Young Adult Anthology: Grim

I received my copy from NetGalley.com and Harlequin Teen. Thanks.

Because I might as well use my minor in folklore for something, I’ll begin my review of Grim, a collection of young adult short stories, with a little bit of pedantry about the fairy tale. Broadly speaking, there’s two kinds of fairy tale: the Märchen, which are orally transmitted folk tales with no specific origin and wide variation, and the literary fairy tales, which are written by a single person. Some of the distinction can be a little mushy, like with the large and glorious oral and literary history of the Arthurian legend, which has a lot of switch-backs and cross-pollination between literary and oral history.

Sometimes it’s less so, like when you’re dealing with the works of Hans Christian Anderson, Charles Perrault, or Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve, who wrote The Snow Queen, Puss in Boots, and Beauty & The Beast, respectively (and among other things.) Though these stories use traditional folkloric motifs, they were written stories, often designed for court or salon readerships, like de Villeneuve, or children, like Andersen and Perrault. Andersen hat-tipped Dickens in The Little Match Girl, and was hat-tipped in turn by C.S. Lewis in the character of the Snow Queen in Narnia. (And this second has become her most famous incarnation. The Turkish Delight, I’m given to understand, was Lewis’s doing.) The tales are more part of a literary tradition than an oral one.

It really shows in something like Perrault’s Puss in Boots, which is a pretty classic clever servant story (like Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro which got him in such hot water). Certainly Perrault is using some clever cat folklores – which lends some dissonance when the the immoral Puss is used to prop the moral of industry and sticktoitiveness – but the boots, the gormless third son, the instructive tone are new, literary elements. The essential amorality of the folk motifs makes the whole thing kinda funny though, no matter how many admonishments of industry are included.

Our booted feline friend was part of some of the earliest editions of what eventually became Mother Goose, an editorial invention for publishing instructive tales for children in the growing middle class in England, set alongside other sanitized (and anglicized) Märchen. Amusingly, concern-trolling has been around since the invention of children’s literature. Observe (from the wikis):

The renowned illustrator of Dickens’ novels and stories, George Cruikshank, was shocked that parents would allow their children to read “Puss in Boots” and declared: “As it stood the tale was a succession of successful falsehoods—a clever lesson in lying!—a system of imposture rewarded with the greatest worldly advantages.”

Perrault shines a folk tale into something suitable for children, but certain things will not out.

Folk tales are often violent, sexual and political. The frog is transforms into a prince not because the princess kisses him, but because she throws him against the wall. Cinderella’s sisters cut their feet to fit the slipper, and are caught out because of dripping blood. Sleeping Beauty awakens from her slumber when she gives birth to twins, because the prince was charming enough to rape her while unconscious. So.many.people get their eyes pecked out by birds. Folk tales are often not about imparting morals, but about exploring sometimes gruesome economic, political, familial and sexual imbalances through the metaphorical. Folk tales aren’t didactic or instructive, in the strictest sense, while literary stories often are, especially when they are aimed at children.

And if it looks like I’m bagging oral folklore, I’m not. Folk tales like the ones collected by the Brothers Grimm, Lady Gregory (a firm friend of W.B. Yeats) or Andrew Lang (who was also a Homeric scholar) were, often, very much not for children, and can have unnerving elements of horror and the macabre. A lot of these cats had very specific 18th and 19th Century ideas about “the folk” as “noble savages” or specific nationalist agendas. (I’m looking at you, Yeats.) There’s fairly good evidence that even the Grimms, who prided themselves on their impartial collection and transmission, mucked about with the stories they were collecting for whatever purposes. The whole relationship between the oral and literary traditions is pretty complex stuff, well more complex that my opening paragraph implies.

Jesus, my head has really come to a point here. My purpose, if I can find it, was really to talk about the ways the fairy story has been used in oral and literary traditions, and it’s interesting to see these young adult iterations published by Harlequin Teen in the larger tradition of packaging some seriously wicked shit to impart morals to children. There are still a lot of plucky kids, though they seem to have shifted gender from the the lucky son to the Strong Female Protagonist. Love is the answer more often than I remember from Andrew Lang’s Fairy Books or Grimm’s Tales, where marriages often occurred between people just because girls are a prize for lucky boys. Several of the stories here push back at that notion. There’s also more revenge than I remember. Because so many of the oral folk tales are not terribly psychological – young Hans left one day to make his fortune, etc, with no real bother about his internal state – few historical folk tales have the requisite psyche to really pull a gotcha at the end. You can with a short story though; good.

Anyway, at this point I should probably get into the individual stories.

“The Key” by Rachel Hawkins. I liked the writing on this – the main character is one of those world-weary teens I find charming – but it’s not a story so much as a situation. I find this often with writers who are primarily novelists dabbling in the short story form. They write prologues to larger fictions, and then bite them off.

“Figment” by Jeri Smith-Ready. This was one where my general crank level was too high, because there’s really nothing wrong with the story, but it still grated me a little. The characters are drawn with a steady hand, and overall its cute and playful with just enough drama that it’s not too lightweight. I just didn’t like this specific treatment of Puss in Boots, mechanically speaking, because turning that immoral schemer into a plush toy that just wants to be loved just seems wrong.

“The Twelfth Girl” by Malinda Lo. Dark and class conscious take on the Twelve Dancing Princesses with a wonderfully pyrrhic ending. Very good.

“The Raven Princess” by Jon Skovron. The recounting of the Grimm version of the princess who was transformed into a raven and then won by a plucky young man hews close to the original, but does manage to provide a fresh angle and perspective. It felt a little message-y at points – and that’s how you behave like a good person! – but the story does have a kind heart.

“Thinner than Water” by Saundra Mitchell. Resounding props for taking on Donkeyskin or Catskin in a young adult short story. There are a whole bunch of related folk tales about kings attempting (or succeeding) in marrying their daughters and how the girls trick their way out, but the central horror of incest and sexual assault is serious shit. Mitchell’s story vividly relates the way the girl is isolated and made complicit in her abuse, and doesn’t flinch. Maybe you get out, but you probably won’t get out clean, and you’re not the only one.

