bookaneer

bookaneer

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

Review
3.5 Stars
Proof of Concept
Proof of Concept - Gwyneth Jones

For such a short novella, Proof of Concept is packed to bursting with plot threads, thematic questions, and worldbuilding elements. The story takes place in a fascinating dystopian world where pollution and global warming have pushed the world's population into giant "hives" separated by toxic "Dead Zones" where impoverished non-citizens try to eke out their short existences. MegaCorps have a chokehold on culture and politic, and even scientific endeavor must be turned into pop-culture and seek the approval of the GAM (Global Audience Mediation AI). The issue of extreme population control is hotly contested, as is the future of the human race. The quest for hyperspatial travel is seen as humanity's last hope. To get funding, the serious scientists have partnered with the popular reality-show stars to live underground in isolation to create a proof of concept for hyperspatial travel.

The story is as packed with genre elements as it is with worldbuilding concepts: a Vernesque journey to the center of the earth, a coming-of-age story, a romance, and even a strong tang of mystery. There are so many ideas packed into this little novella; I just wish there had been a little more room for character development. The timespan of the story is so wide, the cast so large, and the worldbuilding is so broad that I think in some ways, the characterization and driving urgency of the plot got a little lost. I never got a real sense of the different characters, and while I think this contributed to the shock factor of the ending, I found it also rather unsatisfying. In particular, and quite at odds with the rest of the story, I felt that the end expected me to unquestioningly accept the author's definition of "good guys" and "bad guys" and accept that the "good guys" can do absolutely terrible things and yet remain the "good guys" by definition alone… more time spent on characterization of both the faceless antagonists and the tarnished protagonists would have helped greatly, I think.

One of the most interesting themes in the story involves Kir, a child "saved" from the Dead Zones to act as the "wetware" for an artificial superintelligence quantum computer. Is she a captive or a willing participant? Is she deluding herself when she believes the woman who cut her head open and installed an ASI inside sees her as a person rather than a tool? Is the thing who shares her head a being with its own identity or merely a sophisticated calculator, and despite the supposed firewalls, what influence does it have on her behaviour?

"You're going to put a supercomputer in my head. It's going to share my brain. Okay, I can't stop you. But what if he goes wrong and starts eating me?"


Overall, Proof of Concept is itself an interesting proof of concept for a world and idea that I think fully deserves a longer novel. If you're looking for a fascinating little novella, Proof of Concept is worth a look.


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

Cross-posted on Goodreads.

Review
5 Stars
Get Well Soon
"The purpose of this book is not to scare you. Instead, like all good books, it is intended to distract you from the screaming baby one aisle over from the airplane where you are currently trapped for the next five hours."

This book was a blast. The history is fun and engaging and crazy. (Did you know that the crazy anti-plague beak doctor costumes kind of worked? I didn't.) And the author's commentary is brash and opinionated and purely entertaining.

The Antonine plague: apparently Galen was a pretentious coward, and despite his tendency to throw Christians to the lions, Marc Antony was a terrific organiser who at least temporarily saved his empire.

The bubonic plague: well apart from the beak doctor costumes, which are awesome, there's this quote:

"Shakespeare's brothers and sisters and his son died of the bubonic plague. Theaters were closed due to the plague during his lifetime. Hans Holbein and Titian painted great works before their deaths from the plague.
Would they have preferred to live in a time without the Black Death? Yes. (This is not speculative.
I called them all and asked.) But life went on in the face of death. Even the Roman Empire was able to endure for a few hundred years after the Antonine plague. Commodus was able to dither around killing ostriches."


The Dancing plague: a mysterious illness intriguing with any narration and spiced up by the side commentary on Paracelsus's impressive level of sexism.

Smallpox: snarky commentary about how it was feared by men for its mortality and by women for its detriment to appearance, a diatribe about anti-vaxxers, and a "Guns, Germs, and Steel"-type portrayal of the destruction of the Aztecs and Incans.

"The devastation of smallpox in the Americas was not due to a vengeful God or a mysterious man bearing an evil box, but rather to the fact that the Amerindians did not spend as much quality time with their domesticated llamas as Europeans did with their cows.
Now maybe you are reading these tales of destruction and thinking, Oh, God, I myself do not have a cattle farm, or I am a proud llama farmer (there's got to be one somewhere), and are therefore convinced that you would die if you contracted smallpox because of your sad immune system--and what if terrorists purposefully incubate smallpox and come in a suicidal pact and spread it to us, and we all die and our civilization perishes and everything is very bad? I am with you, citizen! [...] Fortunately..."


Syphilis: the amazing lengths to which biographers will go to avoid admitting their subject had the disease, plus the "No-Nose Club."

TB: a tirade against the romanticism of the disease.

Cholera: a character assassination of John Snow (personally, I think he sounds a bit spectrum and I'd like to have a conversation with him, if only to know how he came up with the idea of veganism about a century before it was a fad). Points gained for never using the phrase, "You know nothing," when describing the cholera detective.

Leprosy: the truly lovely story of Father Damien, the Leper Priest of Molokai.

Typhoid: the rather insane story of Typhoid Mary, the government's attempt to lock her up, and her determination to make ice cream despite it all.

The Spanish Flu: apparently it wasn't actually Spanish in origin, but:

"An all-American plague hailing from Haskell, Kansas. There is still research that attempts to pin the biggest plague in the twentieth century on anyplace else (guesses range from China to Great Britain), probably because "America's bread-basket" is a much nicer way to refer to the Midwest than "the planet's flu-bin."

The most amazing aspect of this particular plague is the incredible lengths the US and UK went to to pretend it wasn't happening, including threatening journalists with jail and/or death.

Encephalitis Lethargica: scary scary scary, with the interesting collateral that it may be the disease responsible for a lot of our endless-sleep fairy tales.

Lobotomies: not actually a plague, unless you'd consider "hysteria" in women to be a plague, but I think Wright just really wanted to talk about Walter Jackson Freeman II and his penis ring (seriously) and the time he put two ice picks in both eye sockets and hammered them in simultaneously... actually probably the most horrifying chapter.

"Feel free to start using Walter Jackson Freeman II as an insult directed towards people you hate. Almost no one will get the reference, but if I am in the room we'll high-five and it will be awesome."



Polio: coming after the lobotomy chapter, a rather heartwarming and life-affirming take on FDR, March of Dimes, Jonas Salk's polio vaccine, and the biggest human trial in history.

HIV/AIDS: the really depressing state of this current epidemic, our return to demonising the victims and treating the disease as a "judgement" and a consequence of "bad behaviour," as with syphilis. My problem with this chapter is that it really talks only about the disease in the US. In the Congo, it affects a truly horrific percentage of the population, and conspiracies that western governments actually created and spread the disease do nothing to help mitigate it.

I got to the end of the book and was sad that there was no more. I would have thoroughly enjoyed a chapter on yellow fever or measles or mumps or rubella (the namesakes of the now unfairly-infamous MMR vaccine), or meningitis, one of the more frightening diseases of my childhood, or tetanus, aka lockjaw? I suspect Wright would have enjoyed describing tetanic convulsions. My only major complaint against the book is its extreme Western focus. Where was the Plague of Justinian? The Ebola outbreaks in Africa? Malaria in Spain and Africa? What about dengue fever, particularly in the eighteenth century? "History" doesn't mean "Western history," and I really wish more historians would remember it. But other than my greedy desire for more--or perhaps a sequel--
I got a huge kick out of the book. If those quotes sound intriguing and you like the conversational style and snark, grab a copy. It's a wild ride. And now I'm off to go request Wright's other book, It Ended Badly, from the library...

