Saturday, May 29, 2021

TAKE THE LEAD, an essay Jessica Simpson didn't need to offer but chose to, empowering disempowered women

Amazon Original Stories
$1.99 Kindle edition, FREE to read for Prime customers

Real Rating: 3.5* of five, rounded up because Author Simpson deserves all the plaudits in the world for wanting to help the people who used and abused her in spite of everything

The Publisher Says: An inspiring and revealing essay about motherhood, self-acceptance, and overcoming the fears that hold you back by the #1 New York Times bestselling author of Open Book.

“If I want to lead myself into something greater than yesterday, I have to surrender the things that scare me and hold me back.”

Jessica Simpson collected so much emotional baggage over the course of her life that she began to feel like she couldn’t carry anything else. She knew she needed to confront her fears. She made a to-do list for the life she wanted. No more struggling to please everyone else. No more dulling the pain. No more avoiding the scary stuff. From now on, she’ll focus only on the expectations she has for herself. With her inviting warmth and trademark intimacy, Jessica reflects on the example of her daughters and son, reclaiming her power and taking the lead in her own life.


My Review
: Four short chapters, all in all a half-hour's read, that bid fair to do more good for people stuck in Plague Year Mode than all the well-intentioned and hamfisted punditry on the TV and internet.

Facing fear; parenting; breaking free of obsessive cyclic behavior. In short, letting go and letting yourself actually be free. These are excellent messages. Simpson is a poster girl for all of them. She's never been out of the public eye since her pop-star days, and her awful reality TV show with her abusive first husband is one of the primary reasons I don't watch the stupid things. (Except #GBBO.) The toll this took on her is well-documented if twisted into criticisms of her even then.

Author Simpson is to be celebrated for telling her side of things without rancor or self-pity...excessive rancor or unwarranted self-pity, I suppose...and this free-with-Prime read builds on that mature image.

I don't know if most people who read my reviews feel the need of this kind of cheerleading, encouragement, to make change and get inspired to seek their own best methods to accomplish this (that is the main take-away of this essay), but please...don't turn up your nose or look down it at a woman whose personal power, her control over her body, was utterly voided and who is now redressing that life-long wrong.

And for goodness' sake, stop voting for old white men whose purpose it is to make that heinous crime a legally protected abuse.

Friday, May 28, 2021

NOTHING PERSONAL, an overlooked essay by a master of the form


Beacon Press
$10.99 ebook editions, available now
Save 30% on everything at their site (linked above) through December 31 using code HOL30!

Rating: 5* of five

The Publisher Says: James Baldwin's critique of American society at the height of the civil rights movement brings his prescient thoughts on social isolation, race, and police brutality to a new generation of readers.

Available for the first time in a stand-alone edition, Nothing Personal is Baldwin's deep probe into the American condition. Considering the Black Lives Matter protests in the summer of 2020--which were met with tear gas and rubber bullets the same year white supremacists entered the US Capitol with little resistance, openly toting flags of the Confederacy--Baldwin's documentation of his own troubled times cuts to the core of where we find ourselves today.

Baldwin's thoughts move through an interconnected range of questions, from America's fixation on eternal youth, to its refusal to recognize the past, its addiction to consumerism, and the lovelessness that fuels it in its cities and popular culture. He recounts his own encounter with police in a scene disturbingly similar to those we see today documented with ever increasing immediacy. This edition also includes a new foreword from interdisciplinary scholar Imani Perry and an afterword from noted Baldwin scholar Eddie S. Glaude Jr. Both explore and situate the essay within the broader context of Baldwin's work, the Movement for Black Lives, the COVID-19 pandemic, and the presidency of Donald Trump.

Nothing Personal is both a eulogy and a declaration of will. In bringing this work into the twenty-first century, readers new and old will take away fundamental and recurring truths about life in the US. It is both a call to action, and an appeal to love and to life.


My Review
: It is hard for me to believe that this essay was, for a long time, relegated to text around Richard Avedon's amazing photos. The fact that Avedon and Baldwin knew each other, and since high school, hadn't made my radar screens either. This is the first time I've ever seen the essay, and how I wish it wasn't.
Generations do not cease to be born, and we are responsible to them because we are the only witnesses they have.

The sea rises, the light fails, lovers cling to each other, and children cling to us. The moment we cease to hold each other, the moment we break faith with one another, the sea engulfs us and the light goes out.

Author Baldwin was a man whose vision was clearer than most people's sight.

Possibly the best proof you can have that Baldwin, a skinny gay Black kid, was a man out of time is this:
We have all heard the bit about what a pity it was that Plymouth Rock didn't land on the Pilgrims instead of the other way around. I have never found this remark very funny. It seems wistful and vindictive to me, containing, furthermore, a very bitter truth. The inertness of that rock meant death for the Indians, enslavement for the {B}lacks, and spiritual disaster for those homeless Europeans who now call themselves Americans...

He already foresaw the gigantic changes in humor that our generation is undergoing; they were underway even then. The Smothers Brothers on their three-season comedy show sparked a revolution in what could and should be grounds for humor. It makes my eyes water to remember how much guff the "comedy" of my parents' generation desensitized them to. They were both alive before the last vestiges of vaudeville were destroyed by radio. Blackface and minstrel songs were things they heard and saw. Racism was in the air, was utterly was the time of Jim Crow laws, it was the time when lynchings were happening with regularity, and a flag was hung out in front of the NAACP Building in New York:
Baldwin, Harlem native that he was, would've seen that flag time and time again, would've associated it with his own Black body, his own maleness.
The violence was being perpetrated mainly against {B}lack men...the strangers; and so it didn't count. But, if a society permits one portion of its citizenry to be menaced or destroyed, no one in that society is safe.

This is something I understand viscerally. The police do not, as a rule, like faggots; if one is found in any place or at any time being faggoty in pubic, they will harass you and intimidate you to the maximum extent they can get away with; if reported, their defense is "that's a lie" and I promise you your word against their words amounts to less than nothing. This is my lived experience, so arguments are not welcome.

Imani Perry, author of the Foreword to this edition of Nothing Personal, says this of our deeply American inability to believe others' experiences are real:
Then, and now: we have acquired an endless habit of the most superficial forms of self-correction, makeup to make up for our perceived inadequacy as it were, nipping, tucking, coloring, all as a displacement for the possibilities of deeper self-reflection and self-creation.

It is fuctionally impossible to believe, believe in, trust another when you don't believe in your own value to the point that you feel compelled to ask your body to endure surgeries, toxic chemicals, and endless damaging stress in order to feel you're even acceptable to look at.

James Baldwin is a writer of great and unendingly valuable insight and moral authority. He was clear-sighted, his vision of what could be was articulated from a high moral base as a former believer in Christianity, and he never once backed down from his conviction that we could reach the City upon a Hill. He was a realist, however, schooled in the rejections of his gayness and effeminacy and Blackness by even those whose job it was to love him. He didn't believe we would reach that paradisiacal state; he never let go of the unshakeable assurance that we should never, ever cease to strive after it.

Happen I agree. Happy Memorial Day long weekend.

Thursday, May 27, 2021

RUNAWAY, Peter May's trenchant novel of growing old's many indignities


Quercus (non-affiliate Amazon link)
$6.99 ebook editions, available now

Rating: 3.75* of five

The Publisher Says: "Five of us had run away that fateful night just over a month before. Only three of us would be going home. And nothing, nothing would ever be the same again."

Glasgow, 1965. Headstrong teenager Jack Mackay has just one destination on his mind--London--and successfully convinces his four friends, and fellow bandmates, to join him in abandoning their homes to pursue a goal of musical stardom.

Glasgow, 2015. Jack Mackay, heavy-hearted sixty-seven-year-old is still haunted by what might have been. His recollections of the terrible events that befell him and his friends some fifty years earlier, and how he did not act when it mattered most is a memory he has tried to escape his entire adult life.

London, 2015. A man lies dead in a one-room flat. His killer looks on, remorseless.

What started with five teenagers following a dream five decades before has been transformed over the intervening decades into a waking nightmare that might just consume them all.


My Review
: Aging. Yuck. No one really likes it...prostate pees for men, hot flashes for women, a general sense of "oh why bother" when confronted with la crise du jour...suddenly all those Godard films you watched to impress that cute guy make sense, ennui is one's default state.

