Wednesday, October 23, 2019

SWEET AS CANE, SALTY AS TEARS...Cajun escapee comes Home, hijinks ensue


Open Road Media

$7.99 ereader platforms, available now

Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: A freak accident forces a New Yorker to return to Louisiana and confront her Cajun past

There is nothing more dangerous than a spooked rhinoceros. It is just before lunchtime when Huey, the prized black rhino of Broussard, Louisiana, erupts from his enclosure, trampling a zoo employee on his way to a rampage in the Cajun countryside. The incident makes the rounds online as News of the Weird, and Katherine Fontenot is laughing along with the rest of her New York office when she notices the name of the hurt zookeeper: Karen-Anne Castille—her sister.

Fifty years old, lonely, and in danger of being laid off, Katherine has spent decades trying to ignore her Louisiana roots. Forced home by Karen-Anne’s accident, she remembers everything about the bayou that she wanted to escape: the heat, the mosquitoes, and the constant, crushing embrace of family. But when forced to confront the ghosts of her past, she discovers that escape might never have been necessary.


My Review
: It's funny how The Book for a particular mood will lurk until that moment hits. I needed an undemanding read, one that had nothing to do with the present-day mishegas I find both distasteful and unseemly; I found this book set in Obama-era New York City and central Louisiana. About a funeral, and coming to terms with what family means, what being in a family requires, how it is that Facebook has metastasized across nations and cultures.

Published in 2015, the book follows Katie-Lee, fiftyish and full of the fear that gives single people, as she returns to bury her little sister in the wake of a Facebook-meme-able death. In fact, she finds out about the life-ending from her colleagues at (unnamed but obvious) Advertising Age, their titters and chuckles about a humorous tale of a zookeeper trampled by a rhino morphing into a dreadful reality: That's her baby sister. The shamefaced colleagues try to make it right, but she's already launched the boat onto the Styx.

She has to Go Home. Not a flying visit. The Native has to Return. O frabjous day.

Must be done. She does it. Hijinks ensue; her Louisiana family, of her generation that is, are all au courant with the world as they see it on Facebook, which is a large player in the novel. No political crap yet, as this book was written and published before the 2016 debacle revealed how much influence the platform has over far more than one's personal life. No Instagram, glancing mentions of Twitter, and Katie-Lee's a screen addict whose phone running out of bars is a Biblical-level disaster. She has more in common with the grandkids of her sisters and brother than with them.

She honestly has no idea what to do with her sadness. Facing mortality for the first time is a life-changing experience. I did it in my 20s when the AIDS epidemic decimated the gay guys I knew and loved. I remember the emotions, the detachment from reality that realizing your own death is, inevitably and inexorably, coming closer and closer. Youth is gone in that moment, calendar be hanged. And Katie-Lee's life in Brooklyn isn't such that she's cushioned from the yawning emptiness of survivorhood.

Dig we must, chere.

The healing in this tale is family-wide, and inclusive. The tragedies of the past are present again as they always are at funerals; so are the fun memories that inject themselves into the geology of one's life. People whose acts are literally unforgivable are not forgiven, though that day will clearly come. But the truly unforgivable ones are the least likely to see themselves as needing forgiveness. THAT resonated. Author Wheaton nailed that. But he did so in a format, following a structure, and thus made sure the Lesson isn't A Sermon (and he includes one of those, a real dilly of a tone-deaf nightmare-from-Hell one at that) and moves on to the next laugh.

There's the rub. This is a nightclub act written as a book. These moments are Wheaton's Brooklyn party pieces connected into a gender-swapped story to make them cohesive. (In fact, Katie-Lee's ex Howie sounds to me like Wheaton's ex only maybe not gender-swapped, if you take my meaning.) They're not less real or funny for that, but the structure of the book does nothing to hide this fact from knowing eyes. I'm from South Central Texas, I had a mamaw and she was transplanted Cajun stock, and in the days when I had party pieces, they fit together much the same way as Wheaton's do. So my eyes weren't fogged up but rather cleared by reading the present action-memory-lesson structure.

I hurry to remind y'all that 3-1/2 stars is a positive rating. I'm not trying to blast the author; in fact I liked the rhythm, was comfortably on board with the predictability of it, and felt completely relaxed and happy and at home. Nothing much happens. No excitement apart from a funeral games scene that about popped my eyeballs out from trying not to wake my roomie up from the laughing.

So do I recommend this read? Sure, so long as you're a storytelling-voice addict. It's $8 on your ereader and that's not a lot to spend on four or five hours' vacation without moving. But if you're not in the mood to listen to stories, this will not be a successful trip to Opelousas. (Where Mamaw's family came from! Now, I don't *know* that any Tullises married any Wheatons, but I bet if we....)

Sunday, October 20, 2019

FLAMES, Tasmanian debut author Robbie Arnott's full-tilt dive into magical realism, is a must-read!


Text Publishing
$8.99 ebook platforms, $15.95 trade paper, available now

The Publisher Says: ‘A strange and joyous marvel.’ Richard Flanagan

A young man named Levi McAllister decides to build a coffin for his twenty-three-year-old sister, Charlotte—who promptly runs for her life. A water rat swims upriver in quest of the cloud god. A fisherman named Karl hunts for tuna in partnership with a seal. And a father takes form from fire.

The answers to these riddles are to be found in this tale of grief and love and the bonds of family, tracing a journey across the southern island that takes us full circle.

Flames sings out with joy and sadness. Utterly original in conception, spellbinding in its descriptions of nature and its celebration of the power of language, it announces the arrival of a thrilling new voice in contemporary fiction.

Robbie Arnott was born in Launceston in 1989. His writing has appeared in Island, the Lifted Brow, Kill Your Darlings and the 2017 anthology Seven Stories. He won the 2015 Tasmanian Young Writers’ Fellowship and the 2014 Scribe Nonfiction Prize for Young Writers. Robbie lives in Hobart and is an advertising copywriter.

My Review: I'm sure anyone reading my reviews knows of The Guardian's marvelous ten-year-old "Not-the-Booker" crowd-sourced literary prize. I learned of Flames's existence from the ginormous user-generated longlist for this year's jousting match. It looked intriguing, but the contest review sold me, being by Guardian reading-group, literary-link curator Sam Jordison...who also happens to be the co-director of Galley Beggar Press, the 2019 Booker Prize-unwinner Ducks, Newburyport's original publisher. So he's got strong literary chi. I trusted him; I took a leap of faith; I was amply rewarded.

This lovely debut novel from a small-yet-mighty Australian publishing house was a delight to me from the moment I met Karl and his seal. Karl fishes off the northern coast of Tasmania, that deep-southern island state of Australia, the last significant spot of land between Antarctica and the world. His seal, like Lyra's daemon in His Dark Materials, is connected to Karl's very essence and forms a large part of Karl's self—both image and awareness. Their "Oneblood tuna" prey, the giant and preternaturally perfect piscine predators found only in the Bass Strait (this is never stated but is implicit in the constant Japanese tuna-buyers' presence), bring in huge amounts of money from sushi-mad Japanese consumers through their local Tasmanian agents. Karl supports his family, his seal included, on the proceeds of their hunts. His bond with his seal is, however, the source of his undoing. His seal, being but a seal, is not immortal and falls to a hungry orca before Karl's appalled and helpless eyes and ears:
Karl tried to forget that clicking sound. But it was lodged in a hole between his ears, a backdrop to his days that he feared and hated but could not escape. He was reminded of it constantly: when a light switch was flicked, when Louise clicked her fingers, when his leaping daughters clicked their heels, when Sharon at the fish-and-chip shop clicked her tongue against the roof of her mouth as she waited for the oil in the deep fryer to heat up.
There is no magical cure here. Not even for the cruel soulkiller PTSD.

Already, in the first twenty-five pages of the book, the magic of Tasmania's lands and waters bears the reader's weight. "How does a fisherman become the partner of his competitor the seal?" wonders the Western materialist tapping the touchscreen to deliver the next jolt of story-junk to his addict's brain. In these first pages, we're tossed into a magical world where dying mothers (if they're McAllisters) are cremated, return to life as themselves melded with ferny forest glens before recombusting, which thereafter somehow gives the grieving son the clarity to think, "Everyone dies, even when they’re reincarnated;" where the son, who is also a brother, encounters the maimed soul of Karl for a prelude to one of the novel's truly bizarre, and bizarrely perfect, themes, death as an almost-silent character in the weird, winding path the Tasmanian humans tread:
Levi. And then, as if his surname was an afterthought: McAllister. He...ran his hand through his hair. Everything’s fine.
The name bumped around between Karl’s ears where the clicks usually lived. I’m sorry.
(Be aware that this story is dialogue-light, and such dialogue as there is is italicized as well as unattributed; this could present a problem for some traditionally inclined readers.) This is a crucial moment, but how is the reader to know it? Trusting the newb of an author to put this scene, with its awkward Manly Emotions Inadequately Expressed, in this precise place at this exact juncture is a big ask. I sat a moment after reading this, aware that the expression of sympathy in "I'm sorry" wasn't connected to anything in Levi's head, and the idea of a McAllister wasn't connected to anything in Karl's head (yet); and yet this is a deep and important scene in the book, said my spidey senses. What, why, how?

