Book Review: CAMILLE AND THE BEARS OF BEISA – DRAFNEL

CamilleAndTheBearsOfBeisaDrafnel_SimoneSalmon

Notes on Diversity:
Features a large cast of people of color helmed by agentic, powerful women, yay! Portions of the book are set in Jamaica, so it’s not even entirely USA-centric, also yay!

No queer characters. No characters with identified disabilities.


Review:
FTC disclosure: I received a free digital copy of this book in exchange for an honest and unbiased review.

Drafnel, the first novel in the Camille and the Bears of Beisa series by Simone Salmon, is a major genre-bender. Equal parts paranormal thriller, romance, sweeping sci-fi novel and folkloric fantasy all wrapped together, Salmon manages to weave them all into an absorbing whole. Drafnel is scheduled for release on August 28, 2015; you can learn more about the book here.

Drafnel is composed of several intersecting narratives strung across different universes and timelines, all connected by specific individuals who persist across time and space1. The anchor narrative is driven by Camille Matahari, a young woman in 21st century New York City fresh out of college with her whole life ahead of her. The book follows her as her otherworldly powers begin to unlock, and as she is hunted by a persistent and complicated evil across time and space. To survive, she draws on a community of people both familiar and unfamiliar to her, including her Indian-born Jamaican-raised grandmother, Catharine, her Afro-Latino boyfriend, Chase DeLeon, and the shifter Beisling Bear clan.

Drafnel is Dune-like in the grandiose sweep of its worldbuilding. The sci-fi universe Salmon creates, Narvina, with its eight ruling clans and ornate power structures was intriguing. It was also refreshing to read a great space opera like this where the people in charge are people of color, and where the universe is a matriarchy.

While anchored by Camille and her narrative, the book functions as a series of linked interludes. The POV switches between Camille, her grandmother, Chase, and others. When the POV switches to people in the far-future (far-past? Extra-dimensional?) world of Narvina, the reader is able to grasp what that universe is like from an insider’s perspective. These interludes are able to fill out the scope and reach of Narvina without an over-reliance on info-dumping. I will say that the lingo of Narvina, which required a glossary I found too late in my reading, confused me. But Salmon’s use of folktales and specific stories to build out the structure of this unfamiliar world, and to link it back to Camille’s story, was a brilliant narrative device.

There were also long sections that explored Camille’s grandmother’s childhood in Jamaica, and her grandmother’s awakening powers. These sections were wonderful—they created an additional counterpoint of paranormal weirdness (Camille experiencing these disruptions in our current time, her grandmother experiencing them in the 1950s in Jamaica) and provided another compelling narrative voice. Honestly, Catherine Matahari, Camille’s grandmother, stole the book for me. I loved her in all her incarnations. She was wonderfully drawn, and her sections held so much fine detail and description that I wanted the whole book to be about her. I felt her voice was stronger than Camille’s, ultimately.

The book is complicated, and thematically messy. It’s a surprisingly quick, short read, which is both good and bad: good, because it’s quick-paced and satisfying, bad because I wish Salmon had taken the time to dig into some of her themes and explore them with more nuance and depth. There was more to mine in this book, I think. There were some characters left unformed and half-developed, including Camille who never quite stands out from the cast of more sharply drawn characters around her. There were some ideas waiting to be clarified in the text that didn’t quite come together. But on the whole, Drafnel is a hugely ambitious book, and deeply felt, and it works.

4 stars

1The structure and some of the themes of the book reminded me of the movie The Fountain, which I adored. This idea of the same person persisting in different forms across time and space, mostly through the power of deep emotional connection to other people, really connected the two pieces in my mind.



 

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Book Review: REDBURN

redburn cover

I would be lying if I didn’t admit that I am a Melville nerd. I am a big enough Melville nerd that I have the last line of “Bartleby the Scrivener” tattooed on my arm. I am a big enough nerd that reading Moby Dick wasn’t enough for me–I followed it up with Redburn.

Here’s the thing: Redburn is an early effort that’s passable in its own right, but really doesn’t prepare you for the genius gamechanger it’s laying the groundwork for. You just don’t see anything like Moby Dick coming based on Redburn. Which is not to say Redburn isn’t a good book, or an enjoyable one, or one worth reading (especially if you, like me, are struck with an incredibly geeky urge to go all completionist and read everything Melville wrote). But it does mean that reading Redburn after reading Melville’s legitimately more famous and better-regarded books is a peculiar experience.

