Monday, October 31, 2022

FRACTURE, Holocaust gay love affair & BEFORE ALL THE WORLD, gay Jew and his Black lover in Depression-era Philadelphia


BEFORE ALL THE WORLD
MORIEL ROTHMAN-ZECHER

Farrar, Straus & Giroux
$27.00 hardcover, available now

One of NPR's Best Books of 2022!

Rating: 4.5* of five

The Publisher Says: A mesmerizing, inventive story of three souls in 1930s Philadelphia seizing new life while haunted by the old.

"ikh gleyb nit az di gantze velt iz kheyshekh."
"I do not believe that all the world is darkness."


In the swirl of Philadelphia at the end of Prohibition, Leyb meets Charles. They are at a former speakeasy called Cricket’s, a bar that welcomes, as Charles says in his secondhand Yiddish, feygeles. Leyb is startled; fourteen years in amerike has taught him that his native tongue is not known beyond his people. And yet here is suave Charles—fingers stained with ink, an easy manner with the barkeep—a Black man from the Seventh Ward, a fellow traveler of Red Emma’s, speaking Jewish to a young man he will come to call Lion.

Lion is haunted by memories of life before, in Zatelsk, where everyone in his village, everyone except the ten non-Jews, a young poet named Gittl, and Leyb himself, was taken to the forest and killed.

Then, miraculously, Gittl is in Philadelphia, too, thanks to a poem she wrote and the intervention of a shadowy character known only as the Baroness of Philadelphia. And surrounding Gittl are malokhim, the spirits of her siblings.

Flowing and churning and seething with a glorious surge of language, carried along by questions of survival and hope and the possibility of a better world, Moriel Rothman-Zecher’s Before All the World lays bare the impossibility of escaping trauma, the necessity of believing in a better way ahead, and the power that comes from our responsibility to the future. It asks, in the voices of its angels, the most essential question: What do you intend to do before all the world?

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

My Review
: I fear what I am about to say will doom a very fine read in too many of y'all's eyes: This isn't a standard-English-only novel. The characters sometimes speak Yiddish, sometimes speak as though mentally translating Yiddish into English on the fly, and all of it at the author's preferred energetic pace. The best I can say about those whose reading doesn't often stretch to variants of English is, there are very helpful footnotes.

Oh well. I had to say it despite the fact that most of y'all just clicked over to I Can Has Cheezburger? for a chuckle or two.

If you're still here, let me assure you that there's a lot to love about this story. Leyb/Lion, a gay Jew, is really and truly alive for me; his on-again, off-again love for the surprising Charles, a Black labor-organizing socialist-sympathizing Yiddish-speaking multihyphenate whose precarious identities are beautifully balanced. Their love story, to my gay eye vanishingly light on sex, is only one of the story's love stories. Gittl, a poet/seer of angels, is Leyb/Lion's nowsister who was presumed killed in a Red Army pogrom he avoided by being thrown out of Zatelsk for his faggoty ways. She shows up in Philadelphia, mirabile dictu, and is fêted by the middle-class Jewish community led by a soi-disant Baroness there as a harbinger of socialist paradise...despite almost dying at the hands of the "socialist" Soviets. This lionization ends when Gittl and Charles, um, well.

How this dissonant collection of adherents and believers and practitioners harmonizes their modes of being, their inner identities, and their actions is as one would expect: inconsistently and imperfectly and, all too often, inconsiderately. Every adult has learned to accept that others love in their own ways, or has been carted off to a safe place with lots of lovely pills to manage the aftermath of refusing the lesson. Leyb/Lion and Charles with their utterly amazing intersections of identity are, to no one's surprise, among the most wounded. Charles's belief in the socialist revolution survives the movement's apathy towards acknowledging the hideous harm caused by slavery, and its continuing horrors and cruelties. Leyb/Lion's gayness, well...Jews weren't mad for it then, though I understand there are more accepting branches of Judaism in modern times, and have no reluctance about letting him know he's less than, lower down in their esteem because of it. Gittl's a woman. What else needs be said, that fully explains the horrors she has and will endure before, during, and likely after amerike, philadelphiye, the doctor who slurmed out (of) his amerikanische, tooth jutting mouth the horrible, cruel orders to sedate her...are all in Life's past. It is this dissonance, however, that shaved a half-star off my rating. I wasn't as convinced as I thought the author expected me to be that these people would enact the steps they danced to. I was close to believing it for Gittl and less so for Leyb/Lion; Charles, the man made of and for Love, perhaps least of all. It wasn't an existential, "what are you even talking about?" level of dissonance but a quietly uneasy mental drumbeat of "...really...?" throughout the read.

“What will you do before all the world?”

That is the heart of the novel; that is the wisdom the reader is offered by the read. It's not clear to me that the characters *answer* this question. It is clear to me that they live in its words, that they think inside the whorls of that question mark and fall onto the finality of the period at its base.

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FRACTURE
ELYSE HOFFMAN

Project 613 Publishing (non-affiliate Amazon link)
$4.99 Kindle edition, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: A heart-wrenching WW2 story of forbidden love and torn allegiances.

Franz Keidel is a monsterous SS soldier: loyal, hateful, and devoted to Hitler. With a cold heart, he hunts down his Führer’s enemies, but one fateful mission will fracture his shield of ice.

While hunting for Jews, Franz stumbles across a familiar face: Amos Auman, his childhood friend. Amos is the only source of joy in Franz’s life, but he is also a Jew. Unable to bring himself to kill his friend, Franz vows to protect Amos from his fellow Nazis.

As Franz spends more time with Amos, bringing him food and books, he falls in love with his kind-hearted friend. How could he fall in love with a man, a Jew? How can he continue to hate Jews when a Jew has thawed his icy heart?

And what will Franz do if he has to choose between Amos and his loyalty to Hitler? What choices does he have when he is already beyond redemption?

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

My Review
: I think a lot of us in the QUILTBAG community have forgotten, or at least not paid much attention to, the fact that Jews who were gay during the Nazi era were doubly endangered by their identities (where do y'all imagine the pink triangle symbol still widely used in our community came from if not a repurposing of a hate symbol?). It's simple, really, to focus on the six-million-dead mantra; there's no such count, either kept or kept alive in the public's awareness, for QUILTBAG or other victims of the eugenic nightmare of Nazi Germany and its eager hench-rats all over conquered Europe.

Amos is doubly blessed, then, as a gay Jew...two targets on his thin shoulders. Franz, abused and brutalized all childhood long, found such refuge as was possible with Amos and his family. But events conspire to separate the boys, as is usual in life. What counts for more with Franz than any memories of happiness is the community and sense of belonging that he finds in the hate-filled and -fueled ideological mob of brutes and bastards that replicate his abusive family...from the inside this time, as he gets to be the abuser instead of the abused.

Meeting fugitive Jew Amos again, knowing it's his friend Amos, and being in the position of power over Amos instead of dependent on him, his family, for such kindness as he ever knew, enables Franz to find a way through the maze of rage and pain he's carried inside for his whole life. He chooses, in a split second, a course of honor and love when he has accepted the course of hatred and violence that come naturally to him. To all humans, really. His decision to lie in order to save Amos's life is the crack in his armor that will lead him to accept the truth about himself and thus about his world. He loves Amos as a friend, he desires Amos as a lover, and he must then reject the lies and distortions he's been embracing as fundamental to his sense of himself to be the self who deserves Amos's return of love.

The first-kiss scene between the young men was very moving.

That might have made the inevitable ending more saddening, more painfully awfully real. One knows this can't, outside the realm of fairy tale, end in Happily Ever After. But the actual events are a gut-punch of reality after a honeymoon of discovery and love. (Side note: The Epilogue wasn't successful to me. It's a full-star deduction for silliness.)

But the four-star rating above should tell you what you need to know about my opinion of the story. It's a shame nothing made by human hands can be perfect, or at least not often, but perfect is the enemy of good. This is a good story told well. If it didn't actually, factually happen this way somewhere, I'll be surprised. And that ain't nothin' in my reading life.

Sunday, October 30, 2022

October 2022's Burgoine Reviews & Pearl Rule Reviews


Author 'Nathan Burgoine posted this simple, direct method of not getting paralyzed by the prospect of having to write reviews. The Three-Sentence Review is, as he notes, very helpful and also simple to achieve. I get completely unmanned at the idea of saying something trenchant about each book I read, when there often just isn't that much to say...now I can use this structure to say what I think is the most important idea I took away from the read and not try to dig for more.

