Saturday, July 30, 2022


Cory Doctorow
Completed 7/30/2022, Reviewed 7/30/2022
4 stars

Four novellas elaborating on the fears and horrors of today and the near future.  Each story takes a contemporary topic, gives it a personal perspective, and draws it out to a scary yet realistic conclusion.  I saw Doctorow on a tour of libraries he did five or so years ago.  He’s an excellent speaker and has his finger on the pulse on the problems of modern society like social injustice, insurance, and the fear of the apocalypse.  It’s an excellent collection, told in a sort of journalistic style, and his extrapolations are horrifying in their realism. 

“Unauthorized Toast” is a brilliant depiction of the future of the treatment of immigrants and the poor.  Cheap products are made, like toaster ovens and dishwashers, that only allow you to use certain brands of bread, frozen meals, dishes, detergent, etc.  One immigrant woman finds on the dark web a way to circumvent the controlling software.  It puts herself and everyone she’s helped in jeopardy of punishable copyright violation.  This story was the best of the bunch.

“Model Minority” was an okay take on the Superman/Batman fantasy.  A superhero called the American Eagle tries to fight for the rights of a black man who has been wrongfully beaten and incarcerated by white, racist, corrupt cops.  He finds that he must face his own hypocrisy for not helping blacks during the Jim Crow era.  

“Radicalized” is the scariest of the stories.  It’s about a man who encounters a terrorist organization on the dark web, consisting of the men who’ve lost their wives or children to cancer because insurance companies wouldn’t pay for treatment, while he himself is dealing with his wife’s stage 4 breast cancer.  

“Masque of the Red Death” is a modern treatment of the Poe classic.  A rich despotic high financier gathers around thirty people into an enclave when the end of civilization as we know it approaches.  They hide out, refusing others refuge.  When things seem to return to normal, a few venture out to trade for some supplies, and of course, they bring back a pandemic.

I really enjoyed these stories, though they are not fun.  Some are even cringeworthy in their portrayal of realistic scenarios.  This was especially true of “Model Minority”, with the washed-up Eagle being less than loved as he was in the early part of the last century.  

Doctorow does an excellent job of bringing his characters to life, making you feel empathy for them, except for the rich despot in “Masque”.  Instead, you just hate him.  But whether you love or hate the characters, you feel something for each of them.  There isn’t much humor in the stories.  It’s mostly irony.  But it really works.  I give this book four stars out of five.  I think it’s a must read for anyone who has an ounce of social justice awareness in their bones, and probably for those that don’t have any, to see what could be played out if we continue on the path we’re heading.

Sunday, July 24, 2022

The Oathbound

Mercedes Lackey
Completed 7/24/2022, Reviewed 7/24/2022
3 stars

I had a mixed reaction to this book.  I enjoyed having two kick-ass women fighting injustice, but there was something off about the composition.  It felt like it was a collection of short stories woven together after the fact and made into a novel.  While that’s not always bad, it didn’t feel seamless.  I have to give props to Lackey though, she wrote a bold feminist fantasy novel in the 80’s.  I read this book because I’m doing a Grand Master challenge based around Lackey.  She won the honor last year, and on World Without End’s site, it’s become a tradition to have a challenge based on the honoree from the previous year.

This book begins with a disclaimer that the characters were introduced in a story that was part of an anthology.  However, it picks up without feeling like you missed much.  Tarma and Kethry are on the road.  Tarma’s clan was annihilated.  The is a master warrior, training at night with the spirits of past master warriors of her clan.  Kethry is on the run from being sold into wedlock by her own brother to a sleaze with a penchant for little girls.  After running away, she trains in magic at special school.  Now adults, the two have met up and are traveling together, righting the wrongs done to women.  They journey begins with traveling to Kethry’s home where she confronts her brother and husband.  Then travel to Tarma’s home where she tries to claim her clan’s inheritance.  Eventually they’re led to a demon who rapes, tortures, and sacrifices young women in an effort to make himself a god.

The main characters are both pretty well done.  Tarma is asexual, consecrated to her clan’s goddess.  She has become bonded with Kethry, even though she is not of the same clan or country.  This bond is so intense, they are psychically linked.  Both women are very strong and very powerful, one as warrior, one as mage.  But they still have doubts and arguments and very human emotions.  Many of the other characters are also well done, coming across as human and not just cardboard side characters.  Even the demon at the end is a little more complex than your average bad guy.  

