04 March, 2015

Whodunit Actually Doesn't Matter: Reviewing The Connicle Curse by Gregory Harris

Hey everyone! I'm emerging from my wampa-cave for a review of a book I got an ARC of from NetGalley.  I was pretty excited by the reviews I'd read of this series, labeling it as what would happen if Holmes and Watson were romantically involved instead of just full of subtext. I was expecting banter, a good twisty mystery, and a decent dose of that lovely societally-induced repression that makes Victorian romances (especially queer ones) so delightful. Unfortunately I was mildly disappointed on all three counts, but it did give me a lot to think about. 

The narrator is Ethan Pruitt, the Watson to Colin Pendragon's Holmes. He has a sly sort of humor to him, but it was swallowed up by the massive amounts of angst he went through over the course of the book, as the mystery touched on some painful events in his past. Pendragon was clever, yes, but the ways in which he ordered Pruitt about in public fell short of the whimsical rudeness of Holmes and Watson. In the books and especially the 2009 movie, Watson's put-upon suffering is funny because it's intercut with moments of real emotion between the two-- but I never really felt that emotion between them, the weight of their long relationship and what they meant to each other, the way I wanted to. 

The mystery itself was rather muddled for me as well. At one point Pendragon complains that he can't make sense of the crimes that have been committed, and I felt rather the same way. There didn't seem to be any clear objective the murders were driving toward, there was a lot of misdirection and confusion, but not the kind that ramped up my own sense of urgency and curiosity. There was really no clear indication that the crimes had been committed by one person with a specific aim in mind, which is something I hadn't thought of as vital to a murder mystery until now.  Ultimately the reveal of whodunit packed no punch, because there'd been no foreshadowing and almost no development of the character in question beforehand. The final confrontation was decently done, but I thought the death unnecessary (though perhaps if I'd read the first two books I'd have cared more about the character?).

This was hardly a bad book, and I think it did a wonderful job of portraying queer characters in genre fiction without making the story all about them being queer. But the plot could have used tightening, and my lack of emotional connection to the characters made it fall flat. All of which has led me to think in depth about mysteries, and the careful amount of construction that goes into their creation.

Arguably, detective fiction is the only genre where the structure of the book is predicated on the characters setting aside their own personal goals, desires, and motivations, in favor of dedicating themselves to someone else's. At least nominally, a detective has to remain objective, at a distance from their cases, lest they lose their ability to think critically about how to solve them. Of course, the best mysteries are the ones where that objectivity is impossible to preserve-- consider Tana French's Dublin Murder Squad series, or Mulder and Scully's work on the X-Files, or Holmes when confronted with the work of Moriarty.

What's common in all these great mysteries is the sense of growing dread-- that while the case of the week may have started out as just another death or theft or unexplained phenomenon, the root of it is something intimately connected to the detective on an emotional level. And if the detective doesn't tread very carefully, the fallout will be not only the failure to solve the case, but a catastrophe for the detective on a personal level as well. In a good mystery, the arc of the plot is a success only if it unravels the detective's impartiality along with the explanation of how the deed was done. If the detective remains wholly outside the case, it's more an intellectual exercise than a story.

Which isn't to say every good mystery must drag the detective's inner demons out onto the page-- many of the shorter Holmes stories are more like long-form riddles than exposés into his character. But the genius of Doyle's work is that he intersperses longer stories that show Holmes and Watson as real, three-dimensional people, with shorter pieces that serve as funny or consternating palate cleansers in between. 

But in a novel, the reader spends a long swath of time with the characters, and keeping the detective at a remove from the case also serves to keep the reader at a remove from the detective. It's counterproductive if the author is trying to build tension and keep the reader invested in what happens. Because ultimately the solution to the problem is only important insofar as it is important to the people trying to solve it.  In Faithful Place by Tana French, we care if Frank catches Rosie's killer because Frank is driven like a madman to find out what happened to her-- without Mulder to remind us that aliens took his sister, we lose the sense of urgency that keeps us on the edge of our seats as he and Scully come this close, again and again, to finding the truth. 

