Tuesday, November 29, 2016

JOIN, debut SF philosophical thriller from Steve Toutonghi, gets big props from me


Soho Press
$13.25 paperback, $9.99 ebook platforms, available now

Rating: 4.5* of five

The Publisher Says: What if you could live multiple lives simultaneously, have constant, perfect companionship, and never die? That’s the promise of Join, a revolutionary technology that allows small groups of minds to unite, forming a single consciousness that experiences the world through multiple bodies. But as two best friends discover, the light of that miracle may be blinding the world to its horrors.

Chance and Leap are jolted out of their professional routines by a terrifying stranger—a remorseless killer who freely manipulates the networks that regulate life in the post-Join world. Their quest for answers—and survival—brings them from the networks and spire communities they’ve known to the scarred heart of an environmentally ravaged North American continent and an underground community of the “ferals” left behind by the rush of technology.

In the storytelling tradition of classic speculative fiction from writers like David Mitchell and Michael Chabon, Join offers a pulse-pounding story that poses the largest possible questions: How long can human life be sustained on our planet in the face of environmental catastrophe? What does it mean to be human, and what happens when humanity takes the next step in its evolution? If the individual mind becomes obsolete, what have we lost and gained, and what is still worth fighting for?


My Review: Well, this is extremely disheartening. My review vanished. I do not know how or why, and this has never happened before on Blogger. I'm going to cry for a while then retype it as best I can. DAMN.

This review appears to be cursed. Two more attempts to re-create it got eaten! I am at a loss to comprehend why. No other review ever has had such a run of bad luck. Annoyingly, this is a book I very much liked and particularly want others to read. So here it goes again:

The premise of this near-future thriller is chilling: Climate change has wrought havoc on the earth, creating a US landscape dominated by megastorms in what was once the world's breadbasket, the Great Plains. Sea levels are enough higher that the West Coast has an Olympic Archipelago in place of Seattle/Tacoma/Olympia. Into this Brave New World steps a Brave New Human, the "join." A discovery in the now-emerging field of quantum networking enables us, the millennia-old single consciousness humans, to share our mental resources with many others in a complete and overwhelming way. The quantum networking of our brains creates a new form of internal reality, a new creature, a different way of being human.

Now think about this: Our brains have trillions, yes 1,000,000,000,000s!, of neurons in each skull. We haven't come *close* to figuring out what is, and how they do, their work. Here comes a quantum means of interconnecting these trillions...trillions!...of neurons and making this titanic expansion of humanity's potential available to the planet and its people.


But au fond we're still human, and that means venal and evil and selfish as well as noble and good and selfless, at the same time and in each private skull. Imagine the magnification of the qualities that make us unique that joining presents.


Chance and Leap are each five-drive joins (a drive is what a joined person becomes) and are friends with a peculiar and, to me, underexplored degree of closeness that solos (single-consciousness people like thee and me, or so I assume since I'm not a join but hey you might be n which case I'd like to be a drive please) simply can't grok. Each has some very serious problems with the drives in the join. Chance Five is a beautiful young man who has terminal cancer, to everyone's surprise. Leap has a very weird join-specific condition that is at the heart of the book. Both run across a join called Rope, a seriously insane entity that joins then murders its own drives. This is, unsurprisingly, a supreme no-no. Even more horrific is Rope's complete willingness to murder other joins' drives, and Chance Three becomes its victim. And this is the warm-up to the real action!

Leap is in a terminal downward spiral that Rope, an illicitly immense join, might know how to fix or know someone who can fix it. Chance agrees to help Leap get to the entity that can make the horror awaiting it either cease or slow down. That is simply amazing to me: A segment of Chance's own join dies in helping Leap and there is nothing like recrimination or anger directed at Leap! I was so impressed that Author Toutonghi made absolutely nothing of this, allowing the reader to come to the realization of the astounding alteration of consciousness that this *one* fact illuminates unaided. That's authorial confidence, well justified by the results.

This story takes place in the world of forty years after the first join. That's not at all a long time to have created so many new and join-specific institutions that Author Toutonghi presents without fanfare or comment. His story simply requires that the reader be exposed to the ideas and actions that make joins different on a quantum level (ha) and the reader is then left to work it all out, make a context for it, build a matrix in which this is simply How It Is. In most SFnal literature there is a degree of explicit world-building that can, and often is, characterized by the dread insult "infodump." Not here. Nothing is dumped out of anything. If information is needed for the reader to move in this world, it is provided in-story. It is not a scaffold erected then bedizened with shiny pretty baubles. It is a skeleton covered with strong flexible muscles.

That's very very high praise indeed, coming from a grouchy jaded old curmudgeon like me.

I will not spoiler the resolution of this tale. I will say that it's breathtaking in its scope and still, in hindsight, inevitable from the story being told. It's not where I *thought* we were going at the outset. How fun is that?

Okay, that all sounds like a five-star warble of rapture. Why didn't I give JOIN five stars? Because of something that's going to be invisible to most of y'all: There is nothing at all in here about the existence of gay and lesbian people, no hint of any serious consideration of sexuality in the joins and the strange but wonderful reorientation (!) of sexual consciousness that was available to Author Toutonghi to explore. It's his novel, I know that so please don't yip at me about it. He gets to tell his own story his own way. But this central fact of human existence, sex and sexuality, is bog-standard straight people stuff and that is a glaring failure of imagination in an otherwise breathtakingly thorough reimagining of all the parameters of humanness. We even touch on the deeply troubling issue of incest in an oblique but still unsettling way. So I feel justified in saying "what the heck, dude," and tsk-tsking at this lacuna.

At any rate, I don't want to put you off reading the book, and so let me say this again: JOIN is a toweringly original and massively creative novel about identity and agency and cannot be overpraised for its fearlessness in addressing the central conundrum any species faces at any juncture in its history: So, what's next?

Buy it, read it, think about it.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

FIRST GREY, THEN WHITE, THEN BLUE, first novel from Dutch artist Margriet de Moor, excellent

(tr. Ina Rilke)
Out of print
Various prices via Amazon and other sellers

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: Magda in life—no less than Magda in death—was an enigma. A free spirit, alluring but private, loving yet remote. Where did she go during the years of her disappearance? Was it truly to the world of the stars? For her husband Robert, who wanted to possess her, body and soul, what Magda gave him was never enough. He murdered her, leaving her lover to discover her body.

Now, as friends gather for her funeral, the mystery of Magda's life is slowly, tantalizingly, revealed. Who really knew Magda, and what truths has her death revealed? First Grey, Then White, Then Blue, Margriet de Moor's first novel, is a story of perception, love, and mortality, told with a bewitching power. Margriet de Moor's novels and stories have been garnering high praise on both sides of the Atlantic, and her feel for physical detail, psychological nuance, and the quiet power of her storytelling have made her one of the most interesting and provocative contemporary writers. First Grey, Then White, Then Blue will be sure to captivate lovers of last year's The Virtuoso, while finding new fans for a writer endowed with the gift for mapping emotional worlds with unerring accuracy.

My Review: When eye specialist Erik drives down the dune where his house occupies the topmost bit on his way to work, he is surprised to see his childhood friend Robert's wife's dog standing outside the gate to Robert's family home. How odd, out of character for the animal to be unaccompanied in such a place and with no obvious signs of activity to explain the mystery. Erik stops the car, curious, and sets in motion the end of several worlds.

Magda, blonde Czech-German Jewish refugee child of WWII, lies dead in her bed. Robert has stabbed her with his father's Tibetan dagger. Erik is unable to process Robert's part in killing his own wife, who was also Erik's lover. Twenty years before, Robert had brought Magda home with him from a trip to Canada. The couple were passing through Robert's home town to cock a snook at Noort family on their way to live a delightfully Bohemian life in France's Cévennes mountains. Historically these Southern French gorges and peaks have sheltered those not in good odor with the central authorities. The population is largely Protestant in Catholic France. A renegade runaway Dutchman and his blonde Canadian wife raise not a hair on the locals' eyebrows. Robert paints. Magda tries to become pregnant. Erik, his wife Nellie, and their autistic son Gaby visit the Noorts for the first time in the late 1960s:
Only now does he remember that that triumphant voice provoked a vague feeling of revulsion in him. Did he perhaps begrudge Robert his exalted ideas? Robert told him that he forced things to have an affair with him.

"A love affair, don't laugh. If I had to I would force to make them communicate, yield up their confidences. What do you think of this stuff? Has quite a kick, hasn't it? Here they see the mouse as the symbol of the loyal Joseph."

