Review: “Opening Up” by Tristan Taormino

Finding books about non-monogamy is tricky. When you’re polyamorous, one of the things you notices about popular culture is how must it simply doesn’t get what polyamory is. A lot of resources out there are trashy, focusing on nothing but the sexual aspect. Others seem to have decided that they have worked out exactly what polyamory is, and make you feel that if you don’t want exactly what they say you want then you’re doing it wrong.

This is why meeting people in the scene is so important, as it means to get recommendations. (It’s all about the networking, people!)

(I was recommended Opening Up by my girlfriend. For the record, she is amazing a finding useful resources on numerous subjects. She’s smart like that. You should also read her blog. It’s really good.)

What Taormino does with Opening Up is present their work as an introduction for those with little or now knowledge of the lifestyle. It doesn’t seek to tell you the answers, but present you with information and case studies which allow you to take in information and make your own decisions. It leads you along a path and encourages you to determine what you want, rather than telling you what you should want.

For me, this is the main appeal of this book. At no point does Taormino claim they have all the answers. Or even that there is a “right” or “wrong” way to life a non-monogamy life (like some resources I’ve encountered). Opening Up recognises that not everything is for everyone, and that the first step into the world is to determine what you want out of it and build on that.

So if you’re exploring non-monogamy is any way, or know someone who is and want to learn more about it, then this is a definite go-to read.

Recommendation: “The Starless Sea” by Erin Morgenstern

When he was a child, Zachary Ezra Rawlins found a door drawn onto a wall but didn’t walk through it.

Ten years later, the discovery of a mysterious book that somehow describes in detail the day he didn’t walk through the door leads him to meet Mirabel and Dorian, and a strange subterranean set of tunnels filled with an impossible collection of books and stories. However, even as he tries to make sense of this new world he must come up against those who are willing to sacrifice anything in order to protect the library.

Now Zachary must find the truth, and make his way deeper into the library to the Starless Sea itself.

After The Night Circus jumped straight up until my favourite books, and lingered on my mind for days after reading, I was very excited for Morgenstern’s follow up.

This is a story about stories, and it is intricate and woven around itself. But as beautifully written as it is, I will say I didn’t enjoy it as much as I did her debut. That’s not to say this isn’t a great book, just that my personal tastes lean that way. This is a very cleverly crafted story about the nature of story itself, and as can sometimes happen this cleverness detracts from the act of enjoyment.

Morgenstern intersperses each chapter of the plot with a short interstitial story that either expands the backstory or explores elements of the plot. By the end of the book all of these come together in an intricate pattern, but by the half way point I did feel they led to some sagging in the pace. I was hooked at the beginning, and the ending literally caught me tightly so I finished the book in one three hour sitting as I couldn’t put it down. But in the middle I began to find it harder to keep up my engagement.

But don’t think there was any point I didn’t want to keep reading, and boy is it rewarding to get through. There was a point where I worried the plot would lean to far toward “literary fiction”, and make the grave but all too common error of confusing unnecessary complication for smart writing, but instead everything came together in a beautiful finish that managed to answer enough questions to satisfy while leaving the perfect amount open ended.

There’s a reason why I finished the book in a single three hour sitting. It’s been a while since I was so satisfied to be exhausted the next morning after reading until 2am.

The Wheel of Time Reread: Lord of Chaos

*SPOILERS AHEAD FOR THIS AND OTHER BOOKS IN THE SERIES*

Prelude: New Spring
Book 1: The Eye of the World
Book 2: The Great Hunt
Book 3: The Dragon Reborn
Book 4: The Shadow Rising
Book 5: The Fires of Heaven

Book six done, and we’re almost halfway through the series. In the last book, The Fires of Heaven, it felt to me as if Jordan was taking a breath before setting up the next round of story arcs. Now, with Lord of Chaos, things start to get moving again.

Let’s start with the two big events that occur in this book. 