“Before the Rose Bloomed: A Retelling of the Snow Queen” by Ellen Hopkins. Reeeally straightforward retelling which isn’t bad, but also doesn’t add anything. Felt plodding.

“Beast/Beast” by Tessa Gratton. Very claustrophobic take on the Beauty & the Beast story, with one of the more interesting beasts I’ve seen in while. He’s like a golem sewn out of all manner of animals and plants and…stuff. The writing is very good, and while I’m troubled by certain things, they’re mostly the sorts of things I’m always troubled by in Beauty & the Beast stories. I’m still turning over that ending; a good sign.

“The Brothers Piggett” by Julie Kagawa. Men are pigs! hahaha. But seriously, this had just a brutal snap to it, which surprised me from a retelling of the Three Little Pigs. No girl is a reward for a boy when he acts like a decent person, and he doesn’t get to act like an indecent person when she is not rewarded to him. Well played.

“Untethered” by Sonia Gensler. The Little Shroud, itself, is somewhat inert and stubby, so a story based on it suffers from that brevity. This slid perspectives in a cool way, but it felt a little stagy to me. Well drawn relationships though.

“Better” by Shaun David Hutchinson. The Pied Piper of Hamelin…in space! I kid, I kid. I’m a sucker for generation ships and clone golems though, and the scifi setting was just aces. A nasty little piece of work, and while I’m rooting for our heroes, I’m also terrified of them.

“Light It Up” by Kimberly Derting. This retelling of Hansel & Gretel felt like it didn’t do enough work updating the premise to the present day – it was too literal – but it was fine, I guess. But cannibalism is hilarious, no matter how you slice it. (Get it?? Hahaha, I kill me.)

“Sharper Than a Serpent’s Tongue” by Christine Johnson. Again, the fairy tale motif needed to be better updated, and I think the attempt at a reversal was botched a little, though it might just be my weariness with the idea that “sometimes a curse can be a blessing!” The central part about how some parents should not be honored because they’re terrible parents is totally legit though.

“Real Boy” by Claudia Gray. Robot love story! There was something very old school Asimov about this – the rules! – but it functioned as a self-contained world, which is a nice bit of parallelism. It almost would have been better if we didn’t see the reveal at the end.

“Skin Trade” by Myra McEntire. Yeah, I don’t know. I can see where this was going, I just think it didn’t get there. Plus it was just lurid. I like lurid, even lurid for its own ends, but this felt forced. And again, not enough thought went into the update.

“Beauty and the Chad” by Sarah Rees Brennan. I really appreciate the light-hearted anachronism and general goofing, I just think I’m too damn old for this story. The beast in this retelling is a frat-bro, and frat-bros are the very worst for me. I completely recognize this is my own hang up, and frat-bros notwithstanding, this story was cute and funny, the sentient furniture especially.

“The Pink” by Amanda Hocking. Another reeaaallly straightforward retelling with very little heat or danger. The names were way dumb too.

“Sell Out” by Jackson Pearce. The premise was updated well, and I think it had more friction than a lot of the more straightforward retellings, but it also just didn’t do it for me. Age, again, may be a factor, as I bristle about the term “sell out” used by children who have zero idea. I’d like to see the sequel when the hammer falls, kiddo, because fall it will. (Somebody top off mommy’s drink; she’s being a crank again.)

In sum, a perfectly cromulent little collection, with nothing that overwowed me – “Beast/Beast” and “Thinner Than Water” came close – but also very few straight up failures. I have a couple of these writers pinned as interesting, and I’ll be sure to scoop something up next it comes to my attention. There are also a couple who have now been solidly cemented as not to my taste. Though I’m loathe to pretend I can predict what a teenager might think of this, I imagine someone less old and cranky will cotton to some of these stories better than I. Good job, demographics.

 

 

Posts From Overshare Planet: Dune by Frank Herbert

When my grandfather died, he had a paperback of Dune sitting on his bedside table. Finding it there was like a revelation to me, like the sort of experience only Taoists and Catholic philosophers have a name. He was nearly 70 years older than me, a teetotaler, a hymn singer and dramatist in the Celtic vein, a schoolteacher, a ham. We didn’t have a lot in common, as you may might imagine, two generations removed and a gender divided. But I loved him, and he was gone, and here was this book that was intimate to my adolescence, a shared experience revealed. Ah. Damn.

I sat on the edge of his bed and paged through the book. On the front page, in his spidery hand, he wrote page numbers with notes. I checked the page numbers and correlated passages, and found that many of the sections he marked dealt with fathers and sons: Mu’ad Dib and the Letos, the Old Duke. This shook me, shakes me still. A man, a man in his nineties, on the edge of his own death, whose father is long, long dead, noting the expectation, education, and disappointment that characterizes the relationship between father and son. Ah, and damn, again.

My relationship with Dune began with the Lynch film. As a young teenager, I watched it many times at slumber parties and the like. (I can be forgiven; I was young, and who didn’t want to see Sting in rubber underpants in the late 80s? This is before he became embarrassing, smooth jazz Sting.) The movie was trippy and cool, even if it didn’t make a lot of sense, and eventually lead to me reading the book. I wolfed Dunedown, several times, and the following books.

Most science fiction occurs 10 years in the future, 25, 100. This all happens 10,000 years from now, in a future constrained by a past that is fully realized. At some point humanity develops AI. It goes badly, cylon-style. There is an event, a war called the Butlerian Jihad, that renders computers taboo. People are trained to become computers: the Mentats. Women start their own secret political guild, complete with a breeding program, much like you’ve always suspected they have: the Bene Gesserit. There is a drug/resource that makes instantaneous interstellar travel possible: the spice melange. Without the spice, travel between worlds becomes impossible, and commerce, communication, and the Empire end. The spice has mind-changing, anti-aging qualities, but like any drug is still addictive. The spice comes from one place, and one place only: Arrakis. Into this milieu, add a messianic figure: Paul Mu’ad Dib. He galvanizes a native, marginalized culture to reorder society, government and the environment through the control of a finite, indispensable resource.