Not to harp on Tana French (but if you like mysteries and you aren't reading Tana French, repair that oversight immediately) but her first book, In The Woods, is the perfect example. In that book, there are two mysteries that protagonist Rob Ryan and his partner Cassie are trying to solve: a murder that's just occurred, and the disappearance of Rob's two best friends back when he was a child. The two are linked from the outset, but in the end only one of them gets solved. We never know what happened to Rob's two friends-- and I'm totally okay with that, because I got enough emotional closure from the completed arc of the story and the solving of the modern murder, that I didn't need to know. I wanted to, of course, and so does Rob. But finding the facts matter far less than feeling the character has come full circle, and in that respect In The Woods tells a whole and complete story.

So, returning to The Connicle Curse. The driving emotional force in the book-- Pruitt's past experience with mental illness and the devastation it brought upon his family when he was a child-- didn't have much to do with uncovering the mastermind behind the murders. Pendragon was set up as Pruitt's emotional support system, and indeed we see Pruitt taking comfort from his partner a few times throughout the book. But the resolution of Mrs. Connicle's brush with institutionalization and Pruitt's ability to confront the horrors of his past didn't dovetail neatly enough with the resolution of the murders. The book played ping-pong with the two, never giving me a chance to really get emotionally invested in either storyline. 

In fact, reading this book and writing this post have reminded me that it's been a while since I last read a Tana French book. It might be time to pick up the next in the Dublin Murder series, and scratch the itch for a mystery I actually won't be able to put down.

You can see more of my book ratings at my Goodreads. The Connicle Curse is available for sale on Amazon.

18 February, 2015

be our guest, be our guest...

This is sadly not that inaccurate a depiction of what it's like driving through Cambridge and Somerville right now. There have been times I've questioned the sanity of keeping a car in a city with such a big public transit system, but these past few weeks I've been so glad of it. Patches of cleared sidewalks get sighted about as often as the Loch Ness Monster, and are nearly as dangerous. What was once my front lawn is now a twelve-foot-high snowbank spilling out into the street.

But there are bright spots-- quite a few, in fact. I had a fabulous weekend in the delightful city of Troy, New York with my three best friends, I saw the sun on Monday, and I am so proud to say that on Tuesday I was featured for the first time as a guest blogger on the awesome urban fantasy blog All Things Urban Fantasy! You can see my post, a sneak peek at a few YA urban fantasy titles coming out in the next few months that I'm really excited about, right this way.

The girls that run ATUF are pretty awesome, and I'm really pleased to be working with them. I'll have another review up with them in the next few weeks, and I got a chance to participate in their series Cover Art Coverage this week as well. Going all Tim Gunn on the covers of some recently released titles was a ton of fun (not gonna lie, I had to stop myself from saying "I question your taste level" just because I could.)

So that's what I'm up to this week-- that, and preparing for another snowstorm that's supposed to hit this Saturday. Sigh. At least I've got a lot of books to read...

22 January, 2015

Scoundrel? I Like The Sound Of That: Reviewing the 'Rogues' Anthology

When I say I'm weak for a good heist story, I mean weak. Ocean's Eleven, Locke Lamora, Holly Black's Curse Workers trilogy, The Sting, the list goes on. Give me a person (or, preferably, a group of people) robbing some rich asshole blind and having a snarky fantastic time while doing it, and I'll eat it up like candy.

Greg Van Eekhout wrote a great blog last summer about the magic involved in a successful heist, and he's right-- there is something irresistible about that sleight-of-hand smile-at-me-while-my-partner-steals-your-wallet kind of character. As it turns out, George R. R. Martin feels the same way, and so he went about assembling a collection of stories all featuring rogues in one form or another. As with any anthology, this was a bit of a mixed bag, with some stories sticking more successfully to the theme than others. I've briefly reviewed each story in terms of its relevance to the theme, and its overall awesomeness, below the cut.

