“Accidents”

There Are No Accidents -- book by Jessie SingerWhen I read nonfiction, I usually have one of three responses:

  • Wow, that’s interesting. I never thought about it like that before.
  • Some of this is interesting, but I disagree with parts of it.
  • This book isn’t worth my time – it is either so wrong as to be laughable or so simplistic as to be useless.

But when I read There Are No Accidents by Jessie Singer, I had a fourth reaction: I could have written this book. By which I mean I know something about most of what she covered and agreed with her analysis.

This isn’t jealousy – I haven’t done the research and interviews that she did and had no plans to write such a book. It’s gratitude. Not only did she pull all those points together in an excellent book, but also she let me realize that I am not a lone voice crying into the wind on a number of subjects related to “accidents.”

The whole point of this book is that so many things we dismiss as accidents – including the ones that cause serious injury and death – are in fact the result of terrible systems that build acceptance of a certain number of deaths into their design.

Singer came to this subject because her best friend was killed by a drunk motorist when riding his bicycle. In looking into the circumstances, she realized that the supposedly safe bike path her friend was using was in fact not protected from bad drivers.

In this country, transportation has been built around the car, and the design of our systems sacrifices safety for speed and ease of car use. We blame the resulting “accidents” on bad driving – or on bad bicycling or bad walking.

Speaking as someone who drives a car, rides a bike, and walks, I can guarantee you that everyone who does those things makes mistakes, even if we’re cold sober. We get distracted. We screw up shifting gears on the bike. We look down at our phones while crossing the street.

Based on my experience – and I have fortunately never been injured in a car accident – I think we make the most mistakes while driving because it is virtually impossible to pay attention to everything we need to do, and it gets harder the faster you go.

By the way, did you know that the speed limit on highways is calculated by figuring out how fast the fastest 15 percent of drivers drive, and then setting the limit at the lowest speed for that 15 percent? This is one of the things in the book I didn’t know, though I often feel the speed limit on highways is too high for the amount of traffic and the quality of the road. Continue reading ““Accidents””

July and books

I tell people far too frequently that some places have a bad month. I’m in the middle of Canberra’ bad month. I can’t escape it, either, and have not been able to since COVID first hit. This is one of the charming side-effects of being one of those who are vulnerable. This July is particularly nasty. It just is. It’s not the wind from the snow or the cold nights. It’s not lack of sunlight, though it might be the weak excuse for bright sunshine. It’s only partly drafts and open doors and friends forgetting promises to help. In fact, two friends are actually helping later in the week and I shall be that much less uncomfortable and I shall see them and July won’t be nearly as bad, that one day. Other friends have, these last few years, responded to my July-depression with “I can do this thing and it will help” and two thirds of them have succumbed to July before they could. This is the nature of July in Canberra. (I strongly recommend that if you have any friends who are confined for all these years, don’t make promises. It’s better not to promise than to give someone hope and then not follow through.)

What gets me through July, every year, but this horrid year in particular, is story. Only I’m grumpy and don’t want to talk about what I’ve been reading. I don’t want to drag you into my morass. Instead of telling you what I’m reading, then, I’m going to give you the names of three books that make me smile when I think of them. I’ve read them so often and I suggest them to everyone all the time. Just talking about them pulls me out of the winter gloom.

Not everywhere in Australia has winter gloom, by the way. An hour and a bit from here and you have the best snowfields in the world in July, but I cannot reach them and I cannot ski. I don’t want to ski. I want to make snow angels and drink mulled wine and eat hot chips and talk half the night with friends. This is not something that’s achievable. What is achievable is to think of novels set in that part of Australia. Elyne Mitchell’s Silver Brumby series are those novels. They have been with me since I was a child, and one of the joys of moving to Canberra, 30+ years ago, was knowing that, if I looked carefully outside in a drive towards the deep mountains, past Cooma, I might see Thowra.

One of my favourite scenes in the Silver Brumby itself, has wattle, and the early, early wattle has just come out around the corner from me. A cold wattle, pale yellow and, just this once (because we missed autumn storms) concentrating wildly with the glowing leaves of the maple next to it. I wanted to take a picture, but it was dusk and it was the first time I’d walked anywhere in a month and I simply could not carry my camera. My phone doesn’t like pictures in the half-light. Still, the red maple and the pale golden wattle shone, and I thought of the Silver Brumby, and I smiled.

While I’m thinking of my childhood, let me dream of the Scotland of Peter Dickinson. I was supposed to be in Scotland this week, in Glasgow, attending a conference on fantasy. My paper had been accepted and I was wildly exciting. Then COVID had its say, and I’m stuck at home.

