Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Wickedness! Halloween read: WICKED BUGS and WICKED PLANTS, Posted 30 October 2013

WICKED PLANTS: The Weed That Killed Lincoln's Mother and Other Botanical Atrocities
Amy Stewart

Workman Books
$18.95 hardcover, available now

Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: A tree that sheds poison daggers; a glistening red seed that stops the heart; a shrub that causes paralysis; a vine that strangles; and a leaf that triggered a war. In Wicked Plants, Stewart takes on over two hundred of Mother Nature s most appalling creations. It s an A to Z of plants that kill, maim, intoxicate, and otherwise offend. You ll learn which plants to avoid (like exploding shrubs), which plants make themselves exceedingly unwelcome (like the vine that ate the South), and which ones have been killing for centuries (like the weed that killed Abraham Lincoln's mother).

Menacing botanical illustrations and splendidly ghastly drawings create a fascinating portrait of the evildoers that may be lurking in your own backyard. Drawing on history, medicine, science, and legend, this compendium of bloodcurdling botany will entertain, alarm, and enlighten even the most intrepid gardeners and nature lovers.

My Review: Bite-sized reports of the horrible horrible scary itchy deadly horrible doings of the Kingdom Plantae. Illustrated with beautiful woodcuts by Briony Morrow-Cribbs, that are, by themselves, worth the price of the book.

I swear I have never bathed so often as when I read this book. Hibiclens, pHisoHex, witch hazel, lavender water...every cleansing agent I possess...applied to every inch of my quite sizable person, at least three or four times for every plant I read about. Even my shoulder hair is falling out from over-washing. (There go the last long, wavy locks I'll ever have....)

*Most* satisfyingly, the horrid, nasty, icky-ptoo-ptoo nonfood CORN is included in the book! (Yes it is too: pp38-39...comes in for harsh treatment because the body *can't use it* in kernel form! Take THAT corn-on-the-cobbers! Horrible stuff, corn on the cob. Oughta be banned.)

So many awful horrible, itch-inducing theings described in one small place would normally mean stay the heck away from it, but Stewart really does a fine job of making her villains fascinating, if not sympathetic. Hope she writes a novel one day soon.

WICKED BUGS: The Louse That Conquered Napoleon's Army & Other Diabolical Insects
Amy Stewart

Workman Books
$18.95 hardcover, available now

Rating: too busy scratching to give it one.

The Publisher Says: Amy Stewart, perpetratrix of Flower Confidential (a book I loathed), has given us bite-sized bios of horrible, horrible, horrible little creepy/crawly or fly-y/stingy horrible things with lots of horrible legs and horrible, horrible ways of mating and reproducing in general. Most of the worst ones are female. Just like in life.

My Review: I've finished it, and so far I've determined that I suffer from:

--Guinea worm disease
--Lyme disease
--sand-fly infestation under my itchy toenail

I've taken eleven showers with surgical scrub so far. I expect that, when I go outside next (after the haz-mat suit is delivered), I shall be ridiculed...but I *won't* be a feast for the horrible disgusting vile scary critters this book is about!

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

THE TERRA-COTTA DOG, second Montalbano culinary adventure, I mean mystery!

THE TERRA-COTTA DOG (Inspector Montalbano #2)
ANDREA CAMILLERI (tr. Stephen Sartarelli)
Penguin Books
$12.99 ebook platforms, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: The Terra-Cotta Dog opens with a mysterious tête-a-tête with a mafioso, some inexplicably abandoned loot from a supermarket heist, and some dying words that lead inspector Montalbano to a secret grotto in a mountainous cave where two young lovers, dead fifty years and still embracing, are watched over by a life-size terra cotta dog. Montalbano's passion to solve this old crime takes him, heedless of personal danger, on a journey through the island's past and into a family's dark heart amid the horrors of World War II.

My Review: I am truly gruntled and kempt after reading a Montalbano novel. Sleek, in fact; one could go so far as to say consolate.

The mystery, that is the modern-day mystery of arms-dealing and law-breaking, gets short shrift in this delightful book. It gets passed to Montalbano's second-in-command, Augello, at Montalbano's discretion, after Augello pitches a hissy fit and acts like a neglected wife because Montalbano runs a team within a team to do his real work.

Things Go Badly. In fact, a character I loved very much pays the ultimate price for Augello's jealous fit. But Montalbano, whose head everything ultimately falls on, has already turned his attention to Livia, his quite extraordinary lover from Genoa, and a mystery from WWII.

One guess which of those two gets neglected.

The point of these books is how much a mystery gets hold of one, how deeply set the hook is when it's properly baited for the mysterian. (Other than the name of a one-hit wonder band, I've never actually used that word before, and "I do not think that word means what you think it means." {Princess Bride reference}) Sure, yeah, people are smuggling submachine guns and stuff, mmm-hmmm get back to me if something needs my attention but some a-hole killed two kids in the Act of Luuuv 50+ years ago, then put them in a cave where evidence assures us they were NOT shot, and with some very odd burial goods...a bowl of money, a jug of water, and a terra-cotta statue of a dog...and then sealed them up carefully and invisibly. WTF? as Montalbano most certainly wouldn't have thought, who does that? What kind of story makes that not only okay, but so urgent as to force someone to do it?

Exactly what I was wondering. Montalbano is my kinda guy. There are people to *do* the modern-day, not-very-challenging stuff, and even when they get stuff wrong (as they did, to his almost-fatal detriment when a shoot-out costs him the life of a friend and a month in the hospital) things will turn out, they always do...just learn to live with the consequences...but only he, Montalbano, cares to or can ferret out the seemingly unimportant but emotionally charged secrets of the past.

I was walloped upside my little punkin haid by the ending of this book. I could NOT believe an American publishing house would do this! Of course, they only did it ten years after it became a bestseller in *the rest of the world*, but let's let that slide. They did it, thank you Penguin, and they made a lovely object of the book, and they have published all of the series in proper order *smoochsmooch* on their corporate ham-producing-areas to boot!

I won't encourage anyone to read these books because, if you need encouragement, you're not the Right Stuff for them. (*snicker* THAT oughtta cause a stampede!)

Monday, October 28, 2013

FOLLOWING TOMMY by Bob Hartley, review posted 28 October 2013


Out of Print; various prices from multiple sellers

Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: FOLLOWING TOMMY tells the story of the O'Days, two young brothers living in an Irish American, wor king class neighborhood on Chicago's West Side in the 1960s. As thieves they are the bane of the neighborhood until the arrival of the first African American family.

"FOLLOWING TOMMY is a powerful, mesmerizing debut novel by Bob Hartley. Sharp-edged and honed to perfection, this novel takes us back to the Irish ghetto of the West Side of Chicago in the early '60s. These characters pack-a-punch to the gut: tough, perceptive and shrewd. An unforgettable read."—Meg Tuite

"In Hartley's novel, set in the heartland of America, we dive deeply into disturbing pathos of intriguing and relatable characters. His keen narrative balances so the lively dialogue, and we feel we know, or at the very least, can relate to so much of his book. I urge you to read this remarkable debut, FOLLOWING TOMMY."—Robert Vaughan


My Review
: This first novel has the virtue of brevity. The language that Bob Hartley, whose MFA was awarded by the University of Pittsburgh, deploys in service of his story is a model of concision. The story the author tells is, to my ears, honest and true and quite devastatingly probable. The two O'Day brothers are mildly violent, badly educated petty criminals. The working-class Chicago they inhabit is divided between churchgoers and wise guys, and they are the latter, to their mother's despair. Her early death deprives the boys of nothing in the way of guidance, as they are in their late teens at the time. Her contribution to the story is minimal, so the reader doesn't miss her either. This is probably a function of the shortness of the book.

Perhaps my less-than-ecstatic response comes from my inability to relate to Jacky, our first-person narrator. He's a straight teenaged hooligan whose desire for and discussion of the girls he imagines while masturbating grated on me. It might also be that I internalized more completely than I'd like to examine the class prejudices of my family and regard the "family" of drunks and hooligans that the O'Days represent with lips pressed firmly together so as not to curl them while dismissing these common-as-pig-tracks people with labels like "white trash" and "bogtrotting shanty Irish bastards."

