Of fine bookery

Orrin Grey’s excellent collection, Never Bet the Devil & Other Warnings, is coming back into print! There’s a Kickstarter currently running for the new edition, so I am going to have two copies of it, and one of them will come with an extra story and some e-phemera. The stories in this book are lovely; I may have mentioned “The Seventh Picture” before, and I continue to live in the hope that someone will someday make a movie out of that one.

My review of the initial edition is here, but I figured I’d yank a partial paragraph:

There’s horror here, yes, but that’s not all that’s important here; Never Bet the Devil would be an impressive but rather cold book if it was. The infinite strangeness of the supernatural, that was what I was having trouble defining, and a love for the strange and supernatural elements of the genre. The stories, taken together, are stories of horror, and loneliness, and madness, and mystery. And they still manage to convey a sense of wonder. Not overwhelmingly so; I don’t think it’s possible to come away from them thinking cheerful thoughts. But dammit, reading stories like this, stories that have these things in them… this book makes me happy, and the reading has improved my days.

Overall it comes out to less than $2 a story to get a digital copy, and these are some really, really lovely stories, even without the illustrations. Worth checking out.

Romance! (No, really. Wait.)

I was discussing Leverage with someone–one of my favourite TV shows–and they described it as a bad but fun. And I asked why it was bad, and they described several qualities of it, and one of them was “it makes no attempt to be realistic.”

And something clicked for me. I’m going to turn to an English-as-a-subject ramble here for a moment.

Do you know how you can make a strong argument that Frankenstein isn’t a novel? That The Hobbit and The Mists of Avalon and The Phantom Tollbooth aren’t novels?

Because a novel is also a genre definition and that definition is “a book-length work of realistic prose fiction”.[1] The books I have mentioned are not novels; they are romances, where the definition of a romance is “a prose narrative treating imaginary characters involved in events remote in time or place and usually heroic, adventurous, or mysterious”.

(This is why the H.G. Wells Historical Society talks about his scientific romances, which is a term which was also applied to A Princess of Mars. We’re talking romance as a thing that gives us giant submarines and time machines and alien princesses, here.)

Getting back to Leverage: no, it is not remote in time or place. (It is in a TV-land where people are surprisingly pretty and such things as ledger deposit slots exist, plus there’s what Hardison does anytime he’s near a computer, plus Elliot… Alright. It is not blatantly remote in time or place, although it’s pretty clearly not next door.)

But it is certainly heroic and adventurous. It is a pulpy show, in the best sense–Lester Dent’s essay on pulp fiction writing is absolutely not posted on the wall of the writer’s room. 😉

No-one has to like fiction that isn’t realistic, and you can definitely make an argument for defining fiction that isn’t realistic as being silly. (I personally would be inclined to disagree, but I can see the pattern and structure of the argument.) But I think that to define a work of art as a bad example of the art, it’s important to engage with it in terms of what it’s trying to be.

Possibly more thoughts later.
[1] Specific definition plucked from Dr. Doyle’s SF Genre Rant.[2]
[2] Now that you’ve read that essay, please note that I’m not arguing that genre fiction cannot be realistic in both senses described in it, but I think the realistic vs. romantic distinction is useful for the point I am trying to make about the TV show I was discussing, which I will now get back to.

I think it’s the insects’ turn.

Poster for the 1988 movie MIRACLE MILE. I rewatched Miracle Mile tonight; last night, actually, by the time this post is done. (Spoilers follow.)

If you don’t know it; it’s a 1988 movie about a guy who accidentally gets a phone call telling him nuclear war is starting (has started? the missiles are locked in, at any rate), and LA will be nuked in 70 minutes. The rest of the movie is him trying to get to his girlfriend and escape the city.

He manages one of these things.

Miracle Mile is dated, and its pacing and dialogue make it a bit hard to approach, but it pulls itself together as the film goes on. Some of the scenes towards the end are surprisingly bleak; the frantic crawl through the traffic jam is something I’ve never quite seen a match for. And it is an unapologetically downer ending[1]; I find it rather touching as well, which mellows it slightly, but fundamentally this is a movie that unquestioningly accepts that  nuclear war is going to be the end of things and waits for the characters to catch up.

“People are going to help each other, aren’t they? Rebuilding things?”
“I think it’s the insects’ turn.”

I would love to see a remake of it, but I’m not sure it could be done. It seems very much a movie rooted in the Cold War; the idea that a nuclear war could happen, that it was such a real and obvious and accepted fear that with so little prompting people would behave that way. I think you could convey a world in which that fear was present, but I think that for the audience it might be a case of learning that fear, not recognizing that fear.

