It just occurred to me that some of you may have never experienced possibly the most amazing song in existence, MacArthur Park. I refreshed my memory of it yesterday. It's not a parody song - I think - but appears to be very serious. Which makes it much more hilarious. Go on, check it out. At least the first minute or so.

Here, have the Donna "17-minute orgasm" Summer cover. I think I left the cake out in the rain. OH NOOOOOOOOOOO!
Please nominate the most irritating, ear-grating, vomitously sappy, wildly offensive, or otherwise horrifying song, of any era, in any language. Ideally, with a youtube link. (If the horror is partly due to lyrics and they're not in English, please tell me what they mean.)

This is open to anything, including joke songs, avant-garde songs that might secretly be jokes, etc. The only nominees I don't want are songs that you only dislike because you have completely personal bad associations, like that it was playing when your true love dumped you. They should be annoying because of inherent qualities in the song itself. Though being relentlessly over-played can add to the horror. You may make several nominations.

Yes, I am aware of Dave Barry's "Bad Songs" column. It's one of my all-time favorites.

I will start off the race to the bottom with a song that makes me want to rip my ears off every year, I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus. Also They're Coming to Take Me Away, Ha Ha, which I believe has been scientifically proven to induce psychosis. In me, anyway.

ETA: This may be a case of "personal bad associations," but I had a much-loathed roommate whose alarm clock was John Denver's Leaving on a Jet Plane. She always played the entire song, so every morning I was forced to listen to John Denver leeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeaving on a jet plane. Go on! LEAVE.
I will be on a panel on portal fantasy at Sirens this year. I need to read portal fantasy!

Panel description: Portal Fantasy: Threat or Menace?

Everybody knows about portal fantasy, where characters from the "real world" cross into a separate fantasy world. It is a classic trope that still draws readers—the Chronicles of Narnia have never been out of print. And yet new portal fantasies are very seldom published, and many agents and editors have said that they're unmarketable. What exactly is this subgenre, and why is it so loved and so shunned at the same time? What new stories does it still have to offer?

1) What is portal fantasy? What makes it different from "our world has a hidden side" fantasy (e.g. Harry Potter, many urban fantasies, secret history fantasy)? What makes it different from stories about going to Faerie (or do those count as portal fantasies)?

2) Why do people love portal fantasy? Why do people hate it? Why is it currently (almost) unpublishable?

3) Portal fantasies we have known and loved.

4) Crypto-portal fantasies -- stories that arguably qualify as portal fantasy but don't "feel" like portal fantasy to a lot of people. (Daughter of Smoke and Bone, for instance, or The Fall of Ile-Rien.)

5) Most influential portal fantasies -- what has shaped the genre and people's reactions to it? To what extent are portal fantasy debates crypto-Narnia debates?

6) Portal fantasy is sometimes accused of being a narrow, cliched genre that has little room for new stories. What are some storytelling opportunities in portal fantasy that have not yet been explored?

7) Another common accusation against portal fantasy is that, because the "real world" isn't in danger, the novel lacks stakes. Is it possible to write a portal fantasy that isn't just "my magical vacation," and if so, how? What novels have achieved that and which ones have failed?

8) What are the pitfalls of portal fantasies? What are some examples of how it can go terribly wrong?

9) What about reverse portal fantasies, where characters from the magical world enter our own? Do they count as part of the same sub-genre, and either way, what do they have to offer?

- end description -

My requests for you:

1. Rec me some portal fantasies I might not know about or have thought of. Assume I'm familiar with the usual suspects.

2. When people say that portal fantasies are "my magical vacation," with no stakes, what actual portal fantasies actually fit that bill, and how? Apart from books for very young children and comedies/parodies, I'm having a hard time thinking of them.
I didn’t enjoy this as much as the first three. The entire first two-thirds dragged, despite some fun individual scenes. I’m not even sure if it was all necessary set-up for the startling climax. However, that climax does promise a more interesting fourth book.

Spoiler-cut. Read more... )
In Flying Finish, Henry Gray is a lonely, buttoned down, slightly impoverished earl with a pilot's license, a chip on his shoulder about his ancestry, and a bad attitude in general. When his sister goes deservedly ballistic on him, he attempts to shake himself out of his rut by taking a job as a groom who escorts horses on international flights.

