Category Archives: detectives

City of Ghosts: Squealing While Jumping

I outlined all my complaints with the Downside Ghost series by Stacia Kane in my review for the last book, Unholy Magic, so it’s time for me to become a squeemonster and jump up and down clapping. My ratings for the books in this series have been all over the place, but in truth, this is just a bang up pulp series, and this book really distills the goodness down to a black tar of seriously freaking awesome. 

Which is the thing about series. For book series, I have the tendency to wander off after one or even two books, my investment on the world or characters not able to stretch beyond the several hours it takes me to get to the end of the installment. TV, though, that’s a different beast even though it’s series-similar, and I find myself on the hook for seriously uneven crap like The Walking Dead, beholden to the odd nail-biting set piece – and lord, can that show pull off the set piece – despite the shiftiness of the characters and dialogue. The series waits for that season ender, which will blow a budget on a burning barn and a bunch of character deaths that will pay me off for putting up with all the bullshit. 

Here though, in the third book, City of Ghosts, Kane pulls together a whole bunch of disparate stuff from the first two books, things I wasn’t even rightly tracking, and sets those bitches on fire in the very best way. This is squeal at the commercial breaks season finale fun, working out mythology details that you didn’t even know were going on. Woooo! If I were the kind of reviewer to use pictures, there would be one here of clapping or something. 

Anyway, should I say something about this series in general? Okay. In the late 90s, there was a ghostacalypse that killed off much of the world’s population, and also set into power The Church, a paranormal but non-theistic order that keeps the murderous dead at bay. Chess is a ghostbuster in this organization and also a huge freaking junkie, and much of the series details her mixed allegiances, from her work life to her love life. This book pays off all of those threads in a serious way. And that despite my reservations which are still on record from the second book. But sometimes the squeal of the series finale, up out of seat at that last scene, is happy enough to overcome more complainerly tendencies. Wooooooo! 

Woooo! 

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Hound of the Baskervilles!

So, in interests of full disclosure, I’m “friends” with Jamie Chase who did the art in The Hound of the Baskervilles. I shouldn’t even scare quote that, because it could come off as bitchy. I’ve met him several times at Bubonicon, I’m friends with him on facebook, and I’m a pretty enthusiastic fangirl of his art style, but we’re not, like, borrowing each other’s clothes. He’s pretty awesome though, and I had a conversation with him and a bunch of other folk maybe two years ago about this Sherlock Holmes comic he was about to start work on. So I totally squeed when I saw the finished product on Netgalley. I remember when! That never happens for me. 


My art education is pretty heterodox. I worked as a picture framer for nearly two decades, so I have a scatterdash education in print-making techniques so I could identify a lithograph from a giclée – which, fun fact, the word giclée comes from the French word for “spray”, referring to the spray of ink from an ink jet printer. No one has any idea what’s going to happen with ink jet ink in 50 years – it might just fall apart or go blue like photographs – so art buyer beware on that front. Not that this has anything to do with anything, and the point of this paragraph is supposed to be about how I deal with art. 

You frame an incredible amount of populist garbage as a picture framer, so just because I never had an academic education, doesn’t mean I believe the line that fine art world is out of touch with human emotion and too avant garde for its own sake or something. I mean, yes, the fine art world is this ridiculous circle jerk, but popular couch art is depressing too. I ended up gravitating toward abstract and genre art in my second decade framing, and I super appreciate people like Jamie Chase, who are doing these really odd things with vernacular, stuff that looks initially like a straight take, but there’s this cloaked subversion in it. God, I love his stuff so much. 


So, anyway, I also have some deeply held beliefs about Sherlock Holmes. I read the absolute crap out of every single word Conan-Doyle had on the subject when I was a teen, in addition to some words other writers had on the subject too. (Like the series by local historian Larry Millett, which has Holmes solving fun Minnesota mysteries like in Sherlock Holmes and the Ice Palace Murders.) Holmes, more than a lot of writing which gets fan-fictioned to death (like Jane Austen, for example), lends itself to adaption. Holmes is a pulp serial, and Conan-Doyle himself was seriously lax about chronology and canon. Watson took a bullet magically in both his shoulder and his leg while he was a doc in Afghanistan. You can fall into some serious nerd-fests trying to determine how many times Watson married and when exactly everything happened. Which is hilarious, because obviously Conan-Doyle was writing everything half-drunk, banging it out on a cost-per-word basis. There’s something brilliant about his slovenly prose, the way it rushes and jumps. The number of times he uses the word “ejaculate” to mean “exclaim” is enough to twss the modern reader into teh funnies. But Conan-Doyle’s prose fairly hurtles, immaturity aside, which makes a graphic adaption that excises most of the text a little sad. 

