Review: Beauty and the Clockwork Beast by Nancy Campbell Allen

This was written a while ago, after our move, but I only got around to posting it in its edited and spellchecked form like half a year ago. Then there was some catastrophe and I lost a bunch of posts. So this is it again!

I’ve been listening to a lot of audiobooks recently. We recently moved, so I’ve been working on the various paint and plaster projects necessary to make this house not be the godforsaken beige that the previous owners thought was a good idea. Which means I have hours and hours of monotonous work that is perfect for audio. I listened to an urban fantasy trilogy I’ve read before, hit some China Miéville because rwrrr, and then moved on to midlist steampunk.

Beauty and the Clockwork Beast by Nancy Campbell Allen is one of those titles that promises some stupid stuff. I am sometimes in the mood for stupid stuff, and I felt reasonably sure I knew what I was going to get, given my experience with steampunk on the romance end. There would be an inventor’s daughter, one of those irrepressibly zesty daughters of the upper class who be impressed upon to find her father’s killer / continue his work / fall in love with the staff / automaton / vampire / werewolf. I once read a short story collection of steampunk stories where two thirds of the entries went this way. Two thirds.

But that is not what I found in Beauty and the Clockwork Beast! Or it is, just a very little, but the bulk of the novel is character study, riffs on Gothic fiction, and well written prose. Jeez, who even does that?

The plot follows one Lucy Pickett as she goes to stay with a cousin who is more like a sister to her. The cousin, Kate, was recently married to the younger brother of an earl, but has been ailing since she took up residence as the lady of Blackwell Manor. The earl himself, Miles, has a pall upon him, after his wife and sister died within a day of each other half a year ago. The wife died in a manner befitting the Blackwell curse, and the sister was torn apart by wild animals. It’s all pretty sketchy.

Lucy is a botanist herself, and a member of a society that is working towards the usual medicinal uses, but also pharmacology that is useful against vampires. This is a world with magic and animal shifters (of which Miles is one) and vampires. But it’s not a world with ghosts, so it troubles Lucy some to encounter the ghost of the earl’s sister for several nights running. She and Miles end up playing detective in the earlier deaths, Lucy’s sister’s illness, and Miles’ blackmail.

While there are many things about the detective plot that make me want to tear out my hair — there are ONLY TWO OR THREE VIABLE SUSPECTS JFC — I was so in love with Lucy. She’s no inventor’s daughter, an appendage on a Great Man, but a scientist in her own right. I do want to acknowledge that in the world this fantasy is based on, women really didn’t have many opportunities to education short of what they could filch from their fathers and brothers. That often steampunk girls have mad scientist or inventor fathers is not my issue. It’s that most often the father is a Great Man, and the daughter-protagonist a mere shadow of his genius or keeper of his legacy, without a lot of agency in her own vocations or avocations.

This might be a little harder to explain, but hear me out: she’s also not gadding about in trousers because she’s so transgressive zomg, but a careful woman of her class and station. Look, I love me a firebrand, a character who smashes shit and gets stuff done. But I weary of 1) characters who haven’t earned it and are just middle class fantasies of rebellion dressed up in pantaloons 2) Strong Female Characters ™ who do everything in their power to shit on girlishness, the trappings of femininity, and any woman who might still live under its aegis. Lucy is often well and truly frustrated by how she as treated as a scientist and a woman, but she’s got good table manners, and knows how perform a perfect curtsy. She has good relationships with other women — not just one, but several — and even treats unlikable female characters with kindness and empathy. In short, she is a good person.

Aspects of her prescribed gender roles chaff, absolutely, but some don’t, which make Lucy an altogether more believable and nuanced character than someone wearing a leather corset on the outside of her clothes shooting out the lights all the time or whatever. She’s not someone’s bondage fantasy of a Strong Woman. Moreover, her worth isn’t predicated on her father, or her magical powers (she has none other than education and experience) or her anachronistic badassery. It comes from her diligent work ethic, loyalty to those she loves, and innate kindness. Which, whoa. I was well pleased to encounter someone of Lucy’s mettle in this sort of steampunkery.

There are things to complain about, for sure. The detective plot is almost offensively stupid, even while the technical details of this specific steampunk world are careful and considered. Miles holds onto his secrets 80 pages past when he should. People almost never ask the obvious questions when confronted with a mystery, and blithely go about their business like idiots. At a couple crucial points, characters forget important details like wow. Oh, and the most childish complaint: dude is not a clockwork beast, whatever that means, just the regular kind. (Of course I know writers rarely have control over titles; chill.)

That said! I feel like this was ahead of the curve. Lucy is such a practical, well drawn character, and she acquits herself with grace. May we all, etc.

Strange Nostalgia: The Queening of Ceridwen

Note: This was written ages ago when I was still on Goodreads.


I’ve been cleaning out my books for the past couple weeks, which has been an entirely complaint-worthy endeavor. I’ve also had a pretty good time finding things I’d totally forgotten about, like this book. Mum bought me The Queening of Ceridwen by Esther Elias I think when I was in high school, solely on the basis of it having my name in the title. Having a really weird name meant that I never got to have those dippy tourist mugs and key-chains with my name on them growing up. I disparage them now, but it is only because they are sour grapes. Sour, sour grapes.

Anyway, I totally love this book. I’m not going to star it, because I don’t think the star-system here makes any sense usually, and for this it’s especially weird. The Queening of Ceridwen is a book about a Welsh corgi named Ceridwen. This is a sequel of sorts to Profile of Glindy, who was also a Welsh corgi, and Ceridwen’s “true love”. I’m making them sound like fiction, but they are memoirs of house pets, and totally earnest. Both books were written by their “mistress”, as she refers to herself, and are absolutely amazing. Whenever I find this book I can’t help myself and read out the table of contents to my husband in a fake British accent. (This doesn’t actually make any sense, because the author is from Pittsburgh.) Some chapter headings:

6. We Move From Our House on the Hill and Glindy Goes to Heaven
10. The Story of Her Struggle With Diabetes
15. “Blest Be the Tie That Binds” – It’s Ceridwen

And my all time favorite:

Epilogue….An Interview With St. Peter – Sometime Later

I am absolutely trying not to make too much fun of Ms. Elias, even though this book is completely nutty. Especially the parts where she talks to the dogs. My grandfather when he was in his 80s wrote and self-published two books, which cannot be found on most book review sites, although you can find the second volume on Amazon, last I checked. (We accidentally left a bunch in my grandparents’ house after Grandma died, and I think the new owner tried to make a quick buck on the self-published works of a 90 year old.) The first volume of Full of Sound and Fury, Grandpa’s book, was a collection of plays he’d written for high school performances. He was the drama coach for a high school forever, and as a young man he did summer stock and other theatrical endeavors. His second volume was more personal hokum and anecdotes.

Interestingly, he was a fan of the dramatic dialogue with imaginary or literary figure like the author here. (Maybe it’s a Pittsburgh thing – that’s where he lived too.) When he died, I went through the bits he was collecting for the third volume on his computer, and a lot of them were conversations he imagined himself having with God. Not serious St Augustine stuff, but like large runs of puns and literary allusions, wisecracks and goofing off. He was serious at times too, grappling with the very concept of an afterlife, partially because I think if he had born in another time, he would have been a casual atheist, but that sort of thing was generationally impossible.