Think about using it yourselves!

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Eternal Sonata: A Thriller of the Near Future by Jamie Metzl

Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: A few dead bodies are a small price to pay in the quest for immortality.

In 2025 America, it’s hardly news when a renowned octogenarian scientist dying of cancer disappears from a local hospice, but when Kansas City Star reporter Rich Azadian begins to dig, he discovers that other elderly scientists around the world have also vanished recently—all terminally ill and receiving the same experimental treatment from a global health company. His investigation leads him to the reclusive Noam Heller, a brilliant researcher exploring new technologies to reverse-age cancer and other cells. Using revolutionary stem cell treatments and snippets of DNA from rare, immortal Arctic jellyfish, his breakthrough promises the genetic equivalent of the fountain of youth.

But when Heller is murdered and his lab destroyed, Rich and his girlfriend Antonia become targets themselves. With the local police and federal authorities failing to see the big picture, he realizes he must take matters into his own hands to survive and stop the killing. His only hope is to mobilize his network of brilliant misfits and infiltrate the vast and lethal race—among cutthroat corporations, national intelligence services, rogue scientists, and a mysterious international organization—to control the new technologies and perhaps the secret of life itself.

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

My Review
: Plausible-enough technothriller set in 2025, only ten years after it was written. Events have, um, overtaken the planned shocking stuff...I've had multiple mRNA vaccines developed in a matter of months to help me fight off a lethal plague, so this posited accelerated medical-research stuff isn't as impressive as it would've been just a short time ago.

The thriller parts, featuring intrepid reporter Rich Azadian and his gal-pal Antonia Hewitt, are solidly paced. Alzheimer's research shading into immortality research worked well as a spine for the thrillery bits. Fast paced, Pattersonesque chapters plus dialogue and descriptions that are very focused and taut lead me to wonder why y'all haven't bought millions of 'em. The author's voice works, the plot speeds, and the stakes are convincing. Don't wait, thriller readers.

The Kindle edition is only $2.99 (non-affiliate Amazon link) and well worth the price.

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The Helpline by Katherine Collette

Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: An eccentric woman who is great with numbers—but not so great with people—realizes it’s up to her to pull a community together in this charming, big-hearted debut perfect for fans of Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine and The Rosie Project.

Germaine Johnson doesn’t need friends. She has her work and her Sudoku puzzles. Until, that is, an incident at her insurance company leaves her jobless—and it turns out that there are very few openings these days for senior mathematicians with zero people skills.

Soon enough though, Germaine manages to secure a position at City Hall answering calls on the Senior Citizens Helpline. But it turns out that the mayor has something else in mind for Germaine: a secret project involving the troublemakers at the senior citizens center and their feud with the neighboring golf club—which happens to be run by the dashing yet disgraced national Sudoku champion, Don Thomas, a celebrity of the highest order to Germaine.

Don and the mayor want the senior center closed down and at first, Germaine is dedicated to helping them out—it makes sense mathematically, after all. But when Germaine actually gets to know the group of elderly rebels at the senior center, they open her eyes to a life outside of boxes and numbers and for the first time ever, Germaine realizes she may have miscalculated.

Filled with an eccentric, totally unique, and (occasionally) cranky cast of characters you can’t help but love, The Helpline is a feel-good page-turner that will make you reexamine what it means to lead a happy life—and is bound to capture your heart along the way.

I SNAGGED THIS FROM MY LOCAL LITTLE FREE LIBRARY! (then gave it back)

My Review
: As a value proposition, this read was outstanding...Little Free Library finds don't get better than this. And the weekend I found it, I also found out it's got a follow-up coming out early in May 2023! The characters and the story were exactly, precisely delineated with my sense of humor in mind. The writing's got that wry, amused-that-you're-amused edge that I appreciate and approve of. If you need something to scratch Loretta Nyhan or Christopher Brookmyre itch, try this one on for size. Bonus: Australian setting, meaning the atmospherics are enough different from US stories to add another edge. (PS I disagree about the Oliphant book's comparability, since I found it unpleasant; Dear Mrs. Bird is much closer to the vibe you'll get, I think.)

The Kindle edition is $12.99 (non-affiliate Amazon link) should your library not have one.

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The Trouble with Tribbles: The Story Behind Star Trek's Most Popular Episode by David Gerrold

Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: David Gerrold, the creator of "Tribbles," recalls how this popular episode of Star Trek was made, from conceptualizing the first draft to the final script, shooting on set, and explaining the techniques and disciplines of TV writing. Plus, receive 32 pages of photos, original illustrations by Tim Kirk, and much more!

My Review: Start with this excellent advice:
Taking something seriously means immersing yourself in it and treating it with respect and making it part of yourself.

–and–

Once you make a decision to do something or to be something, start preparing for it immediately.

The mix of advice and anecdote, of trivia and trivialities that absolutely make a fanboy's day, make this a perfect package of fan service with a redeeming dose of wisdom. It's a terrific gift for a young Trek fan, or someone seeking a blow-by-blow of television's peculiar ways with words.

It's only $4.99 on Kindle and frequently on sale for less. (non-affiliate Amazon link)

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Out of the Cage by Fernanda García Lao (tr. Will Vanderhyden)

Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: Out of the Cage opens in 1956, in Argentina, with the freakish death of Aurora Berro, and descends into a dark philosophical exploration of humanity and mortality. In the midst of her family’s celebration of a national holiday, an LP, careening through the air like a “demented boomerang,” severs her jugular. Her family—an agglomeration of perversions, deformities, and obsessions—seems at first not to notice, singing on. Aurora is left behind in a voyeuristic limbo as an omniscient first-person narrator, to observe the depravity of her family and reflect on the farce of her life and human existence.

Fernanda García Lao has been called “the strangest writer of Argentine literature,” and in Out of the Cage, she lives up to that distinction. The book is saturated in strangeness, a blend of formal experimentation, eroticism, grotesque theatricality, and dark humor that evokes the absurdist fictions of Witold Gombrowicz and the style of Silvina Ocampo. The result is a macabre and fantastic vaudeville, a tragicomedy, a kind of Dadaist opus against ideas of eternal beauty and fixed identity, against absolute concepts and universality.

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

My Review
: Whatever you're thinking about this book from its cover and/or title, stop thinking it now. Aurora is our cicerone through a family of grotesques, a collection of tics and crotchets defined by their obsessive, angry sexual energy. They—Aurora's husband and conjoined-twin sons—are locked inside a bizarrely passionate, deeply damaged psychosexual cyst on Argentina's Body Politic...and that is the clue to what this book is on about. Noting the years in which this hideous agglomeration of sideshow freaks...brothers locked in sibling rivalry inside one body, a father who manufactures a glamourous Lana Turner sex doll to replace the wife he's simply forgotten has died...the next generation, son of a prostitute fathered by one of those men...all take place in 1956 (post-Perón), 1975 (Los Desaparecidos and the Dirty War), and 1989 (hyperinflation and Menem's economic crisis). Major turning points in the history of the country, all embodied in the person of Aurora of the truly peculiar death and even weirder substitution, Norma the pregnant prostitute with the paralyzed leg seeking one of the Berro men's support for her child, then finally Severino the child of Norma and ...?... left to make sense of the previous generations' mishegas and puerility.

It's $9.95 on Kindle, or $15.95 in trade paper form (non-affiliate Amazon link). I can't recommend it to the sexually prudish, or the easily distracted. It was ably, and intelligently, translated by Will Vanderhyden.

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A Tale of Two Omars: A Memoir of Family, Revolution, and Coming Out During the Arab Spring by Omar Sharif Jr.

Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: The grandson of Hollywood royalty on his father’s side and Holocaust survivors on his mother’s, Omar Sharif Jr. learned early on how to move between worlds, from the Montreal suburbs to the glamorous orbit of his grandparents’ Cairo. His famous name always protected him wherever he went. When, in the wake of the Arab Spring, he made the difficult decision to come out in the pages of The Advocate, he knew his life would forever change. What he didn’t expect was the backlash that followed.

