Saturday, October 31, 2020

THE SHORTEST DAY, a quick hit of Irish magical realism from Colm Tóibín


Amazon Original Stories
$1.99 Kindle edition, available now

Rating: 4.75* of five

The Publisher Says: In Ireland, a man of reason is drawn to a true mystery older than the Pyramids and Stonehenge in this enthralling story about ethereal secrets by New York Times bestselling author Colm Tóibín.

During the winter solstice, on the shortest day and longest night of the year, the ancient burial chamber at Newgrange is empowered. Its mystifying source is a haunting tale told by locals.

Professor O’Kelly believes an archaeologist’s job is to make known only what can be proved. He is undeterred by ghost stories, idle speculation, and caution. Much to the chagrin of the living souls in County Meath. As well as those entombed in the sacred darkness of Newgrange itself. They’re determined to protect the secret of the light, guarded for more than five thousand years. And they know O’Kelly is coming for it.


My Review
: I can't imagine too many people I know need to be told what and where Newgrange is.

this image via

It is a stunning and majestic sight, though the location you see has been reconstructed...a fact whose advisability is, to put it mildly, debated in the archaeological community. No matter; here it is, here it stays, and good goddesses isn't it *spectacular*?!

The story Author Tóibín tells us is a simple one: a man of resolutely practical materialistic worldview is contemplating his imminent visit to Newgrange. It is almost Christmas, and in his deeply rooted preciseness of action, he has arranged to be gone *just* until Christmas Eve morning so as to, as always, spend his holidays with wife and children.

The Yule Solstice, a time of great power in Neolithic societies (if the number of archaeological sites with demonstrable connections to the Sun's position on that date is any evidence), has come to his attention as an important time at Newgrange as well. He feels duty bound, as the first archaeologist to possess this information, to investigate despite his unshakeable materialism:
The job of an archaeologist was to make known only what can be proved. The rest was idle speculation.

So two things are immediately apparent from this. First is that this is a story set in the past, as the site in its present state dates from after 1982 (see link beside the photo). Second is that there are those who know more than they have told about the site in the many years of Ireland's fussing about with it. That's very interesting....

As the tale is a short one, I don't want to give too much away. I am sure that the author's fans will, or already have, preordered the story. I know they won't want to know everything...but the story's best qualities are those that Author Tóibín uses in all his works, that remarkable ability to bring you with him as he astrally projects himeself (or whatever sorcery he actually does) into the worlds and eyes and minds of people perfectly real.

His gift is deployed on several strands. It makes me feel completely and happily immersed in the world he's created for them to enact this delightful confluence of streams of thought. It is a damn near perfect read for this wonderfully numinous time of year. Why, even Professor O'Kelly experiences an unaccustomed immanence while he is at Newgrange on the morning of the Solstice:
The professor was almost tempted to note that these people, if studied in the light of these designs on stone, knew something about what was palpable and also what was tangible: they knew about spirit, and they knew about line.
They must have loved the sun, or trusted it. They lured it down this corridor as though they were pulling it into the chamber by rope.

Even if it's just a hair too ungenerous with the Professor's character-building (that missing quarter-star explained), it is a delight and a worthy enhancement of your avoidance of the stressful events awaiting us on the third.

BEYOND BEDLAM, a condensed sprawling novel of a novella that needs rediscovery


Project Gutenberg
Free; reprint of original Galaxy Magazine publication, August 1951

Rating: 4.5* of five

The Book Report: (adapted from The Science Fiction Encyclopedia)
A brilliant novelette describing an Earth about a thousand years hence where Drugs enforce a strictly regulated schizophrenia in every human being in a five-days-on, five-days-off routine, each body inhabited alternately by two personalities. The balance created between the two personalities' divergent aspects ends up serving to nullify Humanity's subconscious aggressions, thus eliminating the "paranoid wars" of the "ancient Moderns" aka "us." But passion and art likewise disappear. The good and evil of this system are explored with a literacy and verisimilitude that make it a startling, propulsively readable and interesting variation on Aldous Huxley's vision of drug-enforced stability in Brave New World.

My Review: This antique survivor of the post-war optimism about advances in medicine and psychology takes a radical turn on the medicate-me-well paradigm. Very unusual to read a story that celebrates schizophrenia as the savior of humanity, as the road out of the Mutually Assured Destruction deterrent days. I learned of this story's existence via James W. Harris's blog, Classics of Science Fiction, and I seem to have liked it just a bit more than he did.

Author Wyman Guin was certainly a man you'd trust to tell this story of a future, beautifully functional schizophrenic society balanced into cultural stasis by lifelong usage of psychoactive drugs. He was a Big Pharma man as his career, and so uniquely well placed to create a story of hyperalters and hypoalters (dominant and recessive personality traits) cohabiting in the same brain.

Of course there is no story in a happy, smoothly functioning world. Something must go pear-shaped, and in this instance it's the emergence of a man's love for a completely, utterly forbidden-to-him woman. The wife of the one person he absolutely can not get away with cuckolding.

His hypoalter.

Bill Walden, bookish and genius-level smart, has a wife (there clearly is no room for queer folk in Guin's future) and a child. All three of them are hyperalters, the different bodies' dominant personalities. He isn't getting much deeply drug-addled emotional juice from the wife, and simply cares nothing for the child. He somehow decides his hypoalter's wife (who is his own wife's hypoalter) is The One. She agrees, naturally, and they embark on the Grand Passion journey that absolutely never ends in sunshine, lollipops, and rainbows.
They needed each other as each had been, before fear had bleached their feeling to white bones of desperation.

(This is why affairs always end badly, or turn into replacement primary relationships, or not infrequently both.) This outcome being their world's major promise to its schizophrenic folk, there is a power structure...the Medicorps...with dictatorial powers and uberinvasive surveillance monitoring the individuals in each body, assuring that they are all in medical compliance or else. The Medicops (don't you just love this idea? The Medicops! What a donnybrook that concept would start in 2020 Merica!) are arbiters of the thousand-year peace that "Better Living Through Chemistry" as a social system has enabled (enforced) at very, very significant cost. That cost being in the rather distant past, the ancient "Moderns" of the 20th and 21st centuries, Bill and his fellows are truly well-established in a working, stable, functionally fulfilling society.

But here's Bill Walden, in love with Forbidden Fruit. Human beings will not just stop being the chaos vectors we started out to be. So Bill, as a tragic hero must, sows the seeds of his downfall...not the wife-shagging part that unglues the armature, but the neglected and unloved child. Out of the mouths of babes comes truth, and that is almost never a good thing for adults. In this case it's a gigantic chaotic reckoning of the transgressors, the victims, and the entire model of the society that has held sway on Earth for most of a thousand peaceful, unwartorn years.

All it took to create it was the suppression (however partially successful, however massively destructive) of human nature by drugs.

Listen, I'm not ever going to complain about psych drugs. Anti-depressants literally saved my life after a suicidal break six years ago; months and months in a locked hospital ward being treated with psych meds enabled me to put myself back together, and here I am. I will say that, as this story came out in 1951, the drugs I took were but fantasies to the doctors of the day. So the idea central to the story, that pharmacology could fix psychological problems, is even more believable now than it was then. Yes, there are many who rail against medicalizing psychological issues. I won't get into that debate; but I'll point out that dead people don't use many psychological services and there would be more dead people (me, for one) without the help the drugs can be.

Another strand of this story that resonates strongly today is the Medicorps. We're in a pandemic where people are refusing to follow the informed and reasonable plans made by educated subject-matter experts. In the story, this issue was explicitly dealt with in a kind of flashback sequence. I approved. Since the ebook is free and short enough to read in an afternoon, maybe you'll take a look and see if you do as well. Like all Utopias, especially medicalized ones like this and Brave New World, there is a repressive government in charge of everything. Unlike Brave New World, there is no pocket of defiantly Other people. The simple truth is that no human being believes we can be trusted to run our own lives in such a way as to minimize conflict with other human beings. I know I don't.

But the yearning for freedom, for unfettered experiences, is powerful and motivates many of our species' most enduring creations. For good and ill, of course. Like the drugs that accidentally harmonize the formerly disabling condition of schizophrenia into the basis of a stable society. The drugs that were invented led to a centuries-long breeding program resulting in humans with two and only two personalities. The social structure, rigid of course, built on this discovered binary has a lot of tech backing it up, like the drugs designed to enhance, enforce even, the bifurcation of the hyperalters and hypoalters into separate and un-overlapping lives. In a 21st century where we have fMRI and CAT and PET scanning technologies, the dénouement of this piece is a lot more believable than it was in 1951.