Reading this time, again, using my grandfather’s paperback, I noticed different things. I’ve been hanging out in Herbert’s universe for so long that I forget that it doesn’t, you know, exist as a kind of history that he just channeled into novels. It had to start somewhere, and that somewhere is here. Stray thoughts: There’s a lot of world building to do, and while Herbert refrains from the most blatant info-dumps, the beginning is slow. Duncan Idaho, despite his almost constant presence in the later books, is almost a cameo role. Herbert has a tin ear for dialogue, sometimes. I’d forgotten/misplaced all the bull-fighting and its attendant metaphors. Grandpa may have noted the relationship between fathers and sons, but there’s a lot about mothers and sons that he didn’t note. Okay, that’s enough of that.

I’d always taken home the society-is-shaped-by-ecology message in Dune. It’s a good one, and one SFF writers would do well to remember more often. Herbert more or less proposes that harsh environments create cultures comprised entirely of bad motherfuckers. As an inevitable consequence of environmental constraint, a culture will develop the following attributes: ritualized violence without guilt, honor-bound individualism that translates to rigid adherence to a local clan-like leader and individual responsibility for collective failure. I personally think this theory may be bullshit, but it makes for a ripping story. (Go read Manny’s review about having the revelation, as an adult reader, that Herbert is using Arabic words, for crying out loud, and that he’s talking about the Middle East and nomadic, desert cultures. Fremen = Arabs, spice = oil, House Corrino = decadent West. Seriously, go read it.)

This is not the message Grandpa was taking home, insofar as I can divine his mind from a collection of page numbers and almost illegible notes. (I can barely read them now, and it makes me sad. There are many things you lose with the passage of time: the sharpness of grief, the presence of absence. You also lose the sense of an antique hand, I’ve found.) Each section of Dune starts with a quote from a mysterious source in a sort of long-form aphorism style: this is the future of the tale imposed on the events occurring in the “now” of the story. In later books, this gets painfully lame, but I think here it’s done pretty well. Here’s a few Grandpa noted:

p 41? “How do we approach the study of Mu’ad Dib’s father? …Still, one must ask, what is the son but an extension of the father?” (Why did he put a question mark on the page number? Damn again.)

p 102 “There is probably no more terrible instant of enlightenment than the one in which you discover your father is a man – with human flesh.” Grandpa was raised in a steel town by a father who was a steelworker, and worked in the mills to get his education and get the fuck out out of the mills. Grandpa had no sons; this quote can only be about his own father.

p 172 “Arrakis teaches the attitude of the knife – chopping off what’s incomplete and saying, ‘Now, it’s complete because it’s ended here.’” Judging by the notes, Grandpa never finished reading this book. This is the last one. The thing that blows my fucking mind is that this is the last thing he noted, before his life was chopped off and completed. (I have a tendency to drop f-bombs when I’m upset, and I’m sorry, gentle reader, just to pay homage to my Midwestern need to apologize for everything.) This was the end, or one of the ends, for him. Damn. Fuck.

This is where that difficult to describe emotion comes in. It kills me that he didn’t finish it, that we didn’t get a chance to talk about a book that has been near and dear to me for forever. I can see from the notes he took that he was reading an entirely different story, taking home an entirely different message. We were divided in life by age and gender, personality and distance. We were united by some things too: a tendency toward the maudlin, a love of Dylan Thomas and associated Welshiness, a chin. We read the same book. But, just because we both read the same book, doesn’t mean we read the same book. Reading Dune again, with his notes, is like reading his diary, conjuring his mind. A novel written by another man, with a collection of notes in the margins, gives me a strangely intimate picture of my Grandpa, even if it’s shimmery and insubstantial.

This is profoundly strange. Reading is profoundly strange. We sit, quiet and alone, and hear the words of other people in no ear, in the voice of the mind. Some books are comforting, something we return to again and again. I’ve read Dune a hundred times. A couple times, my husband and I have plowed through the series in tandem, making conversation out of the personal experience of reading. Each reading is a layer of experience, each experience of reading another layer. I love this book. It’s bound up in my life, and each reading causes me to remember the bonds that readers share with other readers, not the least of whom is my grandfather, in the last days of his life. I miss him. The book brings him back.

You Can’t Take the Con from Me: The Last Stand of the California Browncoats

I am of the opinion that Mira Grant’s Newsflesh trilogy is perfect summer vacation reading. Even though those books are bloated by all kinds of Coke drinking, logistical chicanery, and wangst, the pages absolutely rip along, like finding a google hole of related self-important blog posts by a group of people who you kind of can’t stand, but also adore and want to have a drink with. I didn’t really track this while I was reading them, as I was too caught up rolling my eyes at the world mechanics – seriously, who is growing food or packing, shipping and delivering all the godamn stuff you assholes are ordering on the Internet – but Grant (possibly slyly) really captures the bullshit teapot tempest feel of the blogosphere. Only two privileged white kids who live with their parents can save us all! But, gosh, it was a lot of fun to read, and perfect for long summer evenings on the back porch. 

So I finished them up last summer, and in the last week of this summer, I discovered there are a bunch of enovellas set in the Newsflesh world. Sign me right up, gin and tonic in hand. San Diego 2014: The Last Stand of the California Browncoats feels a little like Hugo-bait (which I see worked, because this was nominated for the Hugo in the novella category for 2013). The Hugo is the more fannish of the sff awards, as it is decided by the participants in World Con, not SFWA or or other more trade-y organizations. Whether that sentence made any sense to you is probably a good indicator of whether this novella will work for you, as Browncoats is aimed pretty solidly at the nerd demographic. A novella about a zombie outbreak at a nerd con being voted on by nerd con participants is a good bet for the win. But hey, I’m a nerd and con goer, also for the win. 

