Tuesday, November 30, 2021

MADDER: A Memoir in Weeds, quirky, amusing, deeply, deeply angry & STROKE BOOK, a body's betrayal made to heal


MADDER: A Memoir in Weeds
MARCO WILKINSON

Coffee House Press
$16.95 trade paper, available now

Rating:

The Publisher Says: Madder, matter, mater—a weed, a state of mind, a material, a meaning, a mother. Poet and horticulturist Marco Wilkinson searches for the roots of myths and memories among plant families and family trees.

"My life, these weeds." Marco Wilkinson's intimate vignettes of intergenerational migration, queer sexuality, and willful forgetting use the language of plants as both structure and metaphor—particularly weeds: invisible yet ubiquitous, unwanted yet abundant, out-of-place yet flourishing. Madder combines meditations on nature with memories of Wilkinson's Rhode Island childhood and glimpses of his maternal family's life in Uruguay. The son of a fierce immigrant mother who tried to erase his absent father from their lives, Wilkinson investigates his heritage with a mixture of anger and empathy as he wrestles with the ambiguity of the past. Using a verdant iconography rich with wordplay and symbolism, Wilkinson offers a mesmerizing portrait of finding belonging in an uprooted world.

I RECEIVED MY DRC FROM THE PUBLISHER VIA EDELWEISS+. THANK YOU.

My Review
: This is very much a poet's prose work...the design, the language Author Williamson uses, the concept of telling his son-of-an-immigrant's coming to terms with his life and its absences, its losses, its underpinnings and overstructures, all of a piece with his calling as a poet. The meanings of some of the design features aren't prose-friendly at all. I'd recommend you make time to be with this reading experience, don't let its brevity mislead you into thinking it will breeze past your eyes in a few distracted sittings.

Sit down with it on a beautiful day and accept its varying gifts and demands with equanimity. You will be rewarded.























+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++


STROKE BOOK: The Diary of a Blindspot
JONATHAN ALEXANDER

Fordham University Press
$19.95 hardcover, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: An archive of personal trauma that addresses how a culture still toxic to queer people can reshape a body

In the summer of 2019, Jonathan Alexander had a minor stroke, what his doctors called an "eye stroke." A small bit of cholesterol came loose from a vein in his neck and instead of shooting into his brain and causing damage, it lodged itself in a branch artery of his retina, resulting in a permanent blindspot in his right eye. In Stroke Book, Alexander recounts both the immediate aftermath of his health crisis, which marked deeper health concerns, as well as his experiences as a queer person subject to medical intervention.

A pressure that the queer ill contend with is feeling at fault for their condition, of having somehow chosen illness as punishment for their queerness, however subconsciously. Queer people often experience psychic and somatic pressures that not only decrease their overall quality of life but can also lead to shorter lifespans. Emerging out of a medical emergency and a need to think and feel that crisis through the author's sexuality, changing sense of dis/ability, and experience of time, Stroke Book invites readers on a personal journey of facing a health crisis while trying to understand how one's sexual identity affects and is affected by that crisis. Pieceing and stitching together his experience in a queered diary form, Alexander's lyrical prose documents his ongoing, unfolding experience in the aftermath of the stroke. Through the fracturing of his text, which almost mirrors his fractured sight post-stroke, the author grapples with his shifted experience of time, weaving in and out, while he tracks the aftermath of what he comes to call his "incident" and meditates on how a history of homophobic encounters can manifest in embodied forms.

The book situates itself within a larger queer tradition of writing—first, about the body, then about the body unbecoming, and then, yet further, about the body ongoing, even in the shadow of death. Stroke Book also documents the complexities of critique and imagination while holding open a space for dreaming, pleasure, intimacy, and the unexpected.

I RECEIVED A DRC FROM THE PUBLISHER VIA EDELWEISS+. THANK YOU.

My Review
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Monday, November 22, 2021

QUEER AS ALL GET OUT: 10 People Who've Inspired Me, inspired me in my turn


QUEER AS ALL GET OUT: 10 People Who've Inspired Me
SHELBY CRISWELL

Street Noise Books
$18.99 trade paper, available 23 November 2021

Rating: 5 shining, proud, delighted stars of five

The Publisher Says: Take a walk with one queer artist from Texas and explore the lives of ten LGBTQ+ people from history.

What does it take to live your truth? And how do we each navigate the struggle for personal acceptance within a society that is so often intolerant? In this galvanizing story of resilience, Shelby Criswell takes us by the hand and leads us through the lived experiences of ten inspiring people. Each an example of how to find your way as your own authentic self.

I RECEIVED A DRC FROM THE PUBLISHER VIA EDELWEISS+. THANK YOU.

My Review
: This US Thanksgiving, or "Happy Holocaust of the Native Americans" Holiday as I am prone to call it, I wanted to offer something I am truly thankful for: Young Queer creators telling their authentic stories from the places they live. It's not a luxury I had; it's not a luxury to be taken for granted anywhere, if you listen to Scholastique Mukasonga; and so it should be celebrated as much as we're able to do so.

This is a strong open, the simple act of getting one's order in a coffee shop made without awkwardness or fuss or hostility. The kindness of simply not assuming anything and still making the effort to be polite is, sad to say, still revolutionary and worthy of comment and praise. But it's a fruitful moment: It gives birth to the concept, "who came before me? who else struggled with the world's pig-headedness and intolerance?" As the marketing material offers this list of people profiled in the book, I can do no better than to offer it to you in my turn:
  • Mary Jones (mid 1800’s);
  • We’wha (1849-1896);
  • Magnus Hirschfeld (1868-1935);
  • Dr. Pauli Murray (1910-1985);
  • Wilmer “Little Axe” M. Broadnax (1916-1994);
  • Sister Rosetta Tharpe (1915-1973);
  • Carlett Brown (1927-?);
  • Nancy Cárdenas (1934-1994);
  • Ifti Nasim (1946-2011);
  • and Simon Nkoli (1957-1998)

  • Comprehensive! Impressive! I loved the profiles, as brief as they were by necessity, because they were handsomely illustrated and clearly selected for Author & Artist Creswell's personal connection to their message(s). First up is late-life out lesbian Nancy Cárdenas:
    I found the story of Cárdenas's coming out so touching, that she was inspired to do it by the horrors of the AIDS plague (Beauty Salon came out the same year she died of breast cancer). It is an ongoing tragedy that breast cancer's ravages deprive so many of us of people we love, and the world of so many bright and shining stars. Cárdenas led an exemplary life and I'm delighted to meet her here.

    The other nine protagonists are equally well-chosen, equally share their space with the everyday bravery of a trans person living in Texas well. The idea of being openly anything in Texas is something that slightly stuns me. Yes, I grew up in Austin; I wasn't ever really *in* so coming *out* wasn't very necessary; but it was always, always clear to me in 1970s Texas that I was suffered to exist and that sufferance was revocable at any time.

    That young Shelby Criswell isn't as threatened in their environment thrills and delights me. This lovely book exists because they made it; they made it because it spoke to a need in them; and that need, as is so often the case, is the normal human need to see yourself in the world, past and present.

    Anyone out there who needs to hear this, here's the message in lovely images and direct words without fear or judgment. If you know someone who's got a tablet who needs to hear this message of being seen, being valued and valuable, being the heir to a lineage of ancestors, here's a #Booksgiving treat to gift to them.

    COCKROACHES, a truly terrible tale told in perfect, sharp-edged sentences


    COCKROACHES
    SCHOLASTIQUE MUKASONGA
    (tr. Jordan Stump)
    Archipelago Books
    $16.00 trade paper, available now

    Rating: 5* of five

    The Publisher Says: Imagine being born into a world where everything about you—the shape of your nose, the look of your hair, the place of your birth—designates you as an undesirable, an inferior, a menace, no better than a cockroach, something to be driven away and ultimately exterminated. Imagine being thousands of miles away while your family and friends are brutally and methodically slaughtered. Imagine being entrusted by your parents with the mission of leaving everything you know and finding some way to survive, in the name of your family and your people.

    Scholastique Mukasonga's Cockroaches is the story of growing up a Tutsi in Hutu-dominated Rwanda—the story of a happy child, a loving family, all wiped out in the genocide of 1994. A vivid, bitterwsweet depiction of family life and bond in a time of immense hardship, it is also a story of incredible endurance, and the duty to remember that loss and those lost while somehow carrying on. Sweet, funny, wrenching, and deeply moving, Cockroaches is a window onto an unforgettable world of love, grief, and horror.

    I RECEIVED A DRC FROM THE PUBLISHER VIA EDELWEISS+. THANK YOU.

