Wednesday, December 30, 2020

TRAM 83, a Congolese poet's grenade of a debut novel

(tr. Roland Glasser)
Deep Vellum
$10.00 ebook editions, available now

Rating: 3.75* of five

The Publisher Says: Two friends, one a budding writer home from Europe, the other an ambitious racketeer, meet in the only nightclub, the Tram 83, in a war-torn city-state in secession, surrounded by profit-seekers of all languages and nationalities. Tram 83 plunges the reader into the modern African gold rush as cynical as it is comic and colorfully exotic, using jazz rhythms to weave a tale of human relationships in a world that has become a global village.

Fiston Mwanza Mujila (b. 1981, Lubumbashi, Democratic Republic of Congo) is a poet, dramatist, and scholar. Tram 83 is his award-winning and raved-about debut novel that caused a literary sensation when published in France in August 2014.


My Review
: Many people have spoken to the poetic nature of this book's text. I agree, in both the good sense...the author's (and crucially the translator's) ear for the heightened meanings of words used in poetry is always adding a bass line to this melody...and the bad, that being the obfuscatory and often obscurantist requirement for the reader to unpack subtexts and discover new senses for familiar words while mid-read.
The City-State is one of those territories that have already broken through the barrier of internal suffering. You share the same destiny as everyone else, the same history, the same hardship, the same trains, the same Tram beer, the same dog kebabs, the same narrative as soon as you come into the world. You start out baby-chick or slim-jim or child soldier. You graduate to endlessly striking student or desperado. If you've got family on the trains, then you work on the trains; otherwise, like a ship, you wash up on the edge of hope - a suicidal, a carjacker, a digger with dirty teeth, a mechanic, a street sleeper, a commission agent, an errand boy employed by for-profit tourists, a hawker of secondhand coffins. Your fate is already sealed, the route marked out in advance. Fate sealed like that of the locomotives carrying spoiler merchandise and the dying.

It's not an impossible task. It's often uncomfortable, and it's always a way of slowing the reader down. That isn't always a bad thing. It can feel sort of like the author is being pedantic, the repetition of variants on "You have the time?" is my favorite example. The time to disport yourself with a prostitute. The time to listen to a song. The time as spending, a transaction, an exchange of money for value or attention for money; the issue at hand isn't that it's hard to do this work but that it's required. Read cold, flat, without investment other than decoding, there is no through-line of story to receive. It is a list of lists, a repetition of phrases and names and all strung on a thin cord of criticism for capitalist society's multi-level destruction of the characters. That isn't a terribly satisfying read; and the fact that it is in itself a sharp critique of the mental laziness of many readers is a bit off-putting.
The Northern Station was going to the dogs. It was essentially an unfinished metal structure, gutted by artillery, train tracks, and locomotives that called to mind the railroad built by Stanley, cassava fields, cut-rate hotels, greasy spoons, bordellos, Pentecostal churches, bakeries, and noise engineered by men of all generations and nationalities combined. It was the only place on earth you could hang yourself, defecate, blaspheme, fall into infatuation, and thieve without regard to prying eyes.

So much is inside the world of Tram 83 that it can feel as overwhelming as a physical trip to Africa does to many Westerners. For the whitest among us, the experience of being a vanishingly small minority is so unsettling as to be agony. For that reason I want many many US whites to read it; I recognize the futility of that wish but am stubbornly advocating it. It's the end of 2020. The world has changed because of COVID-19. It is long past time people with our First-World privilege, regular garbage pick-up and grocery stores and paved roads, heard about the reality of the rest of the world in their own words.
Eyes shrivelled by cigarettes and alcohol. Potbellies full to bursting with roundworms, amoebas, earthworms, and assorted mollusks. Heads shaved with knives. Arms and legs stiff with digging graves from morning till morning. They were close to ten, maybe twelve years old. They toted the same justifications: “We’re doing this to pay for our studies. Dad’s already gone with the locomotives. He doesn’t write no more. Mom’s sick. The uncles and aunts and grandmothers say we’re sorcerers and it’s because of that dad got married a third time and that our sorcery comes from our mom and that we should go to see the preachers who will cut the links by getting us to swallow palm oil to make us vomit up our sorcery and prevent us flying round at night.” They lived off a multitude of rackets, like all the kids in town.

They worked as porters at the Northern Station, and on the Congo River and at the Central Market, as slim-jims in the mines, errand boys at Tram 83, undertakers, and gravediggers. The more sensitive ones stood guard at the greasy spoons abutting the station, whose metal structure recalled the 1885s, in exchange for a bowl of badly boiled beans.

What I want from white people like me reading this thunderflash of words, this uncappable well of natural story-gas, is that we stop and do the work of being in fellowship with the world that isn't like us. Because that surface difference, as this intense and unmissable read says and shows, means nothing against the deepest human need of all: To connect and commune with Humanity. As cheesy as that sounds, this really is the take-away I hope you'll have when you spend a day immersed in Tram 83.

Tuesday, December 29, 2020

THE DARK ARCHIVE, seventh Invisible Library story that I want to see on Netflix soonest thank you and please

(The Invisible Library #7)
Ace Books
$16.00 trade paper, available today!

Rating: 5* of five

The Publisher Says: A professional spy for a mysterious Library which harvests fiction from different realities, Irene faces a series of assassination attempts that threaten to destroy her and everything she has worked for.

Irene is teaching her new assistant the fundamentals of a Librarian's job, and finding that training a young Fae is more difficult than she expected. But when they both narrowly avoid getting killed in an assassination attempt, she decides that learning by doing is the only option they have left - especially when the assassins keep coming for them, and for Irene's other friends as well...

In order to protect themselves, Irene and her friends must do what they do best: search for information to defeat the overwhelming threat they face and identify their unseen enemy. To do that, Irene will have to delve deeper into her own history than she ever has before, face an ancient foe, and uncover secrets that will change her life and the course of the Library forever.


The Invisible Library reviewThe Masked City reviewThe Burning Page reviewThe Lost Plot reviewThe Mortal Word reviewThe Secret Chapter review

My Review
: I mean! Let me sit and catch my breath for a bit. Gracious me, this one was exciting times eleven.

So are they all, yes, but there are stakes then there are stakes and the superlative of stakes is what we experience in The Dark Archive.

Comme d'habitude, Kai and Vale and Irene are in pursuit of a Book on Vale's home, and Irene and Kai's adopted favorite base-world, B-395. New character Catherine (where's Heathcliff, Author Cogman?) is a Fae (and the niece of powerful adversary Fae Lord Silver) who is to be trained as a Librarian. Hence her presence here.

But, I hear fellow fans complain, Fae can't go into the Library! They're Chaos on legs, they would be extinguished or combust or something! And you're correct, they can't. Catherine's tried with no success and a good deal of pain. Now she's on a Librarian spycrafty expedition, nursing a distinctly adolescent sense of being Hard Done By and making poor Kai pay for her inner crappy mood. Irene and Vale? Elsewhere. Being, in fact, booby-trapped into a submarine explosion and a major, major discovery. A Certain Someone is not as dead as Irene left him, and his Lady Wife seems to be ready to take on the Library to get revenge for Irene's dastardly nerve in killing him in the first place.

These are but the opening notes of the symphony. And I can assure you that the pace doesn't slacken, the chases are truly cinematic (one B-395 London library is *begging* to be filmed with its multi-story Guggenheim-esque open atrium architecture, only 18th century and marble not 1959 concrete), the characters constantly going to extremes in service of their families, their peoples (Fae, Dragons, Librarians...the odd human tempest-tost in the deep end of a cosmic pool they never suspected existed), and the Treaty that our intrepid gang damn near died to bring into effect. After all, a multiverse of opposing sides defined by antithetical modes of being needs rules or there's going to be lots of casualties.

I don't for a moment expect anyone who hasn't read the first six books to know what much of that really means. I hope you'll take this, the release day of The Dark Archive, to look over my reviews of The Invisible Library, The Masked City (alt-Venice!), The Burning Page, The Lost Plot, The Mortal Word, and The Secret Chapter to see if anything in those reviews grabs you. You know my taste by now...I don't tolerate boredom well, I don't want to read about eye-rolley majgickq that makes not one whit of sense, or kiddie-kinses as they Find Their Snowflake you already know there's none of that here. There's also no sex, and apparently no one in the multiverse is queer (though I suspect that Vale is ace), but nothing made by humankind can be perfect.

What I look for that Author Cogman delivers book after book is a group of people whose honor is stronger than their fear, whose shared values hold them up when they're so battered by enemies they just want to lie down and rest, and whose relationships adjust to Earth-shattering new information.

That last one? That's the Big Reveal. You'll think, "oh THIS is what he was on about!" And it will most definitely NOT be. And you won't know it until a book falls on your metaphorical head and rings your bells.

