2020 Reading Roundup

Well look at that, it’s June so it must mean it’s time for my annual roundup of what I read during the previous year. I know most people post these lists in early January, but I am a certified procrastinator and this is as timely as it gets. I decided to present my summary a little differently this year after a friend tipped me to using Canva (http://www.canva.com) to create the infographic below. (Thanks Nicole!)

2020 was a slow year reading wise for me. January I was recovering still from my cancer treatment and in February I was just starting to get back to “normal” returning to work etc. when the pandemic hit. Adjusting to the growing dread of COVID-19 related lockdown and watching daily news reports on case counts took its toll on my brain power and I had very little energy/focus for reading for most of the year. I did listen to a total of 11 audio books worth about 120 hrs and read 2 print books for a total of 13 books. We won’t talk about how many NEW books I bought in 2020 that I added to Mt. TBR pile. (This is something I might try to do a better job of tracking in 2021).

As usual I tried to vary my reading between genres, authors (old and new), and authors experiences. I didn’t do so well this year compared to others in terms of reading works by BIPOC authors. A number of LBGQT+ authors were represented in what I read in 2020. Six of the thirteen books I read were by female authors. 77% of the books I read were by authors that were new to me.

The 2020 Reading List (in order of appearance)

  • Armistice (The Amberlough Dossier #2) by Lara Elena Donnelly – published 2018
  • Amnesty (The Amberlough Dossier #3) by Lara Elena Donnelly – published 2019
  • Dead Astronauts – (Borne #2) by Jeff VanderMeer – published 2019
  • MoBituaries – Great Lives Worth Reliving by Mo Rocca published 2019
  • The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow published 2019
  • The Last Emperox (The Interdependency #3) by John Scalzi published 2020
  • Gamechanger (The Bounceback #1) by L.X. Beckett published 2019
  • A Song for a New Day by Sarah Pinsker published 2019
  • The Future of Another Timeline by Annalee Newitz published 2019
  • World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War by Max Brooks published in 2006
  • Forty Words for Sorrow by Giles Blunt published in 2000
  • Out of the Wreckage: A New Politics in the Age of Crisis by George Monbiot published in 2017
  • A Life in Parts by Bryan Cranston published in 2016

I could probably write separate full length blog posts about each of these, but we’d be here forever and no one wants to read all that. I probably left a review on Goodreads for a good majority of these if you are curious of what I thought. I will highlight a handful of books from last year’s bounty.

The Ten Thousand Doors of January

This was the first of Alix E Harrow‘s books I read and immediately fell in love with both her characters and her style. It’s one of those books that pulls you in by turns through its unique story, sense of wonder and use of narrative. On the surface its a coming of age story about young orphan that is being held as a ward of wealthy businessman, but its so much more than that. January is the girl in question and soon discovers that she has powers to open doorways into other universes. This fuels her quest to find her father and discover her origin, while her guardian has other plans for her and her powers. I loved the element of storytelling and level of craft that went into this novel. The quote I put on the infographic above is from this novel. There is so much going on in this novel from different narrators/POVs to parallel story threads that all get neatly woven together. I initially listened to this on audiobook, but eventually bought a print copy so I could marvel at the story in print and try to see how the author managed something so unique on the printed page. (Plus the cover is gorgeous too).

A Song for a New Day

I am quickly becoming a huge fan of Sarah Pinsker‘s writing. I was more familiar with her short stories, but was late to the party checking out her Nebula Award winning debut novel A Song for A New Day which was released in 2019 prior to the pandemic, but is eerily prescient in some of its themes. Set in the near future the story revolves around two characters that come from different backgrounds and lifestyles, but each have a strong connection to music. Set in an America that has gone into lock down over terrorist threats and deadly viruses – large public gatherings have been banned essentially killing all live concerts. Luce Cannon and her band were on the verge of making a name for themselves when the world came to a stand still. One of the last acts to play live to a large crowd in The Before, the become a bit of a historical footnote, but in the intervening years Luce has risked it all to perform live in underground clubs and reinvent herself. Rosemary Laws was just a kid in the before times and has grown up largely online and in virtual spaces, both attending school and socializing. After quitting her day job as an online support person, she ventures into the world of virtual concerts as a talent scout looking to recruit musicians for a music conglomerate – think Amazon meets Live Nation. It through her role as talent scout that she comes in contact with Luce and their fates become intertwined.
This novel is what I love best about speculative fiction, in that it takes a unique premise and places characters and tells a story that while revolving around speculative elements (e.g. what if there was no more live music) the story itself focuses on characters and relationships and what it means to be alive. Both characters love and connection to music comes out in the prose. A Song for a New Day is one of those stories that is accessible to all and crosses over genres.

