Category Archives: Reviews

Review: The Sprawl Trilogy

Neuromancer by William Gibson
Count Zero by William Gibson
Mona Lisa Overdrive by William Gibson

Title: The Sprawl Trilogy

Neuromancer
Author: William Gibson
Published: 1984
ISBN: 0441569595
Publisher: Ace
Publisher’s Blurb:  Before the Internet was commonplace, William Gibson showed us the Matrix—a world within the world, the representation of every byte of data in cyberspace. Henry Dorsett Case was the sharpest data-thief in the Matrix, until an ex-employer crippled his nervous system. Now a new employer has recruited him for a last-chance run against an unthinkably powerful artificial intelligence. With a mirror-eyed girl street-samurai riding shotgun, he’s ready for the silicon-quick, bleakly prophetic adventure that upped the ante on an entire genre of fiction.

Count Zero
Author: William Gibson
Published: 1986
ISBN: 0441117732
Publisher: Ace
Publisher’s Blurb:  A corporate mercenary wakes in a reconstructed body, a beautiful woman by his side. Then Hosaka Corporation reactivates him, for a mission more dangerous than the one he’s recovering from: to get a defecting chief of R&D—and the biochip he’s perfected—out intact. But this proves to be of supreme interest to certain other parties—some of whom aren’t remotely human…

Mona Lisa Overdrive
Author: William Gibson
Published: 1986
ISBN: 0553281747
Publisher: Bantam
Publisher’s Blurb:   Enter Gibson’s unique world—lyric and mechanical, sensual and violent, sobering and exciting—where multinational corporations and high tech outlaws vie for power, traveling into the computer-generated universe known as cyberspace.  Into this world comes Mona, a young girl with a murky past and an uncertain future whose life is on a collision course with internationally famous Sense/Net star Angie Mitchell.  Since childhood, Angie has been able to tap into cyberspace without a computer.  Now, from inside cyberspace, a kidnapping plot is masterminded by a phantom entity who has plans for Mona, Angie, and all humanity, plans that cannot be controlled . . . or even known.  And behind the intrigue lurks the shadowy Yazuka, the powerful Japanese underworld, whose leaders ruthlessly manipulate people and events to suit their own purposes . . . or so they think.

“Cyberspace. A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation, by children being taught mathematical concepts. … A graphic representation of data abstracted from banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding.” (Neuromancer, p. 51)

This from a man who sat down at a typewriter and wrote what’s considered the seminal work of cyberpunk. On a typewriter. Gibson didn’t own a computer at the time, but he had this idea, which he almost gave up on after seeing Blade Runner.

Even in 2019, when cyberspace is a part of everyday vocabulary, and most have a general idea of what it means, none of us knows what it looks like.  Gibson got there first, hypothesizing what cyberspace would look, and feel, like and how humans might interact with it.

“[Case] jacked into a custom cyberspace deck that projected his disembodied consciousness into the consensual hallucination that was the matrix.” (Neuromancer, p. 6) Emotionally, it was “bodiless exultation,” (ibid, p. 7). “Nonspace of the matrix, the interior of a given data construct possessed unlimited subjective dimension.” (ibid, p. 63)

Disembodied, nonspace, grey, blob, or blotch.  All descriptors for that which cannot be described.  The books in this trilogy are filled with non-descriptive descriptions of what cyberspace looks like, and feels like. A “cowboy” jacks in by plugging a cable from the computer into a jack/port in their neck.  It made complete sense to me while I was reading.  Trying to describe it in my own words is difficult and stultifying.  How do you describe a banana to someone who’s never seen one?

Gibson’s writing is dense and often difficult to follow, which makes sense if you’re trying to describe something undescribable.  He only succeeds because he has a larger canvas to work with.

In Neuromancer,  AIs in search of their other half involve complex human machinations and architectural wonders which only work in space.  The AI Wintermute sets things in motion, leading Case and Molly on a merry search for its other half, the AI Neuromancer.  Wintermute is manipulative, pushing humans to do its bidding.  The reader’s mind isn’t the only one blown.

Two years later, in Count Zero, Gibson still grapples with describing the indescribable.  We bump against a more terrestrial landscape to set the stage, but are no closer to understanding what cyberspace is.

Vodou gods appear in cyberspace so as to interface with the humans inside the matrix.   It’s rumored the superconsciousness is losing bits, explaining the multiple gods encountered.  Or maybe it’s another AI shoving its non-existent weight around.

Again, Gibson uses vague notions to describe what it’s like, “…a flickering, nonlinear flood of fact and sensory data, a kind of narrative conveyed in surreal jump cuts and juxtapositions. … [changing direction randomly] with each pulse of nothingness. The data had never been intended for human input.” (Count Zero, pp.23-24)

And yet, humans keep trying to be a part of the landscape.  Building better and bigger tools to get inside, navigate, and stay inside.   Bobby Newman, aka Count Zero from Count Zero is comatose and jacked into an infinitely large cyberdrive called an aleph, a mathematical concept I cannot even begin to wrap my brain around.  It’s not infinity, it’s something else.  Theoretically, the aleph has uploaded the Count’s personality leaving enough room to evolve with access to all data in the known universe.

Gibson’s idea of cyberspace involves direction (up and downs), grids, and definitively shaped objects. More than that though, he uses nothingness, everythingness, all-at-once-ness.

So how does one explain the unexplainable, the invisible, the not physically there presence?  Gibson’s struggle continues to be technology’s struggle.  VR and AI are upon us, and engineers have to develop vocabularies to go along with it.  When all else fails, we fall upon what has gone before.

