Monday, September 18, 2017

ACADIE, novella-sized space opera

$10.99 trade paper, available now

Rating: 4.75* of five

The Publisher Says: The first humans still hunt their children across the stars. Dave Hutchinson brings far future science fiction on a grand scale in Acadie.

The Colony left Earth to find their utopia--a home on a new planet where their leader could fully explore the colonists' genetic potential, unfettered by their homeworld's restrictions. They settled a new paradise, and have been evolving and adapting for centuries.

Earth has other plans.

The original humans have been tracking their descendants across the stars, bent on their annihilation. They won't stop until the new humans have been destroyed, their experimentation wiped out of the human gene pool.

Can't anyone let go of a grudge anymore?

My Review: What I love about reading Dave Hutchinson's work is the certainty that he's going to flip the script on you at some point. Usually just after you've become comfortable with the world as it is. And always to the effect that you're longing to go back to the way things were. But, just like life, that's not on the table. You can't unsee/unhear/unlearn what's happened. It's a bear, innit?

Why would a sane person like that?! As if I'd know what sane people like, still less why.

In the space of a novella, Hutchinson packs a space opera's worth of concepts and creations. Chief among them is the first-ever pop culture mention of kudzu in a positive light. Kudzu for the uninitiated is a terrifying invader of the southern USA. It destroys any and every man-made thing in its path. It terrifies me. But given its incredibly thoroughgoing colonial growth habit and ability to fix nitrogen, it makes sense to us it for structural elements in a hab(itat) in space.

Stuff still gives me the willies.

I love the use of quantum-entangled bits (qubits) for instant communication across immense distances. It sounds so plausible that I just assigned it the mental label ansible and didn't think much about it again while I was reading. It is cause for pause that I'm using one fictional communication concept to explain another in my mind...maybe I read too much sci fi...naaahhh, not possible. Quantity "too much sci fi" not defined.

It's also the script-flipping ending of the book that leads me into the star-granting stratosphere. It's delicious. It's like the Big leads to more questions than answers, which is exactly how I want my fiction. I began to go back over the beginning as I read the ending. It made more sense. It made different sense, really, not more, and that's something to savor. I've read a lot of books in my life so I'm always after a new sensation. When I find one it makes me very happy.

Which leads to that missing quarter-star. Why, given the praise I'm heaping up here, didn't I give the damn thing the full five?

Ninety-six pages. Ninety-lousy-fucking-six pages. Really, Dave? There'd better be more stories set in this universe.

Just sayin'.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

THE HEART OF THE MATTER, a book that had the opposite of its intended effect on me


Penguin Classics
$17.00 trade paper, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: Graham Greene's masterpiece The Heart of the Matter tells the story of a good man enmeshed in love, intrigue, and evil in a West African coastal town. Scobie is bound by strict integrity to his role as assistant police commissioner and by severe responsibility to his wife, Louise, for whom he cares with a fatal pity.

When Scobie falls in love with the young widow Helen, he finds vital passion again yielding to pity, integrity giving way to deceit and dishonor—a vortex leading directly to murder. As Scobie's world crumbles, his personal crisis makes for a novel that is suspenseful, fascinating, and, finally, tragic.

Originally published in 1948, The Heart of the Matter is the unforgettable portrait of one man, flawed yet heroic, destroyed and redeemed by a terrible conflict of passion and faith.

My Review: An excellent book. Simply magnificent writing, as always, but more than that the story is perfectly paced (a thing Greene's stories aren't always, eg The Power and the Glory) and deeply emotional (another thing Greene's stories aren't always, eg Travels With My Aunt).

Greene himself didn't like the book, which was a species of roman à clef. I suspect, though I don't have proof, that he was simply uncomfortable at how much of his inner life he revealed in the book. Scobie's infidelity and his fraught relationship with the wife he's saddled with must have been bad reading for Mrs. Greene. But the essential conflict of the book is man versus church, the giant looming monster of judgment and hatred that is Catholicism. Greene's convert's zeal for the idiotic strictures, rules, and overarching dumb "philosophy" of the religion are tested here, and ultimately upheld, though the price of the struggle and the upholding aren't scanted in the text.

Stories require conflicts to make them interesting, and the essential question an author must address is "what's at stake here?" The more intense and vivid the answer to that question is, the more of an impact the story is able to make. Greene was fond of the story he tells here, that of an individual against his individuality. He told and retold the story. The state, the colonial power whose interests Scobie/Greene serves, is revealed in the text to be an uncaring and ungrateful master; the rules of the state are broken with remarkably few qualms when the stakes get high enough. It is the monolith of the oppressive church, admonishing Scobie of his "moral" failings and withholding "absolution of his sins", that he is in full rebellion against...and in the end it is the church that causes all parties the most trouble and pain.

Greene remained a more-or-less believing Catholic. I read this book and was stumped as to why. The vileness of the hierarchy was so clear to me, I couldn't imagine why anyone would read it and not drop christianity on the spot. But no matter one's stance on the religion herein portrayed, there's no denying the power of the tension between authority and self in creating an engaging and passionate story. A must-read.

Saturday, September 16, 2017


(Chaos Station #5)
Carina Press
$3.49 ereader platforms, available now

Rating: 5* of five

The Publisher Says: Zander and Felix’s relationship has always pushed boundaries—personal and professional alike—but their love and commitment is stronger than ever. So strong that Zander’s ready to ask commitment-shy Felix the question of a lifetime when he’s interrupted. The Chaos is being hacked, and crucial, top secret information about the project that created Zander—and his fellow super soldiers—has been leaked.

Neither man could have expected the enormity of what’s discovered at the end of the data trail: an entire colony of super soldiers run by the very doctor who changed Zander’s life forever. And now she needs them both—Zander to train her new crop of soldiers, and Felix’s new crystalline arm to stabilize their body chemistry.

With help from the unlikeliest of allies, Zander, Felix and the Chaos crew must destroy the project and all its ill-gotten information. But when the team is split up and Felix is MIA after a dangerous run, galactic disaster is a very real possibility…and Zander may have missed his chance to ask for forever.

My Review: I will miss this series very much. It came into my reading life exactly when I needed it. As endings to books go, and as endings to series go, I can't find fault or register a complaint.

There's a pearl-clutcher for yinz.

Probably my favorite scene in the whole Chaos Station universe takes place in this book: Zed and Flick are trudging across the fifty-centigrade surface of 83 Leonis Bb after tracing some vile malefactors' flight path back to it. There they discover an illegal, unregistered human colony sweltering in the revolting heat. Having lost their transportation off planet in a crash landing, they need to locate some form of beacon to get a signal to their compadres aboard the Chaos. This is not going to stop Zed from continuing a conversation he's been planning to have with his beloved for a while now: Zed wants to get married. Flick is, politely phrased, ambivalent. He has all sorts of reasons. All of which Zed has answers to, eg:
“Men have been allowed to marry other men since the fucking twenty-first century, Flick,” Zed growled.
This made me laugh and cry. How perfect, like the whole idea of not being *able* to marry is so firmly dead that it's a feeble excuse of an excuse not to marry. If there's a 23rd century, I hope like hell that's how it'll feel to the people in it.

I'm glad the end of the series was so fully satisfying. It made me smile through the misty-eyed "I always cry at weddings" sentimentality. And I loved the entire experience of reading a good SF series that had people like me as its main characters.

Goodreads user Simone made this JPEG of Zed's thoughts at the end of the book that sums this entire series up beautifully:


(Chaos Station #4)
Carina Press
$3.99 ereader platforms, available now

Rating: 4.5* of five

The Publisher Says: Zander and Felix's relationship has been to the brink and back: the Human-Stin War, imprisonment and an actual death/resurrection. Zander's death, to be specific, and the experience has left him…changed. The mysterious race known as the Guardians chose to revive him and appointed him as their emissary. A high honor, but he could do without the group of would-be cultists following him around the galaxy.

When a recently discovered species destroys a stin probe, Zander's new role soon commands all of his time and focus. The human ambassador—Felix's ex-lover, much to Zander's annoyance—pulls them into strategy talks aimed at preserving galactic peace. Soon everyone is relying on Zander's Guardian tech to telepathically communicate with the strange aliens.

Only Felix seems concerned with the strain piling up on Zander, but he has his own resolve tested when the very stin that imprisoned him show up to a summit. Zander and Felix will both have to find a way to face their doubts and preserve their love—while preventing another galaxy-wide war.

My Review: There was more "w"-verbing (winking, which I abhor, abominate, and despise) at 74% but for that one and only time it was less than revolting in context.

I'll get to reviewing before long.


So another solid four-plus star outing in a series whose SFnal street cred, if we could only get some straight boys to read it, would carry it far beyond the m/m ghetto. The resonance is my absolute favorite race so far, not excluding humans, because "fluffy yellow partner unit" made me laugh until my belly ached. I could *see* Flick's confused amused slightly insulted mostly bemused face when he heard that. Men with curly blond hair must get similar nonsense thrown at them all the time, and the fact that he's the reasonably public partner of the Emissary of the Guardians can't make life as a mop-top any easier.

