I’m running behind on writing up my thoughts about Erin Bow’s The Scorpion Rules, a YA sf novel which I really enjoyed. I’ll post next week. Meanwhile, if you are so inclined, please read it. Then you can join in next week, since in the context of the book I’m writing up what is really a discussion of narrative techniques, in this case opening with a slow build instead of a fast build/urgent hook. (Spoiler: I like slow builds but I also recognize that many readers expect a fast build or urgent hook from the first paragraph, and I have thoughts about how that can play out because a fast build relies on the reader’s familiarity with situations or character types and therefore creates its own forms of limitation.)
When Weston Kogi arrives in his West African home country to attend his aunt’s funeral, he has no idea what’s in store for him. How could he? Mistaken for an experienced police detective, Kogi is tossed into the middle of a thoroughly ugly conflict in the (fictitious) nation of Alcacia.
Making Wolf is an old school mystery-action-thriller and an intense, powerful, riveting story. This could be described as a dude book, filled with violent action, brutal reversals, corrupt and awful people, a scant handful of decent folk, and several beautiful and smart women. The conflicts are ragged and unclean. Everyone gets their hands dirty. In less assured hands a story like this can come across as gratuitous and shallow and juvenile, like an adolescent boy playing at being a tough man when his definition of tough is purely Hollywood. Making Wolf works because Thompson has an unflinching understanding of how cynical and compromised people can become while depicting them as people with understandable motives and reactions. It is, as I’ve said, a violent book, but I never felt pandered to.
As a character, Weston is often clueless and out of his depth. He compromises, and not always in a noble way. He makes bad choices, sometimes because they are the most rational choices. He lies to himself. He lies to others. In other words, he feels not like a superhero whom destiny has fitted out to charge in and become the savior but like an imperfect person who finds a way to survive and, possibly, to figure out who he has a chance of becoming. I could identify with some of the metaphorical and psychological elements of his journey, which made it a sobering trip.
The pacing is electric. The story and situation grabbed me immediately and never let up. Thompson has a precise eye for local detail and a thorough understanding of the setting, which he delineates succinctly and with exactitude.
I often don’t feel I’m good at expressing my emotional experience of reading. I’m far more comfortable when analyzing structure or theme, while the core of this novel is its emotional, visceral ride. I was surprised at how engrossed I was in a story that in other hands I would probably have disliked. Thompson’s writing is absolutely solid, but it’s the clear-eyed, unblinking, harsh aesthetic he brings that sold me.
I’m so old I remember when MTV played music videos. My not-yet-husband and I used to go to a frozen yoghurt store so I could watch MTV (we couldn’t afford cable). I love music videos. I still do although the thrill isn’t as intense as it was then, when it was a new way of interacting with songs you would otherwise only hear.
These are a few of my favorite music videos from over the years. This is not a top ten list but a “some I feel like enthusiasming about right now” list.
All Night Long (Lionel Richie)
This is a sweet, goofy video from 1983, and as much as I love it (and I do) just about everything from it is clearly from a different era. The style and color palette of the clothing has not, shall we say, worn well. Too many of the outfits remind me of the dread era of Jane Fonda Workouts. What were they thinking?
Lionel Richie looks so incredibly young and suave, and he has the effortlessly pleasing visage and presence of the videogenic. The infectious beat, the easy cheerfulness of the dance party vibe where everyone is celebrated and celebrating, and the unexpected policeman make this a classic that for all its hokey-ness never loses its appeal for me.
Beat It (Michael Jackson)
I asked my spouse what music videos were most memorable for him, and Beat It (1982) is the first one he mentioned. It was innovative, massively popular, and hugely influential, of course. However, while I appreciate its place as a classic, for me it hasn’t aged that well although the dance-off remains great and Jackson is a great singer. As with West Side Story, the dancers don’t really look as tough as they are meant to be. And it reminds me of how much women get relegated to the sidelines in this kind of story. That awful kiss in the diner makes me cringe every time.
Somebody to Love (Justin Bieber, featuring Usher)
No, no, stop. Don’t walk away. Bear with me.
I love the clever and flashy direction of this cheerful 2010 video. Okay, Bieber is not a great singer, and he can’t dance, but Usher can sing (and dance), and the dance crews are great, and diverse, and foregrounded as near equals in the sense that the video doesn’t work without them.