His life starts to change when he notices an odd pattern: grooms on flights between England and Italy tend to vanish in Italy. And then, on one flight, he meets an Italian woman who smuggles birth control pills (illegal in Italy at that time) and speaks no English. It's love at first sight - probably the only love-at-first-sight story that I've ever found truly convincing. (I completely buy sexual attraction at first sight, and camaraderie/connection within a brief conversation. But Francis sells me on actual love.) Meanwhile, Henry begins to realize that the vicious young groom who's been bullying him on flights may not only resent Henry for being a lord...

Despite some oddities and dated bits, Flying Finish is one of my favorite Francis novels. The romance subplot pulls off a very difficult premise, and the climax is a masterpiece of sustained suspense. Warning for horse harm. Also for human harm.

In some ways Rat Race feels like a run-up to Flying Finish. It also features a withdrawn pilot hero and some extremely suspenseful flying sequences. But the romance, while nice, isn't as memorable, and the hero's blossoming from a going-through-the-motions existence to actually living isn't as vividly drawn. It's also hampered by a hilariously dated portrayal of a creeper hippie. (Creeper hippies still exist. It's the language that hasn't aged well.)
Re-read. This has one of Francis’s best premises, and the execution lives up to it. Neil Griffon, an antique dealer, has temporarily taken over his trainer father’s stable after his father was seriously injured in a car crash. Neil is kidnapped by a dangerous madman who demands, on pain of destroying the stable, that Neil hire his son Alessandro as a jockey… and let him ride their prize stallion in the Kentucky Derby.

The theme here is fathers and sons. Neil’s father was emotionally abusive and distant, but competent in his own sphere; Neil, forced to step into his shoes, must gain the trust of all the employees who prefer his father. Alessandro’s father is a sociopathic megalomaniac, but gave him everything he ever wanted. The heart of the book is the relationship between Alessandro and Neil, an oddly paternal one though Neil is only 15 years older, and Alessandro’s growth into becoming his own person.

Excellent suspense, plus Francis’s usual good characterization of the supporting cast. My favorite here was Etty, confident in her place as a female “head lad” in a male-dominated profession. Though Francis doesn’t use the word “asexual,” Neil describes her as having no interest in sex. The phrasing isn’t sensitive in current terms, but the sentiment is nonjudgmental.

One of my favorite things about this book was the way that Alessandro seemed to have stepped out of an entirely different novel, one where the arrogant and damaged young man is the romantic lead, and was forced to interact with Francis’s down-to-earth characters, who either didn’t notice how hot he was or noticed but didn’t let it cloud their judgment. His interactions with the no-time-for-this-shit Etty were comedy gold.

Warning for horse harm.
Pamela, a lonely little girl, lives in an isolated house with her two aunts (one nice, one distant and strict). Her absentee father visits occasionally, and her mom is dead. But her life gets a lot more fun when she gets a magic amulet that enables her to meet a mysterious boy her own age and his herd of pastel ponies.

Obviously, the best part of this book is the pastel ponies. Who wouldn't want a herd of pink, blue, sunset, and sunrise-colored ponies named after clouds? I wish I'd read this book when I was nine, because I would have absolutely reveled in the pretty, pretty ponies. Probably a better title would have been The Rainbow Ponies.

Ponyboy is annoying - the book was written when it was common to portray boys being sexist as cute and funny, and that has not aged well. But like I said: pretty, pretty pink ponies! If you think you'd like that, you will certainly enjoy this book.

Season of Ponies
Re-reads, but it's been so long since I read High Stakes and Nerve that all I really remembered was that I didn't think they were in the top tier of Francis's books. Dick Francis is perfect for when you really want to read about someone having a worse day than you are. I may have bronchitis, but at least I'm not suicidally depressed/fighting off an axe-wielding criminal while I have a broken wrist/blindfolded, chained, and soaked in freezing water.

Blood Sport is the most interesting of the three. The plot isn't as well-tuned as his norm, with an unusual amount of low-stakes wandering around looking for clues, but the hero makes it memorable.

