Unabashedly unprofessional reviews in fantasy, scifi, and mystery.
Coming to terms with an addiction to bad puns.

Where the Stars Rise
Where the Stars Rise: Asian Science Fiction and Fantasy - Various, Karin Lowachee, Derwin Mak, E.C. Myers, Lucas K. Law, Joyce Chng, Amanda Sun, Elsie Chapman, Samantha Beiko, Fonda Lee, S. B. Divya
For me, the best speculative fiction seamlessly weaves together novel ideas and perspectives while keeping me enthralled in a good story.Where the Stars Rise promises just that, providing a wealth of viewpoints that are woefully underrepresented in much of mainstream speculative fiction. The stories range from Melissa Yuan-Innes' "Crash," a futuristic story of a sixteen-year-old's experience on a moon colony, to Ruhan Zhao's "My Left Hand," a short tale of high energy physics, time travel, and fortune tellers, to Gabriela Lee's "DNR", a story of personal tragedy and memory set in a world shattered by climate change and terrible earthquakes.

In this myriad of interesting stories, I think the one I found most memorable was Amanda Sun's gorgeously lyrical "Weaving Silk." In this short vignette, the main character and her sister are scraping together ingredients to make and sell onigiri. As they travel through a Japan wounded by both volcanic eruption and tsunami, she muses on the country's struggles to regain contact with a world that, before Japan was isolated by natural disaster, was itself enmeshed in incipient global warfare. The writing is packed with metaphor, haunting, and utterly gorgeous. A few of my favourite quotes:
"We are her [my mother's] bones, though. We are the tiny eggs left from the gleaming mouth, from the beat of her wings and the curl of her tired legs. We've awoken ravenous among the dark foliage, with only two thoughts in our heads--eat, survive. Eat. Survive. Silkworms, both of us, spinning our cocoons to blind ourselves."
"We are all little cocoons, I think, as I look at the people in the train. We spin threads around ourselves, shutting others out as if we were the only ones struggling to survive. Hungry to survive, destined to die. And yet together, unravelled, our stories form yards and yards of beautiful silken thread."

Each story was unique, but a few common themes wove them together. Perhaps the most common was a sense of difference and separation from the rest of society. For example, Ayla of S.B. Divya's "Looking Up" is hired for a journey to Mars as "one of our most diverse candidates" (sigh) but her cultural heritage combined with her physical disabilities and family history leaves her feeling isolated and adrift. The story is about forgiveness and finding a future while coming to terms with the past. In Diana Xin's "A Visitation for the Spirit Festival", Mrs. Liu finds herself revisiting her past when she travels to see her daughter who had quit her job in Silicon Valley to find her Chinese roots. A literal ghost becomes a metaphor for Mrs. Liu's complex relationship with her memories. "A Star is Born" by Miki Dare is told in a fascinating style, with alternating diary entries of an old woman with Alzheimer's who believes she can time travel to see alternate routes of her past interspersed with "timeline captures" of a Japanese girl dealing with tremendous prejudice in Canada during WWII. Like "Visitation", it deals with themes of tragedy, memory, and acceptance.

Multiple stories centered around people with a foot in two cultures who feel that they belonged to neither. The most memorable for me was "Back to Myan" by Regina Kanyu Wang, where the protagonist is literally a fish out of water. When Kaya's oceanus planet is destroyed, the Union rescues her and brings her up as one of them, to the point of surgically modifying her fins into feet. Brought up to blend in, she goes on a mission to rediscover her roots and finds far darker secrets than she could ever expect. The theme of dual cultures is played straight in Vanilla Rice" by Angela Yuriko Smith, where the child of an internet bride grows up in a world that equates whiteness with worth and chooses to genetically modify her child to appear Caucasian. The child seeks to find a way "to belong in my world, not someone else's." Karin Lowachee's "Meridian" is a scifi take on adoption across cultures, where the protagonist is "saved" and, after a few rounds of foster ships, is eventually "adopted" into a pirate crew. 

Some of the stories deal with even more direct prejudice. In Jeremy Szal's "The DataSultan of Streets and Stars" the protagonist and his brother are forced to flee after their father was killed in an anti-Muslim pogrom. Years later, the protagonist is forced into stealing a djinn-bot (universal assistant) he had created in his previous career as a programmer and "dataSultan." "Rose's Arm" by Calvin D. Jim deals with cultural and socioeconomic barriers. In this futuristic world where "the poor pay with their bodies" is anything but metaphorical, Rose Ishikawa struggles seeks to help her ailing father and considers selling her eyes to get a mechanical arm. In Priya Sridhar's "Memoriam", Anish's droid father lands right in the middle of uncanny valley and unsettles religious neighbors.

On of my favourite stories, E.C. Myers' "The Observer Effect", took the idea of being invisible out of the metaphoric sphere. It's a fun jaunt into an Incredibles-like world where the protagonist is positive that one of her coworkers is a retired superhero. It deals with expectations, casual prejudice, and the cultural invisibility of minorities and those with disabilities, all in an entertaining and amusing superhero costume. "The Orphans of Nilaveli" by Naru Dames Sundar also involves literal invisibility. The story takes place in a near-future Sri Lanka where everyone has implants that make the things they don't want to see invisible. Two adopted Tamil children grow up in a world that makes their people literally invisible and find themselves revolting against that blindness.

Another common theme was leveraging cultural traditions, history, and folklore. The most memorable for me was "Decision" by Joyce Chng. Creepy and wild, it weaves together themes of gender fluidity with folklore of a young spider-jinn leaving the nest. "Moon Halves" by Anne Carly Abad is an interesting reimagining of Filipino folklore, where humans participate in a hunting rite that involves hunting and killing an immature Taung Asu (tree spirit.) "Spirit of Wine" by Tony Pi is short, entertaining yarn involving a prefectural exam and a wine spirit. "Minsoo Kang's "Wintry Hearts of Those Who Rise" reads like an early folktale with protagonists who outsmart the rich and greedy, but the story has a mildly disturbing bite at the end. Deepack Bharathan's "Udatta Sloka" is a reimagined origin story of a god that deals with change, death, and the destruction of the Indus Valley Civilization. "Joseon Fringe" by Pamela Q. Fernandes is an alternate history of Sejong the Great that also provides fascinating commentary on the divided Koreas. "The Bridge of Dangerous Longings" by Rati Mehrotra is less directly inspired by folklore. A fantastical tale in a futuristic island cut off from the rest of the world by a bridge that no one has come back from, it deals with themes of violence and rape. I think it might have packed more of a punch had it not answered its own mysteries.

Last but not least, I found myself enjoying Fonda Lee's "Old Souls" as an echo of her wonderful Jade City. The protagonist can see the patterns of everyone's previous lives and wants to escape her own fate. The story is about choice, the need to forget and be able to start over, and patterns, personality, and what makes us innately ourselves. As one character says:
"Our lives are shaped by circumstance; we have patterns, but we do change."