Anyway, I’m trying to wind up to a point about writing and publishing. All kinds of stuff gets written and some of that stuff gets published, and an even smaller percentage of that stuff gets read, and an even smaller percentage gets read by a large group of people. I’ve never read my Grandpa’s books in total. I couldn’t handle it when he was living, because it was all too much of that balderdash and personal mythology that I could get from him firsthand. (And, frankly, a non-trivial percentage was hurtful bullshit.) Then he died, and it was still too much of his balderdash, but now it was tinged with the grief of his loss, and my guilt for never reading it while he was living.

But read or not, the writing of those books kept him alive. I am not exaggerating in any way. He was pretty active senior. He’d audit college classes ostensibly to learn something, but mostly to hang out and hold forth his brands of BS. Teachers either loved him or HATED him. But by the time he was 80, he was increasingly homebound, and as a consequence began suffering from depression. (Or, counterpoint: he suffered from depression his whole life, but they finally found a name and a treatment for it.)

I don’t know where he got the idea to write memoirs, but I suspect it was the man who was his editor through the process, a man who had been Grandpa’s student a few decades previous named Edwin Koval. Anyway, he started writing on of those electronic typewriters and worked up to an old desktop that we gave him. He’d retreat down to his big old desk in the basement and tap away. Writing gave him a place to use his voice, let him manage his legacy, and let him act out his conversations with God. Publishing was almost incidental, although I’m sure that he, like any author, would prefer to be read.

So, I don’t know. The whole thing is funny. I’m never going to read The Queening of Ceridwen cover to cover, but it makes me really happy that it exists, this elderly woman writing her loving eulogies to a couple of stumpy dogs. From what little I’ve read, she’s also working out what she thinks about the afterlife and her own approaching mortality, which is a pretty great thing for her to have done. And not to mention too sore a subject, but sometimes I see authors flip out on bad reviews from time to time. I understand; no one wants to have their work disliked or dismissed.

But, God, most authors should be so lucky as to have someone read their book, let alone work up the energy to dislike it. Maybe this is just readerly arrogance, and I’d feel differently if I were published. But every book is trying to find its audience, and the review process is part of that, even the bad ones. The audience of The Queening of Ceridwen is totally girls named Ceridwen who had a grandfather from the same hometown as the author who self-published his memoirs too. The rest of you will probably not be interested. It is pretty wonderful to find every couple of years in the mess though. I still love it.

Review: Big Bad Wolf by Suleikha Snyder

One of the strengths of the paranormal fantasy is its ability to make the metaphors manifest, and then play with them in really concrete terms. One of my favorite werewolf stories, for example, is Ginger Snaps, a turn of the millennium film about two pubescent sisters, one of whom begins turning into a werewolf. The lycanthropy in Ginger Snaps works as this really extreme metaphor for all of the dangerous becoming that happens to girls in puberty: sexually, personally, socially. One of the reasons it works so well is that the actuality of puberty is going on as well — the lycanthropy is a metaphor, yes, but the real world thing exists too. The metaphor doesn’t erase the reality, it heightens it.

There’s this really great scene where the younger sister goes to the school nurse and begins describing the changes in her werewolf sister — sexual awaking, blood, hair growth — and the nurse clucks knowingly and gives her a pamphlet about “Your Changing Body!” or somesuch. It’s a gesture to how the literature about puberty is both accurate, physiologically speaking, and absolutely misses the mark when it comes to the lived experience of the average person at that vulnerable period. I don’t remember getting a pamphlet about dealing with sketch dudes on the bus when I was 14, but unwelcomed sexual attention is, unfortunately, a very real aspect of puberty for many girls & people assigned female at birth. The way the werewolf is used in Ginger Snaps doesn’t erase or replace the experience of puberty, it heightens it.

Anyway, point being, for every story like Ginger Snaps — which flawlessly combines both the metaphorical and the actual — there’s a dozen which treat the metaphor of the paranormal other as somehow more real than actual, legitimate, real world problems, prejudices, and bigotries. This is especially true when the paranormal identity is understood to be a persecuted minority and acts as a stand in for race. I’ve seen many fictions erase systemic racism in lieu of the simplified and ahistoric “prejudice” against their made up whatsit. It’s not that I don’t think people wouldn’t be bigots about werewolves/shifters/vampires should they be revealed to be real, it’s that I think they’d be racist about them in addition to all the stuff they’re already racist about.

Which is why Suleikha Snyder’s Big Bad Wolf is such a godamn breath of fresh air. So much — so much — paranormal fantasy takes place in a magical America which isn’t riven by bone-deep, brutal, and violent disagreement about who gets to count as a person. We’ve all seen the state violence — children in cages, Black people murdered by the police with no accountability — and that’s not even getting into the stochastic terrorism that makes up the background radiation of the Trump years. If, somehow in the last four years, supernatural beings were added to the population as a category of persons who exist, they would have been subject to the exact same treatment as every other minority. Which is to say: poorly, and worse and worse for intersectional identities.

Big Bad Wolf focuses largely, though not exclusively, on the relationship between Neha Ahluwalia and Joe Peluso. He’s a white former soldier who murdered six Russian mafia dudes, and she’s a Desi lawyer who’s been tasked with defending him in court. He was part of a super secret military unit which was changed through scientific fuckery into a wolf shifter, but for unknown reasons he never used his shifting abilities when he smoked the mafia dudes. Neha has a PhD in psychology in addition to her JD, so she’s sent in to try to get him to cooperate with his legal defense. So far he’s been anything but cooperative.

Joe and Neha have an almost immediate connection, one that discombobulates them both. He’s got a healthy dose of self loathing going on, both because of his military service and because he legit murdered 6 dudes in cold blood. Her motives are a little less legible — he is, after all, a murderer — but their dialogue is snappy and I’ll allow a lot of emotional latitude setting up a world this complex. At a certain point Neha has to decide whether to follow her intense reaction to Joe, or stay on the straight and narrow. She makes the leap, and ends up on the run with Joe, dodging the cops, the Russian mafia, and possibly the military.

Because that’s the thing: this novel takes place firmly in Trump’s America (though I’m reasonably sure he’s never named). As the child of immigrants and a lawyer, Neha has a richly textured understanding of how scary it is out there for brown people, for women, for non-Christians. Early on, Joe tries to pull some economic anxiety bullshit on her — you’re just into me because I’m working class — and she’s like pffffft, that’s nothing. I’ve survived the last four years; slumming doesn’t factor. Yes, absolutely, he’s seen some shit, and what was done to him was wrong. But his experience of being hung out to dry as a shifter once the military was done with him is just one injustice. There are so many others, and there’s no rules that say you only experience the one.

As the first in a series, there are a lot of people, organizations, and lore that need explaining, and the narrative feels occasionally cluttered with their introductions. Relatedly, because there are so many people, the character sketches of anyone but the leads are pretty rudimentary. This is less a complaint and more an observation. Even though there are a lot of moving parts, Snyder has a firm hand on her exposition — I never felt like, who the hell is this person, I have no idea how they fit in. Given the size of the cast, that’s no small feat.