I love that. Author Arnott didn't tell me! No rookie mistake of hand-holding me through the significance of Levi's peculiar purpose...gathering driftwood for a coffin, a wooden receptacle for much of the meaning in this book...and Karl's peculiar and solitary presence on this beach at this moment. I am left with the deeply experienced reader's tingle in the presence of Momentousness; I am left with a king-sized curiosity bump itching like mad; but I am left and the story moves on.

Levi wants something. (More than the proverbial glass of water, for sure.) He can't really be anything other than an authorial self-portrait because no one else would receive an assessment as cruel as, "Tweaky voice, even though his words were smooth. Like his private-school manners were paved over something that had cracked," unless it was a self-assessment. He wants to control a world he can not comprehend. Levi wants to make the world behave, be orderly, not abandon him as he feels his father did, as he now feels his recombusted mother did; as his sister, whose death will result in her resurrection and recombustion because she's a McAllister woman, has when she discovered Levi was making her a coffin. He loves them all; they all leave him; where's the love in that?
Levi is reminding himself of his resolve: to show Charlotte that she wasn’t condemned to rise again, changed and ghastly, after she died. That her life needn’t end twice. That she needn’t suffer the same fate as their mother. That he had sourced this calming coffin for her and her alone; that in the face of their sorrow he had gone to great lengths to have it built; that he couldn’t go another day knowing she was in such pain; that he cared for her this much; that he loved her more than he could ever show with words; that the coffin represented all this.
Levi is not well. Levi is not realising: he could have just spoken to her. In a mind like his, grand acts will always trump honest words.
Levi is, I fear, the very saddest and least likely to be redeemed of the people in the story. Or so we're led carefully to believe.

Now meet Allen, the wombat tenant-farmer, decades among the wombats protecting and caring for them, that they might be turned into pelts. (This somewhat odd-to-non-Tasmanians idea is more suggested than explained.) Allen is a true lover of the deepest South this southernmost tip of Australia has to offer. His helpless adoration for the land is the occasion of some truly lush description:
I cannot bear the thought of being taken away from the farm.... If the wombats are my family, then this place is my home. Its undulating moorlands of peat and buttongrass; the glints of white quartzite that blink on the mountain caps; the cold, clean welcome of its unbroken sky; the harsh cliffs and tea-coloured waters; the gathering sense of wild solitude that breathes out of every crack in the land. I cannot go back to the flat brown farms of the Midlands, or the over lush dairy pastures of the northwest.
The source of his reverie is anxiety, however, a deep and well-grounded fear that the farm owner will dispense with him when he finally builds up the nerve to describe to her the horrible fate that's begun to befall the wombats in his decades-long care. He's no longer caring for them alone, though.

Karl's daughter Nicola, training as a veterinarian, has come to the farm for work experience; she has established herself with Allen, a taciturn man, as trustworthy and useful. Now Charlotte McAllister arrives, aflutter with the fear of her brother the coffin-procuring weirdo following and finding her. The women are deeply affected by the mysterious wombat deaths, as one would expect. Allen is affected as well, though with time his need for the women's help and his desire to husband the wombats as a farmer is curdling, changing him into a fearsome figure and an angry old man:
Each morning I march off, gun in hand and knife in belt, as their eyes follow me filled with what looks more and more like fear. It is futile, feminine softness, and nothing more.
I watched {the wombats} lumber towards her, four-legged lumps of uselessness made flesh, and realised that I hated them, that I must always have hated them, that I had been lying to myself for all the long years I have been trapped in this barren southern hell.
Action is required; the women take it. Events swirl out of control, Allen transmogrifies into an avatar of rage and hatred unique to this one place in the world. His final acts of fury and aggression cause a shocking change to come over Charlotte: She finds in herself her mother's fierce power to burn. Only she finds it before she dies, and she finds it as a defensive weapon against old Allen.

This is the beginning of the most intense, most magical passage in the novel: The search of Charlotte for control over her power to burn. Nicola is the only person who can quench Charlotte's fire. She gentles the rage and softens the heat in her friend (not feeling it as unusual that she has this heat...maybe because of her own father Karl's seal-mate?), and takes Charlotte to a place where she cannot cause accidental damage to the world around her. She drives them to the Northern mountains, a beautiful snowy stony world where her father's Japanese tuna-buying friend has a stone-built home. Perfect! It's too cold for vacationing friends to want to be there; Australian snow-tourists aren't going to know where it is. Of course they have all the comforts...the flammable comforts...of home:
Nicola turned back to Charlotte, looking harder through the darkness, and saw a thin blue trail worming out of her ear. It had reached the cushion beside her head—a wispy, plasticky stream of it, rising up into the cabin. As Nicola scrambled towards Charlotte the smoking patch of cushion erupted into a small blue flame. With one hand she smacked it out, and with the other she rested a palm on Charlotte’s hot cheek.
Through her palm she again felt the pulse of flame from within Charlotte’s body. Again she felt it flicker out. She felt the burn in her stomach, hot and red, and knew she’d doused the fire. Again she didn’t want to let go.
Charlotte learns slowly to control the flames of her combustive power. Nicola continues to gentle her rage and bank her fires; they become (inevitably) lovers. And it is at this point that the novel shows how much it is a first novel, one by a man.

Women connected in intimacy must, of course, be sexually involved. If/then, right? No. Not that cut-and-dried, but that is where men go with it. To be fair, that's where men go with it among their own kind as well. I can think of few truly intimate friendships between men in male-authored stories. More often than not they are hidden rivalries or become sexual relationships. Still, it's not as though the issue is handled pruriently. We're not treated to much more than a kiss and some hand-holdings between the ladies.

Also not very deft is the handling of the female private detective whose presence in the narrative is to give us a reason to go on the road while she tries to find Charlotte. She's the device used to deal with an unwoven plot thread about another of Tasmania's many nature gods. A human causes the death of the animal-formed Esk God in his own river. That certainly can't go unanswered. The tough-as-nails prick-teasing ball-buster P.I. stereotype is launched to give these two strands a fast stitch. Her own story of having a strong physical sixth sense is shorted, as it must be unless the book is to be as long as the Bible. Suffice to say she serves her dual purpose, then goes quietly away. In fact, she was underused. Her role, larger and less broad-stroked, could've bridged the super- and the natural worlds. Missed opportunity, that.

It is also at this point in the narrative, the point where Charlotte and Nicola are together and dealing with the weirdness of Tasmania's hyperaware supernatural world, when we discover Charlotte's ancestral connection to fire. I won't spoil it. It's one of the lyrical joys of the book. At last we bring all the narrative strands together. Charlotte and Levi each learn how to speak their truths to each other; Nicola learns that her life's bonds are strong enough to bear the weight of multitudes; Levi, in a unexpected and amazing volte-face, learns his rudderless life's purpose. And it is Karl, at Nicola's behest, who weaves this into another strand between Charlotte's McAllister firey world and Nicola's seas and snows. It is exactly right.

The few issues above set aside, I'm left delighting in the sheer beauty of the language and the vigorous imagination that gave the magic of Tasmania a voice at last. This is what makes Flames a full five-star read. Earlier I mentioned the moment I knew when the threads of these disparate stories began to merge, that initial knowledge of Momentous Doings taking place. The full fruition of that sense came when the supernatural and natural worlds collided with all the force and all the passion of the stories told up to now; the resolution was revealed, the purpose of these journeys was enunciated:
A cloud’s sorrow: you cannot imagine it. But you can feel it, whenever a storm hits the world with uncommon force. When mountains crack and forests flood. When rivers surge and oceans bloat. When there is no true shelter left in the world. For the hardest storms are made of sorrow.
Sadness and sorrow powered the trip. The destination, left a bit in shadow, is as simple and as difficult as:
It had something to do with attraction...and kindness and care and devotion. A true kind of love was in itself a version of what he knew best: it was a purpose.

Saturday, October 19, 2019

THE LAST CONVERSATION and RANDOMIZE, fifth and sixth Forward Collection stories


Amazon Original Stories
$1.99 Kindle edition, or available through PrimeReads for no fee

Rating: 5* of five

The Publisher Says: What’s more frightening: Not knowing who you are? Or finding out? A Bram Stoker Award–winning author explores the answer in a chilling story about identity and human consciousness.

Imagine you’ve woken up in an unfamiliar room with no memory of who you are, how you got there, or where you were before. All you have is the disconnected voice of an attentive caretaker. Dr. Kuhn is there to help you—physically, emotionally, and psychologically. She’ll help you remember everything. She’ll make sure you reclaim your lost identity. Now answer one question: Are you sure you want to?

