Three Parts Dead read-along part 1

Three Parts DeadApologies to fellow read-along bloggers! I’m a bit late with the first post after having to work on an unexpectedly long assignment for the course I’m doing. But hey, I managed to finish this post before going to sleep, so I call that a win :D

For those who don’t know what the hell I’m talking about, this is my first post for the read-along of Three Parts Dead (Craft Sequence #1) by Max Gladstone. Like my previous urban fantasy read-alongs (the Gentleman Bastard series by Scott Lynch and The Inheritance Cycle by N.K. Jemisin), this one looks like it’s going to be a great read with fascinating, quirky worldbuilding and complex characters.

If you’d like to follow the read-along or participate, you’ll find the schedule here. Part one only covers the first 100 words or so (the Prologue to the end of Chapter 8 [Edit: that should be the end of Chapter 7]), so you can catch up easily. However, this post will contain spoilers for those chapters; you’ve been warned!

Our host for this part is Lynn from Lynn’s Book Blog, and I’m going to tackle her questions without further ado:

[Edit: So I stupidly misread the schedule and read all the way to the end of Chapter 8 when I should have stopped at Chapter 7. As a result, this post also includes comments about Chapter 8. Apologies if I’ve spoilt anything for you!]

1. Max Gladstone isn’t holding any hands here, we’re dropped straight into the world (which is a bit ironic given the start – but I’ll get to that) and expected to pick up and run with it.  Are you enjoying the style and, more to the point,  what ‘reveals’ have been the most surprising for you so far?

This kind of style might mean I have to work a bit harder as a reader, but I like it. Getting all the necessary worldbuilidng in a nice, clear infodump can be great when that infodump happens to be an awesome story in itself, but most of the time it’s more like pausing to read a Wikipedia article. So yeah, I like the way Gladstone is building his world as the story develops. I also find it very intriguing – the world is unfolding much like the mystery in the plot, and I can’t wait to see what comes next.

Surprises? Quite a few!

  • technician monks (interesting combo of engineering and religion)
  • Vampires. Nothing new, obviously, but I didn’t expect to encounter them here. I admit I was a wee bit annoyed when I realised there were vampires, since they’ve become such a cliché, but so far Gladstone has proven himself with great worldbuilding, so I trust him.
  • A yellow smiley face on a coffee mug. Yeah, ok, I don’t know what to do about this one. It really throws me off
  • Smoking as an act of spiritual devotion to a fire god. Which actually makes a lot of sense. I also loved the contrast in the first scene of Abelard doing all his holy monk duties and then lighting a cigarette.
  • Tara’s skills in forensic pathology – very impressive!
  • Abelard being unable to understand the concept of a newspaper. This really says a lot about Alt Coulumb and how it relates to the rest of the world. Some excellent worldbuilding there.
  • Cat being Justice and using her power to awesome effect at the end of chapter eight. Not only does it lend an interesting dynamic to her character (who I’d sort of dismissed as a useful but hopeless junkie), it also makes the Justice more of a grey area (after I’d mostly dismissed them as being authoritarian and therefore probably evil).

2. At the start of the book Tara graduates and is cast out of school (literally from a great height) simultaneously – any ideas about why that might be?

Well, her successful attempt to examine Cabot’s body shows that she’s got a strong sense of curiosity and is not afraid to take initiative. That’s also demonstrated by the way she seems to have left home to study at the Hidden Schools, despite the fact that the people around her were a lot more parochial. So my first guess is that she studied and/or experimented with something that the Schools did not approve of. Presumably she was successful, or Ms Kevarian would not have hired her. However, there’s clearly something very dodgy or at least unethical about what Tara did, based on the circumstances of her graduation and the firm’s reluctance to hire her without a probation period.

It might have something to do with controlling other people. She’s skilled at bringing people back from the dead. Then there’s a moment when she considers taking control of the bouncer, but decides not to when she thinks back on her graduation. Soon after, she’s quick to figure out that someone is controlling Raz. Skills like that would be both highly desirable and extremely controversial.

3. I’m always interested in the magical systems and how they work and the one here seems to almost be a ‘payback’ type of affair.  What are your thoughts about the magical system so far, we do have a dead deity after all, not to mention it appears that regular everyday people can access magic as well as deities. Discuss please (if only to enlighten my tiny brain!)

Gah, it’s after midnight and I’m not sure my brain has the power to enlighten anyone else’s! Also, magic systems aren’t my strong point, although this one certainly does intrigue me more than most. It’s very “lawyerish” :) I don’t mean that in a bad way; if anything it makes the whole profession seem really cool in a way that is somehow more realistic than the flashy lawyer tactics you see in legal dramas. Craftswomen and men can negotiate with the fabric of the universe – or at least that’s my understanding. This allows them to do all sorts of mundane legal magic, but also gives them the power to kill and resurrect gods. In fact, it’s a way for humans to become god-like, with gods and humans separated by the level of their skills. I’m fascinated by the possibilities here.