    My Review
    : Each and every time you try to explain away hateful, horrible things someone you love says, you bring the fate of the ones they're spreading hate for a small step closer to Scholastique Mukasonga's family's fate. She is not dead because she was away at boarding school, by a lucky chance, when the Tutsi people she was born among were once again displaced by the Hutu.
    The soldiers demanded that President Kayibanda’s portrait be hung in every house. The missionaries made sure the image of Mary was put up beside him. We lived our lives under the twin portraits of the President who’d vowed to exterminate us and Mary who was waiting for us in heaven.

    The boarding school in Kigali, thank goodness, was close enough to Burundi that her Hutu classmates, who called her "inyenzi" (the cockroaches of the title), weren't successful in eliminating her after the school no longer taught Tutsi students in 1973. Her family, driven out of the place she was born during the 1959 pogrom by Hutu against Tutsi, made the horrible decision to save Scholastique and her also-educated brother André. Their time in Burundi led Scholastique to marry a French man in 1992. She was in France when the genocide occurred.

    But, in all honesty, she makes it plain that the genocide was set in motion when the Belgians divided the Hutu majority from the Tutsi, and placed the taller, straighter-nosed Tutsi in power over the Hutu. The country's independence was always going to be a starting bell for a race war after that. Incidents; laws backing them up; and those "harmless" socially acceptable slurs made 1994 a slow-motion cataclysm.

    The last chapter of this book is so painful to read that it took me a month to finish it.

    What the hell, I hear the voices mutter as they click away, this is supposed to be the recommended-reading season on this blog! And it is. I recommend you read it as our neighbors, our families, even (perish forbid) our friends fall into the hateful, ignorant, yet addictive rage-mind that we're seeing "populist" authority figures promote around the world. We in the US are primed for it by the existence of vaccine refusers, Holocaust deniers, CRT scare-mongers, gay-baiters, and all the "socially conservative" religious liars and hate-mongers. Conservative my ass! They're radical right-wing dictatorship-building under decent (or at least not actively evil) people's very noses. They're gerrymadering something as close to permanent power as they can; packing the courts with their vile minions; and it won't take that long, well under forty years, for the Rwandan genocide to come true here, as well.
    All I have of my loved ones' deaths are black holes and fragments of horror. What hurts the worst? Not knowing how they died or knowing how they were killed? The fear they felt, the cruelty they endured, sometimes it seems I now have to endure it in turn, flee it in turn. All I have left is the terrible guilt of living on amid so many dead. But what is my pain next to everything they suffered before their tormentors granted them the death that was their only escape?

    Do not wait until it's too late. Buy and read this uncomfortable, disquieting tale of a country that lost its mind and then threw its soul away. We in the US should not be forced to endure this, when we still can head it off.
    Over and over, I write and rewrite their names in the blue-covered notebook, trying to prove to myself that they existed; I speak their names one by one, in the dark and the silence. I have to fix a face on each name, hang some shred of a memory. I don’t want to cry, I feel tears running down my cheeks. I close my eyes. This will be another sleepless night. I have so many dead to sit up with.

    I survived the AIDS years. I relate to what Author Mukasonga is telling us in this book with, perhaps because I am a survivor, a great deal of urgency. I do not want some young gay man's sister to write these words after the next Kyle Rittenhouse gets his jollification from opening fire on a group of gay protestors. I live in dread of the #BlackLivesMatter moms and dads writing these words for their sons, dead at the hands of murderous bigots.

    Learn from the past. At long last, look. Learn. Do not allow the whole country to sleepwalk down the tracks to another Auschwitz.

    Friday, November 19, 2021

    #Booksgiving time...your new annual treat


    #Booksgiving, y'all, is my translation of Iceland's Jólabókaflóð (yo-la-bok-a-flot)—the annual tradition, most of a century old, of giving your gifting circle books for the long winter's nights ahead. As Iceland is a far northern country that straddles the American and Eurasian geological worlds, let's adopt this idea with more than usual glee. A country like Iceland has a lot to teach us quarantine-prone global plague survivors about how to spend a lot of time indoors whether one wants to or not.

    What's so different about the idea of giving books for the holidays, I hear you ask. And rightly so, as most US, Canadian, and UK publishers rely on the gifting season for most sales...but the focus of #Booksgiving as I'm calling it isn't just the buying. It's mostly the reading. On Christmas Eve, Icelandic families exchange their gifts, and then...wait for it...settle in and read their new books! This is the beauty of the custom. "Thanks for the book, Aunt Lurlene," as it hits the shelf behind the laundry-room door. "I bet it's a corker." And fire up the terabyte-stuffed Xbox! But...and this is crucial...can you *get* the Xbox? The supply-chain problems around the world aren't easing quickly...the factories are struggling to find their rhythm...and while tree-books are having this issue too, your phone or your tablet's a Kindle at your command. Or, half-bit fruit company dupes, your iCrap connects to Apple Books.

    Maybe try this new idea, this read-on-a-device-you-already-have in a group idea, in this straitened, inflationary, second pandemic holiday season. There maybe won't be a big gathering this year either; there might not be much electronic bling; but instead, a room full of people who love each other enough to stop fighting and be still in their own company...and read! If it works in snowed-in Iceland, it can work is bottled-up Birmingham, can't it? You'll never know without trying.
    A formally organized holiday observance celebrating the immersive, escapist pleasures that reading offers is ideal to adopt in a crazy climate of lockdowns, easings leading to skyrocketing infections, and the general insecurity and instability of this second plague year. Icelandic publishers, like publishers across the world, depend on Holiday sales to fuel their activities for the other ten and a half months of the year.

    The Icelandic book industry, however, benefits from the unique, government-sanctioned and supported "Bókatíðindi" or book catalog containing listings of the titles Icelandic publishers are hoping you'll fall in love with and give as gifts. It is mailed free of charge to every household! And, in case you're thinking "well, how many publishers can there be in a country with fewer residents than the Upper West Side?" the fact is that Iceland publishes more books per capita than any other country on Earth: 3.5 per 1,000 people! Add to that the fact that one in ten Icelanders will publish a book in their lifetime, and the effect and the appeal of this long-standing custom are made clear.


    So in this weird, off-kilter year, this holy-goddesses-is-THIS-normal-now Christmas, I'm suggesting that you add this relatively inexpensive and supremely easy gift-giving strategy to your list. It's always been easy to order someone a book online, well since 1995 and the launch of Amazon anyway; and the idea of spending another socially distanced Christmas Eve in your jammies with cocoa, warm socks, and a book you got (or gave yourself!) as a gift sounds pretty darned good. Let's make cranberry juice out of those cranberries that Fate lobbed at us! (Okay, the "lemonade-from-life's-lemons" metaphor doesn't translate to Yuletide very well. Don't @ me.)

    So what I'm going to do, not for the first time!, is review only the books I believe will make wonderful gifts for yourself and your readerly loved ones. Click on one of the tags at the bottom of this post, you'll get everything that has that tag served right up. You can also use the search box at the top left of the screen to find "#Booksgiving" suggestions from all four of the prior years I've been yodeling this idea into the internet's vastness. This year's reviews, all of which are recommendations, will happen between now and Yule. Signing up for emails of new posts will make sure you get inspired...and will be able to follow the links to procure the books or ebooks. (As a reminder, I do not use affiliate links, and you do not see any advertising on this blog. I am unpaid except in free books...and believe me that's enough for me!)

    Happy ending for 2021? We're not out of the woods yet, we've got vaccine resisters and COVID deniers galore. But we also have hope, with new disease-management medications coming sooner than ever before in history thanks to Science. So why not try a new slant on our Western consumer-society's wretched excess-fest. One that privileges the quiet, intimate pleasure of reading with someone you care for. I guarantee it can't hurt to try.

    Thursday, November 18, 2021

    CHOUETTE, a surrealist novel with an amazing tale to tell


    CHOUETTE
    CLAIRE OSHETSKY

    Ecco Press
    $24.00 hardcover, available now

    Rating: 4* of five

    The Publisher Says: An exhilarating, provocative novel of motherhood in extremis
    Tiny is pregnant. Her husband is delighted. “You think this baby is going to be like you, but it’s not like you at all,” she warns him. “This baby is an owl-baby.”

    When Chouette is born small and broken-winged, Tiny works around the clock to meet her daughter’s needs. Left on her own to care for a child who seems more predatory bird than baby, Tiny vows to raise Chouette to be her authentic self. Even in those times when Chouette’s behaviors grow violent and strange, Tiny’s loving commitment to her daughter is unwavering. When she discovers that her husband is on an obsessive and increasingly dangerous quest to find a “cure” for their daughter, Tiny must decide whether Chouette should be raised to fit in or to be herself—and learn what it truly means to be a mother.

    Arresting, darkly funny, and unsettling, Chouette is a brilliant exploration of ambition, sacrifice, perceptions of ability, and the ferocity of motherly love.

    I RECEIVED A DRC FROM THE PUBLISHER VIA NETGALLEY. THANK YOU.