Erik did not reply. He looked at the canvas in front of him on an easel, a life-sized woman's portrait. Although it was not apparently like her, Magda had undoubtedly sat for it. The portrait was painted in crude areas of paint, not with a brush but with the palette knife, and it seemed to him, much more than the landscapes and the still-lifes, first and foremost an account of work in progress, a fever, a battle with light and color.

He asked, "Can't you love the landscape, objects, a woman, without wanting to turn everything into something that belongs to you?"
It's a cogent question, one that Erik doesn't make sense of until a decade or more after he's asked it. Walking into the murder scene, he finds Robert unwilling to offer more than the minimum of interaction. He isn't raging. He isn't much of anything, really. Murdering his wife of twenty years has hollowed him out, leaving only a Robert-shaped shell, unable or unwilling to offer any explanations or resistance to his arrest by police Erik has summoned.

The narration now shifts to Robert's point of view, examining the roots of his obsession with Magda. He's a bourgeois boy in rebellion against his father. He's gone to New York City to join the burgeoning art world's ranks. His ambition to be a painter is nothing his industrialist father understands. Not the newest, freshest idea? Well no but then again there is a good reason that evergreens become evergreen. The conflict between fathers and sons is eternal and bitter; the sons no less than the fathers carry scars that don't make for attractive viewing. Robert responds to Magda's departure, unannounced and unexpected, with his father's wounds being laid bare again:
He opens the French windows, leaves off all the lights, slips off his shoes, his tie, finds a box of black cigarillos—lights one, pours himself a whisky—which he has not drunk for years—lies full length on the sofa and puts the bottle within reach. Her absence annoys him beyond words.
Evening sounds penetrate from the street. Footsteps of people out walking, a stifled laugh, a cry of surprise and then suddenly a passing bus: how dare you disappear just like that, tell me at once where you've got to and what time you're coming home. He shivers. This cold draught has nothing to do with you and me, with our lives, with our evenings by the fire. But when he gets up he leaves the French windows as they are, open, he simply fetches a heavy overcoat which he puts over his legs when he lies down again. There is no love at all in you!
"Why don't you love me?" The lament of each generation to the one before, a source of eternal anger and stress, and the genesis of much trouble between intimate partners.

Robert and Magda spend many years in each others' space. I don't know if I'd say they form a family unit so much as they have the same center of gravity and revolve around it, grinding grooves into each other, wearing channels in the other's bedrock along which their shared rages can flow:
His embraces are rough. Through a curtain of tears he immediately pushes his tongue deep in her mouth, although he knows that she really hates it. He grips her hips with his knees. He presses his fingers into her shoulders and then in hasty panic removes them in order to fiddle with the zip of his trousers. He pays no attention to her face, he does not listen to the sounds she makes, there is too much to do. At this blinding hour, in this cell of heat and fury where he has lost all patience and is as abrupt as the blade of a kinfe, Robert Noort, idealist, artist, utterly exhausted man, thinks his wife has been gone too long, that he has permission to rescue her from the underworld and at the same time to look back, that he can even grab her, that he can bury his head in the sweaty scent of her armpit, that he can drag her back by her hair to her warm beating heart, her skin, her hair, her eyes—your body is what you are, return to it, come on! so that we can learn everything about each other that is worth knowing—and bathed in sweat, his trousers around his ankles, he tries with actions that are essentially simple and, moreover, as old as the world, to restore order.
The confusion you are born with.
The confusions of love and hate, desire and domination, mastery and stewardship are all played out in de Moor's creations.

Robert's rage to possess meets Magda's Teflon emotional surfaces. Her own father, a Czech Jew, was betrayed to the Nazis in 1944 when she was perhaps six; her mother spent the rest of the war on into the postwar period looking for her one love's fate. Unable to find him or any news of him, Magda's mother took them as far away from Europe as she was able to do. Wide-open Canada, umbilically connected to mother England, takes in refugees from the titanic convulsion that wracked Europe for six long years. Magda's mother gets them onto a Swedish ship that will land them, ultimately, in Gaspé on Quebec's shores of the St. Lawrence Seaway. The crossing gives Magda some of her most coherent childhood memories:
Passengers, officers, a row of sailors at attention with the baby in a white cardboard box on a table. When I got close, I looked carefully. It was a sturdy, pretty baby, with a face that looked calm and even a little proud. Under its long-lashed eyelids it succeeded very well in hiding what it is like to be dead. Contentedly I noticed the dark pink roses laid around the body.

They had been made from sanitary towels. I had seen the women at work, the previous afternoon. They had carefully pulled apart the sanitary towels, which consisted of a pink and a white layer, they could use only the pink layer to fold wonderfully ingenious roses, twist them round and secure them with a tacked stitch. Tell me, I asked the baby softly, is it true that everything first goes grey, then white, then blue, and then you fly to the stars? By the way, what do you think of those roses? I think they are the most beautiful thing I have ever seen.
How exactly like a child. I was fully convinced that the murdered Magda, even so far in time from her unnatural demise, would note so carefully the ultimate end of all life's journeys, short or long. It made complete sense to me. Magda's trajectory was not showy. It was longer, perhaps, than it might have been, or shorter than it should have been, but it was a low one and left few signs of its transit.

Or did it? Magda was a presence, if not a star, in the spaces she chose to inhabit. She made an impression on people she met and she did this without any visible effort on her part. It might be as simple as her inner emotional landscape's silence, its immensity:
The spinning space. The night sky. A rising piece of land, blue as the ocean and equally impassable. I had not known such solitude since my childhood. I hunted cautiously for a cigarette, I wanted to let the others sleep, I wanted to smoke by myself and stay awake looking at the clouds obscuring the moon. I was exceptionally calm. I remember my calm, my emptiness deep inside. Trees...fields...a farmhouse like a boat under the stars...suddenly it occurred to me that my life with Robert had been a poem. Everything that mattered to me personally had taken a new twist in the light of that chance meeting. My eyes and skin: designed for other use. My past and my mother's: captured in words. My future—look: a sun-drenched plain that we were going to populate with mountains, trees and rivers that belonged to both of us. ... What I want to know is this. Would it also be possible to take that poem in my hands and drop it onto a stone floor? So that it smashed into fragments, into crude slivers... What I want to know is this. Among all those things it must surely be possible to find something which could not be swallowed up?
These thoughts are the ones de Moor gives to a fleeing wife. A woman who, after close to twenty years with a man she selects on a whim as a teenager, leaves him with no more forethought or preparation than she chose to go with him earlier. Magda can't fill up the space she contains; Robert can't make a dent in her surfaces, let alone her interiority; and even an affair with his childhood friend, placing herself between Erik and his wife, Erik and his son, doesn't dent her formidable vastness. Most people stay inside the coloring book's lines because daring to go outside them means losing sight of boundaries. Magda is nothing but boundaries. She translates between languages as naturally as she adapts to living in new places. Leaving Czechoslovakia for the defeated Berlin of her mother's family; leaving Europe for Canada; leaving Gaspé and her solitary mother for a French life as a Dutch artist's wife; leaving France as her increasingly visually impaired husband reinvents himself as the savior of the business his father left behind. Nothing proves too great a challenge for Magda to adapt to, and that in the end was her demise. She had no solid, immutable core for her husband to break, satisfying his rage and hatred. So he had to kill her.


I read this book twenty or so years ago, and fancied it as a film. (A project unlaunched, alas.) I liked its spareness, and was completely unsurprised to learn that Margriet de Moor was trained first in music. I can imagine this tale as a song-cycle; a suite of voices telling the ordinary life of a group of ordinary people whose paths intertwine around war and tragedy. How simple, how baroque, how complete it is to make the fullness of a life into fiction. And how satisfying to experience that fiction. The Overlook Press edition of this book came out after I read the Picador UK translation; in fact, the editor at Overlook who acquired The Virtuouso and this novel for the US market was in my office once while I was an agent, and was deeply surprised that I had read the book. I've always thought that de Moor would have enjoyed that moment of mutual surprise each of us experienced, one that someone knew of her discovery and one that someone finally paid attention to his.

But first novels have flaws. The voices of Nellie, horned wife of Erik and betrayed best friend of Magda, is given short and unsatisfying shrift in the last 20-30 pages of the book. Gaby, the autistic son of Erik and Nellie, features in the book at too short a length for his presence to feel like more than a vase of flowers on the stage of this opera. If you take my advice and read this book, you'll stop at the end of part three and ignore part four entirely.

But I do hope you'll spend some time with Margriet de Moor and her quotidian drama. I still think of Magda fondly, a friend bobbing away from me in time's eddies.