Like all humans, Bill wants to be his unmediated self. But in a society where everyone is a binary, sharing bodies and faces, what keeps confusion from reigning supreme? Of course there is a shift-based apartheid system to ensure minimal social overlap of hypers and hypos; as the hypers are the dominant personalities, the hypos are waging a cultural battle to retire those denigratory terminologies:
Those idealists—they were almost all hypoalters, of course—who wanted the old terminology changed didn't take {the stability of society} into account. Next thing they'd want children to live with their actual parents!

But the system has more elaborate ploys! Makeup, for one: Everyone wears it; everyone is ashamed to be seen without it; and in cases like Bill's, where he has anti-socially "forced a shift" on his hypoalter to spend time with the man's wife, wearing the alter's makeup and clothing is repugnant to the other, socially conditioned to see that other as unreachable.
She pulled the sheet tighter about her and said icily, "I will not wear that woman's clothes." ... {Bill} shifted! He left me with...Oh, I'm so ashamed!"
There was no way to escape the conditioning of childhood—sex relations between hyperalter and hypoalter were more than outlawed, they were in themselves disgusting.

There is a lot more depth to this world than can possibly be contained in the under-100 pages of the written tale. No sequel or other work was ever written in the man's lifetime, nor was this story ever filmed (as best I can tell).

And that, my friends, is a damned shame. This would be a *superb* movie, with big names and lush effects and a biting wit to the screenplay. It could even be a terrific little morality tale for the present climate of fear and distrust of Experts. Does anyone here know how to reach Ryan Reynolds? He'd be *awesome* as Bill!

Friday, October 30, 2020

WINE OF THE DREAMERS, 1950s Science Fiction by...JOHN D. MacDONALD!


Random House
$13.99 Kindle edition, available now

Rating: 3 and a half surprised stars of five

The Publisher Says: Wine of the Dreamers, a classic science fiction novel from John D. MacDonald, the beloved author of Cape Fear and the Travis McGee series, is now available as an eBook.

They are the Watchers: pale laboratory creatures living in a remote, sealed-off world. Their game, their religion, their release is to dream, and their dreams carry across the galaxy to lodge in the minds of the inhabitants of another world: the planet Earth. But as the human race approaches a dream of their own—traveling beyond their own planet to other worlds—the Watchers step in. For escape from Earth is an impossible dream, one that the Watchers will go to any length to destroy.



Well blow me down and call me Shorty! I would never, ever in a month of Sundays have guessed that Travis McGee's daddy ventured into outer space! But he did, and I have now passed its odd and lumpy lineaments before my eyes.

I poke around the Internet when I'm at a loose end. I found a Wikipedia article on Startling Stories, a pulp rag from the Golden Age of SF. Oooh, lookee here, what innocent things the ancestors were, I thought, and oooh how scrummy there's a link to an internet archive of the magazines!

Babes in brass for defunct brands of whisky using Mexican artists...Vaseline Hair Tonic...JOHN D. MACDONALD?!?

Downloaded and read. And what a ride it was: Square-jawed hetero male has non-rapey friendship with bodacious curvy babe. Not at all like the MacDonald we know and love. (Or don't love, as the case may be.) This is an aberration, explained by a plot twist in the story of the Dreamers. Now this is an old chestnut, the mental passengers who suddenly take over innocent earthlings for malign purposes. It wasn't the latest thing in 1950 (!!) when the story appeared in Startling Stories. But it's an evergreen for a reason, it explains the strange turns and periodic about-faces that humans actually do have. There was a moment when I thought, "aha this explains Parseltongue!" before I realized JK Rowling's younger than I am and not known to be related to MacDonald...the only means I can imagine whereby the Scottish lassie would've heard of this obscure gem. But at an even greater remove in time (I found this story in 2014), the metaphor for the evil Dreamers being or neoliberal overlords leapt forcefully to my mind.

In more or less 50,000 words, MacDonald hit all the buttons of an action adventure on multiple planets, America's inevitable domination of the Space Race, and that eternal favorite of male readers, Man's Unique Destiny to Rule and Dominate! It was 1950, go fight the odds. It rings more hollow seventy years on than ever, given the state of climate change and the unending wretchedness of the pandemic.

As I scrolled through the accursèd PDF file, I was increasingly amazed at the un-MacDonald-ness of the story. His touch with a wisecrack was entirely absent, his trademark pessimism was not yet at full cry as the ending was hopeful (!), and while I would not put MacDonald up there with Henry James in the ability to convey character in a few well-chosen words, these folks were Central Casting call sheets.

So it was that, despite the siren call of sleep, I scrolled and scrolled through the scanned pages of this deeply forgotten footnote to the popular career of MacDonald. It was certainly MacDonaldy in the sense that, despite the humorously outdated science, and despite the hoary familiar tropes being unspooled before me, I couldn't think of a good reason not to keep right on reading until the inevitable ending. And by inevitable, I mean so clearly telegraphed in the set-up that Helen Keller running out of a burning building wouldn't have any trouble supplying it for you.

Sophisticates are therewith warned.

In fact, would I recommend starting this little marvy to most people? No, not really, it's not earth-shatteringly good at anything. It's a curiosity, and a charmingly old-fashioned stroll down memory lane for those of us on the downhill slide to death. You can always download it free with a modest amount of effort if Halloween seems like the right time to think about the dear, dead past's quiet little corners.

Thursday, October 29, 2020

THE UNINVITED GUESTS, an almost-good ghost story lushly described


$6.99 Kindle edition, available now


Rating: 3* of five

The Publisher Says: One late spring evening in 1912, in the kitchens at Sterne, preparations begin for an elegant supper party in honor of Emerald Torrington's twentieth birthday. But only a few miles away, a dreadful accident propels a crowd of mysterious and not altogether savory survivors to seek shelter at the ramshackle manor—and the household is thrown into confusion and mischief.

The cook toils over mock turtle soup and a chocolate cake covered with green sugar roses, which the hungry band of visitors is not invited to taste. But nothing, it seems, will go according to plan. As the passengers wearily search for rest, the house undergoes a strange transformation. One of their number (who is most definitely not a gentleman) makes it his business to join the birthday revels.

Evening turns to stormy night, and a most unpleasant parlor game threatens to blow respectability to smithereens: Smudge Torrington, the wayward youngest daughter of the house, decides that this is the perfect moment for her Great Undertaking.

The Uninvited Guests is the bewitching new novel from the critically acclaimed Sadie Jones. The prizewinning author triumphs in this frightening yet delicious drama of dark surprises—where social codes are uprooted and desire daringly trumps propriety—and all is alight with Edwardian wit and opulence.


My Review
: Emerald Torrington turns twenty today. Her shabby-genteel mama Charlotte, bratty brother Clovis, and afterthought baby sister Smudge, née Imogen, are celebrating with a dinner party, to include Emerald's old friend Insignificance, née Patience, and her brother Ernest; and a last-minute addition, rich local businessman John Buchanan. Charlotte is hoping John will marry Emerald, who Does Not Fancy him and wastes no time letting him know this; he responds by laughing at her arrogance (go John!), yet he still gives her a beautiful cameo as a birthday gift, and still feels...well.

The the Railway wishes upon the family an entire carriage-load of strangers due to an accident which occurred on the branch line. Florence, the housekeeper tasked with keeping house and making a party with one maid who's time is in demand as a hairdresser-cum-lady's-maid for all the abovestairs women, fetches them tea and then the whole household, and invited guests, forget about them.

Except Charlie. Charlie, from First Class unlike the ragtag and bobtail who arrived before him, moves right on in to the birthday party, with surprising...shocking, in fact...results.

Some guests are more uninvited than others. Poor Emerald...such a decent sort trapped in that last moment of adolescent intolerability and intolerance. Well...not any more.

Three stars? Does that seem a bit mingy? It isn't. I'll tell you why.

What begins as a species of Edwardian-style Heyeresque silliness turns into The Turn of the Screw, and for no really good reason. It's nicely written, being a Sadie Jones novel, and it's plotted with some care, but the mash-up takes a lot of suspension of disbelief and it's not asked of one until too late in the game. I don't think of myself as an inattentive or oblivious reader. No adequate set-up was done for the surprise twist, and so instead of feeling excited and pleased, I felt slightly seasick at the sudden change of direction as the boat, previously making for a harbor I could see miles away, goes across the waves' direction towards a more distant island.

