Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Inborn Nature vs. Nurturing Choice

Review: Down Among the Stones and Bones by Seanan McGuire


Can identical twins pass through the same doorway, yet still find different paths in life? 

This second book in McGuire's Wayward Children series provides a prequel to the story in the Nebula-award winner Every Heart a Doorway (reviewed in Wardrobe, Rabbit-hole, Rainbow). It is the back-story of two of the first novel's main characters, Jack and Jill. The Wolcott twins, christened Jillian and Jaqueline, begin with roles imposed by their sociopathic parents, long before they ever climb down to the dark Moors on the other side of their wardrobe stairwell.

Each choice these girls make from the moment they step into the mysterious stairwell under the lid of Grandma's trunk has a consequence, and the accumulated choices drive their separate journeys in this vampire- and mad-scientist-ridden underworld.

Lay aside the blood-sucking and dead-raising details, though, and the story is really about gender, and the role of love in human life. It reminded me, in fact, of the conjoined twins Bertran and Nela Korsyzczy in Sheri Tepper's Sideshow

While Bertran and Nela achieved their sexual definition from the hands of a surgeon, their inner development was similar to the Moor-marooned Wolcott twins—even to harboring disparate hopes and desires. The conjoined twins, boy and girl, love each other, even though one dreams of swimming in cool seas, and the other yearns for flight through an endless burning sky.

For the Korsyzczy twins, the initial choice was made for them by a surgeon. For the Wolcott girls, though, enjoined to "Be Sure" before they open their doorway and enter the dark lands under a blood-red moon, every choice will have consequences that further reveal and define them in their new-chosen roles.

The tragic choice of love is not, as Drew Barrymore's Danielle challenges Leonardo da Vinci in Ever After, "A fish may love a bird, signore, but where would they live?" It is that love is messy, a problem for the obsessively-clean Jack. It is that love is self-sharing and fearless, a daunting prospect for the essentially timid, thoroughly selfish Jill. 

And for both twins, whose only experience of love before the Moors was years ago at their Grandmother's hands, there seems little reason to make such a difficult choice... even as they choose.

The choice of gender roles, like choosing to love, is never imposed from without. We make our choice, conscious or not, influenced or un- and we continue to choose. And we can always, each of us, make a different choice.

As long as we live. As long as we don't change too far.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Prep(per) School

Brief Review: Collapse (The Ashwood Lies Book 1) by R.J. Infantino


Why would a high-end private school be stock-piling weapons and ammunition in the attics? Chase isn't sure, but knows something is wrong, and suspects his girl-friend's claims about her brother's death are more than just fantasy. If Maya's fears are real, graduating from Ashwood Prep may be less about getting into an Ivy League school, and more about surviving the Apocalypse. 

If disaster does strike, how will the elite students at Ashwood respond? As in real life: some will lead. Some will panic. And some will kill to preserve the status quo.

This is much more than a dystopian conspiracy set in end-times. Think Red Dawn, but one in which students defend themselves against an invader in loco parentis. Their professors, perhaps even their own parents, may be involved in this conspiracy, and much more than political survival is at stake.

I enjoyed the story, even with the cliff-hanger ending (and the promise of further titles in The Ashwood Lies series, based on the "Book 1" subtitle), but I will probably not be buying the next. This novel stretched my willingness to believe a bit far. Rather than explain (which would be a spoiler), I'll leave it at that: I liked the novel.


Note:  I received this novel free as a Kindle Scout selection.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

A Cinderella History

Review: The Step-Spinsters by Madina Papadopoulos


Kindle Scout offerings tend to come in surges: There will be a plethora of vampire tales, then a plague of dystopias, followed by a month in which every third novel is a romance set in Miami or Beverley Hills. One recent surge offered multiple retellings of the Cinderella fairy tale. (I reviewed two others recently as Fractured Fairy Tales.) Here's another, which I nominated. Since it was selected, I got to read it for free.

The Papadopoulos novel, however, is not presented as a fairy story; the setting is historical medieval France, and (mostly) realistic. Not only that, it weaves other stories (like Bluebeard) into the narrative.

Cinderella and her step-sisters Fredegonde and Javotte are all older girls seeking husbands. In the parlance of the time, they are spinsters, although only Javotte is an actual weaver. The three, with their mother Isabelle, live on an estate which is soon to pass back to the hands of the local Duke, because non-noble women may not hold lands or other real property in this era. Thus the impetus to marry one of the three daughters to Duke Louis' son.


