Review: Heart of Iron

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Heart of Iron
by Ekaterina Sedia

★★★☆☆

2011 • 320 pages • Prime Books

I talk a lot about narrative structure in speculative fiction. Not that it’s not a problem in other genres, but who knew that Britain’s postwar paper shortage would give us so many speculative fiction series that didn’t need to be series? But a separate, although related, problem is narrative heft. In my readings, I have come across many, many stories that either try to stretch out a thin story farther than it can go or, less frequently but more frustrating, attempt to cram too much story into too little words.

I find the latter more frustrating because the fix is simple. In fact, the fix is simple in both cases, but there’s only one where you actually get to indulge yourself. If you have so much story, tell it—don’t compress it.

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Review: Bastard Out of Carolina

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Bastard Out of Carolina
by Dorothy Allison

★★★★★

2012 (originally published 1992) • 336 pages • Plume

 

Sia has adopted the young dancer Maddie Ziegler as a kind of avatar, and so I expected to see her crop up when Sia appeared on Saturday Night Live this weekend—even without knowing that Ziegler had already turned up in the music video for “Elastic Heart.” Less inevitable was seeing another dancer, Denna Thomsen, don the leotard and blonde bob as well. But by the time Ziegler was stomping on the back of her older dance partner, I was enthralled. The performance can be read many ways, but the more I read about the larger context of the song—the official music video features Ziegler dancing with a bearded Shia LaBeouf as a pair of “warring ‘sia’ self states,” according to the artist—the more I was convinced that the performance on Saturday Night Live yielded plenty of fruit as a treatise on motherhood.

Between that performance of “Elastic Heart” and Bastard Out of Carolina, I’ve been thinking about motherhood, lately. Specifically, I’ve been thinking about the spiritual violence of motherhood. Louis C.K. has a joke about how adopting a dog is just starting a countdown to sorrow, because owners will usually outlive their dogs. I deeply suspect that the same is true of raising a child. There comes a moment when you look into your child’s eyes and discover that she is both the same as you and different from you. There comes a moment when you look into your mother’s eyes and discover that she is both the same as you and different from you. It’s the moment in Sia’s performance when the child wraps her arms around Sia, declaring agency, and it breaks her mother’s heart; it’s the moment when Bone loses her mother, because her mother can still love the man who abused and raped her daughter. It’s the moment when you recognize each other as independent and fallible beings. It’s the moment when you are discover that you are now equals.

I fell in something hotter and drier than love with Dorothy Allison’s writing when I came across her essay “A Question of Class,” where she talks about the difficulties she’s faced at the intersection of queer and poor. It’s as visceral as she confesses to wanting her prose to be, so off I trotted to said prose. And here is another thing to fall for: she writes of an angry girlhood.

Bastard Out of Carolina is often taught in high schools and is, as you can imagine and as Allison discusses in the afterword to this twentieth anniversary edition, hotly contested. But I don’t think it’s about the level of abuse Bone suffers at the hands of her stepfather, but about Bone. I remember the rape narratives I came across in middle school and high school featuring faultless heroines who suffer silently until rescued, presumably to forestall the “enjoyable” discussions about consent my middle school Health class I stewed through. (I slaked my anger on correcting misinformation about abortion in the textbook.) Bone is no such long-suffering, pure heroine. she’s serious, quiet, and righteously angry. She understands the world both better and worse than she thinks she does. She deeply suspects and speculates on her mother’s coping mechanisms. She knows how others think of her people—the poor, the backwoods, the Boatwrights. And she spends the novel grappling with her mother’s seeming desire to ignore what is happening to her.