Review
2.5 Stars
Chasing Embers
Chasing Embers (A Ben Garston Novel) - James Henry Bennet

The last of the dragons hidden within society, passing as human and trying to live out his life until he becomes embroiled in a mystery? Count me in. Plotwise, this book should have been right up my alley, but unfortunately, it just didn't work for me. If I were forced into conciseness, I think I'd describe Chasing Embers as a take on Neil Gaiman's American Gods written in the style of Wilkie Collins. While it may be sacrilege and I may end up tarred and feathered for it, I must admit that I'm not a fan of American Gods. I do generally enjoy Wilkie Collins, but while the Victorian era does much to excuse his fraught verbosity, the careless sexism, and the thoughtless xenophobic exoticism of foreign cultures, it's rather less understandable in a modern novel. As with all my negative reviews, I'm going to lay out my problems with the book because the things that drove me nuts may be unimportant or even positives to other readers.

 

The most notable feature of the book is probably the overblown style. A few examples that might demonstrate why I initially thought it intended to be some sort of spoof:

"Flames sputtered. Steer horns flew. Smoke fouled the air. A girder screamed, busted outward. The city peered in through the breach, her distant lights jealous of the fireworks. A hush washed over the bridge, a murmuring tide carrying prayers."

[About a ten-year-old] "Her sore feet tingled on stone and she moved forwards as if through water, a subtle magnetism drawing her on, the sense of little teeth nipping at her budding breasts. Ants swarming in her guts."

"White fire claimed him, closing around him like a cage. A brief, blinding fulmination and he was in the heart of the Star.

The star was falling, falling. The meteor shook off rock at the edge of space, a flaming Cinderella fleeing a ball."

"Blood streaked the horizon, congealing into an ugly purple, the dam of day broken by the encroaching penumbra, the night flooding in. In minutes, the moon had swallowed half of the sun. It was a black eye bordered by gold, scouring the sands with ominous portent. A minute more and it had obscured the sun completely, the sight a blazing ring in the sky, a flaring golden corona.

"Uncurling from his foetus of grief, Ben raised himself on his one good arm."

The sun blinked a ruddy eye, one moment near the horizon, the next half sunken under it. Like a ball released from a catapult, the moon escaped the temporal glue, then slowed in the heavens, continuing her voyage skyward."

The book also demonstrates a cheerful Victorianesque disregard for the proper use of punctuation and cheerfully substitutes em-dashes and semicolons for commas, colons for semicolons. Yeah, not my cup of tea.

 

Continuing the Wilkie Collins motif, we have a credulous starving native, exotic African magics, and quite imprecise Egyptian history--e.g. ushaptiu described as "bricks"-- as well as a rather Victorian attitude towards women. Women are repeatedly described as animalistic and controlled only by their passions. Those who aren't "all heart, fury bred from spurned love, vengeance from the pain of treachery" want to live out the nineteenth century feminine ideal: "She told him, through pretty tears, that she only wanted a normal life. Marriage. Kids. A future. In no particular order and with possible overlaps between roles to avoid spoilers, this book contains: a damsel in distress, a powerful and magnetic seductress who is the pawn of the man manipulating her, a woman who becomes utterly consumed by revenge against the man who done her wrong, a bunch of evil witches who use sexuality as a weapon, and, to top it all off, a refrigeratored female.

Yes, yes, Rose doesn't actually die, but she is so clearly refrigeratored, mutilated, and dressed as a princess in a tower.

(show spoiler)

The most over-the-top offensive parts? When one woman is considered valuable, or "invested with power," as the book put it, solely because she is a receptacle for a man's sperm. Literal or metaphorical, a lot of the women end "opened up like a door", to be raped and used as emotional pawns. I had to push myself to keep reading, and I'm glad I did, because there is a certain amount of saving grace at the end.

I really loved that Rose turned out not to be dead and confronts Ben: "I am not... a prize." Yet even there Ben strips away some of Rose's agency by deciding that he can "save" her and "protect" her by staying away, making it his choice, not hers.

(show spoiler)

 

I also really didn't buy the basis of the worldbuilding. The basic scenario: King John got all the magical Remnants to make a pact that would leave exactly one of each of their kind in the world and push all the rest into endless sleep. Now, who on earth would agree to that, and in particular, who on earth would elect some leader as the only one to remain alive?

Leaving aside the fact that King "Lackland" John was a pathetic whinging scheming excuse of a king who managed to infuriate the Church, antagonize his populace to the point of war, and lose massive chunks of territory to the French, how on earth would a peace brokered with a weakling king of one measly little island become some sort of universal law to be obeyed by every mortal and immortal being all over the world? At that point, believe me, the sun definitely set on the British empire--on winter days, after less than ten hours. It's that sort of thoughtless exceptionalism that really gets on my nerves.

 

As as surely become clear by now, this book was not for me. I really wish it had been--it sounded so perfect. However, it was not meant to be. If you are more tolerant than me, or if a cross between Wilkie Collins and Neil Gaiman sounds fun to you, dear reader, then Chasing Embers may be worth a look.

 

~~I received this book through Netgalley from the publisher, Orbit Books, in exchange for my (depressingly) honest review. Quotes are 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.

Review
3.5 Stars
The difference between a gunrunner and a politician?
Behind the Throne - K.B. Wagers

"Spoken like a consummate politician, Highness. One would think you've been doing this for years."

"I have, Caspel. It just involved more guns."

 

Behind the Throne

by K. B. Wagers

 

Whatever your expectations may be, I suspect Behind the Throne will probably defy them. When I first started reading, misled by the flowery descriptions of eye colors and muscle definition, the careful note of each time the characters touched, and the derogative-yet-highly-descriptive portraits of the protagonist's beautiful clothing, I was quite worried that I had picked up a romance. However, for those of you who are also not fans of that genre, never fear: while the flowery description may occasionally give you pause, the book is absolutely devoid of love triangles and passionate glances. In fact, thematically, it's a thoroughly enjoyable mix of space opera and worldbuilding scifi flavored with a taste of mystery. I'm a huge fan of detective fiction, and even when they're less "whodunnit" than "whatyagonnadoaboutit," I still love the structure and focus on character that I think a mystery component brings to a story.

Despite an ongoing obsession with urban fantasy, noir, and heist stories, I'm paradoxically conservative when it comes to characters, and I was never really quite sure how I felt about the protagonist. Hail escaped her royal upbringing to become a gunrunner. The book focuses only on the badassery of the career and never really questions its morality. However, I personally couldn't get over the opening scene, where we see her in a room of corpses of her making. Gunrunners profit by inflaming wars and selling death. By their very nature, are rulebreakers who show a disdain for law and life. Personally, I'd want someone who is vying to be leader of a constitutional monarchy to question their past of illegality and pure bloodthirsty villainy. Hail isn't an honourable rogue. She punishes those she likes without trial and without due process, and yet her stalinesque savagery in a world of laws is never questioned.

The most controversial and memorable aspect of the book is probably going to be the creation of a female-dominated society. I found it thought-provoking, but not in the way the author intended. Personally, I think this book does a disservice to a discussion of sexism because the sexism here is so superficial. We're told that in Hail's world, the equal rights movement was taken "too far" and men are now considered inferior and forced into a lower role in society. That's what we're told, but in reality, men show absolutely no subservience or deference to their female "superiors" and are utterly unlimited by legal chains or glass ceilings. In our era, most of the sexism we encounter centers around objectification, tokenization, and glass ceilings, but this story supposedly happens in an even more sexist pre-lipservice era that would probably be more comparable to our 1890s. So where are the enforced gender roles and vicious stereotyping based on faulty pseudoscience? The characters occasionally make (forced, artificial) asides such as " men are not capable of the kind of responsibilities ", but they don't add any analogues to the specious biological arguments that cast women as smaller-brained, logic-deficient, emotion-driven, hysteria-prone weaklings, not any arguments that men are subordinate because they are biologically suited to be subordinate. Sure, I appreciated the occasional touches like describing a woman as " chatter[ing] like a schoolboy " but apart from a very few artificial attempts at creating a culture of ingrained sexism, I think the author mostly forgot about her attempt at a reverse-sexist culture.

