Saturday, January 14, 2023

THE YEAR'S BEST AFRICAN SPECULATIVE FICTION (2021): Volume One, winner of the World Fantasy Award for Best Anthology!


CAEZIK SF & Fantasy
$29.99 hardcover, available 23 April 2023

Winner of the 2022 World Fantasy Award for Best Anthology!


The Publisher Says: The world's first ever “year’s best” anthology of African speculative fiction. Edited by Oghenechovwe Donald Ekpeki, The Year’s Best African Speculative Fiction collects twenty-nine stories by twenty-five writers, which the press describes as “some of the most exciting voices, old and new, from Africa and the diaspora, published in the 2020 year.”


My Review

“Where You Go” by Somto O. Ihezue

“Things Boys Do” by Pemi Aguda

“Giant Steps” by Russell Nichols

“The Future in Saltwater” by Tamara Jerée

“The ThoughtBox” by Tlotlo Tsamaase

“The Parts That Make Us Monsters” by Sheree Renée Thomas

“Scar Tissue” by Tobias S. Buckell

“Ancestries” by Sheree Renée Thomas

“Breath of the Sahara” by Inegbenoise O. Osagie

“The Many Lives of an Abiku” by Tobi Ogundiran

“A Love Song for Herkinal as composed by Ashkernas amid the ruins of New Haven” by Chinelo Onwualu

“A Curse at Midnight” by Moustapha Mbacké Diop

“A Mastery of German” by Marian Denise Moore

“Are We Ourselves?” by Michelle Mellon

“When the Last of the Birds and the Bees Have Gone On” by C.L. Clark

“The Goatkeeper’s Harvest” by Tobi Ogundiran

"Baba Klep” by Eugen Bacon

"Desiccant” by Craig Laurance Gidney

"Disassembly” by Makena Onjerika

"The River of Night” by Tlotlo Tsamaase

"Egoli” by T.L. Huchu

"The Friendship Bench” by Yvette Lisa Ndlovu

“Fort Kwame” by Derek Lubangakene

"We Come as Gods” by Suyi Davies Okungbowa

“And This is How to Stay Alive” by Shingai Njeri Kagunda

“The Front Line” by WC Dunlap

"Penultimate” by ZZ Claybourne

“Love Hangover” by Sheree Renée Thomas


Sunday, January 8, 2023

SWEET, SOFT, PLENTY RHYTHM, reckonings are brutal...on everyone involved & I FEAR MY PAIN INTERESTS YOU, young feminist's récit


Pantheon Books
$28.00 hardcover, available now

Trade Paperback Edition $17.00|available July 25, 2023

$1.99 on Kindle for a limited time.

LONGLISTED for the 2023 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction!

One of NPR's Best Books of 2022!

Rating: 2.5* of five

The Publisher Says: It’s 2013, and Circus Palmer, a forty-year-old Boston-based trumpet player and old-school ladies’ man, lives for his music and refuses to be tied down. Before a gig in Miami, he learns that the woman who is secretly closest to his heart, the free-spirited drummer Maggie, is pregnant by him. Instead of facing the necessary conversation, Circus flees, setting off a chain of interlocking revelations from the various women in his life. Most notable among them is his teenage daughter, Koko, who idolizes him and is awakening to her own sexuality even as her mentally fragile mother struggles to overcome her long-failed marriage and rejection by Circus.

Delivering a lush orchestration of diverse female voices, Warrell spins a provocative, soulful, and gripping story of passion and risk, fathers and daughters, wives and single women, and, finally, hope and reconciliation, in answer to the age-old question: how do we find belonging when love is unrequited?


My Review
: It depresses me to say this, but this book was...despite truly, deeply impressive writing...
The girl may have been the end for him.

That the wind shifted and sent a chill across her freshly cleaned skin so that she sensed her own solitude in a way that no longer frightened her as she walked bare and unhindered toward what was new.
...lovely and fully sensory-universe-planted but, and this is the crux of the matter for me, it's about a man.

A group of women have different relationships with one man.

Ground-breaking stuff, no? Never read anything like it before! Except about half the Western canon. Women circle Circus, whose name suggested to me clownishness that I found ample evidence for. They *keep* circling Circus no matter what. And, folks, if there ever was a man whose actions and inactions invalidated his Manhood Card℠, it's Circus. He never met a responsibility he didn't shirk.

