Friday, December 25, 2020

Short Book Reviews: Black Women Take On The Demons of the Ku Klux Klan

 Ring Shout, by P. Djèlí Clark (Tordotcom)

This is the book that got me through the final days of the 2020 Presidential election.

It’s now 1922, and the Ku Klux Klan, fueled by a re-showing of The Birth of a Nation,  is on the rise. The hatred and violence it encompasses has opened the doors to an even greater, supernatural evil that turns human members into demonic Ku Kluxes (imagine the peaked hood and eye holes conforming to the shape of the skull beneath). Will the menace spread to every corner of the land? All is not lost however, for four intrepid Black women have banded together to defeat it. Each has her own talents, whether skills gained as airwomen in World War I, or through the magic passed on from generations past. Although unique in personality, the bonds of sisterhood and shared purpose has welded them into an indomitable team.

This is the book that got me through the last days of the 2020 Presidential election. I’d turn away from the news, as full of fear and bigotry as it was of hope, and dive into the world of Ring Shout, where the loyalty and courage of Black women heroes stood fast against the forces of evil.

That gives me hope.

Tuesday, December 22, 2020

Blessing for the Longest Night

 Blessing for the Longest Night

All throughout these months
as the shadows
have lengthened,
this blessing has been
gathering itself,
making ready,
preparing for
this night.

It has practiced
walking in the dark,
traveling with
its eyes closed,
feeling its way
by memory
by touch
by the pull of the moon
even as it wanes.

So believe me
when I tell you
this blessing will
reach you
even if you
have not light enough
to read it;
it will find you
even though you cannot
see it coming.

You will know
the moment of its
by your release
of the breath
you have held
so long;
a loosening
of the clenching
in your hands,
of the clutch
around your heart;
a thinning
of the darkness
that had drawn itself
around you.

This blessing
does not mean
to take the night away
but it knows
its hidden roads,
knows the resting spots
along the path,
knows what it means
to travel
in the company
of a friend.

So when
this blessing comes,
take its hand.
Get up.
Set out on the road
you cannot see.

This is the night
when you can trust
that any direction
you go,
you will be walking
toward the dawn.

—Jan Richardson
from The Cure for Sorrow: A Book of Blessings for Times of Grief

© Jan Richardson from The Cure for Sorrow: A Book of Blessings for Times of Grief.

Monday, December 21, 2020

[shameless self-promotion] Kimberly Unger Reviews Collaborators

Kimberly Unger, author of Nucleation, has this to say about Collaborators:

Deborah J. Ross opens Collaborators by flipping the script in a first contact scenario and not stopping there. In her story of a strange new world, the Terrans are the outsiders reaching in and the people of Chacarre and the Erlind are the normal, the everyday folk. 

It’s through this flipped lens that the story first opens, a rare look at our version of humanity through the eyes of a different… humanity.  Because, as details of this alien world get revealed, it becomes apparent that while some of the structures of Chacarran civilization are strikingly familiar, particularly in politics and protest, there are just as many cultural and biological differences, from gender constructs that transcend the binary on through to clan structures and societal languages hidden in the tremble of fur.

Ross brings us along to follow several life stories as they play out across the backdrop of the politics and perils of diplomacy and, as is almost inevitable when new cultures meet, mistakes are made.  Brief windows into the lives and relationships of the Terrans first reveal an earnest attempt to stay neutral and avoid upsetting the balance between two nations in conflict, then a desire to do everything in their power to repair their ship so they can go home. As they overstay their welcome, the Terrans leverage first their influence and then their might. The logic is the same line we have all heard before both in real-life and fiction, to establish a new and stable rule of law so they can get the help they need and leave. The Chacarran and the Erlind start the story on the edge of conflict with each other, but as all the tragedies unfold, the truth of the Terran manipulation comes to light. 

With the Terrans and the Chacarran now entangled in a conflict that none wants to continue, but neither can find a way out of, the storylines of our main characters all come together, each contributing their own piece to the final outcome and ultimately finding a way forward that everyone can live with.

This novel is a refresh of a work Ross originally published under the name of Deborah Wheeler, and as such, I feel it may have been a bit ahead of its time.  The depth of the world and the complex relations feel much more at home among today's science-fiction trends than in previous decades and as such I am delighted I managed to catch this novel in it;s latest release. Deborah Ross is an expert worldbuilder and the care and attention she pays to developing the specifics of Chacarran culture and the diverse viewpoints of her world helps to put a fresh frame a complex story of first contact, political machinations and a revolution that everybody, even the invaders, wants to see succeed.