In fact, even the gender gap itself was missing. Even though we're supposedly in a female-dominated world, women still seem to be caregivers and child-rearers. Men seem to be able to take on any career they desire, and they're often casually mentioned as the breadwinners. The attempts to demonstrate ingrained sexism were absurdly artificial. Take one conversation where Hail's male bodyguard accuses her of suspecting one man "Without any proof? Why? Because he's a man?" Well, I don't know, maybe it's because he's a man, or just maybe it's because they've just watched him attend a secret meeting with dissidents and killers. Within the book, the Director of Galactic Imperial Security, an admiral of the military, the prime minister, the head guard for the empress, the most elite of trackers, and even business owners such as a successful restaurateur are all men. The head of the resistance and the ruler of a rival empire are both men, yet no one objectifies or dehumanizes or attributes sexist stereotypes to them. Seems like the only thing a man can't do in this world is become emperor, and considering there are additional non-egalitarian genetic requirements for that anyway, I wouldn't consider an inability to become emperor much of a glass ceiling. Men of the society don't seem limited to me, and describing this as a sexist culture discounts the much more virulent sexism that women of our world have faced and even continue to face.

Behind the Throne is definitely intended to be the start of a series, and Wagers has left herself a lot of worldbuilding to explore. The story takes place in a planet-spanning empire: I want to know more about the industry, the tech, the exports that keep the lifestyle we see afloat. How do the colonized worlds feel? Do they welcome the Saxon empire? Do they seek true independence? How much say do they have in the government itself? I was rather fascinated by the blending of Hinduism and Catholic traditions, and I'd love to hear more about the religions of the world. I really appreciated the various same-gender couples throughout the book, which should have been particularly interesting given the supposed sexism of the culture, and I think this is worth further exploration in future books. We're briefly introduced to an alien species who have incredible healing capabilities, and while they mostly turned out to be a plot device in this story, I think they deserve deeper examination. The worldbuilding may have felt a bit flat for me, but on the other hand, this leaves a lot to expand on in the sequels. The true power of the story is its compulsive readability. No matter my criticisms, it was genuinely difficult to put down. If you're looking for something fast and fun with a bit of worldbuilding thrown in, Behind the Throne is definitely worth a look.

~~I received this ebook through Netgalley from the publisher, Orbit Books, 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 novel as a whole.~~

Cross-posted on Goodreads.

Review
5 Stars
Brother's Ruin
Brother's Ruin - Emma Newman

I can never quite articulate why I find all of Emma Newman's books so utterly enthralling, but I'm pleased to say that Brother's Ruin is no exception. Compared to some of her other more serious works such as Planetfall, I found this novella a pure escapist pleasure. The story takes place in an alternate Victorian London where magic battles it out with the Industrial Revolution. Those born with the gift of magic must renounce their lives and instead dedicate their lives to the nation. Families are punished for hiding their magically gifted children, and paid for having their children taken by the mages. Charlotte has been hiding her magical gifts from her family and fiancee, but that's not her only secret: she is also a talented and successful illustrator. Hiding who she is, protecting her ailing brother, and surreptitiously aiding her family's finances, she thinks she is keeping it all together until the mages arrive at her doorstep.

 

It's an interesting world: although the books themselves are radically different, the general idea of magic practitioners as powerful pawns required to serve the desires of their government reminded me a bit of Myke Cole's Shadow Ops series. Given that in this case, mages rival the nobility in power and they don't appear to be enslaved, I'm not really sure I accept that they would give up all sense of private life out of pure duty for their country, but I'll be interested to see where the story goes. The alternate London is well-researched and has sly references to real historical events; for example, Charlotte's fiancee mentions that he has been mapping out cholera outbreaks to help out his peculiar friend John Snow. The book explores Newman's familiar themes of agency and feminism, and there's also what I'm pretty sure will end up as a budding romance. I read the whole novella in one sitting and I can't wait for more. My major complaints: (1) that it's a novella instead of a full novel, and (2) I don't yet have a sequel in my greedy hands. If you're a fan of Victorian magic or steampunkery, Brother's Ruin is well worth a look.

 

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


Cross-posted on Goodreads.

Review
3.5 Stars
Anatomy of Innocence
Anatomy of Innocence: Testimonies of the Wrongfully Convicted - Leslie S. Klinger, Scott Turow, Laura Caldwell, Barry Scheck

Anatomy of Innocence

edited by Laura Caldwell and Leslie S. Klinger

 

What an intriguing concept: have a mystery writer--someone who makes a living inventing crimes and delving into a fictitious criminal justice system--with a real-life exoneree, someone for whom a red herring was a life-altering tragedy and not just an entertaining plot twist.

 

I will admit I didn't read the blurb carefully enough: I hadn't realized that these would be retellings by the writers rather than interviews. Why is the distinction so important? Because retellings run the risk of stealing the speaker's voice, transforming the story to fulfil the writer's preconceived notions, and commodifying the result. A collection like this is powerful but also dangerous: while it can give voices to those who have already been forced to suffer in silence, it can also stifle them. To my mind, examples of both exist in the collection. The worst offender, in my opinion, was Laurie R. King, who attributes incredibly naive thoughts and utterly simplistic language to her interviewee. She is so condescending that it made my teeth hurt. I generally was less happy about the chapters that tried to "novelify" people's lives with overblown drama and suspense, but I deeply appreciated those that gave an account of the interview itself as a journalist would. Probably my favourite retelling was Lee Child's recounting of Kirk Bloodsworth's story, which is told as an interview, with Bloodsworth telling his story in his own words. It is touching, and most importantly, it doesn't pretend to go behind his eyes but gets out of the way and helps him tell his story.

 

The crimes and circumstances run the gamut, from a woman accused of shaking a baby to death to a murdered wife to a gang shooting to a vicious rape, from a clear case of racist scapegoating to mistaken eyewitnesses to damning circumstantial evidence. Many of the cases involve police who forced confessions by torturing their suspects. In some of the stories, exoneration means the real culprit was found; in others, that the state was shown to have been corrupt or not to have proved its case. (As a side note, all of the stories are present unambiguous innocence of the exoneree and negligence or evil on the part of the state, which often means dropping other aspects of the cases that muddy the water. While I understand the rationale, I prefer not to be fed an oversimplification.) Each chapter ends with an editor's note discussing the history and current status of one part of the case, from DNA testing to negligent counsel to faulty forensic science to forced confessions and mistaken eyewitnesses. If you weren't aware of the extremely broken state of the US justice system, this collection will be an eyeopener. Even if you are, Anatomy of Innocence provides an interesting opportunity to hear the repercussions of a fallible justice system on people's lives.

 

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


Cross-posted on Goodreads.

Review
4 Stars
"Private detective by day. Private killer by night."
Standard Hollywood Depravity: A Ray Electromatic Mystery (Ray Electromatic Mysteries) - Adam Christopher

Standard Hollywood Depravity

by Adam Christopher

"This seemed to be my lucky night for going undercover, which was something I rarely did on account of the fact that I was not only a robot but the last robot, which tended to make me stick out in a crowd just somewhat."

