Review of “Clearly Lettered in a Mostly Steady Hand” by Fran Wilde

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This short story is a finalist for the 2018 Nebula Award, and was published in Uncanny Magazine.

The doorperson takes the dime of curious patrons. If she determines you are worthy, she will tell you how to open the panel and let you have a look and a souvenir. Past the Entrance is A Hallway of Things People Have Swallowed, A Radium Room, A Room of Objects That Are Really People, Our Curator’s Special Collection, A Room of Objects That Are Very Sharp, The Hall of Criminals and Saints and then the Exit. Can you get out of the exhibit whole and in once piece?

Nothing is clear in this story. The scenario sounds like Ripley’s Believe It or Not, a collection of the bizarre and unusual. There are whispers and giggles in the shadows, a few clues in the narrator’s account. She isn’t especially reliable, but we gather that the curator is missing and the freaks are now running the show and looking for revenge. Enter at your own risk.

Good points: I would guess this falls into the category of experimental lit. You have to study it, something like a puzzle, to put together things like comments about beautiful hands, sticky carpets and the taste of brine. It’s also very surreal and atmospheric, the prose creating images and sensory experiences something like an art installation.

Not so good point: This is pretty much just an experience, like an art installation. There’s not really a story here—no characterization, no setting, no plot, no conflict—only revelation. Because of the puzzle quality, it’s pretty opaque, too. There are a couple of events/situations in there that I can guarantee as pretty likely, but I’m not really sure.

Most likely appreciated by literary horror fans.

Three stars. It’s very literary, but I can’t recommend it as a story.


The Pressures for Positive Reviews


Here’s the second installment on the subject of reviews and what’s expected from the contemporary book or film critic. There were a few more interesting opinions that came out of my recent readings on the subject, generally related to those explored in the last blog.

Writing for Salon, Laura Miller describes the traditional model of literary criticism where critics pretty much made the classics by pointing out which books should matter for a cultivated, educated audience. This meant the critics were the arbiters of taste, and the audience took their advice because they wanted to be seen as cultivated and intelligent. Publishers were also, presumably, swayed by these critics’ opinions which slapped down anyone unsuitable who thought they could write a novel. Miller thinks this is an outdated model, and that critical readings should be saved for the classroom. Her view of the critic’s role is to point out the books he or she likes in particular so the audience can find them.

Of course, the problem with this is that authors and publishers quickly get the idea they should offer inducements for critics to point out their books. Writing for The Baffler, Rafia Zakaria calls reviewers an “extended marketing operation” who are expected to “arrange the book in a bouquet” like blooming flowers to help attract an audience.

Writing for Slate, Ben Yagoda gives us a current classification of critics:
• Over-intellectual nitpickers – Try to rate popular books as something they’re not.
• Soft touches – In the pockets of publishers.
• Quote sluts – Write notices for display ads.
• Chummy logrollers – Relentless enthusiasm for the blogosphere.
• Careerist contrarians – Try to stand out with unpopular opinions.
Yagoda also suggests a reason for large audience vs. critic discrepancies in ratings. He thinks this means the work is unpleasant to sit through in some way. In other words, reviewers will hold out because they’ve got to write a review, while causal readers or film viewers will take off and find something better to do.

Also writing in Slate, Jacob Silverman describes the “safe space” atmosphere of the Twitter/blogosphere where all books are wonderful and every writer is every other writer’s fan. He calls this shallow, untrue and chilling to literary culture. After all, he says, what critic will write an honest review in an environment where authors are valued more for their social media following than for what they write? What he doesn’t say is how fast this social media following can turn into trollish attack dogs. Silverman says it’s not publishing that’s threatened; instead, it’s the body of reviewers who are trivialized and endangered by this system.

Another issue Silverman doesn’t identify in this analysis is generational characteristics at work. Everyone likes praise, but a constant need for it is fairly well identified with millennials. Writing in the New York Times in 2015, Alex Williams points out some of the tendencies we can expect from Generation Z (aka post-millennials), now displacing the millennials as the largest, richest and most sought-after generation of consumers. Gen Z is generally the children of Gen X, who are coming of age post Millennium. Compared to millennials, this group has grown up in uncertain times, so they tend to be more conservative than millennials and heavily concerned with privacy, risk and safe spaces. They tend to be less binary and more biracial, are heavily oriented toward technology and social media and tend to lose interest in things more quickly.

Is this the group Silverman has identified as so intolerant of critical reviews in the Twitter/blogosphere? When will the upcoming Gen Z start to change what sells in the marketplace?

Review of The End of the Day by Claire North


I really liked Claire North’s WFA winner, so am looking at more of her books. This novel is fantasy. It was published in 2017 by Redhook/Orbit and runs 403 pages.