From bullying, to illness, attempted suicide, becoming a victim of sex trafficking, death threats by the thousands, revolution and never being able to return to a country he once called home, Omar Sharif Jr. has overcome more challenges than one might imagine. Drawing on the lessons he learned from both sides of his family, A Tale of Two Omars charts the course of an iconoclastic life, revealing in the process the struggles and successes that attend a public journey of self-acceptance and a life dedicated in service to others.

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

My Review
: Everyone, no matter their looks, their socioeconomic status, or their talents, has got somethin' to carry that just won't quit hurting them. In Omar Sharif Jr.'s case, it was a lot of things based on expectations he was not going to meet and things he simply couldn't see how to fix or avoid. Yes, his life was privileged compared to most lives; yes, he had a lot of advantages that he seems to shrug off as unimportant; but in the end he was a damaged gay kid who fell for traps and snares that did him harm.

The happier part of the story is the gentleman's QUILTBAG advocacy in a country very much on the bubble socially. Egypt's neighbors are not especially stable democratic societies and that has an impact on the country's ability to deal effectively with its unpopular minorities fairly and equitably. To his credit, Sharif is in the trenches swinging his ax at the offenders and working his hardest to fix his chosen corner of the world. Very clichéd writing doesn't dull the gleam of his message of hope and his call to act, to support our QUILTBAG siblings around the world.

It's $11.99 on Kindle, or $26.00 in hardcover (non-affiliate Amazon link).

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Reality Testing (Sundown, #1) by Grant Price

Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: Welcome to Berlin. Population: desperate. In the throes of the climate crisis the green tech pioneers are king, and if you aren't willing to be their serf then you're surplus to requirements.

Carbon credit for sleeping on the job. That's the offer a dreamtech puts to Mara Kinzig, and she jumps on it. After all, the city ain't getting any cheaper.

Then somebody changes the deal while she's dreaming in the tank.

Now Mara has a body on her hands, an extra voice in her head, and the law on her tail. Only the Vanguard, a Foreign Legion of outcasts seeking an alternative path in the dust between the city states, might be able to help her figure out what went wrong. First, though, she'll have to escape the seething streets of Berlin alive.

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

My Review
: Another day, another dystopia. SF loves its dystopias, almost as much as YA does. The reason I rated this one three-and-a-half stars out of five is simple: I like the lesbian lead. She is a cool soul, struggling to make sense of her life while living it in a Grim New World that won't ever let her up or give her a break...and she doesn't carry that weight like it's a burden. She wants better for herself and her loved ones, like all people I've ever known. Daniel, another PoV, wasn't to my liking when I met him but he was compelling, driven by understandable needs and wants. He grows into someone I never expected him to be.

Also terrifically effective was the worldbuilding's slow-burn sensitivity to the plot. Permaybehaps the hardest adjustment was to the mixed slang spoken throughout, a heady brew of Chinese and German and so on and so forth. It's well deployed but still requires effort from the reader. We're in a climate-changed Berlin, a place not hugely resilient or possessed of reserves of natural diversity even now. Technology, that savior of all saviors, is pervasive in this climate-stressed world; I'd even say rampant. Its "blessings" are, as ever, unequally bestowed and frequently mitigated to the point of not being helpful.

A cyberpunk thriller draped over a mystery plot, it's $4.99 on Kindle or $16.95 tree book (too much IMO) {non-affiliate Amazon link} and worth the time, and the money.

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Jabberwocky: A Novella by Theodore Singer

Rating: 3* of five

The Publisher Says: A double award winner! Best Novella in both the 2016 Next Generation Indie Book Awards, and the 2016 Best Indie Book Awards!

Inspired by the Lewis Carroll poem, this is a dreamlike fantasy quest through strange landscapes, where the hero gradually grows into an understanding of himself and the true nature of the quest.

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

My Review
: A kind of mashup of Lewis Carroll's poem of the same name, his Alice in Wonderland series, and Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast books. The protagonist, Astreus, sets out on a quest and discovers that all is not as he believed it to be, and that must be the basis of his decision to act or not. I don't think anyone who's read much surrealist fantasy fiction will find anything new here, but it's nicely done and entertainingly silly. Don't think too hard...go with the story-logic, ride the waves, and enjoy.

It's 99¢ on Kindle and $5.99 tree book version (non-affiliate Amazon link), so it won't break the bank and will raise a smile or two.

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This space is dedicated to Nancy Pearl's Rule of 50, or "the Pearl Rule" as I've always called it. After realizing five times in December 2021 alone that I'd already Pearl-Ruled a book I picked up on a whim, I realized how close my Half-heimer's is getting to the full-on article. Hence my decision to track my Pearls!

As she says:
People frequently ask me how many pages they should give a book before they give up on it. In response to that question, I came up with my “rule of fifty,” which is based on the shortness of time and the immensity of the world of books. If you’re fifty years of age or younger, give a book fifty pages before you decide to commit to reading it or give it up. If you’re over fifty, which is when time gets even shorter, subtract your age from 100—the result is the number of pages you should read before making your decision to stay with it or quit.

So this space will be each month's listing of Pearl-Ruled books. Earlier Pearl-Rule posts will be linked below the current month's crop.

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Rivers of Gold: A Novel by Adam Dunn

Rating: 2.5* of five

The Publisher Says: RIVERS OF GOLD is the first in the "More" series of dystopian thrillers featuring MARSOC operator Everett "Ever" More and NYPD Detective Sixto Santiago. The series is set in the Second Great Depression. The primary locale is New York City. The economy is shattered, the government is helpless, and crime and disease run rampant. An underground party circuit has developed, wherein rival cartels use a network of taxicabs to move contraband around the city. The only remaining obstacle to complete mobocracy is an experimental NYPD unit which relies on tough undercover detectives in taxicabs who try to keep the rising tide of chaos at bay. Detective Sixto Santiago is one of these cops, who is grudgingly partnered with a newcomer named Everett More, who does not seem to be aware of any rules governing police conduct. The brutal murder of a cab driver draws them into an increasingly complex investigation that eventually gives them a lead into the gang war between the party cartels. But as the case grows seedier and more dangerous, Santiago is forced to investigate his own partner, and is shocked to discover he is part of a covert CIA operation to infiltrate the NYPD. More is no cop he is something altogether more dangerous. But he is the only one Santiago can rely upon when their case leads them to the rising stars of New York's underworld, whose connections range from immigrant cab drivers to the captains of the finance industry.

I RECEIVED A DRC FROM THE PUBLISHER VIA NETGALLEY.

My Review
: At 18%, Renny (our narrator) says:
The best/worst news is that Tony Quinones will be back from Cannes in time to be our stylist. Tony Q did the costumes for The Snake, a drama about a love triangle of gay sewage workers in Manila that's this year's odds-on favorite for the Palme d'Or. Tony is the kind of gay caricature who gives other gays a bad name (though he's always good for a few Specials for himself and his so-called Queue-terie.)

"Specials" are the narrator's other-career products: Drugs. My. How very edgy of the author, no?
Then, at 30%, Renny (our narrator) says:
She softly aligns her fingernails in perfect formation along my scrotal seam and arcs the tip of her tongue unerringly into my urethra.

My God, this girl.

And I realized how very much has changed since I downloaded this book in 2016; and how much MORE has changed since it was first written, and published by Bloomsbury, in 2008.

And I am so, so glad it has. I hate the homophobia; I hate the sexism (I excerpted the least condescending one I could I find); I hate the endlessly mindlessly habituated into lazy writers' heads use of New York City as dystopia-in-waiting. Use Birmingham, or Wichita, or Salt Lake City for a change.

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Truck Stop Earth by Michael A. Armstrong

Rating: 2* of five, and I feel damned magnanimous about giving it so much

The Publisher Says: Read about the mother of all alien bases! The big one, the mega-base, the center of the Alien Occupation Government: the headquarters, the brain, the nerve center, the absolute pinpoint big base, is right here on Earth, just outside Della, Alaska. Forget Roswell. Forget Machu Picchu. Forget Stonehenge and Tikal and all those alleged alien bases -- abandoned, every one of them. This is the big one, right here on Planet Earth, right now, the source of all the world's troubles, the whole solar system's troubles. Right here. Finally, the unflinching truth about aliens on Earth is exposed in Truck Stop Earth, as told by an alien abductee to award-winning reporter, Michael A. Armstrong.

