Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Dope Queen

Busy weeks turn into busier ones and the next month is going to be nuts.  Not sure if I'll be able to keep up with posting. Fair warning!

You Can't Touch My Hair: And Other Things I Still Have to Explain, by Phoebe Robinson of Two Dope Queens podcast fame, was not my usual thing, but was pretty damned great.  (At first I wrote darmned, like darned and damned together, and I swear I almost left it in because that's a pretty great new word I invented.  But (as you may have noticed), I digress.) "Funny person writes book" is not always my thing; it's something I loved when I was a kid, but I think most of the ones I read now seem pretty shallow.  This book was anything but.

So take Bossypants, and Yes, Please--these are written by famous people who have relationships to maintain, but from whom you really want the gossip.  So it ends up like when you were a kid sneaking an R rated movie hoping for something salacious and you ended up getting My Left Foot and you're like, wha?

But Phoebe (if I may call her Phoebe, which I can, because we're besties now--hey, Pheebs!) is not boring. She gets personal and she gets real--about a lot of things, but especially race.  And I really appreciated that, because I've found that I have a huge appetite for stories about how this big ol' white world we live in can be super awkward for non-white people to put up with. I like being reminded that yes, being black in America is tough, all the time, if only because you never know where the next microaggression is coming.

This is not all the book is about--not by a long shot. My other favorite thing is her cultural references, because she will drill down to a moment in an episode of a show that you watched--yes you did, you know you did--or a movie that she watched over and over as a kid just as often as I did, and she understands just how I think in pop culture references.  There were a lot of great "Yes! That!" moments in here.

But what I appreciated was how real she kept it--not just about race, but about being a woman comic, and about being insecure and confident at the same time, and about being ambitious in a world that doesn't want to support you.  She shared the real experience of being a black woman in entertainment, and it was funny and sweet and real.

And now I have her podcast to listen to, which I'm super excited about and loving so far.  Yay, Phoebe!

I do have one criticism, though it's not about the book cover but the Amazon listing for the book.  You'll notice the colon in the title? Total misuse of a colon.  I understand that it's traditional to use a colon in a subtitle, but I strongly dislike the practice of a colon followed by an "and."  My only crit.  Sorry, Pheobes--love ya, sweetheart!

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Gang of Liars

I'm in the middle of a bunch of really great modern classics of the fantasy and sci fi persuasion that I'm enjoying very thoroughly, but somehow I can't stop picking up lightweight YA stuff and whipping through it in the background.  This week's installment of Sharon Off Track is the upcoming One of Us Is Lying, by Karen M. McManus, and a hat tip to Netgalley for the advance copy for review.

It starts out all Breakfast Club, with five very different kids in detention, then takes a twist toward (according to the blurb) Pretty Little Liars, with one of them dead and the other four suspected of his murder. The police are pretty sure they conspired to do it.

But here's the thing: all four are first person POV characters.  We spend time in each of their heads--including during the incident--so the only way for one of them to have done it is for them to be actively lying in their narration of the story.

But...there's no framework for their accounts--these aren't diaries or confessions or anything.  They're straight narrative which would make that kind of lie really cheap, a cheating form of unreliable narrator.  Which leaves us with--who did it?

If I sound intrigued by this book, I completely was, maybe more than it deserved.  It is a straight-up high school story whose drama takes place mostly in the halls and classrooms (and teenagers' bedrooms and family rooms, plus the police station).  This is usually not my jam.  And it's a straight-up whodunit, so if I was expecting anything, it was really trashy pleasure.

But I ended up intrigued by the story.  There were a ton of secondary characters, all very easy to keep straight.  All four characters had friends and love interests and families at one level of involvement or another.  There were secrets--SO many secrets; the victim ran a gossip blog and had a lot of enemies. 

But there was something so much more human about this story than the description offers.  This book contained not one but TWO sets of fiercely loving sisters who support each other.  There was a cathartic breakup, and one that just seemed sad.  There were loyal friends and partly loyal friends and crappy friends and crappy friends who are maybe also evil, and there are adults who do not have it together (and, of course, bungling police--I mean, that's just a detective story inevitability, right?). There are loving parents and indifferent parents and absent parents and parents who are trying but going about it all wrong and those who have been wrong but will maybe make it right.  Guys, there was so much uplift of the human spirit in this book, right beside the salacious gossip!