I really like Lackey’s prose.  It reads very well, although it can get a little overly flowery at times.  Her world building is also good.  This takes place in the Valdemar universe, the same one as the Last Herald-Mage series, featuring Magic’s Pawn, Magic’s Promise, and Magic’s Price, which I read a few years back.  The magic is consistent, yet surprising.  I particularly liked the sword called Need that couldn’t be used against women but gave the female wielder superpowers.  It gets them into a crazy situation when a bad man is turned into a woman.  

I also liked that Lackey regularly slips healthy queer relationships into the story.  And having an asexual main character is also quite innovative, especially for nearly forty years ago.  I was pretty disturbed by how badly the bad guy who is turned into a woman reacts to his transformation.  But I think that was the point, showing the misogynistic battle against which Tarma and Kethry must fight.

Despite the positives, I give this book three stars out of five.  It just felt like a series of stories woven together.  It was hard to continue after finishing one story line because it felt very final.  I think I would have enjoyed it more if it simply was a collection of novellas with well defined beginnings and ends.  I’m still going to read the next two in the series, having developed an appreciation of the two main characters.  I’m just hoping they are a little more cohesive within themselves.

Monday, July 18, 2022

No Gods, No Monsters

Cadwell Turnbull
Completed 7/18/2022, Reviewed 7/18/2022
4 stars

I had a tougher time getting into this novel than Turnbull’s first, The Lesson.  It’s another sprawling novel with many characters and shifting points of view.  After reading the book, I found an entry the author made in Goodreads that offers things to realize while reading.  I wish I had found it earlier as it might have helped a bit.  Having finished it and seeing where the book is going (it’s the first of a proposed trilogy), I get it, but the journey there was a little frustrating.  This book won the 2022 Lambda Literary Award.  It is chock full of diverse characters:  trans, queer, asexual, non-binary, straight.  There are people of color.  None of the diversity is a major feature of the book, simply a part of the characters.  The main character is the community of inclusion.  

The plot is a little crazy as there are so many characters followed.  But the gist of it is that a woman’s brother is killed by the police.  What at first appears to be a case of police brutality is really the beginning of global awareness of the existence of monsters.  The primary types represented are shifters, like werewolves.  But there are also people with various types of magical abilities.  There are two secret societies for the support of monsters.  The societies do not get along and one wants to start a war.  

Through most of the book, I was a little lost.  The sections follow many different characters, including a semi-omniscient voyeuristic first person narrator.  I liked all the characters.  They are well developed and realistic.  One of the major characters is Laina.  It is her brother who is killed by police.  She is in a sort of polyamorous relationship with a transgender asexual man and a monster woman.  Her brother Lincoln was a bisexual addict who only recently cleaned up and accepted his monster self.  There’s a boy known only as Dragon who can burn people and fly.  Sondra is a politician who can read magic from people.  She has an adopted sister who can remove her skin and travel invisibly.  All these plus other characters make up a community trying to respond to the sudden appearance of monsters who have remained hidden from society through the secret societies, family training, or by their own cunning.

The amazing thing about this book is the writing.  The characters are fully formed despite this being a relatively short book.  No one felt cardboard or stock.  The prose is marvelous.  It is just the right amount literary without being ostentatious.  It makes for a pleasant reading experience without feeling like you’re bogged down in descriptions.

If there’s anything that’s lacking, it’s the world building.  But I think that’s intentional.  The whole first book just gives us a taste of what’s going on, just as the world is slowly figuring it out.  When the police video of Lincoln’s shooting is released, everyone is shocked until it is edited down to hide his transition to and from werewolf.  Then people, longing for understanding, simply forget that part or decide not to believe that monsters are real.  The descriptions of this world where monsters are coming out of the closet is full of disbelief and ignorance.  So, the world building is only as good as the people who believe what’s going on.

I give this book four out of five stars.  I would have probably given it five stars if I could have gotten it all in the beginning. But this book takes work to get.  And it kept me at arms length from really empathizing with the characters.  But the work is worth it, with a powerful ending that leaves you open for the next installment.  