The Hound of the Baskervillesis an odd case, because it’s so incredibly famous, so iconic, but it’s not real typical of Holmes. Or, you know it is in the sense that Holmes tends to be really idiosyncratic. For one, Holmes stories tend to be urban, situated in the colonial crush or London, but there are a couple out in the Gothic hinterland, like the one with the bicycle or the one with the snake. (Sorry, I’m not bothering to look up their real titles.) So there’s precedent. The weird part is how focused on Watson Baskervillesis – how he’s left without Holmes for ages in the moors. Sherlock takes Watson down at the very beginning with the trick with the walking stick, and it’s pretty funny how that works – the authorial intervention of Holmes’s interpretive dick-move unsettling everything Watson observes in the later plot. 

Because, the other thing about Baskervillesis how soapy it is, how domestically Gothic. Stripped of the Doylian prose (sorry for this adjective), Baskervillesreads really Scooby Doo, what with the land deal mechanics of the plot and the fact you meet the villain straight away. (Spoiler alert, sort of, but there are very few characters here, in true Gothic style, and the red herrings are telegraphed in flaming semaphore.) So, on a technical level, I think a graphic version of Hound is a little hamstrung, especially one as faithful as this one, because the whole thing reads sillier than it does long form, what without all of Watson’s ejaculations. 

What? God! Why do you have to be so immature! 

Chase’s art is really sepia, with all the color bled out, and it took me a while to embrace it. I’m on record as a fangirl, but sometimes I have to be lead to the water before I drink. I was expecting something more Frazetta-pulp, more kaleidoscopic, because I think this would really work with stuff like The Sign of the Four what with its blow-darting aborigines and evil Mormons, etc, etc. But we’re in Goth-land here, and the Gothic is the world of the scary, soapy, reaction-shot close-up, and that’s what Chase delivers. Dude knows what I want before I want it. <3

So, anyway, I enjoyed this take on Holmes, but I think it’s a little hobbled by how the source material translates to the image, even with images as strong as this. I felt like the libretto – or whatever it’s called in comics – spent a lot of time hitting the obvious, quotable stuff in Holmes – the game is afoot! elementary! – while kinda missing the stuff that really makes Holmes the shit. But I seriously, seriously can’t wait for other Holmes adaptions from this team, because I think given this practice, they could come up with something mind-blowing. Eeee!

Revival: Speaking to My Soul

Oh dear. I adored this.

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One’s obsessions are hard to sort for their influence in affection. Revivalcertainly plays to some of my obsessions: the undead, the bleak midwinter Midwestern locale, the Gothic/Noir sensibility that relies on understatement more than worn tropes. Like in Raising Stony Mayhall, these are heartland zombies, flyover zombies, more concerned with the strange (dis)function of small, isolated communities than screaming bloodbaths. This blood creeps instead of splatters. I fairly loved both Revivaland Mayhall, but another should-be slam-dunk for me, Ashes, with its Wisconsin winter and plucky teens, didn’t work at all for me. The play out of one’s personal obsessions doesn’t always run to something that sinks into the skin. 

My mother and I once had a conversation about hometowns, about how people talk about them, and how we take those conversations personally. She’d had a conversation with someone who said some flip disparaging things about her hometown. They were true things to say, as far as observations from outsiders go, but to say those things to the local… maybe this was badly done. I’ve been careful since then about what I say to people about where they grew up. However, I love what I feel like are rightful depictions of the people I grew up with, the land and landscape, blahity blah, &c. Which is maybe why I never cottoned to Ashes: the opening was Wisconsin enough for me, but the whole cult-town thing felt like it was from central casting, one of those fictional places that could be anywhere (but you know, ultimately nowhere). Which is fine, and certainly not every book has to adhere to my sense of regionalism and placement. But good lord, when it happens, I flip the hell right right. When you speak to me from where I’m from, in the idiom of my location, I’m going to lose my shit. 

The undead in Revivalaren’t biters, to steal terminology from Mayhall. One day, the day of revival – and I think only on that day – all of the dead in a small area around Wausau, Wisconsin get back up. It’s not a lot of people – 23 I think the authorities know about – but then there are the undead who aren’t known to be undead – at least the one who’s a main character anyway. There are also…other things. While the perspective is not overly tight on any one character, it’s got that situated near-locality that only glances at the larger picture. This is the locality of trauma, relayed in conversations and status updates in the days and weeks after the event. 