And–get this!–all the women are clothed! This is a bigger deal than you may realize in an era of so many music videos with clothed men and unclothed women, and I appreciate it greatly. Also, regardless of your Bieber feels, it’s a pretty great pop song qua pop song. And Usher can sing. Listen to him fancy up that melody.
Shoop (Salt-N-Pepa) (1994)
I miss 90s music. I miss this 90s music, the one with the women owning their sexuality and making their way in company with each other.
Express Yourself (Madonna) (1989)
“Come on girls, do you believe in love? Because I’ve got something to say about it, and it goes like this.”
Madonna plays multiple roles in a reworking of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. The plot is classic, the man is beautiful, the jazz band-as-automatons is chilling and effective, and the video is visually sophisticated, with a filmic aesthetic and a gorgeous palette. Plus the song is sex positive!
Also: that milk.
Take On Me (a-ha) (1985)
That girl is me at 15.
Escapade (Janet Jackson)
Few songs and their attendant videos make me as purely happy as this one. (If I had to assign songs to characters, this would be Cat Barahal’s song.)
Despite its 1989 release, here we find no vintage 80s hair or vintage 80s clothes to date it a la “All Night Long,” so it still feels and looks fresh. Janet Jackson’s gear is always timeless, and her clothes were particularly to my taste during her RHYTHM NATION period. How much do I want that jacket???
The choreography is crisp and interesting, the carnival setting joyful and complex, and the video as dance-and-story is top-notch. There is a mysterious and handsome man. And Janet Jackson may have the greatest smile in the history of music videos. What’s not to love?
Black Hand Side (Pharoahe Monch featuring Styles ) and Phonte)
Great song and great video from 2011. This simply is one of the smartest uses of the medium to enhance & complicate the message, and of course it does not pull its social commentary punch. The sequence where he is walking along behind the young couple is sheer brilliance, deep insight into how much prejudice is embedded in the stories we tell ourselves about “how people are” and how racism constrains the stories we are willing to believe.
If I had to have a top three music videos of all time, this would be on it.
Fantastic Baby (Big Bang)(2012)
The clothes. The hair. The style. The beat. The owl. This is everything a music video is supposed to be.
Isabel Yap’s The Oiran’s Song (Uncanny Magazine) tells a story about a war-torn world that is truly grim and dark. As I have said elsewhere, so often the narratives that claim to focus on the griminess and grittiness of war as an act of edginess focus on the people who are inflicting the pain while the victims figure as nameless grist for the mill. Yap’s story reverses that trope, telling the story of a youth who has been sold into service in an army unit during what is apparently a civil war. Note how the details of the politics do not matter for the people who are being used, abused, and churned up by those fighting. We never get any sense that there is a point to the war, or even an end in sight. I find this kind of story heartbreaking and difficult to read, but for me it reaches deeper into the tragedy of war because it centers the existence of those lives used up and destroyed.
This is a hard read, and Yap frames it with beautiful, emotional language that never blinks as it tells its truths:
Winter will always remind you of three things: the smoke rising from the fire that burned your home; the cold floor you slept on as a pageboy in the teahouse; and the peculiar shade of your brother’s skin, the way his bruises grayed like melted snow. This color does not make sense in your mouth: spoken, tasted. But you see it every time you close your eyes. His body being folded like a paper fan, broken apart like ceramic. The few nights you could lean next to him, he smelled like wine and another person’s sweat.
When you were twelve, at the onset of war, the teahouse sold you to some passing soldiers. You bundled up your clothes and stopped by Kaoru’s room. He held you, and you exhaled into his chest, where bruises were patterned delicately: stains of the floating world. You didn’t know it then, but the pleasure quarters were starting to crumble. “Goodbye, niisan,” you said.
Your brother did not tell you to be happy, which would have been cruel. Instead he said, “Live well, Akira.” His eyes, when they rested on your face, were loving, sad, and afraid.
Rose Lemberg’s Grandmother-Nai-Leylit’s Cloth of Winds (Beneath Ceaseless Skies) is a coming of age story set in her Birdverse secondary world, about a young person finding out who and what they are and what course their life may take by way of a quest. I’m not going to synopsize the plot except to say that the core of the story, for me, is the concept of making decisions in life in terms of our relationships to others and how we understand our self.