Overall, it's a very interesting collection well worth reading if you're interested in scifi and fantasy a little off the beaten path.

~~I received an advanced reader copy (with huge apologies for how long it took me to read and review) through Netgalley from the publisher, Laksa Media Groups, in exchange for my honest review. Thanks!~~ 

Cross-posted on Goodreads.
4.5 Stars
Jade City
Jade City  - Fonda Lee

What a magnificent read! A rich mix of characters, political intrigue, and family drama, Jade City kept me engaged from the first page to the last. 

The story takes place in the city of Janloon, called "Jade City" by foreigners, and the only home of a very special form of "activated" jade that grants the people who wear it supernatural powers-- if they can avoid the psychological side effects. Traditionally, only the Kekonese, the native people of Janloon, could wear and use jade, but with the Espenian foreigners' creation of a drug, "shine," that mitigates the worst of the side effects, foreigners have an increasing interest in Janloon's jade supply. Although the city is nominally run by the king and his council, in actuality, it is run by the clans, whose fearsome Green Bone warriors skirmish throughout the city and whose weathermen control the commerce. With the patriarch of the No Peak Clan drifting into grumpy senility and the ruthless Mountain Clan progressively ambitious, tensions are becoming increasingly strained within the city. With new drugs on the streets, foreign intervention, and the clans at each others' throats, Janloon is poised on the brink of chaos. 

The story follows the four family members at the top of the No Peak Clan: Kaul Lan, the cautious leader of the clan under the shadow of his formidable father; Kaul Hilo, the reckless Horn of the Green Bones; Kaul Anden, a precocious cousin trying to overcome his family's tragic history; and Shae, once a fearsome Green Bone warrior in her own right who renounced the family to live abroad and has now returned and is trying to start over as an ordinary jadeless citizen. With clan instability threatening all of Janloon, each member of the family is tested to their limit.

The story proceeds at a measured pace, fully fleshing out its main characters, from the certifiably crazy Hilo to the reckless yet analytic Shae. Anden's arc, in particular, is a wonderful setup for a sequel that I can't wait to get my hands on. If you're looking for constant adrenaline rushes and fight scenes, this probably isn't the book for you; to me, it sits more on the side of political intrigue and character development than rollercoaster ride. I think what stood out most to me was the worldbuilding, especially the parallels to our own history. The story takes place several decades after some sort of world war in which Kekon did not take part, but in which it was invaded by its neighbors. Now that it has opened its borders to foreigners, its culture and way of life is at risk by the insatiable greed of its industrialized neighbors. It's a surprisingly rich world, and one I can't wait to visit again. Count me in for the sequel!

~~I received an advanced reader copy of this ebook from the publisher, Orbit Books, in exchange for my honest (if terribly delayed!) review.~~ 

Cross-posted on Goodreads.

4 Stars
Prescient Timing
Al Franken, Giant of the Senate - Al Franken
Finished this about a week before "Al Franken, Infamous Groper" exploded across the news.

I've been vaguely interested in Al Franken because his name has been floated repeatedly as a potential 2020 Democratic presidential nominee, and as long as we're headed in the direction of political farce, there's something delicious about the idea of a 2020 election composed of "SNL" versus "The Apprentice."

I listened to this book on audio, and I have to say that if you plan on reading it, definitely go for audio. Al Franken does the narration, and I think a lot of the jokes just work better when he's reading them. Apart from anything else, his Mitch McConnell voice is hilarious. 

When I started the book, I excitedly told a friend who is from MN that I wanted their senator to be my president. As I actually started to delve in deeper, though, my opinion on the matter shifted. Part of it was the partisanship. Anyone who write a book called Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right is perhaps not the best person to bring the country together. But what impressed me more is that he genuinely seems to think that "Democrat" means inherently good and "Republican" means inherently evil, to the point that his plan to save America involves Democrats as supermajority in all branches of government. Anyone who has spent much time with my reviews probably knows where my political leanings are, but I don't think that DNC automatically makes you on the side of the good and the just.

But -- and again I feel quite smug about my prescience, and only wish I'd written this review two weeks ago-- one of my bigger complaints about him actually had to do with his treatment of women during the "Porn-o-rama" fiasco of his first run for office. If you weren't aware, Franken nearly lost the election because of a story that broke about an article he wrote for Playboy magazine called "Porn-o-rama" and featuring a certain amount of degradation of women. Oh, and the rape jokes he made during his time at SNL. Franken, after whining that the Republicans took his jokes out of context and put them through their industrial-strength "dehumorizer", defends himself with the argument that nothing--including rape--should be off-limits for comedy. And even when he talks about his apology for the "Porn-o-rama" thing, he doesn't seem to really get it. He talks about pacifying humorless feminists (TM) without really seeming to understand why anyone is upset. 

For the record, I am a humorless feminist. And even though the only side of the story I've heard is Franken's, I was totally unamused and unmollified by his "I'm sorry some people were offended"-type "apology," which is not actually an apology for his actions but rather a regret for our overreaction and too-tender feelings. So anyway, I ended up being vaguely irritated with Franken, all the more so because it seemed to me that he just didn't get it. You don't get to proclaim that you "respect women" and pull out your wife and daughter as exhibits A and B. You don't get to blame it all on context and Republican Dehumorizers. And you don't get to nominate yourself as Defender of Women. It's your actions--and history--that will decide that.

So, long story short, even though I did like him, I'd already given up on Franken as a nominee before this new story broke. From what I learned from his book, the idea of him groping an unconscious woman as a joke strikes me as entirely in character, as does his initial "I'm sorry you're a liar and you're making a big deal out of nothing"-style apology. As for his second apology, he did finally get one thing right: it doesn't matter what he remembers or what he intended. And I hope that this time, that lesson sinks in. 

It's a sad truth that much of comedy has been at the expense of women and often involves their objectification and degradation, and that rape culture has invaded almost every aspect of our society. Given the current environment and various dark hints, I'm genuinely betting on who will be the next to fall. I worry that prosecuting past non-criminal aggressions will stoke resentments and worsen the inevitable anti-feminist backlash. (Although if we keep pushing in this direction, we might find ourselves with an almost empty and almost entirely female congress, which would be kind of interesting.)

As for me, I've had "Well, he's never gon' be President now / That's one less thing to worry about" stuck in my head intermittently since I heard the news. I've had enough of presidential farce as it is.


4 Stars
Louise Thompson Patterson: A Life of Struggle for Justice
Louise Thompson Patterson: A Life of Struggle for Justice - Keith Gilyard
"Organizing is a fine art. I have worked at it all of my adult life."