And Bone is righteously, incandescently angry at the world, society, and mother that fail her:

After that, when I passed the Woolworth’s windows, it would come back—that dizzy desperate hunger edged with hatred and an aching lust to hurt somebody back. I wondered if that kind of hunger and rage was what Tommy Lee felt when he went through his mama’s pocketbook. It was a hunger in the back of the throat, not the belly, an echoing emptiness that ached for the release of screaming. Whenever we went to visit Daddy Glen’s people, that hunger would throb and swell behind my tongue until I found myself standing silent and hungry in the middle of a family gathering full of noise and food. (98)

We do not see enough angry girls in fiction—girls whose anger is not dismissed or ignored, but recognized and validated. Girls, even girls protected from what Bone suffers, have every right to be angry. To see an angry girl, and an angry girl who dominates the novel with her own searing voice at that, is more than a breath of fresh air. I was an angry girl myself, but I never realized it, no matter how hateful and spiteful I was, no matter how deeply I overreacted to other things, no matter how loud I raged. No one around me knew what to do with a overgrown girl’s unreasonable anger, largely because I don’t think they thought young girls could be that angry, and we all largely pretended it wasn’t happening. (It got better, eventually.) It, thank God, was not for the reasons Bone is angry; it was a different, internal anger. But it was an anger all the same. Validation comes in all forms, even if it’s the barest fingerprint of Bone’s life against mine.

Bone, eventually, thankfully, and mercifully is given a way out—through her extended family, who defend her against Glen, and specifically her aunt Raylene, who ultimately takes her in. But Bone ultimately rescues herself, by making the heartbreaking realization that her mother cannot help her. It’s a messy novel, as it has to be, and it’s searing. I opened Bastard Out of Carolina to read a few pages at lunch on Saturday and could not physically tear myself away. I have so much to learn from Dorothy Allison.

I rented this book from the public library.

Review: The Snow Queen

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The Snow Queen
by Joan D. Vinge

★★★★☆

1980 • 471 pages • Dial Press

One of the things I love most about genre fiction is texture. I think it has something to do with imprinting on Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings film trilogy at puberty; there is something soothing and fascinating about exploring a meticulously put together and elegantly revealed world, be that world the future, the past, or something completely different through an engaging story. Actually finding such a world in genre fiction can be rare—because of how selectively I read (look, I know it doesn’t seem that way, but I can be discerning sometimes), I tend to read a higher percentage of great worldbuilding, but I have spent my fair share of time picking through every sf book available at bookstores, as both a customer and an employee. So it sometimes feels like an event when I do find a book with the kind of swooning texture that makes me slip my skein of skin and look up at the end of my commute and remember, wonderingly, where I am and who I am.

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Review: Animal Farm

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Animal Farm
by George Orwell

★★★½☆

1990 (originally published 1945) • 124 pages • Harcourt Brace Modern Classics

I’m not going to review Animal Farm.

I mean, what would be the point? As I once said to my baffled mother in a California Pizza Kitchen, I grow less and less interested in determining the objective value of a text and more and more interested in the value people derive from a text. Every review on this blog is about the value I personally derive from each text I consume. (Look, Gossamer Axe isn’t for everybody, but, for me, it’s almost perfect.) There are some basics to be still be observed—did you spell everything more or less right? Is there a whole story in here? Do you treat marginalized minorities as people?—but, by and large, it’s the personal resonance that makes pop culture criticism such a fascinating and engaging field.

But there are some texts that I can’t sink my teeth into in a personal way. By and large, in my youth, these were books forced on me that I deeply resented. (Madame McBride made me read Silas Marner before I read Good Omens. I completed her terms, but immediately and willfully forgot the novel. Never underestimate the spite of preteens. They are monsters.) These days, they’re mercifully rare, but Animal Farm rates among them. While I enjoy texts that examine the world around us—speculative fiction is where it is at, people—I still want them to also be engaging stories. That’s, after all, why it’s a story and not an article; it’s easier for people to learn a lesson through a narrative. George Orwell obviously understood this, which is why Animal Farm is a fairy story, as the novel’s original British subtitle goes. He has a point to make about Stalinist Russia and he makes it stridently, over and over again. I don’t think you can ask if it’s effective as a story with well-developed characters, because that’s hardly Orwell’s point. I seriously doubt contemporary reviews of the novel that bemoaned how obvious the novel was bothered him one whit. It works exactly the way he wants it to work, which is no mean feat, and that’s all I can really say about it.