Dreaming of Emma Tupper’s Diary is not a bad way to think of Scotland. Submarines and dinosaurs and a girl who wrote a diary I wished I could have written, when I was her age.

My third novel is not as distant. I read it for the first time quite recently. Lisa Fuller’s Ghost Bird is for slightly older children. It has darkness and family culture and it’s dynamic and wonderful. Sometimes a dark novel takes one by the hand and offers a way out of despair. Lisa’s novel is that one. I know where she’s coming from for some of the novel, and we’ve talked about it and so, for me, it’s not the novel alone that makes me smile, it’s knowing that I have friends who are writers who write work that’s so moving. I start thinking of all my other writer-friends, including those who hang around this Treehouse. And I realise that it doesn’t matter how bleak Canberra is in July and how alone COVID can leave me (I haven’t seen my mother since January 2019, when the bushfires caused me to evacuate to her place), I live in a rich world.

More Delightful Summer Reading

Here are some more reviews of books I’ve recently enjoyed recently.

 

Servant Mage, by Kate Elliott (Tor)

Kate Elliott always delivers entertaining stories with relatable characters, and Servant Mage is no exception. Indentured fire-mage Fellian leads a drab life, half-starved and clinging to memories of her childhood, before the rigid, fundamentalist Liberationists came to power and enslaved anyone with magical power. The usurped Monarchists have formed an underground rebellion, and they need Fellian’s Fire magic. Of course, one among them is devastatingly handsome, thereby setting expectations of romance to come, as well as the restoration of a noble, altruistic king.. Here’s where Elliott departs from the usual and becomes deeply subversive. Fellian holds steadfastly to her own values when presented with an attractive man and the lure of a benevolent monarchy restored. Instead, she asks piercing questions and relies on her own judgment, time and time again. She is keenly aware that the other conspirators need her special talent, and she’s not about to exchange her autonomy for a new community. In short, she thinks for herself. Through her, Elliott strongly questions the romantic notion so prevalent in fantasy: the noble aristocracy, devoted to the welfare of their subjects. Fellian insists that to trust future generations of entitled rulers is folly and that exchanging one form of top-down rule for another is no guarantee against despotism. This emperor might be just and fair, but in a generation, common people like her might find themselves just as oppressed.

I love how respectful Elliott is of her readers’ intelligence. She plays fair and gives us all the information we need (such as Fellian’s passion for literacy in teaching fellow servants to read and write) without ramming conclusions down our throats. She lets the characters and unfolding events speak for themselves without telling us how to feel about them. For this, and for superb storytelling and compelling characters, I’ll grab anything she writes!

 

The Necropolis Empire, A Twilight Imperium Novel, by Tim Pratt (Aconyte)

Tim Pratt writes a lot of very cool science fiction. From his “Axiom” series (my gateway into his work) to The Doors of Sleep (which I really, really hope will become an entire series, now that there’s a sequel) to his “Twilight Imperium” novels. When I reviewed the first of these, The Fractured Void, I had no idea that Twilight Imperium is a war-without-end strategic game. I wrote, “Game tie-in novels are common these days, but not those that are so well crafted as to stand on their own merits. I picked it up because I loved Tim Pratt’s other science fiction novels (and after reading it I still have no idea what Twilight Imperium is, nor do I particularly care as long as Pratt turns out books as good as this one).” That’s even more true for The Necropolis Empire. If you, like me, are so much Not a Gamer that you’re into negative gamer-ness, just ignore that part and enjoy the book as a great science fiction tale.

Standing on its own, The Necropolis Empire falls into one of my favorite science fiction subgenres: spooky alien ruins. In this case, very, very old alien ruins from a race we’re really glad has gone extinct. Now if folks would just stop trying to resurrect their tech…

Our young heroine, Bianca, lives on one such world, a pastoral culture built on top of the aforementioned, deeply buried alien tech. Scavenged bits are useful, but mostly the farmers go about their lives…until a ship from the imperialist Barony of Letnev arrives, annexes the planet, and carries Bianca away with a rather incredulous story about her being a space princess. Bianca falls for it, though. Not only is she adopted, but rather than settle down with a nice neighbor boy, she has always yearned for something beyond her own world. That something becomes clearer when she begins changing, developing superhuman speed, strength, senses, healing, and more. The ruthless Letnev believe she is the key to finding and controlling the ancient military relics, which they mean to use to dominate all known space. Bianca has other ideas.