"Robot noir"? Just those words and I'm already a fan. Raymond (get it?) is the last robot in Hollywood. Intended to replace the human police, general robophobia left Raymond a lone and lonely robot, his only friend the profit-obsessed supercomputer Ada, these day he makes his money as a hitman (hitrobot?). Raymond's newest job is a dancer at a club--doesn't matter who or why she is wanted dead, just that someone is willing to pay for it. But when Raymond finds himself within a web of instincts, his detective instincts take over.

Christopher's noir pastiche is pretty perfect. Femme fatales and fast-talking gangsters abound. Fast-talking gangsters abound, and there's the standard noir sexism and proliferation of femme fatales, despite a near-but-not-quite-successful subversion of the trope. But what was most important to me was that he has the patter down perfectly. It's hilarious. Some of my favourites:

"I thought it all went rather well against my chassis , which was bronzed and the color of those sculptures by that guy who did sculptures in bronze."

"Being a hit man— hit robot—is an interesting business. It requires a certain level of what I like to call not being caught. There were ways to avoid that particular outcome and I liked to think I was pretty good at a few of them. I had several advantages in my favor. I didn’t leave fingerprints, for a start."

Despite the comedy and all of the noir spoofiness, there are also some really interesting elements I'd love to see Christopher expand upon. Raymond has been reprogrammed--by Ada-- to be a hitman. As he puts it:

"A little adjustment and I was invited to the party. Which was also fine. Because I was programmed to think it was fine."

His personal memory is constrained to a short tape reel that is overwritten when he returns to Ada, which reminded me a bit of Person of Interest. And how did Ada become the ultimate evil scheming femme fatale in the first place? I'd love to better understand her background and how she interacts with her clients.

Overall, it's a great little novella, and I'm looking forward to another adventure with Raymond the Robot. The plotting is tight, the story moves fast, and the ending manages to be both somewhat ambiguous and, to me at least, entirely unexpected, which was fun. If you're looking for a short punch of scifi noir, Standard Hollywood Depravity is well worth a look.

I received this ebook through Netgalley from the publisher, Macmillan-Tor/Forge, 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 novel as a whole.

~~Cross-posted on Goodreads.~~

Review
4.5 Stars
The Djinn Falls in Love and Other Stories
The Djinn Falls in Love and Other Stories - Nnedi Okorafor, Patricia Hermes, K.J. Parker, Kamila Shamsie, Jamal Mahjoub, Catherine King, Kuzhali Manickavel, Monica  Byrne, Kirsty Logan, E.J. Swift, J.Y. Yang, Usman T. Malik, Sophia Al-Maria, Jared Shurin, Claire North, Neil Gaiman, James Smythe, Maria Dahvana Headl

I'll admit I was a bit wary when I picked up Djinn Falls In Love: tempted by authors such as K.J. Parker and Claire North, I worried that the collection itself might suffer from repetition. I needn't have worried. The collection demonstrates a truly staggering variety of perspectives on the concept of djinn, as well as mixing prose and poetry, vignettes and plot twists. As is mentioned in the foreword, the unifying theme of the collection is the humanization of the Other. The collection begins with the poem that gave it its title by an author who goes by "Hermes," then quickly delves into the very traditional, very folkloresque-feeling story, "The Congregation," by Kamila Shamsie, which also contained one of my favourite quotes in the whole collection:

"There is no evil here, only love. God save us from a world that can't tell the difference."

The rest of the collection varied widely in the mood, setting, and in the vision of the djinn themselves.

 

My down-and-out favourite, and enough to make the collection a five-star all on its own, was "A Tale of Ash and Seven Birds" by Amal El-Mohtar. It is a rich, gorgeous allegory or immigration, where djinn refugees to the land of the wizard-nation repeatedly change themselves in their efforts to survive. An excerpt:

"Great Horned Owl

You are an apex predator. Nothing can hurt you now.

You have embraced silence. [...]

Sparrows though. Crows. Cormorants. All these will fill your belly now, and it's their own fault. All their own fault for not choosing a shape the wizard-nation cannot hurt, their own fault for being small or loud or trying to build communities of which the wizard-nation disapproved. You have learned the wizard-nation's way, and you will be able to stay, now, forever." This was not the only story to explore the theme of djinn as immigrant. "Somewhere in America" by Neil Gaiman is actually excerpted from American Gods, which I admit I wasn't thrilled about, but certainly fits the theme. Comically bitter and rather gruesome, it tells the tale of a disillusioned visitor who runs into a particularly peculiar taxi driver. "The Jinn Hunter's Apprentice" by E.J. Swift is an imaginative scifi story that takes place on a busy spaceport on Mars. A bunch of angry djinn, tired of having their once-peaceful world invaded, have invaded a ship and the captain calls in a djinn-hunter. In "The Spite House" by Kirsty Logan, djinns were made corporeal, badgered and threatened out of their homes by violent protesters bearing signs such as "NO SNAKES IN OUR NEIGHBOURHOOD", and forced to live on scraps in the outskirts of society.

 

Other stories use the djinn as the ultimate outside observers. "Bring Your Own Spoon" by Saad Z. Hossain, which was perhaps my second favourite story, takes place in a dystopian future in a ruined world made habitable only by the constant efforts of nanobots. A destitute human and djinn living on the outskirts of society decide to act upon their crazy idea of starting a restaurant for other forgotten members of society. The story is gorgeous and poignant and thoughtful. One of my favourite quotes:

"People always assume that poor people are dangerous. They wouldn't be here, if they were."

"Emperors of Jinn" by Usman T. Malik is a brutal tale about a group of children and a magic book that mixes casual cruelty with human possession. "Authenticity" by Monica Byrne uses a film student's desire to get a romantic encounter between djinn and human on film to very directly plays with the theme of observers and voyeurism--not for me, and I'm not entirely sure I understood the story's goal. "The Glass Lights" by J.Y. Yang is a wistful vignette about a girl who sees herself as a passive observer, constantly pulled by the needs and desires of others and her own compulsion to reshape the world as her djinn ancestors once did. She feels out of place in the world, not because she is secretly part djinn but because she is Muslim:

"You don't giggle with a girl in a headscarf, who can't watch any of the Channel 8 K-dramas you follow because she doesn't speak Mandarin."

 

Some of the stories stretched the idea of the djinn to represent sentient magic, supernatural beings, or even just as a metaphor for untapped and dangerous potential. I find K.J. Parker's short stories to be, without fail, utterly fantastic, and "Message in a Bottle was no exception. A scholar, pursuing forbidden research in the effort to save his country, is faced with the choice of whether or not to open a bottle that could either cure the deadly plague or cause an even worse one. As always, the story is fabulously fun and funny with a darkly ironic edge. Jamal Mahjoub's "Duende 2077" takes place in a future where capitalism has imploded and "The Caliphate flooded into the power void.". The main character is a jaded detective who begins investigating an apparently political crime and finds himself tracing the strands of a rebel plot. Vivid and gritty, it also takes the time to try to explore the motives of martyrs for a cause. "History" by Nnedi Okarafor is an interesting story about a singer who harnesses magic--including a djinn-- to improve her song, and also about the odd quirks of history and the ways in which our actions have unforeseen effects on others. "Queen of Sheba" by Catherine Faris King expands the djinn to other cultures in the context of a very sweet childhood story about growing up. "The Sand in the Glass is Right" by James Smythe uses the djinn as a mechanism to redoing a life over and over. I saw "Reap" by Sami Shah as a classic ghost-revenge story transcribed onto a slightly different space: that of members of the military spying on potential terrorists. It felt to me like a very traditional child-based horror movie, and I found the violence sick and pointless. "Black Powder" by Maria Dahvana Headley is a wild, gruesome, exceedingly American story about a magical gun whose bullets have the potential to grant wishes. Full of archetypal characters and twisted darkness, it reminded me strongly of Catherynne Valente. The writing is gorgeously vivid; for example:

"Each person is a projectile filled with sharp voice and broken volume, blasts of maybe.