Gene is a former James Bond-type secret agent turned private eye (unusually for Francis - his heroes tend not to be professional hero types) suffering from long-term, severe depression. He spends a lot of the book trying to convince himself not to commit suicide. Treatment is never mentioned, and he seems to think it doesn't exist - at one point he muses that some day depression will be recognized as a disease, and babies will be inoculated against it. Originally published in 1967, when there most certainly were treatments for depression. However, to this day many depressed people never seek treatment, so I believe that Gene wouldn't.

In the first and best action set-piece, Gene's boss invites him on a boating trip, where Gene meets the boss's sweet 17-year-old daughter and saves someone's life in what appears to be, but of course is not, a boating accident. The boss gives him a job - hunting down a missing race horse in America - with the clear intent of keeping him too busy to off himself. There's a semi-romance with the teen daughter of the "I'll wait till you're 21" type, of which the best thing I can say is that it's less squicky than usual. There's a much better non-romance subplot involving a woman Gene's age who seems to be a standard unstable, alcoholic sexpot, but who is then given actual depth and a very satisfying storyline.

The pieces of this book don't fit together as well as Francis learned to do later. Gene has a helper who needed better characterization for his storyline to really work, and the final action climax isn't that climactic. But the depiction of depression is very realistic, and it's a good example of how to write a depressed hero without making the book itself depressing to read.

Nerve has an excellent A-plot, in which Rob Finn, a struggling jockey from a family of musicians, is the target of a plot to undermine his career. This book is impossible to put down starting from the first paragraph, in which a jockey shoots himself in front of Rob.

The B-plot, in which Rob tries to court his true love who won't marry him because they're cousins, is less successful. Francis is a bit hit-or-miss with romance. Some of his romances are fantastic. This one never quite worked for me - Joanna's "totally cousins" objection seemed a bit ridiculous and lampshading it didn't help. I never quite bought their relationship.

But the slow disintegration of Rob's career is nailbitingly readable, even though there's no physical jeopardy until about halfway through. The showpiece action sequence, in which Rob is kidnapped, blindfolded and chained, drenched in water on a freezing night, and must free himself and then race the next day, is brilliantly done. Nice comfort via hot soup afterward, too.

I had totally forgotten High Stakes before I re-read it and I can see why. Even now, it is fading from my memory. A toy inventor gets mixed up in some mystery involving racing and... um... wow, I honestly cannot remember more and I read this 48 hours ago. The romance is with a woman whose sole characterization is that she's American. The only parts I remember are the toys, which are cool, and an action sequence in the toy workshop.
This is brought to you by yesterday's diagnosis of acute bronchitis. In retrospect, I probably should not have waited one month to go to the doctor. I kept thinking, "It is just lingering irritation from the flu! It will go away any day now!"

Yesterday my boss listened to me tragically cough my way through our weekly meeting for the fourth week in a row, and said, "GO TO A DOCTOR."

I now have two prescriptions, an inhaler, six canceled clients, one blessed co-worker taking over the meeting I was supposed to run today, and a week off work. The inhaler, which I had never used before, is great. I hadn't realized just how much trouble I was having breathing until suddenly I wasn't. (Don't worry. Apparently my oxygen saturation is fine. Also, I don't have pneumonia.) Anyway, I am staying home and resting as much as possible for the next week.

Please recommend or send to me anything in the following line:

1. Things which are comforting. If you're not actually going to send or link them, they should be things I won't need to go out in person and buy. (On the advice of LJ, I already have a humidifier.)

2. Media in which someone is comforted. If you have heard of hurt-comfort, that is what I mean. If not, media which prominently features stuff like someone with pneumonia, a gunshot wound, hypothermia, etc, being cuddled, fed soup, or the equivalent. Any genre! Fiction, fanfic, movies, etc.

3. Media in which someone feels worse than I do. Any recs for good survival stories, with people stumbling around Mt. Everest, Death Valley, adrift on a raft, etc? Fiction or nonfiction.
rachelmanija: (Books: old)
( Jul. 2nd, 2014 09:39 am)
I won't be posting these regularly, but hey, it's our first.