I absolutely love how vulnerable and how competent Bianca is. Her confidence in herself and her abilities stems from more than her new, superhuman powers. As a child, she was wanted and cherished, never coddled but given responsibilities. She grew up with permission to tackle all manner of challenges, and she’s a genuinely nice person. The Letnev, not so much. They’ve perfected arrogance to an art form.

I would be perfectly happy to see an entire series of “The Adventures of Bianca,” although I sadly fear the good folks who’ve created Twilight Imperium are more interested in promoting their game and not so much in a fascinating character who stands on her own.

 

Scandal in Babylon, by Barbara Hambly (Severn House)

I loved Barbara Hambly’s Bride of the Rat God, a fantasy set in Roaring 1920s Hollywood. Now she returns to that era, with its glamorous silent film stars, bootleggers, gangsters, drug use, widespread corruption, and the frenzied exuberance that followed World War I. In this story, a murder mystery (without Bride’s supernatural elements) the viewpoint character is Emma, a young British widow who now works as a companion and secretary for her superstar sister-in-law, Kitty. Classically trained, Emma is constantly affronted by the wildly inaccurate movie scripts (Kitty is currently starring in The Empress of Babylon), many of which she is called upon to rewrite on the spur of the moment. She’s also embarked on a possible new romance with cameraman Zak. To complicate matters further, Kitty’s real life is as melodramatic as her screen characters. She is a generous person for all her antics, especially loving to her three adorable Pekinese. When Kitty’s dissolute ex-husband, Rex, is found murdered, it looks very much as if someone is trying to set Kitty up to take the blame and is doing a very bad job of it. A deliberately bad job?

Drenched in atmosphere and fascinating historical details, featuring vivid characters and snappy dialog, Scandal in Babylon is Hambly at the top of her form. The pacing and depth of the scenes are wonderful, just the right combination of page-turning action, whodunit tension, and moments of reflection and personal growth.

Rumor has it that Scandal in Babylon will be the first of a new series. If so, sign me up!

 

The Science of Being Angry, by Nicole Melleby (Algonquin Young Readers)

Eleven-year-old Joey lives in an unusual blended family. For one thing, she had her two twin brothers have two moms, one of whom was married before and has a son from that marriage. She and her brothers were the result of IVF, and the boys are identical, having split from the same egg. For all the nontraditional nature of this family, there’s a lot of love and acceptance. But all is not well with Joey. She’s been having increasingly volatile episodes of anger and acting-out. Her temper has become legendary at school, where she’s been given the nickname, “Bruiser,” after she threw a soccer ball at a boy in gym class so hard she bruised his collarbone. She’s roughly pushed away her best friend, on whom she also has a crush. Now she’s left with the fallout wreckage of what she’s done.

Despite the efforts of her moms to help her, Joey’s outbursts are only getting worse. Finally, she melts down into a tantrum so destructive, her family is evicted from their apartment and must move into a motel, where close quarters fuel everyone’s irritation. Her moms start bickering, and Joey thinks that’s her fault. Her older brother, who is trying to focus on his academics, goes to live with his father, and of course, Joey blames herself for that, too.

Joey can’t understand why she flies into a rage or how to control it. All her best intentions are in vain. Then she gets the idea that perhaps her temper is a genetic trait inherited from her biological father. If she can just track him down, she thinks, she might better understand her own volatility—and he might have found successful strategies for managing his anger. With the help of her alienated best friend/crush, she embarks on a genetics project for science class. And, of course, nothing goes the way Joey expects.

In many ways, Joey is a typical adolescent, struggling with the tensions between immaturity and independence. In others, though, she is very much her own person with a unique family. I loved the way the unusual marriage and relationships are presented in a matter-of-fact way. Joey’s anger is clearly not caused by her having two lesbian mothers. Indeed, the clear love and understanding between her mothers, the way each of them has found her way to an authentic life, are one of Joey’s principal strengths. I also noted very little along the lines of, “girls don’t have anger management issues,” when in fact psychological research shows that girls experience anger as frequently as boys do (but are socialized to suppress it).

What I most loved about this book was the respect with which Joey and her problems were portrayed. Joey is in many ways still a child, and for all her competence in many areas, she has a child’s limited resources for dealing with psychological issues that confound many adults. Her sense of responsibility often leads her to shoulder disproportionate blame, to withdraw rather than harm someone she loves, and to keep her pain to herself. She confronts an issue all of us face, regardless of how old we are: when do we ask for help, and when do we rely upon our own resources? In the end, Joey realizes that she cannot master her temper by herself, and—more importantly—that there is kindness, understanding, and help available to her.

Highly recommended for adults as well as their adolescent children.