Wednesday, July 13, 2022

The Physiognomy

Jeffrey Ford
Completed 7/12/2022, Reviewed 7/13/2022
4 stars

I didn’t like this book for about the first half.  I was sure I was going to give it two stars.  Then something happened and I got completely caught up in it and couldn’t wait to see how it would end.  The main character is not likeable for a long time.  The prose is dense.  The world-building was bizarre.  But it all came together into a couldn’t-put-it-down experience.  This book is described as Kafkaesque, which often translates to depressing and not understandable, but here, it was more of the oppressive and nightmarish quality of a Kafka story.  This certainly isn’t a good time read.  But it has depth and weight.  This book won the World Fantasy Award for 1998.

Physiognomy is the divination of a person’s character through the measurement of their face and/or body.  Cley is a physiognomist.  He lives in a city that was built out of the powerful imagination of its ruler, Drachton Below.  Below uses Cley to measure people to figure out who committed a crime or perhaps is plotting against him.  The people hate Cley and Cley generally hates people.  He’s glad to see them executed by filling their heads with inert gas until it explodes.  Then Below sends him to the rural hinterlands on what seems a simple mission.  However, Cley falls for the charms of a woman who has perfect facial measurements and soon his whole sense of self, profession, and universe changes, leaving him at the mercy of the spiteful Below.

Cley is a misanthrope and oblivious to the suffering around him.  He believes so much in his profession that people with bad measurements deserve to die or be surgically made better proportioned.  It made the first half of the book nearly excruciating to read.  The only thing that kept me going was the promise of metanoia in the book’s blurb.  It does come and I was able to feel empathy for him.  But it’s not a fairy tale ending.  Despite his complete change of heart, he still has to suffer the consequences for his previous actions.  That made the character and the story very believable.

Drachton Below is maniacal genius.  He is not a likeable character and despite suffering from his actions, doesn’t repent.  He remains demonic.  Once Cley has his redemptive experience it’s easier to see Below as the bad guy.  There are also some secondary characters, like Arla with whom Cley falls in love.  She’s a good person, but remains cold and distant and suffers from the early actions of Cley.  Despite this, she’s the one spark of hope in the first half of the book.  

The world building is definitely bizarre.  The city is completely designed by Below in his genius imagination.  He builds it out of grit and manipulation.  It survives because of his oppressive control over the citizens by the use of physiognomy.    It doesn’t really make sense at first, but does come together as the story progresses.  I have to hand it to the author.  He really came up with a remarkable, imaginative world.  This story is unlike anything I’ve read in a long time.  

I give this book four stars out of five.  But it is not a pleasure read.  It’s a brilliantly envisioned world with unique characters and a surprising plot.  It just takes time to get into this dark, dark fantasy.  If you can get through the first half, the rest will be your reward.  

Saturday, July 9, 2022

Boys, Beasts & Men

Sam J Miller
Completed 7/9/2022, Reviewed 7/9/2022
5 stars

I really love Miller’s writing, even when I don’t necessarily like the story.  It always seems effortless in its descriptions and word choices.  It’s funny, I saw Miller very recently at Powell’s Books, his tour for this collection of short fiction.  He read an excerpt from one of the stories and said that he saw a sentence there that he would write better if he were writing it today.  What’s funny about that is that I thought all the sentences flowed so beautifully, from his early works in the collection to the later.  This book is filled with wonderful prose, important themes, and bizarre, genre-bending plots.  From a story told from the point of view of an old couch to a world where King Kong was real, it’s simply joyful and profound.

I first read Miller when I discovered he wrote Blackfish City and was gay.  Before I acquired Blackfish, I read all the short fiction I could find on different publishers’ websites.  I loved it.  When I finally read Blackfish, I was a little let down.  The world-building and prose were great, but overall, couldn’t get into the plot.  Next, I read his gentrification-horror novel, The Blade Between and loved it.  Now with this third book, he’s really cemented himself as one of my favorite writers, along with the likes of Craig Laurance Gidney, Nnedi Okorafor, and TJ Klune.  I have a lot of favorites these days, having read so many books, but these are a few that I’ve really come to enjoy and look forward to their next release.

I loved almost all the stories in this career-spanning collection.  It’s hard to categorize them as horror, fantasy, or science fiction, hence the term genre-bending.  And the part of the story that makes it this is always a little weird.  But they all have common themes, like family, community, gentrification, abuse of the disenfranchised.  Most of the stories come from a gay perspective, with at least one character being LGBTQIA.  One of the most intense stories is “Angel, Monster, Man”, which is about three gay men during the early days of AIDS who concoct a fictional person through which to publish the unpublished works of artists who have died of the disease.  They publish stories, poetry, photos, all of which become huge hits.  It galvanizes the gay community into action, but along the way, the fictional person becomes real and haunts the three.

