Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Hugo Review (YA Category): A Skinful of Shadows, by Frances Hardinge

This is a terrific story about some concepts I can’t stand.

It’s set in the 1700s during a gnarly war and King Charles is on the throne, and European history is not one of my strong points. There’s magic, but it's well hidden. The narrator, Makepeace, is a bastard, raised as a Puritan (hence the catchy name). She’s also a bit of a poor pitiful wretch, with a passing resemblance to Jane Eyre. She doesn’t hold with any stupid symbolic animal cruelty though, and when she sticks up for an abused dancing bear, she learns she has the ability to capture ghosts inside her head.

As it turns out, this is a family trait on her birthfather’s side, and after her mother’s untimely death Makepeace finds herself in the family home, living amongst folk who carry squads of ancestral ghosts around in their heads.

If you’ve been hanging out here you probably know I hate bodyswapping stories – or basically any story relying heavily on body-mind duality. But this isn’t quite a bodyswapping tale. The possessing ghosts have the ability to take over, but they have to duke it out with the alpha consciousness. The bear living inside Makepeace’s head occasionally surfaces, giving her super fighting skills. Later on she acquires other brain buddies, such as a doctor that helps her perform surgery.

All these pet ghosts interact with each other inside her brain, and the author gets downright delirious over her worldbuilding at this point, making the story thoroughly enjoyable and elevating little Miss Makepeace from forlorn wretch to player. I have to admit, it’s a nice storytelling concept, one that seduces the reader into imaging what kind of ghost squad they’d like to carry around in their head. Mine would probably be full of musicians, and I’d threaten to give them ice cream headaches if they stopped playing.

If I may, this novel also illustrates how to throw a handful of socially positive notions into a story without turning it into a thudding righteous tract for the edification of heathens, conservatives and sinners. Makepeace is kind to animals, which is how she acquires a dead bear spirit in the first place, and the fact that she has a bear spirit leads her along her new path as a ghost host. I’ll take this over the average self-absorbed sociopathic litfic attitude toward our four-legged friends any day of the week – and yet there’s no editorializing over animal cruelty, no lingering on the bear’s suffering for more than is absolutely necessary, no militant vegans pummeling the reader with broccoli stalks.

Similarly, Makepeace makes it known to the vampiric aristocratic ghosts that rapaciously colonizing other peoples’ bodies is very retro, and since they happen to be dwelling inside her marginalized body, they can just keep their entitlement to themselves and wait their turn. It's a wonderful metaphor for deciding what aspects of an irredeemably corrupt history are worth salvaging. At the same time, all the characters are convincingly old-fashioned and religiously partisan, with Catholics tiptoeing around Puritans and witch hunts coexisting uneasily with prophetesses.. In fact, even though there are plenty of negative expressions of Christianity in this book, Christians are not mocked or derided in the least, and the concerns of a young soldier convinced he’s bound for hell are treated respectfully.

This one is a slow starter. I had to drag myself through the beginning, where Makepeace is subjected to an onslaught of Dickensian cruelties but she rallies and becomes a proper Machiavellian raw-fish-eating heroine in no time. And she does it all without any stinking love interest distracting her from what’s important, thank you very much. It’s been a while since I’ve found a romance-free YA story, and I liked this one better than most I’ve read lately. She does have a brother who serves as the damsel in distress; he’s a nice lad if somewhat entitled and feckless, but he comes through in a pinch.

And as far as the actual business of getting you all wound up with the plot, and making you care about the characters, and constructing a fictional world that makes sense – this book is leading the pack so far as I’m convinced. It has beaucoup page-turny-ness, and addictive pacing even if you’re philosophically opposed to bodyswapping. 

Writing for HBO!

The good news: I just got paid actual money writing something for HBO!

The okay news: it was actually for the prop department -- fabricating mountains of fake legal documents for a scene where a lawyer character is oppressed by boxes and boxes of work. I make some of the finest handcrafted super boring legal documents in the world, so they came to me, and I delivered. Gotta start somewhere!