Yesterday, I bolted down all 6 episodes of Staged, a pandemic-produced BBC series starring David Tennent and Michael Sheen. I’ve watched a couple other shows produced during the pandemic, stuff like Host (a pretty cute found-footage horror film about a tele-séance) and Locked Down (which I turned off after 15 minutes because of its fucking awful script.) Staged was absolutely pitch perfect, the pandemic production I didn’t even know I needed, coming at just the right time. Big Bad Wolf is exactly like this for me, a corrective to the sometimes ahistorical metaphorical landscape of the paranormal, coming at a time when history demands accounting. Put less douchily: It’s so welcome to see family and friends on the pages of of a novel, living in the same conflicted and dangerous reality, but intensified by a paranormal element that gives the everyday that much more freight.

Review: Spec Ops Z by Gavin G. Smith

I feel like every time I turn around, some nickel-plated idiot announces that the zombie genre is dead, har har. And while I don’t have a lot of time for this notion, I will grudgingly admit that we’re definitely out of the flurry of excellent zombie narratives that were published about a decade ago. Every time has its monster, and I think the zombie in the Obama years largely stood in for some pretty nasty undemocratic and racist stuff seething under the surface. I want to be clear that when I say this, I am not smearing all zombie narratives of this time period as right wing agitprop or whatever — that would be stupid and reductive.

But there are also certain inescapable through-lines to this era of zombie narrative. So many zombie narratives of the early 21st century position a white dude, often with a military or police background, and his capacity for targeted violence as the savior of domesticity and the world. World War Z (movie version), Walking Dead (both versions), Zombieland, etc. (Zombieland especially hasn’t held up so great: the character Cleveland, played by Mark Zuckerberg, ends up reading as an incel, and his murder of his hot neighbor after describing what a bitch she is for not noticing him is, as the saying goes, problematic.) It’s the old line: “You’ll be begging me to use my guns when the mob comes,” where the mob is generally coded as not-white, not-us, the ultimate dehumanized them.

Obviously, there are a lot of zombie narratives from this period which invert or subvert this trope. Take something like 28 Days Later, which turns the white military savior into anything but, the Mister Kurtz of his own sterile fiefdom. But 28 Days Later, no matter what it does with the trope, is still in dialogue with it. It’s just kind of baked into the premise: a small group end up having to organize their society balancing individual autonomy with group safety, in the most extreme environment possible. This era of the zombie narrative tended to pit the Spartan encampment against the Athenian mob, and violent expedience was the name of the game.

Since Trump’s election, Brexit, and most certainly since the Time of Covid, these tropes have become confused and messy, the coherence of the metaphor rotten. It’s just not mapping right anymore. Observe this, from a viral photo of Covid-deniers storming the Michigan capitol:

[Image description: A photo taken from inside a building looking out through windows. Several people press against the glass, most with their mouths open mid-shout. American flags, a red Trump hat, and the Guy Fawkes mask are visible. The image is captioned “World War Q”.]

Here we have a mob ostensibly fighting for personal freedom. The party of law and order tacitly condones the attack on the capitol and the murder of a policeman, if not explicitly. Authoritarianism rides to power on populism. This is ultimately what many zombie novels were presaging, but we’ve lost our taste for the fictional meat of it. I don’t know what the next monster will be, but zombies aren’t quite the zeitgeist anymore.

Which brings me rather long-windedly to Spec Ops Z by Gavin G. Smith. When I came across it in the Netgalley catalog, it struck me how long it’s been since I read a zombie novel. I think probably the last was Last Ones Left Alive, a musing, elegiac novel set in Ireland. (Oh, I also reread World War Z at the beginning of the pandemic, and that book was so accurate in its depiction of the societal and governmental responses to a global pandemic it ended up kind of hurting my feelings. ‘Sure didn’t get a laugh out of it like when I re-watched Contagion, boy howdy. ) I’ve been watching tons of zombie movies still — their low budgets all but ensure zombie movies will be cranked out forever — but the publication of zombie novels seems to be thinning.

It’s clear from the description that Spec Ops Z is more on the hardware nerd side, a kind of military sf that’s constructed like WW2 band of brothers movies starring John Wayne. In the interests of full disclosure, this isn’t particularly my bag, but I can be up for a bit of rowdy. True to form, Spec Ops Z is fast paced — except for a beginning which drags — and includes the kind of mayhem and gore I prefer in my zombie smash and grabs. The action isn’t always clearly blocked, but mostly it’s credible. Maybe most importantly, Smith doesn’t slip into pretentious philosophizing about the Nature of Man and Probably Evil Too, something I tend to find in these soldierly stories.

Spec Ops Z follows a group of Soviet Spetsnaz commandos from their posting in Afghanistan to a secret mission in NYC. It’s set in 1989 (if I remember correctly), when the Soviets were in the Afghani quagmire, not the US. (The Soviet-Afghan conflict is often called the Soviet Union’s Vietnam War, fwiw.) The members of the team all have pilot-style nicknames — Gulag, Mongol, Princess, etc — which I found somewhat precious: they were all walking around labeled with their single character trait. I couldn’t decide if this was lazy or brilliant, because it’s not like I’m reading this sort of thing for the articles, and I didn’t have to try to keep straight a dozen people with similar-sounding Russian names and patronymics. I’m leaning toward brilliant.

I was perked up at this beginning part because I actually was in the USSR in 1991, just a few months before the August coup attempt which lead to Yeltsin’s rise. Spec Ops Z appears to be a mild alt-history, in that a hard line KGB guy has deposed the reformist Gorbachev in the very recent past of the novel. As a consequence, relations are much shittier with the rest of the world. (Like, I kind of can’t imagine what might have happened if they had a hard-liner in when Reagan delivered his evil empire Star Wars nonsense. They were apparently pretty close to first striking us at that point as it was.)

The Spetsnaz team are pulled from combat in Afghanistan and sent on a secret-even-to-them mission to NY, where they set off a bioagent in Grand Central Station, one that turns everyone into zombies. Most of the team are killed, but miraculously reanimate with their reasoning intact, though the gnawing hunger to savage the living is always present. The pov character theorizes that this is because they’re all so hardened and have such great discipline and iron will from being Spetznaz soldiers. This I thought was the kind of self-aggrandizing BS a commando unit would tell themselves, so didn’t credit it overmuch. Unfortunately, later, when another character reanimates, it’s made clear this is the actual in-world reason, which, whoo boy.

The Spetsnaz are pretty pissed they ended up unwittingly bringing about the end of the world — the US retaliated with nukes, so there’s that to worry about too — and decide to go back to the USSR and revenge murder all the people involved, if they are not already shambling corpses. From then on it’s set pieces — through NY, onto a ship, etc — and largely what one expects from this sort of thing. What I really want to talk about happens in the last quarter of the novel, and therefore constitutes a spoiler according to most people. Fair warned.

SPOILERS BELOW

Like seriously I’m not kidding.

Not even a little.

When the Spetsnaz arrive in England, they come across a bunch of people dressed in Nazi uniforms. This is seriously fucking upsetting for most of the team — the leader grew up in Stalingrad during the Siege (which was fucking horrible), and others had their brushes with Nazis. It’s sometimes hard to remember now, but the USSR, the UK, and the US were all on the same side of WWII; what the hell are Nazis doing on British soil?

Turns out, these Nazis are a bunch of reenactors who started cosplaying a little too hard once the zombie apocalypse happened. They’ve set up their own little Reich in Zombieton-on-Wye, complete with a Joy Division (not just a band name) and cage matches between brown people and zombies. (I am completely tired by the zombie cage match trope, but it’s not lingered on overmuch, more’s the better.) (Also, I was fully expecting to have to grit my way through some sadistically detailed description of sexual assault, but Smith doesn’t go there, to his credit.)