But my nerdery aside, I think Browncoats minimized the things that bug me about the Newsflesh world: the tech-babble and less-than-punchy aphoristic intros and extros, the self-aggrandizement of douches, the shaky social architecture. The novella read much more like a lost chapter from World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War, with the whingeing, bloggerly interjections of the After the End Times staff kept to a minimum, and the wide ranging events of the Comic Con outbreak related though multiple perspectives and points of view. My favorite of the End Times staff, Mahir, has gone to interview the last known survivor of Comic Con 2014 thirty years later, and the proceedings have that same Studs Terkel retrospective sensibility which both dampens the immediate arm-wheeling and tinges everything with sadness – two things the Newsflesh world could use more of, imao. 

Con kid Lorelei goes off to sulk in her hotel while her parents set up the Firefly fan booth. A young woman is rescued by a Jedi when a zombie panel attacks. A blind woman and her dog get stuck in the booth. A starlet for a time-travel cop show – “My TV Guide interview was six paragraphs about my boobs and how they fit into my suit” – is abandoned by her handler with newlywed fans. There’s a lot of geek hat-tips to Who or the “fake geek girl” thing or – obviously – the Whedonverse, while pulling off a pretty good outbreak in a locked room scenario. 

Per usual with Newsflesh, I have some serious questions about Kellis-Amberlee, the disease that causes the zombiism, and why the zombies seem to hold off for a period other than narrative convenience and if they’re actually dead and stuff, but that’s not really no nevermind. One of the things I like about Grant’s novels is that the zombies are actually called zombies, not some coy new term. That a convention center full of geeks would leap to the term and start trying to hash out the “rules” for the outbreak based on fiction, even if they get it wrong, felt refreshing. Too often characters in fiction seem never to have heard of zombies, despite the zombie’s half-century of existence in its modern mobbing guise. 

So, my read of this was a perfect storm of situation and personality, aimed solidly at my demographic, fixing some broken things for me, and, ah, the drone of cicadas. It’s probably also the only of the novellas I’ve read so far that I might even recommend to people who haven’t read the trilogy, because as an episodic back story piece, you don’t really have to get into the whole thing. Fed is an alternate ending on Feed, and as such, is a major spoiler, and How Green This Land, How Blue This Sea occurs after the Newsflesh events, and is stupid. I haven’t read Countdown, but I will, Oscar, I will. It’s like 90 degrees and the first day of school, and for sure I can get it in before the leaves turn and the first homework is assigned. Allons-y! Rise up while you can!

Solaris by Stanislaw Lem

There’s an episode in Little House on the Prairie – the book, not the tv show. Jeez, people, I’m writing here on bookface after all – where Laura finds a book of Tennyson’s poems in the house. She realizes that it’s to be gift from her folks to her, and shuts up the book and puts it away, but not before reading these tantalizing lines, from “The Lotus Eaters”:

“COURAGE!” he said, and pointed toward the land,
“This mounting wave will roll us shoreward soon.”

She obsesses about this: what will they do? What manner of monster will they meet? Will they have the courage they need to face the island and its foes? 

She receives the book, in due course, and is horrified, shocked, by the culmination of the poem: they do drugs, and wander off in haze of beauty and iambic pentameter, shucking all their dreary work. It offends Laura’s Midwestern Protestant Work Ethic that this happens, and gives her an excuse to tell us to Not Do Drugs, kids. Apparently, the American war on drugs has been going on for a while longer than we thought. 

I thought of this after reading Solaris, because there’s something of the “Lotus Eaters” in this book. It starts out, in medias res, with our protagonist, Kelvin, on his bumpy descent to the outpost above the planet of Solaris. It’s very Joe Blaster science fiction: the rocky ride, the will-he-or-won’t-he dock properly, the opening scenes in the station itself, with mayhem and blood on the floor, the protagonist looking for some sort of futurist scifi gun, etc. And then, nothing. Or not nothing, but a lot of thinking and considering, musing in the emptiness of space about the nature of consciousness, of God and Man. It’s the 60s, Woman hasn’t been invented yet. 

Despite my Midwestern Protestant upbringing (because of?), I rather liked this. It’s nowhere near perfect: Kelvin periodically gets himself to the library for some seriously painful info-dumps. We spend several chapters learning about scholarship about the planet of Solaris, or its topography, or whatever. I was seriously tempted to skip this stuff, and skimmed like crazy, but I was bothered by the sense I may be quizzed on this later. I wasn’t, so skip it if you’ve never read it. 

The central conceit: the person who most embodies your shame, your guilt, will appear in bodily form in the station above Solaris. The person appears to be a manifestation of the strange, long-studied, planet-wide ocean entity on the surface. Kelvin’s is his long-dead wife, who killed herself after they had a nasty fight. She is unable to leave his side, and moves doors off of hinges to stay with him. She is indestructible, immortal; when she is killed, and who wouldn’t kill the person of his shame? she resurrects, horribly. We never learn about anyone else’s “visitor” but Kelvin’s, but they are there nonetheless, in bangs and murmurs, the sounds of murders and arguments, the glimpse of a hat on the vid-phone (I mentioned that this is 60s scifi, right?) This isn’t Terminator; they don’t wake to a terrible purpose and murder Kelvin and his fellow scientists. Kelvin and his fellow humans become increasingly isolated from one another: locked into the rooms of their own shame, reading quietly while a resurrected lover sits quietly in the half-light. 

What if our first contact with an alien race was so alien that we could never understand that contact, and the contact, for them, was at best a reflex of the nervous system? What if that alien was a child, a god-child, unknowing and unknowable? Lem plays with this, doesn’t let us know anything but the unknowing, the voyage within, the self and its mirrors in the claustrophobia of our humanness. How can you understand what you’re not? Sometimes, its transcendent, beautiful, and his language soars in the kind of poetry science fiction is attuned to. Kelvin is talking; his colleague, Snow responds: 

“’No’ I interrupted. ‘I’m not thinking of a god whose imperfection arises out of the candor of his human creators, but one whose imperfection represents his essential characteristic: a god limited in his omniscience and power, fallible, incapable of foreseeing the consequences of his acts, and creating things that lead to horror. He is a…sick god, whose ambitions exceed his powers and who does not realize it at first. A god who has created clocks, but not the time they measure. He has created systems of mechanisms that served specific ends but have now overstepped and betrayed them. And he has created eternity, which was to have measured his power, which now measures his unending defeat.’