It wasn’t so long ago that I watched horrified while a friend in Bryn Mawr, a neighborhood just on the edge of downtown here in Minneapolis, watched the bloody unfolding of the workplace shooting from split blinds, updating on facebook as it happened. It was awful, and it got worse last week with the school shooting in Connecticut. I stood in the snow waiting to get my kids that day – they the same ages as those gunned down – and the other mom whom I chatter with daily and I couldn’t meet each other’s eyes or we would lose it. “It feels like 9/11,” she said. Yeah, I thought, it does. I’m just as trapped miles from where it happened with my imagination running wild. All those classes letting out, their bodies whole and un-riddled with bullets. 

Civic trauma is local, even when it happens a thousand miles away. The area around Wausau in this book is quarantined, for lack of a better word: CDC roadblocks set up, for fear that this revival might be contagious; local police working through the usual round of domestic disturbances and drunk drivers, while also trying to manage the suspicion of the motivations of the dead. One woman, an elderly revival, pulls her magically regrowing teeth out with a pliers because if she didn’t, her false teeth won’t fit. Shudder. Shudder, shudder. And shudder some more with how her story plays out. The time scale shifts and moves, not with strict linearity, but the bright hardness of events that matter. There’s the thin edge of how the larger world is sorting the local traumas, but it’s just a thin thought, a moment in the larger smallness of how life plays out, the cabin fever of trauma. 

There are points when this civic/personal trauma is maybe cut too obviously in the book, like when the CDC doctor dude – a man whose parents are strict Muslims – notes the parallels between the suspicion for the revived with the suspicion for the Islamic – but it still worked. Especially given his half-out-loud conversation with a near-girlfriend back east, who can tell he’s started smoking again by the quality of his voice, the deepening of utterance in the wake of some fucked up shit. The way no one ever says straight out what they mean, or what is going on between them, this is the left-out communication of my people, my landscape. Mum recently joked about reading Main Street and wondering why no one ever said what they meant, but she’s not a Midwesterner like I have grown to be. Not-saying is the language I understand. 

So, the only complaint I have about this story is that I want MOAR and I want it NOW. This is pretty much the perfect package of my Midwestern cold and avoidance made inevitable and bloody and strange. This is all my obsessions made manifest, their closed mouths saying as much as blood in the snow. Uff da.


Murder of Crows by Athena

I’m not sure how to review, per usual with my 3-star outings, which in my universe means “I liked it” just to be clear. The prose and a lot of the ornament, characters, and set-pieces really worked for me. The overall structure of the novel and its pacing did not. I was confounded at least once in my expectation that this was paranormal romance, which is a problem of my expectations, and not of the book. It is closer to dark fantasy, nearer in tone to Neil Gaiman than Karen Marie Moning. Maybe Charles de Lint is the best comparison. 

Fable Montgomery returns to Portland to deal with her beloved Aunt Celeste’s murder. The opening is slow, the hot cop and his chilly female partner settling in for some round-the-clock surveillance, with what I felt like was the usual hand-wringing about pasts and lost opportunities and tense conversations, cut with a little spooking for fun. The fairy statue keeps moving whyyyy? Then, the whole thing shifted leftwise, and the air filled with feathered beings and the house filled with funny, drunk aunts, and I really started enjoying myself. 

Fable is whisked to a otherworld called Aria, learning her lost history and managing her grief for her aunt. I find these paranormal otherlands pretty great landscapes for characters to work out grief. It’s a good metaphor because the world no longer makes sense without the loved one in it, its customs antique and occult, and if only she were living everything would make sense. Fable flounders, learning the way we often do more about her aunt in death than she knew in life. We sit in rooms, hearing stories from those who knew the dead in ways we couldn’t or didn’t, and it’s an otherworld. That this otherworld is also cut with half-remembered childhood – the way the lost family member is also the loss of childhood on some level – that was some seriously cool stuff. 

As I said, the ornament here is fantastic, in both senses of the word, and there’s some great stuff involving evil ravens that bloom out of tattoos on the edge of a knife, or the landscape blurring past in the arms of what is morphologically an angel. However, I don’t think this is a spoiler to say that Fable’s past is a secret history, a childhood in Narnian escapes run to amnesia for occult reasons, a common enough trope in fantasy literature to be both familiar and frustrating. She catches up much slower than I would prefer, especially given the complex backstory and world-building that is attempted in the blank space of her memory, characters allowed to explain at length what is going on, but not what really is going on. The expository restraint was too restrained. 

I think I’ve said this before, but an intrinsic problem with modern characters swooped into fantasy worlds is that that characters have to spend too much time on the exposition couch mutteringthis is not happening. We as readers know they are in a fantasy novel, but they don’t, and while it would blow character believability to have them accept their new fantastic surroundings too fast, it’s still a little frustrating to watch them flounder. This can can be made up for by the potential for neat, anachronistic – this is the wrong word, but whatever – dialogue, where fantastic creatures ask about the most recent season of Survivor, or Fable drops an f-bomb. Maybe this is sounding like a cut-down, but I really do dig this, when modern folk rub shoulders with all the ye gads fol de rol of the Grimmish mythic idiom, and the modern folk get all Buffy dialogue up in the house. Good. 