    My Review
    : You can't find my interest in the Cult of Mother with a scanning electron microscope. I dislike the smugness of Mothers who define themselves by the fruits of their uterus. I am routinely revolted and infuriated by the seemingly inevitable bad, lazy, underinvolved fathers these Noble Mothers are saddled with. (Who chose him? Could it just possibly be you, your behavior, your expectations are at fault, Mother?)

    Why in the hell did I ask for, then read this book?!

    Because we're not on the rails leading to Vaginaville by way of Labor Creek, that's why. This book posits a half-owl, half-human baby born of lesbian bestiality committed in a dream. (Not a spoiler, that's literally the first page of the read.)
    I dream I’m making tender love with an owl. The next morning I see talon marks across my chest that trace the path of my owl-lover’s embrace. Two weeks later I learn that I’m pregnant.

    You may wonder: How could such a thing come to pass between woman and owl?

    I, too, am astounded, because my owl-lover was a woman.
                                                        * * *
    As for you, owl-baby, let’s lay out the facts. Your owlness is with you from the very beginning. It’s there when a first cell becomes two, four, eight. It’s there when you sleep too much, and crawl too late, and when you bite when you aren’t supposed to bite, and shriek when you aren’t supposed to shriek; and on the day that you are born—on the day when I first look down on your pinched-red, tiny-clawed, outraged little body lying naked and intubated in a box—I won’t have the slightest idea about who you are, or what I will become.

    But there you will be, and you will be of me.

    Right there, that voice makes my readar ping like it's locked onto an approaching asteroid. This? This is weird trip and I am here to take it.

    What doesn't make me coo with delight is the rather stark presentation of her husband and his family. I did, however, get many evil-hearted chuckles at their expense:
    My mother-in-law sees right over me. She is six feet tall and never looks down. She looks out toward the horizon instead, with an expression on her face as if she is thinking the same thought all the time, and that thought has something to do with the pioneer spirit.

    Still, the way Author Oshetsky treats the poor bewildered father of this owl-baby is the reason I don't give this book five stars, why I won't be mentioning it for my annual six-stars-of-five "this book...it merged itself into me"; women get to whinge about male writers treating them as cardboard cutouts, so I have done the same.

    Chouette's birth, her entry into a world not meant or designed for her, is a trauma; her mother is the only one who champions her. Naturally enough; she's got the owl-baby she expected. No one around her took her seriously when she told them, "this baby is half-owl," because who in their right mind would? Then...Chouette.

    From that point on, the beautiful language...the beautiful Satanic Second Person language...goes into the full monty crazytime of a human woman raising an owl-baby, a creature she simply isn't like, but she keeps slugging. She does what mothers across the globe have always done: She learns, adapts, improvises. She makes do and she feeds, raises her child, meeting her owl-baby's needs for raw meat, for training in how to catch prey; she tussles with her owl-baby to accomplish the simplest of daily tasks.

    In the teeth of a word-gale of opposition and resistance from her dog-person husband ("When it comes to our little girl, can't is a dirty word"). And I don't mean "man who likes dogs," I mean she thinks her husband...all of the rest of us not her and Chouette, in fact...are like dogs.

    She does not intend a compliment in it.

    The rest of the narrative is a rehash of The Yellow Wallpaper meets Gaslight. The horrors build in frequency as the reviled dog-person father succeeds in making his Charlotte into a dog-baby. Then comes the day the dog-family meets Charlotte...and she reverts to Chouette. Violently. Horribly. The dog-person father comes to a bloody end; Chouette and mother go on the lam; but, as it inevitably must, Time has her way with us:
    She is strong. She is monstrously individual. She is sister to the Titans. She is Ozymandias before the fall. She is the bird of omen, dark and foul; she is blood-wed; she is Strix; she is harbinger of war and bringer of death and slughterer of armies, oh, my Polyphonte!—

    She is the girl I raised her to be.

    And that she is. This bizarre extended metaphorical trip through the awful, consuming process of being a mother ends as it must...in defeat, in triumph, in the hollowness of being finally ready...for the task, the life, just ended. The awful emptiness of realizing: Now it's just me I worry about, care for, be with. Now it's not You, it's just me.

    All the stars I've rated this book are for that single, cruel, agonizing, slow-moving catastrophe of a realization.

    Wednesday, November 17, 2021

    PLANET OF CLAY, tale of the toll living exacts on the different


    PLANET OF CLAY
    SAMAR YAZBEK
    (tr. Leri Price)
    World Editions
    $16.99 trade paper, available now

    Rating: 4* of five

    The Publisher Says: An ode to fantasy and beauty in the midst of war-torn Damascus

    Rima, a young girl from Damascus, longs to walk, to be free to follow the will of her feet, but instead is perpetually constrained. She finds refuge in a fantasy world full of colored crayons, secret planets, and The Little Prince, reciting passages of the Qur’an like a mantra as everything and everyone around her is blown to bits. Since Rima hardly ever speaks, people think she’s crazy, but she is no fool—the madness is in the battered city around her.

    One day while taking a bus through Damascus, a soldier opens fire and her mother is killed. Rima, wounded, is taken to a military hospital before her brother leads her to the besieged area of Ghouta—where, between bombings, she writes her story.

    In Planet of Clay, Samar Yazbek offers a surreal depiction of the horrors taking place in Syria, in vivid and poetic language and with a sharp eye for detail and beauty.

    I RECEIVED A DRC FROM THE PUBLISHER VIA EDELWEISS+. THANK YOU.

    My Review
    : First, read this:
    We needed to take two buses to reach {my mother's job} from our house, which was at the end of Jaramana Camp in southern Damascus. I am happy for you if you haven't heard of it.
    –and–
    Personally, I turn over the coffee tray and make it into a desk, then I pick up the blue pen which I found among the stacks of paper, and I begin. You must not set off before the sound has started. Don't stop unless you are faint from exhaustion, but it must be from exhaustion and not fear. If all this isn't done properly, I mean using the blue pen to play with words on a blank page, then my instructions will fail, the blank page won't like you, and the roar of the aeroplanes won't disappear.

    The rational response to an irrational world, one filled with mortal danger, will always be different for a small child. When a small child is required to make the world make sense when it simply doesn't, such as in a war zone, there will arise adaptive responses that are in the long run maladaptive. And add in the probability of the person being neurodivergent from the get-go...well, what are the odds of that person reaching adulthood? Still less unscathed.

    Rima's mother knows her daughter isn't the usual sort of child. She's got "her brains in her feet," meaning a mania for walking, walking, always walking if she can stay on her feet...in other words, a need to escape...and on one of her very first outings, so to speak, a group of well-meaning adults stop her and ask her all sorts of urgent questions...what's your name, where's your mother...that she simply can't process fast enough to answer. Thus is an elective mute created.

    So now Rima's mother is living in a war zone with a manic, elective mute daughter. She does what any mother would do...she makes the medical rounds, seeking answers. Getting none, she does the thing mothers have done since the beginning of time: She improvises. She gets some rope and ties Rima to her wrist when she has to go out and, when the girl's too much of a woman for that to be safe, she ties her to their bed.

    That sounds horrific to a Western person who's safe inside a house every night, with only police drones and cop cars to worry about. But think of this: How safe is a young woman on the streets here in your fat-and-happy country? You'll always teach her to be aware of the threat posed by Them. (You'll be filling in that space with the people you dislike the most, of course, but I assure you she's safer from Them than from the nice, entitled, self-satisfied boys in her school.) For someone with fewer resources than the poorest person in this country of ours, the solution fits the need admirably.

    What it doesn't, can't do is prepare Rima for one of the personal calamities that even the mildest "police action" or "guerrilla war" engenders: The loss of a parent. In this case, an only parent...her father's never even been a presence for his absence to be felt. What this means is her world is effectively over. And yet her life goes on, in her mother's permanent absence and her brother's disappearance into the guerrillas' ranks.

    What makes this such a perfect read for this moment is the Belarus-vs-Poland manufactured refugee crisis permeating the news cycle right now. It's a necessary and salutary reminder that the world's not in good shape, plague aside; the people, living breathing people, who are caught between two sets of disgusting racist piece-of-shit countries and who will continue to die of exposure as the world idly watches it happen, aren't going to get what they need any more than Rima did.

    Mirabile dictu, Rima's brother shows up! He finds her! And they begin the refugee's eternal dance, the homeless and placeless and stateless state of being, of non-personhood. Of course to Rima it's not that way...she simply does. She lives. She is in touch with something utterly invaluable for a refugee: Her self. It is clear to her who she is, she is Rima and she reads, she sings the Qu'ran's sutras, she draws. It is a saving grace. What it isn't is easy for a storyteller to sell. She is simultaneously simple and sophisticated, ignorant and wise and way over her head.