But there are a few who, for whatever (usually external) reason, decide that this just Will Not Do. They put on their velcro-close "running shoes" (ha! like they're ever gonna run absent a fire alarm or a closing buffet) and say, "fuck this I'm outta here." In fact there's quite a little subgenre of books about old folk running away: those Swedish ones by that boring man, what was his name, anyway you know the ones I mean; long ago, Paul Gallico wrote one, Mrs. 'Arris Goes to Paris, and then M from the Bond movies was in that English one set in India...Marigold Something.

We are decidedly not, however, in any of those cute-old-folk entertainments here.

There are secrets in all our pasts. We don't tell others because they're too personal, or too painful, or too embarrassing...rare is the secret, though, that has cost lives in two centuries. Jack Mackay has one of those.

In 1965, Jack and four friends were about to defy the odds and Be Someone. Rise to their personal heights! They had to get the hell away from the dank chains of family, of course, and the mildewy environs of Glasgow. London! Music was happenin' in 1965 London! And they had what it takes, they were going there to build better than their small-time successes.

Tragedy. Humiliation. Homegoing, for some anyway. Jack spends fifty years being, well, nobody and everybody. Mediocre, an almost-was whose life has dragged on and on. Now more changes are being forced on Jack, his awful absence of success is revisiting him with its wet shroudlike envelopment. And suddenly, from the depths of 1965, the Jack of 2015 takes off back to London, his grandson at the wheel, because the siren call of unfinished business is LOUD.

The awful part is that finishing up that business could get people killed. Jack wouldn't be arsed if it was him whose "life" was the only one in danger, but the threat includes his old friends. And his grandson.

I must say that the indentity of the perpetrator of the coercive and criminal scenarios made all the sense in the world to me, and the nature of the disaster in the past was very deeply sad if not terribly unusual. The pure-D unadulterated Peter-May-ness of the resolution to the disasters past and present stems from his utter, abject inability to leave a thread to dangle. Every last end is tightly bound up.

Since Author May is a veteran of the TV mills and decades of thriller- and mystery-writing, he's developed that habit of story-telling and be damned if you, reviewer, wish for something a bit more textured, true to life. As this particular novel is a standalone and is based in part on some of the author's own lived experience, well...maybe it's all down to that specialty of the old, the tidying-up of the past.

I *do* know that, in spite of taking a thoroughly humiliating six years to write this review, I approve of the story, polished and tidied into fiction though it may be.

Wednesday, May 26, 2021

THREE KINDS OF TRAVEL-TIME READS: The Bowery; David Mogo, Godhunter; Disasters at Sea

THE BOWERY: The Strange History of New York's Oldest Street

$16.99 ebook editions, available now

KINDLE EDITION ON SALE NOW! $1.99 (non-affiliate Amazon link)

Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: It was the street your mother warned you about—even if you lived in San Francisco. Long associated with skid row, saloons, freak shows, violence, and vice, the Bowery often showed the worst New York City had to offer. Yet there were times when it showed its best as well.

The Bowery is New York's oldest street and Manhattan's broadest boulevard. Like the city itself, it has continually reinvented itself over the centuries. Named for the Dutch farms, or bouweries, of the area, the path's lurid character was established early when it became the site of New Amsterdam's first murder. A natural spring near the Five Points neighborhood led to breweries and taverns that became home to the gangs of New York—the "Bowery B'hoys," "Plug Uglies," and "Dead Rabbits."

In the Gaslight Era, teenaged streetwalkers swallowed poison in McGurk's Suicide Hall. A brighter side to the street was reflected in places of amusement and culture over the years. A young P.T. Barnum got his start there, and Harry Houdini learned showmanship playing the music halls and dime museums. Poets, singers, hobos, gangsters, soldiers, travelers, preachers, storytellers, con-men, and reformers all gathered there. Its colorful cast of characters include Peter Stuyvesant, Steve Brodie, Carrie Nation, Stephen Foster, Stephen Crane, Carrie Joy Lovett, and even Abraham Lincoln.

The Bowery: The Strange History of New York's Oldest Street traces the full story of this once notorious thoroughfare from its pre-colonial origins to the present day.


My Review
: I've lived in or near New York City for twenty-five of my sixty-*cough* years. I'm not surprised that I'm still learning stuff about my home town. And considering the astounding difference between the 1980s New York I moved to and the gentrified, sanitized Newyorkland it's become, I have no trouble relating to Author DeVillo's interesting browsing-book's premise of the many streets that Manhattan has called "The Bowery" over the centuries.

Exhaustively researched...the Bibliography and Endnotes will swell your TBRs, fellow New Yorkophiles!...and anecdotally presented, this is a perfect holiday-weekend-travel book. I call them "browsing books" because you can set it down at any point, pick it back up and take right up from where you left off. More than trivia lists, less than in-depth formal Histories, this is exactly what a beach bag or backpack needs loaded on your Kindle to stave off wait-time boredom.



Abaddon Books (non-affiliate Amazon link)
$5.99 Kindle edition, available now

Rating: 4.5* of five

The Publisher Says: Nigerian God-Punk - a powerful and atmospheric urban fantasy set in Lagos.

Since the Orisha War that rained thousands of deities down on the streets of Lagos, David Mogo, demigod, scours Eko’s dank underbelly for a living wage as a freelance Godhunter. Despite pulling his biggest feat yet by capturing a high god for a renowned Eko wizard, David knows his job’s bad luck. He’s proved right when the wizard conjures a legion of Taboos—feral godling-child hybrids—to seize Lagos for himself. To fix his mistake and keep Lagos standing, David teams up with his foster wizard, the high god’s twin sister and a speech-impaired Muslim teenage girl to defeat the wizard.


My Review
: ...and then I ran out and bought one so I could dip in and out, savoring my time with David Mogo the demigod with family problems, money problems, and a new job...freelance godhunters can't be all that choosy!...that he just *knows* is very, very bad luck and news.

I'd like to see the "controversy" about the Lagos setting and the use of Naijá dialect sometimes, plain Colonial English others, all sent to the bin for incineration, please. Most of the folk doing that whining are also guilty of whining about human beings in the US *daring* to speak Spanish or Vietnamese or whatever isn't familiar to them. Yes, dear, we know that when you're Privileged others having parity feels like an attack. You'll get used to it in time, and discover how enthralling it is to be inside somene else's world for once.

And it isn't like you've spent time whinging about learning what orcs are, or how to pronounce "Boba Fett", or that Han understands Jabba een though we don' let's just cut through the padding and call this what it is: Racism. Face it so you can start to fix it. And that is something you badly need to do.

The godpunk elements of the story...the facts of David's existence, the rain of gods that's seriously plaguing Lagos...are the real draw to this Continental-Op-in-Urban-Fantasy tale. We've got beaucoup examples of urban fantasy with old-fashioned loner/fixer PIs in them. Chicagoland has Harry Dresden, San Francisco has Toby Daye, New York City has Charlie Parker, Kaaro in a different Lagos, and the list goes on. I hope we can add David Mogo to this list permanently, with more adventures to come.

The novella length is tailor-made for use in lines, on planes, in trains and cabs. You can take your time with the read, of course, but you can also read novellas in quick hits. It's the most brilliant thing to happen in technology's long, ugly slide into surveillance, the presence of a reading app on every device you drag with you everywhere you go.

I was always amused, as I read the book on the town's boardwalk outside my building, at the responses of young Black people to my elderly white-beareded face shoved into the book. Several asked me why I was reading it, and after a few minutes of my gushing description of David hunting the godling in the cistern and how absolutely wonderful that scene would be on film, made polite noises and skedaddled.

Heh. *Still* scarin' the straight folk at sixty*ahem*!

As the Memorial Day travel weekend is here, with our new freedom from Plague restrictions I expect lots of y'all will travel. Take Doctor Suyi's David with you for the ride. Best $6 I've spent...on a book I've already read!


DISASTERS AT SEA: A Visual History of Infamous Shipwrecks

$14.95 trade paper, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: The stories behind over sixty historical shipwrecks, with extensive illustrations.