What also intrigued me is that people use soulstuff for currency, and metal coins are the means of passing soulstuff around, but have little value in themselves. So if you made an excessive purchase or bargain, would you literally be selling your soul?

4. We’re only a third in but how are you feeling towards the characters so far. are you developing any favourites already, any sneaky suspicions of any of the characters or are you loving them all?

The only ones I’m suspicious of are Shale the gargoyle and Cardinal Gustave. Otherwise, I like all the characters so far, and I particularly like the fact that none of them feel like cliches. Abelard seemed to be a typically naïve young monk, until he grinned at the prospect of trawling through vampire bars in the Pleasure Quarter and hooked Tara up with Cat (how on earth do they know each other?). And as I mentioned in the first answer, I’m curious about Cat now that I know she’s also a Justice.

I like the way Tara seems to have risen above the circumstances of her birth, sometimes literally, like when Ms Kevarian is flying them over farms and village and Tara is thinking about how the people down there never saw much beyond their little homes. I think it’s also telling that after she falls from the Hidden Schools, she goes back to her backwater home, making her fall both literal and figurative. And then she is almost chased out with torches and pitchforks… She doesn’t seem to have too much to worry about though; she seems extremely competent and professional; I wish I was that skilled.

She reminds me a bit of Shara from City of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett – like Shara, Tara’s skill lies in her ability to think and study, and that makes her powerful and dangerous, rather than any physical prowess or traditional martial art. In fact, Shara might have been inspired by Tara.

And now let me get some sleep while I still can. I’ll go blog hopping and round up the links tomorrow. Or rather, later tomorrow :)

Blog Hop! Go see what everyone else had to say:

Heather – The Bastard Title
Susan  – Dab of Darkness

 

Interview: David Horscroft on bisexuality, psychopaths and violence

My bookclub recently read Fletcher by David Horscroft, one of the latest sff novels published in South Africa, from Fox & Raven Publishing. Set in a postapocalyptic dystopian world, it’s written from the perspective of K Fletcher, a murderous psychopath who investigates a murder-suicide and gleefully commits a lot more murder along the way.

I’ll admit that Fletcher proved to be a bit too much for me, but it did start an interesting discussion about unlikeable characters and psychopaths. I started chatting to David about it, and he kindly agreed to let me pick his brain on the subject.

avatarWelcome to Violin in a Void David! To get started tell us a bit about your novel and the world it’s set in.

It’s the almost-apocalypse. In 2012, poor containment procedures resulted in a haemorragic outbreak of global proportions. Two years later, and the world is only just starting to steady itself. Entire countries have been wiped out, Europe has descended into civil chaos, America has been crippled and Russia has somehow ended up as the most stable surviving country. Southern Africa is a desolate bloodbath, with the northern territories still being scourged by viral resurgences, civil struggles and opportunistic looters from what used to be the first world. Israel has completely annexed the Sinai Peninsula, and no one has heard a thing from China in almost sixteen months. Across the world, cities burned and rioted, and the ones that survived have only done so by cordoning off vast swathes of land into anarchic gutterages.

This novel has very little to do with these troublesome two years. Enter K Fletcher, stage left.

Fletcher is several things: problem drinker, slutty dancer, private investigator, corporate saboteur and discrete problem fixer. Fletcher also happens to be one of the most prolific murderers the world has ever seen.

K doesn’t deal with morals, but rather with puzzles: anything to stave off the boredom between each bloody, thrashing kill. One such puzzle involves a murder-suicide: man-kills-wife, man-kills-self, cue tears. But Fletcher is not convinced that it’s that simple, and ends up finding connections between the husband and a far more dangerous entity: the standard Evil Dystopian Corporation in the form of the munitions company RailTech. The book follows Fletcher’s investigation as they shake down, slice up and choke out any unfortunates in the way.

Fletcher

Photograph by Ruth Smith (@photo_bunny24)

 

Readers may not notice this (I didn’t!), but K Fletcher’s gender is never revealed. Why did you choose to write the character this way?

It was actually my goal from the start, simply for its own sake: I wanted to see if it was possible to write something of a decent length wherein the gender of the main character was ambiguous to the reader. It’s tricky: the level of violence K exhibits is stereotypically seen with male offenders, so it was a lot of fun to see how I could bring out the feminine side too. Fletcher is also the perfect character for this: a naturally volatile, aggressive personality is really fun to write when you’re completely unbound by societal expectations of something as often-silly as the gender of your character.

It’s also interesting that Fletcher is bisexual. On a practical level, bisexuality is another way of obscuring gender, but it also had me thinking that you don’t often see gay or bisexual characters who are really badass or openly psychopathic. Any thoughts?

I’d tend to disagree that you don’t often see bisexual characters which are psychopathic, but I’ll get to that in a tick. Bisexual and gay characters are starting to make appearances in mainstream media: several playable and non-playable characters in the Borderlands series, Admiral Jack Hardness (Dr. Who?, Torchwood), Omar Little (The Wire) and Frank Underwood (House of Cards). The main villain in Skyfall, Raoul Silva, was casually bisexual; in fact, there was a brief implication that 007 himself had gone through an experimental phase at the very least.