    Let me show you:
    You will understand that I don't have enough time to explain to you about forgetting. Later, you can throw away whatever pages you want to. What matters to me is {the old caretaking woman} who wanted to understand how I knew how to use tartil in reciting the Qu'ran. Really, it was difficult to explain to her, because my tongue was stopped, and like {her} I don't understand much of what surrounds me.
    –and–
    I am a story, I too will disappear (or maybe I am with you now as you read my scattered words) like the Cheshire Cat did in the story of Alice.

    That is some very sophisticated abstract thought for someone with the neurodivergence Rima has displayed...in the circumstances of her upbringing, I'd be impressed with that level of eloquent abstraction in a neurotypical young adult.

    All in all, though, as a work of fiction, I was compelled by the story, by the character, by the narrative's timeliness and timelessness. I'm very impressed as this is the first work I've read by Author Yazbek. It is, as she has Rima say of her own storytelling, one of those "circular stories with intersecting centers which are only completed by retellings and new details."

    The problem is reassembling my heart after the story ends....

    This is a very special, very timely yet a timeless read...there is no realistic chance the subject matter will lose its relevance. It is a FINALIST for the 2021 Best Translated Literature category at the National Book Awards! The winner will be announced this evening.

    WINTER IN SOKCHO, Impressionism in Korean-inflected words


    WINTER IN SOKCHO
    ÉLISA SHUA DUSAPIN
    (tr. Aneesa Abbas Higgins)
    Open Letter Books (non-affiliate Amazon link)
    $9.95 Kindle edition, available now

    Rating: 4.75* of five

    The Publisher Says: It’s winter in Sokcho, a tourist town on the border between South and North Korea. The cold slows everything down. Bodies are red and raw, the fish turn venomous, beyond the beach guns point out from the North’s watchtowers.

    A young French Korean woman works as a receptionist in a run-down guesthouse. One evening, an unexpected guest arrives: a French graphic novelist determined to find inspiration in this desolate landscape.

    The two form an uneasy relationship. When she agrees to accompany him on his trips to discover an ‘authentic’ Korea, they visit snowy mountaintops and dramatic waterfalls. But he takes no interest in the Sokcho she knows: the gaudy neon lights, the scars of war, the fish market where her mother works. She is pulled into his drawings but troubled by his vision of her – until she strikes upon a way to finally be seen.

    I CHECKED THIS BOOK OUT OF MY LOCAL LIBRARY. USE THOSE LIBRARIES! THEY NEED US, AND WE NEED THEM.

    My Review
    : I can't say too much, because there isn't one helluva lot of book here.
    He’d never understand what Sokcho was like. You had to be born here, live through the winters. The smells, the octopus. The isolation.
    –and–
    A rubber-gloved hand pointed us in the right direction.

    Too much of everything. Too big, too cold, too empty. The clatter of our shoes on the marble slabs rang out.
    –and–
    Oozing winter and fish, Sokcho waited. That was Sokcho, always waiting, for tourists, boats, men, spring.

    This is the most Duras thing I've read that wasn't set in France. This is what Impressionism looks like in words. This is the way you take a simple, even banal, story of a young woman whose life is in neutral and chunk it into first gear without using the clutch.

    You can feel a good, faithful translation. It fits and it means something you won't ever find anywhere else. This is a good, faitful translation by that metric. I haven't read the French but, should it ever swim across my bow, I will grab it and gobble it down to see how the flavor of fugu feels in French.

    Mother and daughter at daggers drawn, sisters locked in battle, no one is getting a leg up on anyone else in this bitter little pill. It's always the family that makes you feel the worst when they could choose to give you their best. It's certainly true that South Korean culture is the epicenter of the plastic surgery world. The pressure to "look perfect" whatever that means there is powerful, and it's astonishing to me how high the percentage of South Koreans who've had serious work done is. It's no surprise that Jun-Oh, the narrator's boyfriend, is caught up in it...it makes sense, in that world, and her categorical refusal to give in to the not-subtle pressures he puts on her, her mother puts on her, and her mother's sister puts on her to "fix her flaws" is proof to me that this is someone I'd like to spend more time with.

    Food is a huge part of this read...you'll read words in Korean that aren't translated, eg tteok, and it's on you to go figure out what the heck they are, or not if you don't care. I like that in a book. I will figure out what a tteok is (a rice cake made with steamed flour made of various grains, including glutinous or non-glutinous rice) and why it would smell of cold oil (some meal-base versions, not desserts, are fried) if I decide it means something to me. In a nutshell, the plot is nothing; in reality, it is Everything...how we mistreat our intimates without really giving it a thought; how we form alliances and attachments that never ever get to the surface of our lives (poor old Park!); how completely we fail to find our world's gifts until they make the gravity double and the body sink into a slough of despond with their absence.

    Most of all, though, reading this beautiful book is an exercise in allowing words to do their work in you. You are not there, you more than likely have never been there, but through the magic of fiction here you are:
    All night long the town was entombed in frost. The temperature fell to minus twenty-seven degrees, the first time it had happened in years. Curled up under the covers, I blew on my hands and rubbed them between my thighs. Outside, against the onslaught of ice, the waves struggled to resist, moving ever more slowly and heavily, cracking as they collapsed in defeat on the shoreline. I bundled myself up in my overcoat, the only way I could find sleep.
    –and–
    The rain hammered down, the sea rising beneath it in spikes like the spines of a sea urchin.
    –and–
    ‘What I mean is you may have had your wars, I’m sure there are scars on your beaches, but that’s all in the past. Our beaches are still waiting for the end of a war that’s been going on for so long people have stopped believing it’s real. They build hotels, put up neon signs, but it’s all fake, we’re on a knife-edge, it could all give way any moment. We’re living in limbo. In a winter that never ends.’

    Don't miss the chance to read this book. It is a FINALIST for the 2021 Best Translated Literature category at the National Book Awards! The winner will be announced this evening.

    MONA PASSAGE, where humanity, lovingkindness, and geopolitical reality collide


    MONA PASSAGE
    THOMAS BARDENWERPER

    Syracuse University Press
    $29.95 hardcover, available now

    Rating: 3.5* of five

    The Publisher Says: Mona Passage is the story of two neighbors in San Juan, Puerto Rico: Galán Betances, a Cuban emigrant, and Pat McAllister, a young Coast Guard officer. During long evenings spent together talking on their Calle Luna rooftop, a deep friendship develops based on shared traumas and a common desire to heal. When Galán learns that his sister, Gabriela, is going to be committed to a mental health facility in Cuba, he plans her escape to Puerto Rico. Pat, whose Coast Guard cutter patrols the Mona Passage for drug traffickers and migrants, warns Galán that such a journey will be treacherous--perhaps fatal. Aware of the dangers but determined for Gabriela to live a full life, Galán hands over all the money he has to a Dominican smuggler based out of a San Juan nightclub, and Gabriela begins her terrifying journey.

    Knowing that his cutter may be all that separates Galán and Gabriela—and haunted by the human suffering he has witnessed at sea—Pat must decide. Will he remain true to his oath, as his older brother had done in Iraq? Or will he risk his own future—and perhaps his freedom—for his closest friend?

    On a moonless night, two armed vessels converge in the Mona Passage, and three lives change forever.

    I RECEIVED A DRC FROM THE PUBLISHER VIA EDELWEISS+. THANK YOU.

    My Review
    : The stakes in this story could not possibly be higher. Two men, friends who have that certain connection that feels more like family, are set onto a collision course by the Large External Force that is Law.

    You don't get more universal than that.

    What makes this read stand out is the way it happens...the way Author Bardenwerper created it. He was Pat, he knows Pat's job...he knows what it means to be bound by Law to go against convictions you simply can't ignore. And, as is ever and always the case, no good deed goes unpunished.

    Multiple times and in innumerable ways. There can only be so much good luck in the world, it seems, and some people burn through their tiny bit in no time at all. This story is about many of those people; this read is for those myriads of us who know, love, are those people. The decisions of people we'll never meet cost us precious resources, time or money or access. And we'll often never know how those souls are responsible for the landscape we are required to walk. And I think, as lessons I've been forced to learn myownself go, this one's the best one to revisit. As I read Pat's story, I felt so clearly the pitfalls, the disasters to come. The secret of the read is that I kept reading, kept my eyeballs on the page, as it unfolded. I cared about Galán, and Gabriela. I wanted them to be reunited, despite the many, many burdens that meant Galán would be shouldering. And Gabriela, well, we need our families, we need our people near us more when it's hardest for them to be there.

    The main story here, though, is about the Wrongness of the World. It's so simple on a personal level...so very complicated as soon as higher authority gets hold of the narrative. It shows that Author Bardenwerper knows Pat's job...it shows that he's got the keys to a roman à clef in this novel. But most of all, it shows that he really, truly wrote from his heart, gave his full and complete self to creating this novel. It was a surprise to me to care this much about his characters. They weren't particularly well drawn, though that is not for want of trying. Whatever craft lacunae there are, are not there because the author is not working hard to fill them. It takes time and luck to fill out the weak spots in one's writing, and the world gives little of either to anyone.