But his Art! is usually the rallying cry I hear. His art my lily-white one. He's a bog-standard self-absorbed arrested adolescent, probably a libertarian and a religious nut although those are my own interpolations, with a good line of patter and some skills in sexual gratification.

He is, bluntly, the kind of person I look down on and the kind of character I am deeply sickened to see recrudescing on best-of lists and getting all sorts of happy talk said about it. He's a serial cheater, an emotional abuser, and an unworthy object of our cultural attention because his brothers are teeming like maggots on a shit-pile, exuding their spurious shine that so many seem to see as attractive when it's actually the slime they secrete to slip out of any kind or sort of commitment that inconveniences, annoys, or bores them.




Verso Fiction
$19.95 trade paper, available now

Rating: 2.5* of five

The Publisher Says: A punky, raw novel of millenial disaffection, trauma and 1960s cinema

Margot is the child of renowned musicians and the product of a particularly punky upbringing. Burnt-out from the burden of expectation and the bad end of the worst relationship yet, she leaves New York and heads to to the Pacific Northwest. She's seeking to escape both the eyes of the world and the echoing voice of that last bad man. But a chance encounter with a dubious doctor in a graveyard, and the discovery of a dozen old film reels, opens the door to a study of both the peculiarities of her body and the absurdities of her famous family.

A genre-bending, atmospheric and emotionally honest account of a young woman's investigation into her past and the complex reactions of her body.

At once an analysis of the abandoned 1968 Cannes Film Festival and a literary take on cinema du corp, Stephanie LaCava's new novel is an audaciously sexy and moving exploration of culture and connections, bodies and breakdowns.


My Review
: ...and now for something marginally different...

Screwed-up child of famous parents is failing at Life because Trauma and she's got these awful habits that substitute for character and her whole head...this is a récit, not really a novel because the whole point is that we don't leave the lady's head and are reminded of stuffed with shards of images and sounds and they all sort of coalesce into an image of...

...I have no way to finish that sentence. I didn't get an image from Margot's chaotic maunderings.

Yet again there are men at the center of her trauma. Men: Don't have relationships with women. It doesn't go anywhere good. You'll end up blamed for something and quite possibly sued.

That's my main take-away from this mishegas. There's no way for me to pluck a piece of the text out for your perusal because they all rely on each other, in a cumulative-effect way, for their power. I will say that, as little as I enjoyed the story I was quite interested in the way the author assembled the shards into an effective mosaic. Brightness, shadows, saturated colors; a vague grey smog of dissociation surrounding it, getting between the bright moments, eclipsing some of them. It's an interesting effect.

But the problem is it's telling me an oft-told tale of poor-little-rich-girl and I'm just not interested. Handed a life of family connections and a modicum of talent? Use 'em or reject 'em, but wallowing along in the gutter next to the highway and under the sidewalk is a choice for people like Margot. So I don't see the point of empathizing with her. "Make a different choice" is the callous, dismissive response Margot elicits from me.

Yet I read the whole book....

Friday, January 6, 2023

LIVID, think "12 Angry Men" but make it 1 ENRAGED woman


Red Hen Press (non-affiliate Amazon link)
$18.95 trade paper, available now

Rating: 4.5* of five

The Publisher Says: A woman who is suffering from a tragic loss is placed on a jury with her estranged ex-husband.

Sybil White Brown returns from Boston to the small West Coast city where she once lived, hoping to heal after a terrible loss. Summoned to jury duty, she is dismayed to be assigned to the jury of a murder trial alongside her ex-husband with whom she had a rancorous divorce. As the trial progresses, she and her ex tiptoe around each other but eventually become disastrously entangled. Meanwhile, Sybil obsesses about the female defendant, whom she believes is innocent. The situation explodes during jury deliberations when Sybil comes face-to-face with her own unexpressed rage.


My Review
: If anyone knows the deep contours of female rage, it's Author Cai Emmons...she's received the death sentence that we all dread. Her life will end, and not at some distant and amorphously unknowable date, but quite soon.
The question looms large: How does one assert oneself as a person, a woman, without a speaking voice, without sound waves commandeering attention?