I don’t think such a thing could happen in England in 1989, the scars of the War being what they were. Maybe in the States where we didn’t have to deal with the Blitz and … all the rest of it. But I legitimately don’t mean to nitpick plausibility here. For one, it’s a book about physics-defying cannibal corpses; I think I can allow a little latitude in the British national character. (Which, also, I’m not British, so.) This book was not written by someone living in 1989, and it is not being read by people in 1989 (barring time travel or whatnot.) Not even a month ago, Americans wearing the signs and emblems of both Nazis and Confederates stormed the capitol of the United States of America. Seeing Nazi cosplayers pop up in zombie fiction is pretty relevant to our times, considerably moreso when you consider that the Russians unleashed the zombie plague in both the US and UK in the book. What is zombiism but the ultimate DDOS attack?

I have occasionally been accused of overthinking pulp fiction, and it’s possible that’s what I’m doing here. However, I get the impression that Smith is really not messing around with his historical research. Much of it was spent being a total nerd about 1980s era Soviet & American weaponry — the firearms and armaments all lovingly described and detailed — but for sure he also has a detailed alt-history of the USSR. He goes so far as to name the hard-liner in charge of the country, and I suspect if my Soviet history were better, I could point to when exactly the timeline diverges. So I’ll assume Smith isn’t just writing pulp nonsense with no meaning, themes, or goals. It’s set when it is, with these specific people as protagonist, for a reason.

Given that this is a retitled reprint of a novel first published in 2017, there’s no way it’s directly addressing the Capitol Insurrection, but the rise of militant white supremacy has very much been a thing in this here age of Trumpism. But because of its placement at the very end of the novel, and the relative ease by which the ersatz Nazis are dispatched, I do kind of wonder what that sequence is trying to say. The Soviets riding in to save the British (and their America captives) from both the zombie plague they themselves unleashed AND white supremacy is also a little odd, and I’m not sure what to make of it.

I started this essay blathering about how zombies fit into a certain Obama-era ethos — before Brexit, before Trump — both anticipating and, in some cases, justifying both Trumpism and the Brexiteers. Just cut the bridges and retreat to your island in order to keep the shambling horde from overrunning those who really matter. I think Spec Ops Z ends up kinda perfectly encapsulating the ambivalent and shifting sense of meaning in zombie tropes in an America where violent white supremacy is ascendant. I’m not sure what exactly to take out of Spec Ops Z, but that could be said about every single aspect of my life at the moment: we’re all groping our ways forward.

So. An enjoyable novel with enough gory set pieces to keep me reading, and also deliberate enough to allow me to sharpen some of my favorite pet theories on it. Класс.

I got my copy from Netgalley. Spec Ops Z goes on sale February 2.

The Year in Reading: 2020

I’ve historically done one of those “My Year in Reading” round-ups, and this year has been weirder than most. I read almost zero straight science fiction, precious little horror, and not much in the way of anything serious. Last Jan and Feb I was working my way through Robin McKinley’s catalogue. I made it through:

  • Shadows — flawed but just ringing with her unique voice,
  • Pegasus — pretty dull, but your inner horse girl will love it, and
  • Dragonhaven — about a reserve for dragons in Utah or thereabouts, and a boy who was raised there. It ended up being one of my favorites of hers, and I don’t get all the negative reviews. Maybe it was the audio was so good; idk. I listened to this in the car, and my oldest (who is about the age of the protagonist) really liked it as well, fwiw.


I also tackled Peter S Beagle’s A Fine and Private Place, which that dude wrote at the tender and snot-nosed age of 19, jerk. It’s hella dated at this point, but in such an achingly nostalgic way: the invocation of 1950s Jewish neighborhoods in NYC is really affectionate. There are roughly 8 million literary allusions — such a young writer thing to do — and I found the whole project charming as hell. Also he kind of casually rips your heart out, as will become usual in his writing, jerk.

Then Covid basically ruined everything, and I was incapable of reading anything much more stressing than light fantasy or Regency romance for the foreseeable. I would have continued with McKinley, but the next book up was Deerskin, which is based on a folk tale that involves both sexual assault and incest, and therefore no. Being myself, I couldn’t switch gears, so I just ended the project.

Instead I read just about everything Julie Anne Long wrote — the Pennyroyal Green, Holt Sisters, and Palace of Rogues series …es — but excluding her contemporary romances because I basically hate small town romances, and that’s what those are. I tried to reread Marjorie M Liu’s Dirk & Steele series, but I forgot how stressful those can be, and only made it like 5 books in. (Stupid series name notwithstanding, those are some of the weirdest PNR/UF books out there, and I highly recommend them to folk who have tired of vampire detectives or werewolf academies or whatever.)

I also discovered T. Kingfisher (which is a pen name for Ursula Vernon) and read everything in the Clocktaur universe: Swordheart, Paladin’s Grace, Clockwork Boys, and The Wonder Engine. Those books are a delightful mix of macabre and cheerful, often utterly terrifying and hilarious at the same time. I was not able to undertake her newest horror outing, The Hollow Places, because the one before that, The Twisted Ones, kind of took a strip off me, and I don’t think I can handle that right now.

I picked up books 2 (or deeper) in fantasy series …es I had dropped off of for whatever reason, because finding comfort in the familiar was the name of the game.

  • Stormsong by C.L. Polk, which is book 2 in the Kingston Cycle. The Kingston Cycle quite beautifully details what’s so horrific about hereditary magical systems. Stormsong wasn’t as compelling to me as the previous novel, but was a fun read anyway. Gaslamp fantasy in a Victorian England-ish world.
  • The Mortal Word by Genevieve Cogman, book 5 in The Invisible Library series. This one really took me a while to hack through. I’m not sure why it failed to hold my attention, because there wasn’t anything wrong with it: similar to previous books, lots of murder, hijinks, and dragons. I think it’s because this is the book I realized I’m not enamored of Irene, and given how she’s the series protagonist, is kind of a problem. Another gaslamp fantasy in a multiverse.
  • The Ippos King and Dragon Unleashed by Grace Draven, which are book 4 of the Wraith Kings series and book 2 of the Fallen Empire series. I was a little adrift with Ippos King because I read the previous novel, Eidolon, so long ago and kind of forgot everything about it. I do remember its protagonists, Anhuset and Serevek really well from Radiance, because that book is def a comfort read for me, and I’m sure I read it again this year. Dragon Unleashed I had to constantly ignore the premise because it didn’t make any sense to me, but the main characters were so likeable that wasn’t a hard task. Also, the heroine has a developmentally disabled mother, and she is written so beautifully, neither fetishizing nor infantilizing.
  • Trapped by Kevin Hearne, book 5 of the Iron Druid Chronicles. These make very good books to listen to on road trips. Not much to say about this in comparison to other Iron Druid books: Atticus can be kind of a brick, but there’s always something happening, and his talking dog is the best. Contemporary UF with a druid protag and lots of American Gods-style shenanigans.
  • A Touch of Stone & Snow by Milla Vane (which is another pen name for Meljean Brook), book 2 in A Gathering of Dragons series. This I was a little trepidatious to read: the previous novel, A Heart of Blood & Ashes, was pretty bloody and grim. ToS&S ended up being much less dire than HoB&A, though she’s still pretty adept at ripping your feels out. Barbarians in a world a generation past a brutal warlord crushing everyone.