To just take the book on its own terms, devoid of context or history or knowledge of what comes after, Redburn is at its heart a tale of a boy just coming to terms with the fact that his view of the world, and in particular his understanding of it as a fair and just place, has been shattered. It’s a pretty standard story of innocence lost and adulthood gained, told in hindsight by an older version of Wellingborough Redburn himself (and isn’t that a hell of a name?*) who seems slightly embarassed at just how naive he was way back in the day. This theme is nested throughout the book, starting with the economic collapse of his father to the inherent unfairness of life on the sea, to the inherent unfairness of poverty he’s first exposed to in Liverpool. The scope of the book gradually grows, like going from the innermost matroushka doll to the outermost one, which is a neat little trick on Melville’s part and rings very true for anyone who’s grappled with forging his or her own worldview in adolescence.

And the writing is lovely. Here, like in Moby Dick or “Bartleby,” Melville is telling you a story through someone else telling you a story. And one thing that keeps me coming back to Melville time and again is just that: that he tells you a story. The writing here is intimate and immediate, like you’re sitting in a comfortably overstuffed armchair with Redburn and he’s recounting his youthful exploits to you — just you — over a cup of tea. In fact, it’s a little bit purer here in Redburn than in anything else I’ve read by him. It’s got more scope than “Bartleby” by virtue of its length alone and unlike Moby Dick, where Ishmael himself starts to fade in and out of the narrative, Redburn is always front and center. It’s Redburn telling Redburn’s story (as opposed to the rather elderly gentleman telling you about Bartleby or Ishmael telling you about the Pequod) and Redburn, luckily, has the wit and grace as a reflective narrator to carry it.

But if I’m being honest, I think the only people who would be willing to read Redburn and enjoy it are people like me who have already signed on for the Herman Melville Experience once and don’t mind coming back for more. And since that’s the case, the truth of the matter is that Redburn is most interesting to read in the context of Melville more broadly. In Redburn, you see what is essentially the first pass at themes and archetypes Melville will use to much greater and deeper effect later on. In particular, Jackson reads like a more malicious and less conflicted version of Claggart. And Redburn himself reads as a terribly naive and less observant version of Ishmael. Perhaps Ishmael ten or fifteen years before he set foot on the Pequod. Redburn, like Ishamel, is more educated and more refined than the others on his boat, and Redburn (like Ishmael) finds himself falling into very close, very fast (and very homoerotic) friendships with foreigners as soon as he gets the chance. As in Benito Cereno, Melville’s ambivalence towards America — its grandeur built on foundations of injustice, its insularity, its conformity that can (as far as Melville seems to be aware) only be escaped by shipping out to sea — becomes a dominant theme.

And more than that, Redburn gives a great deal of insight into Melville himself. If Ishmael is more or less an idealized version of Melville, Redburn is clearly who Melville thought he once was. The parallels between Redburn and Melville are striking (so striking that my copy of Redburn has an appendix which notes chapter by chapter aspects of Melville’s own first voyage that he fictionalized for the book). Redburn is a book about a young man whose education and experiences lead him to sea totally unprepared, one who has to adapt without any clear guidance, and who in the process finds life at sea both utterly freeing and constraining, and really that young man is Herman Melville and not Wellingborough Redburn. It’s not so surprising, then, that Melville was dismissive of Redburn. He wrote it fast and wrote it for the money and frankly, you can tell. It’s an overly long, highly digressive travelogue of a book where you find yourself sifting through random chapters about churches in Liverpool and Redburn’s father’s unusable guidebook before Melville eventually gets around to anything resembling a plot again. This technique works a lot better in Moby Dick, but even there people find it annoying.

But I can’t help but wonder if he was dismissive of it because it was a little exposing to him, too. Writing it that fast perhaps meant that it’s more raw, more reflective of parts of himself he wasn’t fond of, and when all is said and done that’s what will stick with me most about this book.

4 stars

* His name, despite what the back cover of my Penguin Classics edition of the book would have you believe, is actually Wellingborough Redburn and not Wellington Redburn. Shame on you, Penguin Classics, shame on you.

Book Review: THE MARTIAN CHRONICLES

TheMartianChronicles_Bradbury

I think I first read The Martian Chronicles in junior high. Around then, I’d read anything by Bradbury I could get my hands on. I was always rather grateful he’s so prolific. And I remember really liking The Martian Chronicles, but when I picked up a copy a couple of months ago I found I didn’t really remember anything concrete about it. Just that I liked it.