The hands outstretch, the hearts explode. The chamber is the world and all the bodies on earth press close around each bullet, holding it steady until, with a rotating spin, it flies."

 

I also appreciated the more traditional takes on the djinn seen in stories such as "Manjun" by Helen Wecker, where a djinn, once the favourite of Lady Aisha Qandisha, becomes a Muslim and exorcises his kind from the humans they torment. It's a bittersweet story about the sense of loss and isolation from loved ones that the newly converted sometimes experience. "How We Remember You" by Kuzhali Manickavel is an odd and creepy story told to a djinn companion lost in childhood. "The Righteous Guide of Arabsat" by Sophia Al-Maria is a cynical and disturbing take on an inexperienced and gullible "mama's boy" who begins to believe his new wife is possessed by a djinn--after all, how else could she be sexually experienced? It's a telling exploration of morality, norms, and the dangers of combining dogmatic ignorance with credulous believers. Claire North's "Hurrem and the Djinn" is an enjoyable alternate history of Sultana Hurrem. Although it starts as a traditional fairy tale, I thoroughly appreciated the ironic relish and flair of North's dialogue, as well as the final sting about a proper woman's place.

 

The Djinn Falls in Love gets a high rating from me not just because of the wide variety of stories but also because of a few memorable tales mixed in. As with all anthologies, not every story will appeal to every person, but I believe there are enough spectacular tales in here that the collection is well worth a look.

 

~~I received this book through Netgalley from the publisher, Rebellion/Solaris, 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 stories.~~


Cross-posted on Goodreads.

Review
4 Stars
"It's going to be fine. Assuming we survive."
The Curse Mandate (The Dark Choir Book 3) - J.P. Sloan

The Curse Mandate

by J.P. Sloane

 

Alright, this proves it: Dorian Lake is a trouble magnet. All the man wants to do is train his new apprentice and find his dislocated soul, and maybe make a living from his job as a hex-maker and his new gig as a bar owner. But fate--or knowing Dorian, it's probably karma-- just refuses to cooperate. Instead, he finds himself promising to help out his apprentice's brother with a nasty curse and finds himself embroiled in a nasty string of mysterious jinxes that threatens to bring the Presidium-- the governing body of American magicians-- right down on his head. As he puts it:

"The Presidium's about to go on a tear. Last time that happened, we got the Red Scare. Before that, Manifest Destiny."

Oh, and the demon he sold his soul to before it went walkabout is asking for a new deal while there's still time to make one.

 

If you're addicted to urban fantasy and looking for a Dresden Files analogue, then in some ways, this could be a good fit. There's a less-than-thriving magic business, a basement where magical experiments are conducted, a young and attractive apprentice that the narrator has an exasperating tendency to salivate over, and even the extreme overuse of a few catchphrases. (Ever since I read the Dresden Files, I've winced every time I've read "arched an eyebrow" or "shambled." In the Dark Choir series, on the other hand, there are far too many "sniffles," "grumbles," and "smirks," usually when words with a neutral connotation are more appropriate.) On the more entertaining side, both have a protagonist who eschews technology because of magic's ability to "put a whammy on electronic devices", and even a detective from "Special Investigations," a unit I'm pretty sure exists only in Canada and the world of Harry Dresden. I found Wren, this series' answer to Charity Carpenter, a lot more likeable. There are also many distinctive worldbuilding, from the far more secretive Presidium to the practice of geomancy to the weird world of the stregha. This book, in particular, greatly fleshes out the shadowy Presidium, dipping into an enjoyable early American alternate history.

  

However, despite all of the similarities, I found the tone radically different, both darker and more (intentionally) morally ambiguous than anything the Dresden Files can serve up. To start with, the magic of Dorian's world is a hell -- if you'll pardon the pun-- of a lot nastier. The powerful stuff ranges from chaos magic to Netherwork -- curses powered by the demonic "Dark Choir" -- to scary forces channeling the nastier aspects of nature. Dorian's magic is primarily hexwork based on what he blithely describes as "karma." Don't get me wrong; it still has its fun and silly moments--my favourite involved the magical properties of smiley faces-- but all of that moral ambiguity add a hell of a lot more suspense to the brew because the reader is left genuinely concerned about whether Dorian will slide off the moral event horizon. I found the plot itself somewhat problematic because of its tendency to completely drop subplots at arbitrary moments, but this additional moral suspense kept me simultaneously engaged and frustrated.

I don't even know what to make of the Presidium plot--it seems insane to me, but hey, I think the ringleaders probably were insane-- but I was quite irritated by the way the Ches/Ricky subplot was completely dropped. After Ches leaves, I think Dorian only mentions her a few times, and he doesn't seem even remotely preoccupied with her fate. (What a dick.) Also on the list of "wtf, Dorian?" moves was bringing Edgar along on the suicide mission.

(show spoiler)

Both Dorian and his allies take actions that made me cringe, and I still don't know where the series is heading, or just how much of an antihero Dorian will become. It's something of a refreshing change from cookie-cutter UF. When combined with a mystery I found utterly perplexing, all of this made the book nearly impossible to put down. 

 

As for Dorian himself, he's still pretty much the guy you love to hate, but what I really appreciate about this series is that it is so very self-aware of the protagonist's flaws. The other characters continually confront Dorian with his general entitled, self-obsessed, obnoxiousness. They call him out in the way he talks down to everyone, the way he believes he deserves to win, the way he demands loyalty of others long before he grants it to them, the way he stumbles into situations he doesn't take the time to understand. One asks:

"Why do you make everything about you when it isn't? And when it actually is about you, you make it about everyone else."

So sure, Dorian is annoying and seriously flawed, the novels don't try to convince us otherwise, which makes all the difference. Plus, there are the side characters. As in previous books, I have significant issues with the way women are characterized: they're all pretty much seductresses, naifs, or in the rare cases they do manage to gain power, they're depicted as animalistic. But hey, that's a criticism that is pretty much innate to the genre. Series staples Edgar and Wren make an appearance, as does Ches, the rather conflicted character of the last book, and Julian Bright, ex-politician-assistant and current bar owner. One character I was quite happy to see again was Reed Malosi, the guy Dorian kept calling "Penn State", and he has a much more central role here, and I love his character even more.

 

In the increasingly overcrowded world of urban fantasy, J.P. Sloane adds some new elements. Despite much of the standard machinery, from a struggling business to a sexy apprentice, Dorian himself is unique, both in his own unabashed flaws and the risk that he'll genuinely go Dark Side. Although I don't say this often, I suspect the Dark Choir series would be quite difficult to read out of order, so if this book sounds intriguing, I'd suggest checking out The Curse Merchant first. If you're looking for a new UF series, the Dark Choir series is worth a look. I don't know where this series is heading, but I'm definitely in for the next book.

 

~~I received an advanced reader copy of this ebook from the publisher, Curiosity Quills Press, in exchange for my honest review. Thanks!~~


Cross-posted on Goodreads.

Review
4 Stars
Penric and the Shaman
Penric and the Shaman - Lois McMaster Bujold

In the midst of all the chaos of recent events, Penric and the Shaman was a gloriously gentle read. We jump back into Penric's life about four years after the events of Penric's Demon, after he has become comfortable with his place in the world. But when Senior Locator Oswyl asks for the support of a sorcerer in chasing down a dangerous shaman, Penric finds himself setting off on a quest led by the rather disapproving Oswyl into the rural mountains in search of a stolen ghost.

