Friday, July 30, 2021

AMATKA, Karin Tidbeck's truly disorienting & disturbing Swedish SF

(tr. by the author)
Vintage Books
$16.00 trade paper, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: Vanja, a government worker, leaves her home city of Essre for the austere, wintry colony of Amatka on a research assignment. It takes some adjusting: people act differently in Amatka, and citizens are monitored for signs of subversion.

Intending to stay just a short while, Vanja finds herself falling in love with her housemate, Nina, and decides to stick around. But when she stumbles on evidence of a growing threat to the colony and a cover-up by its administration, she begins an investigation that puts her at tremendous risk.

In Karin Tidbeck's dystopic imagining, language has the power to shape reality. Unless objects, buildings, and the surrounding landscape are repeatedly named, and named properly, everything will fall apart. Trapped in the repressive colony, Vanja dreams of using language to break free, but her individualism may well threaten the very fabric of reality. Amatka is a beguiling and wholly original novel about freedom, love, and artistic creation by an idiosyncratic new voice.


My Review
: I was inspired to write this review by the book's selection for a group read in Goodreads's Speculative Fiction in Translation group. The power of group reads is not to be treated lightly, authors...court them!

This is a weird, weird tale. Vanja, a government functionary in a brutally planned-to-a-fare-thee-well society, is sent to an outlying community in her colonial world of, um, psychically manipulable fungi. Sort of. I am floundering a bit for a way to present the world because Author Tidbeck uses the ever-useful in medias res technique to keep your defenses down. I've seen readers unable to decide whether it's all a fable, a magical-realist condemnation of the supposed grey horrors of socialism, or a real secondary world that the colonists have traveled to in some poorly-explained way. I myownself plump for the latter because "colonists" means little on today's quite crowded Earth.

Also it pays for readers to attend to, then recall, that the book mentions the first colonists discovered buildings "not for human standards" which is all but a slamming shut of that case for me. Other readers may find other ways to interpret the story, of course; I don't think it's giving enough credit to a story to say that one and only one interpretation uses The Right Lens.

It was, however, this point that convinced me this was not Earth whether past or future. The sun being missing, or *a* sun being missing, I took to mean that the planet's skies were totally overcast at all times. How else but via a thick atmosphere of some kind could a fungal habitat keep itself from desiccation? And that also went along with the colonists' arrival by non-chemically-propelled means, as their arrival isn't accompanied by any sense of A Journey.

Vanja's life in this peculiar totalitarian society was what kept my interest the most. Her inability and/or unwillingness to be integrated anywhere made her fascinating to me. Nina, her love interest, is another more-or-less misfit. It seems to me their attraction is peculiarly one-sided. How can anyone be attracted to the point of falling in love with Vanja? She's the embodiment of the society she lives in...stop naming her and she will simply slide back into fungal goop.

This presents my basic problem with the book: It stops. It slips back into the primordial goop of story-stuff. I'm sure the ambiguity of the ending is deliberate, is a choice and a declaration of stylistic intent. Looked at from that angle, it "works" inasmuch as I am unable to finish my relationship with this story...I keep needing to name it: "Amatka has ended...Amatka is over..." but note that I need to use "to be" verbs, there isn't even a gerund I can whomp up out of the story-stuff I'm given.

It's not like this is a fatal flaw. It is, however, a self-inflicted wound on what might have been a hugely more popular seller...and I get the impression, reading about a rigid settler society that never appears to question WHY this fungal paradise of infinite, if ephemeral, possibility even exists or what happens to those who...vanish, that this is entirely okay with the author. If not the reason she wrote the story in the first place.

I found myself chuckling at the knee-jerk responses to this story to the world of socialist economic austerity. In fact, it seems to me a bitterly outraged condemnation of the eternal horror of capitalism's consume-or-die ethos, its ephemeral products designed to fail to ensure they need to be replaced, the supposed inexhaustibility of the planet's resources tied to an endless need to rename...recycle, reform, reuse...the very substance of reality. Because it's gray and hopeless, it must be about Them, not us...well folks, your privilege is showing. The view from the bottom is very much in line with Author Tidbeck's retelling of it.

What I want is for hundreds of thousands of you to be overwhelmed by a sudden desire to make your inner world richer with a flattened, attenuated emotional landscape. By contrast, even the new plague-fighting restrictions impinging on our daily lives must seem positively vibrant with possibility.

All in all, a wonderful story to read, and then re-read, for its layered and beautifully textured use of, and celebration f the uses of, language. I have seldom read a self-translated work that was this exacting in its craft, so fully and unsparingly rendered as its own self. Many are the echoes of Solaris, for example, in the protean fungal goop; but never by word or deed do the characters echo the positions or words of Lem's ancestral work.

Bravo, Author Tidbeck. Well crafted on all counts, in all metrics.

Wednesday, July 28, 2021

THE LIBRARY OF THE UNWRITTEN, first Hell's Library novel


Ace Books
$17.00 trade paper, available now

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

Rating: 4.9* of five

The Publisher Says: In the first book in a brilliant new fantasy series, books that aren't finished by their authors reside in the Library of the Unwritten in Hell, and it is up to the Librarian to track down any restless characters who emerge from those unfinished stories.

Many years ago, Claire was named Head Librarian of the Unwritten Wing—a neutral space in Hell where all the stories unfinished by their authors reside. Her job consists mainly of repairing and organizing books, but also of keeping an eye on restless stories that risk materializing as characters and escaping the library. When a Hero escapes from his book and goes in search of his author, Claire must track and capture him with the help of former muse and current assistant Brevity and nervous demon courier Leto.

But what should have been a simple retrieval goes horrifyingly wrong when the terrifyingly angelic Ramiel attacks them, convinced that they hold the Devil's Bible. The text of the Devil's Bible is a powerful weapon in the power struggle between Heaven and Hell, so it falls to the librarians to find a book with the power to reshape the boundaries between Heaven, Hell...and Earth.


My Review
: First, read this:
"...There’s nothing stronger than an unwritten book’s fascination with its author. But a book that finds its author often comes back damaged, and the author comes out . . . worse.”
“You surely didn’t think I got duty in the Unwritten Wing by random chance?”

Claire’s voice was hollow. She glanced at Leto with a paper-thin smile.

“You know how they say ‘Never meet your heroes’? For authors most of all, never meet your heroes. Ruins everything.”

Hell's Library is a multivalent torment to its creators, denizens, and those unlucky enough to be possessed by Story. Claire, our Librarian and an Unwritten Story author many times over, has reason to know the bitterest dregs of self-loathing and the self-knowledge it springs from. Our story, this one, the one we can actually read, is about the misery of knowing yourself as you are without knowing the way others know you. A motley band of adventurers is assembled to cope with a character's escape from his book in an ill-fated attempt to get his author to write him, to finish his story at last. Not only has he left the Unwritten Library, difficult enough to get a book out of there without a Librarian's approval, but he's taken his book with him.

And showed part of it, the beginning, to his author.

Thereby hangs this tale of rebellion, embattled souls, entrenched positions that must fall, and the startling void that you sense every time you fall, fail, flounder under a burden you don't entirely understand. When Claire brings the (self-)damned Muse Brevity, her librarian-in-training, on this wild goose chase, she wonders if it's all worth it:
In a constant war of immortal forces, ancient demigods, good and evil, the most powerful piece on the board is the fragile pawn of a human soul.

Even if stories and muses aren't given human souls, they originate from and build the stuff of those very souls.
She was walking on his ending, and for that, she walked lightly, calmly. For Claire was not one to throw away her life rashly for vengeance. She respected vengeance. Vengeance deserved time.

There is nothing in this book that is easy. Least of all the demands it makes of the damned beings in its story's ever-tightening coils.

But there is so very much to learn, to absorb, to revel in in the words that create it. I'm so delighted by this story. A library in a hell made up of the self-judged, the exiles by their own hands and hearts...well, what's not going to be delicious about that? I'm already a vocal fan of The Invisible Library series of YA novels, a lot less shady and unhappy than this story is but equally delicious. Dragons and Librarians who're out to save worlds? Yes please! In this story, the dragons are demons, and a lot more morally grey, but the point still is to protect, to defend, to prevent harm from coming to those who can't defend themselves. Except for that one story's Hero. Which is a ratty little thread left untrimmed into tidy story-logic....

