News: Guess who’s reviewing books over at Lightspeed Magazine? Me!

If you’re a Lightspeed Magazine subscriber, maybe you noticed a familiar name listed in the nonfiction column section of the February ebook edition. I am happy to announce that, starting with the February issue, I will be joining Amal El-Mohtar and Andrew Liptak in reviewing books for Lightspeed Magazine!

Four times a year, I’ll review the latest fantasy and science fiction books that will be released around that time. This month, I review Six Wakes by Mur Lafferty, The Stars are Legion by Kameron Hurley and A Taste of Honey by Kai Ashante Wilson. It’s available in Lightspeed’s ebook edition now, and will be going live on Lightspeed’s website on 2/21.

If you like what you read and want to support Lightspeed Magazine, subscriptions are just $35.88/year.

And yes, this is now my second gig with Lightspeed after slushing for them from 2009 through 2013. Guess I can’t stay away, huh?

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Review: The Rock That Is Higher: Story as Truth

The Rock That Is Higher: Story as Truth
The Rock That Is Higher: Story as Truth by Madeleine L’Engle
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Originally when I bought this book, I had gotten it thinking that this would be a book on the nature of story exploring elements of truth. Instead, it was more of a memoir, with L’Engle sharing personal stories interspered with her thoughts on Christianity, and how the nature of story binds both. Don’t get me wrong–I liked it, but I wanted something more scholarly, not reflective. So that’s the only reason I’m marking it 2 stars.

That said, as always, L’Engle’s writing speaks to me. I found her words intensely comforting, since I was going through a rough patch. It was good to get her take on things. I will confess though, towards the end, it felt like she was repeating herself, and I felt it didn’t bring anything new to my mind on the nature of story. The periods where I wouldn’t read the book got longer and longer. At this point, I’m going to mark it unfinished and put it back on the bookcase, since I have other books to read.

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Review: The Qualities of Wood

The Qualities of Wood
The Qualities of Wood by Mary Vensel White
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

I got this thinking it was a literary novel. It tries to be, but it wants to be more a mystery novel. It doesn’t do so well on that either. The “secrets” that are hinted at don’t amount to much. There were some good secrets that could’ve been worth chasing: why doesn’t the town acknowledge its Indian heritage? What was up with the gun? Why, indeed, was Chanelle’s arms at her sides when she died? There were so many secrets and ‘mysteries’, but the it was as if the author was afraid to poke deeper at the many plot ideas she had, so she threw a whole bunch in together. It made for a book where we look at things from a distance, but not really getting to the meat of things.

Minute details bogged the story down to a crawl. The author had to describe every little action that had no bearing on the plot whatsover. I found myself flipping pages more than reading them.

The only time the book came alive was during Nowell and Lonnie’s arguments. In fact, probably the most fleshed out character was Lonnie, mainly because he was the main person to actually rile up the characters. Vivian through the plot in a clueless daze, or through dull flashbacks most of the time, and when she did do something proactive, usually when drunk, her actions made little sense. Katherine ‘clackety bracelet’ demeanor irritated me to the point I was skipping most of the scenes she was in. Nowell whined about his book and mainly hid a lot. Mr. Stokes was set up as a ‘mysterious stranger’, but even he felt distanced. Most of what we learn of him is through hearsay. Vivian’s interactions with him felt too timid.

I guess I was hoping the book would live up to its title, which I’m still trying to figure out why it’s named “The Qualities of Wood.” I wanted more, which I got through mundane detail, but not enough to satisfy or care about the resolving of secrets.

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Book Review: Paladin of Souls

Paladin of Souls
Paladin of Souls by Lois McMaster Bujold
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Read this right after the first book Curse of Chalion. I liked this one a whole lot more, mainly because I loved that Bujold focused the sequel on Ista, mother of who had been considered mad and is now bitter towards the gods. This story is The Sermon of the Cups, explained in the first book) expanded in the form of Ista’s pilgrimage. I particularly enjoyed Liss’s characterization of a courier girl who becomes Ista’s handmaiden, and breaks all the rules in how a handmaiden is supposed to act. I also loved the interaction between Ista and the gods, which was equal parts exasperation and intimacy. This is a beautiful tale of growth and submission, done from a fortyish woman’s point of view. Lovely!

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Review: Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me

Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me
Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me by Karen Swallow Prior
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

As of late, I’ve been struggling with the question, “Is God speaking to us today? If so, how?” I know He speaks through the Bible–some would say that it’s the only way he speaks. But is that true? Are there other ways he can speak through?

