Category Archives: books

The Guardian announces a new prize for self-published books

Well, now, this is very interesting. The Guardian is launching a self-published book of the month prize, which I think makes them the first of the old guard reviewing platforms to grapple with indie publishing this closely. And good on that.

The Guardian and Legend’s new prize is open from today to self-published novels written in the English language – translations are also welcome – with submissions to be read by a panel of Legend’s readers. The panel will draw up a shortlist of up to 10 titles a month that will then be read by expert judges, with the winning entry to be reviewed in the Guardian, online or in the paper.

I’m discouraged to see the Guardian referencing the Hugh Howey “statistics” about indie publishing, which are more or less full on bullshit, but whatever. The rise of indie publishing is a thing, whatever the numbers, and I’m cheered to see a traditional review platform take on the world’s slush pile, because heretofore citizen reviewers have been stuck with the job themselves, to more or less terrible results. Terrible not because citizen reviewers can’t assess a book’s quality — especially in boutique genres that are largely ignored by professional reviewing in the first place — but because the average reader has been exposed to the myriad of batshittery that lurks in the slush pile.

I had a friend back in the day who worked at a very small press as a publicist. The small press had a fake employee who had a voicemail and an email devoted to taking all the crazy queries and unsolicited manuscripts. They did not want an actual person to have to field this stuff themselves — I think the unfortunate job of clearing the inbox rotated — and the imaginary person could take all the threats and blubbering to no ill effect. Unfortunately, my friend had the same first name as this imaginary slush pile reader, and would get a certain percentage of the crazy queries as creepers tried to socially engineer themselves into a meeting. “I talked to Elizabeth last week,” they’d lie. “Can you put me through to her?”

The publisher did actually look through the manuscripts that were not written in crayon — which happened, oh yes — but the small but tenacious percentage of weirdos made the imaginary reader a professional necessity. I think this is more or less happening writ large in the publishing world. Anne Rice wants to strip readers of psuedonymity to keep them from “bullying” writers with their negative assessments of the slush pile. The average negative review is no more bullying than a fake editor ignoring a crayon manuscript. The slush pile weirdos have been foisted on the world, and they have never liked being shunted into an inbox. They want to meet you at home so they can tell you how wrong you are, which publishers have been avoiding for years through pseudonymity.

Now that I’ve gone out into tangent, I wanted to wind up by saying that I’m glad that the Guardian is taking the indies on.This is partially because traditional press has to adapt or die, and self publishing is here to stay. But another more selfish reason I’m glad to see professional reviewers take on self-published works is that I hope that once they start grappling with the slush pile like the rest of us have, they’ll get a fucking clue and stop using STRGB as a reputable source. The bullying narrative has been parroted widely in the traditional press, and I think a good part of that is how completely insulated they’ve been from the whackadoos out there.They’ll get to see the inbox in all of its glory.

Which is not to say that I think indie authors are all a bunch of loons, just as being traditionally published is no guarantee of sanity either. My mother, for example, self published a historical novel, and she is not trolling the kboards as we speak. (God, I hope not anyway. Mum?) It is also not to say that professional reviewers taking on the indies will solve all ills in a rapidly changing publishing landscape. But professional is as professional does, and adding professional reviewers into the mix will go far in helping readers to assess works that have been up till now more likely reviewed by friends and family than…let’s call it a less subjective readership. I’ve enjoyed many an indie title, and I will take any help I can get separating the good from the bad. I’ll be glad to see someone else’s inbox take the hit. Thanks, Guardian.

gorgeous nothing

The Art of Losing: Hope is a thing

This is going to be a ramble. It’s my Grandma Dory’s 97th birthday. She died less than a half a year ago, and I’m still raw with loss on days like today. On other days, I don’t always remember, which makes the occasional rawness all that more difficult. For a smart, well-researched, and considered take on The Gorgeous Nothings: Emily Dickinson’s Envelope Poems, please check out the review in the New York Times.

A friend of mine – actually more the mother of a childhood friend that I’ve known forever – recently posted a picture of birds in a glassed case. She titled it “Three little birds,” undoubtedly referencing the Bob Marley song because I know how she rolls. It came after a series of posts about her father – the grandfather of my childhood friend – and his experiences in his assisted living home. He is 102 years old. The image bolted me to the floor.

When I was visiting my Grandma Dory in the past years — after the fall, before the stroke, after the stroke, before the end, in the middles when it was just fall and I was there, or it was spring, and I was sprung — I would sit in the broad open visiting area with its hard couches and watch the birds. There was a glass case with a variety of finches, all hopping tropical finery, and a three-ring binder on a string with their names and attributes. I’d page through with my daughter to learn their names in the interstitial times: right before my cousin came and told us stories, right before we set up a dinner in the odd “meeting room” with its badly framed art, right after all that jazz and heartache while I waited for my husband to pull the car around, like one does, my son with his head in the Nintendo DS. The birds hopped.

