A Book of Tongues and Cussing, My Favorite Kind.

There’s going to be some swearing in this essay. If you don’t like swearing, you will not like A Book of Tongues.  

This book was pitched to me as “gay Deadwood”. That’s not wrong – there is a bona fide San Francisco cocksucker here in the mix – literally! And like the book that inspired the rec for this book, the action takes place in the complicated mess that is the post Civil War Old West – the odd mix of ex-Confederate soldiers and Pinkertons, Mexicans and Native Americans, slugging it out in the harsh Southwestern terrain and the shitty main streets that play at civility on the edge of this thing and that. And this thing and that aren’t that well defined anyway, so each place is a hinge to another place that’s a hinge. Hot damn. 

And like Deadwood, the style here is absolutely killer, written in its own vernacular that’s somewhere between cliché and profanity, tactile and personal. Files is an author to watch – she’s got words that are strong as hell, a style with force and power. But, and I hate to say this, as a first novel, there are some serious lapses in pacing and exposition. After a pretty boring opening, punctuated by impossibly complex Aztec backstory, the central section ramps up into a fury of action and character sketches that are absolutely joyful to read. The story concerns hexes – magic workers – who are by needs solitary, because two hexes in the same place will try to suck each other dry, even if they don’t want to. The main hex is a man called Reverend Rook, who gained his power when he was hanged by the Confederate Army for fragging his lieutenant. He didn’t frag his lieutenant – that was the San Francisco cocksucker – but he swung anyway. 

So Rook, San Francisco cocksucker, and a covert Pink (this is the Pinkertons, semi-Federal militia who did shit like put down strikes and shoot people for whomever had enough green) work their way through the west, destroying and coming to terms with their own badness. And if this had been the thrust of the story, I might have given this more stars, but there’s a lot of weirdness involving an Aztec cosmology that doesn’t make any sense to me, isn’t well explained, and doesn’t go anywhere I give a shit about. 

Karen was the one who asked me to read this, because she was immune to its charms and wanted to know why it tasted like olives to her when, to so many others, it didn’t, or maybe they liked olives, or something. Honestly, I think the olives metaphor is a good one, because while I liked this, I can see where the things I enjoyed, the things I respected, might not be enough to forgive other narrative lumpiness for other people. I happen to like olives. I like them a lot. The olives here for me were a spectacular sense of profanity and a baroque prose style, but even while I enjoy olives, there were some teeth cracking pits when it came to pacing.

That middle section ramps to a confusing, but still compelling, magical meeting in an Aztec hell, the principles in our crazy love triangle – and don’t think this is some kind of coy fuckless love triangle that has a gormless girl in the middle, but a love triangle with a bunch of stone killing veterans, guys all three – existing in a dream state of blood and death. Then…we jump to a chatty month later, and the aftermath is recounted in flashback. I have serious problems with this, and with how the characters in the final section talk around their characters and what their actions mean. The middle section sketches some of the finest characters I’ve seen in a while – not because they are likely characters, but because they are burning with their impossiblities, completely understandable in the world they inhabit. But the end, blah, stop talking. 

There’s too much weird here, which may be the problem. I’m willing to take on the idea of magic workers – hexes – and their parameters, but this Aztec cosmology business is too much for me. I get the impression that this cosmology is all worked out, and will make sense at some point, but that point is no where in this book, and so I’m left wondering what the fuck. The magical confrontations skew metaphorical in a way I find hard to grasp, and, this is just total bitchiness from me as a reader, it makes me fucking insane when characters talk in both bold and italics . Bold has no place in body text except as a titling element, and it is beyond distracting to see large blocks of dialogue in bold. And if you are going to bold something in body text, don’t you dare mix it with italics. Both are emphatic typography, and it goes beyond shouting to use them together. (A better solution would be to use ALL CAPS in emphatic dialogue. I have seen that done well, like in A Prayer for Owen Meany or Perdido Street Station, though has to be approached cautiously to work.)