Whatever the source of my absence of goodwill towards the book, it took me a month to read its 104pp and I was angry the entire time I was reading it. I suspect that Hartley deserves praise for this, because I responded to the characters as real people, and the story as more of a confession than a novel. Jacky and Tommy commit acts of idiot violence, they get caught and suffer at the hands of a casually brutal neighborhood cop (nicknamed "the Giant"), and while I don't like the cop any better than I like any of the other people, I at least felt he had some purpose in his viciousness that I could relate to if not condone.

The evocation of the early-1960s changing world, the one in which African-American people like the O'Days' new neighbors on Menard Street, were at last imagining a better and fairer world was within sight, was painfully spot-on. Hartley gets the sociopath Tommy's response to an African-American family moving into the Irish neighborhood chillingly accurately, at least from the people I've known over the years who had this experience. The fact that I experienced none of it, as I lived in a lily-white world of privilege and watched the race wars on our 26-inch color TV, makes that observation suspect. But Hartley brings me close enough to these yobbos that I can smell their greasy hair and cigarette stink, so I trust that he's got the responses down pat.

Encountering the O'Day brothers, then, wasn't in any particular a homecoming experience. It was an outrage. Jacky's passive, follow-the-leader nature caused me the kind of pain that sucking on an alum stick causes...puckery-lipped, tongue-curling, bad-tasting spitlessness. Tommy, the sociopathic shitheel older brother that Jacky follows, evoked the kind of nauseated disdain that I find myself prone to when confronted with blank-eyed hate-filled people. That Tommy's violent actions, escalated to new heights, lead to the conclusion the novel presents is a grim reality of life lived on those terms. That Jacky makes his decision about what kind of life he wants to lead in terms of Tommy and his actions is sadly believable.

Hear my passionate disdain for the people brought to life here and decide for yourself what kind of reading experience this short novel will be for you. One thing I am quite sure of: You will not be left indifferent. Angry, perhaps. Not indifferent, not bored. That is a lot more than I can say for most books I'm exposed to. If this debut is a reliable indicator of Bob Hartley's intended career path, his writing will earn him a following among the Jim Thompson and Donald Ray Pollock fans.

I first reviewed FOLLOWING TOMMY for The Small Press Book Review, specialists in bringing attention to the underknown and often unsung writers and publishers doing some of the best work in fiction publishing today.

Small presses, ones with editors and designers and passionate owners, are doing what we most need done in the Groves of Readerly Delight. They are using their critical faculties to decide what kind of work they want their own names associated with. They are making editorial changes, guiding writers to the best book that the story they want to tell can make. They are surviving on sales that make Amazon's shrinkage (theft and damage) allowances look like titanic bestselling sales department wet dreams.

I feel about this the way I feel about censorship: Don't let some witsy-teensy group of strangers make your aesthetic decisions for you! Find books by first-timers AND BUY THEM. Find small presses that publish things you're interested in AND BUY THEM. Vote for diversity and choice the only way that matters in business: with your dollars.

It matters, and it matters a lot, that us real readers who love our chosen hobby do this. Even if it's taking a chance with our scarce reading allowances. One purchase a month from a small press and/or a first-time author! Give the writers, the publishers, the editors whose labor is at best meagerly rewarded some much-needed practical support.

I already do. And I promise you I'm poorer than you are.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

OPEN CITY, Teju Cole's PEN/Hemingway Award for First Fiction-winning novel


Random House
$17.00 trade paper, available now

Rating: 4* of five


The Publisher Says: Along the streets of Manhattan, a young Nigerian doctor doing his residency wanders aimlessly. The walks meet a need for Julius: they are a release from the tightly regulated mental environment of work, and they give him the opportunity to process his relationships, his recent breakup with his girlfriend, his present, his past.

But it is not only a physical landscape he covers; Julius crisscrosses social territory as well, encountering people from different cultures and classes who will provide insight on his journey—which takes him to Brussels, to the Nigeria of his youth, and into the most unrecognizable facets of his own soul.


My Review
: The annus horribilis of Julius, a Nigerian psych resident in Manhattan. He is estranged from his mother, his only surviving parent; never knew his German maternal grandmother; is alone and adrift in the cold (too cold for his tropical self) and cruel city. He responds to his recent loss of a girlfriend to the lures of San Francisco by walking. He lives in Morningside Heights, a small college town on Manhattan's far Upper West Side; he works his last year of residency at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital, one of the city's medical gems; he attends a concerts of music I'd pay money to avoid (Mahler! PURCELL! *shudder*); and he walks.

His ramblings take him to every part of Manhattan, later also Brussels where he spends a month looking quite haphazardly for his probably dead German grandmother whom he does not find; his trained ear allows him to listen to text and subtext in his many conversations with many and various people of most every ethnicity these famously open cities have to offer. He is, in Christopher Isherwood's very apt phrase, a camera ("I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording not thinking...."); we are never treated to a view of the man holding the camera, but rather we are in the camera as he swings it about. In the end, there are no actions to report of Julius, but he makes up for his passivity with his introspection, and his clearly flawed impassivity to the emotional realities of others.

I had no idea this book was coming to me. In a truly random act, Random House's Random House imprint delivered me a signed copy of the book, with the editor's card (thank you, kind sir! Nice to get a gift from someone I don't know!) and a photocopied rave review of the book from The New Yorker. I read the first 10pp anyway, since The New Yorker and I almost never agree on books.

I was hooked. I was claustrophobic and annoyed and hooked. I had no idea books like this, the truly interior novels of the nouvelle roman ilk, were still able to be published in the USA. I mentioned above that we never, ever leave the camera that is Julius's head; all experiences are filtered through his eyes, heard with his ears. It's actually physically confining, this technique; like being tied up and read to. NOT a favorite activity of mine, for the record; either of them. It's a species of intimacy that I find quite discomfiting. But it works here because the narrator is so completely unable to be anywhere but here, think about any time but now; his excursions into memory are forced, and intentionally so (I think; Mr. Cole and I aren't acquainted, so I impute motives to him on no basis but my eyes).

Annoyingly, Julius is not very good at contextualizing his world. This is the risk an author runs in writing from inside the tightest and narrowest of boxes, the human skull. Of course, no sane person runs around through the day contextualizing his or her own story, so that's hardly a mark against the author's fidelity to his vision. But it makes Julius a little less of a forceful presence and more of a miasmic infestation in his own book. I was left feeling that the bedbugs (horrible bloodsucking little fiends) resembled the narrator a little too closely. Both are simply *there* and the fact of them is meant to be enough to set action rolling. I mildly disagree, but that's neither here nor there in evaluating the book's merits.

And merits it has. The prose is begulingly poetic. The lushness of description would feel out-of-timely off-putting were it not for the sense of inevitability and rightness the descriptions provide. The structure of the book (the hardest personal and professional year of a residency, that last one) isn't in any way innovative, but it's used to excellent effect. Julius, based on reading this book, seems like the sort of man who would be interesting to run into on his walks around Manhattan. I suspect the same would be true of Mr. Cole. Whatever force impelled the author to write this book, however the shock to his system that's the sine qua non of bringing forth such a sustained and elaborate feat of craftsmanship was delivered, it's my hope that another will be delivered soon. In the meantime, I'd suggest investing in this book will prove a winner for most sophisticated readers.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

THE SOUND OF THINGS FALLING, a rough-tongued honey-voiced lesson for complacent US people

(tr. Anne McLean)
Riverhead Books
$8.99 Kindle edition, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: In the city of Bogotá, Antonio Yammara reads an article about a hippo that had escaped from a derelict zoo once owned by legendary Colombian drug kingpin Pablo Escobar. The article transports Antonio back to when the war between Escobar’s Medellín cartel and government forces played out violently in Colombia’s streets and in the skies above.