Before picking up this book, I had never heard of Louise Thompson Patterson. Which is a shame, because she was an incredibly fascinating woman who influenced the movers and shakers of the Harlem Renaissance, the American Communist party, and the Civil Rights movement. Louise's story is an unlikely and amazing one, from her eclectic, peripatetic childhood, her tempestuous first marriage, to her struggles with her ability to "pass," her deep friendship with Langston Hughes and her bitter rivalry with Zora Neale Hurston, her leadership that brought together a collaboration with a Jewish organisation to fight for universal rights, her travels behind the Iron Curtain, and her lifelong loyalty to the Communist Party. The book is incredibly thorough and each page, often festooned with casual mentions of dozens of names, reads a bit like a Who's Who of the Harlem Renaissance-- which, unfortunately, would be more entertaining if I actually knew who was who. 

The book deftly describes Patterson's life, not only her virtues, but also uncompromisingly explores her flaws. Yet despite learning so much about her life, I am not sure I ever really understood what motivated her, and I absolutely failed to grasp her obstinate faith in the Soviet Union, even to the point of repeatedly switching sides as the Communist policy on the Nazis changed again and again. Perhaps most impressive of all was her ability to survive on a career in political organizing. Patterson was a fascinating complex woman who influenced generation upon generation of civil rights organizers. If you're curious about her life-- and are more well-versed in the history of the time than I am-- this book is well worth a read.

~~I received an advanced reader copy of this book through Netgalley from the publisher, Duke University Press, in exchange for my honest review.~~ 

Cross-posted on Goodreads.

2.5 Stars
The Dark Interest
The Dark Interest (The Dark Choir) (Volume 4) - J.P Sloan

I've been procrastinating on this review for months, to the point that I've even been avoiding BookLikes and Goodreads. No matter how it looks, I don't enjoy writing negative reviews, particularly of series that I previously enjoyed. I really wanted to like The Dark Interest. I've relished the rest of the series: I like the magic system that Sloan sets up, the affectionate familiarity with the city of Baltimore, and I even enjoy disliking jerkish antiheroic protagonist, Dorian. The series has routinely gone in directions I didn't experience, often leading to the tarnishing and darkening of Dorian's character. I've found it fun because it's so unexpected.

Sure, there were some rough elements, some moments that made me wince, particularly in the first book. But this book took it to a whole new level, and in ways that can't simply be dismissed as a jerkish protagonist's warped perspective. Fair warning: because some of my issues with the book are major aspects of the plot, there may be spoilers from here on out.

In recent years, Baltimore has been central in a nationwide struggle over race, police brutality, and equal justice. In 2015, following the death of Freddie Gray in police custody (and Tyrone West in 2013), the city erupted into mass protests that led to a declaration of emergency, enforced curfew, deployment of the National Guard, dozens of fires, and hundreds of arrests. For years afterwards, national news was riddled with stories of mass demonstration, civil unrest, and arrests of protesters. Despite it all, all six police officers associated with the tragedy were acquitted or had charges dropped against them. More recently, Baltimore police have been arrested for racketeering and caught on the bodycams they thought were turned off planting evidence to incriminate suspects. Long story short, like many cities in the US, a conversation on equal justice is an inescapable part of the reality of the city. 

In The Dark Interest, Sloan brings up that conversation, but in the most tonedeaf way imaginable. A riot erupts when the story starts, and Dorian being Dorian, his major concern is whether his restaurant will be destroyed or whether the riots will generate "a vibrant dinner rush." . Much of the subsequent plot involves the Baltimore riots, without ever quite saying as much. More specifically, he appropriates them as a plot point and attributes the anger to supernatural forces:

"Even though all of this was very real, this uprising wasn't a natural process. Long in coming though it may have been, this violence was engineered. Angry, ancient forces were pushing this city over a tipping point it might not pull back from."
"That's what this Summer of Blood is all about. Don't you see it? They're cranking up the heat."

I'm generally uncomfortable with this sort of twisting and belittling of history, but when the wounds are still so raw and the struggle is still ongoing? There are tragedies it is utterly unacceptable to appropriate, conflicts that it is repugnant to twist and debase and minimize and devalue. America's current conversation about race and justice is one of them.

The problems with this book don't stop there. Much of the story involves the "Jokomo Gang," a Black gang from New Orleans "displaced by Hurricane Katrina" . The members are described as "into drugs and guns" . Their brand of magic is described by Dorian as follows:

"It's not African voudou. It's Louisiana flavor, which blends lots of horrible shit from the Catholic Church, Santeria, and basically anything else the Dark Choir decided to toss into that gumbo pot."

The practitioners are termed

"Reckless dabblers. They stir up primal beings that rage unrestrained and unstewarded into our world."

The leader, Lasalle, is called a "wannabe crime lord" "a hoodlum" "an outright criminal" , and the "lead thug" . Lasalle is portrayed as a slow-witted, surly, angry, immature Black man who Dorian actually castigates a "acting like a child." Just in case you're in any doubt about the dog whistles going on here, Dorian later casually accuses the gang of "Get[ting] their free ride in Baltimore." 

When the gang confronts Dorian, questioning him about his recent actions, the "good cop" protagonist appears to "save" Dorian by harassing and belittling them without apparent cause, going so far as to refer to them as "boys": "You boys raising a ruckus out here?" If you don't understand why referring to African-American men as "boys" is toothclenchingly offensive, I'm happy to point you to some references. But in the book, this is portrayed as a heroic rescue against a gang of "your basic street thug[s]" . At another point, Dorian ends up in a police station and assumes that everyone else behind bars-- all African-American-- are "probably wondering what a man like me was up to in a police station." (emphasis mine).

Things began less than optimally when Dorian stops a kid--poor and African-American, naturally-- from committing a theft, and they have a conversation in the author's attempt at dialect. It went downhill from there. I was mystified when Dorian jumped to the conclusion that the kid from the intro was running with the Jokomos-- the only thing I can imagine is he assumes all Black kids are muggers and gang members and all of "them" stick together. There is absolutely no other reason to think that. And of course, naturally, a Black kid is the mugger. Of course, there were other things that pissed me off about the book. Dorian has always been a jerk, and his level of jerkhood in this book is over the top. He decides he deserves to run the city because he can trust no one else. He has no principles other than self-preservation. He decides that he "had to betray Choi" to save himself. Why not just take consequences for his own actions rather than destroying someone else's life? At the very least, he shouldn't pretend he was forced into that choice-- he could have chosen to accept responsibility.

(show spoiler)

I wanted to like this book. I really did. And actually, even though it infuriated me, I found it interesting to explore the perspective of a character so imbued with white privilege that his only thought during a mass protest against police brutality is whether he'll get a dinner rush. But what I have real trouble with is the unexamined nature of much of the prejudice; the thoughtless, caustic nature of the white privilege that imbues it. 

Maybe if you understand what this book is going in, you can get past all this, but I couldn't. That doesn't mean I won't give the next book a try; I'm constantly fascinated by how far down Dorian can be dragged, and the ending is a zinger.

Okay, that's all from me. At least now you know why I've been procrastinating and avoiding Goodreads for these last few months.

~~I received this ebook through Netgalley from the publisher, Curiosity Quills Press, in exchange for my (depressingly) honest review. Quotes were taken from an advanced reader copy and while they may not reflect the final phrasing, I believe they speak to the spirit of the novel as a whole.~~ 

Cross-posted on Goodreads.