The device of the lost manuscript – Fable writes a seemingly prescient account of the novel’s proceedings in a near swoon, which is then stolen but for precious pages – is deployed somewhat clumsily. At times it is this nifty almost postmodern commentary on linearity in story and the whole bothersome fate business in fantastic fiction, and at others it’s a tiresome infodump that set me itching to skim. The lost manuscript folds up really nicely in the end, so my issue is more structural than anything – I think there could have been a mechanism other than the bald reading-out of the pages that transpires. 

Though I said this wasn’t paranormal romance, and it isn’t, there is a love story on the edge of the proceedings, which in many ways I dug. Fable’s not some half-assed virginal dimbulb who doesn’t understand her own feeeelings down there. And while I said that her love interest was functionally an angel, the fact that dude is part bird is understood and freaked out about as the partial bestiality it is. No, he’s not a dumb beast, but he isn’t exactly human either, right? Maybe this sounds like a turn-off – oh noes, TEH BESTIALITY – but I really dig when writers own the unsafe edges of these creatures and their hybrid natures. 

This bit here is an actual spoiler, I think, dealing with something that happens very late in the book. It isn’t, like, totally plot pivotal, but it is an aspect of the love interest’s relationship that is pretty central. SPOILERS. Anyway, the only thing that flipped my shit – and I admit this is a personal hang up of mine – is that my eyes roll back into my head whenever the mate-for-life trope is activated. And when angel man high-handedly pulled off some lifelong “mating” with Fable without her knowledge or consent, I was eye-rolling. This wasn’t as coercive as I’ve seen it done before when the trope comes up – there are complexities due to the secret history which make consent/identity/etc murky – and the lead up was cooler and more sexy than usual – but mate-for-life still ticks me off.

I think my real problem is I don’t get the point of the mate-for-life trope in fiction, except as a pander to lame, simplistic readerly or authorial instincts. This man is not just true-blue, he’s so true-blue he’s biologically incapable of loving someone else ever! No worries, forever! (See, for example, the treatment of Jacob and all of the other imprinted wolves in the Twilight books.) And one that introduces ethical and behavioral complications no writer yet has taken on, as far as I’ve seen. So, he’s bound for life to his mate? And she is not in the same manner? What happens when, in a couple months when the thrill is gone for her, she tries to leave? Or even, let’s give it 20 years, and they’re empty nesters (har-de-har-har) who have grown increasingly apart, and she discovers the writings of Erica Jong? He descends into martyred alcoholism? Or does he kill her because he owns her in his mind? 

Love is an emotion, and never unconditional or unbreakable. Nor should it be, imao; people are capable of terrible, love-destroying acts, and while it’s tempting to pull out a bunch of genocide and other rhetorical point-scorers to make my point, even some of the more garden variety betrayals and cruelties should not (or cannot) be forgiven or gotten over. That someone could be stuck in a love relationship he has no emotional agency within – literally forced to love – regardless of anything the other person does, this strikes me as seriously depressing. Admittedly, I’m a bitter old crank though, and given how often I run into mate-for-life motifs, I’m probably an outlier in freaking out about it. And, the way it was used here was more to establish our fella as a gauzy dreamboat with feeelings, which is the best of the options with this trope. /SPOILERS

Again, this is not a huge part of their relationship, and in other regards I liked the ways they interacted and related, especially Fable’s checkered romantic history and her general competence despite the weirdness and danger going on here. There’s another situation that impinges on her autonomy, but that is also politically sensitive. She doesn’t lay out an offensive monologue about how unfair it is waa-waa, and then everyone reorders their civilization to make her feel better – something I see happen a lot in fantasy; Mary Sue reorders it all. Nor does she dissolve into a dishrag, but wends to a third option. That’s neat. 

So. I enjoyed this world and its characters. There’s a lot of there there, and some real comings to terms with grief and lost childhood. However, the plot felt thin, with no solid payoffs, and the ending dot-dot-dots to the next installment in what I felt was a frustrating manner. This felt like scene-setting or prologue, and the ending is not so much a cliffhanger as an indecisive break. Which bums me out, because there is certainly something here. All that said, I think I’m on the hook for the next installment. First novels are what they are, and given the strengths of this one, there’s a lot of potential. And actual and fantastical. Which, boo yah. Plus, I adore the cover. 