My favorite one was the Motion to Obfuscate Proceedings by Introducing Large Quantities of Irrelevant and Otherwise Inadmissible Evidence. All you folks who like law jokes are probably rolling on the floor right now.

The awesomest news: I'm spending this actual money going to see live music in June. First: Styx and Joan Jett, so I can get an ironic Styx shirt to wear while being named Charon, while screaming "I Love Rock And Roll" at the top of my lungs with everyone else in the venue, as is proper and dignified for ladies my age. And then the next week, I'm going to go see Ween. Twice. The week after that, I'm going to go see Nine Inch Nails. Twice. Woohoo!

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Hugo YA Review: Akata Warrior by Nnedi Okorafor

If I were to say "Harry Potter in Nigeria" it would in no way encompass this delightful and complex book, but it would give you an idea of what's in store. Sunny Nwazue is a Leopard person, the upper 0.5%, capable of working all manner of exciting juju. She is an albino, comes to Nigeria by way of America, and has wonderful magical skills. Instead of Dumbledore, she has Sugar Cream, a wise old woman who doles out difficult tests. Instead of Hedwig the owl she has a magical wasp that builds paper sculptures.

I couldn't get into Akata Warrior on the first pass because of its episodic nature, with little incidents that might connect later with no sense of urgency as Sunny accumulates mage experience points. On my second attempt I fell in love with all the cultural flavoring, the descriptions of food and customs and habits. I also like the way Sunny has good solid relationships with her brothers, since that's something I'm inclined to notice right now.

This is second in a series, something I didn't even notice because it's so self-contained. Now I'm going to have to read the first one, after I get through all my Hugo chores, and I'm already chafing slightly over putting it off that long.

Ms. Okorafor is one of my favorite YA writers of all time, and this story may have just beaten Philip Pullman for my vote. I can't really judge until I've read them all -- nearly there!

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Adoptee Thoughts

My estrangement from the literary community began when I found my birthmother. Here’s an article that explores it further, but my interest in learning about my roots was deemed elitist and white supremacist. My insistence that components of my personality (such as my love for music) came from nature rather than nurture were regarded as the kind of fascist faith in genetic predetermination that leads to concentration camps. I’ve argued about this before, it’s the main reason I’m self-pubbed. The linked article discusses how the academic cathedral cast out lots of thinkers more developed than myself for similar thoughtcrimes (there’s a mention of Jordan Peterson). But yeah, the anti-discrimination crowd don’t want me around mainly due to my circumstances of birth, which is ironic, and yet it has also led me to think outside the box.

When my half-brother (or possibly my first cousin given the nature of DNA studies, but I'm going to refer to him as my brother for convenience) mentioned he is also an outside-the-box thinker, I did a brief reclassification – is that something I should applaud myself for teaching myself to do, or is it a family trait? It does suck to have all the traits you use for a quick ego boost – language skill, unusual cognition, liberal values – reduced to genetic quirks similar to toe length.

In my discussions with friends and forum members about adoption, I take a hardline stance toward accessible data. Closed adoptions are a thing of the past, along with forcing Native American kids into culture-obliterating boarding schools, and that knowledge hasn’t caught up with a lot of Americans, who bluster about privacy (for only half the involved parties). DNA science is still in its infancy but we’re learning from each false step, and there are organizations using state of the art tech to demolish these superstitious impediments toward human knowledge. So I’m always in favor of telling people, giving them all the facts. I really don’t care about the hurt feelings of narcissists being called out on clandestine sex they had decades ago, or the sensitivities of those whose neighbors would be scandalized. Truth, truth, truth. I have a lawful alignment, I am sworn to defend and uphold the California constitution, and I place a very high premium on truth.

Full disclosure is the custom in all modern countries save for a few locations in the US whose laws are being modernized, steadily, one-by-one. Some very committed activists are focused on this. The occasional people who write to Dear Abby wondering if kids should be told they’re adopted are relying on information from their own childhoods; people directly involved with adoption are told repeatedly that this practice is dead.