So I thought I’d talk about, instead, reading books in the classroom.

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Review: VIII

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VIII
by H. M. Castor

★★★½☆

2013 (originally published 2011) • 432 pages • Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers

The throne is his… and he is only 17.

We’ve been getting a lot of mileage out of the American cover to H. M. Castor’s VIII here at the Church of Bowie. Every time Captain Cinema chances across it (she raids my books, I raid her movies; it’s a symbiotic friendship), we end talking about how marveling at someone ascending the throne so young is silly in the Tudor era, when the average life expectancy was thirty-five. Researching that last sentence took me down a wonderful rabbit hole about how to calculate average life expectancy in a situation with a very high infant mortality rate, but my point still states: seventeen was well of age in Tudor England.

But the point is not historical accuracy; the point is to reframe the infamous Henry VIII so that readers will approach him with a bit more of an open heart than they might otherwise. As you may be able to guess, I’m a Queen Elizabeth I fan (I have a lot of feelings about Elizabeth: The Golden Age, okay?), and only really think of Henry VIII as a major bummer. For the young adult audience VIII is heavily marketed towards, I imagine their impressions are largely the same. But H. M. Castor—little sister to Helen—expressly states, in the supplemental material in the American paperback edition, that she wanted to dig deep into Henry VIII’s psyche. If he was so lauded as a young man for his strength, virtue, and beauty, how did he become such a monstrous figure in English history?

(Before you ask, VIII was published in the UK in 2011 by Templar Publishing, a year after The Tudors concluded. I imagine the two are related but don’t particularly care.)

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Review: The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains

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The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains
by Neil Gaiman

★★½☆☆

2014 • 80 pages • William Morrow

Somewhere along the way, through no fault of his own, I lost Neil Gaiman.

Good Omens was one of the first non-Harry Potter novel I read under my own steam. (I was not a big reader as a kid; I was a repetitive reader. It was one of my first coping mechanisms for my then unfathomable anxiety.) It was a favorite of webcomic creator Stan Stanley, whose Boy Meets Boy I read religiously—and secretively—as a preteen, and therefore the first recommendation I ever came across from a source I trusted. My faith was rewarded: I devoured Good Omens and moved onto American Gods, Coraline, and Anansi Boys in short order. It was all part of what I think of fondly as my brief kindergoth phase. Despite lacking the resources, chutzpah, or basic understanding of how clothes worked to commit to the baby goth, punk, or emo (kids, ask your parents) looks my childhood friends took to, I happily lingered on the periphery, dreaming dark, Romantic thoughts of dying my hair blue and writing urban fantasy.

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Review: Mordred, Bastard Son

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Mordred, Bastard Son

by Douglas Clegg

★★☆☆☆

2006 • 360 pages • Alyson Books

What’s the dividing line between fiction and fan fiction?

Obviously, there’s the major demarcation between your intellectual property and someone else’s intellectual property, but even that hard and fast legal definition ignores the fact that the vast majority of historical fiction is real person fic and the widespread plundering of the public domain by everyone under the sun. Creatively, though, the artistic impulses behind original fiction and fan fiction are totally different. The writer of fan fiction isn’t writing in a fandom because she lacks imagination (this is me pulling out my bullhorn and bellowing “DIANA GABALDON” at the top of my not inconsiderable lungs); she’s writing in that fandom because she’s responding to that text in a very specific way. That response can be as simple as “I think John and Sherlock should make out, so I’ll write some smut” to “Watchmen doesn’t have enough female characters, so I’ll genderflip the whole thing.” And so we stumble across another line: how far away from a text can your fan fiction (or retelling, homage, or “reimagining,” as the legal and published ones are advertised) get before it simply circles back and becomes your own story in a way that is decidedly different from a fan reclaiming Doctor Who for herself from Moffat? If it’s simply keeping the names the same, what does it say that an alternative universe fic like Master of the Universe can, with little to no effort, become Fifty Shades of Grey?