Losing her voice to ALS has not silenced her, she says in LitHub. I'm glad it hasn't...I'm sad it won't get better...I'm deeply empathetic with her character's outrage!

As it happens, Author Emmons reached the end of her journey on the second of January. She was ten days short of her seventy-second birthday. I believe in some kind of afterlife, not one of personal survival or linked to An Eternal Reward or suchlike...but authors, for sure, experience an afterlife as long as their words, ideas, stories are read and thought about by we the living. I myownself will never forget Author Emmons for describing me, through the lens of someone else:
She wasn't old. Indeterminate thirties—everyone seems younger than I am these days—but her skin had been worked over, thickened and textured as if it was used to sealing things out, a skill I recognize.

It is the gift of an observant person to see past surfaces. It is the skill of an author to turn surfaces into substance, to make a whole of a glance and a brushed-past contact into a deep, layered bounce.

When I read in the Acknowledgments that Author Emmons was fired up to write Livid by watching the Supreme Court nomination hearings of Brett Kavanaugh, I was so deeply outraged and infuriated that I put off reading the book. I knew, deep inside the withered and wizened recesses of my whatever-replaced-a-soul, that I would screech in outrage at anything inspired by the travesty of justice and comedy of errors that put the United States of America's Supreme Court in the hands of the scum presently on it. A bit much for me at the time. I put the book aside.

Reading that Author Emmons had died on the second, I felt gripped with the need to learn what she wanted us to know when she chose this inspiration to follow as she herownself began to let go of her grasp on the world. I know there are more books by her coming out this year. I can't say it strongly enough: I think her work is important in subject, appealing in style, and worthy in its spiritual aims. I hope you'll buy them all.

In this story, from its inspiration we can be sure there will be no shortage of enraging subject matter. It's still startling to me that there's a man left alive who has managed to willfully un-know that their condescension and contempt for Womanhood (as opposed to for an individual woman, a different kettle of fish) is a source of volcanic rage and what I'd call a "fond return of contempt." I'd run over the plot for you, but you can read, it's right up there. What I want you to know is how deeply and genuinely Author Emmons explores that fondness I called out.

Sybil, our narrator, seeing Drew, her ex-husband, for the first time since a genuine and deeply painful tragedy ended their marriage, is assailed by the deep and fundamental existence of her anger.
The past will not die. It festers in the body's cells, inflames the tissues, refuses to relinquish its grip. In the face of such intransigence, what can you do but flee?

It is, as Sybil realizes, not possible to extricate her anger from her very being. That realization is central to everything that occurs in this short novel. Drew can't comprehend that Sybil is not going to "move on" or "forgive and forget," both of which nostrums are idiotic and unhelpful as concepts and impossible as goals in my own experience and in Sybil's. What she has done in her lifetime away from Drew and their shared hometown is...heal, scab over the wounds, to give herself a chance at making it through the nights and existing fully in the days of a different life than the one she left behind.

The jury that forms the book's internal audience for Sybil and Drew as the process the real reasons for the end of their relationship is largely faceless and affectless. The two people who count are Sybil and Sybil. Oh, and also Sybil. She is telling the story. She is setting the terms of our relationship with her. She is Responsible. And one gets the distinct impression that this is a unique experience in Sybil's life...think of Marguerite Duras' statement, "I believe there is a miracle in Wanda. Usually, there is a distance between representation and text, subject and action. Here that distance is completely eradicated", quoted about the actress Barbara Loden's one and only directorial outing. In Sybil, Cai Emmons does much the same thing: She utterly erases the barriers between the reader and the character. Not solely by having Sybil narrate the story. The story that Sybil narrates mutates, alters, grows as she tells us more and more of it. By the time the ending comes, heralded by a startling act of redemption, Sybil has finally filled all of her personal space. Sybil has, unlike generations of women, fully and completely claimed all of the mass, all of the depth, all of the breadth of her body, her mind, her heart.

She is, for the first time, her own and her full, self. I was left in complete awe of this feat. Sybil did not, as she began speaking to me, seem as though she would be the kind of character who could, who would dare, to answer this call and stretch her self into the last corners of the mold we call "selfhood." Yet by the end of this compact book, I was standing in Sybil's sole, shining presence. Her rage was too huge to be contained another moment. Her actions, at long last, balanced the delicate and fragile state of inaction and indifference to her self that Sybil was required, as a woman, to assume.