[1] I said, to the light of my life, “is it really that much of a downer?” And he said to me, “World War Three started, LA is nuked, the main characters drown in tar. It’s a downer.”
He has a point.

The radical notion…

I’ve been thinking a bit about Mad Max lately; specifically the Fury Road movie. I’m fond of the franchise in general, although my interest mostly lies with the post-apocalyptic setting of the second, third, and now fourth movies. And the fourth movie makes me extremely happy.

I am very fond of the post-apocalyptic genre, and I found the character of the protagonist–the fact that she existed, and how the movie handled her–to be deeply affecting in a good if startling way. That said, while I’d heard that the movie was being described as feminist, I don’t think I really thought about it at the time.

(I actually tried pretty hard not to think about it, because I was honestly not expecting it to be really better than most action movies, and I did not want to get my hopes up and have disappointed hopes get in the way of my movie enjoyment. I am not sure if this is selfishness or compartmentalization, and I am okay with that.)

I’ve seen arguments both in favour and against its being called a feminist movie. I’ve thought about it, and because it helps me to write things out when I think about them, I am rambling about it here. I think there are a few ways to parse the definition; looking at the creation of the work, and two ways of looking at the work itself.

Also there might be spoilers, I guess, so time for a break. Continue reading “The radical notion…”

Tiny silver skulls, and old griffins in the cold.

Beasts of TabatBeasts of Tabat by Cat Rambo

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

(Full disclosure: I’ve taken writing classes from Cat. That said, I have liked her work since before I knew to even recognize her name–may I recommend the lovely Events at Fort Plentitude, which I first read in Weird Tales–and I think my review fairly reflects the fact that, dammit, she’s good.)

Short summary: this is a secondary-world fantasy primarily set in the great strange port city of Tabat, which is about to have the Duke step down and hold elections. It revolves around two characters: Teo, a young country boy indentured into servitude at the temple of the Moons, and Bella Kanto, the gladiator whose unbroken string of triumphs in the annual Winter-vs-Spring battle have led to twenty years of long winters and late springs.

(This isn’t a children’s book, by the way. In case anyone was wondering. It’s not gratuitous, but my niephlets aren’t going to be getting this one for a few more years.)

I was expecting a straight-up secondary world fantasy–an adventure, or what you’d traditionally call a romance. There is some of that here; I think you see it most strongly in Teo. But there’s more life than there is just adventure, if that makes sense.

Second, a lot of the fantasy adventures I mentioned are about solving a problem. Beasts of Tabat is so much more than this. There are problems, yes, and some of them get resolved, but this is not a book where the Tour goes around collecting Plot Coupons and applying them to a Clearly Defined Problem. This is coming into a world in flux–on a personal level, a professional level, a social level, a magical level–and watching it turn into something new and wonderful.

(This is perhaps an excellent time to remind people of the origins of words such as “wonderful”, “fantastic”, and “terrific”. Terry Pratchett said it best.)

I think this works because of the attention paid to the characters and the small details. There’s Bella Kanto and Teo, but the characters moving around them and affected by them (I’m particularly engaged by Eloquence Seaborn and Leonoa, but you can take your pick) feel so distinct that those two feel pleasantly more like windows to the world than heroes in it. (I grant Bella Kanto is of heroic stature, but it’s not because of how she’s framed in the text.)

The growing unrest, the prejudice against the Beasts, the changes coming–this is the kind of thing that could get handwaved into a simple didactic dichotomy, and instead the depiction of what living in a world like this is like makes it interesting and involving. I am having opinions about this world, dammit, and I love it.

(There are several other stories set in Tabat, which are listed at the bottom of the page here; I’ve read half a dozen of them, and am going to go read more now that I’ve finished the novel. Just figured I should mention (1) you don’t need to have read them and (2) they’re worth checking out.)

I want to see where this goes. I need to see how it comes out. And it will be wonderful.

Strong Female Protagonist

Strong Female Protagonist Book OneI gave this one five stars, which is what I give to books so good I believe you should read them even if they are not your genre at all. It’s also all free online, at Strong Female Protagonist.

I started reading it expecting… a kind of comedy of manners, I guess. Superhero dealing with university life! How wacky, yeah?