The Future of Another Timeline

If you know me, you know that I am a sucker for anything time travel and alternate history related. In Future of Another Timeline, we get a complex story about two teenage friends whose fates are intertwined. The story bounces around from 1992 to 2022 Southern California with stops in 1893 Chicago World Fair and an alternate future Manitoba. Set against a background of two competing underground time travel movements each trying to influence the timeline to favour their politics. The Daughters of Harriet (as in Harriet Tubman) are in competition with the Comstockers, a patriarchal organization determined to strangle the woman’s rights movement in its infancy. I shared my initial thoughts in a GoodReads post – Really enjoyed this novel full of ideas about the inter-sectionality of feminism, punk music, race, and the patriarchy’s attempts to control women viewed through the lens of time travel and alternate history. There’s a lot to unpack here and it will probably take me a bit before I can articulate my thoughts in a larger review, but I would definitely recommend this novel for those that care about such relevant issues as abortion and what it means for people to work to make small changes that can have big affects for a lot of people. A word of caution, the novel is fairly intense at points with scenes of fairly graphic rape and murder.

World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War

I had been meaning to read this one for years and recently had obtained a ex-library copy of this in hard cover and decided it was time to dive in. Originally published in 2006 and loosely used as the basis for the movie by the same name, the novel is a far different beast. Told as a series of short interviews with a commissioner that had been investigating the origins of the Zombie War and how different governments responded to the outbreak. Oral history is a great framing device for this book and allows for some very emotional tales that are essentially vignettes. Many of which I am still thinking about nearly a year after reading them. This would make a great TV series if they had each episode cover one of the stories.

Conclusion

So those were the highlights of my short reading list from last year. I’m tempted to say something about how weird Dead Astronauts was, or how eye-opening the political non-fiction book by George Monboit was, but I’ll save it for now. 2021 has been off to slow start for me as well on the reading front, but I am hopefully I can break the 13 book curse that I’ve been under for the last two years. I plan to read more physical and e-books this year (I definitely have no shortage of those!) and I hope to get back to reading more BIPOC authors. Also hope to include more graphic novels in my reading stats. I seem to have stalled on those lately too. Good luck and let me know if you have a similar list to share.

2019 Roundup

Ringing out on last day of treatment.

People like to complain about how specific years suck. “2019 was the worst year ever and I can’t wait for it to be over” type of sentiment and I never subscribed to that. It’s not the calendar’s fault and personifying the year as something vengeful out to get you never sat well with me. Having said that my 2019 did suck because of health issues.

Long story, but I was feeling unwell since the spring and thought maybe it was heart related. After all, I am a 51 year old, heavier guy, who sits at a desk job most of the time. I saw my doctor and we started to run some tests. Nothing came back indicating anything was wrong with my heart, but I did notice a small pea-sized nodule near my thyroid that we decided to check out.

At first inspection (via ultrasound) it was decided that it was nothing of overt concern and that it wasn’t on my thyroid but in my lymph nodes. They said we’ll re-scan it in 3 months and see if there has been any change. Fast forward to July and the original nodule hadn’t changed much but I noticed a second one coming up in the side of my neck. Both were deemed “reactive” after an ultrasound, as in they weren’t big enough to set off warning bells, but my family doctor decided to send me for a biopsy.