There is so much pleasure in reading a story that layers in its concepts, like story logic, and leaves you to get on with picking the reasons you want to follow up for yourself. The main current of the story flows right on to the ending, the inevitability of which kept me turning pages past the moments I thought my heart would break. But there are dreamy little pockets of reality to poke around...vellum, parchment, leather being all the *skins* of dead things? the role of Malta in the Nuragic civilization, Mdina the Silent City, waitaminnit these bread crumbs are really tasty!...there are characters whose sibylline utterances and dulcet blandishments are not the red herrings you'd be forgiven for taking them to be, and there are deeper emotional resonances than you're going to want to look for.

This is A Story. Let it unfold and do your part by fixing its fractal reality as loosely as you can. Revel a bit, while you're immersed, in the explicit acceptance and celebration of #LoveIsLove as no one with a sexual nature trammels it into just one box. Letting the roles of the dramatis personae explain the characters to you is a good strategy when you're in these kinds of very deep waters:
We seek to preserve the books, of course. But we forget the flip side of that duty: treasure what we have. Honor the stories that speak to you, that give you something you need to keep going. Cherish stories while they are here.

It's very, very good advice from a character we have reason, in front of us, in this story, to trust.

What else this is, this carefully carved serving of a soul's prime rib, is a *perfect* film. A two-hour movie of quite stunning opulence awaits this book. Gloriously meaty roles for Mark Ruffalo, Glenn Close, Henry Golding, a number of talents old and young await within. The scenes in Valhalla, well, does that need expansion? And the gorgeousness of the Unwritten Library itself, the Arcane Wing and Andras the question but what there is a delight for the ages to be created from these bones. I hope someone will see and lust after the fame that would accrue to a big spectacle made from this.

But readers, those obsessive little producer/director/screenwriters of the mind, are the luckiest ones. We get to experience the catharsis of emotional devastation and despair of loss and humiliation without actual risk.
“The voice of the book. The music—the song of the tale. ... Every book has it—you know, the book’s way of talking, the words it uses, the rhythm of the speaker in your head as you read. Its voice. Each one a bit unique to the author and the tale. Before the written word, it was even more important. Every storyteller worth their salt knew how to create their own voice, mimic others, and find the beat that wove it.”

That is what Author Hackwith gives us with both hands in this gorgeous story, this vital and living piece of the stuff we humans have created the Hereafter from. A gift I hope you'll get into your readerly being and mull over, turn this way and that, study for its subtleties and complexities.

As investments of your eyeblinks go, there are few from which you'll derive more sustenance and fuller pleasure than this one. (Those three w-bombs aside.)

Monday, July 26, 2021

MIGRATIONS, stories in the Key of We


LARB Libros
$16.00 trade paper, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: In J. L. Torres’s second story collection Migrations, the inaugural winner of the Tomás Rivera Book Prize, a “sucio” goes to an underground clinic for therapy to end his machista ways and is accidentally transitioned.

Ex-gangbangers gone straight deal with a troubled, gifted son drawn to the gangsta lifestyle promoted by an emerging music called hip-hop.

Dead and stuck “between somewhere and nowhere,” Roberto Clemente, the great Puerto Rican baseball icon, soon confronts the reason for his predicament.

These stories take us inside the lives of self-exiles, unhomed and unhinged people, estranged from loved ones, family, culture, and collective history.

Despite the effects of colonization of the body and mind, Puerto Ricans have survived beyond geography and form an integral part of the American mosaic.


My Review
: Praise from Yxta Maya Murray? Say no more, send me the file! Very few authors need to worry about getting my attention who have previously gotten hers.

The author's receipt of the inaugural Tomás Rivera Book Prize is quite telling. As this isn't a Prize most of us will have encountered before, I'm going to reproduce the entire explanation offered at the LARB Books site (link is above):
The Tomás Rivera Book Prize is a unique partnership between the Los Angeles Review of Books and UC Riverside. Open to any author writing in English about the Chicanx/Latinx experience, the Rivera Book Prize is committed to the discovery and fostering of extraordinary writing by a first-time or early career author whose work examines the long and varied contributions of Chicanx/Latinx in the US. The Rivera Book Prize aims to provide a platform that showcases the emerging literary talent of the Chicanx/Latinx community, to cultivate the next generation of Chicanx/Latinx writers, and to continue the rich literary memory of Tomás Rivera, Chicano author, poet, activist, and educator. Known for his seminal collection of stories, …and the Earth Did Not Devour Him, Rivera was the first Latino Chancellor of the UC system and a champion of higher education and social justice. The Rivera Book Prize honors his legacy and his belief in the power of education, activism, and stories to change lives.

Very worthy goals, ones I'm happy to support. And as a big bonus, I found it easy and fun to do so here.

In the approved manner, I shall henceforward use the Bryce Method of short responses with ratings for the individual stories to come to an overall understanding of the author's themes and ideas.

Mint Condition proves again that we don't know the secrets our closest companions keep...some to protect us, some to protect themselves...until they no longer matter. Which is, paradoxically, when discovery hurts the most. Nikki will never know what her humiliation would've meant to Jim, whose blokey-jokey ways hid a vacancy she's only dimly sensing in their son. Saddening. 4 stars

Sucio isn't a nice thing to call a guy...but here it's just the gawd's honest truth. Our Satanic-second (person) PoV is a hound-dog, a letch, a bedbug. He reaps the whirlwind at the very beginning of the story, landing up in the hospital when he gets his latest beat-down. There, he meets Her:
You one sorry suciopath, she said, peeling off your fingers from her hand in disgust, like they were slimy slugs. Then she went on to inform you on what a miserable, pathetic, shallow piece of crap you are. Then like the genuine Heartbreaking Samurai she was, she dealt you the mortal blow.. Your wasted life is a disgrace to dying people everywhere, she said.

And just like that, the stakes change, the Prize is identified, and our chest-pokee needs his goals reset. Family, as usual, comes to his rescue (accidentally...a sucio tío needs cover for his trip to visit his side-love in the Dominican Republic, takes his pariguayo nephew). Words like pariguayo might take a little effort to learn, but damn do they enrich your word-choices and define some stuff you maybe hadn't had reason to define before. But spare a thought for our sucio...a whole lot more than his vocabulary needs to expand, open up, accommodate new and different things. The only reason I don't give this one five stars is the patness of Sari's role, and the ending. Still a vibrant 4 stars

The Operation is only the beginning of La Viuda's life of misery. After World War I, many impoverished women were sterilized with their "consent" as a means of family planning. This was a condition of her employment in the factory that had killed her husband, Facundo...lovely name, means both "eloquent" and "fertile"...and she must have a job to feed her two children. This isn't going to end well, but the quotidian disasters of Life are uncushioned for Elena la viuda. The privileged doctor's clueless but not unkind PoV felt...insulting. History often untold, worthy of attention. 4 stars

Hawaii Is Where Coquis Go To Die brings the world full circle for a Puerto Rican-Hawaiian woman whose life was about disappointment, compromise, and recreating the journeys of her source of employment/nemesis, the invasive coqui frogs that plague Hawaii with their predatorless horniness. Death always brings us home, even when like Halia we've never strayed far. The cost of bowing to the US elite without breaking is too high; returning to her father's business, building a relationship to her sister, is finally worth paying. 4 stars

Clemente Burning revivifies baseball great Roberto Clemente, whose 1972 death in a plane crash while on a humanitarian mission to Nicaragua was probably the first time in my life I'd thought about race in any critical way. We join him (and his psychopomp, Arturo Alfonso Schomburg) in, well, Otherwhere:
Now, though, after it was all over, he has grown accustomed to being stuck between somewhere and nowhere. Eerily, he's adjusted well to this limbo state, as if he had experienced it before. At first, the sensation of living in a cage without bars rattled him. If he started walking, his legs would move but get him nowhere.

