Monday, August 30, 2021

MY HEART IS A CHAINSAW, latest gore-with-more from multi-award-winning horror dude Stephen Graham Jones


Saga Press
$26.99 hardcover, available now

Nominated for the BEST NOVEL AWARD—2021 SHIRLEY JACKSON AWARDS! Winner annunced on 29 October 2022.


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

Rating: 4.75* of five

The Publisher Says: In her quickly gentrifying rural lake town Jade sees recent events only her encyclopedic knowledge of horror films could have prepared her for in this latest novel from the Jordan Peele of horror literature, New York Times bestselling author Stephen Graham Jones.

“Some girls just don’t know how to die…”

Shirley Jackson meets Friday the 13th in My Heart Is a Chainsaw, written by the author of The Only Good Indians Stephen Graham Jones, called “a literary master” by National Book Award-winner Tananarive Due and “one of our most talented living writers” by Tommy Orange.

Alma Katsu calls My Heart Is a Chainsaw “a homage to slasher films that also manages to defy and transcend genre.” On the surface is a story of murder in small-town America. But beneath is its beating heart: a biting critique of American colonialism, Indigenous displacement, and gentrification, and a heartbreaking portrait of a broken young girl who uses horror movies to cope with the horror of her own life.

Jade Daniels is an angry, half-Indian outcast with an abusive father, an absent mother, and an entire town that wants nothing to do with her. She lives in her own world, a world in which protection comes from an unusual source: horror movies…especially the ones where a masked killer seeks revenge on a world that wronged them. And Jade narrates the quirky history of Proofrock as if it is one of those movies. But when blood actually starts to spill into the waters of Indian Lake, she pulls us into her dizzying, encyclopedic mind of blood and masked murderers, and predicts exactly how the plot will unfold.

Yet, even as Jade drags us into her dark fever dream, a surprising and intimate portrait emerges…a portrait of the scared and traumatized little girl beneath the Jason Voorhees mask: angry, yes, but also a girl who easily cries, fiercely loves, and desperately wants a home. A girl whose feelings are too big for her body. My Heart Is a Chainsaw is her story, her homage to horror and revenge and triumph.


My Review
: There are all sorts of ways to read a Stephen Graham Jones book. Surfaces work...there's always a story hanging around, you won't be wandering lost in thickets of writing-armpit sweat-watered weeds...references work too, you can unpick your memories of the midnight movies or frightfrests your friends threw (or open IMDb if you're really young)...but I think the best way is to make it through as it's happening, to be there as Jade walks across the graduation stage or through walls or up into skies limited only by the basic laws of physics.

The reason I feel that last works best is that, by the time I'd reached the end of this read, and then read Author Stephen's Acknowledgments after the wrenching and impossibly sad final scene, I was so wrung out that I simply accepted that everything I'd just been through had been intended to do what it did to me. As I'm not one to write book reports (ask Mr. Singleton! never turned so much as one in during high school) I'm not going to try to do that at this late date. I referred to this book's immediate older sibling, The Only Good Indians, as "gore with more" and that's an assessment I stand by as applied to all of Author Stephen's books. Part of that "more" is the strangely hypnotic effect of the story arc receding from view...the interstitial "SLASHER 101" essays addressed to the One Good Teacher (of history, naturally) Mr. Holmes are well and truly weirding Your Faithful Reader out. When they switch addressees, it gets even weirder...but in the end, it's painfully intimate and deeply instructive to read them.

In common with all Author Stephen's books, you mere peon of a purchaser have no rights. You're not stupid, you've read some of his other work (at least The Only Good Indians!), you're aware that horror is in store. So surrender your volition. Then the entire experience of being in Jade Daniels's rage-filled head makes all the sense in the world. Because then you're not actually sure if ANY of this is happening in meatspace. Is this an adolescent with anger and abandonment issues responding to the end of what never was childhood? Is this a young woman processing the pain and rage of a life that was wished on her by weaker, worse people than she was? There's a sparkling moment of fizzing delight when Jade meets Letha, a beautiful rich kid whose father has a trophy wife and whose presence in the town of "Proofrock" (think a minute, and hard, for more than the surface snicker; that's all it takes to turn it into a shiver), when Jade anoints her "the Final Girl." That's both when the tale gets grounded in consensus reality and when its ascent into the dark and cold vault of Jade's own head is cemented.

I'm always a fan of gerunding done with panache...Author Stephen does it with panache. At one point, Jade Holden Caulfields across a lawn, and that's me dead cackling. I think there are few greater pleasures than easter-egging your readers' experience...hoping they'll get most of them. I think the fun of reading a book whose author has chosen a niche to write in, one with an astoundingly vast mythos/history/background to explore, is in part the recognition factor of word-play. Yes, it's about slasher-film homage, and no Holden Caulfield isn't slashed to death (though generations of English students have no doubt fantasized that Salinger met that fate after writing it), but he *is* the prototype of the Angsty Teen too smart for easy answers. With everything Jade's carrying around, she's not one whit less burdened than Holden and possibly by some similar troubles given that she's got A Thing growing up strong for Letha.

Adolescent sexuality is always fraught. Parents play their roles in shaping it, either with rule or without them, with clamp=downs or without supervision, there's no right way to ride this roller-coaster. But the issue facing Jade isn't made any easier by her absolute conviction that Letha is The Final Girl, that staple of the slasher film, therefore of necessity being lustrous and almost superhuman in her glorious Otherness. That's how she's supposed to be, right? Jade "doesn't make the rules...just happens to know them all." Her unique and defining obsession with slashers is gong to pay dividends, right? Because she's preparing the Final Girl for her role, unlike most...she won't be surprised by the tragedies.

I think I speak for all readers when I say that the way this blows up can only be described as FUCKING EPIC.

And from that point on, the cigarette boat is away and the pace does not let up.

There are the obligatory twists and turns, the reveals that aren't *quite* reveals, and the accustomed ways that Author Stephen's practiced to get your kishkes kicking and your shvitzer sprinkling. You can't fault the man on delivering the suspenseful goods! If you're in the market for a low-gore delivery of suspense, however, look elsewhere. The way this works is for your expectations to be manipulated so I won't be discussing particulars. Suffice to say I was taken in. More than once. And I'm a pretty well-broken-in reader....

Still, there's no point it wondering why no good deed goes unpunished or how exactly it is that one's expected to walk away from what can not help but feel like a set up straight from a film. The pain and the passionate pull of it will reach some screeching crescendo, won't it, just give it a little more time and it has to!

Nonsense, says the Great God Author.

By the time we've reached the moment when there is no more to give, when the entire story's gone to the most extreme place that it can go...there is something more in the tank for a send-off, and there's no way that you'll believe your eyes when you get there.

Some things just can't be put right. And others can't be left wrong. The issue is...who decides.

Friday, August 27, 2021

THE BOOK OF ERRORS will delight and enlighten some, bewilder and befuddle others

ANNIE COGGAN (art) and MARK HAGE (text)

A Public Space Books
$18.00 trade paper, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: A collection of three illustrated essays looking at the preservation of three historic houses—and the layered, messy process of reconstructing our past and reimagining history. An architect and artist, Annie Coggan delves into the history of three iconic American structures—the Henry Knox Memorial in Maine; Fraunces Tavern in New York City; and the Betsy Ross House in Philadelphia—and the stories of the people and ideas involved in their preservation to consider the ways in which history is reshaped by future generations.


My Review
: A literary magazine of some significance gave birth to a publishing company of some significance. I've reviewed So Much for That Winter, one of their earlier book publications of a translation from the Danish via Graywolf Press, on this blog. I've also reviewed their initial own-imprint publishing venture, the late and underknown Bette Howland's delight of a short-fiction collection, Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage, on this blog. As both of those were positive reviews, I think you could safely say I am in tune with this press's aesthetic.

Here you see the artwork that forms the spine of this book's conceit. It is a series of beautiful paper models, and drawings, and painted drawings, of three different historic homes that are going to be conserved, restored, or rebuilt. The specific examples I've used are those provided by the publisher; all are from the Henry Knox Memorial, a house named "Montpelier," in Thomaston, Maine. The facts about the house are: It is a nineteen-room recreation, finished in 1929, of the original space built in 1794; that space was demolished in 1871 to make way for the Thomaston Railroad. The essay about this house is in the form of letters to and from the architect of the reconstruction, William E. Putnam, to one of the commissioning parties, Miss Watts of the Daughters of the American Revolution. Are these "real," by which I mean were they written by the parties whose names are on them, and selected by Author Coggan; or are they fabrications of Author Coggan's, made to elucidate a point about the eternal and delicate process of reaching a working understanding between client and architect?