Twenty pages in, it hooked me. It got… well, it wasn’t ever un-smart, but it got pointed. Then there was the TV interview scene in issue 2, and issue 3 has a beautiful story arc with Feral. I really cannot summarize it, but you can read it! It’s free online! And it’s just…

I am not doing it justice, but it’s so damn thoughtful. The comic basically takes the statement “There are superheroes!” and answers it with “So what?” Not a dismissive so what, not a trite so what, a genuinely thoughtful and considerate examination of the question. And it’s beautiful.

(And my copy of the book has Feral and Menace hand-drawn on the signed frontispiece. You cannot imagine the squee.)

Slow, sad, and mad

Bedlam vol. 1Bedlam vol. 1 by Nick Spencer

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

(written several months back, and published now that I am cleaning out my drafts)

…I haven’t been so hooked by a graphic novel since I picked up Uzumaki, Vol. 1. And exactly like when I picked up Uzumaki, I am swearing because the comic book store has closed for the day, and now I have to wait before I can see about getting the next one in the series.

Spoilers for the first twenty-odd pages follow.

Like it says on the tin: the generically utterly evil technically-not-supervillain-because-no-superpowers-but-come-on-now Madder Red has, after years of therapy, apparently been cured of his anti-social drive.[1] Now he’d like to do some good.

I picked it up expecting a crime story. In the first fifteen pages, it had me blinking a little at what was being depicted (villain cheerfully slitting a child’s throat in front of the hero), and then twisted the standard “ha-ha, holding the city hostage by means of threatening something terrible” schtick into an entirely new direction.

It’s a murder mystery, sure. It’s grim and fast-paced and makes a creepy kind of sense. It’s beautifully drawn; the story weaves along between modern-day (full-colour art) and flashbacks to various points in the past (black and white and red all over). I am going to go reread it, once I am done posting this.

But beyond that, it feels thoughtful in a way that comics about characters like this–characters that are like how Madder Red started out, I mean, he’s quite different in the modern day setting–usually don’t, and for “usually don’t” read “never have”.

Series was apparently cancelled after enough comics to make two graphic novels. I am saddened by this, but… I guess it ups the odds of being able to convince other people to read the whole thing?

[1] Dead kids. Lots of dead kids. And dead women. (He hurt and killed woman and kids by preference.) And dead cops. And along the way, dead cats. His backstory rap sheet is drawn in in relatively few pages, and remains the kind of thing which is jaw-droppingly violent in a way I cannot recall having previously seen in comics.

View all my reviews

Burning Girls

I suspect this may be a little redundant; the story came out over a month ago, after all, and I suspect that there is possibly some slight overlap between the people who read these posts and the people who follow Tor.com.

That said: the story “Burning Girls” by Veronica Schanoes is up. It is lovely and brave and sad and fine, and you could likely do much, much worse than take the time to read it.

Disconsolate but lovely.

The Bloody Chamber and Other StoriesThe Bloody Chamber and Other Stories by Angela Carter

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

As usual, four stars is my “recommend to anyone who’d like the genre” marker, but I’m not sure what the genre is. Dark and lovely and exquisitely written adult fairy tales I suppose, although it feels a bit odd to call them adult. (I mean, there’s clearly sex going on, but it’s a little distant, hardly ever explicitly referred to, and the emotional entanglements and compulsions are sad and/or creepy four times out of five.)

(It reminds me of Engines of Desire: Tales of Love & other Horrors a fair bit, actually.)

Ultimately, I think it’s the sad distance in the tone of so many of the stories that keeps me from going for four stars; the writing was amazing and beautiful and evocative, but so many of the stories left me feeling a little like I was having a sad day, and couldn’t tell anyone why. Definitely worth looking at, if fairy tale retellings are at all your thing, but be warned of possible disconsolation.

Wow, I’ve been talking a lot about the stuff other people write here lately, haven’t I?  Will try and mix that up a bit; starting to feel a little like an echo chamber.

Statistically, I give this rating to less than 3.5% of books I have rated.

A Monster CallsA Monster Calls by Patrick Ness
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is the story of a boy whose mother is sick, and the monster that comes to call.

It is a sad book, and a true one (in that it speaks a truth, not the truth; I think it is smart enough to realize that the topic it is addressing is not one it can fully dress down in words). I have not decided if it is a kind or a cruel book; if it is kind, it is a terrible sort of kindness.

I wrote, once, privately, seven-months-and-change ago, about how there is a dearth of narratives for accepting that you have finished grieving. This is not about that, but it speaks to the shunning–of aspects, of truth, of a person entire–that arises in response to apparently terminal illness, and I think the topics are related.

It strikes me as very worth reading, and I recommend picking it up most strongly.