Cinderella is not the innocent betrayed by her evil step-family, nor is she the porcelain beauty of the 1950s portrayed in the Disney film.1 
No blonde bangs on a medieval beauty!
Instead, her loveliness is assessed by the standards of the time: a high, hairless forehead, lashless heavy-lidded eyes, and lips so thin they almost vanish. She connives to attend the Prince's ball separate from her step-family, because she fears their curious appearance will prevent the Prince from appreciating her own beauty.

Fredegonde, or "Freddie" as her sisters call her, is actually a beauty of a different, more modern style. Tall, sturdily athletic, with sweeping eyelashes and tawny red hair, she manages her late father's estate, writes, and composes song lyrics. She loves her tiny sister Javotte, even though everyone in the family avoids getting too close to Javotte and her halitosis—something has left the girl with but a single tooth, as well as chronic bad breath.

Both girls struggle to endure the company of their step-sister Cinderella, whose wit is applied mostly to poke fun at the others' shortcomings and flaws. In the Ducal chateau, meanwhile, the handsome knight Enguerrand teases Prince Louis, naming him "Galant" while subtly discouraging the prince from actually being gallant and valiant. Duke Louis mourns his mysteriously-deceased former wives, and plots to marry again. And Lord Mercier calculates how much he can charge for the wedding gifts, fabrics, and sundries for the upcoming festivities.

I loved the clever way the "fairy godmother" was handled. You finish the story wondering, was there any magic involved at all? Because there certainly was something magical in the not-quite-happily-ever-after ending that managed to stay true to the original tale...

Then danced past it just enough to keep it real!

Liner Notes

  1. In the late 1940s, my mother and her sister competed in a national search for a girl to perform the singing voice of Cinderella for the movie. My aunt Betty actually made it to the last stage of this competition, and submitted a tape for Walt Disney. (The singing part eventually went to Ilene Woods, who had already voiced Snow White for a Disney audiobook.)
  2. The story is richly supplied with medieval French style details like hennins and crespinettes that kept me busy looking things up in Wikipedia. 
  3. At the time of this review, the novel was only available in ebook format.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Wardrobe, Rabbit-hole, Rainbow

Review: Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire


Different things propel me to buy and read a book. One of the most certain triggers is winning a Nebula or Hugo award. Learning that a book with one award is nominated for the other? Slam-dunk!

These doorways are passages to another realm through which children have walked, crept, fallen or flown in many tales. Dorothy's trip, for example, ends with her return to the Kansas farm, but what happens to her afterward? How does she cope with her sepia life on the prairie after the flowery Munchkins and flying monkeys of Oz? She must yearn even more for what lies beyond the rainbow, having experienced it once.

McGuire's story examines these transported children, now exiled from fairyland and unbelieved by their families. All yearn to find again the doorway that gave access to the home of their heart. At Eleanor West's Home for Wayward Children, parents are told the school's strict discipline will wean their child from fantasy. Actually, the quest is opposite; the child will be helped to return, if she can, if he will, for the home's founder knows full well that returning through that doorway is possible.

If one has the heart of a child.

The hearts of those in this home are broken, damaged by their tenure in realms with rules and requirements that no longer apply. Nancy, for example, learned to freeze and be still in the Halls of the Dead, to maintain life lightly on a minimum of food while she stayed in that land. Her stillness will be tested by her roomate Sumi, whose hot nonsense was perfectly designed to help her survive in the Candyland beyond her own door. 

Nancy's parents want to bring her back to "normal," even swapping her monochrome wardrobe for frilly, colorful things. Fortunately, her new home hosts Kade, who collects and remakes clothing discarded by the other inmates. Kade will help Nancy replace her pilfered clothes with some in her preferred black and white, and also help her realize that while her family may be clueless, they still want her. Kade's parents don't want him; they want the little girl he was before he vanished through a hidden door years before.

Familial rejection is dark enough, but there is a deeper darkness rising under the Home for Wayward Children. Its coming will test all the lost and yearning hearts seeking their doors, and show each child how strength can grow from loss and be victorious, even over death.

This is a unique story, moving and full of revelation. I had no problem seeing why it earned a Nebula and a Hugo nomination. 

In Defense of Philosophical and Religious Fiction

The Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis; Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand; Stranger In a Strange Land by Robert A Heinlein


"It was a bit preachy..." "Author went on and on about personal beliefs..." "Just when I thought I understood the main character, they went off the deep end into religion, and I lost interest..."

There's something to be said for preaching to the choir: They get the message, you don't have to work too hard, and you can count on a rousing AMEN! at the end of your sermon. On the other hand, you finish with a sneaking suspicion that you haven't moved anyone off the point where they already stood. Who has been saved?

