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.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Re-read review

Emily's Quest
by L.M. Montgomery

L.M. Montgomery's most famous character is Anne Shirley of Green Gables, but to me Anne was a far-distant second to Emily Starr, protagonist of a three-book series. Emily, like Anne, is an orphan living on Prince Edward Island, and both are intelligent and possess a strong sense of self, but their personalities and lives are quite different.

Unlike Anne, Emily lives with her father until the age of 8, when he passes away - her mother having died many years earlier. Upon her father's death, Emily moves in with her mother's family, strangers to her. The first book, Emily of New Moon, is her struggle to come to terms with her father's death and make a place for herself in a household that isn't entirely welcoming. The second book, Emily Climbs, tells of her years away at high school, although to modern readers it feels more like a college story. The final book, Emily's Quest, describes her attempt to build a writing career and find love.

It's her passion for writing that sets Emily apart from Anne, who, for all her intelligence and good cheer, doesn't actually have ambitions. (It always amuses me when screen adaptations try to make Anne a writer; aside from starting a youthful writing club, Anne has no ambitions to be or success at that endeavor.) Emily's friends - a much more closed circle than Anne's - are equally ambitious, and what's more, all end up succeeding at their chosen careers. Throughout all three of the books, no matter what else Emily deals with, her authorial ambitions are always present - with one important exception, as we'll see below.

As the book opens, Emily has moved back to New Moon after high school, having turned down a job offer with a big-city magazine. In modern U.S. terms, she's chosen to move back to the family farm in Montana instead of taking that entry-level job at The New Yorker. She settles down to write, while her best friends go to the big city chasing their dreams. She has several brief relationships of no significance; the reader knows her heart belongs to her friend Teddy, and we think he returns the sentiment, although both of them refuse to make the first move. Meanwhile, she begins to find commercial success as a writer.

As the "romance novel" of the trilogy, Emily's Quest could have been the book that undercut the message of the previous two books, a message that argues quite subtly for female independence. Certainly, this is the message many of its peer novels sent, such as Emily of Deep Valley (no relation) or A Girl of the Limberlost. Getting with the man of their dreams meant, for those heroines, giving up their own dreams and adopting their sweethearts'.

Emily tries this tactic. A manipulative older male friend undercuts her writing ambitions, and Emily hurts herself in an accident. She gives up writing and turns to him for comfort, going so far as to get engaged and furnish a house. While she breaks the engagement because she realizes she doesn't love him but her friend Teddy, the novel doesn't take the expected turn and get her and Teddy together. Instead, Emily rebuilds her life as a single person. She takes up writing again. She also suffers a great deal of loneliness - hardly surprising, for a woman of almost 30 living in a house of elderly relatives, with few people nearby she has much in common with. But the loneliness is bearable compared to the extinction of self she underwent during her engagement.

Nevertheless, it becomes even harder to bear when Teddy and her other best friend, Ilse, get engaged.

When I was a child, I thought this book was the most trifling of the trilogy, because it was just about boyfriends. When I was a little older, I realized how sad it was. There was a time, around my 30th birthday, beset by minor health issues and as single as it is possible to be, when I couldn't even re-read it. Only recently have I realized how progressive its message is, and how out-of-step with its time. First, the books tells us, you have to be yourself, who you are meant to be, and "you" includes women. Only after you achieve that can other people add to your happiness. It even makes a good argument for ladies making the first move, as that's how Ilse eventually gets what she wants - and Emily, in hindsight, could have saved herself a great deal of grief this way.

