Review of “The Last Novelist (or A Dead Lizard in the Yard)” by Matthew Kressel

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This short story is a finalist for the 2018 Nebula Award. It was published by

Reuth Bryan Diaso is an elderly novelist who is suffering from a fatal illness. He arrives on Ardabaab, where he hopes to finish his last novel before he dies. There he is discovered by Fish, a girl-child who becomes totally fascinated by what he is doing. He takes her on as an apprentice, showing her how he writes with a pen and paper, how to draw, and how he sets the type and prints his novels on a fabricated press. She is talented as an artist and begins a set of drawings to illustrate his novel. However, her mother finds out about the relationship and calls out Diaso as a predator. He is heartbroken, and his work on the novel falters. Will he ever see the child again? Will he finish the book before he dies?

Good points: This is artfully constructed. The narrative and characters are absorbing and the imagery is enjoyable. From the dead lizard at the beginning to the final resolution, we’re caught by Diaso’s story, where he putters with a story (mirroring his own?) and enjoys passing along a dying craft to one final young fan. There’s a nice tension in the plot when her mother intervenes, and a satisfying resolution. This is also metafiction, of course, about writing a novel. (I can see this could make it very popular with a group of writers, many of whom are no longer spring chickens themselves.) We get excerpts of the novel sandwiched within the narrative. We also get nostalgia about the old days when real writers used a pen and paper and real printers set type, got ink on their fingers and produced high-quality hardbound novels. We get magical world-building and bits of Yiddish dialect. The elephant in the room he’s addressed is how men can’t be friends with children anymore. The dead lizard is a really nice touch.

Not so good points: The world building produced some pretty fantastical effects. I really enjoyed the exotica, but it was a little jarring—breaking me out of the story for brief moments. I also thought this was a bit too overtly sentimental and a bit too meta for a general audience. I can’t complain too much, though, as it looks like Kressel is a publisher and editor as well as a writer. He may well be feeling what he wrote.

Four stars.


Review of “Carnival Nine” by Caroline M. Yoachim


This short story is a finalist for the 2018 Nebula Award. It was published in Beneath Ceaseless Skies.

Zee has a silver key in her back that the maker uses to wind her up every day. She has a strong mainspring and so a lot of energy. She lives in Closet City with her Papa, who never has any turns left over for adventure because he works so hard to help Granny and Gramps. When the carnival comes to town, Zee meets a carny boy named Vale. On her 200th day, she gets adult limbs and new paint on her face, and soon afterward Granny and Gramps wind down for the last time and are recycled. Since her Papa has only himself to take care of now, she leaves with Vale on carnival train 9 to make a life for herself as a carny. The two of them build a child they name Mattan, but the boy has a weak mainspring. Vale refuses to accept the child’s disability, so Zee takes Mattan back to her Papa in Closet City. Can she find a way to support her special needs child?

Good points: This is a very creative idea. I’m visualizing a toymaker somewhere with a whole village of windup dolls and model trains. The story, of course, takes us into the life of the dolls, limited as it is by the number of turns their mainsprings will hold. It has an inspiring message, as Zee gives up her dreams to care for her disabled child.

Not so good points: The world building here is limited, and I don’t end up with much of an idea of what the setting looks like. I gather there are carnivals on at least nine trains, houses for the dolls and recycling centers. Because of the limited background, the characters also tend to be flat. Mattan, especially has little personality because of his disability. Winding down is fairly matter-of-fact, and there’s not much investigation of the emotional issues behind the characters’ actions. True, these are dolls, but I’d like to understand their motivations, regardless.

Three and a half stars.

Are negative reviews politically incorrect?


A recent discussion about reviews has caused me to Google about on the subject. In the last couple of blogs, I’ve noted opinions about the trend toward positive reviews, but there are some more pointed opinions out there on the issue of negative vs. positive reviews. This is the third and last blog on the subject.

Rafia Zakaria, writing for The Baffler, has thrown her support firmly behind critical reviews. Unless it stings, she says, then it’s not worth anything. She also has some interesting ideas about why and how the current trend has emerged.

First, she notes that the tone and style of contemporary book reviews reads like ad copy—generally including a summary and some non-conclusions, but nothing of critical engagement or analysis of how the work might relate to the environment it emerges from. Her conclusion is that this style is based mainly on a political ethics that requires non-judgement. In other words, all readers are expected to “check their biases and privilege” before reading and not make any kind of judgement about the content or quality of the book. Ergo, writing only positive reviews is a commitment to equality and fairness for all.