Whether they’re caused by rough weather, human error, collision, piracy, or mutiny, shipwrecks are fascinating stories filled with history and human drama. This book reveals the facts behind numerous catastrophes around the world, and legends, myths, and mysteries of the sea from ancient to modern times—including widely known disasters such as the Titanic and Andrea Doria, as well as the cases of:
The San Agustin
The 1715 Treasure Fleet
USS Monitor
The Endurance
SS Edmund Fitzgerald
RMS Empress of Ireland
The Henrietta Marie
HMS Bounty
The Mary Celeste
The General Slocum
The Flying Dutchman
And many more
Includes detailed maps and shipwreck locations


My Review
: It felt a bit odd to recommend a book of shipwrecks on a travel holiday blog post. I'll tell y'all what, though, it's nowhere near as odd as recommending a reader go spend yet more money than they already are on a holiday travel weekend...and thus this free-to-read recommendation.

This is eye-candy, pure and simple. Of course there is a bibliography, de rigueur in modern publishing, and it also has a very nice Index with hyperlinks to the subjects! It's really designed to be a picture book though, a lovely ornamental thing; those fare notoriously poorly on the Kindle. The small screen, the limited graphics capability, the inevitable awfulness of publishers' preferred Satanic nightmare, the PDF, playing badly with Amazon's technology so no one will be able to enjoy them. UNLESS you've sprung for a Fire tablet.

Now we're cookin' with gas.

Skyhorse, this book's publisher, has landed in the news here lately for their determinedly contrarian actions. What I think of that isn't meant for this occasion. What I think of their willingness and apparent ability to make illustrated history and nature and such-like ebooks available inexpensively and in formats that play well with Amazon's tech is entirely laudable.

This book is designed for browsers. There are call-out boxes labeled "Flotsam and Jetsam." There is beautiful chapter-opening art:
Shipwreck on a Rocky Coast, Wijnand Nuijen (1837)—from Wikimedia Commons...opens Chapter 2, "The Fatal Flaw"

I think that's pretty much the perfect tone for art I'm happy to look at for holiday travels taken in crowded modern conditions! And the chapters have self-contained stories about the events leading up to, surrounding, and following the shipwrecks; there are trivia sidebars about people, places, and inventions (lots of inventions! Mel Fisher's "mailbox," invented to seek the treasure galleon Nuestra Se&ntil;a de Atocha in the Florida Keys, is by itself worthy of a book) related to, stemming from, or causing (in a few cases) the shipwrecks.

The famous wrecks...the Titanic and the Mary Celeste and the Indianapolis are all there. The freshwater sinkings of the General Slocum:
The General Slocum burning in the East River, 1904...contemporary photo via Wikimedia Commons

...and the Eastland and the Sultana. All those get their due; the memories of stories half-heard on TV shows about ancient aliens and the like get their proper debunking in sections on the Bermuda Triangle; the pirates of the Caribbean (not the Mauschwitz version!) and their Queen Anne's Revenge sagas are touched lightly on. No tum, sodomy, and the lash for this book!


Arctic and Antarctic exploration losses like the Endurance in Antarctica and the HMS Terror and HMS Erebus of the newly re-remembered Franklin Expedition (if you haven't watched the TV show The Terror, load it up now!) all come in for scrutiny as well. I am always down for a mental trip to the icy parts of the world in summertime:
The Sea of Ice, Caspar David Friedrich (1824)—Wikimedia Commons again
Doesn't that just take the Curse of Summer right off your mind? Pity it can't act like sunscreen too.

A bit of attention goes to the supernatural-tinged stories, like that of the Flying Dutchman, but there we go...must sell books. And buy them we must, too, of course...but if cash is tight and the various travels have stretched the plastic a bit too far, procure this fom Prime Reading.

If you're traveling, in spirit or flesh, I wish you godspeed and urge you to spend a bit of time, in bursts as long or as short as you need them to be, with a lovely, informative, and entertaining companion...a book.

Tuesday, May 25, 2021

THE COLOR OF ROCK, physician with boundary-setting and anxiety issues figures it out


University of Nevada Press
$24.95 hardcover, available now

Rating: 3* of five

The Publisher Says: A young physician, Dr. Abby Wilmore, attempts to escape her past by starting over at the Grand Canyon Clinic. Silently battling her own health issues, Abby struggles with adjusting to the demands of this unique rural location. She encounters everything from squirrel bites to suicides to an office plagued by strong personalities. While tending to unprepared tourists, underserved locals, and her own mental trials, Abby finds herself entangled in an unexpected romance and trapped amidst a danger even more treacherous than the foreboding desert landscape.

Sandra Cavallo Miller’s debut novel transports readers to the beautiful depths of Arizona and weaves an adventurous and heartwarming tale of the courage and strength it takes to overcome personal demons and to find love.


My Review
: I was really starting to feel wobbly about this read...almost a third of the way through and no one's dead, the sleuth is getting seriously invaded by a man whose hair-pulling, erection-rubbing, and general encroachment on her personal space she was just horny sex in a year! that'll do it to you!...not to firmly put a stop to. He isn't quite horrible enough not to seek at least some kind of consent (after the fact of kissing her, though). She gives him no clear no, a very unclear yes, and he accepts this as his borderline.

I am well aware that this is exactly in line with romance-novel conventions that still exist. Frankly, I'm one of those supporting a sea change to conditions where a man, receiving no positive reinforcement for his aggressive behavior, stops and apologizes. But this book isn't playing by those rules. It doesn't have to; Author Cavallo Miller tells her own story her own way by right. And, major readjustment of expectations time!, this isn't a mystery at all. It's a contemporary Bildungsroman.

That truth told to myself, I sat back to soak up the fun of Grey's Anatomy: Grand Canyon Clinic edition. Abby, fresh from pain and heartbreak and also having broomed her nebbishy fiancé out of her life, is Ready For Life! Sober. Unmedicated. Ready.

She hopes.

Her new practice, with long-time family practitioner Dr. John Pepper (no jokes, please), is busy from the get-go. We're not in medias res here, but we're left to infer it's summer because the Grand Canyon National Park is keeping her in minor injuries and the company of Ranger Jake Peterson. Hot hazel-eyed gym-rat Jake. Abby's anxiety disorder is suddenly closer to the surface because Jake is one of those obnoxious touch-and-loom alpha-actin' boys and she, while this isn't "her type," is Ready just not ready yet.

Events unfold; the clinic gets some bad stuff, and irritating Jake doesn't give up but instead does some Personal Revealing. Demonstrates keen alertness to Abby's needs and moods. Learns about her, too...and when decision time comes, so does he. From the point that event happens the relationship she's been skittish about simply is and there's fairly little introspection about how that might not be a great idea. Her AA sponsor and bestie back in Phoenix does call her on some of her stuff and she's right there with the agreements...but stuff goes on goin' on.

Abby's one of those heroines who "doesn't know how amazing she is"—Jake even says that in chapter five, that it makes him even crazier with lust and longing because of it. Now, if that trope is a deal-breaker for you, then do not read further. She *is* that girl.

But the book won't let you dismiss her, or her complexities, that easily. She's knocked down by a missed diagnosis that almost kills a tourist; when it's demonstrated to her that she didn't miss the diagnosis, the issue in question is 1) rare and 2) fast-moving, plus her Spidey-senses were tingling because she required the guy to come back later the same day on an excuse but really so she could look at him again. She's barely able to acknowledge how good she is at differential diagnosis when the stakes are incredibly high, and her action is swift, decisive, and life-saving. So that's Abby. She's got confidence issues, possesses strengths she doesn't know she has, and is a hawttie but blissfully unaware of it.

Then there's tragedy-soaked Dr. Pepper. He won't talk about it, has sad eyes, refuses to lighten up because...well, reasons, and he runs the clinic with a hands-off kindliness that spills over onto the patients. There's Ginger the receptionist, who takes people's squirrel-bite histories (actually histrionics) and there's Dolores the Mother Hen...and Priscilla. Priscilla is as attractive as a sodden Kleenex in a teenage boy's bedroom trash. But in all her wicked, man-trap glory, there she is.