 

Noor, by Nnedi Okorafor (DAW)

Okorafor’s work invites us into a world of the future, but one in which the foundational culture is not derived from Western Europe but situated in Africa. Her underlying premise is that the Africans of the future, in this case Nigerians, have developed their own rich technologies. Two stand out for me in this novel: harvesting solar and wind energy in the deserts of northern Nigeria; and the heroine herself, whose cyborg body has been extensively augmented. At the same time, herdsmen follow ages-old traditions. In Okorafor’s skillful hands, high tech and ancient ways of life blend into a seamless whole.

 

 

Rethinking All the Rules

On the first day of our constitutional law class, a hundred or so of us assembled in a large classroom set up something like a theater, with two long rows of steps down to the platform and podium used by the teacher. It was the beginning of the second semester of our first year and we had survived thus far, so we were cocky enough to be talking noisily.

Then the professor came in: Charles Alan Wright, whose name graced various textbooks, who argued regularly before the Supreme Court, and who was particularly noted at the University of Texas law school for coaching the aggressive intramural football team the Legal Eagles. By the time he reached the front of the room, you could have heard a pin drop.

He looked around at us and then said, in a mild voice, “Would someone please give us the case of Marbury v. Madison?”

Now anyone in that room could have explained Marbury v. Madison. Hell, we learned about it in high school. Plus we were law students, legal nerds by definition.

For those who’ve forgotten high school or who aren’t from the US, it’s the case where Chief Justice John Marshall ruled that the Supreme Court can weigh in on the constitutionality of laws and actions by other branches of government. It’s a gimme question. Wikipedia has a good explainer on the case.

Yet everyone else in the room breathed a sigh of relief when Mr. Timmons raised his hand and gave the answer. That’s just how intimidated we were by the professor and by the importance of constitutional law.

Here’s the thing, though. The one thing that didn’t occur to any of us was to question whether Marbury was a good idea. I mean, it would have been like questioning the gospels in a Baptist Sunday school.

Professor Wright certainly didn’t raise the point. I doubt he ever questioned it. But after the last few rulings of the current Supreme Court, it’s pretty clear that allowing a group of unelected lifetime political appointees to be the sole arbiters of what’s constitutional is one of many flaws in our system. Continue reading “Rethinking All the Rules”

A Potpourri of Short Book Reviews

I’ve been reading a lot of delightful books recently. Here are a few for your consideration.

The Galaxy, and the Ground Within, by Becky Chambers (Harper Voyager)

Set on an uninhabitable planet whose only value is as a stopover for other worlds, this story explores what happens when members of very different species and histories are forced into community when they are temporarily cut off from contact with the larger Galactic Commons. Three of these strangers are guests at the overwhelmingly hospitable Five-Hop One-Stop version of a spacer’s truck stop when a freak accident halts all traffic and communications. At first glance, they have little in common: an exiled artist with an urgent, perhaps redemptive appointment to keep, a cargo runner with a military history at a personal crossroads, and a mysterious individual who cannot leave her space suit but is doing her best to help those on the fringes. Add to this odd grouping, their host and her teenager, furred quadrupeds that reminded me repeatedly of space otters. Most of all, though, this book is about how people who are initially not only diverse but at odds with one another can bridge those differences through understanding and shared experiences to form friendships and, ultimately, community.

 

Crazy in Poughkeepsie, by Daniel Pinkwater; Aaron Renier illustrator (Tachyon)

It’s difficult to find words to describe a Daniel Pinkwater book because they are a unique breed that defies the usual literary terminology: they’re enchanting (often literally), playful, spontaneous (as in combustion, upon occasion), and hilarious-yet-insightful. In other words, a Daniel Pinkwater book provides the occasion for parents wrestling the copy from their kids, and vice versa, so why not avoid bloodshed, or paper-shred, and read them aloud together?

Mick’s ordinary life comes to a screeching 180 degree turn when his older brother returns home from Tibet with Guru Lumpo Smythe-Finkel and his dog, Lhasa, and Mick finds himself—how, he’s never entirely clear—the guru’s new disciple. Guru, disciple, and magical dog set off on a quest that’s as notable for its vagueness as its unpredictability. They acquire fellow travelers, graffiti-fanatic Verne and Molly, a Dwergish girl (sort of like leprechaun trolls with hidden goals, magical powers, a gift for making friends, and a charmingly madcap sense of humor). Soon they’re cavorting with a ghost whale who is the essence of love, as well as other wacky and memorable characters.

Pinkwater’s in on a great secret: if you want to communicate wisdom to young readers, first make them smile. Or giggle. Or run wild in Poughkeepsie, as the case may be.

