is defining oneself beyond the boundaries of your family of origin.

If there is one thing to lament about Down Among the Sticks and Bones, it is that the story ends before Jack and Jill arrive at Eleanor West’s school. We don’t get to see their early days there, and nor do we learn more about the interesting system of worlds McGuire has set up. But more will no doubt be revealed with Beneath the Sugar Sky, due out in January 2018.

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Everybody Lies

Cover image for Everybody Lies by Seth Stephens-Davidowitzby Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

ISBN 9780062390875

“There was a darkness and hatred that was hidden from the traditional sources but was quite apparent in the searches people made.”

Big data has been much hyped as the next big thing in science, but Everybody Lies sets out to show what can be done with big data that wasn’t possible before, while also acknowledging its shortcomings, and the ways it can be complemented by traditional small data collection techniques. Seth Stephens-Davidowitz makes the argument that the Google dataset he has been working with is particularly valuable, because unlike even anonymous surveys, users have an incentive to be honest, and little or no sense of wanting to impress anyone. To get the information they want from Google, they must query honestly about even the most taboo subjects, from sex to race to medical problems. Facebook, for example, is not nearly as useful, because people are consciously presenting a certain version of themselves to their friends. But if you want Google to bring you back the “best racist jokes,” you have to tell it so. You can’t hide, and still get what you want. The result is a partial but unprecedented glimpse into the human mind.

I picked up this book to get the interesting facts that Stephens-Davidowitz learned from his analyses of this revealing dataset. That said, there is also plenty of basic introduction to data collection and research methodology, which might be a bit tedious for anyone who is already familiar with this material. However, I appreciated the attention to basics when it came to statistical analysis, an area where I don’t have the same background knowledge or experience. The author also spends a good bit of time trying to convince skeptics on one side that big data is useful, and on the other side, warning evangelists of the limitations. A big dataset can actually be an encumbrance if you don’t know what questions to ask of it. However, I sometimes took issue with the way the author tried to present information in an accessible way. Comparing a large dataset to your Grandma’s lifetime of collected wisdom is more harmful than helpful because only one of those things is based on verifiable numbers rather than impressions.

One subject that doesn’t get much attention in Everybody Lies is privacy. Stephens-Davidowitz notes that the Google datasets are anonymized, and that multiple sessions by the same user are not connected. He does reference an old Yahoo dataset that released the search histories of anonymized users, which enabled a different level of pattern detection between searches made by the same individual. Later in the book, he delves into the ethics of using pattern detection from large dataset in particular situations. For example, a study has been done that examines which words in a loan application—God, promise, will pay, thank you, hospital—are most indicative of a potential default on the loan’s repayment. This study used the loan application itself, but what if in the future your suitability for a job was calculated based on analyzing patterns in the language of anything and everything you’ve ever written publicly on the internet? This really only brushes the surface of potential privacy problems.

So what did Stephens Davidowitz find that was interesting? A methodology of approximating the percentage of American men that are gay that accounts for those who are in the closet more accurately than any previous estimate. A behind the scenes look at where and when racist searches are highest that might explain discrepancies between polling numbers and Obama’s actual election results. The one telling Google search that also best predicted the current president’s success in any given electoral district, regardless of public polling numbers. These are the fascinating glimpses into the human psyche that I came for, but I had to read through a lot of other information of questionable interest to get at them.

Cork Dork

Cover image for Cork Dork by Bianca Bosker by Bianca Bosker

ISBN 978-0-14-312809-0

Bianca Bosker had a successful career as a technology journalist when she became fascinated with the world of wine, and blind taste testing in particular. How could expert tasters identify the grape, vintage, and even the vineyard of what they were drinking, without ever seeing the bottle? Cork Dork is the story of the eighteen months she spent following this obsession, quitting her job as a journalist in order to study to become a certified sommelier, while also interviewing vintners, sommeliers, chemists, and collectors.

Cork Dork is a fascinating look behind the scenes of the wine world, approached from the broad perspective of a reporter. Bosker looks at blind tasting, tasting notes, and sommelier certification, but also the history of how the current batch of terms for describing wine came into use, how science and chemistry are changing wine making, and the evolution of the sommelier profession. Much of the book takes place in restaurants, the setting we usually associate with sommeliers, but Bosker also ventures out to wine festivals, vineyards, and private tasting groups, providing a perspective that goes beyond the service we’ve come to expect with our meals.

Cork Dork is mostly a behind the scenes look at the wine world, but Bosker does spend some time unpacking the basic elements of wine tasting for beginners. If they’re not just doing it to be pretentious, then what are connoisseurs looking for when they swirl a glass of wine and watch it run down the inside of the glass? The size and speed of the drops that run down hint at the alcohol level of the wine. Ever get that puckery feeling in your mouth after sipping wine? Those are the tannins, which come from either the skin of the grape, or the barrels in which the wine is aged. Most of the book, however, is dedicated to letting civilians see the aspects of the wine world they might otherwise never have access to, rather than outright instruction.

The rubber really hits the road in Cork Dork when Bosker tries to make her way into the restaurant industry armed with her freshly polished but highly theoretical knowledge of wine and wine service. She starts out as a cellar rat, keeping inventory, and stocking bottles, and job shadows sommelier friends in high end Manhattan restaurants. A good deal of the humour of the book comes from the fact that Bosker is an outsider, with very little practical experience in the wine world. Even as she studies varieties and vintages, and memorizes vast wine trivia, she can barely decant a bottle, let alone smoothly execute proper service to a table of expectant diners. It is also here that she touches on the perils of being a woman in the wine world. Other women working as sommeliers warn her to always address the wife, lest she be accused of flirting, and to be especially demure and respectful when dealing with older people who may be skeptical of her knowledge.

With her journalism background, Bosker would be remiss if she did not address studies that have discredited wine expertise, including a study by Frederic Brochet which dyed white wine red, then asked oenology students to describe the flavour. They overwhelmingly used terms associated with red wine. This might indicate that even experts cannot tell red and white wine apart, or that even experts can be manipulated by environmental factors. Similar experiments have been performed by dyeing lemon Jello red, and asking tasters to identify the flavour, a test which regularly confounds people. By the end of the book, Bosker lies in an fMRI machine, and correctly identifies two wines given to her through a straw, sight unseen, with no bottles, labels, or prices to sway her judgement. She identifies both correctly, a task that utterly baffled her during her first forays into blind tasting groups at the beginning of the book.

Bosker also acknowledges the high degree of subjectivity and inconsistency among experts as to what constitutes a “good” wine. Experiments have shown that wine awards are no better than random, and that the same judge can vary wildly in their assessment of the same wine in a blind test. Bosker spends a lengthy section of the book trying to get to define “good” wine. With the refinements of science and modern technology, very few wines today are legitimately bad, that is to say, poorly made or gone off. An acceptable modern wine is narrowly separated from an excellent one compared to the range and uncertainty that once existed. Yet some bottles of wine cost as much as a latte, and others could consume your entire annual salary. Bosker ultimately decides on a highly subjective measure of quality suggested to her by a mentor—“one sip leads to another,” that is, you want to keep drinking it.

Cork Dork has a strong balance of history, humour, and reportage that provides a behind-the-scenes look at the world of sommeliers and wine connoisseurs. Even a reader skeptical about the science can be fascinated by the history of wine and the complex culture that has grown up around it, and Bosker makes for an excellent guide.

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