I don't think it matters.
I don't see how anything but the effect, the gentle and eloquent interplay of images such as the above, with the words such as:
The evidence, even of eyewitnesses, as to the probable plans of the Knox House are so at variance that we have to consider it carefully and test each bit by things that we are sure of from a practical standpoint...

I wish you would read carefully Miss Miller's description and check it up with your remembrance. Also, if she is still living, I should think that a talk between you and her might clear up many of the points about which a difference of opinion seems to exist....

really makes a difference to the way one experiences this beautiful and thoroughly satisfying melding of idea, image, and purpose. We are brought into a quotidian conversation between patron and architect, between a man and a woman both of senior years, and thus in conjunction with the beautiful art, we are flies on the walls of these moments when History, long dead even then, was being negotiated for presentation to The Future. It is always a worthwhile endeavor to learn about what goes into the making of the world thee and me see.

Author Coggan's beautiful paper-and-paint constructions offer something I think too many books about preservation, architectural history, and art in general lack: A what-if, a road-not-taken approach to visual arts that I resonated with. It could simply be that I am so enchanted by the art itself that I am happy to see it used in this unusual manner. I grant that others might not feel this is anything other than a very niche project, showing a blow-by-blow of things that didn't happen, or might have happened, instead of cold non-fiction.

I see value in the exploration this approach allows of the why, the deeper why, of art and architecture pressed onto the service of History and the Monomyth of American History. The exceptionally contentious "restoration" of Fraunces Tavern, more precisely called a "conjectural reconstruction" (thanks, Wikipedia!), is illustrated in black-and-white drawings which, quite lovely though they are, suit the more angry and contentious responses to the Sons of the Revolution's major, and not uncontroversial, reimagining of the Tavern as of the 1790s (from the distance of 1904!):
"On passing the Washington statue...I thought I heard a loud sobbing... I said, 'Why weepest thou?' He said, 'Hast been to Fraunces's Tavern lately and witnessed the scoundrelly piece of vandalism that they have perpetrated upon that hallowed building, with whose walls I embraced my loved comrades?'"
—Letter to the New York Times (1906)

Daniel Libeskind, he of the master-planned Freedom Tower complex on the site of the old World Trade Center Twin Towers, would've recognized the entire imbroglio as being New York City doing what she does best: Eating her young. Nothing can ever be accomplished in the City without a decade of brangling, infighting, and public bitching.

The last of the three historic structures whose futures were assured by these early preservation attempts was famed upholsterer and flag-designer, Betsy Ross, whose residence in Philadelphia came in for a "re-configuration" to make it more suitable a setting for the probably apocryphal transfer of a flag designed by Mrs. Ross in her role as a famed upholsterer in Philadelphia society to General Washington. Since the probability is that Mrs. Ross didn't ever live in that tourist mecca, there's really no point getting exercised about it...and Author Coggan uses beautifully simple line drawings to evoke the scale of the house (it's dinky!) and the simplicity of its furnishings (spartan).

I think this lovely object belongs on the coffee tables of those whose appreciation for art is not limited to visual expressions of design, but also reaches for the "why" of art...what about this is necessary, what in this artistic expression am I going to think about and become acquainted with that I haven't, wouldn't, or couldn't otherwise?

This book is meant to close those gaps for you, elegantly, about parts of History that more often than not are so dead to us that we couldn't care less if they were there at all. I salute your vision, A Public Space Books, and your talent, Author Coggan!

Thursday, August 26, 2021

THE 7TH WOMAN, CROSSING THE LINE and THE CITY OF BLOOD, Paris-set procedurals from "France's Michael Connelly" deliver the goods

(tr. Anne Trager) (Paris Homicide #1)
Le French Book (non-affiliate Amazon link)
$4.99 Kindle edition, available now

Rating: 3.75* of five

The Publisher Says: Winner of France's prestigious Prix du Quai des Orfèvres prize for best crime fiction, named Best Crime Fiction Novel of the Year, and already an international bestseller with over 150,000 copies sold. There's no rest for Paris's top criminal investigation division, La Crim'. Who is preying on women in the French capital? How can he kill again and again without leaving any clues? A serial killer is taking pleasure in a macabre ritual that leaves the police on tenterhooks. Chief of Police Nico Sirsky—a super cop with a modern-day real life, including an ex-wife, a teenage son and a budding love story—races against the clock to solve the murders as they get closer and closer to his inner circle. Will he resist the pressure? The story grabs you by the throat and doesn’t let go until the last page, leading you behind the scenes with the French police and into the coroner’s office. It has the suspense of Seven, with CSI-like details. You will never experience Paris the same way again!


My Review
: What makes me feel like a putz is that I haven't read this since 2014. I needed to revisit it, clearly. In the meantime, I'll offer some comments about the clear memories the story has left me with, then come back if I have more to say.

I'll tell you what I *do* remember, the way Author Molay renders the crime scenes. It's very very grim, and don't think for a second you're ready for it! I remember the way they were slaughtered vividly. The sensitive are forewarned.

Nico Sirsky, our PoV cop, is a surprisingly vivid character. I was, given the women's-body-parts nature of the killings, expecting him to be less than fully realized in the 250-ish pages we're granted. I was wrong. His ex-wife, Sylvie, has just dumped their teen son Dimitri onto his doorstep at precisely the moment Nico is falling in love with the (annoyingly perfect, if I'm honest) Caroline. The cases are all demanding his attention...the evident serial killings are urgently necessary to solve, to stop, to explain somehow...and the threats aren't just to random women.

Thanks, Sylvie, for the well-timed breakdown. Not surprisingly, this adds a lot of stress to Nico's madly stressed life. I'm pretty sure a lot of the bad stuff in the dénouement is exacerbated by Sirsky's stunningly high stress levels.

The crimes are very close to home indeed, and Nico's entire world is badly damaged by the perpetrator and reason for the killing spree.

I enjoyed very much the details of the French legal system. Author Molay has made a career of creating the procedural tales beloved of American audiences and has gifted us with a lot of our own violent tropes, "perfected" and returned. The differences are plentiful...what's an investigative magistrate when it's at home?...and there are many little moments where it's clear the translator slipped in a tidbit of Paris geography for her US audience. But there are also the deep dives into Nico's thoughts and methods. There are less successful dives into the killer's methods. (Ugh.) All the way around, the story felt to me like a French person's idea of an American procedural, explained for a French audience and then translated for an American one. The details and grace notes that would entertain a French reader do the same job on me, at least.

This is, in fact, the thing I liked best about the read. It worked on a procedural level. It worked on a novelistic level. And it gave the reader the chance to get fully involved in less book-bulk than the typical bloated four-hundred-page overstuffed story-sandwich you can't fit in your mental mouth. And still made me care about Nico, Dimitri, Caroline, and even that wretch Sylvie. One important note, besides the violence perpetrated on women by the plot's demands, is that French gender relations of a decade-plus ago were not anywhere near the levels of pre-#MeToo US gender relations. It's simply not that way, and if that isn't okay with you, don't bother to try.

It's $5 on your Kindle. Risk it! I bet most of y'all won't be a bit sorry.



(tr. Anne Trager) (Paris Homicide #2)
Le French Book (non-affiliate Amazon link)
$4.99 Kindle edition, available now

Rating: 3.75* of five

The Publisher Says: It's Christmas in Paris. Chief of Police Nico Sirsky returns to work after recovering from a gunshot wound. He's in love and raring to go. His first day back has him overseeing a jewel heist sting and taking on an odd investigation. Dental students discovered a message in the tooth of a severed head. Is it a sick joke? Sirsky and his team of crack homicide detectives follow the clues from an apparent suicide to an apparent accident to an all-out murder as an intricate machination starts breaking down. Just how far can despair push a man? How clear is the line between good and evil? More suspense and mystery with the Paris Homicide team from the prizewinning author Frédérique Molay, the "French Michael Connelly". This is the second in the prize-winning Paris Homicide series.


My Review
: "I was murdered" isn't something a cop expects to hear from a dismembered dead person. That's exactly what starts the machinery of a French homicide investigation moving in this exciting book. Second of Molay's "Paris Homicide" thrillers, we're more or less starting with Nico Sirsky, chief investigator from the last book, as he starts his normal day. I realize a lot of readers don't like the catch-you-up parts of procedurals, but I appreciate's been most of a decade since I read The 7th Woman; no way in hell could I have recalled who these names were attached to without a refresher. I get it...I really do...lots of names, lots of titles, none of then familiar. Take your time, really best to start with The 7th Woman, but no matter what I recommend that you read slowly until they all fit into place.