Philosophy and religion share some characteristics, after all. In the former, studies, explorations, thoughts and insights make sense of the philosophical space we have defined, and allow us to reach conclusions about its nature, within the confines of that pre-defined space. In the latter, studies, explorations, thoughts and insights make sense of the conclusions in which we rest our belief, and allow us to define its nature and extent, within the confines of that faith.

For both philosophy and religion, though, participants tend to be either preachers or members of the choir. A layer of fiction can make these insights available to those who are neither. In reading fiction, we take a step back from the tenets of faith or philosophical axioms, and interpose a story between them and us as readers. The story's characters, their actions and choices, make sense of the fictional space that has been created (and consequently, make the philosophical or religious space more accessible.) 

What C.S. Lewis did in The Great Divorce, for example, was to reveal that Hell is a choice made continuously in life (and after death), and that we can turn ourselves around at any point. Heinlein's Stranger In a Strange Land, on the other hand, posited that Heaven is accessible before death, if we let go of negative emotions and love each other. Ayn Rand's polemic Atlas Shrugged dismissed Heaven and Hell with the philosophy this world counted most; that doing one's best is the path to joy and salvation. 

You may take away a different message; that's much of the joy of reading such fiction. It doesn't matter what conclusions the characters come to, or even the one the story presents. What matters is the journey the author takes you on, from which you can take a longer, wider or deeper step into these thoughts than you would be able to on your own.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Fractured Fairy Tales

Review: Isabella and the Slipper by Victorine E. Lieske; Cinder Unit (Duplicate Book 1) by H.A. Kinani


Ready-made stories are everywhere. For the novice no less than the seasoned writer, starting from an existing tale is an inviting shortcut. If your story derives from another author's world-building, it may be dismissed as "fan-fic." Yet it can still be compelling, as long as you avoid the pitfalls any short-cut can entail.

Two of my recent Kindle Scout nominations were based on the same fairy tale, Cinderella, but each took radically different looks at the story—and this is why I cannot dismiss such novels as "derivative."


Isabella and the Slipper

If you've seen the Hilary Duff movie A Cinderella Story, you're acquainted with the plot gimmick for this novel: in the movie, a cell-phone mixup leads step-daughter Duff into a text and email relationship with her high-school prince. Isabella's cell-phone mixup leads her into a text and email relationship... Yeah.

Even the slipper of the title barely appears in the tale. This is a light romance with very little substance, perfect for a summer read if you have nothing better to do. Fortunately, of the two reviewed here, the Isabella nomination was selected, so I was able to read it for free. The earlier nomination in my list, Cinder Unit, which I paid for, was a better story with more complexity of plot and characters.



Cinder Unit

The Ella of this novel is not a step-daughter pining for a dead father, but a clone. The duplicate Ellas are all cleaning girls, though what they clean depends on where they are assigned. The Cinder units all clean soot and ashes (and cinders, of course) from the buildings where they toil. Kitchen Ellas clean pots and pans, and so on.

When unit Cinder-03-Ella-11 is reassigned to a top-secret science building, her new job is to clean soot, cinders and ash from the two-room lab of Mr. Anthony. The only cinder-cleaner in the building, she loses her numbers to become simply Cinder-Ella. The sinister Mother, a prototype-model robot, seems determined to break her Cinder unit, and the human user of the lab is equally determined not to have his lab disturbed by cleaning.

Ella's night at the ball cannot happen if she allows either of them to succeed; yet the story feels new, non-derivative, and deliciously complex. We delight in the echoes of the original fairy-tale, and enjoy the ways in which our Cinder Unit is not Cinderella seeking her prince

This is a genuinely new take on the tale, and leaves me to wait breathless, wondering what clone might be at the center of Duplicate Book 2.


Liner Notes


  • Both novels were only available in Kindle editions at the time the review was written.
  • Both were nominated for Kindle Scout selection, but only Isabella and the Slipper was selected.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Pacifism versus Non-Violence

Review: The Gate to Women's Country by Sheri S. Tepper


In some future society, Tepper supposes, there will be a way to reduce the human impulse for war. 

Although this will require a change in human nature, it can be managed by a simple strategy. Women will marry warriors, but their children will secretly be fathered only by the peaceful "servitors." The women and servitors will raise the children apart from the quasi-military cohorts of men. At puberty, boys will be sent to live with their nominal fathers; while girls must choose (without knowing, though with hints from their lessons) to do the same as their mothers.

Thus everyone gets what they want: militant men get honor and the "naming of sons," women get a peaceful home, children, and a spouse-substitute help-meet, boys get a heroic role model until they are old enough to recognize the quiet power of the servitors.