It's not subtle, any of it; but it's very well crafted and tells a story I am sad to say is faded and bleached from our national conversation. It should not be. And this taste of the reality of Otherness in the Land of the Free and Home of the Brave should make you cringe while thinking about how much work there still is to do. 4.5 stars

Go Make Some Fire is our second encounter with Schomburg, and our most soulful encounter with the realities of being Other in these grim, grasping States, United only against and never for anything except profit. The horrors visited on children in Carlisle Indian Industrial School were, and are, a terrible stain we wear with our slave-owning crimes forever. "Brother, are you lost?" rings and rings in my ears. 5 stars, far and away the chef d'ouevre

Rip and Reck Into That Good Light (for Julian) doesn't spare the melodrama, but it tells us about life as it's actually lived among people old white people, like me, don't ever go out of our way to see, still less think about:
Screw the theory; bougie ideas don't mean a damn thing out here. They're like prayers with no postage. Better make your kids toe the line before their attitude lands them in jail or gets them killed. (T.J.)
We were Wild, all of us, searching for our own space., and the streets called us. We turned our backs on parents and found family with the clubs. That's what we called them, not gangs. (Koki)
You think I'm some kind of monster? Judge me all you want, 'cause I don't give a fuck. World gave up on me a long time ago. Why should I stress over what it thinks of me? You don't hurt my hurt. (Xavie)

Right about there I knew where we were headed. I wasn't wrong. It's preachy; it's reductive; it's also true. 4 stars

Grannies Gone Wild is hilarious, and poignant, and really, really angry. When you give a person your life, your heart, your name even, you think you deserve a little respect and understanding. But noooooo, as we Saturday-Night-Lived each other in our day. It feels like ingratitude and rejection because it we rejected our parents, spat curses that boiled their eyeballs, paraded our pleasure in pleasure in front of them while they worried themselves into ulcers about what would become of us. Just like their own kids will. Only hope you live long enough to watch the realization dawn. 4 stars

InWorld doubles down on the senior horndog vibe. Marv lost the love of his life, Annie, to pancreatic cancer, then his mind in the endless silence that followed. His best bud from Air Force to Post Office life, a scf fi fan and up on the cyberworld's glories, tells Marv about InWorld. (It's a lot like Second Life.) Away he goes! Marv becomes Mark Cavatelli, broad, muscular, blue-eyed; nothing like Puerto Rican Marv from the Bronx. And the strangeness is increasing, seeping in from Author Torres's mind; some entanglements and separations are quite noteworthy. 4 stars

Runway Runaway takes us the next step out, into a future where the migrations don't always make sense to us trapped in 2021...where the world we've made is the world they've got to live in. I think the speculation's just fine. I'll put it at barely 4 stars because more was there and practically sobbing to be used.

The Adventures of Macho the Dwarf, or An Allegory of Epic Proportions About a Little Person is exactly what you're promised. Take it, like it or don't; you're the one who needs this story, the story doesn't need you. There's a reader every few seconds running into the giant, miserable desert of Storylessness. You see? This is your choice, this one will fill you up. It will. Just let it. 5 stars

Wednesday, July 21, 2021

THE PLOT, a title that explains but doesn't do justice to a fabulous summer read


Celadon Books
$28.00 hardcover, available now


Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: Jacob Finch Bonner was once a promising young novelist with a respectably published first book. Today, he’s teaching in a third-rate MFA program and struggling to maintain what’s left of his self-respect; he hasn’t written—let alone published—anything decent in years. When Evan Parker, his most arrogant student, announces he doesn’t need Jake’s help because the plot of his book in progress is a sure thing, Jake is prepared to dismiss the boast as typical amateur narcissism. But then . . . he hears the plot.

Jake returns to the downward trajectory of his own career and braces himself for the supernova publication of Evan Parker’s first novel: but it never comes. When he discovers that his former student has died, presumably without ever completing his book, Jake does what any self-respecting writer would do with a story like that—a story that absolutely needs to be told.

In a few short years, all of Evan Parker’s predictions have come true, but Jake is the author enjoying the wave. He is wealthy, famous, praised and read all over the world. But at the height of his glorious new life, an e-mail arrives, the first salvo in a terrifying, anonymous campaign: You are a thief, it says.

As Jake struggles to understand his antagonist and hide the truth from his readers and his publishers, he begins to learn more about his late student, and what he discovers both amazes and terrifies him. Who was Evan Parker, and how did he get the idea for his “sure thing” of a novel? What is the real story behind the plot, and who stole it from whom?


My Review
: First, read this:
All he had ever wanted was to tell—in the best possible words, arranged in the best possible order—the stories inside him. He had been more than willing to do the apprenticeship and the work. He had been humble with his teachers and respectful of his peers. He had acceded to the editorial notes of his agent (when he’d had one) and bowed to the red pencil of his editor (when he’d had one) without complaint. He had supported the other writers he’d known and admired (even the ones he hadn’t particularly admired) by attending their readings and actually purchasing their books (in hardcover! at independent bookstores!) and he had acquitted himself as the best teacher, mentor, cheerleader, and editor that he’d known how to be, despite the (to be frank) utter hopelessness of most of the writing he was given to work with. And where had he arrived, for all of that? He was a deck attendant on the Titanic, moving the chairs around with fifteen ungifted prose writers while somehow persuading them that additional work would help them improve.

When your first novel comes to the attention of the Great and the Good of the literati, your foot's on the next-up rung of The Ladder. Jake Bonner's first, The Invention of Wonder (I'd buy that book, great title!), gave him that boost. But his sophmore slump, Reverberations, was (sad to say) so very very complete a failure that no one would give him a chance at a third. Any crack at redemption in the marketplace vanished. Disappointed critics and readers are unforgiving...ask the silenced wunderkinder. can't...they're obscure now.

So here it is, laddies and gentlewomen, all of it...the petty, the ugly, the desperate parts of le monde littéraire as the early 21st century knows it. The feuds are titanically operatic, and over small enough things that we, in our less-than-private hells documented every which way we can get them to be seen and/or heard by strangers, should really have much better sense than to imbue with the seriousness we do. Jake's in an ugly position: He needs to make his bills:
But no guest-writer had ever acknowledged Jake’s professional achievements, let alone drawn inspiration from his success in the field they supposedly hoped to enter. Not once in three years. He was as invisible to them as he had become to everyone else.

Because he was a failed writer.

Jake gasped when the words came to him. It was, unbelievably, the very first time this truth had ever broken through.

He's possessed of a juicy idea: No one owns ideas, no matter how one comes across them:
He had no thought of anything but this story, which was none of the great plots—Rags to Riches, Quest, Voyage and Return, Rebirth (not really Rebirth), Overcoming the Monster (not really Overcoming the Monster). It was something new to him, as it would be new to every single person who read it, and that was going to be a lot of people. That was going to be, as his terrible student had so recently said, every book group, every blogger, every person out there in the vast archipelago of publishing and book reviewing, every celebrity with a bespoke book club of her own, every reader, everywhere. The breadth of it, the wallop of it, this out-of-nowhere and outrageous story.

He has the chops to execute the idea: What's stopping you?
To Jake, the word that comprised the relationship between a writer and their spark was “responsibility.” Once you were in possession of an actual idea, you owed it a debt for having chosen you, and not some other writer, and you paid that debt by getting down to work, not just as a journeyman fabricator of sentences but as an unshrinking artist ready to make painful, time-consuming, even self-flagellating mistakes.

So there we have it: A man with ambitions and a modicum of talent out to milk the System. What ever could go wrong.

Someone who knows he didn't think up this plot could go very far to damaging his credibility...or could they, really? He didn't steal someone else's work. He used the details of something he was freely told in a work of fiction. I can't think of a single example of that in modern fiction, can you?


My real point, facetious asides aside, being that it's done the books whose sources were, um, less than pure absolutely no harm for this information to come out. When I was a sprog, there was a great deal of to-do about Grace Metalious writing a nasty, tell-all scandal of a book called Peyton Place. Shock and recrimination attended the publication because her native town complained about how they were portrayed. It was so sudsy and such a whang-dang-doodle of a story...affairs! bastards! drunks!...that you couldn't see for the lines of folks waiting to hand their $5 to the cashier at Macy's. (Bookstore chains were a thing of the future in the 1950s and 1960s.) Then, of course, Hollywood came calling. Then came fame and money and alcoholism and death...all of it because the prudey world of 1950s publishing couldn't believe people would buy this crap by the ton.

So the truism "there is no bad publicity" was proven yet again to be an eternal verity.

And, corollary to that proverb is "be really careful what you complain about." Does A Ladder to the Sky versus Less ring a bell? Keep shtumm if you don't want your dirty laundry laid out...and the noxious dead guy that Jake, um, allowed to inspire him shall we say, didn't have much chance to learn that. But now here's Jake getting privately messaged about how he's a thief, with just enough detail to make it a credible accusation. But the originator of the idea's dead; can't be one else could know. And he knows he didn't spill the beans....