It’s starting to creep in, with the classic resistance (especially, as you’ve spoken before, in the SFF sphere). But there’s a common thread that I can’t be the only one to note. Bear with me for a second, and consider the following list:

Everyone mentioned above (minus Omar Little)
Dr. Frank ‘n Furter (The Rocky Horror Picture Show)
Buffalo Bill (Silence of the Lambs)
Oberyn Martell and Cersei Lannister (Game of Chairs)
Lisbeth Salander (Millenium trilogy)
Chloe (The B**** In Apartment 23)
Dorian Gray
Anyone in The Vampire Chronicles
Pretty much any evil protagonist written by the Marquis de Sade

All these characters have two things in common: they’re all degrees of bisexual, and they’re all sociopaths. Some are murderous, others are simply violent, and some are just largely harmless troublemakers, but they all share those two traits.

Why? Is this the bisexual version of the gay-lisp: an unfair stereotype that we’re all shifty, amoral psychopaths? I don’t think so. I actually think it’s the other way around: psychopaths strike me as far more likely to be bisexual. It makes sense for sociopathic characters to be bisexual: someone so inured to social convention and so aware of the power of seduction would be extremely likely to be bisexual, even if only for utilitarian means. As M.E. Thomas, the author of Confessions of a Sociopath puts it, it’s not so much bisexuality as it is gender indifference. The sociopath doesn’t see gender; rather, they see someone to manipulate and prey on.

This preconception extends way back into history. Lilith (of the Bible, not of Borderlands) is bisexual, having sex with both Adam and Eve. Loki chooses partners of both sexes. There’s apparently even an Aztec god called Huehuecoytl (thanks, TV Tropes) who is a gender-changing bisexual with a penchant for causing trouble just out of pettiness or boredom. Sound familiar?

Maybe that’s even why bisexuals get such flack from both the exclusively straight and gay communities: maybe humans instinctively distrust bisexuals since we instinctively see it as a “Sociopath Here” flag. It’s clearly pretty ingrained into our collective psyche.

If that warning triggered while you were around someone like K Fletcher, it might just save your life.

Fletcher is a very violent, unlikeable character, at least in the sense that their actions are typically questionable (e.g. frequent drug abuse), if not outright abhorrent (e.g. murdering a child on a whim or holding a woman prisoner for amusement). What was your approach in writing a character like this?

The book is written from Fletcher’s perspective, and I always made sure to write in as authentic a Fletcher-voice as possible. It was more important to me to have an authentic character than a likeable one, and I think Fletcher makes as much sense as this kind of character can, despite the madness and impulsivity.

What this means is that Fletcher is wholly unapologetic. The character wouldn’t care what you thought about them. In fact, the same personality type would probably go out of its way to shock and horrify those around them. That’s why Fletcher is perpetually spouting off violent thoughts and saying things like “Hey, remember that time I killed everyone in that orphanage, that was heeee-larious.” It’s almost a little cartoonishly evil at times, but I can imagine Fletcher giggling and getting off on people getting uncomfortable about that.

Once I got used to pulling no punches, it became very easy to write in Fletcher’s voice. I started writing this book for myself long before I even considered taking it to a publisher, so once the blend of flippant atrocity took form it was something I could easily step in and out of. I can be a bit of a sick twist myself, at times, so I’m sure that helped… a lot.

Unlikeable characters have stories to tell. They might not be well received, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t tell them, and it definitely wouldn’t stop a character like K from doing so.

Doesn’t this mean that Fletcher actually does care what people think, albeit in a twisted way? They don’t care about being hated, certainly, but evoking fear, shock and horror is essential because that’s what Fletcher thrives on. They’re not totally indifferent.

I think there’s a difference between caring what people think, and how people react. I wouldn’t expect Fletcher to care what people thought about them in the long run, but when they’re interacting with the character it’s almost like a form of mental torture. Fear, shock, horror, revulsion: these are all instinctive reactions. Even lust is an instinctive one (considering Fletcher’s thing with occasional seduction).

If someone jumps out from behind a curtain with a knife, you don’t think: “Wow, this person seems pretty unpleasant. I can’t say I’m very fond of who they are and what they’re trying to do.” You don’t think at all. Your brain kicks into instinct mode and overrides any thinking.

Fletcher does this on a literal level when engaging in violence, and on a lesser level when engaging with people. Saying horrifying things is, to them, the social equivalent of jumping out swinging a meat cleaver, with the same fruits in the form of the instinctive skin-crawlage and discomfort.

So no, I don’t think this means that Fletcher cares what people think, when you consider that thinking is a very intellectual approach to a force of nature like K. Invoking fear and repulsion is simply the social equivalent of feeling someone struggle and thrash as you beat them to death with a claw hammer.

One of the things I found interesting but difficult to handle is the fact that there are no good guys, or at least no group or person who “should” come out on top. K goes up against an evil corporation called RailTech that murders its own employees and tests weapons on poor African villages. K, however, is just as evil on an individual level. Was this a consequence of the broken world in which the novel is set? Or did you have some other purpose?