This is the team...these are the players. The way they all interact is the fun of this ride; the camaraderie and pettiness, the sad, the bad, the catastrophic issues are all there, all handled in the space they share. Especially the worst, the vilest cowardly act that could've been quite sensationalized, just isn't. That felt like a giant rock slipping off my neck. The issues I have with the surfaces being telegraphs for the interiors are real. But when the time came to do something truly game-changing, Author Cavallo Miller did it. Changed the game. Didn't go for the lurid, cheap solution, but gave us this story's path: Inwards.

We travel inwards indeed, as the characters gavotte for our entertainment...condors and tents and fucking selfish smokers and Harry Potter jokes that work as intended...until, inevitably and without undue and unpleasant Theatrics, the right configurations are etched on the screen. It's not all that often that I want to read something that explores a setting as quotidian as a medical office. After reading this, Author Cavallo Miller's first novel, I'll go back to the clinic with her in her next book.

Saturday, May 22, 2021

THE HIDDEN GIRL and Other Stories, nominated for Best Collection in the 2021 Locus Awards

THE HIDDEN GIRL and Other Stories

here is his website
Saga Press
$26.00 hardcover, available now

First look at Pantheon, the AMC+ series based on these stories.

Rating: 4.5* of five

The Publisher Says: From award-winning author Ken Liu comes his much anticipated second volume of short stories.

Ken Liu is one of the most lauded short story writers of our time. This collection includes a selection of his science fiction and fantasy stories from the last five years — sixteen of his best — plus a new novelette.

In addition to these seventeen selections, The Hidden Girl and Other Stories also features an excerpt from the forthcoming book three in the Dandelion Dynasty series, The Veiled Throne.


My Review
: Ken Liu is a busy, busy man. He is practically the sole engine behind Chinese SF being translated into English, and that's a major feat right there, especially while he was also being a lawyer and a software engineer...and also writing his own fiction. Thankfully the fact that his story "Good Hunting" was made into an episode of the first season of Love, Death + Robots for Netflix, and two seasons of a series called Pantheon is being made for AMC from these post-Singularity interconnected stories means that he's now a full-time toiler in the vineyards of literature.

There is, I suppose inevitably, quite a lot of focus on names, naming, descritpive labeling, and other methods of identifying unique points in the information flow-chart of the Universe. There are entities with graphic and mathematical-symbol augmented (or even composed) names; there are subtle jokes scattered around having to do with the sounds and definitions of the component parts of the names; it all feels playful, and is in part that. But think...a Chinese-American man, by the fact that this label is applied to him, becomes supremely sensitive to the power of names and naming. The power to create, destroy, invent, reinvent, control and rebel is in the power of naming. What better way to use that power, inherent in storytelling, than to signpost one's purpose without having to bash the reader with Messages.

A hefty proportion (possibly even all?) of the stories in this collection are set in that Uploaded (as opposed to Artificial) Intelligence/post-Singularity world. Liu takes his time exploring the inevitable losses of the end of the Anthropocene, making the coming of UI (that is, formerly human personalities freed of our slow wetware by insertion into quantum computers) "gods" inevitable. Then, as only Author Liu can, parsing out the ways humanity, freed of bodies, might optimize Life, the Universe, and Everything. These have the overarching feel of a novel that just wouldn't *quite* take shape. The key scenes are here...but there simply wasn't enough *oomph* to launch the project with a reasonable chance of success. But they're absolutely perfect cloth to shape a sixteen-episode TV series into!

I shall, in time-honored tradition, use the Bryce Method of story-by-story rating and explaining my reasoning for the ratings I've assigned them.

Ghost Days (2013) is a simple morality tale of memory's role in resisting Entropy.
Digging in the earth was a promise to the future as well as an acknowledgement of the past.
Which is authentic? he thought. The World or the Word? The truth or understanding?

This was a very interesting, though patchily pasted together, exploration of colonial memory syndrome: The old you is authentic, better, but the new you is what will enable you to survive. Squeaks to 4 stars

Maxwell's Demon (2012) revisits two low points in the world's history: The Japanese Internments and the atomic bombings. Takako, Okinawan-Japanese Nisei internee, is coerced into "serving her country" as a spy, does her job, solves a centuries-old physics thought experiment, and even gets to go home. Not quite the way she expected in any of these cases. Injustice towards women is the way of war, disproportionately of the world. 3.5 stars

The Reborn (2014) does a wonderful job of imagining the consequences of truly alien aliens with antithetical ideas about selfhood rollin' up on Earth, settin' up shop, and lettin' it rip. Superior technology, developed over functionally infinite lifespans, leads to very, very strange bedfellows when dealing with Humans.

Made much more poignant, then repugnant, by the first-person narrator's position in the new hierarchy. The fact is the aliens are correct, if not right, in their assessment of Humanity's deeply toxic relationship to Memory. It's the first 5 star story!

Thoughts and Prayers (2019) parses the coming Singularity and its inevitable role in grieving, virtue signaling, politicking, and trolling...because none of those human behaviors are goin' anywhere.
We prize "freedom to" so much more than "freedom from." People must be free to own guns, so the only solution is to teach small children to hide in closets and wear ballistic backpacks. People must be free to post and say what they like, so the only solution is to tell their targets to put on armor.

Possibly the wisest words this very wise man has written. A chilled, grateful-I'm-old 4.5 stars

Byzantine Empathy (2018) starts out written in the awful, chest-pokey second person. Then it goes into the Blockchaining of Charity. There wasn't a lot of hope for me and this story by then...the weaponization of empathy? Shall we call time of death?
I understand how she thinks, but she doesn't understand how I think. I understand her language, but she doesn't understand mine—or care to. That's how power works in this world.

Both heartbreaking and honest, completely unsparing and without self-pity; the true power of empathy is in clarity, simplicity, singleness of purpose. A rare thing in reality. Second 5 star story!

The Gods Will Not Be Chained (2014) posits the Singularity will come with far more human-derived baggage than one is accustomed to it wagging in fiction. A bit on the simplistic side, though I'm delighted by the author's plumping for the e'er-contentious holonomic brain theory, dividing roboticists and AI folk since 1946. 4 stars, though I expect it'd be more if I understood it better

Staying Behind (2011) tells us the story of The Singularity by way of Aldiss's Greybeard out of St. John Mandel's Station Eleven, only compressed into a short story. A lot has changed in the ten years since it was published. I don't hear much about human consciousness being uploaded these days. Folk are freaked out enough by the guaranteed-to-happen rise of some species of AI! This one didn't convince me it needed a place in the collection. 3 stars because he did it before everyone was on the bus

Real Artists (2011) failed to excite me. A woman gets her dream interview at Pixar A Movie Studio Led By A Young Man and discovers she's been Had, he isn't an Auteur he's a wicked good engineer. He needs her; she's got to decide if she can do the *real* job instead of the fantasy one in her head. Only okay. 3.5 stars because I suspect Author Liu has peeped Tinsetown's rapidly approaching reality

The Gods Will Not Be Slain (2014) wasn't quite what I expected...sequel to "The Gods Will Not Be Chained", prequel to "Staying Behind", and an altogether more exciting end of the story, of what clearly wanted to be a novel but didn't quite make the last hill before the torrent of plot would've taken it to the sea of Published Novels. Maddie and her mom and Grandma are going to remain in the suspend file, but no one is wise to bet against three women who can survive apocalyptic awfulness...they'll be back if they want to. 4 stars

Altogether Elsewhere, Vast Herds of Reindeer (2011) moved me in several ways...the love of an older parent for a final child, the deep and abiding sadness of losing someone you will always love, the careful way digital child..."god" in the parlance of the earlier stories set in this universe...Renée's mother (one of the Ancients, who remembers what it was like to have a "body") prepares her for the darkness that is always the future but we hope our kids won't live to see up close...well, the survival and even resurgence of the physical world is worth the price. I think.
"I miss you," Dad thinks to himself. He does not know that I'm still awake. "When Renée was born, I put the < star > in her name because I knew one day you would go to the stars. I'm good at making people's dreams come true. But that is one dream that I can't create for you. Have a safe journey, Sophia." He fades out of my room.