Okay, so there's where I end my plot discussion. The events of the book need to be brought to your attention by Author Korelitz. I've got nothing but praise for how the pacing is handled. I'm not going to fault a single line, because as a line-by-line reading experience, this is a polished one. I can't say a bad word about the way the reader is brought into the main action of the book. Almost all my rating's glee resides, though, in the supremely assured and deeply wicked skewering of the publishing/entertainment world. Flawless. Fabulous. Fun.

So where's those one-and-a-half stars that make up five? Lost to some major issues. This plot, the one that's absolutely NEW and UNIQUE, is Grey Gardens meets Carrie. The actions of one character in particular are both calculating and totally understands the desire for material gain that motivates the eventual malefactor, but the degree of planning and calculation necessary to execute this plot are OTT from my view. Is the criminal a sociopath or psychopath, to respond to something that just is not all that heinous an infringement of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness in such a disproportionate manner? And one knows this is not the criminal's first, well, it really sapped my pleasure in the preceding exciting story. (Also, this identity reveal was not quite the surprise it's played up to be.) I'm not asking that the book be restyled into a psychological thriller instead of a chase tale. I'm just not convinced that, on the evidence I saw on the page, the response of the malefactor made sense absent what Jake did.

Still, the pages flew and the story unfolded without a single wasted word or gesture or trope. It is deft and assured and downright sudsy, and the film needs to star Reese Witherspoon and Ryan Phillippe.

Monday, July 19, 2021

TWO COLD-WAR SF STORIES, "The Last Crusade" and "Baby"


February 1955 edition, pages 74-85, free Project Gutenberg download at link above

Rating: 4* of five

My friend Joachim Boaz has a review of this title on his site as part of a Terry Carr collection. It's a Cold War dystopian tale of the futile and self-perpetuating nature of that conflict. Clearly George H. Smith, largely forgotten today, was a clear-eyed observer of the idiocies of the 1950s. As the world was moving faster and faster, and the role of technology in it was increasing, Smith's was a reasonable near-future projection of soldiers contained in full-service "mecho-suits." The battleships on legs that they're isolated from the world they're destroying within...our narrator even touches briefly on the fact that he has no idea what any of his fellow soldiers look like, sealed inside their battle- and life-support pods, and has stopped caring...seemed practical, desirable. And true to Smith's sexual fixation, he even tosses (!) in the speculation that "Realie TV" will supply the men (of course) sealed up with, um, services like there were "girls" right there in the pods with them. Southern-born Smith wrote more extensive sexual SF, as well as a reverse-PoV version of Doctor Strangelove about a rogue Russian general who launches an atomic attack on the US.

The military, as personified by our ignorant grunt narrator and a pointed parody General called "Fightin' Joe Mac Williams" (who is clearly the performative battle-boy Douglas MacArthur, he of the famous "I shall return" speech and the chestful of medals) does not get the standard Cold-War adulation. Here that stupidity is beautifully lampooned by the narrator listening to a speech that he knows will cause a lot of death in this Paris, barely even sketched in, that we're told is the scene of the action: "A voice that used to sell us bath soap is selling us war."

The story appeared in 1955, shortly after the Korean War that MacArthur famously wanted to run very differently from then-President Truman, and got himself fired for insubordination as he went public with their differences. It was a case of being kicked upstairs, though, as MacArthur landed a role as leader of defense contractor and computer innovator Remington Rand, whose main business was in typewriter sales at that time. MacArthur, the War Hero as he would never, ever hesitate to remind you, taking such a deeply civilian job as selling typewriters and electric razors, was the source of the dig I quoted above. The dénouement takes place in the Louvre...and it's really nothing less than heart-breaking, if heavy-handed, in delivering its (more suited to the Sixties) message: What are we fighting for, again?

In all, I was very pleased to follow Dr. B down this weird little side-path of SF history, learn more about a writer I feel sure I'd never read a single word by before now, and renew my Cold War memories of people and events now dusty with the uninterest of the modern audience.



The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction
February 1958 edition, free to read on pages 114 to 128 linked above

Rating: 5* of five

My friend Joachim Boaz is reading through the short fiction of Carol Emshwiller...his review of this story is here.

Possibly the bleakest story I've ever read. This is the end of days, the end of Humanity...and it's all our fault. Our creations, those meant to care for us, have long outlived their responsibilities and, while executing irrelevant or now-harmful duties, are making the world impossible for us to live in.

Emshwiller and her compatriots warned us. And, while it doesn't look precisely like she predicted, the events of the present year are seriously in line with the predictions she made sixty-three years ago. I'm never quite sure the world's failing is real; then I read this, the systems slowly collapsing, the zombies of Reassurance and Normality trying to wish away the plague and the increasingly obvious shortages. I'm not crazy after all. (Well, yes I am, but not in the "lost-to-reality" way...more's the pity.)

Baby's young-adult body, not equipped with an education or a language to handle the new world he lives in, is naked and vulnerable to the world, acted on without his consent and/or despite his resistance as the zombie systems try the same solutions for the new problems. They fail utterly to help. The man is starving. The man is going to die.

It's 1958, so he Finds a Woman (called Honey) and Has a Purpose. Let's just put that down to the poison of the era, nothing can exist outside the Binary Amen World Without End, and draw a line under it.

The larger story of Baby is the resources of the planet will only last so long. When we run out of what we think we need, what will we be able to do about it when we have no knowledge to create anything new? And from what resources we have, are we going to allocate them and use them equitably? After all, Baby set out on his voyage of discovery because he was starving and Honey still has food. The Central that Baby invokes (I'd say "prays to" if he'd ever had a concept of Divinity) doesn't run properly anymore or he'd have supplies. The chocolate pie he eats in House 76 at the beginning of the story stands in for Emshwiller's ever-so-American suspicion of a central planner with the authority to do things for you. "And when it fails?" she asks without subtlety.

It's not at all a bad question to ask...Baby and Honey are as infantilized as I fear most people are becoming as the educational fads of today fail to prepare them even to read fluidly. (Read my review of this book.) Of course the automated Library has failed Baby and his Guardians, I'm hugely dependent on my ereader, I recognize with no small trepidation how vulnerable that leaves me to technological disruptions that are, quite frankly, inevitable. I hope to be dead before they bite too hard....

But Emshwiller's main achievement in these dozen pages is really more impressive than simply Cassandra-ing up a future we should all dread. What she did was, as a woman, tell a story in a misogynistic field to readers not predisposed to like the way she presents it...Cold War SF fans...and without making it Sentimental. (Still ignoring Honey.) She did, ironically, marry and have kids shortly after this piece appeared and was silenced for almost an entire decade by the life of a Wife and Mother. She also came back from that silence, see her bibliography. This voice spoke wisdom, and did not stop speaking it. Seek her work out.

Friday, July 16, 2021

BLIND SPOTS: Why Students Fail and the Science That Can Save Them presents problems with solutions rare

BLIND SPOTS: Why Students Fail and the Science That Can Save Them

The Collective Book Studio
$18.95 trade paper, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: In the United States, a majority of students graduate below proficiency in all academic subjects. Parents of struggling students feel overwhelmed and confused about how to help their children simply survive school, let alone succeed. Various school reform efforts have been tried and all have failed. But all hope is not lost. A science exists that allows children to learn as individuals even though at school they are educated in groups. One that avoids senseless labels that sentence children to lifetimes of failure and mediocrity.

Dr. Kimberly Berens and a team of scientists have spent the last 20 years perfecting a powerful system of instruction based on the learning, behavioral, and cognitive sciences that they call Fit Learning. This method of teaching has been proven to markedly improve how students understand and achieve, even for children who have been told they have learning disabilities or other disorders that interfere with their ability to learn.

Blind Spots reveals the history of our broken education system and shows that by using this teaching system in the classroom, we can unlock the vast potential hidden within every child.


My Review
: There is a class of non-fiction book, driven by an agenda (usually religious or economic), that breaks me out in giant urticaria. People who feel, intensely, that Their Way Is Correct, aren't usually interesting to me. When I received this book, I worried that the problem would be especially strong here because Dr. Berens is a proselytizer for an educational system of her own devising.

The problem sounds obvious, doesn't it....damn near inescapable, really. Not so fast....

Yes, there is a lot here that is self-promotional, and that does indeed make me very uncomfortable. I was willing to keep going because the issue Dr. Berens is attempting to fix is one about which I am passionate as well: EDUCATE MY GRANDCHILDREN don't teach them how to take a damn test. We have forty years of lousy learners whose reading skills are such that comic books and audiobooks and podcasts are literary genres. I am, frankly, appalled by need someone to read a book to you? You need lovely art to look at to make all those dull words come alive?! Is there no silence for you, someone must always be talking, talking, talking? When do you ever *think*?