A core motif in Fletcher is this concept of the “grinning flesh”, which K uses to refer to humanity in general. In their opinion, the almost-apocalypse didn’t change humanity; rather, it just took off humanity’s collective mask of sanity. It shows: the vaulting depravity of the Midnight Hour and the unfettered expansion of brutal mega-corporations such as RailTech show us that the good people are going crazy, and the bad people are profiting. Fletcher is both bad and crazy: this new world makes a lot of sense.

It’s the authenticity angle, all over again. Good people simply don’t stand a chance against Fletcher, unless they sacrifice a bit of themselves to stack the odds a little, like Vincent. You’re stuck with the only contenders being the ones who are willing to get their hands dirty, which can leave readers feeling either torn between wanting K to win or die, or indifferent as to what happens at all.

I’m OK with that, I guess. It’s still a bit weird to me that Fletcher got published at all. In the same way that unlikeable characters have stories to tell, those stories may often contain plethoras of other unlikable characters. At least there’s a conflict: for example, I think “Everyone is Shitty” is a more engaging stance than “Everyone is Hugs”.

I sometimes found the violence of the book alienating; K kills frequently, cruelly, and indiscriminately. Some random stranger could easily get their throat torn out just because Fletcher is bored or annoyed. However, I appreciated the fact that the violence was never sexual. Did you have any particular reasons for avoiding this sort of violence?

The violence is meant to be jarring. It’s meant to be there as a wake-up call to anyone who is cheering for Fletcher: “I am not a nice person.” But there’s no reason to avoid it, since violence is such an important part of K’s existence. Murder makes Fletcher feel alive and powerful like nothing else.

Sexual violence, then, doesn’t make sense. I’m not saying Fletcher would have anything against rape; rather, the character simply has no interest in it. As they say themselves: “cheating is pointless if the game is the goal”; Fletcher kinda gets a kick out of being sultry and seducing people. It’s a power trip: “I’m going to seduce you into taking your clothes off for someone who has killed more people than you’ve left-swiped on Tinder.” Violence doesn’t help that goal, and inherently destroys any mental manipulation. Similarly, if Fletcher wants to murder someone, rape would be unnecessary as it wouldn’t be a direct contribution to the finality of their death.

Don’t mistake the lack of sexual violence to be an indicator of some moral compass. Fletcher has simply realized that fucking and filleting are two incompatible forms of entertainment.

I’ve asked quite a few questions about what a terrible person your main character is, so tell me, what do you like about K Fletcher?

I like several things about Fletcher, which worries my team of psychologists greatly. It makes sense, though: sociopaths often have some traits we admire, and a narrator like Fletcher would exacerbate those traits in themselves. Why do you think Bumblefrond Cucumberpatch’s take on Sherlock Holmes has won him such acclaim? People want to be Sherlock. People want to be the cold, calculating sociopath who can stare down death, crack wise and solve the mystery before tea.

In that regard, I like Fletcher’s honesty (with themselves and the world). I like their curiousity and glibness. I definitely admire the character’s resourcefulness, and can relate to that boredom they constantly feel. The snark was fun to write, too.

I like the fact that K kept Valerie and Vincent around, because I really enjoyed writing about the dynamic between those three.

I’m probably a bad person to ask that question of: considering I did as much as possible to really adopt Fletcher’s voice while writing, a little part of me wants to shout “Fletcher’s great! I especially love the face-puppet part. With the actual faces and the actual puppets.”

It’s probably wise for people not to have dinner alone with me.

Do you have any upcoming projects you’d like to share?

Nothing tangible in the writing sphere: a few potential Fletcher stories and a nice zombie premise.

I’m mainly bundled up in my programming at the moment: playing around with fun cryptography systems for high-risk websites.

Thanks for your time David!

 

David is a South African programmer with a wide range of fascinations, including biology, medicine, psychology and technology. He spends most of his time obsessing over pet projects and is a sucker for bad puns, good vodka and interesting people.

You can find David on Twitter @forealiously.

The Rabbit Back Literature Society by Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen

The Rabbit Back Literature SocietyTitle: The Rabbit Back Literature Society
Author: Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen
Translator: Lola M. Rogers
Published: first published in Finnish in 2006; English translation published in 2014; this edition published 20 January 2015
Publisher: Thomas Dunne Books
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Genre: fantasy, mystery
Rating: 7/10

The little Finnish town of Rabbit Back is famous for being the home of world-reknowned author Laura White, who penned the Creatureville series of children’s books. Laura White is also famous for having started the Rabbit Back Literature Society – a small group whose members she personally selected in childhood and trained to be writers. The Society was meant to have ten members, but as far as anyone knows it never had more than nine. Now, three decades later, all the members are all well-known authors themselves, but the search for a tenth member continues.