They will! Paris, her police, the men and women who serve the unexpectedly dead as their interlocutors, all have a slot in Molay's stories. Something that Bruno Guedj, he of the "I was murdered" message hidden in his obviously, clumsily worked-on tooth, clearly expected to work as it always had. Donating his body to science...out of nowhere, blindsiding his wife and sons...was clearly calculated to get his message NOTICED and it worked.

The best thing about reading these books is the same thing people who enjoy Stuart Woods's Stone Barrington books, or James Patterson's Women's Murder Club books, are getting: Minimum of fussy stuff and maximum of forward momentum. Just what you want in a thriller. A bit less like those books is the way so much of the action, like press conferences and suchlike, take place off-screen. It's clear that Auteure Molay hasn't got her eye firmly set on a movie deal. One fillip in this book that I didn't care much for was the single-page chapters from the perpetrator's point of view...I didn't feel they served The Greater Good, somehow.

A great deal of the story has to do with how much Love rules our lives...Guedj, the victim, making sure his dearly and deeply loved family is cared for, and still making sure they won't be taken into dark places wondering why he died; then Nico, recovering from his nasty wounds inflicted by the killer in The 7th Woman, finally able to deal with his delight and love Caroline...his son Dimitri...all his team...Molay never forgets that the reason we read is that the characters mean something to us. I'd say that the series is a throwback to the days when 200-page thrillers were the norm. That makes the author's stakes high: must get action and character development from the off. The w-bomb dropped at 64% was an unpleasant surprise, out of keeping with the overall brisk and business-like tone. But to repeat the offense at 69%...! And then the coup de grâce at 88%, where it took me right out of a very high-stakes scene, well I ask you. Can that explain a whole star missing from the rating? You bet it can, sugarplum.

The details of Russian-descended Sirsky taking an interest in his heritage, the way this reconnects him to his teen son and his parents...all in this short word count, well, it's admirable. A note here to chuckle, albeit a bit wanly, about the pop-culture easter eggs in so many names..."Marc Walberg," "Dr. Queneau," et alii. Most amusant, Mme l'Auteure. I'm also a fan of the glimpses into the operational realities of the French justice system, the roles different people play in it, and how, like the US, so much happens due to needing to respond to the media's reporting on what has occurred.

Ending the story how, and where, she did made the underlying theme of Love, love, and luuuv as they intersect and intertwine so poignantly complete. I think the ultimate reveal is a good, solid ending. Had it not been for those blasted w-bombs there'd be four-plus stars on this outing in the "Paris Homicide" series. Molay has made a career in writing; she decided that her storytelling chops would sustain her, and I see that they truly have.

A special note of thanks to Translator Anne Trager. The careful, not-obtrusive explanations of things that wouldn't need explaining in the home audience's edition truly does help. I'd recommend that, at some point, a map of the parts of Paris we're going to be cruising through would be very helpful.

You need an exciting series, played for high stakes, and set in a lush landscape? Here it is, ready for you....



(tr. Jeffrey Zuckerman) (Paris Homicide #3)
Le French Book(non-affiliate Amazon link)
$4.99 Kindle edition, available now

Rating: 3.75* of five

The Publisher Says: When a major Parisian modern art event gets unexpected attention on live TV, Chief of Police Nico Sirsky and his team of elite crime fighters rush to La Villette park and museum complex. On the site of the French capital's former slaughterhouses, the blood is just starting to flow, and Sirsky finds himself chasing the butcher of Paris, while his own mother faces an uncertain future.


My Review
: You know what you're in for with the Molay procedurals: Action. You're going to get action from the start and Sirsky, in charge of his usual posse of law-enforcers, is about to enter a world that scares many more than it beguiles: Fine Art. Avant gard fine art. Of the twentieth that makes anti-capitalist and anti-waste statements.

See why I wanted to review this now, at this juncture?

Much more stress for poor Nico comes from his mother, a woman...barely more than a girl!...of sixty-five. There is nothing easy about parents grpwing older, and Nico Sirsky the cop knows it well. He is on the receiving end of news he usually needs to break..."we have unfortunate news about your mother" the same time that he and his team solve a decades-old disappearance that brought life to a halt for another mother.

It seems that the supply of sexual violence in Paris was reasonably well-capped until the Cassian exhumation. Suddenly there's so much more happening, and in the cruisy Parc de La Villette, with unknown perp(s) making their awful desires manifest in reducing young gay men to bloodless meat.

What winds through this entire book, and through all three Molay stories that I have read, is a sense of the inviolability of two things: Love and Hate. Every crime is deeply seeded with both of these things, and every time Nico and his team work on a case, it is clear that each of them has been imbued with Nico's so-Slavic sense of the duality of the world as represented by this pairing. The future is not guaranteed, not to anyone, and those who seek a guarantee before committing themselves to Life are always, always left with regrets and unhappiness.

This according exactly with my own life's course, I've got no kick with it. And the ways in which Auteure Molay makes these bones dance is always a pleasure. One of the additional joys of this story is the simple, direct path that Nico unhesitatingly follows to solve a thirty-year-old crime, one that ended more than one life. And will now end others, as there is fallout from any act of Hate committed in this world. A large thread of Nico's life is his love of his family, and his resultant willingness to put himself in the shoes of anyone who needs his professional services. It is a pleasure to read about such a fine one of the bereaved says to Nico, towards the end of the story, "Maigret can sleep well, you are a worthy successor to him."

We do spend some time in the peculiarly placed gay hookup world, a thing I wouldn't've expected La Molay to give so much space to. It's not played for comedy, it's not presented as Abnormal; it's a reality, it's where the crimes committed have led; therefore, thence goes (tall, blond, blue-eyed hunk) Nico. It fails to shock me that he ends up on a gay club's dance floor....

I was a bit more shocked that Nico sought out a Russian Orthodox priest to, I suppose confide in...? He's pretty resolutely a materialist. Still and all, it was worked into the story as well as such a thing could possibly be. The artists of the 1980s and the hothouse world of Fine Art is a significant character in the tales. It isn't *explored* per se, but its limits and its passions are very much part of the reason for the crimes that are experienced in this compact, intense read.

I encoruage thriller readers to check out all three of these Paris Homicide series reads. Rev up the translation-reading you do painlessly, pleasurably, and with added thrills.

Wednesday, August 25, 2021

IF YOU EXIST, probably a better question than answer

IF YOU EXIST: In Search of a Reader Deep in the Future

Three Arts Press (non-affiliate Amazon link)
$5.99 Kindle edition, available now

Rating: what? rate this how exactly?

The Publisher Says: If You Exist is a personal message written to one of our human progeny who might find it many generations in the future. The narrator, like others in her generation, faces her own mortality at the same time she faces the possibility of thousands more species, including her own, becoming extinct.

As a private heartfelt message to someone who may never exist, the writer likens her missive to “a note in a bottle set to sea in hopes of reaching you, if you exist in the future on some unfathomable shore.” The narrator shares her personal take on where humanity is now and where we might be heading depending on what choices we will make. She writes about climate change and such topics as human migration, racism, the pandemic, as well as her projected concerns about the possibilities of unbridled technical advancement and human redesign.

After offering her perspective on where hope could lie, the writer ends her note with “the stuff of fairy tales,” her positive fantasy in the final chapter called, “If We Could Meet.”


My Review
: First, read this:
The impulse to hunt takes aim instead, to separate, conquer or eradicate whatever may be defined by some group as less than human. With the future of the planet now so much in doubt, I think it's a rare person who does not, at least unconsciously, align hopes for the survival of this world with either gathering or hunting.
What it means to be human is quite a different question from "What is human nature?" for which we finally realize there can be no answer except to include what any human culture has done or felt.

For me, the question of what it means to be human is more pressing than ever, though my own answers reside in recollected incidents, not in academic definitions.

Published to coincide with the author's seventy-fifth birthday on Monday, the twenty-third, this compact meditation on what the world is, what our role as humans in the world is, and why that urgently needs to change is the topic of the book. "Has the stranger been gathered in, or hunted down?" is quite probably the clearest statement of purpose any book could have, and it comes exactly on time as the catastrophic exit of US troops from Afghanistan unfolds.
Just as with refugees today, the pattern of slavery has always been that the darker skinned peoples were owned and abused by the lighter skinned. There were notable exceptions, such as ancient Africa where emperors of dark nations owned dark slaves from different tribes. Slavery was never just about color, but about power and wealth. ... Today, prejudice and brutality by many police in the U.S. have outlived legal slavery by more than a hundred and fifty years.