First, the Healing of Logain. Wha’s big about this moment is that we are far enough into the series that established elements seem just that; established. Nynaeve’s attempts at Healing Logain feel like little more than a distraction that must surely go somewhere else, but suddenly she succeeds. And with that, the established world is turned on its head! 

Parallel to this, I love how we start to see the Aes Sedai as real people, rather than omnipotent superwomen. This is a group that has spent literal millennia constructing their image. But now we see inside, and how while to all those on outside the Aes Sedai will always show a united front, within they have the same insecurities and internal politics as anyone else. 

The second, and even bigger, event is Dumai’s Wells. This is still one of my favourite moments in the entire series. 

Up until this point the Asha’man have been shown as a half-trained group. Something Rand has created in a desperate attempt to have another weapon for the last battle. Then suddenly they burst onto the scene as a super powerful fighting force. 

This battle significantly changes the world. Firstly, the existence of the Asha’man changes every power existing power dynamic. They are a military force that can use the One Power that one one saw coming. And considering attitudes to men who can channel, we know the Asha.man are going to terrify the entire word. Secondly, both sides were made up of groups not traditionally aligned together. We are no longer in a world where Rand is working with what came before, but mixing everything up. Just as has been prophesied he is breaking everything that came before. 

The events Dumai’s Wells also crystallise who Rand is becoming. 

After sort of taking a back seat for a while, the character is now showing himself to be taking hold of his destiny. He knows who he is, what he has to do, and what will happen to him afterwards. But to do this he is forced to cut himself off from his own desires. 

It’s easy to forget that Rand is meant to be more than 20 or so. This isn’t a man confident in his powers. He is barely out of adolescence and desperately trying to live up to be the man who he has to be. And the way he is tricked, and then the abuse he suffers before he is rescued, permanently damages him. How can he trust anyone, after he allowed this to happen? 

Everyone in the world has their own agenda they want his to follow. To a greater or less extent, they all want to use him for their own ends and the kidnapping shows just how far some of them are willing to go. From now on he feels he can’t afford to trust anyone

On to the actual writing. 

I seem to do this with every book, but once again I’m going to pour praise on Jordan’s skill at foreshadowing and world building. The way he uses Matt’s memories to fill in the history of the world. The way Elayne and Nynaeve spending time in the rebel camp allows us to see the Aes Sedai as more human. The way a Pedron Niall dismisses a series of reports that seem unbelievable as they don’t fit his worldview, while we the readers know some of them are correct. The way the kidnapping scene is set up, with subtle elements of preceding scenes setting up points so that Rand would not suspect anything before it was too late. 

I also want to highlight that at one point one of the characters has a Foretelling, and literally spells out the end of the final book, but in a way we won’t know until afterwards. That’s book fourteen! Jordan may not have meant there to be that many books in the series, but it really shows how much he had planned so far ahead. 

I’m excited for A Crown of Swords. So much is set up in Lord of Chaos to be fulfilled in the following book. Unfortunately, one of those is going to be very Elayne heavy, but that’s just something we need to live with. We’re still in the first good arcs of the series for the dip around book ten, so I’m currently excited to keep going.

Review: Sticks and Stones by Jo Jakeman

After spending two years in jail for giving a false alibi to her abusive boyfriend, Charlie has fled to Cornwall to make a new life. Unsure if she even deserves it, is it possible for her to make a new life for herself? Especially when she doesn’t know how or when her past will catch up with her, only that it can only be a matter of time.

Jo Jakeman’s debut, Sticks and Stones, was about facing the truth about your life and how you free yourself from the shackles that hold you down. Now her second book is about the next steps: trying to create something new in the shadow of your past.

Safe House is a story about trying to take control. Our protagonist Steffi/Charlie is someone who has never had control of her own life. After a life of emotional manipulation by her parents and boyfriend, followed by two years in prison, she’s finally ready to take control of her life.