Ella Milana is shocked when she is offered this prestigious position. Having just returned to her home town, she works as a substitute teacher of Finnish Language and Literature at a local high school. She wrote her PhD thesis on the Creatureville books, but has only one piece of published fiction – a short story in Rabbit Back’s literary journal, inspired by her recent experience of finding out that she can’t have children. Apparently Laura White was so impressed by the story that she offered Ella the tenth membership, which includes a stipend to support her during the training.

However, the whole thing turns out to be decidedly odd and more than a little bit disappointing. At the party where Ella is supposed to meet Laura White, the author is only seen for a few brief moments before she falls and disappears in a whirl of snow. With no one around to give her the training she expected, Ella turns to her first love – research – to uncover the hidden truths of the Society. No one knows what Laura White’s methods were. Although the members were once close, they no longer seem to talk to each other. Ella quickly realises that there was once a tenth member whom no one outside the society has ever heard of. She also notices that there are books from the Rabbit Back Library whose words are changing (thereby altering their plots) and one of the society’s authors seems to know about it. So, while the town searches for Laura White’s body, Ella uses her new membership solve the mystery of the Rabbit Back Literature Society.

Ella seldom finds what she expects, and you, the reader, probably won’t either. Rabbit Back is quite a strange place thanks to the influence of Laura White and her books. There are also lots of otherwordly phenomena – lapses in memory, disturbing sightings, inexplicable animal behaviour, and of course the altered books in the library and the manner of Laura White’s disappearance. These things set the novel firmly in the realm of fantasy, but it’s not the kind of book where one or two knowledgable characters eventually reveal all. None of the characters know what’s really going on; the best they can do is try to speak truthfully about the things they’ve seen and experienced and it’s up to Ella – and the reader – to piece that information together.

This sort of thing can be frustrating, but I think Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen hits the right balance, revealing just enough to keep the reader satisfied, while keeping a few secrets that you continue thinking about the story once its over. For me, it also helps that the story is wrapped in folklore and mythology; that sort of thing always piques my interest. It seems that myth and folklore formed an important part of Rabbit Back’s heritage, and the Creatureville books tapped into that, ensuring that it remained a major part of the culture. If you were familiar with Finnish folklore you might get more out this novel; I often felt that the plot and characters drew from tales I, unfortunately, hadn’t heard of.

Overall though, I thought the novel wasn’t just about the various mysteries at play in the plot and but also about the mystery of literature itself, which can never be unravelled. It frequently portrays authors, fiction and the creative process as something alien and enigmatic. People desperately want to understand it, but understanding remains elusive.

One of the first things you’ll notice is the cult that’s grown up around Laura White. She’s like the god of Rabbit Back: people treat her with a sense of awe and reverence, and being chosen for the Society is considered the greatest of honours. The culture and businesses of the town have all been heavily influenced by Laura and her books, often to a bizarre degree. For example, residents can pay €80 for “mythological mapping”, which involves getting a detailed explanation of all the mythological creatures occupying your property. Early in the novel, Ella notices a news story about a farmer who found a potato shaped like one of Laura White’s characters. This is crazy enough, but it gets creepy after the author disappears: people start having nightmares about Laura White’s body climbing into their bedrooms and reading their Creatureville books aloud.

Notably, we never “see” the author herself in the narrative, except for the few moments before she disappears. We only hear about her through other people, so she remains remote, obscure. Mythical, you could say, especially since many of the town’s unexplained phenomena are related to her.

Some of the other writers have large roles in the narrative, but thanks to Laura White they all share an elevated status. They joke about being demigods, and on several occasions, non-members are referred to as “ordinary people”. Those “ordinary people”, of course, buy into this idea as well.

Jääskeläinen, I think, is taking a playful dig at the celebrity and mystique surrounding famous authors. The worship of Laura White becomes almost laughable, while the Society authors tend to have a sardonic attitude toward their own fame.

Of course, there’s also a darker side to this, not only because of the nightmares about Laura White, but because of what all this implies about her life, and what being in the Society meant for its members. It seems unlikely that Laura White had any friends; she was intensely loved and admired in a way that also left her completely alienated. No one seems particularly upset about her disappearance and possible death; this incredible mystery isn’t even a major subject in the novel and Ella actually gets tired of the whole thing because it has nothing to do with her research.

I agreed that her disappearance didn’t feel all that important; the past is far more interesting than the present, with all its murky secrets. Here Jääskeläinen explores some of the more questionable aspects of crafting literature, particulary the way authors use the lives of others to create fictional ones. To help them write, the Society has a secret practice known as The Game. Invented by Laura White, it has strict rules and regulations, and basically involves forcing other members to answer any question as truthfully as they possibly can, even if that means taking drugs to help them overcome any inihibitions. For Ella, this presents the perfect opportunity to gather material for her research paper, but for the rest of the Society it has been a way of mining human experience to find material for their books.