However, this raises questions about affirmative action. According to Zakaria, the purpose of limiting negative reviews this way is (implicitly) to assist underprivileged and marginalized authors, whose work may be hard for readers to relate to. She suggests that critical reviews are seen as a kind of “textual violence” and therefore “a tacit endorsement of inequality, of exclusion, and marginalization.” As a marginalized minority writer herself, she feels this is a matter of the privileged taking offence on the behalf of the marginalized while at the same time suggesting that minority authors’ work is too sub-standard to stand up to a real review.

Does she have a point? Are reviews now required to serve marginalized writers through non-judgement? Is this a tacit statement on the poor quality of their work?

Then what about the other side of this? Because of the pressure for positive reviews, many reviewers won’t read something when they feel they can’t give it a good review. This means people who have written something truly different are shut out of the market. Because of the current publishing climate, this could include people with unpopular political viewpoints, people who are expressing an uncomfortable reflection of society, or people who are too rooted in their own cultural viewpoint to suit the current marketplace. Of course, minority writers who are accepted and heavily promoted by big name publishers are going to get reviews in big name publications, but what about everybody else? Is the emphasis on only positive reviews shutting out reviews of all these other works?

Review of “The Martian Obelisk” by Linda Nagata

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This story is science fiction and was published in 2017 by Note: review may contain spoilers.

The Earth is dying and the Martian colonies have been abandoned. Financed by the wealthy Nathaniel Sanchez, architect Susannah Li-Langford is building a monument on Mars, using remote machines to clothe a spire in sparkling, white tiles. In a surprising development, the machines notify her they’ve received a signal. Could there be life still on Mars after all?

This is a pretty dystopian setting. With the Earth devastated by climate change and biological warfare, its people have lost their dream to move out to the stars. Instead, they are slowly dying in place. Li-Langford is nearing the end of her life but keeps plodding away at her monument, hoping to leave something lasting behind.

Good points: First, this is science fiction, somewhat on the hard side, but not technical enough to put anyone off. Next, the message is hope. Even with all that’s gone wrong, Li-Langford is willing to abandon her dreams to give someone else a ray of hope.

Not so good points: This reminded me very strongly of Weir’s The Martian, so I didn’t take it as highly original. I thought the characters were flat and not well developed; plus, there was a lot of exposition—I really didn’t end up feeling the devastation on Earth. I didn’t really feel Li-Langford’s dream, either. Why waste all the time and money on a monument when it seems like Earth needs it instead? Then she abandons it without a second thought and dismantles way more than seems necessary for the situation. And how are a few tiles going to help castaways? The plot didn’t quite hold water for me.

Two and a half stars because of the believability issues.

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.

Are critical reviews an outdated idea?


Since we had a recent discussion here about reviews, I’ve been doing some reading on the issue, and I’ve made up made up a short series on the subject of critical or negative as opposed to strictly positive reviews. Here’s the first installment.

There was a time when artists put their work out there in front of the public and held their breaths, hoping for a positive review from critics that would encourage sales. However, unless you’ve annoyed some group that will trash your work on Amazon, the big issue these days seems to be getting someone to review your work, and not the question of what they’ll say or how many stars they’ll give you. There has been a recent trend toward highly positive reviews, to the point where it’s getting hard to find a negative one, or even one that provides a real critical analysis. So, is this a problem for the literary community?

A discussion about this demise of critical reviews seems to have broken out into public view just lately. This may have been provoked by a statement from Isaac Fitzgerald, new editor of BuzzFeed’s book section, that in order to “promote a positive community experience,” he will only publish positive reviews. Responses were varied. Sarah Miller re-reviewed a few “classics” for the New Yorker in response, using the contemporary warm, vapid style, starting with Moby Dick. Ha, ha. Very funny.

Other articles on the subject were more thoughtful. Jacob Silverman, writing for Slate, suggests this the trend to “cloying niceness and blind enthusiasm” has to do with the growth of authors’ social media communities. He points out that writers and fans are trying to build communities that are completely safe, comfortable environments. After all, everybody worked hard on their book. Shouldn’t they get praise for the result?

Ben Yagoda, writing for Slate, and Laura Miller, writing for Salon, suggest that the content of reviews really doesn’t matter. Miller writes that most writers now are, and will remain, obscure and poorly-rated in the grand scheme of things. “No one needs middling reviews of mediocre books,” she says. Yagoda quotes Sturgeon’s law, named after SF author Theodore Sturgeon, who observed, “It can be argued that 90% of film, literature, consumer goods, etc. is crap.” Yagoda notes that the first part of this quote is generally left off. So, if everything is crap anyway, does it really matter how we try to sort it out?

More on this in the next installment.

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