Friday, November 25, 2016

THE VENUSIAN GAMBIT, third Royal-Navy-in-Space meets Flash Gordon's granddaughter on Mars novel

(The Daedalus Series #3)
Night Shade Books
$7.99 mass market, available now

Rating: 4.5* of five

The Publisher Says: The last chapter of the dimension-spanning Daedalus series brings the 19th and 22nd centuries together for an explosive finale in the jungles of Venus!

In the year 2135, dangerous alien life forms freed in the destruction of Saturn's moon Enceladus are making their way towards Earth. A task force spearheaded by Lt. Cmdr. Shaila Jain is scrambling to beat them there while simultaneously trying to save crewmember Stephane Durand, who was infected during the mission to Saturn and is now controlled by a form of life intent on reopening a transdimensional rift and destroying the human race. But Jain doesn’t realize that the possessed Stephane has bigger plans, beaming critical data to other conspirators suspiciously heading not for Earth, but for Venus.

In 1809—a Napoleonic era far different from our own—the French have occupied England with their Corps Eternélle, undead soldiers risen through the darkest Alchemy. Only the actions of Lord Admiral Thomas Weatherby and the Royal Navy have kept the French contained to Earth. But the machinations of old enemies point to a bold and daring gambit: an ancient weapon, presumed lost in the jungles of Venus.

Now, Weatherby must choose whether to stay and fight to retake his homeland or pursue the French to the green planet. And Shaila must decide if it’s possible to save the man she loves, or if he must be sacrificed for the good of two dimensions. In the dark, alien jungles of Venus, humanity's fate in both dimensions hangs in the balance—forcing past and present to once again join forces against an ancient terror.


My Review: This man is batshit crazy. There are zombies—sorry, revenants—fighting for Napoleon, there are Eldritch Horrors from Beyond using Mars (and possessing sexy Earthmen) to get their claws on the 22nd-century Earth, and the sailpunk feature of sailing in the stars isn't metaphorical.

I am in my happy place.

What happens? Why on Venus does that matter?! It's the Napoleonic Wars, only without the Americas...simply don't exist...and with Magjicqk! Alchemy keeps the ships of the Royal Navy safe as they navigate among the all-habitable all the time planets of the solar system. And you know what, I like that a lot better than I like our somewhat confining set-up. Since it's time for Napoleon to finish England and Russia off with an undead Corps Éternel (love that wordplay!), the stakes couldn't be higher!

Then there's the shockingly interpenetrating 22nd century with its physics like our own dismal (in comparison) version, under equally existential attack from a...being, a thing called "Althotas" that is attempting to gain dominion over the entire Multiverse from the outside...I think it's the outside...I really don't think it matters, the stakes in the 22nd century aren't lower and the battling's even harder because good goddle mitey there's a being from another...from a...and the technocratic brain shorts because there simply isn't a label in the General Relativity bin that fits this weirdness.

There are good people fighting for their survival; there are selfish people remaking Reality to suit themselves; there are losses that can't be understated and there are victories that can't be celebrated because there simply isn't time yet. It's the third volume of three, so you know that there are resolutions on the way but there are more than three hundred pages so the author has plenty of space to make your squirm. He lets no opportunity to do so pass.

The fact is that, having spent two books in this world, I was sure it would be intense and exciting to spend a third one there. It was. But I was not entirely ready for the sense of loss it caused me to feel to know this series is over, Anne and Weatherby and Shaila and Dr. Finch and María Díaz aren't going to be resting under my Yule tree ever again. I won't watch with fascination as they develop their lives, having been through an amazing experience and being alive at the most interesting of times for their respective civilizations. That's the benefit of a series that's complete: you know that it's not going to make you wait for more. That's also the painful part: no amount of waiting and sighing will bring the characters you've invested in back.

But this series is such a pleasure, such a surprise of a worlds-in-collision tale, that I feel so much richer for having been in it for so much of this year. Go on the journey for yourself and get to know the delights and despairs of convincingly real characters living through peaks and valleys you can but envy and repine over.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

ELEVEN HOURS, a novel in which Author Pamela Erens transmutes childbirth into Art


Tin House
$15.95 trade paper, available now

Rating: 4.5* of five

The Publisher Says: Lore arrives at the hospital alone—no husband, no partner, no friends. Her birth plan is explicit: she wants no fetal monitor, no IV, no epidural. Franckline, a nurse in the maternity ward—herself on the verge of showing—is patient with the young woman. She knows what it’s like to worry that something might go wrong, and she understands the pain when it does. She knows as well as anyone the severe challenge of childbirth, what it does to the mind and the body.

Eleven Hours is the story of two soon-to-be mothers who, in the midst of a difficult labor, are forced to reckon with their pasts and re-create their futures. Lore must disentangle herself from a love triangle; Franckline must move beyond past traumas to accept the life that’s waiting for her. Pamela Erens moves seamlessly between their begrudging friendship and the memories evoked by so intense an experience. At turns urgent and lyrical, Erens’s novel is a visceral portrait of childbirth, and a vivid rendering of the way we approach motherhood—with fear and joy, anguish and awe.


My Review: Erens takes the reader on the difficult and painful journey that is childbirth. There’s a reason they call it labor, men.

Lore is a single mother, daughter of a single mother, and a scrappy survivor of an unenviable life … if you’re outside looking down, that is. What Lore is to herself, inside herself, is a woman making her life among strangers who are more or less well-disposed to her, if fundamentally indifferent and/or unreachable by her. It isn’t that she feels anger at the upper-class snobs who took her up on her arrival in Manhattan, even though they dropped her in the middle of a seething cauldron of emotions she has no contact with and no reason to know anything about. It’s that she is humiliated by the readiness she felt to trust, even to love, the tortured betrayers of her undernourished spirit. It took her becoming pregnant by Asa, her first friend in Manhattan’s one true love, to bring Julia’s double-dealing with Lore to light. That it wasn’t, so Julia and Asa protest, personal makes the reader’s hackles rise in outraged empathy.

How naive Lore had been, despite being the daughter of a father no one spoke of, despite the strange, incomplete conversations at her mother’s deathbed; how again and again she was caught up short by the discovery that other people had stories they didn’t tell, or told stories that weren’t entirely true. How mostly you got odd chunks torn from the whole, impossible truly to understand in their damaged form.

But here Lore is, in the midst of one of the most astounding acts imaginable, and without support. The heart bleeds! Unnecessarily, as it turns out. There is Franckline, the Haitian delivery nurse, pregnant herself but not any more sanguine about the whole idea than Lore is despite having a loving, accepting husband as the father. Her private pain surrounding motherhood goes back a long way, just like Lore’s does.

Her mother’s quiet disapproval and withdrawal was a death in itself, and Franckline’s despair at it was transmitted, she was sure of it, to the child. She transgressed twice, first by making the child, then by giving it her despair, the despair that left it unable to live.

It is the temporary, enforced partnership of these damaged and indomitable women that makes a new life seem like a good idea, not simply the end of a biological process and ultimately a burden. The hard work of birthing is followed by the damned-near-impossible task of parenting. And somehow, Pamela Erens makes that seem like a survivable job, instead of a dreadful and unending sentence. Amazing, impressive feat.

For me, however, I’m just darned good and grateful I’m not a woman, five-star prose and storytelling be hanged.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND, a classic SF novel coming to a TV near you


Penguin Galaxy
$30.00 hardcover, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: A human raised on Mars, Valentine Michael Smith has just arrived on planet Earth. Among his people for the first time, he struggles to understand the social mores and prejudices of human nature that are so alien to him, while his own “psi” powers—including telepathy, clairvoyance, telekenesis, and teleportation—make him a type of messiah figure among humans. "Stranger in a Strange Land" grew from a cult favorite to a bestseller to a classic in a few short years. The story of the man from Mars who taught humankind grokking and water-sharing—and love—it is Robert A. Heinlein’s masterpiece.

My Review: I gave it 4 stars for memory's sake. Now the folks at Syfy are adapting it for TV! Amazing to me that, once considered too racy for publication unexpurgated, it's now a TV-able property. For all its many faults, I'm glad Society has caught up with Heinlein's libertarian 'tude towards sex.

I read this as a preteen SF hound. It wasn't a favorite of my older sister's, so she tossed her copy at me one day while I was hanging around her place with an airy "if you're bored, read this" and two days later I came up for air. I think the primary appeal for me was the unapologetic therefore un-prurient sexuality of it. I wasn't taken with the philosophical bits at that point.
I’ve been kissed by men who did a very good job. But they don’t give kissing their whole attention. They can’t. No matter how hard they try parts of their minds are on something else. Missing the last bus—or their chances of making the gal—or their own techniques in kissing—or maybe worry about jobs, or money, or will husband or papa or the neighbors catch on. Mike doesn’t have technique . . . but when Mike kisses you he isn’t doing anything else. You’re his whole universe . . . and the moment is eternal because he doesn’t have any plans and isn’t going anywhere. Just kissing you.
That makes a person's interest in intimacy make sense. It's not cheesy hyperbolic overwrought smutty silliness. It's direct and clear and a darn good roadmap for an innocent to follow when sex finally stops being theoretical.