It’s a brilliant idea, and probably taught the authors far more about humanity than they would ever have learned otherwise. However, it also raises quite a few ethical issues and has had serious consequences for the members’ relationships with each other. How much can you take from other people? What happens when life and fiction start to intersect? The book plays around with that question throughout, and I’ll leave you to discover the many ways in which it does that. It’s certainly not a conventional mystery novel, but if you like a bit of fantasy, folklore, mythology and metafiction in the mix, then check it out :)

 

Daily Reads: 27 February 2015

Morning everyone :)

My Daily Reads don’t have a lot of actual reading today; just some cool stuff that’s popped up recently.

Academic ExercisesIf you haven’t already done so, you should really take advantage of Subterranean Press’s Humble Bundle sale. You can:
– Pay what you want and get seven ebooks.
– Pay above the average amount and get an extra twelve ebooks
– Pay $15 dollars or more and get EVERYTHING, which amounts to $123 of sff ebooks.

I might have bought this for the K.J. Parker collection alone, but it’s also got a ton of short fiction by authors I’m really excited to read – Elizabeth Bear, Caitlín R. Kiernan, Joe R. Lansdale, Maria Dahvana Headley, Kat Howard, Tim Powers… Yeah. Best. Deal. EVER.

In case you didn’t know, Subterranean Press is a specialist publisher of sff and horror, producing exclusive titles by some of the best authors in the field. Their print copies are all special editions (hardcovers with leather or cloth binding, often signed, sometimes in slipcases, etc.). They also have loads of ebooks and used to have an excellent magazine, which you can still access for free.

Three Parts Dead

Hopefully that won’t keep you too busy just yet, because Lynn from Lynn’s Book Blog and Susan from Dab of Darkness are hosting a readalong of Three Parts Dead (Craft Sequence #1) by Max Gladstone, starting in March. I’ve got a copy that I’ve been meaning to read for a while, so I signed up. It’ll be a very relaxed pace (about 100 words per week), and you can sign up on either blog by leaving a comment. You can blog along if you want, or just blog hop and comment on the weekly discussions.

Finally, Cat Hellisen is doing us all a huge favour by compiling a list of spec fic by South African authors.  Let her know if there’s anything she should add.

Happy reading!

Daily Reads helps me organise my online reading and share my favourite posts with you. If you know of any good SF/F and other literary articles, link to it in the comments.

Up for Review: Bones & All

I don’t read a lot of YA, but my interest tends to be piqued when I get offered things like a book about a young cannibal who wants to eat the people she cares about.

Bones and AllBones & All by Camille DeAngelis

Camille DeAngelis will take you on a haunting journey of self-discovery in her debut novel, Bones & All.

Maren Yearly doesn’t just break hearts, she devours them.

Since she was a baby, Maren has had serious trouble accepting affection. Any time someone gets too close to her, she’s overcome by the desire to eat them.  Abandoned by her mother the day after her sixteenth birthday, Maren goes looking for the father she has never known, but finds much more than she bargained for along the way.

Faced with a world of fellow eaters, potential enemies, and the prospect of love, Maren realizes she isn’t only looking for her father, she is looking for herself. The real question is, will she like who she finds?

 

Bones & All will be published on 10 March 2015 by St. Martin’s Press.

Links
Camille DeAngelis: Website l Twitter (@cometparty) l Facebook
Bones & All on Goodreads
Read an excerpt
St. Martin’s Press

Sister Sister by Rachel Zadok

Sister SisterTitle: Sister Sister
Author: Rachel Zadok
Published: 20 April 2013
Publisher: Kwela Books
Source: own copy
Genre: fantasy
Rating: 8/10

Thuli and Sindi are twins who were once so close they climbed into each other’s dreams. They have a subtly magical connection that no one else sees. But now they wander, homeless and lost, following the highways of Joburg. Several years before, something came between them when an uncle they didn’t know existed came to visit with news of their dying grandmother. He set in motion a series of revelations and events that mangle the twins’ close relationship. The narrative alternates between the two timelines: Thuli narrates the surreal present-day story, while Sindi takes us back to the preceding years when everything went so disturbingly wrong.

Sister Sister takes place in an unspecified near-future South Africa, after “the petrol car amnesty, when everyone was meant to change to electric” (17). Thuli and Sindi were born the day before the change, which the newspapers called “The Dawn of Fresh New Era” (17). The girls’ mother kept the newspaper clipping, and for a while the twins thought that they were the “new dawn” the article referred to.

The truth is harsher than the simple shattering of childhood beliefs. Thuli and Sindi might have been born into a changing world, but that world was always out of their reach. They grew up in a township and their mother would never have been able to afford a car. When they take public transport it’s in illegal “b-diesel junks” where they are packed in tightly with other passengers. The man who rents their tiny house out to them also converts the old cooking oil from a fried-chicken franchise into fuel.

It’s interesting to note that this often makes the novel feel as if it were in the postapocalyptic or dystopian genre, even thought it isn’t. The poverty of life in a township is in itself a kind of real-world dystopia. Then, when they’re homeless, the twins exist outside of any normal society as we understand it, and encounter sinister underground communities.