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

My Review
: So, after this guy Jimmo cadges a ride from a couple lesbians (one of whom he's just, um, been with *nudgenudge winkwink*), he gets out of their elderly VW Bus and says:
"Thanks for the other night," she whispered. Her cute little tongue, with that little gold stud, flicked into my ear. "Take care, Jimmo."

"Yeah. Hey, thanks for all the rides." I looked at Margo, looked at Lilly, and somehow I knew I'd never see Margo again, which wouldn't rip me up much. Lilly I wasn't sure about, and if I did, now that would be a whole other story.

This is 1970s-level creep-you-out adolescent straight boy fantasy fan-fic stuff. I am NOT here for it. I'm out, it's deleted, and good riddance.

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Branches by Adam Peter Johnson

Rating: 2.5* of five

The Publisher Says: A mindbending page-turner in the tradition of Dark Matter and The Midnight Library, this surprise bestseller will make you question everything you know.

SOMETIMES IT FEELS LIKE LIFE TOOK A WRONG TURN … WHAT IF IT DID?

This isn’t your life.
This isn’t your reality.
And there’s a way out.

For one man, the past few years have delivered one shock after another. The election of an authoritarian president. The sudden loss of his mother. A series of debilitating seizures. Now, as America descends into a nightmare, he’s shocked to discover the explanation for his seizures: He’s in the wrong universe.

A drug trial promises to return him to the timeline where he belongs. With his family life strained, his job gone and tanks in the streets, he jumps at the opportunity. But what will he find on the other side?

Take a reality-bending trip filled with surprises and second chances. Visit alternate timelines where life played out differently. Explore the roads not taken. Question the nature of fate. And find an answer to the biggest question of all: in a world that feels like it’s spinning out of control, what would it take for one person to make a difference?

Now an international bestseller, Branches is at once a twisty cerebral drama and a deeply personal journey through fear, grief and redemption.

First in a series.

I CHECKED THIS BOOK OUT FROM THE PRIME READING LIBRARY.

My Review
: This one hurts. I love this idea. I suspect this is, in fact, reality and we haven't discovered it yet because there's just no way to test it scientifically.

And I bailed. Because the way the author has his PoV character handle the discovery process is...by phone: "I have more questions but the call drops. I try again, but after letting it ring for several minutes with no answer, I give up."

By phone, the calls drop, important words are obscured...in a multiverse-travel story. And we're already on Tuesday of the week we're spending in the story. I take exception to this, since it feels oh-so-conveniently deployed...and pat...and that leaves me wondering why, if I could write this for/with him, why I am spending my time.

Short answer: I'm not. And I really wanted to.

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The Killing Fog by Jeff Wheeler

Rating: 2.5* of five

The Publisher Says: The Wall Street Journal bestselling author of the Kingfountain series conjures an epic, adventurous world of ancient myth and magic as a young woman’s battle with infinite evil begins.

Survivor of a combat school, the orphaned Bingmei belongs to a band of mercenaries employed by a local ruler. Now the nobleman, and collector of rare artifacts, has entrusted Bingmei and the skilled team with a treacherous assignment: brave the wilderness’s dangers to retrieve the treasures of a lost palace buried in a glacier valley. But upsetting its tombs has a price.

Echion, emperor of the Grave Kingdom, ruler of darkness, Dragon of Night, has long been entombed. Now Bingmei has unwittingly awakened him and is answerable to a legendary prophecy. Destroying the dark lord before he reclaims the kingdoms of the living is her inherited mission. Killing Bingmei before she fulfills it is Echion’s.

Thrust unprepared into the role of savior, urged on by a renegade prince, and possessing a magic that is her destiny, Bingmei knows what she must do. But what must she risk to honor her ancestors? Bingmei’s fateful choice is one that neither her friends nor her enemies can foretell, as Echion’s dark war for control unfolds.

I CHECKED THIS BOOK OUT FROM THE PRIME READING LIBRARY.

My Review
: At 10%, Bingmei sees a pickpocket steal coins from a yokel she's got to help. The clunky dialogue, with her fixing a hard gaze on the yokel before dashing off leaving him in a crowd by himself so she could flex her badassery etc etc just wore me down. I flipped through the rest of the book to see if there was something not-tedious going to happen. It didn't.

I give up. There's a lot of good fantasy written by Asian women these days...why read mediocre time-sucking fantasy by an old white guy writing in an Asian woman's voice?

Saturday, October 29, 2022

IS MOTHER DEAD, Norwegian author's toxic tale of mothering & EARTHLINGS, Japanese author's horror story of abused, delusional daughter


IS MOTHER DEAD
VIGDIS HJORTH
(tr. Charlotte Barslund)
Verso Books
$26.95 hardcover, available now

Definitely read this Astra Magazine interview with Author Hjorth.

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: A cat and mouse game of surveillance and psychological torment develops between a middle-aged artist and her aging mother, as Vigdis Hjorth returns to the themes of her controversial modern classic, Will and Testament.

'To mother is to murder, or close enough', thinks Johanna, as she looks at the spelling of the two words in Norwegian. She's recently widowed and back in Oslo after a long absence as she prepares for a retrospective of her art. The subject of her work is motherhood and some of her more controversial paintings have brought about a dramatic rift between parent and child. This new proximity, after decades of acrimonious absence, set both women on edge, and before too long Johanna finds her mother stalking her thoughts, and Johanna starts stalking her mother's house.

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

My Review
: Twenty-ish books is a damned fine career. Author Hjorth and Translator Barslund are quite a team of creators, bringing this still-expanding storyverse from Norway to the US English-language market. They do it skillfully...and they do it, thankfully, quite often.

"Do I confront my deepest self?" asks Johanna, our narrator, in a passage that honestly sums up the entire experience of reading Author Hjorth's writing. She is in a deep personal crisis, reaching out to her long-estranged mother after decades of ill will that she caused with her art. Paintings Johanna created caused her mother, as well as her sister, to see things that family amnesia demanded be kept silent. Johanna was, and still is, unwilling to be silent. She has reached her sixties, though, a time in life when time itself looks and feels very, very different than it does even five or six years prior. Building bridges between ourselves and those responsible for our present-day being can, in many families, present challenges that feel insurmountable.

Johanna, as a visual person, sees her aging self as partly her mother "...on whose model my body is being shaped, as if I were clay contained in a form." She is facing mortality, and seeing how morality is molded within our relatively short-term bodily accommodation. She is finally reckoning with her mother's and her sister's deep sense of betrayal at her hands...while never believing she was wrong, she recognizes at last that they are hurt. As Johanna thinks through her complicated life, she muses on the natural surroundings her Norwegian home is in; any time she says, in that context, anything about "Mother" I wonder if she's talking about her mother, or OUR Mother-the-Earth...and these moment of being Mothered in nature are so sharply contrasted to her family-mother's unhappiness-making unmotherly ways.

But at such a cost to her own mental health...she obsesses about the family she broke, and did that deliberately, then ran away from the consequences for half her life. The author's formatting, daunting looking as it is, actually serves as a strong support for the story. Johanna is in the throes of a crisis. She doesn't think like a normal person. She is quite simply disintegrating into the pieces she reassembled through her art. The pages are designed to make concrete what could be lost in any other design choice.

But if the daughter sees her future in looking into the mirror of her mother, that mother sees a past that failed her in important ways, and sees herself and her failures writ live and large. Johanna's mother's rancor and rage aren't going to go away, and she (and her other daughter) have had decades to "get their story straight" as it were. The entrenched narratives of hurt on both sides bode ill for a meeting of the minds....

This beautifully written and translated book serves as a reminder to us all that we don't get to be victims all by ourselves. All damage done is reciprocal, and there is no escape from retribution. Self-delivered retribution, most commonly of all.

It's not a perfect book, as none ever can be. I rate it four of five stars because it's not a long book but it is a repetitive one. We hear the entire story in Johanna's internal voice. It's an excellent way to convey the dark night of the soul, the anger and hurt of betrayal...from one side. It takes a bit of work to contextualize the non-standard layout. It is worth the effort, in my never-humble opinion, but be prepared for it.

I recommend this latest salvo from Vigdis Hjorth's seemingly bottomless well of personal fiction to you, all the daughters and all the mothers and all the siblings whose home lives weren't always the happy-clappy-sappy greeting-card kind. Accept Vigdis Hjorth's gift of seeing yourself in her mixed, complicated feelings in this storyverse.