But how do you do that when you’re not sure if you deserve it? Or when you know it’s only a matter of time before your past catches up with you?

This isn’t as much of a thriller as Sticks and Stones was. There’s less action, mainly being focused on Charlie’s internal world. And we’re missing any real wild emotional ups and downs. Until the end there’s no real antagonist other than her own paranoia.

I will say I think the ending is a little too neat. I like a story to have a few untied threads, giving me a feel that the world will carry on once the plot finishes. Without wanting to give too much away, I felt things were all wrapped up a little too well.

But other than that I can’t really fault it. Definitely worth a read.

“13th”, and the importance of listening to other voices when they speak…

I’ve had Ava DuVernay’s documentary 13th on my to-watch list for a while now. But it was a film I needed to be in the right mind-state to watch. I’ve not been in the right headspace to actively view anything for a while, but as soon as I was this was my first choice. 

And here’s the thing that struck me.  

I knew every single fact this film presented. But I had never put them together in such a way to realise what it was that they were showing me. 

I shouldn’t have needed someone else to make me realise these things. 

But I did. 

I am white privilege. There’s no denying it. But I’m also like to believe that I’m educated, left-wing, and that I think critically about the world around me. I try and fight unconscious bias. I try to look beyond my own world and see the lives of others. 

But boy, oh boy does privilege get in the way of me seeing things. 

As I watched 13th, I realised I knew each fact that they presented. I know about slavery. I know about the civil rights movement. I know how life for people of colour is innately harder. I know about the ways right-wing politicians have weaponised race. I know x. I know y. I know z

I know all those things. 

I just don’t see them. 

I don’t feel them in the way they needed to be felt. 

I’ve never experienced them. 

If you’d ever asked me, I would have said I knew all about the problems people of colour have faced historically, and face now. I would never have claimed that I understood their experience –  or that I could – but I would have said that I knew what that experience was. 

DuVernay has shown me exactly how little I saw any of it. 

There is knowing, and there is seeing and understanding. 

I didn’t put it all together. I didn’t see the depth. Or the history. Or the exhaustion. Or the anger. Or the fear. 

I can look down at all those born into vast wealth, all those who went to private schools, all those who can trace their family lines back to ancient aristocracy, all those who got their high flying jobs through family connections, all those who have never even considered what it might feel like to worry about not being able to afford something they need, and say “I’m better than those people”.  

But I am just as much a product of white privilege as they are. My life isn’t theirs, but I’m still white. 

Just because I haven’t benefitted from the system as much as some, it doesn’t mean I haven’t benefited from it at all. It doesn’t mean I’ve ever questioned it. It doesn’t mean I haven’t made racist comments simply because I didn’t think about how offensive they were. Or, even worse, because I wasn’t educated enough to know they were offensive. Doesn’t mean I’ve ever called people out for making the same comments because they weren’t “that bad”, as if there’s a sliding scale of racism and as long as you don’t go too far it’s okay. 

I’m going to try and do better. I’m going to made an effort to actively look out more films and read books about the subject, to actively think about the media I’m consuming and the places I work. I’m going to try and stop allowing myself to not notice when all the people around me, in either my personal and professional lives, are white. 

The amount of whiteness in my life shouldn’t be normal. “It’s how I grew up” isn’t an excuse. 

Hopefully I can do better. I’ll get it wrong. Privilege is a hard thing to break through, if only for the fact that part of its very essence is to hide itself in the everyday. But I’ll keep trying, and I’ll keep listening. Hopefully people in my life will not let me fall back into old habits, and hopefully I won’t allow them to either. 

It’s no one’s job but my own to ensure I improve myself. I just ask that people don’t allow me to slip into bad habits, and in return I shall try to do the same. 

Good night…

Odie
(AKA Deafy-Blind)
(AKA Grumpuss)
(AKA The Piss-Weasel)

You had a good run, but there’s only so long being too stubborn to die will get you.