Snow hesitated…. ‘There was Manicheanism.’”

Don’t you love this? Isn’t it funny and sad, this essential lack of communication between one person and another? C’mon, Snow, Manicheanism? Were you even listening? Sadly, I think you were. How could we hope to contact the alien when we’re so thoroughly baffled by the familiar?

But, unfortunately, sometimes this kind of story is just boring, and I feel like Laura, on the prairie, frustrated by all this thinking and not doing. Lem is definitely being subversive, the way he begins by shouting “Courage!” and pointing to the shore, but the shore is a mirage, and you’re left in boat, in an ocean that may not be real either, dreaming of status reports and neutrinos, whose reality is transitory, at best.

Shards of Honor by Lois McMaster Bujold

I started and chucked several reviews to this book that either went on wild tangents – the kind I could never hope to come back from – or rolling into sounding a ton more negatively about this book than I actually feel. I think I’ve finally figured out what my problem is, and in order to get this across, I will now go on a tangent, one I hope I can come back from. 

I had a really great evening last night. One of my oldest friends invited over a collection of her female friends. Most of these women I had never met before, except for one, who apparently went to the same high school as I, but I only vaguely remember her. We all told stories, drank wine, and ate some of the most excellent cookies of my acquaintance. It wasn’t earth-shattering; we didn’t solve the world’s problems or say anything particularly meaningful – although I did get to have a freak-out about another girl from my high school who right now, as I type, is correcting people to pronounce my name wrong – it’s ker-ID-wen, you bitch, not CARE-id-wen, and quit telling people different – and I always like to complain about her. But the really enjoyable part of the evening, for me, was driving home and realizing that 15 years ago, such an event – going to someone’s house to gab with women I didn’t know – would have left me in shuddering terror. I’ve outgrown my adolescent social terror. This is not to say I won’t continue to be socially awkward, because I am and I will, or that I won’t also contemplate on my drive home all the stupid things I said, and rue them, because I did and shall.

This book is like this experience in two ways. First, it’s better experienced than re-told, like most good times. I focused more on the food than the conversation in my little anecdote, because it’s easier to talk about the concrete than it is on the more ephemeral qualities of good conversation and good people – how can I get across to you that a little mini-conversation about the problems of bread-making slipped into a little moment of reverie about Grandma Dory and her Swedish Limpa recipe, which, only for a second, transported me to the smell of her basement and the baskets of onions and potatoes on the shelf? But then the conversation moves, and I hear an anecdote about bakeries in LA, which is shared with other memories of the city for other women in the circle. There’s a lot of incidental in Shards of Honor – an alien planet with weird floating vampire jellyfish, the shape and texture of space ships, the politics of two worlds and two lives that are told anecdotally between two people. 

A lot happens in Shards of Honor, from running about on an alien planet, to mutinies on space ships, gun battles, politics, torture, crazy people, sane people. Just…stuff. Cool stuff. Space opera stuff. But the real thing I enjoyed, the thing I dug, was the relationship between Cordelia and Vorkosigan. I don’t feel like I can bear down on this too hard, whatever that means, because their growing understanding is something interstitial, unspoken, something that unfolds quietly at the edges of action. They’re grown-ups – which is how I think my bs anecdote relates in another way – they have gotten over the flailing self-involved panic of youth, but that doesn’t mean that they get everything right or stop worrying about all the stuff they don’t get right. 

There’s some off-notes to this book – it skips around too much, and maybe it has too many endings – although the last ending, the one that is an unrelated vignette of a salvage ship recovering the bodies vented into space during one of the space battles has a melancholy empathy I really grokked. But it was enjoyable, something I look forward to reading again, the kind of story that lends itself to re-reading not because it blows your mind, but because it is familiar in a way that belies all of the space opera and scifi accoutrement. Two people tell each other stories, and in that telling, they find understanding, and understanding is the house of love. 

The Days Grow Longer: The Age Of Wonder

I feel slightly apologetic about how much I loved reading The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker, because it would be easy to sit down and enumerate all the things that are going to bother other people. In fact, I’m going to go ahead and do that right now. But I still adored this, despite its occasional weakness, because I closed this book and wafted around the cabin for at least half a day, completely filled with this bittersweet nostalgia and a strangely pleasant sense of doom. I keep telling people about it like an albatross. Which doesn’t really work as a metaphor, but whatever. 

The Age of Miracles reminds me very strongly of the films Melancholia and Another Earth, which are both nominally science fictional, but have trained their interest on the emotional upheavals of the protagonists much more than on whatever scientific bunkum was used to hand-wave the scenario. Here, the scenario that the earth’s rotation has begun slowing, somewhat rapidly at first – each day adding on hours, then even the slowing slowing. The story is told retrospectively from the point of view of Julia, who was eleven at the start of the slowing. 

According to the interview in the back of the book, the idea for this came from the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami*, which was such a large geological event that it sped up the spin of earth by several microseconds and affected the tilt of the earth by a few centimeters. But, as the article I link to humanely observes, “The shortening of Earth’s day is no cause for consternation, particularly in light of the huge humanitarian crisis sparked by Sunday’s events. The death toll from the tsunami that lashed coasts across the Indian Ocean has now passed 100,000.” (The death toll would eventually rise to well over 230,000 people, with millions displaced.) The real story is not in wonky science facts, but in the lives affected the facts, which is why I don’t care about strict plausibility in why the slowing happened. If you’re the kind of reader who is bothered by the lack of scientific explanation in, say, The Road, then this isn’t the book for you. (Also, jeez, tin man.) 

The slowing isn’t devastating at first, more this tension of not knowing and disruption. There’s no looting and rioting – least not in Julia’s quiet suburb – more post-9/11-ish worry and can-hoarding and not going to work for a week until you decide that there’s nothing to be done, so you go back and live your life, even though everything is wrong and probably won’t be right again. Julia’s best friend – from a large, Mormon family, decamps to a settlement in Utah for some time, leaving Julia alone in the way only 11-year-old girls who have lost their best friends can be lonely. And when the bff comes back, she’s switched best friends and lets Julia know in the cruel way of the young that Julia was out. 