So you're reading this review and wondering what the point of my telling you about this small book written by someone who isn't a Big Name, hasn't written think pieces and hefty reports and the like, is? Because you have a vaccine-resisting climate-change denying (or at the least skeptical) aunt, or mother, or church elder. No one is talking to her. They're talking to Greta Thunberg (who comes in for some quiet praise here) and her mom. They're marshaling innumerable facts about chemistry and computing that say absolutely nothing to that friend, relative, elder.

I think she deserves the respect of someone sitting down and speaking to her, peer-to-peer, reminding her of *why* she made those decades of sacrifices and plans and worked so hard to bring about what she hoped would be a better world. And so did Lillian, she's written the book she hoped to read and thus engage with a wider world of people who, like her, haven't been mindfully included in the world they made as it decides its future.

Yuletide is coming. Maybe a birthday before that. Try talking to the people you'd like to mobilize the way they need to hear you.

Monday, August 23, 2021

TWENTY-FIVE TO LIFE, a title with more layers than an onion and just as apt to make you cry


Angry Robot (non-affiliate Amazon link)
$6.99 Kindle edition, available now

Rating: 4* of five

SUPER ULTRA BARGAIN ALERT You can get the sale-priced Kindle edition here for 99¢!!

The Publisher Says: Life goes on for the billions left behind after the humanity-saving colony mission to Proxima Centauri leaves Earth orbit ... but what's the point?

Julie Riley is two years too young to get out from under her mother's thumb, and what does it matter? She's over-educated, under-employed, and kept mostly numb by her pharma emplant. Her best friend, who she's mostly been interacting with via virtual reality for the past decade, is part of the colony mission to Proxima Centauri. Plus, the world is coming to an end. So, there's that.

When Julie's mother decides it's time to let go of the family home in a failing suburb and move to the city to be closer to work and her new beau, Julie decides to take matters into her own hands. She runs, illegally, hoping to find and hide with the Volksgeist, a loose-knit culture of tramps, hoboes, senior citizens, artists, and never-do-wells who have elected to ride out the end of the world in their campers and converted vans, constantly on the move over the back roads of America.


My Review
: You know that itchy little something that lives in the back of your brain? The one that says "...but...wait...what was...?" in a still, small voice but never quite speaks what it is you've forgotten? That's what happened to me with this book. I knew I wanted it...go look at my review for The Light Years...but forgot it was coming out this month. Completely. Until about a week ago.

Way too late to hit up the publisher, in other words. Fuck!

But given that Rob and I follow each other on Twitter, I used my privileged access (snort!) and DMed him to beg for a DRC in my preferred format. Next thing I knew it was in my inbox and I was off to the races. A week, though, isn't a lot of time to read something for a review. Contrary to the openly expressed opinion of a Famous SF Writer who, on Facebook, called my reviews "mediocre," I do expend a goodly amount of effort to engage with what it is I think the writer is trying to do, and if they've succeeded at it, in my opinion. Are there longueurs of style, are there errors of fact, and how exactly did I end up feeling about the story I was being told?

The news is good, readers. Author Greene does it again. He's made a post-apocalyptic future of Left-Behinders not only readable but fun.

Julie, twenty-three, is on her way into an underage person's rave-type party as we meet her. Mother signed off on her attendance..."just don't let anyone film you!"...and here she is, ready to have all the pharma-fun she can! The state wants people happy, so there are implants that go in as soon as possible; they give out SSRIs like they're nothing because, well, that's what the people Left Behind on Earth can expect: Nothing. The planet's given itself a terrible fever to get rid of the infection of Humanity, and it's working. Hence the Best and Brightest going to the Stars.

Julie, goddesses please bless her, wants...something. It's not going to happen if she stays where she is, so she makes the changes necessary (hello, drug withdrawal aka "brain zaps"!) and joins the Volksgeist. They're the few remaining souls who'd rather experience life instead of simply existing through it. Julie joins their caravan of fools (das NarrenVan?) and begins Life with Ranger, an older woman who takes her in and renames her "Runner." (It really fits.) And the novel goes On the Road!

The way things unfold is partly a commentary on the difficulty of detoxing from the astonishingly complex cocktail of brain-altering stuff we routinely ingest. This means Runner has periodic, what to call them, lapses? lacunae? in her sense of time and in the narrative of the story. Since that means some sorts of things don't get described (a party is simply not dealt with, only its aftermath, for example), it can feel a bit frustrating. I wanted to, like Runner herself, experience it all...but what happens in the telling is that I was given the sense of experiencing it as Runner did herself...a subtle, but bold, decision on Author Greene's part. I think it was successful in reinforcing my sense of Runner's reality, her actual experience, though I might've chosen a different course given the chance.

What do road novels do best? They give you a broad spectrum of experiences...and that's here, as well. The community of the Volksgeist is one amorphous, boundary-permeable entity. The places it rests are both changed by the experience of the group being there and the group is changed by additions and deletions of personal choices to remain or join. It makes the entire novel feel as though the goal is Canterbury, and the Wife of Bath will be here momentarily. While I'm medievalizing, since we've already got the Ship of Fools and the Pilgrim's Tale, let me point out that this is very much a morality play as well. Ranger and Runner, the Odd Couple in a way, are experiencing in unmediated form the consequences of my generation's criminal neglect of the warning signs of catastrophe to come. There's not a single thing that happens to the Volksgeist that isn't perfectly possible to believe is happening now, or to see how it will in the term left to me of my own life.

It doesn't look good. It doesn't make my generation look good. And it makes for one helluva good story.

On sale the 24th, tomorrow from when I'm writing this; preorder it now. You WILL want to have it ASAP.

Sunday, August 22, 2021

CLASH OF CIVILIZATIONS OVER AN ELEVATOR IN PIAZZA VITTORIO, interesting hybrid genre story from Italian-Berber immigrant author

(tr. Ann Goldstein)
Europa Editions
$14.95 trade paper, available now

Rating: 3.75* of five

The Publisher Says: A compelling mix of social satire and murder mystery.

A small culturally mixed community living in an apartment building in the center of Rome is thrown into disarray when one of the neighbors is murdered. An investigation ensues and as each of the victim's neighbors is questioned, the reader is offered an all-access pass into the most colorful neighborhood in contemporary Rome. Each character takes his or her turn center-stage, giving evidence, recounting his or her story--the dramas of racial identity, the anxieties and misunderstandings born of a life spent on society's margins, the daily humiliations provoked by mainstream culture's fears and indifference, preconceptions and insensitivity. What emerges is a moving story that is common to us all, whether we live in Italy or Los Angeles.

This novel is animated by a style that is as colorful as the neighborhood it describes and is characterized by seemingly effortless equipoise that borrows from the cinematic tradition of the Commedia all'Italiana as exemplified by directors such as Federico Fellini.

At the heart of this bittersweet comedy told with affection and sensitivity is a social reality that we often tend to ignore and an anthropological analysis, refreshing in its generosity, that cannot fail to fascinate.

My Review: Reading that book description isn't necessarily helpful. Social satire plus murder mystery, to most book-readin' Murrikins, is gonna call forth the specter of Murder by Death. You are not in for a satire like that. You are in for a very sophisticated and layered short novel in which a murder is committed, but frankly no one really cares who did it because it needed doing, and the perp the police have identified is a community pillar. No one believes Amedeo committed this murder, which no one calls a crime.

Amedeo steps out of the stories of ten people who all live in a small apartment building on Rome's tatty side, on the Piazza Vittorio. All ten people are displaced, not Roman, and all are made to feel more alien than guest by Rome and its Romans. Amedeo comes to the rescue of each person here, in ways practical and spiritual. He's a fixer, a born organizer, he spends his time on this earth open to and listening for the truths under the stories his neighbors tell, the truths under the facts of Rome and Italian society, the truths that not very many people will bother to learn or, quite possibly, ever realize are there.

So how can the police suspect this wonderful, soothing, special man of MURDER?! Because he, like everyone else, fought with the shit who got murdered? No...because he has disappeared. Not for the first time in his life. He has vanished, and in police work, that's as good as a confession. The novel is told in the interviews the police take with all the residents of Amedeo's building.