13 January, 2015

cool shit i found to help you get over being forced to put on pants today

Because I know I'm not alone in being super, super bitter that I can't call out of work due to freezing my nonexistent balls off. Whether your balls manifest on this plane of reality or are entirely imaginary, I salute any and all of you who managed to drag them (and presumably the rest of your body as well) out into the world today.

Unless you live in Australia, in which case, go have an iced coffee and enjoy your warm weather somewhere I don't have to hear about it.

Some cool shit happened this week, like this Irish priest who came out to his congregation and got a standing ovation. That just warms the cockles of my freezing little heart, dammit.

On Sunday night, the Golden Globes was pretty great for women, with not only Their Royal Highnesss Tina and Amy calling out Bill Cosby for being a rapist on live TV (on Cosby's former home network, no less) but some really great roles for women, trans people, and minorities were handed out as well. Through a series of clicks I couldn't possibly retrace at this point I came across now-Golden-Globe-winning actress Gina Rodriguez talking about her role on Jane the Virgin and why cultural representation matters, which made me fistpump and say "Hell yeah!" Similarly, The Mary Sue pointed out how Bojack Horseman gets the whole representation thing too, which especially in light of last week's post about supporting characters in Disney films, makes me double fistpump.

it's a croc wearing crocs. meta game too strong...
(Also that show is hilarious and how come I'd never heard of it before last week??? Glad to have that hole in my media consumption filled in.)

Recently, on "Buzzfeed is a glorious timesuck that will simultaneously amaze you and ruin your life," they posted a collection of tumblr winning at the HP text post game. This not only gave me a chuckle, but sent me on this imaginative tailspin of planning an in-depth analysis of the ways fandom identity has shifted in its expression as the fandom community has shifted from LJ to tumblr. Like, how is our sharing of meta different, and graphics, and are memes the same, and how has the ubiquity of tumblr text posts allowed for shorter meta or headcanon sharing versus LJ meta which was often much longer... Yeah that's a dissertation I'm never going to write, but it's fun to think about. XD

Also, this week we learned that the secret to building the pyramids was a lot more prosaic than Fox Mulder and other theorists previously believed. (Sorry X-Men Apocalypse, you didn't get it right either.)

OK, that's all for this Tuesday. Stay warm, Northern Hemispherites, until next time!

12 January, 2015

Why I Am Charlie (and you are, too)

So, everyone has been talking about Charlie Hebdo lately, and I said a bit about it on tumblr last week after the debates started getting heated, and now after doing some more reading and thinking, I want to say some more. 

I've never been personally attacked or threatened for my writing, but I know people who have been. It's not pretty. And while I acknowledge there's a very real difference between satirizing people or institutions with power and privilege at their command, and satirizing marginalized groups who are often the targets of random acts of hatred and violence themselves, the bottom line is that committing violence against people for speaking their minds is wrong.

John Scalzi's response to all this fervor hit the nail on the head. In talking about whether or not we agree with or support Charlie Hebdo's ideology, he says:
"my comfort level is about me, not about Charlie Hebdo or anyone else. Free speech, taken as a principle rather than a specific constitutional practice, means everyone has a right to share their ideas, in their own space, no matter how terrible or obnoxious or racist or stupid or inconsequential I or anyone else think they and their ideas are."
Take, for example, the movie The Interview. The queens of comedy Fey and Poehler roasted it a bit last night at the Golden Globes, saying that the controversy forced us all to pretend we wanted to see it-- quite accurately, because I didn't want to, and still don't. But I was deeply unnerved by Sony's capitulating response to North Korea's threats. (Chuck Wendig did the best job of explaining why that should make us all nervous, in case you weren't already.)