Back then, Antonio witnessed a friend’s murder, an event that haunts him still. As he investigates, he discovers the many ways in which his own life and his friend’s family have been shaped by his country’s recent violent past. His journey leads him all the way back to the 1960s and a world on the brink of change: a time before narco-trafficking trapped a whole generation in a living nightmare.

Vásquez is “one of the most original new voices of Latin American literature,” according to Nobel Prize winner Mario Vargas Llosa, and The Sound of Things Falling is his most personal, most contemporary novel to date, a masterpiece that takes his writing—and will take his literary star—even higher.

I read What We Talk About When We Talk About Magical Realism by Fernando Sdrigotti in the LARB, and it reminded me of this terrific read.

My Review
: To every rule its exception: This book is praised highly by a writer whose work I abhor, Jonathan Franzen; and ordinarily that means I will avoid the book so as not to read even a Pearl-Rule 46pp of something I'm bound to hate.

Ha ha ha, rules. I liked this book a lot. Well, "like" is a weird word for the emotional resonance of the book. I responded to the book like a tuning fork responds to a smack.

The fact is that I am a fan of Latin American literature because, like this book and author, most of the translated works are political and tendentious in their natures, and so are the authors. So am I. So it's usually a good fit.

This story, which feels as personal as the blurb suggests it actually is, made me very uncomfortable, as I watched Colombia's descent into warlord rule and civil failure. I suspect I'd feel the same fearful anger if I were to visit Montana or Idaho or Wyoming, places that white supremacist/apocalyptic christian cultists have claimed for themselves. When nutball extremists take over a place, it's a failure of civil authority, and that is a crime. The net effect is the same as the drug cartels' takeover of Colombia in the 1970s or the current failure of civil authority in Mexico today or the Cascadian separatist movement here.

These are not positive developments, they have tremendous costs in personal misery, and they are much to be deplored. Vásquez does his deploring by focusing tightly on the emotional and psychic costs of civil failure to a small group of friends, Antonio's friends and his good self. It's a sad, sad chronicle of horror and rage. And it's wrapped in beautiful words expressing solidly grounded truths:
Adulthood brings with it the pernicious illusion of control, perhaps even depends on it. I mean that mirage of dominion over our own life that allows us to feel like adults, for we associate maturity with autonomy, the sovereign right to determine what is going to happen to us next.

Translator McLean has done a marvelous job of making poetry in the English, and while I haven't read the original Spanish text, I can only say that she is unlikely to have made such handsome bricks without good, abundant straw.

If I must pick a nit, and I must, it's that the structure of the novel is a tad more complex than is strictly speaking necessary to tell the author's very involving story. It's not hard to follow, but it's just artificial enough to pop the reader out of the narrative flow. That's almost never a good thing. (Okay, it's never a good thing, but I've learned not to make absolute statements because some little twidgee or another will come along and say something tiresome about my opinions and frankly I'm over it.)

I hope, that issue aside, that you will all race out to your local bookeries and procure copies of this book. It's got something important to say to us in the USA about the incredibly high cost of allowing dissent to become dissolution. Colombia failed its citizens, and their agony only slowly passes. Mexico is mid-failure, and is much closer to us. And yet we allow our own idiot rebels a far freer hand in obstructing and undermining our governmental institutions and shredding our social fabric in the name of some illusory "right" they assert that they have to do this to us all.

Read the book. Learn the cost. The price of the right wing's version of freedom is too goddamned high, and Vásquez knows it first hand. Please listen to him.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Why Fighting Censorship Matters

"Will this cause an author distress?" is an unimportant consideration, or should be, to a reviewer, a reader, or a website, in relation to a review. The author is, by the act of offering a book, a story, or any other written/created work for the perusal of the public, no longer entitled to the protection of "that hurts my feelings."

I post here my very thoughts spoken by another:
"It's now very common to hear people say, "I'm rather offended by that", as if that gives them certain rights. It's no more than a whine. It has no meaning, it has no purpose, it has no reason to be respected as a phrase. 'I'm offended by that.' Well, so fucking what?" —Stephen Fry

You, by writing something intended for public consumption, are agreeing that the public is entitled to judge that thing. By their own standards. Whatever those standards may be. The public then has the privilege (right, in the case of the USA) to pass on that opinion AS AN OPINION to any and all persons they can convince to listen to them.

An Italian tenor named Guido Nazzo (horrible name even in Italy) came to the USA and sang in many regional opera companies' productions. He made it to New York, despite his very modest gifts, and here he encountered a reviewer of his era named George Jean Nathan who said of one of his performances, "Guido Nazzo is nazzo guido," and completely ruined the man's career. Never, ever again after that could he appear on a stage without some wag repeating this knock.

And it was, and is, perfectly legal for a CRITIC (a reviewer, in the case of Goodreads), to pen such an inevitable and memorable, yet cruel, line.

If the authorities, private business or public official, veer over the legal line into making value judgments about what kind of criticism you're willing to accept about any given work of PUBLIC art's creator, then YES MA'AM you are engaging in censorship and you are doing so either in inexcusable ignorance or disingenuous purposefulness.

There aren't other options.

Vile people will always find a way to be vile. Whatever avenues of expression I can close down to them, I want to close down to them. There is a difference between not liking what someone says and forbidding them to say it. The best, most socially useful way to silence someone is to point to what they theirownselves have said, or done, and shout at them...embarrassment, shame, contumely are more instructive than disappearing someone's thoughts.

Life is hard for the sensitive. I realize not everyone can deal with the rough-and-tumble of free speech and argument. That's unfortunate. But no one makes a person stand up and be noticed. If you choose to do that, accept the consequences. Otherwise, sit down and use your other means of participation, like voting for or buying from those whose views match most closely your own.

This works in commerce as well. Your patronage is your vote. I won't buy an Orson Scott Card book because he's a public homophobe. Not one dime of my money will go to support him or the people who publish his books, or the people who made his book into a movie. Others make their own choices. But, and this is crucial, I go the next step and write shaming reviews of his books, pointing out that his revolting "moral" stance ruins the pleasures (such as they are) of his writing, and by purchasing his books the buyer implicitly supports his desire to take away civil rights from a group of people he dislikes. I don't ever support that, even though I'd love to make exceptions for some groups.

I believe, with all my being, that you stand up for what you say believe or you lie down for your dirt nap. What I don't condemn, I condone; and I can't live with passive condoning of what I see as wrong. My only avenue of expression is here in cyberspace. I take my self-imposed responsibility to live up to my principles very seriously. So, wherever someone's right to be a public nuisance is infringed, I have to complain loudly about it, point to the infringer, and say "SHAME SHAME SHAME" because, one day, they'll get around to silencing me.

I won't make it easy on 'em. Which, I've learned over the years, doesn't make me easy for others to deal with. Ah me, that's a shame, but there it is.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

My 3100 Words on the Evils Of Censorship and the Wrongness of Breaking Trust

Goodreads, I hardly knew ye.

I joined in 2010, and I became an active member in 2011. Less than two years later, I’m beginning the process of ratcheting my activity down to virtually zero. In those two years, I had a blast and a wonderful streak of lucky friendships and some great reviewing fortune. I’ve amassed a following of about 1600 people, become a “Forbes 25 Top Reviewers” member, been in the top-ten most popular reviewers measured, by Goodreads, every week or month for most of 2012 and 2013. That’s a wonderful, wonderful experience for anyone to have.

Then Amazon bought Goodreads, and my “uh-oh” light went on. Otis Chandler, founder of Goodreads, announced this in April 2013. The Feedback forum on the site went bonkers. That forum consists of about 13,000 people, out of a reported 20 million members. A tiny, tiny minority...but a vocal and passionate minority committed to working on a site that allowed its members to, for free, catalog and discuss their books with a vibrant and opinionated community of likewise vocal and passionate readers of books. The price? Look at the ads. (And not even that if you, like me, have AdBlocker on your browser.) Goodreads asked us if we minded them sharing our popular reviews with third parties, as an extra revenue-generating measure. I myownself agreed readily. I wanted to help the site survive, to maintain its independence.