The political elements of this outing are genuinely involving, again without reference to m/m content...well, except for the fact that Flick is the space equivalent of Alma Mahler Gropius Werfel, having bagged humanity's chief envoy Theo as well as Zed the Emissary. Ducks always envy the swans, hm? What is it about some people, anyway, that they can score the best and the brightest without seeming to bring anything all that exciting to the table themselves? But wait, Flick is...well...Flick is from a world where ambassadors are equivalent to unicorns and now his sweet, lovely ex is one and his amazing one-true-love man is one and he's, you know, just this guy. His head's whirling. He's interacting with the stin, the very same precise stin who tortured him almost to death during his four-year stint as a POW just cuz. He's way outside his comfort zone and he only gets more remote from it as Ambassador Theo the ex-lover sets Emissary Zed the one-true-love's teeth on edge and causes him to act like a sulky adolescent ninny. Which for all of me is the best moment in the book. I love that Zed gets all "my man step off or suffer" about his Flick. Sure it's silly! No way in hell can even the scrummy hotness that is Theo compete with Zed's amazeballs pedigree, position, and prior claim on Flick's feelings. But your man being just a little extra attentive and a scoche more possessive in the presence of a potential rival? Yes please. Very agreeable if not carried too far, and Authors Burke and Jensen don't let it get out of hand.

The tragedies that befall our heroes are testing and frightening and the stakes are unfathomably high: a renewal of the Human-Stin War with a side order of Species Four/the resonance in the stin's sights as well. Flick pays a horrible personal price to keep this from happening. Zed will have nightmares the rest of his life about Flick's sacrifice, its reason and its agent.

That's the set-up, however, for one of the best endings I've read in a book lately. The resolution of the war threat and the reward for Flick's horrifying sacrifice is...sweet beyond belief, balm for so many wounds these awful author-ladies have put our guys through. I would give the book five stars just for the ending.

I can't quite do that. The ashushk have had their major inning. The stin, well, not sure that we need a lot more stin assholishness but we'd be better informed if we saw a weentsy bit more of their culture for some whys. It's the resonance that causes me to dock a half-star from the rating. I know, because it's been made clear, that the series ends with book five. You introduce me to the resonance and expect I'll trot happily alongside the carriage as it briskly bowls AWAY from the coolest aliens yet?! (Sorry, Qek.) In one of this era's billion-page-per-volume nonillionologies, sure okay I get it we'll be back around this way one say soon.


So very not cool. I'm being kind because ending but absent that I'd probably bust this one down a whole star or even two for the tease this represents.

Write more books in this series, please. Not with Zed and Flick, even, just in the wonderful and rich universe. Space operas are a blast to read, and I am completely at your mercy, great BurkeandJensen, for writing a solid one with men like me in it.

SKIP TRACE, third CHAOS STATION series novel gay SF

(Chaos Station #3)
Carina Press
$3.99 ereader platforms, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: Zander Anatolius has been revived from the fatal effects of the super-soldier program, but now he has to face his estranged family and tell a story few would believe. With his lover and the crew of the Chaos at his side, Zander returns home to a media frenzy, threats from the military and pressure to join the family business.

Felix Ingesson still struggles with the horror of believing Zander dead. And no matter how strong their emotional connection is, Felix feels out of place in the glittery world of Zander's rich family. His lover would be better off without a broken, low-class ship's engineer holding him back.

My Review: When the crew receives word that another of Zander’s former teammates needs rescue, Felix travels with the Chaos...setting Zander free. But when Zander is arrested for treason, the men realize they need each other as much as ever—not only to survive, but to make their lives worth living.

I'd definitely read these as SF novels without hesitation. It's lagniappe that they include hot gay sex scenes. Written by nice straight ladies. Which I still very much do not comprehend. I'll try for a review very soon.


So I've finished the series now. In a lot of ways, this is where the tone of the books changes. This is the moment of truth for the couple as well as for Flick and Zed the men. After the astonishing events of Lonely Shore, anyone could be forgiven for needing to take a breath, step back, and just be for a while. Being Flick, he doesn't do this by halves. He walks to the Chaos, climbs on board, and flies into the black without saying one damned word to Zed. Who is, unsurprisingly, dealing with the very public fallout of the previous book's events, and the very private and equally life-altering family ructions that a wealthy youngest son can expect when he comes home from being thought dead in a vicious war trailing clouds of glory and his one true love the lower class station rat.

Flick looks at the world the Anatolius name entitles Zed to enter and his brain freezes, his balls try to climb inside to hide, and his spirit screams "FOR ALL THOSE USELESS GODS' SAKES RUN RUN RUN!!" He has no idea what fork to itself was scarce in his household. He has no concept of how to simply kept him from being naked, for the most part. All those educated, cultured voices! All the smiles that feel like sneers!

Zed just sees the living room full of brothers, parents, sisters-in-law waiting to go in to dinner.

That's a gap. And Flick running away hurts like stin poison. But he's not just running away, he's running to save a needy comrade. Zed's troubles escalate, his powerful family limbers up the big guns (Lawyers, Guns, and Money style). Unlike Warren Zevon's spoiled brat holed up in Honduras, though, Zed is targeted by the very people he's given up his humanity for, the AEF. He is still an embarrassment for the AEF because his existence means they have to acknowledge their disgusting super-soldier program that caused Zed so much damage. Now the AEF have received a small gift from the Universe: Zed's recent actions have placed him within their reasonable grasp, and they take full advantage of this to plot the final solution to the Zed Question.

Flick? He's not having any of it. He might be skittish as all hell from a bad childhood, enslavement at the stin's claws, and almost a decade of living in the vacuum of Zed's presumed death (while, ironically, it's Flick's presumed death in stin slavery that makes Zed vanish so utterly into the super-soldier program) that he can't and won't tolerate threats to his true love no matter who makes them. It is a constant in his life and the series.

But the current imbroglio is challenging in so many ways, and the superbaddies are so thick on the ground, and the resolutions to the Chaos crew's problems continue to be just out of reach, and...well. I can tell you this much without spoilering anything: Power corrupts and those in power see everything through the stinking atmosphere of their corruption.

The book ends with our augmented crew still flying, still precariously free, and still very much a real-feeling family. Pain and happiness come from so many of the same roots in intimacy, don't they. Blessedly for Zander and Flick, those roots are deep as the oceans in each man's soul. So satisfying.


(Chaos Station #2)
Carina Press
$3.99 ereader platforms, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: All they can do is live day to day...

Felix Ingesson has returned to his duties as the Chaos's engineer with Zander Anatolius, his ex-boyfriend-turned-broken-super-soldier, at his side. Hope means something again. But there's nothing Felix can do to battle the alien poison flowing through Zander's veins, or his imminent mental decline. With each passing day, the side effects of Zander’s experimental training are becoming more difficult to ignore.

When the ruthless Agrius Cartel seeks their revenge—including an ambush and an attempt to kidnap the Chaos’s crew—Zander is pushed over the edge. He can no longer hide his symptoms, nor does he want to. But hurting Felix when he’s not in control of himself is Zander’s worst nightmare—when it nearly happens, he agrees to seek help. Even if that means trusting the unknown.

As Zander places his life in alien hands, Felix appoints himself his lover’s keeper. And though he tries to be strong, he can’t ignore the fact that he might lose Zander…forever this time.

My Review: Burke & Jensen slayed me. They made every choice inevitable and each response inescapable. And, in the end, ma'at is preserved.

There is more to say but I can't find the words or the coordination to type them just now.
*******THE NEXT DAY********

This is going to be one of those "why this book made me feel thus-and-such" reviews. If those personal-reflection reader response reviews piss you off, and gawd knows there are plenty who feel that way about them, scroll on.

For most people, falling in love doesn't fix things, it fucks them up. Falling in love with someone whose background is the diametric opposite of your own is exciting, and challenging, and well within the definition of "a really crappy idea." Felix the station rat and Zander the rich kid...inherent inequality in the relationship's power structure and all the resentment that breeds on both sides...none of that is delved into very deeply because the current story arc is very much about survival. Zed's survival as a living being and Flick's survival as an emotional being.

The titanic tsunami heading for the men is the physiological modifications that Zed, hollowed out by the incalculable and unfixable loss of Flick to the stin, volunteered to undergo. His transformation into a part-stin superwarrior, done in a last-ditch effort to stem the tide of losses to the stin, was a success in that Zed can replicate the stin warriors' greatest advantage over humans: the ability to phase shift, or locate themselves physically in a dimension just enough different from 4D spacetime to prevent humans from touching (therefore killing) them, but still close enough to allow those in it to see and interact with targets trapped within 4D spacetime.

In a universe with 11 dimensions as M theory requires, that's plausible to me, as is the existence of j-space, the hyperdimension that allows interstellar travel without breaking the cosmic speed limit c . Scientists are eyerolling, wincing, and generally scoffing I'm sure. Plausible is all I myownself require of fiction, not strict scientific rigor. I want writers of SF to allow me room to suspend my disbelief, not require me to fling my admittedly meager scientific knowledge out the proverbial airlock.