As artists, we have a responsibility to make the art we feel compelled to make. It might be snarky, offensive, racist, or just plain crap. But that doesn't mean we should be denied the right to make it, or that violence and murder is an acceptable response to art we don't like.

People have drawn parallels to Rush Limbaugh and asked if we would be defending him so hard if he'd been the one attacked for his hate speech. And as much as I hate to admit it, my answer is yes. I would rather be force-fed live slugs than do anything to support Limbaugh (I'm not even comfortable calling him an artist, but speaking your mind via film/music/graphics/writing and speaking your mind via rancid diatribes on the radio are not distinguishable in the eyes of the law, so the comparison stands). I loathe the man, and I wish he would come down with a case of permanent laryngitis or, you know, a lobotomy. But if someone were to murder him for speaking his tiny, bigoted mind, that would not be okay, and I would absolutely stand up in the street to protest that event.

Like Wendig says in his article about The Interview: protesting the things we find objectionable is part of social discourse. Threatening or enacting violence upon people for making or looking at art is fucked up and always, always wrong.

So yeah, #jesuischarlie. But whether you use the hashtag or not, you are Charlie too-- because you click links on Facebook, because you look at videos on YouTube, because you're reading this blog. 

Because if murder as a response to art is okay, then that means we're giving governments and terrorist groups the power to decide what art is okay to make and what isn't. And if we go there, pretty soon the line between those who make the art and those who consume it is going to blur, and that's the start of a slippery slide. 

It's simple: either free speech is protected or it isn't. If people are allowed to make films like Selma and Pride, to write Watchmen and put a gay wedding on the cover of an X-Men comic, then people are also allowed to draw racist cartoons and make terrible movies about assassinating Kim Jong Il and shout on the radio about the dangerous plague of gays in America. 

We don't have to agree with Charlie Hebdo. We don't have to support their art or validate their points of view. But we can't lose sight of the fact that last week two men took 12 innocent lives because they didn't like some cartoons. And if we don't make it clear that we will not be silenced by terror, the person who uses guns as their first line of social discourse will never have any reason to put down the gun and try picking up a pencil instead.

08 January, 2015

Disney made a mistake, but Emily Asher-Perrin didn't.

Earlier this week over on tor.com, Emily Asher-Perrin posted a thoughtful and, I thought, pretty spot on analysis of what Tangled, Brave, and Frozen all got wrong-- namely, that while they have female protagonists, they completely lack any female supporting cast, up to and including the animal sidekicks.

I know we're not supposed to read the comments, but I did. And after a lot of eyerolling, I came across one commenter who sparked a reply in me, which I'd like to expand on here.

The commenter wrote:
...why single out these three films when this happens EVERYWHERE. The critique really should be why does this happen (and everywhere, not just three Disney films, as in this essay here): one of the biggest selling genre series was written by a woman and it's a pretty white, male, heterosexual magical and muggle world that she's depicted.

And hey, that's not a bad question. Why target Disney, when this issue is disgustingly rampant and, let's face it, kids' movies are not even close to the majority of films that get produced in the US on a yearly basis?

It all comes down to how we critique, how we begin to frame the conversation. As I replied to that Tor commenter, an examination of the relegation of women to nameless windowdressing in all Disney films would be a dissertation, not a blog post. Lists help keep the discussion focused-- by critiquing these three films, Asher-Perrin isn't saying that they're the only films that need critiquing, she's using them as a jumping-off point to start a wider examination of the inherent sexism in Hollywood.

And boy, what a can of worms that is. The Huffington Post reported in 2012 that a study by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender and Media that looked at nearly 12,000 roles in prime time TV, children's TV, and family films, "...[researchers] found a lack of aspirational female role models in all three media categories, and cited five main observations: female characters are sidelined, women are stereotyped and sexualized, a clear employment imbalance exists, women on TV come up against a glass ceiling, and there are not enough female characters working in STEM fields."