In the Birdverse universe, relationships and language and magic intertwine so tightly they can’t be fully pulled apart because none of them exist in isolation from each other. Language and linguistics underpins the Birdverse. If you enjoy asides on and playing with etymology and language change, if you love fascinating cultural explorations and inventive customs and traditions that feel lived in, this is the story for you. This world feels “real” in the sense that I can imagine myself wandering into it, and it comes alive in striking and evocative writing.
One day grandmother-nai-Tammah spoke to me, as if to continue a conversation we had never begun. “Beyond the city,” she said, “in the heart of the desert, the sandhills crest and fall, shifted about by the hand of the wind. Sometimes the wind blows so mighty it cuts through the layers of sand, through the years, revealing bones of perished animals too winsome to exist. People of the Surun’ treasure these, and so do the Maiva’at. The best of their weavers know how to listen to the bones. In plain threads of spidersilk they then embroider these beasts, fantastical and forgotten, onto carpets dyed with weld and madder.”
I nodded, not feeling the need for speech.
“Each tribe has its own designs, shapes formal and solemn to embody the memories of the bones. Each tribe has its own materials—spidersilk and wool, sisal and reeds and thin leather cords. Yet only among the snake-Surun’ is there a tradition of weaving from air.”
She said nothing more, expecting perhaps a question.
Later, Gitit-nai-Lur would ask me why I had not asked, her eyes bright with secrets and dreams of the desert. “A cloth of winds! A whole tradition of it, not just a single fragment but a whole carpet, carpets! Oh, such a treasure to bring back from a trading venture, to unroll before the ruler of the city!”
There is so much to love about Tricia Sullivan’s strange, convoluted, humane, and playful imagination as it emerges in her fiction. One of the chief things I read her for is the sense I get that I have dropped into a work of fiction I could not ever hope to write. At times I read for comfort and familiarity, while at other times I want to open a door into a vision that shakes me and enthralls me and twists my mind into strange angles.
I am not even going to attempt to describe the plot. Instead I’ll quote the Gollancz copy:
A woman with wings that exist in another dimension. A man trapped in his own body by a killer. A briefcase that is a door to hell. A conspiracy that reaches beyond our world.
Occupy Me starts fast, with an almost urban fantasy vibe, and skews faster into something completely weird and wonderful and often very very funny. Sullivan uses a complex narrative structure through time, tense, and point-of-view switches to both propel the narrative forward and keep creating a recursive reflection back as you-the-reader begins to see how it all links up.
Every character, even the minor ones, are sharply delineated. Besides Pearl, I particularly loved the vet Alison who adapts to a strange situation with aplomb and grace. The descriptions of place are rich with vivid sensory detail. I was often struck by the beauty and luminosity of the prose. Sometimes the wild physics made sense to me with my limited physics background; sometimes I felt completely out of my depth; but it didn’t matter because the prose always carried me forward and the story is always grounded in Pearl’s quest as well as the perfectly human needs and motivations of the other characters.
I’m not a reviewer and honestly I don’t feel competent to write about this work in a way that will bring across its full splendour. If you like science fiction that is weird and wonderful and often very very funny, Occupy Me will fit the bill.
Here’s an excerpt from a post Sullivan wrote about the genesis of the ideas:
I was really afraid to move beyond what I’d written in the past. Most of my books are about consciousness, which is an ontological subject in its own way, but not the same kind of ontology as cosmology–or so I thought at the time. It’s not like I wanted to write space opera. I wanted to write stories that have their roots in some of the strangeness of modern physics.
I wanted to add a link to this recent review which goes into the science, the ontology, and the cosmology in a way I can’t and that really digs into how much Sullivan is doing in the novel.
Over the holidays my sister visited. She doesn’t as a rule read or watch science fiction and fantasy; she watches very little television in general regardless because she doesn’t own a tv. However, she does enjoy watching programs with others (I got her and my mom hooked on Nashville). So rather than watching whatever zombie program my spouse is viewing at the moment, he and I agreed to introduce her to Firefly, which we ended up watching over about five nights.