A man with a broken heart, one who loves where he is no longer...not...loved in return, will sound the same wherever he lives. 4 stars

The Gods Have Not Died in Vain (2015) brings us that one step closer to the virtual world of "Staying Behind" with Maddie's new little sister "Mist." It's heart-rending to know the world will end; it's also inevitable, it's been staring at us since before I was born, but I'm still impressed that Maddie has the strength to plow on in that cage of knowledge she shared with her father.
"You can't feed billions of people with backyard gardens," said Mist. "Nostalgia for a Garden that never existed is dangerous. The mass of humanity depends on the fragile, power-intensive infrastructure of civilization. It is delusion to think you can live without it."

It's really very simple. The equation won't ever balance. It's time to change the terms. 4 stars

Memories of My Mother (2012) does more with "time travel" than The Time Traveler's Wife or "Story of Your Life"/Arrival did, only in just a couple pages. Time behaves differently when you move at relativistic speeds; but, like Maugham's "The Appointment in Samarra" tells us, there is only so much running one can do before it's too late. Pithy, pungent, powerful...4.5 stars

Dispatches from the Cradle: The Hermit - Forty-Eight Hours in the Sea of Massachusetts (2016) is set 500 years after the Climate Crisis, in a world so different...coral reefs on Harvard Common, submersible refugee pods to ride out now-lethal cyclones the world over...that it seems like an alien planet entirely. Are Maddie & Mist in their digital paradise in Svalbard? Permaybehaps, but no sightings or intersetions in this one. Instead we have a Thoreauvian scary-rich dropout from Humanity's Solar System spanning civilization, Asa < whale >-< tongue >-π, as she floats around the tropical seas over Boston.

The fact that the refugees remain stateless, so many generations after the wars that stripped their ancestors of homelands, seems to make it impossible for a solution to be envisioned by anyone from the Developed World—an ancient label whose meaning has evolved over the centuries,but has never been synonymous with moral rectitude.

I concur with story main character Asa < whale >-< tongue >-π when she says, from her billionaire's imitation of poverty aboard a refugee pod, that "Nostalgia is a wound we refuse time to heal." 4 stars

Grey Rabbit, Crimson Mare, Coal Leopard (2020) visits those outside the technoparadise, the scavengers whose last contact with the wildly advanced nanotech-meets-CRISPR future's last-ditch effort to manipulate the material world has resulted in...what else? castes and classes of people who can, after drinking "Revelation wine," change into spirit-animal-like forms rooted in their...psychology? anyway, inner world. Permaybehaps a bit over-the-top in its bog-standard superhero genesis-myth borrowing. In the end, I could see the comic-book art too clearly to enjoy the amazing episode of Love, Death + Robots that I'd been watching in my head until that last Dedication to the Cause scene. 3.5 stars

A Chase Beyond the Storms: An excerpt from "The Veiled Throne", Book 3 of the Dandelion Dynasty is exactly what it says it is. Its existence has me AGOG for this long-awaited entry into the technological fantasy-world action. If you haven't read The Grace of Kings, start there. Amazing, wonderful stuff. 4.5 stars because *squee*

The Hidden Girl (2017) changes scenes to 8th-century China...or is it a Klein bottle in the UI universe...either way, it is a beautiful, supremely filmable tale of stealing your own life from those who want to dictate what it should be. I hate that word "should" with its freight of guilt & coercion. Marred by some speechy dialogue but a glittering gem withal.
I emerge into the space above space, the space within space, the hidden space.

Everything gains a new dimension—the walls, the floor tiles, the flickering torches, the astomished face of the governor. It si as if the governor's skin has been pulled away to reveal everything underneath: I see his beating heart, his pulsating intestines, the blood screaming through his transparent vessels, his gleaming white bones as well as the velvety marrow stuffed inside like jujube-stained lotus paste. I see each grain of shiny mica inside each briak; I see ten thousand immortals dancing inside each flame.

Tell me you can't immediately see the VFX and feel the cold of Space at the same time. Solidly 5 stars

Seven Birthdays (2016) wonders if Erich Segal wasn't right after all, fifty-odd years ago, when he penned the deathless aperçu "Love means never having to say you're sorry."

Bona Dea Nutrix creates and destroys from a cold distance with warm love and blazing, unending passion powering her. In the end, we're all someone's child, someone's parent, with eternal connections and consequences.

Ave Imperatrix, morituri te salutant.
I had once thought the Singularity would solve all our problems. Turns out it's just a simple hack for a complicated problem. We do not share the same histories; we do not all want the same things.

I am not so different from my mother after all.

I believe the profoundest truths are most effectively said in the simplest terms. Recursion rules. Another 5 stars

The Message (2012) privileges parenthood in a fairly heavy-handed way. "You're very much like your mother" is only a short mood-swing away from "You're JUST like your MOTHER!!" & is as destructive, if not as caustic.

Interesting setting of a long-dead alien civilization's death-palace. Also a very honest look at the cost of Humanity's itch to know. Just...sentimentalized. 3 stars

Cutting (2012) is a short concrete poem to the unstoppable power of loss.
The act of remembering is an act of retracing, and by doing so we erase and change the stencil.

It is too short to be a story, but functions very well as a coda to a collection of work dedicated to exploring the boundaries of our dimly perceived illusion-of-reality. 3 stars

Friday, May 21, 2021

THE WOLF AND THE WATCHMAN, grim and deeply disturbing, but unputdownable

(tr. Ebba Segerberg)
Atria Books
$17.00 trade paper, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: One morning in the autumn of 1793, watchman Mikel Cardell is awakened from his drunken slumber with reports of a body seen floating in the Larder, once a pristine lake on Stockholm’s Southern Isle, now a rancid bog. Efforts to identify the bizarrely mutilated corpse are entrusted to incorruptible lawyer Cecil Winge, who enlists Cardell’s help to solve the case. But time is short: Winge’s health is failing, the monarchy is in shambles, and whispered conspiracies and paranoia abound.

Winge and Cardell become immersed in a brutal world of guttersnipes and thieves, mercenaries and madams. From a farmer’s son who is lead down a treacherous path when he seeks his fortune in the capital to an orphan girl consigned to the workhouse by a pitiless parish priest, their investigation peels back layer upon layer of the city’s labyrinthine society. The rich and the poor, the pious and the fallen, the living and the dead—all collide and interconnect with the body pulled from the lake.

Breathtakingly bold and intricately constructed, The Wolf and the Watchman brings to life the crowded streets, gilded palaces, and dark corners of late-eighteenth-century Stockholm, offering a startling vision of the crimes we commit in the name of justice, and the sacrifices we make in order to survive.


My Review
: First, read this:
Under the skin, broken blood vessels wallow like a pack of leeches.
"You are indeed a wolf after all. I’ve seen enough to know, and even if I am wrong, you will soon become one. No one can run with the wolf pack without accepting its terms. You have both the fangs and the glint of the predator in your eye. You deny the blood thirst, but it rises around you like a stench. One day your teeth will be stained red and then you’ll know with certainty how right I was. Your bite will be deep.”
"Even sweat smells differently in the face of death, did you know that? Mix it all with gun smoke and you end up with the devil's own perfume."
The dead man whispered lipless accusations, his voice seething with worms.
"You were to bring me justice but you failed. The other has atoned with his life. You'll be next."

There is a darn sight more body horror, and psychological twists and turns, to this read than you're probably expecting from a series mystery. I do not think this is a typical book in any way, though, so I appreciate the publisher's dilemma in categorizing the book for B&N and Amazon.

It's not unrelievedly grim reading, though:
It is funny how everyone seems to want to help those who need none, while they will take long paths to avoid the need that is evident.
Those who are not able to make themselves understood simply repeat themselves at a higher volume.

I don't know if this is unique, but it's uncommon: These lines are definitely reflective of Author Natt och Dag's writing style in Swedish because he translated the book himself. CORRECTION! The book was translated by Ebba Segerberg, an able and prolific translator from Swedish to English. I apologize for my error. I do not know if or when the next book in this milieu will come out, but it's entitled 1794. It *has* been two years since it came out in Swedish, though.

Don't so much as twitch toward this book if you're not able to breeze through Stieg Larsson's horrible rape- and gore-filled tomes or Henning Mankell's more violent books about Wallander. In every line and on every page you're going to be challenged, and hard; rape, torture, murder, and a twisted vision of the upper-class privilege corrupting Sweden in its early Enlightenment days. As brutal as any Scandinoir, as evocatively written as Mantel's Sir Thomas More novels, and worth every flinch, gasp, and slamming shut in horror.