On rereading it, I’ve found I still really like it, though probably not for the same reasons I did back when I was twelve or so. It’s a book ultimately concerned with the ambivalent nature of man — a deep-seated greediness married to a gentler, more altruistic side — and the cyclical nature of change. It traces the settlement of Mars by humans, which results in the accidental genocide of the native Martians via chickenpox and the humans’ attempts to change Mars into a place more comfortable to them. They plant trees to increase the oxygen level in the planet’s atmosphere (a move which, though not directly addressed in the book, strikes me as the sort of thing that would have disastrous downstream consequences) and build towns that look just like the ones they left. Some even build hot dog stands. But when atomic war breaks out on Earth, the settlers go rushing back*, leaving a few isolated, lonely souls behind and Mars virtually uninhabited. The book ends with small clutches of escapees from Earth** touching down illicitly to start a new life there. They declare themselves Martians, and the cycle seems to start over again.

That’s about as close to a plot as the book has. I think it’s technically considered a novel, but really it’s a collection of inter-related short stories. There are a handful of characters that make multiple appearances — most notably, members of the Fourth Expedition to Mars, the first to survive landing there in no small part due to the fact that one of the previous three expeditions wiped out the Martians with chicken pox — but this is not a character-driven book. Really, Bradbury’s focus seems to be on capturing the way life on Mars shifts as the humans take over the planet. And the flexibility of the book’s structure allows him to do that with a wider, more varied lens than he would’ve had if he’d tried to do it using a more traditionally novel-like framework. By making each chapter a discrete episode in an era, he’s able to explore many different reactions to Mars and many different ways of living there.

The structure of the book, actually, is one of the few things I did remember about the book from the way back junior high times. And I’ve always been intrigued by it. It makes sense with Bradbury — he’s a master of the short story. Through the interconnected short stories, The Martian Chronicles is able to give you a sense of what it would be like to live there at any point in the long process of settling, and gives you an understanding of the long process itself.

The other thing that sticks with me is the tone. In story after story, Bradbury writes in simple, almost quaint language, but does so in a way that communicates to the reader his trepidation and distaste with the frontier mindset of the settlers. In each individual story, it’s a quiet, subtle thing, like a warning he’s sending out that he doesn’t really believe will be heeded. A subtext lurking in the background. But over the course of the 27 stories, you get the message loud and clear. But the tone, I think, is at its strongest and most powerful in “The Musicians”:

Behind him would race six others, and the first boy there would be the Musician, playing the white xylophone bones beneath the black flake covering. A great skull would roll to view, like a snowball; they shouted! Ribs, like spider legs, plangent as a dull harp, and then the black flakes of mortality blowing all about them in their scuffling dance; the boys pushed and heaved and fell in the leaves, in the death that had turned the dead to flakes and dryness, into a game played by boys whose stomachs gurgled with orange pop.

That sense of innocent, thoughtless disrespect for the lives of people and civilizations that came before resonates through Bradbury’s writing in story after story. Sometimes, like in “The Musicians”, this is the focus of the story. But as often as not, it isn’t, it just lurks in the background, coloring how the stories fit together.

4 stars

*This was about the only thing I found unbelievable about the book. I found it improbable that people would flee a safe planet to one in the throes of nuclear war rather than the other way around. I also wonder how feasible that is — I mean, if shit’s blowing up all over, where are those rockets supposed to land again? But one gaping plot hole in a book this good I can overlook.

**This last story, “The Million-Year Picnic,” kept reminding me of that episode of the Twilight Zone where a pair of families escape an impending world war by building rockets and striking out for a peaceful, livable planet in the dead of night. Of course in the episode, that peaceful, livable planet is….EARTH! So it’s inverted, I guess, here. But still, same sense of tension and the same basic plot points.

Book Review: BAD PUBLICITY

BadPublicity_BrianCBaerFTC disclosure: I received a free digital copy of this book in exchange for an honest and unbiased review.

Bad Publicity, by Brian C. Baer, is a modern twist on the hardboiled noir detective story. The book centers on Jackson Hardy, a grizzled alcoholic unraveling a mystery who contends with his fair share of femme fatales and massive thugs. It all sounds very Dashiell Hammett except for the particulars.

Jackson Hardy isn’t a P.I.—he’s a tabloid reporter, and he’s not a very good one on his own.* One of the femme fatales is a ghost named Madame Blue who feeds him his sordid tidbits about movie stars. It’s these clever subversions that make Bad Publicity worth reading. Where noir literature was always a wry satire of its times—a reflection of the lose-lose nihilism of post-Depression American life—Baer’s writing sends up today’s empty fishbowl fascination with celebrity culture. To this end, making Hardy a tabloid reporter is a brilliant update of the genre.