This is the fourth time I’ve watched the entire series straight through. I hadn’t heard of Firefly until after Fox cancelled it.
On the fourth viewing, my overwhelming reaction to Firefly is how much I love the nine main characters and the complex ways in which they interact with each other and with the worlds around them. The opening title sequence with its plaintive title song evokes nostalgia for a show–for my acquaintance with these characters–cut short too soon.
Many ensemble shows take multiple episodes or even a couple of seasons before the actors truly jell with each other. Firefly had an unusually strong blend. I don’t know in what order the episodes were filmed but I do imagine that the pilot double episode, “Serenity,” was filmed first because the way the characters work together feels just a little stagey. By The Train Job the ensemble is smoothing out; by Bushwhacked it feels as if the ensemble has been together for several seasons already. They just feel right together, like it was meant to be.
Of course I have a few criticisms. Every time I watch I don’t understand why we don’t see more Chinese and other Asian faces. Given the setup, they should be everywhere, and definitely Chinese in the highest echelons of society, but mostly they are absent. Simon and River should, by rights, be played by Chinese or Chinese-ancestry actors; however, Sean Maher and Summer Glau are so great in the roles that I don’t regret them being there. And while I love the conceit that everyone uses random words of Mandarin in their speech, as a reflection of the hegemonic power, I can’t speak to how well the language use is actually managed.
This is meant to be a brief piece, not an essay, so I won’t say much more although I might expound in the comments if inspired, because there are so many levels to these characters and their relationships and all of it funneled through with humor melded with the serious. How great is Wash? How complex and mysterious is Shepherd Book? Why is Jayne at his most sympathetic when he begs the captain not to tell the others that he betrayed them? How does the character of Kaylee even work, and yet she does, and also her friendship with Inara is perfect. How awesome is Zoe? Why do I love Inara even though by rights I ought to dislike the trope? Simon is a perfect blend of clueless privileged guy and dead-serious doctor, and River is a work in progress who was still unfolding in so many ways.
One of the most interesting things that happened during the re-watch was experiencing the opening scenes of “Our Mrs. Reynolds” with a viewer who didn’t know what was coming. My sister was appalled at Zoe mocking Saffron, and at the general unsympathetic tone of most of the crew’s comments. My spouse and I were, of course, laughing, because we knew the twist and she didn’t, but her outrage forced me to step back from my place of knowledge and look at it with fresh eyes. It’s effectively written, I think. Mal, as always, is a person of contradictions: He is a deeply damaged man who can be harsh and sometimes genuinely mean in a petty way (we see this in his interactions with Inara, because he can process his feelings for her in no other way even as we are meant–I believe–to find his behavior unpleasant and immature). Yet at the same time as I’m appalled by his treatment of Inara, I admire him for his complete loyalty to his crew, which is unshakeable. “Our Mrs. Reynolds” is a rare moment where we see Zoe in a negative light. Is she mocking the girl because she is jealous? Not of Saffron’s potential sexual relation with the captain but of the potential for another person to become as close to the captain as she is? I don’t know. I love Zoe, so it’s unexpectedly jarring to glimpse that side of her, however briefly.
And that’s what I adore about Firefly. I feel I am getting to know people who have the complexities and flaws and strengths that people have. The journey matters because the characters matter to me.
If I had to point to a moment in the pilot that captures me every time, I will always point to the scene on Persephone when engineer Kaylee, sitting with her rainbow colored cheap paper parasol in a grungy folding chair, spots Shepherd Book and tells him in that bright, smiling tone that never sounds false, “You’re coming with us.”
“In the Witchlands, there are almost as many types of magic as there are ways to get in trouble—as two desperate young women know all too well.”
About fifty pages into reading Truthwitch I had one of those moments when my present self connected to my teen self, and in great excitement my teen self shouted: “THIS IS THE BOOK I WANTED TO READ BUT COULDN’T FIND BECAUSE ALL THE ADVENTURE FANTASY SWORDS-AND-MAGIC EPICS WERE ABOUT GUYS!”