When she died, my closest cousin and I messaged a lot about what we were going to say. He is the oldest boy of the cousins; I am the oldest girl. (That we are both nigh on 40 years old does not factor; boy and girl were what we were to her in the best most difficult way.) We linked each other a lot of Cure songs and other tragedies. (Six months apart, we are the children of our time, and I’m not going to apologize for that.) Birds were a motif for us, for her, my grandma, all of her watchful years and feeders hung out in front of the picture window. I remember smearing peanut butter in a swinging wooden stand on her behest when I was six, licking the knife. For the birds. I remember the owl and his plastic neck turned nearly around in the woods outside of the Payne Farm house seen through the spyglass she left on the windowsill. Do you see? she would ask.

 

“Hope” is the thing with feathers -
That perches in the soul -
And sings the tune without the words -
And never stops – at all -
And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard -
And sore must be the storm -
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm -
I’ve heard it in the chillest land -
And on the strangest Sea -
Yet – never – in Extremity,
It asked a crumb – of me.

He read this, in the end, at her end. God, how I miss her. I even miss him, my closest cousin, our relationship always in these hard, bright moments when he is here or I am there, suddenly, at an event. Nigh on 40, these events tend to take the tang of loss more often than they used to, funerals more than weddings, loss more than gain.

I was shocked as child when my dad made fun of Dickinson. “A bird came down the walk,” he said, puffing out his chest and making the universal sign for chicken arms that he flapped. How can you make fun of her weird observations? She was indeed an odd old bird, all of her slashed punctuation, all that hiddenness. She wrote poems on envelopes like I write grocery lists on the same, the economy of the domestic scribbled out on whatever is at hand. “Hold this”, I say, in the car as we go the grocery store. “Read it back.” My daughter cannot read my cursive and chides me, the reused envelope in her hand. She pretends at cursive in pages of fake script. I wonder at the things that might shock her about how I feel: how could you? I imagine my feelings are glassed, fluttering behind surfaces that she can see through but cannot touch.

In my more crystal moments I think about the long twisting process of grief, which makes me grab whatever is at hand to staunch the bleeding. I cut the tip of my thumb off by accident earlier this week, and it didn’t even hurt at first. After I’d run the water pink and wrapped leaking gauze over the digit, I looked closely at the bit of thumb and nail that sat on the edge of the blade. It was like there was another me pushing through the knife. I got tissue and pushed what I’d cut off away. I am sorry for your loss. I am sorry for my loss. I am not sorry for all the gorgeous nothings.

In this short life that only (merely) lasts an hour
How much — how little — is within our power

 

falstaff island

The Troop by Nick Cutter: Hungry Man Games of the Flies

I’m going to make one of those specious and ultimately rhetorical dichotomies just so I can start with a bang. There are two kinds of horror story: the one one that puts you off your lunch, and the one that makes you sleep with the lights on. This is one of the former. Oh, baby, is it one of the former.

The Troop by Nick Cutter begins with a vignette of a hungry man eating himself to bursting, and then vanishing into the underbrush. Our monster, then, or the monster is within him. The setting is Prince Edward Island in Canada, which has in Cutter’s hands a similar grubby small town feel as Stephen King’s Maine: multiple generations of gossip and expectations, a social stratification where the difference between the haves and the have nots is thin. We cut to the titular Boy Scout troop landing on Falstaff Island off the coast of PEI, a small island wilderness with no particular infrastructure beyond a cabin and a shed. The hungry man stumbles into camp, smashes the radio, sickens and then dies. We are then off and running.

A lot of blurbcraft about The Troop focuses on its similarity with Lord of the Flies, and certainly I’m not going to say that that comparison isn’t apt on some level. But sometimes I think the Lord of the Flies comparison gets used knee-jerkily. One could just as easily compare this with The Hunger Games - har har – and the comparison would be as accurate and as specious. Maybe it’s just that I encountered Lord of the Flies late, not as a kiddo nodding though A Catcher in the Rye and A Separate Peace and similar novels with young protagonists that are often foisted on the students before they can handle them. My young self mostly noted that Holden was a douche, for example, and the one scene I remember was him trying to scratch out the word fuck in graffiti so his sister Phoebe wouldn’t see. “Fuck you,” I thought. “Phoebe isn’t some delicate flower.”

I hit Lord of the Flies in a college Brit lit class that focused on the Angry Young Men, a (contested, like all literary movements) movement that originates in working- and middle-class British writers in the 1950s that focuses on class and violence and class violence, with a sideline in misogynist bullshit. The writers, reductively, tended to be bright boys who’d been plucked from their class neighborhoods and dumped into the less-charming Hogwarts of the British public school system on scholarship, with predictably brutal results. (If you are a Yank playing along at home, “public school” in British means the exact opposite it does in American.) (Also, my prof was more or less one of these, making his lectures fairly pyrotechnic. Teach what you know, oh baby.)

