Review: The House of Shattered Wings

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The House of Shattered Wings
by Aliette de Bodard

★★★★☆

2015 • 402 pages • Gollancz

Urban fantasy is a hard sell for me. It’s not that I dislike the genre as a whole, but more that I was never exposed to sufficient amounts of Buffy the Vampire Slayer as a kiddo to develop a taste for it. (Instead, I was exposed to super sufficient amounts of Warcraft and The Legend of Zelda. This means that I bleed unicorns and also means that when it comes to the new Warcraft movie, I am a reverse Alien vs. Predator: no matter if it’s bad or good, I still win.)

So The House of Shattered Wings never even made it on my radar until Tor.com republished author Aliette de Bodard’s “On Colonialism, Evil Empires, and Oppressive Systems” back in September. If you have not read it, I highly recommend it; it is necessary and searing. It made me so excited for The House of Shattered Wings, despite my disinclination for urban fantasy, that I got nervous. (Although it’s not like that’s difficult.) Even after I started reading the thing, I’ve been Johnnie come lately to enough series that I was briefly terrified that I’d rented the second in the series. (This may seem unwarranted, but Memory’s review of An Apprentice to Elves excited me so much I accidentally rented The Tempering of Men instead of the book in question.)

Perhaps urbane fantasy is the best generic moniker to toss The House of Shattered Wings’ way—this is, after all, a novel set in the ruins of Belle Époque Paris, devastated not by World War I but by the war in heaven, brought forward several millennia. Continue reading

Review: Horrorstör

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Horrorstör
by Grady Hendrix

★★★½☆

2014 • 256 pages • Quirk Books

Not a secret: I am a massive weenie. I spent middle school sleeping with my front to the window in my bedroom, because this would let me see the aliens coming, and I spent high school sleeping with my front to the bedroom door, because this would let me see the zombies coming. Even as a perfectly functional adult, I still screamed at the top of my lungs during my screening of Crimson Peak at a key moment, and that’s a (marketed as) horror movie that is barely horrific.

More of a secret: I spent the bulk of October scaring myself silly with YouTube theories and Let’s Play videos of Five Nights at Freddy’s.

For those unfamiliar, let me catch you up. Five Nights at Freddy’s is a series of survival horror point-and-click games, centered around a pizzeria with animatronics. (Think Chuck E. Cheese.) You play as the security guard, trapped in their office, and have to make sure that the animatronics, which walk around at night and attack any adults they find, don’t get you. The games ultimately become a resource management game, as your generator only has so much power and locking the doors, checking your security feeds, flashing your lights at the animatronics eats up energy.

What I enjoy is that it’s both terrifying and, refreshingly, not gory at all (except, briefly, the third). It’s the tension and the atmosphere: the game became a Let’s Play staple because there’s a very high chance of it surprising the bajeesus out of the player. When I heard that Warner Brothers had picked up the movie rights, I started dreaming about the most terrifying movie ever made getting a PG rating. (And also starring Ellen Page as the security guard. Think about it.)

So while I may not be able to sleep as soundly anymore because animatronics are after my dreams, dear readers, I have, nonetheless, contracted a taste for gimmicky horror. Which brings us to Grady Hendrix’s 2014 horror novel, Horrorstör.

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Review: Only Ever Yours

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Only Ever Yours
by Louise O’Neill

★★★★★

2015 (originally published 2014) • 406 pages • Quercus

We didn’t discuss Elissa Sussman’s Stray in any great detail in my publishing program—after all, we weren’t supposed to know what the book was, just evaluate the excerpt we were given. (And definitely not start screeching its virtues to all comers. Uh, oops.) But one comment has always stuck in my craw. One of my fellow students, whose identity I will obscure to protect their innocence, wondered if feminists wouldn’t hate Stray, because it shows women in a negative light.

As a feminist who was loving it, I was aghast at the idea that feminists can only ever be satisfied with seeing women in a positive light: feminist dystopian fiction has a long and storied history. Speculative fiction’s most noble usage is to reflect our society back at us at slant angles so that we can see the truth (as the author sees it, anyway). I said my piece and we continued through the exercise.

Two years on, I shudder to think what that person would have made of Only Ever Yours, the darkest and grimmest satire I’ve come across in a long, long time. The misogynistic thinking that lies just beneath the surface of a lot of modern thinking about women is taken to its logical extreme, creating a truly horrific dystopia that is, as Ana at the Book Smugglers points out, composed entirely of misogyny. Only Ever Yours is inevitably compared to The Handmaid’s Tale, but it’s only The Handmaid’s Tale if women were reduced specifically to their sexual utility to men instead of “just” reduced to their reproductive capabilities.