You lost an eye. Then your hearing. Then both thyroids. Then the use of one leg.

(I’m pretty sure the peeing everywhere was through choice. That was just a power-play to remind us who was boss.)

You were purring at the end, having your ears scratched as we said goodbye and your head lay down for the final time.

The joy of being a rescue cat is that you found us, and we found you. It’s been a wonderful six years.

Goodbye. We love you.

Recommendation: “Big Sky” by Kate Atkinson

Once again, I’m blown away by Kate Atkinson’s writing.

I tend to find that when an author has an ongoing character they come back to with some of their books but not all – as Atkinson does with Jackson Brodie – I enjoy those ones less. And it’s true that I’ve enjoyed her non-Brodie books more than her Brodie ones.

But I this this was my favourite of the Jackson Brodie books, mainly because the way she uses him as a link between elements of the story, rather than the protagonist. This story isn’t about him. He’s simply part of it.

This book is masterfully written. If you want an example of “Show, Don’t Tell”, this is it. Each chapter is set in the POV of one of the characters, each going about their lives, and this is how we see the story. We’re never explicitly told what is happening, or who people are. Instead, we put it together as we see things from each characters perspective. When one character thinks about an event, the things they know combine with what we learnt from another, and we put them together.

Once more, Atkinson has shown why she is one of those authors that both challenges me to be better, and makes me despair that I’ll never be this good.

Review: “The Disciple” by Stephen Lloyd Jones

I enjoyed this book, but felt it only really got going in the second half.

There is a really good story here, with a core concept that’s incredibly interesting once you reach it. However, I don’t feel that the set up and initial feel of the book gels that well with the second, much better, half.

I feel the first half of the book could have been half as long and a lot more focused. I love Jones’ style, but it took me ages to get into the story to a point where I wanted to carry on.

But once you get through that, the second half is really worth working through for. The concept for the climax is really interesting. I would have loved to have the opening more focused around this rather than taking so long with character development that could have done with a lit of streamlining.

One thing I want to say is there is a massive improvement to the other of Jones’ books I’ve read. When I read his first novel, The String Diaries, I was disappointed by the tacked on happy ending. Sometimes a dark story needs to be brave enough to have a dark ending. And, without wanting to give too much away, The Disciple has an ending that perfectly matches the tone.

So not a great opening, but definitely worth pushing through until it focuses and pulls you in.

Separate Ways…

In a time when everything sucks already, it seems appropriate that my wife and I have to announce that we have decided to separate.

This is something that we’ve been going through for the last year. We’ve been having a lot of discussions about our relationship, and it has become clear to us that while we’re still really good friends, we’ve simply grown apart.

It is 100% amicable, and we’re remaining friends. We will just no longer a romantic couple.

A couple of points that I guess need addressing:

This wasn’t the fault of lockdown. We’ve been aware of wanting to avoid making big life decisions during this time and that was part of our discussions. But what lockdown did was force us to address the issues and make this call.

This also was not the fault of polyamory. Becoming polyamorous was part of our growth together as a couple, not a symptom of a marriage in trouble. The people we’ve met in this life have been wonderful in helping us through this.

Despite this being an amicable decision, obviously it still sucks and we’re both feeling a little raw. But we’re there for each other. Any questions, feel free to ask.

We chose to announce it on the basis that this is a particularly difficult time for both of us (what with the pandemic and the world’s madness increasing) and we want each other to have our support networks rather than notifying people individually.

Thank you for your understanding and support through this time.

The Wheel of Time Reread: The Fires of Heaven

*SPOILERS AHEAD FOR THIS AND OTHER BOOKS IN THE SERIES*

Prelude: New Spring
Book 1: The Eye of the World
Book 2: The Great Hunt
Book 3: The Dragon Reborn
Book 4: The Shadow Rising

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We’re done with book five, and we’re really getting into the initial upward curve of the series. However, while The Fires of Heaven keeps up the pace and doesn’t have any significant issues, unlike The Shadow Rising I don’t think there are any significant stand out series highlight moments here. Until the end, that is.