It's worth it.

Monday, December 28, 2020

2020...GAWD it stank! Here are some reads to remind us what's at stake in 2021

MILL TOWN: Reckoning with What Remains

St. Martin's Press
$27.99 hardcover, available now

Rating: The Full Five

A FINALIST!! The National Book Critics' Circle's annual John Leonard Prize for a first book's winner will be announced on 25 March 21.

Many thanks to NetGalley and St. Martin's Press for my DRC.

The 2020 book I couldn't review because I always end up screaming at my computer and kicking my laundry is that good, that real, that intense and necessary a read. Using her own hometown, and her entire youth there, as a lens to expose and excoriate corporate chicanery, Author Arsenault is taking no prisoners. Like her predecessors in exposé-dom Katherine Boo (Behind the Beautiful Forevers) and Rachel Carson (Silent Spring), she dug deep, interviewed widely, and concluded with a shout of outrage you really owe it to yourself to experience.


REFINERY TOWN: Big Oil, Big Money, and the Remaking of an American City

Beacon Press
$27.95 hardcover, $14.99 ebook editions, available now

Rating: 4* of five

Many thanks to Edelweiss+ and Beacon Press for my DRC.

There is nothing worse than a corporate lobbyist seeking the blinding of oversight for their industry: Congressional intervention alone saved the Chemical Safety & Hazard Investigation Board in 2017, whose paltry $11 million budget stands in stark contrast to the $530 billion industry they're charged with regulating. Author Early, in his extremely tendentious résumé of the many battles fought by the Richmond (CA) Progressive Alliance, some won and others lost but all in service of the humans of the city, kept me gasping in outraged sympathy. I definitely encourage Bernie supporters, environmentalists, and progressives to make the considerable effort to read this case study of a movement.


COMING OF AGE AT THE END OF NATURE: A Generation Faces Living on a Changed Planet

Trinity University Press
$18.95 paperback, $14.99 ebook editions, available now

Rating: 4.5* of five

Many thanks to Edelweiss+ and Trinity University Press for my DRC.

A wildly variable collection of young peoples' responses to the horrific crisis my generation refused to mitigate or ameliorate in any way, shape, or form. I enjoyed a few essays that explored personal connections...a young parent pondering the ethics of childbirth at this historical point, a National Park docent contrasting the biome she guides people through with last century's paean essays to its lost glory...empathized with all, and ended up wanting to pen an apologia not a review. If the gutting of oversight and enforcement of regulations and standards on industry, and the all-but-abolishment of Federal land stewardship, causes you pain, read these essays to become galvanized and energized with purpose to fight our planet's hastened end.


HOW TO CHANGE A LAW: Improve Your Community, Influence Your Country, Impact the World

iLobby (non-affiliate Amazon link)
$2.99 ebook editions, available now

Rating: 5* of five

Many thanks to NetGalley and iLobby for my DRC.

I began this book wondering what the heck I could do to impact the legislative process; I ended it eager to apply the seven steps to self-empowerment in the political process. The most mind-blowingly direct, unfussy, and above all practical guide to speaking the language of successful influencers I can imagine. If the 2021 administration change has heartened you to imagine your voice can and should be heard, spend the extremely modest investment in this book and prepare wield your citizen's power effectively.

Sunday, December 27, 2020

2020...the year the world stopped for a minute

THE SECRET LIFE OF GROCERIES: The Dark Miracle of the American Supermarket

$27.00 hardcover, $15.99 ebook editions, available now

Rating: 4* of five

Many thanks to Edelweiss+ and Avery for my DRC of this book

In a five-year odyssey through the world created to feed American consumers, Author Lorr sees the behind-the-scenes costs of the cornucopia you visited weekly if not daily....and now likely use the internet to have delivered to you. The appalling conditions of Asian slave laborers, the crushing debts of US truckers, and the battle to prevent consumers from knowing the true cost of cheap food come flying at you as fast as you can turn the pages. Those of us holed up in isolation need to read about those who have no choice but to risk plague to keep us from the risks of stepping outside. Given how many discovered the sheer creative joy of manipulating our food to taste even better might've slightly reduced our own carbon footprints...but others took up our slack. My dote Mary Roach (Stiff, Bonk, Packing for Mars) said it best in her blurb:
The modern shopper wants groceries that are ethical, sustainable, humane, affordable, fresh, and convenient. But as Lorr discovers, the costs of our demands are recouped from the bottom of the food chain: debt-ruined truckers, foreign slave labor, and Whole Foods workers in our own communities — the people whose lives Lorr shared (and sometimes lived) for weeks or months. Does it sound grim? It’s not! The Secret Life of Groceries is a terrific read. The stories flow, and the hard truths are seasoned with wit and hope.



Grove Press
$27.00 hardcover, available now

Rating: 3.5* of five

Many thanks to NetGalley and Grove Press for my DRC of this book

Alone among the literate world, I was made uncomfortable by the relationship between naturalist Macdonald and Mabel the formerly wild hawk told in H is for Hawk. These essays on many topics are written in Author Macdonald's justly celebrated elegant prose, and include so many aperçus that my commonplace book blew up. If you don't share my unease with people venerating wildness while taming it out of a fellow being, you'll enjoy this collection without my unshakeable unease.


THE DARK FANTASTIC: Race and the Imagination from Harry Potter to the Hunger Games

NYU Press
$16.95 trade paper, available now

Rating: 4* of five

Many thanks to Edelweiss+ and NYU Press for my DRC of this book

This past November 1st, Author Ebony Elizabeth Thomas won the 2020 World Fantasy Special Award for Professionals in recognition of this title's outsized importance in its field. Any in-depth review of the book will simply be retyping it; the author is adept at stating home truths in trenchant, relatable ways: "Maybe it’s not that kids and teens of color and other marginalized and minoritized young people don’t like to read. Maybe the real issue is that many adults haven’t thought very much about the radicalized mirrors, windows, and doors that are in the books we offer them to read, in the television and movies we invite them to view, and in the fan communities we entice them to play in." It is a wonder to find someone as adept as Octavia Butler was at making the nature of the wrongs embedded in our lush, vibrant SF literary world clear and present and, as a result, actionable. If you're white, love to read fantasy, science fiction, or horror fiction, this is a must read.


CLIMATE CHANGE AND THE HEALTH OF NATIONS: Famines, Fevers, and the Fate of Populations
Oxford University Press
$26.95 trade paper, available now

Rating: 4* of five

Many thanks to NetGalley and Oxford University Press for my DRC of this book

I wanted to see what the world has done to challenge us as hard as unchecked climate change is doing at this very moment. With a startlingly immense grasp, the scope of Humankind's long fight to survive despite the ways Earth changes is calmly but urgently expressed by Author McMichael. Anyone who loves to learn the ins and outs of a complex topic with a master teacher will lap this book up. The regime change due in the US on 20 January 2021 is the perfect time to learn why we should force our lawmakers to focus on responding effectively to climate change's many effects on health, wealth, and food security.

Saturday, December 26, 2020

GIFT CARDS! GIFT CARDS!! Now what shall I get myself....

The wrapping paper's all smoothed out and saved (right? RIGHT?! because it's hugely wasteful to just pile it into the landfill, and no one who reads my stuff is that selfish, RIGHT?!), the pile of returns is in something portable against the day the plague is beaten back, and now there are those lovely, lovely, lovely gift cards to spend!

Now, what to spend them on. Eternally recurring question, isn't it. I mean, mystery series: start or continue? Fantasy novels: Nonillionology or stand alone (rare things, those)? Science fiction: TV adaptation already out or being developed? Short stories: familiar author or start sampling some new work? Pize winners: this year, start from the inception of the prize, or just pick a date and read the winners from that get my point, which book(s) to buy is a vexed and vexing question. (If you're the sort of person who buys clothes or tchotchkes, what are you doing here?)

There are over eight hundred review posts on this blog. Reading some of them, as I assume you have, you're bound to form an opinion of my taste and how it marches with yours. If this is your first visit, welcome! Click around. Nothing bad will happen to your browsing history. But the sheer number of options can feel overwhelming to some. (The more the merrier says I, but I bore easily so novelty and variety are my crack.) Use the search function! It's that little box at the top left of the Home page. Enter a term like "science fiction" or "mystery" or "economic royalists" and lots of options will magically present themselves in scrollable form! Don't care as much about genres, freeze when asked to think of spmething specific? The bottom of this post has all the star listings I've used...well, up to 200 characters it does...and there are the genre tabs to peruse, too.