The announcement of the sale chilled me to the bone. All the posts I made about the sale are gone, deleted with the thread that contained them, in May 2013. Otis Chandler decided to distill the conversation into a series of FAQs. I’m reproducing a few select questions with some responses bolded for emphasis:

Editing of reviews - can Goodreads or Amazon edit my reviews? Delete them without asking?

Nothing has changed when it comes to reviews. Your reviews are yours and we value the frank and honest opinions of all our members. That's what makes Goodreads different and special. (And yes, you can continue to swear if that's important to you, include images, etc.)

Our policy has been and will continue to be that we never edit a member's review. In some cases - where the review has broken our guidelines - we will delete the review, just as we have in the past.

There is one situation - and again this has been our policy for a long time - where we might use part of your review without showing the whole review. Sometimes, an author or publisher will ask to use a snippet of a book review in an advertisement outside of Goodreads or on a book's back cover. Rather than include the full review, they will use a line or two. This is similar to what you see in ads for movies. We always check with the members who wrote the reviews before granting permission. If an author or a publisher wants to use an excerpt of a book review in an ad on Goodreads, our team will review the ad and we permit this without checking with the reviewer as members are already sharing this content on Goodreads. These are policies that we already had in place and they have not changed.

Will sales targets or sponsorships now influence how reviews appear on the book page and which book recommendations I see on the site?

From the very beginning of Goodreads, we have always had a very firm policy about ensuring that editorial content on the site is never influenced by advertising. This isn't changing.

We'll also continue to show reviews in the same order as before:

* Reviews by your friends (people you know and trust)
* Reviews by people whose reviews you have chosen to follow (people whose opinion and taste in books you trust)
* Reviews from the Goodreads community, sorted by our proprietary algorithm.

As for recommendations, our proprietary algorithms analyze 20 billion data points to come up with personalized book recommendations. Advertising is not part of this process and won't be in the future.

Will Goodreads now be more focused on being a site for authors?

We love having authors on Goodreads. But, we are a site that's focused on readers first. If there is a choice between what is best for readers and what is best for authors, we will always err on the side of readers. It's right there in how we describe ourselves: "the largest site for readers and book recommendations."

On the other hand, lots of readers love to have direct interaction with their favorite authors and we're happy to provide a platform for that to happen.

For new authors looking to establish themselves and build awareness of their books, we'll continue to educate them on the best way to interact on Goodreads. It's a learning process and our key advice will always be: first and foremost, be a reader on Goodreads.

All that sounds very reassuring. No plans to change, no one will notice a difference. Then came Banned Books Week and, ironically on the Friday before the celebration of resisting censorship began, an announcement that Goodreads is deleting the reviews and, later on, the shelves labeled in a manner that focuses attention on the author of a book and not the book itself. Kara, the Director of Customer Care, posted this in response to massive numbers of protest posts on the “Important Note Regarding Reviews” thread where the surprise was revealed:

We’ve been reading all the comments and wanted to give an update based on some of the concerns in the thread.

To clarify, we haven’t deleted any book reviews in regard to this issue . (Not strictly speaking true. See below.) The key word here is "book". The reviews that have been deleted - and that we don't think have a place on Goodreads - are reviews like "the author is an a**hole and you shouldn't read this book because of that". In other words, they are reviews of the author's behavior and not relevant to the book. We believe books should stand on their own merit, and it seems to us that's the best thing for readers.

Someone used the word censorship to describe this. This is not censorship - this is setting an appropriate tone for a community site. We encourage members to review and shelve books in a way that makes sense for them, but reviews and shelves that focus primarily on author behavior do not belong on Goodreads.

From Wikipedia, this definition of censorship:
Censorship is the suppression of speech or other public communication which may be considered objectionable, harmful, sensitive, politically incorrect or inconvenient as determined by a government, media outlet or other controlling body. It can be done by governments and private organizations or by individuals who engage in self-censorship. It occurs in a variety of different contexts including speech, books, music, films, and other arts, the press, radio, television, and the Internet for a variety of reasons including national security, to control obscenity, child pornography, and hate speech, to protect children, to promote or restrict political or religious views, and to prevent slander and libel. It may or may not be legal. Many countries provide strong protections against censorship by law, but none of these protections are absolute and it is frequently necessary to balance conflicting rights in order to determine what can and cannot be censored.

So yes indeed, the act of deleting reviews and other user-created materials suddenly deemed not-community-friendly is censorship. "Enforcing community standards"...well...just a question from the peanut gallery here, but how did these "community standards" get set, by whom, and when? A long and separate chat could be had on that topic. But for now. let's note there were 21 people whose reviews were, summarily and without warning, deleted. That contradicts what Kara said above. And she posted this update to backtrack from her earlier assertion:

Thank you for all the comments so far. One concern that has come up in this thread is that the content was deleted without those members first being told that our moderation policy had been revised.

In retrospect, we absolutely should have given users notice that our policies were changing before taking action on the items that were flagged. To the 21 members who were impacted: we'd like to sincerely apologize for jumping the gun on this. It was a mistake on our part, and it should not have happened.

Anyone else with reviews or shelves created prior to September 21, 2013 that will be deleted under the revised policy will be sent a notification first and given time to decide what to do.

Again, thank you for all your comments. We'll continue to monitor this thread for your feedback.

So we’re all hunky-dory again, right? Warning will be given to people who fall afoul of the new “community standards” which we’re now enforcing. Time to make a decision about revising content, moving content, what one wishes to do in response to the site’s desire to remove one’s content from its community’s gaze. I wasn’t given a warning, I was informed my content was removed:

Hello Richard,

Your review of The Hydra were recently brought to our attention. Please note that any reviews you post must contain your own original content (see our review guidelines). Any reviews that are simply copy-pasted duplicates of other reviews will be removed. Given this, the review in question has been deleted. We have attached a copy for your personal records.

Additionally, your review of Civil Disobedience and Other Essays was recently flagged by Goodreads members as potentially off-topic. As the review is not about the book, it has been removed from the site. You can find the text of the review attached for your personal records.

Please note that if you continue to violate our guidelines, your account may come under review for removal.

The Goodreads Team

Now, I've been completely and publicly pantiwadulous over the major change in Terms of Service as they affect what reviewers...the unpaid volunteers who create the value that Amazon paid for the company to get!...can and cannot say to/about authors in their own reviews, and even more troublingly, what the reviewers can and cannot name the shelves or collections they put their books into. It didn’t need to be personal to me to draw my attention to the many and various attempts to censor what kind of reading material is available to you, me, our kids, our grandkids, and the banning parties hope, posterity. Books that talk about S-E-X or the right of women to walk down all the streets of the world without fearing rape or the existence of this little thing called "science" that rejects religion's once-upon-a-time version of Creation get banned regularly...until now, Goodreads has been a place to discuss these banned books freely and openly. How long before the author-friendly censorship moves into family-friendly censorship, such as the amorphous "community standards" Kara cites above will come to demand?

In the long run, censorship doesn't work. In the short run, it's hideously costly in human emotional terms, titanically wasteful of time, effort, and resources to police and enforce, and morally repugnant to right-thinking people.

But the evil doesn't stop at formal banning of a book, governmental or business anathema pronounced upon a writer, a press, a review...those things, while reprehensible, are formal, out there for the public to see and hear and (theoretically) obey.

More insidious is a behavior that's meant to fly under the radar, such as deleting people's work without warning, is almost inevitable when these "community standards" that were never hashed out, publicly debated, or even made a topic of conversation are put in place by fiat. And when the actions are discovered, they're covered up by (factually correct, morally wrong) justifications like "Oh look how few people are actually affected!" and "Most of you will never know it's even there!" and "It's my {concrete noun} and I'll do as I goddamned well please with it."

To quote a religious figure of great renown, "Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me." (Matthew 31:45) You didn't speak up for the safety or the happiness of those piddling few? You didn't worry because it wasn't you?

Next time it will be. Or the time after that. Or the one after that. Because if I've learned nothing else in 54 years of relatively constant annoyance by earthlings, I've learned that the forces of Command and Control NEVER EVER STOP WANTING MORE.

