Sunday, April 13, 2014


Smoketown by Tenea D. Johnson Smoketown is an unusual book in several ways. It takes place in the not-too-far-distant future and is neither a dystopia nor a story of life of Earth rudely interrupted by some external force. It's a story of one town, not of the entire world. Also, it takes place in Kentucky - a gleaming metropolis of Kentucky; the region isn't deployed for either laughs at the expense of hillbillies or as some primitive bastion of folk wisdom. The novel features several interlocking stories of people who live in a town where birds are banned, owing to a deadly disease that killed many residents decades earlier. Some people have better lives than others, but it's not a dystopia. Like in the real world, some of their obstacles are of their own making, some are random twists of fate, and others are injustices built into the system. Our three point-of-view characters all have things they want to achieve, seemingly unrelated at first. The world-building here is quite impressive; the city was vivid and real to me as I read. The characters were as well, but lately I've been thinking about setting and world-building - and have been disappointed by a few books. I am sure the press that published Smoketown is a fine independent press, but this is a novel that deserved to be picked up and widely distributed by a major publisher. You should read it. It's not a long book, so if it doesn't move you, well, it's not like you just waded through the extant volumes of Game of Thrones or the entire run of BSG. But I think you should.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Sister Mine

Sister Mine
by Nalo Hopkinson

Just to get this out of the way: I suspect more of you have read Neil Gaiman's Anansi Boys than Nalo Hopkinson's Sister Mine (if nothing else because his book came out some years ago), and if you have you will note similarities right away: Twins demigods have to help out their dad, who is in trouble. Of course, stories about the half-kids of gods are nothing new; China Mieville's King Rat belongs to the genre, as does the Percy Jackson series. The thing is: This book is much better than Gaiman's. Anansi Boys isn't his strongest effort, and Sister Mine is more interesting and has better world-building.

The book has several twists, as our (mundane) heroine and her sister fight and reunite as they try to find their father and restore his spirit. This quest involves their extended divine family, some human caretakers, and some plain old humans, many of whom have their own angles on how best to help dad out. Not all those angles intersect with what our the twins want, or what is best for them.

The characters feel fully fleshed out, and the settings are vivid. The book has a great sense of place (and I haven't been to Toronto since I was 9). Moreover, the book had a high barrier to overcome with me; I have an irrational dislike of stories about rock musicians, and this novel cleared that hurdle easily. It's also a fast-moving book, raising questions and answering them only to ask more on the next page.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Angle of Repose

Angle of Repose
by Wallace Stegner

This is, I suppose, not Wallace Stegner's fault, but if the book had been written by a woman, it wouldn't be considered a "literary" novel.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Three Squares

Three Squares: The Invention of the American Meal
by Abigail Carroll

At some point in my adult life, I learned that not every culture had a concept of breakfast in the American sense. Lots of cultures had morning meals, but the idea of special foods for that meal was more unusual than not. I felt rather sorry for these societies - realizing full well that was a spectacular act of ethnocentrism on my part.

I turned to Three Squares to find some answers on why American dining is different. It's not a comparative work, although the American meal system is contrasted with the British and Native American styles in the colonial era and the French in the Victorian era. (One key point: Not only is having three meals a day not universal, the concept of a "meal" isn't even universal.) Rather, it's a historical effort, tracing the changes in American eating from colonial times to now.

The big takeaway for me was how differently Americans ate even 150 years ago. We tend to take our meal structure for granted, and even people who should be more creative with it, such as science fiction and fantasy writers for the page and screen, tend not to do anything more creative than promote teatime into a fourth meal.

The book is also full of some fun trivia. "Snack" and "lunch" used to mean the same thing - a snack. The "wonder" in Wonder Bread is that it is sliced. And one of the Kellogg brothers was excommunicated by the Seventh Day Adventist church for adding sugar to Corn Flakes.

Carroll has a PhD in American Studies, and it shows in the writing. The concepts and vocabulary aren't particularly academic and should be accessible to most readers, but the structure of each chapter has more in common with academic prose than creative nonfiction. Readers who don't read a lot of academic prose likely won't notice, though.

I would have liked to see more international comparisons, particularly as the book moved forward in time (are Canadian mealtimes in any way different? What about those Brits?). That said, that is my request, not the book she was trying to write, and to include that would have made it a much larger book.

The downside of this book? I've been wanting to eat nothing but breakfast for the last week.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

The Steel Spring

The Steel Spring
by Per Wahlöö

I picked up this book on the sale table at Book Culture. My knowledge of Scandinavian crime lit consists solely of (1) I read The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and (2) It's a big thing, apparently. Needless to say, I hadn't heard of Wahlöö (a double-umlaut author!), who may have invented the genre in concert with his collaboration on the Inspector Martin series, Maj Sjöwall. The Steel Spring is not part of that series; it's actually speculative fiction, set in the near future - at least from the perspective of 1960 - although it is a police procedural. The puzzle is much larger than one dead body, though.

The book handles the speculative element well, unlike many genre books written by authors outside of it. Another book I read recently also featured a dystopian future, one that in many ways was poorly thought out, and I got the sense that the author thought that didn't really matter, because the dystopia was all-too-obviously only a metaphor for today, so why bother? Wahlöö is also extrapolating from his time and political sentiments, but he made the effort to get the details right.

This book reminded me at times of Thomas Disch's 334 (which might just be the similar covers on the editions I own, and, geez, doesn't that make me sound like a ditz), as well as every mystery since that ever featured a hard-boiled police officer. Wahlöö uses a very interesting point of view: The book is in limited third. It's almost camera eye, as Inspector Jensen seems to have very little interiority, but strictly speaking it's not; details are revealed, such as the pain in his side before surgery or his thoughts about an ambulance crew, that put it into limited third. I had a sense that Jensen has ruthlessly suppressed his thoughts and opinions, not that we just can't see them.