The book follows Jackson Hardy as his use of Madame Blue (by way of an unplugged fax machine) lands him a string of high profile tabloid stories. But with those stories come ruined careers and retaliation from the movie stars he writes about. As Jackson digs deeper with Madame Blue’s help, things get stranger, questions about these celebrities pile up, and the plot twists and turns.

The structural criticisms that can be leveled against Bad Publicity are largely the same ones that can be leveled against noir fiction in general: the women characters lack dimension, and its cast is as White as fresh-fallen arctic snow. In updating the conventions of the genre, Baer could have included some diversity to his cast. Regarding the female characters, a case could be made that Jackson is, for much of the book, a drunk and emotional mess, and therefore an unreliable narrator in terms of what these women are actually like. No such excuse can be made for the lack of characters of color, though.

That said, the characters we get are well-drawn enough that they held my interest. I was particularly impressed by Jackson’s evolving relationship to Madame Blue, who grows stronger and more corporeal over the course of the book. Also of interest was Fitzgerald, presented as Jackson’s one stable friend over the course of the book.** And, last but certainly not least, a brief interlude where we meet Jackson’s estranged ex-wife proved extremely enlightening. Layla was a fascinating creature who deserved her own book, in my opinion, and enriched this one.

If you’re looking for a well-paced paranormal thriller with roots in hardboiled detective fiction, Bad Publicity will scratch that itch.

4 stars

*At least not when he’s drunk, which is usually the case. When he dries out, he proves he can do the legwork without Madame Blue’s help.

**Sadly, this never panned out, but I shipped it.

Book Review: SHADOWPLAY

Shadowplay_LauraLam

The middle book of any trilogy has the hardest job to do: it has to complicate the overall narrative while still being its own book. Bad middle books feel like filler; hundreds of pages of marked time between two cliffhangers. Good middle books walk the fine line between staying true to the story you fell in love with in the first book and twisting it enough to keep you interested in reading the next installment.

Shadowplay, I am happy to say, is a good middle book. As the second book in Laura Lam’s Micah Grey series, Shadowplay opens after one crisis and ends with another, but the path between them never feels like filler.

The events at the end of Pantomime force Micah into hiding again, this time with Drystan at his side. Drystan calls in a life-debt from the disgraced magician Jasper Maske to secure a hiding place at the dusty Kymri Theater, and thus begins Micah’s second adventure. Again, Micah goes into hiding. Again, Micah takes on a false identity. But the difference in Shadowplay is that he does so in plain sight. And at night he has a place to return to where people know who he really is and accepts him for that. I loved that nuance.

One area ripe for exploration that was missed, though, was Micah’s new identity. In the city of Imachara, while outside on the street, Micah wears a small piece of Vestige which makes him appear to be Temnian. In the book, Temnian people are coded as people of color; visibly foreign and visible different—“from the colonies,” mistrusted. As Sam (Micah’s name when passing as Temnian), Micah should face structural oppression. Unless Ellada is much further along in terms of race relations than we are in the real world, this should probably have been more than a couple of scowls on the street as mentioned in the text. This oversight is compounded when Cyan, an actual Temnian girl, joins the group. She either never speaks of whatever structural oppression she faces or she never experiences any. She seems to have no feelings on the matter that these two White kids are passing themselves off as Temnian. I’m not saying she should be bothered by it, necessarily, but she probably should have had an opinion on it one way or the other. In any case, there is a potential for this element of the book to rub readers of color the wrong way since Micah is literally using race as a costume for large sections of the book without any substantial reflection of what that means.

That said, I did truly appreciate that in Shadowplay Lam began to unweave Micah’s intersexuality from his apparent special abilities around Vestige*—which become more pronounced in this book. We learn more about that in Shadowplay; the Phantom Damselfy herself becomes a prominent character with a name and a history and a future. We also learn that there are others with similar abilities in Micah’s world. It’s confirmed more than once over the course of the book that it may just be coincidence that Micah is intersex and has these abilities. Micah is allowed to be just Micah.

Shadowplay is excellently paced and explores a different part of Elladan culture than Pantomime—magic shows and seances. I, actually, am fascinated by the historical spiritualism movement and the practices of debunking seances, so this was an oddly perfect match for my interests. Between Micah’s Phantom Damselfly induced visions, magician training, and tracking down people who are tracking down him, there is plenty of plot to go around. There are double agents. There is a slow-burning, very sweet romance, but not before the trauma of the ending of the first book has to be dealt with and processed by both Micah and Drystan. There is the question of Micah’s weird abilities and the potential and the danger they pose. And there is a hell of an ending and the questions it raises

I cannot wait for Masquerade**.