I am always, um, taxed with the fact that some links go to a book's listing on Amazon. These are not affiliate links, which you can readily ascertain because they're all "Smile" links and those can not be affiliate links. Usually I've explained why it's to Amazon, but in general it's for books out of print or whose publisher sites make my nose hairs combust with frustration when trying to navigate. (Publishers: It's the 21st century. UPDATE YOUR STORES TO MODERN BEST PRACTICES.)

One final note: Only members of the blog, those who have Google accounts and click on the "Follow" button, can comment on here. People whose presence I find unpleasant have in the past exercised their free speech to say unkind, unpleasant, or unwelcome things. Don't do that. But please, if you find a broken link or a weird problem, please comment on that post! I can't keep track of everything that changes in the past eight years. I need and welcome the help. It's a kindness and a mitzvah.

Shop hearty!

Thursday, December 24, 2020

DOMINION presents the best-quality and most stylistically varied look at SF/F/H focused on Authors of Color

DOMINION: An Anthology of Speculative Fiction from Africa and the African Diaspora
edited by Zelda Knight and Ekpeki Oghenechovwe Donald

Aurelia Leo (non-affiliate Amazon link)
$9.99 Kindle edition, available now

Rating: 5* of five

The Publisher Says: Dominion is the first anthology of speculative fiction and poetry by Africans and the African Diaspora. An old god rises up each fall to test his subjects. Once an old woman’s pet, a robot sent to mine an asteroid faces an existential crisis. A magician and his son time-travel to Ngoni country and try to change the course of history. A dead child returns to haunt his grieving mother with terrifying consequences. Candace, an ambitious middle manager, is handed a project that will force her to confront the ethical ramifications of her company’s latest project—the monetization of human memory. Osupa, a newborn village in pre-colonial Yorubaland populated by refugees of war, is recovering after a great storm when a young man and woman are struck by lightning, causing three priests to divine the coming intrusion of a titanic object from beyond the sky.

A magician teams up with a disgruntled civil servant to find his missing wand. A taboo error in a black market trade brings a man face-to-face with his deceased father—literally. The death of a King sets off a chain of events that ensnare a trickster, an insane killing machine, and a princess, threatening to upend their post-apocalyptic world. Africa is caught in the tug-of-war between two warring Chinas, and for Ibrahim torn between the lashings of his soul and the pain of the world around him, what will emerge? When the Goddess of Vengeance locates the souls of her stolen believers, she comes to a midwestern town with a terrible past, seeking the darkest reparations. In a post-apocalyptic world devastated by nuclear war, survivors gather in Ife-Iyoku, the spiritual capital of the ancient Oyo Empire, where they are altered in fantastic ways by its magic and power.


My Review
: Whenever you see this review: GO GET THIS ANTHOLOGY. It's the 24th...your ereader or tablet is just sitting there, you can't play your gifted games just yet, and Krampus only knows how long it will be until you get snacky. Read these intense, startling, urgent excuses! You read The Lord of the Rings and had no problem following those fake, complicated character and place names so don't front that these are any harder. And believe me: The stories are (almost) all so vivid and alive and enfolding that you are gonna be up late. The always-useful technique I call the Bryce Method of making notes and offering ratings story-by-story is my guide.

Trickin' by Nicole Givens Kurtz gives us the "after" of a world almost, but not quite, like our own; the Trickster Raoul is, or isn't, the Trickster God...? No matter, the old world's dead:
Once, a bustling metropolis existed, but now, only disappointment remained.
Some spoke of a virus that each warring country deployed against the other in an effort to gain the upper hand in a battle already slippery from bloodshed.

Can you think of a particularly compelling reason to care if this is the God or simply the psychopomp of sacrifices' souls? 4 stars

Red_Bati by Dilman Dila explores the eternal tension between slave and master. Granny's grandson, in her final years, gifted her with a "pet red basenji" robot, modified in a few ways to make sure it could keep Granny truly engaged with the world. This, as with all well-intentioned interference in the Way Things Are, has consequences.

Red_Bati becomes, after his fashion, sentient through his modified programming growing to respond to Granny and her human demands, needs, habits, wants. But as must be, Granny dies and her grandson sells off her property that's of no use to him. Including Red_Bati. Forgetting his well-intentioned mods to the robot might need taking care of, Red_Bati resultingly leaves Granny's body...though not her he is repurposed for asteroid mining. An injury, "life"-changing, results:
Once his battery ran down, he would freeze and that would damage his e-m-data strips. Though these could be easily and cheaply replaced, he would lose all his data, all the codings that made him Red_Bati and not just another red basenji dog, all his records of Granny. He would die.

"That won't be a bad thing," Granny said, chuckling. "If you were a true dog, you'd be as old as I am and wishing for death."

He was not a dog. He was a human trapped in a pet robot.
The VR printers would give birth to more of his kind, but they would not grow like human children. They would be fully functioning adults at birth, with almost nothing new to learn because they would have all the knowledge that forebots had gathered. Would exploring for new worlds and searching for mew matter give their lives a meaning?

Yes, well, that's the penalty of leadership, isn't it, defining "meaning" for all who come after you. Yours the power, yours the responsibility...and what does a real human do when Responsibility bears down on him? Passes the buck, of course; but to whom...? 4 stars

A Maji Maji Chronicle by Eugen Bacon can't be faulted for its refrain of "be careful what you wish for" in today's world. We're facing several existential crises and, like the Emperor of Ngoni, we might very well become that which we defeated on our way to restoration of balance. Even the wise should fear power:
Lust predated greed that predated power that predated altruism. The Emperor gathered a harem of one thousand wives whose shelter spread across three villages. Their feed took resources from twelve more villages now forced to pay 'protection' tax to the palace.

And thus the wages of interference in the path of Destiny, History, Doom, call it what you will. Some things are not the result of evil-souled malice, but of simply being alive. A message well worth hearing. 3.75 stars, a slight star-ding for what felt to me a slightly infelicitous haste in relating this urgent message; needed more about the future before I bought the journey, for example.

The Unclean by Nuzo Onoh is far from fresh ground to till. An unwanting and unwanted wife, woman haunted by ill fortune and bad decisions made for her by men who seek only to use her womb for sons. A curse brought on by her bad Chi, a child lost, a rival gained, finally death calls on her husband and his house again and again. And it's all her fault, in everyone's eyes including her own.

Pretty standard stuff. There are beatings. The husband's fat sisters and his fat new wife and the whole family close her out, conspire against her, her own dead child visits her...this body-shaming and man-loathing goes on a long time before the woman is rescued by her younger, modern sister, who finds her bound to her dead husband's side by magic spells as she awaits the judgment of a tree on her viability and guilt. Sister breaks the curse by stomping up, gathering her into her Westernized arms, and whisking her off. I was interested in Igbo culture's demons and beliefs for a while, but honestly? This is a well-worn path among African women's writing, fathers and husbands and brothers all foolish and greedy and abusive, that I don't really want to follow along to anymore. YMMV, of course. 3 stars

A Mastery of German by Marian Denise Moore uses that most anodyne of settings, The Corporate Workplace, to explore a chilling, and I suspect fast-approaching, Brave New World: Sharing the essential You via genetic manipulation. Young Black woman Candace is new at her job of Project Management at fast-track pharma developer QND. The founder gave her full control over a Black geneticist's mysterious, and underperforming, project...find out if it will be profitable, how soon, and if that window makes sense; or kill it and we move on.

Clear, simple directive; tangled, ethically questionable decision. The best kind for a story. What if Candace, keeping this project alive, has the ability to keep the Sands of Time from burying the lives and accomplishments of Black people?
"I hit a wall {her father says of his genealogy research}; this always happens. Josiah Toil was just a Black laborer, so his work wasn't recorded. Every generation," he paused, "like Black Wall Street, like all of the Black towns after the Civil War, like all of the Black miners at Matewan."

"We know all of that," {Candace} said quietly.

"No, we rediscovered all of that. It gets wiped away and then two generations later people say 'we were kings and queens in Africa'. Well, sure. But we were city planners, architects, engineers, bricklayers, and professors here in America."

Now, you're Candace; you have the power to end that vicious, racist cycle forever by supporting this mysterious project you were tacitly told to kill; but it will take one giant hellacious demonstration with intimately controlled variables to keep it alive. How much of yourself would you be willing to give, permanently, to make it happen? This story gripped me, refused to let me go, from the outset. I hope that, one day, it grows into the big novel I feel it longing to become. 4.5 stars

Convergence in Chorus Architecture by Dare Segun Falowo is a novella that simply will not let you stop reading it...or, if you're a white westerner without curiosity, won't let you start. I want you to be one who starts.