This never happened to me, but it did happen to my bff Christina, whom I picked up on the rebound from Annie. Annie had a new best friend every year, and while the friend-drop usually happened during summer break, in the fifth grade it happened inexplicably mid-year, and suddenly Annie was everywhere with Libby, freezing out Christina. I still remember Christina, in this weird bit of a shrug, identifying the fourth grade friend of Annie, the one she had replaced. She knew. God, that age is such a shitshow, and Walker captures it like fireflies in a jar, which you watch blinking in the darkness like wonder, and when you wake up, it’s just dead black bugs you shake out apologetically into the grass. Grass that’s dying, and then dead, and eventually you can’t remember the smell of grass because it’s extinct. 

And while I said there isn’t a real tight explanation for why the slowing is happening, the details of how people would react to the lengthening days and long nights felt true. People in the arctic go nuts during the white nights. My uncle worked for the National Health Service in Alaska – up in the crazy hard to get to parts – and his stories of the bleary, easy to upset children playing basketball in the bright midnight, their parents given up on porches with longnecks, would not be out of place. The authorities decide to put everyone on “clock time” – living according to a 24 hour clock, despite the sun or lack – because “real time” while Romantic, just keeps stretching and stretching into madness. But it’s all madness: the clocks, the sun, the dark, the slow, beautiful, horrible end of it all that doesn’t really end but just drips slowly. 

I bought a bunch of canned goods and water after I got screwed recently with a four day power outage after a storm downed trees and snapped lines all over the metro – which sucked, thank you – and I can see the water already evaporating, the expiration dates on the can ticking toward botulism. “That was the last day I tasted pineapple,” says Julia, the last day of whales, confused by the changing magnetosphere, beached and dying, the last day of birds. My husband and I have the “bigger problems” caveat when we talk about end of the world scenarios – who gives about the Internet or kissing boys or your parents slow, ugly implosion or whatnot when cannibal corpses are hungering for your flesh – but really, this is all smaller problems in the way that makes me think that smaller problems are only and ever the kind of problems to focus on. The water is going to evaporate. The bigger problems are so big as to be untouchable. 

I don’t know. Or, I guess I do know that The Age of Miracles will be dismissed as young adult literature for girls by some. As a woman who was once a girl who occasionally reads young adult literature, I can say this isn’t really aimed at teens: it’s too slow, too sorrowful, too retrospective. The Julia in the unknown future who is recounting this time period is a ghost, a mirage, and her reticence to explicate the details of her future existence shines the story into a welter of its own mirage, an oasis of all of the last things which are also first things. The first last things until the bigger problems came home, the time when everything slowed like lost summers. 

This isn’t going to work for a lot of people, I know, and that makes me a little sad. Sad not because I wish everyone could be like me, or have my childhood or my occasional despair which would make this work for them, but because my heart is somewhere in this mess, beating slowly in its real time, which is Romantic and untimely unworkable, but it’s the only heart I’ve got. Look here: my heart. Its days grow longer. But the days grow short here at the end of summer, the sky gone purple before it’s time to put the kids to bed. My daughter is asleep on the couch, and I will carry her to her childhood dreams. Amen. 

*Also, Karen Lord’s The Best of All Possible Worlds was based on some of particulars of Indian Ocean Tsunami – I hate to say “inspired by” because that’s a gross way to put it – just as a random fact.

Vader’s Little Princess by Jeffrey Brown

This is going to be one of those reviews where I tell cutesy anecdotes about my kids. Fair warning. You can get off this merry-go-round at any point. 

So, my son has been pissed at me since Christmas, when I bought a copy of Darth Vader and Son for my brother-in-law, had it knocking around the house for a week, during which time I had to keep making sure the boy didn’t make off with it like he had with other Jeffrey Brown titles, and then mailed it off. I want that book so bad, he would say to me. You have to get me a copy right now. I’ve been doing the parental yeah, yeah for, like, eight months. I’ll get it from the library for you, and also, get your feet off the couch, now. 

So finally, after I kenned on the fact that there was a sequel, I sucked it up and ordered both. Both kids are ridiculous about Cat Getting Out of a Bag and Other Observations, constantly holding up the book and reading out the “dialogue”: pat pat pat pat Misty! Both arrived today before they came home from day camp, and I tossed them at the boy when he’d ensconced himself on the couch to watch some fact or fiction show on tv. His little freckled face lit up. You’re welcome, I said, and pointed at him, like you do. 

darth vader pointing at leia

Sure, Vader’s Little Princess is more of the same, and sure, maybe it looks like a cash-in, but Jeffrey Brown totally rules in the strangling nostalgia observational heart-based Gen Xer exasperated parent and child thing, and god bless him for it every minute of bedtime. It makes me a little bleary to have both kids hassle me trying to read out these books as I shove toothbrushes at them and order them to bed. I love that the girl has a Jeffrey Brown book too. They are both asleep with these titles at the moment, and that is a parenting win all around. 

leia having a tea party with stuffed ewoks

The Lives of Tao by Wesley Chu

I don’t feel great about this, but I’m going to abandon The Lives of Tao at the halfway mark. I don’t think it’s bad; I just think it’s not for me. The set-up is fun: it’s a man who knew too little slash buddy cop scenario involving the origin myth for Scientology. Millions of years ago, aliens called Xenu the Quasing crash landed on earth. Being sort of nebulous light-blob beings, they can only exist in the bodies of Earth creatures, kind of like the aliens from The Host. Unlike The Host, there isn’t a love triangle…no wait, just kidding, there totally is. It doesn’t involve the alien though, so phew. The Quasing been busy little alien beavers interfering in the cultural evolution of the human race, and have since split into white hat and black hat factions at war over some philosophical differences that I honestly didn’t track. 

