Tuesday, January 26, 2021

DUELING BANJOS, yep *that* Dueling Banjos!; stories from the making of "Deliverance"

DUELING BANJOS: The Deliverance of Drew
RONNY COX, as told to Barbara Bowers

Decent Hill
OUT OF PRINT; various prices

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: Dueling Banjos: The Deliverance of Drew is a collection of stories of the making of the iconic movie Deliverance, told from the perspective of one of the four main actors in the film, Ronny Cox, who played the character of Drew.

Based on the novel by James Dickey, the movie was filmed in the summer of 1971 and was released the following year in 1972. Forty years later, it remains one of the most recognized films in movie history for being raw, emotional, violent and shocking - yet it leaves a lasting impression of artistic excellence. It is one of those films that have somehow managed to remain timeless. Ronny was just a struggling stage actor when he was cast in the film. He has since gone on to appear in over one hundred and forty-five movie and television productions, and has had a very successful career as a folk musician, playing in venues all over the country. He also happens to be one of the world's great storytellers, and this book follows his journey from a struggling unknown to a leap through the doors of Hollywood stardom.

The stories are told with both humor and honesty, with perspectives on the artistic details that most movie-goers really never take into account. There are great anecdotes about his fellow actors: Burt Reynolds, Jon Voight and Ned Beatty. There is a look inside the brilliant vision of director John Boorman and how the presence of author James Dickey created friction on the set. There are harrowing tales of how each actor nearly lost his life during the filming of the movie, and the facts about how everything was accomplished with no stunt men. There are many myths that surrounded the movie when it was released and many of those myths persist today.

In putting together this collection of stories, Ronny Cox tells the "real" stories and puts those myths to rest. It is a fascinating look at what went into making a film that was named to the Library of Congress National Film Registry Film Preservation List in 2008 as a film that is "culturally, historically or aesthetically" significant, to be preserved for all time. It was selected as a work of enduring significance to American culture. In Ronny Cox's own words, he shares the wonder, the hardships, the laughter, the brotherhood, and the magic that brought to life the great novel written by James Dickey.


My Review
: This is the oldest DRC I possess. How old is that, you ask? It was sent to me when this book was brand new, and film was 40 (forty) years old; and it is 50 (fifty) years old now, filming as it did in 1971.

Ten years. Great goddesses below us. My old notebook says I posted my review on LibraryThing...can't find it, though...so here we go again!


Ronny Cox, aka "Drew" from this film or "Captain Jellico" from Star Trek: The Next Generation's "Chain of Command" sixth-season two-part episode, was a struggling actor with a theater resume as long as a rap sheet when John Boorman, still a small-time film director from England, met him and immediately cast him as Drew in the film.

What a break for the struggling actor married to a post-doc chemist with two kids to support! And to be in such a loud project...Deliverance was splashy, famous poet writes novel!...reviews in The New Yorker, The New York Times Book Review, Time, The Nation...well, my god, what more could a first-time movie actor want? Burt Reynolds and Jon Voight, up and coming movie stars, as cast mates? Done. An old actor-friend as the fourth cast mate? Insert Ned Beatty! (Sorry, a bit on-the-nose, that metaphor.)

James Dickey's books as a poet of renown had bigged him up publicly...a Guggenheim Fellow, a National Book Award for Poetry, and a poetry consultant to the Library of Congress...what we've called "United States Poet Laureate" since 1985. Just listen to Ronny describe the first time he's seen the man:
Jim was a big mountain of a man, well over 200 pounds, big and hulking, and spoke with a really redolent Southern accent. And so, there he was up in front of the room holding forth. He was reading his poetry and he was so into this one poem. It was mesmerizing to hear him read the poem, and I'll never forget—he got to this one place and he read this line of poetry and he stopped and he looked up and he said, "GODDAMN, that's a good line!", and I was blown away.
That, you can almost hear from there and then, is one BIG personality. So big, in fact, he was taking up too much space in Director Boorman's film set, especially with Dickey's favorite actor Ronny. So a terribly embarrassing "please leave" scene played out that Ronny really delves into.

Here, then, is raconteur Ronny Cox's strongest point: Telling you, decades later, how what happened made him, and others, feel and what they said to hide or cover or point it up. Yes, it's his version. He stipulates that to Barbara Bowers, the editor who made this book what it is. He even names Christopher Dickey, the Great Man's Son, as someone whose own book, a memoir, presents...let's be Trumpian and call them "alternative facts." He's sure he's got his reasons, says Ronny, for saying what he does. That isn't what someone who was in the room would've seen, Ronny reminds us.

This isn't a long book. This is a deep book about the film Deliverance and how it got made, who did what, and why it mattered to audiences in 1972 theaters. I was one of those ticket-buyers. There's a shocking rape scene in this film. It is viscerally awful and completely honest for the first time I know anything about, forty-nine years later, concerning the vile crime of rape. More powerfully so, for that day and time, by making the raped party a man.

Did nothing for the advancement of gay rights, and sadly perpetuated many harmful and hurtful stereotypes about the South, but what it *should* have done is sparked a million public and private conversations about the victimization, the humiliation, the utter lack of compassionate care for its survivors.

I look around me and wonder if #MeToo is enough, can dent a rape culture that survived this horrible, brutal, completely honest rape scene.

Back to the book. I rocked along at a happy clip, ending the read with smiles, and appreciating the well-chosen but not numerous photos illustrating key moments Ronny is remembering in those sections. In about two hours, I felt I'd been given a private audience with someone whose impact on my visual and aesthetic life was significant. I am so delighted that three of the four leads in this film are still with us, as is John Boorman, and I surely hope someone has some Golden Anniversary hoopla planned COVID or no.

I want to leave you with a glimpse into Ronny Cox, Performer Extraordinaire for almost sixty years, as he ruminates on the reason people still care about Deliverance...it's the same reason he does:
Deliverance is one of the few novels that has been made into a film that I like both the novel and the film. For me, at least, if I like the book, then I normally hate the film. Or vice versa. The reason I liked both the book and the film of Deliverance is even though they are both telling exactly the same story, they are telling it in two completely different ways.

Monday, January 25, 2021

ŠRDN - From Bronze and Darkness, a paranormal fantasy set in the Bronze Age Collapse

ŠRDN - From Bronze and Darkness
(tr. Nigel Ross)
Acheron Books
$2.99 Kindle edition, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: The year is 1278 B.C. and the Mediterranean Sea is shared among the most powerful civilizations of ancient times. Greeks, Egyptians, and Phoenicians sail from port to port, ready to fight to protect their trade from the "Sea People," marauders who loot and disappear like ghosts. Among them are the fierce Shardan, who come from the "Island of Towers," from fortresses of basalt stone called nuraghes. These rise up all over the Shardan's land and, since the dawn of time, hide a curse feared by the people of the Mediterranean: the Island is the gateway to the netherworld. The Shardan live as hell-keepers, offering their loot to the Gods who protect their position. Now they are in Egypt, ready to wage war against the pharaohs when a messenger arrives from the netherworld with a warning: the Mamuthone demons have awakened.

My Review: You've heard tell of the Bronze Age collapse...the thing that probably triggered the historical Trojan War, caused Minoan, Mycenaean, and Hittite states to collapse, rocked the New Kingdom in Egypt to its core, and was blamed by them on the SRDN, the WSHSH, and a bunch of other "Sea Peoples." Oh, sure you have, the History Channel's made like a zillion documentaries about it! Eric Cline was all over YouTube after his book 1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed came out in 2014.

No? Well, good lord, go read or at least watch that amazing story, and then you'll appreciate the opportunity this represents to a fiction writer.

Author Atzori, a Sardinian by birth, decided that his native island's Nuragic civilization was the "Shardan" of the Egyptian stelae complaining about the Sea Peoples. He flew that flag high and proud in this terrific dark fantasy.

The fall of the very interdependent, highly globalized world led to a Dark Age, one without writing or advanced technology...let's be clear, this is a *relative* term, no there have not been computer-using nuclear-armed civilizations before now!...that lasted four hundred years. The myth-making that led to Homer's long-ass poems and the Jewish Torah and so on and so forth are used here as grist for a supernatural explanation for the collapse.

The monstrous Old Ones awake!