It was deeply and pleasantly surprising as well as subtly and satisfyingly performed in this closely built, quietly molded work of art. I hope you will honor the memory of Cai Emmons in your own way and starting by reading one of her last works strikes me as fitting.

Thursday, January 5, 2023

THE VILLA, subtle, fun, and in the end, more than it says on the tin


St. Martin' s Press
$28.99 hardcover, available now

Rating: 4* of five

NOW $2.99 on KINDLE

The Publisher Says: The bestselling author of The Wife Upstairs returns with a brilliant new gothic suspense set at an Italian villa with a dark history.

As kids, Emily and Chess were inseparable. But by their 30s, their bond has been strained by the demands of their adult lives. So when Chess suggests a girls trip to Italy, Emily jumps at the chance to reconnect with her best friend.

Villa Aestas in Orvieto is a high-end holiday home now, but in 1974, it was known as Villa Rosato, and rented for the summer by a notorious rock star, Noel Gordon. In an attempt to reignite his creative spark, Noel invites up-and-coming musician, Pierce Sheldon to join him, as well as Pierce’s girlfriend, Mari, and her stepsister, Lara. But he also sets in motion a chain of events that leads to Mari writing one of the greatest horror novels of all time, Lara composing a platinum album—and ends in Pierce’s brutal murder.

As Emily digs into the villa’s complicated history, she begins to think there might be more to the story of that fateful summer in 1974. That perhaps Pierce’s murder wasn’t just a tale of sex, drugs, and rock & roll gone wrong, but that something more sinister might have occurred—and that there might be clues hidden in the now-iconic works that Mari and Lara left behind.

Yet the closer that Emily gets to the truth, the more tension she feels developing between her and Chess. As secrets from the past come to light, equally dangerous betrayals from the present also emerge—and it begins to look like the villa will claim another victim before the summer ends.

Inspired by Fleetwood Mac, the Manson murders, and the infamous summer Percy and Mary Shelley spent with Lord Byron at a Lake Geneva castle—the birthplace of Frankenstein—The Villa welcomes you into its deadly legacy.


My Review
: What fun it is to sit, or lie in bed, with a read leaning/sitting/suspended above you by your boytoy at your preferred angle, and just submerge into a story. It must needs be a hefty stew, a thick and savory amalgam of tastes powerful and subtle, to get through the fog of quotidian tedium we're all settling back into in the wintry northern hemisphere. Remember it for August reading, global southerners!

Rachel Hawkins delivers a big, full bowl of it all. The middle-escent quondam besties who, in the present, are surprising themselves when they decide to spend girl-time together at one of those fabulously gorgeous rentable family seats in gloriously scenic Italy. Each woman, trying to gin up something to fulfill a publishing contract, is finding that she just is not feeling the love for anything she's got at that moment. The mystery writer's cozy series is sour for her now that her soon-to-be-ex husband is suing her for a chunk of her future royalties because she, in a moment of candor, told an interviewer that her series' most beloved character was based on him. The self-help writer's having an existential crisis because she's been fleecing desperate people by ladling out craptastic nostrums knowing full well that a trip to the Hallmark card shop would give them the same level of help and insight into their problems.

Oh dear! Silly me, saying what I really think about things again. Strike that! Of course, she's simply seeking something to afford her fresh insights and, well, what better than a friend in the middle of a rancorous divorce? (I don't in all honesty see how that's better but I'm not here to judge.) (Well, only the story I'm being told, not the realities of publishing.)

Em and Chess, in the present day, are going through the middle-escent crisis of "is this it?" and need to make their eyes see past the same-old same-old surfaces. At their gorgeous holiday Villa Aestas, they learn to listen to themselves more carefully as the delicious herbal remedy of being in Italy brings up things neither was ever planning to work through, or even acknowledge...admit. That stew has tough cuts of meat that just about break your jaw muscles to chew....