I don't know if anyone on the Goodreads staff expected the strength and passion of delivery of the vitriol that the sheeple (irony there!) of the site unleashed on this decision. If they did not, they were not paying attention to the titanic kerfuffle when Amazon bought Goodreads. Twenty-five hundred posts (mostly) of outrage and fear didn't make an impact? The Ugly Green Button contretemps, with 2,350 posts, made no dent? Now there are over 5,800 posts on the Announcement thread linked above!

Goodreads folk are passionate and committed readers and writers. And the reason they've...we've...invested so much emotional energy in the site is, at base, simple. It's the only one of its kind, the only place where readers connect with other readers by means of reviews, groups, and serendipity. Competitors to Goodreads are a great deal smaller, they're often focused around special interests (eg, LibraryThing, that unparalleled book cataloging site, with a sideline of social activitythat's not very much encouraged), or they just haven't got the chops to make the ease and fluidity of opinion discovery on a par with Goodreads.

So naturally change will be resisted and feared by many, and just as naturally the Powers That Be will seek to direct the community's attention to such areas as will benefit the advertisers and/or owners who pay the bills. Some tension is inevitable, some compromise desirable on all sides. But to date, no compromise has been offered on any issue of site governance I've cited here. The policy announced Friday, 23 September 2013, that announces Goodreads can and will delete user-created information at will and without warning is in place. The mea-culpa issued the next week, with a reassurance that they won't delete stuff without warning again isn't, it appears, part of the formal policy yet.

This is put in place, we're told, because Goodreads wants to maintain a TONE, an atmosphere, of respect and tolerance. Because nothing says respect and tolerance like unilaterally changing a community-wide policy with a dump-and-run message on Friday afternoon, in a group that much less than 1% of the user base belongs to, right?

Still, it's their (well, Amazon's) site and they set the rules, right? Right. They do. And they offer the service to us for free, right, so they pretty much deserve to have a completely free hand, right?

Nope. Not without a fight.

I’m appalled by the dismissive snort many Goodreaders emit, essentially saying, "suck it up Buttercup, if you're not the paying customer you're the paid-for commodity." Point don't value the existence of a cyberspace dedicated to free discussion of the ideas and impact of books on readers. Fine, then you're not required to be upset about the absence of such a cyberspace. But you still lose when ANY voice is silenced, out of fear or obedience or...worst of all...despair. How many honest reviews, negative to the author's feelings and even insulting in language, will now not be written? How many conversations will go un-had? (I've learned a lot from arguing my point's validity on my most vitriolic reviews.)

Talking about books freely and without censorship, whether internal or external in origin, is as important an activity as reading the damn things. If no one talks about Mein Kampf, or Man and Superman, or The Hydra, why kill the trees to print them? Why dedicate the bandwidth to delivering the files to the ereader screens? If people care enough to read even one book a year, shouldn't they be encouraged and supported in a desire to discuss it in full, even (or espeecially) if they aren’t experts in literary theory or history or ethics or copyright?

Stifling one, twenty-one, a million and one, people's willingness to speak honestly and from the heart about the ideas, the words, the feelings expressed in a book, by an author, is stealing from the rest of us who are unaffected the very necessary challenge of understanding, if never accepting, a different point of view.

And that's what Goodreads was. Was. I have to use the past tense. It WAS this. It is now a data farm and sales platform for a bookselling entity. (Whose customer I am, by the way, and will continue to be, because I exist on less money per month that most of you make in a week.) And sales are hurt, the conventional wisdom goes, by shouting.

Goodreads was a unique thing, a place where opinions about books created by writers could be examined and opined upon without fear of censorship. That is an important function. No one else was doing it. And now, in fact, no one is doing it.

And that's the most horrible thing about censorship: To avoid falling afoul of the censors, we question ourselves and censor ourselves and make a big deal out of things in our heads. We do the work of the control freaks for them, out of a desire to avoid them.

Like Amazon, Goodreads reviews will steadily become less and less useful because, basically, how will I ever trust that the happy-clappy Kool-Aid dispensing Nicey McNiceToMe people haven't got hold of it?

Ray Bradbury said it best: "You don't have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them." And talking about them. And now there's no safe place to do that with the size audience, with their wallets ready to spring open.

The decline, it would seem, has accelerated, and the fall is imminent. I'm sad about that. For me, I'm going to shout from the wilderness. I'll post protests and I'll post reviews that are explicitly anti-censorship and tie them into these concerns. And most people will learn to ignore me, more than they already do, because "what's that noisy old coot hollering for?" is easier, safer, less trouble than thinking about what this explicit statement of censorship as a policy means for your own future mental freedom.

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Censorship by Goodreads Post...ignore if you're complacent

So I got my first nastygram from the censorship board at Orwell Enterprises, Inc, a wholly useless tentacle of Amazon:

Hello Richard,

Your review of The Hydra were recently brought to our attention. Please note that any reviews you post must contain your own original content (see our review guidelines). Any reviews that are simply copy-pasted duplicates of other reviews will be removed. Given this, the review in question has been deleted. We have attached a copy for your personal records.

Additionally, your review of Civil Disobedience and Other Essays was recently flagged by Goodreads members as potentially off-topic. As the review is not about the book, it has been removed from the site. You can find the text of the review attached for your personal records.

Please note that if you continue to violate our guidelines, your account may come under review for removal.

The Goodreads Team

My review of The Hydra was a repost of someone else's protest review, and I put it up specifically so they'd have to spend time taking it down. However, my review of Civil Disobedience was entirely my own work, and was indeed in the spirit of the book reviewed. Taking this review down is the act of a censor of opinion, not the act of a community-standards enforcing body.

They didn't want to have my critical opinion out there for public consumption. So here it is, unreachable by their tentacles.

The Goodreads policy of arbitrarily censoring, by deletion, any reviews that contain references to an author's behavior, beliefs, or public statements that affect my personal opinion of that author and his or her output is flat-assed stupid.

Silencing people does not make the world Nicer. It doesn't make the author's views go away. It doesn't stop people from...gasp!...being offended by something they read. It makes the censor a fool, and those calling for censorship crybabies.

Thoreau, a mama's boy who lived at home until he moved to the wilderness of five miles away from home and still ate mama's cookin' and used mama's laundry skills, advocated standing up to stupidity by legal protest action. This is me, being Thoreauvian.

No, Goodreads, I won't delete my account. No, Goodreads, I won't sit down and shut up. You are censoring speech because some delicate little fleurs find it too harsh? Where does that road lead, except to Orwellian doublespeak and Kafkaesque domination of people's personal space?

The law allows you to do what you're doing. But my mama, a woman whose political views were to the right of Hitler's, taught me something important when I was small:


Sunday, October 13, 2013

THE WHISKEY REBELS, excellent historical thriller about how far back anti-gummint fervor goes in the US


Random House
$17.00 trade paper, available now

Rating: 4.5* of five

The Publisher Says: David Liss’s bestselling historical thrillers, including A Conspiracy of Paper and The Coffee Trader, have been called remarkable and rousing: the perfect combination of scrupulous research and breathless excitement. Now Liss delivers his best novel yet in an entirely new setting–America in the years after the Revolution, an unstable nation where desperate schemers vie for wealth, power, and a chance to shape a country’s destiny.

Ethan Saunders, once among General Washington’s most valued spies, now lives in disgrace, haunting the taverns of Philadelphia. An accusation of treason has long since cost him his reputation and his beloved fiancée, Cynthia Pearson, but at his most desperate moment he is recruited for an unlikely task–finding Cynthia’s missing husband. To help her, Saunders must serve his old enemy, Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton, who is engaged in a bitter power struggle with political rival Thomas Jefferson over the fragile young nation’s first real financial institution: the Bank of the United States.

Meanwhile, Joan Maycott is a young woman married to another Revolutionary War veteran. With the new states unable to support their ex-soldiers, the Maycotts make a desperate gamble: trade the chance of future payment for the hope of a better life on the western Pennsylvania frontier. There, amid hardship and deprivation, they find unlikely friendship and a chance for prosperity with a new method of distilling whiskey. But on an isolated frontier, whiskey is more than a drink; it is currency and power, and the Maycotts’ success attracts the brutal attention of men in Hamilton’s orbit, men who threaten to destroy all Joan holds dear.

