Wednesday, September 30, 2020

THE WORLD DOESN'T WORK THAT WAY, BUT IT COULD: Stories with flame-seared, acid-etched people running wild


University of Nevada Press
$26.00 hardcover, available now


Use code ‘UNP30’ when shopping online at the University of Nevada Press, and receive 30% off your entire order!

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The Publisher Says: The gripping, thought-provoking stories in Yxta Maya Murray’s latest collection find their inspiration in the headlines. Here, ordinary people negotiate tentative paths through wildfire, mass shootings, bureaucratic incompetence, and heedless government policies with vicious impacts on the innocent and helpless. A nurse volunteers to serve in catastrophe-stricken Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria and discovers that her skill and compassion are useless in the face of stubborn governmental inertia. An Environmental Protection Agency employee, whose agricultural-worker parents died after long exposure to a deadly pesticide, finds herself forced to find justifications for reversing regulations that had earlier banned the chemical. A Department of Education employee in a dystopic future America visits a highly praised charter school and discovers the horrific consequences of academic failure. A transgender trainer of beauty pageant contestants takes on a beautiful Latina for the Miss USA pageant and brings her to perfection and the brink of victory, only to discover that she has a fatal secret.

The characters in these stories grapple with the consequences of frightening attitudes and policies pervasive in the United States today. The stories explore not only our distressing human capacity for moral numbness in the face of evil, but also reveal our surprising stores of compassion and forgiveness. These brilliantly conceived and beautifully written stories are troubling yet irresistible mirrors of our time.


My Review
: Powerhouse writing. There are no wasted words in these stories. There are Spanish words, and that will sit poorly with some readers...I characterize those readers as lazy or racist or both...but understand this: those Spanish words are in exactly the place that no English or French or German word could fit.

I'll use the time-honored Bryce Method and give thoughts on the stories as they come.

Miss USA 2015 is the reminiscences of a retired pageant coach, a person of flexible gender (depending on where we are in their life story, the pronouns change) and impeccable talent for spotting and curating talent for the beauty-pageant industry that has served many in good stead. It takes a sharp and unsparing eye to see the chances a child has for success, and it starts with the family:
The older one was dark and the younger one came out lighter, but they both had the same round, grumbly faces. The mother looked exhausted, and no wonder, with the two sons and then this one with the attitude.

Never forget, for even a second, the existence and cost of racism within as well as from without the disadvantaged group. Children are graded by their families on skin color. The lighter-skinned ones are often favored, but frankly that's not the point. The fact of a family judging its members by where they fall on some made-up color bar is appalling and real. Our pageant coach, being older than these kids and their parents, has an even greater investment in that system as it has made them a living from gatekeeping others. And a transgender person being in that position is, well, unique and risky. The story's most unsettling passages come from the falling-in-love that a coach and a star performer must live in order to get to the very top of their field.
She thumped around this way and that but all the time smiling at me like she could eat me down to the bones and still want more.

The hunger for success, the desperate need for a way out has led many a hopeful into bad, dark places. The coach knows this.
And that's the thing that I want you to know if you want to train with me and my team, is that it's easy to get confused. There's so much nastiness. What you tell yourself is that evil in this business all belongs to other people but that doesn't make you one of their whores. You play ball and survive, but you can keep your soul pure.

No, you can't. And the ways you can fail far exceed the number of ways you can succeed, especially when there are so many people pulling you down. 4.5 stars

Thursday, September 17, 2020

THE LONG DRY, a speculative take on the life of a farmer after March 11's solar storm

$15.95 trade paper, available now 

Rating: 5* of five 

The Publisher Says: THE ANIMAL FACTS OF HUMAN LIFE—NEED, LOVE, CHILDREN, EXHAUSTION, INCAPACITY, DEATH—COME ALIVE IN ONE FARMER’S LONG, HOT DAY. On a long, hot day, Gareth searches for a missing pregnant cow. A dog must be put down, there are ducks to go in the pond, there are children, and there is Kate, his wife, who may be an uncrossable distance from him. Jones’s rural Wales is alive with the necessities of our own animal instincts and most human longing. 