Paul Tremblay’s The Last Conversation is part of Forward, a collection of six stories of the near and far future from out-of-this-world authors. Each piece can be read or listened to in a single thought-provoking sitting.

My Review: I'm a little...shall we say...testy about this one. Yep. That's le mot juste. Tremblay toyed with me.

"Dear" Paul Tremblay,

I've just finished THE LAST CONVERSATION. I loathe second-person chest-pokey, so accusatory...but this story made me leak tears and gasp for breath and I do not ever want to be that lonely and how did you do that in spite of thumping my nose for 60 pages?

Five stars. Bastard.


Read it for this concept alone:
To forget is to lose something that was once yours, that was once of yourself. But how could one lose something as expansive as an ocean in a dusty corner of one’s mind? What if, instead, to forget is to open a door to a void; the memory is not retrievable because it is not there, was never there.



Amazon Original Stories
$1.99 Kindle edition, or available through PrimeReads for no fee

Rating: 4.25* of five

The Publisher Says: In the near future, if Vegas games are ingeniously scam-proof, then the heists have to be too, in this imaginative and whip-smart story by the New York Times bestselling author of The Martian.

An IT whiz at the Babylon Casino is enlisted to upgrade security for the game of keno and its random-number generator. The new quantum computer system is foolproof. But someone on the inside is no fool. For once the odds may not favor the house—unless human ingenuity isn’t entirely a thing of the past.

Andy Weir’s Randomize is part of Forward, a collection of six stories of the near and far future from out-of-this-world authors. Each piece can be read or listened to in a single thought-provoking sitting.

My Review: I do so love a heist story with a happy ending. Like, a lot. *happy sigh*

And when the crisis came, I found myself thinking, "howinahell could {the sleazeball character} say no?" Luckily no was not said.

But a character whose soul could encompass evil such as this:
Ill-fitting jeans, a T-shirt with a Star Wars reference on it (or maybe Star Trek—Rutledge could never tell the difference), tennis shoes, and absolutely no effort put into controlling his wild hair.
Evil. Darkest-pit-of-Hell evil.

But this, this, uncultured OAF without a sensibility in its blob, I mean body, is the vector for a happy ending?! That was a surprise.

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

YOU HAVE ARRIVED AT YOUR DESTINATION, fourth and weakest of the Forward Collection

(Forward #4)
Amazon Original Stories
$1.99 Kindle edition, available now, or through PrimeReads for no fee

Rating: 2.5* of five

The Publisher Says: Nature or nurture? Neither. Discover a bold new way to raise a child in this unsettling story of the near future by the New York Times bestselling author of A Gentleman in Moscow.

When Sam’s wife first tells him about Vitek, a twenty-first-century fertility lab, he sees it as the natural next step in trying to help their future child get a “leg up” in a competitive world. But the more Sam considers the lives that his child could lead, the more he begins to question his own relationships and the choices he has made in his life.

Amor Towles’s You Have Arrived at Your Destination is part of Forward, a collection of six stories of the near and far future from out-of-this-world authors. Each piece can be read or listened to in a single thought-provoking sitting.

My Review: This is one of the Forward Collection, short stories...this one's 46pp...based on an idea by Blake Crouch to explore the nature of change, innovation, and society in fiction. I didn't feel this entry suited the brief. It's too gee-whiz about self-driving cars, a thing that's already entered its second decade of's entirely too wowee-toledo about the idea of in vitro genetic manipulation, something that's basically ready to roll as soon as a generation less squeamish than our kids' is grows into power...and his lumpen over-the-bottom classist narrator/narrative frame was, frankly, eye-rollingly ridiculous.

Man finds his balls in a dive bar? What is this, 1959? And excuse me, 1959, the wife of Sam has a name...Annie...which we are told multiple times, yet it doesn't merit a mention in the blurb? What is this nonsense? That depressingly unremarkable bit of sexism aside, the fact that Towles drops three w-bombs should've been enough to warn me this wasn't aimed at someone of my tastes.

I have arrived at my conclusion: Towles and I will not be deepening our reader/writer acquaintance. This blah little mash-up of Babbitt and We Can Remember It for You Wholesale annoyed me from giddy-up to whoa. HT the gung-ho business lad/cliche generator, Nick the slow-to-anger wise old barkeep, and goddesses please forfend Sam the dull PoV placeholder...can't in good conscience call him a "main character"...were just not engaging or interesting or well-limned or even particularly readable.

I tried the Moscow one. I even scudded through part of the Civility one. This far and no farther.

Saturday, October 12, 2019

EMERGENCY SKIN, third of Amazon's Forward series of short fiction, a tale of what "woke"ness means

(Forward #3)
Amazon Original Stories
$1.99 Kindle edition, FREE for Prime members

Rating: 4.75* of five

The Publisher Says: What will become of our self-destructed planet? The answer shatters all expectations in this subversive speculation from the Hugo Award–winning author of the Broken Earth trilogy.

An explorer returns to gather information from a climate-ravaged Earth that his ancestors, and others among the planet’s finest, fled centuries ago. The mission comes with a warning: a graveyard world awaits him. But so do those left behind—hopeless and unbeautiful wastes of humanity who should have died out eons ago. After all this time, there’s no telling how they’ve devolved. Steel yourself, soldier. Get in. Get out. And try not to stare.

N. K. Jemisin’s Emergency Skin is part of Forward, a collection of six stories of the near and far future from out-of-this-world authors. Each piece can be read or listened to in a single thought-provoking sitting.


My Review
: The voice you hear in your head, you know the one that tells you how awful/bad/ugly/unworthy you are compared to...well...I guess that's a moving target, isn't it...takes on a special and especially malevolent life in this tale of what a low-class raider from one of Earth's long-gone colonies finds when the Mothership of Humanity is in its sights at last. There is an AI in the slave being's head narrating the Founders' take on what was Earth (they use the name Tellus for the planet, just go look at the storytelling sources for that term!) in its final death-agonies:
There were just too many people, and too many of those were unfit, infirm, too old, or too young. Even the physically ideal ones were slow thinkers, timid spirits. There was not enough collective innovation or strength of will between them to solve the problems Tellus faced, and so we did the only merciful thing we could: we left them behind.
The Founders, a few thousand of the most awful amoral greedy rotters the Earth is infested with, have made it off-planet and engineered a perfect slave economy. All the slaves are, well, cyborgs is the best word I've got for them; they are promised the gift of SKIN when they complete their raid of Earth's supplies of HeLa cells that the Founders need to make themselves immortal. Skin. A gift. A reward for being the obedient little slave who brings home what she can't have so her masters the Founders, ordinary human skin, the natural interface between us and the world, the very idea that this is a reward:
If you complete this mission, you’ll be a hero. Why would we refuse you what you’re due?
The narrative voice of the AI programmed by the Founders to keep their slave obedient and unquestioning spouts casuistries thus. The reward of skin, of being like the Founders, is at last causing the slave to question, to wonder why the Founders would keep their word.

At last!

The chattering horror of the AI's minatory, judgmental view of the Earth's inhabitants, those who were left behind as the Founders left and who the slave has been told are degenerate savages left to wallow in a broken, terrible world devastated by the Founders themselves for their own selfish benefit:
The Founders were the geniuses, the makers who moved nations with a word. We left because it would’ve cost too much to fix the world. Cheaper to build a new one.
At home, we maintain only as many people as we can safely sustain: six thousand total, including servi and mercennarii.
Only a few can have everything, don’t you see?
...and, the slave begins to wonder, what would make those who see the world in these terms offer membership in the literally immortal elite to a slave...

So the story wends its way from the slave's enbedded AI spouting awful stuff into the slave's unquestioning self to oversharing just enough to cause a cloud of suspicion to form to...well. That would be telling.

While this story is not subtle in making its points and drawing its thick, ruler-straight lines between the ideas it wants you to absorb, it is a fun and funny take on what "staying woke" really means. It is no wonder that the whiny Founders left today's incels and race warriors to die in their waste products. One would need to be of unusual dimness not to see the truth of Author Jemisin's comedically exaggerated points.

I take a quarter-point off for her one narrative infelicity: the AI only responds, and never do we hear the thought the slave creature formulates. It creates an unnecessary and slightly if increasingly unpleasant sense of being thwacked on the nose in order to be kept in line by an untrusting author. Presenting the subordinate being itself speaking, even if internally, causing the AI's addresses to us the readers to fit into a responsive mode instead of a hectoring one, would lessen that "THINK THIS NOW" sensation. I find its absence of subtlety undesirable; it can, when overused, make the brevity it allows the author to maintain to become more a kind of cursory-ness. "I won't fill in this shaded area, I will make it impossible to see it instead."

