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Ray Nayler: The Mountain in the Sea (Paperback, 2023, Picador) 4 stars

Humankind discovers intelligent life in an octopus species with its own language and culture, and …

Asks many interesting questions, has the sense not to try to give pat answers

5 stars

So much to love about this book, how it weaves together unanswerable questions about consciousness and computation, together with a much more didactic message about humans' consumptive relationships with, well, everything including each other, and enough of a mystery story to keep the plot moving along. Also some great evocations of places (ahhh, multiple key scenes on Istanbul ferries), and of the ways peoples' reputations misrepresent their selves.

It's not a strongly character driven book - every character that is fleshed out seems to be a variant of "loner who wishes for connection" and largely a vehicle for the author's ideas - but there's enough depth to the characters to keep me reading. My one real criticism is that the ending felt a bit rushed. Not in the sort of too convenient, story-undermining way, but not quite satisfying either. It doesn't feel like a set up for a sequel, but …

Content warning Jade War minor spoilers

Bram Stoker: Dracula (Hardcover, 2011, Penguin Classics) 4 stars

During a business visit to Count Dracula's castle in Transylvania, a young English solicitor finds …

Compelling, atmospheric, and very very intensely flawed

3 stars

First of all: I read this in form. I highly recommend this approach because the pacing in real time adds a lot of tension. But it does also mean that I didn't read it in exactly the order that the author put the text in.

In some ways this is a great book. There's a reason why Stoker's vision of the vampire has become so dominant in pop culture. And the format--a series of letters and journal entries--works very well, even if sometimes one has to suspend disbelief about how the characters found time to write thousands of words on the most action-packed days.

But it's also deeply flawed in ways that reflect very poorly on the author. It's super racist and very sexist--even by the low standards of the era it was written in--and Stoker insisted on writing various accents even though he was terrible at that, and …

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Italo Calvino: Invisible Cities (Paperback, 1997, Vintage Classics) 5 stars

Invisible Cities (Italian: Le città invisibili) is a novel by Italian writer Italo Calvino. It …

You walk for days among trees and among stones. Rarely does the eye light on a thing, and only when it has recognized that thing as the sign of another thing. A print in the sand indicates the tiger’s passage; a marsh announces a vein of water; the hibiscus flower, the end of winter. All the rest is silent and interchangeable; trees and stones are only what they are.

Finally the journey leads to the city of Tamara. You penetrate it along streets thick with signboards jutting from the walls. The eye does not see things but images of things that mean other things: pincers point out the tooth-drawer’s house; a tankard, the tavern; halberds, the barracks; scales, the grocer’s. Statues and shields depict lions, dolphins, towers, stars: a sign that something—who knows what?—has as its sign a lion or a dolphin or a tower or a star. Other signals warn of what is forbidden in a given place (to enter the alley with wagons, to urinate behind the kiosk, to fish with your pole from the bridge) and what is allowed (watering zebras, playing bowls, burning relatives’ corpses). From the doors of the temples the gods’ statues are seen, each portrayed with his attributes—the cornucopia, the hourglass, the medusa—so that the worshiper can recognize them and address his prayers correctly. If a building has no signboard or figure, its very form and the position it occupies in the city’s order suffice to indicate its function: the palace, the prison, the mint, the Pythagorean school, the brothel. The wares, too, which the vendors display on their stalls are valuable not in themselves but as signs of other things: the embroidered headband stands for elegance; the gilded palanquin, power; the volumes of Averroes, learning; the ankle bracelet, voluptuousness. Your gaze scans the streets as if they were written pages: the city says everything you must think, makes you repeat her discourse, and while you believe you are visiting Tamara you are only recording the names with which she defines herself and all her parts.

However the city may really be, beneath this thick coating of signs, whatever it may contain or conceal, you leave Tamara without having discovered it. Outside, the land stretches, empty, to the horizon; the sky opens, with speeding clouds. In the shape that chance and wind give the clouds, you are already intent on recognizing figures: a sailing ship, a hand, an elephant...

Invisible Cities by 

Kate Beaton: Ducks (2022) 5 stars

Before there was Kate Beaton, New York Times bestselling cartoonist of Hark A Vagrant fame, …

A deeply human look at a thoroughly dehumanising place

5 stars

This is a powerful memoir which has a lot to say about how we (particularly Canada as a resource extraction colony, but also a broader "we") treat the people whose physical labour runs parts of the economy we'd rather not think about. The experience turned out predictably badly for Beaton, but in looking back she maintained empathy for the people involved, keeping a clear on focus on what the context of oil sands work camps does to people.

Amal El-Mohtar, Max Gladstone: This Is How You Lose the Time War (2020) 4 stars

This Is How You Lose the Time War is a 2019 science fiction epistolary novel …

Weird and beautiful but not always up to its own ambition

4 stars

The letters that make up about half of this book are gorgeously written, and I love the story they tell. The basic idea of the time war is clever, and the descriptions of placetimes the characters find themselves in evocative, sometimes reminiscent of Calvino's Invisible Cities. I devoured this book in a few days.

And yet... something about it felt a little thin or hollow behind its fireworks. I think it was a good artistic choice to leave all technical details out, but I couldn't help but get hung up on the time paradoxes. Not that it's the authors' responsibility to necessarily avoid or solve them, but for me personally they intruded on the suspension of disbelief.

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Ibram X. Kendi, Keisha N. Blain: Four Hundred Souls (Hardcover, 2021, One World) 5 stars

A chorus of extraordinary voices comes together to tell one of history’s great epics: the …

Powerful collection that complicates the arc of history

5 stars

This is a collection of 80 short essays each by a different writer, each anchored to a consecutive 5-year span, starting with the first documented landing of enslaved Africans in the North American colonies.

The range of voices is a huge strength, with each writer not only having a different style but getting to make dramatically different choices in where to focus attention. Individually, many of the essays filled in gaps in my knowledge, but the whole is much more than the sum of those parts. It helps the book really live up to its "community history" billing - while of course even 80 authors can't speak for a whole community of millions, they can get a lot closer to that than any one alone could.

As should be expected given the subject matter, many of the pieces are very heavy and grim. Certainly some of the things I learned …