Karnak, our PoV character, is in Egypt to extract tribute for the Mamuthone (demons his homeland, Sardinia, has the "honor" of keeping bottled up) when he gets the word that, well, it's too late. And then the loud pedal goes down, the battles begin to spread from all sides to all points, the world's on fire!

We're not going to do any good recounting the Collapse. Either you know and it doesn't matter what I say, or you don't and should get yourself to a bookery to find out about this shocking, amazing event in human history. What matters here is what kind of read this book is: Good. Quite good. A bit underdeveloped in character terms, but I don't think they're so attenuated as to be uninvolving.

You're going to experience a battle-heavy, demon-fighting, very visual tale of what I suspect was the model for the Biblical story of Sodom and Gomorrah. The battle of Troy...Wilusa as it was known in this era...and the Olympian battles against the Titans, the Philistines battling Saul...all are echoes of this Collapse, and the story here makes the entire period a background for the eternal battle of good and evil. Karnak is a stand-up guy, but very ready to resort to violence.

But trust me, if you like the Antique epics, this story will make your taste for them purr.

Saturday, January 23, 2021

THE ROAD TO URBINO, or let's go to Italy and commit art theft!


Gallic Books
$15.95 trade paper, available now

Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: A story of obsession, love and art set in Tuscany, Sri Lanka and London.

Ras, a Sri Lankan who fled his country as a child following the violent death of his mother and his father's disappearance, has committed a crime. Dogged by his past and unable to come to terms with the killing of his mother, he struggles to make a new life for himself in the UK. Alex has loved Dee since he was 19 but failed to realise that it was a love he wouldn't find again. After Dee's marriage, he too struggles to build a meaningful life for himself. But when Ras' and Alex's lives connect, each man takes a new path culminating for Ras in the theft of a della Franceso painting, while Alex comes ever closer to Dee through tragedy in her life.

Beautifully written, with a strong narrative, The Road to Urbino is the story of two very different men and their love for the women in their lives, set against the backdrop of the heartbreaking horrors of the long-running conflict in Sri Lanka.


My Review
: Similar to Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch in initial conditions...an art crime reverberates through the characters' lives, the painting that's stolen has resonances in the story's structure that only reveal themselves the deeper you get...Roma Tearne did not decide to re-write someone else's idea by any means.

When Ras, one of our main characters, escapes his war-torn country after terrible losses, he looks at the UK with the hungry eyes of a victim in search of a savior. The trouble with that, Ras, is that no external being can save you from yourself. He does experience the blessing of a peaceful country's many opportunities, and he takes advantage of them. Job as a museum curator, marriage, a family, a life...all the good stuff. The issue for Ras is, of course, the unhealed horrors of genocide live in his brain. His wife gives him a daughter, as he sees it, and he dotes on the child. Not so much on the mother. Lavish loving attention but nothing for Mama? The inevitable occurs, and the illusion of normal life is ripped apart again.

Lola, his daughter, is a case study in "when bad children happen to loving fathers." Spoiled by his undivided attention and by nature selfish, she is a Hot Mess. Listening to Daddy's stories of the Old Country is a way to get what she wants, but not in the least a way to feel connected to him or to the weird foreign place he originates. Ras isn't a reflective person, at least not at first, but he pips to his essential trapped loneliness at last. What does he do, go to a shrink? No. He goes to Italy! He will tour the countryside and Look At Art.

He does this, all right. He looks at Piero della Francesca's The Flagellation of Christ a bit wrong.
via Wikimedia
Reader, he steals the damned thing. A small-enough painting by religious standards, no more than three feet in any dimension, but...WHAT?! A museum curator steals another museum's painting?!

The shock I felt was slightly cushioned by my delight in Author Tearne's paean to Italy's sheer physical glory. It is no wonder so much great art has come from there, it is so beautiful. As I turned the pages for this second read, I was submerged in a soft golden afternoon's light and gently lapped by the waves of desire anticipating the meal I knew would come soon. (In Italy, a meal will always come soon.) This was the most delightful sensation while I'm trapped inside by COVID. I was even inclined to be forgiving of the absolutely bewildering break from reality that Ras's theft represents.

But that theft is the frame of the story, not the story. Ras, in jail in the UK, begins to speak to his solicitor Elizabeth with the intimacy and urgency of a shrink. Please, he begs, please re-connect me with my daughter! I want her to know her father is not a terrorist! A museum curator, fifty, is being called a terrorist...because he's South Asian. A white man in that cell for that crime would be a troubled citizen, count on it.

Speaking of white men...now enters the story a chap called Alex, the ex-lover of a museum colleague of Ras's. Why he's here you'll have to ask the author, I can't really see what his place is in this story. The only possible excuse I can find for Alex to exist is that he reinforces the idea that middle-aged men long for a woman. And this is where something important (leaving aside its overwhelming heteronormativity) hit me.

A talented woman writing a novel about men in crisis gives one unpleasant woman, Lola, all the ladies' speaking parts; from Elizabeth we hear stage prompts, meant to cue a dried-up actor to resume his speech. The middle-aged man at the center of it all is South Asian, at least, but honestly I can't imagine a book less likely to pass the Bechdel test. I don't think any woman speaks to another woman at all, let alone not about a man, but that's not something I was carefully looking out for.

I've mentioned before that I need to feel a character's trajectory has changed for a reading experience to fully satisfy me. This story's characters are all in mid-trajectory when we leave them, so I was a bit grumpus about that; I did finally settle myself because the fact is they're all launched in new directions. Not at all sure they'll stay on them, but they're set into motion and that's good enough for me.

In general terms, I'm not inclined to pick up books like this. I got it during my COVID infection and couldn't really focus on it. Since my backlog of unreviewed books is shocking, I needed to give it a bit of a brush-up to remind myself of the story's tenor and the characters' affects. The sneakily critical of racism nature of the story was a definite plus. The somewhat flat crime that is committed is only so because there's really just no conceivable reason for it to have happened. If I read this as a news report, I'd be eaten alive with curiosity to now WHY it occurred, probably to the point of calling the news outlet and demanding they assign an investigative reporter to ferret out the goodies.

Sadly, that doesn't occur and thus I'm left with a two-and-a-half star read that earns itself an extra star for its blissful evocation of Italy's delights. I enjoyed the read enough to review it; I'd recommend borrowing, not buying, the book if you are tempted.

Friday, January 22, 2021

ASK AGAIN, YES is a deeply felt, carefully observed, and difficult to read tale of family crises

$17.00 trade paper, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: A profoundly moving novel about two neighboring families in a suburban town, the friendship between their children, a tragedy that reverberates over four decades, the daily intimacies of marriage, and the power of forgiveness. How much can a family forgive?

Francis Gleeson and Brian Stanhope, rookie cops in the NYPD, live next door to each other outside the city. What happens behind closed doors in both houses—the loneliness of Francis's wife, Lena, and the instability of Brian's wife, Anne, sets the stage for the explosive events to come.

Ask Again, Yes is a deeply affecting exploration of the lifelong friendship and love that blossoms between Kate Gleeson and Peter Stanhope, born six months apart. One shocking night their loyalties are divided, and their bond will be tested again and again over the next 40 years. Luminous, heartbreaking, and redemptive, Ask Again, Yes reveals the way childhood memories change when viewed from the distance of adulthood—villains lose their menace and those who appeared innocent seem less so. Kate and Peter’s love story, while haunted by echoes from the past, is marked by tenderness, generosity, and grace.


My Review
: I'm not a spoilerphobe, as I've mentioned before, but there are certain events in this book that it would just rot on ice for you not to see for yourself for the first time. So there will be some tap-dancing around some events.

What matters to me in a read, the thing I seek and must find or I'm put out and feel I've been hard done by, is the sense that I'm seeing characters make efforts, take chances, do things, and as a result of whatever combination of those things the author chooses, they need to change. Not necessarily dramatically, or for the better or for the worse. But there needs to be some perceptible alteration in that character's life, sense of purpose, or station.

That is very much not a problem in this story.

Immigrant Francis is Irish to his core. He moves to New York because 1970s Ireland was not the Celtic Tiger it became decades on. His adjustment to American manners and mores wasn't easy on him, but he fell in love with the right woman and built a life with her. So that base is solid, right?