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


EARTHLINGS
SAYAKA MURATA
(tr. Ginny Tapley Takemori)
Grove Press
$17.00 trade paper, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: From the beloved author of cult sensation Convenience Store Woman, which has now sold more than a million copies worldwide, comes a spellbinding and otherworldly novel about a young girl who believes she is an alien

As a child, Natsuki doesn’t fit into her family. Her parents favor her sister, and her best friend is a plush toy hedgehog named Piyyut who has explained to her that he has come from the planet Popinpobopia on a special quest to help her save the Earth. Each summer, Natsuki counts down the days until her family drives into the mountains of Nagano to visit her grandparents in their wooden house in the forest, a place that couldn’t be more different from her grey commuter town. One summer, her cousin Yuu confides to Natsuki that he is an extraterrestrial and that every night he searches the sky for the spaceship that might take him back to his home planet. Natsuki wonders if she might be an alien too.

Back in her city home, Natsuki is scolded or ignored and even preyed upon by a young teacher at her cram school. As she grows up in a hostile, violent world, she consoles herself with memories of her time with Yuu and discovers a surprisingly potent inner power. Natsuki seems forced to fit into a society she deems a “baby factory” but even as a married woman she wonders if there is more to this world than the mundane reality everyone else seems to accept. The answers are out there, and Natsuki has the power to find them.

Dreamlike, sometimes shocking, and always strange and wonderful, Earthlings asks what it means to be happy in a stifling world, and cements Sayaka Murata’s status as a master chronicler of the outsider experience and our own uncanny universe.

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

My Review
: If you go read my 2019 review of Convenience Store Woman, you will probably wonder why I asked for this DRC. I was impressed by Author Murata's very pointed prose and her determined, dogged almost, pursuit of delineating characters who violate every.single.standard. of maleness and femaleness in Japanese society. I think of that as the most successful part of both Murata's earlier, and this, novel.
"I must use my magical powers to stay alive," she thinks, "I must become empty. I must obey."

–and–

Grown ups had it tough, too, I thought. Miss Shinozuka functioned well enough as one of society’s tools, but maybe wasn’t functioning properly as one of society’s reproductive organs.

She was in the position of educating me and ruled over me, but at the same time she herself was also being judged as a tool of society.

This time, a female character isn't simply alienated, unable to find Woman inside herself. This time, Natsuki is actually a vessel for an alien. (Or so she's decided after her cousin Yuu tells her he's from another planet...in playful terms that she does not get.) She then decides that her role is as an emissary from that planet, and reports to her handler via Piyyut, one of her stuffed toys. It's another level of weird, y'all. It's disturbing, it's startling, it's just damned strange.
I hadn’t told my family, but I was a magician, a real one with actual magical powers. I’d met Piyyut in the supermarket by the station when I was six and had just started elementary school. He was right on the edge of the soft toy display and looked as though he was about to be thrown out. I bought him with the money I’d received at New Year’s. Piyyut was the one who’d given me my magical objects and powers. He was from Planet Popinpobopia. The Magic Police had found out that Earth was facing a crisis and had sent him on a mission to save our planet. Since then I’d been using the powers he’d given me to protect the Earth.

–and–

I hugged my backpack to me. Inside it was my origami magic wand and my magical transformation mirror. At the very top of the backpack was my best friend, Piyyut, who gave me these magical objects. Piyyut can’t speak human since the evil forces put a spell on him, but he’s looking after me so I won’t get carsick.

So of course, this is where I buy in and get ready for the ride. Translator Tapley Takemori is gonna let off the verbal incediaries!
Love is a drug made in the brain to enable humans to mate. It’s simply an anesthetic. In other words, it’s an illusion made to prettify the painful mating act, to reduce the suffering and disgust of the sexual act. We might be able to use this anesthetic if we’re ever in pain. But for now I don’t think it’s necessary.

–and–

The Baby Factory produces humans connected by flesh and blood… Once shipped out, male and female humans are trained how to take food back to their own nests. They become society’s tools, receive money from other humans and purchase food. Eventually these young humans aso form breeding pairs, coop themselves up in new nests, and manufacture more babies.

The fact is I don't entirely disagree with Natsuki...society, as presently constituted, is a Baby Factory. She lives through a dreadful, abusive childhood and the blighting horror of an unloving mother. She still manages to make herself get married to a man, a boring, ordinary man, whose mother is clear-sighted and indifferent to her husband, a loutish and judgmental lump we'd call a redneck in the US.
"Look, Tomoya. Do it a lot and make a family, then once the relationship has cooled, you play around outside of marriage. That's the way it is for lots of couples, isn't it? Playing around is a man's reward. Your father has had his fair share, haven't you dear?"

–and–

"I hate people who insist on their rights while neglecting their duty."
Tomoya, their son, is what these days we'd identify as a demisexual. Here in the US he'd find increasing support for that variant identity. Not in Japan. Tomoya and Natsuki find each other on an anti-dating site and enter into a consensually sexless marriage. At least, if they're married, they reason the families will finally stop making their lives hell about it. Of course, then comes baby talk. Predictable, no? Well...that is how Author Murata rolls. She does the expected, the predictable, and lards it into the weird and the uncomfortable. At the end of the story, things have happened to Natsuki and things have passed her by; it's really not obvious to me that her world is not, in fact, reality seen from an unexpected angle. Some of the most uncomfortable scenes and subplots...can one have subplots in this kind of narrative, digressive and discursive but more or less chronological?...are clear and honest bashings of the patriarchal society we have allowed to rule over us for far too long. There is violence and there is horror, but it is nothing you haven't read before and is probably more powerful for that. Because, in this story, those sharp blades of rage are all rising from a garlic-flavored custard, a durian-marmalade slathered slice of toast, a radish you find inside your cupcake.

What a way to spend a day. Immersed in a soup of very, very maladjusted people. People whose full strangeness isn't even dented by what I've said so far, what I've quoted. There are some shocks to your system headed your way when you choose to read a Sayaka Murata novel, that's part of the reason one does it. This time, I give the read more stars than Convenience Store Woman because Natsuki's struggles with overcoming her deeply unhappy childhood and her maladaptive attempts to "fit in" are so reminiscent of Vigdis Hjorth's Johanna in the review above. They aren't in any cosmetic or surface way alike...Johanna's mental illness is from a similar source but is NOT dealt with internally through the fantastical inventions of Natsuki...but these women, betrayed by those whose job it was to protect them and abused for daring to try to be their authentic selves, deal with it all internally. Outward signs aren't visible to the people who don't look at them properly. We, the readers, are privy to things we want to believe would make a happier outcome for these women.

But I will bet you money that, given access to our point of view, no one in these two women's ambit would change their damaging behavior in any significant way. Nor would the women themselves. Ultimately that led what was for reader-me an almost-five-star review to drop to a solid four stars of five. I wasn't put off by Author Murata's weirdness. It was the helpless and hopeless ethos of the story that, in the end, dimmed the anarchic luster of the prose.

Tragedies are so much more interesting than comedies, no?

Friday, October 28, 2022

THE STEVEN KOTLER PAGE: LAST TANGO IN CYBERSPACE, cyberpunk about *empathy* of all things & THE DEVIL'S DICTIONARY, the apotheosis of Lion Zorn


LAST TANGO IN CYBERSPACE
STEVEN KOTLER

St. Martin's Press
$11.99 Kindle edition, available now

Rating: 4.5* of five

The Publisher Says: It was a new skill…

One that might change the world.

What could a person do who could track empathy?

His friends call him Lion, he is the first of his kind. Some describe it as emotional foresight, but really, he can see cultural trends before they emerge. What he didn’t expect was for Big Pharma to come calling.

In 2025, technology has made massive leaps forward.

Not every group wants to use it for good.

Arctic Pharmaceuticals has a new drug and a bad idea. They call on Lion, because he is the key to getting the formula they need. But when he starts to sense their hidden agenda, will they take drastic action?

Then Lion discovers a decapitated human head…

Is he being hunted?

Can he stop a global disaster?

You’ll love this edge-of-your seat cyberpunk thriller, because it will keep you turning the pages late into the night.

Get it now.