4 stars

* If Lam’s interactions on twitter are any indications, and I can’t imagine why they wouldn’t be, she appears to be a lovely and reflective person.

**Also, I the behind-the-scenes story of the third Micah Grey book is a pleasure in and of itself.

Book Review: PANTOMIME

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I have heard nothing but good things about Pantomime by Laura Lam, and the book earned every good word I heard about it. Pantomime tells the story of Micah Grey, who was once Iphigenia Laurus: an intersex teenager raised as a girl who runs away to the circus when her parents decide to surgically alter her to make her ‘marriageable’ against her will. Once on the run, Iphigenia takes the name Micah, passes herself off as a boy, and joins a circus. At the circus, Micah begins training as a replacement for the circus’ aging male acrobat.

Micah’s voice is beautifully written. Lam captures the confusion of adolescence, the way Micah’s gender and biological sex adds to that confusion and isolation, and the anger Micah feels when he realizes that being intersex shouldn’t isolate him from those around him but does. At the same time, Micah begins a relationship with female his acrobat partner, Aenea, while nursing a crush on the White Clown of the circus, Drystan. Micah’s burgeoning bisexuality provides another welcome thread of the book, which Lam handles with sensitivity and grace.

The circus itself is presented as a microcosm, a little world unto itself, full of history that Micah has to learn, and full of possible dangers as well as new experiences to explore. Micah endures hazing. Micah learns who in the circus to watch out for and who is safe. Meanwhile, news that Iphigenia Laurus has run away spreads through town. Some in the circus put the pieces together; some do not. Micah must learn who he can trust and who he cannot. Some learn his secrets, and he learns theirs. The theme of secrets—the power they hold, the destructive force they ultimately represent—is a present all throughout the book. That theme comes to a devastating, heart-wrenching set of climaxes at the end of the book.

Pantomime is fits squarely in the genre of fantasy. The worldbuilding is excellent and doled out in enough small doses to stay interesting without ever being overwhelming. Each chapters starts with an epigraph from some fictional work which provides some context about the Archipelago, the region in which Pantomime takes place. Micah’s past as Iphigenia gives him an education on Ellada’s (his country) history and political relationship with its outlying colonies. Slowly, Vestige is introduced—magical artifacts from some time long past which work sporadically. The circus uses them for entertainment value, but Ellada once used them as weaponry. Micah, for as yet unknown reasons, has a strange and powerful relationship with the remnants of the culture that produced the Vestige artifacts.

Honestly, if there’s anything to critique about Pantomime, perhaps, it’s that last point—by the end of the book, it’s increasingly clear that Micah is, in some mysterious way, special, and that this specialness is tied to his being intersex. This, I’m sure will get extrapolated in the book’s sequels, but I can’t help but think that the book would have been stronger, and would have made more of a positive statement about intersexuality, gender fluidity and bisexuality if Micah had just been…Micah. Not chosen, not magical, just Micah—an acrobat who is complicated and trying to grow up in a complicated world. But all that said, the book was still lovely, and I am very curious about the Penglass, so I’m already halfway through Shadowplay.

4 stars

Book Review: WHO FEARS DEATH

WhoFearsDeath

WHO FEARS DEATH, by Nnedi Okorafor, is not a book for the faint of heart. Told in retrospect to her captors by a woman facing execution—a woman who has changed the world around her in fundamental and unexpected ways and sacrificed herself to do it—the teller does not flinch away from the grisly and vicious details of her story. She revels in them. As much a book about hope and change as it is a book about the horrors of complacency, WHO FEARS DEATH is a book that embraces anger, and for that if nothing else, I loved it.

TRIGGER WARNING: The book has roots in the real-world history of weaponized rape in the Sudan. In the book, Onyesonwu is the product of militarized rape: her Okeke (Black) mother is raped brutally by a Nuru (White) sorcerer, and then her mother is rejected by her husband. Onyesonwu spends her early childhood in the deserts alone with her mother. Her mother notices the child has an affinity for juju—magic—and despite her child’s visible biracial features decides she has to seek out a township and raise her among other people. It’s not easy—people like Onyesonwu, the products of Nuru/Okeke rape are called Ewu and presumed to be inherently violent, inherently broken due to the means of their conception. Finding a village where they are accepted is the first of many battles here.