Golding’s novel has nothing of the “kitchen sink realism” of writers more closely associated with the Angry Young Men, but Lord of the Flies does certainly situate in the aesthetic philosophically, and philosophy is more or less the operative word there. Lord of the Flies is a pretty serious kick in the balls of the Robinsonade novel and all of the colonial and class garbage that goes along with imagining Tom Hanks and his beach ball Friday conquering the wilderness and the natives by dint of their superior skin color and technology. The characters are more or less tropes intentionally, with whole categories of persons like the younger boys functioning as a Greek chorus, Athenian mob style this time. Lord of the Flies isn’t about people, but People; not about a society but Society.

Which circles me back to The Troop. There’s much about The Troop that is predictable or stock, from the situation – cut off from the mainland with a threat! – to the cast of characters – the nerd, the jock, the spaz, the mad scientist. But the concern isn’t philosophical, which is not meant to be a dismissal but a description. Cutter’s got the sensibility of a short story writer, crafting brutal little vignettes in serial, end to end until the end that isn’t. His characterizations are deliberate, careful, the sort of non-sequential and almost tangentially important moments that are only important to an individual. An individual who interconnects with a society, lower case s, one that might be emblematic but isn’t – and this term makes my ass twitch – universal. There’s no predictable character-as-destiny – except as the most mordant joke – nor are the most horrifying things you find in The Troop the most horrible objectively. All I’m saying is that the death of a turtle can be way freaking worse than you’d expect in a narrative that includes the deliberate murder of a kitten.

I’ve been half-invoking gender in this review so far: my kinship with unseen sister Phoebe over monologuing Holden, my quick bristle about the casual chauvinism of the Angry Young Men. I realized recently that since the start of the year I’ve been alternating between horror and romance, novel by novel; squelching dread against ecstatic expectation and its fulfillment. Horror tends to be written by men for a male audience; romance by women for women. Alternating the two is a trip, especially because both tend to focus strongly on the body and its functions and fractures, but in extremely gendered ways. What I tend to like or dislike in either genre is incredibly personal, but often can be boiled down to my feelings of the author’s deliberation or care. (Sidebar: discuss why women tend to subsume their domestic panic into the HEA, while dudes go for bloodbath without cauterization. I know what Camille Paglia would say, but the semiotics of spurting makes this late model feminist tired.)

The all-boy horror novel is pretty common. A quick calculation on the back of a napkin shows that four of the last six horror novels I read fail the Bechdel test, with another one right on the edge. (Usual caveats about Bechdel: no, it’s not an indicator of poor quality; yes, it’s a hideously low bar.) As I was reading, I watched The Descent again, which has a similar set up: a group of single-gender characters – this time all-women – are confined with a lethal threat, and the thrills escalate. And I love both of these narratives for the care they take with their prêt-à-porter structures, wringing out some very deliberate observations about the ways single-gender groups interact, both in times of crisis and without. In The Troop, I felt the all-boy environment wasn’t an accident – a thoughtless reiteration of tropes, or the tendency of the genre to focus on the concerns of masculinity, or its capital letter version, Society – but a deliberate choice that focuses carefully on the social life of boys. Hoorah.

I started reading horror late. I can trace it right back to the birth of my first child and the severe body trauma of that event, one that had me overcoming my girlish squeamishness about viscera, one that reworked my sense of what is scary. I’m not afraid of being torn open from the inside anymore; that’s a done deal. But I’m terrified of that call from the behavior specialist from the school, my 11-year-old son in a paroxysm of pre-adolescent pain. He’s on a godamn island of sometimes terrified boys, and there is little I can do at this point to help, short of momishly unhelpful stuff. That I didn’t recognize him exactly in the cast of The Troop is an ugly comfort; these are other mother’s sons. Not that it makes it any better, in the end. Good job, Nick, if that is your real name.

 

Thank you to Netgalley for providing me an ARC.

marrows_pit (1)

Marrow’s Pit by Keith Deininger

I’ve read four novellas out of DarkFuse‘s novella series now, and that this is the first that didn’t really do it for me is a pretty great track record. All signs pointed to Marrow’s Pit by Keith Deininger being in my wheelhouse: big, steampunky habitation called the Machine, an authoritarian dystopia with religious overtones, a planet-wide storm called the Maelstrom, a big freaking chthonic Pit of Doom. I mean, look at that gorgeous cover, for crying out loud. Unfortunately, I felt like the all that very cool stuff ended up being used as little more than ornament on a fairly perfunctory infidelity plot.

The horror novella seems to be a perfect thing, in a way: long enough to get some good grist, short enough not to exhaust the spooky possibilities. Here, I don’t know, this seemed to fall in a fallow area. I can imagine this story being relocated to an apartment complex in the Soviet Union – or any other society with a harsh cultural ideology and dense industrial landscapes – without too much tweaking. Some gross and crazy things happen, but I honestly couldn’t tell you whether they were intended to be dream sequences or not, or if that would matter.

While I freely admit that my disappointment is based on false perceptions of the book, I think I could have liked Marrow’s Pit despite my disappointment if the main character held any kind of resonance for me. There’s something clever about creating a character who has these gauzy and indistinct fantasies about revolution getting sidelined so thoroughly by domestic drama. However, schlubby cuckolds with no particular energy don’t turn my crank. Also I straight up do not get that ending. While I can see that it should slash does have meaning, I just can’t access it.