3 Stars
The Uploaded
The Uploaded - Ferrett Steinmetz

For Amichai and the rest of his world, it isn't this life that matters, but the Upterlife. In Steinmetz' near-future portrayal, the world has been transformed by a technology that uploads the minds of the dead into an eternal afterlife of quests and games and challenges and happiness. The living--those not wiped out by epidemics, plagues, and decreased life expectancy-- do the drudgework necessary to maintain the server farms while dreaming of their deaths and their Upterlives. Amichai has grown up in an orphanage, but his love of pranks and his interest in programming--banned for the living-- have put him at risk of losing his place in the Upterlife. When he is caught during his most recent prank involving a pony in a nursinghome, he finds himself at the start of a journey that uncovers the darkest secrets of the Upterlife and the living world that remains.

I absolutely adored Steinmetz' previous series, Flex , but unfortunately, Uploaded just didn't really work for me. I was fascinated by the world, which reminded me a bit of an Egan novel. As someone who has always been terrified by the concept of eternity, I am always intrigued by the idea of uploaded consciousnesses. As a programmer, I also was amused at the idea of programming being forbidden. However, all of the characters, including Amichai, felt one-dimensional and unsympathetic to me. We have the "Hero Geek," the "Best Friend," the "Best Friend's Hot Sister," and the "Beautiful Dangerous Cultist." I think the book is somewhat held back by its stereotypes: the young female characters that are controlled by their sexuality, the odd comments about Judaism, the "Magical Negro" vibe of the one African-American character, and the whole "NeoChristian" thing. One of the greatest strengths of speculative fiction is that you can use worldbuilding to create a complex metaphor to explore real world issues. So why create an obsessive, backward, death-worshipping cult and call it "Christian"? The use of that tired portrayal of Christianity is a bit of a pity because I found some of the commentary quite thoughtful, such as:

"Something in her needed to believe the world was like a bank-- you deposited in kindness and got it all back in the end."

It would be much more effective if separated from tired tropes.

I thought the problematic portrayal was exemplified by the "happy ending," where the NeoChristians are shoved off into reservations in New Mexico. 

(show spoiler)

Overall, while the ideas of the novel are fascinating, the execution just didn't quite work for me. It could be that I'm just not the target audience-- I'm not a gamer and may simply have failed to recognize a lot of the in-jokes. While this didn't really hurt my enjoyment of Flex , I may simply have failed to "get" Uploaded.. I generally love quirky programming-imbued scifi, but this just doesn't quite have the insider geekery of Stross or Pratchett. If you're already a fan, then this is probably worth a try, but if you're new to Steinmetz as an author, I'd definitely recommend Flex as your first venture into Steinmetz' work.

I received an advanced reader copy of this ebook through Netgalley from the publisher, Angry Robot Books, in exchange for my (depressingly) honest review. 

~~Cross-posted on Goodreads.~~

Killing is my Business
Killing Is My Business (Ray Electromatic Mysteries) - Adam Christopher

As a huge fan of both hardboiled/noir and science fiction, Adam Christopher's Ray Electromatic series has been a guaranteed hit with me. Raymond (get it?) is the last of the robots from an aborted attempt to replace various public sector jobs with a silicon workforce. Still supposedly with the "Electromatic Detective Agency," his programming has been altered by the amoral supercomputer Ada (get it?) to transform him into a robotic killer-for-hire. Every twenty-four hours, his magnetic tapes run out and his entire memory is removed and wiped clean. Any book involving a robot running around in a trenchcoat and trying to solve a hardboiled mystery pastiche is bound to go over well with me, and Killing is my Business is no exception. This story, which involves a mafia boss, a mad scientist, government agents, and secret plots galore, is as entertaining as it is wacky and engrossing.


One of the things that makes this series so unique is the tension between Ray's hitman programming and his innate desire to be a good detective. He is simultaneously brutal and naive, and the longer he goes before his memory is erased, the more human he becomes. Then there's the tension and hope as his clock runs out, and the sudden shock of the newly-hard, cold, memory-erased Ray. it's a very unique take on the "tarnished knight" and chiaroscuro aspects of hardboiled detective fiction and noir. If any of this sounds intriguing, then the Ray Electromatic series is well worth a look.


~~I received an advanced reader copy of this ebook through Netgalley from the publisher, Tor Books, in exchange for my honest review. Thanks!~~


Cross-posted on Goodreads.

3.5 Stars
Perspective in Action
Perspective in Action: Creative Exercises for Depicting Spatial Representation from the Renaissance to the Digital Age - David Chelsea

As someone who dabbles in sketching and drawing, I'm always interested in improving my knowledge, especially in areas where I'm particularly weak such as figure drawing and perspective. I was therefore thrilled to have the opportunity to read David Chelsea's Perspective in Action. The most interesting aspect of the book, in my opinion, is the style. Almost the entire book is actually written in comic book style, with each frame helping to demonstrate various techniques and rules. Unfortunately, I think the book was a bit too advanced for me.

The author notes that this is the third in a series, and it does start with the assumption that the reader has mastered--or at least is cognizant of-- the techniques in the first two books. It begins with a review of one-point, two-point, and three-point perspective that were a bit too fast for me to follow, and it only gets more advanced from there. The book discusses advanced techniques and applications such as the camera obscura, anamorphosis, cabinets of wonder, and six-point and stereo perspectives. As a non comic book reader, I didn't have the easiest time following frame by frame, but I definitely enjoyed the read, and even got rather sidelined into watching videos of the Ames Illusion on youtube. If you're already knowledgeable about the basics of perspective and are looking for more advanced techniques, then this book is definitely worth a look.

~~I received an advanced reader copy of this ebook through Netgalley from the publisher, Ten Speed Press/Watson-Guptill, in exchange for my honest review.~~

Cross-posted on Goodreads.

The Perils of Typos

Every time I type "cross-posted at BookLikes" on a review, I get a bit worried that I'm going to miss the second "k." Anyone else ever worry about that?

4.5 Stars
The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year: Volume Eleven
The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year, Volume Eleven - Joe Abercrombie, N.K. Jemisin, Ken Liu, Jonathan Strahan

2016 may not have been a barrel of laughs, but it did produce some quality scifi and fantasy. As always, I found Jonathan Strahan's collection to be vivid, varied, and thought-provoking. In his introduction, Strahan comments on the absence of general themes, other than a preponderance of climate-change-related dystopias. I was initially struck by how free these stories are of themes of authoritarianism, populism, isolationism, and bubbles, but of course, most of them were written before Brexit, the US election, or the rising tide of populist movements around the world. Even so, I saw a few common themes: stretching the definition of humanity, irrevocability of change,  viewing ourselves as monsters, and feminism, as well as a series of folklore retellings whose themes are less easy to categorize.


