It’s all a bit much right now. I know you know. Everything is in constant flux as though 2020 is the biggest, twistiest roller coaster morphing at every turn into something worse. Nothing fits any more and all we can do is try to hang on and not fall off.
It’s not easy for me to admit my reading and writing have fallen into an abyss of 2020 proportions. Rectifying it feels Sisyphean. But every once in a while, something happens which drives me to the keyboard, ’cause I gotta share it.
From what I’m reading, ConZealand was an epic cluster of celebrating old white male authors both living and dead. A gross old white man who fancies himself a bestselling author couldn’t be bothered to learn how to pronounce the names of Hugo award finalists, and turned the ceremony into a “let’s talk about me” nightmare. SF/F twitter is pretty lit up about this.
It’s heartbreaking, and infuriating, to hear about this year after year after year. I left fandom once because of the gatekeeping, but I’m back now, and since I don’t give a fuck anymore about what the keepers think they’re doing I’m going to do my thing. This latest fiasco made me decide to work harder on getting my writing jam on and to lift up the really excellent work I consume.
The pain I see from those given such utter disrespect at the Hugos sent me running to FIYAH Literary Magazine screaming, “Take my money!”
Partway through issue #13 and … FIYAH, I’m glad I met you.
Title: Small Days and Nights
Author: Tishani Doshi
Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company
Publisher’s Blurb: A captivating and clear-eyed story of two sisters caught in a moment of transformation, set against the vivid backdrop of modern India.
The protagonist, Grace Marisola, gets dropped into unforeseen circumstances. Understandably, it’s hard to know what to do when recalled from the US to oversee the cremation of her mother, and finding out the family secret is an older sister with Down’s Syndrome who has been institutionalized Grace’s entire life.
But even under those circumstances, plans arise and actions take place. The book suffers from not knowing what it wants because Grace doesn’t know what she wants. Is it divorcing the husband she left behind in the US? Remaking family connections? Taking care of her sister for the rest of her life?
Things happen to Grace, she doesn’t happen to them. There’s no core to her. Small Days and Nights suffers from a sort of malaise. There’s nothing wrong with the book, exactly. Neither is there something right.
I often overthink my reviews as I try to pin down what I want to write about. Lots of books offer plenty of opportunities to dig in and do the analysis I love. Doshi’s book wasn’t one of them.
But I would be remiss if I didn’t write about how her language often captivated me. For instance, “Mornings at the beach can arrive like a whore, in a jangly too tight dress at the end of a long and sleepless night.”Or, “The heat of summer is behind us but the days still feel bedraggled and worn.“
The beauty in that language and those images make promises the book doesn’t live up to.
Title: The Killing Light
Author: Myke Cole
Publisher: Tor.com Publishing
Publisher’s Blurb: Heloise and her allies are marching on the Imperial Capital. The villagers, the Kipti, and the Red Lords are united only in their loyalty to Heloise, though dissenting voices are many and they are loud.
The unstable alliance faces internal conflicts and external strife, yet they’re united in their common goal. But when the first of the devils start pouring through a rent in the veil between worlds, Heloise must strike a bargain with an unlikely ally, or doom her people to death and her world to ruin.
I was provided an Advanced Reader’s Copy by Tor Publishing in exchange for an honest review. Thank you!
“But I am thine Emperor, and the harder the step, the closer it taketh thou unto me. –Writ. Lea. IV.2.” (p. 167)
In The Art of Fiction, John Gardner writes, “The primary subject of fiction is and always has been human emotion, values, and beliefs.” (p. 14) and “The writer must enable us to see and feel vividly what his characters see and feel …” (p. 44)
Any writer who can make the reader feel great anxiety for his characters and drive them to tears in relief has most definitely met the criteria set forth by Gardner. That Myke Cole’s writing kept me fully engaged and emotionally involved says something about the great talent he has for telling a story.
There’s a thread running through The Killing Light about men and how they must be treated by women. Repeatedly a female will say something like, “Everything with men is a great care.” (p. 46)
Heloise was never meant to be and do all the things she does in The Sacred Throne trilogy. She was meant to be a young woman who marries the man her parents have chosen for her and to settle into the role of home keeper, as women in her village have always done.
But we don’t always get to choose the shape our life takes and who we fall in love with. The best we can hope is to be gentle with ourselves when we are tested. This is part of the story Myke Cole tells with Heloise, how she must accept and come to terms with herself, and her evolving beliefs and leadership skills.
Her world is one in which only hetero normative standards are accepted. In Book 1, The Armored Saint, she finds herself in love with her best friend who not only doesn’t reciprocate those feelings, but is horrified by Heloise’s feelings. Shortly after this reveal, Basina is killed and that death haunts Heloise more than anything else through the series.
Cole portrays her struggle with tenderness, and introduces Xilyka from one of the Traveling People clans who join Heloise’s army. Xilyka becomes one of Heloise’s bodyguards, never leaving her side. It is in the most tender moments we see Heloise began to overcome her fear of being a lesbian, and of driving Xilyka away.
In one such scene, Heloise’s father, Samson, has arranged a private place with hot water so Heloise can bathe after many weeks on the battlefield, stuck in the war machine. At this point, the agoraphobic leader trembles in abject terror at leaving the machine which has protected her and allowed her to become the leader she is. Samson the loving father tries to coax her out. Xylika literally rides to the rescue, leading Heloise in her machine behind the screen and bathes her tenderly. Cole does not ignore the sexual tension such a situation would create, but neither does he dwell on it. His deft writing shows us the normality of two people getting to know each other, carefully exploring the beginnings of a physical relationship.