I thought Penric and the Shaman did a nice job unifying the world of The Hallowed Hunt with the rest of the Five Gods stories: we get to see the uneasy interactions between the church of the Five Gods and the nature-worshipping shaman, and the interplay between their two magics. The story itself is told from three perspectives: that of Penric, Oswyl, and also Inglis, the shaman himself. It's a bit slow-paced, and I had a hard time seeing how things could be brought to a conclusion that would fit the mood of the rest of the book, but I found myself satisfied throughout, always able to enjoy the gentle banter and measured pace. I especially loved how it explored the humanity of all the players in the story-- there are no true villains in the book, which makes it a wonderful read if you're feeling stressed and depressed. Last, I love the way this whole series respectfully explores religion. For instance, take one of my favourite quotes:

"For all that we trust the gods, I think we can trust them to know the difference between humor and blasphemy."



~~I received an advanced reader copy of this ebook through Netgalley from the publisher, Subterranean Press, in exchange for my honest review. Thank you!~~

Cross-posted on Goodreads.

Review
5 Stars
"We cannot transcend our past without confronting it."
The Blood of Emmett Till - Timothy B. Tyson

The Blood of Emmett Till

by Timothy Tyson

 

"How do you give a crash course in hatred to a boy who has only known love?"
-- Mamie Till, mother of Emmett Till



Emmett Till. The boy whose lynching galvanized a global movement. Right now, the media seems to be afire with one of the revelations of this book: that Carolyn Bryant has finally admitted that she lied and that Emmett Till never accosted her. Other than her admission, that's not exactly a surprise. So what is the story of Emmett Till? While on a trip to Mississippi from his home in Chicago, he stopped in at Carolyn Bryant's store and bought candy from her. He may have said something pert to her. He may have put the money directly in her hand--physical contact, a taboo in Mississippi--rather than leaving it on the counter. He wolf whistled when she ran out after him in a fury to get the gun out of her car. JW Milam and Roy Bryant, Carolyn Bryant's husband and brother-in-law,pulled Emmett Till from his house, beat and whipped him for hours until his face and body were pulp, shot him in the head, tied his body with wire to a 74-pound industrial fan, and threw it into the Tallahatchie River.

Here are the murderers, celebrating as they escape justice:

Before she changed her story to attempted rape to provide an indefensible defense for a lynch mob, Bryant originally said only that Till "insulted" her. When her husband and brother-in-law came to lynch Emmett, they demanded that the family produce the boy who had done the "smart talk." This pretense of the "mystery" of Emmett Till's case is and always has been utterly fatuous. As Carolyn Bryant herself said,

"Nothing that boy did could ever justify what happened to him."


The story of Emmett Till is so short, so heartbreaking. But the story of what comes after is both terrible and uplifting, and Timothy Tyson does the story justice. He starts by laying out the political backdrop, a necessary step to explain the meaning of Emmett Till's death to his killers and to those who mourned him. Emmett Till was not a naif to the world of bigotry and racism. Chicago was one of the most racially divided cities in America, and throughout his childhood, guerilla warfare raged over attempted housing desegregation. Dawson and Daley may have given lip service to equality, but they actively maintained segregation because it furthered their political ends. In both Chicago, as in Mississippi, black families kept loaded firearms in close reach, knowing that a lynch mob could burst through the door at any minute.

Mississippi, on the other hand, "outstripped the rest of the nation in virtually every measure of lynching." Vagrancy, a.k.a. "Jobless while Black," was treated as a crime, and through the convict leasing programs, black "criminals" were leased out to plantations as slave labor. To get the ballot, prospective black voters were forced to answer questions like, "Do you want your children to go to school with white children?" or "Are you a member or do you support the NAACP?" Citizens' Councils, white supremacy groups formed in the wake of Brown v Board of Education, terrorized African Americans with "personal visits" and by publishing their names, addresses, and phone numbers in newspapers. As with the present practice of doxxing, lynch mobs were never far behind. And it worked. As Tyson notes, "In the seven counties with a population more than 60 percent black, African Americans cast a combined total of two votes in 1954."

Citizens' councils were obsessed with maintaining white supremacy in the face of the federal government's decrees, and for them, as Tyson puts it, "The unsullied Southern white woman became the most important symbol of white male superiority." Emmett's death was, for his murderers, about keeping African-Americans in their place, and fearmongers used the "the old song of the Bruised Southern Lily and the Black Beast Rapist" to whip whites into hysterical furor. As J.W. Milam, one of Till's murderer's, put it:

"As long as I live and can do anything about it, n** are going to stay in their place. N** ain't gonna vote where I live. If they did, they'd control the government. They ain't gonna go to school with my kids. And when a n** even gets close to mentioning sex with a white woman, he's tired o' livin'. I'm likely to kill him."

Interviews showed later that none of the jurors ever doubted that Milam and Bryant were guilty, but they simply didn't consider the murder of a black boy who insulted a white woman to be a crime.

Emmett's death came after a host of assassinations of various civil rights leaders whose murders were treated as "accidents." Despite the coroner's verdict, the mutilations, the bullet, the fan hog-tied to the body, the local newspapers still termed the death an "odd accident" and Sheriff Shelton claimed that the bullet fragments were "most likely filings from his teeth" and put about the theory that the whole case was a fake concocted by the NAACP. If it hadn't been for Mamie Till, Emmett's death would have been just another lynching. But her strength and determination and courage transformed his death into "a watershed historical moment." As she said,

"I took the privacy of my own grief and turned it into a public issue, a political issue, one which set in motion the dynamic force that ultimately led to a generation of social and legal progress for this country."



The Blood of Emmett Till is an exceptional work. Not only does it bring humanity to the major players; it also vividly details the political and cultural backdrop and the global movement that Mamie Till and her allies galvanized. The writing and story are so compelling that I found myself racing through it like a thriller, even though I knew the outcome. Tyson captures the pathos, but also the hope, the bravery, the valiant actions of the witnesses who, like Moses Wright, stood in front of a white court and accused a white man.



If you want a better understanding of racism and the Civil Rights movement, add The Blood of Emmett Till to your list. I'll leave you with a quote:

"That we blame the murderous pack is not the problem; even the idea that we can blame the black boy is not so much the problem, though it is absurd. The problem is why we blame them: we do so to avoid seeing that the lynching of Emmett Till was caused by the nature and history of America itself and by a social system that has changed over the decades, but not so much as we pretend.

[...]
Ask yourself whether America's predicament is really so different now.

[...]
We are still killing black youth because we have not yet killed white supremacy."




~~I received this ebook through Netgalley from Simon & Schuster 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 book as a whole.~~

Cross-posted on Goodreads.

Review
5 Stars
The Stars are Legion
The Stars Are Legion - Kameron Hurley

The Stars are Legion is a gorgeously crazy book. No matter how much speculative fiction you've read, I'll bet you've never read anything like it before. It was my first book by Hurley, and it won't be my last. The writing is gorgeous, deeply embedded with metaphor and allusion. (It's so very quotable that I'm physically pained to be unable to include any quotes at present at the publisher's request.)

 

If I were forced to categorize the book, I'd say it doesn't quite fit into fantasy or scifi and instead belongs to their parent genre, speculative fiction. Don't go into this book expecting hard scifi. No, the idea of jumping from planet to planet in a matter of hours wearing nothing but a sprayed-on suit and dragged around by a living shuttle doesn't exactly work in terms of Newtonian physics, nor does a planet composed of layer upon layer with an outer layer of tentacles. Just go with it. The sheer breadth of imagination is staggering, from cephalopod cannons to recycler monsters to disturbing funerary feasts to fungal forests to sentient boats to so much more.