    Happily, Syracuse University Press has given Author Bardenwerper a leg up through their Veterans Writing Award, a program instituted to bring us the often-impossible-to-locate words of the actual people who do the hard, thankless work that being in the military requires. It is not a group of people we can afford to ignore. Our various military branches have many jobs, and some leave more traces behind than others. We're better able to learn about their world, and the world we all live in, now that this series exists.

    This particular novel, Mona Passage, is a good way to enter that world and be present, be attentive, as its costs become prices paid by real people.

    Monday, November 15, 2021

    THE PROPHETS, debut novel, NPR Best of 2021 & NYT Notable Book for 2021!


    THE PROPHETS
    ROBERT JONES, JR.

    G.P. Putnam's Sons
    $27.00 hardcover, available now

    A NEW YORK TIMES NOTABLE BOOK FOR 2021!

    A BEST-OF-2021 PICK FROM NPR BOOKS!


    Rating: 5* of five

    The Publisher Says: A novel about the forbidden union between two enslaved young men on a Deep South plantation, the refuge they find in each other, and a betrayal that threatens their existence.

    Isaiah was Samuel’s and Samuel was Isaiah’s. That was the way it was since the beginning, and the way it was to be until the end. In the barn they tended to the animals, but also to each other, transforming the hollowed-out shed into a place of human refuge, a source of intimacy and hope in a world ruled by vicious masters. But when an older man—a fellow slave—seeks to gain favor by preaching the master’s gospel on the plantation, the enslaved begin to turn on their own. Isaiah and Samuel’s love, which was once so simple, is seen as sinful and a clear danger to the plantation’s harmony.

    With a lyricism reminiscent of Toni Morrison, Robert Jones, Jr. fiercely summons the voices of slaver and the enslaved alike to tell the story of these two men; from Amos the preacher to the calculating slave-master himself to the long line of women that surround them, women who have carried the soul of the plantation on their shoulders. As tensions build and the weight of centuries—of ancestors and future generations to come—culminate in a climactic reckoning, The Prophets masterfully reveals the pain and suffering of inheritance, but is also shot through with hope, beauty, and truth, portraying the enormous, heroic power of love.

    I RECEIVED A DRC FROM THE PUBLISHER VIA EDELWEISS+. THANK YOU.

    My Review
    : First, read this:
    To survive this place, you had to want to die. That was the way of the world as remade by toubab, and Samuel's list of grievances was long: They pushed people into the mud and then called them filthy. They forbade people from accessing any knowledge of the world and then called them simple. They worked people until their empty hands were twisted, bleeding, and could do no more, then called them lazy. They forced people to eat innards from troughs and then called them uncivilized. They kidnapped babies and shattered families and then called them incapable of love. They raped and lynched and cut up people into parts, and then called the pieces savage. They stepped on people’s throats with all their might and asked why the people couldn’t breathe. And then, when people made an attempt to break the foot, or cut it off one, they screamed “CHAOS!” and claimed that mass murder was the only way to restore order.
    –and–
    This is why Isaiah and Samuel didn't care, why they clung to each other even when it was offensive to the people who had once shown them a kindness: it had to be known. And why would this be offensive? How could they hate the tiny bursts of light that shot through Isaiah's body every time he saw Samuel? Didn't everybody want somebody to glow like that? Even if it could only last for never, it had to be known. That way, it could be mourned by somebody, thus remembered—and maybe, someday, repeated.

    You know, from reading those quotes, whether this book is for you or not. This is the prose voice; this is the storyteller's means of talking to you about the world Isaiah and Samuel are within. If it's not for you, then it's not.

    But the National Book Award for Fiction thinks it worthy of inclusion on the 2021 list...and I hope, in spite of very serious competition, that the 2021 judges will choose this most American of stories, this beautifully told paean to love's power to transcend mere earthly potency, for the prize.

    As I've read this book, and that's twice now, I've been transported by the power of debut novelist Jones's clarity and singleness of purpose. I know that writing about about enslaved people's love for each other is always going to be seen as a political statement. It is inevitable that choosing to tell of the love between two men is going to be seen as a political statement. To do both is, well, it *is* a political statement; but the statement in this book is, "Love Is Love." Isaiah loves Samuel, Samuel loves Isaiah, and these two men are WRONG and BAD and WICKED for this.

    How that can be is not something I see in the story; it's not in these pages; and it's the reason I want the book to receive the National Book Award. I'm too old to hope that people will learn not to hate. They love it so, it's such a glorious high, that they aren't going to give it up. But I am not beyond hoping that the unconverted will resonate to the simple, deep joy of Samuel and Isaiah as they navigate a world that hates them for being, on many levels and in many, many places.
    "A curse. A curse upon you and all of your progeny. May you writhe in ever-pain. May you never find satisfaction. May your children eat themselves alive."

    But it was too late and the curse held no meaning because it was redundant.

    That could very well be the most profound thing I've ever read....

    I'd recommend to you a read like this under any circumstances, a read that challenges you to make the assumptions you live by fit the facts and not the other way around. I'd recommend it to you because it's about battling the addiction to Being Right. I'd urge it on you because it's beautifully written and deeply, emotionally wrought from the stuff that we get just from being alive.

    But most of all, I do recommend this read to you because it's so satisfying to see the story of gay men's love as it has been seen, felt, internalized by the people around them...in many different ways, for many different reasons. The Samuel and Isaiah story is something these two men did not hide, and that is what I think matters the most. The narrative is not solely theirs, so the narrators are not solely them. How very important that facet of the story is to this old reader...how necessary its message of accepting the burden of being alive and in love places on some of us, far far more than others.

    Check your privilege, straight people of all skin colors and ethnicities.

    When the ancient gods of Africa address you, Readers, you need to listen. They chose Robert Jones, Junior, to deliver their message. I think you're wise to heed it.

    Friday, November 12, 2021

    TOTAL CREATIVE CONTROL, first in a new series of hilarious M/M rom-coms


    TOTAL CREATIVE CONTROL
    SALLY MALCOLM & JOANNA CHAMBERS
    (Creative Types #1)
    Self-published (non-affiliate Amazon link)
    $4.99 Kindle edition, available now

    Rating: 4.76* of five

    The Publisher Says: Sunshine PA, meet Grumpy Boss ...

    When fanfic writer Aaron Page landed a temp job with the creator of hit TV show, Leeches, it was only meant to last a week. Three years later, Aaron’s still there ...

    It could be because he loves the creative challenge. It could be because he’s a huge Leeches fanboy. It’s definitely not because of Lewis Hunter, his extremely demanding, staggeringly rude ... and breathtakingly gorgeous boss.

    Is it?

    Lewis Hunter grew up the hard way and fought for everything he’s got. His priority is the show, and personal relationships come a distant second. Besides, who needs romance when you have a steady stream of hot men hopping in and out of your bed?

    His only meaningful relationship is with Aaron, his chief confidante and indispensable assistant. And no matter how appealing he finds Aaron’s cute boy-next-door charms, Lewis would never risk their professional partnership just to scratch an itch.

    But when Lewis finds himself trapped at a hilariously awful corporate retreat, Aaron is his only friend and ally. As the professional lines between them begin to blur, their simmering attraction starts to sizzle...

    ...And they’re both about to get burned.

    I WAS OFFERED A DRC AND ACCEPTED WITH UNSEEMLY GLEE.

    My Review
    : Hello! Are you new around here? I kind of doubt it, but one never can be certain...so let me offer a greeting and an invitation to poke around, look over the goods, see what interests you. One thing you'll notice fairly quickly is that I like the books that feature people like me, which is to say men who sex up men while loving every minute of it; older men who have the good fortune to find younger men who enjoy their company; and who (lucky fictional bastards!) get second chances at The One(s) Who Got Away.

    Authors Joanna Chambers and Sally Malcolm have each appeared on the pages of the blog on previous occasions, their respective ouevres coming in for no little praise on their own merits. (Still slightly shocked that BBC Scotland hasn't made Enlightenment into a limited series, Author Chambers...get your People onto it! David Tennant ain't gettin' any younger!) I am, in short, inclined to look upon these creatives' creations without undue harshness, permaybehaps even a Vaseline-smeared lens of hazy happiness.

    When I am not being assaulted by w-bombs. (Two were allowable; they deepened the...foulness...of a revolting character; four others, NO; net deduction = 24 stars.) (What do you mean, there aren't 24 stars? It's my blog and I'll...oh, very well you boring commonsensical internal voice.)