I adore everything that Yoon Ha Lee writes, and "Foxfire, Foxfire" is no exception. Easily one of my favourite stories in the collection, the story is narrated by a gumiho who seeks to be human and is one death away from the one hundred murders he must commit to achieve his goal. It takes place in a rich world of endless mechanized warfare between a monarchy and rebel parliamentarians, complete with the giant war machines called Cataphracts, tiger sages, and the small gods whose energies power the world. The story explores the definition of humanity and uses the metaphor of the gumiho to express the sense of not quite fitting in either world and of seeking a form to fit one's soul.


Several other stories also stretched the definition of humanity. Paolo Bacigalupi's "Mika Model" is a short vignette in which a sexbot turns herself in for the murder of her owne. If she is a murderer rather than a defective machine, then she is also a person, and who is to be held responsible for her enslavement and torture? While I'm not normally a fan of Sherlock Holmes retellings, Delia Sherman's "The Great Detective" was an exception: I thoroughly enjoyed the steampunk worldbuilding, the Illogic Engines and Reasoning Machines, and even the sly mentions of beekeeping. "Everyone from Themis Sends Letters Home" by Genevieve Valentine is a trippy story about the lasting effects of virtual reality, experimentation without consent, and a world that is literally what you make of it. "Terminal" by Lavie Tidhar deals with the titular word in two senses. It is about terminally-ill colonists making a one-way space voyage to a new world. Dreamy and philosophical, it explores what it means to be human through short vignettes of those who choose to make the voyage. The last of the stories exploring this theme, and by far the creepiest, is Carolyn Ives Gilman's "Touring with the Alien", where the protagonist finds herself acting as the bus driver to an alien and its once-human translator. I saw it as a horror story made all the creepier by the protagonist's inability to see it as such, and it definitely opens up questions about helper species and the definition of humanity and consciousness.


Another popular theme was the story that reveals the apparent protagonists as villain or monster. My favourite from this horror-tinged genre was, as usual, Alice Sola Kim. Her "Successor, Usurper, Replacement" is about a group of want-to-be writers writers who meet on a night where "the beast" has been sighted in their area. In the midst of a thunderstorm, a mysterious girl turns up at the door. It is deliciously creepy and comedic, made all the more vivid by her ironic, informal writing style. In Sam J. Miller's "Things with Beards," the monsters are both literal and figurative, from alien beasts trapped in ice to family members who casually spew hatred:

"The horror of human hatred-- how such marvelous people, whom he loves so dearly, contain such monstrosity inside of them."

I loved how he used the horror elements as a metaphor for social commentary:

"Maturity means making peace with how we are monsters."

Seth Dickinson's "Laws of Night and Silk" is radically different, a high-fantasy story about an endless war between rival countries, where each side sacrifices its children to stamp out the evil of the other. It is poignant and thought-provoking and begs the question of what war makes of us. "Spinning SIlver" by Naomi Novik tells the tale of a Jewish moneylender who gets caught up in fairy tale when her boast about turning silver into gold is taken literally. The most interesting aspect to me was the way that the protagonist floats between the protagonist and villain of the story. The narrator of Caitlin R. Kiernan's "Whisper Road (Murder Ballad No. 9)" is an unabashed villain, and the story is both colorful and gruesome. Similarly, Rich Larson's "You Make Pattaya" is an entertainingly twisty heist story that is told from the perspective of the thief and takes place in a near-future Thailand.


Strahan notes that many of the stories deal with the impact of global warming, but I saw a broader theme: the irrevocable consequences of our actions and the irreversibility of change. For me, the most memorable such story was "The Future is Blue" by Catherynne M. Valente. The story takes place on a world irrevocably changed by global warming, where survivors live on islands of garbage in a rising sea and want to bring back a past that lives on only in myth and folklore. It is gritty and vivid and twisted and entertaining, with Valente's trademark disturbing notes. Aliette de Botard's "A Salvaging of Ghosts" is a gorgeous, haunting story about a space crew who salvage the remnants of other voyagers, transmuted into precious strings of "gems" of memory and experience, in the weird expanses of deep space. The protagonist is on a quest to very literally recapture her lost daughter's memory through the gems that are all that remains of her. Paul McAuley's "Elves of Antarctica" is a far more straightforward take on the theme. It takes place on a nearly ice-free future antarctic where refugees from the drowned world come to eke out a living. The protagonist becomes fascinated with rune-inscribed "elf stones" and the idea of primacy, that the land will eventually return to its pre-human state when global warming is reversed. A story about change and permanence from a different angle is Alex Irvine's adventure story, "Number Nine Moon"where a group of scavengers are left stranded after the Earth turns from exploration to isolation and cuts support for the Mars base. Nina Allan's "The Art of Space Travel" also takes place in the near future, but the issues the protagonist faces feel very familiar. The protagonist works at a hotel where a group of astronauts are due to stay before heading off to Mars. It is about change, but also about parents, about irresponsible actions and responsibility for the consequences. "The Visitor from Taured" by Ian  R. MacLeod is told by a rare student of Analogue Literature--ie, physical books-- in a future where everything has been transmuted into the virtual. Testing the line between virtual and physical, it also explores the idea of alternate timelines, yet another way of changing the unchangeable past. Last, Ken Liu's "Seven Birthdays" is perhaps the most explicit story on this theme. Imaginative yet ponderous, it follows a girl's birthday in powers of seven, testing the boundaries of human and machine and exploring the long-term impact of easy solutions and the human desire to restore what is lost.


A surprising fraction of the stories took the theme of feminism head-on, executed with varying levels of skill. My favourite of the stories with this theme was "Seasons of Glass and Iron" by Amal El Mohtar", a lovely blending of several fairy tales, primarily "The Enchanted Pig," where a woman who betrays her shape-changing husband must wear out seven pairs of iron shoes to get him back, and "The Glass Hill," where a beautiful princess is placed upon the top of a glass mountain and the prince who scales the summit wins her hand in marriage. With lyrical writing and a rather beautiful little love story, El Mohtar explores the double standards and abuse that make the backbone of fairy tales:

"She recalls shoes her brothers have worn: a pair of seven-league boots, tooled leather; winged sandals; satin slippers that turned one invisible. How strange, she thinks, that her brothers had shoes that lightened the world, made it small and easy to explore, discover. [...] Perhaps, she thinks, what's strange is the shoes women are made to wear: shoes of glass; shoes of paper; shoes of iron heated red-hot; shoes to dance to death in.

How strange, she thinks, and walks."