Surprise me, yes; do a hard one-eighty, and you risk making me feel duped instead of pleasantly surprised. And that is where The Uninvited Guests left me. Looking for clues as to why I ended up in Calais when my ticket says Southampton.

Wednesday, October 28, 2020

THE ONLY GOOD INDIANS, Stephen Graham Jones's exploration of madness among Rez refugees


Saga Press
$16.99 trade paper, $9.99 ebook editions, available now



FINALIST, WORLD FANTASY AWARD: BEST NOVEL, 2021! Winners to be announced 7 November 2021.

Rating: 5* of five


The Publisher Says: A tale of revenge, cultural identity, and the cost of breaking from tradition in this latest novel from the Jordan Peele of horror literature, Stephen Graham Jones.

Seamlessly blending classic horror and a dramatic narrative with sharp social commentary, The Only Good Indians follows four American Indian men after a disturbing event from their youth puts them in a desperate struggle for their lives. Tracked by an entity bent on revenge, these childhood friends are helpless as the culture and traditions they left behind catch up to them in a violent, vengeful way.


My Review
: The alert readers of this blog will have noticed that I've been on a Stephen Graham Jones kick here lately. Actually, what y'all don't know is that this is only the tip of the iceberg. I've been *reading* Author Stephen's work for a long time, and haven't reviewed them here because I've bought them for myself. How can I reasonably ask publishers for free reviewers' copies if I'm just gonna go buy 'em and review 'em anyway? What sane businessperson would sign up for that deal?

So my silence is broken by this DRC approval, and I've grandfathered in all the earlier and later stuff because Y'ALL. AIN'T. FOUND. HIM. YET. I mean, in your millions who buy Clive Barker and Stephen King. That's the audience that Stephen Graham Jones merits. Major film franchises. TV development deals. The whole shootin' match.

Because this is top-quality writing, using the bones of the genre fleshed out in new and interesting ways. Psychological splatterpunk. Rez Noir. Gore with more.

And now the literary crowd is making "get-up-and-leave" noises. No, no! Sit down. This book isn't another exploitation of "Noble Savages Get Revenge Via Folklore" (seriously, go to Goodreads and search "the wendigo" to see what I mean about exploitation...monsterporn galore and white people writing from their deep personal knowledge of Native American life as far back as 1910). It is #OwnVoices do horror. The point of #OwnVoices is moot if it is construed by the very white people who celebrate it so vocally if it can't be applied to *sniff* mere genre fiction. (And for the record I'm all down with white people reading more Otherwork. I just find the labeling a bit depressing and not a little bit condescending. Do y'all really need roadmaps to find an interest in people who are-but-aren't like you?)

You are defined by the worst thing you've ever done. We all are. But what if the worst thing you've ever done offended not only the social norms and personal dignity of the community you live in, but the very powers of the Universe your community resides among? (There are different powers in every community...?) What the hell is wrong with you, can't not know what you're doing is offensive when you are sneaking around...and second, when you're going against the Universal powers that little sick feeling in your gut should tell you to break the hell off, abort, and go back to where you were before. I speak from experience. As does our point-of-view character, Lewis. One of four buddies who need to get their freezers full before winter hunger attackes their families, these goofuses trespass on the Elders's land to bag an elk. They do that, alright, so strike one. It's a female, strike two. She's pregnant, strike three. The game police, the tribal councils, AND the Universal powers are all lined up to take turns beating up these criminals.

Yes, criminals. They violated laws and customs galore. But the law and the tribe are, in the end, the least of their worries. One of the lads is killed outside a bar, and that fact barely registers. It's a year or so after the perps committed their crime, but it doesn't feel like it's Retribution. It's sadly common for an Indian man to die violently outside a bar. So no alarm bells go off. Fast forward a decade or so, and Lewis begins to tell us of his slow realizations that Something Is Hinky in his life. His white wife (the epithet "Custer haired" is used and, sad old sexist that I am, that made me laugh out loud) starts to worry about his sanity...Lewis is pretty sure he doesn't have any for her to worry about...and slowly comes to think the crack-up she's experiencing vicariously is more than just the sudden onset of midlife dumbfuckery that almost all men go through.

The actions Lewis performs, and I use the term advisedly, all are geared to show his unseeable enemy that he sees her, he knows the pregnant she-elk and her calf are behind the escalating weirdness of his life even if his wife isn't figuring it out. His entrapment of a possessed workmate, and his subsequent means of dealing with her, is extremely and amazingly revolting, and exactly right: Can a sane man, which we've been building up to wondering if Lewis still is, do that?! And that's the point where a hack writer would just go on and show you his cards. Not so Author Stephen. Your suspense is not lifted. In fact, your suspense is not lifted any time soon.

Then along comes THE SHIFT. Suddenly we're in the elk-spirit's point of view. At first this disgruntled me. I wanted to know Lewis's fate! But in short order, events occurred that caused my attitude to switch back to trusting the author's structural capabilities. While the effect is jarring at first, I suspect that's actually the reason he does it. "Get out of that familiar, comfortable groove, Lazypager, and THINK about this story I am telling you!" When that shift, from passive experiencer to active reader, is accomplished, the story's outliers (Lewis's fellow perps) are served their just deserts in a way that merely toddling along behind Lewis would never have been able to accomplish. Now, there *is* a structural issue I have with the book, the long delay in the elk-spirit's getting revenge after her initial rage; and yes, Author Stephen does indeed provide a reason for it in the text but I find it a bit like a mea-exculpa instead of a reason. From my own point of view, it came across like an "oh SHIT I forgot about that!" add-on. It is a small thing, but pobody's nerfect and I have been yodeling my fool lungs out to convince y'all to get this book and do it NOW, so it's only fair to say it's not the beau ideal after all.

I'll warn you sensitive fleurs that the initial scenes of violence are not isolated events. I'm not going to go into their particulars. I will say this, passionate animal lovers should not even *think* about buying this book. The gore is not, however, ladled on the plate with the abandon of the cafeteria lady gravying your biscuits. It is where it is for solid structural and storytelling reasons. And, believe it or not, this genre trope...the threats to/from evergreen for a reason: we invest a lot of love in our companion animals, and we work off considerable rage at Life pursuing game animals. These are the two sides of the coin Author Stephen spends. Each, in its proper place inside this narrative, expands the reader's understanding of the true horror of this story. I could pepper this review with quotes from Author Stephen's wry, self-deprecating humor-laden writing, and it's a struggle for me not to, but there is one and only one quote I want you to take away from this inducement to buy and read this book for Halloween:
Death is too easy. Better to make every moment of the rest of a person’s life agony.

THE BEAUTIFUL THINGS THAT HEAVEN BEARS, a beautifully written book from the Aughties


Riverhead Books
$5.49 kindle edition, available now

Rating: 4.25* of five

The Publisher Says: Seventeen years ago, Sepha Stephanos fled the Ethiopian Revolution after witnessing soldiers beat his father to the point of certain death, selling off his parents' jewelry to pay for passage to the United States. Now he finds himself running a grocery store in a poor African-American neighborhood in Washington, D.C. His only companions are two fellow African immigrants who share his feelings of frustration with and bitter nostalgia for their home continent. He realizes that his life has turned out completely different and far more isolated from the one he had imagined for himself years ago.

Soon Sepha's neighborhood begins to change. Hope comes in the form of new neighbors—Judith and Naomi, a white woman and her biracial daughter—who become his friends and remind him of what having a family is like for the first time in years. But when the neighborhood's newfound calm is disturbed by a series of racial incidents, Sepha may lose everything all over again.

Told in a haunting and powerful first-person narration that casts the streets of Washington, D.C., and Addis Ababa through Sepha's eyes, The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears is a deeply affecting and unforgettable debut novel about what it means to lose a family and a country-and what it takes to create a new home.

Published as The Beautiful Thing That Heaven Bears in the USA, Canada and Australia; and as Children of the Revolution in the UK. Winner of the Guardian First Book Award for 2007.


My Review
: How wonderful it is to find a first novel that feels so accomplished and tells such an engrossing story. I can't imagine that real, enjoyable talent is becoming rarer in a world that contains such eloquent proofs of its health. I can, and do, believe that unfounded and unrealistic fears of immigrants are preventing many of the world's as-yet unidentified talented folks from seeking safety that will enable them to create and contribute to the world.

Mengestu tells the story of three friends, African immigrants all, who meet in Washington DC, for so long the home territory of nativist sentiment in our republic of exclusion. I don't think a recap of the plot will help anyone decide whether or not to buy the book, because its outlines are simple: Men seeking material success in the motherland of same are thwarted and, through effort and good fortune, succeed at things they weren't looking to succeed at...temporarily.