 My Review: Every part of this book is as concentrated and as perfect as Mrs Dalloway or Montana 1948 is. I am so delighted to re-read it and find more than I saw the first time through.
Over the hills behind the farm the light started. Just a thinning of the very black night that made the stars twinkle more, vibrate like a bird's throat, and put out a light loud compared to their tininess.
Like those brief, compact stories, The Long Dry is without waste and bedizenment. The language is perfectly clear, the sentences flow elegantly, the imagery and the observation so sharp you can cut yourself on them but not feel it until later. A simple story, like all the best ones are; a man owns a farm, loses a calf, then a cow, then a dog, then a life. What it means to lose a sounds almost casual, "go back and pick it up, silly" what Author Jones explores in his trademark beautiful sentences. I can't induce you harder than that. Beautiful books happen seldom enough that I am always hopeful they'll simply levitate in front of people as they're browsing for their next read, that some fanfare will blare through their speakers when cruising online, sourceless recommendations that simply demand the fractured attention of 2020 people. A thirteen-year-old book. Yeah, right. But it should. It deserves your eyeblinks. Now, for the many people think short = good, or short = bad, in point of fact short is just a thing a story is or isn't. This one, of necessity, is.
He worries about his ability to fight for things when he is tired like this, from not sleeping, and from being worried always about tiny things—his ability to navigate a tragedy, or news of an illness. The world, he thinks, is filled with such unbelievable small heroisms, which to him have always seemed far more remarkable than the huge heroisms, of history. Somehow, we find the strength, he thinks.
Unpack that at any length, and there's a new volume of War and Peace in the world and, frankly, one is enough. But stated with the simplicity of words carved in granite, where the effort of creation is so immense that it can't be cavalierly sloshed in oceans of ink and gales of breath, it repays brevity. Curtness. What it lacks in volume it repays in depth. 

 Gareth was born on this farm to a father who served in World War II. His father's tragedies are now passing before Gareth's sleepless eyes in the form of his memoirs...memories, as Gareth needs to think of them to make them more his father's and not imposed on him from outside...and the present mingles with the past, the secrets he's kept from Kate, his wife, and she from him. Their son, their daughter, are part of their world so evanescently...though there is a hint that Dylan, the son, will not be able to break from his ties...where the cows and the sheep and the forms of the land are intensely molded into the flowing curves of Gareth's being. 

As one expects from Author Cynan Jones, the weight of the world isn't absent from any of these characters. In so many ways, as Gareth navigates the ever-worsening crisis of his life, he relives his father's trauma and atones for his load of self-applied sin.
We're expected to love too much and too long. He mustn't be like this, he thinks, he mustn't let this dark thing take him: this ever-hungry, very close big cloud of not caring anymore, and of not wanting. This is the enemy that must be fought until the end.
The depression of a man at the rag-end of his tether.
"It's raining," he says, and she can hardly hear him.
Those are the last words of the book. But they are not the end of the story. There is, in fact, an end; in a decision I didn't understand the first time I read this book, it comes elsewhere. It is, in fact, necessary for you to know the ending before the last words of the book because otherwise we will lose something precious: The wonder, the valor of going on.
{His child} says she doesn't have the right pencils for the colors she sees.
They can't make those colors, you see, because pencil colors are only the ones you see.

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

THE LAST SUMMER OF REASON, a beautiful tale of one rational man's losses to a manic mob mentality

(tr. Marjolijn de Jager)
Introduction by Alek Baylee Toumi
Foreword by Wole Soyinka
Bison Books
$16.95 trade paper, available now

Rating: 3.75* of five

The Publisher Says: This elegant, haunting novel takes us deep into the world of bookstore owner Boualem Yekker. He lives in a country being overtaken by the Vigilant Brothers, a radically conservative party that seeks to control every element of life according to the laws of their stringent moral theology: no work of beauty created by human hands should rival the wonders of their god. Once-treasured art and literature are now despised.