 

 

The Dispatcher: Murder by Other Means, by John Scalzi (Subterranean)

Part noir detective story, part thriller, part inventive science fiction that examines a world in which death is not permanent (well, certain kinds of death and mostly), this is newest adventure in John Scalzi’s “The Dispatcher” series. I hadn’t read the first one but quickly found that didn’t matter. Scalzi skillfully weaves in all the necessary backstory with nary a plot hiccough.

In Scalzi’s world, a few years ago almost all folks who were murdered don’t die, they reappear in a place they feel safe, like a childhood home. Natural deaths are something else: you die, you stay dead. A new profession has arisen, that of “dispatcher,” a not-murderer for hire. If you’re about to die naturally, you hire them and get another chance at life. Most of the time. But business has been drying up, and Tony Valdez has been taking on cases that blur the shady line of what’s strictly legal. Like killing a Chinese executive so he can re-appear thousands of miles away in time for an important business meeting. At this point, Scalzi propels Valdez firmly into thriller territory, with plenty of dramatic tension, noir mystery, and danger. In Scalzi’s superlatively competent hands, it all comes together seamlessly for a can’t-put-it-down ride.

 

Paper & Blood (Book Two of the Ink & Sigil series, by Kevin Hearne (Del Rey)

I’m a huge fan of Kevin Hearne to begin with, and his “Ink and Sigil” series is a delight. As a former student of calligraphy, I love the idea that the written word is magical. In this series, set in the world of the Iron Druid, scribes create magical spells using not only words, but painstakingly prepared pens, inks, and paper. The spells include the Sigils of Unchained Destruction, Restorative Care, Agile Grace, Muscular Brawn, and Quick Compliance and are used to protect the world against malevolent gods and monsters.

Our everyman-hero, Al MacBharrais, is under a couple of nasty spells himself. If he speaks to someone more than a few times, they loathe him (this happened to his own son), and his apprentices die violently after a year of service. This isn’t good news for his hobgoblin apprentice, Buck Foi. While Al is searching for a way to lift his misfortunes, his fellow sigil agents go missing in the wilds of Australia. Al and Buck are off to the rescue, joined by one of the missing agent’s apprentices, his receptionist Gladys Who Has Seen Some Shite, a few sundry allies, and the Iron Druid himself. The search leads them to a forested preserve, where chimeric monsters lie in wait. These critters are sometimes more effective and lethal than others, but always inventive: a turtle-dragon-spider, an eagle bull, a scorpion with a rat’s head (ugh), pygmy goats with fanged snake heads, a gorilla elephant, a yak badger, and my favorite, a zebra possum.

All in all, this is a quick, fun read filled with plot twists and delightful characters but also depth, the best combination.

“Abandoned cheese is a sure sign that something’s gone wrong.”

 

The Paradox Hotel, by Rob Hart (Ballantine)

If we ever managed to figure out time travel, who would control it? How would we prevent time tourists from messing with the past—and would that warp the present, as in the grandfather paradox? In Rob Hart’s latest novel, The Paradox Hotel, the US government has been policing time tourism and historical research expeditions, only now they’ve run out of funds and the franchise is about to go to auction.

January Cole works security at the Paradox Hotel, which hosts time travelers awaiting their scheduled “flights to the past” at the nearby Einstein Institute. She’s a seasoned time traveler herself, having made many trips as part of the policing agency. As a result of spending too much time in the past, she’s become Unstuck, with the result that she often sees events and people from prior times. The best of these incidents allow her to be with her sweet, loving girlfriend, now dead. But January’s condition is worsening, and she’s not only seeing the past but the future. That future includes a corpse in Room 526.

With trillionaires arriving for the auction, baby velociraptors on the loose, and January’s grip on the present moment growing ever less reliable, it’s inevitable that more things will go wrong…starting with a series of “accidents” befalling the powerful, ultra-wealthy bidders. Clocks run backward, time seems to stutter, the treatment for being Unstuck no longer works, and January’s running out of time to stop the murder.

I loved the convolutions of time, January’s wrestling with grief and guilt, the dips into the past, and of course, the baby velociraptors that grow much too fast, all with the fast pacing of a thriller. In short, Hart’s time-twisting murder mystery satisfies on many counts.