William Gibson wrote the framework, extrapolating to an existence which has yet to come.  Twenty years ago, the Wachowski siblings gave us The Matrix trilogy which carried the idea of machine overlords enslaving humanity in virtual reality as an energy supply.

Here too, there’s a struggle with vocabulary, although visual media has the ability to present a form of cyberspace which can be seen and, therefore, believed.  The Wachowskis and their matrix came 15 years after Neuromancer.  Gibson was at the forefront, and is given credit for coining the term and pushing us to think about a computer network’s relationship with humans.  The Wachowskis gave us one version of what that relationship might be.  There are many other versions, and we can’t possibly know which one is “right,” or “wrong,” because we’re still trying to describe the invisible undescribable space between bits of data.

Review: Binti Trilogy

Binti by Nnedi Okorafor
Binti: Home by Nnedi Okarafor
Binti: The Night Masquerade by Nnedi Okarfor

Title:  Binti, Binti:  Home & Binti:  Night Masquerade
Author: Nnedi Okorafor
Published: 2015, 2017 & 2017
ISBN-13: 9780765385253, 9780765393111, & 9780765393135
Publisher: Tor
Twitter:  @Nnedi
Publisher’s Blurb:  Binti is a story about a brilliant young woman, and the responsibilities she bears: to her society, her family, and to herself. While travelling through space for the first time in her life, Binti must survive and adapt to an encounter with fascinating and deadly aliens.

“We Himba don’t travel.  We stay put.  Our ancestral land is life; move away from it and you diminish.  We even cover our bodies with it.  Otijize is red land.”  (p. 13)

There’s no way anyone could prepare themselves for the times their self-identity bumps up against bigotry.  This is one of the things I admire most about Nnedi Okorafor’s Binti Trilogy.  In choosing the incidents which would populate Binti’s life, Okorafor chose to include the prejudices her traveler would encounter, both from outside and within herself.

It’s hard to write about this without cliches.  Pain of all types makes us stronger, we hate when people say that to us, but there it is.  The most incredible part of reading these books was the honesty with which Okorafor writes; of war, prejudice, outright hatred, ignorance, and fear.  And that she managed to wrap it all up in 462 pages, while flinging us through the stars and back again is amazing to me.

I think what I want to say is no one is safe from prejudice or bigotry.  It’s a part of the very fabric of being sentient (human). We are all different, we are all insecure about something and we all compare ourselves to others hoping to make ourselves feel better.  This comparing and contrasting can make us even harder on ourselves for not having the life we imagine someone else has.

Binti is brilliant, and as self-aware as she can be at the age of 16.  It’s frequently difficult to remember she is still a teenager, and lacks the maturity that only experience can proffer.

Along the way, she literally becomes a part of unlikely families.  Some, like the Meduse, are another species altogether.  Others, like the Desert People, turn out to have been family all along.  They all play a part in her evolution, taking her on a journey which is more than just a university education.  What she is taught along the way is she must be careful of her own prejudices, making sure they don’t keep her blind to the work she is destined for.

The story is almost magical, and nearly breathless, in some places.  Nnedi Okorafor’s tight writing tells a big story which deals with complex issues.  The character Binti studies the lessons we should all study.  Learn to accept yourself, and others, as they are.  Don’t force your set of rules onto someone else.  Hesitate before you say or do something you’ll regret.

Most importantly, I think, is the lesson to face our fears and look deeply into the hard truths we don’t want to know.  That way lies the harmony we all struggle to find.

This slender trilogy is a big story about an adolescent Himba girl who learns to stay grounded, fly among the rings of Saturn, fall in love, and forgive herself for the imagined pain she’s caused herself.  Okorafor’s writing is splendid, and I’m looking forward to exploring her other books.

 

 

Review: They

They: A Biblical Tale of Secret Genders by Janet Mason

Title: They:  A Biblical Tale of Secret Genders
Author: Janet Mason
Published: 2018
ISBN: 9780999516430
Publisher: Adelaide Books
Publisher’s Blurb: In this novel we met Tamar from the Hebrew Bible. Tamar lives as a hermit in the desert, is content with her life and is happily barren. She is attached to her pet camel. Her aversion to goat sacrifices becomes so strong that it prompts her to become a vegetarian. Tamar has a twin sister Tabitha who becomes pregnant after seducing a young muscular shepherd. Tamar plots with Tabitha to trick Judah (a patriarch from the Bible) into believing that the baby is his so that she can have status in society rather than being burnt at the stake. Tabitha gives birth to twins. Tamar becomes attached to the children (born intersex), who call her auntie, and follows their line of intersex twins.  

They has a promising premise, a long line of intersex twins come from the fictional twin sister of biblical Tamar.  Tweaking Judeo- Christian mores is one of my favorite topics, and the thought of secret genders in the Bible pleased me.

Janet Mason has a unique spin on many of the familiar Old and New Testament stories.  While fictional Tabitha is the one who has children with Judah by deceiving him, her twin sister Tamar is the character with the most interesting discussions about the “old tales.”

My favorite is Tamar telling her sister’s twins about Adam and Eve and the Snake in the Garden of Eden.  She asks questions I’ve always had.  Why spend centuries blaming Eve when Adam was the one who could have, but didn’t, say, “No.”  Which is the root of a lot of the sexist and misogynistic bullshit we experience today.

Then there’s the interesting, if difficult to take serious, story about Tamar reincarnating in Mary’s belly as Jesus’ twin, both of whom are born intersex.  And both whom have different fathers.