I don’t know. I always feel bad about disliking this sort of thing. It’s not doing anything wrong and I can see how the whole cabbage-redolent dread of the Marrow’s Pit might work for someone else. Better luck next time, I guess.

 

 

I received my copy from the fine folks at DarkFuse and Netgalley. Thanks.

oed

New words added to the Oxford English Dictionary

The OED has published a huuuuge list of new words and usages, and it is good. Cue a raft of op-eds decrying the death of the English language, but those people can suck it. The list seems to sort itself out into the usual categories:

Overlooked and now obsolete words that are now getting recorded. Maybe obsolete is too harsh, but I imagine the heyday for the word beatboxer (n) was back when Biz Markie was a thing. (Men in Black 3 doesn’t count.) The scimitar-horned oryx (n) is straight up extinct.

Sciency (n) techno-words that describe something that is meaningful only to people with very specific letters after their names. Observe: dichloromethane (n),  ethoxylated (adj), quadrupla (n and adj). Bonus points on that last for starting with a Q. Too bad it’s too long to be a good Scrabble dictionary word, which is having its own round of OMGs after Scrabble opened submissions to the hoi polloi.

Academicese. There’s a whole lists of words that start with the prefix ethno-, and well as variations on the term hegemony. My favorite of the last group is hegemonicon (n). (We’re going to fill the Hegemonicon with mud, mud, mud! Kids under twelve get in for free!)

Why wasn’t this in the OED before? Scissor-kick (n), demonizing (v), empath (n). In regards to empath, it’s possible I watch too much science fiction.

Foreign loan words: vato (n), shvitz (n and v), ese (n). Warms my heart to see some Yiddish. Some of these dovetail into the next, somewhat bullshit category of words which is…

Slang. This is where all the op-eds bemoaning the end of civilization come from. Slang seems to be an  iffy catch-all, referring to words like profanity, or words spoken by discounted groups of people – racial minorities, the poors – or just words coming out of youth culture. People seem to lose their shit about the last two, but slide more on the first. Given how old most swears are, there’s really no way to argue that they’re going to ruin Christmas if they haven’t already.

There are four- four! - variations on the word cunt, in addition to three new sub entries on the c-bomb. There is also the utterly charming cunnilingue (n), which I assume means what I think it means. Also bestie (n). There don’t seem to be the kinds of words that really get people into a tizzy such as netspeak, textspeak, or acronym words (like lol or wtf), so maybe this time the op-eds will be more muted.

I once got in a hugely stupid fight on facebook about the acronym word when a friend of mine blubbered about wtf making it into the OED. But that’s an acronym, not a real word! Okay, sure, except for thousands of military words – they love their acronyms when things get fubar and they go awol – a lot of tech words – scuba and laser – and all kinds of organizations like Nabisco or the Gestapo (which is a funny juxtaposition.) The dictionary is not Miss Manners, nor is it a style guide. Use it wisely.

 

the n-body problem

The n-Body Problem: Oh, the Humanity

In the end, the zombie apocalypse was nothing more than a waste disposal problem. Burn them in giant ovens? Bad optics. Bury them in landfill sites? The first attempt created acres of twitching, roiling mud. The acceptable answer is to jettison the millions of immortal automatons into orbit.

Horror can seem a little rule-bound at times. There’s a monster, say a zombie. You work out how it’s defined – it’s a living person infected with a rage virus, or a dead person who is reanimated. It can run, or it can’t. It can climb, or it can’t. It doesn’t like sunlight or it doesn’t care. You figure how to kill it, or immobilize it, or cure it, or you die and join it. You figure out if everyone is infected, or if it’s transmissible, or how long it’s been since the first outbreak, the last outbreak. You set up communities that function according to rules that dovetail into the rules for the monster. In this way, you make the point that the true monster is human. Ba dump tss.

The opening of The n-Body Problem by Tony Burgess, despite a seriously questionable level of sanity from the first person protagonist, seems to start with rules in mind. It’s been 20 something years since the first dead person didn’t stay dead. It’s not so much that they became flesh-eating corpses, but that the dead just never stop moving. After the initial panic died down, they had millions of wriggling undead bodies to be disposed of. End result: they start shooting them into space. Our protagonist – who I would like to note is off his nut – is spending his time plying some serious hypochondria and chasing a man called Dixon. Dixon is a traveling horror show who rolls into town and convinces the entire town to kill itself, presumably so they can go to space because it’s so pretty and peaceful up there. Then he plays in their corpses.

You can kinda see how this set up might unfold: the requisite show down between Dixon and Bob (which is not the protagonist’s name, but I think the only one he ever gives); the boy Bob picks up serving as a generational example of What Has Changed; some pyrotechnics with WasteCorp, which is the multinational company that has shot a billion wriggling corpses into space; maybe even a sequence in the cold airlessness of space, the sun rising over the black orb of the planet in wavering stabs of light. Burgess occasionally gives you glimpses of these narrative possibilities – like a searing fever dream that takes place in space, the corpses turning sunward like flowers – but mostly he just laughs inscrutably and delivers some of the sickest shit and stomach-dropping plot turns I’ve ever seen.