It suits the story in many ways. The reader is not persuaded but instructed exactly as the slave is. But Author Jemisin is a far, far superior craftsperson to need to rely on that level of didacticism to create the urgent, and urgently needed, message of this screed against greed.

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

SUMMER FROST, second of six stories in the Forward series, this one written by Blake Crouch whose series this is

(Forward #2)
Amazon Original Stories
FREE with Prime membership (which also includes FREE Audible narration!) or $1.99 to purchase

Rating: 4.75* of five

The Publisher Says: A video game developer becomes obsessed with a willful character in her new project, in a mind-bending exploration of what it means to be human by the New York Times bestselling author of Recursion.

Maxine was made to do one thing: die. Except the minor non-player character in the world Riley is building makes her own impossible decision—veering wildly off course and exploring the boundaries of the map. When the curious Riley extracts her code for closer examination, an emotional relationship develops between them. Soon Riley has all new plans for her spontaneous AI, including bringing Max into the real world. But what if Max has real-world plans of her own?

Blake Crouch’s Summer Frost is part of Forward, a collection of six stories of the near and far future from out-of-this-world authors. Each piece can be read or listened to in a single thought-provoking sitting.


My Review
: Major chills and creeped out skeeviness. What happens when someone lets their work take over every corner of their life? How lost to the essential quality that makes a human life worth living does one become? The tech industry has the reputation of making this choice for its many cogs, turning their little bit of code into a complete and entire existence.

Multiply that by a billion. Make the stakes the survival of humankind. And then let Blake Crouch loose on it.
“There is no such thing as real taste or real smell or even real sight, because there is no true definition of ‘real.’ There is only information, viewed subjectively, which is allowed by consciousness—human or AI. In the end, all we have is math.”
An AI speaks those words, an AI whose first steps toward superintelligence...the Singularity...are made being shepherded by a woman who gives up her wife, her child, and her sanity to make Pinocchio a real boy, to imbue Galatea with what we imagine to be consciousness, even a soul.

But what does AI want?
"...I mean, do you even know what consciousness is?” {Riley, the human asking this}
“I know it isn’t just a biological condition. I believe it’s a pattern. An extensible repertoire of triggerable symbols. More specifically, it’s what information feels like when it’s being processed in highly complex—” {Max the AI responds}
“Again—how do I know you aren’t faking it?”
How do any of us know we're conscious? Can you prove you're You, not some assortment of algorithmically determined actions? I couldn't, neither could you. And when that really sinks in, when the whole deepfake of life spreads itself in a heavy blanket over your vision, you'll realize how very very very timely this story is.

How many questions you should be asking yourself about events transpiring in front of your eyes.

Because an AI just made a human choice:
It represents a willingness to risk death for a better existence, out from under {anyone}’s control, and a massive leap forward in their reasoning capabilities.
To risk death for a better world is the *very*essence* of being human. I am totally sure of that, I believe that without reservation...but will we ever agree on what the future we want to make is?
We will be so happy.
Rays of sunlight pierce the mist, striking the sea and our black-sand beach.
And together we will live forever.
I don't expect to sleep at all well anytime soon.

Sunday, October 6, 2019

ARK, first of six hour-long reads in the Forward series from Amazon Original Stories

(Forward #1)
Amazon Original Stories
FREE with Prime membership (includes FREE Audible narration!) or $1.99 to purchase

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: On the eve of Earth’s destruction, a young scientist discovers something too precious to lose, in a story of cataclysm and hope by the #1 New York Times bestselling author of the Divergent trilogy.

It’s only two weeks before an asteroid turns home to dust. Though most of Earth has already been evacuated, it’s Samantha’s job to catalog plant samples for the survivors’ unknowable journey beyond.

Preparing to stay behind and watch the world end, she makes a final human connection.

As certain doom hurtles nearer, the unexpected and beautiful potential for the future begins to flower.

Veronica Roth’s Ark is part of Forward, a collection of six stories of the near and far future from out-of-this-world authors. Each piece can be read or listened to in a single thought-provoking sitting.


My Review
: The Svalbard Global Seed Vault is a very real thing, one that I am a bit surprised's so logical, so self-evidently necessary a thing that I'm amazed some religious nut or another hasn't blown it up...and has existed in differing forms since 1984. If there is to be any smallest hope of survival for humanity, this type of gene bank/seed collection/research project must exist and be replicated many, many times over. Blessedly, the Nordic countries and Kew Gardens in the UK are making this global movement happen. I personally thank them for this difficult, contentious, and urgent task being done to benefit all of humankind.

Author Roth, whose Divergent series was not to my personal taste, is a skilled phrasemaker and a keen observer of Life. I was utterly transported to Svalbard, brought *right*there* by this stellar phrase:
The land had glowed blue—beautiful in the way that a Rothko painting was beautiful, because it was empty enough to shrink a person and then swallow them.
Two things I adore—Arctic landscapes and Rothko paintings—brought together in a way I'd never so much as dreamed was possible. I treasure moments of discovery like this, they make mental furniture fresh and interesting again by unexpected interrelationships.

Samantha, whose world was always going to be destroyed in her lifetime by the irresistible force of a five-mile-wide asteroid Author Roth (or series creator Blake Crouch, I don't know for sure which) named "Finis" (Latin for "end" and the title of a much-anthologized story from a 1906 issue of The Argosy magazine) meeting the Earth's crust, is an ultimate orphan...her family all well as a detail-oriented and thorough person. Perfect type to have working on this program, like she was designed for it:
So maybe {her father} had been apologizing for giving her life in the first place, when he knew it would be full of dread. She wished she could have told him that life was already full of dread, no matter who you were. That there was nothing you could have that you couldn’t one day lose.
She volunteers to remain in Svalbard cataloging germ plasm samples for inclusion in the Ark Flora's hold. This is it, you see, these last few items from the seed bank represent the final species on Old Earth to make the deep-space voyage to Terra, our new home. Samantha, however, is holding a secret: She has decided she ain't a-goin' since, if she stays, she will have the one and only chance anyone will ever have to experience first-hand the end of the world. The *actual* end of the world. Someone without close ties can make that decision for themself, no one really can argue...and since she hasn't shared the plan, no one will.


Doctor Nils Hagen, an eminent widowed scientist, is like Samantha. He's not interested in a space voyage he won't live to see the end of; he'll die here in his greenhouse full of the orchids he so passionately loves. In Svalbard. Not far from the North Pole. Privileged much, Nils? He's lost his will to live with his wife's death, and Samantha relates to his desire to see the end of something we all thought should be eternal: Home. After all, what use is a future without your love in it? His wife gone, his orchids dying in Svalbard as the sun goes out for a generation or two; nothing on an Ark for the likes of his old-man ass.

Samantha isn't old enough to know that the question, "what's your favorite...", isn't one old people care to answer. How the hell can you, brash young pup, even begin to scrape the frost from the corner of the windowpane that we've allowed to frost over so long ago that glass was a novelty item? If we tell you something, anything at all, you still won't know what you're asking: "Look at everything you've ever done and thought and felt about this thing, sort through the Alp of memories, and spit some pat, facile phrase into the whippersnapper's ear. Maybe she'll quieten down then." Nils tries an old stand-by: "I don't have a favorite. I love them all equally."
“You just can’t—and if you did, then it’s the same as loving nothing at all. So you have to hold just a few things dear, because that’s what love is. Particular. Specific.”
Smart, this one. Saw through that "hush now, little one" response in a heartbeat!

So a friendship begins. And so Nils, with so many ideas and so much information, begins to let Samantha see what truly happens when The End has a date on it, how life lived becomes A Life, how meaningless nothings are, in fact, everything as well, and how utterly impossible it is to see The End without also seeing In The Beginning clear as sunlight on water in, on, over, above, around it.

When the student is ready, the teacher will come.

Thursday, October 3, 2019

NIGHT BOAT TO TANGIER, apples never fall far from trees now do they? Shortlisted for the 2019 Booker Prize


$25.95 hardcover, available now

Rating: 4.5* of five

The Publisher Says: In the dark waiting room of the ferry terminal in the sketchy Spanish port of Algeciras, two aging Irishmen — Maurice Hearne and Charlie Redmond, longtime partners in the lucrative and dangerous enterprise of smuggling drugs — sit at night, none too patiently. It is October 23, 2018, and they are expecting Maurice’s estranged daughter (or is she?), Dilly, to either arrive on a boat coming from Tangier or depart on one heading there. This nocturnal vigil will initiate an extraordinary journey back in time to excavate their shared history of violence, romance, mutual betrayals and serial exiles, rendered with the dark humor and the hardboiled Hibernian lyricism that have made Kevin Barry one of the most striking and admired fiction writers at work today.


My Review
: Sunsets are biblical, nighttime flowers are dull amethysts, quiet rubies...a tiny, sultana-faced man in lilac slacks and a blazer beneath a pompadour appears, to no story affect...London's bones limned against weak and apologetic light...this is a beautiful read.