Thursday, May 20, 2021



Riverhead Books
$27.00 hardcover, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: A funny, sexy, profound dramedy about two young people at a crossroads in their relationship and the limits of love.

Benson and Mike are two young guys who live together in Houston. Mike is a Japanese American chef at a Mexican restaurant and Benson's a Black day care teacher, and they've been together for a few years—good years—but now they're not sure why they're still a couple. There's the sex, sure, and the meals Mike cooks for Benson, and, well, they love each other.

But when Mike finds out his estranged father is dying in Osaka just as his acerbic Japanese mother, Mitsuko, arrives in Texas for a visit, Mike picks up and flies across the world to say goodbye. In Japan he undergoes an extraordinary transformation, discovering the truth about his family and his past. Back home, Mitsuko and Benson are stuck living together as unconventional roommates, an absurd domestic situation that ends up meaning more to each of them than they ever could have predicted. Without Mike's immediate pull, Benson begins to push outwards, realizing he might just know what he wants out of life and have the goods to get it.

Both men will change in ways that will either make them stronger together, or fracture everything they've ever known. And just maybe they'll all be okay in the end. Memorial is a funny and profound story about family in all its strange forms, joyful and hard-won vulnerability, becoming who you're supposed to be, and the limits of love.


My Review
: First, read this:
“There's this phenomenon that you'll get sometimes - but not too often, if you're lucky - where someone you think you know says something about your gayness that you weren't expecting at all. Ben called it a tiny earthquake. I don't think he was wrong. You're destabilized, is the point. How much just depends on where the quake originated, the fault lines.”

If your memory needs refreshing, my 2019 almost-perfect review of LOT: STORIES will refresh your memories as to my entirely positive opinion of Author Washington's story-crafting chops.

This novel is a downer to read, I'm afraid. It is very much about the pain of loving another, and discovering that it's never *just* about Love. The best, most beautiful moments in the book are also deeply sad ones. And, while that's okay, it's a bit wearing on the nerves.

Nothing should detract from your eagerness to read the story, just be sure it suits your personal mood. The fact that the men in this story are AAPI and Black, nary a white man to be found, should spur white gay men to read it: Author Washington is a Person of Color, and is drawing your attention to the universality of learning to make a life as a gay man in a world that doesn't always know it doesn't like us; then add the very real prejudices of ethnicity, body image issues, HIV's actually a damn funny book a good bit of the time, and that laundry list wouldn't make you think I thought so.

Break out of your mental ghetto and live a major moment in the family life of men like you, only different.



Bellevue Literary Press
$16.99 all editions, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: In Murmur, a hallucinatory masterwork, Will Eaves invites us into the brilliant mind of Alec Pryor, a character inspired by Alan Turing. Turing, father of artificial intelligence and pioneer of radical new techniques to break the Nazi Enigma cipher during World War II, was later persecuted by the British state for “gross indecency with another male” and forced to undergo chemical castration. Set during the devastating period before Turing’s suicide, Murmur evokes an extraordinary life, the beauty and sorrows of love, and the nature of consciousness.


Winner of the 2019 WELLCOME BOOK PRIZE!

My Review: First, read this:
The problem with disguising or encrypting is that the original still exists. One has doubled the information, not made it less sensitive. Something has happened to it, but the semantic loaf persists behind a mask, a veil, a foreign accent, new papers, breasts etc., and really the only thing to do about that, if you’re still anxious, is to remove both bits of information—the original and the encryption—altogether.

That quote should tell you if this trip is one you wish to take. Eaves's narrative choices are all right there, as is the chosen PoV of third-person limited. From the chapter-opening quotes selected from Turing's voluminous writings to the damning if underplayed social commentary, the whole is of a piece and gleams like the gem it is.

So why only four stars? Because it's been fictionalized, and the elision and compression inherent in that act (I've typed "of vandalism" three times and erased it four) seldom sits well with me. Even when, as now, I recognize that the author is seeking (and mostly finding) a Deeper Truth, it...feels like a cheapening of this tragedy. BUT YOU SHOULD DEFINITELY READ IT!!



Guernica Editions
$21.95 (US) trade paper, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: When a long-lost sister shows up as a trans man named Luke, a series of precipitous events throws the lives of boyfriends Daniel and David into turmoil. While David attends an extravagant family reunion in Sicily, Daniel's ex Marcus plans the world-premiere of his one-man show. The couple's vertiginous exploration of sex, intimacy and desire comes to a head when a shocking revelation tests their commitment and future together.

Tales from the Bottom of My Sole (2020) is the stand-alone sequel to David Kingston Yeh’s debut novel, A Boy at the Edge of the World (2018). It is a “confabulated fictional memoir” told by Daniel Garneau, a young gay man in search of himself. In the end, his story is the story of every man: a rollicking dramedy and a philosophical reflection on reconciliation, love and family.

Yeh has been listed among “writers to watch” by CBC Books. He lives with his husband in Toronto, Canada.


My Review
: First, read this:
"{David's mother} is pretty Catholic. I think it's turn the woman's life upside-down if she ever found out one kid was gay and the other one trans." {says Daniel}

Nadia sat straight-backed, observing the sailboats slipping past, chaperoned by raucous gulls. Her thin nostrils flared.

"'I am made and remade continually,' she said. 'Different people draw different words from me.'"

When I glanced at her, she said: "Virginia Woolf."

Apposite, no? Here's a well-read and deeply cultured person responding to a friend's revelation of the crisis affecting the other side of his family...his husband's family, in other words...with a pointer to the author of Orlando: A Biography, a famously trans-affirming novel, and a person of Sapphic preferences despite a long and loving marriage to a man.

I did not know this was a sequel when I requested it; I found that it made very little difference in my pleasure of reading it. The delights of family sagas complete with infidelity, deep love, family mishegas, and blending your life with another person's are not reserved to straight people. Anyone who read and enjoyed Tales of the City or The Cazalet Chronicles will find themselves in deeply satisfying, familiar territory with an able guide.

Saturday, May 15, 2021

A RIVER CALLED TIME, slow and inexorable and deep...but not a good trip


Akashic Books
$28.95 hardcover, available now

SHORTLISTED for the 2022 Arthur C. Clarke Award! Winner announced 26 October 2022.

Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: A monumental speculative fiction story of love, loyalty, politics and conscience set in parallel Londons

The Ark was built to save the lives of the many, but rapidly became a refuge for the elite, the entrance closed without warning.
Years after the Ark was cut off from the world, a chance of survival within its confines is granted to a select few who can prove their worth. Among their number is Markriss Denny, whose path to future excellence is marred only by a closely guarded secret: without warning, his spirit leaves his body, allowing him to see and experience a world far beyond his physical limitations.

Once inside the Ark, Denny learns of another with the same power, whose existence could spell catastrophe for humanity. He is forced into a desperate race to understand his abilities, and in doing so uncovers the truth about the Ark, himself and the people he thought he once knew.


My Review
: Author Newland is definitely a Writer. There is a gravitas to the ways he expresses his ideas, a fullness to the meanings of his phrases in their context. For the first third of this book, I thought I was looking at four, four and a half if he got the lead out and pushed the story along faster, stars. The idea of a man who can travel across the multiverse...African cosmology the dominant spirituality...decolonizing reality! I am down. But then the cracks appeared.

It is awful to write this: After working on this amazing, delightful idea for twenty years, Author Newland gave us half a great book.

The Ark, a domed city, isn't the amazing thought that the author appears to think it is. The image of the Insider/Outsider trope is very well-worn a path to walk. The ghettoized lower class, the generational wealth transfers that absolutely determines the lifestyle you and your descendents will have, the self-sacrificing mother who expects her child to support her when he gets inside...these aren't new. The truth is that the author's writing career has not been in the genres of sci fi, fantasy, or alternate history (is it a genre or a setting? I won't wade into that here), so what feels of itself fresh to him is bog-standard stuff to old genre hands. What *is* fresh and cool and amazing is the worlds he sends his main character to, and it is those Author Newland isn't giving us enough of.