Which is where we are when the novel starts bangingly with a jaded, hunky secret agent dude, who has a white hat alien symbiote called Tao inside him, gets into a big freaking shoot-out and chase scene with the black hats. Hunky agent is killed, and Tao must find another host, and fast. He ends up inside Roen Tan, a chubby IT drone with no real ambition. I was rubbing my hands here, because I can totally dig the whole arguing in your head angle of the symbiote relationship – like in Deep Space Nine when Dax ends up in a symbiote unprepared for such a thing. (It can also be dumb, like the Big Bad from Buffy’s season 5. I get that Glory wasn’t exactly a symbiote, but it’s in the ballpark, and it was mostly used as a goof when Glory’s host dude wakes up in a red dress. Waa waa waa waaaaaa.) 

But it takes six chapters to get Roen and Tao talking, during which I was watching my nails dry for the most part. They have pretty funny conversations, when they have them, and I enjoyed that. But it turns into Roen leveling up, complaining about wanting to eat pizza, and waaaay more confusing backstory than I’m interested in. I’m going to admit right here that I can be a really lazy reader, in that I will ignore complicated mythoses…mythos’s…what is the plural of mythos?…in books, assuming I’ll either get it when I have to, or not get it at all and just enjoy some ass-kicking. There was precious little ass-kicking to divert me from the nail-drying and mythology. 

I get the sense that The Lives of Tao is supposed to be comedy-action – comaction? worst portmanteau ever – but it was light on both, for me anyway. Again, I think a lot of this is me, in that a tech geek getting set up into a love triangle with two hotties doesn’t really ping my reader insert buttons. Also, I just read Dial H, Vol. 1: Into You, which also had an unambitious slob finding miraculous powers, but I felt like that owned some things about slobs and their wish-fulfillment that this didn’t? I may just have slob fatigue. I mean, I am a slob, don’t get me wrong, I just couldn’t find an entrance point here that I felt. It was too long cutting to the chase for me.

But, I did dig Tao’s (somewhat sloppily relayed) musings about Great Men in history, especially because he hits a lot of historical figures that I rarely see in SFFnal stuff. Everyone goes for the Greeks or the Romans, or possibly Persians if they’re feeling expansive, but here Tao hits Genghis Khan pretty hard, and some other foundational figures of various martial arts that I don’t know the names of right now, sorry. (Did I mention I’ve been drinking on this fine evening? Gosh, it is so beautiful out right now. I wish summer would last forever.) Also, and this is not related to the book in any way, but did you know Genghis Khan is a common ancestor for one out of 200 men? Whoa. I could do without some of the historiography, which felt sophomoric and silly, but whatevs. That’s not uncommon to have SFFnal views of history bug me – it can’t be as simple as whether “conflict breeds innovation” because seriously. 

And this is totally my problem, and I don’t expect anyone else to have this problem, but the names didn’t work for me. I get that there are a limited number of phonemes that can be arranged into a limited number of word-sounds that don’t already have meaning, but every.single.time I read the word Quasing, my brain turned it into quisling. And I didn’t read far enough along to get to where this might be thing, but Tao – in that exact spelling – has a meaning already. If it is a thing in the book, where Tao explains that he was inside Lao Tzu, I would freak the fuck right out. Alien symbiote fight-show is awesome, but it has zero to do with Taoism, and any shoehorn job making them relate would displease me. Again, problem with the DNF review is that I didn’t finish, so this might not be an issue. I’m just worried enough to stop before I freak out. 

So, this is one of those unfortunate things where I might have dug this book at another time, or been in more of a mood for it, or a different kind of reader, or something. It’s got back porch read all over it for me, but alas, not this time.


I received my copy from Angry Robot and Netgalley. 

William Shakespeare’s Star Wars

I have a fractious relationship with Quirk Books. No, fractious isn’t the right word, is it? Because they don’t know I exist nor do they (or should they) care about my opinion? I was excited for Pride and Prejudice and Zombies because the idea rules, but then it turned out soggy and under-heated. But then came the clones – Jane Slayre: The Literary Classic with a Blood-Sucking TwistThe Meowmorphosis – which mimeographed this idea into a purple-blue stew of end-cap bait, finally culminating, for me anyway, in the dire shit-show that was Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: Dawn of the Dreadfuls. That book made my blood boil. 

Because, look, I don’t really mind end-cap bait, and I don’t mind the toilet reads that publishers put out to give my non-reading friends and family something to give me when my birthday rolls around. (“I know you like Jane Austen! I think you’ll love this!”) I’m not even being an asshole when I say I appreciate the thought. So when the illustrious and inimitable karen sent me William Shakespeare’s Star Wars out of the blue, I thought, uh oh, I’m going to have to make the choice between my desire to shittalk this book, and being a grateful and worthy human. Again! Why am I such a terrible person? etc.

But as it turns out, hey Mickey! She likes it! So, phew. There’s a dry conversation one can have about translations: which is better, a translator writing from the original language, or one writing to the target language. Is the translator’s mother tongue the original or the translated language? My own take is that it’s almost always better to write to the target language. I once read this biography of Rasputin that was obviously translated by a native Russian speaker, and while it was often hilarious, and I enjoyed the wobbly prose as a desultory Russian language student, you just can’t mix verb tenses like that in English, товарищ. 

I think there’s something of the translation problem in the mash-up, for the reader at least. P&P&Z was probably more aimed at the Austen nerds, because the zombie parts were really more about ninjas, and big swaths of the text were from Austen herself. So you rate it as an Austen nerd, not a zombie nerd – if you happen to be both, like me. (A straight up zombie nerd should probably just stay away.) As an Austen nerd, it was mostly just perplexing, like, what exactly are you saying about Charlotte? Also, you get that messing with the chronology messes with…oh Jesus, nevermind. I really liked the cover and study guide, so I guess thanks for that, Quirk Books. 