Such are my concerns...Dr. Berens doesn't address them, but she does address the sad and worsening situation that teachers and students are enmeshed in. The first four chapters of the book clock in at 108 pages. They are the case-making chapters, the ones where we're informed of how we got here. I found them depressing and hard to motivate myself to read because honestly, seeing what's happened to the young people I know, there is such an immense wrong that's been done to them in the name of education that I want to weep.
The establishment sets an arbitrary timeline that teachers and students are expected to follow. Thus, students spend a predetermined amount of time on a particular lesson, get tested on that lesson, receive a grade of some sort, and are pushed on to the next lesson—regardless of the grade received. Grades are viewed as an evaluation of the student, not an evaluation of instruction. Students are expected to raise their hands, sit quietly and attentively in class, and make good grades. When students fail to do these things, that failure is attributed to problems inherent in the student.
...I'm hoping that uncovering your blind spots regarding how learning actually occurs might be the tipping point {to cause action}. ... Educational practices should be based on how learning actually occurs, not on how the establishment believes learning occurs.

Having spent the preceding hundred-plus pages bringing the fallacies and unsupported assumptions to your attention, the next chapter (five, for the detail-oriented) explodes nine myths about learning:
  1. All Kids Learn Differently

  2. We Should Teach to A Child's Strengths

  3. They're Just Not Ready Yet

  4. They're Just Not Good at It

  5. Curriculum Materials Must Capture Student Interest

  6. It's All About Self-Esteem

  7. But They're The Experts!

  8. Learning and Behavioral Problems are Medical and Often Require Medication

  9. It's All About the Brain

...that's pretty comprehensive, isn't it...and the simplest thing about it is the number of times you've nodded your head, and thought (or said out loud, don't front!) "yeah, _____ said that when..." you've interacted with The System. Any parent has, and has heard those very ideas expressed with great confidence. And, it turns out, surprisingly circular intellectual justifications. (That's those first four chapters I had to make myself read.)

Chapter five, then, is about preparing you for chapter six: The Solution. Isn't that a reassuring title? You've made me all verschmekeled about the problem, yes, but here is The Solution. Thirty pages of assertions that I myownself think sound like they can't miss...but, says the Voice of Doubt, what makes these ideas better than the ones we're living the failure of? Chapter seven: The Evidence.

Yep. The structure of the book is a well-designed version of the solution it presents. I'm borderline panicked at the middle-aged people who, during this pandemic, have taken no lessons away from their experience of being forced to be their kids' teachers except "teachers aren't paid enough" (which, true enough, they aren't). The way your own kid looks at you as you're trying to explain a lesson shouldn't fill you with dismay and embarrassment. It should make you goddamned good and mad. This is what school means to them! It's not (just) you, it's the bloody awful things we've done to kids for forty years and called education! I think you should buy this book and read it? Yes. Yes, I do. I know you won't necessarily like the experience but the information makes me want to urge you, in the strongest possible terms, to read it and share it widely...parent, grandparent, or just citizen of the world these schoolchildren will make for you.

Wednesday, July 14, 2021

APPLESEED, Matt Bell's breakout big-ideas big book or I miss my guess


Custom House
$27.99 hardcover, available now


Shortlisted for the inaugural Ursula K. LeGuin Prize for Fiction! Winners announced 21 October 2022.

Rating: 4.75* of five



The Publisher Says: In the vein of Neal Stephenson and Jeff VanderMeer, an epic speculative novel from Young Lions Fiction Award–finalist Matt Bell, a breakout book that explores climate change, manifest destiny, humanity's unchecked exploitation of natural resources, and the small but powerful magic contained within every single apple.

In eighteenth-century Ohio, two brothers travel into the wooded frontier, planting apple orchards from which they plan to profit in the years to come. As they remake the wilderness in their own image, planning for a future of settlement and civilization, the long-held bonds and secrets between the two will be tested, fractured and broken—and possibly healed.

Fifty years from now, in the second half of the twenty-first century, climate change has ravaged the Earth. Having invested early in genetic engineering and food science, one company now owns all the world’s resources. But a growing resistance is working to redistribute both land and power—and in a pivotal moment for the future of humanity, one of the company’s original founders will return to headquarters, intending to destroy what he helped build.

A thousand years in the future, North America is covered by a massive sheet of ice. One lonely sentient being inhabits a tech station on top of the glacier—and in a daring and seemingly impossible quest, sets out to follow a homing beacon across the continent in the hopes of discovering the last remnant of civilization.

Hugely ambitious in scope and theme, Appleseed is the breakout novel from a writer “as self-assured as he is audacious” (NPR) who “may well have invented the pulse-pounding novel of ideas” (Jess Walter). Part speculative epic, part tech thriller, part reinvented fairy tale, Appleseed is an unforgettable meditation on climate change; corporate, civic, and familial responsibility; manifest destiny; and the myths and legends that sustain us all.


My Review
: When I read Author Bell's 2013 novel, In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods, it was a startling experience. Sadly, it came at almost exactly the same time as my epic emotional collapse so I've only recently reviewed it. Let me tell you now, in brief, why I think it was an extraordinarily good read: Myth-making never ceases, no culture is without its myths; that book was an exploration of The Couple Myth at length; and there is no better way to make myths than to put the most complete possible vocabulary of the day around them. Appleseed is a fuller exploration of this technique applied to Climate Change.

What myths are we exploring this there a myth-set tale that this three-handed sonata plays on? Yes...the title's the first giveaway, there's a definite connection to the Johnny Appleseed myth made from John Chapman's actual life spent planting the American West with economically useful apple trees in advance of the settlers coming to Ohio (yes, that *was* the West then, surprising isn't it two hundred years on).

Nathaniel, older human brother of Chapman the faun, does the work of finding the way, avoiding the humans who would hurt or kill his behornèd brother of the golden eyes and hoofed legs. Chapman knows the land, even the land he's never been on. It is his nature. And we all know what happens to Nature, don't we. The greater glory of a christian god is costly, always and in all ways; do you wish to continue past the point of no return?

John lives in our near-term future, a recycler busily trying to undo the Works of Man that Chapman and Nathaniel, in their innocence, believe to be Progress instead of progressive rot. He travels alone when we meet him...he is looking for his (female, of course) buddy/pal/squeeze because, well, humans need each other. His dystopia, an Amercan West (the one we know as such today) is tinder-dry, eczema-dotted with our dams and roads and ghosts of towns that he wants to render inoperable and irreparable. Needless to say, the corporate entity that actually, formally, owns the whole expanse doesn't like some rando ruining perfectly usable infrastructure. Especially now that all those pesky people aren't cluttering it up. The slow reveal of why John and his ex are doing what they're doing to re-wild the West is a piece of misdirection I can't quite bring myself to spoil...but suffice it to say the era of mythmaking about Man's Plenipotentiary Powers à la Sisyphus is not over yet.

And then there's C-432. This being lives many, many lives in our distant, glacier-scraped future. This way of live is enabled by spelunking the crevasses that always open in craters and reclaiming for reuse whatever materials from the time before are reclaimable. We're not-quite told that C-432 is a clone host for the consciousness of an earlier human...or maybe faun? note initial...and this iteration/incarnation is a risk-averse, therefore old, entity facing the reality that a scavenger doesn't produce anything so will, inevitably, pass from the scene. As a way of life it is severely limited.

But, in each of these story lines, there is a leitmotif, a through-line, that Author Bell resurfaces for your easter-egging pleasure. The Loom might be my favorite fictional technology ever; the uses of the scavenged materials, the most poignant. The apple...the choice that C-432 has to make...there are absolutely delightful connections made among these grace notes. The complexity of the read is one of its pleasures and I encourage you, like you would with any rich and calorific consumable, to go slowly...make it last. Think about it as you go to sleep, dream its scenes as you're processing its sweet, sonorous prose.

So why, if I'm practically crooning my pleasure in hopes of luring you to read it, am I rating it less than five full stars?

Because, while I as a lifelong inhabitant of this country appreciate its US-centered myth-making and its implicit acceptance that our (in)actions are largely responsible for this disaster, it feels wrong to simply dismiss with a cursory glance the planet-wide scale of it. Because there's a weird, unnecessary straight-man sex scene that jolts progress to a halt while we indulge y'all's ugly needs. Because the ending...while interesting...wasn't anything like the rest of the book so felt merged from a different FTP with middling success.