Charlie is humble and unassuming. He’s just taken a job as the Harbinger of Death, who mysteriously goes before, as a warning, a courtesy—we don’t know which. He often takes small gifts to particular people, chosen to have special meaning just for them. A few assignments are heartwarming. He meets an old woman, the last speaker of her language, helps a father and daughter who have lost their housing. Sometimes his experiences are more jolting and dangerous. He visits Lagos and finds that not only is Death rampaging through the world, but also the other figures of the Apocalypse—Famine, War and Pestilence. Meanwhile profit reigns and the Doomsday Clock ticks toward midnight. Can Charlie keep his sanity and his relationship with Emmi intact?

I really liked North’s last couple of novels. The thriller plot line kept things moving through a lot of bad stuff, and an upbeat ending made it all worthwhile. I can’t say that about this book. It moves slowly, has no structure and gets bogged down in depressing scenes of torture and death.

This is well-written; the characters and settings are well-developed. The book had something important to say—humanity is self-destructive, we’re all just a step away from oblivion, we need to be more thoughtful. However, I can’t say I enjoyed it. It presented warnings but no solutions, and not much in the way of hope.

Three and a half stars.

Review of Touch by Claire North

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I really enjoyed the World Fantasy Award winner The Sudden Appearance of Hope by Claire North, so I’ve looked up more of her books. She’s fairly prolific under a couple or three different pen names, thus providing me with a lot of future reading material. This book was published in 2015 by Hachette and runs 443 pages.

An assassin guns down Kepler’s host Josephine Cebula, and s/he jumps to another host and then another, realizing the assassin is after him/her. Not only is Kepler angry about Josephine, but the fact that the assassin is looking for the next host means he knows about Kepler’s ability to jump from person to person. Kepler follows the assassin onto a train and captures him, jumping into his body from that of an old man. When s/he has an opportunity to question the man, s/he finds a plot in motion to search out and kill others of his/her kind. Can Kepler stop the plot and revenge Josephine?

Good points: This is another winner. It’s basically a thriller plot about transmigration with a lot of added human interest material that develops the characters, describes their history and makes their world real for us. The chase moves from country to country and from big cities to small villages. On the way, it reveals the workings of an underground culture of beings with consciousness but no physical existence, who can possess a host with just a touch of skin against skin.

Possible not so good point: This is character oriented and moves slowly as a thriller. Likely it’s not for fans of heavy action plots. There were also a couple of instances where I thought the characters violated the rules of their existence, or not. It’s a minor logical hiccup, but not that serious.

Four and a half stars.

Congrats to the 2018 Nebula Finalists


Interestingly, more than one of the names repeat this year. Vina Jie-Min Prasad and Sarah Pinsker both appear in more than one category. This year, the Nebula Recommended Reading List did pretty much accurately predict that the top recommended stories would end up as finalists.

As is usual recently, the list leans heavily female. Here’s a quick diversity count, as well as I can figure it:
Best novel – 6 women, 1 man, 1 African American, 1 Asian
Best novella – 4 women, 1 man, 1 non-binary, 1 Asian, 1 Jewish
Best novelette – 2 women, 2 men, 1 trans, 2 LGBT, 1 Asian
Best short story – 4 women, 2 men, 2 Asian, 1 Native American, 2 Jewish

Four of 7 of the Best novel finalists come from Orbit, and 4 of 6 of the Best novella category come from, plus one of the novelettes and one of the short stories.

For those who have been keeping up with my blog, you’ll know I’m happy to see a Native American writer represented this year. Many congrats to all! Reviews to follow soon.

Best Novel

Amberlough by Lara Elena Donnelly (Tor)
The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter by Theodora Goss (Saga)
Spoonbenders by Daryl Gregory (Knopf; riverrun)
The Stone Sky by N.K. Jemisin (Orbit US; Orbit UK)
Six Wakes by Mur Lafferty (Orbit US)
Jade City by Fonda Lee (Orbit US; Orbit UK)
Autonomous by Annalee Newitz (Tor; Orbit UK 2018)

Best Novella

River of Teeth by Sarah Gailey ( Publishing)
Passing Strange by Ellen Klages ( Publishing)
And Then There Were (N-One) by Sarah Pinsker (Uncanny 3-4/17)
Barry’s Deal by Lawrence M. Schoen (NobleFusion Press)
All Systems Red by Martha Wells ( Publishing)
The Black Tides of Heaven by JY Yang ( Publishing)

Best Novelette

“Dirty Old Town” by Richard Bowes (F&SF 5-6/17)
“Weaponized Math” by Jonathan P. Brazee (The Expanding Universe, Vol. 3)
“Wind Will Rove” by Sarah Pinsker (Asimov’s 9-10/17)
“A Series of Steaks” by Vina Jie-Min Prasad (Clarkesworld 1/17)
“A Human Stain” by Kelly Robson ( 1/4/17)
“Small Changes Over Long Periods of Time” by K.M. Szpara (Uncanny 5-6/17)