School Library Journal

BROWN, Rachel Manija & Sherwood Smith. Stranger. 432p. Viking. Nov. 2014. Tr $18.99. ISBN 9780670014804; ebk. $10.99. ISBN 9781101615393.

Gr 7 Up–Intrigue, feuds, hypocrisy, and a love triangle fill the pages of this dystopian tale narrated by a diverse cast of characters in alternating chapters. After a solar flare, all electronic devices are useless. A mysterious, wounded stranger wanders into Las Anclas (formerly Los Angeles) with a secret; Ross has narrowly escaped the diabolical ruler Voske, who desires a rare book that Ross possesses. Mia’s family shelters Ross as he heals and receives warrior training from 16-year-old Jennie, Mia’s best friend and the town’s teacher. Both teens are attracted to the newcomer, and he can’t decide between them. As the town slowly warms to Ross, likewise his barriers slip away as he enjoys life in Las Anclas. Authors Brown and Smith create a village in which flora and fauna exhibit flesh-eating powers and symbiotic relationships with select people. Some humans remain “Norms” while others are “Changed,” and therein lies the only prejudice; no one looks askance at homosexuality and all races are appreciated. Some elements appear contrived and slightly pedantic: there is exactly one gay couple and one lesbian couple; [GIANT SPOILER REDACTED]; and the Norms and Changed unite in an epic battle against Voske. Despite these conventional components, Stranger is a fresh story with well-developed characters, fast-paced action, a fantastical world, and a hint of romance.–Laura Falli, McNeil High School, Austin, TX

I have to note for the record that 1) "love triangle" and "he can't decide between them" is very misleading, 2) there are actually two lesbian couples and additional non-coupled gay characters, 3) Jennie is 18, 4) classism not only exists but is a pretty major factor in the book, 5) there is only one symbiotic person/non-human relationship in the book, and it's otherwise unknown, and 6) "Norms and Changed unite" is kind of like saying, "American blacks and whites unite to pay taxes every year," ie, there was never any question of them not doing so.

But hey! She generally liked it!

Please suggest any major review blogs that might like a review copy. It's already at Booksmugglers.
This is the third book in a series about con artists in fantasyland. In the first two books, the hero, Locke Lamora, was carrying a torch for his unseen lost love, Sabetha. All we knew about Sabetha was that she had red hair, they'd known each other since they were kids, and she was the only female member of his gang of thieves. In Republic of Thieves, we finally meet Sabetha.

On the one hand, it's hard for any character to live up to two fat books of build-up. On the other hand, Lynch is generally good at creating female characters, though he has mixed results in terms of what he does with them. They have a tendency to meet horrifying ends. (There's a particularly egregious example in the first book. To be fair, it's not typical of the series in general. But it made such a bad impression that I nearly didn't finish the book.) But they are also often vivid, interesting, and not defined by their relationships with men. I am especially fond of Zamira Drakasha, pirate captain and doting mom.

So I had hopes for Sabetha. Unfortunately, I did not like her, her relationship with Locke, or Locke when he was interacting with her. Cut for spoilers and crankiness. Read more... )

It made me realize that something I look for in fictional romance is for the couple to bring out each other's best sides, not their worst. I don't necessarily mean in a moral sense. I have a particular soft spot for amoral assassin couples. But the relationship should make the characters more interesting, more themselves, not less.

I initially liked Miles and Ekaterin as a couple in Komarr, because I thought the relationship was doing exactly that. But in the post-Civil Campaign books, it seemed like Ekaterin had met exactly the fate she didn't want: she had become swallowed up by Miles' life. Not that being a mother isn't important, but she was a mother in Komarr, too. But that wasn't all she was.

Gaudy Night, of course, is not only an example of a couple being more interesting and true to themselves together than they are separately, but is explicitly about that phenomenon, and its opposite.

What are some stories with couples who brought out the best or most true aspects of each other? What are stories where they brought out the worst, or where their individuality became subsumed into couple-ness?
Remember that story I wrote for the Darkover anthology, which was the world created by Marion Zimmer Bradley? It turns out that she was a child abuser who abused her own daughter. And possibly others. Note that the link contains some disturbing writing by her daughter, Moira Greyland. Writing which sounds very much like the sorts of things a therapist hears from clients who were abused by their parents. I believe Moira Greyland.