I now wish I had picked up Wahlöö's "Murder on the Thirty-First Floor" while I was at the sale table; it is his other novel featuring Inspector Jensen. The Steel Spring is a fast read, but I suspect I'll spend some time picking apart some of the author's craft.

Sunday, February 23, 2014


Mothership: Tales from Afrofuturism and Beyond
Edited by Bill Campbell and Edward Austin Hall

This is a book I was interested in reading after I heard about the editors' Indiegogo campaign (which, full disclosure, I did not contribute to). It's is a speculative fiction anthology, and, as is typical, the stories within aren't even in quality. A few are poor; a few a bland; many are good; and a few are excellent. But a range of quality (or, perhaps, the range is in the reader's taste?) is par for the course in an anthology. In any case, a few weak stories don't mar the reading experience the way a few weak sections would hurt a novel. So, yes, it's an anthology, and if you like reading short speculative fiction, it's probably your cup of tea.

The biggest issue with this book is labeling: It's not what it says on the tin. The title suggests science fiction - Afro-centric science fiction - but the contents are speculative fiction, including fantasy, from a range of cultures. Which, of course, is a totally valid theme for an anthology, but it's not what most readers are going to expect given the title and the cover art. (The stories include those with African, Asian, Caribbean, Latino/a, and Native American themes, as well as a couple of Euro-centric and white-American stories. Of course white American culture is part of multiculturalism, just like WASPs have ethnicity and white is a race, but in an anthology designed to showcase diversity that usually isn't privileged in the genre, I found their inclusion an interesting choice.) The stories range from those that are decidedly future to those set in the present and even several set in the past. In other words, it's not all Afro, nor all future.

So, that's a bigger weakness than uneven story quality - because it's a marketing error, and part of the point of the anthology is to get some of this stuff out to a larger audience.

Alright, titles matter. But aside from that?

What I'm taking away from the book is a couple of authors I was unfamiliar with. It didn't come as any surprise to me that N.K. Jemisin or Junot Diaz, for example, could write a good story, although it's always pleasurable to encounter new pieces by writers you generally enjoy. However, there were some writers whose names I was previously unfamiliar with who I am now on the lookout for - Chinelo Onwualu, Vandana Singh, S.P. Somtow, Rochita Loenen-Ruiz, Joseph Bruchac, Daniel Jose Older, Tade Thompson, Tenea D. Johnson - I am ashamed to say I had heard of none of them. What this means is the anthology has done its job. I can quibble about the title all I like, but at the end of the day I think you should read it, and also I have to go make my Amazon wishlist longer.

Sunday, February 9, 2014


by Jeff VanderMeer

There are only a few writers currently publishing whose books I buy as soon as they come out. Of those, Jeff VanderMeer undoubtedly does the best job of building up anticipation among his readers, thanks to his generous use of social media. (It's a good thing for Thomas Pynchon he is famous - otherwise no one except his wife and his editor would notice when his books dropped.) VanderMeer has been talking about his Southern Reach trilogy on Facebook, etc. for what seems like decades now, although of course reader years are like dog years, and now the first volume, Annihilation, is finally available.

VanderMeer is a writer of speculative fiction - certainly on the fantasy rather than the science fiction end of things - but this book edges farther into horror territory. It's the story of an expedition into Area X, an area that has been sealed off from the general public for an unknown period of years. This expedition, consisting of four women, is to go in, explore, and record what they find. What they find is a seemingly flourishing natural area with a few disturbing oddities.

By the end of the novel, we only know a very little more about Area X than we did at the beginning. This would prove deeply unsatisfying in most novels, making me suspicious the writer couldn't actually decide what was going on. It would work in a short story, and it works here, where we know there are two more volumes to come.

The story is told by one of the expedition members, a biologist whose innate reluctance to share personal details fits well with the mission's spare ethos. Team members, for example, know each other by title rather than name, and their lives prior to joining the expedition are not discussed.* We come to know more about the biologist over the course of the book. We also know more about Area X, but it becomes evident just how little that is.

Luckily for impatient readers, all three books are already completed; the second volume, Authority, comes out in May. Oh, and if you don't usually buy books right away because of the price of hardcover books, the trilogy is in paperback from the get-go.

* VanderMeer has said in a couple of interviews that there is no physical description of the characters in the book. Strictly speaking, this is not entirely true; the lighthouse keeper (who may or may not be a character) is described only in the briefest of ways when the narrator sees his photo, and one member of the exploration team has her hair pulled back, which tells us (a) she has hair and (b) that it is long enough to be pulled back. That these two exceptions stand out so strongly, though, only reinforces the general truth of his statement.

But this leads me to wonder in a more general way about what constitutes physical description. We know the characters are human women, which tells us they don't look like panda bears or magpies. Our narrator walks, which means she isn't in a wheelchair, and she does things with her arms, so she isn't missing any limbs. She wears clothes. That's not a lot to go on; she could be black or white, tall or short, elegant or awkward. But we know we aren't reading about a be-tentacled being at the Alpha Centauri Naturist Resort.

One way to describe a character is to be very obvious about it: "Bea looked in the mirror and saw a 5-foot-four slender brunette with a 34C chest and shapely buttocks." Better writers drop clues along the way - "Bea asked Biff to get the sugar down from the top shelf" tells us that Bea is on the short side. But to do the reverse, to tell us nothing about the characters at all, is nearly an impossible task. If you have them move about a room, what verb can you used other than "walked" (unless the character is a slithering slug, or in a wheelchair, or pure energy)? You can get cagey and use "moved," but the reader sees that as an obfuscation, as a withholding of information.

Which is all to say, "no physical description" is an asymptote a writer can approach but never quite reach.