Karen Swallow Prior believes so. In her memoir “Booked”, she lists 8 books and several poems that influenced her faith. Most of the books are classics; the most recent are Charlotte’s Web (the only book I fully read on her list) and Death of a Salesman. She also didn’t have any books from authors of color. But the books she mention are still interesting, and I’ve got many on my to read list.

I think the book worked best when she was in “teaching mode”. I was most struck by how she dove into John Milton’s Areopagitica and used that to form her reading philosophy of how books should be “promiscuously read”: the best way to counteract falsehood is not by suppressing it, but by countering it with truth. Pretty cool coming from an anti-censorship tract. I also enjoyed her chapter on Jane Eyre (dealing with identity), and her chapter on Gulliver’s Travels; having always grown up on the child-sanitized version, I didn’t even know it was originally adult satire…nor did I know about all the innuendos.

The memoir sections took a while for me to warm up to, particularly in the Charlotte’s Web chapter, where she talked about horse raising. And towards the end, it felt like she was running out of things to pull out of her life to put in the book. Perhaps it would have been good for her to include other people stories along with her own. Or maybe used the rest of the book to deal with harder questions–she did this with the last chapter: The Poetry of Doubt, but I felt it could have been expanded…

It felt like my original question: “Is God speaking to us today?” wasn’t answered as I wanted (the answer I came away with was: yes…through classics). Still, it got me to thinking what influenced me in my faith over the years. For me, it wasn’t just books: my faith in God has been shaped through graphic novels and movies, songs of all types and short stories. Even webcomics, I’ve found, can strike me as profound when I’m struggling with a certain issue. And when it’s backed up by Scripture, it makes me giddy. So yes, God is still speaking to us today. At least, from my point of view.

I’m glad I got Booked. At the very least, it gave me some old classics to put on my reading list, and if there was ever a way I could go to a class taught by Prior, I’d do it. This gets 3 books out of 5, and extra points for the phrase ‘promiscuous reading’, even though it is from Milton.

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Review: The Life and Times of Martha Washington in the Twenty-First Century

The Life and Times of Martha Washington in the Twenty-First Century
The Life and Times of Martha Washington in the Twenty-First Century by Frank Miller
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I heard of this book during a Black Tribbles podcast. I never heard of it before, but reading it now, I’m blown away by it. It’s a Frank Miller/Dave Gibbons collaboration, same dudes that did Sin City and Watchmen. It’s not so dark and grim as those graphic novels, but definitely gritty. There’s still violence, there’s still bloodshed. But it’s a fascinating look at an alternative United states, and it’s all done through a black woman’s viewpoint.

Life and Times starts off with Martha being born with Cabrini Green reimagined as a maximum security housing project. Right off the bat mixing unfamiliar with familiar. People sleeping in rows of bunk beds behind locked bars. Living quarters the size of closets. Dirty sidewalks, and rampant crime. The shift of years of the same president, his continuous reign marching from cautiously cheering crowds to arm guards and tanks with guns.

We follow Martha as she goes from Cabrini Green survivor to mental institute patient, to soldier. Interesting that for all her life, She’s not shown with relaxed hair. No black women are. Can’t tell if this is deliberate. But We see Martha with an afro, a buzzcut, cornrolls, locs, and no hair at all.

And the other thing we see–Martha has faith in God. This is something that’s never shaken from her, even though she is sent to war and sees atrocities and wrongs, her belief in God, and her sense that she was put there for a reason, never shakes.

The way Martha is drawn is interesting. Most of the time, she’s drawn unsmiling, a snarl if she’s fighting, or just the badass stare. She’s drawn as a mature woman, and most of the book, you forget that by the time she joins PAX, she’s only a teenager. A good chunk of the story is her as a teenager, and yet she goes through stuff that makes her age quickly into a gritty war veteran.
There’s this one picture of her standing in full uniform, bald and confident, with a slight smile. It is the youngest I’ve ever seen of her. She almost looks…optimistic. Cheerful. Turn the page, and she is shooting a huge gun, muscled arm, gritted teeth, chiseled, torn jeans, a ripped bandanna tied around her head. There’s nothing sweet about her now. She’s got a job to do, and she does it, not with pleasure, or with hate. It’s a job and it needs to be done.