 

Like Ancillary Justice, it is a story told entirely with female pronouns, but unlike the Radch, the world Hurley creates is genuinely feminine, each member of each world capable of giving birth, yet sex and procreation are entirely separated. Themes of reuse and rebirth and cannibalism and closed systems, of wombs and maternity and birth, of agency and freedom, of memory and identity, are beautifully woven into a backdrop of complex characters, dizzyingly hallucinogenic imaginings, and wild, vivid, often repulsive creativity. I can't write much because I don't want to spoil anything, but if you're looking for a genuinely unique read, look no further.

 

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


Cross-posted on Goodreads.

Review
3.5 Stars
Colored Pencil Painting Portraits
Colored Pencil Painting Portraits: Master a Revolutionary Method for Rendering Depth and Imitating Life - Alyona Nickelsen

Thought colored pencils were only good for middle-school drawings of ponies and rainbows? Take a look at one of Alyona Nickelsen's portraits and think again:

 

Who knew what wonders could be performed with colored pencils? In Colored Pencil Painting Portraits, Nickelsen seeks to explain how she elevates colored pencils from a child's activity to a true art medium. Perhaps the most surprising thing to me-- although in retrospect, I suppose it shouldn't be-- is her explanation of the other tools she requires to turn pencil into paintbrush. She describes the types of papers to employ as well as blending tools, solvents, and sealants to overcome the natural limits of the medium. Her techniques are fascinating, but I will admit I found her constant advertising of her own products rather tiresome. She never mentions blender or fixative when "ACP Textured Fixative" or "Colored Pencil Touch-Up Texture" can be wedged in instead. ("ACP Textured Fixative" literally turns up 81 times in the short book!)

 

Another unexpected aspect I found interesting was Nickelsen's pragmatic advice for professional portrait painters. She has made a career out of a role I thought had died out with the invention of the camera, and I was somewhat amused by the very practical advice she shares about the profession. As in very traditional portraits, Nickelsen favors single light sources, static poses, and strongly suggests avoiding "perspective distortion"-- in fact, it's the opposite advice you'll see in guides for gesture or animation. There's an entire chapter on how to pose the subject to make them appear to be slimmer, as well as a long digression into the delicate art of flattering the sitter without making them look unrealistic. It's the sort of thing that Bernini or Sargent must have struggled with constantly.

 

I was intrigued to discover that reading the book clarified something about my own feelings for art. With pencil and charcoal and paint, I like to see the strokes, the layers, the careless mastery of the tool. Nickelsen's portraits demonstrate tremendous care, but the techniques she supports-- careful posing, tracing photographs-- and the medium itself have inherent limits in the artistic spontaneity I love to see in an artist's work. Both portrait painting on commission and colored pencils are very specialized forms of the art, while I don't think the book stretches past these very specialized fields, I found it an entertaining and fascinating read.

 

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

 

Cross-posted on Goodreads.

Review
4 Stars
"The great power of the Black Panthers [was] in their ability to create, manipulate, and subvert mass culture."
Framing the Black Panthers: The Spectacular Rise of a Black Power Icon - Jane Rhodes

Framing the Black Panthers

by Jane Rhodes



"To be black and conscious in America is to be in a constant state of rage."
--Eldridge Cleaver

 

The Black Panthers are one of the most simultaneously notorious and least-understood movements in American history. It is impossible to analyze the Black Panthers Party without also discussing the media that exoticized and excoriated it. In Framing the Black Panthers, Rhodes seeks to illuminate the relationship between the Black Panthers and the media, whose exploitation and commodification gave the Panthers the visibility that both granted momentum and eventually aided in its destruction. While it's not suitable as an introduction to the history of the Black Panther Party-- I'd suggest Black Against Empire for that --The Framing of the Black Panther Party explores a critical aspect of the story: the Panthers' struggle to harness and control the media and public perception, and their ultimate inability to fully shape or control their image.

Framing the Black Panthers starts by examining the political origins of the Panthers and the way in which the media shaped perceptions of the Civil Rights Movement, such as newspapers' portrayal of Rosa Parks as a spontaneous protester rather than part of a greater movement, or the way that ever-present violence was downplayed in favor of the neater story of nonviolent protest for well-defined civil liberties. Blacks protecting themselves with firearms from white gangs come to lynch them is not a new story. The new element-- and as Rhodes points out, not even this was actually novel-- was in the Panthers' portrayal of the police and the government as yet another racist gang come to invade and attack the black community. And thus the powerful statement the Panthers made with their guns and berets: that the justice system didn't have a copyright on armed and uniformed defenders of its citizens.

The Panthers were a conscious paradox, abandoning nonviolence while portraying themselves as disciplined defenders, simultaneously embracing and rejecting the stereotype of the angry, virile, destructive Black man. Huey Newton and Eldridge Cleaver, in particular, saw Black Power as the reclamation and exaltation of Black manhood, yet employed discipline to escape characterization as "black brute." Rhodes argues that the guns that the BPP so famously embraced were at least partially utilized as a media spectacle to gain attention to the struggle.Their symbols--the guns, the berets, the upraised fists, phrases such as "pig" and "power to the people"--all became cultural touchstones with very different interpretations for different communities, in part because of this paradox. By escaping respectability politics, the BPP became the emblem of Black militancy.

While we want to view the media as dispassionate and unbiased chroniclers of current events, in actuality, they shape the narrative and therefore public perception and reaction. Rhodes highlights the interdependence between the Panthers and the media: the Panthers used the media to gain notoriety and use that notoriety to gain momentum and a modicum of safety from a government that sought to silence them by any means possible. However, the media had their own well-defined agenda: to exotify, sensationalize, and commodify the party while still upholding the viewpoints of their readers. As Rhodes puts it:

"The news media, in particular, had a conflicting social agenda--to appease the power elites of whom they were a part and to uphold societal norms while professing some concern for the problem of racial inequality. [...] Because the press is primarily invested in reinforcing normative values, one should not expect them to seriously interrogate the complexities of a group such as the Black Panthers."

The rise of television eroded media responsibility even more by incentivizing the reduction of complex stories into their most sensational, easily digested elements.

"Most damning, perhaps, was that the media was deeply invested in the self-fulfilling prophecy [of violence] it advanced."

As media portrayal spiraled out of control with violent repercussions, the Panthers sought to control their own image by restricting media access and broadcasting their own voices via the Panther paper, but they had become a "salable commodity," both for those who hawked sensational tales of violence and depravity, and for "white guilt" liberals embracing "radical chic."

Rhodes explores the narrative and symbolic frames that the media employed when reporting on the BPP, including the extreme partisanship of outlets such as the Oakland Tribune and the Golden Gater. Yet the book itself occasionally uses the same sort of phrasing that it accuses these papers of using, promoting, if perhaps unintentionally, its own framing of events. For example, Rhodes calls William Lee Brent's holdup and shootout "a costly mistake" and terms the ex-Panthers who made accusations of sexual abuse "disgruntled", employing language that implicitly dismisses the accusations. The BPP was a complex movement, both flawed and glorious, despite media attempts to flatten it into a simple "good" or "evil." It was constructed as a paradox, and remained one throughout its lifetime, simultaneously promoting "Black self-love" and embracing a patriarchal form of homophobia and sexism. Rhodes dives deep into her subject, exploring the goals and outcomes of the Breakfast Program, the relationships between the Panthers and the Peace and Freedom Party in terms of press gains, the Panthers' worldwide influence, including the Black Panther movement that formed in the UK, and more.