I did start in on a couple fantasy series I hadn’t read before, just to include a little danger in my reading. Maybe it’ll get too dark and I’ll have to throw it over for rereading Radiance!

  • Silver in the Wood by Emily Tesh. Charming amalgam of Victorian British folklore and folklorists. (Also, I just discovered this is the first in a duology, and now I know what I’m reading tonight.)
  • Lord of the Last Heartbeat by May Peterson. Man, I was so enraptured with this when I read it, just perfectly Gothic as fuck and gloriously overwritten. Honestly, I don’t even know what was going on half the time, and I don’t even care. There’s like, tragic murderous ghosts of dead wives mooning about in diaphanous clothing, crumbling ancestral manses, and curses, so many curses. I started the next one, The Immortal City, and even though it’s similarly dreamy and emo, I don’t deal well with amnesia plots, and therefore haven’t finished it.
  • The Charm of Magpies Series by KJ Charles. This one also touches on how gross hereditary magical systems can be, and is also often hella Gothic. There’s also a lot of sex in this series, but it’s actually awesome how directly related to the magical system it is. Anyway, gaslamp fantasy about a sorcerer policeman solving a murder, amongst other things.
  • Binding Shadows and Death’s Dancer by Jasmine Silvera. Read these out of order — Binding Shadows in in the same universe as Death’s Dancer, but like 4 books later. Different series completely, so no big. Anyway, I just really loved these books, with their Prague locale and non-white protagonists who nonetheless have deep roots in Europe.
  • Every Heart a Doorway and Down Among the Sticks and Bones by Seanan McGuire. Just, why didn’t I read this earlier? It’s a boarding school fantasy where are the children have gone to and returned from pocket universes, all different — everything from fairylands to underworlds. These kids all want to find their doors back, but they’re stuck in the real world trying to made do. Really great meta-fiction.

I did read just the tiniest amount of horror and science fiction, but way less than I usually do. A grab bag of various books:

  • Rebecca by Daphne du Marier. I’d never read Rebecca, which seems like a pretty phenomenal oversight given my mild obsessions with the housewife in literature, Gothic novels, etc. At turns absolutely, howlingly funny and morbidly creepifying. The recent Netflix version was SO BAD; I had such a great time watching it.
  • Battle of the Light Brigade by Kameron Hurley. Military sf that makes for a very good audio, with the added bonus of being completely anti-corporate. So much goes the other way.
  • Devolution: A Firsthand Account of the Rainier Sasquatch Massacre by Max Brooks. Pretty stupid! I reread World War Z when the pandemic got going, and it ended up being oddly prescient about how people reacted to the pandemic both before and during the initial outbreak, down to the snake oil and the deniers. Devolution showcases all of Brooks’s strengths turned into weaknesses. WWZ made it clear he was a huge military history wonk, and he brings all of that to bear in Devolution in this junky evopsych way. His main first person voice is a housewife, which he cannot pull off at all convincingly. But! It’s also fast and bloody, and I appreciate his action sequences when he’s not lecturing me about Sun Tzu or whatever.
  • Titus Groan by Mervyn Peake. My brother-in-law mailed the whole Gormenghast trilogy to me after a grudging hate-read through all eleventy million pages. It’s like he couldn’t understand why Gormenghast is so compelling, because it’s also 100% repellant. Everyone is a grotesque — everyone — if not downright evil. The plot, insofar as there is one, follows an ambitious servant climbing his way through the Groan family ranks, often bloodily. It is just delightfully fucked up, and I have never read anything like it.
  • Hench by Natalie Zina Walschots. This might be my favorite thing I read last year? Certainly the one I kept talking about the longest. It’s got a premise not dissimilar from The Boys, but like, not as boy-centric, which maybe isn’t a huge surprise.

The trouble with never reviewing anything anymore is that this roundup is getting out of hand, and I’m sure there are another couple dozen books I read last year but just haven’t thought of them. Ah well.

So, not my finest year of reading, but then it’s not like it’s a competition or something, and there are no prizes for reading fancier or grittier fiction. I have been tentatively dipping my toes back into darker fiction — like I keep hacking at Nick Cutter’s The Deep even though it kind of makes me wig out every 20 pages and switch to something else. We’ll see.

Stormsong by C.L. Polk

I’m going to date the hell out of myself with this anecdote, but it can’t be helped. It comes as likely no surprise that my family can get a little ranty, my mother’s side anyway. Just to rely on some specious ethnic stereotype: Mum’s side is Welsh, who tend to be known for their voluminousness (and for their drinking, alas.) That was certainly true for the Welsh ancestor who emigrated to the States, likely because he’d knocked up the neighbor’s daughter. Late in his life, my grandfather would get calls to come pick up his grandfather at the bar where he was singing Welsh hymns at the top of his voice. As a consequence, Grandpa was a lifelong teetotaler.

Anyway, before I get too far down the rabbit hole of Depressing Tales of Victorian Drunks, let me get to my point. Grandpa had a tendency to go on about various topics, often to the great irritation of my mother and grandmother: they’d heard every single one of his disquisitions before. (Somewhat tragically, he wrote two volumes of memoirs filled with this stuff, and not one of us has read them. We heard it all when he was alive.) Mum took to calling them his “cassette tapes”: simply load up the tape, and let the bullshit flow.

I tell this story because I, myself, have a number of cassette tapes, rants I can just load up and spool out like a magnetic strip. One of them has to do with hereditary magical systems, and how they are inevitably racist, eugenicist, and gross as hell. So many writers just gloss over the inexorable disgusting consequences of having magic be something in the blood. I mean, that I’m using language like “in the blood” just illustrates how nasty this all is. This is the language of tiki-torched racists. It turns the divine right of kings into “good blood”, a semi-scientific justification for social injustice.

So I pretty much freaked when I read Witchmark, which addresses the nastiness of heritable magical systems straight on. (It’s also steampunky as hell and also seems to invoke the Crimean War, which always gets me hot and bothered, because it’s like WWI but way, way less legible and more about how incomprehensible war is.) The lead, Miles, was a member of a magical family, one of a discrete number who have been indefinitely detaining & using other magical people, forcing their children into political marriages, and using their surplus number as magical batteries. It seemed better to him to run off to an unwinnable war than live in the pampered yet obscene comforts of his family of origin.

So I was well excited to read Stormsong, C.L. Polk’s follow up to Witchmark. Stormsong follows Grace, Miles’s sister. She was the heir apparent, the one who would wield the power of both herself and her brother. She was instrumental in bringing the whole rotten system down, but the way it played out, not even a large minority of Aelanders know the particulars of how the magical system worked and its human cost. She’s still in government, trying to “change the system from within”, which is going about as well as one would expect. Which is to say: not well.

Stormsong ended up giving me serious Amberlough Dossier vibes, which I count as a very good thing. Lara Elana Donnelly’s trilogy (the latter two books anyway) deal with that indefinite period after the old regime falls but before the new one has entrenched. It deals with the people who, when the fit hit the shan, had motivations that were murky, conflicted, or self-serving. This is a tricky as hell period to write about successfully, which is why pretty much no one bothers to try. It’s so much easier to write the period where everyone knows, down to the reader, who is righteous and who is a godamn fascist.