But time marches on. By age 17 or so, I was a theatre fag and ever so impressed with Theories of Beauty and Paradigms of Truth. I loved this:
Anybody can look at a pretty girl and see a pretty girl. An artist can look at a pretty girl and see the old woman she will become. A better artist can look at an old woman and see the pretty girl that she used to be. But a great artist--a master--and that is what Auguste Rodin was--can look at an old woman, portray her exactly as she is . . . and force the viewer to see the pretty girl she used to be . . . and more than that, he can make anyone with the sensitivity of an armadillo, or even you, see that this lovely young girl is still alive, not old and ugly at all, but simply prisoned inside her ruined body.
Now, see? This is meat and drink to a kid in search of a way to integrate Art into his or her thoughtscape. It's both explanation and challenge, it takes aim at Artyness and fires bullets of Art to smash the Artful. Me likee.

But years have a bad habit of marching ever onward. Events occur that alter an individual's take on self, world, art; that also shatter Society's old consensus on ideas, attitudes, conventions:
Nine times out of ten, if a girl gets raped, it’s at least partly her own fault.
Uh. NO. And there's no room for argument. That's a categorical NO. As in not ever, in no way, at no time. That shit still flies around, as the Stanford Rapist case demonstrates. The little shit was laughing, LAUGHING, about what he'd done when he was caught; he got out of jail, not prison, in record time because "good behavior" somehow mattered; and he's had to register as a sex offender but still manages to live a full social life. Would you be seen dead near his morally degenerate, aesthetically repellent carcass? I know I wouldn't. And that is a very common attitude, I'm extremely happy to say, it's not as if there is no consequence to his action. Not enough by any means, don't get me wrong. He deserves to be under the prison for what he did to Amber Heard. But we're openly talking about it and many, many more people think my way than Heinlein's or the Stanford Rapist's about it.

I won't even go into Heinlein's anti-gay nature. It's not worth my time.

But can I dismiss the young boy's many positive take-aways because the old man sees what was once invisible to his youthful self? On balance, and after thinking about it for a few years, I conclude that I can't simply erase the good and useful lessons I myownself got from several readings of STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND. If I'd read it for the first time this year, I wouldn't even have finished it. I'd be furious at any number of things. But I didn't, and that balances out my modern sensibility's outrage.

Penguin, that stodgy old house of classics sheathed in orange, includes this book in a six-volume set of modern classics of SF. Their sales pitch is very effective:
Six of our greatest masterworks of science fiction and fantasy, in dazzling collector-worthy hardcover editions, and featuring a series introduction by #1 New York Times bestselling author Neil Gaiman, Penguin Galaxy represents a constellation of achievement in visionary fiction, lighting the way toward our knowledge of the universe, and of ourselves. From historical legends to mythic futures, monuments of world-building to mind-bending dystopias, these touchstones of human invention and storytelling ingenuity have transported millions of readers to distant realms, and will continue for generations to chart the frontiers of the imagination.

The Once and Future King by T. H. White
Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein
Dune by Frank Herbert
2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke
The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin
Neuromancer by William Gibson
All titles I'd agree are seminal in SF, and are well worth celebrating with handsome editions.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

A COLLAPSE OF HORSES, latest Brian Evenson horror-by-surreality collection

Coffee House Press
$16.95 trade paper, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: A stuffed bear's heart beats with the rhythm of a dead baby; Reno keeps receding to the east no matter how far you drive; and in a mine on another planet, the dust won't stop seeping in.

In these stories, Brian Evenson unsettles us with the everyday and the extraordinary—the terror of living with the knowledge of all we cannot know.


My Review:

My accustomed use of the Bryce Method should, at this point, surprise no one.

Black Bark

A Report

The Punish

A Collapse of Horses

Three Indignities


Seaside Town

The Dust




Past Reno

Any Corpse

The Moans

The Window


The Blood Drip sucked. Sorry to say it so bluntly. Yes, it's in the same family as "Black Bark" but it's streets away stylistically. Not every story is perfect, but wow. 2.5 stars

So there it is. How I got to my overall rating of 4 stars, laid out story by story.

Friday, November 11, 2016

THE LEISURE SEEKER, soon to be a major (indie) motion picture! Helen Mirren! Donald Sutherland!


William Morrow
$15.99 trade paper, available now

NOW $1.99 ON KINDLE! (non-affiliate Amazon link)

Rating: 4.25* of five


***UPDATE 10/3/2017 Here's a clip that makes me really hopeful for the film's fidelity to the source material. And here's an Hollywood Reporter interview with Helen Mirren and Donald Sutherland! Dream casting!***

**UPDATE 11/10/2016 A feature film starring Helen Mirren and Donald Sutherland will debut in the US during 2017. Talk about dream casting for your novel's movie! I hope Michael Zadoorian is as well served by the screenwriters and producers as he stands to be by his characters' faces.**

The Publisher Says: A sort of Easy Rider meets The Notebook, Michael Zadoorian’s poignant, funny, vibrant, and unforgettable novel, The Leisure Seeker, is a story of two seniors who escape from their retirement home and embark upon a hilarious and touching end-of-life road trip. Here is a story that will appeal to a wide range of readers: from retiring Baby Boomers to fans of Mitch Albom, Tom Perotta, David Sedaris, Nick Hornby, and Nicholas Sparks. In fact, the Detroit Free Press says, “I would recommend Michael Zadoorian’s The Leisure Seeker to almost anyone.”

My Review: The Robinas got old one day. They couldn't tell you which day, exactly...he has Alzheimer's, she's just old and frankly after a certain point who can tell the days apart anyway?...but it happened, and now, well, The End isn't on the horizon anymore, it's on the to-do list.

Three quotes will tell you all that you need to know about this book. If they fail to appeal, so will this wry, loving, unsparing look at the parade's end:

“We pass a church with a massive blue neon cross, and I am spiritually lifted by feelings of great religiosity. No, I’m not, for crying out loud. Don’t be ridiculous. But what I do love about this road is how the gaudy becomes grand, how tastelessness is a way of everyday life.”(p37)

“I think about the people in the slides, most of them gone now, heart attacks and cancers, betrayed by the foods we ate, by our La-Z-Boys, by our postwar contentment, everyone getting larger and larger in every year’s photographs, our prosperity gone wide.” (p57)

“We pass on the Will Rogers Memorial in Claremore. I never much cared for the man. A big phony, I believe. Anyone who never met a man he didn’t like just isn’t trying hard enough.” (p79)
Seriously...tell me that's not pitch-perfect coming from a thirtysomething writer's imagination. The Robinas are delightful company on their last trip.

Saturday, November 5, 2016

SALVAGE, Alexandra Duncan's cli-fic/feminist/SF/dystopian door-stopper of a good read

(Salvage #1)
Greenwillow Books
$17.99 hardcover, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: Ava, a teenage girl living aboard the male-dominated, conservative deep space merchant ship Parastrata, faces betrayal, banishment, and death. Taking her fate into her own hands, she flees to the Gyre, a floating continent of garbage and scrap in the Pacific Ocean.

I think that's pretty damn skimpy, so here's the flap copy as well:

Her life is a shadow of a life. Her future is not her own to fashion. Her family is a tangle of secrets. She cannot read. She cannot write.

But she is Parastrata Ava, the Captain's eldest daughter, the so girl of a long-range crew—her obligations are grave and many.

And when she makes a mistake, in a fragrant orchard of lemons, the consequences are deaadly.

There are some who would say, There but for the Mercies go I.

There are some who would say Parastrata Ava is just a silly earthstruck girl who got what was coming to her.

But they don't know the half of it.

My Review: Well now, wasn't this a long damn book. Luckily I liked it, so it wasn't a looooooooonnnnnnnnnnnnnggggg damn book.

Feminist dystopian SF as a category description doesn't get me in a lather of urgency to read a book. It might be more likely to lather me up now, since Duncan's gift for poetical description is deployed to create such a series of parallel worlds. The Crewe of Parastrata, Ava's birthplace and homeland, are misogynistic patriarchal violence addicts. The strange society of the Gyre, where Ava finds lovingkindness, is worthy of an entire book of its own. The horrifying megamega-megalopolis of Mumbai, 170 MILLION strong, made me claustrophobic, and the modren tecknowledgee was more like what we'll have in 2020 than futuristic...my one big complaint.