Interspersed with these interviews are wails, the first-person accounts of Amedeo himself. They're called wails because Amedeo, né Ahmed Salmi in Algiers, spends a lot of time locked in his wife's bathroom with a tape recorder, setting down his impressions of the people around him, and vocalizing in that uniquely Arab way...the ululating wail, used for joy, for mourning, for any access of emotion that words can't encompass. It's a wonderful way to let us into the experience of being alive in the skin of a force of nature. We're inside Amedeo, Ahmed, we're privileged to be the unseen auditors of the story of his world.

His private world. We have no sense whatever of his work, his living...he remains in a tight little box, as do all the characters, one that focuses on someone we don't meet or hear from or, frankly, care about. The victim is not the point. The murderer didn't commit a crime so much as perform clean-up on aisle two. The more we hear about him, the less we care that he's dead. It works well as a narrative technique to emphasize the almost miraculous nature of listening, and its almost total lack in the modern world.

So why 3.75 stars, when all of the above sounds like such praise? Because the Italian reviews mention an exuberance of language, a gonzo balls-out feeling that the text gives. In Italian. The translation is like the book description above, not uninteresting but nobody's idea of gonzo or balls-out writing. It's a translation. It feels like a translation. It's never going to convey the sense that the original can, of different regional voices, of different classes and different kind of Italian, because American English isn't that kind of language and American culture doesn't, at least at the level of culture where one finds readers of translated novels, like “dialect writing” because it's not Nice.

We lose. I want to read this book in Italian now. It's bound to be more fun. The translation is a good book. The original, I will bet, is a fantastic one.


Friday, August 20, 2021

"MUSLIM": A Novel, outrage, anger, and grief shouted to the Heavens

"MUSLIM": A Novel
(tr. Matthew Reeck)
Deep Vellum
$14.95 trade paper, available now

Rating: 3.5* of five

Winner of the 2020 Albertine Prize
Selected for Asymptote's February 2019 Book Club

The Publisher Says
: "Muslim": A Novel is a genre-bending, poetic reflection on what it means to be Muslim from one of France's leading writers. In this novel, the second in a trilogy, Rahmani's narrator contemplates the loss of her native language and her imprisonment and exile for being Muslim, woven together in an exploration of the political and personal relationship of language within the fraught history of Islam. Drawing inspiration from the oral histories of her native Berber language, the Koran, and French children's tales, Rahmani combines fiction and lyric essay in to tell an important story, both powerful and visionary, of identity, persecution, and violence.


My Review
: One can call a cat a dog, but that won't make the creature bark or fetch a stick. This is not a novel. It is, in my pretty well-informed opinion, a récit. And, at under 150 pages, it isn't possessed of the scope a novel needs. Here's why that's important: Expectations get set when a person reads a title, and someone expecting a deep, immersive novel experience is going to leave this read disappointed.

Sad that this is the case. I would've chosen a different title, in fact; but the book's beauties are plentiful, call it what one may, and much here is to be savored.

Born in 1962, the author and the narrator of the book, whom we understand to be the author in heightened and fictionalized form, was the child of a Harki father:
He was only the man who had impregnated my mother. I never knew what to call him. I never had a father. The war had stolen mine.

and a Berber mother:
I was old enough to walk, and yet my mother was carrying me on her back in a shawl, with a scarf tied around my head. She told me later that she used to put baby potatoes in the shawl to help my headaches. "Did I get headaches a lot when I was a child?" "I didn't have any medicine," she told me. "I had headaches a lot?" "All the time," she told me.

Her father's imprisonment until a daring escape in 1967 meant her childhood was spent as a doubly disadvantaged person: Berber language and culture was no more accepted in Algeria after independence than before, and her father's legacy of French co-operation was the cause of trouble. Her entire life, then, was delineated in hyphens...she was never Rahman, herself, and later Elohim, her invented self. She was Othered in an Algeria bent of Arabizing to belong to a larger Islamic community of "Pan-Arabism" and then in France by not being white, not looking like other little girls did.

And here, at this juncture, fiction diverges from fact as Rahman-the-character not Rahmani-the-writer is exiled by the French language...and so leaves France, the not-homeland of the body. This story having been written and published in France in 2005, it's sort of inevitable that the US invasions of Muslim lands like Iraq in Operation Desert Storm take a sort-of vague center stage. French intellectual that she is, the author sets a good deal of the, um, events (no real "action" in a récit) in a prison camp much like the camp her Harki father occupied after Algeria's independence.
They had just one Name. One Name. And no one suspected the evil inside them, no one bore witness to this evil inside them, the thing that they were referring to when they said, "we don’t want them, we don’t want others, not him, not her, not them." And this always brought to mind the scenes of trains leaving for Poland.

"Of all the excuses that intellectuals have found for executioners—and during the past ten years they have not been idle in the matter—the most pitiable of all is that the victim's thought—for which he was murdered—was fallacious."

It is at this point that quotidian reality departs the scene for good; what replaces it is Reality-Plus, the enhanced experience of poetry and fable and fairy tale. The mere fact of her existence becomes threatening to Them, the Powers That Be. She is not one thing, not that she ever was ever allowed to be only one thing (herself); she is Other, and takes the identity Elohim, that ambiguous plural Ugaritic word for the monophysite Jewish god as well as for the Children of El as well as for the Canaanite pantheon...she never shies away from complexity, Author Rahmani. And so I've never made any attempt to make it clear if any of the foregoing is fiction or autobiography.

Because it doesn't matter.

If you choose to read this book, and I hope you will, the reason to do so isn't to go from Point A to Point Q. You're not doing the Stations of the Cross, Catholics; not on Hajj, Muslims. You're making the pilgrimage through the countryside tending towards Santiago de Compostela or Mecca or Canterbury. You're there, in other words, for the voyage in, towards the destination, and not the destination itself.
Coming to France was my father's fault. He'd been banished from Algeria. Banished like so many others had been, and like so many more would be. Banished, stripped of a name, a soldier of the colonial army, a traitor to his country. They were the banished, the silent participants of the wars in Korea, Vietnam, Algeria, Iraq and elsewhere, the comrades of the losers of these wars, waiting to drag their shame home.

Because, in the end, there is no destination, no Home, no place for us on this Earth, that we do not demand accept us, speak into being intentionally and unyieldingly.
I wouldn’t be just an exile, an immigrant, an Arab, a Berber, a Muslim, or a foreigner, but something more. Despite all they might do to force me back into these categories, I wouldn’t return to those places. I would strive to find in these words whatever they had of the universal, of the beautiful, of the human, of the sublime. The rest—the dark flipside of the particulars—I would leave for those starving for identity politics. I would continue to love my mother tongue, and I would see how it linked me to Arab people, to Semitic peoples, to “Muslim”, and to “Jewish.” I wanted to learn everything that had been kept from me about these people and their languages.

In just under an hour and a half, you'll make the acquaintance of one who has done precisely that.

Thursday, August 19, 2021

AFTER THE DRAGONS, nice and subtle multilayered title


Stelliform Press
$7.99 ebook platforms, available TODAY!

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

Rating: 4.5* of five

The Publisher Says: Dragons were fire and terror to the Western world, but in the East they brought life-giving rain…

Now, no longer hailed as gods and struggling in the overheated pollution of Beijing, only the Eastern dragons survive. As drought plagues the aquatic creatures, a mysterious disease—shaolong, or “burnt lung”—afflicts the city’s human inhabitants.

Jaded college student Xiang Kaifei scours Beijing streets for abandoned dragons, distracting himself from his diagnosis. Elijah Ahmed, a biracial American medical researcher, is drawn to Beijing by the memory of his grandmother and her death by shaolong. Interest in Beijing’s dragons leads Kai and Eli into an unlikely partnership. With the resources of Kai’s dragon rescue and Eli’s immunology research, can the pair find a cure for shaolong and safety for the dragons? Eli and Kai must confront old ghosts and hard truths if there is any hope for themselves or the dragons they love.

After the Dragons is a tender story, for readers interested in the effects of climate change on environments and people, but who don’t want a grim, hopeless read. Beautiful and challenging, focused on hope and care, this novel navigates the nuances of changing culture in a changing world.


My Review
: The entire world is burning up...including the people in it.

We are in an alt-Beijing in a future based on today. Climate change has gone into overdrive, and Beijing's famously poor air quality has never been worse...or warmer. There is a new lung disease, fatality rate as close to one hundred percent as to be indistinguishable, called "shaolong" or burning lung.