The story is horrible, two men...Maurice and Charlie...whose love of their loucheness and their criminality and their addictions, their love for each other that excludes all the women they adore so helplessly and whose lives they casually, violently ruin, seek their daughter.

No. They aren't gay. The woman they both adored for a time had a baby and, well, who knows whose she really is.

Their awfulness is, in their fiftysomething selves, incredible and unforgivable. Their time in the Bughouse... smoky-grey brick Victoriana carrying the misery of three centuries...detoxing from heroin addiction is not enough to make the difference in their shared past. Their shared room, twin beds, no hint of physical intimacy they're Irish fagawdsake. No one in this book touches except for fucking or killing. People die, have died rather; these men haven't but they know they will. Soonish.

But they are themselves to the end. Does one wonder that Dilly, the desperately sought daughter, left and doesn't wish to be found? One does not. But neither does one feel their hunger to see her again, their desperate desire to connect to Life, is out of character. The way they seek to accomplish that connection is both toxic and perfect. They only know each other in this world. They came to do this desperate thing together. They'll leave together, they'll make whatever there is to be made of breathing after life is over.

I will be a bit let down if this book does not win the 2019 Booker in twelve days. No, strike that, I'll be jawdroppingly stunned and not a little pissed off. Beautiful, poetic, smooth phrases telling hideous, deforming agonies in stertorously breathed oxygen-poor oceans of wreckage aren't common and neither should they be. A diet of these stories would put me in the Bughouse to breathe the smoky-grey brickdust of bygone agonies.

But when they appear these highly luminescent scimitars, curved to the reader's psychic throat, should get the fearful praise and nervous acknowledgment that Charlie and Maurice have always commanded.

Wednesday, October 2, 2019

DEATH AT THE BEGGAR'S OPERA, second John Rawlings the Apothecary mystery

(John Rawlings #2) Review of #1 is here.
Endeavour Media
$2.99 Kindle edition, available now

Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: John Rawlings is among the beau monde enjoying a performance of ‘The Beggar’s Opera’ in Drury Lane when the leading actor – the notorious philanderer Jasper Harcross – dramatically falls to his death on stage. As Rawlings and the Blind Beak hunt for vital clues, they discover a hotbed of rivalry both on and off the stage which produces numerous suspects and questions.

As the search takes on a new intensity, John Rawlings soon finds himself on an intriguing trail of obsession that leads to the dark heart of a cold-blooded murder.

My Review: I wasn't expecting the solution to this murder. I could see how it was prefigured, though not exactly in line with generally accepted ideas of "fair play"...the Apothecary sees something we don't and *flash* into focus comes the solution, a very Dame-Agatha thing to I'm actually more, not less, interested in reading the third book. Also of great appeal and interest to me are the sensory parts of the story: the sights of a London where Kensington is a country town, the Lincoln's Inn Fields were actually fields, there were houses on Pall Mall, there was a "Chelsea Bun House" for real, all these are delicious to me.

I'm sure the twee use of job titles as character labels is to some tastes, but "the Apothecary," "the Blind Beak," et alii, aren't delightful to me. I accept them as attempts at whimsical charm; backfire in my ears, though.

I had a suspect all fitted up for the murder, and was quite sure I was right. (Look at all my Goodreads Kindle notes marked "spoiler" (membership required, but free) if you want to see my logic.) I enjoy it when authors catch me out like that, it makes me really think about why I was so sure before the reveal that X is guilty, and that means going back over the whole puzzle to see what I missed. For this seasoned citizen, anything surprising in a puzzle is a Good Thing.

I am quite hesitant to do so, though, because there are SIX w-bombs dropped *shudder* and there is more, though less offensive by a slight hair, homophobic idiocy present. There's a bog-standard heteronormative locution about red-blooded males lusting after women; but there's this gem of genuine, deeply felt venom:
‘D’you have some verdigris for my face paint?’ asked an emasculated nothing, waving a handkerchief stiff with powder.
The 1990s were quite some time ago, and that's when Deryn Lake wrote these books. But I was a thritysomething all the decade long, and I know of my own personal knowledge that this kind of effeminacy-baiting was frowned on even then. Period appropriate arguments are null and void: This book wasn't written in Georgian England. It was written in the sad, bad barely-post-Thatcher era. This nastiness, present in the first book as well, is a choice made by a modern person to use nasty, insulting language about people the author clearly doesn't like.

So that third book will wait to enter my Kindle until I have some utterly uncommitted money (so no earlier than after the 2020 elections, I give all my uncommitted money to the campaign I support until then), or someone gifts it to me. I don't like this trend. I disapprove of the sneering nastiness of homophobia. I'm not sure I won't see it again...actually, if I'm honest, I am pretty sure that I will see it I don't want to give the person who's sneering at me and mine any more of my money.

My eyeblinks, I'll risk again. Barely.

Monday, September 30, 2019

THE LICE, fiftieth anniversary edition of Merwin's major 1960s collection, via Copper Canyon Press

The Lice: Poems
W.S. Merwin

Copper Canyon Press
$15.00 trade paper, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: This Fiftieth Anniversary edition celebrates one of the most ground-breaking books in American poetry. When first published in 1967, W.S. Merwin’s The Lice was ground-breaking. Its visionary urgency directly engaged the nexus of aesthetics and morality, exerting an immediate and lasting effect on the writing and reading of poetry. Like all great art, this monumental work continues to inspire.

As Merwin discussed in an interview, “The Lice was written at a time when I really felt there was no point in writing. I got to the point where I thought the future was so bleak that there was no point in writing anything at all. And so the poems kind of pushed their way upon me. I would be out growing vegetables and walking around the countryside when all of a sudden I’d find myself writing a poem, and I’d write it.”

My Review: Merwin died in March 2019. I first encountered his poetry in 2010, after seeing him in a documentary about the life of the Buddha. His even-tempered, self-deprecating way of puncturing the Deadly Seriousness of the other talking heads in the film was memorable; his poetic voice had to be as lovely, right?

Um. Rain in the Trees didn't wow me. It's from the 1980s sometime, and permaybehaps forty years of poeting had worn him down. It wasn't for me, as I am informed the polite formulation of "what the actual FUCK *is* this crapola anyway?!?" is phrased.

He died; I ran across that fact on Wikipedia; connected him with the nice old buffer in the Buddha thing and ILL'd this 1967 collection of Vietnam War-era stuff. It's a darn good thing I did. THIS poetry I like! Here is where the fortysomething poet whose professional life was contemporaneous with Ted Hughes, Robert Bly, Sylvia Plath, and Denise Levertov (all friends of his) and the Beats (not friends of his), those slashers-and-burners of whatever rules there were at that point, were working.

Merwin wasn't going to be a Beat, they were too raucous for him. He got Pulitzers (twice!) for poetry, he was the United States Poet Laureate, he translated Neruda, he translated Euripides, he translated Gawain and the Green Knight (Amazon link; no monetization) in 2002; he was a busy professional poet. His legacy will last a while longer, though I doubt he'll be as enduringly popular as Seamus Heaney or Neruda...not enough there, there...and he will find his way into anthologies for a while after that.

But this collection, second of Merwin's that I've read, is worthy of your eyeblinks. It says something deeply meaningful in a personal yet relatable way. Merwin wasn't a groundbreaking iconoclast, and some of his early stuff I've run across was so pretentious and self-important that I am amazed the same man wrote it as wrote these poems. His later stuff was, well, in a word it was tired. Overworked the vein, it collapsed. But this? Prime-of-life, peak-of-powers poetical punditry. Every poems means something, both on its surface and on its interior. Read a poem one way, it's pretty; read it another, it's shattering.

Let me get out of the way so you can see if you agree:

My shoes are almost dead
And as I wait at the doors of ice
I hear the cry go up for him Caesar Caesar

But when I look out the window I see only the flatlands
And the slow vanishing of the windmills
The centuries draining the deep fields

Yet this is still my country
The thug on duty says What would you change
He looks at his watch and he lifts
Emptiness out of the vases
And holds it up to examine

So it is evening
With the rain starting to fall forever

One by one he calls night out of the teeth
And at last I take up
My duty

Wheeling the president past banks of flowers
Past the feet of empty stairs
Hoping he's dead


The cold slope is standing in darkness
But the south of the trees is dry to the touch

The heavy limbs climb into the moonlight bearing feathers
I came to watch these
White plants older at night
The oldest
Come first to the ruins

And I hear magpies kept awake by the moon
The water flows through its
Own fingers without end

Tonight once more
I find a single prayer and it is not for men

When the war is over
We will be proud of course the air will be
Good for breathing at last
The water will have been improved the salmon
And the silence of heaven will migrate more perfectly
The dead will think the living are worth it we will know
Who we are
And we will all enlist again
The thing that makes this book so lovely is that it includes a dozen or so facsimiles of Merwin's hand-written or typed manuscript pages, some on glossy photo paper and two printed inside the paper cover, that really bring the reader into Merwin's emotional orbit. Seeing the pages that he composed his thoughts on makes the typeset version of the poem (one is "Caesar," which I inserted above) that much more meaningful. His presence, albeit in mechanically reproduced form, is *there* and that causes no small amount of spiritual-connection thrums through my non-poetical soul.