Let's take this a bit further. In 2013, the MPAA reported that the share of tickets sold to 2-11 year olds was at its highest point since 2009 (page 2), accounting for 12% of frequent (once a month or more) moviegoers (page 12). 7 of the top 25 grossing movies of 2013 were rated PG or under (page 23) with 4 children's films appearing in the top 10.

In a world where women account for only 28% of speaking roles in family films, that's a pretty strong message we're giving, over and over, to really young kids.

Studies show that kids learn a lot about gender roles and job expectations from media. If the TV tells them that 72% of people with important things to say are men, they're going to grow up thinking that's reality. If the TV tells them a 14 to 1 ratio of men to women in STEM fields is normal, they're going to internalize that as truth without even realizing it.

I say again: ouch.

The lack of adequate, varied representation of women in media is a big problem, one that reaches way further than Disney. But if we're going to critique, why not start there? Of course we want to erode entrenched sexism now, see more representation on our screens now. But it's also important to do whatever we can do to stop the cycle now, and give the next generation a chance to grow up without being spoon-fed so much subtextual sexism.

The point of Asher-Perrin's post was that if a juggernaut like Disney, who rakes in money even on its weakest offerings, were to start the ball rolling on equal representation, it might give other filmmakers (and artists, and writers) the courage to follow suit. The Tor commenter was wrong: Asher-Perrin's critique shouldn't be different from what it is, it should stand alongside and be considered intersectionally with critiques of other films, other studios, other media.

Her post is a gateway to a larger consideration of the kinds of movies and media we offer our kids, and especially in light of the Frozen fever that doesn't seem to be releasing its grip on America's kids (and adults!) anytime soon, I applaud her for getting the discussion started.

07 January, 2015

Cities, Planets, and a Partridge in a Pear Tree

Happy new year, everyone!

I don't know about you guys, but the holidays tire me out. December went by in a flash, and by the time New Year's rolled around I found myself lacking the energy to do anything but lie on my bed and read, in which pursuit I spent a glorious New Year's weekend. Immersed in the fabulous Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie, and then by the various worlds presented in George R. R. Martin's Rogues anthology, I got to thinking a lot about worldbuilding.

For a speculative fiction writer, worldbuilding is one of the most important parts of structuring the story you want to tell. You have to find a good balance between giving the reader a complete picture of the world you've imagined, and giving them so much information that the story gets lost inside the encyclopedia you're dumping on them. It's really easy to fall down on either side of that line, and the authors who walk it best manage to deliver their worldbuilding so casually you barely realize it's happening.

In that vein, I compiled a list of a few of the best examples of worldbuilding in fantasy and sci-fi, both as a reference for myself as a writer when I find myself mired in the hows and whys of my worlds, and for everyone else to enjoy and hopefully add to.

the Imperial Radch series by Ann Leckie - I imagine it's really hard to find a way to explain "My main character used to be a ship with thousands of bodies all controlled by her AI, but now all but one of the bodies are dead and she has to pretend to be human." But Leckie manages to do just that, and to give her narrator a place within a detailed and politically complex sci-fi universe, without infodumping even once. Some might argue she errs on the side of obscurity, and there were certainly places at the beginning of the book where I was a little confused, but the picture comes together at a slow but steady pace, and the final product is seriously, seriously cool.

When Gravity Fails by George Alec Effinger - While the plot in this book isn't the tightest one might wish from a murder mystery, the worldbuilding is outstanding. The city of the Budayeen is so vivid I can picture it in my mind even years after having read the book, same goes for the technology and weapons described. It's a textured blend of a place, it feels real even though it's unmistakably full of sci-fi elements. This is a case where the world is built effortlessly through the narrator's voice, as he travels through the social strata of the city trying to catch a murderer; you don't even realize how much of the picture is painted in until you step back and look at it from a distance.

the Gentlemen Bastard sequence by Scott Lynch - This is my favorite book series being published right now, full stop. Lynch takes a fairly straightforward approach to worldbuilding, but he's clearly given his world an insane amount of thought, and there are just as many passages of description as there are casual allusions to things that help fill in the picture around the action. Camorr itself, the city setting of the first book, is like a Renaissance-era Venice if it were made by aliens and populated by the Mafia. But every city we've visited with Lynch, from Tal Verrar to Old Theradane, just straight-up feels like a real place. He knows just what details to give to make you feel the cobblestones under your feet and taste the wine on your tongue.

