Given the recent Toronto attack which has shaken this city to its core, particularly the way it was directed with a passionate hatred towards women, this book has been a source of comfort to me over the last few days. Reading articles claiming “Toronto has lost its innocence” due to a “men’s-rights culture warrior channeling a cult of toxic misogyny” made it particularly difficult to enjoy the place I call home without the constant sense of uneasiness and violation. I needed to read a book where all the characters are women and they are sexually free within their own spaces, in the city of Toronto. This has been (for me) one of those rare moments of right book at the right time. In addition to its content, the author’s dry humour and deadpan writing style gives this narrative a ‘matter-of fact’ tone, which is much needed given the plot and characters.
The narrative follows Liberty, who has dropped out of university, and hitched a ride to Toronto back in the ’90s. In Toronto, and in her early 20s she falls for Veronika who is an unreliable, and unpredictable character. The reader gets a sense that Liberty wants both passion and stability in her life. Liberty wants safety, and comfort, but Veronika’s style puts her constantly on the edge. Liberty’s ambitions aside from her romantic involvements become apparent as she continues her studies and becomes a law librarian working for a very important Toronto firm. Her personal life is laid bare in this novel, but we are reminded that on a daily basis, Liberty is a contributing member of society completing important work. While Veronika distances herself from Liberty, and things never really work out, life keeps throwing them opportunities to meet again and again. The relationship between them is quite familiar, Liberty sees Veronika as a goddess, and muse, while Veronika could not care less. Even when Veronika is hurtful, Liberty narrates:
“She was like Wonder Woman, lifting up bulletproof bracelets to a bolt of humiliation and cooly zapping it back…there was no way I could have been as cool as Veronika, who didn’t seem to get hurt”
The third main character introduced is David, who transitions to Dana. Throughout the course of the novel the reader gets an insight to the difficulties a trans-gendered person encounters even during small meaningless daily activities like joining a recreational basketball team.
There are many moments when Liberty vocalizes what sex means to her, despite what the action itself might look like from the outside (ranging from somewhat rough, BDSM-like, or even at times passionless). Liberty experiences an array of rejections that are really painful to read. Although you see her brushing them aside, as a reader, you can feel the sting. After sleeping with a woman who was extremely hurtful and told Liberty that sex with her had been ‘terrible,’ Liberty doesn’t retort in a hurtful manner, rather she says:
“Listen. Sex for me is not about coming. It’s not about one particular act. It’s about having fun and taking care of each other’s needs”
This novel looks at the three women in Toronto in the ’90s, with a brief flashback to the early ’80s set in Nova Scotia, all the way to 2014 where the novel begins, as Liberty accidentally bumps into Veronika’s step-daughter. This ‘bump’ to me is an overarching theme over the novel. You get a sense that Liberty has strange feelings towards young people today and not only to how casually they experience things which were a struggle for her, but also towards the demands they make. For instance, having read about all these flesh and bone experiences of the past, Liberty has a reaction to seeing a young person on Tinder (or as she calls it: ‘Grindr for straight people’):
“With quick finger swipes, she rejected three face shots of young men and displayed a photo gallery of boys and girls whom she hadn’t rejected. All the cool urban high school kids were genderqueer these days—we can date anyone and we don’t care about gender!…when I was a teenager, the idea of being a dyke had scared the hell out of me.”
And just as she begins with this shock of how young people reject so easily with a single swipe and not being comforted by the awkwardness of doing it in person, or being rejected in person, all tied together with Liberty’s constant desire for safety and stability in her life, she concludes the novel with:
“We’re here, we’re queer, get used to it was what I’d grown up with, was different from the current demands for safe spaces. Demands I wasn’t entirely comfortable with because who defined safe and when did it rub up against freedom? I understood wanting a safe space—any person who has been treated like shit would….when [Beth] stroked the center of my back, as she was right now, I felt utterly safe, precious, protected.’
What I loved most about this novel were the scenes of Toronto, and Liberty Village (name of Toronto neighbourhood) from the ’90s’ and early ‘00s. Descriptions of familiar streets, and familiar places made this novel particularly comforting. There is a lot of character development and growth while the city simultaneously changes with them. The Toronto Liberty runs to in the ‘90s is not the same Toronto she is in today. There is a mirroring in how Liberty enters the city unsure and fragile while the city itself feels defined, and near the end, Liberty knows who she is and what she wants, while the city is in a fragile state. Perhaps this novel can be summarized as “Life, and Liberty’s pursuit of happiness.”
This novel is written by Hamilton-based Nairne Holtz who is a law librarian in Toronto. She has written several other fictional works, and completed an annotated bibliography of Canadian Lesbian Literature. Information on all these works can be found at Holtz’s website. She has been shortlisted for Quebec’s McAuslan Prize, won the Alice B. Award for Debut Lesbian Fiction, and was a Lambda Literary Award finalist. She is almost always illustrated or photographed holding a dog, and she volunteers a lot of her free time at the Gay and Lesbian Archives.