The alternate, uncolonized world that our hero travels to is fascinating. The continent of Africa has so very many indigenous relgions and spiritual wonderful to have them foregrounded for once. But the author's choices of spiritual traditions represented didn't feel in any way organic to his main character. That meant the points of divergence between his character's home timeline and the one he travels to aren't as clear to me as a reader. The astral travel factor can be blamed for part of it. Is it technological, spiritual, either, both? Why? This fuzziness kept my focus diffuse. I think it kept his focus diffuse, too. His admirable inclusiveness leads to too many faces and each with too little time to make the experience as enfolding as it could, and should, have been.

I am able to slide past most of that, getting into a four-star mindset, when sexual violence against a woman is used to motivate a man into action. And the perpetrator suffers no consequences. And the main character? All but shrugs as he moves on with his life.

Fiction reflecting the ills of society back to us should not, in my view, continue to use outdated and harmful tropes unaltered. It isn't the author's best choice, and that along with other areas of niggling dissatisfaction brought me down to three and a half stars where I'd badly wanted to give four.

It's a shame. I hope you'll take the book out of the library at some point, give it your time and attention. I'd love to know if others feel my criticisms are misplaced or too harsh.

Thursday, May 13, 2021

THE IMPOSSIBLE RESURRECTION OF GRIEF, Dr. Cade's dystopian vision expanded without expounding

Read Arley Sorg's interview with her here!
SPECIAL SALE AT: Stelliform Press
$14.99 trade paper, available now

Rating: 4* of five



With the collapse of ecosystems and the extinction of species comes the Grief: an unstoppable melancholia that ends in suicide. When Ruby’s friend, mourning the loss of the Great Barrier Reef, succumbs to the Grief, the letters she leaves behind reveal the hidden world of the resurrected dead. The Tasmanian tiger, brought back from extinction in an isolated facility, is only the first... but rebirth is not always biological, and it comes with a price.

As a scientist, Ruby resists the Grief by focusing her research on resilient jellyfish, but she can’t avoid choosing which side she’s on. How can she fight against the dead and the forces behind them when doing so risks her home, her life, and the entire biosphere?


My Review
: Here's how we start this tale:
The Sea Witch lived in an abandoned salt water pool. I knew her when she was called Marjorie and had the office next to mine at the University, but when the Grief came on her she stopped coming into work and set herself up at the derelict public pool with a stack of useless journal articles and a lifetime supply of plastic.

That's a high-octane start to what turns into a careening rush between ugly and awful, ending its trip at unthinkable.

And you will not be blamed for wondering why I now say: Get this book right now. Sit down, open it, and then let Author Cade do her wicked, caustic thing for/to you.

The jellyfish migrated through the lake during the day, and snorkelers could swim with them, with thousands of jellies, with millions of them, and see in their lovely, delicate forms the histories of another life. They pulsed around me like little golden hearts, shimmering in the surface layer of waters, and it was as close as I've ever come to religious communion.

There is a Jellyfish Lake in Palau, first crossing my own personal radar in 1982, where there is an immense concentration of two sorts of stingless jellies isolated from the ocean for about twelve thousand years and therefore have lost the need for such strong self-defense and hunting measures. The two species are able to coexist, and are so very gorgeous they can stop your heart:

The left are golden jellies, the right has one moon jelly in the middle. These are the creatures that take our narrator's heart from her. She is, from the moment she sees them, in thrall to the living heartbeats that are jellies, in all their many-shaped and -colored and -toxined glory. I can see why they would; in fact, these gorgeous animals are found literally everywhere there is an ocean, are brilliantly adapted to staying alive in every kind or sort of circumstance, and have changed themselves as little as possible over the millennia always just enough to stay in the hunt, just ahead of predators and just behind prey. In Author Cade's world, they are the only ocean creatures thriving as a result.

Also on this Palau dive is a woman, Marjorie, who becomes the narrator's very best friend. Marjorie's obsession is the Great Barrier Reef. The ladies, scientists both, bond over their love of and understanding for the ocean's many and wildly variable ecosystems, all under threat from Anthropogenic Climate Change (maybe you've heard about it?)—but few ecosystems are under greater threat than the Great Barrier Reef. Marjorie succumbs to a new thing, the Grief, a declining mental health state that invariably ends in suicide, that is becoming more and more prevalent among humans who, for idiosyncratic reasons, suddenly can no longer bear to exist in the changing world.

Our narrator, called Ruby as we discover about midway through the story, is apparently immune to the Grief. So is her Māori husband, George...not a scientist, an artist of science subjects, so it's really not science that saves or damns. But Marjorie retreats to behaviors so weird, so utterly foreign to her former self, and yet still sea-themed...she renames herself "the Sea Witch" from "The Little Mermaid" by H.C. Andersen, which is also what she named the expensive boat she bought herself before the Grief and burned to the water-line after it...that it's clear what the decline's end will be while remaining unclear what the hell she's going to do next. The next thing the Sea Witch does...well....

That is a thing of spoilers. The things Marjorie, I mean the Sea Witch, does or causes or abets, are...disturbing. I will leave it to you to read the under-100 page novella, instead of doing what I would love to do and relating the scary, freaky, incredible things that Ruby rips from pillar to post to attempt to make sense of, to attempt to explain to herself (and very possibly the authorities, though which ones and what she could convince them to do in a Grief-stricken world is unclear even to her) what Grief is doing to some apparent survivors.

Why I want you to get this book is really very simple: I need people to talk about it with! There are so many fascinating characters...Tasmanian Granny the Thylacine Jesus for one, addled by Grief but quite the scientist withal, and maybe the Sea Witch's relative...? Ruby goes to visit her at...well, because she gets a Message to, although George her husband isn't keen on it:
"Hurt's easy enough to live with," he said. "If there's an end to it. Break your arm and it hurts, but it heals soon enough and the hurt goes away. Even a small pain, if it never leaves...It wears you down," he said. "In the end it isn't the hurt that gets you, it's the exhaustion."

He's right; physical or psychic, it's the unending aches that cost one the most to survive. As for how that explains the Grief, and those who succumb, we don't know if it's causal or correlative, but Indigenous peoples all over are succumbing to the Grief in greater numbers than the population as a whole. Great grief is always a form of insanity, a melding of psychosis and depression, but Granny is extra no matter what yardstick we're using. The Sea Witch, if she's related, came by it honestly. Gawd...this climate-changed world of Author Cade's is one scary place! Resurrection is never a harbinger of sunshine lollipops and rainbows, anywhere, anytime.
"Some people said...{t}he coming of people like me, and what we'd done to Tasmania, the rest of Australia, and what we'd don in New Zealand...the same devouring, the same indifference to the pre-existence of other life. The same conversation, over and over, with different settings and different subjects." (Ruby speaking)
"I guess we all got better and better at killing. What a shock it must be, to find how efficiency in slaughter always takes the upward trajectory." (George speaking)

At the end of the read, Author Cade delivers a devastating truth to us, one that went straight into my commonplace book. Ruby is having the one conversation she most hoped she wouldn't have to have, and least expected to be remotely possible. In her newly cleared eyesight, she sees this: Self-knowledge was the clearest thing in the world. It was also the unkindest.

Unholy, misbegotten things always survive, don't they? Isn't that Evolution's sick little secret?

Tuesday, May 11, 2021

A MASTER OF DJINN, first full-length Dead-Djinn-verse novel

(Dead Djinn Universe #1) Publishing
$18.99 trade paper, available now


WINNER OF THE 2022 LOCUS AWARD—BEST FIRST NOVEL! Watch the award ceremony here.




Enjoyable author interview at BookPage!

WINNER OF THE 57th ANNUAL NEBULA AWARD—BEST NOVEL! Winners announced 21 May 2022 at the Online Nebula Conference awards ceremony.

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: Nebula, Locus, and Alex Award-winner P. Djèlí Clark returns to his popular alternate Cairo universe for his fantasy novel debut, A Master of Djinn And read Arley Sorg's interview with Author Clark!

Cairo, 1912: Though Fatma el-Sha’arawi is the youngest woman working for the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments and Supernatural Entities, she’s certainly not a rookie, especially after preventing the destruction of the universe last summer.

