Category Archives: Reviews

Review: Fiyah Lit Magazine #13 – Ozzie M. Gartrell

FIYAH Lit Magazine of Black Speculative Fiction

Title: The Transition of  OSOOSI
Author: Ozzie M. Gartrell
Published: 2020
Publisher: Fiyah Lit Magazine of Black Speculative Fiction Issue #13

In 7,900 words Ozzie M. Gartrell’s The Transition of  OSOOSI  gives us a cyberpunk story of an audacious idea to eradicate bigotry.

Mal is a “Citizen American, a native-born U.S. citizen with all the second-class rights thereof.” (p. 44)  He’s also a visionary who in the process of following that vision alienates everyone important to him.  Seeking entry into the world of the elite Anansi  community, Mal pitches an idea so provocative he is questioned about how far he’s willing to go to make it happen.

None of us should be shocked at the treatment Citizen Americans receive at the hands of True Citizens.  But it is shocking, and heart breaking.  The transphobic treatment of Mal’s twin Mar in a favorite restaurant, the casual racism of being pulled over by a True Citizen cop, is all too common.  This is what it is to be black in America.

With shades of William Gibson‘s  cyberpunk classic Sprawl Trilogy, the best of current hacktivist culture, and a nod to West African mythology, Gatrell places themselves on the path to an interesting career of bold writing.

Downloading empathy into every True Citizen using stolen tech is a truly courageous idea.  How else do we make changes to systemic bigotry?

Review: Cinderella Liberator

Cinderella Liberator by Rebecca Solnit

Title: Cinderella Liberator
Author: Rebecca Solnit
Published: 2019
ISBN-13: 978-1-608465965
Publisher: Haymarket Books
Publisher Blurb:  Rebecca Solnit reimagines a classic fairytale with a fresh, feminist Cinderella and new plot twists that will inspire young readers to change the world.

Fairytales made no sense to me.  Even as I tried to fit myself into what society believed girls should want, which included some fairytale version of finding a husband and having children, it didn’t make sense.  And I didn’t understand why.

I mean, why should Cinderella want to go to the ball so much, and why would she want to marry a prince?  Did that really mean happily ever after?  What if she – what if I – wanted something different?

The appeal of being rescued is certainly be understandable, especially when growing up in a dysfunctional, unpredictable environment.  When your whole life feels hopeless, rescue seems like the best chance.  When one wants to be rescued from misery, there is no understanding about agency.  So, in some ways, Cinderella’s traditional gambit of marrying the prince and leaving behind her wicked steps makes a tremendous amount of sense.  If only there was another way ….

Rebecca Solnit’s Cinderella Liberator begins with the familiar story.   But when the lizards become stagecoach women for Cinderella’s carriage, one sits up and takes notice.   And when Cinderella asks if the lizards want to be human, the reader understands this isn’t the same Cinderella of childhood.

At its base as a political structure, feminism is about the right to make choices based upon personal agency.  Women get to choose what they want to do, or should be allowed to, anyway.  Solnit takes that one step further.  Not only does Cinderella get to choose, but so do the animals who help her get to the ball.  The entire cast gets a makeover.

This more equitable story in which Cinderella opens a cake store and become friends with the prince who wants to work on a farm is one everyone should read.  Especially those with small children entering the world of make-believe and fairy tales.

Solnit’s version is more hopeful and happier, giving children (and adults) space to learn about equality and choice.  It certainly gave me happiness and hope.

Review: Berkeley: The Student Revolt

Berkeley: The Student Revolt by Hal Draper

Title: Berkeley:  The Student Revolt
Author: Hal Draper
Published: 2020 (Haymarket Books edition)
ISBN-13:  978-1-642591255
Publisher: Haymarket Books
Publisher Blurb: “There’s a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can’t take part! You can’t even passively take part! And you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels … upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop!”

Brimming with lessons still relevant for today’s activists, Berkeley: The Student Revolt is a classic of on-the-ground historical reportage.

Ron Anastasi and Mike Rossman carrying “Free Speech” banner from Sproul Hall to demonstration outside Regents’ meeting November 20, 1964.

There’s something about this period of history which fascinates me deeply.  I can’t go to Berkeley or San Francisco without being aware of the history I walk through.  Reading Hal Draper’s Berkeley:  The Student Revolt written in 1965, is on the ground “I was there” reporting.

Draper brings together all the minute by minute details to explain how the Free Speech Movement exploded on campus one day in September, 1964.  Although, as most historians will tell you and Draper certainly does, things don’t happen overnight because there are mitigating factors.  The history leading to the Free Speech Movement is rich and dense, filled with many factors.