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

My Review
: The first paragraph reads:
He steps off the plane and into a shimmering world. They've hidden the airport beneath a thick coat of dazzle. A parade of razor-thin screens, angled atrium glass, and staccato mirror work. Everything scrolls, winks, and blinks, but softly, like Sunset Strip on mute.

I knew from the off that I was in for one of Those Reads, the ones I bore people with by shoving it in their faces despite innumerable social cues...sighs, eyerolls, signs scrawled in orange crayon on a Big Chief tablet reading "GO AWAY"...that they would greatly prefer I not.

A book with chapter titles like "The Double Tap of Holy Exclamations" and "Residual Goat Shit" and "Shut Your Mouth When You Talk to Me" simply must be read. A book that weaves Dune references throughout its text for the Fremen to follow. A book that centers empathy, that commercially rewards empathy, that perverts empathy into a product that enables empaths to resist and rebel and still get paid...that is, this is, a book that demands your eyeblinks. Demands, and rewards. Lion Zorn, he's just this guy, you know? About like Zaphod Beeblebrox was.
The early researchers described em-tracking as a hardware upgrade for the nervous system, maybe the result of a genetic shift, possibly a fast adaptation, Studies revealed an assortment of cognitive improvements: acute perceptual sensitivity, rapid data acquisition, high speed pattern recognition. The biggest change was in future prediction. Normally, the human brain is a selfish prognosticator, built to trace an individual’s path into the future. The em-tracker’s brain offers a wider oracle, capable of following a whole culture’s path into the future.

Ripsnort through our world (almost) with Lion and see what things really look like when you drink the Water of Life. There's nothing specifically tech-SFnal about the world Lion roams, but the psychopharmacology is waaay trippy. Lion and his ladyfriend Penelope are always on the move because Lion's empathy skills are so useful...he can spot the newest tendrils of a social movement, he can pinpoint who's coming up with what and when and why that's a thing...Lion is, in other words, a bloody nightmare of a gifted and talented drug user. It's Sietch Tabr that expands him, and honestly I think I'd prefer the reality where he's shrunk back inside his skull. I'm already angry about surveillance capitalism.
“Buckminster Fuller said don’t try to change human behavior. It’s s a waste of time. Evolution doesn’t mess around; the patterns are too deep. Fuller said go after the tools. Better tools lead to better people. Arctic doesn’t develop products. We may cultivate them, occasionally, in our own particular way, but our business is change. Significant change.”

Only Lion's subversive....
Lion was the one who pointed out that naming hotels after Millennial values—the Truth, the Purpose, the Community—now that his generation had reached the age where the luxury of billboard ethics had been derailed by the verities of life, might be lucrative. "Aspirational nostalgia," he dubbed it.

Okay, cyberpunk, one expects that. But there's an AI involved in this picture that, well, it's AI so it's got to be bad. But somehow this isn't dystopian. There's a lot of interesting animal-rights activism information and action...there's a little bit of information about how pharmaceutical companies pharmaceut. There's a little bit about Penelope and her life; there's not a lot more about Lion. The characters are the weakest links in the story. They exist, they are differentiatable, they aren't very compelling. I found that, the longer I spent with them, the less that mattered to me. I don't know exactly what that says about the read or this reader. I'm not at all sure I want to find out.
Lots of people believe consciousness is a fundamental property of the universe, like space and time. If that's the case, then it is turtles all the way down. We'll have this debate about our microbiome. About rocks and atoms and quarks. Until we have Gaia consciousness, there will always be an us-them divide, always a next frontier for empathy.

So find space on your Kindle, or order a used tree-book, but get this story inside you.
“Shifting culture requires a confluence of inciting incidents. Something directional that leads to a tribal fracturing and reknitting. Often shows up in language first. In music. Fashion. It can feel a little like hope.” He points at the images. “This doesn’t feel like hope.”

Oddly enough I felt more hope after the read than I did going in to it. I think you might, too.

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


THE DEVIL'S DICTIONARY
STEVEN KOTLER

St. Martin's Press
$27.99 hardcover, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: Hard to say exactly when the human species fractured. Harder to say when this new talent arrived. But Lion Zorn, protagonist of Last Tango in Cyberspace, is the first of his kind—an empathy tracker, an emotional forecaster, with a felt sense for how culture evolves and the future arrives.

It’s also a useful skill in today’s competitive business market.

In The Devil’s Dictionary, when a routine em-tracking job goes sideways and em-trackers themselves start disappearing, Lion finds himself not knowing who to trust in a life and death race to uncover the truth. And when the trail leads to the world’s first mega-linkage, a continent-wide national park advertised as the best way to stave off environmental collapse, and exotic animals unlike any on Earth start showing up—Lion’s quest for truth becomes a fight for the survival of the species.

Packed with intrigue and heart-pounding action, marked by unforgettable characters and vivid storytelling, filled with science-based brilliance and cult comic touches, The Devil’s Dictionary is Steven Kotler at his thrilling science fiction best.

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

My Review
: Okay, same drill:
"People," says Ramen, like they're some kind of disease.

He jabs the air with his chopsticks, pointing at something behind Lion's left shoulder.

Ramen is ancient, Asian, and given to blaring Billy Idol out of cheap speakers duct-taped to the top of his decrepit food cart. He wears an old chef's coat over a dirty t-shirt, the sleeves pushed back, revealing arms flecked with burns and scars. Still, there's truth in his adverstising. Ramen makes ramen. "Best in London," according to the sign, even if you have to sit in the cold rain, under a cheap plastic awning, on the rotting edge of Chinatown, to enjoy it.

Rotting—that is definitely the right word.

There's a reason, not an instantly obvious one, to begin this book in exactly this way at precisely that spot. I think a lot of y'all might not find that an easy sell...it means Author Kotler's work repays close attention. I hasten to add that it isn't *required* to undertand what's going on. It's a lot like the easter eggs in y'all's video games, or the post-credits scene in those Marvel movies. Laugh along, or howl until it hurts if you're in on the joke.

The WhistlePig? The snow snake? No, explaining isn't necessary now. You just need to see the words, parse them, slot their shapes into a spot in your brain. Just take it easy, read one chapter at a time, and always be prepared to go with the flow.

Unlike the Humans-First scumbags, who are serious major buzz-kill nasties after shutting down the entire existence of Sietch Tabr, the huge empathy uptake of humanity, and the inevitable knock-on effect of people and animals coming to realize we're all one big Gaia. And their (I think) creation, the anti-Sietch Tabr, EVO. It harshes everyone's buzz and it is brutal about it.

But this book, second Lion's Story, gets more in its own way by making a bit too little effort to connect me to more of the cast than even the first one, light on character attachment, did. People are labeled, not named, and the ability to invest in them as more than handy props is limited. So I took a half-star off the ratine because I really want to be swept up in the reasons the story's being told. That doesn't happen for me unless I can invest in the characters...postively or negatively.

That is the big gritch. The smaller ones are really not important to me, so definitely not likely to be to you...I'm pretty sure anyone who's read Last Tango in Cyberspace will be eager to get to this one, and I won't say don't. I will say adjust your speed to match the bumps...if technospeak is not for you, these stories aren't either. But, and this is important, taking the story in slowly is a very successful reading strategy with Author Kotler's books. It allows you to marinate his ideas in your head without being bombarded with too much verbiage. Try the stories. This storyverse feels predictive to me, and I suspect we'll be back in Lion's head willy-nilly as the years fly by.

Wednesday, October 26, 2022

THE GAUTAM BHATIA PAGE: THE WALL, an apt title for a claustrophobic tale & THE HORIZON, the consequences of trading agoraphobia for claustrophobia


THE WALL
GAUTAM BHATIA
(Sumer #1)
HarperCollins India (non-affiliate Amazon link)
$9.99 Kindle edition, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: Mithila’s world is bound by a Wall enclosing the city of Sumer—nobody goes out, nothing comes in. The days pass as they have for two thousand years: just enough to eat for just enough people, living by the rules. Within the city, everyone knows their place.

But when Mithila tries to cross the Wall, every power in Sumer comes together to stop her. To break the rules is to risk all of civilization collapsing. But to follow them is to never know: who built the Wall? Why? And what would the world look like if it didn’t exist?

As Mithila and her friends search for the truth, they must risk losing their families, the ones they love, and even their lives. Is a world they can’t imagine worth the only world they have?