When it comes to the end--no spoilers--I'm torn.  On one level, it was very satisfying--the information was all there but not pointing right at it.  As a mystery ending, it was very good.  On the level of humanity, on which the book was so surprisingly successful, it was a little weaker--more soap opera and less human condition.  I would love to discuss the ending with someone and its implications, but it's not necessary--it's the ending the story needed.

And that's what this comes down to; you've got a readable book that was so compelling that I was explaining the plot to my husband and he was trying to figure out whodunit with me.  That's a success story if I ever heard one.

Monday, April 17, 2017

War and Empire

The thing about reading KJ Parker books is that, after just a couple, you realize that the unreliable narrator and the twist are definitely coming.  So when I pick up another one (which I always will, because my god, these down-to-earth, irreverent geniuses he writes!), I know that a big surprise is coming. So, like, is that a spoiler?

Who cares?  Mightier than the Sword appeared  on Netgalley and I hopped right on it, as I will do with any KJ Parker novella that pops up in my line of sight.  I'm terrible at unreliable narrators, never do get over believing them, even when I'm sure I shouldn't.  And his narrators--even the scoundrels--are just so darned likeable.  I think it's because they're very, very competent.  Remember Blue and Gold, where the narrator solved about eight different life-or-death problems with one really basic plan?  Remember the bit about his wife?

Mightier than the Sword is another book about a favored son of an empire, winner of wars and highly regarded, given a seemingly impossible task and dealing with personal trouble on top of it.  Our narrator here has proposed to his lady (of the night) friend, of which proposal his aunt the Empress will not approve, and has been sent to investigate the raiders who have been attacking the northern monestaries.

Most of the book is a tour of the northern monestaries, and my Major Thing about monastic life might have fed my love of this part, but anyone who's into political fantasy will be into this.  These are people who are now far from the center of the empire for one reason or another, But who are at the center of their own worlds, and each house has its own way of things--illuminating manuscripts or working the field, rich or poor, strict or lenient.  All being attacked by barbarians we can't pin down.

There are, I'm sure, enough clues to figure it out, if you're willing to follow the twists and turns.  But it's so much more satisfying, in my opinion, to sit back and let everyone's cleverness wash over you.  I know there will be a twist; I suspect someone is going to betray our fellow, though it's possible he'll betray someone himself--you never can tell around these parts.  I don't care.  I am a sucker for competence. 

If you're waiting eagerly for the upcoming continuation of the adventures of Eugenides the Thief from Megan Whalen Turner, let K.J. Parker tide you over.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Monstress, At Last

I got an ARC of Monstress from Netgalley when the first volume, Awakening, came out, and I immediately sat down an read the first five issues straight through.  It's rich, dense, lush, and challenging, with incredible worldbuilding, powerful characters, gorgeous artwork, and incredible adventures.

But the tension was so much that I got overstimulated and put it down.  This happens to me a lot, especially with the best stuff--when I watch movies by myself and they get exciting, I almost always pause the video to get up and walk around. When I'm reading, I often switch from book to book when things get to exciting in the one I'm absorbed in.  I hit my stimulation threshold--especially for the good stuff--really fast.

This was a stupid thing to do, though, because Monstress is amazing. The art is by Sana Takeda, and it is lush and rich and intricate. The story is by Marjorie Liu, and it's harsh and beautiful. I've read that the two do not share a language, and that their collaboration involves interpreters.  I can't imagine what goes into producing even one issue of something so complex.

The worldbuilding is complicated enough that I was confused at times, but only in the way that you can just read past.  It took a while to get the hang of who is on what side in the war, partly because there are species that look the same and partly because of the factions and betrayals going on.  Basically, though, it's the humans vs. the part-animal Arcanics, and the Arcanics have been beaten, enslaved, and harvested for a magical substance that their bodies produce, in particular by a certain religious cult.

Maika, our main character, had been captive, but was living in freedom with her best friend, Tuya, before going back behind enemy lines for information that she couldn't get any other way.  She wants to know the details of what happened to her mother, and she finds some answers, more questions--and an artifact, a mask that connects her to a horrifying creature.  It fills her with power--and hunger.  Her enemies are in danger, but so are her friends.

