Category Archives: Reviews

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.

Review: Book Uncle and Me

Book Uncle and Me by Uma Krishnaswami

Title: Book Uncle and Me
Author: Uma Krishnaswami
Published: 2016
ISBN-13: 9781554988082
Publisher: Groundwood Books
Publisher’s Blurb: Every day, nine-year-old Yasmin borrows a book from Book Uncle, a retired teacher who has set up a free lending library on the street corner. But when the mayor tries to shut down the rickety bookstand, Yasmin has to take her nose out of her book and do something.

Read-Read-Read.

A book whose protagonist is a little girl who reads all the time?  Found on the shelves in a gift shop at the Asian Art Museum, how could I pass this up?

Book Uncle and Me is a delightful kids’ book about Yasmin who borrows a book from Book Uncle every day on her way to school.  But then, the mayor wants to close the free library because Book Uncle doesn’t have a permit.

Through Yasmin we meet her community.  Parents, friends, neighbors, classmates and teachers.  All of them are concerned about Book Uncle’s street library getting closed down.  As Yasmin talks to them, she hatches a plan to keep the library open.

It’s election time in the city and, as it turns out, the owner of the hotel on the corner where Book Uncle hands out books is hosting a wedding and wants to clean up the corner before the new in-laws arrive from out of town.  Who owns the hotel?  Hah!  That would be telling, and spoiling.

Yasmin starts a letter writing campaign which gets the attention of the media and the mayoral candidates.  The entire city is in a tizzy over Book Uncle and his books.  Why would anyone want to take books from children?

Uma Krishnaswami and illustrator Julianna Swaney, give readers a great lesson in civics and activism, as Yasmin and her friends learn how to make change in their community.

Krishnaswami has a delightful way with words, and Swaney’s illustrations make Yasmin and her friends, especially Book Uncle, come to life.  Even better than that, they share their love of books, encouraging kids to read and get involved with things they’re passionate about.

Book Uncle gets to keep his free library on the corner, and the owner of the hotel gets a lesson in transparency.

I really loved this book!

Review: The Queen of Crows

The Queen of Crows by Myke Cole

Title: The Queen of Crows
Author: Myke Cole
Published: 2018
ISBN-13: 9780765395979
Publisher: Tor
Twitter: @MykeCole
What’s Auntie Reading Now? picture
Publisher’s Blurb:   In this epic fantasy sequel, Heloise stands tall against overwhelming odds—crippling injuries, religious tyrants—and continues her journey from obscurity to greatness with the help of alchemically-empowered armor and an unbreakable spirit.
No longer just a shell-shocked girl, she is now a figure of revolution whose cause grows ever stronger. But the time for hiding underground is over. Heloise must face the tyrannical Order and win freedom for her people.

I’m just a woman who has been hard done, who has lost those who she loved.  I am angry, and I am tired, and I am through making deals.  (p. 245)

Let’s first acknowledge author Myke Cole’s feminism.  Heloise is a hero for all times, but it also important to note that Heloise is a young woman leading the battle against the totalitarian religious government.  In The Armored Saint, she literally had greatness thrust upon her.  In The Queen of Crows she begins to accept the leadership role she finds herself in and works to be the leader her people need her to be.

Cole does not make a big deal out of making his protagonist a young woman, and I’d like to say neither should his readers.  But it is a big deal because so much genre writing is overwhelming men fighting to save the day.  Cole shows us a woman who is up to the task of leadership and fighting against the dangers of the oppressive regime called the Order.

Brother Tone, on the other hand, not only wants to put the village in its place as devoted to the Order, he wants to put Heloise in her place as woman.  At every turn, he sneers and belittles her, and those who she has sworn to protect.

Heloise is imperfect.  Stubborn, insecure, paranoid, with a narrow world view.  At one point, she has gone through so much she refuses to leave her alchemy powered suit of armor for any reason.  The armor has become talisman, protecting her emotionally from all the horrors she’s survived in service to both her village and the bands of Kipti they  encounter.

The Kipti are led by the wisdom of women who have a few magical tricks in their toolbox to be used against the Order.  And while the Kipti are nomadic, and suspicious of people who want to settle into a village, they recognize the mutual enemy and combine resources.