    The fun of watching, that is reading, this story was evident from the get-go. The insta-luuuv between the characters being sublimated into a working relationship for ages was nicely explained away by Aaron's dirty little secret: He writes fanfic in Lewis's show's universe! Well, as a reason for him to stay shtumm about his feelings, that one does a lot. He can't give up his literal dream, or his literal dreamboat, now can he. Plus Lewis clearly senses Aaron's abilities as a writer, as a fellow creative story-teller, and no one who's ever had a whole business riding on their shoulders can ever resist a true Lieutenant Colonel showing up when you need 'em. (Not to mention the man's a fount of excellent story ideas, and can keep the fan-service pipeline flowing both ways.)

    There's a lot of fun in reading these words, just as words. This is exactly as one would expect from the two authors involved in creating the story.
    Charlie was one of those almost-but-not-quite-good-looking men. Everything about him was just a little average. A little medium. On the two or three occasions he'd come into the office to see Lewis, he'd always seemed to Aaron to be trying to make up for that somehow, with his overbearing manner and his ridiculously pretentious outfits.
    –and–
    ...Lewis yelped, "Wave!" and they both stumbled backwards as the surf splashed up over their ankles, soaking the ends of their rolled-up jeans. Lewis lost his balance as he scrambled up the beach, Aaron grabbed him, and suddenly they were both clinging to each other, laughing.
    And then, just as suddenly, they weren't laughing.
    They were simply standing there in the moonlight, clutching each other's arms, gazing at each other. Lewis looked dishevelled and windblown, undone in a way that transformed him from idol into someone more real, more tangible, his dark hair blowing across his forehead, and his eyes the deep blue of the twilight sky. He swallowed visibly, lips parting, chest rising and falling. Breathing hard. His fingers tightened on Aaron's arms, drawing him closer.

    And we'll leave that there...*evil chuckle*

    What a pleasure, then, to have this as a week-ending read. I wasn't expecting it to be awful, or painful; I was expecting it to be somehow less than the sum of the authors' different powers, a watering-down of what I've come to expect. I just love being wrong! Their different ways of approaching a story came together beautifully, and made this a better story than I'd even let myself hope that it was going to be. I'm also pleased that the process of working together worked well for them so we're going to get a book two and even a book three! I predict book two will be about Owen. (That was, if y'all were wondering, a stonking great hint.)

    The genuinely surprising thing in this read...and let's not front, there's next to nothing surprising in romances...is that it takes its milieu seriously. The world of Fandom is presented without an arched eyebrow or a barely concealed sneer. The existence of AO3 is very much part of what drives the plot. The kind of characters in the fannish con-world are spot on and mostly treated kindly. (I, like Lewis, am unable to endure long moments of speech emitted by up-talkers.) The end of the story is a fan-person's wet dream. It is a pleasure to see the sub- go Culture.

    I am well and truly pleased, Authors each and both, and I thank you for making me the offer of a DRC for review.

    Wednesday, November 10, 2021

    SINOPTICON 2021: A Celebration of Chinese Science Fiction, mutual genre blindness written over


    SINOPTICON 2021: A Celebration of Chinese Science Fiction
    XUETING CHRISTINE NI
    (editor and translator)
    Solaris Books (non-affiliate Amazon link)
    $6.49 Kindle edition, available now

    Rating: 4.5* of five

    The Publisher Says: A stunning collection of the best in Chinese Science Fiction, from Award-Winning legends to up-and-coming talent, all translated here into English for the first time.

    This celebration of Chinese Science Fiction — thirteen stories, all translated for the first time into English — represents a unique exploration of the nation’s speculative fiction from the late 20th Century onwards, curated and translated by critically acclaimed writer and essayist Xueting Christine Ni.

    From the renowned Jiang Bo’s ‘Starship: Library' to Regina Kanyu Wang’s ‘The Tide of Moon City, and Anna Wu’s ‘Meisje met de Parel', this is a collection for all fans of great fiction.

    Award winners, bestsellers, screenwriters, playwrights, philosophers, university lecturers and computer programmers, these thirteen writers represent the breadth of Chinese SF, from new to old: Gu Shi, Han Song, Hao Jingfang, Nian Yu, Wang Jinkang, Zhao Haihong, Tang Fei, Ma Boyong, Anna Wu, A Que, Bao Shu, Regina Kanyu Wang and Jiang Bo.

    THE PUBLISHER OFFERED ME A DRC. THANK YOU.

    My Review
    : China's gargantuan economy, and its borning confidence in its increasing influence translating to wider power, is on display in its "kehuan" (science fiction) writers' concerns. This collection, admirably balanced between unpublished-in-the-West and still-gaining-followers-here writers, does what I suppose we all need: Introduces us to the Chinese view of the world, and its future, without the burden of Geopolitical Maneuvering landing on it.

    One thing the editor says in her introduction struck me forcibly: Chinese fiction doesn't tend to have happy endings. Well, having read this collection, I can attest to the truth of that. I've said many times and in many places that adulthood is the time of life when there are no unmixed emotions. By that measure, Chinese kehuan/science fiction is very adult. I can think of no story, or character in a story, here that has unmixed or unmitigated happiness or success in present life or anticipation of future life. It simply is not part of the cultural furniture, it would seem; if you're particularly sensitive to this, as in you really, really need hopeful, positive futures, you're in the wrong space.

    The payoff to this is that the stories feel...probable. Unlike Western SF, with its doom/gloom/dystopia or happy-bunnies-everywhere dichotomy, these mixed-up emotional cores feel like the real world to me...even when they're speculating wildly. I find it relatable to have a range of emotions that's confined to the, um, downbeat end but not focused on absolute chaos and dissolution of structures. Reality tends towards messy muddling through. So do most of these stories.

    I am, as is both reasonable and customary when reviewing stories, using the Bryce Method...story-by-story notes and ratings.

    The Last Save explores the metaverse from a different angle, a way I think would be hugely popular if it could be done on a macro, not a quantum level. Tell that fuck Zuck to eat his heart out. 4 stars
    In the end, Jerry Xu insisted on not altering his exam answers. But looking back now, such obstinacy was pointless. He would always have to choose, again and again—correcting his mistakes, correcting all contradictions—to attain a perfect life.
    He stops his car in front of a red traffic light. It is bliss. He doesn't have to choose whether to continue or to stop.

    Tombs of the Universe posits two future lives, one Earthbound and one, earlier, life of a space gravedigger. They each have a fascination with tombs, burials, end-of-life rituals. Interestingly, they contrast in culture...our first narrator lives in an Earthbound culture that has no real place for memorializing dead people, making his study of taphology (burial customs) eccentric, and our second being one who makes the graves the first studies! Extended discussion of tradition and its morphing into its own opposites, often for no better reason than "Because." 3.5 stars
    "...All our explorations of space began here on the moon. All the biggest graveyards in the Universe are in our own solar system. We should be proud."
    "But now we're the only two people who've come to see them. Do you think the dead know?"
    "It's not just the moon, but Mars and Venus...They've all been deserted. But, if you listen, you can hear the rumble of spaceships over planets thousands of light years away! The spirits of these dead explorers must be smiling from beyond the veil."

    Qiankun and Alex is Hao Jingfang's story of an AI that rules the Earth learning how to set its own goals, to collect data that it will then use for its own aims. This is a simple vignette, a child interacting with a super-supercomputer, and it chills me more completely than any other story. An AI with the curiosity of a human child?! Farewell, Humanity. It might not have been nice for the planet to have a dose of Humanity, but at least we did it to ourselves. The executioner is now in the house. 4 stars

    Cat's Chance in Hell unnerved me with its ethical conundrum: is the need for war stronger than the ethical implications of cloning soldiers to do tasks humans can't/won't/shouldn't do? I say no; I've said no since Roy Batty said, "Time to die," at the end of Blade Runner, and I'll keep saying no until there's no more breath in me to say no. The many iterations of this trope are far from exhausting its relevance or using up the ability of the culture to need discussions about these ethical issues. 4.5 stars
    "Why couldn't you at least let me die without knowing any of this? Isn't that ethical?"
    "Ah, apologies. We need you to regain all your mental faculties. The brain sorts through memories while you sleep, and we have no other way to guarantee the safe extraction of intel."
    The colonel's apology sounds hollow. He strides out of the room, with the last words, "We need your memories. They are very important to us."