(And, just a final aside, although I almost never, ever do this, I was approached by the author on GR offering me a copy, and the description was honestly interesting to me. I bought it fair and square, because I geek out a little about direct transactions between authors and readers, but she did kindly send me a cleaned up copy about halfway through my read. As a self-pub, the usual typos had slipped though the editing process – I noticed a few before I switched to the new version – but have since been expunged. So. Here is your stupidly detailed full disclosure abut how I exchanged a few emails with Athena, who seems like a really cool lady. The end.)

Red: We Mate for Life and Suss out Clues, Just Like Scooby Doo

I’ve been re-watching Deadwood recently, because I have come across a couple of alt-history alt-West alt-magic-whatever books that have been really interesting to me. I’m no big fan of the straight Western – I was recently talking to a friend about the remake of True Grit, and admitted I had never seen the original, and he was like, well, it’s been nice knowing you. But I like that I have never seen a John Wayne movie, and I’m going to keep it that way – but weird, reordered takes on the American West? I’m all there. The West is where we Americans store our weird ideas about individualism and crap. It’s where we run after the Civil War to try to pretend that civilization is less than civilized, but better than the alternative of brutal, hand-to-mouth living. Or something. 

Anyway, Red by Jordan Summers has some Western ornament – a scorched planet after a third world war, some compelling description of dead, fragile forests that crack to powder as you run through, the United States broken into a loose confederation of territories with a sort of U.N.ish military that polices the boundaries between this dome-city and that. Our main character, Red, is part of this police force, out shooting at Unknowns, who are people who are not citizens of whatever territory, crossing wastelands to get to the still-poor, but livable areas left in the world. Hello, Arizona, how little have you have changed! Can I see your papers?

But this is backstory, not something we’re going to explore. Okay. Red goes to Arizona after some murrrderrrs that look like animal attacks, but Red’s spidey sense tingles, and she is going to get to the bottom of this. She shows up in [town name, something that sounds like Urea in my mind], and starts into some seriously Scooby Doo police work. Much as I love Scooby Doo, it makes me really sad when adult fictions follow the Scooby Doo protocol of meeting the villain first, only we don’t know it’s the villain, because we’re eight. I’m not eight anymore, so, thanks for being Captain Obvious about who the villain was. She meets the town sheriff, who is amazingly hot and makes her heart flip and stuff, but he has seeekrets, namely that he is a werewolf. And although it is obvious to him that the murders are caused by a werewolf and must have been perpetrated by someone he knows, he spends more time trying to cover up the other werewolf murders and managing his near-constant erection than spending any time trying to figure out the “mystery” of who killed them. Okay, hoss. That’s some good police work. 

Oh, which brings me to another thing. This is written in that third person pov character thing for the romantic leads, where we are privy to their head-thoughts and also descriptions of their clothes and relative desirableness, except for the killer-cam, which is written in the first person. The killer-cam parts of the book (except for when the killer narrates his motivations – that was crazy ham-fisted) were entirely the best written parts of this book. The book starts with a first person murder, which is tactile and seriously gross, centered in the body, upsetting. Summers, in these sections, really has a groove for the twisted, in a way that makes me hope she goes for body-horror in some later series. Body horror can get seriously boring – hello, Cronenberg – but the ways in which bodies, um, embody desire and revulsion, this can be some interesting stuff. The way the killer idolizes and then turns against his love interest, laid against the main characters’ biologically determined sexual obsession/compulsion, this could have been some interesting shit. Alas, for naught. Even though this book is trying to play hide-the-football with Red’s genetic legacy, I think we all know from the first page that she’s somehow part-wolf or whatever, so stop playing coy. 

And speaking of genetic legacy, that’s something that is dealt with funny in this book. So, there was a third world war that scorched the planet, during which some government or another sought to create super soldiers, Others, people whose DNA had been mixed with animals so that they ended up with vampires and werewolves and stuff. Okay, my disbelief is being suspending here. However, even though this is understood to be something that happened – oh, hai, the gov’t created werewolves – it is also understood to be secret, like no one knows it happened. Like, what? You can’t have it both ways. There’s this bad dude, a guy who is running for Senator (?? but there isn’t a national government? What office is he running for??) who is running on an anti-Other platform, and this is like someone running on an anti-chupacabra platform – oh noes! the Mexican goat-sucker! 