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Review: Oreo

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Oreo
by Fran Ross

★★★★½

2015 (originally published 1974) • 240 pages • New Directions

After watching Amy Schumer host Saturday Night Live, I remain as ambivalent as ever about the comedian. It’s not that I’m not glad for Schumer—I am! And it’s not that Schumer isn’t making considerable strides for women in comedy that will heartily be appreciated by the comedians that follow her. But, as Katie Barnes at Feministing points out, while her comedy is feminist-minded, it’s not terrifically inclusive. And all things, especially comedy, benefit from an appreciation and understanding of intersectionality, as well as a broader perspective. Greater awareness and sensitivity to the world around you doesn’t inhibit comedy; it expands comedy.

Case in point: Fran Ross’ Oreo, a comic novel published in 1974 that promptly (and undeservedly) fell off the radar, which gleefully seizes upon the intersecting identities of and imposed upon Christine “Oreo” Clark, a half-black, half-Jewish girl from Philadelphia, as comic grounds. How before its time is Oreo? It includes a joke about doctors providing subpar health care to queer people… made by a gay character at the doctors’ expense.

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Review: Crazy Rich Asians

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Crazy Rich Asians
by Kevin Kwan

★★★½☆

2013 • 527 pages • Anchor Books

I never watched Gossip Girl, but I did read the odd Gossip Girl novel in high school (she said, instantly dating herself). I have a very specific memory of gobbling one up in math class in what felt like one go before handing it back to the girl who lent it to me. “They’re like crack,” she’d told me, and I feverishly agreed. Not to the point that I actively pursued the series any further, but to the point that I am not unfamiliar with the charms of a novel entirely about conspicuous consumption.

It’s really the best of both worlds—you get to rubberneck and disapprove at the same time, which appears to activate something mighty enough in the human psyche that this has been a genre for ages. (Joan Collins, anyone?) And the latest darling of conspicuous consumption narratives is Kevin Kwan, whose Crazy Rich Asians and its sequel, China Rich Girlfriend, have been making quite a splash.

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Review: Kushiel’s Chosen

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Kushiel’s Chosen
by Jacqueline Carey
★★★★½
2015 (originally published 2002) • 496 pages • Tor Books

Can Jacqueline Carey structure a trilogy or what?

I have a lot of opinions on how book series should be structured. I don’t think it’s beyond the pale to ask that a novel in a series be a novel unto itself—not that it needs to completely standalone, just that it needs to have a beginning, a middle, and an end while setting up the board for the next installment. And yet, this seems to be a tall order, especially when it comes to speculative fiction. I have encountered plenty of trilogies whose structure seem based on The Lord of the Rings—which is a terrible idea, because The Lord of the Rings is a single novel, not a series.

But, mercifully, Carey understands this and avoids it by both structuring her books enjoyably and cramming them so full of incident that you cannot help but be satisfied by the time you’re finished. It’s astonishing to me that The Sundering is a very successful duet, despite duets being harder to pull off than trilogies, which at least can have the traditional three act structure mapped onto them. Reading a Carey novel is knowing you are in good hands.

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Review: Georges

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Georges
by Alexandre Dumas
translated by Tina A. Kover

★★★★☆

2007 (originally 1843) • 336 pages • Modern Library

You may have recently seen that The Guardian’s Jonathan Jones recently wrote an article about how the late Terry Pratchett was not a genius—where he cops to never reading Pratchett in his entire life before calling his work trash and not real literature. I’m not linking you to it, dear reader, because I want your day to go well, and also because we’ve been here a thousand times at the screeching ghostly foothills of the false dichotomy of high and low culture. To reiterate: the line between high culture and pop culture is largely imaginary and constructed mostly of ideas of whose work really counts (which is why dead old white guys are vastly overrepresented in the Western canon, a thing also agreed upon by dead old white guys.)

Case in point: Alexandre Dumas, one of the greatest writers in history, wrote a scene where a man fights a shark. It’s all art, baby.

Georges is one of Dumas’ most little-known works—so little-known that even some of his most devout English-speaking fans didn’t know it existed. Langston Hughes and Richard Wright, who both found Dumas and the relative racial freedom of France inspirational as writers of color, never seem to have read or heard of it. And Frederick Douglass, who loved Dumas’ work enough to make sure to see Dumas-related sites around France while visiting, criticized Dumas for never writing about race. Sometimes, there’s an air of gatekeeping around works in translation—there’s certainly something suspicious in the fact that The Count of Monte Cristo is so accessible to English speakers that it’s in American public domain but Georges is not. Continue reading

Review: The Miseducation of Cameron Post

danforthmiseducationofcameronpostThe Miseducation of Cameron Post
by Emily Danforth

★★★★½

2012 • 470 pages • Balzer + Bray

It’s been a long time since I read something as good as The Miseducation of Cameron Post. When I first realized this, I thought it couldn’t be true—2015’s been a pretty solid reading year so far, especially with my determination to read more lady authors than gentlemen authors this year. But it seems like the last books that I truly adored and found myself practically drowning in (Women in Clothes and Truly Wilde) were months ago, which, in nerd time, is practically an eternity. (See our attention spans regarding Fantastic Fours and Spider-Mans.) And both of those are nonfiction titles, which mean that I’ve been without a fictional character breathing in my ear with how weighty and real they seem for quite some time.