There is an xkcd for everything.

The n-body problem is a mathematical problem going back to antiquity for predicting the motions of celestial objects in gravitational relationship with one another. This is certainly a problem if you don’t understand that, say, the stars and planets are not in a fixed orb rotating around the earth, but it’s apparently also difficult to solve using general relativity. Frankly, there’s a lot of wonky maths that I don’t get in the explanation. Obviously, this book is named The n-Body Problem because of one billion corpses in space and all that, but I think there might be another reason too: Burgess is taking a big, gory dump on post-apocalyptic conventions, just absolutely hazing you and your expectations. Solve for x, bitch.

Another possible title for this novel: Trigger Warning for All Things.

So you want to see some marauding cannibals and rape gangs? Boom, only he turns the rape gangs into a mordant joke, and denies you the prurient thrills that so much apocalit delivers in the form of sexual assault. How about a blood bath? Boom, only this time it’s a swimming pool, and the blood is still shimmering in that uncanny way of the undead here. The sickness is so sick it’s downright funny at times, these horrible laundry lists of horrors that numb until, wait, what the holy hell was that? The whole thing is completely bonkers, transgressive in a way that goes beyond the usual transgression of body horror, of which there is plenty. Nobody’s going to yell, “Oh, the humanity!” when the zombies start falling from the sky in some half-assed coda.

“They look like cherry blossoms. Opening and then falling apart in the wind.”

I guess I could go on, but I’d probably get into spoiler territory. I just want to note, quickly, that there’s something here that reminds me of Ice by Anna Kavin. Ice is a strange, mid-century post-apocalyptic novel written by a functioning heroin addict which is about, insofar it is about anything so easily spoken, two men fighting over girl. The landscapes rear up in the same ways, the connectives cut with a box-cutter, the identities fragile and mutable. And the iceIce made me incredibly uncomfortable – often in ways The n-Body Problem does not, owing to certain perversions I have about mid-century novels – but there’s still a central discomfort that feels the same to me. This discomfort doesn’t necessarily come from content – though, I did mention this was sick, non?- but some deeper, more chthonic level which implicates me in the proceedings. If I were still rating things – I’m trying not to – I’d leave this similarly unrated, because no metric as childish as stars – their motions cannot be solved for anyway - can get at my response.

So yeah, thanks to sj for turning me onto this, but then also what the fuck did I just read? 

 

star thief

The Star Thief by Jamie Grey

The Star Thief by Jamie Grey is a hugely silly and energetic romp around a space opera playset of no particular note, and, as such, was utterly charming to me. Just about every single trope of the genre is deployed with extreme prejudice – the MacGuffin (actually, several), technobabble tech, mercenaries (with or without hearts of gold), tough but caring sergeants, mad scientists, bad childhoods, indistinguishable same-language speaking planets, aliens, empaths, slums, the Fate of the Universe, etc etc. The plot is pure Scooby Doo, with Bad Guys and Red Herrings playing a game of idiot poker with the reader; I can see the cards you have, friend. But it starts fast and does not ever slow down to whinge about, like, politics or needless exposition or, god help us all, philosophy, which I actually count as a good thing. There’s a lot of cut-rate philosophizin’ going on in space opera, and reading one that wasn’t fussed about that jibber-jabber felt like a breath of fresh air. Just set the reactor to explode and haul ass.

Renna Carrizal is a 23 year old master thief who’s pulled off the most famous heist in the ‘verse (of course). She’s on one last job which will give her the money she needs to retire (of course) when it all goes wrong. She’s to pick up some technonanablasterthing, and (of course) is sidetracked in the rescue of a young boy she finds locked in a cage (of course). She has no particular maternal feelings (of course), but this kid is Different Somehow. Of course. From then on it’s all bew bew as she’s more or less blackmailed by some kind of military slash secret government outfit (?) to go get this one thing and bew bew bew. Also, there’s a Captain Tightpants with whom she has a history. Hubba hubba.

Frankly, there are a lot of things that don’t make a lick of sense about the plot. The somewhat snort-worthy named MYTH is an organization which is somehow both a Star Fleet-ish governmental agency and a secret organization with terrorist-style cells who don’t know one another because…? How does that work, exactly? Generally terrorist-style cells are used by terrorists, and all the military boy-scouting and honor of the soldiers just felt weird and wrong. People who are supposedly hardened mercs are a lot more gormless and guileless than I would expect. But whatever. The prose is just gleefully patchwork, tossing in all manner of hat-tips and allusions to other space operas, from the Doctor’s sonic screwdriver to BSG’s frakking. It’s not particularly well synthesized, but then it’s also hilarious and awesome.