Stormsong ended up feeling not as strong as its predecessor, but then, as my anecdote of the cassette tape illustrates, I do have my predilections. That said, I was completely able to start, middle, and finish reading this novel during the coronavirus times, something that I cannot say for much literature that has even slightly dark themes. Polk has this incredibly light touch with what can be unapproachably intense subjects. It’s not that she’s treating them lightly — not at all — but that she can slide them into a story with a conflicted prime minister and the girl reporter she can’t stop thinking about. I’m 100% there for Sapphic yearning, maybe especially because it’s the bait for deeper meaning. I’m decidedly on the hook for book 3.

I received my copy from Netgalley.

Some Nattering about I Am a Hero

I Am a Hero is based on the manga of the same name about a manga artist’s assistant and all around schlub, Hideo. I only really caught the first couple installments of the manga (there’s more than a dozen collected volumes, and at least three spin-offs), but it seemed that there were diminishing returns on the series. The opening, which takes place in the slowly gathering beginning of the outbreak, has a real intimate view of the zombie apocalypse. Hideo is just some jerk with no special knowledge, and his disaffection and depression keep him from really noticing the unsettling events occurring all around him. He delivers some nice sermonettes about how manga is the pinnacle of Japanese society and its greatest cultural export, which, in addition to being clumsily meta, might even be true.

These early sections were pretty enjoyable, but as the manga ranged out of whatever town Hideo was in (maybe Hiroshima?), I got more and more irritated with Hideo and his bullshit girl problems. I mean, it’s fine to have girl problems in the zombie apocalypse, it’s just the gender stuff in I Am a Hero that started really making me twitchy. Not that any of that is surprising in a certain kind of manga! Or comics in general! Or, come to think of it, zombie narratives in the first place! I have a huge hobby horse I like to get up and ride about the role of male violence in creating and maintaining domesticity in zombie fictions, but that is not the topic for today.

The film adaptation of I Am a Hero has the same episodic nature, but definitely smooths over some of the more pulp-sensible parts of the manga. The teen half-zombie girl Hideo befriends doesn’t end up part of a wtf zombie hive mind, more’s the better. The community he and the girl find is pretty messed up, but not openly practicing sexual slavery, like it is in the manga — thank god, because I fucking hate that trope. All in all, the movie improves on some aspects of manga, and there’s some fun scenes in there (like an absolutely harrowing one with Hideo’s zombified girlfriend, my God.)

The real reason to check it out (if you’re an American) is how weirdly it deals with its solitary firearm, Hideo’s shotgun. Japan and the United States have polar opposite attitudes about firearms of any kind: heavy regulation in Japan, plus no marked martial tradition involving firearms; virtual ubiquity in America, plus firearms are irrevocably bound to the national identity. Hideo gets real twitchy when his girlfriend throws him and his shotgun out of the house, but she doesn’t throw out the licence. He has these flights of fancy about using the weapon (and other things, often to very comedic ends) but the shotgun is largely talismanic, a term Hideo uses himself. He resists ever firing it for the entire film, even when beset by zombies or people.

It is literally a Chekhovian gun, so it is finally used, at utmost need, in a completely silly end sequence. He’s got like a hundred shells, and kills roughly one million zombies. Moreover, that shotgun was handled by someone who had no idea how one works, and no one around him could direct him correctly. And look, I know that the zombie fictions do not thrive on true realism, even in the more drama-y outings: Rick Grimes simply cannot make that many head shots, etc etc. I’m not suggesting this makes the sequence bad, or not worth watching. It’s actually one of the funnest in the movie.

But something about this sequence is fetishistic, but not fetishistic the way an American do it. In transporting zombie pulp (which originates in the States) to another culture, certain common motifs of the genre inevitably hitch a ride. Gun violence is bog standard in American zombie fiction, but not often found, in either art or life, in Japan. I Am a Hero addresses this trope in a typically Japanese manner. I think it’s really cool to see that sort of localization, to borrow a phrase from translation, a window into another culture.

I Hope the Smoking Man’s in This One: Every Sigh, The End

Do you remember, back in the day, when the X Files was young and not stupid, and the absolute thrill you would get out of the paranoid conspiracy and narrative sleight of hand? The clock was ticking, loudly, on the end of the millennium, the Y2K bug was creating hysterics in op-ed pieces everywhere, and the dot-com bubble was foaming its way to Bethlehem to burst. (Sorry, I know it’s cheap to mis-quote Yeats here, but I can’t help it.) The actual turn of the millennium was something of a collective sigh, when the planes didn’t fall out of the sky or the reactors didn’t melt down.

I remember lolling in a hotel room on the afternoon of Dec 31, 1999, watching footage of the celebrations in Australia and Myanmar, having the non-chemically induced sense of vertigo when you realize that the date as we have constructed it, globally, begins in a specific place, and then sweeps inexorably over the earth. If, for some ridiculous reason, something did go wrong on the Date Line, the rest of us would just have to sit and watch as the day crawled toward us. (Before you freak out: yes, I know that stuff like international airlines are oriented to GMT, but I’m on the other side of that, and the world revolves around me, ‘kay?)

So the millennium came and went, and we swept up the confetti, folded up our cargo pants – seriously, I have wacky theory about how all of the late-90s paramilitary fashion was some sort of collective sartorial acting out of our apocalyptic anxieties – and then went back to work. (See also: Hummers.) Then came 9/11, and the other shoe dropped hard and indisputably. It was the end of the world as we knew it. I remember watching a shitty made-for-tv movie called Y2K in November of 1999, and howling with laughter while Ken Olin, in the world’s longest sweater, raced to, I don’t know, find his kid and stop a nuclear melt-down, intercut with the worst CGI in the world of planes dropping like stones once the date caught up with them. Fly, pilot, fly! But you can’t outrun time! Muhahahaha! But then the planes did fall out of the sky. Worse still, they didn’t fall, but were flown out, with malevolent agency.

In many ways, Every Sigh, The End by Jason Hornsby is a period piece about the turn of the millennium, but one that could only be written after the hard historical fact of 9/11. I think I’m about the age of the author, so all of the post-college melt-down, the Xer almost-resignation towards generational uselessness, the keg-stands, band t-shirts & cheerless stoner depravity rang true. The plot has a wigged-out, origami-like feel that evokes the best of the late 90s paranoid fantasies (again, before they got stupid): X-Files, Matrix, Dark Skies. Only this time without the sweet outfits, sense of purpose, meaning, or human affection.

Zombie stories, are on some level, about the way narcissism veers uncomfortably to nihilism, and this doesn’t veer so much as drive headlong, with motherfucking agency. I don’t mean to imply that Hornsby on the side of the terrorists – hi FBI – but there’s some smart commentary in here about tragedy and voyeurism; the ways in which death & degradation are used as a spectacle solely for the purpose of personal catharsis of the protagonist/viewer-by-proxy.

This sucks, of course, compromised by the dangerous vanity that the suffering of others is an extension of personal ego, and therefore other people are unreal. The idea of conspiracy is so satisfying precisely because it confirms that we are so important that it takes an entire shadowy government agency to thwart our inherent awesomeness. (Hi FBI!) Hornsby charts these uneasy themes with an understanding towards the genre conventions that goes deeper than the usual fast v. slow, space rays v. viruses, bothersome physics of the worst of the genre.