Structurally They has problems.  There’s a lot of telling, not showing.  The showdown between Tabitha and Judah is told to a gathering of women instead of shown.  The same goes for Joseph leaving the house every time David arrives to visit Mary.  Her trying to explain why the twins have different fathers and how she’s not going marry either of them would have been so much more interesting.

Another problem is chapters which end abruptly, the next picking up years later with little or no connective tissues.

For instance, Tamar and Judith  gossip about the news from Egypt where Joseph (Judah’s brother) has saved Pharaoh from starvation with his dream interpretations.  The baby they made and Judith gave birth to cries …. end of chapter.  The next chapter is set 20 years in the future and Tamar is dying.  No explanation for what’s happened in that time or how Tamar is dying.

The very last chapter uses the preferred pronouns for intersex people, ze, hir, zir.  At no time before in this book, have these been used.  The change is jolting and disruptive, drawing attention away from the journey Yeshua and his family take away from Jerusalem.

I wanted to love Tree, I really did.  There are many interesting twists and stories that give a different interpretation to the stories I grew up on.  Some parts of Tree nearly glow.  But the parts that don’t glow bring the entirety to a medium well done novel.

As far as I can tell, this was Mason’s first published book (she has since published another, which I have not read).  It is my hope that with practice and dedication her writing will become more consistent and structurally sound.  There’s a lot of good ideas in They, but the execution just isn’t strong enough to bear the weight.

 

 

Review: The Handmaid’s Tale

Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

Title: The Handmaid’s Tale
Author: Margaret Atwood
Published: 1986
ISBN: 0395404258
Publisher: Houghton-Mifflin
Twitter: @MargaretAtwood
Publisher’s Blurb: The Handmaid’s Tale is a novel of such power that the reader will be unable to forget its image and its forecast. Set in the near future, it describes life in what was once the United States and is now called the Republic of Gilead, a monotheocracy that has reacted to social unrest and a sharply declining birthrate by reverting to, and going beyond, the repressive intolerance of the original Puritans. The Handmaid’s Tale is funny, unexpected, horrifying, and altogether convincing. It is at once scathing satire, dire warning, and a tour de force.

“This is one of the most bizarre things that’s happened to me ever.”  (p. 144)

“Gilead society was Byzantine to the extreme …” (p. 311)

This is my second time reading The Handmaid’s Tale, and it’s more terrifying to read in 2018 when basic reproductive rights are threatened by government.  The juxtaposition of what is against what could be should send chills down every reader’s spines and give pause.

When democracies fail, totalitarianism fills the vacuum.  The Republic of Gilead is formed as a “Christian” society based on the Old Testament.  But, as in all things human, is hypocritical in this endeavor.

All citizens must convert to this warped government’s rule, or suffer the consequences.  Neither Baptist nor Quakers are considered Christian enough.  Jews are considered the “Sons of Jacob,” and allowed the choice to convert or move to Israel.

The most dangerous policy in Gilead is the treatment of women, especially those of child-bearing age who are used as proxies by the elite for childless married women.

The justification for this is quoted before the book even starts.  The epigraph quotes Genesis 30: 1-3, the story of barren Rachel who tells her husband, Jacob, to go to her handmaid, Bilhah, and get children on her.  This is the bedrock for the use of handmaids to repopulate Gilead.

In the Red Center, where handmaids are trained, Aunts are charged with indoctrination.  Concepts from the New Testament like “Blessed are the meek,” from the Beatitudes, women covering their hair, and “worthy vessel” are repeated as doctrine.

And here, we read the basic hypocrisy of Gilead, supposedly based on the Old Testament but free to pick from the New Testament as well.  Same as those in our world who cherry-pick the bible to prove their actions are sound.

And what of the misattributions?  If intoned properly with authority, those too can be made to sound biblical.  One of the Aunts tells the Handmaids, “They also serve who only stand and wait.”  This is the last line of Milton’s “Sonnet 19,”  a reflection on what Milton thinks God may want from him by making Milton blind.

And this from Karl Marx, “From each according to her ability, to each according to his needs.”  Scholars disagree over the origin of this phrase, some believing it has a basis in the Acts of Paul in the New Testament.   It’s my contention that the Marx version is the most well known, and therefore used to illustrate how policy is set by what’s most convenient to prove a point.

The darker motives of the elite can be found in Offred’s Commander’s wife, Serena Joy, obliquely suggesting there are other ways to get pregnant if the proscribed Ceremony isn’t working.  A wink and a nod to excusing a Commander’s lack of viability and still providing the Wife with a child.

The Commanders provide themselves with relief from the child-bearing proscriptions of government with visits to the illicit club Jezebel‘s.  Ironic because of the possessive, as if there was one Jezebel to whom the club belonged, not the elite men who make sure it operates.

Part Playboy Club, all underground brothel, Handmaids who don’t make the grade are given the choice to work at Jezebel’s or go to the Colonies where a painful death awaits them cleaning up toxic waste.  While not widely advertised among the patrons of the club, it’s a relatively safe space for lesbians.

There is no biblical justification for the presence of Jezebel’s, or Jezebels, in Gilead but it is winked off by Offred’s Commander who, in essence, says “boys will be boys.”  Only the elite men are allowed to blow off a little steam.  Women are not allowed such a diversion.  Neither are lower level men afforded this dispensation.  Not even the single men have a legal outlet for their frustrations.