At age 25, though, the young men face a choice; they may choose conflict and stay with the men, or they may return through the gate to Women's Country and become servitors—and be scorned by their military mates, their commanders and their nominal fathers.

Of all Tepper's novels, this is the one in which I find the most philosophic agreement. For one thing, the "pacifist" men are not helpless wimps; the servitor Joshua and the returned Corrig are both powerful fellows versed in self-defense. For another, women are not either/or: some are strong, but focused on family; some are high-achievers, wielding leading their communities, but puzzled by rebellious daughters. 

There is little of the "woman alone against men" flavor of Tepper's later novels. Households are woman plus man plus children, and only the division of woman-led Town versus warrior-led Garrison foreshadows the author's later work.

Tepper's novels often carry an obvious theme accented by a more-subtle leitmotif. Gate is one of the easiest to parse for these elements. Stavia and her mother Morgot, throughout the tale, are occupied with studying their lines to play a part in a recurrent performance of Iphegenia at Ilium, a reworking of the Dionysian play The Trojan Women (usually attributed to Euripedes). 

The lines the women recite all concern the suffering of women in the aftermath of war, an overt reason for the divided structure of their utopian (or protopian) society. Underlying this overt theme is the careful husbandry of humanity in the hands of the women, symbolized by Finns with their reindeer herds. Even nearly thirty years after it was written, this poetic coupling of "why" with a plausible "how" gives power to the struggle to move humanity beyond war. 

Together, they make this Gate worth opening.

Second-Class Sibling, First-Rate Heroine

Review: Secondborn by Amy Bartol


Forget Hunger Games. Despite the superficial thematic resemblance, Secondborn is a clever new take on a dystopian society of elites with slaves who fight for their entertainment. Instead of districts with second-class citizens who live and toil for the rulers, this novel brings it home. 

Firstborn children rule. Secondborn fight, toil, die for the firstborn elites—and will never be allowed to marry or reproduce. Third and laterborn? They are aborted, killed by their parents shortly after their birth, or hunted down and tortured to death for the amusement of the sadistic agents of the Census.

Roselle is Gabriel St. Sismode's younger sister. This means that she will Transition from pampered child of The Sword Othalla St. Sismode. She will become a low-ranked cog in the Sword war machine, with a life expectancy measured in days, simply because she was born second. 

Roselle's face is well-known, because her childhood has been broadcast to the world. That won't help her in her new life, where every firstborn fears her supposed influence with her worshipful fans, and secondborns resent the apparant life of luxury she has led. They see only that she was allowed to live "at home" until 18, unlike most Sword secondborns who are Transitioned into the army at age 10. They cannot see that even as a child, she was kept isolated from other children (especially her older brother), and lived a regimented life of training for battle, in a cold atmosphere of adult contempt for her secondborn status.

She will need to call on every lesson she has ever learned to thread the perilous path between the rebel secondborn army The Gates of Dawn, the sinister Census agent Crow with his license to kill laterborns and his desire to torture the famous Roselle, and the Gardeners of the Rose, a secret firstborn group who see Roselle as the ideal pawn in their bid to seize power.

The land-mines in her way will include not only these formal enemies, but also her estranged family, and many other secondborn Swords, both troops and officers. 

Bartol has built a deliciously detailed, vicious world to rival any dystopian conflict, and her heroine is a suitably complex, strong combatant in it. I can't wait to see where the author will take Roselle Sword next.


Liner Note

I received this book free as a Kindle First selection for the month of July.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Like 50s' Juveniles!, said Tom Swift Retroactively

Review: Under Jupiter by J.E. Hunter


There was a time in the 1950s when juvenile science fiction was bowdlerized, tidied up to suit the narrow sensibilities of adults who bought for libraries. The result was often a Leave It to Beaver home-life sprinkled with robots and rocket ships and characters who swore by "My Universe!" and "Asteroids!" Brave teens fought against the stupidity of adults and the cupidity of criminal gangs with all the last-decade science they could muster, and somehow defeated them without taking more damage than a bruise or mussed hairstyle.

That's Under Jupiter in a nutshell.

Ignore the green-haired 40-year-old woman of the cover illustration; Jiden is a teenager banished from Earth by her widowed father after a drug-hazed near-fatal accident. He packs her onto a three-month-long trip to Europa. Which is apparently inhabited by "Europan's," just one of many frustratingly-consistent misapplications of possessive and plural in this novel. 

Even with that annoyance, though, the more egregious errors are conceptual. Jiden's fellow colonists survive in a chemically hostile environment despite the memory lapses that should have killed any number of them already. Equipment needed for survival disappears, and the adults around Jiden shrug and say "So what?" And aside from a "newly discovered power source, Amminium," the technology available to the Europan colony seems little advanced beyond that of our era. Or maybe 1990.