It is no more difficult to read The Lord of the Rings than it is to experience this story in all its richness. It has astounding dieties, it has magical events, it has a dense world full of exciting and involving details to ponder over, to play out in your mind...and no one who's read the elvish stuff in Tolkien has any excuse but uninterest to avoid this deeply satisfying read. There are titanic storms and there are mystical journeys and there are people on quests to do things for the betterment of all Humanity. There is an intricate arabesque of a plot that will, at times (and I believe at the author's will), lead you astray:

Everyone stood and looked bored, insenseate, until the moment. The moment a single wail left their mouths just as their bodies caught on fire and they ascended into the black body of the ship. The boneship swallowed all without discrimination: women who had escaped war and men who had refused it and children who did not know its scars until later in their lives.
The bodies rose around as he made his way through a maze of rippling flesh. There were hundreds and hundreds of them. To the one who brought him it was a normal situation but to him it was like walking through a dense forest made of limbs and buttocks, a house of sleeping skin.
The black boneship slipped out of thoughtspeed into an infinite ocean. The ocean was still and white as purest sap. The boneship ceased to move with any precision and began to drift and spin slowly. Nothing moved in the whiteness. There was no sound.

Do not despair. You're on a quest, when was that ever easy? And, in the end, you're going to be so much richer for the read. The title, obscure to the point of obfuscation, is actually the only possible title this necessary tale could ever have. 5 stars

Emily by Marian Denise Moore is a brief poem about life as a child-slave. I have no context to rate poetry. It's very short, though, so don't just skip it.

To Say Nothing of Lost Figurine by Rafiyat Aliyu plays to my love of heists and of portals between dimensions. I'm as happy as a puppy in a puddle as I follow Odun to Kur, therein to retrieve his ngunja called Jooh. The fun of this is its deeply held belief that there is no Western "pure science" or African "folk magic" there is Reality and it is far, far stranger than we know:
"Greetings to you and those you hold in your possession," the agent said in a deep, raspy voice.

"Greetings to you and those you hold in your possession," Odun replied.

Covered from head to toe in a flowing robe of pitch black, the border agent's identity was hidden. Yet the greeting signalled that the agent was someone like Odun, someone selected to control the variety of staffs, wands, and figurines that made up the corpus of the ngunja.
This year was particularly crucial: it would mark Odun's sixth win, qualifying him for a promotion and hopefully an all-explense paid move to another frontier town where he could push the limits of his ngunja and terrakinesis abilities.

Now, these details tell the experienced caper-reader what we need to know to suss out the ending before it unfolds; in a short story, that's not the least common fault, so the focus of an old reader shifts to the places, the characters, and the ideas we're getting. And I approve, whole-heartedly, of them all. Odun's local guide Aule is a worthy sidekick; she has her physical powers and her wildly different way of thinking to fit with Odun's more "but but but these are RULES and RULES ARE IMPORTANT" mien. Absolutely admired the economical way Author Aliyu snuck in the Kurians' objections to humans like Odun, and their deep physical aversion to Aule. Please, Author Aliyu, please make more stories in this universe! I give it 4 stars, but that's only because there is a missing step in their heist...the escape!

Sleep Papa, Sleep by Suyi Davies Okungbowa takes father/son conflict to a level I simply was not expecting...Max, whose carelessness while he's in a body-parts market is enough of infraction of the necromantic laws that a damned weird and terrible penalty is exacted: he and his dead father must battle out Max's guilt at wanting to leave the family trade, his father's gift of a career to him, and his growing need to be a modern man:
There are mud tracks on the floor tiles that he didn’t notice before. They run from the door, but don’t end at Max’s feet at the entrance to the kitchenette. The TV’s light is insufficient, so Max squints to follow the tracks, which he notices are odd because while one is a complete footprint, the opposite foot has most of the sole with no trace of toes.

It is moments like this that tell you you're not in Lagos as you and I know it. It tells you that Author Okungbowa leads us into the world of horror and body horror to explain how a man must fight for every foot of distance from family and its expectations. One of the standout stories. 4.75 stars

Clanfall: Death of Kings by Odida Nyabundi needed more Shibuor and fewer interchangeable men! What a hellacious, intense, adrenaline-pumping ride! More now please. 4.5 stars and please note the "please" at the end of "More now" was really pro forma...get more of these stories out!!

The Satellite Charmer by Mame Bougouma Diene scintillates, coruscates, makes my knees go weak and my ears ring with divine prosody:
He flung the galactic bow away, the soundbox expanding, his fingers drumming the thick chords like a bass. The satellites winked out as giant ♬♫♩♪ hammered them in waves, destroying cities across the planet. Somewhere his body died. His fingers merged with the chords, he and the bull fiddle were one vibration, bouncing between satellites until a ring of debris circled the earth. He inhaled, or rather somewhere in the vastness of space a galaxy exploded. He let his fingers rest. Light years away the bass line birthed a star.

Do you need more? I can go on... 4.75* of five

Thresher of Men by Michael Boatman was deeply uncomfortable to read, and very very on point; I wished for Kisazi to do more. Never mind content warnings...any sensitivity you can name is likely to experience a strong response. I don't know what to say rating-wise...let's go with intensity of response = good, so 4 stars

Ife-Iyoku, the Tale of Imadeyunuagbon by Ekpeki Oghenechovwe Donald brings this collection to a climax, not a close. Every word is limned with acetylene, high heat cutting the obdurate titanium of post-apocalyptic reality with beautiful figures and delicate patterns...that will then roast themselves into your readerly skin as Author Donald smacks you with them. A fitting conclusion to this astounding, intense, often brutal read. 5 bright stars
“Ife-Iyoku” is a work of daring moral imagination as well as a story expertly constructed. What makes this story’s achievement even more spectacular is that {it} stood out for the jury in a bumper crop of thought-provoking and challenging speculative fictions." Winner of the 2020 OTHERWISE AWARD! Bravo!

Wednesday, December 23, 2020

To celebrate the end of a long, long, bad, bad year...

...I'm going to make a new start on reviewing the books I liked, but don't feel called to perform a full review on. There are, without exaggeration, hundreds of books I'd like to alert people to, books that really deserve your eyeblinks, books I can happily if not enthusiastically encourage you to seek out. I just haven't had a framework to do it in, like the simple three-sentence review structure you see at right. That meme was posted by Author 'Nathan Burgoine on Twitter in 2019. He was, before becoming an author, a bookstore manager, and this is the structure he encouraged staff members who felt overwhelmed by the idea of Writing A Review to use.

I'm adopting it, and referring to the process as Burgoineing in the author's honor. (I hope he sees it as an honor.) I will fairly regularly, once or possibly twice a month as a baseline and more frequently as events warrant, post three- or four-Burgoined titles together. You can see I've already begun. In the next few days more Burgoines will appear, this being year-end and a perfect time to make the decks as clear as I possibly can for the *amazing* books I've already got in the works for 2021 reviews.

I have to give 2020 credit for one thing. While a lot of authors saw their book launches rescheduled, publishers canceled their tours, and everyone was hugely distracted by the nightmare of COVID-19 (I had it, you do not want it), no one can fault the astoundingly wonderful literature we got this year. My own annual six-stars-of-five read was Zaina Arafat's extraordinary debut novel YOU EXIST TOO MUCH (review lives here), a thirtysomething Palestinian woman telling me my life, my family, my very experience of relationships of all sorts. I cannot stress enough to you, this is the book you need to read in 2021. A sixtysomething man is here, in your email/feed, saying: This is the power. This is the glory. The writing I look for, the read I long to find, and all of it delivered in a young woman's debut novel. This is as good an omen for the Great Conjunction's power being bent to the positive outcomes as any I've seen.

I read fifty-seven books this quarter. That's nowhere near a personal best, but it's a lot more than I would've read if I hadn't had the bump that Burgoineing has given me! Liberation from the demands of making a deep dive into a book, instead being allowed by my own inner demons to enjoy then describe why I did that this vastly simpler and handily codified technique showed me. The reads were in the main first reads or review-induced second reads. The re-reads, mostly of old Agatha Christie stories or novels that I could blow through quickly because they're already familiar. At my age, I don't really want to devote a lot of time to rereading because, in the ~170-ish months I can expect to live, writers won't stop writing and publishers won't stop publishing. I see wonderful things, to paraphrase Howard Carter as he took in Tutankhamen's tomb goods.

Many of the most wonderful things I've seen in 2020 were translated things, What's Left of the Night quite possibly chief among them...or was it the first-ever translation from Yiddish of The Rivals & Other Stories, that dark and bitter draft of unsentimentalism about immigrant/emigrant Jewish life...permaybehaps it was The Slave Yards, that unexpected and welcome ray of hope centered in Benghazi. Those stories from far-away or long-gone places, more and more, have come to mean the most exciting reading I can do. New Vessel Press, Syracuse University Press, a raft of publishers are out there looking for and finding wonderful tales, translating them, and waiting for you to notice. I'd say it's a great year to set a challenge of reading a translation a month. Click on the tag "#2020Goals" and I'll bet you won't be at a loss of where to start for long.