It is a truth universally recognized that people are their own worst enemies. Actions that seem, in the moment, inevitable or destined to occur are deeply stupid and cause problems it's hard to imagine. Yet here we are, with only the moment to live and as often as not without a clear understanding of the past to build on. As Author Keane says, "We repeat what we don't repair." That just rang me like a bell the first time I read it. Such a lovely, distilled way to say the truth as I've learned it the hard way.
The quiet of the house when she kept to her room was not the peaceful silence of a library, or anywhere near as tranquil. It was...more like the held-breath interlude between when a button gets pushed and the bomb either detonates or is defused. He could feel his own heartbeat at those times. He could track his blood as it looped through his veins.

Families are the prime breeding ground for things that need repair. Most often we don't see that...in ourselves, of course, since it's incredibly easy to see in others and there's even this thing called "fiction" to feed our schadenfreude watching others screw up chances to repair the damage done to us. But some damage is done in some families that is, in the truest sense of these words, irreparable and unforgivable. That's when the stories get really good.
Telling her, bringing that story to England, spoiled England for her. When she left for America two years later, she knew she would be smarter. She'd bring none of Ireland with her.

But no matter where you go, there you are, right? Our selves and our bodies are coterminous if not identical, where one goes there the other is as well. It's not always that great a feeling. But unless we repair the breaks, well...you're adults, you know already. And how sad, how burdensome is that knowledge.

The burden travels down generational rivers, too. In this story, Peter the son of truly miserable man and truly evil woman, falls for Kate the daughter of stoic parents whose inability to communicate doesn't keep them from mangling each other. There's a bad patch (!!) and the young people are separated against their wills; there's a reunion, and what flowers is a very beautiful blossom of hope and love.
He dreamed of sharing an apartment with Kate someday, coming home to her each evening and telling her about his day, hearing about hers, going to bed naked with the covers pulled up to their chins, feeling her warm skin next to his when he woke up every morning.
If they could do all those things and pay their bills and not dread going to work each morning, coming home each night, then that was a life. That was a great life, in Kate’s view. What else could there be? If they reminded themselves that these small things were enough, she believed, then they’d always be okay.

They're having different relationships. That's so often the way with couples, and sadly most often between couples freshly in love. The true emotional core of the party of the second part isn't always easy to reach, but the fact is most people don't really even ever try. It's hard. It's vulnerable. It's often met with anger or rejection or outrage. Who tries, they are abusive! Intrusive! I need my space! Who resists, they are elusive! They are secretive! Why won't you trust me and let me in?

Surviving those shoals, accommodating each other and bending to and fro, allowance-making and temperature-taking, survival...until new shoals hove into view as soon as the seas looked smooth.
And then she saw it so clearly, the whole trajectory of their lives, a twin flare of lights against the gunmetal winter sky: we're born, we get sick, we die. Beginning, middle, end. She saw her life as if held aloft by her own hand, and in an instant it spun away from her. Where did she want it to land? She was in the middle. The exact middle. Peter too. How could she have failed to notice that the beginning had come to an end?
It wasn’t that she didn’t love him, he knew. It was that she loved him so much that it frightened her, loved him so much that she worried she might have to protect herself from it. He tried to let her know that he’d figured that out, finally, that there was no need to explain, but then he realized that she might not know it herself.

It is a damn difficult thing to keep being in a present-tense relationship with someone over a long period of time.
They'd both learned that a memory is a fact that has been dyed and trimmed and rinsed so many times that it comes out looking almost unrecognizable to anyone else who was in that room or anyone who was standing on the grass beneath that telephone pole.

Allow this novel's steady pace to lead you where the story goes. Possess your soul in patience, don't get agitated and skip and flip; stand on the grass with Author Keane. Make a memory. Make it well.

Thursday, January 21, 2021

STARS IN HIS EYES, midcentury tale of Catalan man's escape from Franco's Spain to Hollywood's glamour days

(tr. Adrian Nathan West)
99¢ Kindle edition, available now

Rating: 3* of five

The Publisher Says: From the fascist Franco regime to Hollywood’s glamour—an epic historical novel based on the meteoric rise of one of the world’s most celebrated restaurateurs.

Ceferino Carrión is desperate for a new life—one of opportunity, fortune, and fame. But he knows he’ll never find this life in war-torn Spain. With his home country under the heel of the devastating Franco dictatorship and call-up papers on his doorstep, Cefe knows there’s only one thing he can do: run.
A new life awaits in America, as does a new name—Jean Leon. From the concrete valleys of the Bronx to the sun-soaked hills of California, Jean crosses paths with legendary superstars, political powerhouses, and dangerous mobsters as he flees his past and pursues his dreams. With friends like Frank Sinatra, Marilyn Monroe, and James Dean to see him through, Jean soon gets his own taste of stardom, opening his glamourous Beverly Hills restaurant, La Scala, to nightly swarms of celebrities.

But with every new adrenaline rush of celebrity, Jean is further distanced from everyone he loves. Only in searching through his ever-receding past in Barcelona can he find the key to unlock the dream life he has risked so much to build.


My Review
: I'll just start this review with the statement that dropping the w-bomb this often is a crime against literature.

Three names, Cefe (birth name), Justo (assumed name in New York, where US ally Franco's spies find him), Jean Leon (final alias in Hollywood, which more or less holds), are needed to get our main character from dodging the draft in Phalangist Spain to his glittering restauranteurship in Hollywood. A man of parts, then, a man whose life is going to be exciting, right?

Wellll...not *exactly* the case. Not the fault of the story, but the storyteller and/or translator.

I most often spend a good deal of a review quoting from the author's writing. In reviewing translations, that's often a cheat as I see it; how would I know what the author's writing is like, I'm reading someone's interpretation of it. But this story's writing is not particularly exciting to me. The story is an important one, and won a Catalan literary prize in 2018. Immigrants who come to the US to start anew, whether for personal reasons or governmental ones, and who change their identities in the process, are important members of the American body politic.

The current administration sworn in this week agrees with me, and has reinstated many important channels by which those born elsewhere can fully join in US society. In our PoV character's case, things were...grey...in theory, our government supported the one he fled from serving with his life. Their spies did find draft dodgers here and repatriate them. However, there was not any sense by the US Government of necessary aid for the seekers and no sense at all of need to assist or hinder the sought. So Jean Leon (let's go with that one, the last one) exists in a legal precarity, but makes his way into circles of social power by his mastery of food.

His Hollywood life was a glamourous one, rubbing elbows with stars made (eg Sinatra) and in the making (eg James Dean). He's a fixer of problems, as most restauranteurs are, giving alibis and setting scenes for public consumption. He does the usual things, like marrying and having children; but remember that Catalan family he came from? He left them. Anything that happened to the last one will happen to the next. And it does.

As characters go, Jean Leon does not draw one's admiration. He's completely self-centered and very selfish. But he's like many men of his generation in that he worked as hard as he possibly could at a career that stole him from any possibility of connection with his families. His role was being a provider; what was wrong with that idea was that it didn't take into account what the family's other members might want. His wife would've preferred that he be there for the kids and for her in the crises that family life inevitably contains...and he never is.

The basic issue for me was the characters at the heart of the tale being pale. They were watercolors set into an oil painting as a background. Jean Leon is always in motion, always doing, acting, making. And that doesn't make him interesting to follow, just so speedily retreating that we're either going to give up chasing him or run after him at top speed and not get any sense of connection with him or those around him.

In a lot of ways, though, that was the point. Men at that time, in his station of life, weren't available for serious relationships. Famous people are, inevitably, users of those around them. Marriages aren't always the best breeding ground for a clear and satisfying view of the other's authentic self...the Intimate Enemy issue is not a psychologist's jargonistic exaggeration. So there's no reason to *fault* Author Gironell or Translator West...just to say that this isn't a relationship I myownself enjoyed having with the people in this story.

Structurally, the management of time's passing was ineffective in creating tension or narrative momentum. In the middle of a chapter, almost two years pass with a new paragraph headed, "Just over a year and a half later..."! No no no! This is sloppy editing and lazy writing. It isn't the only example I could cite, but it's the one that got up my nose the worst.

I read it but I didn't get it. As a cautionary tale of the Price of Ambition and the Cruelty of Fame, yeah okay. But as a chronicle of an interesting man's journey to...what? he doesn't change, really...somewhere inside himself, it's wanting.

The best reader for this book is a Fifties Hollywood buff.