Back to Zed...his abilities helped win the war (sort of) for humanity because he disobeyed direct orders and saved a group of civilians even though it ran the very real risk of revealing his and his team's megasuperdouble secret modifications. His act was publicly revealed without his knowledge and this fictional universe's superpower, called the Guardians because no one knows what they call themselves, step in with their superpowers and call a halt to the stins' effort to eradicate humanity. Then Zed and his fellow modificatees are...abandoned. Cut loose. Left to twist because supporting them would mean acknowledging them and that would have horrendous political consequences.

Support them? What, pray tell, is the problem with that? Don't we always support our veterans? Hmm? Don't we always take care of the men and women who are damaged and the families who are destroyed by the will of the politicians in pursuit of the Greater Good?
/enraged sarcasm

Zed and his team are losing themselves. Losing their minds, literally, as in the depredations of Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia and disease...kuru for one nightmare-inducing example. Flick is trapped in hell with the man he loves vanishing before his eyes. Zed will be there, fully himself one moment and the next he's simply gone. Unresponsive at best, inappropriately responsive at worst, defaulting to his military training in managing phase shifts to respond to threats. Who happen to be his friends aboard the Chaos and his true love. When Zed comes back from one such moment while throttling the life from Flick, everyone knows the end of Zed's life is coming closer by the moment. It's impossible he'd want to kill Flick.

The desperate hail-mary play of taking Zed to Qek (the ashushk pilot)'s home world to seek treatment for the incurable and rapidly progressing condition that induced stin-state abilities have gifted Zed with is, ultimately, unsuccessful and Zed dies during the last-ditch treatment. The Guardians swoop in, take Zed's body, and fix him; during his time being fixed by them, Zed learns he has a higher purpose in the Guardians' plans for the galaxy and they want him to remain among them. The pull of his all-pervasive love for Flick leads him to decline the opportunity to fully be whatever they plan for him to be, and with great sadness the Guardians return Zed to his true love, his dear friends, and his family.

Now comes that personal stuff. Flick's grief on losing Zed again (remembering that they were separated by war for a decade) is so accurately and harrowingly rendered that I was left a sobbing wreck. I've experienced a lot more grief than most people have because I was a young gay man during the AIDS epidemic. Loss was common. Grief was pervasive. And then I went and fell in love with a man who had full-blown AIDS.

Three years of good days, bad days, worse days, hospitalizations, spending nights in bedside chairs, doing small practical things like sponge baths and, later, diaper changes, holding Bland's hand when he was only bodily present and crying as quietly as I could hoping against hope he'd come back and then hating myself for wishing it on him as he came back in horrible pain. Two friends of ours, Joe and Domingo, would come and get me every so often and take me to some restaurant near Columbia Presbyterian and feed me something. I'd usually break down and sob somewhere along the line, and I still can't quite believe that they kept doing it for me, for Bland, subjecting themselves to public embarrassment like that. I was well beyond caring about suchlike nonsense at that point.

Then came the day that, looking at Bland lying helpless and hooked to a ventilator, a morphine drip, IVs of useless drugs trying to combat the cytomegalovirus killing him exquisitely painfully and slowly, and the fog of my wretchedness lifted for the first time in what felt like forever. I went home to compose myself and, for the first time in what felt like forever, didn't cry the entire subway ride from St. Luke's-Roosevelt to my home in Battery Park City.

My stocky Bajan wrestler was dead and he was never coming back. His body was there, and once in a while he'd try to come back to me sitting there holding his hand by squeezing it and focusing for a brief second or two on me before the fog came back. I was holding him inside this hell because I loved him and he loved me and I couldn't let go.

So the next morning I went, as always, to the hospital. Walking into the ward in a clear, in fact crystalline and brittle, bubble of purpose. I found Bland's younger sister sitting with him, a deeply religious young woman of the finest kind. She loved the sinner and, if she hated the sin, she kept it to herself, for which I was and am grateful. I sat down next to my true love, took his other hand, and said, "I love you too much to see you suffer this way. It's time to let go. Let go and go home, my love." I repeated this for hours as he tried to...I don't know what, speak or brief spurts between vacancies. His sister held his other hand and, when I couldn't speak, said the same thing to him.

We left together. She drove me home, I thanked her for the ride, and she said, "no one could ever hope for a better friend than you are to my brother. Thank you."

That night Bland died. He was 34. I was 31.

It was two years before I could sleep in our bed. It was six years before I could climb out of the bottle and coke vial to decide to live again. (A terrifying heart arrhythmia made the choice stark.)

And, this past May, it was twenty-five years since Bland Jentry Carr and I died. I put together a face to wear while I did the whole existing thing, but I was gone and not for the first time in my life. Whoever I am now is not the man I was or would have been if I'd kept hold of my Beejay. I suppose it's one reason I attract young men as a funny way this old crippled-up man is really just 25. I'm not sure how I got here, to be honest, and there are days when I'm not sure I'm all that happy to be here, but here is where I am. Like Flick, I'll keep putting one foot in front of the other until I do what needs doing.

But I won't get Flick's miracle. Reading about it, however, satisfied something very, very deep inside me. That something that says "yes" to the bass thrum of loving another being so completely that their happiness and your own are completely entwined.

I still talk to Bland every morning as I shower and move through my routine. I don't believe in a god, I don't believe in a heaven, but I do believe that the huge energy of a human life leaves some mark, some dent in the fabric of spacetime, and I address myself to that. It is enough for me to express my love for all the men I've lost over the horrible plague years to those dents in spacetime. Reality is unforgiving, but fiction kisses it better.

Read this series. It kisses your hurts better (after inflicting them, that is).

CHAOS STATION series reviews, 5 books of good SF with gay leads

(Chaos Station #1)
Carina Press
$1.99 ereader platform editions, available now

Rating: 4 happy stars of five

The Publisher Says: "You're not real. Felix Ingesson is dead."

The war with the alien stin is over, but Felix Ingesson has given up on seeing his lover, Zander Anatolius, ever again. Zander's military file is sealed tighter than an airlock. A former prisoner of war, Felix is attempting a much quieter life keeping his ship, the Chaos, aloft. He almost succeeds, until Zander walks on board and insists that Felix isn't real.

A retired, broken super soldier, Zander is reeling from the aftereffects of his experimental training and wants nothing more than to disappear and wait for insanity to claim him. Then he sees footage of a friend and ally—a super soldier like him—murdering an entire security squad with her bare hands and a cold, dead look in her eyes. He never expected to find Felix, the man he'd thought dead for years, on the ship he hired to track her down.

Working with Felix to rescue his teammate is a dream come true…and a nightmare. Zander has no exit strategy that will leave Felix unscathed—or his own heart unbroken.

My Review: Romantic fiction doesn't need much to keep the people buying...lovers separated by factors within their control and/or outside their control who, despite the obstacles, choose to make love work. It's a trope that's worked for millennia, it will work for as long as human beings keep falling in love.

This story goes above and beyond the basics in an important way. It develops the world the men who are the primary couple inhabit to a significantly greater degree than others in the genre. It is also the most fully science-fictional SF romantic novel I've read. I'd read it for the SF elements, albeit I'd judge it more harshly than I do as a romantic novel.

Part of that is altered expectations. At one time fifty or so years ago, world-building in SF was much lighter and less multidimensional than it is today. Novels were 200-ish pages as a matter of course and now they tend towards the 400-page end as a matter of course. There is vastly greater scope to do world-building in that kind of length. This novel, in common with most others in the romantic fiction genre, is 200-ish pages, so has the scope of a fifty-year-old SF novel for world-building plus the need to bookhorn in love and sex in a way that was and largely is unthinkable in mainstream SF.

Authors Burke and Jensen do a really fine job of this balancing act. I am impressed that they take the basic furniture of two disparate genres and re-cover them in harmonious upholstery, creating a charming and eclectic mental space for their men, women, and aliens to inhabit. It takes a good deal of work to do this at all, and even more to do it well.

I found the series in the Gay SF reading group and, on a hunch, Kindled the whole lot at once. Relieved that I did because I'm most certainly going to read them all. Zed and Flick are a terrific creation in that they're just guys. One's a tinkerer, one's a serious soldier, together they're little boys playing house and they're wounded warriors desperately seeking balance and order in lives mangled along with their tortured, altered bodies.

Flick/Fixer/Felix fixes stuff. He focuses on stuff because he was captured by the alien stin (and a note here on how very much I approve of Burke and Jensen's use of the lowercase for the aliens' race-names; we're not Humans, now are we?) and, while enslaved as a miner, tortured just for the fun of it by the insectoids. Stuff doesn't pity him or find him disgusting or try to help him. It waits for him to do what needs doing to fix it. His most powerful need is to belong, the be along with a group that gets him. His great good fortune is that he has that in the crew of the Chaos.

Elias is the captain, his business partner, and as close to Flick as a beloved older brother. Elias is straight but like everyone else in the spacers's world he couldn't care less what other people do in their sex lives. Elias is probably the least developed character, existing in relation to Flick and supplying needed perspective when a PoV change suits the story. He is believable for all that: His focus is on the bodily and mental health of the small crew he took on as his family. He's a dad. He makes sure everything is ordered and safe for his kids to be able to play and work and be as happy as they can be. He worries about them all, loves them all, and exasperatedly picks up after them, scolding all the while. I relate to Elias, and love him.