By the time Dawn of the Dreadfuls rolled around, that book managed to drop trou and dump on both Austen nerds and zombie nerds – remember, I’m both, so double dump for me – which turned the translation problem into a Zen koan of Not Giving a Fuck. If the translator in question doesn’t care about either language, that’s what you get. (And I’m going to throw in the disclaimer that if you’re neither kind of nerd – Austen nor zombie – then you’ll probably think whatever about all my shouting.) Point being, it is clear to me that Doescher is a Star Wars nerd – that’s the language he is translating to – which I think is a pretty good choice. I’m going to wince when he drops a Naboo reference because I spend a fair amount of energy pretending the prequels never happened, but then I’m also going to hand-clap about a sly reference to nerf herding, which, you know, wasn’t a thing until The Empire Strikes Back. Ahem. Shut up. 

So this isn’t really for Shakespeare nerds. (Do you people exist? I mean, I’m sure you exist, but are you reading slovenly populist Internet reviews?) I wrote this whole thing aping Shakespeare to start my review, but it turns out when I try to write that way, I end up sounding like a pirate. Avast, me hearties! God’s teeth! and all that. So, we’ll give Ian Doescher some props for pretty solid metered dialogue, plus he manages to pull off an occasional heroic couplet that made me smile. I did spend some time discovering this handy nit-picker I got as a booby prize for being an English major had somehow gotten into my hand, and then having to put it away. I’m like an unconscious nit-picker fast-draw, matey. All the short’ning o’ words wit’ apostr’phes to make fit the met’r makes me freak out. Just, ugh. Also, I kept thinking things like, “Other than maybe the chorus in Henry V, who is present at the beginning of every act, Shakespeare didn’t really use a chorus throughout the action like that. That’s really more a feature of Classic Greek playwrights.” But then I gave myself a wedgie. Language from, babies, even if it’s kinda dumb. It’s dumb with jokes about R2D2 monologuing about stuff as an aside, which is pretty freaking fantastic.

So thanks, karen. This rules. 

Starglass by Phoebe North

The Italian cover for Paradises Lost,
the generation ship novella by UKL

The whole concept of the generation ship flips me out. I’m not even that comfortable with the idea of being on a spaceship (or a submarine) not because of claustrophobia, but because is there air out there?? NO THERE IS NOT. I just spent nearly four days in a blackout that had me boiling water for baths and kiting power from the neighbors (who had power due to the inexplicable ways of the city grid), and I’m keenly aware of how tenuous our systems are, how it took thousands of technicians pulled from as far away as Colorado to get me back into hot water and an icebox. And with my power outage I won’t be screaming silently into space as my lungs freeze

While most stories occurring on generation ships don’t focus on the technological fragility of a ship ginned up and sent out for hundreds of years into the void, that trapped and helpless feeling is in everything. Here are a thousand people whose living space was chosen for them, irrevocably; there will be no technicians from Colorado when things go wrong. Power structures, of all kinds, must be managed and cared for by people whose lives are by needs insular and rigid. Everyone must do their part because the alternative is not chaos, but death. (Just as a sidebar, this argument gets made politically here on Spaceship America a lot, which is part of the reason that the extremity of the generation ship resonates for me so well. Just because all members of society must contribute what they can doesn’t mean injustice has to be a part of that contribution, etc.) 

Starglass starts, fittingly, with the letter of one of the first generation, the earth-born who left a doomed planet Earth, writing to her daughter about her lost planet and the unknown future. I kinda don’t get book trailers – or maybe it’s just the ones I’ve seen are a little dopey – but this book trailer captures the elegiac tone quite well. We then meet 12 year old Terra on the morning of her mother’s funeral, the very beginnings of the grief and fracture which will color all the events of the novel, the relationships and personalities. 

The heart of this novel is grief, and as such, it makes for a more musing and introspective young adult novel than I think is typical. We meet Terra again at 16, on the eve of her graduation, where the government of Asherah metes out the living assignments for the graduating class. Her home life has turned into a cold war punctuated by emotional violence, an emotionally distant and voluminously alcoholic father clinging to his concept of societal mitzvah in lieu of real parental connection. The dad kind of killed me, the way it seemed obvious to me that on some level he loved his daughter, but he was so badly broken that it came out in these awful, inexcusably cruel ways. That I can have sympathy for him and still hate him and the things he does to Terra speaks to subtle characterization, this horrible, sad, broken, dutiful man who has pasted himself back together using his most selfish instincts. 

As befits a coming of age novel in a locked room society – remember, there are no technicians from Colorado – much of the plot centers on Terra’s growing political sense as she adjusts to her new work life. (And her work placement is an almost clustercuss of mistakes and silences that flow out of her learned self-containment as a result of her mother’s death. Say it with me: the personal is the political.) The people of the starship Asherah are Jews of a post-apocalyptic diaspora, who are, in a way, looking forward to yet another diaspora when they reach the new chosen land of their target planet. That day is coming soon, and the tensions between various factions, who will lead, and who has the right to all comes to bear not just on Terra, but everyone around her in ways that are confusing and personal. 

I feel much more closed-mouth about books I review beforethey are published, so I will just gesture to my contentment about how Terra manages her romantic life. The society on Asherah is rigid in the ways it constructs family life – everyone will marry, and have two children, a girl and boy, when they are told to do so – and that this does not and cannot work for many is maybe only a surprise to the young, who have been locked into their own family failures, cut off by silence and fear that they are the only ones. Here on starship My House, I have a girl and a boy and a husband, and a series of conflicts that I live with without ever updating to facebook or disgorging to the uninitiated. We lock ourselves into our choices and habits, and some of those choices are beautiful, and some of them abrade, and we pick our ways between the two as best we can. 

Anyway, as a conclusion, I just want to note that, as much I loved the shit out of the careful, grieving tone of this story, the personality driven conflicts, and the slow understandings that unfold, as the first part in a duology, the ending might be abrupt for some readers. Really though, it is my firm belief that in young adult novels, the leap is as important as the landing, and Terra’s leap is a sight to behold. I’m more than interested in seeing where she lands, but I’ll hold her there, in the darkness, struggling towards the promised land. 

Full disclosure: I am friends with Phoebe North on Goodreads, and I received an ARC from the publisher, but no cookies were promised or exchanged for my review or opinion, which is decidedly my own.