All this to say, duplicity is the name of the game in such dictatorial societies.  It only matters when people get caught, as Offred does by the Commander’s Wife.  It is occasions like these when the Eyes are called upon to remove the offenders from sight.

The ever present spies, who depend on the citizenry to catch, and report, all transgressions.  Punishment to be doled out in such savage rituals as the Salvagings when the Handmaids and their pent up emotions are allowed to rage and put to death the wrong-doers.  Dictatorships don’t need a balanced justice system, just a lot of angry citizens who need an outlet.  Let the mob sort it out.

Rigidity leads to rebellion.  Gilead is no different.  A nascent underground moves women to some form of safety.  The “femaleground” can also be justified as scriptural in the Exodus story of Moses, who rescued Jewish slaves from the Egyptian pharaoh.  “Let my people go,” is a rallying cry for all who would work to see injustice righted.

For all who wince at the possibilities of Gilead becoming a reality, let it be a reminder that scripture, biblical or otherwise, can be twisted to justify everything under the sun.  Margaret Atwood says she doesn’t consider her book SF/F dystopian because everything in the book has already happened in human history.  That should terrify us all.

Review: Jazz

Jazz by Toni Morrison

Title: Jazz
Author: Toni Morrison
Published: 1992
ISBN: 1400076218
Publisher: Vintage Books International
Publisher’s Blurb:  In the winter of 1926, when everybody everywhere sees nothing but good things ahead, Joe Trace, middle-aged door-to-door salesman of Cleopatra beauty products, shoots his teenage lover to death. At the funeral, Joe’s wife, Violet, attacks the girl’s corpse. This passionate, profound story of love and obsession brings us back and forth in time, as a narrative is assembled from the emotions, hopes, fears, and deep realities of black urban life.

“… it’s hard to match the superstitious for great expectations.”  (p9)

I enjoy music and love books, but I don’t know how to put the two of them together.  It confused me when Jack Kerouac wrote about going to the clubs and listening to bebop, then using the beats in his writing.  I really wanted to approach Jazz from this perspective but I haven’t a clue.

Morrison explains how she approached Jazz in the Foreword, “Romantic love seemed to me one of the fingerprints of the twenties, and jazz its engine. (p. xviii)”  I understood that, but translating that into my words?  An incantation I can’t follow.

Also in the Foreword she writes, “I wanted the work to be a manifestation of the music’s intellect, sensuality, anarchy, its history, its range, and its modernity.  (p. xix)”

All my life I’ve been surrounded by creative people.  And a lot of them talk about beats.  Theatre people, musicians, poets, writers.  I know the basics of music, I can find the beat, but that’s not what writers mean.

Morrison’s unidentified narrator uses phrases like, “clarinets and lovemaking,” and talks about the rhythm of the trains on their tracks, and the drums of the men who marched in silent protest to the massacre of East St. Louis in 1917.

I can imagine the drummers marching in line down the street filled with onlookers who show their anger in complete silence.  The solemn rhythm a heartbeat connecting all to bear witness to the pain and tragedy.

More, I can imagine the smoky jazz halls filled with the sounds of Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and Earl Hines while people danced to the rhythm.  I can even imagine the sounds of jazz coming from windows on a hot summer day through open windows.

But in the story of Violet and Joe Trace and his young girlfriend, Dorcas, I don’t hear it.  In this story, I feel the pain of trauma, the suffering from unfulfilled expectations and the nervous energy when Violet walks into Dorcas’ funeral and slashes the corpse’s face.

I feel the pain of those who don’t know who their parents are, or who were lied to about their parentage.  The anxiety of being squished into a few blocks by people who don’t know a thing about you and your community.

There is a rhythm to the laughter of women who gather for cards and shamelessly flirt with Joe Trace, the Cleopatra beauty products salesman who just happens to pop by.  So too is there rhythm to the teen-aged dance in someone’s apartment where liquor is surreptitiously served to boys and girls nervous about their bodies and their sexuality.  And then there’s the shock when Joe walks in and shoots Dorcas, and Dorcas telling her friends to just leave her alone.

Toni Morrison addresses big themes I could never identify with fully simply because I am white in a world that, no matter how misogynistic, will always privilege me over a woman who is not white.  Yet it is in reading Morrison both in Jazz and Beloved that i get a feeling of what it’s like to have suffered inhumanely from those who don’t see humanity, only skin color.

Maybe knowing more about the rhythms of jazz would have helped me get deeper beneath the surface.  Maybe.  What I know is the pain I felt for these characters and this sad, sad story so beautifully written.  What I know is how hard it is to look ugliness in the face and give it a name, to wrestle with demons no one can bear, and what it is to live with heartbreak and despair so many days of a life, one wonders if it’s even worth going on.

I know Toni Morrison writes so that people like me can begin to try to understand the suffering of people we would never have known otherwise.  She writes, I read, and then offer prayers of gratitude for her gorgeous words.

 

Review: The Mortal Word

The Mortal Word by Genevieve Cogman

Title: The Mortal Word
Author: Genevieve Cogman
Published: 2018
ISBN-13: 9780399587443
Publisher: Ace
Twitter: @GenevieveCogman
Publisher’s Blurb: When a dragon is murdered at a peace conference, time-travelling Librarian spy Irene must solve the case to keep the balance between order, chaos…and the Library.

In The Mortal Word’s 1890s Paris the Grand Guignol is in full swing.  Terror in its most “natural” state, precursor to B movies promising to be so frightening a doctor and nurse would be on standby for viewers who succumbed to their terror.