Nessa, the doctor, is Elias's love interest. Flaming red hair and a protective streak a mile wide have combined to seduce Elias and enchant the crew. Flick even loses his defensive shields when Nessa pushes him. She is a committed healer and makes everyone's health an obsession. It's hard not to see her as Dr. McCoy from TOS, with curves. I wished from the minute she came on my screen that I could book an appointment with her. She's the kind of doctor I'd love to find IRL.

Qek is the resident alien, a little blue woman instead of a little green man. Only she's not a woman, exactly, but a genderless ashoshk individual who identifies as a woman in order to live more easily among the humans she left her home world to study. Her race is technologically ahead of humanity, and like humanity has suffered the scourgings of the stin, so she is the pilot of the ashoshk-engined Chaos as she understands the tech better than anyone else on the ship. She is, as well, Flick's friend. Among the genderless ashoshk, Qek's offer of friendship to Flick is very deep. In a novel I love, Islandia, there is a concept of friendship similar to the ashoshk one called "linamia" or "powerful non-sexual love." It is a concept that, I fear, is largely missing in modern human culture and I think that's a sin. It's also a lifeline for poor, shattered Flick. Qek delights me, the anti-Neelix, the soothing and sweet and calm eternal outsider with sharp eyes and a soft heart.

Zed. Yes, well, then there's Zed. A younger son in a family of immense wealth and power, Zed chose a career in the military to be with Flick, his childhood bestie and young-adult first love. The war with the stin erupted and the two young lovers are separated forever by Flick's capture and presumed death at the claws of the stin. The powerful man whose love is fully, passionately given to the station rat boy he spent his childhood hanging with, suddenly has nothing. No bestie, no lover, nothing. (Except obscenely large piles of money and a family that adores him, but let's not get too logical...the man we're discussing here is very, very young and has zero perspective so let's go with his view of things.) So he volunteers to become a covert operative for his army, then for the black-ops experiment that informs the entire rest of his (drastically shortened) life. Zed is destroyed by Flick's loss and, unlike Flick who strives to endure and survive and make it the hell out of stin captivity, seeks annihilation so he can stop his agony of emptiness. In peacetime, Zed's the kind of man who self-medicates his agony. Me too, Zed.

Now all the characters are required to band together to rescue an old friend of Flick and Zed's who is on a rapid downward spiral. They find her, rescue her, lose her, fight a battle to recapture her, and the complications mount. New enemies are made, old wounds renewed. And the bittersweet joy of love regained, Zed and Flick's true and deep love for each other, widened to include their crew, is adulterated by the progressive nature of Zed's black-ops experimental enhancements. His downward spiral, slower than his and Flick's friend's spiral, is nonetheless real.

He's going to hell, but he's taking the scenic route and that leads right to Flick's bed. The place he's wanted to be for nine long, hellish years of knowing that Flick was dead.

And I plan to go right along with them all.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

THE OBAMA HATE MACHINE, a 2012 title that should've prepared us for 2016

THE OBAMA HATE MACHINE: The Lies, Distortions, and Personal Attacks on the President--And Who Is Behind Them

Thomas Dunne Books
$26.99 hardcover, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: In Toxic Talk, Bill Press exposed the ways in which the extreme right-wing media has done an end run around the American voting populace by exerting a disproportionate control over open political debate. In The Obama Hate Machine, Press returns to show how the Right has taken rhetoric to slanderous new levels in attacking the nation’s forty-fourth president.

While presidents and presidential candidates routinely have been subject to personal attacks, the outright disdain Obama’s extremist opponents have for the facts has inspired an insidious brand of character assassination unique in contemporary politics.

Obama was born in Kenya . . . Obama sympathizes with Muslim terrorists . . . Obama is a communist who wants to institute death panels and touch off class warfare…The extent to which these unfounded assertions have taken hold in the American mindset shows just how ruthless, destructive, and all-powerful the right-wing machine—hijacked by extremists in the media and fueled by corporate coffers—has become. The author reveals how corporate interests such as the infamous Koch Brothers continue to steer political coverage away from fact-based dialogue into the realm of hysteria. Bill Press also observes this phenomenon is not limited to the airwaves and provides an “I Hate Obama Book Club” list, calling out the scores of anti-Obama tomes—and even some from the Left—that have helped drag politics even deeper into the mud. 

In his characteristic on-the-mark arguments sure to appeal to anyone on the Left or in the Center, Press shows how the peculiar nature of Obama-hating subverts issue-driven debate and threatens not only the outcome of the 2012 election but the future of the American democratic system.


My Review: I do not know what to say about this book. The people who should read it won't. The people who do read it will, if not sociopathic by nature, weep uncontrollably for the horrific fate of our country.

I tell myself that it's good, this outrage and pain I feel when reading the horrors perpetrated in the name of partisan conservatism, because when I stop feeling those feelings it will mean that I have given up any hope for change AWAY from the viciousness, the brutal ignorant selfishness, that is characteristic of today's “conservatives.”

Go to the library. Read Chapter 5, “The Brothers.” Sixty pages of documented and repugnant thuggery perpetrated by the Koch brothers against the democratically elected president of the United States of America. If it stirs in you no outrage against the monstrous, vile, and greedy people who pretend to care about the fate of the Americans who do the work that makes them rich, go buy your jackboots and practice your “Sieg heils” because that's the world people like you are passively agreeing to live in.

The Right is WRONG. And their actions against President Obama (not my favorite person, but still he's the president) are very, very, very close to seditious. They talk treason and call it free speech...which they've paid their millions to ensure for themselves and their horrifying, selfish, greedy views.

I tell myself it's good that these betrayals hurt me so, these smacks in my besotted citizen's face, because when they don't hurt anymore, I'll have given up on change, on reason, on life. I skate ever closer to this dread eventuality.

ZEITOUN, Hurricane Katrina's nasty cover-up of systemic racism

Dave Eggers

$12.00 hardcover, available now

Rating: 5* of five

The Publisher Says: When Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans, Abdulrahman Zeitoun, a prosperous Syrian-American and father of four, chose to stay through the storm to protect his house and contracting business. In the days after the storm, he traveled the flooded streets in a secondhand canoe, passing on supplies and helping those he could. A week later, on September 6, 2005, Zeitoun abruptly disappeared.

Eggers’s riveting nonfiction book, three years in the making, explores Zeitoun’s roots in Syria, his marriage to Kathy — an American who converted to Islam — and their children, and the surreal atmosphere (in New Orleans and the United States generally) in which what happened to Abdulrahman Zeitoun was possible. Like What Is the What, Zeitoun was written in close collaboration with its subjects and involved vast research — in this case, in the United States, Spain, and Syria.

My Review: Okay. I herewith open my piehole for the crow to be inserted. I have said nasty, judgmental things about Eggers's writings, and I meant each and every one of them. I still do.

But this book is excellent, and this book is Eggers's, so it is obvious that the old adage about a stopped clock being right twice a day applies to writers and writing as well.

It's a direct, elegantly simple telling of the nightmare side of the American Dream. It's powerfully focused, unlike every other one of Eggers's overpraised books that I've read, and it's superbly structured, with no room for improvement in pacing and character development that I can find.

I don't believe I'm typing these things, someone reassure me that this is *me*! Every criticism I've leveled at this guy's previous writing is out the window! Will they turn off the gravity next?

But truth is truth, and honesty compels me to say: I haven't enjoyed a book this much in ages. Well, enjoyed is a strange term to use for the true and factual, and awful, story of a decent, honorable man made the butt of society's opprobrium for no reason other than his religion and origins. But the book is deeply enjoyable, because at every turn, Zeitoun's decency and honor and integrity shine through. That alone makes the book worth buying and reading. Add to that the fact that, rare in this world failed of kindness, Zeitoun summons the best and the most positive people to him in his desperate hours.

I am disappointed that Twilight *shudder* and The Life of Pi *retch*, vastly inferior books to this one, and to name but two of the many, many books this applies to, have more copies on Goodreads. your part to change this, and go buy a copy. Then read it. It will, contrary to any expectation you might have, leave you uplifted and happier for having read a book about Hurricane Katrina and an Arab immigrant. Very strongly recommended.

And, thanks to my friend Terri for making me read this...even sending me a it will be extremely hard to release back into the bookosphere. That I will *have* to buy a replacement is a small economic price to pay.

********Addendum in 2013: Yes indeed, Zeitoun has been arrested and accused of crimes recently, and many have taken this as an invalidation of his post-Katrina experiences. Apparently no thought is given to what these experiences of injustice in The Home of The Free might be expected to do to a man is irrelevant to those who hold this opinion. That's just bad, sloppy thinking. What happened to Zeitoun after Katrina is still real, and his story of that time is still one of a horrifying miscarriage of justice using "race" as a flimsy, transparent attempt at justification.