A fire plays a major role in completing the story, and since I am currently seeing a fireman, that caught my eye. It's not, to my surprise, used as a pat plot device, but imbued with a real sense of the inevitability of sadness, loss, and change in the entwined lives of three lovely characters. Naomi, to name but one, is a heartbreakingly well observed actor in the piece despite her tender years, and Judith her mother is such a deftly drawn, conflicted, real person that I was tempted to look her up in the phone book; as for Sepha, he can come stay with me until things get better. That's the kind of connection Mengestu's characters call forth in me, and I hope in you too.

Bravo, Dinaw Mengestu. Thanks. Write...well, publish...more soon, please. Recommended for all readers of fiction.

Tuesday, October 27, 2020

THE CORONA CRASH, a leftist's view of the unfolding economic collapse

THE CORONA CRASH: How the Pandemic Will Change Capitalism

Verso Books
$9.99 Kindle edition, now available and on sale! See Verso's website for details.

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: In The Corona Crash, leading economic commentator Grace Blakeley anatomises the long term causes for the financial fragility and offers a series of radical means to not only restore but revolutionise the world's economy.

We have never experienced such an economic moment such as this one. The coronavirus pandemic heralded one of the most catastrophic financial crashes in history. In March, stock markets collapsed. In April unemployment figures skyrocketed and the price of oil went negative. Meanwhile the human cost is recorded in an ever spiraling death toll as the world, it seems, is in lock down. The pandemic has caused the deepest global recession since the Second World War. Meanwhile the US human cost is reflected in our still-rising death toll, as many states find themselves unable—and some unwilling—to grapple with the effects of the virus. Whatever happens, we can never go back to business as usual.

This moment demands a radical programme similar to the Green New Deal that demands social justice, equality and an economy with the future of the planet at the fore. This crisis will tip us into a new era of monopoly capitalism, argues Blakeley, as the corporate economy collapses into the arms of the state, and the tech giants grow to unprecedented proportions.

We need a radical response. The recovery could see the transformation of our political, economic, and social systems based on the principles of the Green New Deal. If not, the alternatives, as Blakeley warns, may be even worse than we feared.


My Review
: The UnHoly Trinity of metastatic capitalism: financialization, monopoly, stagnation. We're seeing the results of around forty-five years of neoliberal nightmare-fodder economic and social policy: A US state, a UK state both hobbled by incompetent and apparently actively evil governments whose vision of how to control the pandemic is to punish the people who live in their states.

I reviewed Thomas Piketty's Why Save the Bankers? collection of columns not long ago; that was the crisis before this one, in 2008, if COVID-19 Fog has reduced your mental time horizons to "was it ever not like this?" Here we have a quite short book—it might take you a morning and an evening commute to finish—that updates the same message as Piketty brought to us then: Change is possible, and desirable, even vital, but we must seize the moment and bring all our power-of-numbers to bear on the problem of forcing change.

Before that, we must do the thinking of "what kind of change do we want to see?" Because in the absence of a rational, harmonious vision for the changes we want to see come to the world, the capitalists will sow dissension and scream about irrelevancies like tradition, continuity, the sacredness of institutions...which they've been subverting for decades, largely and ineffectively when done unopposed. The tech giants whose dominance in the financialized capitalism of the 21st century achieved such glittering heights of social and societal control have done so largely frictionlessly.

As of this month, there has been one are of friction that actually points up the prior ease of these monopolies' formation: The Section 230 hearings on how to force tech giants to accept responsibility for their part in spreading disinformation—which goal the giants themselves *want* the laws to spell out, the original was written 25 years ago!—degenerated into a right-wing bash-fest calling for, effectively, the internet to be limited to their own mouthpieces. This is the naked, ugly ass that the capitalists are showing the world, and this is a clear sign that this election cycle in the US truly is an existential choice between more of what we had versus less of everything we've earned. (The UK is, as Author Grace Blakeley makes clear, in a slightly different place. The social safety net there is under attack too, but it has much farther to fall.)

While I'm no fan of any tech giant, and I am sure that these companies possess monopoly powers that urgently need curbing, what the hearings in the Senate demonstrated was that the right-wing party here wants the monopoly powers to remain in place and thus be usable by them to make their propaganda the only accessible viewpoint. That would mean that their worldview would, for many unsophisticated consumers, become to all intents and purposes, Reality.

If you ever needed a proof that the monopolistic inevitability of capitalism is extremely bad for you and me, that should be it.

But there is another piece of this disaster that we're not talking near enough about (pace AOC): The austerity screams of days gone by were made in bad faith, for the purpose of greater control by capital of the levers of government, and the proof is in the present-day response of the US and UK governments to the COVID Crash. They created literal trillions (that's 2,200,000,000,000 dollars in US relief spending...look at all those zeroes!) in spending power to rescue banks and prevent huge corporations from having to use their massive piles of cash to pay their bills. As a result, the stock markets have gone haywire, up hugely, down enormously, lather rinse repeat. The signal is unclear yet unambiguous: We'll do whatever it takes to stay in power, but we can't be arsed to feed the people who need to eat and buy in order to fuel the economy...that way is a long-term downturn and a disaster for the corporate entities who rely on consumption to survive. Author Blakeley trots out the eye-popping statistic that 65% of the UK GDP is consumer-spending led. And the US can't be far behind. Ignoring the support needs of the consumers is stupid, but offers a giant opening for the Left to make real, systemic change.

The capitalists have created the state-monopoly-capitalist central planning system they've been demonizing for generations. There is no denying it now. Those trillions of spendable credits materialized...and they did so in certain hands...and so, gentlemen, your shibboleth is revealed as the straw man it always was, your cries of "socialism is evil" were merely covers for the fact that you were building a small, exclusive socialist state at the top income level.

Which also reveals the core idiocy and ignorance that the neoliberal idea of socialism always was. The central planning part clearly wasn't the awful monster to be fought, since two successive crises have brought the capitalists' eagerness to centralize planning power. It was always about the idea of democratic control of planning, of returning the control of the economy to a consortium of government, labor, and capital...of including again the people in the decisions that affect them most of all.

The Green New Deal gets a lot of play in this book. What that means is never spelled out in there, and the fact is that's a sign of how quickly this book was put together. Representative democracy that includes representatives of the laboring classes has largely been dismantled by the neoliberal austerity hawks. The few remaining vestiges of that era of workers' unions with actual power are increasingly, in this crisis, seeing their agenda picked back up: extensive polling in the US and UK (eg, YouGov) that a solid plurality of the people want a Green New Deal. Now what will happen post 3 November 2020? The Biden campaign has a consistency issue, but is broadly aware that the time to act is now. A Left-led charge, using the Covid Crash as a combination crowbar and bludgeon, stands some chance of making substantial progress. If 45 is re-elected, there's no point in worrying about it because the Apocalypse is assured.

It's true that this book's origins in the UK and in haste explain a lot of troubles I've had with reading it...examples from UK economic and political realities don't make instant sense to me here in the US...but there is a larger dissatisfaction that led to my knocking a whole star off the review. An example of it is: "Climate breakdown is accelerating at rates that would render many parts of the planet uninhabitable in just a few short years." The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming is the entire source cited in footnotes. This is plain old sloppy. Your sweeping statement is backed up by a non-specific reference to a secondary source? Well then! I'll just fall in behind you because I agree with what you're saying, shall I?

That's not something I pass over lightly. This is meant to be a book I can press on people whose concerns are growing, to show them that they are correct to trust the Left has the ideas and plans to meet and address those concerns. This isn't the effect of such slapdashery as exemplified above, and that is not the only instance of such in the work. But, all in all, I do agree with what Author Blakeley and Verso Books are presenting to us; I do think the Left, in the US people such as AOC and Senator Elizabeth Warren, possess the ideas and plans that can lead us out of the plague crises, and the climate crisis. I urge all of you to invest the under two hours it takes to read this trenchant and tendentious book.

THE DISAPPEARANCE OF ÉMILE ZOLA, a wrenchingly sad case of a man exiled from his home for daring to speak truth to power

THE DISAPPEARANCE OF ÉMILE ZOLA: Love, Literature, and the Dreyfus Case

Pegasus Books
$16.99 Kindle edition, available now

Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: It is the evening of July 18, 1898, and the world-renowned novelist Émile Zola is on the run. His crime? Taking on the highest powers in the land with his open letter "J'accuse"—and losing. Forced to leave Paris with nothing but the clothes he is standing in and a nightshirt wrapped in newspaper, Zola flees to England with no idea when he will return.