This book. I'm not the first one to tell you this book is incredible, but this book is incredible.  Everyone is hungry for something--safety, power, memory--and everyone has their own agenda.  It's so easy to get caught up in the more notable amazing things--the world is populated by women! the art is absolutely incredible! the monster, the terrifying monster!--that it's easy to overlook the subtle wonderfulness of the storytelling--Maika's confusion about the right path; the unwavering goodness of Kippa the fox girl; all the people facing complicated moral choices and making the ones you might not have expected.

Best comic I've read in a year, I think--and it's been a pretty good year. 

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Feminist Utopia

You know anything about beguines? In the 13th through 16th centuries, these were lay women who lived in monastic communities--basically nuns without the vows.  They would commit to living by the rules of the community, but were not bound to it for any period of time and were free to leave when they wanted.  At a time when the options for a woman's life were quite narrow, this seems like an incredible opportunity--the benefits of community living without the lifelong restrictions of the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience.

Maresi, by Maria Turtschaninoff, has had me thinking about beguines.  The Red Abbey is a community of women and girls, on an island where no man may set foot.  From all over the world, they come--sent by their families for the best education, or fleeing oppressive societies where women may not be educated, or just because it is a safer place for them than wherever home was.  They come as novices and they stay as sisters, or they return home, or go off into the world to use the things they've learned to make the world better.  They are protected by the Mother, the three-faced goddess.

Maresi is one of the oldest novices in the abbey, and she loves it there.  She loves the rituals and the food and her friends and the library. She loves studying with Sister O and looking after the youngest novices. When Jai arrives--frightened and on the run--Maresi shows her the ropes and they become friends.

There is danger and drama in the book, and that's all great and thrilling, but the thing that makes this book so incredibly wonderful is this lovely community, this ideal of people who work hard for common goals and give each other freedom to be themselves.  The sisters have different tasks and different lifestyles, and the novices work where they are needed and where their skills fit best.  Maresi has her opinions of everyone, but when the cards are down, every member of this community stands together.

I've been thinking a lot about community lately--about the groups we belong to that consist of many loose ties, small tugs of obligation and connection to people you would probably not have chosen individually, but who together make your team.  Community is hard, because not every relationship is comfortable, and because it is almost inevitably going to include people you'd rather omit if you could.  But you can't; you're stuck with them, and they're stuck with you, and if you're not better off because of each person included, you are better off because it's hard to get left behind.

The Red Abbey is an idea of community in a dangerous world; it's a place where people protect each other and know the value of themselves and their sisters.  I could read my way through the cycle of days over and over again, even without the storms and pirates and demanding goddesses.

This book makes my heart swell with gladness to read.  Maresi and Heo and Jai and Enneike and the Rose and Sister O and Mother--I would very much like to meet and live and belong with these wonderful women.

(I received an advance copy of this book from Netgalley, but that was ages ago and I didn't read it till now.  So thank you, Netgalley, and I'm sorry that I waited so long!)

Monday, April 10, 2017


I have to look up Scheherazade every time I type it, so I just put it in the title to refer back to.  This post is actually about One Hundred Nights of Hero, by Isabel Greenberg, which is a wonderful graphic novel and you should read it.

Two men are discussing the modesty and beauty and purity that is attractive in a woman, and one claims that his wife fits all their requirements, and the other doesn't believe him.  So they make a bet--that Old Guy One can seduce Old Guy Two's wife if given one hundred nights to do it in.  This is incredibly gross, which is the point.

The wife, Cherry, was married off Old Guy Two by her father, and Old Guy Two is right--she's so pure she's never even slept with her own husband.  But he's also wrong, because she's actually got a beautiful and loving relationship with her handmaiden, Hero.  The two women overhear about the bet and hatch a plan to keep Old Guy One from winning the bet.

And so follow night after night of stories--beautiful, human stories.  I usually don't love books that are structured around mythology or folk tales, but there is an enormous humanity (as well as a modern sense of humor) that just made me love these.  The people are not the two-dimensional shadows from  most fairy tales--they all have depths of feeling that made me believe in them and want to hear more of Hero's stories.