BUT there are some things I didn’t dig, like the fact that every instance of the word end is in bold, or when anyone sighs it’s accompanied by some variation of the phrase “a horribly unoriginal gesture”. Okay, I get it, put the mallet away. The opening section is tedious, with way too much banter, floundering, and essays about genre. There are good reasons for the way this plays out, really, better than most: We’re meant to submerge ourselves in the douchebag ennui of the protag – called Holden by his girlfriend, natch – but I felt kind of pruny and overheated by the time I got out of the hot tub and into the blood bath.

And my most shallow complaint: this has the most vomitous cover, truly awful. The publishers should be ashamed of themselves for putting a book this good in a cover that crappy.

The Big Bite: Raising Stony Mayhall by Daryl Gregory

This was originally written in July 2011

I was talking with my husband the other day about Ragnarok, the Norse Armageddon, and kind of jokingly saying it was the first alt-history. Ragnarok is this really specific telling of the last days of the Norse Gods, a catalog of who will kill whom and how. It’s understood to be told in the future tense, something that hasn’t happened yet, but will, with exactness and finality. He was like, but isn’t that prophesy, like Revelations? I admit my knowledge of Revelations is a little crappy, but I don’t think that Ragnarok is quite the same. It’s less a story of what we humans should watch out for, so we can head to the underground bunker or whatever we’re supposed to do when the End Times are upon us. It’s not a manual, or a guide. It’s just a story about the inevitability of when certain kinds of personalities – large, inhuman or metahuman personalities – come into conflict with one another. It’s a chess game, not a chess guide. History, even history of the future, isn’t so much not to be repeated as embraced as the stories are told.

So, when I was in high school, I had this great assignment where I had to do a research paper about some public happening that went down in the year I was born. I was born in 1974, so I duly went to the microfiche and scrolled through the local headlines. Those older than me will shake their heads, but I was like, OMFG I CAN’T HANDLE ANY MORE WATERGATE. It was too much, too complicated, even though it was the thing that defined the year, and years on either side: the growing scandal, the series of indictments and resignations, the pardon – oh, the pardon. Fodder for a thousand research papers, a thousand books and movies. Certainly more than I could handle in 5-7 double-spaced pages.

So, I found Patty Hearst. Patty was an heiress of the Hearst newspaper empire – William Randolph Hearst being the subject (mostly, though the protagonist was an aggregate of several personalities) of Citizen Kane. She was abducted out of her apartment by a post-Helter Skelter cult called the SLA – the Symbionese Liberation Army. (I still have no idea why that name, and I can’t really remember their goals, which were a stew of 70s revolutionary cliches and “free love”, which was code for cult leader gets to bang whomever he wants.) (Also, she was at home that night with her upper class douchebag fiancée, a guy whose name was Stephen Weed, I shit you not. Pynchon couldn’t have named him better.)

Anyway, after a several months of rape, imprisonment, and a good dose of Stockholm Syndrome, Patty helped rob a Hearst bank with the SLA. Oh, the pregnant symbolism! I don’t remember all the details, but press releases were issued proclaiming her new cult name of Tania – still with the Pynchonian names. Public opinion was wildly against her. How dare she turn against her robber baron family money? Being raped and terrorized was not really credited in understanding her motivations. Again, I don’t remember all the details, but it turned into months – maybe years? – of the SLA playing cat-and-mouse with law enforcement, ending in a Waco-style shoot-out with fire and the death of most of the cult. Not Patty though. Somehow she survived.

So Patty is a fascinating American character. She later renounced all her SLA stuff, but it wasn’t enough to keep her from getting convicted of armed robbery. Her sentence was later commuted by Carter, who probably found the defense’s argument compelling about how she had no live ammo, and that most of the SLA guns in the robbery were trained on her, not the bank officials, and the fact that she’d been abducted, brutalized and raped into these actions. (Like me; I admit my bias.) She’s later been a regular fixture in John Waters films — including one where a woman is abducted into a film cult bent on bringing down the military-entertainment complex — seriously, Pynchon is like the patron saint of American history.

So, point being — and seriously, I have one — even history is an alternate history. There’s the stuff that screams from the headlines day after day, then there’s the stuff that goes down on the sidelines, which is no less meaningful, in terms of national identity and symbolism. I talked with my folks a lot about this project – in fact, I’m pretty sure one of them pointed me toward the Hearst story in the first place – and it was fascinating to hear them talk about the paranoia of the time, the sense of the end of it all. Night of the Living Dead premiered in 1969, and it was this perfect encapsulation of the times, written in horror. Kennedy may have been shot down in ’63, but it wasn’t until the murder and assassinations of the late 60s — Bobby Kennedy, Malcolm X, Dr. King — that we understood that our post-War dream of enforced middle class domesticity was tearing at the seams, letting out blood into a colonial conflict that, strangely, only Nixon could end, even while he shat all over executive privilege and the Presidency. (And, I have no patience with all of the mealy-mouthed talk of him being “controversial” when he died a few years back. Only if you find treason controversial, and not criminal.)

So. Alternate history. Here we are again in America, at the end of it all. Maybe we’re always at the end of it all. Maybe the millenarian instinct is in our DNA, in our constitution, and I totally mean that as a double entente. The 2nd Amendment is a hedge against the [zombie] apocalypse, something I always think about when I consider my neighbors from two doors down, who are avowed gun nuts with a racist caricature of Obama hanging in their window. I’d be over their begging for guns in heartbeat if zombies descended on my city, and it’s amusing as all get out to me that I’ve even considered the possibility. Cuz I have, American that I am.

At the opening of Saving Stony Mayhall by Daryl Gregory. John is found at the side of the road by an Iowan family. His mother is dead, and he is an undead, bubbling infant. It’s the late 60s, and in this mildly alternate beginning, the zombie uprising in Pennsylvania that is chronicled in Romero’s “documentary” is fact. Though this is a slightly histrionic comparison, the terror of the Twin Towers had been located 50 years earlier, so America was building its Gauntanimos and security state apparatuses 50 years earlier, to work against the undead threat. (Though we’re always building against a threat. We’ve always seen our threats as twinned — coming from within and without — fear of the Soviets and the Red Scare; Al Qaeda as well as that home-grown shoe-bombing idiot. Heck, lots of Americans think the Twin Towers was the result of the CIA, not Bin Laden, as we work against ourselves or something. I’m not really interested in getting into a big thing about this, I just want to point out that we have this headline narrative, and then a whispered narrative, whatever the truth may be.) John, or Stony as he comes to be known, is a zombie anomaly — zomnomaly? see, I am shit for portmanteau, unlike Mike who coined the term ‘zombildugsroman’ for this book — he grows from zombie infant into zombie boy, and then, as most of the story is concerned with, into zombie man.

The rest of the undead are bitten breathers, who, after a nasty, murderous incubation period of 48 hours or so, wherein they bite and kill like we have all seen on tv, they resolve into people who are not dissimilar from the ones the were when they were breathing. Some forget themselves, having their memories wiped by death. Some don’t. Stony moves from his claustrophobic but largely idyllic childhood on the plains of the Midwest into a graduation of the larger, undead community. The undead play cat-and-mouse with the Feds, reluctantly, not so much a cult as a folk group of the damaged, with their own folk myths and legends, political factions, schismatic religions, and personalities. As their numbers dwindle through attrition and active attacks, they ponder the Big Bite, a Ragnarök of starting the zombie apocalypse so that their number will replenish, and they can stop living in fear of the living. As the living live in fear of the dead.