And of course, from the vantage point of 2017, the story never quite got better, as Kathy Zeitoun alleged a long pattern of domestic abuse, attempted to have Zeitoun re-arrested, etc. etc. Again...and again...and again it must be said that, even if every awful thing ever said about the man is true, none of it excuses the horrors he experienced at the hands of the legal system.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

WATER FOR ELEPHANTS, a rare film adaptation that does the book justice


Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill
$14.95 trade paper, available now

Rating: 3* of five

The Publisher Says: Though he may not speak of them, the memories still dwell inside Jacob Jankowski’s ninety-something-year-old mind. Memories of himself as a young man, tossed by fate onto a rickety train that was home to the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth. Memories of a world filled with freaks and clowns, with wonder and pain and anger and passion; a world with its own narrow, irrational rules, its own way of life, and its own way of death. The world of the circus: to Jacob it was both salvation and a living hell.

Jacob was there because his luck had run out—orphaned and penniless, he had no direction until he landed on this locomotive “ship of fools.” It was the early part of the Great Depression, and everyone in this third-rate circus was lucky to have any job at all. Marlena, the star of the equestrian act, was there because she fell in love with the wrong man, a handsome circus boss with a wide mean streak. And Rosie the elephant was there because she was the great gray hope, the new act that was going to be the salvation of the circus; the only problem was, Rosie didn’t have an act—in fact, she couldn’t even follow instructions. The bond that grew among this unlikely trio was one of love and trust, and ultimately, it was their only hope for survival.

Surprising, poignant, and funny, Water for Elephants is that rare novel with a story so engrossing, one is reluctant to put it down; with characters so engaging, they continue to live long after the last page has been turned; with a world built of wonder, a world so real, one starts to breathe its air.

My Review: I don't want to give anyone the wrong impression here. I am not a sentimental old softie whose external resemblance to a conker

is meant to scare off the timid.

But books about old folks remembering their bittersweet pasts, books about people caring for and about the animals that they share their lives with, and books about losing your beloved far too damned soon in life do drive a teensy-tinsy little wedge into my sharp green spikes, revealing what I laughingly refer to as a "heart" for the briefest of moments.

Without spoilering anything, the clue I will give you to my rating of this novel is that all three stars are for Rosie.

When this book came out in 2006, it was a huge smash success. Sara Gruen touched a nerve with her evocation of the 1930s traveling-circus world. People resonated like rung bells from one end of the US to the other. I read the book then, and reacquainted myself with it recently, to remember what it was that caused the ruckus.
Age is a terrible thief. Just when you're getting the hang of life, it knocks your legs out from under you and stoops your back. It makes you ache and muddies your head and silently spreads cancer throughout your spouse.
Although there are times I'd give anything to have her back, I'm glad she went first. Losing her was like being cleft down the middle. It was the moment it all ended for me, and I wouldn't have wanted her to go through that.
I think many, if not most, of the book's fans really resonate with these assessments. I know I do. It's not the most original kind of observation ever made but it's presented in a pleasantly conversational tone, one that gives the meaning precedence over the words.

Gruen also has Jacob thinking through the problems of great age. Since the main body of the story is set quite a long time ago, Jacob gets to tell us his story unchallenged. His memories may be unreliable, how would we know?, but he gives them to us with gusto and a charming smile. That's what we all hope to do, isn't it, give the younger folks coming behind us a reason to smile as we share what we have stored in our Random Access Memory?
My platitudes don't hold their interest and I can hardly blame them for that. My real stories are all out of date. So what if I can speak firsthand about the Spanish flu, the advent of the automobile, world wars, cold wars, guerrilla wars, and Sputnik — that's all ancient history now. What else do I have to offer? Nothing happens to me anymore. That’s the reality of getting old, and I guess that’s really the crux of the matter. I’m not ready to be old yet.
Sometimes when you get older — and I’m not talking about you, I’m talking generally, because everyone ages differently — things you think on and wish on start to seem real. And then you believe them, and before you know it they’re part of your history, and if someone challenges you on them and says they’re not true — why, then you get offended because you can’t remember the first part. All you know is that you’ve been called a liar.
It's an indignity perpetrated on most of us by the vast legions of those addicted to Being Right. Really, I want to say to the I'm Right And Don't You Forget It judges, give it a rest. Believe me when I tell you your own turn in the unreliable memory chair is coming soon. It's better to treat those memories other folks choose to share with you as their stories and not be ready to hop on the Being Right Soapbox. It's a theme that Gruen seems to me to be developing, though rather in the breach than the observance.

So these quotes give you a fair sampling of the book's storytelling voice. These ideas are the ones that Gruen really bears down hard on exploring in Jacob's voice. So why am I giving all the stars to Rosie? Because this elephant, though she never utters a word, is the most vibrantly alive character in the book. Jacob is any-old-man. Rosie is not, I promise you, any old elephant! And the pleasure of Jacob and Rosie having their relationship makes this a book I didn't mind revisiting. The love affair that is the primary catalyst of all the story's action, that between Marlena and Jacob, centers on Rosie as Marlena performs her act for the circus with Rosie. Jacob, the vet, is Rosie's constant companion. Rosie is, in my mind at least, the real star of the circus and the book.

In 2011, Reese Witherspoon and Robert Pattinson added a layer to the book's luster by embodying (damn near perfectly, in my never-humble opinion) Marlena and Jacob, the star-crossed lovers at the human heart of the tale. I'm no great fan of ~meh~ movie adaptations to popular books. I've generally got some choice invective for incompetent or poorly handled film versions of books. This adaptation is one I felt got the tone, the indefinable something that made the book such a success, right. The adaptation is also visually stunning, simply pitch-perfect in its period details and an immersive delight to watch.

The one problem I had with both the book and the movie is a big one: I didn't buy the love story in either medium. I just do not get the sense that Jacob really had the grand passion for Marlena that's reported everywhere in the text and the script. I certainly don't think Ms. Witherspoon and Mr. Pattinson were attracted to each other. That kept cropping up in the way of my full investment in the story.

Rotten Tomatoes, the internet movie-review aggregator, counts this as a mostly-fresh release. Its total number of professional reviews is a whopping 191, making its Fresh rating of 60% quite impressive. 68,000 regular civilians who use Rotten Tomatoes to track their film likes and dislikes give the adaptation Fresh ratings 70% of the time. 1.1 million ratings on Goodreads average 4.07 out of five for the novel. No matter the medium, the message to the audience comes through loud and clear, and the audience agrees with it. That, my friends, is called "huge success" and deserves the rewards thereof.

The reading group guide lives here, free to download.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

HOUSE OF SAND AND FOG, ideal book-and-movie book club choice


W>W> Norton
$15.95 trade paper, available now

Rating: 4.75* of five

The Publisher Says: On a road crew in California, a former colonel in the Iranian Air Force sees a way to restore his family's dignity in an attractive bungalow available on county auction. But the house's owner, a recovering alcoholic and addict down on her luck, will fight for the one thing she has left. And her lover, a married cop, will be driven to extremes to win her love. In this masterpiece of American realism and Shakespearean consequence, Andre Dubus III's unforgettable characters careen toward inevitable conflict, their tragedy painting a shockingly true picture of the country we live in today.

My Review: Behrani. An exiled colonel in the Shah's army. Kathy. A fucked-up druggie living off her inheritance. Lester. A major idiot whose law-enforcement career is his last best shot at staying off welfare.

Not one of these people will leave this book better than they entered it. Kathy's only home is the one she inherited, and the county says it's not hers anymore because she hasn't paid the taxes. She has, though. She's completely unable to function in the world because she's hazed on drugs for so long that even when she's clean she can't think straight. That means she can't figure out how to prove she has complied with the law.

Behrani can't get an American life going. He has savings (one hesitates to imagine where the money came from originally) that barely keep him afloat, and jobs that demean him but are all a man with no skills except being an Army officer can get. But his son's college money is sufficient to buy a distressed property at auction. Kathy's home, as it turns out. He plans to renovate and flip it, using this as a stepping-stone to American Dream-level prosperity.

Lester comes in as the deputy assigned to be sure Kathy gets out of the home that's no longer hers. Love at first sight! Lame-o Lester and Loser Kathy...surely the white trash Romeo and Juliet!

Pretty much.

Dubus drags us through the legal system as the parties battle out the rights and wrongs of the case. No one here is a good person, just a greedy selfish prick who deserves what, in the end, is meted out to them by the author's just and pitiless exercise of karmic debt collection.

NOT an uplifting book. My withers were wrung about every twenty pages, and I took frequent breaks in order to console myself with excessive liquor consumption and sordid sexual escapades.

I love a book that brings out the best in me.

There's a scene where Lame-o Lester gets his first-ever BJ from Loser Kathy, which Dubus goes into in a bizarrely flat and affectless way that completely desxualizes the act, makes it a symptom of a pathology and not an erotic or intimate or even sexy development. It's just part of the sickness pervading these broken, unfixable people's existences.

Did you *get* that? A man wrote about the thing most men want more than food and only slightly less than air, and made it *unappealing*.