This is the little-known story of Zola's time in exile. Rosen has traced Zola's footsteps from the Gare du Nord to London, examining the significance of this year. The Disappearance of Émile Zola offers an intriguing insight into the mind, the loves, and the politics of the great writer during this tumultuous era in his life.


My Review
: A very interesting digest of the paperwork, published sources, and private thoughts recorded between 13 January 1898 and Christmas 1900. The Dreyfus Affair's incredibly long shadow hasn't passed yet, though the anti-"foreigner" (Dreyfus was born a citizen) attitude of many of the French has shifted to the (also born citizens) Muslims. The rhetoric hasn't changed much.

Zola's response to the collective horror of his country's leaders...the men (all men, of course) charged with guiding the Ship of State into safe harbor, who listened to the lowest, the least, and the worst people in France and then gave them something they Other to abominate and excoriate...was to scream his fury and rejection. These "leaders" then put the innocent-of-treason Dreyfus, that designated scapegoat to France's darkest impulses, onto a ship to die in their most horrifyingly ghastly prison colony. The baseness, the injustice, the inhumanity of it, ate at Zola like acid. He was the author of a multi-volume body of work called Les Rougon-Macquart, a daringly honest and searingly realistic 20-volume (!) cycle of tales about a clan of nothing-special French folk that earned Zola an international reputation for both talent and prurience. Reading them today, both seem reasonably accurate assessments.

So what, the guy's dead 118 years, the Dreyfus Affair happened 122 years ago.

Look around you. I would that we had a Zola to, in clear and direct prose, accuse the malefactors of our world of their crimes and, what's more, make the accusations stick. Would that it had been a lawyer named Mueller...I have kept hope alive that someone both could and would make a dent in the current administration's malfeasance. Now it looks as though there will be a coup attempt instead of a peaceful transfer of power! Hélas.

Rosen also includes translations of "Angelique," a "ghost story" that Zola wrote in London, as well as the stirring-if-stilted J'accuse! as it appeared in L'Aurore on 13 January 1898. If none of these events are familiar to you, go read this book immediately.

I'm stingy star-wise because Rosen's task includes the thankless one of framing his subject to people unfamiliar with the dramatis personae as well as the casus belli that got the whole thing going. As a result, he resorts to much inevitable spoon-feeding and that, I fear, caused my eyes to glaze over. It's necessary, it's even reasonably well-done, but it's bloody tedious and kept me from ever forgetting how Worthy the people were and how Relevant the warnings herein are. When my finger finds the overemphasis-via-shift key without being told to go there by my brain, we have a problem between us, Author Rosen.

Paradoxically, that makes me want all y'all to read this book all the more! The beauty of history is that we are able to view causes and effects in their entirety; a thing obviously impossible in the present. The tragedy of history is that those who don't read it don't learn from it; a thing that could prevent the present from repeating the past verbatim. I will say this: When you read this book, you will not feel like you're being told to keep chewing that wad of kale until it goes down your throat. More along the lines of, "here's some lovely dark bread to sustain you, love, and a big pat of real butter for yummies."

DEOSIL, eleventh and final (sob) Whyborne & Griffin tale

(Whyborne & Griffin #11)
Kindle edition
$4.99, available now

Rating: 5* of five

The Publisher Says: Whyborne, Griffin, and their friends have faced down cultists, monsters, and sorcerers. But their greatest challenge is now upon them.

On the return voyage from Balefire Manor, Whyborne receives the worst news possible: Widdershins has fallen before the onslaught of the Fideles and their servants. There’s still time to stop the return of the Masters, but that window grows shorter by the hour.

Together with Christine and Iskander, Whyborne and Griffin must reach Widdershins to face the ultimate test—and decide the fate of the world, once and for all.


My Review
: Seriously. These are people, straight and QUILTBAG alike, who know that surrendering agency in the face of overwhelming odds against your success in resisting Evil's conquest of the world is not going succeed. Maybe resisting isn't either. But it's absolutely positive that doing nothing will result in Evil winning. So they rile up every-damn-body they can find:
“I never asked for a cult of book-wielding librarians!” I exclaimed.

Whyborne, our lanky and gauche and lovably goofy savior-figure, can't see what possible use a pack of book-lovers like himself can do when the Apocalypse impends. And you know what? Their part is crucial, their role central, and the way forward wouldn't have been found without them.

Get up off your chair and go vote. Or drive housebound folks to the polls. Or call your lazy friends and go pick them up. Something.

This book will make no sense whatsoever to you if you haven't read the previous ten. If you have, you've probably already read it; if you haven't, start with Widdershins, and if you're hooked you'll keep buying until you get to this one.

I love series reads. I am a fan of the familiar, homely comforts of visiting old friends in their digs, and that's a lot of the appeal of series reads. It's also true that some series continue long past the point they have something new to say. Author Hawk decided that a good series needs an ending commensurate with its prior purpose. This book provides that ending.

And for a few bad minutes, I thought I was gonna have to call on the maelstrom to blight the author's homeplace with super-rust.

Patience and a furious refusal to believe I'd been had led me to finish the book before firing up the Lapidem. I was not disappointed. I was, in fact, quite pleased with the resolution and the ending, which are quite different things. Things end the way they quite simply had to end.

Widdershins, after all, knows its own.

Monday, October 26, 2020

BALEFIRE, tenth Whyborne & Griffin Lovecraftian nightmare-fodder monsterfest! Only fun!

(Whyborne & Griffin #10)
Kindle edition
$4.99, available now

Rating: 4.75* of five

The Publisher Says: Whyborne’s Endicott relatives have returned to collect on the promise he made to help them take back their ancestral manor from an evil cult. In exchange, they’ll give him the key to deciphering the Wisborg Codex, which Whyborne needs to learn how to stop the masters.

To that end, Whyborne, his husband Griffin, and their friends Iskander and Christine travel to a small island off the coast of Cornwall. But when they arrive at Balefire Manor, Whyborne must not only face the evil within the ancient mansion, but the painful truth about his own destiny.


My Review
: That, my chick-a-biddies, was a hellacious ride! More after I have knit the ravel'd sleave of care with some z's.

The next-to-last entry in this long-running series. The idea makes me a bit sad, but really when I think about it, this is a great time to go out: The ultimate threat to the humanity of Terra is about to rip its way through the veil of ignorance that traps us cattle in this vale of tears and kick-ass.

Not if Dr. Percival Endicott Whyborne, tall geeky sorcerer, and his dearly belovèd husband the ex-Pinkerton Griffin Flaherty, have a tiny tiny thread of the hope of a chance, they aren't.

This is something I treasure about reading these books: The superhero who's saving the world for the Great Unwashed is a gay goofus with the social skills of a teenager and no reason whatsoever to do the job he's doing. The world of Widdershins, Gilded Age America, hates fags. He's never been anything resembling straight. And *still* he saves the world the ungrateful jackasses infest with their seething rage at his audacity to claim love and happiness with another wounded survivor of straight people's hate.

You can have all those lushly muscled Captain What's-its and bounteously bosomed -womans and -girls. I'll take lanky, cranky, and awkward Whyborne every damn time. It matters to see yourself, the best part of yourself hopefully but yourself, in the tropes that dominate the age you live in. I myownself glory in this:
The creature was a blot on the world, a living darkness spreading corruption to everything it touched. Where {Whyborne} burned with pure, cleansing fire, it smeared a layer of sooty foulness across the very fabric of reality. It was every shape and none, a heaving, churning distortion that gave my shadowsight nothing to rest upon.

When Whyborne is done making the world safe for the people who want to make his world unsafe, he goes to his beloved Griffin (who is speaking in the above quote) for comfort and joy. And yes, that means sex. Usually two or three steamy scenes. I feel like y'all heterosexuals should be made to read some of our sex scenes since yours are flippin' EVERYWHERE and y'all think (often out loud) that we should just belt the eff up and watch/read/encounter them because they're normal.

Common, perhaps; not normal. Normal is an individual calibration to the world.

If this book held a disappointment for me, it was the one-and-only intimate scene between Whyborne and Griffin. I get it; this is a hectic book with multiple battles being fought; but damn. One little bitty round of easy-to-clean spoodging smacks of adolescent exploration, not two men in their 30s expressing their established and ongoing desire for each other.

And then I remember the stakes looming over the men....