As their causes intertwine, Joan and Saunders–both patriots in their own way–find themselves on opposing sides of a daring scheme that will forever change their lives and their new country. The Whiskey Rebels is a superb rendering of a perilous age and a nation nearly torn apart–and David Liss’s most powerful novel yet.


My Review
: Liss in true Liss form! I adored A Conspiracy of Paper and A Spectacle of Corruption and enjoyed greatly The Coffee Trader. Mr. Liss is a writer with several gifts, and seemingly displays them to their best advantage in works of historical fiction. (I was no fan of The Ethical Assassin since it felt undeveloped and unfinished to me. And don't get me started on The Devil's Company and its icky anti-bisexual silliness that added nothing to the plot.)

Most unusually, Mr. Liss can take any business conflict and make it into a story. He tells us the story of the business panic that in part led to the Whiskey Rebellion in this novel (I grossly oversimplify the twists and turns, but that’s the penalty of wanting to keep this under 5000 words!) from the points of view held by two victims of honor. Ethan Saunders and Joan Maycott have wildly diverging aims in this novel; their conflict is completely believable; they are characters representing very real conflicts in American society at that time, and they do so without feeling like invented mouthpieces for a particular cause or view. This is Mr. Liss’s extraordinary gift to historical fiction, that his characters breathe enough life to seem as though their actions are inevitable outgrowths of their described and/or demonstrated interests. This talent above all others should win Mr. Liss a place on the bestseller lists, since he competes against authors of creative facility and character-building imbecility (eg, James Patterson, John Grisham) for male readership.

Another of the gifts Mr. Liss brings to the table is his deftness of plotting. It takes a writer of skill to make a complex issue like a bank failure (and how timely is that choice of plot point!) into something exciting to the reader and highly personal to the characters. I was riveted to the descriptions of one character’s machinations to achieve a particular result to the failure of the Million Bank and the reasons for that character’s venomous hatreds and callously indifferent behaviors was both cause and effect in the spiraling, stomach-churning race that forms the last thrilling 40 pages of this novel.

Really highly recommended for anyone looking to find a fine writer with a gift for storytelling coupled to a sense of timing that cannot be beat.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

A NOVEL BOOKSTORE, delightfully daffy book about books in a different kind of bookstore

(tr. Alison Anderson)
Europa Editions
$18.00 trade paper, available now

Rating: 4.9* of five

The Publisher Says: A Europa classic about love, deceit, Paris, and books!

Ivan and Francesca decide to open a bookstore devoted solely to good literature and their love of books. Frustrated by the glut of mediocre books printed every month and envisioning a true literary paradise, they offer a selection of literary masterpieces chosen by a top-secret committee of like-minded literary connoisseurs.

To their amazement, after only a few months, their vision proves popular. Very popular. Tucked away in a corner of Paris, the bookstore quickly becomes a haven for bibliophiles. Indeed, it becomes so successful that the great majority of Parisian readers are now buying their books only at Ivan and Francesca’s store, and other stores in the city are starting to change how they order and display books too. Now big publishing’s powerful elite are desperately trying to adapt their business model to the demand for quality above all else. As the store’s success grows, venomous comments begin circulating online and the owners, and their selection committee, become the target of vicious editorials and threats.

A Novel Bookstore blends book love and bookstore love with a brilliantly conceived and entertaining mystery and is a delight for readers of all tastes.

My Review: Well, okay, see, this is a French novel, and it's really, really hard for a Murrikin like me to disentangle what French novels are about, like what the author set out to do, because the French don't really have the same rules we Murrikins do for novel-writing. It seems to be about two people, a rich, smart woman and a poor, smart man, who sorta kinda fall in love in a way and yet they don't because she's married to a major Philistine a-hole and he's in love, for some unfathomable reason, with this dreary little chickie half his age who seems drippy, useless, and uninteresting to *me* and, I suspect, to the rich lady too. So the rich lady does what rich people do best and unbelts with a big pile of gelt for the poor-but-smart dude to start this bookstore that will sell only novels, and only the best, the finest, the most ut of the lit'ry output of the planet, chosen by eight of the best (French) writers now writing. Hijinks ensue, which are frankly completely incredible (in its literal sense), but are lots of fun. What this book is *not* is any species of thriller or mystery; it's a French novel. That's what it is. No more, no less, no different. So, in the end, the Philistine husband and the poor-but-smart dude part ways but the store must go on, and the book's narrator is revealed, though I have to say it's not a huge surprise, though I think it's intended that way. The end, happily ever after but sadder and wiser.

I gave the book a generous 4.9 stars because it's one of those books that, while reading, goes wildly up and down the star scale; but in the end, cover closed, glasses chewed upon, assumes a different shape than the one that the reading process creates.

I'd recommend this book to all and sundry if only because of this passage, beautifully translated by the very talented Alison Anderson, on page 150 of the Europa edition:
Literature is a source of is one of the rare inexhaustible joys in life, but it's not only that. It must not be dissociated from reality. Everything is there. That is why I never use the word fiction. Every subtlety in life is material for a book....Have you noticed...that I'm talking about novels? Novels don't contain only exceptional situations, life or death choices, or major ordeals; there are also everyday difficulties, temptations, ordinary disappointments; and, in response, every human attitude, every type of behavior, from the finest to the most wretched. There are books where, as you read, you wonder: What would I have done? It's a question you have to ask yourself. Listen carefully: it is a way to learn to live. There are grown-ups who will say no, literature is not life, that novels teach you nothing. They are wrong. Literature informs, instructs, it prepares you for life.

If that passage rings you like the bell you wondered if you might be, then this book will speak to you and shape you a bit differently than you were before; if it seems tediously long, avoid this book like it's got herpes, because you'll hate it.

*gooonnnggg* goes my spirit.

Second Catherynne Valente Review posted 10 October 2013

Catherynne M. Valente
Square Fish
$7.99 trade paper, available now

Rating: 5* of five

The Publisher Says: Twelve-year-old September lives in Omaha, and used to have an ordinary life, until her father went to war and her mother went to work. One day, September is met at her kitchen window by a Green Wind (taking the form of a gentleman in a green jacket), who invites her on an adventure, implying that her help is needed in Fairyland. The new Marquess is unpredictable and fickle, and also not much older than September. Only September can retrieve a talisman the Marquess wants from the enchanted woods, and if she doesn’t . . . then the Marquess will make life impossible for the inhabitants of Fairyland. September is already making new friends, including a book-loving Wyvern and a mysterious boy named Saturday.

With exquisite illustrations by acclaimed artist Ana Juan, Fairyland lives up to the sensation it created when the author first posted it online. For readers of all ages who love the charm of Alice in Wonderland and the soul of The Golden Compass, here is a reading experience unto itself: unforgettable, and so very beautiful.

My Review: Magic is real.

Hello? Are you all right down there? Nothing broke in the fall, did it?

Magic, as I was saying, is real. Magic, not the stupid majgicqk of the boring nonillion-ologies of million-paged forest-rapers about the Queen of the Orc's long-lost son's Qwest to Fynd the Hynd or whatever. That shit should be banned. Or very very heavily taxed.

Ahem. Trying to find polite again.

So yes, September is magic, and Fairyland is magic, and Valente is a sorceress whose incantation is this book. The real deal, laddies and gentlewomen, le pur sang, descended from the right hand of the lawrd (which always sounded vaguely naughty to me, but I'm incurably low-minded). This YA fantasy novel is what y'all who need magic should aim yourselves towards like lodestones to the pole. Look no further, this is it.

Seriously, should I call someone? This falling down while gasping is a smidge alarming.

September is Ravished from her mother and her life, goes on a quest to find a Spoon for a Witch, meets the Magical Helper and overcomes the Magical Foe, and in the process saves Fairyland, grows into a wise woman, and goes home for a nap. That's the plot. Basic government-issue story.