It is my understanding that The Star Thief is an indie title, and it shows. I didn’t notice any copy editing errors, but it did have some rough edges on it that a story editor would have ground off. Lines such as, “The entire word had shifted, like she was fucking Alice in Wonderland…” seriously cracked me up. If you want the f-bomb there to be read as an intensifier and not as a transitive verb, I humbly suggest rewriting the line as, “The entire world had shifted, like she was Alice in fucking Wonderland…” You’re welcome. There were some cut-and-pasty seeming conversations and thought processes, although some of this could be attributed to the conventions of the romance plot that’s wound through the proceedings. Boy, can romance heroines wheel-spin if you let them, though, admittedly, the spun wheels here weren’t lingered on too much. We’ve got explosions to walk away from, after all.

And while it may seem I’m praising this with faint damns, I’m really not. I’ve been hacking my way though the Expanse series by James S.A. Corey recently, and while that series is just brilliantly plotted and meticulous about its geo-slash-solar-system politics and world building, on some level it lacks the rough energy of something like The Star Thief. A better edited version of this book would not have the same slapdash charm. Jamie Grey was having just a helluva good time writing The Star Thief, working the kind of nerding that’s more interested in gameplay than rolling up the characters. No, this isn’t better than Leviathan Wakes, but on some level it’s more fun.

Which is not to say that the plot coupons and convenient Chekhovian guns couldn’t rankle in the wrong mood. The sheer tumble of the plot means that brutal, terrible things like watching the destruction of your home town are not given the emotional resonance they deserve, but then it’s not like this hasn’t been a thing in space opera since Vader vaporized Alderaan while Leia watched, and likely before. (I like Carrie Fisher’s quip from a 1983 interview with Rolling Stone that “[Leia] has no friends, no family; her planet was blown up in seconds—along with her hairdresser—so all she has is a cause.”) I also recognize that it is a dick move as a reviewer to praise a book for its lack of emotional depth, and then cut it for the very same reason. These are the cards I’ve been dealt.

Renna is nastier than Leia, more Cat Woman than Princess, not troubled too greatly about using her sexuality as a weapon or shanking assholes who deserve it. (You know, not that Renna is a better character or anything.) I could do without Renna’s casual girl-hating in the beginning, and the general non-importance of female characters other than Renna. Again, this is a general problem with space opera, which tends to fail the Bechdel test much harder (as a genre) than just about any other I can think of, short of werewolf books. At least the girl-hating seems to dissipate by the end; she has learned a valuable lesson about women in authority. Or something. Bew bew!

 

The_Destruction_of_Leviathan

Leviathan Wakes by James S.A. Corey

Original review January 2012

As a reading experience, I loved Leviathan Wakes by James S.A. Corey. I was sick when I started, looking for the literary equivalent to a Law & Order marathon. Space opera is the police procedural of the science fiction world, and this one has an actual police procedural embedded within. It’s a galactic billiards game, the ordinary made extraordinary through the right place, right time, a bunch of forensics/technology, a lot of fragility of life just on this side of the hard vacuum of space. I mean, gee whiz.

There’s a Jim Anchower article, Jim being one of the “columnists” for the Onion, that describes Star Wars: Attack of the Clowns as “like watching C-SPAN on some other planet” – a bunch of boring imaginary politics playing out in the most expository way possible. Space opera can fall into this so, so easily. The ships embody the engines of society, and authors get caught up in the schematics, reading out the blueprints. Look at this nifty pinball game I made! It’s cheering when books like Leviathan Wakes avoid this trap. The characters here are more types than actual people, but the cultures they inhabit, they were well sketched. This is an alien-less environment (for the most part) – so the conflicts are between people, in social terms: the Belters, several generations out living in low-g on Saturnine moons or asteroids, stretched by weightlessness, grousing about tariffs and taxes imposed by the colonizing Earthers or Martians; the freedom-fighters/terrorists; the subtle pull of cultural gravities in different places.

As befits a dual-author novel, this pings back and forth between two pov characters: a space ship captain cut from the same cloth as Malcolm Reynolds, with more high-handedness and less Han Solo, and a noir-ish cop who getting to old for this shit. The individual sections tend to be beautifully arced, little vignettes which build from one of those “he didn’t know that his day could get any worse” and then ramping up furiously until you hit the next commercial break section totally leaned in, freaking out. Maybe it sounds like I’m making fun of this, and I am just a little, but affectionately so. There is something to be said for this kind of masterful genre writing, the guns laid onto the table in deliberate, methodical gestures, and fired one at a time, hitting their targets with a casualness that belies study, and lots of it. Bew bew! The book is masterfully plotted, and absolutely joyful to read.

But, two things stuck in my craw starting at about half-way point. Miller, our exhausted, alcoholic Belter cop who is in over his head, leaves the culture which props up his personality – types, as I said, more than people – and at this point his character falls apart for me. His motivations become laughable, his psychology almost literally unreal. You cannot take a type like Miller out of his world, because he is his world or the lens on it, the situated observer, the commentary though moving mouthpiece. And his relationship with Julie is squicky in a way I can’t put my finger on, but in a way that dovetails into my next complaint.