 

 

Something Perfect, by Laura Anne Gilman (Faery Cat Press)

Just in time for Valentine’s Day comes a sweet, sexy novella from Laura Anne Gilman. It’s a romance between a long-married couple, Jenny and Nic, who feel more complete with a third person. Luck hasn’t favored them so far, as triads or throuples aren’t for everyone. Polyamory requires excellent communication skills, integrity, and generosity of heart. Frustrated with having their hearts broken from yet another breakup, Jenny asks Nic to use his scrying talent to find their perfect partner.

“When you see the curve of their face reflected in glass and moonlight,” goes his reading. “The city shining on their skin. When you see that, you’ll know.”

Years go by, until Jenny attends an exclusive party in New York City and spots Amy sitting alone on the moonlit patio. Jenny knows she’s “the one.” Courtship is difficult enough, but between three people it’s a real challenge, especially when one of them is as insecure as Amy, who’s convinced she “isn’t good at sex” and will never find the right partner. Nic’s “Seeing” may have started the ball rolling, but it takes more than magic to forge strong, resilient relationships.

There was so much I loved in this story, and it’s all beautifully rendered: the strength and clarity of Jenny and Nic’s marriage and their ability to communicate in a loving, nonjudgmental fashion; the absence of plot stupidities and misunderstandings that serve no other purpose than to draw out tension, when a simple conversation would resolve them; the positive portrayal of sex and multiple relationships, one that trusts the reader’s intelligence; and most of all, a thread of gold running through the story, the importance of consent. Asking for it, giving it, checking in, taking it back, celebrating it. And the wonderfully juicy erotic bits are great, too.

 

 

Within Without (A Nyquist Mystery), by Jeff Noon (Angry Robot)

This is the third “John Nyquist Mystery” I’ve read and it’s by far the weirdest. Nyquist’s latest case involves the theft of a sentient, essence-of-glamor image that has gone missing from its host. To

investigate, Nyquist and his new assistant travel to the city of Delirium, guarded by boundaries that are far more than checkpoints or physical barriers. Their search for the magic practitioner who created and attached the image to begin with leads them into increasingly bizarre cities-within-cities. In Escher, Nyquist discovers his “Inverse,” the character hidden within his psyche, and it turns out to be Gregor Samsa, the narrator of Kafka’s Metamorphosis, who wakens one morning to discover he has turned into a cockroach. So Nyquist must deal not only with Samsa’s personality and voice, but that of the cockroach. As if that weren’t strange enough, his assistant has become infected with a creeping magical substance and, obsessed with taking the image, named Oberon, for his own, disappears. Plot twists abound, building until Nyquist finds himself in an utterly different plane of existence, one in which the images define and distort reality. The book carries forward and intensifies the hallucinatory texture of the previous Nyquist novels.

 

 

 

Book Perspective: Superb Middle Grade Fiction Featuring Queer Kids

Nicole Melleby writes Middle Grade fiction featuring exclusively queer kids who also happen to struggle with mental illness. They’re really, really good books, too. Books I wish every family of a troubled adolescent, queer or not, would sit down and read together.

How To Become a Planet features a youngster, creatively named Pluto, who struggles with depression. I reviewed it here.

How to Become a Planet focuses on Pluto as a sympathetic character, a person who is both resourceful and overwhelmed, insightful and confused by changes in herself. Her use of astronomy metaphors is particularly vivid and powerful. Above all, Pluto is a person whose brain chemistry isn’t working quite right, not a diagnosis, and this excellent novel showcases her journey toward a new balance in her life.

Here’s what the author said about this character in a recent interview:

Q: How did you balance depicting the reality of living with mental illness with the important message of hope?
A: Getting a diagnosis isn’t the end for Pluto—it’s a new beginning. I wanted to show that despite it feeling so hard, there is always hope. In the end, Pluto still has depression, she still has her struggles, but she has her support system and the understanding of her needs, and she’ll be okay.

I think this is spot on for adults as well as kids. Turning your life around takes not only appropriate treatment (including, in Pluto’s case, medication as well as psychotherapy) but time and patience. Backsliding and reversals are par for the course, no matter how skillful the professional help and supportive the loving families are. There’s no magic wand to make psychiatric problems disappear, although popular media often portray it so. One insightful conversation and poof! you’re cured. This is one of many reasons why books like Melleby’s are so important. There is hope, she says, so hang in there.

In Melleby’s new novel, The Science of Being Angry, young Joey can’t understand why she explodes into destructive fury. Like Pluto, she has a family that loves her and struggles to understand her, yet it isn’t enough.