Oh...and dragons are real, and are very common in Beijing. Little dragons, not like the hulking fire drakes that medieval Europeans hunted to extinction. Small, delicate, beautiful...but not particularly valued. In fact they're used much as cocks are, for dragon fights. (While this isn't gone into in detail, it leads me to remind thoose sensitive to animal harm that this factor exists.)

Eli comes to Beijing from the USA. He is a mixed-race Black and Chinese diasporan child with a working grasp of Mandarin and a strong desire to make his mark in biomedicine. Kai is a dying victim of shaolong who meets handsome, healthy Eli when he comes into Kai's...well..."job" implies he gets paid which he does not...position at a dragon sales shop-cum-dragon fight ring. Their attraction is mutual but stuttering at its start: Eli can't help noticing Kai's illness and thus sets up the pity dynamic...unintentionally, of course, but inevitably...which makes Kai resist his reciprocal feelings for Eli.

Their dance of approach and stillness and retreat and stillness was beautifully handled, while never leading to a Conclusion. They are a coupling-type thing...and it's making them both The way we're left at the end of the story, that is all we can expect to hear about these young men. I would like to say aloud that I would love to read more stories set in this world because its depth-of-field in this novella is amazing and has not come remotely close to exhausting the possibilities it contains. What does it mean to fall in love with someone who is dying? What kind of world can you, the healthy one, believe in once you've realized he will die before you? Not things I'd know about at all....

I did not expect to think the AIDS parallels were particularly well-done or even necessary. I was wrong. The story is very much enriched by the author's quiet acknowledgment that these men face a short future and a rough road to the end. Nothing is made of that, as in there are no set pieces built around it, but it pervades their oddly tender yet standoffish dynamic.

Anyone who can make the Bird's Nest from the 2008 Beijing Olympics into a ratty-tatty old hulk where wild dragons swarm is someone who needs to delve far more deeply into this world they have made. The details that bring it to life...the drought causing the poor to pay so much for water while there are still fountains in the wealthy part of town, for example...made my greedy little story bandit within coo and gurgle.

This is the second novella I've read from Stelliform Press (after The Impossible Resurrection of Grief, reviewed here), and they have both been excellent cli-fic books with stellar (!) production and design values. It is clear that this press has a very well-defined mission and is using the best kind of writing...tense, intense, high-stakes get your attention. You will enjoy the trip even while you're unhappy with the implied destination.

More, please. Soon, please.

Wednesday, August 18, 2021

SMILLA'S SENSE OF SNOW, maybe more timely now than it was in the 1990s

(tr. Tiina Nunnally)
Farrar, Straus and Giroux (non-affiliate Amazon link)
$11.99 Kindle edition, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: She thinks more highly of snow and ice than she does of love. She lives in a world of numbers, science and memories--a dark, exotic stranger in a strange land. And now Smilla Jaspersen is convinced she has uncovered a shattering crime...

It happened in the Copenhagen snow. A six-year-old boy, a Greenlander like Smilla, fell to his death from the top of his apartment building. While the boy's body is still warm, the police pronounce his death an accident. But Smilla knows her young neighbor didn't fall from the roof on his own. Soon she is following a path of clues as clear to her as footsteps in the snow. For her dead neighbor, and for herself, she must embark on a harrowing journey of lies, revelation and violence that will take her back to the world of ice and snow from which she comes, where an explosive secret waits beneath the ice....

My Review: This story isn’t cli-fic, but is very cold nonetheless. Smilla is a native Greenlander living in Denmark, where her father was from. Her life in her mother’s world has taught Smilla a thing or two about snow and the stories it tells, as well as about the European world’s insular refusal to see anyone not like them as valuable, real people. (Not like that’s timely or anything...and the book’s 25 years old.) Smilla involves herself in solving the murder of a young Greenlander living in Denmark, since no one there seems all that interested in doing it for her. Her determination not to let this expendable little life go unaccounted for raises many hackles, pokes many sleeping dogs, and never so much as sniffs above-freezing air. An ideal and deeply engrossing leisure read. Even if it’s a re-read for you, a second trip through the complexities of Smilla’s colonial Danish milieu won’t come amiss. Many details snap into focus on a second read on these 480 pages. At $12 (or less, if you choose the abundant used trade paperbacks) it is a wee smidge pricey for exposure to sand and suntan lotion. As always, the less energetic shoppers can contact Amazon and spend $4 for a decent copy that won’t be painful to watch float away in the foam, should that nap coincide with an incoming tide.

There. A thought to be getting on with for the sweltering weekend ahead. It's already almost 100° heat index here at the beach! Ecccchhhh. Excuse me, I'm booked on a flight to Ushuaia to meet the Antarctica-bound ship. Be back after Mother Nature's hot flashes subside.

Monday, August 16, 2021

GORDO, debut story collection from NorCal activist/artist/writer


Black Cat
$16.00 trade paper, available now

Rating: 4.75* of five

FINALIST FOR THE 34th Lambda Literary Award—BEST GAY FICTION! Winners announced 11 June 2022.



The Publisher Says: The first ever collection of short stories by Jaime Cortez, Gordo is set in a migrant workers camp near Watsonville, California in the 1970s. A young, probably gay, boy named Gordo puts on a wrestler's mask and throws fists with a boy in the neighborhood, fighting his own tears as he tries to grow into the idea of manhood so imposed on him by his father. As he comes of age, Gordo learns about sex, watches his father's drunken fights, and discovers even his own documented Mexican-American parents are wary of illegal migrants. Fat Cookie, high schooler and resident artist, uses tiny library pencils to draw huge murals of graffiti flowers along the camp's blank walls, the words "CHICANO POWER" boldly lettered across, until she runs away from home one day with her mother's boyfriend, Manny, and steals her mother's Panasonic radio for a final dance competition among the camp kids before she disappears. And then there are Los Tigres, the perfect pair of twins so dark they look like indios, Pepito and Manuel, who show up at Gyrich Farms every season without fail. Los Tigres, champion drinkers, end up assaulting each other in a drunken brawl, until one of them is rushed to the emergency room still slumped in an upholstered chair tied to the back of a pick-up truck.

These scenes from Steinbeck Country seen so intimately from within are full of humor, family drama, and a sweet frankness about serious matters—who belongs to America and how are they treated? How does one learn decency, when laborers, grown adults, must fear for their lives and livelihoods as they try to do everything to bring home a paycheck? Written with balance and poise, Cortez braids together elegant and inviting stories about life on a California camp, in essence redefining what all-American means.


My Review
: I'm always down for a story collection! This one is set in a world I liked the minute I landed in it, the Mexican American vibrant loud exuberant over-the-top everybody knows where you are, where you came from, and what to expect from you so watch it, FIESTA. Living in Mercedes, Texas, in the Sixties, I was The White Kid in my elementary school, and the Mexican American family who lived and worked on my great-aunt's place in Progreso were, well, welcoming. A little redheaded boy at the table? Okay, here's a tortilla, eat hearty. This was very much NOT to my mother's taste and she snatched me outta there to Austin by decade's end. I missed it. And when I got this collection of stories, I thought, yeah this works, I'm ready for a trip that far past the white-water rapids of Memory!

I'll use the time-honored (eight years and counting!) Bryce Method of short impressions with individual ratings for the stories so as to organize my thoughts and feelings, while hopefully allowing you to reach your own conclusions.

The Jesus Donut makes a point of being about the expectations of the one ever gets something for nothing, and sometimes not even for something...meeting in the quasi-religious, blasphemous use of a special donut as the Body of Christ.
"Twenty cents," {Mister Kentucky} says.
Everybody stops breathing. What's she gonna do? She don't got no money. She gonna take the bag and run? That would be stupid, cuz he could chase her in the van. Besides, if she did that, Grandma would hit her so hard, she'd see the Devil through a hole. I don't know what that means, but Grandma always says that, and it sounds pretty serious.
"Body of Christ." {Olga says}
"Amen," I say, and I open my mouth. She puts the piece of donut on my tongue. I close my mouth, I close my eyes. Mmm.

This is the way Jesus should taste.

This is the peak, the Best Moment of a transgression...a girl pretending to be a priest, who mysteriously has money no one else has, and her worst moment's seeds are right here. Their delivery is condign. 4 stars, a great start and a terrific introduction to this world.

El Gordo is what happens on that weird, ugly day when a queer kid understands the limits of accommodation.
Shiny white boxer boots with silver stripes and shoelaces and little dangly pom-poms on the side!