I also loved the ideas of storytelling here. I'm usually surprisingly immune to stories that are about stories, but here, the agenda is so explicit and so empowering that I couldn't help but love it--this is a book about how even when you lose, the story you create can win far beyond you.  It's about how the world is made up of individual people, and enough of them together make a society, a zeitgeist, a nation, an era.  It's about the League of Secret Storytellers and the moon who came to earth and about sisters--sisters of all kinds.

The art made me a bit nervous at first--it's got a rough edginess that I associate with horror comics like Em Carroll's work.  But when it needed to be, it could be lovely, and I think that the humanity in the stories balanced out the abstractness of the art.

I want to thank Aarti for turning me on to this one. I tried Isabel Greenberg's previous book, The Encyclopedia of Early Earth, at her suggestion, but I was put off by the mythology at the beginning--mythology is not my jam.  There are a few pages of mythology at the beginning of Hero, but the story sounded so intriguing that I pushed through it, and it was completely worth it.  Now I have to go back to Early Earth and see if I love it as much.

This is the perfect graphic novel for right now, because it's about how people can make their own power, and about how small stories matter, and how small stories can accumulate into larger stories in unexpected ways.  Kelly and Cora, you need to read this one!

Friday, April 07, 2017

Horrible People Week Continues

There was no reason to expect anything from Stephanie Kuehn besides a continuation of the string of unlikable characters.  She writes dark and twisted stories about dark souls in twisted situations, and Delicate Monsters fits squarely in that genre.

I previously read her book Complicit, and she deals with a lot of the same themes here.  She's definitely an author who you can see the issues she keeps coming back to--memory, defining oneself and lying to oneself, and how someone who seems like an objectively bad person can believe he is a good one, or see himself as the hero of his own story.

Delicate Monsters follows three characters--Sadie Su has come back to her hometown of Sonoma, California, after being kicked out of her third boarding school for trying to kill someone. Emerson Tate is not thrilled that she's back; they had been friends for a while before she left, but that was a dark time in Emerson's life, and the person he was around her wasn't someone he wants to think about a lot. And Emerson's brother, Miles, suffers from mysterious illnesses and visions of dark futures.

The book is less about a chain of events than about the unfolding of the past. I consider this to be a risky strategy, because the Thing All The Characters Know But The Reader Doesn't is really hard to pull off.  Either I'm teased with this mysterious knowledge until I'm frustrated, or I don't know it's there and it ends up feeling like a deus ex machina. This book pulled it off, primarily because a) it takes a while for you to figure out that there are gaps in your understanding of events, and b) it's a fairly short book, so the time between recognizing the gaps and realizing the truth is not long.

At 230 pages, with three POV characters, you'd think the book would be too short, but I think it works very well this way.  The point is to see into the experiences of these three characters, and I don't know that spending more time with them would have been easy.

Sadie is basically your textbook sociopath. She has no fear and no inhibition, does what she wants when she wants it, primarily wants her life to be easy but is bored easily and frequently does damage to other people when that happens.  When she comes back to town and sees that Emerson is a basketball star with a budding romance and popular friends, she sees her knowledge of what he used to be like as leverage to make life interesting.

Emerson, on the other hand, is mostly thinking about the beautiful May, and trying very hard not to think about the period he spent with Sadie soon after his father killed himself when Emerson was 10.  That was a very hard time and he's still angry about how a lot of things played out--including his brother's increasing health problems. He knows what Sadie is capable of, and from the time she comes back to town, everything starts to feel precarious and wrong.

Miles, on the other hand, tries to stay as meek and quiet as possible. His life is plagued by problems--bullies at school, constant and unexplained health problems, visions that come over him suddenly.  It's all he can do to get through the day drawing as little attention to himself as possible, and he still winds up in the hospital.

These three stories come together in ways that I definitely wasn't expecting from the beginning, but that unfold naturally and with perfect inevitability.  The things that you forget or filter out of your understanding of yourself, the things you count and don't count when you're adding up your assets and liabilities--this is where the truth lies, and this is how the story unfolds.

It's a grim and dreamy book; I read it in an afternoon and I suspect I'll be thinking about it for a few days.

Wednesday, April 05, 2017

Goldie Delight

Oh, guys, Goldie Vance!  It looks delightful from the front cover, which is why I requested it from Netgalley. Then you open it and it gets sweeter and more adorable and DELIGHTFUL than I can describe to you.