The rest of these feminist stories struck me as rather less well-executed, and most also failed the Bechdel test. "The Witch of Orion Waste and the Boy Knight" by E. Lily Yu starts as a rather generic fairy tale about a witch and a knight who brings her on his dragon-slaying quest. The themes were interesting, but I think the message was rather muddled by attempts to explain abusive sexism and by the femme-fatale characterization of the only other female character. I'm not a huge fan of Joe Abercrombie, and sadly, "Two's Company" was no exception. What with the Amazonian warrior traveling with another female until they meet up with a Conan-the-barbarian sort, it's a bawdy, comical tale of warrior-man-versus-warrior-woman, and I feel like that theme got beat to death in the 1960s. Easily my least favourite story in the collection was Geoff Ryman's superficially feminist story, "Those Shadows Laugh." In the story, the Taino women, aka Colinas, are asexual and reproduce through parthenogenesis. Of course, they are universally obsessed with babies--women, naturally!-- and are technologically backward and require the aid--and tourist dollars-- of the "normals." The story is supposedly narrated by a woman, but the possessive male gaze is so strong that I had to keep checking the narrator's supposed gender. I found his alternate history despicable: it is the lessening of a society where women had significant agency into a people he so clearly sees as inhuman, as though lack of sexual desire makes them something "other." But naturally, how would you get a matriarchal society unless you eliminate the men? (Eyeroll.) I admit this struck a nerve, and maybe it will work better for other readers.


Twisted fairy tales seemed to be a favourite this year. Like many of the stories already mentioned, Alyssa Wong's "You'll Surely Drown Here If You Stay" is a wild fairytale retelling, in this case a bizarre spin on "Cinderella" that takes place in a dusty American Western town that becomes a battleground between the clash of cultures and demigods, life and death. As always, Wong's writing is gorgeously, vividly lyrical. "Red Dirt WItch" by N.K. Jemisin takes place in Alabama during the Civil Rights era, when a fairy queen comes after a local healer and her children. Jemisin turns the fairy kidnapping into a vivid portrait of everyday savage racism and a clear-eyed yet hopeful exploration of civil rights. Daryl Gregory's psychadelic "Even the Crumbs were Delicious" takes place in the world of Afterparty and as with the latter, there are a lot of drugs involved; in fact, the walls are papered with them. It is an odd, comedic, hallucinogenically twisted take on "Hansel and Gretel." "Red as Blood and White as Bone" by Theodora Gos is a story about stories, told by a maid who longs to be in a fairy tale. When a mysterious stranger falls through the door during a snowstorm, the narrator assumes a prince-meets-princess-at-the-ball ending, while the reader is conscious of a wholly different story at work. Possibly my favourite of the fairytale retellings was Charles Yu's "Fable", the last story in the collection. It is a sharp-edged, self-aware tale of a man asked by his therapist to tell his life story in the form of a fable. So he starts again and again, and his own story is slowly revealed in all its pathos and humanity:

"Once upon a time, there was an angry guy, who hated the story he was in."

Yet again, Strahan put together a wonderfully diverse collection. No matter your taste in stories, you're bound to find something of interest in his "Year's Best" collection, and as for the rest, speculative fiction is all about expanding your horizons. If you're looking for a new author or just a new viewpoint, his "Year's Best" collections are well worth a look.


~~I received an advanced reader copy of this ebook through Netgalley from the publisher, Rebellion/Solaris, in exchange for my honest review. Thanks!~~


Cross-posted on Goodreads.

4 Stars
Mightier than the Sword
Mightier than the Sword - Vincent Chong, K.J. Parker

"Do you have to make a lot of decisions like that? I suppose you must do."
"All the time," I said. "And each one is truly bad. All that can be said for them is that the alternatives are even worse."

K.J. Parker is at his best in the novella, and, as always, I was captivated by the sharp wit and darkly ironic humor as well as the satirical worldbuilding and characters and finished the novella in a single reading session. Parker reminds me a bit of Wodehouse in the way he builds sympathy with the narrator through a chattering first-person narration. In this case, our narrator is an officer in a Rome-like empire whose ruling faction is beset by murderous intrigue-- think the Julio-Claudian era -- while also squabbling with and/or conquering its neighbors. In recent years, the empire has fallen prey to attacks by a mysterious unknown enemy with unknown goals and desires, and this enemy's ships have been seen again.
Capitulating to the orders of the emperor's wife--who also happens to be his aunt--our narrator sets off to help the various abbeys and monasteries to help shore up their defenses against the mysterious invaders.

While I think Parker is very gifted in characterization, he's not big on character development, which is one reason I so prefer his short fiction. In this case, we get plenty of time to get to know the narrator and his compatriots, including his romantic interest, without feeling stifled by the characers' staticness. The most rounded character, partially because the story is told in his voice, is the narrator himself. I found him highly sympathetic, a realist yet an optimist who is fond of books and sees himself as a coward despite his insistence on leading from the front.

The only thing that really bothered me about him was how he seems to hold his wife's inability to have children against her, as if she should have provided a disclaimer before accepting his desperate proposal.

(show spoiler)

As always, the story is a satire, and chock-full of quotable quotes. For example:

"Does it say something about the nature of the beast called Empire? The idea is that Empire protects the towns and villages and little farms from the enemy, and in order to do so recruits soldiers, so that the towns and villages and little farms won’t be laid waste, and grass won’t grow in abandoned streets and good productive land won’t be smothered in weeds and briars. But if the act of protection brings about the destruction it was designed to prevent— well. I’m not a trained philosopher, so I’m not qualified to comment."

If you're looking for a short, enjoyable novella with more than a tang of satire, then Mightier than the Sword is well worth a look.

~~I received this ebook through Netgalley from the publisher, Subterranean Press, in exchange for my honest review. Quotes were taken from an advanced reader copy and while they may not reflect the final phrasing, I believe they speak to the spirit of the novella as a whole.~~

Cross-posted on Goodreads

3 Stars
Origins of Totalitarianism
The Origins of Totalitarianism - Hannah Arendt

This wasn't what I'd hoped it would be, but I think the fault was probably my expectations rather than the book itself. I'm not much for philosophy; I much prefer history. I was hoping for a thorough, fact-driven analysis of the various totalitarian regimes throughout history, determining key characteristics and similarities. Instead, it's a philosophical treatise on Arendt's view of how the Jews became the scapegoats and how Nazi Germany gained power. Fully one-third of the book is taken up with Arendt's analysis of the rise of antisemitism in Europe. The rest involves grandiose oft-repeated axioms based entirely on Nazi Germany. It talks about the importance of a key central figure and an isolating ideology that includes a sense of exceptionalism, etc, etc, but I can't say I feel much more enlightened now that I've finally (finally!) finished it. And maybe there's a stylistic thing, too-- to me, it felt like her grand assertions were stated over and over, and despite the book's length, there was precious little hard evidence to back them up.

The most intriguing part of the story isn't even told in this book: for all of her stony detachment when talking about antisemitism and Hitler and the rise of the Nazis, Arendt was herself a German Jew who escaped to America. I think I would have found her philosophizing far more powerful if she'd allowed a bit of the human element to seep through.

All in all, while I'm relieved to have finished it, I'm glad I picked it up in the first place. While I found it a dry read, it was still an interesting one, such as her comparison of authoritarian and totalitarian regimes and her assertion that autocratic regimes seek to repress opposition while the core goal of totalitarian regimes is domination and control. While it wasn't a great fit for me, I'm sure it's a phenomenal book if you're a fan of philosophy and have an attention span that's a mile longer than mine.