But listen, if your Firefly love was at least partly rooted in its unique linguistic take on the future (if you DIDN'T love Firefly you wouldn't be my friend and therefore shouldn't be bothered by reading this review), this book will scratch the bump left by its short life. Like Firefly as well is the more-or-less libertarian bent of this book's worlds. It's completely impossible to closely govern a dense population the size of Mumbai, no matter how high your tech.

The pleasures of reading lovely sentences are sometimes lessened by those sentences serving a slow-paced story. For my part I found the leisurely pace of the novel added to my sense of getting to know the worlds Duncan was giving me in some depth. Some things still managed to get sprung on me. I found Ava's about-face from Obedient Girl to Power Ranger a bit unfounded, for example. But in the end, it was a small cavil in the larger picture of empowerment and growth.

In my quest never to ossify above the neck, I choose a genre to read a book in that I normally avoid like it gots the cooties. YA is one of those genres for me. This YA novel was a pleasant surprise, and it contained a message that I would very much like any teenaged girl in today's world to receive. No one will empower you. Empower yourself and refuse to listen to "no."

SHELTER, my General Fiction vote for the Goodreads Choice Awards


$26.00 hardcover, available now

Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: Kyung Cho is a young father burdened by a house he can’t afford. For years, he and his wife, Gillian, have lived beyond their means. Now their debts and bad decisions are catching up with them, and Kyung is anxious for his family’s future.

A few miles away, his parents, Jin and Mae, live in the town’s most exclusive neighborhood, surrounded by the material comforts that Kyung desires for his wife and son. Growing up, they gave him every possible advantage—private tutors, expensive hobbies—but they never showed him kindness. Kyung can hardly bear to see them now, much less ask for their help. Yet when an act of violence leaves Jin and Mae unable to live on their own, the dynamic suddenly changes, and he’s compelled to take them in. For the first time in years, the Chos find themselves living under the same roof. Tensions quickly mount as Kyung’s proximity to his parents forces old feelings of guilt and anger to the surface, along with a terrible and persistent question: how can he ever be a good husband, father, and son when he never knew affection as a child?

My Review: I voted for this in the 2016 Goodreads choice awards because it was the most interesting novel I'd read among the choices. It wasn't an easy read. I disliked everyone except Ethan Cho, the four-year-old, and given time I'm sure I'd've disliked him too.

What price family? I didn't have a close or happy family. My own parents weren't like the Chos, they were chaotic rather than cruel and cold. But what made the book interesting for me is the way Kyung tries to stop the vicious cycle of chill and distance, and fails again and again. His wife is just as guilty of emotional dysfunction as he is.

When this screwed-up couple is, in simple human decency, required to house the traumatized parents after their luxurious and hollow world cracks wide open, the fun truly begins. Think the set-up's dark? Wait until the parents move in!

The ending is a raggedy-looking bow tied on the fanny of the story which I didn't for one second believe came from any strand in the story itself. I'd still suggest reading it.

BEFORE THE FALL, a "Lost"-type tale of plane crash survival


Grand Central
$26.00 hardcover, available now

Rating: 3* of five

The Publisher Says: On a foggy summer night, eleven people--ten privileged, one down-on-his-luck painter--depart Martha's Vineyard headed for New York. Sixteen minutes later, the unthinkable happens: the passengers disappear into the ocean. The only survivors are Scott Burroughs--the painter--and a four-year-old boy, who is now the last remaining member of a wealthy and powerful media mogul's family.

With chapters weaving between the aftermath of the tragedy and the backstories of the passengers and crew members--including a Wall Street titan and his wife, a Texan-born party boy just in from London, a young woman questioning her path in life, and a career pilot--the mystery surrounding the crash heightens. As the passengers' intrigues unravel, odd coincidences point to a conspiracy: Was it merely dumb chance that so many influential people perished? Or was something far more sinister at work? Events soon threaten to spiral out of control in an escalating storm of media outrage and accusations--all while the reader draws closer and closer to uncovering the truth.

The fragile relationship between Scott and the young boy glows at the heart of this novel, raising questions of fate, human nature, and the inextricable ties that bind us together.

My Review: I voted for this book in the 2016 Goodreads Choice awards. It was the best of the lot in terms of other nominees I'd read.

I don't feel compelled to regurgitate the plot. I do feel compelled to say that the TV show LOST was ever-present in my thoughts as I read the book. Hawley's got a line-by-line ease with words, but his plot is so bog-standard that I was unimpressed by the end of the first third of the story. It might not have dazzled me with fancy footwork, but the pages turned and the words weren't indigestible.

And this was the best choice. 2016 wasn't a great mystery year.

TO THE BRIGHT EDGE OF THE WORLD, my vote for Historical Fiction in Goodreads Choice Awards


Little, Brown
$11.99 trade paper, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: Set again in the Alaskan landscape that she bought to stunningly vivid life in THE SNOW CHILD, Eowyn Ivey's new novel is a breathtaking story of discovery and adventure, set at the end of the nineteenth century, and of a marriage tested by a closely held secret.

Colonel Allen Forrester receives the commission of a lifetime when he is charged to navigate Alaska's hitherto impassable Wolverine River, with only a small group of men. The Wolverine is the key to opening up Alaska and its huge reserves of gold to the outside world, but previous attempts have ended in tragedy.

For Forrester, the decision to accept this mission is even more difficult, as he is only recently married to Sophie, the wife he had perhaps never expected to find. Sophie is pregnant with their first child, and does not relish the prospect of a year in a military barracks while her husband embarks upon the journey of a lifetime. She has genuine cause to worry about her pregnancy, and it is with deep uncertainty about what their future holds that she and her husband part.

A story shot through with a darker but potent strand of the magic that illuminated THE SNOW CHILD, and with the sweep and insight that characterised Rose Tremain's The Colour, this new novel from Pulitzer Prize finalist Eowyn Ivey singles her out as a major literary talent.

My Review: I voted for this book in the 2016 Goodreads Choice Awards. A more heartfelt vote I've yet to cast.

Eowyn Ivey's modern Alaskan fairy tale THE SNOW CHILD was excellent. This epistolary novel is a step farther along the road to literary fame. I was totally captivated by Sophie and Allen's letters to each other; I enjoyed the use of other documents, like the young couples' journals and the paperwork that always attends anything to do with a government job and newspaper clippings recounting the excitement of the day for exploration. (How sad that this national trait is lost.)

The adventures the two nineteenth-century characters have are rip-snortin' bull-ridin' full-bore dangerous scary things. Sophie, in a small restricted life, busts out of her corset and strait-jacket to grab her some living while hubby is away having Manly Dangerous Feats thrown at him, and each enjoys their own hugely while supporting the other's excitement in letters from afar. It's a good marriage, it seemed to me. I think Ivey deserves a chunk of Alaska's petrodollars for making the place sound so incredibly, magically appealing. Her couples make getting married and being in Alaska sound like the road to happiness and concord.

The modern-day component to the story isn't the most involving. Joshua and Walt don't weave that old magic, perhaps because they don't make a couple. (Now that would've been interesting.) I am not willing to do much damage to my rating of the overall impact of the story, though, because the third leg of the stool is just a bit shorter than the others. Ivey has just vaulted onto the "buy her stuff right now" list with this outing.

ALL THE BIRDS IN THE SKY, my vote for Goodreads Choice Awards Fantasy category


Tor Books
$3.99 Kindle edition, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: Childhood friends Patricia Delfine and Laurence Armstead didn't expect to see each other again, after parting ways under mysterious circumstances during high school. After all, the development of magical powers and the invention of a two-second time machine could hardly fail to alarm one's peers and families.

But now they're both adults, living in the hipster mecca San Francisco, and the planet is falling apart around them. Laurence is an engineering genius who's working with a group that aims to avert catastrophic breakdown through technological intervention into the changing global climate. Patricia is a graduate of Eltisley Maze, the hidden academy for the world's magically gifted, and works with a small band of other magicians to secretly repair the world's ever-growing ailments. Little do they realize that something bigger than either of them, something begun years ago in their youth, is determined to bring them together--to either save the world, or plunge it into a new dark ages.

A deeply magical, darkly funny examination of life, love, and the apocalypse.

My Review: I voted for this book in the 2016 Goodreads Readers' Choice Awards. As you'd expect from Anders, it's a well-crafted novel. As you'd hope for from any author of SF/F, it's a layered and nuanced exploration of the tense spots the abound in the rough edges of magic and technology.