When several murders and other atrocities occur accusations fly.   Terrifying things happen that might disrupt the Paris Peace Treaty between fae and dragon, mediated by humans, who better to blame than the Blood Countess?

Elizabeth Báthory, historically known for torturing her victims and bathing in the blood of virgins,  is high chaos.  With her in the story, the poisoning, the chlorine gas bomb, the mysterious clues to L’Enfer all too easily deflect attention away from the real murderer, and the political reasoning behind it.

Of course, the Blood Countess did all those things, and more.  She terrifies others because it is in her nature.  Disrupting the peace conference is fun and games for her, not politics.  Yet, she has stirred the pot.  And in stirring the pot, becomes the favored target of the political gamesmanship of fae and dragon.

Eventually, the evidence leads to the Grand Guignol theatre, and a basement chamber suitable for use by someone who tortures and kidnaps for fun.  Staged terror and real terror in the same building, nothing could be more perfect.  Here, the reader is led to believe, is the denouement of the story.  Now, we will learn why and how the Blood Countess terrified both fae and dragon over a peace conference.

I got so carried along, i almost missed the siren call of the red herring.  As despicable and terrifying as the Blood Countess is, other evidence points other ways.  When calmer minds prevail and re-organize the evidence, the real killer comes to light.

To mystery readers, this may sound like standard fare.  Let me assure you there’s nothing standard about Cogman’s characters.  In her hands, and through Irene’s eyes, we are shown just how tricky it is to think clearly when a fae is trying to hold her in thrall.  Dragons are tricky in their own way, with their rigid hierarchy and societal rules.  And within this world, a character like the Blood Countess can thrive and both be guilty and not at the same time.

The Invisible Library series is inter-dimensional library, Librarians stealing books to keep chaos and order in balance, dragons, fae, alternate timelines, and so much more.  It’s a pleasurable read, even when the villains are as terrifying as the Blood Countess.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Review: Stealing: Life in America

Stealing: Life in America by Michelle Cacho-Negrete

Title: Stealing:  Life in America
Author: Michelle Cacho-Negrete
Published: 2017
ISBN-13: 9780999516416
Publisher: Adelaide Books
I received a copy of Stealing:  Life in America from Adelaide Books in return for an honest review.  Thank you!

Winter in Maine is not just a season but a location, sign-posted in layers of cold-white drifts and gritty ice. – “Winter” – p. 193

Michelle Cacho-Negrete’s book of essays titled Stealing:  Life in America is more than just the relating of facts about being poor in Brooklyn, of Russian Jewish ancestry, and how those combine to give a sense of identity.

Those are the bare bone facts.  These essays, though, carry power.   Cacho-Negrete’s power comes from her honesty and her eloquence.  Her words touch exposed nerves, and reveal the wounds which come from the poverty our country refuses to acknowledge.

Her first essay, “Stealing,” begins this way, “The day I decided to steal food I instituted three simple rules: Steal only essentials, only from big chains, never brag.”

These are not the words of someone who feels entitled to what the world hasn’t given them.  These are the words of a truly desperate single mother trying to make it four months until her teaching job begins.  This stings, and it should.  This is, we are told, avoidable if we only follow the rules and do all that’s expected of us to rise in the world.

Except …. there’s always an except in these stories.  Except Cacho-Negrete did what she was supposed to do.  She worked hard, got her education, married, and had children.  The promise of education is that it will lift us out of our poverty and put us directly into the arms of the middle class where we will be cradled until we die.

Stealing:  Life in America isn’t necessarily an indictment of a part of society we’d rather not acknowledge.  It’s also not the story of “I pulled myself up by my bootstraps, you can too.”  This book is an intimate look at how hard that climb is, especially if the climb starts in the Brooklyn ghetto of the 1940s and 50s.

From Brooklyn, the reader goes on a trip in search of relatives near and far.  The grandfather and aunt, also in Brooklyn, her mother refuses to talk to, giving no reason to her curious daughter.  In “Country of the Past”, in Finland, near the Russian border with her husband, she wonders about her Russian ancestors, and if crossing the border illegally will give her a connection at all.  Would she somehow feel connected to the part of her heritage which was held in contempt always?

Physical appearance plays a part in identity.  And “Hair” is about having tightly curled blonde locks in a time when having straight hair was a societal requirement in being accepted.  It’s a discussion of where all the feminine outliers go to bring their unruly hair under control, and how women will do what needs to be done to fit in better.  An experience not unlike what women continue to go through in 2019.

“Rejection” tells the experience of the person we all know and can’t understand.  The one who gets under our skin and stays there despite our best efforts.  She writes, “But I am sensitive, and always have been, to the subtle clues people put out. (p. 68)”    Me too sister.  And the ones we are most sensitive to are the people who just don’t like us for no good reason we can see.  We weren’t given a chance to piss them off, they just seem to arrive in our lives that way.  And through her neighbor’s heartache, Cacho-Negrete is kindness itself.  Only to be spurned again.  Telling us we’re overreacting in such cases doesn’t mean a thing.  We know something’s going on, even if we don’t know what.  And that’s what drives us nuts.  There is no explanation for their behavior.

Michelle Cacho-Negrete’s essays gather her readers around in a warm circle while she tells stories of doing the best we can in horrible situations in which the answer is clear, but not to those who can make a change.  She writes of meeting women fortunate enough to have never worried about how they spend their money.  And she writes of the part of her, while now financially comfortable, who can only wonder why someone needs more than one expensive hand bag or more than two designer sweaters.  Because she knows the pain of complete lack, Cacho-Negrete lives in the world of thrift stores and only buying what she absolutely needs.  It is unfathomable to her to buy more.