Draper writes of the peaceful student protests demanding to be able to express their opinions, political or otherwise, on campus.  To be able to raise money and recruit volunteers for off campus events.  Many had spent the previous summer in the Deep South working for civil rights.

To have their own rights stunted in the face of an unpopular war (Vietnam) and the treatment of African-Americans caused deep anger and resentment.  In the face of a dictatorial Chancellor who had been hired based on his research about labor movements which should have made him sympathetic but didn’t, student unrest grew.

Draper was there, amongst the students as a library employee, his knowledge of the inner workings makes this an excellent resource in the body of work still evolving about dissent, protests in the face of bureaucrats who use might makes right to get their rules obeyed.

Over the fifty years since, this very scenario has played out more times than I like to remember.  In 2019 during a deadly global pandemic, government leaders are using the same playbook to shut down the rights of us all to be healthy and safe.

Confusing, contradictory, obfuscatory dictums fly through the media.  Responses to any common sense calls for reasonable actions on the part of leaders are met with ridicule and often threatened violence.

What amazed me as I read was how very young these students were, how mature and deeply committed they were to their cause.  They understood it was about something larger than themselves.  Mario Savio’s thoughtful speeches give an insight I hadn’t much thought about because I have reaped the benefit of their protests.

At the same time, I was saddened to understand that the more things change, the more they stay the same.  Change is always met with resistance, those in power backed by those with greater power and money will always clamp down.  Their actions invariably lead to some sort of police action.

Berkeley’s Free Speech Movement opened the door for peaceful protests and thoughtful discussions about the First Amendment and its role on college campuses.  A discussion which continues now, and is especially important as an ill-informed citizenry continues to misunderstand the power of the First Amendment and try to use it in support of their *-ist rhetoric.

But I have hope because things have changed, the citizenry is allowed to express themselves.  Students are allowed free and open discussion of unsavory topics.  And the discussion about what First Amendment rights mean continues unabated.  Without the student protests and strike at Berkeley, none of this would be possible.

 

Review: Things That Can and Cannot be Said

Things that Can and Cannot Be Said

Title: Things That Can and Cannot be Said
Author: Arundhati Roy and John Cusack
Published: 2016
ISBN-13:  978-1-60846-717-4
Publisher: Haymarket Books
Publisher Blurb:
In this rich dialogue on surveillance, empire, and power, Roy and Cusack describe meeting NSA whistleblower Ed Snowden in Moscow.

In late 2014, Arundhati Roy, John Cusack, and Daniel Ellsberg travelled to Moscow to meet with NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden.

The result was a series of essays and dialogues in which Roy and Cusack reflect on their conversations with Snowden.

In these provocative and penetrating discussions, Roy and Cusack discuss the nature of the state, empire, and surveillance in an era of perpetual war, the meaning of flags and patriotism, the role of foundations and NGOs in limiting dissent, and the ways in which capital but not people can freely cross borders.

I’m not sure about the point of this slender book.  It’s 100 pages of large font transcriptions of conversations between Cusack and Roy, recollections of an “UnSummit” facilitated by Cusack featuring Edward Snowden and Daniel Ellsberg in Moscow.

What I’d hoped for was a deeper discussion of the effects of Ellsberg’s and Snowden’s espionage.  What led them to the conclusion there was no other way than to be whistleblowers?  I wanted to know more.  I was hoping for something more unfiltered .

Do I know the world’s governments aren’t what they want us to think they are?  Of course I do.  Do I think corporate governance of charities and NGOs is a bad thing?  I don’t know enough to make an informed opinion.  But if what Arundhati Roy thinks is what we’re all supposed to think, we are indeed doomed.

It is the utter hopelessness of Cusack and Roy of any government, any people doing good in the world which got to me.  This paranoid, pseudo-intellectual view of the world, especially from a white man of privilege, is what brings out the despair.  If this is what they think is important, and it gets published, what chance do the rest of us just trying to get through our day have?

It is utterly maddening that an opportunity for two of the most famous whistleblowers to meet was so censored.  For readers to not be privy to any of the conversation beyond niceties is hardly better than fanning the flames of a global game of Chicken Little.

The security concerns addressed in Things That Can and Cannot be Said are serious, but there’s no real substance in discussing them.  I chose not to be scared simply because two activists who have the resources to walk freely through the streets or sit in cafes and talk tell me I should be.

 

Review: Small Days and Nights

Title:  Small Days and Nights
Author: Tishani Doshi
Published: 2019
ISBN-13:  9781324005230
Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company
Publisher’s Blurb:  A captivating and clear-eyed story of two sisters caught in a moment of transformation, set against the vivid backdrop of modern India.