Reluctantly recognizing Heloise as leader, the two bands of Kipti come to realize that she in her armor, who killed a devil in The Armored Saint, is the best hope for a victory against the Order.

Victory doesn’t come in The Queen of Crows.  It is an agonizing, brutal story which deals both with the realities of war and of going against a regime whose demand of loyalty to the Emperor grates against everything Heloise has come to question.

It is also a story of hope against tyranny as word spreads across the land that a Palantine, an Armored Saint has gone to war against the Order.  That a young woman is delivering all from the hell that is totalitarianism.

“You are Heloise the Armored Saint, who turns back the tide, who delivers the wretched from misfortune, who will save us all.”  (p. 250)

Heloise is no Joan d’Arc who believed in her God given leadership to support Charles VII, reclaiming France from England.  Heloise doubts herself, and her role in her war.  She is a reluctant leader, herself questioning her wisdom, her ability, even her gender to lead.  But as people gather to follow her, she knows she must and follows her instincts.

Heloise has her detractors.  They don’t much question a female leader as much as they question how this young, inexperienced villager could possibly lead them against the Order.  Further, these few wonder why they should be following her at all since it was at her hands the Order is now intent on putting down the unrest.

Both The Armored Saint and The Queen of Crows can be read through a feminist lens celebrating the young woman who questions the status quo and leads her followers against tyranny.  They can also be enjoyed as ripping good tales, which happen to have a leader who is a woman.

I am of the opinion that Myke Cole, and Heloise, should be recognized for deliberately making choices which demand more of genre, both readers and writers.

 

Review: A Visit From the Goon Squad

A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

TitleA Visit From the Goon Squad
Author Jennifer Egan
Twitter:  @Egangoonsquad
Published: 2011
ISBN 139780307477477
PublisherAnchor
Publisher’s BlurbBennie is an aging former punk rocker and record executive. Sasha is the passionate, troubled young woman he employs. Here Jennifer Egan brilliantly reveals their pasts, along with the inner lives of a host of other characters whose paths intersect with theirs. With music pulsing on every page, A Visit from the Goon Squad is a startling, exhilarating novel of self-destruction and redemption.

Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad is like no other book I’ve ever read.  A work of sheer brilliance, difficult to describe.  Thirteen stories loosely bound together by a group of characters with a connection to record producer Bennie Salazar.  Told from different perspectives, different times, and non-linearly. If someone had tried to explain it to me, I probably would have said, “sounds interesting but I have other things to read.”  But when mentor M. Todd Gallowglas said it was his favorite book, and we were going to spend November working with it, I dug right in. Although I was skeptical about the all month part.

The first time through, I was so enthralled I read it all in one sitting.  The second time took almost two weeks and required a spreadsheet and a text document for over 30 pages of notes.  Before the end of November, there may be a third reading because I still have a list of topics I want to explore.

A Visit From the Goon Squad is multi-layered and rich.  No real true main character, no real true plot, each story stands alone.  Goon Squad is the literal meaning of “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”

The big theme is Time.  It’s really a character in itself and overshadows every part of this book.  “Time’s a goon, right? You gonna let that goon push you around?” (p. 332) Bennie says this to an old punk rocker as he’s being cajoled to go on stage.  Time’s a goon, it beats up on all of us. No matter how hard we try to push back, time always wins. The stories in A Visit from the Goon Squad take us through the journey of how time has beaten up on all the characters, none of them come out of the fight well.  It’s a reminder that none of us ever will.

Telling the stories out of chronological order makes for a much richer experience.  There are little moments of “aha!” as the pieces drop into place. Clues in one story relate directly to another providing a deeper insight to a character or an incident.  I agree with Egan’s assessment that ordering the stories in chronological order would have fallen flat and not had the emotional punch the non-chronological order does.

Music, and the music business is another major theme.  Bennie’s life revolves around punk music, so too the other characters in A Visit From the Goon Squad, in some way. We meet Sasha, Bennie’s assistant for twelve years, in the first story “Found Objects,” while on a date with Alex, who figures prominently in the last story, “Pure Language.”

Scotty Haussmann was a high school mate of Bennie’s in a punk band named the Flaming Dildos.  A name so naturally perfect for punk bands in the late 70s, and still deliciously subversive now.  A warning, don’t look it up on the internet, it will render scars.