Due to a host of issues the scheduling of the biopsy got dragged out and put off for the whole month of August. Meanwhile the nodules in the side of my neck got decidedly worse. By the time I saw a specialist in September I was beside myself with anxiety and worry what was going on not to mention that my body was out of whack with stress. The ENT doctor took one look at me and my state and said quite scarily “I don’t know what this is, but we’re going to stick a needle in it right now.” One of the delays had been my family doctor wanted to send me for a aspiration biopsy but the ENT wanted a core biopsy and my family doctor couldn’t order one, it had to come from the ENT. In the end it was the simple aspiration biopsy that the ENT performed in his clinic that got me the cancer diagnosis 4 days later. Funnily enough never once did I suspect it might be cancer. Maybe I was just in denial.

So on Sept 20th I got the diagnosis that I had cancer in my lymph nodes and on Sept 24th, I became a cancer patient at the North East Cancer Centre in Sudbury, Ontario. To say the process was overwhelming is an understatement. I was already stressed out long before the diagnosis. That first week of being a cancer patient was information overload. Getting diagnosed – it had spread to my lymph nodes from my tonsil. Being told what the treatment involved – 7 weeks of daily radiation and three rounds of chemo. Being told about the short and long term side effects and all the risks. At this point I hadn’t gotten a CT Scan to determine the extent of the cancer, nor had I had a proper biopsy to confirm whether it was caused by human papillomavirus (HPV). Adding to my stress I was still working full time through this while we waiting for treatment to start.

Again due to scheduling and waiting for all these diagnostics to line up before a treatment plan could be devised took some time and I started treatment on Oct 21st almost a full month after getting diagnosed. Thus began my 7 weeks of treatment that just recently ended in early December. I could fill several blog posts with all the ups and downs of treatment, but suffice it to say it was an ordeal that I am still recovering from. The only saving grace was the fact I was able to partake in a clinical drug study that was in its final stages for a drug that decreased the effect of oral mucositis, which is the breakdown of tissues in your mouth due to the chemotherapy and radiation. Without the drug I would have had a even harder time eating and swallowing than I did.

So that was my 2019, which felt like it was consumed by this diagnosis and treatment. I am only now beginning to surface for air and feel like I am getting part of my life back. The road to recovery is still long and I won’t have any definitive answer whether they treatment was effective until a few months post treatment. The good news is that the cancer was HPV related which means the prospects of treating it are better than if it was not. Right now its a wait and see game.

I can’t thank everyone enough who has been there through this for me. My family, friends, co-workers, the health care providers. Here’s to hoping 2020 continues the road to recovery.

Indigenous Culture and Post-Apocalyptic Fiction

I attended my first CanCon (The Conference on Canadian Content in Speculative Arts and Literature) in Ottawa last month (Oct 13 – 15, 2017)  and was very much impressed by the level of programming offered. It went beyond a lot of the rehashed 101 SF & writing topics I have seen at some other conventions. One of the panels that I wanted to talk about in particular was “The End is the Beginning: First Nations Post-Apocalyptic Fiction” .

The panel description reads:

Join author and journalist Waubgeshig Rice and writer, artist, and television producer Jay Odjick as they discuss how to end the world – only in writing, we swear!  – and the intersection between First Nations issues and post-apocalyptic fiction.

I wanted to try to recap / review the panel and share it with a larger audience. During the panel I had tweeted one particular insight by Jay Odjick that garnered some attention and had people asking if there was any recording / transcript of the session. Having said that, I caution that this is my imperfect recollection of the panel and I don’t try to claim its completeness or verbatim retelling.

Brandon Crilly, an organizer and programmer for the con, was the third person on the panel. Technically, the moderator, Brandon did a terrific job of playing host and giving the floor to the two guests. The panel started with Brandon having to stick his head into the hall to locate Jay Odjick who had been waylaid talking to other con goers as happens at these gatherings. Jay entered apologizing for being late and announcing in a booming jovial voice “Welcome to Big Fucking Indians with Tattoos” as he took his seat at the table, cracking up the audience and making a grand entrance.

Introduction were made. As an illustrator / writer Jay developed the graphic novel  Kagagi: The Raven which was later adapted for television on the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network (APTN) as an animated series with Jay producing and writing. Jay also recently illustrated a children’s book by Robert Munsch called Blackflies. Jay has also illustrated and written The Outsider which he described as a post-apocalyptic meets grind-house type of comic with lots of cussing and gore. The introductory issue is available for free download through his site.