Their motivation to do that tough work is the fifty-years-gone history of Villa Aestas. Golden-boy rocker, two teenaged girls in love with his fame and poetry, a Svengali older man...all of twenty-six!...who guides the group into a Byron-and-Shelley creative ferment that he uses to elicit full-body responses to the sexual tensions inevitable in this situation. Tell me how any writer of anything at all could resist poking this spiritual sore tooth! And the existence of a memoir-by-novel about it, telling a story so soppily romantic that you just know a teenager wrote it. Should they, and we, trust the story we're told here, the story in front of us? Emily, she of the murder-mystery instincts, doesn't seem to question Mari's published version of the 1974 events until present-day events make her think carefully for once in a long, foggy, unhappy time.

But writers, you know, writers aren't simple little souls ready to take dictation from their imaginary friends the voices. Writers (of murder mysteries, of books about changing your life) need to be ruthless and "kill their darlings." Success can breed jealousy as always, but so can a lifetime of coming up short when comparing yourself to someone else...and poets (as songwriters insist they are) are doubly susceptible to this. Add in a hefty libido and a sense of entitlement and, well....

What Author Hawkins does is not something unexpected. But what she accomplishes by bringing all the strands...the two parties visiting Villa Aestas and the book that Mari, the central voice in 1974's strands, writes...into one bundle is to scrape away the grease she's been applying to the ropes of the plot so they won't rub too hard together and weaken each other. The bare ropes of the meanings and emotions scrape and snarl and burn each other as they are suddenly and forcefully made to change the story's velocity and angle. No tangles, some fraying...I think Mari's book got just a hair (heh) more time in the spotlight than it merited...but supporting structure of the thriller parts of the story suspend their scenery and allow you to scrape your stew-bowl clean without feeling like you need to rush before it all comes crashing down. I heard some creaking from behind the scenes but, crucially, felt that this was not the ropes complaining as they got overworked in moving the parts. It was a quiet invitation from Author Hawkins to consider the thriller you've seen in its intended configuration and perspective.

And question if, just maybe, there had not been a last-minute change of plans, well laid to achieve one result, to achieve instead another result entirely.

This elevated a solid three-and-a-half stars entertainment to a four-star puzzle (despite some eye-rolling but period-appropriate homophobia). Definitely recommended to thriller fans and to the small corps of remaining lovers still thrilling to the wonderful Cary Grant did-he-or-didn't-he films of the 1940s.

Wednesday, January 4, 2023

THE NEW LIFE, debut fiction that feels very real, polished, and poignant


$28.00 hardcover, available now

Rating: 4.75* of five

The Publisher Says: A brilliant and captivating debut, in the tradition of Alan Hollinghurst and Colm Tóibín, about two marriages, two forbidden love affairs, and the passionate search for social and sexual freedom in late 19th-century London.

In this powerful, visceral novel about love, sex, and the struggle for a better world, two men collaborate on a book in defense of homosexuality, then a crime—risking their old lives in the process.

In the summer of 1894, John Addington and Henry Ellis begin writing a book arguing that what they call “inversion,” or homosexuality, is a natural, harmless variation of human sexuality. Though they have never met, John and Henry both live in London with their wives, Catherine and Edith, and in each marriage there is a third party: John has a lover, a working class man named Frank, and Edith spends almost as much time with her friend Angelica as she does with Henry. John and Catherine have three grown daughters and a long, settled marriage, over the course of which Catherine has tried to accept her husband’s sexuality and her own role in life; Henry and Edith’s marriage is intended to be a revolution in itself, an intellectual partnership that dismantles the traditional understanding of what matrimony means.

Shortly before the book is to be published, Oscar Wilde is arrested. John and Henry must decide whether to go on, risking social ostracism and imprisonment, or to give up the project for their own safety and the safety of the people they love. Is this the right moment to advance their cause? Is publishing bravery or foolishness? And what price is too high to pay for a new way of living?

A richly detailed, insightful, and dramatic debut novel, The New Life is an unforgettable portrait of two men, a city, and a generation discovering the nature and limits of personal freedom as the 20th century comes into view.


My Review
: First, read this:
How to define extremity? The greatest extremity? Lust, not as quickened heartbeat or dizzy possibility, but as lagging sickness, a lethargy. Lust as slow poisoning. Lust as a winter coat worn in summer, never to be taken off. Lust as a net, cast wide, flashing silver, impossible to pull in. Lust as a thousand twitching, tightening strings, sensitive to every breeze. Lust as a stinking, secret itch. Lust carried leadenly in the day, dragged to bed. Lust at four in the morning, spent chokingly into a nightshirt. Lust as a liquid mess, dragged into your beard, drying into tendrils, the smell trapped in your nostrils.