Silently holding his ground, Boualem withstands the new regime, using the shop and his personal history as weapons against puritanical forces. Readers are taken into the lush depths of the bookseller's dreams, the memories of his now-empty family life, his passion for literature, then yanked back into the terror and drudgery of his daily routine by the vandalism, assaults, and death warrants that afflict him.

From renowned Algerian author Tahar Djaout we inherit a brutal and startling story that reveals how far an ordinary human being will go to maintain hope.


My Review
: First of all, let's clear up something that could cause a lot of people pleasure-robbing confusion: This is not a novel. It is a récit. The narrative is so limited in its focus that there is no sense of a world larger than itself, which makes the reader aware at all times that they are reading a narrative. This is not an insult or a criticism of the technique used, but of the marketing decision to call this a novel. It will disappoint novel-readers who buy it hoping for that immersive, multi-faceted experience of a story.

The Introduction by Toumi and the Foreword by Soyinka are essays fully worthy of reviews of their own. I will not be providing those reviews because I am not a scholar. The context they present is the infuriating context of the murdered Author Djaout's life and times. The facts of his all-too-brief life are on Wikipedia for monoglot English speakers. There is so much that US citizens have simply ignored or willfully shut out of their experience of the world, and as a result we seem to be willing to leap over high precipices to fall into fathomless oceans of rage and hatred, as Djaout warns his readers against. Boualem, his PoV character, is thrown over the edge willy-nilly, but he's got just enough time to form himself into an arrow.

The dive one takes while reading the book is deep, though, so don't think it's not profound and perception-altering to experience Boualem's deep dive into despair as his world, his entire life's work of defining and refining himself as a moral actor in that world, is fractured and flattened by a social earthquake. The depths of despair Boualem plumbs will be familiar to book-lovers watching the steady, pernicious, and malicious attacks on education, intelligence, and erudition we're seeing in the US.

I used up about half a can of Book Darts (may the goddesses please bless my kind friend Stephanie for gifting me this timely top-up of my supply for this past birthday!) marking beautiful passages to quote in my review. The lovely translation done by Translator de Jager is almost too rich a confection to be devoured in a sitting...but I did it. Yes, it was like a breakfast of rich brownies topped with lemon curd and served with a café viennoise, but it was also a heady experience of glorious phrase-making. I was Zooming with my Young Gentleman Caller while I was writing an earlier draft of this review. He said of my Book Darted copy, "I don't dare take it to the airport like that."


"It's got more hardware than a Goth biker."

Oh. Well, yes. Permaybehaps I'd better make the point sharper and more targeted:
Books—the closeness of them, their contact, their smell, and their contents—constitute the safest refuge against this world of horror. They are the most pleasant and the most subtle means of traveling to a more compassionate planet. How will Boualem go on living now that they have separated him from his books, his most invigorating nourishment? He is like a plant that has been torn from the soil, separated from liquid and light, its two vital necessities. He has been excluded from the life of books. He has been exiled from all the landmarks of his childhood: values, trampled, symbols corrupted, spaces disfigured and wrecked.
That, my olds, is what's right and what's wrong with this récit. If you ran across the first two sentences in a novel, you'd think, "oo, that's pretty." Put the rest of the para behind it and you're in a récit not a novel, and one that needed a developmental editor's unkind attention. There is so very much of this sort of pretty, pretty phrasemaking that just goes on that little bit too long, that says what's already been said (“For books are more than books, they are the life, the very heart and core of ages past, the reason why men worked and died, the essence and quintessence of their lives.”–Cicero, b. 106BCE, and a famous enough quote that Author Djaout can reasonably be expected to have read it during his education) in a not hugely fresh way.