There were some really pleasant surprises, like SHUGGIE BAIN winning the 2020 Booker Prize and selling over 200,000 copies. The Only Good Indians and Ring Shout appearing on endless "Best of 2020" lists. The Light Years appearing on my radar along with its mensch of an author, R.W.W. Greene. A good guy, one to watch, go follow him and see what a relief it is to have someone as classy and good-hearted as him imagining our future into being. Jennifer Marie Brissett, whose first novel Elysium I really loved, announced Destroyer of Light will come out in 2021, and Nicky Drayden's Symbiosis appears in February. On and on, a litany of things I look forward to, a long and happy and heartening trail of good news. I'm so grateful for it all, all the stuff there isn't room to celebrate here but there sure is room in my world for it!

On the other hand, I failed miserably at my goal of publishing an average of ten reviews a month in 2020. Months without reviews came largely because I was pretty miserable after I got this rotten COVID-19, and there are some long-term effects I'm not happy about but don't cause day-to-day killing fatigue and wretched headaches. I'm going to set the 2021 bar at fifteen reviews average per ambitious one hundred eighty, more than I've managed since the earliest days of reposting reviews in the "Pages" to save them from being deleted (back in 2013, I had only Goodreads and LibraryThing as my review venues, and each had its issues). I'm a little bit anxious about that lofty goal, which is how it should be. Challenges, a little fear, and a whole new chance to make the 2020s rock instead of having them rock us.

Tuesday, December 22, 2020

Science Fiction for your Kindle to beguile this #Booksgiving Eve

(Escaping Exodus #1)
$10.99 on Kindle, available now

Rating: 4.5* of five

Many thanks to the author and HarperVoyager for my ARC.

I know the author of this book for like fifteen years now. She's got a dry wit, a generous heart, and a deeply subversive soul. This is by way of explaining how I know that, in this twisty and turny story of siblings very much at odds with each other and very deeply enmeshed in each others' psyches, she's explained us to ourselves.

What happens when your intimate enemy, the charismatic and popular one to your quieter, more thorough self, challenges your position? As with all stories of intimate enemies, this is the beginning of the end, and the series of books that will follow depends on hooking you with this cataclysm. Like every blockbuster series in fantasy, Author Drayden sets the stakes high, limns the characters indelibly and economically, and gets you ready for an action-packed ride through a world you'd swear was real.

As book two, Symbiosis, expands the story of how love screws things up for everyone, becomes available on 23 February 2021, it's time to take advantage of this book's sale price to decide if you need to preorder the next. I'm pretty confident a lot of you will need to know how this plays out.



$8.99 ebook editions, available now

Rating: 3.5* of five

Human beings hate people who don't look like themselves, don't pray like themselves, and don't eat like themselves. Imagine, then, what an *actual* difference, like a gene-manipulated extra strength or ability, would cause. You don't need to, Author Ashton has done the work for you. In this fast-paced book, I was eager to get to the next set-piece; but then realized that was what I was doing, waiting for the next Scene while being irked at the clueless-Dad-unworldly-Engineer interacting with people more generally capable than he is. Since it's a very good book to read at a moment in history when we need to take stock of how we cope with Otherness, I'd say any SF fan would do a lot worse than picking this up for #Booksgiving reading.


(The Budayeen Cycle #1)
Open Road Media
$8.99 edbook editions, available now

Rating: 4* of five

I looked at myself in the mirror. I looked awful, but I always look awful in the mirror. I keep myself going with the firm belief that my real face is much better looking.

That is a very trenchant sentence. That is exactly what you're signing up for when you get this book. A rarity now, in the 1980s this book was a unicorn for dealing with Muslim culture in any way, and using near-future SF to highlight the way whites are colonizing the world was still cutting-edge stuff. Digging deeper into themes of identity with transgender characters, refugees from dying Europe, and pharmacological solutions that become terrible problems, the book prefigures the 21st century's obsessions. Readers of transgressive fiction need to rediscover what amazed us in the 1980s because it will amaze and delight you, too.

Monday, December 21, 2020

Today, 21 December 2020, is both the first day of Yule, the first visible Great Conjunction in 800 years, and the end of 45's presidency.

Okay, I made the last one up. Dammit anyway. Since it's Yule from today through 1 January, what do y'all say let's do like they did in Pisa: Take the mistakes of the past & make them shine beautifully. After all, it's also the Great Conjunction of Saturn & Jupiter, the first in 800 years that's so close in the sky & visible to Earth-bound watchers, astrologically speaking a time of greatest possible change. It's up to us to make use of whatever energy we have, can find, or simply dream up, to make the changes positive ones. Every kind & thoughtful act does, at all times, ripple out from the actors. Consciously doing more of that can only result in good AND bad becoming better.

I think this train wreck of a year deserves one thing in the net-positive column: People who haven't actually read a book in forever reported reading much more often. Plus 2020 also gave us what a lot of people think of as mixed-to-bad news: many, many, many, many more books turning into filmed entertainment! I'm always in favor of this, being one of the people who enjoy comparing the different ways different media deliver a story. So I'm delighted that Hollywood execs had to hunker down & got so bored they picked up a book, just like the rest of us.

This year's Booksgiving ideas are easiest to find from this thread, or by clicking the "#Booksgiving" tag at the bottom of any page. If you know me at all, you know I am a biblioholic, a tsundoku "sufferer" with no desire whatsoever to be "cured." I have eagerly adopted the custom of Jólabókaflóð & rechristened it "Booksgiving" because "Yule Book Flood" isn't as punchy a name in English. The emphasis I hope you'll place on this delight is the *reading*together* part, less the buying part. Since you're trapped together anyway, why not try doing something pleasurable that won't require plastering on a smile & praying no one sees you heading for the liquor cabinet again? Sit together, snacks & drinks & books/ereaders at hand, & It is an unexpectedly delightful way to spend time together.

I wish all the readers of Expendable Mudge Muses Aloud a delight-filled 2021. Harder than you can even imagine, I wish this for everyone on this planet. Yes, things are bad for many or even most of us. They can get better, & better is what my focus of energy is & will continue to be.
From Tachyon Publications, whose 25th anniversary in business was this year the poor things.

Sunday, December 20, 2020

THE FALLS OF THE WYONA, a coming-of-age novel about last midcentury set in beautiful Appalachia


Red Hen Press
$16.95 trade paper, available now

Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: In The Falls of the Wyona by David Brendan Hopes, four friends growing up on the banks of a wild Appalachian river just after WWII discover, almost at the same time, the dangerous, alluring Falls and the perils of their own maturing hearts. Seen through the eyes of his best friend Arden, football hero Vince falls in love with the new kid, Glen. They have no context for their feelings, and the next few years of high school become a tense, though sometimes funny, artifice of concealment. The winner of Red Hen’s Quill Prize, The Falls of the Wyona is the first of three achieved (and several more projected) novels by this author imbued with the magical atmosphere of Appalachian culture.


My Review
: The thing about historical novels, ones set in a past deep enough to have lost its currency, is that they might as well be fantasy novels. On the other hand, historical novels that take place when one's parents were getting married and having their first children are in a peculiar place between contemporary and stuffy-old-fashioned nostalgia fests.

I went on this journey, to be sure, knowing where I was headed. The historical part wasn't that historical to my frame of reference; the queer part contained my frame of reference; so what was I doing here, exactly? Touristing a bygone age's homophobia, knowing it would end badly? Or listening to the gift of a story told by a person whose life was more firmly rooted in that time and place than mine? In the end, it's a matter of semantics, distinction without difference. I went to the Wyona River and I saw the Falls, felt the way it broke the people of its town into parts. Boys and girls led very separate lives when I was growing up, too, but the river being so exclusively (in the narrator, Alden's, mind) male rang me like a bell. The funny thing for me was seeing how open Vince, the coach's only child, was about his love for Glen...but only by the maleness of the Wyona.

Arden's narration of the moments that small-town Southern football-playin' boys shared then and now, if Friday Night Lights et alii are to be believed, came close to wearing my armor thin. I didn't like those guys, they didn't like me, and I was right back there in those awful, ugly hallways. Arden, a jock, and Tilden the smart jock, both orbit Vince or Vinny (depending on some weird social cue I never worked out, the nicknames interchanged) in a way that I saw clearly as a former high-school nobody. Glen finds them, and improbably gets to hang with them; many are the jealous glances the four received, I'm sure. Vince falls in love with Glen. Arden knows, but doesn't really care, because the knowledge doesn't touch his love for Vince or fondness for Glen. Tilden starts to figure it out, a little, but can't quite contextualize it.