Yeah, pretty much the only thing you could squeeze in, eh what, Author Hawk? Book 11 can't come soon enough and I don't ever want to see it because it's the last and how dare you not keep writing these delicious stories and yeah, it's time to let these poor bastards rest.

No, I'm not conflicted at all. Why do you ask?

Sunday, October 25, 2020

FALLOW, eighth Whyborne & Griffin tale from Widdershins, Massachusetts (near Innsmouth and Arkham)

(Whyborne & Griffin #8)
Kindle edition
$4.99, available now

Rating: 4.5* of five

The Publisher Says: When Griffin’s past collides with his present, will it cost the lives of everyone he loves?

Between the threat of a world-ending invasion from the Outside and unwelcome revelations about his own nature, Percival Endicott Whyborne is under a great deal of strain. His husband, Griffin Flaherty, wants to help—but how can he, when Whyborne won’t tell him what’s wrong?

When a man from Griffin’s past murders a sorcerer, the situation grows even more dire. Once a simple farmer from Griffin’s hometown of Fallow, the assassin now bears a terrifying magical corruption, one whose nature even Whyborne can’t explain.

To keep Griffin’s estranged mother safe, they must travel to a dying town in Kansas. But as drought withers the crops of Fallow, a sinister cult sinks its roots deep into the arid soil. And if the cult’s foul harvest isn’t stopped in time, Fallow will be only the first city to fall.

Fallow is the eighth book in the Whyborne & Griffin series, where magic, mystery, and m/m romance collide with Victorian era America.


My Review
: The half star off is for the slithering jim-jams the Big Baddie in this one has given me. I am not sleeping for the foreseeable future. *convulsive shudder*

***next day***

As predicted, sleep was elusive after reading this frightfest. I haven't had that response to any other book in the series but this one Did Me In. The name, "the rust," gave me all the horror-movie shudders I could ever (not) want.

Excuse me I need to bleach my every body part and scrub my innards with Lysol.

The main thrust of this story is betrayal. The awfulness of experiencing betrayal is, by definition, that it's only one's intimates that can perpetrate it. Author Hawk was so deft in portraying the double-edged sword of betrayal in each leg of the multiple relationships that underwent it that I can only applaud. All of the betrayals were very real, as in understandable and organic to the relationships involved. No overwrought "because I am eeeeeeviiiiiillllll" emotionality; instead the betrayals (very much in the plural) are simply fallible humans failing to reach for love when confronted by conundrums in coping with unmet expectations.

This is a phenomenon that all of us experience at some level, at some time; but gay people are a lot more likely than most US citizens to experience it, and more likely to have it come from within their families of origin; make no mistake, though, the betrayal also comes from Government and the social safety net bureaucracies as enabled by the filth and scum appointed by 45. In Griffin's uniquel awful case, he's experiencing the double betrayal of an adoptive family's rejection. It makes me want to unswallow when I think of the US Administration unleashing this life-defining, spirit-crushing betrayal on innocent children in 2020.

Along with the Big Baddie *wracking shudder* we're treated to Whyborne's meditations on Widdershins' magical vortex and its role in his life. We're given a short burst of Persephone Whyborne. We're teased with an oncoming apocalyptic confrontation. We're left to ponder the role of pragmatism in Whyborne and Griffin's mutual fate as allies become scarce. In short, book 8 is one helluva ride and I had a damn good time ripping through it.

Except for "the rust" *nauseated convulsive shudder* that is.

Saturday, October 24, 2020

MAMMOTHS OF THE GREAT PLAINS, underknown alternate history of modern America with mammoths

(Outspoken Authors series #4)
PM Press
$8.00 Kindle edition, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: Shaggy herds of mammoths still roam the Great Plains—to the delight of President Thomas Jefferson—in this imaginative alternative history in which the beasts thunder over the grasslands as living symbols of the oncoming struggle between the Native peoples and the European invaders. This unforgettable saga soars from the Badlands of the Dakota Territory to the icy wastes of Siberia, from the Russian Revolution to the American Indian Movement protests of the 1960s and one woman’s attempt to harness DNA science to fulfill the ancient promises of her Lakota heritage. In addition, this volume includes the essay “Writing During World War Three,” a politically incorrect take on multiculturalism from a science fiction point of view and an outspoken interview with the writer of some of today’s edgiest and most uncompromising speculative fiction.

My Review: Honestly, I think I should simply put this in front of you:
"The thing your teachers may not have told you is how full of hope the late '60s were. Yes, there was violence. The police and FBI and Natiional Guard were dangerous. Plenty of people—good people—died in fishy ways; and plenty went to prison for things they almost certainly did not do. But the times were changing, and many of us thought we were building a new world in the shell of the old. As it turned out, we were wrong, at least for the time being. The '60s wound down slowly through the '70s, and in 1980 Ronald Reagan began a long period of reaction."

...issue an apology for my entire generation for allowing the calamity that was Reagan's rule, and go quietly away. In fact, I suspect many (some even related to me) would like that a lot. So I won't do it.

Emma, biracial daughter of an Indian woman and a man from the Ivory Coast, leaves Minneapolis to visit her grandmother on the Standing Rock resevation in Western North Dakota. The child is riding the train, she sees things on her trip that clue us in to the fact that she's not living in *our* 21st century, like...well...mammoths.

Mammoths. Mammoth Bill Cody. Mammoth spirits in a woman's dream. An entire history of mammoths in the 19th-century west, starting with the delight of President Thomas Jefferson at Meriwether Lewis's gift of a tusk. Okay...I'll's this one come about, playin' out? Why wasn't Reagan and his horrorshow administration butterflied away by this weird development? But sit back, I told myself, listen and learn. Be like Emma, the patient city-child absorbing the world from her Native American elder. Not least like the patient, abused, angry Native people white people have stuffed onto lands that can't support them in order not to have to kill them outright.


Emma listens to her grandmother speak of the grandmother who raised her, Rosa the white-inside middle-class matron whose life was dedicated to preserving the maximum amount of tissue from the last living mammoths on the planet. Her struggles, adventures, all the stories she kept in her heart while she went to white schools, white universities, teaching white college students a continent away from the grandmother who was always there for her. Emma has to learn, of course, but these are big lessons, not easily absorbed at any age. We, the readers, know how much of this will come back to her one day...but now Emma's got to learn the hardest truth as her grandmother describes, in detail, the end of her early adulthood at her own grandmother's death. She has a house...but it comes at a price: The mammoth tissues her grandmother treated so very carefully need tending. A trap, thinks Emma's grandmother resentfully:
"'Are you sure you are Indian spirits? You know a lot about biology.'

"'First of all,' the crone said, 'we are in your dream. Obviously, we know what you know. And we, like you, are at the end of the 20th century. White people have a god who exists outside time and history and pays far too little attention to his creatures' misbehavior, in my opinion.

"'Indian spirits live in the world we helped make. Why not? We did good work! It's a good place! And like people of every kind—the two legs and four legs, birds and fish and insects—we change in response to time and events. Don't expect us to be like the spirits in an anthropology textbook.'

"'And don't drink so much," {the other spirit} said. 'It isn't good for you.'"

"That was the last thing the women said to me. I think they turned into mammoths, and the house vanished...Maybe I made everything up. I have never been certain about dreams, Emma, though many other people are, and I respect their opinions."

You can't just throw the past away without serious consequences, Emma. I hope and pray you remember that.

Much compressed storytelling feels rushed, or slighted; Author Arnason is a master of the art of compressing without disappointing. As Emma's grandmother tells her story, it feels organic that some things don't quite get the attention one would want them to as a reader. A kid's got a limited capacity to *get* adulthood; Emma's getting socked with a lot; but her gentle, loving grandmother is giving her roots to grow better wings. Of course the story gets less fully detailed as the long single sitting goes on. But equally "of course" is the fact that there is a point, a purpose, if one wants to be gross about it, a lesson for Emma in this tale of the women in her lineage:
"History is a collaborative process. The important thing is to be a part of history on the right side, which is not always easy to determine. It's not enough to hold onto the past, though we Indians proved that losing the past is dangerous. We almost died trying to be white. Not that white people have done much better. They almost destroyed the planet by getting and spending and laying waste.

"What do we keep from the past? What do we discard? How do we change? These are all important questions, which all of us have to answer. ... There's plenty left to do to remake the planet, but we have achieved a fair amount already. One step forward and two steps back, then two or three steps forward. We dance into the future like dancers in a Grand Entry."