"Thank you," I say. "These are soooo pretty!" Pa gets real quiet. He opens his mouth like he's gonna say something, but he don't say nothing. He shakes his head like something bad just happened.

Something bad did just happen to Pa...his son's a maricón and it's not just his imagination. A jump-rope sing-song is the next affront to Macho; but then the script flips. Miguelito, a skinny kid with the same luchador mask that Gordo has, picks a fight to see who claims the wrestler's identity...and loses! Is Pa proud, or what? A strong lesson in the value Macho places on "winning" whether there's blood and pain or not. A Man Wins. Seriously bad, fucked-up worldview...but learning its codes and how to switch into them is survival for a fat queer kid. 4 stars

Chorizo slams into you like a brick. When impoverished farmhands are privileged to the point of granting favors to those even poorer, those whose existence is so precarious that sleeping on plastic sheets under a carport is the benison that makes the end of a day spent walking better, well...just how much more does one need to hear to know one's life is luxurious? And here's Gordo, taking *their* food as a handout! A grandmother's slap is only a small price to pay for such a lesson in class distinction. 4 stars

Cookie gives the generational spread of poverty and hopelessness a face. Mother too young, daughter too wild:
"Fuck her," she says again.

"She brought you into the world, pendeja. She made you in her stomach and pushed you out of her vaginus. That's a fact. She gave you life, the greatest gift in the solar system."

Pitch-perfect kid-fight. Big, scary words like fuck! Counter with smart-kid infowars! Ooohhh, who will win, Gordo (young but smart) or Cookie (wild but angry)? No one, pendejos, this isn't a battle. It's a war. Their side lost. 4 stars

The Nasty Book Wars are exactly what it sounds like. It's kind of a fake-out, because the beginning is Primitivo with the weird-shaped head, a wedding, and la migra...I was kinda wondering what the heck this had to do with nasty books:
By late July, the garlic had been pulled from the dirt and heaped in the fields, where it dried in the baleful San Benito County sun like mounds of tiny skulls. The stoop labor was performed in afternoon temperatures that hovered in the low nineties and sometimes more for weeks at a stretch.

So, while I *am* looking at the garlic heads a bit differently, what's gonna kick off this story? La migra collaring Primitivo (newly and hilariously yclept "Head and Shoulders" by Gordo's dad, the nicknamer in the community) and la jefa cleaning out his space, that's what. Gordo's four-member cousin-kid-gang find a way into Head and Shoulders's old room where they discover what la jefa didn't: Porn!

The natural split, two boys against two girls, occurs; Gordo's sister makes it three to two when she involves Fat Cookie (so this happens earlier than "Cookie"), and a battle of, well, we'll stretch the point and call it "wits" erupts with these dirty magazines getting hauled from pillar to post and trashed and scattered, until one fine day they suffer a permanent accident. As a result of which Gordo's grandmother finds a particularly, erm, juicy bit and blows a gasket. I've got to give this one the full five, not least because I will never again sing "Conjunction Junction" to myself quite the same way....

Fandango recounts one night of drunken stupidity the machos of the community go too far as their steam-blowing drunkenness gets bloody. Gordo's there to witness it because he begged at just the right moment, and got under his mama's defenses...his dad's, um, homophobia has a rest night. But another man's homophobia is on full display and leads him to the Linda Hawkins Memorial Hospital (always referred to that way, a kind of incantation) with a dumb, avoidable, and nasty injury whose nature I really appreciated for its symbolism. Gordo's sad, wistful little meditation on how the men feel about him is so poignant. 4.5 stars

Alex defies expectations...Alex isn't the most ordinary neighbor, nor the softest person to try to get to know, but Gordo's family are johnny-on-the-spot when a disastrous accident happens and a gigantic secret gets out. Sylvie, older sister style, makes Gordo feel bad for being ignorant of the secret...Pa and Mama are ambivalent but kind when it counts. But the night is young, my children. The night has dark and terrible shadows, conceals awful pain and sadness...wickedness is but a Human trait, after all. Basically a novella of the community taking care of their own, regardless of just deserts or origins. 4 stars

The Pardos doesn't really fit the structure of the book...these three vatos, Tinman, Shy Boy, and the mostly absent Spooky...aren't related to Gordo, they go to school with Sylvie (I suspect the editor said "bookhorn something into this to make it part of the collection" and voilà Tinman jacks off to Sylvia in his room) but fit in nowhere. Their father's a scary Salvadoran army vet, wifeless, and working as a janitor in the Jolly Giant broccoli-processing plant...a ticking time bomb, you ask me...their oldest brother's in reform "school" and there's nothing going to arrest this downward slide in Cali's strictly segregated ag economy. Not the star of the collection, 3.5 stars

The Problem of Style presents the solution to the eternal problem of homophobia: don't internalize it; externalize it! Spray the hate back in their ignorant faces with a fine, glittery spray of Style. Revolting, of course, but can you even imagine anything about middle school not being revolting? 4 stars for the ending

Raymundo the Fag does the honors for Shy Boy...the Final his new station as Watsonville's Finest (Hairburner). (We're sort of left to assume that, through some odd time dilation, this is Gordo all grown up; I'm rollin' with it.)
"...They need you. It's a tragedy. It's special. Hey, do they pay good?"

"Olga! He's dead, remember?"

"Well, there you go. He won't be tipping, so you need to charge them good up front. For gasoline y todo."

"Yes, Mrs. Scrooge."

Good lawsy me, Olga, too! Does no one leave this town? Well, apart from Shy Boy, who from the way things turned out should'nt've. He saves the day, does our Ray, after a personal moment with the decedent, and more power to him for the gracious send-off he gives his old enemy. And a new love interest there in the cooler, I hope.... 4 stars

Ofelia's Last Ride takes us back to fifth-grade Gordo and the family on a momentous trip to Mexicali, where their parents are from. Nothing prepared them for the news that greets them: Doña Ofelia, a neighborhood pillar and the mother of the mute guy in an earlier story, has died suddenly. You know it's a cataclysm because it's all anyone can talk about. The main thing, for the visiting Chicanos, is that the wake and burial are happening while they're there, so it's all about the family getting its fix of Home. And Gordo, picked on in the approved Mexican style (you think American kids are rude? ha!) for his fatness, hangs around Mama a lot. He sees his first dead body! That's a major rite of passage. (And it explains how he's so sanguine when it's Shy Boy's body he works on above...assuming they're the same character, and I do.)

It's a raucous, vibrant story, and still feels weird to me as the last of the collection. But that doesn't dim the glory of it for a moment. 4.5 stars

Sunday, August 15, 2021

COUP DE GRÂCE, a concentrated gut-punch dealing with Love's corrosive, destructive power

(tr. Grace Frick)
Farrar, Straus & Giroux (non-affiliate Amazon link)
$17.00 trade paper, available now

Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: Set in the Baltic provinces in the aftermath of World War I, Coup de Grâce tells the story of an intimacy that grows between three young people hemmed in by civil war: Erick, a Prussian fighting with the White Russians against the Bolsheviks; Conrad, his best friend from childhood; and Sophie, whose unrequited love for Conrad becomes an unbearable burden.


My Review
: Told in the first person past perfect, this tale is of three young people caught in a highly hormonal passage of their lives at the same moment the Russian Revolution overthrows the privileged existences they'd led until that time. It purports to be the memory of Erick von Lhomond as he sits in a train station cafe. Erick is on his way to who knows where after his career as a soldier of fortune has led to a wounding in the 1930s Spanish Civil War then newly ended. He recalls his strange, unequal love for sibling aristos Conrad and Sophie, children of the Count of Reval; they are his cousins. Sophie falls in love with him; he and Conrad are already involved in some sort's not spelled out, but it feels to my gay twenty-first century self like it's a sexual relationship. Triangle collapses, the two siblings die, and cowardly, culpable Erick soldiers on. It's all in the hows, as life so often is when one is young; now, in the fullness of his wasted years, Erick is seeing the whys, and they're keeping him up nights. And not a moment too soon, if you ask me.
Perhaps I am generalizing from a wholly individual case of moral impotency: of all the men I know I am least disposed to seek out ideological incitements in order to love or hate my fellow beings; it is only for causes in which I do not believe that I have been willing to risk my life.

This, then, is a near-perfect example of a récit (French: “narrative” or “account”). These are brief novella-like things, usually with a simple narrative line; studiedly simple but usually steeped-in-irony tales in which the first-person narrator reveals the inherent moral ambiguities of life by means of reminiscences.