The protagonist, Grace Marisola, gets dropped into unforeseen circumstances.  Understandably, it’s hard to know what to do when recalled from the US to oversee the cremation of her mother, and finding out the family secret is an older sister with Down’s Syndrome who has been institutionalized Grace’s entire life.

But even under those circumstances, plans arise and actions take place.  The book suffers from not knowing what it wants because Grace  doesn’t know what she wants.  Is it divorcing the husband she left behind in the US?  Remaking family connections?  Taking care of her sister for the rest of her life?

Things happen to Grace, she doesn’t happen to them.  There’s no core to her.  Small Days and Nights suffers from a sort of malaise.  There’s nothing wrong with the book, exactly.  Neither is there something right.

I often overthink my reviews as I try to pin down what I want to write about.  Lots of books offer plenty of opportunities to dig in and do the analysis I love.  Doshi’s book wasn’t one of them.

But I would be remiss if I didn’t write about how her language often captivated me.  For instance,  “Mornings at the beach can arrive like a whore, in a jangly too tight dress at the end of a long and sleepless night.”  Or,  “The heat of summer is behind us but the days still feel bedraggled and worn.

The beauty in that language and those images make promises the book doesn’t live up to.

On Writing: 2019 Book Commentary

“The creative life is not linear” – Austin Kleon

2019 by the numbers.

Random thoughts about the madcap year that was 2019 reading.  Some events were so glorious as to be unrecognizable as anything I’d ever dreamed could happen to me.  Others predictable and necessary (day job). In addition for my own blog, I now write for Hugo award-winning fanzine Drink Tank, and M. Todd Gallowglas’ Geek’s Guide to Literary Criticism.

  • In Toni Morrison’s Beloved Paul D’s story about learning to read and being beaten for it just leaves a hole in my heart.  He kneels on the ground with a bit in his mouth and notices the rooster named Mister doing whatever he wanted.

“I was something else and that something was less than a chicken sitting in the sun on a tub.”

  • I’m not qualified to  review Ta-Nehisi Coates’ We Were Eight Years in Power.  How does one speak to a tragedy caused by differences in pigmentation?

“Barack Obama [governed] a nation enlightened enough to send an African American to the White House, but not enlightened enough to accept a black man as president.

Trump, more than any other politician, understood the valence of the bloody heirloom [slavery] and the great power of not being a n*****.”

  • As Kameron Hurley’s The Geek Feminist Revolution brought me to myself in 2018, so too did Feminisms and Womanisms edited by Althea Prince & Susan Silva-Wayne.  The taste of seminal feminist works from Emma Goldman, Simone de Bauvoir, Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem made it easier to understand big parts of my life.

It is truly amazing how long we can go on accepting myths that oppose our own lives, assuming we are the odd exception.” – Gloria Steinem

The need to be noticed and liked, the need to be listened to and accepted, the need for encouragement and praise; all became sources of shameful, rather than normal, neediness in my mind.  Especially the need for affection.” – Nancy Graham

Susan Sontag’s essay on women and aging made me want to throw the book across the room in a fit of rage.

The rules of this society are cruel to women.”  – Susan Sontag

  • Stealing:  Life in America by Michelle Cacho-Negrete, sent to me for a review by Adelaide Press.  Her essays are powerful as she relates the stories of a life lived right, doing everything she was supposed to do and still needing to steal food to feed her children.  Her triumph over that and the particular experiences of being “other” really sang to me.
  • Stopwatch Chronicles, M. Todd Gallowglas’ collection of flash fiction bowled me over.  He is sharp, witty and fun. His insights are dead on and I love his wordplay.  Ditto Bard’s Cloak of Tales.
  • The Killing Light, the triumphal conclusion to Myke Cole’s Sacred Throne trilogy.  I’ll just quote myself here, “Heloise remains the hero we need for today..”
  • How Fiction Works by James Wood .  I will forever be grateful for the phrase “flaneurial realism.”
  • Literary Theory by Sarah Upstone – this little book packs a lot into it and is one of my go to reference books.
  • The Art of Fiction and Moral Fiction by John Gardner

“… in order to achieve mastery [they] must read widely and deeply and must write not just carefully but continually.”

“… the temptation to explain should almost always be resisted.”

“Art, in sworn opposition of chaos, discovers by its process what it can say.  That is art’s morality.”

“…art can at times be baffling …”

  • Wizardry & Wild Romance by Michael Moorcock.  Each reading enriches my understanding of the genre I live and breathe.
  • Better Living Through Criticism by A. O. Scott.  Scott’s commentary helped give voice to the questions I’d been asking about what criticism is and why it has value.  His outstanding thoughts on art and criticism as a conversation resonate deeply. As does his insistence criticism is a way to seek out the excellent as a foodie demands excellence from their favorite chef or restaurant.