Dune by Frank Herbert - One of the greatest examples of sci-fi where the world is built through context. There's almost no info-dumping in Dune, just a lot of contextual allusions to important things that allow the reader to put together a complete picture of the worlds we visit. Like concentric circles, Herbert builds the Atreides family, the way they integrate with the Fremen society, the Fremen's place on Arrakis, and Arrakis's place in the universe, so casually you hardly realize he's doing it. Getting a POV on the Harkonnens, and the excerpts from Princess Irulan's writings, rounds out the bits we'd miss by sticking just with Paul's POV.

The Rook by Daniel O'Malley - In a story where your main character is a member of the British Supernatural Secret Service, coworker of vampires and dreamwalkers and sociopaths who inhabit four bodies at once, how to avoid the infodump factor? Easy-- make your character lose her memory and have to learn everything about her world all over again. I love epistolary fiction to begin with, and I really loved that The Rook is told half through letters from Myfanwy to her future memory-wiped self. Though there are sections that are heavy with information, it doesn't feel egregious because it's new to the character as well as the reader. Also, the inner structure of the agency is both brilliant and intuitive, so it's not hard to understand how the pecking order works.

the Harry Potter series - Similar to The Rook, a really great way to introduce your world to your audience is through the eyes of a character to whom everything is totally new. How better to ease us into the Wizarding World than by taking us, literally, to school there? It's pretty brilliant that Harry's new to being a wizard entirely, and not just new to the idea of Hogwarts-- his newbie status allows for continued worldbuilding throughout the series. My favorite use of this is probably in Book 5 when we learn about the Ministry's inner workings and St. Mungo's Hospital.

Boneshaker by Cherie Priest - Really, this entire series builds an incredibly complex and colorful world, but I've only read two of the five books in it, so I'll talk mostly about the first in the series because that's what got me hooked. I love alternate history, and the best alternate histories take well-known people and events and mash them up with the fantasy elements that make them new. We all know about the Gold Rush, but using that as a path to a zombie apocalypse (albeit a contained one) is a twist I would never have seen coming.

Any other examples of stellar worldbuilding you think I've left off the list? Shout 'em out in the comments, and I'll see you next time.


03 September, 2014

Fuck the Higher Bird: A Review of 'Yoga Bitch' by Suzanne Morrison

More often than not on this blog, I've reviewed genre fiction-- that is, sci-fi or fantasy or something other than straight-up "literary" fiction. What I've never done is review nonfiction, simply because I don't, as a rule, read nonfiction. David Sedaris notwithstanding, my experience with other people's memoirs has more often than not been an exercise in eyerolling at the self-aggrandizing navel-gazing contained therein. Memoir is what people write when they think they're more special than they are.

When I went to the AWP conference in Seattle this past February, I went to a panel about book reviews where the editors of several review publications offered advice on how to make reviews pop. The best piece of advice I got was that a review shouldn't be a summary of the events of a book-- it should frame the book in context. Simply laying out the events of the book isn't enough; you can get that by going to Amazon. A good review tells a reader not if the book is good or bad, but why it's relevant.

It was also at AWP that I, on a whim, attended a panel on humor in memoir, and got to hear Suzanne Morrison read from her book Yoga Bitch. When I tell you I laughed so hard I cried, I'm not exaggerating. Her sarcasm, her unflinching honesty about her own inner failings, and most of all, the unbelievable story of a group full of grown adults who willingly drink their own pee, had me hooked.