A modern fairy tale of man-power versus woman-power that fails of imagination only in that gendered dichotomy. That aside, the tale explores that clash really well. The idea that the main characters are outcasts because they're smart is, of course, spot on; the book takes on the rottenness of bullying as a subtle (as a plane crash) understory to the main tree of Otherness as Gift.

Charlie Jane Anders is not a close personal friend, so I get to say this without anybody making knowing moues at me: The lady writes the best funny dialogue in the biz. From chuckle to guffaw, it's all here. Do not wait, procure and devour soonest.

Friday, November 4, 2016

PRINCE'S GAMBIT, second THE CAPTIVE PRINCE novel, still trigger-laden but DAAA-YUM

(Captive Prince #2)
Berkley Books
$16.00 trade paper, available now

Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: With their countries on the brink of war, Damen and his new master, Prince Laurent, must exchange the intrigues of the palace for the sweeping might of the battlefield as they travel to the border to avert a lethal plot.

Forced to hide his identity, Damen finds himself increasingly drawn to the dangerous, charismatic Laurent. But as the fledgling trust between the two men deepens, the truth of secrets from both their pasts is poised to deal them the crowning death blow…

My Review: Still hot, still transgressive, still replete with vocabulary words. All the boxes ticked on your play-at-home scorecard? Good. You're getting what you've paid for already.

But you're also getting an enriched reading experience. The reality level of the intrigues and plots is enhanced; the twists and turns of royal morality are even more starkly limned; and jeebus goddlemitey damn the SEX! The STAKES! The brain-bending HOT SEX! (Wait, did I say that before? So what it needs saying again. And again.)

Wherever this nice straight lady got her wildly gay imagination from, it's on full display here; but so is her scheming Machiavellian side, and her much-better-hidden hearts&flowers romantical side. That they're all given to both of the main characters as well is a major coup. Mechanical sex gets dull. Twisty turny intrigue without any personal, passionate stakes starts dull. No sin goes unrewarded in this series! Makes for a propulsive, addictive read.

I renew my call to Nick Jonas's people: Get these rights and make your man a superstar by making a faithful adaptation of the series. His Prince Damianos/Damen the sex-slave would win him a shelf full of hardware from the Industry.

CAPTIVE PRINCE, scorching hot BDSM fantasy/romance MULTIPLE TRIGGERS

(Captive Prince #1)
Berkley Books
$15.00 trade paper, available now

Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: Damen is a warrior hero to his people, and the rightful heir to the throne of Akielos. But when his half brother seizes power, Damen is captured, stripped of his identity, and sent to serve the prince of an enemy nation as a pleasure slave.

Beautiful, manipulative, and deadly, his new master, Prince Laurent, epitomizes the worst of the court at Vere. But in the lethal political web of the Veretian court, nothing is as it seems, and when Damen finds himself caught up in a play for the throne, he must work together with Laurent to survive and save his country.

For Damen, there is just one rule: never, ever reveal his true identity. Because the one man Damen needs is the one man who has more reason to hate him than anyone else…

My Review: Initially this trilogy of hatred-to-love, enemies-to-lovers tales were self-published by Aussie phenom Pacat. They're a global sensation now, and it's a sign of great intelligence that she signed up with a major publisher to build on her existing success. This is what Big Publishing does best, market/print/distribute bestsellers.

Court intrigue and sibling rivalry and crazy-hot DubCon BDSM! Consent be dubious and be damned, this really scorches the pages with (largely off-page) sexual blast furnace-hot fantasies. Hey Nick Jonas! Want a legion of rabid fans to do your bidding forever? Make this series into a pay-TV legend by playing Prince Damianos/Damen the sex slave!

There are a lot of things not to love about DubCon (dubious consent for the uninitiated) romances. No one can deny or minimize the existence of the fantasy in legions of private little skulls. And Pacat, yet another lady M/M romance/fuckbook writer in what appears to be a neverending gusher of same, has the touch down pat. She knows what to say and when and then shut up when even one more word would take the page from scorching to squicky. This is a giant gift.

Yes, there is underaged character sex abuse in the book. There is no way at all to interpret its presentation as positive, though. It is clearly meant to be an index of the perp's vile, disgusting, horrifying evilness. I'm not exactly okay with its presence, but I'm not howling for Pacat's blood because of the way she shows the subject.

MOST DEFINITELY NOT RECOMMENDED for those bereft of sexual desire triggered by gay men, whatever their own plumbing and relationship to same.

KINGS RISING, gay romance/fantasy trilogy's end, my vote in Romance Goodreads Choice Awards

(Captive Prince #3)
Berkley Books
$16.00 trade paper, available now

Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: Damianos of Akielos has returned.

His identity now revealed, Damen must face his master Prince Laurent as Damianos of Akielos, the man Laurent has sworn to kill.

On the brink of a momentous battle, the future of both their countries hangs in the balance. In the south, Kastor’s forces are massing. In the north, the Regent’s armies are mobilising for war. Damen’s only hope of reclaiming his throne is to fight together with Laurent against their usurpers.

Forced into an uneasy alliance the two princes journey deep into Akielos, where they face their most dangerous opposition yet. But even if the fragile trust they have built survives the revelation of Damen’s identity—can it stand against the Regents final, deadly play for the throne?

My Review: I voted for this book in the 2016 Goodreads Choice Awards. Fantasy worlds with m/m love stories will always beat out teenaged girls with exceptional powers unrecognized by everyone else. The love/hate story here is both imaginative and fun.

It's not perfect, and several times my eyes had to be firmly schooled not to roll, but the bones of the story work well as a quest fantasy and I'm accustomed to endings that make little to no sense and feel tacked on like a bow taped to a present. The fact that sworn enemies become lovers isn't an issue, since it's a romance evergreen. It makes sense, after all, as the passion of hatred is fairly easily and often converted into the passion of love.

What makes the ending not work well for me is its promise of Happily Ever After. That's a bit rich, considering what's come before it for two and three-quarters books!

LOVECRAFT COUNTRY, Goodreads Choice Awards nominee in Horror merits your vote


$16.99 trade paper, available now


Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: The critically acclaimed cult novelist makes visceral the terrors of life in Jim Crow America and its lingering effects in this brilliant and wondrous work of the imagination that melds historical fiction, pulp noir, and Lovecraftian horror and fantasy

Chicago, 1954. When his father Montrose goes missing, twenty-two year old Army veteran Atticus Turner embarks on a road trip to New England to find him, accompanied by his Uncle George—publisher of The Safe Negro Travel Guide—and his childhood friend Letitia. On their journey to the manor of Mr. Braithwhite—heir to the estate that owned Atticus’s great grandmother—they encounter both mundane terrors of white America and malevolent spirits that seem straight out of the weird tales George devours.

At the manor, Atticus discovers his father in chains, held prisoner by a secret cabal named the Order of the Ancient Dawn—led by Samuel Braithwhite and his son Caleb—which has gathered to orchestrate a ritual that shockingly centers on Atticus. And his one hope of salvation may be the seed of his—and the whole Turner clan’s—destruction.

A chimerical blend of magic, power, hope, and freedom that stretches across time, touching diverse members of one black family, Lovecraft Country is a devastating kaleidoscopic portrait of racism—the terrifying specter that continues to haunt us today.

My Review: I voted for this book in the 2016 Goodreads Choice Awards. I reviewed BAD MONKEYS not long ago, in preparation for reading this book. That was a three-plus star read, mostly for the sheer audacity of the ending, and I do love me a twisty ending.

This book gets four glowing platinum stars because, from giddy-up to whoa, there is no let-up in the wildly inventive excitement blasting from Ruff's imagination/fire hose. Not a moment when things slack off, not a corner left unscoured for dramatic (and amusing, lots of in-jokes of which nothing is made because it's enough that they're there) possibilities. And let me step outside the fiction's pleasures for a moment and say that this treatment of the vileness that is racism is both inventive and appropriate. For that reason alone, and there are plenty of others, this book merits your vote in the Goodreads Choice Awards.

Why not five? Because ending. Ending okayness after this wild ride? Hmph. Gimme more. You have before, Mr. Ruff, and if ever a tale deserved a slam-bang ending it's this one.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

THE SYMPATHIZER, a five-star twisty, turny, edge-of-my-seat read


Grove Press
$17.00 trade paper, available now

Rating: 5* of five

Don't miss this episode of Novel Dialogue with the author in very interesting conversation with a scholar of his wonderful work.