3.5 Stars
Foundations of Drawing
Foundations of Drawing: A Practical Guide to Art History, Tools, Techniques, and Styles - Al Gury

I picked up Foundations of Drawing because I've always enjoyed casual doodling and am always interested in opportunites to improve my techniques. Foundations is a gorgeous book, with carefully chosen illustrations at least every other page. However, don't go into the book looking to learn basic drawing skills or improve your techniques. At its core, I think this is more of an art history/ art appreciation book. Only the last twenty pages or so, which are very high-level "walkthroughs" of still lives, portraits, figure studies, etc, were much in the direction of artistic instruction. The majority of the book delves deeply into the history of different materials and techniques as well as discussing various artistic schools and styles. While I didn't really learn anything to improve my art, I did learn a lot, from new artistic terms such as sfumato to the effects of different papers and brush materials. If you're interested in the history and logistics of art, or if you want a coffee table book full of gorgeous and thoughtfully-chosen artwork, then Foundations of Drawing may be worth a look.

~~I received an advanced reader copy of this ebook from the publisher, Ten Speed Press, in exchange for my honest review.~~

Cross-posted on Goodreads.
5 Stars
"In what universe was keeping an insane undead general as an attack dog a good idea?"
Raven Stratagem - Yoon Ha Lee

Raven Stratagem

by Yoon Ha Lee



Ninefox Gambit was one of the best books I read in 2016. Raven Stratagem might be even better. This whole series is utterly, gloriously, astoundingly brilliant.

Welcome to the world of the hexarchate, where total participation in rigid ritual not only keeps control of the population; it also warps the topology of reality to create "exotic effects" that keeps the hexarchate in power. The hexarchate is ruled by six factions: the Rahal, who make the rules; the Vidona, who enforce them with torture; the Andan, who control the culture; the Nirai, who provide mathematical and scientific technology; the Shuos, who act as spies, assassins, and bureaucrats; and the Kel, who are the military wing of the hexarchate. All but the Shuos depend upon an exotic effect to remain in power, from Rahal scrying and mindreading to the Nirai spacefaring mothdrive to the overwhelmingly powerful Kel military formations. Heretics are therefore a tangible, literal threat to the hexarchate: not only do they threaten to disrupt the loyalty of the populus; they also weaken the hexarchate's exotic effects that drive the hexarchate's technology, military, and society.

Raven Stratagem starts where Ninefox Gambit leaves off. It introduces a cast of highly empathetic characters and explores the perspectives of several of the antagonists of the previous book. The story also expands its powerful exploration of gender fluidity. While the last book was told almost entirely from the Kel perspective, Raven Stratagem provides quite a bit more of the Shuos and even the Nirai perspectives. Our previous Shuos experience was almost entirely limited to the crazy undead mass-murdering General Shuos Jedao, who is occasionally let out of his immortal unrest in the Black Cradle to possess a Kel "volunteer" and use his scheming brain to win their wars. I adore the Shuos; it turns out they're not just assassins and spies; they're also the bureaucrats and administrators because

"A properly guided bureaucracy is deadlier than any bomb."

The Shuos are renowned for turning everything into a game and are charmingly unexpected; for instance, the leader of the Shuos faction has a tendency of knitting during scheming sessions.

As with Ninefox Gambit, one of the main themes of the novel was agency. Kel are imbued with "formation instinct" that irresistibly compels them to unquestioningly obey their superiors. The few "crashhawks" with weak formation instinct are constantly under suspicion by their superiors because they can choose not to obey. The hexarchs are increasingly out of touch, off planning new sadistic "remembrances" and chasing immortality even as their people are being invaded by the savage Hafn. As one character thinks:

"At some point you had to ask yourself how much legitimacy any government had that feared dissension within more than invasion without."

The world of the hexarchate is brutal and unfeeling, the people kept under martial law and in constant fear of the Vidona. But overthrowing the hexarch also means destroying all of the technology built upon its exotic effects, and what if it is replaced with something even worse? As one character says:

"You know what? It is a shitty system. We have a whole faction devoted to torturing people so the rest of us can pretend we're not involved. Too bad every other system of government out there is even worse. [...] If you have some working alternative for the world we're stuck in, by all means show it to us without spelling it in corpses."

There are a lot of thought-provoking themes in Raven Stratagem, but they don't get in the way of the character development or the action. I was utterly captivated by the story's twists and turns, and I'm only a little ashamed to admit that I fell for one of them.

[Initially, I'd assumed that Cheris was in charge and playing Jedao, bolstered by their obvious care for the servitors, but as the story proceeded and they did things like enslave the Kel and let the Mwennan die without blinking and use a program for simple mathematical calculations, I began to wonder if the Jedao part had eaten the Cheris part. At some point, I lost sight of the title--"Raven" stratagem clearly points to a scheming Cheris. I'm impressed that the book got me to lose faith while still making the big reveal feel utterly natural. Bravo!]

(show spoiler)

If you were a bit overwhelmed by Ninefox, then you'll be relieved to hear that Raven is much less math-heavy, focusing more on characters and worldbuilding. We get a view of the inner workings of the hexarch from Shuos Mikodez, we finally get a glimpse of the mysterious and somewhat horrifying Hafn, and the ending is utterly satisfying while leaving me desperate for more. I absolutely cannot wait to get back to the world of the hexarchate.

Yours in calendrical heresy,

~~I received this ebook through Netgalley from the publisher, Rebellion/Solaris, in exchange for my honest review. Thank you! Quotes were taken from an advanced reader copy and while they may not reflect the final phrasing, I believe they speak to the spirit of the novel as a whole.~~

Cross-posted on BookLikes.

4 Stars
All Good Things
All Good Things - Emma Newman

I a stalwart fan of Emma Newman through her powerful work, Planetside. Although the tone and plot of the Split Worlds series are very different, I loved them all, devouring the previous four books in less than one week. After waiting for the final book for almost a year, I found it a satisfying conclusion to the series. As with the previous books in the series, All Good Things deals heavily with themes of feminism, environmentalism, agency, and responsibility.


This book is the completion of a long story arc, and I don't believe it should be read without the rest of the series. All of the characters from previous books have returned. As always, I wasn't quite sure if I actually liked Cathy, the major protagonist of the series and the is the driving force of the story. Cathy is a fierce feminist who wants to bring change to the changeless Nether world, but to me it feels like she is driven by a selfish, myopic ideology that often stops her from seeing the harm her actions inflict on others. This selfishness is examined in the novel: Cathy seeks to bring dramatic change, and this is bound to have negative impacts on others. What right does she have to make these types of decisions for so many others? As one character puts it:

"To create change, to disrupt a system of control, one must carry out radcal acts. One must be prepared to destroy so that something new can be created. Those in control will never give up the power afforded to them voluntarily. It must be taken. If that requires the deaths of a few to give freedom to the many-- and survival of the many--then so be it. This is not a gentle act."