In addition, their surroundings are always filled with the imagery of broken, dead or discarded things. We first see Sindi, she’s been sleeping “in a wreck at the side of the road […] on the only seat that hasn’t been ripped out to find a new life as somebody’s couch” (13). Later, she hungrily devours dog food pellets that “crunch like chicken bones in her teeth” (23). Not only does the idea of eating dry dog food come as a sad shock, but the fact that Thuli’s reference for crunchiness is “chicken bones” is telling. Similarly, I find it unnerving when she says “I can almost taste the sweetness of her sweat on my tongue, a faint whiff like roadkilled dogs baking in the sun” (41). It says a lot about the twins’ lives.

Everywhere they go they find rubbish, wrecked cars, dilapidated buildings; signs of poverty and neglect. Lost souls wander seemingly endless roads, and the threat of danger is always present. The story of a classmate who was raped and killed hovers over them. Even at home the twins risk getting beaten by their violent mother. When visit the village of their birth to see their dying grandmother they find it deserted, ravaged by AIDS, and vultures feed on dead livestock. Grim as this all is, Rachel Zadok’s incredible writing gives the story an eerie, monstrous kind of beauty, which is often evoked by the folklore woven into the tale. It alternates between feeling fantastical and disturbingly real.

The thing is though, this isn’t actually set in a fantastical or science fictional world. The only major differences are the ban on electric cars, and the unbearably hot weather (presumably due to climate change). Mention is made of abandoned houses, although the novel doesn’t really get into the reasons for this. Otherwise, it’s a lot like South Africa today, in terms of both poverty and affluence. The twins watch people driving to work. They gaze through steel bars at the safe gated communities where they will never live. There are “crazies” wandering the highways on foot, but a friend who read the book with me says she instantly recognised them as a standard feature of Joburg’s freeways.

The plot fits perfectly with this setting. Rather than being able to grow and blossom, the young twins are caught up in a dire story over which they have little control. Often when they’re able to make decisions, they’re bad or hopeless decisions. When homeless, the focus is on basic survival. In the earlier narrtive, they become the victims of family drama and poisonous traditional or religious beliefs. In an interview with the Mail and Guardian, Zadok said that her “fascination with belief systems and how they affect cultures and the individual” was what most likely inspired Sister Sister, and indeed issues of belief come up again and again.

The twins’ mother left her village partly because of the stigma associated with twins, who are believed to be bad luck. When they return, the village’s desolation (caused by HIV/AIDS) is blamed on the twins. Not that they bear the burden equally – because Sindi has a stutter and seldom speaks to anyone except Thuli, she is often frowned upon while her friendly sister is favoured. This in turn ends up affecting Sindi’s beliefs about herself and her sister in ways that divide them and drive the plot forward. Belief in this context is never abstract: it is manifested in vivid, prophetic dreams, in the ways the sisters connect with each other and perceive their world, and in the actions the characters choose to take.

I’m not going to say much more about the plot because it might be better to just watch it unfold. That said, it can be a difficult novel to get into. Thuli’s sections of narrative are narrated in a very surreal style, in which dream and memory aren’t always easily distinguished from reality. The world itself might also take some getting used to. Because I’m the kind of pendantic reader who stalls or flips back and forth between the pages if I don’t know exactly what’s going on, it took me about a week to get through Part One, which is only 55 pages long. But if you find it similarly difficult, just hang in there. Sindi’s narrative is more straightfoward and I flew through Part Two in less than a day. It’s also worth keeping in mind that when Thuli starts the story, she is hiding something important from herself and the reader. She tells us, sadly, that “remembering’s hard. The world’s an ugly place and memories aren’t something to unwrap like birthday presents” (63).

It makes sense then, that the novel is slow to reveal its secrets, even the ones you might have already guessed at. Not that figuring out the mystery spoils the story, because it’s just like Thuli says – the world is ugly and these memories aren’t a delight to uncover. Even though I soon figured out the gist of what happened to the twins, that knowledge never lessened the impact of events.

Admittedly, if I had known exactly what this story was about, I might not have read it. Child abuse, poverty, AIDS, homelessness – the novel features all of these things and I normally shy away from these topics as too harrowing unless I’ve braced myself to deal with them. However, Zadok handles the story with such grace and creativity that the novel can be a wonderful read without ever detracting from the seriousness of its subject matter.

I also think that the speculative aspects were crucial, not only to my enjoyment but to the novel as a whole. By setting the story in an alternative/future South Africa that seems postapocalyptic or dystopian but isn’t, Zadok evokes the otherworldly reality of poverty and homelessness. Similarly, the story’s fantastical elements give it a dreamy quality that often serve to detach Thuli and Sindi from their world, as if they’re moving within an interstitial space where they can never get a tight hold of reality or be fully in control.  The fantastical also just makes the story incredibly beautiful and haunting. Sister Sister is the kind of book that gets me excited about South African sff not only because it was a good read but because it explores the ways in which writers can use fantasy to tell South African stories.