In my review of this book, I wrote:

What I most loved about this book was the respect with which Joey and her problems were portrayed. Joey is in many ways still a child, and for all her competence in many areas, she has a child’s limited resources for dealing with psychological issues that confound many adults. Her sense of responsibility often leads her to shoulder disproportionate blame, to withdraw rather than harm someone she loves, and to keep her pain to herself. She confronts an issue all of us face, regardless of how old we are: when do we ask for help, and when do we rely upon our own resources? In the end, Joey realizes that she cannot master her temper by herself, and—more importantly—that there is kindness, understanding, and help available to her.

Melleby doesn’t condescend or simply. Her characters grapple with complex, often ambivalent emotions. Yet her faith in the resourcefulness of troubled young people, when given appropriate care, shines through. She reminds us,

There’s no one answer, there’s no one story for someone struggling with mental illness.

If this means there are many more Melleby MG novels to come, that’s an excellent thing!

On Real Conversations

One of the wonderful things about East Bay Booksellers is that the books they put on display by the cash register tend to be small press gems rather than those books you buy as a gift because they’re “cute” that no one ever reads.

Case in point: a book called Anarchy—In a Manner of Speaking, which is a set of conversations by the late (and great) David Graeber with Mehdi Belhaj Kacem, Nika Dubrovsky, and Assia Turquier-Zauberman.

I was in the store picking up something else, saw it for the third time, and decided I needed to have it. I came home and started reading and bam! There on the second page was something that I needed to know, even though I hadn’t realized it: the importance of dialogue — real dialogue — among people in both understanding the world and creating better systems.

Graeber ties anarchist practice to dialogue, in particular “a certain principle of dialogue.” He explains:

[T]here’s a lot of attention paid to learning how to make pragmatic, cooperative decisions with people who have fundamentally different understandings of the world, without actually trying to convert them to your particular point of view.

That alone connected two discrete parts of my life: developing co-ops and training in Aikido. In both of those activities, it is vital to have that kind of dialogue to accomplish anything.

In Aikido, of course, we have that dialogue physically, but it is the same thing. Your partner attacks and you have an exchange that will resolve the situation. If you handle it well, the situation shifts without harm to either party.

I’ve found over the years that bullying people until they agree to your point of view never works. Even if you get agreement in the short term, there’s a good chance of losing it. In Aikido, if you try to force a solution, you’re not going to get anywhere.

Continue reading “On Real Conversations”

Memories and Ruth M Arthur

Yesterday my new book was launched in the UK. There won’t be any launches elsewhere I suspect, because our lives are still vastly influenced by this interesting world we live in, but Story Matrices is out and I will talk about it whenever I have the chance. Except right now. I could spend an hour writing about my new book, but tonight I feel a little haunted, so I want to talk about the book that helped me find words for such things when I was still in primary school.

Ruth M Arthur was one of my favourite authors when I was under ten. I managed to find several of her books when libraries replaced old books with new ones in the 1990s. This means I have on my desk, reminding me of my childhood, the same edition I borrowed from the Hawthorn City Library time after time. The book is A Candle in Her Room, which was my return-to-over-and-over of Arthur’s mainly because it creeped me out, every time I read it. The illustrator was Margery Gill, and her pictures are definitely part of my memories. From the moment I could read, I read the illustrations along with the story and they were part of a whole. They still are, and I still have favourite artists. If they illustrate the internal pages of a book, then I will try to find a copy of that book for my bookshelf. When one of those artists, Kathleen Jennings, illustrated one of my own books I melted into a puddle of sparkling joy.

A Candle in Her Room is a children’s book, from the days before there were Young Adult books. I’m not sure it would be published today. It’s too dark for a children’s book these days. This is a loss for any child who sees that life has dark places and needs words to identify those feelings. A Candle in Her Room and a story about a ghost that lured children away with the promise of happiness (I don’t remember the author, which is probably a good thing – and I’ve never been able to find the book it was in – all I remember is that it was a Penguin paperback from the sixties, with a blue cover) helped me more than I can say when I discovered that the Shoah was not that far removed from me. Two of the characters join the Polish Resistance. This was the link between the book and the Shoah survivors I knew as a child. I never articulated that link, but the book was there for me, nonetheless. I want to say that it taught me that there was a way out of darkness, but it did no such thing. It let me know that other people experienced that feeling I had when I saw the picture from the day a death camp was liberated. When I knew, age 6, that not everyone survives and that the adults who knew all the answers were the ones I could not ask about the picture. When folks talk about children asking the damnedest questions they ignore the fact that some need fiction to fill the emotional holes for the questions that the child cannot ask.

A Candle in Her Room didn’t help at all with my next door neighbour, Doris. I played with her until she was eight. I was the only other child in the street that she was happy to play with. One day she had tonsillitis and went to hospital for it and never came back. I still miss her. It also didn’t help with Charles, who lived across the road and went to school with me, died in a car accident in Tasmania. Nor when… I will become a very different kind of puddle if I remember these friends.