Waubgeshig Rice is a journalist working for the CBC (Canadian Broadcast Corporation) formerly out of Ottawa, but recently relocated to Sudbury, Ontario. He’s also a writer with several books to his name – Midnight Sweatlodge and Legacy. His yet to be released (2018) book from ECW Press called –  Moon on Crusted Snow – deals with a post-apocalyptic world from an indigenous character’s POV.

(What follows is my recollections and paraphrasing of what was discussed. It may be far from chronological in what was discussed when during the 50 minutes of the panel discussion).

Jay talked about how in end of the world movies like Independence Day it’s always the  Americans swooping into save the day. Everyone in the movie is standing around saying “About time the American’s showed up”. How that these stories always American-centric and that no one else can survive without their intervention.

Jay also talked about how America is already filled with post-apocalyptic like landscapes stemming from economic collapse and that you only need to look at towns such like Rochester, New York (where he was born) where the main industrial employer Kodak has been obliterated from the landscape leaving economic devastation in its wake.

At one point Jay posed the question: “Are we talking about the world as a whole ending or YOUR world ending? Because I know of some people are already living in a post-apocalyptic world”

Personally, I felt the statement threw into focus the topic in a way that many of us white privileged people sitting in the audience hadn’t considered fully. Sure we’ve seen the news reports detailing life on Canada’s reserves and the inadequacies that First Nations people are forced to live with daily, but I think few have first hand knowledge or realize what lead directly to these conditions.

At one point Waub elaborated by discussing the history of the Wasauksing First Nation people. Traditionally they migrated up and down the eastern shores of Lake Huron hunting and trading. With the signing of the Robinson Huron Treaty in 1850 between the First Nations chiefs and the Crown, they quickly found their movement greatly restricted and they were moved off the best land. Economic interests in logging and prime forests kept them contained in places like Parry Island near Parry Sound Ontario.

Both men also gave the audience (some of whom weren’t Canadian) a bit of background in other issues affecting First Nations people in Canada such as Residential School System and what’s been in the news lately of the “The Sixties Scoop”. Jay mentioned that his family was unaffected directly by the abuses of the Residential School System, but went on to tell a harrowing tale about how his father (as a young child) and his father’s siblings narrowly avoided being taken from their parents by Jay’s grandfather standing his ground with a rifle. (I could recount more of the details of the tale, but I think they’re Jay’s to tell not mine.)

Both Jay and Waub talked about how they always thought in the case of an apocalyptic world ending event that they would both retreat to the familiarity/safety of the reserve despite both being self described urban Indians. Both men joked about becoming “soft” living in the city and that their fishing and hunting skills were not up to par. Jay recounted how his brother was a regular Native Indiana Jones type that put him to shame. Jay said the best plan in case of an apocalypse was to stick close to his brother. Waub said that he knows of several First Nation communities that have disaster plans in place with assigned roles and caches of supplies.

Waub talked about living on the reserve as a kid during the wide-spread power outage in 2003 and how not knowing what was going on at first was pretty scary. It got him to thinking about survival skills and world ending events.

Both men were asked how they thought the world might end. Jay was convinced it would be something “unsexy” like a economic collapse. Jay said that few people realize how close we came to having a societal collapse during the economic crisis of 2008 all because of a bunch of bankers. Waub said that he felt the apocalypse might be brought on by failing infrastructure.

When asked if they were optimistic or pessimistic about civilization’s chance for survival in the event of an apocalypse (I think) both said they were relatively optimistic that we could survive if we pulled together. Jay recommended people watch the TV show Jericho to see what he thought one version of a post-apocalyptic society could look like. Jay said he thought society in general could learn a lot if they just looked at the history of First Nations people and how their civilization was destroyed by colonists and settlers.

When discussing his forth-coming book Moon on Crusted Snow, Waub said that every time the power would flicker or go out while he was working on the final draft he would nearly shit himself thinking the end was here. He had immersed himself that much in the possibility of a post-apocalyptic world.

There was probably more discussed, but those are the highlights as I recall them. It was the panel where I took the least amount of notes this weekend, just because I was engrossed that deeply in the conversation.