Worse, Hunter tosses in a historical "Robot Wars" (by way of a high-school class assignment), apparently to explain why the computing power available on Europa is so limited. No further details are given.

Explaining additional conceptual snafus would provide serious spoilers. I offer only one more detail: a pop band called "The Female Asteroids"—as if any women's band post-1959 would choose that as a name, or survive the inevitable hashtags it would morph into. Suffice it to say that I plan to remove the book from my Kindle after this review, and never re-read it.

I lived through the 50s and the Swifties. Once is enough for anyone.

Alternate History Bites

Review: River of Teeth by Sarah Gailey


What does a hippopotamus eat? This is an animal whose name means "river horse"; if you can accept Black Beauty with a serious yen for the flesh of gulls, small boys and river-boat gamblers, some of the problems with this novel disappear. If you can overlook modern-day conversation and sexual mores in a late 19th Century populace, many of the other issues vanish.

What remains is a rollicking alternate history set in the late 1800s on the lower Mississippi rivera river, moreover, that is gated at its broad mouth and dammed somewhere north of its delta to create a lake-pen between them for feral hippos.

Wait a second! I just realized I read this whole book and never spotted that little detail; any lake would not be between gate and dam, it would be upstream of the dam.

And therein lies the secret power of this story. We overlook details if they conflict with the sweeping action of the novella. The characters are so colorful that we hardly notice they are lacking back-story. We forgive the anomalous diet of the hippos swarming Lake Harriet, because they are just too wonderful otherwise. 

Not that hippos cannot be violent and vicious; they are. I searched "Do hippos eat people" and got this answer:
Hippos may look like oversized harmless cows to some people, but truth be told they are one of the most dangerous beasts in Africa and kill more humans that any other animal there... They can weigh up to 9000 pounds and and have teeth that are as sharp as razor blades. [But they] are vegetarians and don't eat people.

We can dismiss the anomalieslike TATP for sale by Richard Wolffenstein a full decade before he invented the explosivefor a while. It is an alternate history, after all, and we must dismiss counterfactual elements that play into that history. 

Eventually, though, an accumulation of HUH!? reactions does get in the way. Winslow Houndstooth, the bisexual crew chief leading an operation to remove feral hippos from Lake Harriet, openly solicits for and has sex with other men, and discusses his sexual preferences with the women he works with. This is in the same era in which another British-accented fellow, Oscar Wilde, was sent to prison for two years for the same behavior. Hero (who is consistently referred to as "they" with no explanation) and the other women of the hippo-hunting crew also flout the sexual conventions of the time in various ways without any visible consequences.

I enjoyed reading this book; it is a marvelous concept almost adequately executed. But at the end, I closed my Kindle feeling cheated. Gailey squandered the power of her tale when she broke the principal rule of alternate histories: introduce only the counterfactuals required to account for the altered historical record. Stir too many alternates into the biscuits and you wind up with lumps too big to swallow.

Like hippos in the Mississippi.

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Rewarding Rice

30-Min. Kalbi-Spiced Chard and Beef Rice Bowl

Review: Oster Rice Cooker


Chard from our garden, rice cooked hands-free in my rice cooker, one patty-worth of lean hamburger, and some Kalbi Korean BBQ Sauce, makes a tasty meal. The most time-consuming element, preparing the chard, took less than three minutes, but the reward was this yummy rice-bowl dish.

I measured rice and water into the cooker and turned it on, set a timer for 30 minutes, then began washing eight leaves of bright green chard. I trimmed the leaf-blades from the ribs, stacked the half-leaves on the cutting board, and began chopping, ending with about two cups of one-inch-long chard shreds. 

These went into a medium-hot skillet with a little oil—I used sesame—for a quick sauté, then I pulled the chard to one side, and browned the burger meat on the other side. A cup of kalbi sauce was stirred in, then I reduced the heat to medium low and covered the pan. 

Now I have 25 minutes left on the timer. I can leave the ingredients to finish cooking by themselves, simply assembling them once the timer sounds. A scoop of perfectly-cooked rice, a spoonful of the kalbi-spiced beef and chard on top, and a few slices of pickled jalapeño, and I'm ready to enjoy!

The rice cooker has taken the most problematic part of cooking rice dishes out of the picture. I've made brown rice, white rice and jasmine rice in it, and also cooked quinoa and ebly (wheat berry) grains in the cooker, although these take more tending because the timing of the cooker is designed for rice.

It may be a single-tasker, as Alton Brown calls such kitchen tools, but I wouldn't want to live without it now that I have one!