Monday, January 18, 2021

THE PALLBEARER, Appalachian grit-lit QUILTBAG criminality


Skyhorse Publishing
$24.99 hardcover, $16.99 ebook editions, available now

Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: Lynch, West Virginia, is a husk of a town: houses collapsing, deserted coal mines, the money gone. The residents who have not abandoned their homes find themselves living in poverty with little-to-no job opportunities, fighting for scraps and survival under the rule of Ferris Gilbert—the patriarch of a local family who governs the town with manipulative cruelty.

When Jason Felts, a dwarf and aspiring social worker who lives above the town funeral home, is assigned to counsel one of the Gilbert brothers incarcerated inside a youth correctional facility for possession charges, Ferris Gilbert sees a rare opportunity. He seeks out Jason and insists under threat of violence that he smuggle an ominous package into the jail. Torn between his desire to save the young Gilbert brother from a life of crime and concern for his own safety, Jason must make a life-altering decision. At the same time, Gilbert has his hooks in Terry Blankenship, a strung-out young man desperate to carve out a secret life for himself and his boyfriend. If Terry cannot pay his debts to the Gilberts, he has one choice: kill the local sheriff or face the consequences. Sheriff Thompson is found dead soon after. Now both implicated in serious crimes, Jason and Terry must outrun the law and escape the threat of Ferris Gilbert but there may be nowhere to run . . .

The Pallbearer is an unflinching debut for fans of Frank Bill and Sarah Waters that lays bare the lives of the outsiders of society’s outskirts.


My Review
: Terry Blankenship is a stand-in for all the boys who grow up queer in homophobic places. He has a dead mother, a drunken abusive father, and a drug habit he steals to support. He's a complete dead-ender, and he knows it; he's not even trying to run anywhere except up into the hills where an abandoned hunting cabin hides him and his eighteen-year-old boyfriend, stoner Davey. Old Man Felts, once the town undertaker, gives Terry, in cash, about half what he's really earned at the end of every day that they try to fix up a badly decayed old house in Lynch, where there's no opportunity and no hope:
Even at sixteen, Terry was no stranger to labor and didn't mind the work, but this place felt like a lost cause to him.
Staying closeted created a certain pain, but it was still an option in a place where being yourself meant risking your life.

So there he is; the way out closed to the likes of Terry a long time ago. He still has Davey, who was the proximate cause of Terry's dad throwing him out of the house after walking in on them, and Davey wants bright lights, big city, maybe Charleston, or Lexington? They need money, so they decide to enter Terry's dog in a dogfight.

This does not, I realize you'll be stunned to learn, go well.

What happens is, the two fools end up owing the local big baddie fifteen hundred dollars. This might as well be a million to these folks. There's no way they can pay it back, so the big baddie (after some murderous threats) tells dear, dim Terry he can work it off: Kill the local sheriff. Here's the gun. Go!

And we're off! Terry escapes the consequences of his crime by going to juvenile prison; there he meets Jason Felts, the sadly crippled (one assumes by in utero exposure to teratogenic substances in the embalming room) nephew of the ex-undertaker and a psychologist at the facility; the big baddie's baby brother; and his doom. Not that Jason doesn't do his goddamnedest to keep Terry from losing his short struggle for life. He does, because his own dreadful disability makes life in this horribly dying corpse-factory of a town such a struggle that he empathizes with its no-hopers.

What Terry cares about, in his time inside juvenile prison, is the dog he used and abandoned. He begs the facility doctor (cold and calloused by the endless parade of the state's wasted youth):
"I need somebody to go by the house and see about my dog," Terry said.

"Not my concern," the doctor said and adjusted his stethoscope.

Then he begs Jason, all he wants is for Jason to deliver a letter to Davey, alone in their shared squat at the abandoned cabin, not knowing where Terry was, probably worried sick:
{Jason} kept thinking about {Terry's} small handwriting, the elegant loop in the cursive P of please. It was capitalized, a single word followed by the dark blot of a period. Words were such fragile, imprecise things, but that please explained everything.

It's completely heartbreaking to me to read books like this, full of the desperation of tiny lives lived in the sweaty asscrack of capitalism, places abandoned because the profit's gone and why should the shareholders pay for crappy, useless people to exist? There's money at stake, fuck their health, their lives, their futures!

This is the burden of the refrain that ran through my head, a grinding sound as the people of Lynch watch the armored cars take the money as the scum run. It's the same the world over, of course; Jordan Farmer has stories to his credit in The Southwest Review, for one example, that explore these same conditions. Like Donald Ray Pollock, he's writing what he knows, or I miss my guess. He's an able talespinner, and he's an above-average writer. His subject is territory he can honestly say is in need of bards. That not one person gets out of this jail free is not his fault, it's simply the truth of the people in the place he writes about.

As the body count mounts, as the damage to the world the small people in here care about grows catastrophic, Jason Felts stands for the Right and the Good. He's lacking in inches, he's been badly served in body by Life, but he does the jobs that no one else wants to do. He ends one long nightmare. It doesn't cost him his life, just his spirit: Rooted forever in Lynch, he's doomed to find his one happy moment far, far away.

It is exactly the right ending.

Sunday, January 17, 2021

BLACKFISH CITY & EXIT PLANS FOR TEENAGE FREAKS, a pair of top-quality SFF/cli fi reads


Bold Strokes Books
$7.99 ebook editions, available now

Rating: 5* of five

The Publisher Says: Being the kid abducted by old Ms. Easton when he was four permanently set Cole's status to freak. At seventeen, his exit plan is simple: make it through the last few weeks of high school with his grades up and his head down.

When he pushes through the front door of the school and finds himself eighty kilometers away holding the door of a museum he was just thinking about, Cole faces facts: he's either more deluded than old Ms. Easton, or he just teleported.

Now every door is an accident waiting to happen―especially when Cole thinks about Malik, who, it turns out, has a glass door on his shower. When he starts seeing the same creepy people over his shoulder, no matter how far he's gone, crushes become the least of his worries. They want him to stop, and they'll go to any length to make it happen.

Cole is running out of luck, excuses, and places to hide.

Time for a new exit plan.


My Review
: Yeah, that worked. I was transported and eager to stay there.
Malik King knew my name? I let the little thrill in my chest play out a couple of seconds before I squashed it.

You remember that moment, the one where your crush sees you for the first time, you exist as more than a label for a thing that takes up space. Malik just experienced it. Cole just experienced the validation of his entire miserable childhood existence as the freak who got snatched by an old cat lady...the hawt guy he's lusted after Noticed Him. What's so adorable is that, being told from Cole's PoV, adults see the way Malik's maneuvering himself into Cole's orbit and really, really, really hoping his butthead jock friends don't get him declined like a noun in Latin class.

And so begins a charming story of teenagers in love, figuring out how to relate to each others' antithetical crowds and what to say to keep Him from figuring out how scared you are, what the hell do I do with my hands, am I staring at his eyes too long, good god not a boner no please god no....

I will not lie: I don't care for the YA genre at all because being a teenager was a fucking misery and I'd just as soon not relive it. What I am saying is, this book and I? We weren't going to be besties. Until I found out about the teleporting thing. Well, this changes everything and how, gimme gimme now. The added levels of anxiety, of learning how to use something he'd never so much as conceptualized could exist, plus his *amazing* new superpower's implications...yeah, totally hooked me. Plus the entire parent-amazingness plus irritating overprotectiveness, how he's so close with his Rainbow Alliance pals, his teddy bear bestie Alec, the Meeples game shop loveliness. I was so deeply delighted by these good-memory echoes. Then, in my usual careless fashion, I read it, liked it, laughed out loud until my sides hurt three separate and distinct times, and...forgot to write a review.

For two years. Holy fuckme, two solid years. I am a bad boy.

So, as I am also a registered Republican (long story...Warren/Social Democrat who's never voted GOP in his entire life), I'm going to blame someone else: Author Burgoine dropped two w-bombs. It sapped my will to write. See? It's all his fault.



$11.99 trade paper or $9.99 ebook editions, available now


Rating: 4.5* of five

The Publisher Says: After the climate wars, a floating city is constructed in the Arctic Circle, a remarkable feat of mechanical and social engineering, complete with geothermal heating and sustainable energy. The city’s denizens have become accustomed to a roughshod new way of living, however, the city is starting to fray along the edges—crime and corruption have set in, the contradictions of incredible wealth alongside direst poverty are spawning unrest, and a new disease called “the breaks” is ravaging the population.