That said, one is disinclined to hammer the hell out of the book because it was incomplete and fished out of the author's drawers after his murder. I know, and I can't explain how, that this book would've been absolutely earth-shattering had he lived, and had the chance to work with an editor to bring its many stregths and beauties into a finer, sharper focus. There is about this read the ozone smell and static crackle of greatness. The sadness that follows reading it is rooted in the sense that this promise is undelivered, in fact undeliverable, because Author Tahar Djaout was murdered by the pro-ignorance, anti-beauty forces that ran roughshod over his country.

Do not think the same can not happen here, happen again, happen to the resisters and artists and truth-tellers you're ignoring, skimming, marginalizing today. Vote Blue in November 2020 and allow Author Tahar Djaout's sacrifice of his life to be worthy.

Tuesday, September 15, 2020

I WILL JUDGE YOU BY YOUR BOOKSHELF, delightful fun silliness about books & reading


Abrams Comic Arts
$16.99 hardcover, available now


Rating: 5* of five

The Publisher Says: A look at the culture and fanaticism of book lovers, from beloved New York Times illustrator Grant Snider

It’s no secret, but we are judged by our bookshelves. We learn to read at an early age, and as we grow older we shed our beloved books for new ones. But some of us surround ourselves with books. We collect them, decorate with them, are inspired by them, and treat our books as sacred objects. In this lighthearted collection of one- and two-page comics, writer-artist Grant Snider explores bookishness in all its forms, and the love of writing and reading, building on the beloved literary comics featured on his website, Incidental Comics. With a striking package including a die-cut cover, I Will Judge You By Your Bookshelf is the perfect gift for bookworms of all ages.


My Review
: My old friend Stephanie sent me this! W00t!

I loved this. I love the collection!

This resonates....

Too, too right, Grant Snider.

I love his cartoons just as much as I love Tom Gauld's cartoons. I don't want either of them to stop cartooning for a very, very long time.

Thanks, Stephanie! *smooch*


Monday, September 14, 2020

STILLICIDE, necessary and beautiful cli-fi about our future...if we don't stop it


$15.95 trade paper, available now

Rating: 4.75* of five

The Publisher Says: New Yorker fiction writer Cynan Jones returns with a powerful climate crisis story about love and loss that offers a glimpse of a tangible future in which water is commodified and vulnerable to sabotage.

Water is commodified. The Water Train that serves the city increasingly at risk of sabotage.

As news breaks that construction of a gigantic Ice Dock will displace more people than first thought, protestors take to the streets and the lives of several individuals begin to interlock. A nurse on the brink of an affair. A boy who follows a stray dog out of the city. A woman who lies dying. And her husband, a marksman: a man forged by his past and fearful of the future, who weighs in his hands the possibility of death against the possibility of life.

From one of the most celebrated writers of his generation, Stillicide is a moving story of love and loss and the will to survive, and a powerful glimpse of the tangible future.


My Review
: A series of episodes commissioned from Author Jones by BBC 4 (podcasts linked), these stories are truly condensed and thoroughly distilled verbal essences of reality. Their heightened language avoids sentimentality, but uses the simplest and most unadorned locutions bare of ornament to create the effect of verbal stained glass: Pattern emerges from intense, simple, interlocking shapes.

I'm a fan of Author Jones's going back to The Long Dry, another deceptively simple tale of a man whose world, not to mention life, is heading into a smash. Longer, fuller than this read, it is still marvelously economical. It is clearly written by the same writer, someone whose words aren't gushing forth but are bucketed up from a deep and refreshing well, poured without slosh or slop into the reader's extended cup with neither stint nor slosh.

It is in Author Jones's negative spaces, his wordless interstices, that the reader is invited to exist inside the story. The world is different, this we know, but the people are not and nor should they be. A long chain of change and loss and compromise extends into their past, our future; Author Jones says clearly, distinctly, "Is this the world you wish to see come for your family?"

You'll know what I mean.

As always, the Bryce Method of short assessments coupled to snipped passages will bulk out my ideas and opinions of this read.