At about 3/4 through, two women have a conversation about going to the bar and playing a game together, and then have some teasing fun. This is (I’m pretty sure) the only conversation that keeps this entire 600ish page novel from failing the second two parameters of the Bechdel Test - and that just barely, because this was not a necessary or meaningful exchange. Now, yes, the Bechdel Test was developed for movies, and failing the test does not mean the book sucks. There’s all kinds of situations that fail the Bechdel test because they are small, personal stories that take place with limited characters, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. But a tumbling active story taking place all over an entire freaking solar system? It is incredibly discouraging to me to find yet another fictional solar system in which women are only love interests or ball-busting superior officers, vague individuals in a universe peopled by men almost exclusively. Miller’s relationship with Julie, in this context, seems like that shitty thing where a girl becomes an emblem, a chit in a psychological game that moves a man, because a man is what moves. I don’t think I’m supposed to heart Miller and the way this plays out, but it doesn’t feel good to read.

I don’t want to come down on this too hard or act like this book is somehow anti-feminist or anti-woman. It just feels like in riffing on these traditionally boys-only genres – the police procedural, the space opera, the cop show – no one bothered to notice the boys-onlyness. And there are, to make up for this lack, a pretty subtle sense of politics and societal tendencies, and vomit zombies. Vomit zombies! I’m not going to explain, because explanations is spoilers, yo, but the vomit zombies were part of a general inventiveness and genre-specific yee-haw! that I really enjoy reading. This is a first in a series, I am given to understand, and although this one ties off in a way that doesn’t dot-dot-dot to the sequel, I would totally read the next one. Gee whiz!

 

Edit: I’m feeling a little defensive for bringing up the Bechdel test, for no good reason, because it’s not like anyone has called me on it or something. I went and looked at the books on my space opera shelf, and at least half of them fail this test, as far as I can recall. It’s a pretty common thing. The names thing is little easier to pass in books, because it isn’t hard to name a female character on the page, even if she is throwaway and tangential. The rest though – that happens much less frequently. I would just like us all to image a boy version of the Bechdel test, where we look for a book that fails that, a book where there are not two male characters who have names, they don’t talk to each other, and when they do, they only talk about women. Can you think of even one book or movie that fails this test? I don’t think so. And sure as shit, you can’t think of a hundred.

unsafe on any screen

Unsafe on Any Screen by Scott Phillips

I’m really trying here to come up with a Walter Benjamin quote about media studies and engagement with popular culture, and I’m totally failing, which is about right. Obviously, I spend waaaay too much time reading all of y’alls lovely, personal reviews of all kinds of books. Books I would never read; books I have been warned away from; books I’ve been ordered to read; books I have on the long and growing list that I will never complete because some day I’m going to die.
Even though I have less engagement with movies, as an art form, I compulsively read movie reviews as well. I have the reviewers I trust, and the reviewers I know that I can take anything they say and turn it inside out, so that a bad review becomes a recommendation. I have a passing interest in trash movies, but not a full-blown love affair. Mostly my affection for bad movies leads back to Mystery Science Theater 3000, and the times I spent with my family watching MST3K. My immediate family, growing up, was all-female, and I still have the warmest of memories of watching bad movies on Thanksgiving, with my mother & sister, in lieu of the football that was de rigueur in most co-ed households.

Scott Phillips doesn’t just have nostalgia to warm him when he watches grindhouse trash, he has a full-blown and well articulated love. This is awesome, and makes for a fine collection of movie reviews. Leonard Maltin, you may fu*k yourself. Many of the movies reviewed in this slender volume cannot be found on Netflix or even in your local video store, should you have such antiquated things in your location. You have to seek these movies out. They are made by people on no budget, with a group of friends, and a maniacal laugh. Or they were made on a budget and then disappeared. Phillips has an encyclopedic knowledge of the pedigree and taxonomy of trash cinema, so that he can draw lines between this director and that, this actor, this imprint, etc. Awesome.

I get the impression that Unsafe on Any Screen started life as a blog, so some of the reviews are annoyingly short. Kind of like my – and many people’s – early reviews. But once he starts cooking, man, what a joy to behold. He has really weird grading scales: one about how many greased gorillas he’d fight to watch the film in question, and one about how many scotches, or whiskeys? it takes to get through the film. I endorse this. The scotch metric in particular, not because I especially love scotch, but because it can be either a bad or a good thing that a particular film is awarded the high scotch metric. I feel this way about a thousand things: that they are awesome, but they make me drink, or that they are terrible, and they make me drink. Or they are nothing at all and I remain sober. It gets at the whole deep ambivalence I feel towards so much stuff, even the stuff I love, in an intensely satisfying way. My only real complaint is that there is no index. At least the reviews are alphabetical.

What it comes down to is that I’m as fascinated by the critical process as I am with the art/trash in question, and this book is as much a love letter to the silly fun we have while watching bad movies as it is to the movies themselves. His exuberance is infectious, like an alien pathogen beamed down to a small Italian village that infects a scantily clad babe. It’s going to eat someone’s brains, but it might just take its top off before it does so.

Keep circulating the tapes.