I don’t even know how not to be all spoiler about this, but certain things are inevitable. You can’t write a zombie story without that sense of the End Times, it just matters whether you think the End Times are about warning or historical understanding. This story is about Patty Hearst, not Watergate, even though those things are twinned, bubbling out of the same cultural stew. Like Patty, Stony’s story is personal, personal enough that I can remember her stupid fiancé’s name when I have no idea the name of Spiro Agnew’s wife. (Hell, even Nixon’s. What was it? Francine? Imelda?) Patty’s story is fascinating because of all the familial symbolism, even while it intersects with Presidents and filmmakers, Patty an abducted lighting rod for a bunch of symbolism about class, privilege, politics, religion and on and on. Stony is a bit of the same, sorta, a simple Midwestern boy but for the fact that he doesn’t breathe, caught up in the times. Stony is a reluctant protagonist, like we all are reluctant protagonists, and the mythology, the explanations he lays out in this novel have the exciting frission of a good retcon. Not the kind that sucks, and restarts everything wiping out the past, but the kind that takes the past into account, and writes its exegesis. There’s a lot here for a zombie nerd to love, a catalog of genre ticks made sensible. And sensibility is this book’s heart.

Zombies are irrational, unscientific. Dead is dead. My husband always tries to placate my zombie freak-outs with the utterance, “But…physics,” but which he means that zombies violate the rules of physics and can’t exist. This book takes but…physics seriously, building an alt-history predicated on the impossible, relying on an alt-physics of will and psychology, coming down to a End Times of inevitability which is or is not inevitable, but happen[s/ed] anyway, based on the rules of the future tense, the future tense of all national stories. I don’t want to make this story sound mythic, though there is discussion of how the personal narrative transmutes into folk legend. It’s complicated and personal, much more so than the headlines might suggest, so much sadder than Revelations, so much quieter than Ragnarok. Damn fine.

P.S. I often write myself out of saying stuff like this, because it doesn’t fit in the standard 5-paragraph essay, but there’s a lot here that’s funny as shit, but slyly, like an undead character based on Col. Sanders, and a random aside about the undead mascots who schill for various products, like the Sinclair dinosaur. Charlie the Tuna wants you to eat his dead flesh ahahahahaha. Gross. Clever.

The Art of Losing: Charlotte’s Web

I liked sad things when I was a child. I probably still do like sad things, the lovely feeling of loss and connection one gets when unfortunate things happen to imaginary people in books. I would beg my Grandma Dory to read me The Little Match Girl over and over, and I would weep giant crocodile tears of pain and empathy at the girl’s frozen body, the grandmother and the candles, the matches all struck and burnt down to a flash of pain and then the letting go…

Charlotte is something of this for me, but it’s worse, her little spider body grown stiff and brittle and almost silly. I don’t know why I think about the corpses these ladies leave, but there’s something incredibly sad about how Charlotte diminishes from this great spinning speaking voice into a dead bug. Sad, so so sad.


I’ve tried to write this review a couple of hundred times, but it keeps falling apart. This story is so light, so airy, that it resists too much pressure, or goes squishing out the other end. I’ve half-written a dozen childhood reveries; I’ve cracked some jokes about how well punctuated this book is; I’ve talked about Charlotte-as-writer. None of this worked, and I promise it was all fumbling garbage. The following story comes closer to capturing how this book makes me feel than any other thing I’ve written for this review. I’m not satisfied with it, but it’s what I’ve got.


My Grandma Fran was dying, and I was a thousand miles from home. The hospital was like a hospital. My two-year-old-girl did the very best a 2-year-old could do with the beeping boredom of sitting for hours at a hospital bedside, but often we would have to go rambling around just to see what we could see. The hospital had no grounds to speak of, very little grass, but it did have a square pool of water that we considered every time we walked in from the parking lot. I think it may have been a fountain at some point, but it had been turned off or broken so it was just water in the ground.

We walked up to the edge. We took off our shoes and put in our feet. She splashed with her hands held so tight that her fingers curled up, a funny, baby-like gesture from a someone who was tending towards girlishness more and more at the time. Even though the air and the water were the same temperature, the air felt warm and the water cool. We rolled up our pants and walked around. She fell onto her butt and I laughed. She splashed me and I splashed her back. We found cars in my purse and drove them around the edges and fished them off the bottom. Then a security guard came and told us that the pool was only for decoration and we had to get out. We did, and went back to the hospital room, dripping. We told Grandma about swimming in the forbidden fountain, and she laughed. Grandma was still dying.


Here’s something you should read:


“Let’s swing in the swing!” said Avery.

The children ran to the barn.

Mr. Zuckerman had the best swing in the county. It was a single long piece of heavy rope tied to the beam over the north doorway. At the bottom end of the rope was a fat knot to sit on. It was arranged so that you could swing without being pushed. You climbed a ladder to the hayloft. Then, holding the rope, you stood at the edge and looked down, and were scared and dizzy. Then you straddled the knot, so that it acted as a seat. Then you got up all your nerve, took a deep breath, and jumped. For a second you seemed to be falling to the barn floor far below, but then suddenly the rope would begin to catch you, and you would sail through the barn door going a mile a minute, with the wind whistling in your eyes and ears and hair. Then you would zoom upward into the sky, and look up at the clouds, and the rope would twist and you would twist and turn with the rope. Then you would drop down, down, down out of the sky and come sailing back into the barn almost into the hayloft, then sail out again (not quite so far this time), then in again (not quite so high), then out again, then in again, then out, then in; and then you’d jump off and fall down and let somebody else try it.

Mothers for miles around worried about Zuckerman’s swing. They feared some child would fall off. But no child ever did. Children almost always hang onto things tighter than their parents think they will.

Avery put the frog in his pocket and climbed to the hayloft. “The last time I swang in this swing, I almost crashed into a barn swallow,” he yelled.

“Take that frog out!” ordered Fern.

Avery straddled the rope and jumped. He sailed out through the door, frog and all, and into the sky, frog and all. Then he sailed back into the barn.

“Your tongue is purple! ” screamed Fern.

“So is yours!” cried Avery, sailing out again with the frog.

“I have hay inside my dress! It itches!” called Fern.

“Scratch it!” yelled Avery, as he sailed back.

“It’s my turn,” said Fern. “Jump off!”

“Fern’s got the itch!” sang Avery.

When he jumped off, he threw the swing up to his sister. She shut her eyes tight and jumped. She felt the dizzy drop, then the supporting lift of the swing. When she opened her eyes she was looking up into the blue sky and was about to fly back through the door.

They took turns for an hour.

When the children grew tired of swinging, they went down toward the pasture and picked wild raspberries and ate them. Their tongues turned from purple to red. Fern bit into a raspberry that had a bad-tasting bug inside it, and got discouraged. Avery found an empty candy box and put his frog in it. The frog seemed tired after his morning in the swing. The children walked slowly up toward the barn. They, too, were tired and hardly had energy enough to walk.

“Let’s build a tree house,” suggested Avery. “I want to live in a tree, with my frog.”