Daily Reads: Malinda Lo on perceptions of diversity in book reviews

Glasses Journal

Today I was reading author Malinda Lo’s wonderful series of articles entitled Perceptions of Diversity in Book Reviews. Her goal was to discern and critique the way reviewers think about diversity in fiction, and how that informs their opinions. Lo focuses on the shorter trade reviews of YA books, but the issues she raises can be applied to all kinds of reviews of books in any genre.

 

Part 1: “Scarcely plausible”
The first post includes the introduction to Lo’s topic and some notes about her methods, but the main issue is the way reviewers sometimes criticise a novel’s diversity as being “contrived”. This seems to be a fundamental problem, so I pulled a few quotes from Lo’s article (emphasis in bold is my own):

The critique of The Doubt Factory‘s “perfectly ethnically and sexually diverse” cast as “scarcely plausible” reveals a deep-seated belief that a group of people are unlikely to be ethnically and sexually diverse. As in Stranger, this diverse cast is read by the reviewer as contrived — as something constructed in a less-than-subtle manner by the author, and thus as unrealistic. In the review of On a Clear Day, the statement that “Effort has clearly been made to diversify this cast” suggests that this diversity would not have existed naturally; it needed effort.

 

What disturbs me more than a review’s denial that diversity is realistic, however, is the belief that purposely creating — contriving with “effort” — a diverse cast is pandering to the diversity movement that has been simmering for decades, and has exploded in YA and children’s literature over the past year.

 

It reveals a belief that simmers beneath all those critiques of diversity as implausible: the belief that nonwhite, LGBT, and disabled characters are simply unnecessary; that adding in these perspectives derails a story; that “reality” is white and homogenous.

 

Part 2: So many (too many?) issues
This post addresses the idea that including too many issues gets in the way of good storytelling. Reviewers often want things to be simpler and easier, but one of the problems with this is that it excludes people who have to deal with multiple minority identities (e.g. black, gay, Muslim).

 

Part 3: A lot to decode
This is a particularly interesting issue, which I’ve struggled with more than the others – if a book is written from the POV of a non-dominant culture, to what extent should it cater to those outside of that culture (typically white or westernised readers)?

Lo finds that many reviewers criticise diverse books for not explaining unfamiliar cultures to readers, and for using unfamiliar slang and non-English words. The underlying assumption here is that most readers are white and westernised, and thus it is of utmost importance to cater to them, rather than anyone else (who might not need or want all those explanations). As she politely suggests, you could just try harder – if you stumble at something unfamiliar, look it up, figure it out from context, or ignore it and keep going. Just like you would do with any other word or concept you don’t know.

And maybe take a moment to consider the validity of your opinion as a reviewer:

Instead of demanding glossaries and criticizing a book for including non-English words and non-Western cultures, reviewers who find these kinds of novels “frustrating” should consider whether they are culturally informed enough to review the book properly. Not all books are meant for white/Western readers. This is not a problem, and I hope that reviewers and review editors will realize this.

 

Part 4: Readers may be surprised
This one addresses cases where the limited or bigoted perspectives of reviewers affects reviews. For example, a reviewer might criticise a minority character for being unrealistic because they do not fit the reviewer’s idea of that identity. Or, a reviewer might express surprise at the existence of a certain community, because the reviewer’s understanding of the world is pretty narrow.

 

Overall, these articles have me thinking about how I’ve handled issues of diversity in my own reviews, and how I should do so in future. On the one hand I do want to highlight diversity and related issues for readers, to spread the word about more diverse books and capture the interest of those who are looking to read more widely. But in doing so, am I also portraying those books as non-standard, with dominant cultures as the norm? Or is it fair to argue that that’s just the way things are anyway, so it helps to single certain books, characters or themes out in the hope that the literary scene as a whole eventually becomes more diverse?

Mind you, I often feel a bit odd when pointing out diversity in novels, as if I’m pointing at someone and going “OMG look! This guy is black and gay! Isn’t that just wonderfully exotic and therefore awesome?” There have been a few occasions when I was treated as kind of exotic or weird (How can you be (South) African, your skin is [the wrong colour]! Oh, you speak English!), which I found ridiculous and annoying if not offensive. Still, I think it’s ok to say that you find someone’s identity new and interesting and you’d like to know more about them. I suppose it’s a matter of approaching them with respect rather than just curiosity?

Then I got to thinking about books with a lot of unfamiliar content – words, cultures, etc. I see no problem with looking things up, but having to do it too often really is going to get tiresome. But if I don’t know enough about the context, should I be writing a review? Well, I think there’s a loophole here – make it clear that your opinion comes from a position of general ignorance, and don’t automatically turn your failure to understand something into a criticism of the book. Trying to read out of your comfort zone is admirable, but it doesn’t lend any kind of authority to your opinion.

Anyway, I’ve blathered on for long enough now. Does anyone else have any thoughts on discussing issues of diversity in reviews? Or is it something you feel safer avoiding?

 

Daily Reads helps me organise my online reading and share my favourite posts with you. If you know of any good SF/F and other literary articles, link to it in the comments.

Photography for this post is courtesy of Ruth Smith. You can view or buy her work here, or contact her at photobunny24@gmail.com.