When a strange new visitor arrives—a woman riding an orca, with a polar bear at her side—the city is entranced. The “orcamancer,” as she’s known, very subtly brings together four people—each living on the periphery—to stage unprecedented acts of resistance. By banding together to save their city before it crumbles under the weight of its own decay, they will learn shocking truths about themselves.

Blackfish City is a remarkably urgent—and ultimately very hopeful—novel about political corruption, organized crime, technology run amok, the consequences of climate change, gender identity, and the unifying power of human connection.


My Review
: This is a delightful read. The investment you make in the first 100 pages pays off in a rich, enfolding experience of very able, capable worldbuilding by Author Miller.

Four PoV characters seems like a lot, I know, but each presents the reader with a different lens on a world that is all about where you are in its hierarchy as to what it looks like, feels like, and how Qaanaaq functions to meet your needs. Wealthy and privileged and bored Fill and Kaev, males at opposite ends of the city's caste system, and Kaev the professional fight-thrower is about to slip a few more rungs down the ladder. Ankit and non-binary Soq are the mobile middle-dwellers, each functioning in their differing-status jobs to support and/or subvert the power structure. Soq the messenger, the Mercury of Qaanaaq, was probably my favorite PoV in the book. The stealth they possess; the invisibility that rejecting binaries confers on them; all the moments of revelation this leads to make them a character I'd've loved to hear more from.

Author Miller is a top-notch talent, a maker of archetypes and a weaver of worlds whose skills are already as sharp as many with much longer résumés. What points of complaint I have are negligible compared to the central, overarching concerns he presents in this three-year-old and already timeless title.

Some of my favorite lines:
Money is a mind, the oldest artificial intelligence. Its prime directives are simple, it's programming endlessly creative. Humans obey it unthinkingly, with cheerful alacrity. Like a virus, it doesn't care if it kills its host. It will simply flow on to someone new.
The American fleet had lacked a lot of things—food, shelter, fuel, civil liberties—but it hadn’t lacked weapons. The global military presence that had made the pre-fall United States so powerful, and then helped cause their collapse, had left them with all sorts of terrifying toys.
“Fine line between good business and a fucking war crime,” he said. “Ain’t that the goddamn epitaph of capitalism.”

Thursday, January 14, 2021

THREE QUILTBAG HISTORIES: Shuggie Bain, When Brooklyn Was Queer, A Very English Scandal


St. Martin's Press
$11.99 ebook editions, available now

Rating: 5* of five

The Publisher Says: The groundbreaking, never-before-told story of Brooklyn’s vibrant and forgotten queer history, from the mid-1850s up to the present day.

When Brooklyn Was Queer is a groundbreaking exploration of the LGBT history of Brooklyn, from the early days of Walt Whitman in the 1850s up through the women who worked at the Brooklyn Navy Yard during World War II, and beyond. No other book, movie, or exhibition has ever told this sweeping story. Not only has Brooklyn always lived in the shadow of queer Manhattan neighborhoods like Greenwich Village and Harlem, but there has also been a systematic erasure of its queer history—a great forgetting.

Ryan is here to unearth that history for the first time, and show how the formation of Brooklyn is inextricably linked to the stories of the incredible people who created the Brooklyn we know today. Folks like Ella Wesner and Florence Hines, the most famous drag kings of the late-1800s; E. Trondle, a transgender man whose arrest in Brooklyn captured headlines for weeks in 1913; Hamilton Easter Field, whose art commune in Brooklyn Heights nurtured Hart Crane and John Dos Passos; Mabel Hampton, a black lesbian who worked as a dancer at Coney Island in the 1920s; Gustave Beekman, the Brooklyn brothel owner at the center of a WWII gay Nazi spy scandal; and Josiah Marvel, a curator at the Brooklyn Museum who helped create a first-of-its-kind treatment program for gay men arrested for public sex in the 1950s. Through their stories, WBWQ brings Brooklyn’s queer past to life.


My Review
: One of my very favorite possessions is this hardcover copy I received from my friend Katie after the Déluge of 2019 ruined my ARC. The author tells us from the start that:
I use the catchall queer...to refer to people whose sexuality or gender identity isn’t conventional for their time, which helps me avoid projecting specific modern identities (such as gay or transgender) on folks for whom those ideas wouldn’t necessarily have made a lot of sense.

That is all the explanation you need for how, and why, he wrote this history of being "other" in the US's biggest city. It's deeply researched, very well-written, and fascinating to read. Who knew Gypsy Rose Lee and Carson McCullers were close? Who had any idea that Coney Island was known as a queer neighborhood before it was known as a boardwalk and sideshow mecca?

It's enjoyable to learn about New York's most-populous borough with author Hugh Ryan.



Grove Press
$17.00 trade paper or ebook editions, available now

Rating: 5* of five

The Publisher Says: Shuggie Bain is the unforgettable story of young Hugh "Shuggie" Bain, a sweet and lonely boy who spends his 1980s childhood in run-down public housing in Glasgow, Scotland. Thatcher's policies have put husbands and sons out of work, and the city's notorious drugs epidemic is waiting in the wings. Shuggie's mother Agnes walks a wayward path: she is Shuggie's guiding light but a burden for him and his siblings.

She dreams of a house with its own front door while she flicks through the pages of the Freemans catalogue, ordering a little happiness on credit, anything to brighten up her grey life. Married to a philandering taxi-driver husband, Agnes keeps her pride by looking good—her beehive, make-up, and pearly-white false teeth offer a glamourous image of a Glaswegian Elizabeth Taylor. But under the surface, Agnes finds increasing solace in drink, and she drains away the lion's share of each week's benefits—all the family has to live on—on cans of extra-strong lager hidden in handbags and poured into tea mugs. Agnes's older children find their own ways to get a safe distance from their mother, abandoning Shuggie to care for her as she swings between alcoholic binges and sobriety. Shuggie is meanwhile struggling to somehow become the normal boy he desperately longs to be, but everyone has realized that he is "no right," a boy with a secret that all but him can see. Agnes is supportive of her son, but her addiction has the power to eclipse everyone close to her—even her beloved Shuggie.

A heartbreaking story of addiction, sexuality, and love, Shuggie Bain is an epic portrayal of a working-class family that is rarely seen in fiction. Recalling the work of Edouard Louis, Alan Hollinghurst, Frank McCourt, and Hanya Yanagihara, it is a blistering debut by a brilliant novelist who has a powerful and important story to tell.


My Review
: If you don't know already, the 2020 Booker Prize was presented to Author Stuart for this fictionalized account of growing up gay in a deeply dysfunctional, working class family. His story is not unique, though his voice is; he is a survivor of times and tides most of us who read novels are apart from, unacquainted with. A taste for grit lit, an ear for the music of Scottish voices, and a love for searingly honest, uncompromising, and unflinching life-fictions will be sated and elated by this read.

A few of the more beautiful lines from Shuggie's point of view as a teen:
He found his long, thick moustache and sat absent-mindedly stroking it, like a favourite pet. Under it his spare chin wobbled.
The morning light was the colour of too-milky tea. It snuck into the bedsit like a sly ghost, crossing the carpet and inching slowly up his bare legs.The morning light was the colour of too-milky tea. It snuck into the bedsit like a sly ghost, crossing the carpet and inching slowly up his bare legs.


A VERY ENGLISH SCANDAL: Sex, Lies and a Murder Plot at the Heart of the Establishment

Penguin Books
$16.95 trade paper, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: The shocking true story of the first British politician to stand trial for murder

Behind oak-panelled doors in the House of Commons, men with cut-glass accents and gold signet rings are conspiring to murder. It's the late 1960s and homosexuality has only just been legalised, and Jeremy Thorpe, the leader of the Liberal party, has a secret he's desperate to hide. As long as Norman Scott, his beautiful, unstable lover is around, Thorpe's brilliant career is at risk. With the help of his fellow politicians, Thorpe schemes, deceives, embezzles—until he can see only one way to silence Scott for good.

The trial of Jeremy Thorpe changed our society forever: it was the moment the British public discovered the truth about its political class. Illuminating the darkest secrets of the Establishment, the Thorpe affair revealed such breath-taking deceit and corruption in an entire section of British society that, at the time, hardly anyone dared believe it could be true.