In that passage from the very beginning of the book you are clear what this book's greatest strengths...specificity and sensory evocation...are, and what its weakness is: prolixity. (One fewer. fewer.)

But as a novel, on every story-based measure of characterization, action, world-building (late Victorian London is, in fact, as alien from our world as any spaceship), this first effort from Author Crewe is a wild success. As a salvo notifying us of the arrival of a new vessel, it's head-and-shoulders above most of what I've read in the past few years.

A fictionalization of two real people, who in this book do not meet but do collaborate on an extremely provocative and daring text...Sexual Inversion was its title...that dealt frankly and openly with the shocking idea that homosexual desire is not a perversion but an inversion, an opposite force, to the common-or-garden heterosexual variety of desire. In our rather less interesting realm of blah reality, the two never even corresponded that anyone is aware of. It's to be assumed each had heard of the other, being rather well-known people, but there is not a scintilla of a fact in this story's imagining of the literary work that John and Henry get committed to paper.

Poignantly, Henry Ellis isn't what we'd call gay, but a urophilic heterosexual; it wouldn't send him to jail, like sex with men would John Addington, but it would get him talked about and ostracized. The points of connection between the characters are real, and in Henry's case stem from a sincerely held belief that no one should be shamed for consensual sexual desires. In the 1890s. In LONDON, stuffiest and second-most perverted (Paris, of course, was first) of international brothels. We haven't come to terms with that radical idea yet and it's the third decade of the twenty-first century!

Henry and John's book is cursed, in a sense; it's coming to light at exactly the moment the world's spotlight of attention is glaring on Oscar Wilde's trial for "gross indecency," that most cishet male of crimes. (I mean, the Boer War was grossly indecent, the Native Genocide in the US was grossly indecent, but fucking a man who wants you to do it?) They're all the way through writing it and there's even a publisher willing to publish it. But is this the responsible thing for a family man (John) to do at this juncture? His daughters will likely suffer for the daring act. His wife will most certainly suffer more, and she is one whose suffering has been extraordinarily difficult because, of necessity, it's done in private and John is a scion of privilege as all men are. He isn't unsympathetic to her suffering through their marriage; he feels quite guilty about it; but it does not feel real to him because he is in no way aware of what a woman—any woman at all—confronts and endures by virtue of her sex. Blind, oblivious to his world of mind-bending luxury, he is gobsmacked when his wife demands that he consider her suffering as suffering, even saying to him that she is a receptacle "fitted to receive your waste." That statement, like the concept it arises from, is utterly devastating from any angle you look at it.

So too the Ellises are in some peril if the book comes out. Edith Ellis is a lesbian, and a campaigner for women's rights. Henry is a species of fraud, an expert on sex without a dog in the fight, so to speak, by dint of his virgin's estate. Still, knowledge does not need to be practical or no one would study particle physics. Their, um, unconventional set-up is so by design and not, like the Addingtons' ménage, a jerry-rigged response to reality's exigencies.

The famous Wilde trial, despite its centrality to the events of the novel, appears nowhere on the pages. I was surprised to note this as I finished the read. I'd expected some of it to appear and none except its fact as an occurrence ever did. This, after a moment's contemplation, made me very happy. We're fictionalizing the past any time we read about it, but I think Author Crewe's choice to leave this huge and celebrated event as, more or less, background noise was spot on. This kind of focus, of disciplined intentional limiting of field, isn't common in beginners. It was a delight to find it here.

I did mention that prolixity issue. The novel's about sexuality, and in a time of even greater repression than we are in at present. The sexual events are within the bounds of modern acceptability standards for a novel. They aren't in any unusual configurations for twenty-first century readers of even the most superficial sophistication. They aren't prurient, as in looking on from a remove and deriving judgmental or pleasurable titillation from the acts. But they, like so many things in the novel, are just that three-word clause, that one-too-manyeth ellipsis, too long. As one routinely tutted at for being wordy, I totally empathize. I did find myself thinking, "okay, enough now," more often than I expected to in a book professionally edited.