Dubus is a master of his craft. He is an artist. He can do anything he wants with words to make them dance in the reader's head to HIS tune, screw whatever you were expecting, reader! He can fashion a story that, in its outlines, sounds juicy and ripe with conflict, and make it a sharp object that will deflate whatever happy illusions were still in your head about yourself and this Murrikin Dream we're supposed to be having, reader!

And that is why you should read this book.

Book club reading guide free here.

Another reading group guide free here.

Saturday, August 26, 2017

DARKANSAS, unscary horror but horribly unscary


Dzanc Books
$26.95 hardcover, available now

Rating: 2.5* of five

The Publisher Says: Jordan is a country musician living in the shadow of his father, legendary bluegrass musician Walker Bayne. A lifetime of poor decisions has led him on an endless tour of San Antonio dive bars, where between sets he resumes accruing women and drinking himself to the brink of disaster.

Returning home to the Ozarks for the wedding of his twin brother, Jordan uncovers a dark vein in the Bayne family history: going back to the end of the Civil War, every generation of Bayne men have been twins--and one twin has always murdered their father.

As old tensions resurface, Jordan searches out the surreal origins of his family and a way to escape the murder that is his inheritance. Following the brothers' every move are a mysterious hill dweller and his grotesque partner, a duo that will stop at nothing to make sure the Baynes' cursed legacy lives on.

My Review: From page 195:
Andridge woke beneath the considered gaze of a young girl. Weakness decimated his attempts to move or speak. He was tucked beneath a blanket in a comfortable bed in a clean, well-kept house. Daylight glowed through the blind drawn over the only window. He folded back the covers and basked in the relief of fresh air on his skin. Regaining his senses overwhelmed him at first. Weakness sapped his muscles,
stiffness spread to the rigid tips of his toes. A high-pitched ringing pierced the drum of his inner ear,
when he flexed his jaw the room went mute. His tongue flopped foreign in his mouth, and he could still barely hear past his own breathing.
Oh dear.

Weakness twice. Once it decimates then it saps. Somehow his sapped decimation still allows him to fold back covers. Someone is sitting in the room looking at him and his inner-ear drum (as opposed to the outer-ear one) is pierced by ringing but he can barely hear over the sound of his own breathing and, when he flexes his jaw, the (inanimate ergo voiceless) room goes mute.

There is so, so much more of this on the other pages, this words slightly misused, this metaphors so mixed they'd break every racial purity law ever drafted, this clangorous overwrought writerly performance anxiety that I want to take the Dzanc people, heretofore in my highest esteem and most grateful graces, out to the woodshed for some serious bastinado-ing.

Gorgeous jacket, elegant text design, good-quality paper, praise from authors whose work I like and respect; and yet this is not a good book, so I can't get it up to fake a nice-person review. Not even because it was an early birthday present from a certain young man who is doing his damnedest to dig himself out of a really, really deep hole he dug for himself. It's a shame someone paid an advance for this, paid to edit it, paid to design, copyedit, proofread, print, and bind it, when it should live in the author's top drawer and another, better book now languishing in a similar top drawer should be here gladdening my heart with its aesthetic merits.

Instead, I'm ticking demerit after demerit off what was a very good idea (yes, Young Gentleman Caller, you chose well, this is my kind of story) whose promised parts...father/son musical rivalry, supernatural shenanigans foretold in an excellent dream sequence...just fail to cohere into the augured configuration.

Failure to launch.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

WINTER TIDE, a marvelous expansion and deepening of Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos

(The Innsmouth Legacy #1)
$25.99 hardcover, available now

Rating: 4.5* of five

I need some more bandwidth to become available prior to reviewing this novel. Watch this space. And don't forget to read my review of The Litany of Earth, the link to the free read is in it.

The Publisher Says: After attacking Devil’s Reef in 1928, the U.S. Government rounded up the people of Innsmouth and took them to the desert, far from their ocean, their Deep One ancestors, and their sleeping god Cthulhu. Only Aphra and Caleb Marsh survived the camps, and they emerged without a past or a future.

The government that stole Aphra's life now needs her help. FBI agent Ron Spector believes that Communist spies have stolen dangerous magical secrets from Miskatonic University, secrets that could turn the Cold War hot in an instant, and hasten the end of the human race.

Aphra must return to the ruins of her home, gather scraps of her stolen history, and assemble a new family to face the darkness of human nature.


My Review: I began this book hoping it would be at least as good as THE LITANY OF EARTH (link above) and would expand my sense of the reality of Miskatonic University. I've had enough contact with the Cthulhu Mythos to have developed a deep desire to become an alumnus of Miskatonic. It is not to be, of course, Arkham being fictional as well as in coastal Massachusetts *shiver*, but it gives you a sense of how real this mythos seems to me. Current titles like Lovecraft Country and Carter & Lovecraft have passed before my approving gaze, deepening my appreciation for the talent, if not the person, of racist sexist nativist H.P. Lovecraft. There is something in the Elder Gods that answers a need in people, since there are so very many people using the Mythos today to explore the dystopia in which we live, which seems only to get worse (viz., Charlottesville, Virginia).

Author Emrys's particular flash of genius is to make the Mythos spread over time, writing an historical novel set in 1948 from the standpoint of a World War II-to-Cold-War world where Innsmouth and the Water People were interned before the Japanese were. It's brilliant. The government needed only to turn their bureaucratic gaze a few inches to get a ready-made solution to the "Nisei Threat." I was completely convinced by this. I can think of nothing to prevent this from being true...except it isn't.

Feels to me like it should be. Families like the Marshes, longtime residents of Innsmouth and leaders among the Water People who make up most of Innsmouth's population, are wrenched from the spawning grounds (being humans although amphibious, they need to breed on terra firma before they can undergo final metamorphosis and go back to the sea) and sent to desert camps. Most died in the violence of the round-up, or in the deserts, and now only Aphra Marsh of San Francisco and her brother Caleb of Arkham, Massachusetts, are left. The sole full-blooded Water People who can breed are, in returning to Innsmouth to assist the government that committed genocide against their kind, coming to grips with what it means to be the future not simply to have a future.

As we submerge deeper and deeper into the cold, dark, high-pressure depths of human hatred of otherness and intolerance of difference, WINTER TIDE feels more and more like a howl from the edge of the pack: A better trail is over here! Come this way, accept and embrace the not-usual, accept and embrace the viewpoint of the outsider, and you'll see the whole picture much more clearly. The threats are real. They simply aren't where you're looking for them.

How perfect a co-opting of the Cthulhu Mythos that is. In keeping with the co-opting we, the sane and normal, need to do with the lunatic fringe's ideological excesses. Making the bad spirits better is, as the titanic struggles Aphra and her rag-tag family of choice endure and prevail over, extremely hard. But the will to do it, the willingness to suffer the literal and psychic pains and amputations required by it, exist in us. We need to need the end results as much as Aphra and her family, as well as her blood family, need the results of their internecine war.

Aphra Marsh for President.

Friday, August 18, 2017

WHO FEARS DEATH, a post-apocalyptic shapeshifter's survival tale

Nnedi Okorafor

DAW Books
$24.95 hardcover, available now

Rating: 4* of five


The Publisher Says: An award-winning literary author presents her first foray into supernatural fantasy with a novel of post- apocalyptic Africa. 

In a far future, post-nuclear-holocaust Africa, genocide plagues one region. The aggressors, the Nuru, have decided to follow the Great Book and exterminate the Okeke. But when the only surviving member of a slain Okeke village is brutally raped, she manages to escape, wandering farther into the desert. She gives birth to a baby girl with hair and skin the color of sand and instinctively knows that her daughter is different. She names her daughter Onyesonwu, which means "Who Fears Death?" in an ancient African tongue.

Reared under the tutelage of a mysterious and traditional shaman, Onyesonwu discovers her magical destiny-to end the genocide of her people. The journey to fulfill her destiny will force her to grapple with nature, tradition, history, true love, the spiritual mysteries of her culture-and eventually death itself.


My Review: Who fears Death? I suppose most living things fear death. Onyesonwu, our title character, is the product of a genesis no one should have to carry with them: She is a child of rape, a product of brutality that should have made her mother hate her. Instead, her mother names her “who fears death” and never from that moment on, despite the both of them being outcast and made into The Other, never fears anything again.

I had a very hard time with this book, wanting to Pearl Rule it on average three times per reading session. I did in fact abandon it when a major major major anti-man hot button issue occurred near the end. But this is what earns the book four stars from me: I could not not read the rest. I had to know why what happened, happened.

Am I happy I read it? Not really. It was harrowing for me. I don't like man-bad-woman-good books. There are two unforgivable things in my moral universe: Abusing animals and rape. I'm no fan of supernatural/magjicqkal stuff (Onye's a shapeshifter). What on the surface of the earth persuaded me to read this thing?! I mean, it's even praised by Luis Alberto Urrea forevermore! I shoulda stood home, as the saying goes.

But Dr. Okorafor is a sorceress. She cast a spell on me. She reached out from inside this book and she made sure my brain needed to know this, and needed it so much I'd overcome my prejudices and make it part of my mental furniture.

I will step on her foot if I ever meet the Doctor in person.