The Water Train brings us into the Hellscape of Branner's job, neutralizing threats to the train feeding water to the city. In the rain, Branner kills a boy who might've been planning to disrupt the Water Train's stolen water going to the city. At what cost to himself? That is the story. 4 stars

Paper Flowers tells us of an economic migrant who polishes surfaces for the captured iceberg that sends water on the Water Train to the great city. They awake next to Nita in her bedsit above a dry riverbed, her daughter Hillie bouncing about; the migrant misses home, appreciates Nita's makework creating paper flowers to sell, worries about the coming destruction of their home, their lives, as the Water Train's owners need their bedsit's space.
There is only early morning light. Then the Water Train passes. Different. A weight of sound. The sound of a great waterfall crashing into a pool. It has the power church bells must used to have.
Harrowing; the cost of greed made personal. 5 stars

Butterflies renders the longing of Ruth, nurse/worker, to feel something, to be fully alive, as she presents her gifted paper ticket to walk in a garden for the first time in her adulthood. She plans to be unfaithful to obsessive Colin for the first time; she expands to fill her own body in a scrap of nature, experiencing things she's forgotten in her new, dry, wealth-centered world. Names of plants mean nothing to her...but google them, worlds of meaning there, this is an English city where this garden is...
She walks. Feels sun on her shoulders; a warmth tracing her edges. Reminds her of her shape.

A buttercup bends with the ballast of a bumblebee; a bluebottle iridescent, like a piece of blue glass.

Beetles, like articles of cast-off jewelry, scuttle in the grass.

She takes some sips from her shift ration, holding the water in the funny space under her tongue.

Last time she saw a bumblebee she caught it in a cup. Rescued it from the fake daisies pattern of the staff room tablecloth.

It kept trying to come back in, after she had set it free, bumping on the window.
Ruth, full in and of herself for the first time in a long, dry time, tentatively realizes she can do what her feelings prompt her to do, she can be as full of herself as the sunshine makes the flowers, the insects, the right-feeling world she has such joyous (temporary) access to. And how criminal it is that she is denied this world until someone who can afford access gifts a bit of it to her. 4.5 stars

Coast begins the knitting of shard to fragment. David, old engineer/husband/man, watches as a berg is towed to the Ice Dock past his eroding homeplace. He was a planner of the now-replaced water pipeline whose infrastructure we first met in "The Water Train." He doesn't hear the whine of now-retired wind-turbines from the coastal sandbank any more:
The air had unfilled when they shut down the wind farm out on the sandbanks, the horrible whine dropping from the sky around the ocean.

They had not realized how much they had come to brace themselves against the sound until it was suddenly gone. The same had happened when the air traffic more or less stopped.
In that welcome peace, he collects his dinner-limpets to go home to wife Helen with. Their son Leo, Ruth's sister, pays a surprise visit and brings his gift bounty of lamb chops (part of working for the Water Train, access to better resources); as dinner ends, he receives the past in the form of a gift of his mother's jewelry to his own wife. Death got no pockets, his loving, aging, dying parents remind him. No loving child wants to hear that truth. But time and water and death have no truck with human-scale things. 3.5 stars

Chaffinch is the Big Meeting (coinciding with the Big Protest, naturally), that introduces the "needed" destruction of the lives and property of the many, many Nitas and Hallies. New homes will be provided for many...
"Shantytowns! Out of rusty metal boxes." Colin must be hard to live with.

"The reuse of containers from the decommissioned shipping yards provides a cost-effective and flexible solution with minimal eco-impact."
I swear, it's like he refuses to see it's for the betterment of the many:
"...We live in a society. It isn't always possible to take into account every individual. Policy always aims to arrive at a solution which helps the greatest number."
The needs of the many excuse the destruction of the few if it's to increase water supplies. Ruth's Colin, weedy and "looks like he eats a lot of kale but not because he likes it," is there to poke and stab the flaks. "We all benefit," they intone; "not equally" ripostes spiny Colin. The meeting moves to the roof, looking down on the Dock...also the protest. Bitter, angry people, half-a-million strong (not such a great showing, we're told), protesting the end of their lives and for the benefit of others.