Scotty appears in a total of three stories, and so it goes.  Each character teasingly drawn out across time and geography, their back stories filled in as we are shuttled through the drama.  But not all details are revealed, just enough to help us fill in the gaps and make us wonder.

The PowerPoint presentation called “Great Rock and Roll Pauses,” written by Sasha’s twelve-year-old daughter, Alison, gives insight to Sasha and her life in the desert with her husband, and her family, years after Bennie and New York City

Each character is problematic, and broken in search of redemption with a nostalgic look back to the “better” days.  Hardest for me were Lou Kline, Bennie’s mentor in the record business, and Bennie’s brother-in-law, Jules Jones.

Stereotypically, Lou’s position in the music business places him in the realm of sex, drugs, and rock and roll.  He preys on younger women. High school aged Jocelyn’s story is told through Rhea’s voice, both friends of Bennie.  In “As if I Care,” Rhea relates details which take the story from stereotype to a more full understanding of society’s (with Lou as proxy) view of young women.  These details lead to Jocelyn’s destruction and attempt to push back at the goon. Her story is important and deserves the recognition that while Jocelyn’s story is not unusual, there’s nothing normal about it.  Nor should it ever be thought normal.

Jules Jones’ story is told in “40-Minute Lunch.”  His desire to be young again, to have what starlet Kitty Jackson has at age nineteen leads to sexual assault.  Which sends Kitty on her own destructive route and her chance at redemption in “Selling the General.” After a few years in prison, Jules finds his own redemption in “A to B.”

The connective tissue of character and story are what makes A Visit From the Goon Squad so fascinating.  Egan is one of the most talented writers I’ve read, and has said in interviews that she likes to try something different with each new work.  (See her story in the New Yorker titled “Black Box,” as an example.)

Goon Squad taught me a new way of reading and critical writing, making it a pivotal book in my own work.  Reading it is more than a worthwhile adventure, it’s a shining example of what good storytelling can be.

Review: The Forever Watch

The Forever Watch by David Ramirez

TitleThe Forever Watch
AuthorDavid Ramirez
Published: 2014
ISBN 13:  9781250033819
PublisherThomas Dunne Books
Publisher’s Blurb:  The truth is only the beginning. When a man is murdered on the Noah, a city-sized spaceship that is half-way through an eight-hundred-year voyage to another planet, his body is so ruined that his identity must be established from DNA evidence. Within hours, however, all trace of the crime is swept away, hidden as though it never happened – a strange occurrence in a world where deeds, and even thoughts, cannot be kept secret. Hana Dempsey, a mid-level bureaucrat who has been genetically modified to use the Noah’s telepathic internet, begins to investigate. Her search for the truth will uncover the impossible: a serial killer who has been operating on board for a lifetime, if not longer. And behind the killer lies a conspiracy centuries in the making…

There is a lot going on in this book.  So much it’s hard to keep up with what’s going on.  There’s enough in this book for at least two books, if not more.

First, there’s the story of Noah, the multi-generational space  ship headed for humanity’s new home, Canaan.  No one’s quite sure what happened to Earth which required this alien spaceship capable of holding an entire metropolis,  to go on a mission lasting 800 years.  All anyone of the current citizens on Noah is this has always been home.

Then, is there a serial killer loose?  Bodies which look like they’ve been ripped apart are appearing.  And people are disappearing , their records marked as “retired,” at a high rate.

There’s a love story between the “mission critical” Hana Dempsey and cop Leonard Barrens.  Dempsey is gifted in many areas, including as a hacker.  Barrens is portrayed as somewhat more brutish but capable of great softness for Dempsey.  They work together to figure out what’s going on with the possible serial killer.  They also work together well as a loving couple, despite the snobbery of Hana’s upper class friends.

And the conspiracy story concerning the children born aboard the Noah.  Women are put into a nine-month coma and never see their children.  At the beginning of The Forever Watch, Hana has just come out of her coma.  What happens to those children is not for the squeamish, their hellish destiny is better left unknown.

Ramirez introduces an overload of technology and psychic abilities.  We’re talking neural implants, heads up display, instantaneous communication, and entire cities built psychically out of a material called plastech.