Onyesonwu grows up and grows into her magic. She becomes a shapeshifter. She demands to be mentored, going up against old barriers that would restrict her both about her being Ewu and a woman. She falls in love. She builds friendships. She learns that her world is being torn apart; she learns of a prophecy that she might be the one to heal it. She goes through an initiation that reveals her own death and unlocks her powerful magic. She prepares herself for the inevitable showdown with the powerful force of a man who created her. Across the narrative, the book manages to tackle genocide, rape, female circumcision, cultural relativism, colorism, and a host of other issues with a deft hand. Onyesonwu’s voice is always harsh, always sharp-tongued and brutal. Always questioning.

Onyesonwu was a narrator I related to immediately. She was so brash, so defiant. So deeply capable of love, and at the same time so reactive and defensive. Entitled and yet so used to being refused. So angry. I loved her anger. I was moved by anger. I connected with it. The book exulted in her anger. It was always her greatest strength. When it was positioned as a weakness—and occasionally it was—it was always done so by the men around her, and thus the weakness they claimed was undercut by the fact that they saw her as an obvious threat to their masculinity. Even the love of her life, Mwita, her healer and companion, fell prey to this. But none of the women ever told her she was too angry. And when she fought for them, when she avenged them, the men did not think her too angry then. What I loved about this book was the subversion of that trope, that Angry Black Woman trope that is so often used to discredit the work marginalized women of color do. Onyesonwu locates the source of her anger here:

Humiliation and confusion were the staples of my childhood. Is it a wonder that anger was never far behind?

And then her mentor’s mentor, a man who intially underestimates her and tries to turn her away, validates the usefulness and power of that anger here at the close of the book:

Onyesonwu’s very essence was change and defiance.

Anger is an active emotion. It drives things, it pushes things. It can be abusive, and it can do wrong, but it can be a force for justice, too. Onyesonwu struggles with this in the book. Much of the book has her shaking people into righteous anger, fueling it, leaning into it and seeing it as a strength. And I loved the book for that.

Okorafor as an author also spends much of the narrative outlining how prophecies create their own ends. If you decide that Ewu people are inherently violent, and then you shun them and teach them they are evil and cast them out and leave them no choices but to turn criminal in desperation, then yes, she argues, you may see them resort to violence. If you cast spells on young women to make sexual arousal before marriage deeply painful and the spell only breaks with marriage then yes, the women of a given tribe might have a very peculiar relationship to sex and their husbands. And if you are a sorcerer and part of initiation is living through your death years before it occurs, what must that do to you? You carry it with you, you know when it happens, you dream of it—could you change your fate if the time came? Would you want to? Or, having resigned yourself to it so long ago, do you simply play the part? Even at the end, even defiant and angry Onyesonwu who does not fear death, even she submits to her own death.

All in all, I felt the pacing could have been tighter, and there are ticks of Okorafor’s writing I don’t particularly like, but the worldbuilding is so acute and profound and the scope and brutality of the questions she asks with her writing are so pressing that I don’t care. And for other readers? She will be stylistically perfect. Your mileage may vary, but likely this is a book well worth reading either way.

4 stars

Book Review: THE DAYLIGHT GATE

thedaylightgate

Witchery popery popery witchery

Under the paranoid reign of James I, witches and Catholics are hunted across the English countryside. Lancashire in particular is a suspected home to both populations. Jeanette Winterson’s THE DAYLIGHT GATE takes a historical instance—the first documented witch trial in English history—and spins around it a tale of what might have happened. The story unfolds from multiple perspectives: from the witches’ viewpoints, from the viewpoints of those who hunt them, from the viewpoints of those who try not to involve themselves but who cannot help but get drawn in.

THE DAYLIGHT GATE is a small, feral book. It is prose, but reads like poetry. It is set in England, but the northern England of 1612 is a land so far removed and the lives of the people there so different that it is intoxicating. It is beautiful and horrific at once, and it revels in that dichotomy.

The book is ultimately about liminalities—the title refers to the witching hour, twilight, the time where day and night dangerously blend together. The narrative shuffles around in time and space, bats back and forth between points of view, and is anchored really by a single character: Alice Nutter. Alice, herself, is a study in liminality: a woman born poor who makes her own fortune and therefore knows both wealth and suffering. A woman who loves both women and men. A woman who was married once—just once—but who has her own land and her own possessions. Alice is perceived as dangerous, as redemptive, as powerful, as impotent depending on who you ask. But she is always on the outskirts.

‘You are stubborn,’ said Roger Nowell. ‘I am not tame,’ said Alice Nutter.