That’s right. This is the epic fantasy I couldn’t find when I was a teen, about girls, who are best friends, who fight enemies, run for their lives, stumble across hot love interests in complicated ways, and rely on each other. Meanwhile there is a larger and complex political situation whose twists and turns relate to actual believable political dealings like treaties and economics as well as the usual and crucial personality conflicts and ambitions and betrayals. In other words: unabashed adventure fantasy with sword fights, chases on land and at sea, different modes of magic each with fascinating benefits and drawbacks, young women being loyal to each other and also stubborn and reckless and angry, OLD WOMEN WHO ARE COMPETENT AND IMPORTANT TO THE STORY (whoops, did I get excited there?), looming threats, old grudges, back-stabbing, and the promise of yet more to come. Frankly, reading this was just plain epic fun.
Listen, people. We are living in a golden age of fantasy and sf. Enjoy it, because I sure am.
(Next week’s Enthusiasm Thursday: Introducing my non-sff-reading/viewing sister to Firefly)
I also completed and turned in the copy-edited ms of Black Wolves (Orbit Books). The novel now goes to typesetting and I will next see it in page proofs. Publication date remains 3 November 2015.
I continue to work on a draft of the sequel to my YA debut Court of Fives (Little,Brown Young Readers). Having sorted out a plot tangle (with the patient aid of one of my editors) I have what looks to me like a clear shot to the end.
An essay on Writing Women Characters will go up some time this month on Tor.com. It’s long and meant not as an “opinion piece” but as more of a workshop style essay.
I am still working on The Beatriceid, which is now my most overdue item.
The three projects mentioned above are my focus for March. I have other posts, essays, interviews, short stories, and novels awaiting my attention but for the moment they have to stand in line. I’m not complaining; far from it.
I am at that stage of my workload where I am having to say No to things I would like to say Yes to because I have too many outstanding projects and commitments (often small ones, but the small ones pile up into monstrously intimidating mountains). I like saying Yes to things but when I have too much unfinished work, especially of multiple diverse types, I often end up becoming exhausted by the mere thought of the overload and don’t get anything done at all.
“But some days when I get this weather inside me it seems no matter how I want to be good, sooner or later I’m going to let off on somebody.”
Shadowboxer is the story of Jade Barrera, a seventeen year old mixed martial artist with anger issues who wants to fight professionally. Her story intersects that of a Burmese girl, Mya, in Thailand who has the ability to walk from our world into a deeper world that lies alongside and intertwined with ours. I’m not going to try to encapsulate the plot (although it includes drug smuggling and child slavery as well as the world of Mixed Martial Arts) but rather discuss some elements that really stood out for me.
This is a novel that excels at voice. Sullivan’s writing shines. She deftly switches from Jade’s first person narrative to Mya’s third person narrative in a way that feels completely natural within the text. What I found most impressive is how each voice is entirely distinct; leaving aside the first/third person differentiation, there is no way a reader can mistake Mya’s sensitive and observant point of view for Jade’s fierce personality because the language and the kinds of things each character notices, describes, and remarks on fit each girl’s psychology.
Jade fights her own demons and her tough, uncompromising voice and her mistakes and imperfections and her constant pushing of herself to figure things out and do better just make me love her as a protagonist. Her interactions with other characters are consistently fitting to her blunt and yet genuine manner. Mya’s situation is stark and frightening but her compassion and courage, and her intelligence and ability, keep her moving and striving. The language flows through the narrative in a way that reveals how each point of view character acts and reacts within the world.
The secondary characters also stand out. It’s not a particularly long novel and yet the other characters remain vividly drawn and easy to tell apart. The dialogue is just so good. It has the the rhythm of real exchanges and there is always just the right amount of it to tell the reader what she needs to know. I can read and re-read certain of the dialogue scenes because they’re so well done, so dexterous, so agile as they unfold impressive amounts of information and emotion.
How much do I love how Sullivan depicts serious training and the drive to compete? How much do I love the intense, sweaty, physical fight scenes? There are no training montages here, no smooth moves or easy grasp of competence. Jade trains hard in a way I found tremendously believable. Furthermore Sullivan really knows how to fight and therefore her fight scenes read like they’re actual Mixed Martial Arts bouts taking place rather than as if they are literary fight scenes written with Hollywood-style choreography. I’ve rarely read a book in which the fighting felt as real.