We do that dance forever, or for as long as we are allowed. We all rely on that dance, and rely on the dancers to know where to move and when to move away. And, sadly, unlike Emma's grandmother and her world, it seems as though we're lacking in the mammoth-sense to right past wrongs.

Writing Science Fiction During World War Three reminded me, in its footnotes, of the succinct formulation popularized as Hanlon's Razor: "Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity."

Yes. Indeed, yea verily, uh-huh, oui, sí, mm hmm, right on Sister Woman!

Anyway. Author Arnason last updated this essay more than a decade ago, for this volume, and of necessity many of the decade's disasters go unremarked. Her blog (linked at the top of this post with her name) hasn't been updated regularly since 2018, though there is no doubt that she was alive and kicking on 12 May 20, so that's a tidbit of good information. The burden of her refrain is so in tune with mine: Capitalism is dying, the next thirty-five or so years are so incredibly crucially important to what comes next for us as a nation, society, species even (climate change is real, happening, and do not think it's going to be easy to deal with) that we must all link arms and march again and again and again.

"At the Edge of the Future": Eleanor Arnason Interviewed by Terry Bisson is a twenty-five page Q&A between the two, in which Arnason details her extremely odd and interesting childhood, her inevitable student rebellion (not so tacitly supported by dear old mom and dad), and her path to becoming one of the SF field's few working woman writers with her own career...that is, not one that supported her, but rather one that happened on her own terms, following her own interests. She was, as a result, the winner of the inaugural Tiptree Award (now called the Otherwise Award, which Arnason expressed deeply mixed feelings about) for her novel A Woman of the Iron People, q.v.

It was a delight to spend a day in Author Arnason's good company. I recommend the experience.

Friday, October 23, 2020

RESTORED, another winning entry in Author Joanna Chambers's Enlightenment series

(Enlightenment #5)
Kindle original (non-affiliate Amazon link)
$4.99 ebook editions, available now!

Rating: 4.75* of five

The Publisher Says: Eighteen years ago, Henry Asquith, Duke of Avesbury had to leave his kept lover, Kit Redford, in order to devote himself to raising his young family. Now, a lifetime later, his children are moving on and for the first time in years, Henry is alone.

During a rare visit to London, Henry unexpectedly happens upon an old friend of Kit’s and learns that Kit did not receive the financial pay off he was entitled to when Henry left him. Instead Kit was thrown out of his home and left destitute. Horrified, Henry begs Kit to see him and allow Henry to compensate him. But Kit, who now owns a discreet club for gentlemen of a certain persuasion, neither needs nor wants Henry’s money.

“Perhaps you should earn the money you owe me the way I had to earn it? On your knees, and on your back, taking my cock like a whore.”

Kit thought he had put his old hurts and grievances about Henry behind him, but when he sees Henry again, he discovers that, not only is the old pain still there, so is the fierce attraction that once burned between them. When, in a moment of fury, Kit demands a scandalous form of penance from Henry, no one is more surprised than Kit when Henry agrees to pay it.

As Kit and Henry spend more time together, they learn more about the men they have become, and about the secret feelings and desires they concealed from one another in the past.

Henry realises he wants to build a future with Kit but can he persuade his wary lover to trust him ever again? And can two men from such different worlds make a new life together?


My Review
: I am much closer to seventy than I am to fifty. As hard as that fact is to swallow...Alanis Morissette and her bloody "Jagged Little Pill" begone! is the truth. And a corollary of that truth is that one becomes pretty much invisible at this age. My Young Gentleman Caller, unwilling to lie to my face, spins it as his insurance policy: Pretty young things don't look at me, so he doesn't have to stalk them with murderous intent!

I might be an old bastard, but I'm a *lucky* old bastard. And here I am bragging about it to the world. It feels right to do that in a review of Restored, though, because while neither of the heroes (they are indeed heroes) are anything like as old as I am, they're old for their time (fifty was elderly in Regency times, and Henry's forty-seven) and not slowing down a bit. Henry, Duke of Avesbury, and Christopher Redford shared a passion as young men and, after two decades, find each other and wonderingly work their way through a shared past that never went as either would've wanted it to.

Gawddam, it feels so fucking good to read something Romance-wise that mirrors so many of my own experiences being an old crock!

That's really it, and I ought to belt up and go have some hot milk and toast for my supper, but there is quite a bit to say yet. Henry's companionable marriage ended in tragedy, the death of his young wife. She was his friend; not long after the birth of their fourth child, she revealed her extreme dislike of sex and her unwillingness to bear more children. She was kind and sensible about it, giving Henry complete freedom to meet his needs; that is, so long as he was merely working off his lurid energies, not threatening her position as wife.

Enter (!) Christopher Redford, Kept Boy. The heart (as adults all know to their cost) isn't likely to listen to sensible, reasonable rules, and Henry finds himself approaching a cliff...then his wife throws her imminent mortality into the mix, makes him swear to "put away his toys" (ie leave his belovèd Christopher) in a really denigrating, unkind, and harshly judgmental way. But she's the Wife. Must be obeyed.

And that should've been that.

Was that, for most of two decades. Then Henry, in London from Wiltshire (is that a real place? I knew a guy whose last name was that once), sees a face from his misspent youth while meeting his pregnant daughter for tea. The memories he's never been able to fully repress, the longing for his lost love Christopher, all make the Duke of Avesbury venture to approach their old mutual acquaintance (one of Christopher's fellow courtesans) and beg news of him.

Well. Cat, pigeons, among. Kit, as he is now known, wasn't treated fairly in spite of Henry's very explicit and specific instructions to the contrary. There has been a long, resentful silence on both parts not because either man wanted it that way, but because someone else entirely took it upon himself to interfere. Naturally, neither ever knew this; and each has his lifetime of hurts to hide behind when they see the one face that will always make them smile. But knowing that one still loves is not at all the same as being in that wild, passionate "what, me worry?" zeal-of-the-organs stage of life. Older might not equal wiser, but it sure as shootin' equals warier.

As Kit and Henry circle each other, feinting at presumed weak spots and finding them yielding; shoving back, only to fall and need help up, always willingly, unstintingly given; each needs so badly to protect their loved ones, in fact so much so that they each forget to love back the important one-and-only they have the chance to make their own again. Not for long, though, since they're both in a phase of life where changes are coming ready or not. No one stops the clock.

What matters is what you do with your time, not what time has done to you. Changes? Yes; can, in fact, two scarred and mangled lovers find a new love?

Oh, as to that savaging: Author Chambers has revolted and appalled me. I am foully treated by the refusal, against all possible good taste or common sense, of the Romance Writing Academy to ban outright and for all time the vile, repellent, unnecessary, and lazily unworthy w-bomb from use.

And really? Tom? C'mon. That needed a bigger set-up. *tsk*

Thursday, October 22, 2020

NORTH AMERICAN LAKE MONSTERS, a Shirley Jackson Award-winning collection of tight horror tales

Small Beer Press
$9.95 ebook editions, available now

The Publisher Says: Nathan Ballingrud's Shirley Jackson Award-winning debut collection is a shattering and luminous experience not to be missed by those who love to explore the darker parts of the human psyche. Monsters, real and imagined, external and internal, are the subject. They are us and we are them and Ballingrud's intense focus makes these stories incredibly intense and irresistible.

These are love stories. And also monster stories. Sometimes these are monsters in their traditional guises, sometimes they wear the faces of parents, lovers, or ourselves. The often working-class people in these stories are driven to extremes by love. Sometimes, they are ruined; sometimes redeemed. All are faced with the loneliest corners of themselves and strive to find an escape.

Nathan Ballingrud was born in Massachusetts but has spent most of his life in the South. He worked as a bartender in New Orleans and New York City and a cook on offshore oil rigs. His story "The Monsters of Heaven" won the inaugural Shirley Jackson Award. He lives in Asheville, North Carolina, with his daughter.


My Review

With my usual verve, I'll use the Bryce Method to explain my ideas about each story as I come to it.

You Go Where It Takes You

Wild Acre


The Crevasse

The Monsters of Heaven [read this story on]


North American Lake Monsters [read this story free at the Weird Fiction Review]

The Way Station

The Good Husband

Tuesday, October 20, 2020

THE HAUNTING OF TRAM CAR 015, a delightful if short hit of an alternate steampunk Cairo...with Djinn!