High-school loves are always hotly urgently NEW and DEEP!! A parent as doting as Vince's former football-star father is begins to dread this's the 1940s, that was inevitable...and horrible, wicked, cruel things begin to happen. Poor Glen...a gloriously romantic tableau ends in as awful a passage as any I've read. The most poignant, delightful scene I read was when Glen's father visits Arden at his home, admits he knows that Glen was in love with Vince and says in effect, "I wouldn't have changed what I told Glen to do to win over his true love even if I'd known then what I do now." Arden doesn't know what this means, kid that he is, and Glen's dad asks him just to be Glen's friend. It was a heartbreaking, lovely moment, deeply felt and viscerally real. It gave me the true tragic heart of the story, and it is the best reason I can give you, straight or gay, parent or not, to read this story.

The ending of the book, of necessity I think, is crowded and over-wrought. People come to accommodations that are not adequately explained, the sudden realizations and restorations aren't very realistic, and the theme of Love Conquering All feels fragile and thin. I don't think there was a better way off this horse, though. The need to end the story at this point and in this specific gestalt really could not be gainsaid.

But that troubled my readerly gravity, pushing me out of the gravity well when I expected to be reeled in and landed. Author Hopes has a lot of storytelling behind him. It shows in every beat he counts. It is always agreeable to be guided by a steady, firm hand. In the end, this tour was ended abruptly and I left the read wishing, regretting ever so slightly, wondering how, or if, the ending could've been more rooted in the story told.

I can't answer that, and it is that fact which left me with a three-plus star rating instead of the four-plus I'd expected to leave.

Saturday, December 19, 2020

WHAT'S LEFT OF THE NIGHT, three Parisian days in poet C.P. Cavafy's life when his world changed

(tr. Karen Emmerich)
New Vessel Press
$16.95 trade paper, $12.95 ebook editions, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: In June 1897, the young Constantine Cavafy arrives in Paris on the last stop of a long European tour, a trip that will deeply shape his future and push him toward his poetic inclination. With this lyrical novel, tinged with an hallucinatory eroticism that unfolds over three unforgettable days, celebrated Greek author Ersi Sotiropoulos depicts Cavafy in the midst of a journey of self-discovery across a continent on the brink of massive change. He is by turns exhilarated and tormented by his homosexuality; the Greek-Turkish War has ended in Greece’s defeat and humiliation; France is torn by the Dreyfus Affair, and Cavafy’s native Alexandria has surrendered to the indolent rhythms of the East. A stunning portrait of a budding author—before he became C.P. Cavafy, one of the 20th century’s greatest poets—that illuminates the complex relationship of art, life, and the erotic desires that trigger creativity.



My Review
: Poets puzzle me. As in all arts, there is a paucity of genius to go around; a spark here, a flare there, and honestly so little of that is even comprehensible during the poet's lifetime. Remember that scene in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy as Ford and Arthur are being strapped into the Vogon Poetry Appreciation chairs, the most dreaded of all torture devices? Even Prostetnic Jeltz wasn't the worst poet in the Galaxy, an English schoolgirl (recently atomized for that blasted bypass) was, while still (mercifully) unknown.

I think many of us feel the same way, attending slams and readings because we want to bag one or more of the poets (so totally guilty) without the fuss and bother of dating...ahem...I fear I've said too much. And the point is, this book's subject is one of the acknowledged geniuses of twentieth-century poetry around the world. Constantine Peter Cavafy was one of those gay boys who got bullied a lot. He was unhealthily attached to his mother, who in this book is called "The Fat One" as often as anything else. His family had a very great social fall, investments and wars and other things a young Costakis (one of his nicknames) really wouldn't know much about. He wrote and wrote, completing little and publishing not at all except in ephemera like magazines and broadsheets. He died at seventy, all unknown.

And now he's world-famous, acknowledged as a great master! Go read "Ithaka" if you wonder why. His fellow gay poets, Auden and Forster, bigged him up after his death; but honestly, it was Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis whose death did the most to bring him Fame. ("Ithaka" was read at her 1994 memorial service.) How appropriate, I think; a woman whose life was begun, lived, and ended in a world Cavafy would've recognized...the haute bourgeoisie...and who, but for the lightning of Fate would've been his equal in obscurity, used (albeit unwittingly) her own fame to make his.

Okay. I've given you the stakes...poet of huge talent labors in obscurity his whole life like everyone else who commits what's all this got to do with What's Left of the Night? Ersi Sotiropoulos wrote a paean, a song of praise, to the man at a critical juncture in his life, a birthing pain of a poet emerging from a boring failed bourgeois. Cavafy, the poet, doesn't appear like Aphrodite from the foam; he left behind a truncated-by-war but still considerable paper trail. His juvenilia were, in a word, mediocre. He lashes himself with this knowledge, but Author Sotiropoulos puts its cruel certainty into the hand of Greco-French poet Jean Moréas where Cavafy, not known to have met the great man on this flying tag-end trip, can see it en passant as it were. As with all artists, Cavafy responds to a hurtful characterization of his poems as having "weak artistry" by going off the deep end, by standing on his agonized, violated sense of himself and leaping head-first into an insomnia-generated sensory fugue state.

He develops an erotic obsession with a young Russian man, who on scant evidence he decides is a dancer; he spends a long passage working himself into a frenzy without so much as looking full-face at the man, and ending his very peculiar but very hot and sweaty public arousal with a mad dash to his bedroom for a (shameful, second) rub-out. Being a repressed, and very horny, thirty-four at the time, he recognizes that fleeting pleasures are not good for a whole lot: "...he already knew that his desire was far greater than the satisfaction would be, that the satisfaction would betray the desire…that this immediate relief would only disappoint him." A mature person with the drives of a lad, what could be worse.
For many of you, what I'm about to say is a death knell. I didn't want to say it at all. I thought of ways only to hint at it and still not have dirty looks cast at me when the duped reader ran into the wall of stream-of-consciousness prose.

For the six of you who are still reading, let me be plain, this is a *good* thing because Author Sotiropoulos is deploying the wooly sense of place and painful edges of reality that are most available to the writer using this narrative device in service of bringing you-the-reader into the deepest possible contact with Constantine's terrible, terrible agonies of self-knowledge. He is always, in every moment of this novel, in an altered state. He is sometimes, briefly, exalted by some male beauty. He is frequently unkind and downright abusive. And no one feels the sting of his lash more than he does himself. Always sure he is wrong, he projects his convictions without conviction; conversely, he spends gallons of tears sure he knows the location of the art locked inside him, a key nowhere to be found.

It is there. The key is always there in the great poets and writers. Sometimes finding it is more painful than they can bear to endure, so they fail; other times, they find the key and unleash...a hollow thunk; a mousy squeak, a pathetic mewl. To very few the key arrives at the moment they can most ably use the art within. Cavafy, in this book, is not ready; and he does not find the key; but he spends three Parisian days making a map that will lead him back to it: Men, sex, humiliation, and rage.

I caution the readers I know: Do not read past the scene in the Ark. A carriage draws up, a blond aristocrat appears, and shut the book. You'll feel better that way.

I really, really hope, despite my possibly off-putting advisories, that you will attend the birth of the incontestably great poet Constantine Cavafy as midwifed by Ersi Sotiropoulos. The book is gorgeous, and like its stylistic forebears, offers a unique and deeply participatory entrée into the shadowed corners and sunlit uplands of a unique individual's life at its moment of greatest impact. The poet is made to say, during the briefest of lucidities, that:
The purpose of art is to abolish distance.
Cavafy's observation, oneiric and onanistic as it is, explains perfectly this novel's appeal. I think it might be the most profound of the profound things that Author Sotiropoulos has Cavafy say.

Though "It must have been the perch" is a close flatulent second. Heh.

Thursday, December 17, 2020

THE SECRET CHAPTER, sixth Invisible Library story sees Irene and Kai in *Vienna

(The Invisible Library #6)
Ace Books
$16.00 trade paper, available now

Rating: The Full Five

The Publisher Says: A Librarian’s work is never done, and once Irene has a quick rest after their latest adventure, she is summoned to the Library. The world where she grew up is in danger of veering deep into chaos, and she needs to obtain a particular book to stop this from happening. No copies of the book are available in the Library, so her only choice is to contact a mysterious Fae information broker and trader of rare objects: Mr. Nemo.

Irene and Kai make their way to Mr. Nemo’s remote Caribbean island and are invited to dinner, which includes unlikely company. Mr. Nemo has an offer for everyone there: he wants them to steal a specific painting from a specific world. He swears that he will give each of them an item from his collection if they bring him the painting within the week.