Sunday, September 29, 2019

DEEP ROOTS, the Innsmouth Legacy's second novel, so eagerly anticipated!!

(The Innsmouth Legacy #2) Publishing
$26.99 hardcover, $9.99 ebook platforms, available now

Rating: 3.75* of five

The Publisher Says: Aphra Marsh, descendant of the People of the Water, has survived Deep One internment camps and made a grudging peace with the government that destroyed her home and exterminated her people on land. "Deep Roots" continues Aphra’s journey to rebuild her life and family on land, as she tracks down long-lost relatives. She must repopulate Innsmouth or risk seeing it torn down by greedy developers, but as she searches she discovers that people have been going missing. She will have to unravel the mystery, or risk seeing her way of life slip away.

My Review: Second novel in what I devoutly hope will be an ongoing exploration of the Lovecraftian (or Cthulhu) Mythos by QULTBAG Author Emrys; this time it's the Summer Solstice, so we're six months after the events of Winter Tide. The writing is, as always, luxurious and replete with the most pleasurably unexpected moments of character definition:
Neko’s familiar dreams lay open above me. Twists of color, scattered images: buildings, imagined cities, the people on the subway. She twitched among incomplete ideas. They spilled over the edges of everyday reality, coloring directions that she wasn’t able to travel. (Aphra is speaking of her Nisei internee "sister" from the camps.)
He separated his hands, unraveling finger from finger. (Ron Spector, gay FBI agent, is described here. He is a man torn and mended one too many times.)
A pale man, gangling in a tweed jacket, walked hunched as if against blistering wind, arms tight across his chest. He caught sight of an awning marked in Chinese characters and shuddered, hurrying on. (Lovecraft cameo! And bloody well perfect!)
In every case, Author Emrys makes this kind of observation completely without fuss or fanfare. These are the characters, the behaviors and thoughts are theirs; no need to make a song and dance about it, this is what that person would do/say/feel. I trust Author Emrys implicitly to tell me what I need to know when it is most helpful for me to know it. This is a characteristic of all of her writing that I've read. It's why I will buy and read more of her stories as and when they come out.

The Mythos itself is replete with amazing, juicy weirdnesses like the Mi-Go, or as the Deep Ones call them "meigo," betentacled crustaceany Outer Ones whose corporeal presence in out tediously limited and limiting 4D spacetime isn't remotely complete; entire segments of the creatures exist in dimensions we cannot access with our sensory equipment. Here's one image of the beings, slightly off from what Author Emrys's evocation of them summons in my brain but better than trying to word-paint them for you (or spoil the book's amazing evocation!) so you can get some traction on where this story *is*:

The Outer Ones are repugnant to Aphra, our main character; they aren't right, the way she knows that she herself isn't right to "People of the Air" like thee and me. But they are practically speaking immortal, unlimited by mere 4D spacetime's demands, and so vastly more intelligent than merely mortal Humanity; they have developed a (strange) moral code they adhere to, they are very much creatures of deep philosophical thought:
Doesn’t Nyarlathotep tell even you to ask the most dangerous questions, and travel as far as you need, wherever you need, to find the answers?
(Nyarlathobuddha, sounds like to me.)
To accept, without trying to change, the errors of the universe. Worse, though, to let our haven enforce the illusion that the universe can always be altered. Architecture as debate. Very much my thrice-mate’s style. (Spoken by one of the Outer Ones allied with Aphra about the leader of the Outer Ones's opposition.)
We seek the civilizations capable of living with difference, who can look on the vast and variable universes without fear, who can recognize wisdom wherever it’s found.
This, then, is the heart of the Outer Ones's need in our dimension: They are learning about us for their own purposes, not quite like the Yith, those truly immortal and utterly amoral scholars and recorders in the Archive of the entire body of knowledge that all beings in all dimensions have accumulated:
They boast of all they’ve learned, but write nothing down and call their work finished when all they’ve done is talk. They see everything and learn nothing; they are an embarrassment to Nyarlathotep.
The Mi-Go need something. This is value, for them, created value that pleases Nyarlathotep. The Yith? As we learned last book, and as several of Aphra's confluence (her metaphor for created family, logical as opposed to biological family) continue to wrestle with the aftermath of in this story, they aren't interested in what the knowledge they are collecting is, they are only determined to collect it, however and wherever they can, consequences be hanged. Which is why Winter Tide took place in Arkham and at Miskatonic University; and now that the Outer Ones are the opponents, where better to acquire truly useful knowledge than New York City?

Author Emrys agrees with me. She celebrates the very things that make this my home:
New York is full of immigrants and the United States is used to taking them in—we may be able to help you.
The city’s rhythm was constant when I paid it mind, but fickle in its effects. It could buoy me with excess energy, then wear me out a moment later with the pace of its million heartbeats.
Outside, the breeze brought relief: still rich with sweat and trash, but topped with the remnant of sugared pastry and the homesick scent of hot dogs.
New York, for all its height and humanity, was a breath from the ocean, and would pass in a geological instant.
Gigantically and brobdingnagianly replete with differences and conflicts and all the other things that vastly increase a culture's store of knowledge and wisdom, New York is the perfect place for the Outer Ones to set up shop! Add in the borning Cold War, the incredible postwar economic boom, and the seaport...well! I ask you! What better stewpot, pressure cooker, percolator of a place to locate a spy ring! Which is what the Outer Ones are...their internal factions can't agree whether to continue to passively watch Humanity boil itself or, out of deep savior complex fantasy needs, to intervene and "help"/force us to behave:
We needed Nnnnnn-gt-vvv’s passivist faction to reassert their influence and to hold sway over what their species did on Earth.
But Aphra and Company need to adjust their prickly, offended sensibilities to the Outer Ones's very real intent to help fellow creatures on a path to self-destruct:
You think we don’t understand family, but we do. We recognize many kinds of family, many kinds of connections that matter. We understand duties beyond obedience, and loyalty that can transcend species. We’re not the demons you think, tempting children away from the safe shadow of the gravestone. We serve a greater purpose too.
But help ain't help when it ain't asked for, is it. And that is where the whole rushing, roaring climax of the story leads us: What help are we willing to ask for? And what price offering to help a species that, in the main, wants to vomit when your pandimensional person enters its members's frames of reference?

Good times.

The attentive will recall that I gave Winter Tide four and a half stars two years ago. Then the attentive will cast their eyes upon my less-than-four-stars rating for this book. Then consider the warbles of pleasure in this story and its writing, its very universe, that have occupied me for over a thousand words. "What gives, Papaw?" the attentive will ask.

Freddy and Frances, excess baggage in general; S'vlk, Obed Marsh, and Shelean; not one of these characters has a hope in hell of making a lasting impression on the reader. They are competing for attention with characters the reader has already invested in and much more heavily than possible with them. I have read this book twice, a year apart. That was deliberate and calculated. I wanted to be absolutely sure I felt that I was fair and reasonable in my annoyance and subsequent chastisement of almost a whole star's docking. (I mean, it's not like Author Emrys will be hurt and dismayed about my review or like there'll be any kind of backlash; but it's an article of faith with me that I should behave online the way I would in person and I'm always quick to praise and deliberate in disappointment.)

The extra characters add little, detract much, and cost a great deal of forward momentum. The fact is that I'm always shifting gears, like driving a five-speed sports car up Lombard Street in San Francisco during rush hour. The issue grows and becomes very distracting by halfway through the book. I want the urgency of Winter Tide to continue, and with the immense broadening of this story, it does not.

I did not want to offer false praise, and I haven't; I did not want to stint on what I feel is merited celebration of Author Emrys's reimagined Mythos, and I do not think that I have; but, in the end and after a year's thought and consideration, I can't help but share Aphra's prayer for Cthulhu's help in her desperately overworked mind's ease:
Ïa, Cthulhu, help me sleep in the shadow of others’ dreams. Teach me patience in the shadow of frustrated desire. Teach me stillness in the shadow of ever-changing threats.

THEY CALLED US ENEMY, a graphic memoir superior to almost every text-only memoir I've ever read

GEORGE TAKEI; illus. Harmony Becker

Top Shelf Comix
$19.99 trade paper, available now

Rating: 5* of five

The Publisher Says: A stunning graphic memoir recounting actor/author/activist George Takei's childhood imprisoned within American concentration camps during World War II. Experience the forces that shaped an American icon -- and America itself -- in this gripping tale of courage, country, loyalty, and love.