The simple fact is that stories helped me find words to start handling the death of strangers who might be relatives and whose bodies I saw in a big pile in a picture when I was six. This was only step one in learning words and stories that helped me with the other losses and let me eventually reach the stage where I could find my own words and tell my own stories.

I tell people that I’m a sarcastic Pollyanna and the amount of loss in the first twenty years of my very ordinary suburban existence is what triggered the sarcasm. Ruth M. Arthur’s was important to me, then, and probably always will be.

I never want to own a doll called ‘Dido’. Reading Joan Aiken’s books at the same time meant that the name ‘Dido’ was totally fine. When my Pre-Classical Antiquity lecturer tried to explain what he termed a rare name when we learned about Carthage, I went to my local library and borrowed all the books that had anyone or anything called ‘Dido’ – I didn’t tell him I had disproved his ‘rare name’ theory, but I thought it, forcibly. His few thoughtless words couldn’t obliterate my childhood while I had access to books.

A Candle in Her Room now provokes nightmares, even without me reading it. This is odd, because it’s not really horrific. It’s spiced with darkness. For me it carries all that baggage and is more than the sum of its parts.

I wanted to know if anyone knew of it. It’s not, after all, a new novel. I looked it up just now online and it’s still being read and still provoking emotions. I’ve known this book since it was first released in Australia. The edition I read and now own was the London one, from 1968, which tells you a lot about my early reading habits. And I’m devolving into dullness because I just realise that I’m writing this at bedtime. I need to find something to refresh my mind, otherwise I will have nightmares about malevolent dolls. I know this for a fact, because I have nightmares about Dido whenever I think about A Candle in Her Room late at night.

The books we read as children are important. And I shall defeat those nightmares by finding another book with that musty scent and this book shall be one that brings me good dreams.

Ways of Telling Stories

BoothLast week I realized Karen Joy Fowler’s latest book was out, so I walked over to East Bay Booksellers to pick up a copy of Booth.

I’d considered waiting. It has never occurred to me to be interested in the family of John Wilkes Booth.

But on the other hand, if I have not read every piece of fiction published by Karen Joy Fowler since I stumbled over an early collection of her short stories in a bookstore in New York City sometime in the 1980s, it is not for want of trying.

I still adore “The View From Venus,” which is one of the first of her stories I ever read. I had a fight with an editor of a science fiction review magazine when I wanted to name “What I Didn’t See” as my favorite story of the year. (He said it wasn’t science fiction. SFWA members disagreed — it won the Nebula that year.)

The Jane Austen Book Club is the only book I can remember that was embraced with equal enthusiasm by my mother, my sister, and I (all big readers, but with different tastes). My friend Anne Sheldon, with whom I share a passion for baseball, got me a signed copy of The Sweetheart Season as a gift.

And We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves blew me away.

So I bought Booth and ended up staying up into the wee hours to finish it the other night because it was just that good.

This was not a case of not being able to put the book down because I had to know what happened next. Booth is an historical novel about the family of the man who murdered Abraham Lincoln. You go into it knowing how it has to end. Continue reading “Ways of Telling Stories”

The Future Is Starting Right Now

The Ministry for the FutureKim Stanley Robinson is an optimist.

If you only read chapter 1 of The Ministry for the Future, you might not believe that. But even though his novel opens with a horrific and all too realistic disaster caused by climate change — and later describes several others — he isn’t writing a dystopia.

Rather he’s writing a story in which human beings find ways to deal with climate change without pretending that the process won’t be messy.

I called him an optimist, not Pollyanna. (Do people still read Pollyanna?)

He knows how bad things are and how much worse they can get, but he also knows we are capable of making things better. In this book, the efforts to address climate change include everything from economics to politics to geoengineering to violent actions against those who refuse to take action to stop carbon accumulation in the atmosphere.

There’s also what happens with climate refugees, mental breakdowns among those who have suffered from disasters, and violence against those working for real change. It’s a long book.

I have no doubt that we’re going to see something similar to the disorder he chronicles here over the next 30 years or so. I hope he’s right that we’ll get some of the positive changes, too.

He has more faith in political change than I have, but Wikipedia reports that Francis Fukuyama, who was notoriously wrong about the end of history, has called the book “ludicrously unrealistic.”

If I have to choose between Stan Robinson and Francis Fukuyama, I’m going with Stan every time. Continue reading “The Future Is Starting Right Now”