None of those things rise above the level of quibbles because the gestalt carries the day. There is such a beautiful tapestry woven of these lovely words. I've avoided quoting them to you because, well, which ones? Why those? Where's the perfect quote for this idea...this one, that one, no no the other one...and it got headachey trying to figure it out.

What didn't get headachey was this phrase, this simple phrase, that says everything the book and the future need you to know: "No matter what you do, there will never be more time left to act than there is now."

A call to arms, a fable of consequences, a myth of magisterial beauty and magical urgency.

Monday, July 12, 2021

GIVE MY LOVE TO THE SAVAGES, stories in the key of Black (fantasy) life


Amistad Books
$25.99 hardcover, available now

FINALIST FOR THE PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Short Story Collection! Winners announced on 28 February 2022.

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: A provocative and raw debut collection of short fiction reminiscent of Junot Diaz’s Drown.

A Black man’s life, told in scenes—through every time he’s been called nigger. A Black son who visits his estranged white father in Los Angeles just as the ’92 riots begin. A Black Republican, coping with a skin disease that has turned him white, is forced to reconsider his life. A young Black man, fetishized by an older white woman he’s just met, is offered a strange and tempting proposal.

The nine tales in Give My Love to the Savages illuminate the multifaceted Black experience, exploring the thorny intersections of race, identity, and Black life through an extraordinary cast of characters. From the absurd to the starkly realistic, these stories take aim at the ironies and contradictions of the American racial experience. Chris Stuck traverses the dividing lines, and attempts to create meaning from them in unique and unusual ways. Each story considers a marker of our current culture, from uprisings and sly and not-so-sly racism, to Black fetishization and conservatism, to the obstacles placed in front of Black masculinity and Black and interracial relationships by society and circumstance.

Setting these stories across America, from Los Angeles, Phoenix and the Pacific Northwest, to New York and Washington, DC, to the suburbs and small Midwestern towns, Stuck uses place to expose the absurdity of race and the odd ways that Black people and white people converge and retreat, rub against and bump into one another.

Ultimately, Give My Love to the Savages is the story of America. With biting humor and careful honesty, Stuck riffs on the dichotomy of love and barbarity—the yin and yang of racial experience—and the difficult and uncertain terrain Black Americans must navigate in pursuit of their desires.


My Review
: I seriously doubted that I'd get deeply enmeshed in this book because Race. Such a stupid, racist thought...and so untrue in the end. I feel vindicated in continuing to prosecute my ongoing battle against the ossification of my brain. Why, I even read another YA book recently and y'all *know* how much I don't like teenagers. Even gay ones.

But this collection, now, this is the stuff I think I'll find every time I try something fresh. I am so often disappointed...not always the author's fault...that, when I find writers like Author Stuck I'm a little wary. "Is this the only one? Can and/or will he do more, get even better?" I'm hoping he can, and will, because a writer who looks at the world from his oddball angle is a deep pleasure to read.

I will, by long-established custom, use the Bryce Method of short, separate impressions and distinct individual ratings for the stories to come to a gestalt understanding of this debut collection.

Every Time They Call You Nigger uses the Satanic Second (person) for a chest-pokey yuck-ptui feel. Still:
"You like this because you now know the difference between Black people and niggas,the difference between niggers and niggas. You think you're a Jedi in understanding the code. Though you walk through the valley of the shadow of race, you will fear no evil."

But you will fear The Void...adulthood, with its hostages to fortune, comes to us all and gives us perspectives we never expected to get. We're all going to be in the struggle to make a future we can stand to leave behind. 4 stars

How to Be A Dick in the Twenty-First Century presents Richard Dickerson, fifty-something bald five-six Black billionaire, as his apotheosis into Dickhood is attained:
No matter the season, my entire body was always aroused, itchy, throbbing. That was my mentality, too. The testosterone, it was how I got ahead, my assertiveness, my swagger. As a man, it was expected of me. As a Black man, it was required.

This satirical take on end-stage capitalism via "Metamorphosis" made me chuckle a lot. No matter what one tries, has done or does, the fact is you're always you. For better or worse. 4.5 stars

Lake No Negro takes polyamory to the weird, domestic-drama cleaners...Andre's got a lot to prove, Tanya's got nothing to lose. The Senior Moments in that ménage are about to get dramatically more Fraught. Kind of fun...pretty seriously slight. 3 stars

And Then There Were the Norrises contains the multitudes of a gay twelve-year-old kid (called "Chuck" for fuck sake!) in WITSEC with a depressingly dysfunctional pair of "parents" and a bad habit of being way, way too smart:
By then, my mother was the only one in the family who would speak to me in civil tones. At dinner that night, she asked if I'd met anyone at school. Before I could answer, my older sister, Trudy, muttered, "highly unlikely, Mother," in her little look-at-me, I-suddenly-have-boobs way.

But in fact, and not for the first time, Love blooms with a low-class no-count white kid named Sterling Silver. Who probably saved the kid's life by introducing him to normal-boy shit. When you're twelve, three months changes the world. Sad, also really funny, and very, very 1980s. 4 stars

Cowboys doesn't make you long for the Good Old Days of being midtwenties and middlin' stupid on the sauce. But gettin' a job at the Waxsonian Museum, owned by Dick Doberman the Vietnamese refugee made good enough to keep the doors of the place open? THEN, listen to this!, THEN lettin' your loser cracker co-worker talk you into helping his brother the bail bondsman collar a skiptrace wanted for felony grand theft...yeah. That's where we're headed. Funny, grisly, just stinkin' awful. 4 stars

Chuck and Tina Go On Vacation doesn't break new ground, but does remind us that we're all alive even when we're not Living.
Chuck hit the Book It Now button and saw the final price. Really, it wasn't that bad. But all he could think was their next credit card bill, and their student loans. Their balances were up there, a frothy wave of already-spent cash cresting over their heads.

It's just that there's no way to keep score, they aren't tethered to any one or thing, not even each other really...when Chuck gets so sick he longs for death and Tina gets so high she can't remember why she cared what anyone thought (but don't tell Chuck!) they still fail to be together. Not even when their social-media lameness results in a back-home disaster. It's like Marla, Tina's "friend" says after scoffing at her tears: "Girl, this is New York. Either move or stop crying." This is not Tina's world, and Chuck doesn't even belong in this one still less the one she belongs her dreams. 4 stars because it's The Little Horses of Tarquinia only Black and in Mexico.

This Isn't Music uses the Satanic Second again, gawd how I hate having my chest poked! and also gets Nick and Lily to cross several Black-plus-white lines...he says he's her Mandingo! And she doesn't file for divorce from her phone!...and then they relapse into intimate apathy with his dementia-addled father. Or they will, you can bet, after he sorta-kinda ends his, what is it?, not so much affair as too-good-friendship with fellow white-on-Black sufferer Billie. Whose white is Tyrone (not Black, Irish!), who doesn't want to fuck anymore because...well, if what happened to him had happened to me I'd never so much as undress in front of anyone ever again. And still...there's the Big Nothing at the center of this Life that barely feels alive inside, "Know this: No matter how much you hate it, this is your life," Nick. I was enrapt. I read bits to my Young (mixed race) Gentleman Caller, and watched him furrow his brow.... 4.5 stars

The Life and Loves of Melvin J. Plump, Esq. showed me my ugliest self, and my worst self, but by gawd I will be damned if I'll be identified with a rotten-souled Repulsivecan!
{The therapist} deflated with one of her nose-whistling sighs. "And just what kind of people are they?"
"You know, sun visors and fanny packs, socks and sandals. The true soul of America."
The vessel was Vegas and the Mall of America but with a rudder and lifeboats. And I kept wondering how the behemoth didn't sink.

(I myownself quietly wondered "why" as well....) See? That's how these stories get to you. Sneakily. With stealth. In pieces and by increments. 5 stars

Give My Love to the Savages means, basically, exactly what you think it should mean. Junie, a twenty-year-old slacker without any discernible sense of self-worth, comes to Los Angeles to spend spring break with his shyster father, the used-car magnate. The catch is, it's the Rodney King Uprising of 1992 and there is a giant fire taking the space LA usually leaves for its nasty racism.