A Very English Scandal is an eye-opening tale of how the powerful protect their own, and an extraordinary insight into the forces that shaped modern Britain.


My Review
: The Emmy-winning TV series available on Amazon is an ideal adaptation of the story told in this book.

The morality play that was Jeremy Thorpe's life is hard to misunderstand: Bisexual in a time when any taint of same-sex love was fatal to a career in any walk of public life, Thorpe resorted to attempted murder of his younger, unstable ex-lover when he reached power in Parliament. Like any good scandal, this one only *starts* with the title event; as proceedings widen their cast of involved characters, many renowned British figures of the era get involved and implicated...men whose own sexual misdeeds far, far exceeded Thorpe's consensual buggery. Ironically, Thorpe's attempt to forestall scandal is what brought him down (shades of Nixon and Trump!), as he was acquitted of the charge of attempted murder but was never again any force in British politics.

A thumping good read, a slice of history that we cannot seem to keep from replaying, and a story to make one grateful the world has changed as much as it has.

Wednesday, January 13, 2021

THE PROBLEM WITH MISTLETOE, proof that distracted reading is real and very troublesome

(Five Points Stories #1)
Self published (non-affiliate Amazon link)
FREE Kindle edition, available now

Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: David Cooper did not believe in happily ever after—he thought he let his chance pass him by—between work, being a single father and planning a Christmas party for his mother’s charity his life is complicated enough. And then he has to ask Alex Capili, an old friend who just returned from the big city, to help run it. Spending weeks working closely together old feelings come up and David wonders if fairy tales really do come true.

Alex came home to help sell off his family’s restaurant, he was not looking for love. And happy endings only happen in movies. But nothing about this return trip home town is quite what he expected and David is still the best man he's ever known. A good father, with a heart as big as all outdoors, and disarmingly handsome.


My Review
: I was looking for a "Calgon, take me away" read while the nightmare of this year's bungled and sabotaged transition of presidential power was playing out before my revolted and horrified eyes. A romance, with pretty boys and snow and angst that feels real enough to invest in but not to get in an uproar about, seemed just the ticket.

Eighteen (18) W-bombs. A couple are excusable...parent to child, one intentionally cheeseball one...but when you use a physical defect, I mean gesture, eighteen times in one short book, you're overdoing it. Call this the Cheeseball Test: When you see someone's body language or facial expression described the same way, substitute "fart/ed" and see how you respond.

But that growl of disgust, while it cost the story a star, aside, I found the love of David and Alex very charming. Their second chance at love was a big draw to me. I'm a sucker for second chances. They're not as common in life as in fiction, but that's why I find them so irresistible. Also realistic in my own experience was the homophobic, abusive parent trope. I've had multiple love relationships with men whose upbringings were a lot like Alex's, raging drunk/druggie parents with a major hate for their child's self leading them to beat, belittle, and abuse them. My own mother's rages found their target in my sexuality, as well, though the only substance she abused was tobacco. (Happily enough it's what killed her!)

David's hoity-toity family's lack of acceptance of Alex, misinterpreted by both boys in the moment, was down to his father the drunk; this problem is brought up near the beginning of the book. The source of Alex's abandonment of their hometown and flight to New York City was also his abusive father...a fact that David, whose life trajectory was more conventional than Alex's, has always felt was his own fault for a badly handled kiss under the mistletoe.

Plenty of believable cross-purposes misunderstandings, badly hurt feelings leading to long silences between former friends, a trans character whose friendship with both boys isn't very well explored, several very troubled women whose failings are central to the plot...juicy!

All the problems I've had with the unfolding of the plot...we all know David and Alex are going to end up together, it's a romance, and the HEA is de rigueur...stem from rushed resolutions and missed explorations. In order to feel truly satisfied, I'd've needed to see more of the inner workings of their rupture. Their constantly interrupted efforts to talk went on a little too long. If they'd started the conversations then been interrupted during them it would have made for more tension. As it was it never built anything except the annoying sensation of avoidance.

On balance, the reason I wanted to review the book at this length was to find out why I took three weeks to finish an afternoon's entertainment. When it feels to me like the author is not, even in the limited scope of a romance novel's length, focusing on people's interrelatedness, it's not the immersive read I am always eager to find. As a freebie at Christmas, this book came out ahead of my niggling dissatisfaction. A better example of the Holiday romantic read was, for me, A Viking for Yule (q.v.). It dug just that extra fraction deeper than this perfectly fine read did, and got a higher rating from my picky typist's fingers than this book.

Tuesday, January 12, 2021

SUMMER OF THE CICADAS, a moody cli fi novel of self-discovery and healing


Red Hen Press
$14.95 trade paper, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: Summer of the Cicadas is about a West Virginian town where a brood of Magicicadas emerges for the first time in seventeen years. The cicadas damage crops and trees, and swarm locals. Jessica, a former cop whose entire family was killed in a car crash two years earlier, is deputized during the crisis. Throughout the book, Jessica must deal with her feelings for her sister's best friend, Natasha, who is a town council member. After Fish and Wildlife removes the swarm, Jessica must also confront the two-year anniversary of her family's death, Natasha's budding romance with a local editor, as well as a sudden but devastating loss that changes everything.


My Review
: A book of eerie, unnatural-nature events pushing one lone and lonely lesbian, returned to small-town West Virginia from a law-enforcement career, to deal with Life. After many years' effort to Fit In (as she sees it), a personal tragedy derails her attempts to build an authentic life in Washington, DC. Coming home makes her fall into old, rejected-by-all patterns of thought. Jessica, whose first-person close PoV we're in for the entire book, is a past mistress of negative self-talk. The habit was established early, despite her close and accepting family...she relives a moment where her country-farmer father has The Talk with her, emphasizing that he loves his daughter and supports her exactly how she is (!!–this is how we know it's fiction)...but living among people who smell, sense in some way anyway, your Otherness and make your life a living hell can undo even the best parenting.

It does go a long way, this 'tude: "Fine," I say to Mason. "But no handcuffs this time." She's speaking to the sheriff, her ex-boss, and referring to the time he had to arrest her at a local strip club and then, because she was coked to the tits and causing a disturbance, fire her. There's a real risk to making your PoV character a smartass in a first-person present-tense novel. Author Catherine, for the most part, stays on the correct side of the line, but it's always an uncomfortable slip away from unpleasantness. It wouldn't ever take much to slide into "oh FFS get ***OVER*** yourself" territory in a story about a woman coming to terms with the boundaries and limitations and unhappinesses of an isolated rural lesbian life. Her crush object for half her life is Natasha, whose best-frienddom with Jess's dead sister keeps the two orbiting each other. Their flirtatious dance is sexual on Jess's part; Natasha is a tease, totally aware of what Jess is feeling and always dancing a bit ahead, to the side, never quite letting her have the prize.

The strange thing is that Jess, dopey lovesick girl that she was for Natasha, doesn't rush in and demand the whole package. But, then she'd have to act; action comes with consequences; and possibility, even at the price of a tease, is easier accept when you're about 99% sure that the real answer is NO. And then there's the whole "everybody hates me, nobody loves me, I'm gonna go eat worms" issue that Jess has with her fellow Mayberryans. (Yes, like THAT Mayberry. Roll with it.) The first third of the book is spent setting the stakes; now it's go time.

This summer is the one where the seventeen-year periodical Magicicadas endemic to deciduous forests in the Eastern US are expected. No one who's experienced it will forget the noise these damned things make. They're black and orange, have red eyes, and fly sluggishly.

Most of the time.

Not this year: Jess's pity party is trumped by the weirdness of the new hatching. These are brightly blue or green with red eyes, bodies as much as five inches long (!!), and whose normal sap-feeding habits are having strange, lethal effects on the trees around the crops already blighted by a hotter-than-usual summer. They're also swarming oddly...and attacking people with some regularity. No one appears to be more than injured by the sharp mouth-parts for a while, but the sheer weirdness of cicadas flying voluntarily and swarming humans, ordinarily pretty much invisible to them, makes the rural farming community scared as hell.

Jess and Mason, who's rehired her for the duration of this weirdness, are propelled into action; the actions are taken, the problem subsides, and Jess and Natasha are forced into ever-closer proximity. Events, as they do, take their course and, as the cicada problem reaches crisis proportions, all of the public and private abscesses in Mayberry burst in Jess's face.

To every birth its blood.