After discovering some details about my own roots, I moved firmly into the "it's-all-nature" camp, where I maintain I'd be pretty much the same person regardless of whether I was raised by genetic or adopted relatives, or wolves. That estranged me even further, from the greater community of people who follow Freudian-type nurture theories, examining all their childhood wounds and traumas and scars which they believe shaped their personality. I don't even speak the same language as folks who follow that persuasion. No, I didn't get my love for music from sitting around while my parents were listening to the Lawrence Welk show, I got it because soundwaves tickle structures in my ears and brain that have been handed down for generations. It doesn't make me better than a person born with 20/20 vision, but it does make each of us better at some things. 

Truthfully, I probably should blame a little of my current status on my upbringing. The fact that I was switched to a bunch of different schools so that I have no consistent education records and was totally gimped as far as college may have had some sort of lasting effect. Maybe it only left a residual emotional attitude, say, a hostility toward higher education, but it's there.

Emotional effects are real. I’m having some big time emotional effects now that I have a brother, believe me. I have an adopted brother but we don’t have nearly as much in common. My connection with both my adopted and genetic mothers was definitely on the toxic side, but even so, I understand that your “mother” is the one who feeds and comforts you when you are small, the one you call mommy, and that women with different levels of involvement should have a qualifier tacked on, such as birthmother or godmother or stepmother. So my conception of “brother” was formerly limited to the guy I grew up with, fighting over the halfway line in the backseat of our parents’ car, and it just now got expanded.

Something similar happens to one’s identity with each fact one learns about relatives. There’s a little bit of revision. Whoa, my cousin’s an accountant, that must mean I’m capable of doing complex math too. Hey, my ancestor was part of the 1849 Gold Rush, we must be adventurous types.

Right now the main thing I want to do when I meet my brother is sing with him.

My singing voice is vaguely adequate, in a range that encompasses many popular singers, but it’s not distinctive, and my sense of pitch is more relative than perfect. So typically I’m a background singer, adding the odd “ooooh,” “aaaaah” and “shoobydoo” to make the lead singer sound better. I’m a committee singer, not a Mick Jagger style bandleader by any means.

And I grew up fascinated with genetically related singing groups, like the Carpenters, and the LaBelle sisters, and most especially the Bee Gees. Something about listening deeply when siblings hit a chord and trying to pick out the individual voices makes my brain spasm with glee. 

I don’t think my new brother plays guitar but that’s no problem, I’ll have to brush up a little, or maybe I’ll make the switch to something more portable, like ukulele or handheld synth, but that’s okay, I can do the music part. What I really want more than most things is to sing a chorus of some song together, and make our own genetic vocal blend. That would make me really, really happy.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

A Brother Suddenly Appears

I'm getting a lot of hits on my Coco review. I was wondering if it was too whiny, over my lack of a family to post my mug on their offrenda, and I think the universe heard and responded, because now I have a brother.

He found me on 23andMe, which sends me notices about new 5th cousins all the time, to the point where they don't even register. So I breezed right past the notifying email, and then my Facebook messenger went off, and I buzzed over to 23andMe, and I share 24.5% DNA (1825 cM in common) with my new brother Rick.

Rick showed me many mind-boggling photos of relatives, and now I know what I will look like at age 70, peering at the world from a kindly and wrinkled face. He types as fast as me, he got all my Star Wars references and we had a great talk. He runs a martial arts studio, of all things, so I suppose I've got a brother that can beat people up, if it ever comes to that (and he's got a sister who knows how to file lawsuits, so we've got the bases covered). 

The crazy part? We were born four days apart. So we're like twins with different mothers. Obviously we lack psychic twin abilities, otherwise we would have known about each other well before reaching our fifties, but I'm still open minded as far as, say, space alien genetic experiments, or demigod parentage, or Jedi stuff. 

Also, even though I'm an evolutionary dead end (for the most part), now I have ... a nephew ... a sister-in-law ... maybe even someone with an actual offrenda. Or the Irish version, whatever that may be. I will keep you posted on how this develops. 