So perhaps we can answer today’s first question with today’s last question, purloined from Shakespeare, that great writer of fic—what’s in a name?

In his introductory remarks to Mordred, Bastard Son, Douglas Clegg states that his intention in writing the now cancelled Mordred trilogy is to both tell Mordred’s side of the story and inject some gay representation into the Arthurian myths. These are classic fan writer impulses, and I was prepared to tuck into something along the lines of The Mists of Avalon—to see the complex motivations behind the choices we know from the canonical text.

But Mordred, Bastard Son doesn’t really tell the story of a man maligned by history for his acts in defense of the old religion. In fact, it doesn’t really tell the story of Mordred as we know it, because it never gets there. This is not something I can entirely lay at Clegg’s feet, as the trilogy was abandoned by his publisher after its publication. (He has said, as of this year, that he plans on publishing the other two installments, but they have not materialized.) And yet, for a novel about a character whose involvement in Arthur’s downfall is certainly the most iconic part of his story, Clegg is in little to no rush to get Mordred to Camelot. There’s a little bit of The Name of the Wind in Mordred, Bastard Son, as Mordred tells his story to a curious onlooker over the course of several days (with the frame story still technically in media res), neatly separating out three acts into three novels. Of course, that only works if those three acts have acts of their own. That’s the eternal difficulty of constructing a satisfying trilogy.

Telling the story of Mordred’s childhood, raised by his mother Morgan le Fay on the idyllic but isolated Isle of Glass, could have been a satisfying story in itself. With little external plot required until Mordred ventures to Camelot, it would have been a perfect opportunity to dig into everyone’s motivations, explore Mordred’s sexuality, and lay the groundwork for the story ahead. But the story Clegg ends up telling is the story of a young hero destined for greatness, whose complex relationship with his mother and his aunt, who both have very legitimate reasons for despising Arthur (Arthur raped Morgan; Morgause tried to play by the rules of the new world order and lost everything), is flattened when Morgause simply cracks, turns evil, and raises an army of the dead to kill Guinevere for reasons. Mordred must ride to her rescue. That’s one way to rehabilitate a character: completely rewrite him and leave him at the mercy of fate.

Without the Arthurian names, in fact, you would probably mistake it for a pretty generic fantasy novel notable only for its representational value. Clegg’s invented culture for Mordred and Morgan’s people sit oddly with the vaguely historical events going on, even though it fondly reminded me of gorging on mediocre fantasy novels as a preteen. There are some interesting changes to Arthurian legend that would have been fascinating to see play out against the traditional story (which we do not get to)—Merlin as a gruff bear of a man, Excalibur as a cursed, One Ring-like sword, and Mordred having to swear a vow of chastity in order to learn magic. But they fizzle. I’ll grant Clegg Excalibur, as we do not even encounter it in this installment, but Mordred’s chastity becomes the bane of his existence once he encounters a handsome hermit.

Given the novel’s fondness for telling instead of showing, despite the passing of the years in the story, this means that the topic that is discussed the most in Mordred, Bastard Son is Mordred complaining that he can’t have sex—because he’s the only gay kid in the village at first, and then because of his magical vow of chastity. Mordred as the only gay kid in the village is an odd choice, given that it’s talked about—at length—that the Isle of Glass is so pro-queer that it hosts same-sex hand fastings. Mordred’s situation is clearly meant to echo alienated queer kids in straight spaces, but the Isle of Glass is explicitly a welcoming space.

I realize that The Mists of Avalon, especially given that I read it as an impressionable preteen, has set a bar for Arthurian retellings for me that few can match. But Mordred, Bastard Son is not very interested in even trying.

I rented this book from the public library.