By the end of the book, I was satisfied that Jess's trajectory was altered; that's what I look for in a satisfying read. Up or down, good or bad, not stasis, or I lose my shit and shout mean things at my Kindle. Like it has magical powers to transmute my unkindness and frustration into pain for the offending creator (or Creator, depending). I can hope.

There are lapses in story logic...Mason's injury prevents him from walking but later he's clomping into a meeting? the deputy who's a meathead is also a good kid but is scared of a confrontation?...but honestly, I won't make a fuss about them because the characters are plenty enough to be going on with. The science part's harder to forget, though; there is nothing made of the parts of the story concerning the cicadas beyond a quick fix that works, A star vanished for that application of handwavium creme. Yes, fine, give me the first-person propulsiveness of Jess's PoV and her obsessions, but have the science folk part of her orbit! Tell me that they're acting scared, or shifty, or something to explain why what happened happened; and how they had canisters of handwavium creme handily tested and everything, though this is a seventeen-year periodical species?! That needs some questions from Jess that the science folk must answer somehow.

I liked Jess, though I wanted to shake her sometimes. I liked the self-knowledge she won her way through a miasma of misery to use to take herself off the hamster-wheel of self-loathing. But I wasn't *completely* satisfied, so here we are at a four-star ending.

Monday, January 11, 2021

ACE, a trenchant book on the experience of living in a hypersexualized culture without being of it

ACE: What Asexuality Reveals About Desire, Society, and the Meaning of Sex

Beacon Press
$14.95 trade paper, available now

Rating: 4* of five

Support Isaac! watch Heartstopper season 2 and read along on his journey into asexuality/aromantic selfhood.

The Publisher Says: An engaging exploration of what it means to be asexual in a world that’s obsessed with sexual attraction, and what the ace perspective can teach all of us about desire and identity.

What exactly is sexual attraction and what is it like to go through life not experiencing it? What does asexuality reveal about gender roles, about romance and consent, and the pressures of society? This accessible examination of asexuality shows that the issues that aces face—confusion around sexual activity, the intersection of sexuality and identity, navigating different needs in relationships—are the same conflicts that nearly all of us will experience. Through a blend of reporting, cultural criticism, and memoir, Ace addresses the misconceptions around the “A” of LGBTQIA and invites everyone to rethink pleasure and intimacy.

Journalist Angela Chen creates her path to understanding her own asexuality with the perspectives of a diverse group of asexual people. Vulnerable and honest, these stories include a woman who had blood tests done because she was convinced that “not wanting sex” was a sign of serious illness, and a man who grew up in a religious household and did everything “right,” only to realize after marriage that his experience of sexuality had never been the same as that of others. Disabled aces, aces of color, gender-nonconforming aces, and aces who both do and don’t want romantic relationships all share their experiences navigating a society in which a lack of sexual attraction is considered abnormal. Chen’s careful cultural analysis explores how societal norms limit understanding of sex and relationships and celebrates the breadth of sexuality and queerness.


My Review:
This is the most eye-opening read of 2020. "The map is not the territory" is a truism I'd stopped short of applying to sexual attraction. Behavior, yes, but not attraction, that "energy {aces} have no idea what {allos} are talking about." Attraction is an energy; I'm so deep in its gravity well, see the world so completely through its lens, that I'm blankly surprised that others don't. Author Chen continues my seventh-decade growth spurt.

Aces! Allos! Things I'd sorta-kinda heard about a while ago, maybe, but had zero context for. This is fascinating.
The ace world is not an obligation. Nobody needs to identify, nobody is trapped, nobody needs to stay forever and pledge allegiance. The words are gifts. If you know which terms to search, you know how to find others who might have something to teach.

As an old queer gent, one whose queerness goes beyond being vanilla-gay, I've been in the place of ace and aro people, being judged and branded as abnormal within a community that is itself branded as abnormal by outsiders. The principal issue is, if we are made invisible, or mainstreamed as we now call it, those of us in actual danger of our lives (in intolerant countries like Dagestan and Nigeria) do not realize there is a large and thriving world where we're simply ourselves, not monstrous or dangerous or Other:
Normal is often treated as a moral judgment, when it is often simply a statistical matter. The question of what everyone else is doing is less important than the question of what works for the two people in the actual relationship. It matters that everyone’s needs are carefully considered and respected, not that everyone is doing the same thing.
“It seems that the message is ‘we have liberated our sexuality, therefore we must now celebrate it and have as much sex as we want,’” says Jo, an ace policy worker in Australia. “Except ‘as much sex as we want’ is always lots of sex and not no sex, because then we are oppressed, or possibly repressed, and we’re either not being our true authentic selves, or we haven’t discovered this crucial side of ourselves that is our sexuality in relation to other people, or we haven’t grown up properly or awakened yet.”

I wanted lots of sex most of my life; I'm old enough now that the Urge is muted, and doesn't bedevil my every thought. I have a partner whose presence in my world is a cause for joy and celebration. He's a gift. And also mixed race, three and a half decades younger than me, and just starting what I hope will be a long and happy career as a chef. I won't be there to see his full-on selfhood; I will be in his full-on selfhood because our relationship has formed each of us as we are now. I'm a whole lot nicer with him than I was without him.

We're neither ace nor aro; we're Othered by the nature of our connection. And, like Author Chen's subject, intergenerational love is not visible or, when revealed, well thought of. He's an adult, was when we met, but there lingers about an old man and a young man the disagreeable whiff of pedophilia. People I consider dear and close friends simply clam up and/or change the subject when I talk about him, have never ever one time asked how he's doing on the front lines of the plague's workers (whom do you imagine makes the delivery food you're eating?), where if he was a she they'd be solicitous and interested.

As bitter as that sounds, the pain of it is old and familiar, as it has always been this way. It's simply a fact that Author Chen presents in a slightly different light, one that shines as bright on bedrock homophobia as it does on prejudices more visible:
Picture whiteness as a neutral backdrop, a white wall. It is easier to paint a white wall light blue than it is to paint a dark green wall light blue. The dominant media is filled with images of many types of white people; white people, for the most part, have the freedom to be anything they like. People of color need to scrub away the dark green—racial stereotypes and expectations—before determining whether we are really ace.

For white read straight; and then examine y'all's consciences.

The basic argument Author Chen makes in this deeply felt, thoroughly researched book is, to me at least, one that includes me at every level:
Relationships should always be a game of mix and match, not a puzzle that you have to perfectly snap into, or a Jenga tower that will collapse as soon as you try to wiggle one block out of place. Customizability is the best part, yet most people try so hard to make their relationship stick to its premade form, a one-size-fits-all shape. Many people don’t take advantage of their own freedom.

All the fascinating stuff about people not like me aside, I read this book to hear that phrase, the simple formulation that explains me to myself. I haven't been on Earth this long not to realize when I'm being spoken to. There is nothing whatsoever in this that is any way a threat to you, your relationship, and the life you've built. Why, then, are so many of you demonizing and rejecting people who are simply doing exactly what you're doing...finding, building, living a relationship to their authentic selves and to others?

Author Chen's words are direct and simple, her subject wildly important, and her conclusions elegantly simple. I challenge you to challenge yourself in this unpleasant moment of our shared history, with viruses and unrest and human ugliness pounding our sleepy complacent senses of self, to stretch out and incorporate more ways of being into your head and your life.

Build back better isn't, or needn't be, an empty slogan.

Thursday, January 7, 2021

THE STONE WĒTĀ and COME WATER, BE ONE OF US, never mistake short for weak

Paper Road Press NON-Affiliate link to Amazon; the author published the book from New Zealand
$3.99 Kindle edition, available now


Rating: 5* of five

The Publisher Says: “We talk about the tyranny of distance a lot in this country. That distance will not save us.”

With governments denying climate science, scientists from affected countries and organizations are forced to traffic data to ensure the preservation of research that could in turn preserve the world. From Antarctica, to the Chihuahuan Desert, to the International Space Station, a fragile network forms. A web of knowledge. Secret. But not secret enough.

When the cold war of data preservation turns bloody – and then explosive – an underground network of scientists, all working in isolation, must decide how much they are willing to risk for the truth. For themselves, their colleagues, and their future.

Murder on Antarctic ice. A university lecturer’s car, found abandoned on a desert road. And the first crewed mission to colonize Mars, isolated and vulnerable in the depths of space.