She set the book in a post-nuclear-holocaust Africa! I love postapocalyptic fiction! How am I gonna resist that? And she made explicit a disdain for the rotten, evil-souled uses of religion in oppressing and abusing people of all types. I think I purred. I know I smiled.

It's also a joy and a pleasure to me to see women, and women of color, and women of immigrant parentage, enter the lists of American English-language speculative fiction. It makes me feel that this world has a shot at survival after all. Writers are not ignored because of their bodily plumbing or skin color or weird names. (Sorry, but I'm still an old white man, and this lady's name is really seriously weird to me.) This is the world I grew up wanting to live in, and now I get to...for a while anyway...and that, more than any other factor, made me stick with the book long past my usual stop.

Should you read it? Should you turn page after page of non-European-named characters, landscapes bursting with heat and searing miseries of spirit, heroes whose lives are blighted by origins beyond their control?


Wednesday, August 16, 2017

DAWN, first volume of Octavia E. Butler's amazing Xenogenesis trilogy

(Xenogenesis #1)
Open Road Media
$6.99 Kindle edition, available now

Rating: 5* of five

The Publisher Says: Lilith Iyapo has just lost her husband and son when atomic fire consumes Earth—the last stage of the planet’s final war. Hundreds of years later Lilith awakes, deep in the hold of a massive alien spacecraft piloted by the Oankali—who arrived just in time to save humanity from extinction. They have kept Lilith and other survivors asleep for centuries, as they learned whatever they could about Earth. Now it is time for Lilith to lead them back to her home world, but life among the Oankali on the newly resettled planet will be nothing like it was before.

The Oankali survive by genetically merging with primitive civilizations—whether their new hosts like it or not. For the first time since the nuclear holocaust, Earth will be inhabited. Grass will grow, animals will run, and people will learn to survive the planet’s untamed wilderness. But their children will not be human. Not exactly.

This ebook features an illustrated biography of Octavia E. Butler including rare images from the author’s estate.

Don't forget that, in this troubled passage in US and world history, the present Golden Age of Sci Fi on Screen will gift us with the first-ever adaptation of a Butler novel, this one, by no less a new voice than Ava DuVernay. She is the talent behind the good-buzzed adaptation of A Wrinkle in Time!

My Review: I left publicly viewable notes from my Kindle reading on Goodreads. I think those are enough of a review of the specifics of the writing in this book. They're tied to passages I found important and so will, I hope, make the aesthetic points as to why I think you should read this book.

What I comment on now is the why of reading SF, fiction by women, fiction by people of color (a phrase I'm no more comfortable with than the "colored people" of my vanished youth), SF by women of color...reading and absorbing and thinking about the ideas given to you, amazingly freely and trustingly, by people you aren't like and maybe even people you don't like.

I think you should read these astounding gifts of personal creativity because they offer a close look into the ideas that someone unlike you finds important. If you don't learn what people unlike you find important, you run the risk of being caught in a labyrinth of dark sameness, a place where you don't need light because you know the contents of your environment so well already that there's no read need to take a good look at them.

And that is how we got to the point where we are as a country, here in the US as well as in the UK, and a culture, both in the West and the East. No one listens. We wait for our turn to talk without engaging our brains to process what our ears are hearing. And that's only if we're polite.

Open up a little by reading Butler's tale of the Oankali changing earthlings' genetics to improve their health and well-being. In the wake of a species-ending nuclear war, the earthlings aren't grateful to the Oankali for rescue, they're angry that they had no choice, no say, no chance to refuse being saved if it meant being used and manipulated for and by the Oankali.

Butler put her finger squarely on the conflict: The earthlings were given no choice. They were unquestionably manipulated before they were given any chance to comment on these things. They had also just blown their entire planet into an extinction event. Did they deserve a say? Butler gives Lilith the words to complain about the earthlings' treatment and the Oankali to explain but not apologize the whys of it.

In my never-humble opinion, a species that blew its home into an extinction event over stupid crap doesn't need any consultation to be offered, still less consent to be sought. Be damned good and grateful these interstellar gene machines arrived in time to do squat for you, which they didn't have to do at all. Given their culture's immense experience with and commodification of gene manipulation, they could simply have paused, grabbed some material (aka survivors of the holocaust) and used them before disposing of them.

The Oankali's ethics are superior to the earthlings', and they didn't do that. They set about repairing the damaged earth and improving the damned earthlings who caused the problem in the first place, while making every effort to understand and support them along the way.

A lot like animal researchers are doing today among cetaceans and great apes.

Oh my.

Don't like having done to us what we so blithely do to others, do we? And yet it's perfectly justified...the changes are being made for the earthlings' future benefit, after all.

After the weekend of 10 August when neo-Nazi and "alt-right" hate machines burst their closet doors of simply screaming at normal, decent people at last and began the hot war portion of their Civil War against goodness, kindness, and decency, reading a book like Dawn is an excellent primer in how this horror got started: A decent and perfectly reasonable human gets all bent out of shape and even decides she'd prefer to die rather than have her tiny little patch of personal control violated despite the certainty that she is and will continue to be better off for it.

I was never sanguine about human nature. I'm not turning any corners in that regard now. But I can see a tiny thread visible in the labyrinth: Read. Read the stuff that isn't just like you like the world to be. At least try that much, because it's no exaggeration to say your way of life is on the line. Try to hear what the Other is saying underneath the screams. We have to find the thread and follow it to our common source or we're headed the way of Butler's earthlings.

And I do not think there are any Oankali on the way to help us.


Sunday, August 13, 2017

IRREPARABLE HARM, in which a corporate attorney rediscovers her soul

(Sasha McCandless Thrillers #1)
Brown Street Books
Free on Kindle!

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: There's an app for everything. Even evil.

Attorney Sasha McCandless is closing in on the prize after eight long years: she's months away from being made partner at a prestigious law firm. All she has to do is keep her head down and her billable hours up.

Then a plane operated by her client slams into the side of a mountain, killing everyone aboard. Sasha gears up to prepare a defense to the inevitable civil lawsuits.

She quickly realizes the crash was no accident: a developer has created an application that can control a commercial plane's onboard computer from a smartphone. Now it's for sale to the highest bidder.

Sasha joins forces with a federal air marshal who's investigating the crash. As they race to prevent another airline disaster, people close to the matter start turning up dead. Sasha must rely on both her legal skills and her Krav Maga training to stop the madman before he kills her.

Sasha will need to rely on her legal training and her Krav Maga training in equal measure to find and stop a madman before he strikes again.

My Review: If you'd like to see how far Amazon has to go with its integration of Kindle highlighting into it title quotations, go look at this. Yikes.

Anyway, lookee here at me writing a review! And of a book I read on the Kindle, where if I'm lucky I get around half of what's going on! And follow that link to see just one of my mechanical issues with the Kindle as a note-taking device...I left three notes myownself, all carefully done, and they're only visible to people who bother to read them. Mine make sense, I promise, and I didn't leave dangly bits of sentences or anything. Why aren't they in the quotes? I could not tell you.

But back to why I'm reviewing a Kindle thriller: I think you should read it. I was engaged all the way through, even the parts where Author Miller walks me through the steps of a krav maga attack/defense, which she did several times when once would've been enough. Better yet, most of the time I was excited. Me! The cynical old "and how many times have I read *that* trope?" pursey-lipped nay-sayer! Excited! As in "can't you go up to the dining room for dinner, I'm reading" excited!

Why, you ask...and I'm glad you did because I was fixin' to tell y'all anyway...because Author Miller is a lawyer, and it shows, who *gets* that a legal case is a story with multiple main characters, a built-in motive for a crime, a cast of necessary characters already in place, and a plethora of available outcomes from one established set of facts.

Which is my attempt at tweaking her lawyerly nose with a dryly legalish presentation of the compliment that she followed the winding maze of legal hoo-hah without being predictable or, as I prefer to think of it, lazy. Writers who set the pattern for themselves and then just follow it write well-plotted but often...uninspiring...stories. It feels to me as though Melissa Miller tried to do that but was foiled in her attempt by the stroppiness of both Sasha and Naya, and the exasperated admiration of Judge Cook for Sasha was also (I suspect) a little bit of a surprise to Author Miller. I got the feeling Leo needed to catch up with Sasha a time or two when he was led by the outline to expect her *here* but she was *there*. These are good things. They show me the story was alive when it was published.

The parts of the story that left me the most contented were the usual suspects in a series mystery: ma'at is served, the bad are punished in a manner both swift and condign, and the events of the story leave the landscape intact but altered. This is, to the best of my knowledge, the first book published by Author Miller. It is the first in her series of ten thrillers starring Sasha.

And I suggest you think before you buy: The other titles are $4.99 each. You'll want them. I do, and am choosing which pennies to pinch so as to procure them next month.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

THE BALLAD OF BLACK TOM, a Cthulhu mythos delight

$3.99 Kindle edition, available now

Rating: 4.5* of five

The Publisher Says: People move to New York looking for magic and nothing will convince them it isn't there.