The book hinges on Alice’s choices, on Alice’s will and strength. Alice’s ability to choose depends on her willingness to walk the fine line between states—between polite society and rebelliousness, between femininity and masculinity, etc. She has secrets, and she has moments of startling frankness. She has her undoings, but some of the are of her own accord and some of them are not. It is a mark of Winterson’s talent that Alice, as a character, grows in complexity in the span of such a short book. Actually, quite a few characters do—a priest/terrorist has a crisis of conscience, the afore-quoted Roger Nowell turns out to be a much more layered and decent man than he seems to be at first, and one character in particular has evolutions on evolutions I did not expect.

This is a book, at its heart, that is deeply feminist. Virtually all books written by women about witch trials are. What Winterson brings to the forefront here is the terror and the beauty of the liminal state, the power of between-ness. What is a witch but a woman with power she’s not supposed to have? What is that but something in-between: a feminine-masculine thing? It scares us because it’s slippery, hard to define, because it might just turn into a hare and escape a trap, run into the forest and out of sight. This is old ground Winterson is treading, yes, but it’s important ground to tread and she treads it well, with aplomb, with a spring in her step and a glint in her eye.

4 stars

Book Review: OUT IN THE UNION

OutInTheUnion

OUT IN THE UNION, by Miriam Frank, traces the intersections between the gay rights movement and the labor movement in America. The history is drawn largely from interviews with queer labor activists, and Frank quotes them at length throughout the book, giving her work the feeling of an oral history, ethnography or series of case studies. She provides contextualizing information, but OUT IN THE UNION largely defers to the activists who pushed their movements forward. As such, the book is deeply personal and specific rather than comprehensive. This is not a book that provides a dry and complete overview of queer-labor activism, but instead is a love letter to the victories and efforts of the people who lived that activism.

The book opens with the story of a trans man in a steelworkers’ union at the turn of the twentieth century. From there, the book leaps forward to cover how the emergent gay rights movement in the 1970s and 1980s was embraced (or not) as the labor movement sought to reinvent itself as manufacturing jobs moved first out of pro-union states and then out of the United States altogether. The hidden histories of queer workers prior to the 1960s are sparse in the text, emerging as context or as discrete moments in the interviewees’ lives.

Prior to OUT IN THE UNION, I was familiar with Frank’s work through Pride at Work, a pamphlet my own union used to better understand how and why to organize the QUILTBAG folks in our own ranks. This was years ago, back when I saw myself as a straight ally (back before I was out to anyone, even myself). The ethos of Pride at Work continues here: this is a book about organizing. The economics of unionization are supplanted by a blow-by-blow description of how various workplaces were or were not organized into unions. Frank remains an organizer at heart, and much of the book is devoted to recounts of how labor was able to use the particularities of an emerging queer activist culture to gain new ground or make new allies. In the case studies she presents—which range from bus drivers to auto workers to AIDS crisis workers—she uses organizing terms freely. Her target audience, clearly, are queer organizers out on the front lines, which necessarily limits the accessibility and audience of the book, which I think is a shame. It may find its audience out there in the front line, but from my experience working as a labor organizer there is little time to read even relevant and potentially useful books.

Reading OUT IN THE UNION was, for me, a particularly reflective and personal experience. Like many of the interviewees, I struggled with my own sexuality as I worked as a labor organizer. Fraught memories of coming to terms with my queerness are inextricably tied to the rollercoaster highs and lows of the organizing campaigns I worked for. Two regions which feature prominently in the book are southeast Michigan and Colorado—respectively why I, myself, was a campaign organizer and where I live now. Reading this book made me miss working in unions. It made me remember how hard that work is, and how necessary. It made me reflect (in a prescient and timely way given certain conditions current in my workplace today) on my discomfort living as a queer and unorganized person in a right-to-work state. I feel vulnerable, and even more so as a gender nonconforming queer individual. I feel vulnerable, like the people Frank records, and I want to fight back like they did and still are.

Frank writes with candor, both about the successful queer-labor alliances and the unsuccessful ones. Some were unsuccessful because the old guard of union leadership—typically straight white men in the skilled labor trades—struggled with creating space for and valuing the efforts of their queer brothers and sisters. Some were unsuccessful because a common source of oppression bonds communities together; Frank cites the climate in AIDS clinics where queer management overworked and exploited queer workers, but the workers viewed straight union agents as suspicious interlopers.