Everyone takes the deal. But to get their reward, they will have to form a team, including a dragon techie, a Fae thief, a gambler, a driver, and the muscle. Their goal? The Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, in a early twenty-first century world, where their toughest challenge might be each other.


The Invisible Library reviewThe Masked City reviewThe Burning Page reviewThe Lost Plot reviewThe Mortal Word reviewThe Dark Archive review

My Review
: Glory be. This is an *epic* tale, taking us mere humanses out to the Deep End, tilting the deck, and saying, "whoopsie-daisy, hope y'all can swim!"

More thoughts after I can remove the oxygen mask and IV fluids the paramedics put on me. (That was written at the end of March after COVID withered my body and rattled my brain.)

Imagine meeting your intended's parents after rescuing her, being rescued by her, heisting multiple valuable items together, negotiating Multiversal Peace with her, and having them be like "~meh~ that's just life as a Librarian. Oh BTW there are some facts we've never told you, daughter dear, and there's this job...." Was it that surprising that a daughter of spies had developed trust issues? {Irene} thought wryly, as Author Cogman puts it. In conversation with her mother later: “Life was much easier before I had to worry about everyone else worrying,” Irene muttered. “It’s called growing up, dear. It comes with staying alive.” And that the extent of Mothering the lady can do! But "everyone else" includes a certain deeply treasured Dragon....

Kai, who is but a minor royal among Dragons in the Invisible Library's multiverse, isn't faced with many things that challenge him. His evolving relationship with Human Irene Winters is one. He loves Irene. Irene loves Kai. They are both fond of Peregrine Vale, largely absent from this book because they're spending most of their time in an alt-Vienna he can't be of much practical help in. They both fret a bit about him...I suspect Kai has a little crush on Vale...but there's a job to do and they needs must attend to the doing of it or Doom Will Follow!

You know, I actually believe it will, every time I read one of these delights. A somewhat cynical Dragon character says:
"... Our so-called history is a shared fiction, agreed to keep those who are in power where they are. There is no such thing as genuine truth, only received truth. The winners write the history books in all cultures, as it serves their advantage. Parents tell their children the stories which paint them as heroes. Enlightened self-interest is the best that anyone can hope for."

It's this level of insight and truth-telling that makes my suspension of disbelief function as smoothly as a Citroën's does. I know that Author Cogman sees the world as I do: "They did attempt to leave the European Union last year, but apparently that was prompted by demonic interference. A lot of politicians were subsequently tried for treason and beheaded at the Tower of London." Yes indeed. And from Cogman's keyboard to Nemesis's inbox.

What made this story stand out in my mind, plague ravaged though it was, was the main Big Reveal (there were several) about something I'd wondered if I twigged aright way back when Kai first began his Librarian training under Irene. The Dragons, no less than the Archetype-swiping chaotic Fae, want the Multiverse to bend into shapes they decide. There is a way that could happen; the story here brings it forward.

Irene will have to factor this huge revelation into her dealings with all sides. It's something she can't ignore as the Library's representative to her demandingly negotiated peace treaty...with the seductive, charismatic Lord Silver appointed as the Fae representative and who else but Kai as the Dragon representative...and still maintain the Library's vaunted neutrality. Without betraying the confidence of any of the sides to this attempt to reduce violence in the Multiverse.

Here it is, then. Six books into a long series (or so I hope) the stakes, until now personal survival at the forefront, have become so much more complicated and so much more fragile. And Irene's Librarian point of view, expressed simply and clearly, matches my own and reinforces the passionate interest I take in volume seven (due out the 29th of this month!):
“Stories matter - telling them, sharing them, preserving them, changing them, learning from them, and escaping with and through them. We learn about ourselves and the world that we live in through fiction just as much as through facts. Empathy, perception and understanding are never wasted. All libraries are a gateway into other worlds, including the past - and the future.”

Wednesday, December 9, 2020

THE LIGHT YEARS, debut SF novel that feels more heartfelt than any other I've read this year


Angry Robot Books (non-affiliate Amazon link)
$6.99 Kindle edition, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: Hisako Saski was born with her life already mapped out. In exchange for an education, better housing for her family, and a boost out of poverty, she's been contracted into an arranged marriage to Adem Sadiq, a maintenance engineer and amateur musician who works and lives aboard his family's sub-light freighter, the Hajj.

Hisako is not happy with the deal. The arcane branch of physics it requires her to study broke off a thousand years before, and she is not keen on the idea of giving up everything she knows to marry a stranger and move onto an aging spaceship.

Onboard the Hajj, Hisako soon learns her dilemmas are overshadowed by the discovery of ancient secrets, a derelict warship, and a chance at giving the survivors of Earth a fresh start.


My Review
: I wasn't eager to read this book...I don't like being mean to people, and a first novel about relativistic space travel wasn't likely to excite me in a good way...but Rob asked me to read it in an unrefusable way: "I'll take my chances."

Major respect for that, dude.

So here I am reviewing it and recommending it for #Booksgiving. That's unusual for a first novel. A first novel with a casually bisexual male lead, a culture of selling unborn brides to traders on sub-light freighters that function like planets with clashing cultures. And I'm recommending it?

Yes. It's trenchant. I sat still for a minute after reading the teenaged ruminations of the bride bought for male lead, Adem, on learning the boy she was about to mess around with was her unmet fiancé's fanboy. That needs a bit of unpacking....

Adem messes around in his offtime from being a trader, the son of the captain of the ship, and a bored (sort of) twentysomething horndog by recording and broadcasting ancient Earth songs he's discovered. The City of New Orleans, A Boy Named Sue, that kind of thousand-year-old cultural relic. Hey, we have the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields so this isn't remotely far-fetched. Add to that the fact that there are literally thousands of broadcast hours of Earth music...well, something is going to survive. Maybe even some good stuff, though I wouldn't bet on it. And those lightspeed broadcasts have reached his bride's planet, Gaul, where she is about to take A Big Step with one of her fiancé's fanboys. (Her virginity wasn't required for the marriage contract to be honored.)

That's a moment, a passage from one part of life to another, that is frequently accompanied by music. Not usually that of one of the parties' intended marital partner. And that union set to occur quite a long time (a decade, almost) in her future. About which contract she's been aware since she was twelve...and the groom was twenty-six when it was contracted and will arrive on Gaul about twenty-six still because near-light-speed relativistic travel makes your brain hurt when thinking about its social consequences.

That brain-bending reality the two main caracters live in is really the reason I want you to read this. In the best possible way, this novel resembles a novel of manners set in a society where the people getting married come from two different worlds. What can possibly be better described as speculative fiction than that?

There are numerous caveats and addendums to the basic story, of course, though none of them involve explicit sex or even serious romantic entanglement. Again the echo of the novel of manners...and while the publisher's marketing push might lead one to expect something more on the salacious side, it will only bring disappointment to go into the read expecting this.

Don't think it's not involving, don't imagine it's got no narrative tension! Remember how utterly engrossing and un-put-downable The House of Mirth was? Lily Bart's rise from nothing is a lot like Hisako's...but there is so much fun to be had in following the path Author Greene is marking out for you that I'll avoid spoilering it for you. Developments don't stop with the inner worlds of the a late-stage capitalist future that accepts prenatal marriage contracts (shades of 1300!), you can bet there is a lot of Evil to be done. Quite a bit of it is done to/by Hisako's poet-father.

A keen eye was cast on the twenty-first century and a report card was issued in this novel's background. It wasn't an F, exactly. The room for improvement noted was pretty sizable.... As I'm in sympathy with this point of view, it was largely invisible to me until I started a second read-through. Many abuses of people, living people in your polity, are no better than the extremes posited here. And they need to be addressed. If this plague year has done nothing else good, it's made that fact clear to more people than were clear about it before.

But Rob...srsly my dude...NO MORE W-BOMBS.

DARK MATTER, or "Home is Where Your Multiverse Door Opens and This Time You're Glad to Be There"

Ballantine Books
$17.00 paperback, $12.99 ebook editions, available now

Rating: 5* of five

Republishing my 2016 review here because we're getting a TV series of the book! It's a long one...settle in.

When I first reviewed the book in 2016, I posted a mild bleat of confusion regarding it on Goodreads:
I have no idea how I am going to review this book without spoilering every-damn-thing.

Several hours of hard thinking later:

Okay…what I can think of is this:
In anyone's life, there are decisions that have no correct answer. We make them and move on. Reading this book I revisited a few of mine, and luckily for me, I didn't feel I'd gotten them wrong.

And that's where I am, but now I'm going to spoiler every-damn-thing because if you're joining me here, you've made an effort to in full knowledge that everything's on the table.