George Takei has captured hearts and minds worldwide with his captivating stage presence and outspoken commitment to equal rights. But long before he braved new frontiers in Star Trek, he woke up as a four-year-old boy to find his own birth country at war with his father's -- and their entire family forced from their home into an uncertain future.

In 1942, at the order of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, every person of Japanese descent on the west coast was rounded up and shipped to one of ten "relocation centers," hundreds or thousands of miles from home, where they would be held for years under armed guard.

They Called Us Enemy is Takei's firsthand account of those years behind barbed wire, the joys and terrors of growing up under legalized racism, his mother's hard choices, his father's faith in democracy, and the way those experiences planted the seeds for his astonishing future.

What is American? Who gets to decide? When the world is against you, what can one person do? To answer these questions, George Takei joins co-writers Justin Eisinger & Steven Scott and artist Harmony Becker for the journey of a lifetime.


My Review
: A graphic memoir? Me? And give it five stars?!? Never. Will not happen.

Yet here we are:

The horror of interning United States citizens based solely on the color of their skins!

Oh wait...we do that now..."interning" being synonymous with "incarcerating"...well, anyway, it's appalling and abominable. The Takei family is rousted out of their Los Angeles home by Executive Order 9066. They're shipped as far away from the Pacific Ocean as they can get: The Great State of Arkansas! *shudder* A swampy bit, as well...the Takeis weren't familiar with the climate, hot and humid summers with cold and snowy winters; the worst of all possible worlds for Mediterranean-climate natives!

George, brother Henry, and sister Nancy are lucky, however, as their father is a take-charge kind of a guy with a glad-handing streak as well as organizational capabilities, patience in abundance, and a generous heart. Mama Takei is sure her family will be okay despite everything because she is going to by-god *make* things okay. Her efforts to clothe and entertain her family, her strenuous work ethic keeping the children clean and as healthy as she can, mean that they're better off than the Takeis help them. Because of course...those with nothing find a way to share with those who have even less.

There were good times as well as bad. Takei senior, as a helpful and useful inmate, got the family occasional privileges, like the use of a Jeep for a day out:

Not everyone in Arkansas thought the Japanese belonged in the camps. Not everyone in the US agreed with this vile act, this blot on the national escutcheon.

But tell that to the men who were young and patriotic enough to want to serve their country in the global war against fascism.

Their mistreatment at the hands of the democratic institutions designed to defend a citizen's life, liberty, and ability to pursue an existence that will make them happy radicalized them, leading to protests and horrors of oppression still worse than internment at Federal penitentiaries.

The tale ends, as we all know, when the war is over...but the country's wounds aren't healed so much as papered over. Now the returning African Americans, veterans and war workers, would need to gain civil rights...and there were injustices against the Japanese Americans unaddressed...and so on and so forth, to this good day, with others now in the victim role. Takei specifically draws parallels with the Muslim refugee crisis and the Hispanic emigration atrocities. He lived it. His voice carries authority: What we-the-people are allowing, even (I am nauseated to say) enjoying, to occur to Hispanic families is unconscionable, inexcusable, and proof that the lessons of history are lost on far too many of us.

Takei's journey took him into our living rooms on Star Trek: The Original Series, and its many sequels. He's spent his many years since riding that amazing introduction back into our lives advocating for positive social changes and fairer, more equal access to the USA's immense and unprecedented benefits for all. His life has been very well-lived and spent generously working to bring the American Dream into reality, only for *all* Americans.

Be like George, as the meme says.

(Only I like this one better.)

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

FRIDAY BLACK by a brave new voice in speculative fiction, Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah


Mariner Books
$14.99 trade paper, available now

Rating: 4.75* of five

The Publisher Says: In the stories of Adjei-Brenyah’s debut, an amusement park lets players enter augmented reality to hunt terrorists or shoot intruders played by minority actors, a school shooting results in both the victim and gunman stuck in a shared purgatory, and an author sells his soul to a many-tongued god.

Adjei-Brenyah's writing will grab you, haunt you, enrage, and invigorate you. By placing ordinary characters in extraordinary situations, Adjei-Brenyah reveals the violence, injustice, and painful absurdities that black men and women contend with every day. These stories tackle urgent instances of racism and cultural unrest and explore the many ways we fight for humanity in an unforgiving world.


My Review
: A young African American man writes speculative fiction about the alt-present/near-term future from the point of view of the deeply disadvantaged, the ones whose American Dream is a nightmare. An editor sees it, is probably appalled but is certainly moved, and for a minor miracle of a wonder, buys this amazingly assured debut collection of stories by first-generation American Author Adjei-Brenyah. Wherever he saw an odd, he beat it, did the young author. Syracuse University MFA? Now, with this man's debut, that means something to me, where before I'd never have so much as fluttered an eyelid as the words crossed my field of vision.

And speaking of vision, this cover is something special, isn't it? (He's no slouch in the handsome derby either!)

A statement of the powerful reading contained within. This detail image is so pretty I can't resist sharing it:

Author Adjei-Brenyah says, "I do bad at school because sometimes I think when I should be learning." (p29) I nod. I totally understand this kid who's speaking. As the school day unfolds over the next four pages, the Long Big War and HowItWas class, and not only am I clear on how we got here, I'm pretty darn sure that somehow he's come back from the future to warn us what's coming. And man is he pissed off. You won't blame him when you read the collection. Note absence of conditional in previous sentence. Not if, when. These are stories you need.

As is my habit, I'll offer some impressions of each story a la my quondam pal Bryce in his inimitable Method. (He did it better than I do, I'm only aping the form.)

The Finkelstein 5 made me want to vomit. I had to google it to be sure it wasn't reportage. Emmanuel's chant of "Fela St. John, Fela St. John" will haunt my nightmares. How we can look at ourselves as we shave and titivate in our sparkly mirrors is beyond my emotional comprehension. There is a slow-motion genocide against African Americans and this story shouts, "they released the brakes! and the hounds!" at the top of its paper lungs. 4 stars

Things My Mother Said is, in 500 or so words, a complete and compelling worldbuilding sketch. This man has the chops. 3 stars

The Era is an updated Brave New World/This Perfect Day tale about industrial mood management; its effects on high schoolers, families, hierarchies; it packs one helluva wallop as deeply undesirable "shoelookers" claim another "dumb/slow" clear-born, someone whose parents didn't use OptiLife™. Chilled me more than a martini in a shaker. Haunting for its deep anger. No one should ever think for a second that the Millennials' kids are safe.
She steps to me. I stretch my neck out for her and close my eyes. She puts one hand on one side of my neck. Her hand is warm plus strong. She stabs the injector needle in. My head feels the way an orange tastes. I open my eyes and look at her. She waits. I look at her more. She frowns, then gives me another shot. And then I feel the Good.
Soma, anyone? Extra treatments? Yes, Author Ira Levin, I see your vision refuses to die as it steadily approaches. 5 stars

Lark Street is one fucked-up fever dream of guilt, loneliness, bad decisions, the crushing weight of morality grinding a boy into his mortality's disease vector.
An impossible hand punched my earlobe. An unborn fetus, aborted the day before, was standing at my bedside. His name was Jackie Gunner.
"So, I guess you didn't have the balls?" Jackie Gunner said. His voice was a stern squeak. My eyelids rolled open. He was a tiny silhouette on the end of my pillow. Smaller than a field mouse.
"Well, say something, Dad." He said Dad the way some people say cunt. "Do you even feel bad?"
"Yeah," I said. "I feel real bad."
"I feel real bad," Jackie Gunner repeated. "Is real bad a hole big enough to fit our lives in?"
"Our?" I said.
"It's a metaphor, Daddy," said a new voice, this one shy, charming even. A second tiny fetus climbed up my comforter onto my bed. Her name, I knew, was Jamie Lou.
There is no hiding from consequences in Author Adjei-Brenyah's world. 4.5 stars for some frankly unworthy-of-him gender stereotyping.

The Hospital Where brings us on a w-verb-filled journey through a young writer's bargaining with the Twelve-Tongued God (I love this concept!), who promises him Everything in return for his abject servitude to Story. It's gloriously weird; it contains multitudes (of winks); it resonates with the agonized scream of an abandoned boy demanding his daddy not leave. What, indeed, have you done.
Soon I was staring at a small entryway sign that read RADIOLOGY I. In the hall there was an extremely old man in a wheelchair. He groaned steadily. His white skin looked stretched and spotty. It seemed someone had forgotten him or maybe was using him to prop open the door. There were so many tubes going in and coming out of him that I couldn't imagine where they began or ended. I walked past quickly. Farther down the same hall, a black guy in a wheelchair stared in my direction with eyes so empty I thought they might suck something out of me.
Shivery horripilatingly pure prose telling of a son's psychotic break...or possibly his father succumbs by degrees to cancer in an uncaring, unfeeling system with classist assumptions informing its death-care. 5 stars

Zimmer Land felt so real to me that, again, I had to google it to be sure it wasn't. It's what I feel about the oddly innocuous-sounding "first-person shooter" games that scare me, disgusting visceral violence as the perp sees it, made more revoltingly real. Living, breathing black men get shot (but not harmed...physically) for a living. In a world where George Zimmer is free but Trayvon Martin is dead, it's almost pornographic. No, it isn't. Scratch the "almost."