Her journey moves to Brooklyn to Maine, where she and her second husband live a good, comfortable life.  But because life is life, and nothing is ever always easy, her husband winds up in the hospital with an idiopathic condition.  (The irony that the word for an unknown illness has the same first letters as idiot is not lost on me.)

Here, in “Days and Days and Days Inbetween” is the story of a different kind of pain and anxiety, told with compassion.  But the longing for a diagnosis, an answer to “will he be all right” is just beneath the surface.  How can it not be?  In the end, yes he is all right.

While many of Michelle Cacho-Negrete’s essays resonated on a deeply emotional level with me, this did not take away from being enraptured by her story-telling ability.  Eloquent, warm, matter-of-fact, and the near perfect telling of a life of adventure.  Struggles overcome, an understanding of how far she’d moved from those fire escapes in Brooklyn, and a modest bit of triumphalism are what make Stealing:  Life in America worth reading.

Review: God’s War

God’s War by Kameron Hurley

Title: God’s War
Series: 1st of 3
Author:  Kameron Hurley
Published:  2011
ISBN-13:   9781597809504
Publisher:  Nightshade Books
Twitter: @Kameronhurley
Publisher’s Blurb:  Nyx is a former government assassin who makes a living cutting off heads for cash. But when a dubious deal between her government and an alien gene pirate goes bad, Nyx’s ugly past makes her the top pick for a covert recovery. The head they want her to bring home could end the war — but at what price?

God’s War is the first of three books in the Bel Dame Apocrypha series.

I long for the day when we don’t have to think about feminist or masculine tropes, that we can write and read good stories without the heavy load of “male gaze” or “women don’t/shouldn’t do that” (same goes for men).  It seems unfair to have to point out that Kameron Hurley’s work is uniquely feminist, and that her reasons for being so amount to “enough is enough, women can too do that.”

It’s unfair because Hurley is a damned fine storyteller.  She has said repeatedly she’s written characters like Nyx based on Conan the Barbarian and Mad Max.  Her book The Geek Feminist Revolution has two essays which specifically address this.  Hurley makes it clear that if a male protagonist can do it, so can a female protagonist.

And that’s how we got Nyx, the badass who can take on Richard Kadrey’s Sandman Slim any day of the week and twice on Sunday.  Nyx is a nasty piece of work, and she is everything a hero/antihero needs to be.

God does not answer the phone

If the goal of feminism is for women to be treated equally to men, then Kameron Hurley’s God’s War succeeds in many ways.  In her world, women are in charge and visible at every level of society.  As she tells the story,  “bēl damê, [is] an old Assyrian/Babylonian term for a blood avenger … ‘owner of the blood’ and ‘collector of blood debt.’”  She wanted to write about a bel dame in disgrace.  Nyx hobbles through the world taking any contract that will pay the days’ bills.

If feminism is about being seen and heard, then nearly all the women who populate Nyx’s world have succeeded.  But sexism still exists. Never mind the details, the women are the sexists in this world. They leer and catcall just like any ill-mannered male in other books.

What’s striking to me is while Hurley has turned the anti-hero trope on its head by making women the lead characters in a dismal, apocalyptic world, she does not give women a pass on bad behavior.  These women are so far from prim and proper, and polite, it’s laughable. Yet Hurley is making a point, that women can hold the plot of such a story just as well as men. Women are in every corner of society, just trying to get along to the next day.

The main thrust of the plot is an alien gene pirate has landed and threatens any potential of “balance” in this world.  It’s presumed her ancestors had a part in starting this war centuries ago for reasons no one remembers anymore. The pirate becomes a wanted woman and the queen calls on Nyx to deliver her head.

That’s what bounty hunters do, they behead and deliver it to the contract holder.  Or they kill outright. But they only get paid if they follow the contract’s instructions to the letter.

So think about this, Nyx is a woman mercenary who’s good at tracking and killing people.  She’s been kicked out of the guild of government paid assassins because even they couldn’t handle her.  She’s given up her ability to transport zygotes in her uterus because she sold it for money to get to the next stop, wherever that might be.  This is who she is, what she has become. And she has no illusions about her place in life. And the queen calls on her, not the bel dame, to find and behead an alien.

Politics being what they are, Nyx discovers hidden agendas and wanders into fights, literal and figurative, which call everything she knows about who she is and what she’s fighting for into question.  In the end, people die or are banished. Nyx argues with the Queen over ideology and realizes, just as the rest of us do, there are no happy endings. We just keep going on.

Every one of the characters in God’s War are broken.  There’s no repairing them, and most know it.  Hurley does not spare us from the atrocities of warfare, sexism, and politics.  She builds a world in which a paid assassin, part of a guild, would break under the burdens one must bear just to get through.

And although it was slow to get started, and it is bleak and horrifying, I found God’s War to be a good story.  Which is what all readers are looking for, isn’t it?  And thank you Kameron Hurley for making this the feminist apocalyptic story it is.  Women can be just as badass as men, if not more so, and deserve the chance to tell their stories.

Can I get an awoman, sister?