For fans of Isaac Asimov’s Nightfall and Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed comes an astonishingly powerful voice in speculative fiction that explores what it means to truly be free.

I RECEIVED A DRC FROM THE AUTHOR. THANK YOU.

My Review
: The author is a social-media acquaintance of mine, one whose work in the world of Indian Constitutional law I admire unreservedly. He is also among those who run Strange Horizons magazine, which work I admire immoderately as well. I think it's fair to say I approached this read with the dread of a fan...

...who then became a stan. The pace of this book probably puts a lot of sci-fi fans off but, for me, it was a perfect and langourous introduction to a two-thousand-year-old utopia whose principles hadn't changed but whose use of them had. The oppressive weight of a society that is sure that it's Right can not be overdramatized. What Author Gautam did, choosing a pace for its affect on the reader, was evoke a deep and abiding dread, a building sense of wrongness, that worked so much better than a more whiz-bang approach would have done. I found the legal sections, pertaining to Sumer's laws, to be the grace notes I've always enjoyed in my speculative fiction. They set the stakes of the rebellion against the status quo better than any other choice...rebelling against a government, after all, is rebelling against its laws.

Mithila, our PoV character, is a woman on a mission: GET OUT OF SUMER. Her rebellion isn't against intolerable and burdensome living conditions, there's enough food and plenty of stuff that one actually needs. It's a deeper rebellion: Mithila needs to be free, to have the chance to make her own choices and decisions. It's simply too much for her spirit to bear to conform.

Young people have ever felt thus, it's true. In a utopian society where you simply can not speak your mind or ask questions that deserve and require answers, it really becomes a Hell for the Mithilas of the world. She and some like-minded friends aren't glad to be safe inside the walls of Sumer. They want OUT, and the ever-threatened consequences seem like small potatoes to them.

The Powers That Be can't take that challenge lying down...and don't...but the end of the story sees Mithila and her faction winning the war because, once you introduce doubt into the world, things fall apart pretty quickly. The eternal verity that monoliths aren't stable and can fall with a well-placed shove is demonstrable using physics (Stonehenge hasn't always been the way it is now). People's hearts and minds, once engaged on a project of destruction, are very powerfully motivated to see the project through. (There's a recent example of this in the US.)

But in the end, even a novel of ideas needs to bring its concerns to a personal level or it fails to entertain...a novel's first duty. The concepts of Wallrise and Wallset, exactly what you are thinking they are, break a seaside-dwelling ocean lover's heart. The concept of a horizon is so utterly beyond the ken of people who have always lived inside encircling walls...Imagine water extending from your feet, buildings and fields receding and disappearing, imagine the water filling the empty space elicits exhilaration in a few, terror in many...and doesn't that just scare you! And, lest you wonder if the world-building is dry and flavorless, I present you the concept of the Towers of Rebirth...remembering that Sumer is a closed society, with limited resources, imagine what "rebirth" might entail for a *real* scare....

Enough to move on to the sequel, it did, and procure same with my very own United States dollars.

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


THE HORIZON
GAUTAM BHATIA

HarperCollins India (non-affiliate Amazon link)
$20.00 trade paper, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: ‘Did we not once promise that we would always be honest with each other?’

‘I no longer ask for honesty. Just tell me a lie that I can forgive.’

After 2000 years, the Wall has been breached. As Mithila steps into a world unknown, her sister Minakshi tightens her grasp on a city bracing for chaos and violence under a red sky. The ghost of an old Revolution stalks the streets, while the shadow of a new one threatens to tear Sumer apart.

Spreading word about this historical transgression, Alvar and Mankala find themselves facing new perils in a City they can barely recognise—one torn between old fears and new desires, while caught in a deadly power struggle. But soon, they will know that the crossing of the Wall has consequences not just for the City, but for the world.

My Review: Be careful what you ask the gods for, lest the answer be "Yes."

Mithila's prayers were assented to; now she must live in the aftermath. The Walls of Sumer are no more; this doesn't mean Sumer is no more, of course, any more than the ending of Constantinople's play-Roman society meant it didn't exist anymore. (What do you imagine sparked the Renaissance if not the sudden outflow of people and books that had been behind Constantinople's walls?) The discovery that there is...stuff, people, a whole Universe...outside Sumer's walls doens't mean that Mithila and her peeps just win because Mithila has a sister. Sibling rivalry will do more than a little to prevent things from moving too fast, and Minakshi (Author Gautam! These names, so many are so similar! NOT COOL, DUDE) is a sibling in the throes of serious rivalry. She uses Mithila's discovery of the outside to force a confrontation with Powers That Be who previously defeated *her* attempt to take over Sumer and she is ripe and ready for revenge against them. And if Mithila suffers too, well, omelettes, eggs....

Writing about chaotic change in a society whose stasis was thoroughly established earlier should feel, I don't know, complicated. It does here. I was also very pleased that the read was propulsive, violent where necessary and exciting throughout, and driven from the real-feeling needs and desires of characters unafraid to throw their hearts and bodies into the future. There is no landing in safety, there is no landing even, visible to them. But Mithila and Rama (her lesbian lover) do it anyway, commit themselves and their people to a brave new world. (Arrogant, of course, as one must be to be a rebel.) What became difficult for me as I read this book is my sense that I am empathizing with people who aren't in sympathy with the world they were born into so they...tear it all down...? That's a very big step to take with no plan for the future. I understand that Author Gautam has said he's done with this storyverse. I'm really not sure if the characters agree with him. I predict sleepless nights flipping the pillow, looking for some way to cool their anger as they struggle to get out of his brain.

There is an appendix where Author Gautam goes through the sources and inspirations for Sumer, and it by itself should be required reading for aspiring fantasy/speculative fiction writers. It is thorough without feeling like a course syllabus.

All in all, two books telling one story in a deeply, empathetically imagined alternate reality to our own. Spending time in this place poised on the brink of rebellion is, strange to say, a great escape from a darkening world.

Tuesday, October 25, 2022

ALL THE QUIET PLACES, debut YA novel by & about First-Nations youth caught in tumultuous times & WHAT IS LEFT THE DAUGHTER, CanLit monadnock Howard Norman's YA-themed novel


ALL THE QUIET PLACES
BRIAN THOMAS ISAAC

Brindle & Glass
$18.00 trade paper, available now

Rating: 4.5* of five

The Publisher Says: Brian Isaac's powerful debut novel All the Quiet Places is the coming-of-age story of Eddie Toma, an Indigenous (Syilx) boy, told through the young narrator's wide-eyed observations of the world around him.

It's 1956, and six-year-old Eddie Toma lives with his mother, Grace, and his little brother, Lewis, near the Salmon River on the far edge of the Okanagan Indian Reserve in the British Columbia Southern Interior. Grace, her friend Isabel, Isabel's husband Ray, and his nephew Gregory cross the border to work as summer farm labourers in Washington state. There Eddie is free to spend long days with Gregory exploring the farm: climbing a hill to watch the sunset and listening to the wind in the grass. The boys learn from Ray's funny and dark stories. But when tragedy strikes, Eddie returns home grief-stricken, confused, and lonely.

Eddie's life is governed by the decisions of the adults around him. Grace is determined to have him learn the ways of the white world by sending him to school in the small community of Falkland. On Eddie's first day of school, as he crosses the reserve boundary at the Salmon River bridge, he leaves behind his world. Grace challenges the Indian Agent and writes futile letters to Ottawa to protest the sparse resources in their community. His father returns to the family after years away only to bring chaos and instability. Isabel and Ray join them in an overcrowded house. Only in his grandmother's company does he find solace and true companionship.

In his teens, Eddie's future seems more secure—he finds a job, and his long-time crush on his white neighbour Eva is finally reciprocated. But every time things look up, circumstances beyond his control crash down around him. The cumulative effects of guilt, grief, and despair threaten everything Eddie has ever known or loved.

All the Quiet Places is the story of what can happen when every adult in a person's life has been affected by colonialism; it tells of the acute separation from culture that can occur even at home in a loved familiar landscape. Its narrative power relies on the unguarded, unsentimental witness provided by Eddie.

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

My Review
: This beautifully written debut novel, telling a deeply affecting story of a boy's coming of age amid loss and deprivation, was longlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize in 2022. I'm a bit surprised that it didn't make the shortlist because it's got the power and the credibility to impress any judging panel. Still...however they chose, the judges chose this story to stay longlisted.