This month has been very hectic. The first two weeks I was writing final essays, wrapping up my Masters degree. I did get some good reading in this month. I was pleasantly surprised by the poetry collections I got a hold of this month because they really nourished the soul. Overall it was a good reading month. Here’s what I read starting from the most recent:
The Poetry of Impermanence, Mindfulness, and Joy – Edited by John Brehm
This collection is an amalgamation of poems from various authors who are a source of wisdom in both the East and the West. The collection brings together a spiritual community that remains connected in that they wrote of essential human truths universally experienced. The collection includes poets like Frost, Whitman, Shakespeare, Kerouac from the West as well as poets from the East like Han Shan, Wei Ying-Wu, and Li Po. I wrote a full review here.
The Slow Regard of Silent Things – Patrick Rothfuss
Earlier in the month I finished the first book and while I am saving the second volume for later on in the year, I thought I would give the novella a chance: The Slow Regard of Silent Things. I read a few reviews and people seem to be very angry at this novella for its lack of plot and character depth. I too expected a history of Auri. I hoped we would find out what happened to her, how she ended up in the Underthing, maybe some secrets she knows from overhearing conversations. I had to connect some dots from the first book. First I remembered that Elodin told Kvothe that he had known Auri for many years around the University and that she herself had been a student studying Alchemy. Also Elodin with Auri are both mentally unstable characters so it’s subtly hinted that Auri may have also been affected by the Naming of things. Reading this novella is almost like a play or a very concentrated experience of what it’s like to be Auri. We don’t get a history, we don’t get much plot, or even much character development, but you get ‘a day in the life’ of Auri in case you wondered as a reader what she does all day.
In the novella she moves around the Underthing and has a lighted object or bio-luminescent creature that she has named Foxen. She observes objects and rooms. I think this concentrated experience is in a way appropriate for Auri because it still keeps her a mysterious figure but it captures the isolation and loneliness of the most hermetic character in the series. Her experience of life is certainly going to be different and perhaps less exciting than Kvothe’s—who experiences more things than anyone else in the entire first book.
This is my theory: she messed up something in Alchemy and out of that she got Foxen and became unstable, but Foxen keeps her alive somehow—which is why Elodin could have known her for years and she still looks young. Foxen is tied to her existence and daily habits/routine. That’s what I got out of this novella. I look forward to moving on to the second book The Wise Man’s Fear.
The novella is also accompanied by the beautiful illustrations of Nate Taylor.
The Hour Wasp by Jay Sheets
I received an ARC for early review from April Gloaming Publishing. The Hour Wasp is a poetry collection written by Jay Sheets and illustrated by Robyn Leigh Lear. This is a debut collection for Sheets and I read this on a lovely Sunday afternoon in the Month of April. If you’d like to know more about this collection you can read my full review. The book will be published on May 28.
This is What a Librarian Looks Like by Kyle Cassidy
I received a copy of this book as an ARC from Hachette, Black Dog & Leventhal for early review. The book will be officially published on May 16. This book is a combination of library history, author interviews on what the library means to them, and over 200 photographs of individual librarians across America with a little excerpt on them. Interviews include Neil Gaiman, Amanda Palmer, Nancy Pearl, Cory Doctorow, and George R. R. Martin, among others. The purpose of this book is to promote and celebrate libraries and the role of librarians in our society, particularly now when the funds of libraries are threatened by Trump’s proposed “skinny budget.”
Invisible Planets Translated by Ken Liu
This is a short story anthology of contemporary Chinese Science Fiction in translation. I wrote an individual Review for this collection. Invisible Planets is a 2016 TOR publication. The thirteen short stories had been previously featured in short story publications like Clarkesworld, Uncanny, and Tor.com. The short stories are written by Chen Qiufan, Xia Jia, Ma Boyong, Hao Jingfang, Tang Fei, Cheng Jingbo, and Liu Cixin. All the stories are translated by Ken Liu. Each author’s stories are preceded by a brief biographical note on the author.
Shards of Honor by Lois McMaster Bujold
I then half-read, half-listened to (on Audible) Lois McMaster Bujold’s second book in the Vorkosigan Saga Shards of Honor because she suggested starting with Shards of Honor and follow it with Barrayar. I will say in advance that this is definitely what is called a hard sci-fi book. There is a lot of military speech and military tactics. The main character whose point of view we follow is Cordelia Naismith’s, she is the captain of a Betan Astronomical ship. I love the way Bujold characterised Cordelia because she is strong and has a backbone. The work begins with the Betan base camp being attacked and Cordelia remaining behind with only one other person from her camp and Captain Aral Vorkosigan of Barrayar. A romance ensues between Cordelia and Vorkosigan but it’s very subtle in terms of ‘cheesiness,’ because as I mentioned this is a strong character and a hard sci-fi book. This may sound weird but Cordelia and
Vorkosigan reminded me of Commander Rourke and Helga Sinclair from Disney’s Atlantis: The Lost Empire. The relationship is complicated, there is a mutiny, and a lot going on that I can’t explain without spoiling it. I am willing to give the rest of series a try but not in a row. It’s an easy and pleasant listen/read and very exciting so it doesn’t require too much effort but it’s not a series I can binge.