So why am I, YA-averse and phauntaisee-phobic, giving it five stars? Because. It's magic. The real deal. Every one of us begins life in a universe of unbounded possibility and slowly but surely submit ourselves to the chains and locks and gears of adulthood. Fairyland, that state of unbounded possibility, recedes from us as each nasty rule and wicked, spiteful decision made by or against us does its grim work.

We use our unique, indescribable, polymorphous magic tools to sever and close and shut off, just as September is gulled into thinking she must do to uncouple Fairyland from reality, from our world of machines and banks and school. We're taught that the painful and nasty process is necessary, will save us and everyone we love, is right and just and correct. So most of us mangle and chop away, thinking the pain is growing up and growing wise and becoming adult.

Some few of us, like September, are given a moment of magic, and see the process for what it really is: Death with slow rotting, oblivion enough to be bearable but shot through with the awareness of the loss we've been tricked into suffering at our own hand. And some fewer still retain, magically, access to that other and better world. They come and they go, leaving us trapped souls for just long enough to be noticeably changed on their return, if we're sharp and attentive. Which, to my utter shock (not), most of us do not.

Valente's work, in the main, is polished prose telling interesting stories. Her adult tales will repay your reading time, and even (for many who Don't Read Such Things) be a revelation of quality work taking place in fields far from the ordinary haunts of dull adults. Seek that out, do, and firmly squelch the lip-curling until one full book has passed before your eyes.

But here? This? This is magic. The real deal. Approach it slowly, with a heart open and a mind clear, and it will enfold you in its warmly feathered, hard-muscled wings, and bear you away to that place you cut off so long ago. March in with your expectations set on stun, your ideas loaded like rocks in a slingshot ready to let fly, and your experience will resemble that of the US Army in Afghanistan: What hit me? Ow! Stop that! Ow!

I speak from (happily changed) experience.

Monday, October 7, 2013

DEATHLESS, Catherynne Valente's Leningrad Diptych #1 7 October 2013

(Leningrad Diptych #1)
Tor Books
$18.99 trade paper, available now

Rating: 4.25* of five


The Publisher Says: Koschei the Deathless is to Russian folklore what devils or wicked witches are to European culture: a menacing, evil figure; the villain of countless stories which have been passed on through story and text for generations. But Koschei has never before been seen through the eyes of Catherynne Valente, whose modernized and transformed take on the legend brings the action to modern times, spanning many of the great developments of Russian history in the twentieth century.

Deathless, however, is no dry, historical tome: it lights up like fire as the young Marya Morevna transforms from a clever child of the revolution, to Koschei’s beautiful bride, to his eventual undoing. Along the way there are Stalinist house elves, magical quests, secrecy and bureaucracy, and games of lust and power. All told, Deathless is a collision of magical history and actual history, of revolution and mythology, of love and death, which will bring Russian myth back to life in a stunning new incarnation.

My Review: Remember how I said I didn't like books with majgickq and elves and stuff, and how very resistant I'd be so such stories?


Magical to a fault, mystical and full of eyerollingly silly things like big black cars with chicken's feet instead of tires, and factories where soldiers are hand-loomed by the Tsar of Life's cast-off mistresses under the supervision of Baba Yaga.

And what can I say? Like every hard and fast rule, this rule went flooey in no time at all, thanks to some ecstatic carolings and appreciative lowings from some very talented reviewers. You terrible people know who you are. I don't love you for causing me to eat my words so publicly.

Russia is a strange, strange place to me. During some really vicious pogroms they tossed in the 19th century, a Polish Jewish ancestress of mine...great-grandmother...walked away from her shtetl, her family, and her identity, got to Bavaria and married an old Catholic man with no living children but who had a shop, and started again. He died, she sold up, she moved on to the USA via Paris, two kids and an American lover in tow. So thanks Russians for being murderously anti-Semitic or I wouldn't be alive today! But the culture that gave rise to the anti-Semitic stuff has always filled me with disgust and not a little horror at the christian hate and apostolic misery doled out on all the people. The myths of the peasantry seem so unforgiving and tricksy and just plain vicious. Then I contemplate the way the country was run (being polite, not well, not ever) makes sense...but it still always made me feel icky to read about it.

Then comes this melding of myth and materialsm, supernatural and Supreme Soviet...and I fell head first into love with the package.

Valente's use of language is exemplary. She never stints or holds back. Descriptions are abundant yet they are never obfuscatory; the idea is to create a 3-D experience in the reader's mind and by GUM (old Cold War humor, sorry) she does just exactly that. She never reaches beyond her grasp or talks down to her audience. If only a Russian word will do, there it is, and the nuances are not Spelled Out For You and neither must you resort to Google and Good Luck to find out what the hell this woman's on about.

This (revoltingly) young writer has the temerity and the confidence and the chops to pull off this melding of modernity and medievalism without breaking a (visible) sweat. That's one sweet achievement. This is a book that's as Russian as hot tea with sour cherry preserves and as American as serving it in a Starbucks cup.

And it's beautiful. And it's moving. And it's graceful and lovely and possessed of the most marvelous ability to switch from tango to waltz to jitterbug. Dance with her. This opportunity doesn't come every day.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

LESTER HIGATA'S 20TH CENTURY, love and death and family...spelunked and excavated for you to appreciate

University of Iowa Press
$16.00 trade paper or ebook edition, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: “Lester Higata knew his life was about to end when he walked out on the lanai behind his house in Makiki and saw his long-dead father sitting in a lawn chair near the little greenhouse where Lester kept his orchids.” Thus begins Barbara Hamby’s magical narrative of the life of a Japanese American man in Honolulu. The quietly beautiful linked stories in Lester Higata’s 20th Century bring us close to people who could be, and should be, our friends and neighbors and families.

Starting in 1999 with his conversation with his father, continuing backward in time throughout his life with his wife, Katherine, and their children in Hawai‘i, and ending with his days in the hospital in 1946, as he heals from a wartime wound and meets the woman he will marry, Hamby recreates not just one but any number of the worlds that have shaped Lester. The world of his mother, as stubbornly faithful to Japan and Buddhism as Katherine’s mother is to Ohio and conservative Christianity; the world of his children, whose childhoods and adulthoods are vastly different from his own; the world after Pearl Harbor and Vietnam; the world of a professional engineer and family man: the worlds of Lester Higata’s 20th Century are filled with ordinary people living extraordinary lives, moving from farms to classrooms and offices, from racism to acceptance and even love, all in a setting so paradisal it should be heaven on earth.

Never forgetting the terrors of wartime—“We wake one morning with the wind racing toward us like an animal, and nothing is ever the same”—but focusing on the serene joys of peacetime, Lester populates his worlds with work, faith, and family among the palm trees and blue skies of the island he loves.


My Review
: Not every author has the fortitude to start a collection of stories with a story about the death of the title character. Hamby is to be applauded for this, it's gutsy! It isn't extremely successful, though, beacuse the unspooling of Lester Higata's life from 1946 to 1999 is unevenly presented and unevenly edited, as quite some several of these stories appeared in other venues before being collected here.

The very best story, the chef d'ouevre, is the delightful, fresh, energetic story of Lester's last day: "Lester Higata's String Theory Paradise." Waking up to a conversation with your dead father, one in which he bashes your equally dead Gorgon of a mother, is a pretty good clue that the rest of the day isn't going to be normal. And it is, oddly, very normal in its events and yet Lester's certainty that this is his last day on Earth manages to make all its events sharp and clear and dear to him. It's an excellent story. It's no surprise to me that this story appeared in TriQuarterly and was edited by the superb, talented, and very accomplished Susan Hahn. She impressed me mightily in our one professional contact, when she bought a story from one of my then-clients in my former life as an agent.