Eddie Toma is a character I recognize...a youth whose rudder isn't calibrated like he's told it's supposed to be. It's an adolescent trait, of course, but the issues Eddie is coping with are his life are those unique to an unvalued Indigenous male. In a settler-colonial society he isn't going to find a lot of validation. What he has, in compensation, is a formidable grandmother who models a moral compass nonpareil. He spends his entire growing-up time torn between the need, like all of us, to figure out what the world is about, and the impoverished person's need to find enough food to fill his hunger. His life in the white-people school in the nearest town is a nightmare of bewilderment...how is he supposed to know about racism? until he started school he'd never even been to the white people who lived across the road's home!...and there is no one to explain anything to him at home or at school.

Except Eva, the white girl who lives across the road...she's kind, and she's weird, and she's got something Eddie can't quite figure out going on in her mind. (That remains true all through the book.) Eva is a beautiful, willful, intelligent girl caught in a place too small to hold her talent, still less her interest. As Eddie and Eva continue to knock their corners together and as Life gives them nasty buffets and blows, they simply get on with getting on. Growing up. Learning and wondering and trying stuff out.

When I think about the way the story unfolds after reading the ending of the book, I feel so much more as though Author Isaac brought his bluntest weapons to the tale's wordsmithing. I was always involved in Eddie's solitary life, weirdly lived among the crowds of people who were Others to Eddie and who in their turn Othered him. I wished, at every failed opportunity to make a connection with someone, that I could go into the pages and hug Eddie. I wished his family had seen him, the "him" that this novel builds, the real him. His mother was challenged at every single step by single motherhood, by racial prejudice, by the judgment and unkindness of the world; her treatment of her sons was only marginally better than their treatment at the world's hands, and it's there that I wanted to go be a White Savior.

It's not, then, the happiest of lives that Eddie and his family live. He loves, I think, almost no one but he crushes on Eva and still can't connect with her. She, in her turn, is both kind and cruel. She's a kid...she's a rebel...she's a privileged white lass whose feelings for an Indigenous lad are titillatingly forbidden, yet came across to me as sincere. As the years progress, Eddie can't make sense of her, can't make sense of his burgeoning feelings for her, can't take in the manifold cruelties he's undergoing on every level except one quiet refuge: His grandmother.

His mother's mother is a calm center of this chaotic bunch. Even her white racist neighbors feel respect for her, though they never express it without nastiness. Eddie loves her, in the best way a deprived and neglected heart like his can love. Only to her can he turn in all his bewilderment and rage, with all his confused longings for nameless-to-him caring and nurturing. From her he absorbs respect for the wild world, and her son Alphonse (whose life doesn't include much voluntary time spent with any kids) leads him by example to knowledge of and connection with his environment. These factors enable Eddie to get through the disasters of most all colonialism-, racism-, and poverty-blighted lives. He is, at base and at heart, only truly, trustingly at home in the wild world.

The ending of the story is, I confess, a bit downbeat for my taste; it's the reason I'm not giving the read all five stars. It makes perfect sense. It is exactly what, I suspect, happened to someone, somewhere in Author Isaac's own past. It is not false; it is just...so very, very sad. I wouldn't recommend this as a read for someone needing a cup of cheer. But I do recommend that you read this tender, loving, cruelly realistic tale of life lived in racism's ugly glare.

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


WHAT IS LEFT THE DAUGHTER
HOWARD NORMAN

Mariner Books
$14.99 trade paper, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: Howard Norman, widely regarded as one of this country's finest novelists, returns to the mesmerizing fictional terrain of his major books—The Bird Artist, The Museum Guard, and The Haunting of L—in this erotically charged and morally complex story.

Seventeen-year-old Wyatt Hillyer is suddenly orphaned when his parents, within hours of each other, jump off two different bridges—the result of their separate involvements with the same compelling neighbor, a Halifax switchboard operator and aspiring actress. The suicides cause Wyatt to move to small-town Middle Economy to live with his uncle, aunt, and ravishing cousin Tilda.

Setting in motion the novel's chain of life-altering passions and the wartime perfidy at its core is the arrival of the German student Hans Mohring, carrying only a satchel. Actual historical incidents—including a German U-boat's sinking of the Nova Scotia-Newfoundland ferry Caribou, on which Aunt Constance Hillyer might or might not be traveling—lend intense narrative power to Norman's uncannily layered story.

Wyatt's account of the astonishing—not least to him—events leading up to his fathering of a beloved daughter spills out twenty-one years later. It's a confession that speaks profoundly of the mysteries of human character in wartime and is directed, with both despair and hope, to an audience of one.

An utterly stirring novel. This is Howard Norman at his celebrated best.

I CHECKED THIS BOOK OUT FROM THE LIBRARY. USE THEM OFTEN, THEY LIVE AND DIE ON OUR PATRONAGE.

My Review
: When an author of Howard Norman's stature uses the epistolary storytelling technique, the chances of disappointment...always higher when this difficult-to-master form is used...shrink back into insignificance. As expected, then, this read was a master class in what and how to make of the epistles in question.

Wyatt's parents aren't alive as we meet him. I got a strong intimation that he, looking back on a whole family's life pretty passionately (if unhappily) lived, didn't feel they were alive before they each committed suicide for mixed-up love of the same woman. If I had to guess (Author Norman doesn't over-explain anything, ever) I'd say Wyatt's life more complicated than most from the very beginning. His letter to his largely unseen daughter, however, is all about putting forward the facts of her paternal family's life as he recalls them. It felt to me as though Author Norman's telling of the tale was direct and honest; so Wyatt, then, wasn't aware even in retrospect of his life's peculiarly high levels of complexity.
In The Highland Book of Platitudes, Marlais, there's an entry that reads, "Not all ghosts earn our memory in equal measure." I think about this sometimes. I think especially about the word "earn," because it implies an ongoing willful effort on the part of the dead, so that if you believe the platitude, you have to believe in the afterlife, don't you? Following that line of thought, there seem to be certain people—call them ghosts—with the ability to insinuate themselves into your life with more belligerence and exactitude than others—it's their employment and expertise.

With all the arousal hormones Wyatt's story begins with, and given the fact that he's writing to his twentyish daughter, this is a story pretty much guaranteed to be about the erotic charge that a messy life provides and more importantly about its costs. Wyatt's unrequited love for a person in his family circle who is not a relative is the stuff of life. I suspect it was deeply relatable to anyone who's ever been part of a blended or a found family. The object of his affections, herself an added person (one whose family isn't a birth family), falls madly in love with someone socially inconvenient: A German émigré, and this story's set during World War II. So there's another level of relatability, as what adult has made it this far without an unrequited love?
My whole life, Marlais, I've had difficulty coming up with the right word to use in a given situation, but at least I know what the right word would have been once I hear it.

The problem this inability brings with it, or perhaps the character trait it points up, is that of passivity. Wyatt is not a doer but a done-to. Nothing that happens in his (passive, epistolary) account of his life to the daughter he doesn't know is as a result of his actions. The one truly, damningly awful thing he's involved in, and for which he is now seeking his daughter's forgiveness, is a result of his inaction, his inability to stand for something.
I realize I've sometimes raced over the years like an ice skater fleeing the devil on a frozen river.
–and–
I refuse any longer to have my life defined by what I haven't told you.

But what he does, this man of inaction, is write the young woman a letter. How typical of him...make an effort but make it ineffectually. What a letter does is enable him to remain inactive yet still offer, as if from behind a wall, an accounting of the young woman in question's heritage. What happens as a result? We never know; Author Norman's story is of Wyatt, not Marlais.

You'll have to decide if that's a deal-maker or -breaker for you. I fall on the line between those poles. I need to feel a story is complete, fulfilling its brief, to really lose myself in it. The musicality of Author Norman's line-by-line creation can draw one along for a good while but there's always that need to have some story pay-off for me. I was not all the way satisfied...I wasn't dissatisfied...there was a strange liminality in this tale of passive inaction's consequences. I would recommend you read the book. I wouldn't recommend it to you, however, of you're in the mood for a propulsive plot-driven thrillride. Does the read repay the effort? It did for me—mostly.

I think Author Norman turned me into Wyatt!