Certainly some people believe in el chupacabra (or ghosts, or space aliens, or…), and maybe if some politician used the chupacabra as some race-baiting tactic – Mexican goat-suckers are taking our jobs! Traffic stops for Mexican goat-suckers! – but the Senator’s rhetoric is entirely Triumph of the Will pure-blood stuff, and therefore makes no sense. If people do not believe in werewolves, then they are not worried about werewolf racial mixing. I’m not saying that people couldn’t work up a nice head of racism should werewolves turn out out to be real, I’m just saying they’ll probably confine their racist energies to people who actually exist when in the ballot box. And, speaking of, isn’t there an entire enormous problem of undocumented immigration going on here, embodied in the Unknowns? I could see him running on an anti-Unknown platform, at least how they are defined in this book, but the author drops them as a concern in a very, very frustrating manner. 

Which brings me to another thing. This book pretends to some measure of science fictionality – that these Others have been created by scientists using wolf DNA to make better soldier – but, and I don’t mean to be a dick here – the way the wolf behavior is presented is seriously lame, Romantic, half-googled crap. At one point, when Red figures out that there are werewolves, she thinks to herself, well, wolves have a hierarchy of dominance! Points, Daphne, for having a thought, but people have a hierarchy of dominance too! And does she do any research to back up this wild thought of maybe wolves would have specific social/biological ways of acting out their hierarchies? No. (This is despite the fact that she has some kind of digital assistant who is less useful than your average smart phone. Pretty much the assistant chimes in to alert Red when she’s getting all sexually aroused by hero dude, usually in socially awkward times. I wanted to smash that thing with a hammer until it was plastic grit. Siri, get me a hammer.) 

So okay, this is marginally science fantasy, not science fiction. That’s fine. But if we’re not using the wolf as a template for behavior, and instead using a Romantic/romantic notion of wolves which allows us to make up any damn thing about wolves and play out Romantic/romantic fantasy, why do we have to go for that stupid-ass mate-for-life garbage? The whole concept of life-long pair bonding is bullshit. Bullshit! No animal mates for life. And a woman can be marked in some unbreakable biological bond FOR ALL TIME by some teeth in her back? Fuck you, that’s horrible. Red’s nearly raped and “marked” by the bad guy, but the Romantic lead, while having consensual sex with her, marks her as well, even though she is unaware of the whole concept of marking, and for sure never said that was okay. So, by consenting to sex, she consents to her perpetual sexual ownership, something that can only be broken by the death of one of the partners? There’s a battered women’s shelter down the block full of women whose partners thought things like this. 

I don’t know. I feel like I’ve been uncharitable in this review, because much of my disappointment is based on my own misconceptions of what this book was going to be about when I came into it. I thought this was an post-apocalypse Western – and it is briefly, I guess – but it’s pretty straightforward paranormal romance with dome cities and digital assistants. Disappointing to me, but occasionally interesting to read. Could have been worse.

Unholy Ghosts, Hecklers and Critics, or How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Critical Process

I am here today, friends, to talk about author behavior. And also this book. But because of the recent, sometimes ugly, and wholly passionate conversation going on here on Goodreads and the bookish Internets in general about the relationship between authors and readers and reviewers, I came to read this book. I don’t want to get too far down into this rabbit hole, but even dividing writers from reviewers from readers is a little weird. Of course writers are readers too, and sometimes reviewers. (This is leaving aside the strange species of author who does not read, which must exist.) Of course reviewers are readers. (Except for the strange animal who does not read but reviews anyway. Which is not to say I have any problem with DNF reviews, just that I’ve seen at least one example of the kind of reviewer who starts into a book with a critical stance in mind, and then deep-sixes the book when it fails to conform to that vision.) Of course reviewers are writers too, though I certainly understand that writing a largely unedited essay while sitting on the back porch is quantitatively different than writing, editing, and publishing a novel. Of course it’s all a messy mess of varying personalities and aesthetics.

I guess what I’m trying to say that so much of this fighting comes down to warring ideas about the place of criticism layered onto the strange posture of identity and Internet identity. I had this really interesting conversation with my friend Emily yesterday about the movie “Heckler”. A couple people had recommended it to me because, honestly I don’t know why. Because they said it made them not hate Jamie Kennedy as much as they had before. It’s a documentary by Mr. Kennedy about hecklers in comedy shows. I watched about half of it before I lost my crap and had to turn it off. So much of it sent me up the freaking wall – the way hecklers were equated with the entire critical enterprise, the way negative was equated with some sort of jealousy, the fact that more than one person said “Until you have made a movie, you can’t say anything about making movies.” I reject that with both hands and a foot up your ass. I’ve been reading, watching movies, consuming fiction in all of its forms since I before could form a godamn sentence. And sure, there have been times when I have gotten my hate on in a serious way about books/movies/whatever, my negative assessments aren’t coming from some some lonely pit of jealousy and despair. Oh how I wish I had produced this piece of art I hate!