“… our understanding of art emerges from our experience of it.”

Writing for Drink Tank led me to works I might never have read.  Chris’ unbounded knowledge of books and themes kept me busy.

  • Challengers of the Unknown by Ron Goulart led me to one of the cheesiest books I’ve ever read.  (Drink Tank #414)
  • Before the Golden Age edited by Isaac Asimov, From the Earth to Around the Moon by Jules Verne, and First Men in the Moon by H. G. Wells were fodder for thought about Antique Space.  (Journey Planet/Drink Tank Crossover)
  • Drink Tank #410 gave me a reason to join the Alexander Hamilton party.

 

2019 in Review – By the Numbers

Total Books Read: 34
Total Pages Read: 12,456
Total Books Procured: 83
Diff: -49
Publication Dates: 19 (1953 – 2019)
Author Count: 28
Written by Women: 8 books (4 authors)

Most read authors:
Myke Cole (4)
N. K. Jemisin (3)
M. Todd Gallowglas (3)

New (to me) Authors I Would Read Again:
Michelle Cacho-Negrete
Sara Upstone
Ron Chernow
Stephen F. Knott
John Gardner
Alfred Bester
Michael R. Underwood
A. O. Scott

Recommendations:
Stealing: Life in America by Michelle Cacho-Negrete
Stopwatch Chronicles  by M. Todd Gallowglas
The Killing Light by Myke Cole
Beloved by Toni Morrison (2nd reading)
We Were Eight Years in Power by Ta-Nehisi Coates

LitCrit Theory:
How Fiction Works by James Wood (2nd reading)
Literary Theory by Sara Upstone
The Art of Fiction by John Gardner
On Moral Fiction by John Gardner
Wizardry and Wild Romance by Michael Moorcock (2nd reading)
Better Living Through Criticism by A.O. Scott

Non-Fiction:
Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow
Feminisms and Womanisms  edited by Althea Prince, Susan Silva-Wayne

Commentary
An Open Letter to Stubby the Rocket Concerning the Guns Of Fantasy” – THE GEEK’S GUIDE TO LITERARY THEORY

Reviews:
From the Earth to Around the Moon by Jules Verne / First Men in the Moon by  H.G. Wells / “Jameson’s Satellite” by Neil R. Jones in Before the Golden Age edited by Isaac Asimov (Journey Planet)
Challengers of the Unknown (Drink Tank)
The Killing Light
Euridyce (City Lights Theatre)
Alexander Hamilton (Drink Tank)
Literary Theory: An Introduction
The Sprawl Trilogy
Binti Trilogy
The Handmaid’s Tale
Jazz
The Mortal Word
Stealing: Life in America
God’s War
Projections

Review: The Killing Light

The Killing Light by Myke Cole

Title:  The Killing Light
Author: Myke Cole
Published: 2019
ISBN-13: 978-0-76539559-3
Publisher: Tor.com Publishing
Twitter: @MykeCole
Publisher’s Blurb: Heloise and her allies are marching on the Imperial Capital. The villagers, the Kipti, and the Red Lords are united only in their loyalty to Heloise, though dissenting voices are many and they are loud.

The unstable alliance faces internal conflicts and external strife, yet they’re united in their common goal. But when the first of the devils start pouring through a rent in the veil between worlds, Heloise must strike a bargain with an unlikely ally, or doom her people to death and her world to ruin.

This is the final book of The Sacred Throne trilogy
Book 1 –  The Armored Saint | Book 2  – The Queen of Crows

I was provided an Advanced Reader’s Copy by Tor Publishing in exchange for an honest review.  Thank you!

“But I am thine Emperor, and the harder the step, the closer it taketh thou unto me. –Writ. Lea. IV.2.”  (p. 167)

In The Art of Fiction, John Gardner writes, “The primary subject of fiction is and always has been human emotion, values, and beliefs.”  (p. 14)  and “The writer must enable us to see and feel vividly what his characters see and feel …” (p. 44)

Any writer who can make the reader feel great anxiety for his characters and drive them to tears in relief has most definitely met the criteria set forth by Gardner.  That Myke Cole’s writing kept me fully engaged and emotionally involved says something about the great talent he has for telling a story.

There’s a thread running through The Killing Light about men and how they must be treated by women.  Repeatedly a female will say something like, “Everything with men is a great care.”  (p. 46)

Heloise was never meant to be and do all the things she does in The Sacred Throne trilogy.  She was meant to be a young woman who marries the man her parents have chosen for her and to settle into the role of home keeper, as women in her village have always done.