Anyway, but I’m complaining too much. I drink this olive. I drink it up. I don’t think I can put better why you don’t like this, Karen, beyond your very smart perception that sometimes a book is an olive to a palate that doesn’t like olives. There are problems here that will not overcome the olive, if you don’t like them – not the least of which is an ending that dot-dot-dots to the sequel in a way that is seriously annoying. I still haven’t decided whether I’ll take on the next book. These characters – they are so fucking good – but these places they are in, where they are going – I don’t know if I care. Either way, once Files is done with this series, I’ll be reading the shit out of her next books. She’s good – she’s got something – and once this is over, I’m jazzed to see what she does next.

Howl’s Moving Castle

I’ve never read Diana Wynne Jones before. I know! 

Another ride to the cabin, another audiobook. I’ve discovered the young adult section, which is better suited to listening while driving. The length coincides with the time it takes to drive up and back, and it’s just lighter thematically so I won’t concentrate too hard and drive off the road. The reader for the audiobook had an accent that bugged me at first, but I eventually got over it because I liked how she said the word “logs”. Plus, you just get used to accents after a while. I loved the way she read Howl with one of those drawling, lazy-sounding Welsh accents that I wish I could imitate but can’t. 

This is the story of an eldest sister – my favorite kind, for purely selfish reasons – who is cursed by a witch to become an old woman. Sophie sets out not to make her fortune – she knows, the way the bookish young do, that the eldest sister is doomed to be a cautionary tale in the stories of younger sisters. The story trades in the parallelisms and structures of a fairy tale, but loosely so – for example, she meets three creatures on the road on the way to Howl’s castle – a man, a scarecrow, and a dog – and while you expect certain things from these interactions – here comes the clobbering plot – the actualities end up being…stranger than the expectations. 

Sophie ends up in the employ of the wizard Howl – roughly; it is more that she pushes her way in and refuses to leave – and the story is mostly the domestic happenings of Howl and Sophie’s families and familiars. The characters all continue the theme of expectations not conforming to reality – Howl is a clothes horse and shirker, in addition to being a competent and feared wizard; Calcifer is a fire demon, and also something sweeter and lightly tragic. Sophie’s sisters enact a plot that owes something to The Importance of Being Earnest with its doubling and trebling of Letties and mistaken identities, which I found charming and not horrifyingly sit-com-like. (And probably without a gay subtext, but I didn’t give it much thought.) 

I wasn’t enamored of the ending, which takes all these sprawling threads that have been weaving in and out around each other without much urgency and ties them in a slip knock and ends. I complained to Richard about this a little, and he quoted a nursery rhyme at me:

Ride a cockhorse to Banbury Cross
To see a fine woman upon a white horse.
With rings on her fingers and bell on her toes,
Ahhh! There she goes! 

My parents always went with the more traditional ending line of, “and she will have music wherever she goes”, but his folks would recite this while giving a horsey ride to the child on their laps, at the end of which the seat would be rescinded and the child dumped onto the floor. (But, you know, in a nice way – the kid knowing this was coming and grinning madly before the end.) And when the bridge bended, the story was ended! I take his meaning: this story is more about the journey than the destination, and grumbling too loudly about endings doesn’t really credit the ongoingness of the story, even at the supposed end. 

Lastly, I was hugely fond of old-yet-young Sophie. I went to a wedding of some youngens this weekend – people a dozen or more years my junior – and was struck by how earnest these young people were, how incredibly serious. I don’t mean they are joyless or anything – and they seem a very happy couple – just that they are so serious about their adulthoods. There was this conversation at one point about subjects not fit for young adult book reviews, and the groom expounded some opinions that made most of us smug marrieds, including some eavesdropping women, laugh until we almost barfed. He looked a little abashed, but earnestly so, and will not be softening his youthful opinion, I’m sure, until he has any experience at all to measure against his carefully theoretical knowledge. 