 

We’re really starting to see how Jordan world-builds here. We have our first instance of his opening the book with scenes dotted around the world. I love this technique, and how it sets the scenes beyond the immediate world of the protagonists. How have past event impacted the rest of the world, and what is happening that will affect us in later books? 

This is carried this on with the scenes in Tel’aran’rhiod, where Nynaeve and Elayne are able to find glimpses of information in the dream world. These often mean nothing to the characters, but the reader has knowledge that us to fill in the gaps. We’re given enough to build on without it being forced on us. I’ve always thought this was really well done. 

 

Another good thing is we start to see some of the characters grow past their initial, more annoying stages. In earlier posts for this re-read I wrote about Nynaeve and how the fact that she starts off so irritating is mitigated by the fact I knew the growth coming in her character arc. Here is where that begins to show. Through pride she makes a huge mistake, and that kicks off her path of development into a more rounded character. And the fact this isn’t instant, but builds until later books, makes it even better. 

Matt also starts to get better in The Fires Of Heaven. Although it’s not so satisfying than Nynaeve. Rather than a significant lesson or moment of realisation, he simply stops sulking about everything and just gets on with things.

Unfortunately, there will be no growth for Elayne. She is simply an irritating character. Spoilt, whiney, entitled. It was bearable in previous read-throughs, but knowing she has no growth and will be this annoying for the remainder of the series just makes her grate all the more. I think this was on purpose on Jordan’s part, but I don’t think it works. 

 

Rand also gets another level of growth; the introduction of Lews Therin. This is interesting, as we are at a point where he could have become dull. Having completed his initial character arc, he has accepted his fate and gone on the offensive. He could slipped into the trope of “trouble hero”, but the intrusions of Lews Therin give us a new element to explore. Is this a past life coming through, or just an element of Rand’s own madness? 

This raises interesting questions about one of the series’ concepts. Reincarnation is established as a real thing in this world. That souls are born and reborn is a key plot device. But where we’ve seen it before with Matt it’s been simple, each soul is reborn. But where Matt gains memories from his past lives, here we have two distinct and separate personalities. It can be put down to the fact Rand is the Dragon Reborn, not just any reincarnated soul, but I’ll be paying more attention to this aspect going forward with this re-read.

 

And so we come to the one real significant event in this entry; Moiraine dies. And, for a significant remainder of the series, the first time reader will believe this is permanent. At least I did. I’ll be interested in seeing if I spot any hints to the contrary on this read through.

This is a signification point, as she is the first main character to die. And while it’s a big climactic  set piece rather than an indication that anyone can die at any time, it’s still a big moment. Especially after a couple more books when you can assume she isn’t coming back in some form. She’s gone. 

But the other reason I like this is how its highlighting something in both Rand, and fantasy tropes. Rand, like a lot of “early” fantasy, has a problem with women. He refuses to see that as equal, but in a way he believes in honourable. Even surrounded as he is at this point by a literal all-female warrior society, he cannot bring himself to think of woman in the same way as men. He would argue the point, but essentially he believe’s women are weaker than men and must be protected, to the point he won’t harm someone as undeniably evil as Lanfear. He’s had at this point multiple experiences where if he’d been prepared to kill a woman he could have have a huge advantage but couldn’t take it.

And now, that’s lead to one of his main supporters dying. In a way he doesn’t learn from. This is an important point, and part of Rand’s learning the difference between “Hard” and “Strong”. Rather than him realising if he’d let go this cultural construct in his head he could have saved her, he instead starts to obsess on all the women he failed to saved. In continuing to think of woman as inferior to men in this way, as much as he doesn’t see it that way, all he does is weaken himself.

 

I’ll having a little break before beginning Lord of Chaos. Just to let myself get through a couple of the other books on my reading list. But I’ll be back on the re-read soon.