The Publisher Says: Accolades:
Winner of the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction
Winner of the 2016 Edgar Award for Best First Novel
Winner of the 2016 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction
Winner of the 2015 California Book Award for First Fiction (Gold)
Winner of the 2016 Dayton Literary Peace Prize for Fiction
Winner of the 2015 Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature for Adult Fiction

The Sympathizer is the breakthrough novel of the year. With the pace and suspense of a thriller and prose that has been compared to Graham Greene and Saul Bellow, The Sympathizer is a sweeping epic of love and betrayal. The narrator, a communist double agent, is a “man of two minds,” a half-French, half-Vietnamese army captain who arranges to come to America after the Fall of Saigon, and while building a new life with other Vietnamese refugees in Los Angeles is secretly reporting back to his communist superiors in Vietnam.

The Sympathizer is a blistering exploration of identity and America, a gripping espionage novel, and a powerful story of love and friendship.


My Review
: It appalls, revolts, and disgusts me that this book was Author Nguyen's first published book. It is grotesque that such a polished, accomplished, and inventive result should come first in his career. I am outraged that his naked, shameless display of far, far too much talent isn't subject to some form of censure and/or censorship.
Whatever people say about the General today, I can only testify that he was a sincere man who believed in everything he said, even if it was a lie, which makes him not so different from most.
So it was that we soaped ourselves in sadness and we rinsed ourselves with hope, and for all that we believed almost every rumor we heard, almost all of us refused to believe that our nation was dead.
What do those who struggle against power do when they seize power? What does the revolutionary do when the revolution triumphs? Why do those who call for independence and freedom take away the independence and freedom of others?

There's a reason all those accolades rained down on Author Nguyen: He bloody well earned them. (Even the squid sex scene. Yes, I said it.)

Anyone who's paid me the slightest scintilla of attention knows that I am not attracted to stories of torture and experiences of the violation kind. But this book's entire existence is, in the end, a meditation on the truth that comes out of one's existence in crisis. The corporeal violation of torture, the absolute honesty of a man in extremis, is what lifts this above sadistic pornography. It easily could have been that, in fact it was a close-run thing...but read those passages again. That isn't smut disguised as literature. That is the efflorescence of brilliance in the cess-pit of war, the striking of a tocsin for even bodily autonomy in a world very much not run for the benefit of the narrator:
All of us - we're all in jail cells without bars. We're not men anymore. Not after the Americans fucked us twice and made our wives and kids watch. First the Americans said we'll save your yellow skins. Just do what we say. Fight our way, take our money, give us your women, then you'll be free. Things didn't work out that way, did they? Then after fucking us, they rescued us. They just didn't tell us they'd cut off our balls and cut out our tongues along the way. But you know what? If we were real men, we wouldn't have let them do that.
I am merely noting that the creation of native prostitutes to service foreign privates is an inevitable outcome of a war of occupation, one of those nasty little side effects of defending freedom that all the wives, sisters, girlfriends, mothers, pastors, and politicians in Smallville, USA, pretend to ignore behind waxed and buffed walls of teeth as they welcome their soldiers home, ready to treat any unmentionable afflictions with the penicillin of American goodness.

That, mes vieux, is the unvarnished truth smacked like a haddock in our complacent, complicit faces. The author, the perpetrator of this painful outrage against our unknowing...unwilling to know...minds is just gonna keep pile-driving until his point is made. How dare you, says Author Nguyen, how bloody dare you pretend that your world-view of "freedom" can be bought with the misery and unfreedom of entire nations...and he is correct. "Freedom isn't free," say the hawkish. They don't mean it. They mean "MY freedom is worth more than yours" and they're not honest, or self-reflective, enough to say it outright.
Movies were America's way of softening up the rest of the world, Hollywood relentlessly assaulting the mental defenses of audiences with the hit, the smash, the spectacle, the blockbuster, and, yes, even the box office bomb. It mattered not what story these audiences watched. The point was that it was the American story they watched and loved, up until the day that they themselves might be bombed by the planes they had seen in American movies.
Country music was the most segregated kind of music in America, where even whites played jazz and even blacks sang in the opera. Something like country music was what lynch mobs must have enjoyed while stringing up their black victims. Country music was not necessarily lynching music, but no other music could be imagined as lynching's accompaniment. Beethoven's Ninth was the opus for Nazis, concentration camp commanders, and possibly President Truman as he contemplated atomizing Hiroshima, classical music the refined score for the high-minded extermination of brutish hordes. Country music was set to the more humble beat of the red-blooded, bloodthirsty American heartland.

What a view of the world America purveys. What a travesty of a slogan is "Freedom isn't free" in a country where even the popular culture of the place is strictly divided...youth has rap and hip-hop, the regressives have country or classical European orchestral music (depending on class), the old have yacht rock...and there are fewer and fewer places for us to meet, to exchange knowledge and ideas. Television? Not the Great Isolator it was once bemoaned to be (or else my Twitter feed is weirder than most, and my inbox full of popculture websites' come-ons is abnormal). Music, the one-time Great Uniter, ain't no more. Literature, and its bumptious cousin book publishing, are never going to rise back to the heights they once commanded. Games, computer games, MMO games, are pretty much in the grips of the lowest of the world's humans from what I can see.

Yet our films, sent all over the world!, are solidly behind a view of the USA as a Defender of Right, Justice, ORDER!

Honestly, it revolts me, this dissonance between reality (what in the name of all that's unholy did Iraq under Saddam Hussein have to do with the Al Qaeda takedown of the World Trade Center?! and that war cost thousands of lives and TRILLIONS of dollars!) and the vision in the exported product. China is on the rise, y'all, and its tastes are going to form the next wave of filmed exports, so be watching what comes up that doesn't make you feel all warm and fuzzy. You're about to get your own medicine back.

That medicine will be progressively more bitter. The author's interview, included in later editions of the book, says it succinctly (as one would expect):
I did not want to write this book as a way of explaining the humanity of Vietnamese. Toni Morrison says in Beloved that to have to explain yourself to white people distorts you because you start from a position of assuming your inhumanity or lack of humanity in other people’s eyes. Rather than writing a book that tries to affirm humanity, which is typically the position that minority writers are put into, the book starts from the assumption that we are human, and then goes on to prove that we’re also inhuman at the same time.

Are you, white readers, aware of the subtle (to us) and bitter (to those not us) demeaning subtext, if only barely so, of reading about Others? The perpetuation of Othering in confining through your commercial choices of Black, Asian-American, Hispanic, et alii writers into "explanatory" writing? Yes, you aren't doing it out of overt racist motives (or you wouldn't be likely to read my reviews) but you're enmeshed in a system of deeply, unexaminedly racist underpinnings. It is extremely difficult to break those lenses. If you try, you will fail at times. But you will, and I speak from experience, gain from every success and learn from every failure.

IF you will pursue the effort in an honest attempt to shed the ugly, distorting framework.

Starting by reading Author Nguyen's twisty, deceptive, and very very sneaky story will repay you on so many levels.

EVICTED, a nasty thing that happens to poor people every day, also my vote for 2016 Goodreads Choice Awards in Nonfiction

EVICTED: Poverty and Profit in the American City

$18.00 trade paper, available now

Rating: 5* of five

The Publisher Says: In this brilliant, heartbreaking book, Matthew Desmond takes us into the poorest neighborhoods of Milwaukee to tell the story of eight families on the edge. Arleen is a single mother trying to raise her two sons on the $20 a month she has left after paying for their rundown apartment. Scott is a gentle nurse consumed by a heroin addiction. Lamar, a man with no legs and a neighborhood full of boys to look after, tries to work his way out of debt. Vanetta participates in a botched stickup after her hours are cut. All are spending almost everything they have on rent, and all have fallen behind.

The fates of these families are in the hands of two landlords: Sherrena Tarver, a former schoolteacher turned inner-city entrepreneur, and Tobin Charney, who runs one of the worst trailer parks in Milwaukee. They loathe some of their tenants and are fond of others, but as Sherrena puts it, “Love don’t pay the bills.” She moves to evict Arleen and her boys a few days before Christmas.

Even in the most desolate areas of American cities, evictions used to be rare. But today, most poor renting families are spending more than half of their income on housing, and eviction has become ordinary, especially for single mothers. In vivid, intimate prose, Desmond provides a ground-level view of one of the most urgent issues facing America today. As we see families forced into shelters, squalid apartments, or more dangerous neighborhoods, we bear witness to the human cost of America’s vast inequality—and to people’s determination and intelligence in the face of hardship.

Based on years of embedded fieldwork and painstakingly gathered data, this masterful book transforms our understanding of extreme poverty and economic exploitation while providing fresh ideas for solving a devastating, uniquely American problem. Its unforgettable scenes of hope and loss remind us of the centrality of home, without which nothing else is possible.