 

Review: Projections

Projections: Science Fiction in Literature & Film – edited by Lou Anders

Title:  Projections:  Science Fiction in Literature & Film
Editor:  Lou Anders
Published: 2004
ISBN-13: 9781932265120
Publisher:  Monkeybrain Books
Twitter:  @LouAnders
Publisher’s Blurb:  From Lord of the Rings—called the greatest novel of the 20th Century—to The Matrix—one of the highest grossing films of all time … science fiction and fantasy have proved to be one of cinema and literature’s most enduring and popular genres. PROJECTIONS examines the history and the people, the science and the society, the lives, times and themes, the cultural impact and the critical response of the dynamic genre that is speculative fiction, as seen through the eyes of some of today’s most recognized writers.

There are many thoughtful essays in Projections from great authors including Michael Moorcock, Robert Silverberg, and Mike Resnick.  These are authors who love SF/F with the care of a tender lover and who are not unafraid to point out the flaws.  They, like so many I have encountered, want better for, and from, genre fiction.

Here’s a look at some of what caught my attention:

John Clute‘s “In Defense of Science Fiction,” still stands well as a demand for better, less bloated, less predictable, SF/F writing.  This is a discussion I’ve had a few times with other readers.  M. Todd Gallowglas has a wonderful essay called “Why Isn’t Fantasy More Fantastical?” in his book My Journey in Creative Reading.  Michael Moorcock, in his famous essay “Epic Pooh,” also writes about demanding better from our genre.

Basically, without getting too much into the weeds about this, for far too long fans have been bullied by others who think of SF/F as an outlying type of literature.  In a small-town high school, I was bullied for a lot of reasons, but reading something no one else had heard of was right up there near the top of the list.

Many have had the experience of being shamed by educators for reading SF/F, or even writing it.  So as a community, we clung to what we knew and what was available.  Which perpetuated this unfortunate Catch-22 of publishers publishing only what’s selling and fans buying it because that’s what’s available.

Clute’s essay is powerful because he delves into many of the reasons genre isn’t better.  Some of which have to do with publishers and reviewers and categorizing, and other things which have led us to believe we belong in the far corner of reading and writing in all flavors.

I am here to tell you we do NOT belong in that corner.  We belong wherever the hell we want, but we need better writing, better storytelling.

“… we’re going to need all the help we can get to see our way through.  We cannot exclude any visions – any way to look at the world – that we humans have invented for ourselves.  We are going to need all the ways to look.”

This is the way Clute ends his essay, and he’s right, no one can afford to exclude any vision which will help us survive the madness that is the world as we know it.

David Brin’s essay, “Achilles, Superman, and Darth Vader,” is a beautiful look at how movies have become more about the fancy effects than about story-telling.  And he lays this directly at George Lucas‘ and Joseph Campbell‘s doors.

What Joseph Campbell did was point out all the positive themes and rhythms used in every ancient hero tale.  George Lucas took all these predictable traits and turned them into Star Wars.  Unfortunately, what both Campbell and Lucas did was make good and bad clear cut.  By not considering the flawed and dark parts of any protagonist (and opposite for the antagonist), Brin maintains that what we cheer for in these triumphal stories is uniformity.

Know what?  He’s right.  Further, he’s right in pointing out that elitism gets a pass.  Luke Skywalker starts as a humble small-town boy on an out of the way planet, and works himself into the ruling elite (both Jedi and royalty).  Anything he does which could have negative consequences gets a pass, because he’s now a part of the elite ruling class, who are the same and believe they know what’s best/right for the rest of the galaxy.  No one in the Star Wars universe is allowed to question the status quo.

Star Wars isn’t the only franchise he takes aim at.  Star Trek gets a critical look, as do many of the other tropes in SF/F.

This is not to say that neither Brin nor I recognize the importance of these franchises in getting SF/F accepted by a broader audience and to take a crack at elevating story-telling.  But I believe that we can both love something and be critical of it without  diminishing the thing we love.  Critical thinking enhances the way we read, and look, at SF/F, and gives us the tools to demand better from the creators.

My favorite essay in Projections is “The Matrix Trilogy” by Adam Roberts in which he applies multiple literature criticism lens to all three Matrix movies.  It’s a thought provoking read.  And while I loved the movies, especially the first one, there’s not a lot I disagree with in Roberts’ essay.

For instance, one of the themes he writes about is how limiting some of those interpretations could be.  One of particular interest makes the trilogy into a Christian allegory.  “Emphasising [sic] perceived mythic underpinnings in fact takes us away from the specificity of the films themselves.”

And so it goes for other schools of thought and criticism, all of which can be a valid critical view of the movies.  But because I like poking holes in religious tropes as applied to non-religious movies and literature, this is what resonated the most with me, “…what if the messiah comes and nothing changes as a result? [sic] If the messiah comes more than once, why only twice?”

::shocked gasp::  I can hear Christians all across the world clutching their pearls and crying “blasphemy!”  Roberts has a point, and his explanation for this particular line of thought is one I hadn’t pursued before.  Even if you completely disagree with his interpretation, at least admit that’s a thought-provoking theme to explore.

And to all those determined to seek deeper meaning in The Matrix Trilogy, Roberts ends his essay by saying this, “The point is not to see beneath the surface.”

In the interest of brevity (because, trust me I could go on and on), here are a few quotes I liked:

“This is True” by Tim Lebbon
“[the dark will tell someone not to get out of bed but they will have to for some reason] … then a hand will close around their ankle, tug, and they will be dragged beneath the bed to a grisly doom.

“This will happen.  I firmly believe it.

“I believe it because the human imagination is a powerful, potent force.”

“Something About Harry” by Mark Finn
In which Finn explains how ludicrous the book selling business is in terms of profit.
“The book industry is the most inept, retarded, backwater, ill-conceived industry in the world.”