Which is when I realized I was taking it personally.

I, as a critic, am not exempt from criticism. It’s a form of writing, in its own weird way, and Emily was absolutely right when she pointed out the performance of the heckler, and that of the critic, are going to be assessed in some ways by the power of the performance. The heckler seeks to disrupt, to pull attention – any performer does. Some people seek to go as bloodlessly academic in their reviews as possible – and mazel tov to you – but every single time the top lists are brought up, people bemoan how those who do don’t get the attention they deserve, etc. I had to really really resist putting scare quotes on that last phrase – none of us deserve anything for what we write, from authors down to the unwashed reviewers. Sure, it’s a crying shame when a writer bleeds out and no one notices – reviewer or author. It’s a crying shame when intelligent writing is trampled over to get to some godamn thing full of .gifs and misspellings up the ass. But there’s no A for effort. I can sit looking at this cursor for hours, pouring out my soul, and that and about two bucks will get me a cup of coffee. I don’t deserve anything. No writer does, not critics, not authors, not nobody.

But people use the term “popularity contest” like it’s a bad thing, when ultimately, it is what it is. A popularity contest measures popularity, and acting like a popularity contest should be a meritocracy does a disservice to both merit and popularity. Because what it comes down to is that Goodreads is a Frankenstein’s monster of social network and critical platform, and if it bugs you that the top reviews are all of severely popular books in genres you despise and don’t credit, then the problem is you. People like stuff I hate all day every day, in forms I hate, for reasons I hate. All day. That doesn’t make them wrong, or me right. It doesn’t make my aesthetic judgement any better. It just makes it sometimes at odds with what a large group of people think. And I don’t get a gold star for being some kind of iconoclast, because I’m pretty sure I’m not; I’m just an individual who doesn’t reside exactly in the golden mean. Which pretty much everyone is – average taste is a mathematical concept, not an identity.

Anyway. Fuck. What was I talking about before I slipped into ranting? Oh yeah. Heckler. One of the things that super bugged me about Heckler was the section which dealt with all the racist shit comics say on stage. Like when Michael Richards freaked and screamed the n-bomb a hundred times (when reacting to a heckler, interestingly) whenever that was. Or the scads of ethnic jokes clipped in the documentary. When those audiences reacted negatively, they weren’t heckling for its own sake, because they were “jealous” of Kennedy’s “popularity” – it was because he just said some racist ass shit. Maybe it’s an aesthetic judgement to find racist ass shit unfunny, and react to said racist ass shit negatively, but I don’t actually think so. That’s a question of identity and worldview. That’s an articulatable position – your comedy is racist, and therefore unfunny – which is a step above “your shit is just unfunny to me because of taste” on the critical hierarchy. Taste can’t be argued. Whether your shit is racist or not, and whether that makes it unfunny or not, that can. That’s the difference between heckling and the critical process, motherfucker.

I’m not so far gone that I can’t see that there is a world of overlap between heckling – or as I think we might call it on teh interntetz here, trolling – and the critical process. All writers – critics and authors – are writing as hard as they can, trying to reach as many as they can. I’ve seen this happen a couple of times recently, where someone comes onto a review and says “this review sucks” and than get all miffy when they’re called out on it – what the hell are you trying to accomplish? “This review sucks” is nothing but a statement of taste. Same as “this book sucks” if you don’t back it up with something other than your subjective taste, or you don’t articulate your subjective taste. Both statements of suckitude are valid, I think, but I’m not personally going to credit criticism of any form that can’t back itself up. The book sucks, the review sucks, for reasons. Maybe those reasons are weird and person to you – say it out loud. Articulate those reasons or go home. I disagree because I liked it – I disagree because I didn’t like it – those are bland statements, not opinions. Or maybe they are opinions, but they aren’t interesting ones. They are not discussable, disappearing into the black box of subjective taste, the non-overlapping magisteria of readerly pleasure or disgust. I guess what I’m looking for in criticism is an opening for conversation, and pointing out something sucks is just saying stuff to be heard. There’s no listen. There’s no opportunity for listen.

So. Whatever. I feel like I’m so far from the point I wanted to make that it’s notable even for me. I’ve been watching the various controversies unfold on Goodreads and elsewhere with an almost obsessive fervor. If you haven’t been following too closely, a site which I will not name came online month or two ago, which published the private information of several Goodreads reviewers, in some cases down to where these reviewers lunched. While they themselves hid under anonymity. This site was unhappy with negative reviews, referring to these reviewers as bullies, and hoped to give them a “taste of their own medicine” by, what, having them killed by Internet loonies? Jesus Christ. They scrubbed their site of the most offensive and possibly legally actionable content just in time to have their bullshit published on HuffPo, after which HuffPo delivered the absolute weakest apology for their total lack of journalistic due diligence. Anyway, point being, in all of this, I saw post after post by an author who was smart, well spoken, and angry about how these reviewers were being treated. Who was funny and witty and cool. That author, my friends, was Stacia Kane. (And, for the record, there are a bunch of writers I noticed speaking intelligently during this mess – Foz Meadows, John Scalzi, and a couple others I can’t think of right now.)