Frank uses the crossover of queer activism and the labor movement as a way to begin talking about class within the queer community. She points out more than once that queer people have always existed among the working class and in unions. She points out that being queer does not prevent managers from exploiting their workers. I was glad she used this lens throughout, but I wish she had taken it further. The book reads—I believe unintentionally—as very white. A handful of the interviewed activists are people of color, but most are white queer people. Given the layers of vulnerability queer poor workers of color face, it would have been a better book if race and class had both been discussed in relation to queer workers. In the epilogue, Frank cites the need for the labor movement to utilize queer immigrant workers to help reform immigration laws, but this is posited mostly as an aside.

OUT IN THE UNION ends with an epilogue tracing how the support of unions has helped marriage equality legislation get passed in multiple states. Frank uses this as a call to arms and a call to action to increase queer-labor joint activism. And while I appreciate that, I wish she had gone further. Marriage is not the only economic issue facing queer workers. Trans* workers are extremely vulnerable, often fired and rarely hired. I am, admittedly, less impressed or enthralled by the marriage equality movement, especially given that the fight has played out in legislative venues rather than in the workplace or on the streets. But, then again, most labor fights these days play out that way.

4 stars

Book Review: IRON COUNCIL

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When IRON COUNCIL ends, it brings both THE SCAR and PERDIDO STREET STATION to a close with it. The third and final book in China Mieville’s Bas-Lab trilogy picks up a buried theme in the previous two installments and runs wild with it. Looking back, all three books were about history—how it’s made, how meaning is made from it, how much of what really happens goes unknown and undocumented—but IRON COUNCIL puts this theme front and center.

The eponymous Iron Council is a small society of mutinous railroad workers. Years ago, they hijacked a train bound to connect New Crobuzon and other major cities and rode it into the wilderness, laying track as they went and picking it up behind them. The Iron Councillors are anarchists, living collectively, living in rapt defiance of where they come from, and back in New Crobuzon they are a symbol of hope that sometimes the poor and downtrodden win.

IRON COUNCIL is a split narrative that follows Judah Low*, a golemist who helps create the Iron Council in the first place; Cutter, a wounded cynic whose desperate love for Judah Low drives him into the center of things; and Ori, a young radical caught up in things he doesn’t understand back in New Crobuzon.** This is a big book, full of plot. There is a war, and an uprising, and vigilante justice, and a secret spy, and a strange monk who goes missing in pieces. All of the plot gravitates around the turmoil in New Crobuzon and the role the Iron Council plays in that—both as a catalytic symbol and as a group of real people who must decide to return to the city or keep running from it.

IRON COUNCIL is a deeply political book. It seems very clear to me that Mieville’s own politics seeped through to the pages here, that there is perhaps more of him in this book than in other ones. Having been in radical politics, I recognized a lot of the underground and fringe elements: arguments about the pitch and tenor of the paper, debates on the efficacy of guerrilla actions versus collective decisions that spun around and around. And in many ways, this is Mieville’s most utopian novel, too. He takes care to paint the Iron Councillors as real people grappling with real struggles, and they are not perfect. But he writes them with such love and admiration that it’s impossible not to get swept up in the romance and potential of their lives and actions.

The book ends on a strange philosophical question: when we reify history, when we relegate it to the realm of stories and divorce it from our day-to-day reality, what purpose does it serve? Is the idea of a thing enough? Here is a quote from the last page:

Years might pass and we will tell the story of the Iron Council and how it was made, how it made itself and went, and how it came back, and is coming, is still coming.

But if the Iron Council never arrives, if it’s always a potential and never a reality, then is what it brings a false hope? What is the role of history? How should it guide us? Is it better to freeze things before they have a chance to fail with the idea that they could have succeeded rather than let it play out and deal with the trauma of a defeat? The book doesn’t answer these questions, only dredges them up. Judah, Cutter and Ori all have very different perspectives on these ideas, on the role of ideas in praxis to begin with. I have kept chewing over all these questions for weeks after I finished the book. To call IRON COUNCIL thought-provoking is an understatement.

4 stars

*I see what you did there with that name, China Mieville.

**It is a very male-centric book. There is a secondary character, Ann-Hari, who I adored. She had all the agency I wanted Bellis Coldwine in THE SCAR to have. Ann-Hari starts as a whore, and emerges as a leader, first among the whores (with whom she organizes strikes) and then as a prominent and influential figure in the Iron Council itself. Though we meet her and know her first as a love interest of Judah’s, she quickly becomes much more than that and exists as herself outside of that relationship. The end to her story, more than anyone else’s, was deeply affecting and horrifically tragic. It’s worth reading this book for her alone, but I couldn’t help but wish she had been moved to the forefront.