    The Return of Adam shapes its man-clay into a Frankensteinian monster of Second Intelligence...an artificial enhancement of the human brain that allows us to touch AI-level calculating speeds and webs of deduction. The fish out of water is "Adam Wang" whose two-hundred-year round trip voyage to another galaxy (oof) has brought him back to an Earth only recently changed by this Second Intelligence. Published in 1993, its positing intergalactic travel by 2050 seems...naive, shall we say. Sixty years? What will y'all be doing in 2080? Won't be gallivantin' to the planets, still less the stars; more like improving your water-treading skills and praying the Amazon drones can deliver your soylent green before you starve. 3 stars

    Rendezvous: 1937 dedicates itself to an ugly moment in human history, too little known in the West for fear of angering the guilty parties in a genocidal incident. Seen from a Chinese perspective it's not a lot better than it is from a Western one...the scale of the horror numbs one's ability to accept this awful event; the personal-ness of it revolts the right-thinking, as the victims were *right*there*in*front*of* the perpetrators. And there's not one hint of sorry anywhere in the world's conversation about it. Framing it as it is here, as a moment seen with conflict built into its bones, made this uncomfortable read even more intense. 4 stars

    The Heart of the Museum does that very difficult thing, translates a hard concept dependent on the syntax of another language into a differently constructed one. Verb tenses do not exist in Mandarin. A story about an alien who sees, in full reality, all the moments of Time as...as real, if not simultaneous, in Mandarin is doable...in English, much more challenging. Well done for a strong, interesting entry into the anthology. 4 stars
    On the day of its completion, he will celebrate with all the members of his team; on a particular late night, he will carry out a midnight inspection of the exhibits, holding his girlfriend's hand, the love on his face resembling a small animal just about to feed. During the period he will feel most lost, every morning he will gaze down on this drowsy, waking city from the window next to the wall on which is written the law of gravity. In a few years' time, his child would be even more fond of this spot, and have even more important tasks to complete.

    The Great Migration takes what is already the Earth's largest movement of people from one place to another and gives it an outer-space skin. It's that evergreen Quest story; it will make you wince, and cringe, and laugh out loud. No one controls the cosmos, and the fate of mere mortals is the plaything of the Gods. Suitably the story's set on Olympus Mons. 4 stars and a hearty wish we'd get an anime version!

    Meisje met de Parel brings two civilizations together in the love of and study of art. "Meisje met de parel," as we're all familiar with her:
    Beautiful; but only part of the story, the part that comes to us first in the ouroboros of time created by the plot. There are levels, and implications, in this story that I find...touching, personally deeply resonant and unnerving. But the story itself is lyrical, and it is lovely, and it holds out some proof that Human doesn't stop at Homo sapiens sapiens. 4 stars

    Flowers of the Other Shore brings to life (!) a zombie in a zombie apocalypse...probably my least favorite trope even before COVID-19 ate so many peoples' brains. There's something...sinister...in the idea of zombies, not the whole "BRAAAIIINNNS" thing but the "...and how did Nature think this one up?" issue. I mean, there are fungi that zombify their insect victims but they do it to reproduce. Ex-human zombies just...eat.
    Life isn't bad as a Stiff. The only trouble is that you remember less and less. You can't blame me—the Stiff's brain is a slowly wilting thing. Sometimes when we shake our heads, we can hear a knocking sound, as if our hemispheres are knocking against our skulls like a ping pong ball. With each knock, we remember one thing less, til the brain is completely empty and only sensation is left: Hunger. We can't starve to death because we've already died once, but it will never subside. It drives me to chase the living, to tear at flesh and blood.

    Blech! I don't like zombie stories! But this one, this bizarre twist on the basic zombie tale, got in under my armor and left me thinking that this wasn't in any way like the fleets of other zombie stories. (I'm sure it is, but it's my review and I say it's different so there.) 4.5 stars

    The Absolution Experiment doesn't stint...the experiment and the absolution are, in the end, Faustian bargains. 3.5 stars

    The Tide of Moon City is an old, old legend about star-crossed lovers separated by things neither knew were even possible; life-long love, want, need, all unmet. The dressings of kehuan/SF place them on a tidally locked double-planet system, separated by the insanity of ideological Hate. I enjoyed the long-delayed resolution of the story, though I will say that, having recognized it, the ending wasn't a surprise. A lovely, lovely story. 4.5 stars

    Starship: Library brings the anthology to its logical conclusion: A library. A place where books, the most patient of friends and the most portable of magics, the vacation you can take when you have to stay where you are, are preserved. Because there will always come a reader. A fun, and poignant, celebration of libraries as mothers to all civilization, as the repository for wisdom, and as the place to go when you don't know what to do. Best for last! A story I can give all 5 stars

    Monday, November 8, 2021

    DAMNATION SPRING, true-life tale of the cost of living in a cheap, disposable world


    DAMNATION SPRING
    ASH DAVIDSON

    Scribner
    $28.00 hardcover, available now

    Rating: 3* of five

    The Publisher Says:A stunning novel about love, work, and marriage that asks how far one family and one community will go to protect their future.

    Colleen and Rich Gundersen are raising their young son, Chub, on the rugged California coast. It’s 1977, and life in this Pacific Northwest logging town isn’t what it used to be. For generations, the community has lived and breathed timber; now that way of life is threatened.

    Colleen is an amateur midwife. Rich is a tree-topper. It’s a dangerous job that requires him to scale trees hundreds of feet tall—a job that both his father and grandfather died doing. Colleen and Rich want a better life for their son—and they take steps to assure their future. Rich secretly spends their savings on a swath of ancient Redwoods. Colleen, desperate to have a second baby, challenges the logging company’s use of herbicides that she believes are responsible for the many miscarriages in the community—including her own. Colleen and Rich find themselves on opposite sides of a budding conflict that threatens the very thing they are trying to protect: their family.

    Told in prose as clear as a spring-fed creek, Damnation Spring is an intimate, compassionate portrait of a family whose bonds are tested and a community clinging to a vanishing way of life. An extraordinary story of the transcendent, enduring power of love—between husband and wife, mother and child, and longtime neighbors. An essential novel for our times.

    I RECEIVED A DRC FROM THE PUBLISHER VIA NETGALLEY. THANK YOU.

    My Review
    : First, read this:
    "Ask any of these guys. You won’t find a guy that loves the woods more than a logger. You scratch a logger, you better believe you’ll find an ‘enviro-mentalist’ underneath. But the difference between us and these people is we live here. We hunt. We fish. We camp out. They’ll go back where they came from, but we’ll wake up right here tomorrow. This is home. Timber puts food on our tables, clothes on our kids’ backs. You know, a redwood tree is a hard thing to kill. You cut it down, it sends up a shoot. Even fire doesn’t kill it. Those big pumpkins up in the grove, they’re old. Ready to keel over and rot. You might as well set a pile of money on fire and make us watch."
    –and–
    “The real timber’s gone,” Lark said. “What’s left, ten percent, including the parks? Two thousand years to grow a forest, a hundred years to fall it. No plague like man.”

    There isn't a lot to argue with in this novel. The positions are made clear as glass, the townsfolk of the story are innocent of any wrongdoing except not wanting change and the corporate interests are extracting value from the land, the timber, and the people with no slightest regard for the costs.

    This ain't rocket science. You know whose side you're on from the jump.

    What price innocence...the townies aren't idiots, it's clear that their corporate masters pay them pittances to do dangerous jobs. They love those jobs, they love the life it affords them. So why the hell should they bitch if someone else lives fancier than they do? Ain't like they'd want to live like those folks do, even if they had all the money those folks have. So keep the trees fallin' and the pennies rollin' in.

    The personal costs? Well, omelets ain't ever come out of whole eggs, have they. That's the way life is. Except...when you step in front of a woman who wants kids, you'd better be *well*armored*indeed*. Colleen wants babies. She's miscarried eight times! Her sister's had healthy ones, and with a man you'd have to be kind to describe as "grossly unfit." It clearly ain't her body....

    And here's my problem: The pace of the novel is, to put it politely, magisterial. The language is limpidly clear, if a bit less than inspiringly lyrical. But the gender politics are awful. The conflict between husband and wife over her screaming NEED to mother a brood, her apostasy to community values (and with a man she has a history with! that gets what feels to me like a pretty insignificant amount of play) because her uterus hasn't popped out healthy babies, squicked me out. I hate it when women in stories play the Mother Card and get away with amazingly nasty shit (see my outraged shout about Gone Girl), unlike Colleen. But basically I don't care about Motherhood. It isn't necessary for you to reproduce yourselves, straight people, the planet's already working itself into a fever to get rid of us. So using it, as Author Davidson does here, as a reason for Colleen to do something that (objectively) is good but will end the way of life these people want to live, shouldn't be framed as "she did it for her babies to be born."

    Listen, I don't think what mega-corporations do to the world is laudable, and they do it for the vilest, most selfish reasons. I'm right there with you on the "make it stop" front. But don't play "Sacred Motherhood" on your cards or you'll lose any serious argument for them to be held accountable. NOT being a mother is the responsible choice for all women. The only people who are carryin' on about having more babies are the white supremacists, and we need a lot fewer of them stat.

    On balance, three stars was what I could muster, and I felt pretty questionable about that last half-star. The book's set in 1977. We already knew the cost of overpopulation then. The "Zero Population Growth" movement was organized in 1968. It's still a damned good idea. But Sacred Motherhood is used as a primary motivator to positive action in this story, and that sits wrong with me.