There were a lot of books I obsessively re-read as a kid, but this was the only character I really saw myself in - I sympathized with with many characters, but I identified with very few of them. This trilogy played a big part in developing my sense of what a female writer could be like. (It also made me extremely annoyed when everyone started naming their daughters "Emily" a few years ago, because, dammit, I wanted to use that name.) It goes into some surprisingly dark corners for a children's novel of its era, and is remarkably progressive for a novel about a woman's decision about who to marry. Even now, I'm not sure if the "quest" is to find a life partner, or to succeed as a writer, or to become a fulfilled human being.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Up Against It

Up Against It
by M.J. Locke

I don't read a lot of hard sci-fi, although I can't pinpoint why it doesn't appeal to me as much as other subgenres. Sometimes it feels like reading a technical manual, and sometimes characters are heroically cardboard - but similar complaints could be lobbed against any other kind of writing. Up Against It won plaudits when it came out, including for having a strong female protagonist, so I gave it a shot.

Up Against It flirts with being a YA novel. The story head-hops between several characters, most notably Jane, our protagonist, and Geoff, who is also a protagonist. He's in his late teens and a recent high school grad, and much of the plot involves him and his three buddies riding space bikes. Geoff's age plus the PG-13 rating of the plot (there's nothing graphic sexually, for example) means it could well fit into the YA slot, although the book was not marketed as such.

Like most hard sci-fi, the focus isn't on social systems, and differences between today's society and the future's are dropped as one-liners in passing. Life on the far asteroids is more egalitarian than our world (or the Earth of the book's future), although none of the social innovations in the book are particularly novel. Plot-wise, it's typical hard stuff - the world is in danger and must be saved.

Overall, Up Against It is a satisfying read. Not every book needs to turn your head upside-down and inside-out. And it is nice to see a woman writing in a mode that is dominated by men.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

The Female Man

The Female Man
by Joanna Russ

The Female Man is supposedly a great, literary science fiction novel, that, therefore, is entirely impossible to find on the shelves of any bookseller. I don't think it helps that the currently available edition has a rather ugly cover and poor typesetting - one would hardly be enticed to pick it up on a whim.

It is a literary novel in the sense that it demands a fair amount of work from the reader. Viewpoints and rhetorical styles change frequently - multiple times on a single page in some cases. We see one character in limited third, than described by another character, then by another, requiring the reader to actively sense-make.

It may also be literary in the sense that the plot, when described, is deceptively simple: Four genetically identical women from parallel universes are brought together - one from a mid-century New York where the Great Depression never ended, one from more or less "real" 1970s New York, one from a future utopia where there are no men, and one from a future where men and women are in a perpetual, and non-metaphorical, war of the sexes. That's it. While you might expect this sort of thing would shake up the characters' world-views, they hold on to their assumptions and mores - only one of the four ends up seeing any of the worlds as a viable alternative to their own. That's not to say the book plods along - the action is created in the narration and the work reader and author do together. In a sense, the structure is the plot.

I don't mean to suggest The Female Man is literature "instead of" science fiction - Russ draws on SF tropes as well as the utopian tradition. Like Gilman's Herland  or Piercy's Massapoiset in Woman on the Edge of Time, the proposed utopia is agrarian and genderless (in the case of Herland and The Female Man, because there are no men; in Woman on the Edge of Time, it's because gender doesn't matter). Technology is present but in the service of the ecosystem rather than the converse; society is non-hierarchical and communal. The agrarian-feminist vision of utopia has since been justifiably critiqued by Donna Haraway and others, and the notion of peaceful, egalitarian women is an interesting type of gender essentialism. (Of course, I'd still rather live there than any of the other worlds described.) But then, the book is a product of the 1970s and in dialog with that decade's ideas.

Some books that are so overtly politically, philosophically, sociologically engaged with the ideas of their moment subsequently become irrelevant if not incomprehensible. The Female Man has not, in part because we still live in a sexist world. When I try to pin down what, precisely, has changed, only one thing stood out - people are less likely to say that one advantage of being female is that one "gets to wear pretty dresses." Femininity, even when regarded as "natural," has become more recognized as also being work. But, as one character tells us:
My doctor is male.
My lawyer is male.
My tax-accountant is male.
The grocery-store owner (on the corner) is male.
The janitor in my apartment building is male.
The president of my bank is male. …
The Army is male.
The Navy is male.
The government is (mostly) male.
I think most of the people in the world are male.