My Review: I voted for this book in the 2016 Goodreads Choice Awards. Why? Because I'm a radical who wants to re-rig the system and change the course of the Ship of State 180 degrees.

“Every condition exists,” Martin Luther King Jr. once wrote, “simply because someone profits by its existence. This economic exploitation is crystallized in the slum.” Exploitation. Now, there’s a word that has been scrubbed out of the poverty debate—and there it is, simply and baldly put: The poor are exploited mercilessly by every single sector of capitalist society. Landlords charge small fortunes for horrendous living conditions. The Feds give counties money for Section 8 housing, but there is never any such housing available and the agencies don't maintain lists...or the wait is decades long. What happens to that money? Where does it go? Someone's pockets are fatter and the poor, the elderly, the disabled are no better housed.

“If poverty persists in America, it is not for lack of resources"—the author just made, in one short sentence, the only real and relevant case for Universal Basic Income.

UNASHAMED, rapper Lecrae's memoir of Being Saved, and my vote for 2016 Goodreads Choice Awards in Memoir


B & H Books
$24.99 hardcover, available now

Rating: 3* of five

The Publisher Says: Two-time Grammy winning rap artist, Lecrae, learned this lesson through more than his share of adversity—childhood abuse, drugs and alcoholism, a stint in rehab, an abortion, and an unsuccessful suicide attempt.

Along the way, Lecrae attained an unwavering faith in Jesus and began looking to God for affirmation. Now as a chart-topping industry anomaly, he has learned to ignore the haters and make peace with his craft. The rap artist holds nothing back as he divulges the most sensitive details of his life, answers his critics, shares intimate handwritten journal entries, and powerfully models how to be a Christian in a secular age.

This is the story of one man's journey to faith and freedom.

My Review:I voted for this book in the 2016 Goodreads Choice Awards. There's no obvious reason I'd vote for some christian crapola over the memoir of Gloria Vanderbilt and her gay son Anderson Cooper, except I really can't relate to rich people's problems any more. On the dull side, frankly. Being so desperately wretched that suicide makes sense I can relate to (although in my case it was a thyroid imbalance that tipped the scales).

Lecrae's problems aren't dull. They include a laundry list of every social ill I've been able to dream up. He ticks every box and then, one fine day, gawd reaches down and saves him. My eyes rolled so hard I was dizzy for a week.

But I voted for the book because I felt the sincerity and passion and belief oozing from every bit of this story. That makes up, in my never-humble opinion, for the fact that I oppose every single thing that Religion represents.

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

THE WINTER FORTRESS, a Goodreads Choice Awards nominee

The Winter Fortress: The Epic Mission to Sabotage Hitler’s Atomic Bomb
Neal Bascomb

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
$28.00 hardcover, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: It’s 1942 and the Nazis are racing to build an atomic bomb. They have the physicists. They have the will. What they don’t have is enough “heavy water," an essential ingredient for their nuclear designs. For two years, the Nazis have occupied Norway, and with it the Vemork hydroelectric plant, a massive industrial complex nestled on a precipice of a gorge. Vemork is the world’s sole supplier of heavy water, and under the threat of death, its engineers pushed production into overtime.

For the Allies, Vemork must be destroyed. But how would they reach the castle fortress high in a mountainous valley? The answer became the most dramatic commando raid of the war. The British Special Operations Executive together a brilliant scientist and eleven refugee Norwegian commandos, who, with little more than parachutes, skis, and Tommy Guns, would destroy Hitler’s nuclear ambitions and help end the reign of the Third Reich.

Based on exhaustive research and never-before-seen diaries and letters of the saboteurs, The Winter Fortress is a compulsively readable narrative about a group of young men who endured soul-crushing setbacks and Gestapo hunts and survived in one of the coldest, most inhospitable places on earth to save the world from destruction.

My Review: I voted for this book in the 2016 Goodreads Choice Awards. I won the book in a Literary Hub Daily Giveaway, for which I thank them.

The beginning, for once, is the fifth star's vanishment. The physics lesson went on too long. Yes, I agree that it was needed. This being a popular history book, however, a lesson of half the length and a quarter the depth would've been more appropriate, not to mention more palatable.

But the tale itself is exciting and engrossing and, if over-detailed at times, sets a spanking pace. We owe a lot to the Norwegian resistance movement. Does anyone still know, or use, the noun "quisling," I wonder? It's Norway's other huge contribution to world culture. Oh yeah, some Brits were involved as well. In minor roles.


THE GENIUS OF BIRDS, my 4.5* rave for a Goodreads Choice Awards nominee


Penguin Press
$28.00 hardcover, available now

Rating: 4.5* of five

The Publisher Says: Birds are astonishingly intelligent creatures. In fact, according to revolutionary new research, some birds rival primates and even humans in their remarkable forms of intelligence. Like humans, many birds have enormous brains relative to their size. Although small, bird brains are packed with neurons that allow them to punch well above their weight.

In The Genius of Birds, acclaimed author Jennifer Ackerman explores the newly discovered brilliance of birds and how it came about. As she travels around the world to the most cutting-edge frontiers of research— the distant laboratories of Barbados and New Caledonia, the great tit communities of the United Kingdom and the bowerbird habitats of Australia, the ravaged mid-Atlantic coast after Hurricane Sandy and the warming mountains of central Virginia and the western states—Ackerman not only tells the story of the recently uncovered genius of birds but also delves deeply into the latest findings about the bird brain itself that are revolutionizing our view of what it means to be intelligent.

Consider, as Ackerman does, the Clark’s nutcracker, a bird that can hide as many as 30,000 seeds over dozens of square miles and remember where it put them several months later; the mockingbirds and thrashers, species that can store 200 to 2,000 different songs in a brain a thousand times smaller than ours; the well-known pigeon, which knows where it’s going, even thousands of miles from familiar territory; and the New Caledonian crow, an impressive bird that makes its own tools.

But beyond highlighting how birds use their unique genius in technical ways, Ackerman points out the impressive social smarts of birds. They deceive and manipulate. They eavesdrop. They display a strong sense of fairness. They give gifts. They play keep-away and tug-of-war. They tease. They share. They cultivate social networks. They vie for status. They kiss to console one another. They teach their young. They blackmail their parents. They alert one another to danger. They summon witnesses to the death of a peer. They may even grieve.

This elegant scientific investigation and travelogue weaves personal anecdotes with fascinating science. Ackerman delivers an extraordinary story that will both give readers a new appreciation for the exceptional talents of birds and let them discover what birds can reveal about our changing world. Incredibly informative and beautifully written, The Genius of Birds richly celebrates the triumphs of these surprising and fiercely intelligent creatures.

My Review: I voted for this book in the 2016 Goodreads Choice Awards. It deserves ever one of its stars! I was fascinated by the breadth of the study's scope. I was impressed by Ackerman's lucidity of prose, despite the (inevitable, I suppose) use of a lot of scientific jargon.

I've been a bird fancier since the first time I saw a Baltimore oriole's nest in 1967. In fact, after the birds had raised their chicks and migrated north again, I scaled (for the one and only time in my life! so scared of heights I had to be rescued by my aunt's gardener) the pecan tree where I'd watched them live their South Texas breeding lives and got me that empty nest. It was a staple of my home decor until a careless mover crushed it in 1999. I was so angry I had to leave the house for an hour or I'd've crushed him.

Crows fascinate me to this day. In Austin in the 1970s, the street I lived on had gob-oodles of trees. Crows liked to perch in them because there was an extensive open space very near us. Great place to grub around (in the literal sense of the verb) and thus I could, over time, learn that there were certain trees where certain crows could normally be found. I also discovered that crows like multi-grain bread, which I do not, so they appreciated my gifts of whole crumbled loaves of the stuff that my mother couldn't afford to replace with anything except my preferred rye or pumpernickel bread. Thanks, guys!

This book resonated with me for those reasons, and also taught me a goodly amount of new information. I am completely unsurprised by the expanded knowledge scientists are accumulating about birds. They've been evolving for over 300MM years! Dinosaurs weren't stupid to begin with; add the last 65MM years for the birds to accumulate new knowledge and it shouldn't surprise us they're smart, it should surprise us if we find that they're dimwitted instinct-driven dum-dums.

Very highly recommended if you're already interested in birds; still recommended if you're only mildly curious about the avian family that we continue to decimate with our carelessness about the planet we live on. Pretty soon, ladies and gentlemen,THE BIRDS by Daphne du Maurier will be a prediction not a cautionary tale.