There never can be a complete and completely fair solution to this issue. Never. 4 stars

Dragonfly brings back a Red-Listed apex predator in the silty gulches of the repurposed riverbed near Nita and Hallie's bedsit! Callooh! Callay! The day, the day might yet get a stay, the day of de/con/struction might yet be held at bay.

The Professor receives his research assistant's package from a chatty courier:
"I've got a gutter garden on my building," the courier said, excitedly. "We group-funded. ... And we're going to get an alittlement on the roof!"

The professor looked at the package on the desk. An itch in his fingers.

"They'll make a difference."

"A lot's got from an alittlement," the courier smiled, reeling off the jingle.
His work making the world as incrementally better as possible clearly paying off, since he hears his pet program's jingle sung at him in the streets. But what he knows is in the package, this small thing, will change everything in a flash, will stop the changes that are being protested...if it's true...
The dorsal barbs, down to the penultimate section of the abdomen. The fact of the dried silt. He has pushed back the prospect. An intuition of its species he felt instantly.

But as he sees the skin, magnified, it speaks to him as an artifact. Seems utterly sure of itself. It is.

Bloodless? That's not assured. Success isn't even assured. But Hope, like a marigold shoving her way to the light from cracks in concrete, Hope ain't dead yet. 5 stars

Rooftop is Branner, marksman extraordinaire, living the nightmare of loss-in-life while he focuses on the Big Protest, waiting for a chance to he can turn off the agony he can not shake, forget, alter, deny, or evade:
The protest now was filtering. The crowd seeming to pour.

Something microscopic in the fact the smallest tap could send a hundred-and-seventy-grain bullet three-quarters of a mile.

Move your finger just a millimeter and you could end a life; but you cannot save one. Her. Not with the strength of your whole body.
It is a close call...the professor in the culvert, seeking the eggs, instars, Branner's sights.... 4.5 stars

Lake clarifies the high personal cost of the insecurity required of the denizens who have the bad luck to live in the security state. Cora wants to make Leo some gorse-syrup ice cream on this hot summer day:
Cora's dress stuck a little to her skin.

Delicate yellow day-flying moths flew amongst the gorse.

There was a heady coconut smell to the flowers. She picked them and dropped them into the bowl. Patient when she pinned her finger. Sometimes felt showered seeds on her sin. Took a while to link the tickle to the spiky, sporadic pops, punctuations in the air, as the flat, mature pea-pods on the bushes burst in the sun.

She gently pinched the part-closed petals together and pulled; took soft buds, the faint hairs between her fingers, like stroking a small animal's ears.
She looks down the hill to wild patches above the reservoir, is accosted by armed guards reminding her she isn't safe. She spills her gorse buds around her feet in her fearful startlement.

She *was* and they tell her she wasn't.

The fury of being surprised by a lie ruins her mood, her ice cream, her peaceful happiness. Her violated self and sense of self in security of home can not reconcile the awful, brutal armed-man energy, lying about her bodily safety, to force her to obey a will not even truly his but amorphously the state's. It is trauma and fear delivered as safety, and it ruins her lovely surprise for Leo. What else will Cora need to give up, surrender, be rent from? 5 stars

Sound starts with two boatsful of men nervously jockeying for best position to get their harpoons into the calf; the shots, the running before the great calf either strikes out at them or drags them under the freezing water; then, quieter but more deadly, the anchor goes down, they meet to discuss the huge calf's fate as it groans, wallows, taking new forms as it moves free of the great shelf.