How far would you go to save the world?

My Review: When the Revolution comes, it will be women leading it. Secular Saint Stacey Abrams will likely be honking the biggest horn and causing the biggest ruckus. But that's not because it's her M.O. It's because her cover's blown. There is no point in trying to sneak when every-damn-body knows your shoe size and when you cheat on your diet.

So here is a story I read last month about the Revolution led by women and made up of scientists who'll be damned to hell if they're going to make nice for no gain when the planet is dying:
Resistance was revolution, sometimes, blood and dramatic acts, but more often it was survival. More often it was preservation, and the data she carried with her was for preservation more than revolution.

This near-future Earth has gone well past tipping point. The vileness that is Capitalism is still spinning its lies and soothing its consumers to keep them buying while...to be honest I haven't the foggiest clue what they're thinking they can do that we can't, how they will survive the *actual* End of Days, but there it is. The lie-maker machinery behind the popular songs is still humming "Big Yellow Taxi" and cheerfully killing people who know it's all a lie and can't be arsed to do anything about it.
It was hard to be an astronaut and not be an environmentalist.
She’d seen the photos—Earthrise and The Blue Marble—known the watershed impact they’d had on the conservation movement.

The women in this resistance movement are identified in a clever, amusing way; I won't say, you should find out for yourself. Actually the biggest advantage to this technique is the flexibility it gives Author Cade in prefiguring the events of the chapters and sections. What she does with it is that sly, side-eye fun-making that you and at least one of your friends have, that one whose eye you cannot afford to meet when you're together but not in a safe place to fall out laughing at embarrassing moments. The story is one that today, the sixth of January, 2021, was so perfect in subject, in tenor, and resonance, that I had to re-read it. These women, these scientists, are all in flux and transition (!) and trying to protect the only home we have from the misguided and stupid who are deliberately trying to destroy it.

The challenges of doing that by concealing accurate data, the enemy of fascists and authoritarians everywhere. Do y'all remember my review of The Badass Librarians of Timbuktu? That culture of concealment for survival is mentioned here, alongside its increasingly popular young grandniece:
All those manuscripts, and Timbuktu a place of historic learning, of literacy and knowledge passing on. What it passed on now could be the lessons and skills of resistance, the ways of smuggling out and networking.
There was a tendency with so much digital to make all copies electronic, and rely on the internet for keeping multiple copies visible and tamper-proof. But any system could be hacked, any data deleted. The information she intended to facilitate had to be kept discretely, separate from any possible influence.

There is no hope for rebuilding from looming catastrophes—and there is a dilly of a disaster we see even before the collapse we're too soon to witness completing itself—without accurate, complete data hidden somewhere, cared for by someone with the skills to use it when it's finally safe to do so. Think of the world we might have had the religious nuts not burned the Library at Alexandria! So there's a precendent for Author Cade telling us this story, and a reason for you to spend the money to read it at this moment in US and UK history. Today's multiple klans of barbarians are doing their damnedest to finish burning the norms and conventions that have protected and enriched the greatest number of people. Author Cade tells us, and the evidence right now points to her prescience, that they won't stop even at murder to finish the destruction of whatever institutions, whatever systems and learning and techniques, prevent them from staying in complete control.

We've fought wars ostensibly to prevent that from happening, against an enemy whose words and iconography we saw used in the Capitol of the United States of America. One woman, identity as yet not revealed, has died from a gunshot wound received during the violence. It is eerie, then, to realize this is not so shockingly unthinkable. Author Cade thought it. She framed it, though, differently from the US news media, as what it is:
One person was such a small-scale loss, comparatively. (One person was enormous.)



Strange Horizons magazine
Free to read online

Rating: 5* of five

We made the corporations people, but then we did the same to the rivers.

A fever dream of anti-capitalist and pro-planet activism. A simply told, easily understood explication of why it was such a *colossally* stupid thing to create the legal fiction of "corporate personhood."

People are greedy, selfish fucks, so why would one expect an atl-law-only person to be any different? But...here's the thing...bad ideas come with good uses. This one comes with the personification of Water in their riverine expression. If rivers are people, they have rights and they have legal standing; it then becomes possible, nay necessary, to act in their behalf. To give them the care and assistance necessary for them to thrive and prosper, just like all persons whether biological or legal.

Take THAT, capitalism.

Sunday, January 3, 2021

COVE, beginning my 2021 reviews on a Cynan-Jones-caused 5-star high


$19.95 hardcover, available now

I can not forget this read. I refer to it in my head, I think about its stark, vividly limned images. I am so deeply glad Author Cynan wrote it. This is my 2021 Six-Stars-of-Five read.

Rating: 5* 6 stars of five

The Publisher Says: Out at sea, in a sudden storm, a man is struck by lightning. When he wakes, injured and adrift on a kayak, his memory of who he is and how he came to be there is all but shattered. Now he must pit himself against the pain and rely on his instincts to get back to shore, and to the woman he dimly senses waiting for his return.


My Review
: Don't ever, ever think you're in a dark place again, is the primary message of this novella-cum-prose poem.
He is holding his hands in the water, rubbing the blood from them, when the hairs on his arms stand up. The sway briefly, like seaweed in the current. Then lie down again.

He looks up. A strange ruffle come across the surface.

The birds had lifted suddenly and gone away. As if there were some signal. They are flecks now, a hiatus disappearing against the light off the sea.

He is far enough out for the land to have paled in view.

Our nameless point-of-view man is busy preparing to take his kayak out of the cove near his home. With his experienced preparations, catching a fish for his supper and with the material goods he needs to make the short trip comfortable, there is a heaviness. The foreboding the above passage evokes in me is matched by the fact that he's there to scatter his father's ashes. But the world doesn't have time to mourn for anyone:
There was a piping of oystercatchers, a clap of water as a fish jumped. He saw it for a moment, a silver nail. A thing deliberately, for a brief astounding moment, broken from its element.

These passages make me think I live in Author Cynan's head. I see and hear them in realtime. I am deeply unsettled...what is coming must be difficult because these quotidian sensations are so powerful. The ashes, the small moments of daily reality going on despite the huge gaping hole of his father's death...going out of the shelter of this homely cove, noticing its real-world comforts...
...I've read your books before, Author Cynan, something terrible this way comes.

A moment truly as before-and-after as it is portrayed to be: A lightning strike.

While alone at sea. In a kayak. With a few hours' trip supplies.

Waking up alive, though after how long he doesn't know and with the arm that conducted the current dead (the fern-like pattern of Lichtenberg figures disfiguring his now-useless hand and arm), he inventories his few supplies and begins preparations to survive. It is grueling to read and almost reeks of experience, which I hope is second-hand:
He takes off the buoyancy aid & pulls on the thick sweater, useless arm first. The smell of the sweater triggers something, but it is like a piano key hitting strings that are gone.

That image is both terrifying to me, and gorgeous to read. What a superbly wrought way to describe the sensation of losing a piece of yourself, your experience. Where one expects resonant musical pleasure, there is the presence of silence and not just the absence of sound.

There is a miserable fight, with the good luck of an itchy sunfish rubbing against his kayak and beneficently steering it towards land; there is a moment of aesthetic joy as night luminescent seas trace the presence of his hand; there is so much work and so much pain:
If you disappear you will grow into a myth for them. You will exist only as an absence. If you get back, you will exist as a legend.

That's effective self-talk for a man who's been through some huge change. "They" are the woman pregnant with his child, and the unborn person itself. For, as the sea's many thefts (water, skin) bite ever deeper, he needs this goal to focus on, and needs also his dead father's ghost in his own head reminding him how to do this, how to survive.

An image of fatherhood that I am so unspeakably glad to see in fiction, littered as it is with cheating lying beating abusing men.

The ordeal continues. The night and the day and then there is land...land within sight...with lights...and he MacGyvers up a sail to speed his bonny boat...
...into a squall.
All of his life he's had a recurring dream: the car leaves the road. It is never the impact that terrifies him, wakes him. His fear comes the moment he feels the car go.

His life does not pass before his eyes. There is even a point he feels calm. But then he sees the faces of the people he loves. He sees their faces as they see him go.

Here is a man driven to Be There, never to leave, always support and defend, finally driven to his uttermost extreme in search of survival.

And that is where we end.

I close my remarks by noting that this is the book I wish The Old Man and the Sea had been, but was not.