I remember being like this – not in terms of opinions held, because lol – but believing things in this manner, believing in the inevitability of narratives, the trajectory of story. I mean, I’m probably still believing things like this, and my folks are busy laughing themselves sick about some opinion I’ve espoused about being older. So Sophie in her old skin because she’s bought the line about eldest sisters not amounting to anything, because she is squandering her youth on being responsible in a way that serves no one but an ideal, that was lovely. And it gave me licence to steal some glasses from the reception, because you’re only young once, even if you aren’t that young anymore. And being not that young anymore is liberating as all get out. 

Unholy Ghosts, Hecklers and Critics, or How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Critical Process

I am here today, friends, to talk about author behavior. And also this book. But because of the recent, sometimes ugly, and wholly passionate conversation going on here on Goodreads and the bookish Internets in general about the relationship between authors and readers and reviewers, I came to read this book. I don’t want to get too far down into this rabbit hole, but even dividing writers from reviewers from readers is a little weird. Of course writers are readers too, and sometimes reviewers. (This is leaving aside the strange species of author who does not read, which must exist.) Of course reviewers are readers. (Except for the strange animal who does not read but reviews anyway. Which is not to say I have any problem with DNF reviews, just that I’ve seen at least one example of the kind of reviewer who starts into a book with a critical stance in mind, and then deep-sixes the book when it fails to conform to that vision.) Of course reviewers are writers too, though I certainly understand that writing a largely unedited essay while sitting on the back porch is quantitatively different than writing, editing, and publishing a novel. Of course it’s all a messy mess of varying personalities and aesthetics.

I guess what I’m trying to say that so much of this fighting comes down to warring ideas about the place of criticism layered onto the strange posture of identity and Internet identity. I had this really interesting conversation with my friend Emily yesterday about the movie “Heckler”. A couple people had recommended it to me because, honestly I don’t know why. Because they said it made them not hate Jamie Kennedy as much as they had before. It’s a documentary by Mr. Kennedy about hecklers in comedy shows. I watched about half of it before I lost my crap and had to turn it off. So much of it sent me up the freaking wall – the way hecklers were equated with the entire critical enterprise, the way negative was equated with some sort of jealousy, the fact that more than one person said “Until you have made a movie, you can’t say anything about making movies.” I reject that with both hands and a foot up your ass. I’ve been reading, watching movies, consuming fiction in all of its forms since I before could form a godamn sentence. And sure, there have been times when I have gotten my hate on in a serious way about books/movies/whatever, my negative assessments aren’t coming from some some lonely pit of jealousy and despair. Oh how I wish I had produced this piece of art I hate!

Which is when I realized I was taking it personally.

I, as a critic, am not exempt from criticism. It’s a form of writing, in its own weird way, and Emily was absolutely right when she pointed out the performance of the heckler, and that of the critic, are going to be assessed in some ways by the power of the performance. The heckler seeks to disrupt, to pull attention – any performer does. Some people seek to go as bloodlessly academic in their reviews as possible – and mazel tov to you – but every single time the top lists are brought up, people bemoan how those who do don’t get the attention they deserve, etc. I had to really really resist putting scare quotes on that last phrase – none of us deserve anything for what we write, from authors down to the unwashed reviewers. Sure, it’s a crying shame when a writer bleeds out and no one notices – reviewer or author. It’s a crying shame when intelligent writing is trampled over to get to some godamn thing full of .gifs and misspellings up the ass. But there’s no A for effort. I can sit looking at this cursor for hours, pouring out my soul, and that and about two bucks will get me a cup of coffee. I don’t deserve anything. No writer does, not critics, not authors, not nobody.