As an interracial-marriage kid, he's got no fixed identity and the Great Urge Downward to atone for the rotten hate crime he did nothing to stop. His white father, a narcissistic user, accidentally...irresponsibly...puts him in the right place to really hit the loud pedal on his psycho-social slide. 4 stars

Maybe it's the fact that I knew his editor long, long ago (hi Tracy!); maybe it's my inability to pass up writers whose taste and talent is for grit lit, Negro Noir, the potholes-and-passions writers...this is a debut I really want to see get more book-siblings.

Friday, July 9, 2021

BIG DARK HOLE: AND OTHER STORIES, Jeffrey Ford's latest story collection

BIG DARK HOLE: and Other Stories

Small Beer Press
$17.00 trade paper, available now

FINALIST FOR THE 2022 LOCUS AWARD—BEST COLLECTION! Winners announced 25 June 2022.

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: A Jeffrey Ford story may start out in the innocuous and routine world of college teaching or evenings on a porch with your wife. But inevitably the weird comes crashing in. Maybe it’s an unexpected light in a dark and uninhabited house, maybe it’s a drainage tunnel that some poor kid is suddenly compelled to explore. Maybe there’s a monkey in the woods or an angel that you’ll need to fight if you want to gain tenure. Big Dark Hole is about those big, dark holes that we find ourselves once in a while and maybe, too, the big dark holes that exist inside of us.


My Review
: Dudebro Jeffrey Ford voice on full Technicolor display...if you've never read Ford's stories, you're either going to hate the hell out of that voice from giddy-up to whoa, in which case give the collection a miss; or you're going to see the voice as its own contiunuing character, the kind-of career-long Rod Serling of the author's imaginitive universe. I liked the voice from my first encounter and if you don't, bail instantly.

These aren't Horror Stories, they're atmospheric tales of strange and uncongruent realities that look a lot like consensus reality. As is the statutory requirement for story-collection reviews, I will employ the Bryce Method of giving a line or two and a rating to each story individually.

The Thousand Eyes does a lot in a little space. It's Gary speaking, introducing his South Jersey homeplace with its various ongoing side characters:
Barney explained Merle's style as "Edward Hicks meets Edward Hopper in a bare-knuckle match."

High-class medium-octane unease-inducing weirdness set in a South Jersey dive (!) bar with a "Devil Went Down to Georgia" vibe...let's say 3.5 stars

Hibbler’s Minions introduces us to a carnival at large in the Dustbowl era from Janus the Two-Faced Man's point of view. Only his two faces are actually two separate-ish people in one body; and Ichbon, the Maestro, was a protégé of the great Barnum who's assembled a *true* carnival. The carnies are all truly unusual, not flimsy fakes; the people are genuinely interesting. But every Eden has an end, and this one....

Fleas, never my favorite critters, will feature in my nightmares for a long, long time. 4 stars

Monster Eight stopped exactly when it was getting good!!
"I do have an appointment to break a priest's leg this evening, so if we could pick up the pace, that would be fine," {the Monster} said.

You bloody tease, Jeffrey Ford! Promising me such excellent and earned violence then...*poof* 3.5 ragey stars

Inn of the Dreaming Dog uses the Satanic Second (Person) voice to remind us that one companion is worth fighting to keep; no one really understands your journey but you; and the guides are also the jailers in a simulated Paradise that makes no sense until you realize only Hell is real. 4 stars despite poking me in my chest for eleven pages.

Monkey in the Woods reminds us that Memory is a goddess for a reason: She's distant, pretty, and unapproachable; but dare to make yourself known to her, she will rip the veil off and show you the rotting nothingness of reality! Fun times. 3.5 stars

The Match twanged me like a guitar string (out-of-tune G#).
That night was a Friday, so we sat out on the porch and got hammered on wine. Me, red. Lynn, white. We played the little cylinder of a music box on Pandora's Nat King Cole station. It was spring and things were starting to blossom.

Saint Drogo, the bilocating patron saint of coffee? Metatron, the Recording Angel? Neither attested in any primary sources; each seemingly invented from whole cloth to suit the needs of the moment; this all happens in the dreams of a semi-soused old Composition teacher. Sheer, playful delight. 4.5 stars

From the Balcony of the Idawolf Arms does the improbable: Makes a struggling family the romantic heart of a monster movie without losing a single member. The struggling mom, the kids without supervision but working with her to keep the ship afloat...and the enigma of Mr. Susi, the reclusive landlord who just *might* be a li'l bit too fond of calamari... 4 stars

Sisyphus in Elysium endows the ancient myth of condign punishment with a physicality, an absoluteness that roots it in reality ina shocking way. It never fails...your work in Life isn't completable, but your work also isn't escapable. The idea of Sisyphus and his labors is always fresh and never, ever fresher than when it's told with Author Ford's cruelest and least self-forgiving rage. 5 stars

The Jeweled Wren takes us inside the haunted house, you know the one...there's never anything wrong with it, but it's just *wrong* in some indefinable way...the one where no one ever seems to make any noise but you could swear you heard something. There! Didn't you hear that?
"At every corner of the basement," said Hester, "there's a plate with a rotting horse chestnut on it. Could be some ghost nonsense."

"It's to keep spiders out of the house," said Gary.

"How do you know that?" she asked.

"Some guy told me when I was over walking in the preserve. There are a couple of those trees and they'd dropped these weird green globes. I asked the guy what they were and he told me all about them and the thing about the spiders. I asked him if the spider thing really worked. He said, 'Good as anything.'"

He plays with us, does Author Ford. He sets this little thought-bomb off...what could horse chestnuts have to do with this story, no one spends that much time talking about something that doesn't pay off...and Tasers us with a twist that only makes sense if you assume that the meaning isn't the story, but the story is about meaning. 4.5 stars

Not Without Mercy Cosmic version of The Ring. Oh...Uncle Gribnob...please, please take me first. 4 stars

The Bookcase Expedition brings Lynn and Gary back to us, and remember Barney from "The Thousand Eyes"? He's got a cameo, of sorts. She's got her ways, does Lynn, and Gary's just not swift enough to catch her as she uses them. I think Sopso is the real hero of the piece, though... 3.5 stars

The Winter Wraith truly made me glad I can't have a Yule tree anymore..."A distant cousin, once accused of pyromania, arriving for an indefinite visit," sounds awful doesn't it. But just you wait.... 3.5 stars

Big Dark Hole really doesn't do one damn thing for me. Stand by Me, sort of? Only with a Ben vibe...? Anyway. Not the best example of a Ford story. 3 stars

Thanksgiving brings "Uncle Jake" to the table...the one old guy no one really remembers, the irritating eternal there-ness that truthfully masks the absent ones from all tables. Unwanted, unneeded, undeserving...all the usual things spare people get thought about them. But what if, this once, there's more to "Uncle Jake" than you thought? Fuck around and find out.... 4 stars

Five-Pointed Spell brings Lynn and Gary back, Mr. Ford this time, as they abandon South Jersey for the fleshpots of Ohio where Lynn can have her dream job. They buy their old Ohio farmhouse. It comes with serious baggage, strange all comes with ghosts. What doesn't, we're in a Ford story!

He's, well, he's a Long Islander and would like to get a little oceany now and then, so takes a chance to read in New York City...that goes to scarytown, of course. Ghosts from his past, but really really strange paths to finding the facts about my old school pal Toby. Thank goodness for Barney! (Remember him? This is one of the charms of reading Jeffrey Ford's stories...they all end up in a cosmic-weird do loop.) I'll give this one 4.5 stars

Wednesday, July 7, 2021



Akashic Books
$16.95 trade paper, available now

Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: A hilarious and poignant novel about growing up, buying in, selling out, and the death of irony.

Joe Keen and Ana Urbanek have been a couple for a long time, with all the requisite lulls and temptations, yet they remain unmarried and without children, contrary to their Midwestern values (and parents’ wishes). Now on the cusp of forty, they are both working at jobs that they’re not even sure they believe in anymore, but with significantly varying returns. Ana is successful, Joe is floundering—both in limbo, caught somewhere between mainstream and alternative culture, sincerity and irony, achievement and arrested development.

Set against the backdrop of bottomed-out 2009 Detroit, a once-great American city now in transition, part decaying and part striving to be reborn, The Narcissism of Small Differences is the story of an aging creative class, doomed to ask the questions: Is it possible to outgrow irony? Does not having children make you one? Is there even such a thing as selling out anymore?

More than a comedy of manners, The Narcissism of Small Differences is a comedy of compromise: the financial compromises we make to feed ourselves; the moral compromises that justify our questionable actions; the everyday compromises we all make just to survive in the world. Yet it’s also about the consequences of those compromises— and the people we become because of them—in our quest for a life that is our own and no one else’s.