At the other end of the spectrum, there is Onas, a 16-year-old boy from a different Traveling People clan who also becomes bodyguard, and tries to assert his authority over Heloise as potential husband. This does not go well. Heloise is exhausted, she doubts her moral imperative to be leading this fight, is grieving for the many deaths caused in this war, and is in despair over having to re-evaluate the values she was taught about the Emperor and the Order. She literally has no energy to put into this boy’s demands for romance.
Onas keeps pushing. Heloise side steps, telling him when the war is over, she will think about it. He sees what’s going on with Xilyka, which infuriates him and makes him push even harder. Then, the unthinkable happens and Onas’ mother, the leader of his clan, dies in battle. Onas blames Heloise for his mother’s death.
It becomes too much for him to bear when they stumble upon a band of the Order whose leader has killed so many, and Heloise refuses to let anyone kill Brother Tone. She recognizes Tone can provide entrance and information into the Emperor’s city and palace that will prove useful. Onas throws a teenaged temper tantrum and runs off taking other disgruntled fighters with him.
This is not unusual behavior. Boys have been conditioned to believe that their wants and needs take precedence over a girl’s. So it is with Onas and Heloise. Despite the many stupid reasons he throws at her as he storms away, the one he cannot voice is he expected her to fall into his arms and she did not. All logic does not penetrate.
Onas is not the only male in this story who treats her as less than because of her gender. Sir Steven, leader of the Red Army which falls in with Heloise and her villagers, treats her with great disdain both because she is young and, more to the point, a woman. During a council at which he has commanded Heloise attend, she questions him. Obliviously he says, “This is my punishment for taking a council of war with a girl.” That word, that attitude, meant to demean her in the presence of other leaders has exactly the opposite effect. She draws herself up and asserts her authority as the one who has killed a devil and therefore, has more expertise on this subject than Sir Steven.
When they reach the capital city, Steven’s attitude has changed and he treats her as equal. He has seen her leadership grow, witnessed her wisdom. It is her determination to get through, and her insistence on continuing to fight when too many have died and others have given up, which leads Steven to fight more equitably alongside her.
Even Brother Tone who for two books did everything he could to kill Heloise and her village because of her questions regarding the Emperor’s governance comes to accept, and follow, her leadership.
In one of the pivotal scenes of The Killing Light, the reveal literally drives Tone to his knees, and makes him question everything he has ever believed. He becomes vacant and only continues the fight at Heloise’s insistence. His knowledge is the key which will lead to stopping the war between Devils and humankind.
Tone goes from murderous devotee to thoughtful follower, all due to Heloise’s mission to settle things once and for all. Most of the characters, male and female evolve, becoming more self-aware and thoughtful about their actions and the effects those have on the bigger picture.
Teenaged Onas is not completely immune to this, but his maturity will come only through time. Myke Cole’s writing shows he’s attentive to what makes the most sense for the entire cast, including keeping Onas true to his male teenaged arrogance.
The Killing Light is the satisfactory and logical ending to this trilogy. Heloise becomes what she’s destined to become after all the pain and death she’s been witness to. Heloise remains the hero we need for today.
Harold whispered through gritted teeth, “Go back to your desk! Go! Now!” His eyes moved quickly as though watching for danger, face screwed up in fear.
Uh oh. It happened again. Scurrying back to my desk, I put my hands on the computer keyboard and listened. Who was it this time?
Somewhere on my aisle, a phone rang. Heads popped out and made shushing motions. One of the rules was, don’t make noise, she might hear you. And if she heard you … better to not even consider that.
My hands fell into my lap. I squeezed my eyes closed and tried to hold my breath. “Not me, not me, not me,” my mind chittered nervously.
Memories of the last time popped to the surface. I’d barely escaped, tried to cry quietly in the bathroom, great heaving sobs escaping. It was horrible, and every day I dreaded a repeat.
I sniffed. Cigarette smoke? I didn’t know she … oh, that’s not good and it’s not cigarette smoke. Crouching down, I wrapped my arms around my head. I knew everyone else was doing the same thing. Something loud was coming …
My neighbor let out a little squeak. I crawled across the aisle into her cube and we wrapped our arms around each other, trembling in fear. “No, no, no, nonononono …” Opal whispered.
Leaning closer to her, I whispered in her ear, “Whose turn was it this morning?”
A tear rolled down her cheek, “Mine. I got in late, she was here before me …” Her face fell. We were all terrified.
The last person got fired on the spot. The floor around them scorched from the flames coming out of the monster’s nostrils.
As the roar died down, quiet clinking came from the break room. Glass on porcelain. A spoon stirring in liquid. The smell of coffee rose over the smell of sulphur. Who was stupid enough to be in the break room right now?
Then, porcelain on floor tiles. The metal of the spoon moving the liquid. Opal and I put our heads down, our fearful tears mingling as we held our breath.
Quiet. Slurping. Really loud slurping. The sound of heels moving across the floor. The swish of clothing. A collective sigh as we all went back to work.
Title: They: A Biblical Tale of Secret Genders
Author: Janet Mason
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.
They by Janet Mason – Read The Art of Fiction by John Gardner ~ #LitCrit ~ Read Darkness Visible by William Styron The Annotated Alice – annotated by Martin Gardner Shadow Ops: Breach Zone by Myke Cole – Read We Were Eight Years in Power by Ta-Nehisi Coates – read
Author: Toni Morrison
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.
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.
Even more relevant today than when first published, Atwood’s description of a dystopian, Puritanical society with no agency for women chills. My review focuses on the use of Scripture as justification.
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.
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.”
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.
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.