Peter Darling by Austin Chant
This book is a retelling of Peter and Wendy only it reads more like a sequel or continuation. In this retelling Peter is trans and was born as Wendy. He returns to Neverland ten years after leaving and choosing to grow up as Wendy. I have written a full review on this book. There is a romance aspect between Peter and Hook, however most of this novel deals with issues of identity, losing and finding oneself, and fighting to reclaim one’s spaces.
The Whydah: A Pirate Ship Feared, Wrecked & Found by Martin W. Sandler
This is a book about the Pirate ship: Whydah. I received this book from Early Reviewers in exchange for an honest review: Full Review. In short, the first half of the book Sandler begins by following our main Captain pirate: Samuel Bellamy and the ship he hijacks: The Whydah. He explains the Articles of Agreement (among pirates), fun facts about the origins of The Jolly Roger, details of torture methods on board, punishments, as well as the good parts of pirate atmosphere on the ship, and facing the wrath of the sea as well as critical weather conditions. The second half of the book focuses on the wreck of The Whydah and the importance of each artifact which was retrieved in 1984. The details of each artifact, its history, and importance are absolutely fascinating and throughout Sandler debunks many pirate myths.
The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss
This book is written by Patrick Rothfuss and was published in March 2007 by DAW Books, Inc. That year he won the Quill Award.
The Name of the Wind is about Kvothe—a young, red-haired man who tells his life story to Chronicler (a scribe whose life he saves and who is ultimately writing the ‘true history’ of Kvothe) and Bast—a young man who is absolutely enchanted by his master Kvothe and is eagerly listening to his life story. There are few interruptions but overall, The Name of the Wind is a bildungsroman. We follow Kvothe from his childhood where he is raised by a guild of actors, follow him through several years on the Tarbean streets where he lives in absolute poverty, and eventually through his University education where he studies Sympathy (among other subjects). Finance and poverty drive Kvothe’s plot as he must always make another strategic move to earn a day’s living, or another semester’s tuition. By the end of this book you’ll feel like you understand their economic system and all about ‘jots’ and ‘talents.’ The characters he meets at University and in town are diverse and very interesting, though no character is as flushed out and dimensional as Kvothe himself. His main talent on top of his studies is being a skilled lute musician. What is particularly strange to me, is the “magic” system. It’s very difficult to explain because it exists, it’s ‘different,’ and somehow it’s not very present. At the university, students study Arcanist’s arts which include Sympathy, Sygaldry, Alchemy, and Naming and then there’s a sort of Fae-world kind of magic. Some professors study things that make them fall into madness like “learning the name of the wind.” The description of classes sound a lot like courses in our world (including tuition), and a little bit like alchemy. The use and presence of ‘magic’ is really subtle and sometimes I wonder if it’s even there. There are mysterious figures like Auri, the Chandrion, and the professor who is held up in what resembles the University’s ‘asylum.’ Things like ‘forbidden stories’ and the effects of ‘sympathy’ used outside of the University give off a ‘magic’ element, but when as the story is told I sometimes forget that this is a different realm at all. There is also a romance woven in, but it is not overpowering. This book is 722 pages, so being brief in describing what it’s about is complicated without giving too much away.
What I love most about this work is how it is told. The storytelling and world building makes me feel like I’m listening to one of Scheherazade’s stories. What really accomplishes that for me is the many ‘stories within stories.’ There is a man at a tavern telling stories, there are songs being sung resembling medieval songs and filled with mythology and …well…stories. There are tutors, actors, guilds, dealers, clans, a hierarchy of class systems, and languages. All these components added while discussing the growth of Kvothe as a character give the reader a full experience of this world. It’s all in the details, like on page 300 where Kvothe and Wilem discus Siaru idioms:
“it means ‘don’t let it make you crazy’ but it translated literally as: ‘don’t put a spoon in your eye over it.’”
My favourite of all though has to be THE ARCHIVES. Descriptions of books in this novel are phenomenal. The presence of codices, and archives are everywhere. The descriptions of books, the presence of them, the contents, the things they help characters achieve just make this book so perfect. I highly recommend this to anyone who enjoys fantasy, books, schools, and bildungsromans. Here are a few of my favourite lines:
“You’d be surprised at the sorts of things hidden away in children’s songs” (39)
“I hope they spent those last few hours well. I hope they didn’t waste them on mindless tasks: kindling the evening fire and cutting vegetables for dinner. I hope they sang together, as they so often did. I hope they retired to our wagon and spent time in each other’s arms. I hope they lay near each other afterward and spoke softly of small things. I hope they were together, busy with loving each other, until the end came.” (124)
“The door of forgetting. Some wounds are too deep to heal, or too deep to heal quickly. In addition, many memories are simply painful, and there is no healing to be done. The saying ‘time heals all wounds’ is false. Time heals most wounds. The rest are hidden behind this door…there are times when reality is nothing but pain, and to escape that pain the mind must leave reality behind.” (135)
“[Skarpi] – I only know one story. But oftentimes small pieces seem to be stories themselves…it’s growing all around us…sometimes the story is growing in squalid backstreet bars” (202).