But people use the term “popularity contest” like it’s a bad thing, when ultimately, it is what it is. A popularity contest measures popularity, and acting like a popularity contest should be a meritocracy does a disservice to both merit and popularity. Because what it comes down to is that Goodreads is a Frankenstein’s monster of social network and critical platform, and if it bugs you that the top reviews are all of severely popular books in genres you despise and don’t credit, then the problem is you. People like stuff I hate all day every day, in forms I hate, for reasons I hate. All day. That doesn’t make them wrong, or me right. It doesn’t make my aesthetic judgement any better. It just makes it sometimes at odds with what a large group of people think. And I don’t get a gold star for being some kind of iconoclast, because I’m pretty sure I’m not; I’m just an individual who doesn’t reside exactly in the golden mean. Which pretty much everyone is – average taste is a mathematical concept, not an identity.

Anyway. Fuck. What was I talking about before I slipped into ranting? Oh yeah. Heckler. One of the things that super bugged me about Heckler was the section which dealt with all the racist shit comics say on stage. Like when Michael Richards freaked and screamed the n-bomb a hundred times (when reacting to a heckler, interestingly) whenever that was. Or the scads of ethnic jokes clipped in the documentary. When those audiences reacted negatively, they weren’t heckling for its own sake, because they were “jealous” of Kennedy’s “popularity” – it was because he just said some racist ass shit. Maybe it’s an aesthetic judgement to find racist ass shit unfunny, and react to said racist ass shit negatively, but I don’t actually think so. That’s a question of identity and worldview. That’s an articulatable position – your comedy is racist, and therefore unfunny – which is a step above “your shit is just unfunny to me because of taste” on the critical hierarchy. Taste can’t be argued. Whether your shit is racist or not, and whether that makes it unfunny or not, that can. That’s the difference between heckling and the critical process, motherfucker.

I’m not so far gone that I can’t see that there is a world of overlap between heckling – or as I think we might call it on teh interntetz here, trolling – and the critical process. All writers – critics and authors – are writing as hard as they can, trying to reach as many as they can. I’ve seen this happen a couple of times recently, where someone comes onto a review and says “this review sucks” and than get all miffy when they’re called out on it – what the hell are you trying to accomplish? “This review sucks” is nothing but a statement of taste. Same as “this book sucks” if you don’t back it up with something other than your subjective taste, or you don’t articulate your subjective taste. Both statements of suckitude are valid, I think, but I’m not personally going to credit criticism of any form that can’t back itself up. The book sucks, the review sucks, for reasons. Maybe those reasons are weird and person to you – say it out loud. Articulate those reasons or go home. I disagree because I liked it – I disagree because I didn’t like it – those are bland statements, not opinions. Or maybe they are opinions, but they aren’t interesting ones. They are not discussable, disappearing into the black box of subjective taste, the non-overlapping magisteria of readerly pleasure or disgust. I guess what I’m looking for in criticism is an opening for conversation, and pointing out something sucks is just saying stuff to be heard. There’s no listen. There’s no opportunity for listen.

So. Whatever. I feel like I’m so far from the point I wanted to make that it’s notable even for me. I’ve been watching the various controversies unfold on Goodreads and elsewhere with an almost obsessive fervor. If you haven’t been following too closely, a site which I will not name came online month or two ago, which published the private information of several Goodreads reviewers, in some cases down to where these reviewers lunched. While they themselves hid under anonymity. This site was unhappy with negative reviews, referring to these reviewers as bullies, and hoped to give them a “taste of their own medicine” by, what, having them killed by Internet loonies? Jesus Christ. They scrubbed their site of the most offensive and possibly legally actionable content just in time to have their bullshit published on HuffPo, after which HuffPo delivered the absolute weakest apology for their total lack of journalistic due diligence. Anyway, point being, in all of this, I saw post after post by an author who was smart, well spoken, and angry about how these reviewers were being treated. Who was funny and witty and cool. That author, my friends, was Stacia Kane. (And, for the record, there are a bunch of writers I noticed speaking intelligently during this mess – Foz Meadows, John Scalzi, and a couple others I can’t think of right now.)