“Scientists in SF Films” by Robert A. Metzger
In which Metzger examines the portrayal of science and scientists in film, which always makes them out to be the reason things go wrong in the movies.
“Science is a soul-sucking mistress.”

“The Squandered Promise of Science Fiction” by Jonathan Lethem
Beating my favorite drum about demanding better from the genre.
“Among the factors arrayed against acceptance of SF as serious writing, none is more plain to outsiders than this: the books are so fucking ugly. Worse, they’re all ugly in the same way, so you can’t distinguish those meant for grown-ups from those meant for twelve-year-olds.”

Review: 2018 Reading

Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
American Gods by Neil Gaiman
The Geek Feminist Revolution by Karmeron Hurley
The Calculating Stars signature
Binti by Nnedi Okarafor
River Queens by Alexander Watson
How Fiction Works by James Wood
The Queen of Crows by Myke Cole
A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

For the first time in so many years, I’m not in utter misery looking into the New Year.  2019 holds great promise and hope for me. As unexpected as that is to say, it comes as a great relief.  Books and lists are the great constant. The great coping mechanism of all time, making lists. It was like the sun shone only on me the day I realized I could combine the two and keep my sanity.

One blissful weekend in August when I was hanging out with other geeks and nerds who loved what I did my vague dissatisfaction was temporarily banished.  I went to panels about writing, met authors (and a real live astronaut), sat in lines with others and talked about writing. Frequently amused that wherever there was a line, we all had some kind of device out in order to read. My device was dead tree style.

Exhaustion was my companion the entire con, but gods I was happy.  Happy? How could that possibly be? When WorldCon 76 San Jose was over, the sticky film of vague unrest returned.  Barf, I thought (or words to that effect, anyway). Inklings filtered through my overtaxed, hyperalert brain.

When great ideas hit it can feel like a jolt of lightning, adrenaline flowing through my spine.  This idea was quieter. An author I met at WorldCon started posting about teaching writing. And so I asked, “do you have something for me?”  His probing questions finally got me to the bottom of my unrest. “I want to learn to read and write about books better.”

And that’s how I found a mentor, and made the last quarter of 2018  happy. Best decision of my life ever. It’s not just the reading and writing which have evolved.  Unexpected personal growth came at me like sunshine filtered through open doors. Even on the hardest of hard days when I think I can’t even get out of bed, and the writing is like carving bricks of granite with my bare hands, I know I’ll be good.  Discovering the weird joys of LitCrit have given me a new dimension of meaning.

It is nearly impossible to pick just a few great books from 2018, but here’s my attempt at defining the seminal books for me.

2018 Books by the Numbers:

  • 68 read
  • 20,382 pages
  • 26 unique publication years
  • 40 unique author names
    • 19 female authors
    • 23 male authors
    • 26 new to me authors
  • 98 books new to the stacks
    • 48 new to the stacks read
    • 7 new to the stacks Pearl Ruled

Favorite Reads

The Handmaid’s Tale by Atwood, Margaret
Even more relevant today than when first published, Atwood’s description of a dystopian, Puritanical society with no agency for women chills.  My review will focus on the use of Scripture as justification.
The Armored Saint by Cole, Myke
The Queen of Crows by Cole, Myke
Heloise is the hero we need now.  Tight, intricate, suspenseful story about a young woman leading the uprising against the religious order in charge.  Book 3, The Killing Light, comes out in 2019.
A Visit From the Goon Squad by Egan, Jennifer
Freakin’ brilliant.  We spent a month on it, I read it three times.  Don’t let the non-linear style throw you off. Egan tells a hell of a story.
American Gods by Gaiman, Neil
What happens when Old Gods realize they’re being squeezed out by the New Gods?  Just as fantastic on the second read.
My Journey in Creative Reading by Gallowglas, M. Todd
Don’t know how to review this book since he’s also my mentor.  Every bit is so good and resonated so deeply I knew I had the right guy.
The Geek Feminist Revolution by Hurley, Kameron
My love letter to Kameron who speaks the truth about being a woman so hard.  I continue to learn a lot from her about feminism and writing. GFR has earned a permanent place on my reference shelf.
The Calculating Stars by Kowal, Mary Robinette
The Fated Sky by Kowal, Mary Robinette
Speaking of feminism … Elma’s a wonderful example of all any human could be; blind spots and social anxiety and all.  Mary Robinette Kowal is as kind and generous as I had hoped. An hour with her and real live astronaut, Kjell Lindgren was more than I’d expected.  Excitedly waiting for two more Lady Astronaut books.
Beloved by Morrison, Toni
Because I am stubborn and refuse to read what “everyone” else is reading, it took an essay in The Methods of Breaking Bad, and some serious prodding from a trusted friend to read Toni Morrison’s classic.  Best opening line ever, “124 was spiteful.”
Binti by Okorafor, Nnedi
Binti: Home by Okorafor, Nnedi
Binti:  The Night Masquerade by Okorafor, Nnedi
Nnedi Okorafor’s brilliant story about a young African woman who breaks tribal taboos to go to university on another planet.  My review will focus on the bigotry Binti encounters on her quest.
River Queens by Watson, Alexander
Alexander Watson’s writing is elegant as he tells the tale of refurbishing a wooden boat and sailing her from Texas to Ohio.  His is the most polished debut I’ve read and I’m forever grateful he asked me to review it.
How Fiction Works by Wood, James
Every writer, every critic, every anyone interested in reading and writing needs to read How Fiction Works.  My review focuses on why critical reviewers should know about craft in order to write better themselves.