It's a very French narrative form, is the récit, the novella's Goth cousin, all chains and weird makeup effects and scary-looking hair. It's a perfect form to use in telling this sort of moralizing by a man with no morals story. There just aren't that many English-language writers willing to do this without oodles of padding and the crutch of multiple characters, apart from Fitzgerald in his finest work, the scathing takedown of anomie and amorality that is The Great Gatsby. Author Yourcenar, whose Memoirs of Hadrian lives as one of my all-time favorite reads, published this particularly difficult take on the pointlessness of war in 1939...barely beating WWII's official starting gun. She was quite clearly aware that war was inevitable and imminent, and wrote it as a protest against the further damage inevitable in a war. She was also, according to facts relayed by her biographer, Josyane Savigneau, in Marguerite Yourcenar: Inventing a Life, settling an old score with a man for whom she had developed a similar and similarly unrequited passion:
We are so used to seeing in wisdom a residue of dead passions that it's difficult to recognize in it the hardest and most condensed form of ardour, the gold nugget pulled out of the fire, not the ashes.

The ending of the book, stark and violent and horrfying, sums up the expectations of this Belgian survivor of the War to End All Wars, and it was not in the least bit too dark or pessimistic. Only extremely painful to read, as I suppose it was to live as well. As a side note, Translator Frick was Author Yourcenar's lover as well as business manager. I can only feel sad that her opinion of this acid-bath of a read doesn't seem to have survived, if it was ever shared with anyone else.

I found the casual, unremarked-on anti-Semitism of the book jarring. I know it was a part of the culture Yourcenar lived in, but it hasn't aged well. I wasn't very impressed with Erick, the narrator's, casual, caddish sexuality either...gentle, clueless Conrad could certainly have done better, and tempestuous, grasping Sophie's awakening has such tragic consequences that it makes one doubt the sanity of the child (she's sixteen to Conrad's and Erick's twenty during the brief span covered by this book). This is a ménage à trois that belies the three-legged stool analogy. It could be the people involved are simply too young to make a stable combination; it could be that Erick simply could never bring himself to lose the battle for supremacy that he wages with himself and against the world (but especially Sophie) in favor of someone he is not in love with:
Nothing moves me more than courage: so total a sacrifice deserved complete trust from me. But she never believed that I trusted her, since she did not suspect how much I distrusted others. In spite of appearances to the contrary, I do not regret having yielded to Sophie as much as it lay in my nature to do; at the first glance I had caught sight of something in her incorruptible, with which one could make a compact as sure, and as dangerous, as with an element itself. Fire may be trusted, provided one knows that its law is to burn, or die.

Recommended? Well, on the whole, not unreservedly. It's not a casual book, and it would offer too few cheap thrills for most people in the modern audience for short reads...deeply transgressive when Yourcenar wrote it in 1939, it's fairly tame today. Gay boy loves bisexual boy, who loves him back but also fancies his teen sister? There couldn't really be that much to shock an audience whose culture served them up Blue Velvet and Natural Born Killers and Bonnie and Clyde on movie screens, let alone in the rarefied, private world of a book's pages.

For me, I'm glad I read it, but I won't re-read it ever.

Saturday, August 14, 2021

GUNPOWDER MOON, a grown-up kick-ass murder mystery-cum-political-thriller


$14.99 trade paper, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: A realistic and chilling vision of life on the Moon, where dust kills as easily as the vacuum of space…but murder is even quicker—a fast-paced, cinematic science fiction thriller, this debut novel combines the inventiveness of The Martian, the intrigue of The Expanse, and the thrills of Red Rising.

The Moon smells like gunpowder. Every lunar walker since Apollo 11 has noticed it: a burnt-metal scent that reminds them of war. Caden Dechert, the chief of the U.S. mining operation on the edge of the Sea of Serenity, thinks the smell is just a trick of the mind—a reminder of his harrowing days as a Marine in the war-torn Middle East back on Earth.

It’s 2072, and lunar helium-3 mining is powering the fusion reactors that are bringing Earth back from environmental disaster. But competing for the richest prize in the history of the world has destroyed the oldest rule in space: Safety for All. When a bomb kills one of Dechert’s diggers on Mare Serenitatis, the haunted veteran goes on the hunt to expose the culprit before more blood is spilled.

But as Dechert races to solve the first murder in the history of the Moon, he gets caught in the crosshairs of two global powers spoiling for a fight. Reluctant to be the match that lights this powder-keg, Dechert knows his life and those of his crew are meaningless to the politicians. Even worse, he knows the killer is still out there, hunting.

In his desperate attempts to save his crew and prevent the catastrophe he sees coming, the former Marine uncovers a dangerous conspiracy that, with one spark, can ignite a full lunar war, wipe out his team . . . and perhaps plunge the Earth back into darkness.


My Review
: First, read this:
“I didn't realize our government considered altruism one of its core competencies," Dechert finally replied. "Is that why we're dropping a treaty that provides free helium-3 for the New Third World?" He started to unstrap his restraints. "I thought it was so we could prove to the orbital executives that we can keep up with their production demands.”
“Isn't that how most conflicts start? With a gross miscalculation of the possibilities of escalation? A village first, then a peninsula, and then a continent? It is cold up here, commander. Cold and distant. Just a point in space from their viewpoint - valuable but aesthetically detached.”

If we're not just meeting each other, you'll recall my oft-expressed fondness for a pacey, pleasingly noir thriller. That is indeed what we have here. It's 2072; the Moon is split between US and Chinese control; the energy extraction of Humanity's dreams has begun. Caden Dechert is a combat veteran, a polymath and a politically astute loner in charge of the mining operations on US sector of the Moon. After a gigantic disaster more than thirty years ago (Asteroid collisions you can prepare for, carbon emissions you can legislate against, but who expected a subsea methane eruption would plunge us back into the Dark Ages for more than a decade?, asks Caden rhetorically), lunar helium-3 is now the (limited; do we never learn?) resource we need to power the planet.

The thing about using the resources of another world is that it's complicated, requires humans to do complex and still-risky tasks, and exist in an environment that hates you and will kill you in a flash. Caden's job is, in part, to make sure that doesn't happen absent cataclysm...and to head off cataclysm whenever possible. To date he's been a success. Only now the Moon's a crime scene because person(s) unknown have decided to rid Humanity of an innocent waif called Specialist Cole Benson. (Unimportant detail, honestly; how often, in a thriller, does the deadee really matter? That's how one knows it's not a mystery, where it matters a lot.)

What happens from there is an astonishingly fast-paced series of ripples, enacted in meeting rooms and over long, long-distance conference calls. The bureaucracy, the meetings in the face of death, all that's so completely real, so calculatedly cool. No better way to bleed off righteous anger than to have a meeting with the brass. And Dechert, despite his rage and outrage, has caught a scent he really, really doesn't like, a corruption that not even the gunpowder smell of the Moon will hide.

What a truly well-made thriller does best is direct you through misdirection. Keep that in mind, readers. Very firmly in mind.
The dead settle in our mind like cooling embers. After a time they diminish, snuffed out by the immediate, and then a puff of memory rekindles them and for a moment they are hot and near once again.

In discovering the actual intent of the event that killed poor young Specialist Benson, Dechert grows extremely determined to bring true Justice, wearing her Nemesis hat, to the perpetrators of what he regards as appalling immoral acts in service of an unconscionable aim. You've read noir thrillers before. You know this means "badness up the food chain." And that's a discovery Dechert isn't going to let lie, quietly festering. He is, thankfully for his health, talked down off the ledge of taking immediate action. There's a new post awaiting him, one that makes the Moon look like West Virginia: He's shipped out to Europa!

The whys and the wherefores aren't utterly convincing, but I don't care, he's going to EUROPA!! A moon of Jupiter with a huge, huge ocean of liquid brine! Talk about coolness...and talk about remoteness, too, the speed of light takes just over forty minutes to get to Earth from there. That is one hell of a push-off assignment. (I'd take it in a heartbeat.)

So why am I not awarding it all five stars? Because, as much as it pains me to say it, while the tone of the book is right in that indefinable way you feel in your sinews, it's also a message that really, really concerns me at this juncture: Don't trust The Man is an evergreen trope for a reason...The Man's done a lot to earn mistrust over the millennia...but we're facing two severe crises that only The Man can fight effectively, climate change's acceleration and COVID's move from pandemic to endemic and the behavioral changes that NEED to follow on both those things. The noir-lone-wolf-iness of this tale, the one extraordinary man who can put it to rights, is not believable and not timely. That's why the other star fell off my review.