I do maintain a probably-not shelf on Goodreads, which is mostly for weird shit that I won’t read just because it’s weird, and I don’t want it on my to-read. In most of all this shouting about authors and reviewers, the books in question by authors-behaving-badly would have gone unread by me anyway, just because of my total lack of interest in the subject or genre. So probably-not-ing them has no meaning. But I decided to turn the frown upside down and read something by an author-behaving-goodly. If Ms Kane’s book was half as smart and funny as her posts, it’s not like I could go wrong. And I dabble in urban fantasy, so it’s not like it’s a stretch, even if my reading interests tend more strongly in other directions.

So, yeah, this book was fun as hell. It’s an alternate history where there was a ghostocalypse in 1997 – something about how the murderous undead appear and tried to kill everyone? And succeeded with, like 2/3 of the population of the Earth? But not, like, zombies or whatever? I admit, the backstory is a little hazy, but that’s not the godamn point. You’re thrown into the story with Chess Putnam, who is some kind of Church-licensed ghostbuster, but also a total addict and fuckup. The plot is Scooby Doo all the way, in the best way, where there are three plots – one relating to Church business, and another two dealing with various dealers that Chess is in deep with in one way or another – that start converging into a giant clusterfuck of epic proportions.

God, I loved watching this unfold. The book is not surprising, really; this isn’t going to blow your post-modernist skirt up or give you shit about the meaning of life, but it is going to knock about and snort speed and talk in a street dialect that manages to be fucking cool without being racist. I usually get all tense and pissy about dialect, because it tends to be used racistly – I have christened this an acceptable adverb – subtly telling the reader that certain characters (usually the brown ones) are stupid or ignorant. The dialect here was more street talk, used by anyone on the corner, and the fact that Chess speaks in more standard English was more a function of her half-status on the street – her feet in two worlds – than her betterment of anyone. That’s how you use dialect. Amen.

And man, I loves me the fuckups. I feel like they are relatively rare out there in urban fantasy, and even more so in romance. I feel like every time I crack a book about werewolves or steamships or vampires or whatever genre stuff, I find these virginal ingenues who can’t find their sexuality with both hands and a flashlight. Who never dream of being bad until they find that one guy who unlocks their honey-oven with his manroot, and then ye gads! sex kitten emerges. But only, like, because of love and whatnot. Chess is not this, and it felt fresh as the nicotine hitting the blood on that first hard inhale. You kinda want to puke because it’s so dirty and transgressive, but you also want to do it again. Rarr. And speaking of rarrr, there’s a dude here, one of those muscle-buses that I’m on record as making fun of – though I would not kick Jericho Barrons out of bed for eating crackers – who totally worked for me. Big, ugly, nasty enforcer for a drug dealer who can, like, read and stuff. Because literacy is sexy, baby.

Though, the fuckup protagonist is a little more common in detective or Noir stories – probably Harry Dresden falls into this a little, though he irritates me greatly – so it’s not like Chess is wholly unusual. I don’t have a ton of background in urban fantasy series, which is probably a saving grace for my enjoyment, when I get right down to it. I kept holding Chess and her world up to the characters and places I do know – Mac & Fever, Ward’s vamps, Dresden, Sookie, Kitty the Werewolf – measuring them in relation to one another. This is on solid genre ground, and probably the more versed in the genre you are, the more similarities might bug you. But it is on solid ground.

So, I don’t know. What’s the point of reviewing, ultimately? I don’t mean that rhetorically – I’m asking with my bowl out. I’m not in this game to get people to read shit I like if they’re not going to like it. I don’t want that to happen. I don’t actually believe in the “constructive review” – I’m not arrogant enough to think that my shit-talk or praise is going to influence – or should influence – how someone writes. Presumably they have people they trust for beta readers, and it’s not like whatever I read isn’t a done deal anyway. I’m not here to sell books or sink them, not that I think that I could anyway. I’ve had a lot of somewhat bullshit existential twisting about what it is I’m doing here on Goodreads – wondering what the point of it all is – and even though I keep deciding not to review anything anymore, I keep coming back. Reading is a sullen art, and I like saying it out loud, I guess. Maybe that’s all it is. Maybe that’s all the critical process ever is.

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