My Review: I think Author Zadoorian's Detroitophilia needed this book to come to a head...
It was a way for gray-flannel types to shed their inhibitions, go native, and get weird—uninhibited boozing, semierotic dancing to faux-exotic music, gaudy flowered shirts, sticky finger foods, unclad maiden flesh, and phallic tiki idols. At one point, Detroit had three Polynesian palaces, but when the city started bleeding honkies after the '67 race riot, all of them eventually closed.
Should you be going to tiki parties in your forties? Was it possible to maintain ironic distance for that long, or should you have outgrown it by then? How long before you needed an irony supplement?

Joe is an urban explorer, a man whose purpose in life is looking for something to look at; this isn't a tremendously profitable career, but he freelances as a local-music critic and spelunks the abandoned spaces of the city as his avocation. He has no mortgage and no kids, just a partner of over a decade, Ana. They're living an intentional life, but that ain't free. So Ana, his squeeze, makes the advertising, in a dead and dying city, that takes skill and luck which she abounds in.

And then, as it always will, Life happens. The two of them are wearing on each other. The thing about stasis is, no matter if it's tolerable or not, it has to end. Things in life are growing or dying:
“Truth like light, blinds. Falsehood, on the contrary, is a beautiful twilight that enhances every object.”
When is it going to end, this worshiping of ephemera? How long will our generation be obsessed with the past, with stuff that barely meant anything when it happened, that’s remembered only because it’s old or bad or weird or kooky?

There's nothing like the world for knocking your corners off...just sucks when the chunks go flying into those closest to you.
"You drop names and make references. You talk about songs, but rarely does a song speak to you. You laugh at cleverness because you recognize it's supposed to be funny, not because it is funny. You know about things for the sake of knowing about them, because you think you're supposed to, because you're afraid of being left out, not because they interest you. You're a dilettante, a potterer. You simply stopped trying to be anything more."
"It looks different through the lens, doesn't it?" {Joe's friend} said {to him}.
  "I don't know why. It just makes more sense this way. It's easier to take in."
"Uh-huh. Sometimes what I'm looking at is too intense for me to understand without a filter, a way to view it. The camera helps." Brendan leveled his camera...and squeezed off a shot.
  "Why is this so magnificent? What's wrong with us?"
"I told you...The verity of decay."

If Ana had wanted a sullen teenager, she would've had a kid...but here she is with a fractured man-child who resents her for winning their bread and whose friends are nasty pieces of White Male Privilege...Transphobia: one-half star off. N-word and repeated misogynistic bullshit use by white character: one-half star off. Yes, it's set in 2009...yes, it's not like these are people whose sophistication is meant to hold them up as examples. But this is ugliness and prejudice, and it doesn't get treated as such.

But the story is about more than that. It's about what it means to be You at last. These are forty-year-olds doing what the middle-aged literary characters of US while privilege are supposed to do: Reflecting on the emptiness of a life of getting and spending. And coming to terms with what they really, in fact, want from The System. Ana's decisions are less crowd-sourced...her one obvious friend isn't who she thought she was at exactly the wrong moment...than Joe's, but considering the caliber of his friends that's a good thing.

I found the story...exasperating. I found the dramatis personae...uncongenial. I found the ending...condign.

Monday, July 5, 2021

WHEN THE SPARROW FALLS, a debut SF novel with


Tor Books
$26.99 hardcover, available now

Rating: 4.1* of five

The Publisher Says: Life in the Caspian Republic has taught Agent Nikolai South two rules. Trust No One. And work just hard enough not to make enemies.

Here, in the last sanctuary for the dying embers of the human race in a world run by artificial intelligence, if you stray from the path - your life is forfeit. But when a Party propagandist is killed - and is discovered as a "machine" - he's given a new mission: chaperone the widow, Lily, who has arrived to claim her husband's remains.

But when South sees that she, the first "machine" ever allowed into the country, bears an uncanny resemblance to his late wife, he's thrown into a maelstrom of betrayal, murder, and conspiracy that may bring down the Republic for good.

WHEN THE SPARROW FALLS illuminates authoritarianism, complicity, and identity in the digital age, in a page turning, darkly-funny, frightening and touching story that recalls Philip K. Dick, John le Carré and Kurt Vonnegut in equal measure.


My Review
: First, read this:
Nominally, the currency of the Caspian Republic is the moneta, but in truth the coin of the nation was fear. Whoever could inspire fear was rich, whoever lived in fear was poor.
For a writer's work to be circulated amongst the upper levels of the party was usually the precursor to them coming down with a rather permanent case of writer's block, but not this time. {He} was offered a position in The Truth (then viewed as a rather out of touch and elitist organ), and asked to bring his rough, authentic, working-class voice to the paper's readers, who were left with nothing to do but wonder what they had done to deserve it.

You know already where you are. You'd be stupid or frankly insentient if you didn't recognize the various totalitarian régimes of our present century. Here's what you don't know in the first few chapters of this extraordinarily exciting tale: You will not be leaving the Caspian Republic until events have reached their logical limits. Until then, settle in and surrender your schedule and your other plans.

I would love to spoil the bejabbers out of this read. It is almost painful not to. I want someone to kvell over the ending with; I want someone to be full of the rat's-nest of emotions with me...and not one soul I know can be!

I understand the feelings expressed at the ending of the book so very much better now.

When you send your request in to the bookery of your choice for this story, I think you should know that the author's purpose in writing it was to rob you of any sense of actual control over your life and the world around you. But it will, in fact, be okay. I can't tell you why but let's just say Epicurus's famous formulation of the Problem of Evil:
“Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?”

Well-trodden tracks lead through this thicket. The response from the god-addled is, "She has Her Reasons, which Reason knoweth not," or something similar to that. In fact the story contains that very argument, put in the mouth of a deeply important figure. (It is only resolvable for the goddists by their huffy assumption that you, o skeptic, are nowhere near as smart as you think you are; and for the bare-faced atheists by using the same argument in reverse.) But what if there *is* a solution....
It was the face beneath mine on the beach when she had been pulled from the ocean and my breath had not been enough.

What, indeed.

Spending a day immersed in the Caspian Republic is a pleasure I'm deeply glad to inform you is exactly what this rather somber, for me at least, holiday required. I needed morally complex characters, ones whose simplest expressions of self are free of embarrassing innocence and unmarred by mawkish candor. I needed to be with my fellow hideously betrayed and painfully reassembled, then betrayed again...and again...and again...bitter, disappointed, unable to imagine what trust would even look like, romantics. They teem in the totalitarian terrors of the Caspian Republic. I needed to feel that my brain's energy was fully and unremittingly drawn down to understand the convolutions of the story's moral landscape.
"Everyone's soul is unique...{a}nd just as your body is built with the protein and calcium and iron you consume every day, your soul is built with words. The words you read, and the words you hear. The soul consumes words, and then it expresses itself through them in a way that is unique to that soul."


Love will always fuck you up; and the ways in which love fucks you up are truly epic in this story. Thee and me, fellow QUILTBAGgers, are presented on these pages as people of complexity and subtlety. There's really no sex of any sort; it's alluded to and it's very much part of the proceedings, but nobody gets down to business. In exchange, lesbians' love is utterly unremarkable. Men's love is less present; but it does come, when it shows up, as a moment of bathos and facetious secretiveness ("...what did he do?" Your husband, unless I completely misread the subtext, isn't particularly respectful from a cishet man no matter that it's amusingly phrased). Oh well...can't really expect otherwise, given the two men involved. There was absolutely no way on Earth I'd've picked those guys out as my fellows, gotta hand that to Author Sharpson!

So half-a-star gone for the three w-bombs dropped on my innocent, unsuspecting head; another half-star for being sniggeringly dismissive of the only gay male couple in the entire book.

But leaving the read, the ending, well...that has to put some luster back on the's a delight, if a marred and flawed delight, of a read. It gives a reader a rare treat: Reading about grown people, the adult end of the room, is a rapturous and infrequently encountered pleasure in the YA-heavy lists of SF/F publishers. A novel of ideas, one that examines the cracks and the broken places in Love and Trust, one that asks you to spend more than just the usual amount of energy on the read deserves a warm and delighted welcome, louder and stronger for the fact that it's the first...hopefully in a long line.

But seriously. No more w-verbing. It's gross.