But we don’t always get to choose the shape our life takes and who we fall in love with.  The best we can hope is to be gentle with ourselves when we are tested. This is part of the story Myke Cole tells with Heloise, how she must accept and come to terms with herself, and her evolving beliefs and leadership skills.

Her world is one in which only hetero normative standards are accepted.  In Book 1, The Armored Saint, she finds herself in love with her best friend who not only doesn’t reciprocate those feelings, but is horrified by Heloise’s feelings.  Shortly after this reveal, Basina is killed and that death haunts Heloise more than anything else through the series.

Cole portrays her struggle with tenderness, and introduces Xilyka from one of the Traveling People clans who join Heloise’s army.  Xilyka becomes one of Heloise’s bodyguards, never leaving her side. It is in the most tender moments we see Heloise began to overcome her fear of being a lesbian, and of driving Xilyka away.

In one such scene, Heloise’s father, Samson, has arranged a private place with hot water so Heloise can bathe after many weeks on the battlefield, stuck in the war machine.  At this point, the agoraphobic leader  trembles in abject terror at leaving the machine which has protected her and allowed her to become the leader she is.  Samson the loving father tries to coax her out.  Xylika literally rides to the rescue, leading Heloise in her machine behind the screen and bathes her tenderly.  Cole does not ignore the sexual tension such a situation would create, but neither does he dwell on it. His deft writing shows us the normality of two people getting to know each other, carefully exploring the beginnings of a physical relationship.

At the other end of the spectrum, there is Onas, a 16-year-old boy from a different Traveling People clan who also becomes bodyguard, and tries to assert his authority over Heloise as potential husband.  This does not go well. Heloise is exhausted, she doubts her moral imperative to be leading this fight, is grieving for the many deaths caused in this war, and is in despair over having to re-evaluate the values she was taught about the Emperor and the Order.  She literally has no energy to put into this boy’s demands for romance.

Onas keeps pushing.  Heloise side steps, telling him when the war is over, she will think about it.  He sees what’s going on with Xilyka, which infuriates him and makes him push even harder.  Then, the unthinkable happens and Onas’ mother, the leader of his clan, dies in  battle. Onas blames Heloise for his mother’s death.

It becomes too much for him to bear when they stumble upon a band of the Order whose leader has killed so many, and Heloise refuses to let anyone kill Brother Tone.  She recognizes Tone can provide entrance and information into the Emperor’s city and palace that will prove useful.  Onas throws a teenaged temper tantrum and runs off taking other disgruntled fighters with him.

This is not unusual behavior.  Boys have been conditioned to believe that their wants and needs take precedence over a girl’s.  So it is with Onas and Heloise. Despite the many stupid reasons he throws at her as he storms away, the one he cannot voice is he expected her to fall into his arms and she did not.  All logic does not penetrate.

Onas is not the only male in this story who treats her as less than because of her gender.  Sir Steven, leader of the Red Army which falls in with Heloise and her villagers, treats her with great disdain both because she is young and, more to the point, a woman.  During a council at which he has commanded Heloise attend, she questions him. Obliviously he says, “This is my punishment for taking a council of war with a girl.” That word, that attitude, meant to demean her in the presence of other leaders has exactly the opposite effect.  She draws herself up and asserts her authority as the one who has killed a devil and therefore, has more expertise on this subject than Sir Steven.

When they reach the capital city, Steven’s attitude has changed and he treats her as equal.  He has seen her leadership grow, witnessed her wisdom. It is her determination to get through, and her insistence on continuing to fight when too many have died and others have given up, which leads Steven to fight more equitably alongside her.

Even Brother Tone who for two books did everything he could to kill Heloise and her village because of her questions regarding the Emperor’s governance comes to accept, and follow, her leadership.

In one of the pivotal scenes of The Killing Light, the reveal literally drives Tone to his knees, and makes him question everything he has ever believed.  He becomes vacant and only continues the fight at Heloise’s insistence. His knowledge is the key which will lead to stopping the war between Devils and humankind.

Tone goes from murderous devotee to thoughtful follower, all due to Heloise’s mission to settle things once and for all.  Most of the characters, male and female evolve, becoming more self-aware and thoughtful about their actions and the effects those have on the bigger picture.

Teenaged Onas is not completely immune to this, but  his maturity will come only through time.  Myke Cole’s writing shows he’s attentive to what makes the most sense for the entire cast, including keeping Onas true to his male teenaged arrogance.

The Killing Light is the satisfactory and logical ending to this trilogy.  Heloise becomes what she’s destined to become after all the pain and death she’s been witness to.  Heloise remains the hero we need for today.