But, and this is important!, none of that made me feel frustrated or took me away from my focus on the story unfolding. It is a very good story. It speaks, through voices long dead, of the world of today as it was in its borning moments. It is a fine and worthy addition to your To Be Reads if you are at all interested in Victorian sexuality, the price of honesty within relationships, and the incalculable costs in unhappiness and suffering of enforcing conformity.

Monday, January 2, 2023

DEEP RIVER, what you'd expect from Karl Marlantes...yes, it's that good


Atlantic Monthly Press (non-affiliate Amazon link)
$1.99 on Kindlesale! Get it now!

Rating: 4.5* of five

The Publisher Says: Karl Marlantes's debut novel Matterhorn has been hailed as a modern classic of war literature. In his new novel, Deep River, Marlantes turns to another mode of storytelling—the family epic—to craft a stunningly expansive narrative of human suffering, courage, and reinvention.

In the early 1900s, as the oppression of Russia's imperial rule takes its toll on Finland, the three Koski siblings—Ilmari, Matti, and the politicized young Aino—are forced to flee to the United States. Not far from the majestic Columbia River, the siblings settle among other Finns in a logging community in southern Washington, where the first harvesting of the colossal old-growth forests begets rapid development, and radical labor movements begin to catch fire.

The brothers face the excitement and danger of pioneering this frontier wilderness—climbing and felling trees one-hundred meters high—while Aino, foremost of the book's many strong, independent women, devotes herself to organizing the industry's first unions. As the Koski siblings strive to rebuild lives and families in an America in flux, they also try to hold fast to the traditions of a home they left behind.

Layered with fascinating historical detail, this is a novel that breathes deeply of the sun-dappled forest and bears witness to the stump-ridden fields the loggers, and the first waves of modernity, leave behind. At its heart, Deep River is an ambitious and timely exploration of the place of the individual, and of the immigrant, in an America still in the process of defining its own identity.


My Review
: Remember when I warbled my fool lungs out about how awful, painful, and enraging Matterhorn was, and then gave it my annual 6-stars-of-five nod? And told y'all to move quick and get the book? No?! What do you mean, "no"?! You don't commit all my reviews to memory?! Ingrates....

The wattage of warbling is lower this time, but then again I'm ten years older. Everything is lower. (I hate you, Gravity.) What is not lower is Karl Marlantes' level of writing:
Then, like a seaborne Sisyphus, the ship clawed to the top of the next towering wave, as the sailors fought gravity and slippery decks to maintain their balance and their lives.
With those you love, you accept that there are only two ways you will not get hurt when you lose them. You stop loving them or you die first.

It's to your taste, or it's not; but it is not describable as bad. I've heard the "purple prose" calumny tossed lightly about in reference to Marlantes's work; I am not on board with this. What might seem purple to some readers is, in my way of looking at it, period-appropriate formality. And the lush sensory world is a feature, not a bug, to historical fiction it adds a layer of depth to the world I spend time and effort creating in my reading eye.

What is, I fear, describable as "bad" is Author Marlantes's gender politics. Women, I am here to tell you, do not think about their breasts unless a man is ogling them, or they've chosen that man's attention to attract. (I listen when women talk instead of staring at their boobs. Try it sometime! Fascinating what women know.) I fear that the author's cishet maleness rears its head here. Fly over it (my solution, since I care nothing about boobs) or pass on by. Similarly I Rose Above a character's christian beliefs. Mostly because she's an actual, not a religious, christian. Icky, but endurable since she's not all gawd and church and suchlike bullshit.

So all that dealt with, let me say that I think the lushness and enfolding sensual reality of the work is worth the things I don't find to my personal taste. I won't say I'll give it all the stars, I've mentioned places that take away from that level of enjoyment, but the story of the Koskis leaving oppressed-by-colonialism Finland to become the colonial despoilers of the Pacific Northwest's glorious rainforests struck me as very interesting and quite moving.

Their fates are, as one can intuit from early on, set in the Old Country. Who you are, at your core, is set early in life. All the Koskis are Finns to the bone. What they do, as immigrants ever have, is try on the identity of "American" over their Finnishness. This is a process that I've always found deeply, profoundly moving. To leave the place that formed you because it has no room for you is painful. But the fact is that when Home doesn't want you, it ain't home anymore.