But who has the right to decide to make that sacrifice? Does having the power to carry out the act give you the right to do so?


Fortunately, the other characters-- Sam, Lucy, Kay, and the gargoyle -- are more sympathetic. However, there's a big "anyone can die" and "anyone can betray" vibe in the novel. There is no easy division into protagonists and antagonists in the novel: everyone is driven by their own motivations and secret loyalties. Because of this, there have been many different antagonists in the story, with protagonists easily morphing into enemies. Sometimes, the changes felt too facile to me, the deaths of characters too superficial, the betrayals too unrooted. I particularly disliked how anticlimactic some of the dismissals of characters we've grown to care about throughout the series were, and how easily the characters were forgotten and set aside.

For all the strong feminist themes of the novels, if you look at who dies or is forgotten, you'll see an impressive number of women. Bea's death was simply pathetic. Kay got refrigeratored, something I find particularly hard to stomach from an overtly feminist series. But it's Lucy I found most troubling. She has been such a strong character throughout the series. To have her thrown away and forgotten because of an out-of-character and clumsy betrayal in which she became the pawn of a man? Not good. For me, the saving grace of the novel was that Will was revealed as the absolute villain of the piece. I was worried throughout that his rape and control would be seen as "extreme love" and that he would end up as the protagonist, as is so often the case in urban fantasy romance novels. As Cathy notes, rape is rape, and it should not be whitewashed.

(show spoiler)

At the same time, I loved some of the twists of All Good Things: one of my favourite aspects of the book is how antagonists morph into allies and how an abrupt twist brought the one true villain of the series into sharp relief.


At its core, the novel is all about control and ownership and responsibility, and however surprising the ending, I found All Good Things a satisfying end to the series. If you've read the other Split Worlds books, I don't need to tell you about this book because you're going to read it anyway. As for me, I can't wait to see what Emma Newman has in store for her readers next.


~~I received an advanced reader copy of this ebook through Netgalley from the publisher, Diversion Books, in exchange for my honest review.~~


Cross-posted on Goodreads.

"Why clutter a perfectly bad melodrama with logic and plausibility?"
Gun in Cheek - Bill Pronzini

Gun in Cheek

by Bill Pronzini


If you're a mystery reader and a fan of "so bad it's good," then Gun In Cheek is the book for you. It's pretty much MST3K (Mystery Science Theater 3000) for detective fiction. As any mystery reader knows, mysteries are extremely formulaic, with a special formula for each subgenre, from classic golden-age to cozy to gothic to hardboiled to spy fiction. With a good mystery, the formula is satisfying and any deviations are intriguing. With bad mysteries, the results can be utterly hilarious. Pronzini has coined a great term for these wonderfully terrible works: "alternative classic." Given that this book was first published before I was born, he invented the phrase long before "alternative facts" came along.

So what makes a good "alternative classic"? Part of it is the writing. Some of my favourites, starting with one from the editor himself:

"When would this phantasmagoria that was all too real reality end? He asked himself."
Bill Pronzini, The Stalker

"Her hips were beautifully arched and her breasts were like proud flags waving triumphantly. She carried them high and mighty."
Ed Noon, The Case of the Violent Virgin

"A hint of excitement hovered around Miss Kane, looking well in an afternoon frock and explaining that she had obtained a weekend leave and was looking forward to the party."
R.A.J. Walling, The Corpse Without a Clue

"All in the same motion, he snap-kicked the man in the right armpit! The knife clattered to the floor as Mace finished the slob off with a mule-kick to his scrotum. Looking like a goof who had just discovered that ice-cream cones are hollow, the man sagged to the floor."
Joseph Rosenberger, Kung Fu: The Year of the Tiger

"The old woman's breasts were balanced over her folded hands like the loaded scales of justice waiting for her final judgment."
Leslie Paige, Queen of Hearts

"Hope flared in her dark eyes as she grabbed the rope I had tossed to her drowning brain."
Naked Villainy, Carl G. Hodges

And consider this eloquent bit of dialogue:

"'Dan Turner squalling,' I yeeped. 'Flag your diapers to Sylvia Hempstead's igloo. There's been a croaking.'"
Robert Leslie Bellem, "Come Die for Me"

Attempts at introspection are also a great way to achieve an alternative classic. Take this epic bit of impending doom:

"When it had settled itself, unperceived, in its lurking place--the Hand stole out again--closed the window-door, re-locked it.
Hand or claw? Hand of man or woman or paw of beast? In the name of God--whose hand?"
Mary Roberts Rinehart, The Bat

And how's this for the start of a gothic?

"I know now that there must have been a touch of madness in me that raw October night as I went to Cemetery Key and the house of horror known as Stormhaven."
Jennifer Hale, Stormhaven

And there's a special way for detective fiction to achieve Alternative Classic status: the mysteries themselves. Sometimes it's a convoluted, incoherent mystery with a climax disturbingly similar to:

From bugged belly-buttons to murder by fire-extinguisher-nozzle-foam-in-ear to murder by embarrassment, there is an impressive variety of ridiculous creativity in the collection. I can't decide whether I prefer the man who becomes an evil avenger because he's so upset he went bald or the archaeologist who went bald and now wanders around in gloopy mud. There are the Death Rays, and Giant V-Rays, and "Crime Rays," and probably a few other rays I forgot about. (And yes, here's the obligatory M&W sketch.)

There are "blood-sucking, man-eating" bushes, a man born with the head of a wolf, and a half-spider half-octopus monster called the Red Crawl which turns out (naturally) to be a man in a costume and a mask. There are vampires who, when unmasked, prove to be costumed people complete with a vampire bat that is actually a "tiny monoplane" whose engine is "fitted with a silencer" that flies around "with the wheels tucked up inside the fuselage." But my favourite has to be the octopi. There are actually multiple stories involving a death-pit of octopi, which, we are told, are

"The world's most awful bundle of awfulness, a writhing, squirming mass of hell-fury, attaching itself to its victim with four hundred vacuum cups on its eight snaky legs [...] in short, it is the monster-supreme of earth or sea or Hell."

Tom Roan, The Dragon Strikes Back

I thoroughly enjoyed the book, but I will say that I'm not sure Pronzini necessarily gives the writers credit. While it made them no less entertaining to read, quite a few of the stories struck me as intentional parody, such as Joseph Rosenberger's confrontation in a warehouse filled with "Musical Panda Dolls" between the protagonist--named the Death Merchant--and a killer. I thoroughly enjoyed it all, but I did read it in small doses-- you can only take so much "alternative classic" at a time. If any of this sounded entertaining to you, I can promise that Gun in Cheek has more where it came from. Take the opportunity to savor, down to the last bugged belly-button and twenty-pound attack octopi.


~~I received this ebook through Netgalley from the publisher, Dover Publications, in exchange for my honest review. Thanks!~~


Cross-posted on Goodreads.

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