That’s how her story is. Martha makes for a good soldier. Rising up the ranks for her is slow, not because she is incompetent, but because mostly her superiors are corrupt. She keeps her mouth shut and she does her job. Unless it interferes with her values. And Martha’s values are strong. She protects the Brazilian rainforest from being napalmed and is placed under the corrupt sergeant’s contingent, who tries to rid her any way he can, but dang it, she keeps on surviving. She refuses to take blood from an alternate Captain America. And when the people she work for become utterly corrupt, she turns traitor in order to cleanse it, then turns traitor on her allies when they turn corrupt.

Here and there, there are little bits to soften up the hard story. Martha looking down at the Brazilian rainforest and her face going soft. How Martha always treats her mother. How she manages to win over one Valkerie enough for her to become devoted to Martha, developing a crush and always fighting by her side, even though she knows Martha doesn’t feel the same way. There’s even romance, sort of. She meets up with Wasserstein, the only Navajo left. They have adventures along with an enigmatic psychic named RaggyAnn. Too bad RaggyAnn drops from the story with no explanation. She’s an underutelized character.

Miller and Gibbons gives us a United States that fractures, and it’s believable. The Pacific NW is governed by the New Calvinist Initiative, California becomes an Evil Wonderland, Colorado and Arizona are ruled by Fat Boy Burgers, in league with the Mexican terriroty. Texas beccomes an entity of its own (that’s frightening), while Florida is being taken over by Cuba. The east coast is splinted into a bunch of groups that tear each other apart, and the midwest is…well…still considered the united states. Go figure.

At times, the alternative timeliness seemed too insane. The Nazi Gays, for instance, seemed goofy. There also appeared to be a thing where the Ku Klux Klan was populated by blacks. Going for too unbeleiveable. But the constant warring between the states was intriguing. There’s one story where Martha leads her troops over Texas lines into Fat Boy territory to get her and her troops burger and fries, because the sell of red meet is forbidden by the 94th amendment. There’s also the breakdown of technology, which turns into a plot point in itself. Fighting suits break down. Transports blow up.

The only story I felt lacking was the last one, simply because it raised a lot of questions for me. It appears Martha lives to be 100. She explored a bunch of worlds. Supposedly she met God. And yet…who is the black dreadlocked woman with the scar? Why does she call Martha ‘Gannie?” (A play on raggedy ann, perhaps?) Why did Martha go back to earth? What happened to her husband and sons? Who is the enemy they’re fighting against? Why is there a nun when there are no more churches?
Are the dreadlocked woman, and the two other black folks Martha’s Grandchildren? I really, really, really wanted to see that story. And that’s why I’ll only give it four out of five Pax helmets.

And if Siri starts taking the form of a blue skinned woman, we might be in serious trouble.

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Review: A Stranger in Olondria

A Stranger in Olondria
A Stranger in Olondria by Sofia Samatar
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Last month I read a book that took me to a futuristic Brazil. This month I read a book that took me to a different world altogether.

A Stranger in Olondria is a book you read slowly to savor every sentence. It’s about a young man who travels to a distant land and is haunted by an illiterate ghost, but really, that’s not what the story is about. It’s about the love of reading. How words are a type of magic that conjures images, embodies the heart of a person, indeed, even a person long dead, and transport a reader to a different place and time. Sofia’s descriptions lands of Bain and the Tea Islands were so incredibly rich, it felt at times like reading it was an escape, a true escape, from my real life.

This is not a book you read fast. Mundane moments are explained in rich detail: following Jevick as he learns to read, accompanying him as he travels to long-awaited Bain, experiencing, his wonder, his joy, as he explores the city. Experiencing his fear as the ghost of a young woman he met on the ship starts appearing to him. His attempts to get rid of the ghost, which takes him to an asylum. The characters he meet: The Priest of the Stone, his daughter, the melancholy Tialon, chipper Miros, who humor covers a lovelorn despair, and his uncle Auram, a fanatic who wishes to use Jevick to contact his ghost, or Angel. And then there’s the ghost herself, Jissavet, a force to be reckoned, even after her death, who demands her story to be written. And oh yes, there are stories. Many many stories, not just hers alone. (My favorite is a retelling of a selkie story that I instantly recognized, and felt extreme happiness upon recognizing it.)

There was a point where Jevick bemoans the loss one feels upon approaching the end of a book. I looked to see how many pages I had left, and I felt that loss keenly, it almost felt kind of meta. This is a book lovers book, something to read for the pleasure of reading itself, one mesmerizing word at a time.

Five books out of five, because…I can’t think of any other perfect way to rate it.
Five books out of five, because

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