(Dead Djinn Universe #0.7) Publishing
$3.99 ebook editions, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: The Haunting of Tram Car 015 returns to the alternate Cairo of Clark’s short fiction, where humans live and work alongside otherworldly beings; the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments and Supernatural Entities handles the issues that can arise between the magical and the mundane. Senior Agent Hamed al-Nasr shows his new partner Agent Onsi the ropes of investigation when they are called to subdue a dangerous, possessed tram car. What starts off as a simple matter of exorcism, however, becomes more complicated as the origins of the demon inside are revealed.


My Review
: When I asked for more after reading A Dead Djinn in Cairo, I sorta-kinda vaguely hoped that there would, one day, maybe be more. Then this book came out. It doesn't feature Fatma as the main Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments and Supernatural Entities agent on the case, but Hamed and Onsi grew on me fast. And, of course, the inclusion of Siti was welcome as it assured me this was well and truly part of a Cairo I absolutely believe is real and wish to emigrate to now, please.


And now there's a lovely new title, A Master of Djinn, coming on 11 May 2021! In fact, we'll get Fatma and Siti back at the center of the doings, so all will be extra-special right with my reading world.

This story, of a spirit entity (NOT like a Djinn, as Zagros the Ministry's librarian Djinn bristles at Hamed) called an "al" (plural "alk") that's arrived from Armenia to ply its evil, baby-stealing ways; it involves graft (a Transportation ministry bureaucrat doing what he didn't oughta), confusion (Hamed seeking help from a sheika and a sexy transgender Djinn to perform a Zal exorcism-y thing), and a lot of humility instead of humiliation. Hamed and Onsi do a deeply shocking thing to slip past the al's nervous vigilance, something their patriarchal upbringings wouldn't find agreeable, but to them it's far superior a choice than failing to protect Cairo's mothers.

There are scenes of action with the men pursuing the al, there are scenes of fun, deep brain-work where the author gets to infodump you about this delicious anti-colonial alternate history without feeling like it's him forcing you to eat your spinach, and there's a beautifully queer undertone to the proceedings that agrees with me. If you know it won't agree with you, skip on.

Now, it's clear that I love this world. Anyone who has read my deep and caustic growls about majgickq in my alt-hist will even now be sharpening their quill to jab out a "GOTCHA!!" message. This series has majgicqk in it, yes; the magjicqk is integral to the action, yes; and no, I am not fleeing at top speed. So before the ringing cries of "hypocrite!" begin their rise from ill-mannered and poorly bred peoples' keyboards, listen up: I'm not interested in medieval-Europe-with-monsters, WWII-with-werewolves/aliens, or their like. Tired of those stories. Cultures not European? You interest me strangely, Tale-spinner, come and say on.

I wouldn't say you should read this book first, but definitely before the new one comes out. And definitely read it. I know it's a quick hit, and it's hard to invest in something this concentrated when you wonder if you can come home again. Now you know you can, indulge! (But be alert for the one, and only one, w-bomb.)

Monday, October 19, 2020

RING SHOUT, the best damn Halloween story to scare yourself leaky with that's come out yet

P. DJÈLÍ CLARK Publishing
$9.99 eBook editions, available now


FINALIST, WORLD FANTASY AWARD: BEST NOVELLA, 2021! Winners to be announced 7 November 2021.


DECEMBER 2020 UPDATE A TV SERIES IS ON THE WAY!! Starring the ineffably beautiful KiKiLayne ...and produced by SkyDanceTV, the people behind the Foundation adaptation on the half-bit fruit peoples' streamer, Grace and Frankie (seriously, does anyone not love that show?), and Altered Carbon (the first season was great, shut up)!

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: Nebula, Locus, and Alex Award-winner P. Djèlí Clark returns with Ring Shout, a dark fantasy historical novella that gives a supernatural twist to the Ku Klux Klan's reign of terror.

D. W. Griffith is a sorcerer, and The Birth of a Nation is a spell that drew upon the darkest thoughts and wishes from the heart of America. Now, rising in power and prominence, the Klan has a plot to unleash Hell on Earth.

Luckily, Maryse Boudreaux has a magic sword and a head full of tales. When she's not running bootleg whiskey through Prohibition Georgia, she's fighting monsters she calls "Ku Kluxes." She's damn good at it, too. But to confront this ongoing evil, she must journey between worlds to face nightmares made flesh—and her own demons. Together with a foul-mouthed sharpshooter and a Harlem Hellfighter, Maryse sets out to save a world from the hate that would consume it.


My Review
: Seriously, this would've been a full five-star read had it not been for nine, maybe ten, w-bombs dropped like seagull shit on a picnic.

The Birth of a Nation came from a book. Two books really—The Clansman and The Leopard's Spots, by a man named Thomas Dixon. Dixon's father was a South Carolina slaveowner in the Confederacy. And a sorceror.
Sadie got it into her head that the Warren G. Harding government knows about Ku Kluxes. Say she pieced it together from the tabloids. That Woodrow Wilson was in on {D.W.} Griffith's plan, but it got out of hand. And now there's secret departments come about since the war, who go round studying Ku Kluxes. Girl got some imagination.

That's where we start, mes vieux, that's all in the first thirty or so pages! You are in medias res, and no doubt in your mind that you're not gettin' the full burden of the lyric. To help you along, our generous cicerone Author Clark offers us, in the voice of a crossdressing Harlem Hellfighter, this perfect summation of how Griffith's sorcerous manipulation of the US took such easy hold:
"Oh, I disagree," Chef {the Hellfighter} retorts. "White folk earn something from that hate. Might not be wages. But knowing we on the bottom and they set above us—just as good, maybe better.

Still works today. 45's vile "basket of deplorables" full up on that kind of scumbag. Hating people is as old as humanity, and the ones that're least like your sacred itty self are the easiest to get in the habit of downin' on. (I'm sure not innocent of this: I hate the Deplorables with a cold, contemptuous superiority. "Me? Like that no-class lowbrow hillbilly? I don't think so, and fuck you for thinking it.")

And then there's the delight, once you've figured out the Klans are people and the Ku Kluxes are actual, terrible monsters, of trying to get your head around why that should be, how that came about in our horrible-but-not-supernaturally-haunted time/space nexus. Author Clark got you covered:
"Thought you was a godless atheist{," Sadie smirked.}

"I am. But who's to say our universe is alone? Maybe there's others stacked beside us like sheets of paper. And those Ku Kluxes crossed over from somewhere else."

"They was conjured," Chef reminds.

"'Conjuring' is just a way to open a door. Explains why their anatomy is so different, and the extreme reactions to our elements."

"Why they like drinking water so," Sadie adds.

She right on that. Can tell a Ku Klux straight away by all the water they drink. Colored folk who lived through the first Klans say they'd empty whole buckets, claiming they was the ghosts of soldiers from Shiloh. More water, they'd demand. Just come from hell, and plenty dry.

Can't be clearer than that...this isn't quite your (great-)grandmother's 1922. And yet has all the problems...none of the help.

Our story winds through Nana Jean, an old Gullah root woman, who sets up a team to fight the Ku Kluxes. She, and our narrator Maryse, are guided by three spirit-world women analogous to the Norns and other Triune Goddesses whose purpose is to maintain balance in their worlds. Maryse, Chef, and Sadie, all uniquely damaged and so able to access their existential rage, are the action arm of Nana Jean's ring-shout circle. Now, this is deep and old stuff, and there is not one single chance any of y'all reading this review have got the background in Vodoun, hoodoo, and all the other African and African-inflected spiritual practices to get every reference. I could link every third word in here, and that's just to the few little references I got. But don't feel too left out, twenty-first centurians, Author Clark uses a lot of literary references, too. Sethe, for example: a scientific type, aiding the group's scientist Molly, and proficient with a weapon. Honoring, I suppose I should say, Toni Morrison's immortal mother who loved her child so hard she made a haint of her. And haints there are in this story, plenty of them, their many, many songs of fear and betrayal and suffering powering Maryse's unique weapon of cleansing and destruction of evil and wrongness.

I have deliberately not reproduced Nana Jean's Gullah dialect. I consider it disrespectful for me to do so. You'll know when you see it whether you agree with me or not.

You're thinking that all this is going somewhere, but where...well, several places including through a forest of bottle trees, to an Angel Oak, into a place where there are Night Doctors of the *most*horrifying*sort* and whose lust for humanity's pain is unquenchable, and finally to a screening of The Birth of a Nation that is beyond your or my ability to conjure. It is a beautiful thing to be frightened by the capacity of people to hate. This book is a prayer to whatever force(s) rule the Simulation to open up our eyes.

There's a reason the last words spoken in the story are, "'Bout damn time!"