For me, the one place where Framing the Black Panthers fell short was in the paucity of images. The book routinely describes headlines, photographs, and illustrations in words, yet I counted less than twenty photographs in the entire book, shoved together into a section at the center. I found myself performing image search after image search on Google to find the photographs or headlines described in the text. There is something powerful about the images themselves, and I think the book would greatly benefit from showing the images it so carefully describes. For example, take one of the Doonesbury cartoons mentioned, or the famous sketch of Bobby Seale when he was gagged and chained to his chair in court:


I think the book would be much more powerful if the inclusion of visual elements doubled its length.

 

Framing the Black Panthers is a wholesale indictment of the media, but also an exploration of the complex relationship between media and subject. As is now publicly acknowledged, the BPP, termed by Hoover "The greatest threat to internal security of the country," was under constant assault by the government and by the media. As we again enter an era of Civil Rights struggles, I believe it is critical to understand our own past with the hope that it may give us insight into our future. The media desire for sensationalism fed public fear, which in turn fueled the police's belief that the Panthers "would someday invade their homes for the purpose of killing wives and children" (Commission of Inquiry into the Black Panthers and Law Enforcement). Repercussions of the mutual distrust fed by media frenzy continues to create tragedy today. With the creation of new movements like the Brutality Prevention Project, perhaps Panthers' dream of community defense can finally be achieved, with cellphone cameras instead of guns.


~~I received this book through Netgalley from the publisher, University of Illinois 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 book as a whole.~~

 

Cross-posted on Goodreads.

Review
4 Stars
A Spy Among Friends
A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal - Ben Macintyre

Still as riveting as everything else Macintyre writes, but this book is definitely less fun than ZigZag or Double Cross. In fact, it's downright depressing. And how could it be otherwise? At its heart, this book is about a terrible, immeasurably costly betrayal.

While the book describes the life of Kim Philby, the infamous Russian double-agent who actually headed counterintelligence the USSR, it doesn't ever really explain the man himself, possibly because with Philby, it's not really possible to ever determine what was real. Certainly Macintyre seems to have given up on that task. And with the eponymous character an enigmatic villain, we're left to choose protagonists from the men that Philby duped: Nicholas Elliott, James Jesus Angleton, and the other figures of the spy game. And in the end, everything they did, every action they made, is tainted or destroyed by Philby. So many lives were lost by their attempts in the Cold War, from assassinated defectors to murdered nationalists whose identities Philby leaked to his masters. As some later admitted, it would actually have been better if they had done nothing at all, and Philby's betrayal continues to have repercussions to this day. For how can one ever trust anyone if a traitor can hide for so long?

The book has all of Macintyre's sly asides, but not even his rendition can make the story fun, or even simply satisfying. I wanted Philby to be disappointed with the USSR he found. Certainly his wife claimed he tried to slit his wrists, but in that leaked video from the 1980s, he seems utterly self-satisfied and content. And with Philby, how can one ever conclude which attitude was real and which fake? I wanted some sort of final stand, some case in which Elliott or Angleton genuinely got the better of Philby, even if unconsciously, and thereby saved lives. But it really never happened. The book is of course utterly readable and addictive, and if you get lost in the words and the wackiness and can briefly forget the bigger picture, quite fun-- there's something insanely wonderful, for example, about the Russians not believing their double agents' reports about Double Cross because, in their paranoia, they assumed their own agents had been doubled as part of the Double Cross scheme those same agents were telling them about-- but at the back of it all, there is always Philby and the terrible tragedy of it all.

I can think of one good thing that came out of reading it: I can no longer disparage ridiculous spy story plots whose final twist is that the Big Boss is actually a sleeper agent. After all, it already happened (at least) once.

Review
4 Stars
"Tonight we rise as one and change the world!"
Battle Hill Bolero - Daniel José Older

Battle Hill Bolero

by Daniel José Older

 

Bone Street Rumba. Half-Resurrection Blues. Midnight Taxi Tango. Battle Hill Bolero. From the titles alone, it's clear how important an influence music is on Older, and his love of rhythm and texture can be felt through the pages. Sure, it's a story about ghosts and humans duking it out against supernatural monsters, but for me, the series is just as much about New York City, the backstreets and communities that half-dead Carlos Delacruz and his full-ghost and human friends inhabit, from the juxtaposition of layered history in the ghost world to creeping gentrification to chatty santeros to the clash of cultures on the city streets. In Battle Hill Bolero, the story really picks up its tempo.

 

If you've read my reviews before, you probably know I'm somewhat cavalier about series order-- even in this case, I started with Midnight Taxi Tango (#2) and only recently went back to read Half-Resurrection Blues (#1). So please take my word for it when I say that this book simply won't work without the previous two in the series. (In fact, that realization, which occurred within the first chapter of this book, is the reason why I went back to read the first book.) Any discussion of the plot necessarily involves spoilers for the previous books, so consider yourself warned.

 

After the slow buildup in the previous books in the series, the rebellion against the Council has finally reached boiling point. After a host of mutual misunderstandings, Carlos and Sasha are finally trying to work things out, complicated by the revolution exploding around them. Battle Hill Bolero is chock-full of battlescenes, and some of them are pretty awesome. However, I did find it surprising that, given the series' focus on exploring the humanity of the other characters, there was so little concern for the sanctity of the lives (or unlives, as the case may be) of the adversaries. This is a civil war that pits friend against friend and coworker against coworker. How did the fight against the Council become a fight against a faceless enemy? I also don't tend to find plotting to be Older's strong point, and this book was no exception. I never really understand why the antagonists--and some of the protagonists-- do what they do; their often contradictory actions seem to serve only the plot.

One thing that drove me slightly nuts was Carlos's entirely inconsistent status as secret rebel. At one moment, they're looking for a traitor; at another, he's going out to a bar with them; at another, they offer him a job; at another, they're attacking his house. It was logically inconsistent and didn't even really drive the plot. The ngks were another issue. While it was gratifying to see all the pieces of the previous books come together, I have no clue how or why they got involved, and why anyone thought it was a good idea to employ the magical equivalent of a nuclear attack. And while it was interesting to finally find out what happened at Carlos's death, it was sort of a letdown. Honestly, the whole "murder their whole families" thing still makes no sense to me, particularly given that Carlos and Sasha had no idea who they were in their previous lives anyway. But the biggest issue was, of course, Flores. Other than to drive the plot, what was the motivation for all the insane actions he took, from sending them to the Web to starting a war against them to bringing in Caitlin? He was basically a plot device, and a shallow one at that.

(show spoiler)

 

I'm drawn to these books because of the vivid glimpses of New York that Older gives us, and the diverse characters, not because of the plot or action scenes. And I absolutely loved some of the characters introduced here, from Kris the take-no-prisoners ghost to Red, a transgender pirate whose spunky spirit outlived his body by centuries, as well as old friends from previous books. And then there's the sheer love of language that imbues the story, and the sly situational humor that is such an integral part of urban fantasy. For example:

"Meetings are Satan's way of balancing out all the beautiful things in the world, like music."

We even get an enjoyable cameo from Shadowshaper as well as a few hints about the next mythological entities Carlos and the gang will encounter. Battle Hill Bolero is a watershed book for the series. It absolutely cannot be read without the other books in the series, for the plot is filled with an unexpected but gratifying symmetry. I'm not sure where Older will take the series next, but I'm definitely in for the ride.

 

~~I received this ebook through Netgalley from the publisher, Berkley Publishing Group, 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 novel as a whole.~~

 

Cross-posted on Goodreads.

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