Well, I said the collection was uneven...and the next story, "Iniki Chicken", is proof of this. In and of itself, it's not a bad little piece, but it needed a pruning before being put in the show. It appeared in Southwestern Review, which magazine has a decent reputation, but the piece has an overwordy quality that detracts from Hamby's clean and simple message: "Looking at all the people gathered around the table, I wondered how so many different faces could be made in the image of one God? Maybe the Hawaiians were right, and there were many gods: {there follows a list of four gods and their areas of expertise, taking up a long paragraph}...But if there was only one God what could he possibly be like?..." A taut meditation on the nature of spiritual belief and its relationship to human interaction becomes a comparative religion lecture, and loses force and clarity. SO frustrating!

The strong stories outnumber the weak ones, fortunately: "Mr. Manago's Mango Trees" is bleak, but wryly witty; "Lani Dances the Zombie Hula in LA" is a spare, cold-eyed flensing of the way promise gets transmogrified into failure and misery; "Sayonara, Mrs. Higata" pitilessly shows the too-late-ness of deathbed regrets, and the hollow-yet-shining face of Duty's Daughters; and "Lester Higata in Love" is heartbreakingly tender and beautifully rendered, its landscape of love's losses and joys as mountainous as O'ahu itself.

The University of Iowa press sent this ARC to me as part of the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program. It's a pleasure to be able to recommend the collection to any reader even slightly interested in the geography of love.

Friday, October 4, 2013

SIX MONTHS, THREE DAYS by Charlie Jane Anders

I've reviewed a Hugo-winning novelette, SIX MONTHS, THREE DAYS, by Charlie Jane Anders.

What an interesting question it poses. Do we in fact have free will? Does the ability to foresee more than one future outcome to the present mean change is possible, or merely that some choices are okay to make?

I love the answer. Read it, it's free.

Free, available now

Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: NBC is putting Charlie Jane Anders’ Six Months, Three Days into production and we could not be more excited! published the Hugo award-winning novelette in 2011.

From Deadline Hollywood, NBC is adapting the story into...

...a light procedural about a mismatched pair of San Francisco private investigators — an upbeat, free-spirited idealist and a swoon-worthy, brooding fatalist –- both of whom can see the future. Forced to team up, the pair knows their relationship is destined to grow from antagonistic rivalry into fairy-tale true love… but only if they can stop him from being killed in six months and three days. The adaptation will being written by film and TV writer Eric Garcia, author of the novel Matchstick Men, on which the feature film was based. Ritter, Garcia, Janollari and Silent Machine’s Lindsey Liberatore are executive producing.
Charlie Jane had this to say over on io9...

I was really blown away by how many people connected with this story, both with the characters and with the ideas. After a decade and a half of toiling in obscurity as a fiction writer, it's beyond intense when something you wrote takes on a life of its own like that. Knowing that something that came out of your head is living in other people's heads, is enough to make your head explode. I felt way beyond lucky.

So then hearing from other creative people that they want to turn my story into something brand new and different is kind of that same feeling of astonishment and luck — only maybe even more so, because of the realization that smart people are putting time and energy into the idea of adapting your story. Whatever happens with this deal, I will never stop being thrilled about that.
A huge congratulations to Charlie Jane Anders! And a thank-you to editor Patrick Nielsen Hayden for acquiring the story for us. This remains one of my favorite stories we have had the honor to publish. If you haven’t read it yet, you can do so here. And then get the popcorn ready for TV night!

My Review: "O wad some Power the giftie gie us/To see oursels as ithers see us!" --Robert Burns

That quote has always chilled me. I don't want to see myself as others see me, thanks. Burns's point is that we should not wish for that, ever, because the burden of knowing what another person thinks, sees, feels is quite impossibly heavy and unbearable. Think of how many times in this good life you've wanted not to know what you yourownself thought, felt, saw.

Charlie Jane Anders, a smallish fixture in the SFnal world with a good reputation as a storyteller and a nice lady, imagines for two people the horrid, heavy burden of seeing the future...exacerbated or ameliorated by their discovery of each other and their subsequent, doomed relationship. After all, seeing the future means knowing how it ends, right?

“I don’t think you’re any more or less powerful than me. Our powers are just different,” Doug says. “But I think you’re a selfish person. I think you’re used to the idea that you can cheat on everything, and it’s made your soul a little bit rotten. I think you’re going to hate me for the next few weeks until you figure out how to cast me out. I think I love you more than my own arms and legs and I would shorten my already short life by a decade to have you stick around one more year. I think you’re brave as hell for keeping your head up on our journey together into the mouth of hell. I think you’re the most beautiful human being I’ve ever met, and you have a good heart despite how much you’re going to tear me to shreds.”
Or does it, wonders Judy, mean that she can make changes in small things and thereby change the future? Is it in her power to alter the inevitable? Doug doesn't think so. Doug is a committed and convinced determinist. He sees only one future, and he's sure he's correct about its inevitability.

Judy sees, on the other hand, a multiplicity of possible futures, and must weigh in a matter of a blink which one she will choose. Pause a moment and consider that. Doesn't that degree of personal accountability for one's life's course sound appallingly dreary?

And now imagine for a moment the sheer relief of finding and spending time with the one other person on the planet that fully, as fully as humans can anyway, Gets You...while knowing that your love is doomed. (See the title for a clue.)

Do you lie down and weep for what can't be changed? Do you rail against the cold, merciless gawd who lumbered you with this "gift?" Or do you break the rules, test the limits, fight for yourself and your happiness, by doing something, anything, to take your future into your own hands?


Tuesday, October 1, 2013

NO STRAIGHT LINES, compendium of Queer graphic artistry

NO STRAIGHT LINES: Four Decades Of Queer Comics

$35.00 trade paper OR $12.49 via Kindle!


Rating: 3* of five

The Publisher Says: No Straight Lines showcases major names such as Alison Bechdel, Howard Cruse, and Ralf Koenig (one of Europe's most popular cartoonists), as well as high-profile, crossover creators who have dabbled in LGBT cartooning, like legendary NYC artist David Wojnarowicz and media darling and advice columnist Dan Savage.

No Straight Lines also spotlights many talented creators who never made it out of the queer comics ghetto, but produced amazing work that deserves wider attention. Queer cartooning encompasses some of the best and most interesting comics of the last four decades, with creators tackling complex issues of identity and a changing society with intelligence, humor, and imagination.

This book celebrates this vibrant artistic underground by gathering together a collection of excellent stories that can be enjoyed by all. Until recently, queer cartooning existed in a parallel universe to the rest of comics, appearing only in gay newspapers and gay bookstores and not in comic book stores, mainstream bookstores or newspapers. The insular nature of the world of queer cartooning, however, created a fascinating artistic scene. LGBT comics have been an uncensored, internal conversation within the queer community, and thus provide a unique window into the hopes, fears, and fantasies of queer people for the last four decades.

These comics have forged their aesthetics from the influences of underground comix, gay erotic art, punk zines, and the biting commentaries of drag queens, bull dykes, and other marginalized queers. They have analyzed their own communities, and their relationship with the broader society. They are smart, funny, and profound. No Straight Lines has been heralded by people interested in comics history, and people invested in LGBT culture will embrace it as a unique and invaluable collection.

My Review: I don't like comics, comix, graphic novels, or whatever the hell you call them. It's too much work for too little story to my text-adapted eyes. But, in a quest not to ossify into one of Those People, I continue to expose myself to stuff I hate to see if I hate it, or merely don't understand it.

Nope. Hate it.

At least there were no superheroes. Those just grate on my last nerve with a fine-toothed wood rasp.

So why three stars in the ratings, since I hate the damn stuff? Because this is My People talking! I would give an identical collection featuring straight people doing straight people stuff *pause for bad memories to pass* negative stars.

As an aside to the squeamishly homophobic (read: boringly average heterosexual male), the amount of gay-male sex in here will make you *intensely* uncomfortable, but there's a goodly dose of lesbian sex to make it better.

As this is a history of LGBTQ subjects treated graphically, it is very very interesting when considered in that light, and shows the increasing sophistication of the audience as material becomes available in greater quantity. The subject matter is, well, pretty much what you'd expect it to be, and pretty much what all fiction is about: Ourselves.

At $35, it's a big investment that I don't see making if you're not GLBTQ or very interested in the history of social-issue artistry.