Charles Thomas Tester hustles to put food on the table, keep the roof over his father's head, from Harlem to Flushing Meadows to Red Hook. He knows what magic a suit can cast, the invisibility a guitar case can provide, and the curse written on his skin that attracts the eye of wealthy white folks and their cops. But when he delivers an occult tome to a reclusive sorceress in the heart of Queens, Tom opens a door to a deeper realm of magic, and earns the attention of things best left sleeping.

A storm that might swallow the world is building in Brooklyn. Will Black Tom live to see it break?

My Review: If I make a criticism of this wonderful story, it's the author's choice of the novella form to tell it.

My critique (meant to be a helpful form of criticism, the latter of which leaves no room for action or explanation) is (spoiler: that Charles Thomas turned into Black Tom offstage and in a convenient hurry, which is also:/spoiler) about the issues that in part arise from that choice of form.

Author La Valle's tasty new twist on the Cthulhu mythos is an example of later creators using the source material better than the original creator did. This story even nods to the man from Providence himself! I've left a wide swath of ten notes on highlights and they should all be read as part of this review.

I particularly admire Author La Valle's depth of characterization in the limited space of a novella. Otis, Thomas's father, in particular comes to more vivid life in his short time on the age than he would have in the weaker, less passionate grip of a lesser writer. The evocation of Red Hook's louche miasmic atmosphere was shivery good; the notion of Flatbush as countryside where cottages and even a run-down mansion could exist, and mentions of "rural Brooklyn," left me verschmeckeled but in that time were plain old facts.

And now for the truly, unspeakably, beyond-Lovecraftian terror contained in this work: AMC is making a TV series out of it in 2018.

Be very, very afraid.

Monday, August 7, 2017

THE ISLAND OF BOOKS, romantic historical escapism

(translated by Rhonda Mullins)
Coach House Books
$15.95 trade paper, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: The library at Mont Saint=Michel was once known as the city of books. It is there, within the grey walls of its monastery, that a portrait painter grieving the sudden death of the woman he loved finds refuge. And it's there, between the sea and the sky, five centuries later, that a novelist tries to find her words again. They meet in the pages of a notebook left out in the rain.

Like the manuscripts out bereaved—and illiterate—painter is asked to copy over earlier texts, The Island of Books reveals traces of a time before Gutenberg beneath its present. With all the passion and intellect we've come to expect from her, Dominique Fortier offers us a moving homage to books and to those who write them.


My Review: Exquisitely rendered grief. Author Fortier is outstanding at making the experience of life-altering grief full and real:
Seen from above, the monks all looked like with their brown cowls, the pale halos of their tonsures on the tops of their heads. They were small and interchangeable.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

MISSIONARY is my six-star read of 2017, deserves your paltry money and your eyeblinks


$3.99 electronic edition, available now

Rating: 6* of five

The Publisher Says: The Prophet provides everything for the Flock, demanding absolute devotion in return. Before allowing men to wed, they must serve Him, which they do willingly to get their brides. There’s only one little problem. When each man has multiple wives, there’s simply far too many boys.

Knowledge isn’t always power, but ignorance isn’t always bliss…

Jacob Wright’s questioning nature has always gotten him into trouble. The only book he has access to is The Word, but he thinks too deeply about the contents, far more than a devout boy should. When he’s called by the Prophet to serve a mission, Jacob believes his quest for answers has begun, only to discover the more he knows the less he believes.

Kerioth Marshal is an authoritarian, keeper of all knowledge past and present. His duty is to oversee the missionary center library, holding close the secrets of the Prophet. He’s accepted loneliness as part of his job, but then Jacob comes, offering him an escape from isolation. At first, Jacob’s inquisitive nature amuses and enchants him, but how long will it be before Jacob realizes Kerioth has saved him from one horrible fate only to subject him to another?

My Review: Where do I begin...first, this book was a complete surprise to me. Its existence was a surprise. Its subject matter was a surprise. Its imaginative universe was a gobsmacking surprise. So yeah, I was surprised.

Second, I would never have found the book had it not been for a Goodreads group called Gay Science Fiction. I'm coming out of a nasty reading slump and that makes me, to be frank, unwilling to translate from the heterosexual into my native tongue. I'm tired of reading about women who don't like their husbands, are abused by their fathers, etc etc etc. And the unbearable white heteronormative genre that SF has always been gets dreary too. I needed a resource to guide me past yet more gynergy or, worse still, misogyny. I found the group, I found the bookshelf and, best of all, I found one of the mods had posted about this title finally being available.

I read the synopsis above. Mmm...high stakes! Daddy/son relationship! A religious dystopia! Check, check, and check on my readerly desiderata list. A $3.99 gift card later, I settled in for a long summer's afternoon of getting safely riled up about fiction instead of world events that upset me.

Fucking hell.

This North Korea-run-by-Mormons tale smacked my teeth in, kicked my kneecaps, and made the Kindle pages blink past as fast as my thumb could tap the screen. In the Flock's territory, the Prophet is the autocratic leader of the church and the state. The Prophet's many, many wives have given him many, many children. The other church leaders have equally cushy tushy supply. The average man has three wives, the more status he has the more wives he adds.

How, you might wonder, does that work. The women are property, barely educated since their purpose in the world is to bear children (one woman is revealed to have died giving birth to the eighteetnth child). They have no semblance of rights, and are married off as early as twelve years old. The average man has no semblance of meaningful rights. He's led by the Prophet's local guy, he's required to make his children perform physical labor for the Prophet starting as young as five years of age, and the Prophet has set up a system to "call into missionary service" prepubescent boys who are...misfits...some too aggressive, some too full of questions, some physically unfit...and from there springs our story.

Jacob Wright is bursting with questions about everything. His father, his first, second, and third mothers, his teachers can't keep up. In an information-poor society they aren't equipped to answer the questions anyway. But no amount of disapproval can keep Jacob from asking and wondering and pondering. Thus it is that he is called to the missionary training center, where he expects to be trained and sent out among the Heathens outside the Gate to convert them. Jacob's bus ride to the missionary center is excitingly interrupted by a military attack from the heathens, whom Jacob sees for the first time. He sees desperate, dirty soldiers who will attack a busload of children, and cracks form in his idea of why he's off to become a missionary.

Things do not go as expected by Jacob. Nor do they go as planned by the theocratic machinery. Kerioth, the missionary center's authoritarian (head dude in charge of being in charge), interviews Jacob and senses something within the boy that makes him special and valuable. Kerioth singles Jacob out for special education, pays him personal attention, and generally makes life in the rigidly compartmentalized and hierarchical center endurable.

As time passes, Jacob learns more and more about Kerioth and more and more about the Flock's society. He is, after his eighteenth birthday, finally admitted into Kerioth's extremely difficult work world as well as his bed. The child has become a young man; the questing intelligence has matured into a worthy and beloved intellectual companion to the lonely and isolated Kerioth.

The job of be the Flock's memory of dead times and forbidden one that Kerioth shares to a limited degree with Jacob. The years that flow past the men are full of silences both beautiful and tense. The slow unfolding of Jacob's understanding of the Prophet, his family, and the very terrifyingly evil way the Flock keeps its promise of three wives for every average man, more for men of higher status, is a titanic blow to Jacob's sense of the rightness of the world he grew up in.

And, at the end of the book, the natural and inevitable and inescapable conclusion to the story... completely upended and shook around and pounded on the storytelling rocks Author Renner has gathered, placed, balanced, and mortared into place, like an octopus being tenderized for dinner. Tentacles of tale meat flail in every direction. Eyes and brains pop against the solid foundation rocks with the force of the change in direction.

But for once this sudden shift isn't cause for puma-screaming killing rage. It is a far, far, far more important story that, in the last lines, Author Renner promises us.

Six stars for that alone.

Also boosting the six-of-five case is Kerioth's intense and respectful passion, love, and need for Jacob. In a society that spends huge effort on controlling all females, males are untrammeled in any meaningful psychosexual ways. Kerioth could have started sexing up Jacob the second he saw the boy had he wanted to. Not one peep would've been uttered by anyone. Kerioth is so appalled by the idea of sexual abuse of children that he simply refuses to countenance it.

This resonates with me, as the child of a sexually abusive pedophile mother. It made me feel Kerioth, for all his fears and quirks, was at heart a decent man with a bedrock of honor from which he operates.

Jacob's growth into a partner for Kerioth is satisfying as well. Jacob never stops learning. Jacob also has a sneaky streak in his pragmatic nature. He "manages upward," so to speak, leading Kerioth to the conclusions that Jacob wants him to arrive at. The more information Jacob acquires, the more he leads his true love Kerioth into rebellious and seditious thought-patterns.

But the secret that the missionary center conceals...its true purpose to the so extremely NOT what Jacob or I was expecting that it rockets this theocratic dystopia to the very top of my reading list for 2017. It is stunning. I can't even hint at it. I want everyone I know to read the book RIGHT NOW so we can all discuss this, this, I can't even be coherent, this abomination, this darker, more horrifying, more unspeakable cousin of the Final Solution.

Yes. I went there. Author Renner has, in these 300-ish pages, created a nightmare theocracy that is built on something worse than the Final Solution.

Fear him. Words have power. Read his $3.99 vision of a hell so awful you will not be able to look away or to fully process its scope.