Also, P.S., Scott is a friend of mine, which is how come I read this, in interests of full disclosure. I never know where to put these disclosures: at the front, like I’m defensive, or at the close, like I’m sneaking? I guess I’m going with sneaking this time. The thing is, there’s no such thing as objectivity, so I’m not even going to pretend that the fact I think Scott, personally, is awesome didn’t have an effect on my read. It did. But in this case, his balls-out love of his subject, his total commitment to  the barrel-bottom of sleaze and cheese movies resonated for me. I know love when I see it, and he loves this shit. Amen.

the f word

Selfies and F-bombs: The F Word edited by Jesse Sheidlower

This review is dedicated to my friend Eh!

Updating this review after Alexis and I had a selfie-off with books about cussing. She began with a photo of herself with the Encyclopedia of Swearing; I countered with one of me holding up this book. So, who (s)wore it better?

Two women in selfies with books on cussing


Original review: I have a love affair with the f-bomb, so much so that my mother gave me this as a birthssdayyy pressenttt, my preciousss. This is pretty much the best book ever written, at least for me, because it combines my love of the dictionary with my love of cussing. And not just any cussing – there are plenty of curse-words in the sea of profanity, all of them fine words in their own rights, but none of them roll off of my tongue with the same regularity and fervor as the venerable eff. It sounds good; it has punch; it’s volatile, useful, emotive. But more than that, the effenheimer is so explosive, so everywhere. It’s one of the few words in English that can used as all parts of speech, up to and including the infix, a bit dropped between syllables, as in absofreakinglutely, which one almost never finds in English. These four letters go where no word has gone before.

The intro to this book is a piece of scholarly beauty. Sheidlower begins by exploding the myth that the f-word begins life as an acronym, usually “Fornication Under Consent of the King” or “For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge”. (This last one was used as by Van Halen as an album title, natch.) I was told this as a teen by other credulously whispering teens, and I didn’t believe it then. Given how completely illiterate most of history is, the acronym-word is something of a modern invention, one that our four-lettered friend is happy to be a part of in new coinages like OMFG and MILF.

He chit-chats a bit about early usages, winding toward the pretty well-supported theory that probably frak didn’t evolve from Old English (or Anglo-Saxon, if you want to get into a big fighting match about what to call these languages). Frig was probably was a later borrowing from various Low Germans, and the earliest reference in writing is in the mid-1400s in…get this…a cipher. There’s good evidence that Shakespeare is making a coded reference to the f-bomb in the funny French-talk scene in Henry V, along with…get this…the c-bomb. The difficulty in charting the history of forbidden speech is that it’s forbidden of course, and while everyone may be saying it, no one writes it down.

Here’s where I freak out, of course. (You knew I was going to.) The history of profanity is so incredibly fascinating to me because it’s this incredibly common thing, and I mean that with all of the double-ententes. It’s not that classes of people don’t swear – they pretty much all do – but they swear only when with specific people. You can see this in the copious amount of military f-slang in this book – men will swear with other men, but not with women or men of the wrong class. (Actually, not everyone swears: there’s a really funny reference to a Browning poem where he misuses the word twat, thinking it’s a kind of hat. Muhahahaha.)

There’s a whole twin history of c**t and f**k though, culminating in the legal wranglings over the the publications of Ulysses and Lady Chatterley’s Lover. And I think the basis of the upset, on some level, was that Joyce and Lawrence were writing about the elevation of everyday experience, in Joyce’s case, and a love affair between people of different classes, in Lawrence’s case. Each in their own way, they were reworking what kinds of stories were acceptable, valorous, important. I can just see the monocles pop. “You there, Joyce, you’ve mired the Epic in the street-filth of everyday life; put it down now and back away. You there, Lawrence, it’s bad enough that you describe the possibility of female pleasure, and with someone outside her class, but did you actually have to go and name the dreaded thing? Eeeek!” The profane words – often coded themselves, pushed down so that they squish out into all kinds of codes, ciphers, and allusions – become a kind of cultural metaphor for unspeakable people, unspoken lives and stories, the word that cannot be named as a sign for people who should not be mentioned. Joyce and Lawrence couldn’t be taken to court for their filthy ideas, but they could be taken to court for using bad words. The great benefit of learning language, for the slave Caliban, was in his ability to curse.

Whoa, that got a little heavy. Seriously though, I think maybe part of the reason I love swearing so very much is that I can’t figure out whom I’m hurting by doing so, and if I am indeed hurting someone, I would like to know why. I have plenty of words that I feel are taboo, something I cannot speak aloud, and in some cases can’t even type out: retard, kike, the n-word. Much of this is based on identity, because these words are meant to slur and smear. They use marginalized identities as their own insult. (And honestly, I’ve heard all the arguments about retard being just a funny word and non-threatening – and/or “medically accurate”; fools – and this is all b.s. that continues to discount the disability community because disabled is disarmed. But whatever, say what you will, of course.)

Now that I’ve slipped into arguing against the usage of certain words, I’m all in love with this book again. Words have power, yes indeedy they do. Say it with me now: fuck you.

 

P.S. Jesse Sheidlower, who wrote this book, is incredibly adorable.

 

Jesse Sheilower sitting in a chair