I got a review copy of Dark Matter shortly after it was published. I'd requested an advance review copy, but wasn't approved. I was mildly piqued, but I've got many dozens of books sent by many other publishers to assuage the sting. Having mostly forgotten the whole incident, imagine my pleased surprise to receive the finished book! In a sign of just how much Crown, his hardcover publisher, thinks of Crouch and his chances to make a bestseller of this title, it was packaged in a black shiny bubble-mailer, with a specially printed and super-spiffed-out label with the book's title interrupted by a cartouche where my name was printed in fancy colored ink. Yowza! Anything for the guy with the TV deal, said my cynical inner blogger. That mouthy bitch got mouthier when the book appeared…handsome object…with the usual publicity sheet (whatever happened to the ONE-sheet? Now it's double-sided AND there are two of them) plus what used to be called a "compliments card" from Author Crouch hisownself. It read, in part, "I'm sure you get a lot of ARCs vying for your attention, but please know that I put everything I have into this novel." Oh good, gloated Inner Bitch Blogger, now I can wail on you without guilt!

You would think that, after the best part of two decades reading in order to write reviews and over 50 years reading an average of a book a day, I'd know better than to pre-judge my own reading experience. But noooooo, as Steve Martin said how-many years ago on Saturday Night Live. Still makes me giggle.

I read the book in a sitting, as so many readers seem to do. Five hours of rushing to find what happens next with pauses to piddle and stretch out the experience. Part of that celerity is down to Crouch's staccato writing style:
He says, "Every moment, every breath, contains a choice. But life is imperfect. We make the wrong choices. So we end up living in a state of perpetual regret, and is there anything worse? I built something that could actually eradicate regret. Let you find worlds where you made the right choice."

Daniela says, "Life doesn't work that way. You live with your choices and learn. You don't cheat the system."

That's either a reason to move quickly or it's a reason to put the book down. I was torn. In the end, I moved at a good clip there wasn't anything too awful terrible much to slow me down, line by line; this story's effect is cumulative.

That effect is, or was for me, to start another reverie on alternate dimensions novels I've read over the years, and how they've formed my sense of myself as an actor in my own life.
Time travel novels came first for me, starting with Michael Moorcock's wondrous The Warlord of the Air which I found one deeply boring to teenage me Watergate summer at The Book Stall, a used book emporium that my mother took me to one Saturday a month so I could feed my biblioholism. Since she shared that trait, it wasn't pure pain for her. But Oswald Bastable, hero of The Warlord of the Air and its two sequels (The Land Leviathan and The Steel Tsar), sleeps his way from a 1902 British Army defeat in Afghanistan (do people never learn? There is absolutely no point in trying to conquer the damned place if Alexander and Ashoka and Queen Victoria and the Soviet Union and now the USA have tried and failed) to 1973.

It's not our 1973, but it's still 1973, which makes the rest of the story into a time travel novel. The other two books are alternate dimensions of the 1973 Bastable bobs through, growing older but much faster than the lucky sods who live single-line lives in the novels, and the whole series is called "The Nomad of the Timestreams," a reference to Bastable's unmooring from his typical-human single track life. It was hugely influential to my teen self. My adolescent exceptionalism was strong, fueled by my position as my mother's sex-toy. There were obviously versions of me in a multiverse, too many to count, living lives that reflected better and more satisfying outcomes than my unhappy present. Unfortunately they all began with the present me, and stemmed from choices I *would* make in coming days, weeks, years. It wasn't rescue, it was hope that somewhere someone split off MePrime wasn't experiencing the special hell of maternal incest plus increasing same sex desire. The future on my own timeline wasn't a given to me, so this kind of action wasn't my favorite.
Later, though only a very short time later thanks to a with-it young man who had a strong pash for me who worked at The Book Stall, came the deeply romantic Time and Again by Jack Finney. It seemed like forever that Robert Redford was reported to have the rights to make this meet-your-soulmate-in-the-past tale into a feature film. Nothing from him or from any other quarter on that front in more than 40 years, and what a pity that is. The premise is a simple love triangle set in 1882 Manhattan spiced up with Si, the main character, being from 1970 New York.

Si's travails in living this bifurcated by time's arrow love affair said a lot to me, young as I was at the time (all of 13). I'd already had two requited love affairs. Neither was in any way unpleasant, except in the usual angst-ridden adolescent ways. My weirdo of a girlfriend took an inordinate pleasure in taking my virginity, so I had no heart to tell her I'd already done the nasty with a guy in my junior high classes, and wouldn't admit for almost 25 years what Mama was doing to me. Si and 1882's Julia had nothing on the intensity of passionate connection and mattress-igniting sex that we had. Along came the older store clerk and it was the 1882 love triangle! That made me feel both sophisticated and glamourous. And a life-long pattern of loving men, loving women, and telling all of them all about it was born.

But then came a game-changer, a book whose effect on my evolving awareness that this here-and-now is obviously not the only here-and-now possible or probable or present in the moments we live. Lord Kalvan of Otherwhen follows the career of Cpl. Calvin Morrison of the Pennsylvania State Police after he is moved from his marginally satisfying life to a reality existing at the same moment as his that bears no real resemblance to his familiar world's history or present. Pennsylvania's long history of resource-extraction based economy has left truly permanent marks of its passing, signs Calvin does not see in his otherwise familiar surroundings. Calvin spends several hours coming to terms with this self-evident fact and its inevitable conclusion: that he has been moved not up into a post-apocalyptic future, nor down into a pre-European past as the people he sees are clearly like him, but to the side across time's infinite tributaries.
Erwin Schrödinger first introduced the physics-based concept in 1952, and it has been a staple in science fiction ever since. In fact, it goes back much farther than that as a fantasy, and its survival as well as its scientific explanation (insofar as anything this vast can be explained) sit very well with most average people. It makes intuitive sense. The physics of it is dauntingly complex and also suffers from a testable-hypothesis deficit, but that doesn't detract one iota from many people's sense that it's just *right*. And for Calvin Morrison, it is a life-saving reality. His quick wits, political savvy, military prowess, and social conscience are perfectly suited to his new circumstances. His rise to the pinnacle of power is inevitable, and his character and knowledge base make him a dream ruler by local standards.

This book, another of my hippie bookseller supercrush's finds for me, perfectly reflected my sense of being wasted in my own life. I talked with him for hours about how there had to be, somewhere out there, a timeline/timestream/alternate reality perfectly suited to me, to him, to every other misfit we knew. How to find it? How to access it? Naturally we reached no conclusions, but we had a great time talking about it.

Since those early discoveries I've encountered grand-scale alternate histories by , as well as more intimate and personal ones like Kate Atkinson's widely read 2013 novel Life After Life. As much as I ended up admiring Atkinson's wonderful tale of the extraordinary fate of Ursula Todd, it wasn't on the same moral-compass heading as Dark Matter. The latter is a deeply personal Grail quest, an Odyssey whose modern Ulysses is physicist Jason Dessen. There are, as we all know by know, an inifinty of Jasons who have done almost the same things with varying degrees of success. Our point-of-view JasonPrime is the happiest man around because he's chosen to focus his energies on being a family man, fully present in his life with Daniela.

For her part Daniela gave up a burgeoning artistic life to bear and care for Charlie, further derailed by severe post-partum depression. For his part, JasonPrime lost focus on a potentially world-shattering quantum superposition technology that would have made him both rich and famous. One version of JasonPrime made the opposite choice and unlocked the secret to making macro quantum superposition, the key to travel across the multiverse. What he didn't have, and what Daniela didn't have, is Charlie, or a relationship; both feel the pull to make that decision again in this or another life. So Jason2, with his full-sized quantum superposition apparatus, decides he will be the next person to use it after a string of failed test subjects who didn't return. His colleagues don't know it, but he has no plans to return either. He is in search of his polar opposite, the Jason that kept Daniela and raised Charlie and was brilliantly successful at it. Instead of killing JasonPrime, he assuages whatever serves him for a conscience by making sure the prime gets to Jason2's luxurious and glamourous life.
Except that's not what the prime wants. And he fights and fights and struggles and fights some more to get home, Home, that one place where you *know* you belong, is just…there, and he'll stop at nothing to get there.

It's startling to me how much that resonates with me. I've always been in search of Home. Lots of near misses, but honestly I no longer expect I'll get there this time around. Where I am, who I am, what defines me as me…good enough. Plenty good enough. I experience long stretches of contentment, bursts of happiness, and significant amounts of pleasure.

But like JasonPrime's many visits to many Chicagos, it's not *quite* home. It's my talent to make do without fuss. But sometimes, it's past the periphery of my awareness and I wonder, what if….
Read this book for a propulsive, pounding joyride through spaces and places you didn't know that you didn't know you wanted to visit. I give it five stars of five and a strong push to buy it now.