And this is where I got lost.  Ramirez has been so careful with his world building, thinking through every detail and going on ad nauseum about how the tech works.  There’s so much information and it gets bewildering after a few pages.  And then it keeps going on and on.

This is one of my main complaints about sf/f worlds, there’s just too much detail.  If it’s accepted in an author’s world this stuff works, that’s all that’s needed.  Authors don’t need to convince the readers, we’re happy to go along for the ride.  That many pages shouldn’t be spent on explanations and details unless they are absolutely required to move the story forward.  Most of the time, it’s not.  (N. K. Jemisin is the best I’ve read recently in giving the reader just enough detail to move the story without getting bogged down.)

The horrifying revelations are nearly unimaginable.  Ramirez obviously imagined them, I didn’t see a lot of them coming.  Except  for the “huh, what do you know,?  the founders were right all along.”  I figured that was coming, realized that what was happening was cyclical, leading to a moral conundrum for the survivors who find themselves in charge.

The Forever Watch is not a bad read, but it’s not exceptional either.  There’s so much potential for great exploration of any of the plot lines, which makes the book feel incomplete.

 

 

Review: Wizardry & Wild Romance

Wizardry & Wild Romance by Michael Moorcock

Title: Wizardry & Wild Romance
Author: Michael Moorcock
Published: 2004
Publisher: Monkeybrain Books
Publisher’s Blurb:  … this invaluable work analyzes the Fantasy genre from its earliest beginnings in Medieval romances, on through the notable practitioners like Howard, Lovecraft and Tolkien, and up to the brightest lights in the field today. Insightful and often controversial, this is a book every fantasy reader should have on their shelf.

“Michael Moorcock – Extreme Librarian”
Introduction by China Miéville

“To read something that somebody else has written and have it make better sense of your own reactions than you have been able to, is a momentous thing.”  (p14)

Miéville’s central thesis, with which I wholeheartedly agree, is we should all want better, demand “vision and passion” from the epic fantasy we read.  Not because Moorcock says we should, but because so much of it has fallen into disrepair. A lot of it is imitative and limited. Fans can get caught in the Catch-22 of reading what’s available which keeps getting written because it’s what sells.

And yes, Moorcock is frustrating.  He has a lot to say, all of it supported by citations of his arguments.  His prose is dense, his meaning often obvious, but his insistence we should want better is absolutely right.  And how in the hell has he read and studied so much and written so much?

“Foreword”
Michael Moorcock

“I admire intelligent, disciplined, imaginative entertainment if it seems to offer me some perspective on my own life.”  (p 18)

In the first paragraph, Moorcock defines what he’s writing about.  Romantic epic fantasy “whose writers invent their own Earthly histories and geographies.”  Not, I am relieved to learn, that sentimental love story rubbish churned out by the likes of Danielle Steele.

This too, resonated with me.  “I admire intelligent, disciplined, imaginative entertainment if it seems to offer me some perspective on my own life.”  I’m finally able to admit to myself that much of what I have read wasn’t bad so much as boring. Too repetitive, unambitious, and often self-congratulatory.

“I believe that critical dissection of the fantasy story into its components does not detract from the story.  Rather, it adds a new dimension to it …” This is what I’ve been fumbling around for much of my life, and was what I enjoyed most in my English classes.  The many ways to look at a work and interpret it and the richness that adds to it.

Epic fantasy then, loosely defined, are the stories told which feature exotic landscapes from the imagination of the writer, with symbols which evoke strong sensations as a way to escape and discover ourselves.  Moorcock references the escape from objective pressure, which can also mean an escape from the inward pressure we place on ourselves to survive an often unpleasant world.

—–

Each chapter title takes on an aspect of Epic Fantasy.

Chapter 1 “Origins” gives a history beginning with 16th century tales deemed Chivalric Romance and its influence on Gothic Romance.  Here, romance is defined most succinctly as exploration of the exotic. When Moorcock writes about early epic fantasy he writes, “… their chief purpose was to amaze and shock.”  While the prose may not be easily read by contemporary readers, the presence of dragons, magic, castles, ogres, doom and tragedy are instantly familiar.

Chapter 2 “The Exotic Landscape” discusses the landscape of the internal as expressed in the external.  The exotic landscape is used to distance the author/reader from reality. In some ways, as though realism is too much to abide.