Best Short Story

“Fandom for Robots” by Vina Jie-Min Prasad (Uncanny 9-10/17)
“Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience™” by Rebecca Roanhorse (Apex 8/17)
“Utopia, LOL?” by Jamie Wahls (Strange Horizons 6/5/17)
“Clearly Lettered in a Mostly Steady Hand” by Fran Wilde (Uncanny 9-10/17)
“The Last Novelist (or A Dead Lizard in the Yard)” by Matthew Kressel ( 3/15/17)
“Carnival Nine” by Caroline M. Yoachim (Beneath Ceaseless Skies 5/11/17)

Review of Wintersong by S. Jae Jones

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This book is part of my effort to review minority authors. It was published through Thomas Dunn Books/Macmillan in February of 2017. Jones is Asian, a native of Los Angeles, and this looks to be her first published novel. There’s a sequel coming in 2018 called Shadowsong. This review contains spoilers.

Liesl is the middle child, dark and plain, while her older sister Kathe is blond and beautiful and her younger brother Josef is a violin virtuoso. Liesl wants to study music, too, and dreams of being a composer, but her father only lets her play accompaniment to her brother. As a child, she finds a boy in the woods who calls himself the Goblin King, and they promise to marry, but as Liesl grows older, she has to give up her dreams to take responsibility for her family. Then the Goblin King comes for his bride. Because Liesl has rejected him, he takes Kathe instead. Can Liesl save her sister by giving up her own life?

Jones has used the German legend of the Erlkonig as the basis for her story, with some other allusions drawn from European culture and the movie Labyrinth. The story is set in the 1800s when touring violinists were the rock stars of the era. According to the Erlkonig legend, the bride gives up her life and retires to the Underground to make sure spring comes to the world above. It’s not very Asian, but somehow I haven’t heard a peep about cultural appropriation.

On the positive side, Jones has put together a really promising plot. The issue of having to give up personal dreams to take family responsibility seems to be a common theme from Asian women writers. Here, Liesl escapes the clutches of her family, but moves into another stifling situation. Her husband offers her complete freedom to play and write music, but there is no audience—she is confined to the Underground. The Erlkonig is a strong romantic interest on the one hand, but on the other, it’s clear that staying with him will slowly drain away her life. There are choices between evils here.

On the not-so-positive side, I didn’t much like Liesl or the petulant, demanding, erratic way she conducts herself around people who love her. I think her character could have been used more positively to send messages about discipline, cooperation, communication, focus and hard work to achieve what you want. Of course, this might be just my viewpoint speaking. I had similar complaints about The Last Jedi.

Three and a half stars.

Review of The Shape of Water by Guillermo del Toro


I know, I know. I’m late again with the film review. I hadn’t really noticed this one as it went by, but since there’s a big Oscar buzz, I figured I needed to get out there and see what the fuss was about. The film was written by Guillermo del Toro and Vanessa Taylor and directed by Guillermo del Toro. It has 13 Oscar nominations, another 84 award wins and 244 other award nominations.

Elisa Esposito is a cleaning woman at a secret Baltimore government facility in the early 1960s. She was a foundling with damaged vocal chords and is mute, plain and devastatingly lonely. Her only two friends are her neighbor Giles, an aging gay man, and Zelda, who looks after her at work. Colonel Richard Strickland brings a specimen to the lab—an amphibious humanoid creature captured in South America. He keeps the creature chained and uses a cattle prod to control it, leading to a violent encounter where he loses fingers. Called to clean up the mess, Elisa and Zelda find out about the creature. Elisa leaves food and makes friends with it, and when she hears the plan is vivisection, she enlists Giles and Zelda to help her free the captive. They successfully get it to Elisa’s apartment, and she plans to set it free when the canal gates open later in the month. While the creature is there, the two of them develop a closer relationship, including sex. Will Elisa be able to set the creature free? Will Strickland catch up to them?

I can see why this is in line for an Oscar. It’s a play on Creature from the Black Lagoon. It’s a beautifully made film, and the Academy seems to really like tributes to Hollywood’s past. Old film footage plays on the TV. There is a song and dance sequence where Elisa imagines herself a star. There’s sex. It has something of the feel of old fifties scifi where alien creatures wreak mayhem. There are Russian spies sneaking around. It’s also very inclusive, with disabled, gay, Hispanic and black characters.

Still, I don’t think this translates well. The script seems forced, and I can’t pull any meaning out of it that feels important. Elisa and Hoffstetler, the Russian spy, are sensitively played, and Del Toro makes an effort to develop Giles and Zelda as characters, but others are cardboard. Plus, it just doesn’t work for me. If Elisa can run away with her love, what kind of life would she have?

One thing the film does do successfully is display the attitude that “might makes right” in a glaring light. This used to be widely accepted, but is less so now, for good reason (think Nazi medical experiments). There is a lot of violence and abuse here. There is no appreciation from the military that the creature is intelligent. Everyone is caught in a cultural trap with no hope of salvation.

I don’t know what to think about this. Is it supposed to be postmodern? Kitsch?

Two stars for the logical failures. I almost left half way.

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