But The Miseducation of Cameron Post put that to rights. It’s a title I remember from my bookstore days, trying to give it the much-desired face out. I knew it centered on a young lesbian who ended up being sent to “pray the gay away” camp, but it’s… I hesitate to say so much more, because I think that every queer story is valuable. But some queer stories have become louder than others: the tragic lesbians of midcentury pulp novels whose affairs can only end in degayification or death (via, of course, a “properly” heterosexual man), white, cisgendered, genteel gay men who just want to settle down and raise a baby (just like you, straights!), and the coming out story.

The Miseducation of Cameron Post is a coming out story, in the sense that we are introduced to Cameron as a middle schooler as she and her best friend, Irene, start exploring a more romantic side to their relationship… days before Cameron’s parents die in a car accident, leaving her in the care of her grandmother and her born again Christian aunt, Rita. But once the teenage Cameron has a more serious relationship with Lindsey, an out and proud lesbian from Seattle whom she meets through competitive swimming, Cameron embraces being gay as much as a kid in Miles City, Montana, in the early nineties can. The rest of the novel, then, is about Cameron learning—learning about lesbian culture through missives of Lindsey and obsessive movie watching, learning about the adult world that lies beyond her, and learning about herself when she’s forced to attend God’s Promise. It’s about Cameron growing up.

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Review: Ladies Almanack

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Ladies Almanack
by Djuna Barnes

★★★½☆

1992, originally published 1928 • 91 pages • Dalkey Archive Press

This is what I was reading when the Supreme Court of the United States (I will never say SCOTUS, because it makes me giggle like a twelve year old) ruled that same-sex marriage was constitutional on June 26th. I’ve talked a little about how I, a pretty quiet nerdly type who occasionally transforms into the hissing GOTH QUEEN OF THE INTROVERTS at the drop of a hat, often feel alienated from mainstream queer culture because I don’t like to party, drink, or stay out late. (This is why events like FlameCon are so incredibly important to me.) But what a time for pride and Pride. Watching the New York Pride March make its thundering way south on Fifth Avenue out of a foggy, rainy morning felt like watching us all march out of history.

Which is, of course, where we’ve been this whole time. Reading loosely over the dissenting opinions of the court, I was miffed to discover the age-old argument that same-sex marriage is a something brand new and totally alien to the human concept of matrimony. (Which also smacks of the strange idea that queer folk were invented in the seventies.) I’d like to point everyone to the late medieval French practice of affrèrement (“brother-making”), which was used to unite property owners (so, dudes) who wanted to pool their resources, which was the basic concept of marriage for most of human history. The idea was that it would be used for literal brothers who needed certain legal rights (i.e., sharing property and becoming each other’s legal heirs). But the idea that two men wouldn’t have used it in the context of a loving relationship is absurd. I point you to Wikipedia for more information on same-sex unions in other cultures.

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Review: Mermaids in Paradise

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Mermaids in Paradise
by Lydia Millet

★★☆☆☆

2014 • 304 pages • W.W. Norton & Company

Let me begin this review by popping up on my soapbox, whipping out my megaphone, and bellowing at the top of my lungs, “PUNCH UP, NOT DOWN.”

If there’s one thing I cannot stand in comedy, it’s cruelty. As much as I am enjoying my journey through early Saturday Night Live, sometimes I want to scream into a pillow. Like, for instance, when there’s a sketch that centers solely around screwing a blind black man out of a law scholarship to make a muddied point about how affirmative action is crap. I can see no comedic value in privileged groups mocking marginalized groups. (I do want to stress there’s a difference between this and internal, loving parody, a la Portlandia.)

But that’s the kind of comedy that runs rampant through Mermaids in Paradise, which is, I gather, meant to be a light comedic trifle about a honeymooning couple who discover mermaids at their Caribbean resort. It’s told from the perspective of Deb, who applies a patronizing and slightly cruel gloss to everything she sees.

For instance: during the lead-up to the wedding, Deb despairs of everything related to weddings, calling them infantile and pedophilic. (Of course, her analysis stops at side-eying women who like that kind of thing, instead of interrogating the system.) Her beloved Chip loves World of Warcraft, which she constantly points out as a huge problem and a major sacrifice that she’s made in the relationship. (It’s also really apparent Millet did no research for the handful of times Deb is describing what Chip is doing in the game, which begs the question—why not just invent a game if you’re just going to crap on it? It just ends up implying that Millet assumes her readers will similarly have never played such a game but have immediately dismissed it.) When an indigenous employee shows Deb and Chip to their rooms, Deb immediately starts rhapsodizing about the woman is “embodying a primordial womanly grace, with her darkish, gleaming complexion and earthen-toned sarong” (62). And there’s a “comedic” set piece centered around Janeane, a fellow vacationer, who clearly suffers from panic attacks, a non-specific anxiety disorder, and may have survived some sexual trauma. At a resort-wide dinner, she begins suffering a panic attack and her partner tries to soothe her, but the way he touches her arm re-triggers her. Hilarious!

(Vomit.)

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