An interesting brief topic was Moorcock’s discussion of “bachelor-fiction” written by the likes of Lovecraft.  “… [Lovecraft’s] more successful horror stories in which death, idealism, lust and terror of sexual intercourse are constantly associated … (p. 55)  (emphasis mine)

And then there’s this, “Too frequently one gets the impression that … most practitioners of epic fantasy read only one another’s work.”  (p. 77) This continues explaining how epic fantasy can do better by its readers. Don’t just read your peers’ work, avoid the bloat and the boring and the stereotypical by reading works in other genres as well.

Chapter 3 “The Heroes and the Heroines” focuses on the lack of mature, nuanced, emotional reactions in epic fantasy characters.  Most are adolescent, immature or “pretend-adult.” A frequent adjective he uses is “infantile.” The men are in charge, all knowledgeable and the women are fundamentally passive, waiting to be taken care of by the man.  (This is the trope which made me uncomfortable enough to go elsewhere for my reading pleasure.)

Yet, there’s hope!  Authors such as Fritz Leiber, Robin McKinley, and Gene Wolfe whose characters have “genuine passions, adult concerns, and complex motives.”

Chapter 4 “Wit and Humor” discusses the types of humor most suited for epic fantasy.  Irony and melodrama, comedy and fantasy, closely bound to one another in showing the fantastic extremes of life (fairies, dragons, etc.) along with the reversals of fate represented in farce (custard pies, or pratfalls).

Comedy adds a dimension to the characters and the plot.  Humans are complex, and often use humor to survive the daily grind.  So too should epic fantasy characters.

It’s in this chapter, Moorcock explores the idea that fantasy should “have at its source some fundamental compassion, … ambition to show … what human life is actually about.” (p. 116)  Further, he looks for readings which help us (as readers) understand how to deal with problems and respond in a positive manner to injustice and frustrations which hound us all.

Chapter 5 Epic Pooh” is Moorcock’s tirade against authors such as Tolkien who write childish books and parade them as gentler adult books.  The authors who preach moderation and politeness. Those who do not explore the harsher and extreme truths of life.

Moorcock’s explanation, “Writers like Tolkien take you to the edge of the Abyss and point out the excellent tea-garden at the bottom, showing you the steps carved into the cliff and reminding you to be a bit careful because the hand-rails are a trifle shaky as you go down, they haven’t got the approval yet to put a new one in …” (p. 120) tickles me no end.   And while I happen to enjoy Winnie the Pooh, I have no illusions that A. A. Milne wrote anything other than polite, happy nursery rhymes.

Chapter 6 “Excursions and Developments” is the final chapter and deals with the thesis that categorization is destructive.  Because it forces authors to pigeonhole themselves in order to sell books and attract an audience. (cf it doesn’t have to be good to sell in Chapter 1.)

This made me ponder how I read.  I read books, in search of good stories, not genre.  Yes, I like a good dragon tale, time-travel, cyberpunk, etc. but I like other things.

I read John Scalzi because I like his stories, not because he writes military science fiction.

Myke Cole tells the story of a village bullied by the religious government and the  teen-aged girl who comes to the rescue. Strong female character (we need Heloise today), story about standing up to the bullies.  That it’s categorized as fantasy meant little to me.

The Astronaut Lady series by Mary Robinette Kowal was a ripping good tale which read like the alternate history it is.  But I read it for the women who fought for equal rights in the space program.

Conclusion

Wizardry & Wild Romance is rich, dense, and filled with authors I’ve never heard of.  It’s also one I will gladly read repeatedly as I learn more about critical writing.  Moorcock’s discussion of what is good in epic fantasy, and what isn’t, can be transferred to other genres, I’m sure.  Albeit without the dragons and wizards, etc.

Review: A Love Letter to Kameron Hurley

The Geek Feminist Revolution by Kameron Hurley

Title:  The Geek Feminist Revolution
AuthorKameron Hurley
Published: 2016
ISBN-13: 9780765386243
PublisherTor
Twitter: @KameronHurley
Publisher’s Blurb  Outspoken and provocative, double Hugo Award-winning essayist Kameron Hurley writes with passion and conviction on feminism, geek culture, the rise of women in science fiction and fantasy, and the diversification of publishing.