In this version of Cold War Florida, Goldie's father manages a hotel. Goldie works as a valet and solves mysteries as the hotel detective's unofficial sidekick. Her best friend works at the front desk and dreams of being an astronaut.

This is a 1950-something that should have been, where people of different races live and work together, where Goldie has a crush on a girl and it's all in stride, where a brown girl aspires to be an astronaut and is working hard toward that goal.  It's what the good old days should have looked like.

But it's not good just because it makes you feel good. It's good because it's the best kind of detective story, with complicated heists, evil Russians, first dates, stolen jewels, car chases...everything you could want.  It's got a simplicity that's kid-friendly, but it's a breath of fresh air and a glorious romp. 

Next volume's out soon; I can't wait.  You guys really need to read this one!

Monday, April 03, 2017

Lovecraft Without the Horror

I started this post a couple of days ago with a bit about how I really don't like to review books I don't finish, especially review copies from Netgalley, because it feels unfair.  I mean, yeah, I'm not finishing because I don't like the book that much, but it seems wrong to judge based on less than the whole thing.

But then I finished the book.  So...I liked it more than I thought? Or at least, I found its weaknesses more interesting?  Anyway, I did finish, so no apologies; just a review.

Winter Tide, by Ruthanna Emrys, comes to me at a time when I'm just discovering Lovecraft.  I've read some stories, which I liked, and some books that are influenced by him, which I've mostly also enjoyed.  There's some great horror to be had, both in his writing and in his imagery and ideas. I literally CANNOT with the racism, but I've had good luck mostly avoiding it in what I've read so far. But the eeriness, the sense of cosmic unease that he puts in the most innocuous parts of his stories--the feeling of damp that permeates everything he writes is gloriously creepy.

So I can't really figure out why this story exists. Winter Tide is what happens when you take Lovecraft's cosmology and folklore and imagine it as innocuous.  This is a world in which humanity is more frightening than the Old Ones, who are just like any other gods--distant and cosmic and pretty much not there.  Only humanity isn't actually that frightening here.  I guess government is?

 It's the story of the people of Innsmouth, the weird village near Arkham where the people worship Cthulu and the gods of the sea. I haven't read the Cthulu books, but I saw a TV movie about this once and it was amazingly creepy and freaky, a trashy delight.  The joy and terror are missing here, because it turns out that those people were misunderstood, not evil, no blood sacrifice (well, maybe they nick their own fingers when doing magic, but that's all!), no unspeakable evil.  Just good folks who turn into fish creatures when they finish with their landwalker stage and go to live in the ocean, misunderstood by us airbreathers and interned and murdered for it.

So really, the emotional heft of this story belongs to Aphra and her brother Caleb being the only survivors of their race after being interned in camps between the world wars.  Eventually, they are joined by Japanese citizens, and when the war ends and they're released, these last two survivors leave with their new adopted family.  This is about loss of legacy and trying to heal, about being out of place and trying to find your heritage. Which is a great idea, and there's so much to do with that.

But there just wasn't enough story to back it up.  Too many characters swirling around--with some great, really lovely representation, but so many that you don't get to know them.  Dawson should have her own book, but she barely gets a line here. Neko exists to show that Aphra has ties. Why is Charlie even there?  (I think because this is a sequel to a story in which Charlie features.) Audrey ends up being a main character, but darn if she didn't just feel like another pile of clothes to get in the way for the first half of the story.

Having gotten to the end, I feel confident that this would have been much better as a novella.  There was a lot of time spent telling characters things that other characters already knew, and deciding whether to tell them things that we'd just told other people.  In theory there are secrets, but everyone shares them with each other promptly (and generally in separate conversations), so they don't feel that tense.

I think this just might not be the book for me.  It could have been an exciting story about....something happening at Miskatonic University (I keep forgetting what the plot of the book is--they want to do research for what feels like a MacGuffin reason) or it could have been an intriguing character study of a person trying to figure out what it means to be connected to a world that tried to cut all your ties.  But there was just too much distance for a character story, and too much stillness for a mystery.

And...really, if you're going to make the Old Ones NOT want to destroy the world and devour humanity and set men mad on sight--why bother writing Lovecraft?  It's like making a Mission Impossible movie about those quiet moments of friendship you share with your team, not talking but just being together without any agenda.  I just didn't get it.