So when someone murders a secret brotherhood dedicated to one of the most famous men in history, al-Jahiz, Agent Fatma is called onto the case. Al-Jahiz transformed the world 50 years ago when he opened up the veil between the magical and mundane realms, before vanishing into the unknown. This murderer claims to be al-Jahiz, returned to condemn the modern age for its social oppressions. His dangerous magical abilities instigate unrest in the streets of Cairo that threaten to spill over onto the global stage.

Alongside her Ministry colleagues and her clever girlfriend Siti, Agent Fatma must unravel the mystery behind this imposter to restore peace to the city - or face the possibility he could be exactly who he seems....


My Review
: Let's just get that missing star dealt with: Ten w-bombs. Normally that's a whole star gone, but it's only a half here. It was "I feel a villain rant coming on" and "Sniffing a sharp nose, he made a bitter face" and Sobek, bless his scaly hide and hungry jaws, that made me think twice. Then the mechanical eunuchs, the Ministry's Brain, the wonderful inventive world that I am invited to share...despite being spat upon with disrespectful w-verbing...okay.

There are really terrific lines. There are Zack-Snyder-meets-Michael-Bay battle scenes. There is a majgicqk system that is more fun than three dozen djinn in a jar. The Ifrit Kings! What a gorgeous scene that will be in the film!

As I suspect y'all who haven't yet read the book are beginning to gather, this was a hit with me.

Fatma and Hadia, her new Modern Woman partner from Alexandria, are the ladies from the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments and Supernatural Entities. Because, you see, the world has majgickq in it again since al-Hafiz, who pierced the interdimensional boundaries and allowed the Earth's myriad supernatural creatures, and the anti-physics the can wield, tore a hole in the Kaf (a mountain). I'd like, at this point, to recommend that anyone who hasn't read the novellas and short story I've reviewed here (the first two tales) and here (third tale) in that order. Two are free to read online, and the third is $3.99 on Kindle or other ereader.

The best thing about blogging is I now don't have to worry about spoilers anymore, if you're still here and not heeding my recommendation to seek out the rest of the world-building bits of the story in order, it's not my problem! A magazine site would insist that I consider the spoilerphobic soul's delicate eyestalks. I won't spoil what I consider the bits that make the trip worth taking.

And that is a lot. There are so many things I absolutely felt as though I'd *combust* if I didn't have someone to talk about them to! But it really isn't fair to say what happened on the palace roof until you've been there.

So here's the stuff I want to let everyone know.

Author Clark built this Cairo on a fascinating premise. He has already pulled magjiqck back to Earth. But he's also pulled a Cairene industrial revolution, a social ferment with workers' and women's rights being openly debated, a world with European colonialism on the run, and a lesbian couple leading us through the whole minefield of issues...and no one thinks much of it...into being. But Author Clark still manages to pack a gigantically important coming-out scene into the proceedings, one that explains little mysteries from the past and makes certain events in the future a lot less deus ex machina-y. This is some busy worldbuilding.

The colonialism-on-the-run part comes as a result of al-Hafiz chosing to restore magjiqck in Cairo itself. In doing so, he takes the former Ottoman colony of Egypt out of the British and the Turkish spheres. It is accomplished in 1872, which history buffs will recall as a difficult time in Egypt and Sudan...the Mahdi arose to lead resistance to both the Khedive and the British, whose combined efforts were destabilizing the local economy and religious issues were bubbling away. So here, we have instead fictional al-Hafiz guiding the world in a different direction but with many, many more times the power and success in re-ordering the system of the world compared to the factual resistance leader.

Also about that time, Napoleon III of France was defeated by the Prussians in a *nasty* war; the German Empire was whomped up in place of the Kingdom of Prussia; there was an organized independence movement called the Indian National Congress founded in 1885; and a little thing called the Berlin Conference was held to divide up Africa into "zones of influence." This alternate timeline, Author Clark has the latter conference take place but as a planning session to stop the African and Arabian djinn and other creatures from defeating the colonizers. (It does not work, as we see; nor in largely decolonized alternate India, either.) So a time of restless ferment is co-opted by the returned supernaturals to upset the world you and I live in!

All is not paradisical. We're treated to much glancing contact with German goblins (predictably revoltingly racist), among other different national supernaturals, as they exert some difficult to ignore pressure on Humankind's affairs. This happens at the Egyptian King's peace summit, the reason this particular story is happening. There is mounting pressure for war in Europe, and Egypt (a neutral country interested in peace so its magical industries can make and sell goods) wants to see if it can be averted. The other organizer of the summit is a crackpot Englishman, third son of a Duke, who lives in Cairo because he's besotted by magjiqck and also wants the world to remain at peace so we can all Learn To Be Better. *snort* It is his murder that begins the destabilization of Cairo that Fatma and the Ministry must fight.

As the summit approaches, al-Hafiz...gone from this plane since 1872...suddenly returns! And is inexplicably trying to bollix things up so the peace summit turns into a war congress. All of this in Cairo and under the noses of the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments and Supernatural Entities. Since al-Hafiz is...gone, dead, translated...they call his recrudescence "the Impostor" and set about doing the usual police-y things to stop him from spreading unrest while world leaders are in Cairo.

I really must take just a moment to cough into my hanky about the fact that Kaiser Wilhelm II is at this conference in person and seemingly without his factual badly damaged arm. President Poincaré of France is there, too. No mention of Franz Joseph of Austria-Hungary, and the Turkish Sultan is effectively hiding behind the Kaiser's coattails...we have no American President Taft? But anyway...the house is full and al-Hafiz treats us to a truly exciting scene as he appears among the leaders! The beauty of that scene is the realism of a determined saboteur merely needing to bring up impolitic realities to threaten world peace.

It's stuff like this that makes me croon in delight. I appreciate the grace notes...a city full of leaders with a revolutionary stalking the streets and rousing up the impoverished! But we don't stop there, we get a battle scene before and a fight scene during. Yes, Author Clark knows how to make the adrenaline users buy right on in to his story.

And since we're packing in action, let's not forget that the Ministry has a lot to do to make the leaders safe and clean up this unsettled political landscape! We have Zagros back, the Ministry's Marîd librarian; we have the Angels in their bureaucratic collective glory back; we have Fatma learning how to trust her new partner Hadia; we re-meet Aasim and Hamed and Onsi. There is a gigantic battle about every thirty or so pages. Lots of property damage. Many problems with identifying the imposter al-Hafiz, learning the hows and whys of the magic that makes him appear invincible.

It's all very clever, but it's not all the same story.

And that's why this is a four-star, not a four-and-a-half star, review. Author Clark has written, until now, novellas, novelettes, and short stories in this universe. I think the story he wants to tell here, and I haven't even made much of the ripening and deepening of Fatma's love affair with Siti-Abla (no explanation is ever given for the woman's having two different names, though there is a really obvious one that goes unused), needed a novel's length to make it work. My issue is that his heroic efforts couldn't keep all the balls in the air at the same time.

It's still a fun and often funny read (see my first sentence for examples). But when Fatma the investigator actually has interviewees telling her where to go next...when Hadia the new partner is simultaneously dumped when things get violent then forgotten for a chapter or two when interviewing is taking place...when the djinn, the Ifrits, the Janns, and the ghuls, the nasnas, are reduced to quick, broad strokes because honestly there isn't time to do more...there needed to be a more unforgiving editorial stance taken. Do more to build Zagros and the other major djinn Siwa, or reduce them to one-hit and gone props. The ghuls are supernumeraries, so I'm not clear why the kind of ghul al-Hafiz summoned was different from the rest; was that necessary? It doesn't seem so to me.

But I'm disinclined to keep star-breaking because, when I realized the perpetrator's silhouette was very quietly limned against a shadow just in slightly darker colors, I was very pleased at the effect's subtlety. The identity of al-Hafiz's faker was satisfying because it wasn't trumpeted but was made clear to the attentive. The developments between Fatma and Siti need to continue, of course, but the main areas of conflict are starkly present as of now. Hadia is someone I think Author Clark wanted to be more in touch with, so to speak, but the over-stuffed yet under-baked plot wasn't allowing that. Future books will, I trust, give him room to make her more than a hijab with martial arts skills (though that is pretty awesome as a start).

I like this world; I like this book; I like what I see as the possibilities and energy in Author Clark's writing. As first novels go, this one is superior in conception and execution to most, and in genre terms displays the bravado and chutzpah that augur well for more and better to come.