I do maintain a probably-not shelf on Goodreads, which is mostly for weird shit that I won’t read just because it’s weird, and I don’t want it on my to-read. In most of all this shouting about authors and reviewers, the books in question by authors-behaving-badly would have gone unread by me anyway, just because of my total lack of interest in the subject or genre. So probably-not-ing them has no meaning. But I decided to turn the frown upside down and read something by an author-behaving-goodly. If Ms Kane’s book was half as smart and funny as her posts, it’s not like I could go wrong. And I dabble in urban fantasy, so it’s not like it’s a stretch, even if my reading interests tend more strongly in other directions.

So, yeah, this book was fun as hell. It’s an alternate history where there was a ghostocalypse in 1997 – something about how the murderous undead appear and tried to kill everyone? And succeeded with, like 2/3 of the population of the Earth? But not, like, zombies or whatever? I admit, the backstory is a little hazy, but that’s not the godamn point. You’re thrown into the story with Chess Putnam, who is some kind of Church-licensed ghostbuster, but also a total addict and fuckup. The plot is Scooby Doo all the way, in the best way, where there are three plots – one relating to Church business, and another two dealing with various dealers that Chess is in deep with in one way or another – that start converging into a giant clusterfuck of epic proportions.

God, I loved watching this unfold. The book is not surprising, really; this isn’t going to blow your post-modernist skirt up or give you shit about the meaning of life, but it is going to knock about and snort speed and talk in a street dialect that manages to be fucking cool without being racist. I usually get all tense and pissy about dialect, because it tends to be used racistly – I have christened this an acceptable adverb – subtly telling the reader that certain characters (usually the brown ones) are stupid or ignorant. The dialect here was more street talk, used by anyone on the corner, and the fact that Chess speaks in more standard English was more a function of her half-status on the street – her feet in two worlds – than her betterment of anyone. That’s how you use dialect. Amen.

And man, I loves me the fuckups. I feel like they are relatively rare out there in urban fantasy, and even more so in romance. I feel like every time I crack a book about werewolves or steamships or vampires or whatever genre stuff, I find these virginal ingenues who can’t find their sexuality with both hands and a flashlight. Who never dream of being bad until they find that one guy who unlocks their honey-oven with his manroot, and then ye gads! sex kitten emerges. But only, like, because of love and whatnot. Chess is not this, and it felt fresh as the nicotine hitting the blood on that first hard inhale. You kinda want to puke because it’s so dirty and transgressive, but you also want to do it again. Rarr. And speaking of rarrr, there’s a dude here, one of those muscle-buses that I’m on record as making fun of – though I would not kick Jericho Barrons out of bed for eating crackers – who totally worked for me. Big, ugly, nasty enforcer for a drug dealer who can, like, read and stuff. Because literacy is sexy, baby.

Though, the fuckup protagonist is a little more common in detective or Noir stories – probably Harry Dresden falls into this a little, though he irritates me greatly – so it’s not like Chess is wholly unusual. I don’t have a ton of background in urban fantasy series, which is probably a saving grace for my enjoyment, when I get right down to it. I kept holding Chess and her world up to the characters and places I do know – Mac & Fever, Ward’s vamps, Dresden, Sookie, Kitty the Werewolf – measuring them in relation to one another. This is on solid genre ground, and probably the more versed in the genre you are, the more similarities might bug you. But it is on solid ground.

So, I don’t know. What’s the point of reviewing, ultimately? I don’t mean that rhetorically – I’m asking with my bowl out. I’m not in this game to get people to read shit I like if they’re not going to like it. I don’t want that to happen. I don’t actually believe in the “constructive review” – I’m not arrogant enough to think that my shit-talk or praise is going to influence – or should influence – how someone writes. Presumably they have people they trust for beta readers, and it’s not like whatever I read isn’t a done deal anyway. I’m not here to sell books or sink them, not that I think that I could anyway. I’ve had a lot of somewhat bullshit existential twisting about what it is I’m doing here on Goodreads – wondering what the point of it all is – and even though I keep deciding not to review anything anymore, I keep coming back. Reading is a sullen art, and I like saying it out loud, I guess. Maybe that’s all it is. Maybe that’s all the critical process ever is.

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