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Hugo Reviews: In Other Lands and Campbell Nominees

I tried to get into In Other Lands, by Sarah Rees Brennan, but I just couldn’t. I’m not inclined to pan it, because unlike that non-speculative fiction book I just read that’s trying to sneak into the nerd awards by appealing to as wide a range of sentimental liberal hearts as possible, this one is definitely fantasy – kind of a mishmosh of fantasy tropes, with a wizard school where classic D&D folk like elves ‘n dwarves learn how to fight so as to battle an eventual big bad.

The elves ‘n dwarves are not the problem. The problem is the protagonist, Elliot Schafer. Lots of people love Elliot Schafer. I see the book has glowing reviews from people like Tamora Pierce and Gregory Maguire, and when I went to File 770 to dish about it I saw people comparing it to Terry Pratchett.

So I just shut my mouth. Because frankly, Elliott Schafer reminds me a lot of Jerry Lewis. Who was very popular in France, I understand, even though lots of Americans find him grating and annoying. Elliott is a wise-ass, a troublemaker, a sarcastic voice in the land of high fantasy. You either love him or you hate him, apparently.

I do like several of the characters that are not Elliot, especially this womansplainy Amazonian elf that cracks me up. Elliot’s brattiness did me in, however, and I had to put him down and head over to Akata Warrior, which I will finish this time.

Meanwhile, I looked up all the Campbell Award nominees.

Rivers Solomon wrote a book called An Unkindness of Ghosts, which is hovering on my Kindle in a partially-read state. They are a Trekkie, which drops them several points in my reckoning. So far the book is good but now I have to put it aside and read all these nominees – yeah, I know, I have to read a bunch of highly-acclaimed books, first world problems. Anyway, here’s Rivers’ website.

Rebecca Roanhorse is Native American and is … another Trekkie, who wrote an essay on NA representation in ST, which you’ll find here at her blog if you’re into that sort of thing. I liked her story and I think I’m going to vote for it, but I’m going to see if I can find a non-Trekkie for my Campbell vote. Yeah I’m biased; sue me.

Vina Jie-Min has a rabbit in her Twitter portrait (and no Star Trek references). Winner. I suppose I’ll keep Googling out of fairness. 

Jeannette Ng is a gamer. Plus she wrote this nifty defense of cute things. I like her.  

Sarah Kuhn is a writer, geek girl and hapa heroine, according to her website. She seems like a nice person. 

Katherine Arden has a very posh-looking website and I’m not sure I like it. Her book appears to be based on a Russian fairytale. 

My vote: Vina Jie-Min, who walks the beam of the rabbit, followed by Jeannette Ng and then Sarah Kuhn.

Monday, April 9, 2018

Hugo Review (YA Category): The Art of Starving by Sam J. Miller

In a normal, everyday sort of context, this book is all right. The tale of a gay, poor, Jewish boy with an eating disorder who falls in love with a rich Muslim boy against a backdrop of bullying; lots of angst and has a definite John Green kind of feel to it.

But this book is up for a YA Hugo. And the only thing remotely spec-fic about it is a scene where the hero releases a herd of pigs from the slaughterhouse where his mom works hard slaying pigs all day, where he might have been using some kind of amazing psychic pig-herding power. Or maybe he's just as delusional as he's been throughout the whole book, whatever. In the climactic scene (oopsie spoiler) he rampages pigs through town to symbolically demonstrate his whatever and gets a bunch of them killed. There’s also a scene where he lights leaves on fire with his mind, or maybe he’s just being poetic, or maybe he’s partying too hard.

This messy afterschool special of a book does not merit an award associated firmly with Science Fiction. The fact that its publishers lined up so many people to falsely nominate it as such speaks poorly for corporate science fiction. In no way does it belong on a ballot beside Philip Pullman – even a relatively weak Philip Pullman like La Belle Sauvage. All the Goodreads nominees I read were more science fictional than this. Hell, my average Tuesday afternoon is more science fictional than this.  

There was an outcry a few years back about a Hugo-nominated story about a gay dude who magically makes it rain indoors whenever he thinks about being gay and in the closet. I would normally term that more “magic realism” than science fiction. This book is even less science fictional.