Friday, December 18, 2020

Book Reviews: Surviving Trauma in a Magical Plague

 The Electric Heir (Feverwake, Book 2), by Victoria Lee (Skyscape)

This is a sequel to Fever King, which I reviewed here. Although I loved the premise of magic being carried by a highly contagious, near-fatal virus, and the virus having been unleashed on a fractured United States by a single power-mad man, I expressed reservations about the depiction of the moral consequences of actions, specifically politically motivated murder. Yet the world and its principle characters were powerful enough to linger in my memory, so I decided to give this next volume a try. And in it I found everything I missed in the first book. To be sure, this isn’t an easy, light-hearted read. It’s a brutally honest delve into the abuse of power. And as such, I found the story powerful and emotionally fearless. Lee doesn’t shy away from difficult or distressing aspects of the deep trauma suffered by the victims or the pernicious nature of the way their thinking and reactions become warped as the result of repeated abuse. In all the essentials, The Electric Heir completes and redeems The Fever King.

Calix Lehrer rose to power by first creating magically gifted “witchings” (the few survivors of the plague he himself unleashed) and then defending them against neighboring nations. Now over a century old, he chooses apprentices from the elite Level IV school – but these teens are not merely students, they are the targets of his seduction, manipulation, and abuse. In the first volume, refugee Noam is first overwhelmed by the privilege of Level IV, filled with hero worship for Lehrer, and first repelled and then fascinated by his fellow student, the charismatically beautiful telepath, Dara. In the course of that story, Noam falls in love with Dara even as he comes under Lehrer’s influence, to the point of becoming Lehrer’s assassin. It becomes clear that not only is Dara’s sexual relationship with Lehrer non-consensual because of the disparity in age and power and the impossibility of refusal, but it involves repeated brutal physical abuse, masked over by Lehrer’s healing magic. The book closed with Dara’s escape and likely death.

Now Lehrer has lured Noam into Dara’s place, forcing him through psychological manipulation and increasingly violent physical abuse into a model of himself: ruthless, exploitive, and devious. In short, to become Lehrer’s carbon-copy heir. Noam, like Dara before him, craves Lehrer’s approval at first, although it is unclear how much of this stems from Noam’s youthful vulnerability and how much is Lehrer making himself charming and magically persuasive. As it turns out, Dara is not dead, although he no longer possesses magic; he has returned with an underground cabal with one purpose: to end Lehrer and his international reign of terror. Lehrer has planted a spy in their midst, perhaps more than one. Noam, after an uncomfortable, divisive reunion, insists on remaining with Lehrer as part of the plot – even though it puts his sanity and his very life at risk. Meanwhile, Lehrer launches a pre-emptive strike against the neighboring nation of Texas, using weaponized magic. As Noam and Dara separately and together come to terms with both the overt and the subtle effects of abuse, it’s a race against time to stop Lehrer. 

It’s a high-wire act to portray slow, intense, personal change and fast-paced action at the same time. Lee deserves immense credit for not abbreviating or minimizing the painful process by which Lehrer’s victims peel back the layers of guilt and shame, discarding the excuses born of what their abuser has led them to believe about themselves. This second volume fully addresses my concerns about the first with courage and compassion. It’s definitely not the place to start the story, but neither is the first book the place to stop. I’m glad I gave The Electric Heir a chance to take me with Noam and Dara in their journey into darkness and the emergence of hope.

Sunday, December 13, 2020

Winter Newsletter Coming Soon! Free Holiday Gifts and More

I'll be sending out my winter newsletter soon. Besides the usual greetings I'll be offering a potpourri of free (or low price) books, hand knitted caps, and more for subscribers only. 

Don't miss out on the goodies. Subscribe now!

Sign up here:

Or, if you'd like a preview:

Saturday, December 12, 2020

Do Not Murder In My Name: The Rush to Federal Executions

Now, in the waning days of 2020, the criminal in the White House has pushed through a string of murders. I realize I have used inflammatory language, but nothing less conveys the intensity of my outrage and revulsion. Simply put, someone who initiates and demands the ending of a human life is a criminal. The deliberate, calculated, cold-blooded taking of a human life is murder. 

From the BBC: 

As President Donald Trump's days in the White House wane, his administration is racing through a string of federal executions.

Five executions are scheduled before President-elect Joe Biden's 20 January inauguration - breaking with an 130-year-old precedent of pausing executions amid a presidential transition.

And if all five take place, Mr Trump will be the country's most prolific execution president in more than a century, overseeing the executions of 13 death row inmates since July of this year.