Ice is incredibly valuable after all. They will bring it into the Ice Dock, they decide; the least loss to melt, if not the highest price and so it equals out in the end. 3.5 stars

Potato Water finds one of the boys, the older one, that Branner saw from his rooftop sniper's nest fevered, shaking, frightening a grandmotherly woman who, with her gardener husband, grows fresh green crops in what sounds to me like night soil. I think it is but anyway they are among the few using this resource to grow fresh vegetables, healthy food, and the nurturer in her soul can't let this child suffer:
They are built out of energy, children, I say. Even when they are ill. They are mainly no more than energy.
The boy gets potato water from her hands, and probably has never had such nourishment in his life. As a result he grows well enough to speak, to chafe with worry over the brother and the dog who both ran away; ultimately he, too, runs away before he's really well, to the older woman's distress. But his purpose in life is to find his little brother and the dog. He must care for them, so he must find them. Well told, if quotidian, tale. 3.5 stars

Letter slayed me.
You would watch. That's all. I would not be able to help.

But this will help, I hope. I want to say some things.

I want to say that I knew in the first few minutes I was going to love you, and would love you, and would fight through things for that.

There are people together all their lives, and they don't have that. But we do. Even through the fights and niggles, and the things that come. We do.
Branner, he, well he just won't ever believe that there was nothing...something he could...he should, would have done anything.

And now it's over. Ruth, ever-caring Ruth whose life is wasted with Colin, is amanuensis for this outpouring; it slays her as it did me; and in the end the letter for John Branner is so incredibly powerfully concentrated, such a beautiful, perfect declaration of love,'ll have to read it, I don't think I know how to end this sentence.

Oh John. Treasure your letter. Read it until it falls apart, engrave it in your mind, because you will need it so very very much. The days drag and the years fly and you will never, ever be that awful, empty sorry if you know what she left for you to know. 5 stars

Patrol brings us full circle, to "The Water Train" and John Branner deciding life or death, kill or die, shoot or be shot, as the whole arc of his love for Anne Branner from the day she sewed him up to the day she ripped him apart, plays full Technicolor in a rain-soaked night patrol guarding the Water Train's precious cargo.

For other, richer, "more important" city people.
At the bitter, fearsome end, Author Jones thanks "you two, who help me be certain the future is not a bleak place."

I thank their unknown-to-me twoness as well, because without them this perfect gem of economical and powerful protest against the world unfolding before my, and the Author's I am convinced, appalled gaze, would not exist.

Sunday, September 13, 2020

RED HEIR, a Houses and Humans quest tale through Aguillon (also, fun m/m romp in homophobia-less secondary world)


non-affiliate Amazon link
$3.99 Kindle edition, available now

Rating: 4.5* of five

The Publisher Says: Imprisoned pickpocket Loth isn't sure why a bunch of idiots just broke into his cell claiming they’re here to rescue the lost prince of Aguillon, and he doesn’t really care. They’re looking for a redheaded prince, and he’s more than happy to play along if it means freedom. Then his cranky cellmate Grub complicates things by claiming to be the prince as well.

Now they’re fleeing across the country and Loth’s stuck sharing a horse and a bedroll with Grub while imitating royalty, eating eel porridge, and dodging swamp monsters and bandits.

Along the way, Loth discovers that there’s more to Grub than meets the eye. Under the dirt and bad attitude, Grub’s not completely awful. He might even be attractive. In fact, Loth has a terrible suspicion that he’s developing feelings, and he’s not sure what to do about that. He’d probably have more luck figuring it out if people would just stop trying to kill them.

Still, at least they’ve got a dragon, right?


My Review
: Once there was, in a Kingdom called Aguillon, a petty thief with a penchant for picking pockets and, um, seducing one could euphemize every male human with a purse that looked fatter than flatter. He's a mouthy git, prone to making it up as he goes along, and as we all know, loose ropes on deck mean nasty falls. Lies and thievery land a lad (not quite as young as once he was, prone to crow's feet) in chokey:
“I suppose you’re wondering how I got into this mess,” he announced loudly in the gloom. The pile of straw on the other side of the cell rustled, and a grubby face appeared.
“I wasn’t. I don’t care.”
“I wasn’t talking to you,” Loth said to his cellmate.
“Then who were you talking to?” his cellmate demanded, jutting his jaw out.
“I was soliloquising,” Loth said. “Well, I was hoping to, but somebody won’t shut their mouth.”
And there it is, from the very first lines: What to expect, who's doing what to whom. Gadfly meets bloodmeal. Oh what fun it will be. Banter, bizarreness, and boys...yeup, I'm in a Lisa Henry novel.