The first panel I attended at WorldCon 2018 was M. Todd Gallowglas’ Lit Crit for Geeks.  I was enthralled. One of the writers he mentioned was you, as doing some great work in feminism.  I dutifully wrote your name down in my journal.

Since then, I’ve lost my job and spend my days reading and writing and thinking.  I hash things out a lot in my brain, the one that never shuts up. And then I write stuff for my mentor to read.

One evening after dinner, a friend took me book shopping.  Kepler’s is this fabulous indie bookstore whose customers banded together to keep it from closing its doors.  There were two names on my list that I knew would go home with me that night, yours and N. K. Jemisin. And since I didn’t know where to start with you, I picked up The Geek Feminist Revolution.

Always a voracious reader, I am inhaling them now.  This is my job while I figure out about the day job, I read and write about what I’m reading.  Not only does it give me direction for a life which could easily be adrift and and feeding my food addiction, it makes me stronger in so many ways.

Never really shy about self-reflection, I now have the time and space to really look at some of the things coming up right now.  And sometimes, it is some scary, sad shit.

“But because my body was coded female, I was never ever assumed to have the kind of knowledge or credibility that a man would have.” (p. 37)

I read the first 38 pages of your book and sobbed.  I felt so completely bereft that I had to set it aside for a week or so.  Because those pages were my story. The story of being a woman and the rampant sexism which had become so normalized I didn’t see it anymore.  I read your story and began to understand that not only was I not alone in this mess, but that there were ways I could raise my voice.

But first I had to reconcile some stuff within myself.  Because the stuff that was coming up was more than just re-evaluating my entire life in terms of how I’d been treated because I was female, it was looking at some pretty horrifying events and having the light bulb go off.  Which led to, “Well shit, no wonder. I never had a chance.”

And without going into too much detail here, there were new realizations about my parents.  Then there was looking at my most recent job and realizing that it had been a put-up job from the day I walked in as a temp until the day I walked out as a no longer employed here type.  Things started slamming into place. And it was scary.

I’ve been following you on Twitter and reposting some of your articles on Facebook, because you speak to me in a way that no woman ever has before.  And that’s valuable to me. I’ve learned a lot from you.

Taking a deep breath, I picked The Geek Feminist Revolution up again, and only put it down when other, more pressing matters demanded my attention.  It made me wish I knew you well enough to take you to dinner and ask you to just tell me stories about your life.  To talk about process, and yeah it sucks to have to have a day job for the insurance, and holy shit I hadn’t realized how bad the sexism is.

There are hard truths in your book.

At my last job there was a week when I had to actually go to my manager and explain to him what being a part of the team and having a voice meant.  The group admin wouldn’t put me on the meeting agenda because I didn’t have Director in my title. She would only do it if my male manager said it was okay.  I was pissed. So pissed I was vibrating. And that I had to explain it several times in very small words just made it worse.

Reading your book gives me such hope.  For the first time in my life, at a time when people are looking forward to retirement, I realize I still have time to make change in my world. I have time to rearrange everything I thought I knew about myself and create a different life for myself.  The life I want is one which tempers my very emotional responses and allows me to reasonably explain to someone why they’re not allowed to take my voice away.

I get to figure this out, and you have motivated me to keep doing that.  To read, and write, for the sheer joy of it. To understand I need a day job for the health insurance benefits, and to pay my bills.  And that all of it’s okay and necessary to survive. My writing can be my night job. It doesn’t have to be a binary choice anymore.

If I could go back in time, I’d tell my middle-school self to keep writing, because writing would keep her happy and sane.  I would insist she not give it up and not worry about what it looked like or sounded like. I would tell her no matter what, do not quit writing, even if it’s just a sentence about how particularly shitty the bullies were that day.  “Keep writing, always,” I would whisper in her ear.

I had so much to heal from, so much to learn, it’s hard to regret it took me this long to realize what I had been keeping from myself.  Reading books like yours help so much, and I don’t know how to tell you what an impact you’ve had.

I close this with an open invitation, if our paths cross at any time, dinner is my treat.  It’s the least I can do, aside from buying your other books and joining your Patreon once I’m gainfully employed again.

Did I say “thank you?”