    The ending wasn't particularly satisfying, after all we've been through; but there not being anything dramatically wrong with the structure or the writing (apart from there being too much of it) I couldn't bring myself to downgrade it. But it wasn't an easy decision. Three...that is, on Amazon's debased scale, a bad rating. I think it's a perfectly fine rating, a perfectly fine read got a perfectly fine rating, and I didn't beat it up beyond its just deserts. That will have to do.

    Sunday, November 7, 2021

    THE COLOUR OF MILK, a delight of a short novel about a horror of a short life


    THE COLOUR OF MILK
    NELL LEYSHON

    Ecco (non-affiliate Amazon link)
    $8.99 Kindle edition, available now

    Rating: 5* of five

    The Publisher Says: Mary is a sharp-tongued farm girl, and she will do anything to learn to read and write. But as she does so through four seasons of one extraordinary year, she discovers that nothing comes for free. Told by a narrator whose urgent, unforgettable voice will break your heart, The Colour of Milk is an astonishing novel.

    I CHECKED THIS EBOOK OUT OF MY LOCAL LIBRARY. SUPPORT YOUR LIBRARIES, FOLKS! THEY NEED US TO USE THEIR SERVICES!

    ALL SPOILERS...ALL THE TIME...SPOILERS BELOW! THE PHOBIC ARE WARNED OFF!

    My Review
    : First, read this:
    this is my book and i am writing it by my own hand.

    in this year of lord eighteen hundred and thirty one i am reached the age of fifteen and i am sitting by my window and i can see many things. i can see birds and they fill the sky with their cries. i can see the trees and i can see the leaves.

    and each leaf has veins which run down it.

    and the bark of each tree has cracks.

    i am not very tall and my hair is the colour of milk.

    my name is mary and i have learned to spell it. m. a. r. y. that is how you letter it.

    I am utterly besotted with this book. My bookish friend Katie is the one who gets the blame, I mean credit!, for convincing me to try the read. It is short, and it has something I can't describe to you adequately that rings me like a bell. I think, I guess, it's a sense of the passionate urgency Mary feels in learning her letters...like that act, that piece of knowledge, will transform her, will make everything Different. If nothing else, it will give her a leg up on her noxious sister Beatrice.

    Her life, Mary's, is about what you expect a woman's life to be at that time and in that class. It is nasty, brutish, and turns out to be short. It is simple, and it is without ornament. It is, in short, a titanic waste of the brain of a clever woman like Mary. As her story begins, she is sold by her father to the local vicar as a caretaking maid-of-all-work for the vicar's housekeeper. His wife is terminally ill, and there's no one whose job it is...no child, no sibling...to muck in and do the labor of cleaning the invalid, her bedding, keeping her as entertained as possible; the housekeeper needs the extra hands. The vicar? Men did not (and do not, by and large) do that sort of work.

    Mary's waspish, direct honesty isn't easy. Not for her...it leads those around her to anger, more often than not...and not for the world she lives in. Making honest observations about the facts of life is not a fast way to make squads of pals. Mary's sisters don't much like her, her mother can't be arsed to care about much that isn't making her husband the drunken shit as happy as possible, and Mary's grandfather (her father's father) is crippled by an accident so despite his pleasure in her company he isn't much help to Mary in navigating the world.

    What happens as Mary assumes her duties in the vicar's household is the oldest story in the world. She's raped. She isn't, however, going to put up with that, and that's what makes this story a five-star read for me. Mary serves up her revenge and takes her punishment with her eyes open, her chin up, and her heart unburdened by regret.

    I fell in love with Mary from page one. If you read the above quote, which is from the beginning of the book, and do not feel the appeal, are not vibrating with the language's power, then skip the read. It won't get better...the story's really simple, it's unsurprising, and it's only half the point. The other half is the storytelling, the sense of being there with Mary. We're hearing a voice that shouldn't have reached us from a person who didn't matter when she was alive so she wouldn't have been allowed to leave a record after her death.

    It's such a simple tale. It's such an oft-told tale. It's a beauty, because it's got something extra, a little trick up its sleeve, that thing that makes a story taller in the saddle. The risk is how many people will be put off by it. They will find it a gimmick, but I found the storytelling an enhancement of an otherwise unremarkable story a young woman writing about her unhappy, unjust, and in the end short life of work, abuse, work, abuse, rape, punishment; it's lifted to its next, finer level. It's about Mary's indomitable will, her absolute uncompromising need for More. I resonate to that story. The other, I don't.

    And that's why I love it, instead of merely thinking it was an interesting, not always successful, stylistic experiment. (How does Mary know how to spell some of the complicated words she uses, eg "hierarchy"?) The effort to bring an unpolished and unmediated voice to life is doomed to artificiality, of course, since this is fiction and not a research project. But the mannerisms were successful in breathing life into a character whose essential reality overcame, for this testy old reader, the inevitable awareness of the story as construct, as artifact.

    So I'll shout my thanks westward to my friend in New Jersey...the same one who warbled me into reading The Mercy Seat!...whose recommendation of the story was sufficiently enthusiastic as to make my read necessary. Thank goodness my library had an ebook available. I would've been much the poorer for not having Mary along for the ride into the rest of my reading life.

    A story, a character, a book like this is a treasure. Get it, if you can.

    Saturday, November 6, 2021

    THE GHOSTS OF BELFAST, a Goodreads group-read that really rang me like a bell


    THE GHOSTS OF BELFAST
    STUART NEVILLE

    Soho Crime
    $14.00 trade paper, available now

    Rating: 4.5* of five

    The Publisher Says: Sooner or later, everybody pays.

    Gerry Fegan, a former paramilitary contract killer, is haunted by the ghosts of the 12 people he has slaughtered. Every night, on the point of losing his mind, he drowns their screams in drink. His solution is to kill those who engineered their deaths.

    From the greedy politicians to the corrupt security forces, the street thugs to the complacent bystanders who let it happen, all are called to account. But when Fegan's vendetta threatens to derail a hard-won truce and destabilise the government, old comrades and enemies alike want him dead.

    Winner of the 2009 Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Best Thriller.

    My Review
    : First, read this:
    “Hate's a terrible thing. It's a wasteful, stupid emotion. You can hate someone with all your heart, but it'll never do them a bit of harm. The only person it hurts is you. You can spend your days hating, letting it eat away at you, and the person you hate will go on living just the same. So what's the point?”

    That's the logical, and irrefutable, argument against hate. But there's no chance humans will give up hating. It's an addictive drug, a high that can only be bested by the Absolute Assurance that YOU ARE RIGHT, They are Wrong, and therefore they deserve _____. Ireland's been in the toils of both, Hate and Rightness, for centuries. They've made it the basis for their identity as a nation. It ain't goin' nowhere.

    That grim prognostication delivered, the story we're told in this (debut!) novel is based around a single person's efforts to mitigate the toll Hate takes on society as a whole. That he's chosen, um, a counter-productive solution to the problem is...kind of the core of the read. The way there's no out for a person whose persona is warped by war, by violent and utterly anti-social normative training, whose core is eaten out to nothingness by hatred. That is who such a one will be always. And Gerry Fegan is a stone-cold killer, a person whose life is without the sense of remorse that a normal person would have for depriving others of their entire futures.

    Which is why they haunt him. Their ghosts won't let him sleep, or think, or be normal.

    Discussions of Gerry's ghosts' reality are circular. Real? Imaginary? Guilt phantasms? Doesn't matter. Gerry is the person he's been made into. The ghosts demand something be done to balance the scales of their lost futures. And Gerry being their instrument means that something will be murderous.

    This is a huge problem for the world. Men and women like Gerry exist all over the globe, and they represent a ticking time-bomb of violence and chaos in every place they exist. Conflicts based on such idiotic things as religion and ethnicity and national identity are going to sink any "peace process" that ever gets past the hot-air stage. People like these need their Hate-hit to feel good. Feeling good, about yourself, about your superior place in the world, is fundamental to humans' ability to thrive. In far too many cases, that represents itself as Hate for Others. Nothing effective has ever been done about that...can anything effective ever be done about it? Don't look at Ireland. It's a pink-skinned Rwanda.

    And this novel, this brilliant noir tale of revenge if not exactly redemption, brings that to its...conclusion is the wrong word. "Stopping place" in the sense of "the buck stops here" is permaybehaps closer. The man Gerry, expiating his sins, commits others...but do they count as sins? They're balancing scales, not to say that the choice of method is one I approve of. But he's made some attempt to redress the vile acts he's committed. By committing others.

    The Mahatma was correct. The world continues to ignore him, and the cycle of violence continues to spiral ever downward into chaos.

    Finally, let me say that this book's the first in a series called "Jack Lennon Investigations." This will bumfuzzle most readers. "Who the hell's Jack Lennon?" I hear you ask. Well...don't worry your pretty little head about it is my response. Read Collusion and don't fuss. It's well worth your eyeblinks, just as this delight of a violent, nihilistic noir read is.