Which leads to the burning question: does disliking this book automatically make me a homophobic anti-semetic anti-muslim classist ableist insensitive person who doesn’t care about bullying or date rape?

(With regard to the date rape, there’s an annoying subplot featuring the narrator’s sister, who ran away from home – at first it’s implied that the narrator’s future gay BF raped her but then it turns out she arranged a secret meeting with their biological dad and then attacked the crap out of him (pot of hot coffee) before even talking to him so she’s in hiding from the cops.) (She is also the character that gets to tell us how problematic various other books such as On The Road are.) (Nevertheless, this book worships On The Road – the couple calls it “their” book.)

Or does disliking this book make me a person who dislikes manipulative freaking books?

I’ll let you be the jury. I’m sure I know how the corporate publisher feels already.

And now, a confession: you know those “how to write books that don’t suck” articles that I’m always mocking because most people who write them also write books which do, in fact, suck, and most people who write books that don’t suck never write those how-to things? This book is a perfect example of How To Write A YA Book Charon Won’t Like (which is certainly no bar to getting it published). Let me count the ways – I’ll bet I can find an even listicle’s worth.

I.                 Teenagers who write like geriatrics. “I used to like horror movies, when I was younger.”

II.                Teenagers who prefer old music from their parent’s/grandparent’s adolescence to whatever all the other teenagers are listening to.

III.              Obligatory reference to something baby boomer-ish and counter-culture-ish which the teenager characters worship (On The Road).

IV.              Egregious animal cruelty which is handwaved because it’s so symbolic (all those unfortunate pigs).

V.               Commie name drop (Emma Goldman). Yes, yes, we get it, you’re a liberal. I thought maybe it might have been some dude in a MAGA hat writing a gay teen Jewish-Muslim romance; thank you for clearing that up. 

VI.              First person neurosis. I’ve read perfectly decent novels lately written from a neuroatypical first person POV, such as borderline and schizophrenia, and compared to them, this narrator kid is over the top. There’s talk about sending him to a psych hospital at one point, mainly to introduce a medic character to throw some info dumps around, because none of the regular characters are capable of communicating anything factual and scientific without getting neurosis all over it.

VII.            Icky love scenes. They do it once. Narrator reports he was the bottom and it was painful. I’ve read more erotic descriptions on sandwich shop menus. If you’re gonna head into the wilderness of gay Jewish-Muslim teen sex, you might as well throw in some passion.

VIII.           Our hero is saved from the psych hospital by Buddhist mindfulness, because Buddhism is super magic in stories written from this particular POV. Islam is there to explain the stern (but loving) father. Judaism is there so the Muslim-Jewish couple can snipe cutely at each other. Our Hero claims he is Wiccan at one point, but doesn’t really say or do anything Wiccan, and Christianity is invisible as far as I recall. While it’s all very tastefully done, almost like an army of beta readers worked on it like steadfast gnawing beavers, there’s kind of a sense that all these religions are mainly there to add more afterschool special bullet points. Plus the Buddhism is that fetishy mainland American hippie kind, more about appropriating the cool-looking meditation poses than engaging in pedantic cross-cultural studies.

IX.              Cuddly unthreatening bullies, except for when the plot needs them to be cruel foreboding bullies. I was altogether confused by these bullies.

X.                Whoopsie, it didn't grow up to be a full listicle after all. 

I’m sorry, The Art of Starving. I didn’t want to slap you so hard, given that you are trying your hardest to be virtuous. And also, I think the core love story worked – it really seemed those boys had a spark, which they nurtured into a flame, something very difficult to do in a love story. It was just weirdness like the pig stampede and the reversible bullies that made it feel more like an attempt to game the sensitivity meter.

And no, this is not science fiction. Don’t be ridiculous. It’s only fantasy in a very loose and vague sense. It’s only magical realism for a couple of chapters. It would be much happier sitting at the popular kids’ table with John Green than rolling D-20s with the science fiction nerds.