So we've met Loth. (I suspect his placeholder name was "Loudmouth" and it got elided.) We've met the cellmate, who has bestowed upon him the utterly unlovely name "Grub" by Loth. Lovely, no? He'll have several other names as the book goes by. He soon gains a, well, unsavory reputation that will come back to haunt Loth, who bestowed that as well.

And then!!!
Where there had once been a wall, there was now a mountain of rubble, with an orc standing on top of it. He was big and ugly by human standards—possibly he was very attractive to other orcs—with two teeth in his bottom jaw protruding from between his lips like tusks.
The braids woven throughout the beard made Loth think the dwarf was possibly a woman, though it wasn’t always easy to tell with dwarves, and it was considered rude to ask—a lesson he’d learned the hard way.
Dave, the orc, and Ada, the dwarf, have arrived. Dave is dim, but deeply good. Oh, of course he's strong, he's seven feet of greenish-skinned muscle (good luck casting that, Hollywood) and prone to hurling people who don't meet his standards of not-murdering-his-friends like they were shot-puts. Ada, being a dwarf, is one tough customer, and she very quickly makes it clear to all and sundry that she is here to collect a fee for the service of rescuing the red-headed prince in the cell.

But both the rag-bags in the cell are red-headed. One natural, and Loth. But there's a rescue party, a wall that's a functional imitation of a door, and a guard party...tell me you didn't think Loth wouldn't try to be a long-unseen prince held hostage by a murderous, wicked uncle called Lord Doom if it meant getting out of jail.

Together with the anarchist-collectivist elf, Calarian, and the "hero" of the piece (in his own mind) Scott the cowardly dimwit, the six of them skedaddle from the (curiously uninvestigated) scene of the rescue. It's just like the quest that Ser (Bene) Factor promised Scott when he talked him into this lunacy! And as for the Houses and Humans-playing elf, well, his mother slung him out of the house with instructions to move his damned game on the road, so he was ripe for Ser (Bene) Factor's coins as well.

The Swamp of Death (a volcanic overturn with Calarian's studly cousin Benji, more anti-social than most elves, playing monster to keep people away), the ruined royal hunting lodge with a secret passage, the former jailer Ser Greylord who shows up at the's a quest.

And is it queer! Good lawsy me, the number of subverted power structures here is epic. Heh. Nothing, not one single thing, is made of anyone's sexual nature. Their behavior gets ribbed a lot...Loth and Grub, later Cue, still later Quinn discover a mutual attraction and go at it hammer and tongs, Benji the faux monster and Calarian the Housemaster (remember the game!), all come in for their share of ribbing but none of it homophobic. In fact, the entire universe the story operates in is laissez-faire regarding sexual behavior, and in a throwaway line we even learn it's no big deal for men to marry each other. (There is an almost complete absence of females, and a complete absence of heterosexual sex, throughout the story. Blissful for me.)

The quest proceeds to the royal capital, Scott gets abused quite a lot, we meet Loth's parents (I loved them and hope they can have a book of their own, Mum would be a great narrator hint hint), we encounter Lord Doom and Scott ends up putting the pieces together for all the merrie band (and gets a broken nose), and all ends up Right With This World. (It's a quest, that's not a spoiler.) And would it surprise you to learn that Dave the orc strikes the final blow for liberty? Only he isn't in the room...there's you a mystery to ponder.

The one question I cannot bear not to have answered is: WHO WAS THE ORIGINAL SCOTT?!? WHAT DID HE DO TO YOU, AUTHOR HENRY?!?