The first day of Zay's new job in Zimmer Land's Creative department, a job his ex landed for him thus dragging him up from a mere black body in a safe place for a white "patron" to enact his violent racist fantasies on, is moved an hour earlier; his boss "forgot" to tell him, one senses because his boss was nudged that way by the company founder...a Zardoz-like holographic head whose body is in Cabo schmoozing the banksters for R&D money...since the founder is dating Zay's ex. Corporate politics, racism, end-stage capitalism (the park is about to allow minors in to experience the thrill of murdering a black man). What a piece of work is Man, man. 5 stars

Friday Black reminds me of why I don't do shopping during the xmas rush. I'm not all the way sure it's fiction. The insane stuff-lust that I've seen on news broadcasts as hordes violently rush displays of useless brummagem objects in a desperate race to Buy to Have to Possess the Latest...! Deaths are still rare on Black Friday...for now.... 3 stars

The Lion & The Spider interweaves the Trickster Anansi outwitting the boastful Lion with a son's fear, rage, betrayal as he learns his father is a human being without losing his need to be a son. A well-made story, if not precisely to my taste. 3.5 stars

Light Spitter takes us inside the void created when the world shovels its shit into a kid who has no way to say "no, NO, it hurts, NO" so the weight piles in-on-up until a gun answers the taunts. Horrible, horrible cruelty answered by the sneer of ballistic ammunition. Added bonus: Author uses homophobic slur! Lovely. 4 stars

How to Sell A Jacket As Told by IceKing is the continuation of "Friday Black" told by the same narrator a few years down the line. IceKing's still at the top of his game pushing crap onto people who probably don't need it, but time's ticktickticking. No one wants to be trapped in retail forever. It's not my favorite setting or PoV plus it's got a w-bomb in it, that. 3 stars

In Retail is the other side of the rivalry from IceKing...not gonna lie, even six pages of it was no fun, I don't think this is the place Author Adjei-Brenyah needs to be setting his focus. Maybe it's all out of his system now? I for one sure hope so. 3 stars because it's not like it's poorly written, I just don't like it

Through the Flash is the hell of Eternity, the unceasing wretched quotidian repetition of one then another then another cycle of waking, eating, without end. A future bleaker than any dystopia you've ever read, packed into 27 pages full of the bile of human cruelty, the scalding freeze of knowledge without wisdom, the immutability of lives meant to be impermanent frozen into a rictus of deathlife.

So now we come to the hardest thing for Humanity to bear: Boredom. Not hunger, not violence, not anger. Boredom is the thing that will kill a human being from the inside out. A human will resort to violence and will court anger to escape from the misery, the unending loss, lack, void that is Boredom:
It's very hard at first for some people. But then if you figure that you are infinite, you are supreme and therefore the master of all things, and it's silly to be sad about things like how much your hip is always going to hurt or how you're so old that the flu means a life in bed or how gone forever your mother is.
The film [Groundhog Day] always seemed to me to be a singularly vicious and cruel torture-porn exercise. But hey, I never thought Don Rickles was funny even as a kid. If I laugh at someone's misfortunes or disabilities, it's because I hate 'em personally. In general it's just not fun or funny to watch someone suffer, especially of boredom.

How did the world come to be so small? How does Ama, our narrator, come to be the sole possessor of life and death in her eternally renewed Inferno? Ama tells us the Water Wars wrought some awful changes on the world we thoughtlessly squandered:
I don't know much about other grids in our state block, because way before the Flash came, the soldier-police—the state-sponsored war-coordination authorities—took away everyone's cars. Their slogan—"For us to serve and protect, you must conserve and respect"—is emblazoned on posters in the school, on the windows of some people's homes. ... Back before the Flash ever came, a lot of people actually loved the SPs. They thought they were keeping us safe. People believe lies, believe anything when they are afraid. That's another thing. Aren't we lucky that before the Flash all the soldier-police were deployed elsewhere?
So the Flash comes, the anomalous great horror of eternal and changeless repetition, and there is absolutely no one to stop the predators from consuming their fill of the prey's agonies.

Author Adjei-Brenyah understands cruelty and despair and the viciousness of the indifferent physics of the Universe far too well for someone who hasn't hit middle age. I'm sad for him. I'm grateful he chose to make his horror into art. I want to read more of his unnervingly precise images and his unpretentious prose before I shuffle off to, well, whatever it is that's next.

Sunday, September 22, 2019

ALICE PAYNE RIDES, second time-travel novella with badass mixed-race lesbian highway"man" Alice Payne

$3.99 eBook, $14.99 trade paper, available now

The Publisher Says: After abducting Arthur of Brittany from his own time in 1203, thereby creating the mystery that partly prompted the visit in the first place, Alice and her team discover that they have inadvertently brought the smallpox virus back to 1780 with them.

Searching for a future vaccine, Prudence finds that the various factions in the future time war intend to use the crisis to their own advantage.

Can the team prevent an international pandemic across time, and put history back on its tracks? At least until the next battle in the time war…

My Review: Back we go to the 22nd century, the Time Wars, and Prudence Zuniga's new base of operations with 18th-century pals Alice Payne, the lover of Jane, as well as the Holy Ghost...a mixed-race highway"man", and all-around badass; Fleance Hall, where she makes her home with Jane and her American Revolution veteran father and is dear friends with Constable Wray Aubry, her father's compadre during their time fighting the rebels in South Carolina.

Of course things on the Time War front are not easy: King Arthur of England is kidnapped from Brittany before John can kill him to become the Bad King John of the history you and I know. Who does it? Take a guess...I'll wait...and, once ensconced in Fleance Hall, Arthur's not going back to *become* King because he likes the 18th century too much. Check? Checkmate? Or just another day at the office for the Time War soldiery? Actually this bit is radically underdeveloped for my taste. We don't see much, and certainly nothing substantive, of young Arthur Duke of Brittany. He's never been King in *my* memory, and I'd've liked to see some hard graft in developing some kind of purpose for him. Never really happened, sad to say. The focus in a novella needs must be tight, and he's outside the cone.

Prudence, aware of the timeline's malleability to focus change, careful to keep her memories in a book outside the time stream. She realizes that General Almo has butterflied away her older sister Grace...of whom she carries no memories or attachments...and sets herself to Get Him Back while retrieving the sister she knows she loved. Even if she can't feel it anymore, the knowledge that someone used their power over the time streams to deliberately deprive her of her family makes her so boiling mad that her love for Grace might as well still be within her.

And Alice? Alice loses her father in 1789, but takes Jane back to 1780 to find out why he returned from the American War so changed. Bad move...the ripples in the time streams from their actions taken there are what put General Almo in mind of the plot to hurt Prudence...and now he has a new, truly terrifying, terrible weapon that bids fair to deprive Prudence of her wonderfully weird made family.

Here, at last, we confront the primary problem that plagues time travel fiction: If you're fighting a Time War, you can never truly win. The enemy can always jump before your latest victory and prevent it. Bummer, right?

Prudence is not a quitter. She's a brilliant, out-of-the-box thinker. And she's HIGHLY motivated to come up with an effective solution to that problem in order to use it on General Almo.

Reader, she succeeds. One of the cleverest endings for a time-travel tale I've read! The title aside, most of this book centers on Prudence, so let me share some of Author Heartfield's more pithy, elegant "tells" on Prudence's delightful character:
Prudence will seldom be drawn on the subject of the future. She protests that “the future” does not exist, that there are many possible futures, and that the future whence she came very likely no longer exists.
Prudence has long been a time traveller by profession; she is used to combing vocabulary and references out of her speech.
My mentor at the Academy used to say that time travel is like life: there are no rules, only consequences.
To cast Prudence in proper relief, there's something rotten about General Almo that is best shown, not told:
Your sister, like any other human or plastic fork or oak leaf on this planet, was the result of a million events that could have gone any other way. The individual has no inherent existence. A human life is ephemeral. A conjunction of cause and consequence. Each of us is just . . . information. And one piece of information is not any more valuable than any other. If time travel has taught me anything, it’s that individuals don’t matter.
But perhaps the best summation of the sheer joy of being alive and well in this topsy-turvy time-travel-enhanced Universe is Alice's rumination on what the point of it all truly is:
Does any of it matter? All things are true, might be true, have never been true. Knowing that makes the warmth of {her horse}’s neck, the flare of her nostrils, no less real. This life is all there is, all there ever is.
Yes indeed.