There is no part of this read that I was not able to enjoy. Realizing I am not a woman, I offer the caution above; and I am old, so many anti-colonial younger persons aren't going to resonate as I did to the theme of discovering the identity "American" and trying it on for size. A few of the queer young folk (especially my trans friends) might find the enforced emigration from Home familiar.

But I encourage all y'all to get it on your Kindles while it's only $1.99.

Sunday, January 1, 2023

WIIJIWAAGANAG: More Than Brothers, a "what-might-have-been" tale of life in a residential school

WIIJIWAAGANAG: More Than Brothers

Makwa Enewed
$29.95 all editions, available now

Rating: 3.75* of five

The Publisher Says: Niizh Eshkanag is a member of the first generation of Anishinaabe children required to attend a U.S. government boarding school—schools infamously intended to “kill the Indian and save the man,” or forcibly assimilate Native students into white culture. At the Yardley Indian Boarding School in northern Minnesota, far from his family, Niizh Eshkanag endures abuse from the school staff and is punished for speaking his native language.

After his family moves him to a school that is marginally better, he meets Roger Poznanski, the principal’s white nephew, who arrives to live with his uncle’s family and attend the school. Though Roger is frightened of his Indian classmates at first, Niizh Eshkanag befriends him, and they come to appreciate and respect one another’s differences. When a younger Anishinaabe student runs away into a winter storm after being beaten by a school employee, Niizh Eshkanag and Roger join forces to rescue him, beginning an adventure that change their lives and the way settlers, immigrants and the Anishinaabe people of the Great Lakes think about each other and their shared future.


My Review
: There is a lot to be said for reliving one's past...only better. The late Peter Razor (While the Locust Slept, 2002) was a former inmate of the successor institution to the Residential Schools. He had skin in this game and he was not going to sit quiet while the world kept not knowing what really happened to boys like him.

Having written a very powerful memoir (it's Kindleable for under $10!) he turned, as many elders will, to making his past a better place than it actually was. Only difference is, he wrote fiction instead of telling tales. He's aimed the resulting fantasy retelling of the past at young adults, wisely, and was in the process of writing it when he died at 90. His family have completed and edited the book, and retained his use of his native tongue and included for the white people an Ojibwemowin-English glossary at the end of the book. As there is no real issue with understanding most of what is said in either language, I'd say it's a feature more useful for completists who would like to gain a sense of the Ojibwemowin language's bones.

That said, I know many readers find it very difficult to immerse themselves in the story if a not-English language is present. Understand that is where you're headed, then, and decide to come on the trip or not. It is a trip...the two boys, Niizh and Roger, go on a quest to find a younger student who ran away from the school after a beating delivered by a staff member.

The hijinks that ensue aren't belief-stretching, what with white people having collywobbles that this Indian is in company with a white child! shockhorror! and so on and so forth. It's a YA story, aimed that way, so it's no surprise to anyone that the results are all good, the mean people who beat the one child are sad and redeemed of their cruel, cruel ways, that kind of thing.

I did not read this book for its story. I read it for its heart. A man whose early life was truly, tragically scarring wrote a lovely revamp of his experience of the world, extending it to the future with a smile and a tear. "It can be better, it should be this way not how it was...not ever again," says this story in its very existence. And that being a message I agree with completely, and support entirely, I wanted to read the story from someone whose standing to tell it is impeccable.

What Author Razor did not have was a writer's experience. It's not a knock against him. He had no reason to develop such a talent through practice and skill-learning. And exactly how would he have done that? So it's not a question of "come back when you're more practiced at your craft," it's a fact of life: The story, as told, has little suspense and not a lot of finesse.

Those are not reasons to pick it up. Learning what a Native American of the Anishinaabe people thought of his childhood, and what by extension others should learn from those shared feelings, those are reasons to pick up the book. Hearing, in your mind's ear, the cadences of the not-English language, and learning its broad outlines. Understanding the pain and the injustice inflicted on an official Government policy of "kill the Indian, save the man," and reckoning with the diseased thinking that could come up with such flimsy lies to cover the real purpose of assimilation. These are the reasons to pick up the book, and to gift it to early teenagers whose world-views are even now hardening. We can not afford to perpetuate the divisions that capitalism instils to ensure its profits. The world is in a genuine, verging on existential, crisis and we need each and every mind, eye, and hand operating at peak capacity to avoid horrific disaster.