The five executions began this week, starting with convicted killer 40-year-old Brandon Bernard who was put to death at a penitentiary in Terre Haute, Indiana. The execution of 56-year-old Alfred Bourgeois will take place on the evening of 11 December.

I am the family member of a murder victim, and I speak from personal experience of the impulse to revenge the taking of my mother's life. I also know that this is a natural expression of grief, and that with healing, it passes. To me it is essential that those left behind be given the support and time to process that loss and to re-engage with their lives. To focus on killing someone else freezes us in retaliation mode. 

Over the years, I have spoken out against the death penalty, telling my story to groups as diverse as city councils, law students, death penalty abolition activists, and state legislators. In 2012, I was invited to participate in an international conference put on by Murder Victim Families For Human Rights. Then I met others like me, who had lost a single family member to violence, those whose loved ones had been executed or were on death row, and those who experienced both. Every single person who had experienced both was Black. There is no escaping the racial injustice in the way the death penalty is applied (or the way crimes are investigated and prosecuted). Yet the most moving part of that weekend was listening with an open heart to mothers weeping for their executed sons -- and realizing their grief and loss was no less than mine. 

If you, who are reading this, take away nothing else, remember this: every person who is put to death is or has been loved by someone, and is grieved by someone, and missed like an aching hole in the heart by someone.

In 2019, I penned a blog for Death Penalty Focus, called "When we focus on revenge instead of healing, we never heal." You can read it below.

Friday, December 11, 2020

Very Short Book Reviews: For Your Winter Reading Delight

 A Killing Frost, by Seanan McGuire (DAW)

The “October Daye” series keeps getting better! And by “better” I mean richer and more nuanced, always packed with action and dramatic tension and characters we have come to adore. As Toby and Tybalt-King-of-Cats prepare their wedding, she is jolted to discover that she must invite her father to the ceremony or risk the dire consequences of an insult. In this case, her father is not her biological sire but the ex-husband of her mother – the notorious and much-despised Simon Torquill. Simon had made strides toward redemption when he traded his Way Home to save his daughter and is now in the thrall of an evil faery queen. Toby’s quest involves far more than tracking him down. The themes of forgiveness, loyalty, self-discovery, and compassion for self and others run like golden threads through the vivid action.

The Properties of Rooftop Air, by Tim Powers (Subterranean)

“If Charles Dickens had written Killer Klowns,” by Tim Powers doesn’t come close to the weirdness of this dark – dare I say Dickensian – novella. It’s definitely one of the edgier, darker Powers works I’ve read, and the novella length sharpens the focus further. A must-read for Powers fans and lovers of the darkly twisted, although not for the faint of heart and probably not the best gateway drug. If you’re new to Powers, try The Anubis Gates, On Stranger Tides, or Declare before diving into this one.

Adventures of a Dwergish Girl, by Daniel Pinkwater (Tachyon)

Daniel Pinkwater is at his best, most charming and delightful in this tale of a girl from the Dwerg people – you know, the “little men” responsible for Rip Van Winkle sleeping for twenty years? The ones you can never find, no matter how hard you look? The ones who mine gold in the Catskills, can run unbelievably fast, practice domesticity on a level capable of boring any young person to tears? Such is Molly Van Dwerg’s world until she decides to leave home, armed with a couple of Dwergish gold coins and irrepressible self-confidence. Her gift for making friends is rivaled only by her appetite for pizza and papaya juice. When the nearby town of Kingston is menaced by bad guys after the gold and willing to burn down the town to get it, Molly enlists her friends and her wits to save the day.

Charming reading for the entire family.

Friday, December 4, 2020

Short Book Reviews: Florence of the Eternal Renaissance

 Or What You Will, by Jo Walton (Tor Books)

Imagine a world that unites Shakespeare’s two plays, As You Like It and Twelfth Night. Imagine that world as a fantasy series by a contemporary author, determined to finish the series before she dies of cancer. Imagine the narrator being her muse, the solace of her wretched childhood, now determined to save her life by transforming her into a character in her own world, where death comes about only by an act of will. That’s a very rough description of this ground-breaking novel, liberally sprinkled with fascinating forays into the Renaissance – its artists, architects, and thinkers. Illyria, the creation of the author, Sylvia, is an idealized Renaissance Florence frozen in time, set apart from “Progress.” 

Effortless prose, nuanced layering of past, present, and the world of the imagination, add up to a rich and complex reading experience. If only Sylvia’s “Illyria” books were real, we’d all get to run away there.