It’s really hard to pick my favorites of the collection, which is my usual modus operandi with reviewing collections or anthologies.  So I’m going to randomly choose a few others to note.

“We Are the Cloud” has the poor leasing out the unused parts of their brain as additional processing power for the Cloud.  One such person is a boy about to age out of a halfway house for juveniles.  Named Angel, he seems to be somewhere on the autism spectrum.  He meets another such boy, Case, with whom he falls in love.  Case convinces Angel to get try acting in gay porn, then disappears on him.

“Shattered Sidewalks of the Human Heart” is the King Kong world story.  A taxi driver picks up Ann Darrow, the woman King Kong fell in love with.  They talk about Kong, the driver admitting crying when Kong fell and died.  They bond quickly and Darrow shares a secret piece of Kong that she has hidden, giving it as a gift to the driver.

“Calved” was a horrific story of misdirected love and misunderstanding.  It takes place in the same post-global warming world of Blackfish City.  A divorced dad comes back to visit his son after many months on an ice boat.  His son, now a surly teen, hardly communicates with him.  The dad gave the son his favorite tee shirt once, but the son know longer has it. Thinking it was stolen by a bully, he goes after the thief.  This one was just devastating, even though it’s easy to see what’s coming at the end.  

Those are just a sampling of the stories in this awesome collection, which I give five stars out of five.  Almost every story punched me in the gut in some way.  I think this book is a great way to become acquainted with the brilliant gay young writer, one who I hope we will continue to see in the future.

Sunday, July 3, 2022

Akata Woman

Nnedi Okorafor
Completed 7/3/2022, Reviewed 7/3/2022
3 stars

I was a little disappointed with the third installment of the Nsibidi Scripts series.  It didn’t have the same spark of the first two, Akata Witch and Akata Warrior.  In this one, Sunny and the gang go on a journey to find a scroll stolen from a god.  It took me about half the book to get into it, and then I became somewhat disinterested in the finale.  I can’t quite put my finger on why yet.  Maybe it will unravel as I write this review.

This book picks up when Sunny is almost sixteen years old.  She and Chichi must find the scroll that was stolen from Udide the spider god many years back by Chichi’s mother.  If they don’t, Udide will wreak havoc on their lives and the sisterhood of Nimm, of which Chichi and Sunny are descendants.  They don’t know where it is, so they, along with Orlu and Sasha, travel to where the Nimm live, even though it may mean death for Chichi because of her mother’s transgressions.  They get the info they need, but not without a lot of chaos, and then begin the journey to find the scroll.  The journey takes them across multiple planes of existence, filled with dangers.

The star of the book is once again the world building.  Just when you think that everything is pretty well described in the previous books, Okorafor throws in a different plane of existence, where there are two suns and the people there think Earthlings are not human.  There are some interesting animals there and a fighter pilot from the Biafran War who accidently crash landed in this alternate dimension.  

Okorafor also does a good job of interweaving actual history into the story, giving us a description of the independence movement for Biafra from Nigeria.  Because actual events had been woven so seamlessly into the last two books, when she introduces the Biafran issues and the violent Nigerian response in this one, it flows into the plot naturally.  

I didn’t feel there was as much character development as there could have been in this book.  I felt Okorafor relied on everything we knew about the characters already.  I think this is because there isn’t much interaction with the mentors, except for a little with Sugar Cream.  Sunny’s family is barely in this one, although her father is the same violent patriarchal asshole.  The story really relies on the plot rather than the growth of the characters.

I give this book three stars out of five.  It’s okay, just not in the same league as the first two.  It’s a story about a journey, and that journey is just not quite as interesting as Sunny’s previous labors.  Given the title, I think I would have liked to have seen Sunny perhaps two years later, a little more mature, and little more in love with Orlu.  I would have also liked to have seen her get through more than just one level of magic maturity, as her labors indicate she is doing things well beyond a first level Leopard person.  I’m not positive, but there may be another book in the series, and I would like to see where it takes Sunny and her friends, hopefully, a little older, and dealing as more mature juju wielders.