Review: The Rose Throne

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The Rose Throne
Mette Ivie Harrison

★★☆☆☆

2013 • 400 pages • Egmont

The Rose Throne sold itself to me by simply including two princesses as its leads. (Itself, I say, as if there isn’t a marketing team at Egmont who did their job well. Although it does say something positive about the young adult market that they thought promoting two princesses who interact with each other meaningfully was the way to young readers’ hearts…) The cover copy, which I surreptitiously flipped through while I worked at the book store, promised two princesses pitted against each other by court politics in a way that did not make me fear that they would hate each other at first sight because they didn’t get along with other girls or some equally noxious and boring narrative excuse. I dreamed of two princesses finding an alternative solution to whatever court intrigue was at hand. What I got… was almost that in a peculiarly frustrating way.

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Review: The Bonfire of the Vanities

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The Bonfire of the Vanities
by Tom Wolfe

★★★★☆

2008 (originally published 1987) • 704 pages • Picador

And, at last, we come to the New York City reads.

It was inevitable, of course; part of the joy of living here is seeing the city refracted at you in virtually all visual media produced in America. (Captain Cinema and I now have the habit of yelping out locations we’ve been to whenever we see them, including eying the seats in which our not yet born butts will perch forty years later as we watch classic Saturday Night Live.) While I’ve been dying to read The New York City Diaries long before moving here was a sure thing, I decided to save it for my Thanksgiving visit home as a literary tether to civilization in the wilds of suburbia. (The physical tether will, of course, be the stunning amount of hair I’ve shed over this city.) Instead, I reached for Tom Wolfe—it was high time we got reacquainted.

While trying to articulate the peculiar beauty of Wolfe’s writing to Captain Cinema while breezing through one of the Strand’s cozy outposts, I ended up comparing his writing to sleep paralysis. “You know, when you’re so tired that you close your eyes, but you’re not asleep, but you couldn’t open your eyes or move for the life of you, and it’s wonderful?” (If you think I’m long-winded in prose, you should hear me talk.) Sleep paralysis is too extreme a descriptor, of course, but it’s circling what Wolfe’s writing does for me. Reading Wolfe is like submerging into a welcome fever—there’s something warm and compulsive about his writing, that insinuates itself into your mind. After I read The Electric Kool-Aid Test, I woke up with his literary voice in my head the next day. Perversely, this is because Wolfe is such a gifted mimic of not only the human voice, but the human context. I’ll need to read more Wolfe to finalize my conclusions, of course, but, with The Bonfire of the Vanities and The Electric Kool-Aid Test as my data, I find that what sets Wolfe apart is his ability to capture the moments that make up a movement, be it in his own voice or in a fictional one. I’d start pulling quotes, but we’d be here all morning.

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Review: When She Woke

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When She Woke
by Hillary Jordan

★★★½☆

2011 • 344 pages • Algonquin Books

What happened to When She Woke? The peculiar pleasures and perils of having such a long reading list (and viewing list and listening list and…) is that by the time I actually get to reading something, I’ve forgotten all about it. But I feel like When She Woke made a very positive splash back in 2011—has it really been three years?—and then vanished. This, in itself, means nothing: our pop culture attention spans have only gotten shorter and shorter, to the point that I initially didn’t watch “Too Many Cooks” because twelve minutes was too long. That’s part of the charm of pop culture—there’s just so much of it that you end up with forgotten treasures squirreled away all over. (The moment I realized that I would never be able to listen to all of the music produced in the eighties was practically a spiritual experience.) Seeing that process in action is just what happens when you pay attention to pop culture.

But When She Woke’s slip into recent, fuzzy memory also has to do with the fact that, from day one, Hillary Jordan made sure that everyone who read it would think of two other novels. In the same way that I half-jokingly refer to Eragon as A New Hope set in Middle-Earth, When She Woke is The Scarlet Letter set in the Republic of Gilead. (All novels are sequels, influence is bliss, et cetera, et cetera, thank you, Michael Chabon.) The high concept pitch has endured the test of time (did you know we don’t know where the term even comes from? Language is magic), but there’s always a danger to the “X meets Y” pitch: if X and Y have stood the test of time, you better hope that XY is good enough—or at least different enough—to make your audience stay and not simply wander back off to X and Y.

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