When I was a child, I was abused by an adult who was a highly respected and very well-liked pillar of the community. In my case, there wasn't any question as to believing or not believing that it happened. He never denied that it happened. His defense was that I was making a big deal over a minor incident. To my knowledge, no one in the community stopped being his friend or changed their relationship with him in any way when I wrote (in my published memoir) about the abuse. The MZB case reminds me of that, as does Jerry Sandusky.

I understand how complicated this sort of thing can be. If you haven't personally been abused, you see a wonderful human being who supported a community that changed your life for the better, being accused of horrible things by someone you don't know, don't like, or don't trust, and whom you suspect of exaggerating or outright lies for attention or personal gain.

It is not easy to disclose child abuse when you know in advance that that will be the reception you'll get from that community, even if outsiders believe you.

It is not easy to be the victim of abuse. I was about nine when I was abused. A month or so later, as a direct result, I tried to kill myself.

I debated whether to say anything about this, since my connection is so tangential that I didn't want to make it all about me, when it is not about me. Also saying anything at all is complicated in all sorts of weird ways, many of which are quite trivial compared to child abuse. So, sorry if this is completely self-centered.

- I did not know about the child abuse until about three days ago. I did know that MZB's husband was a convicted child rapist, but I didn't know she was involved.

- I don't mean to imply that everyone who wrote for the anthology or was in any way involved with MZB or her magazine (etc) must make a post, or they're supporting child abuse. I do not believe that.

- I don't mean to imply that everyone who liked MZB's books must stop liking them or publicly denounce them, or they're supporting child abuse. I do not believe that either. The work is the work. I still think Chinatown is a brilliant movie.

- I am not denouncing the anthology or my story. I like the anthology, and I like my story. But I totally understand if you now won't read it.

Please forgive me if this isn't too coherent; I'm home with the flu or some such right now.
Anderson is an extremely well-known and acclaimed writer of YA problem novels (also historicals and one charming comedy, Prom). I’ve reviewed several of her books under her author tag. Speak is excellent, but Wintergirls, with its mythic resonances, is my personal favorite.

The pattern of her problem novels is a teenager with an “issue”-type problem (rape, anorexia, etc), their struggles and ambivalent relationship with the problem and their family, a dramatic (sometimes melodramatic) climax which forces them into a final confrontation with the problem and their need to get help, followed by a quick conclusion in which they’re getting help/therapy and are clearly on the road to recovery.

They sound very formulaic, laid out like that, but her characters are vivid and often pleasingly snarky, her prose is excellent, and in the better books, the characters are much more than the sum of their issues. I particularly liked Wintergirls, in which the heroine is haunted by her dead best friend, for its refusal to provide simple answers to the question of whether the ghost was an actual ghost, a memory, a fantasy, a delusion, a metaphor, or several of those.

The Impossible Knife of Memory, unfortunately, did feel formulaic, and did have characters who were exactly the sum of their issues. It also had a climax that stepped over the melodrama line and plunged into laughable.

Teenage Hailey is being raised by her veteran father, who returned from Iraq with a bad case of PTSD and has been a depressed alcoholic ever since. Her mother and grandmother are dead and his army buddies are rarely around, so the main relationship in the book is (or should be) between Hailey and her father. Their actual relationship consists of him being a disaster and her alternately mopping up after him and avoiding the fallout.

It’s not that this is implausible. It’s that there’s not enough actual emotion between them. There should be a bond, however strained, or the angry ghost of a broken bond. But I didn’t get a sense of that. Hailey thinks about her father’s actions and their effect on her a lot. But she doesn’t spend much time thinking about him as a person, or about her feelings about him. There’s surprisingly little actual interaction between them, and what there is isn’t very revealing of anything but “Severe, untreated PTSD wrecks your life and makes you a bad parent.”

I read some criticism of the book on Goodreads that the PTSD is whitewashed. I didn’t get that feeling, given that the Dad’s an alcoholic who can’t keep a job, can’t have a relationship, can’t parent his daughter, trashes the house, does drugs, and attempts suicide. That seems sufficiently serious to me. As far as PTSD goes, he’s on the low-functioning side of the spectrum. My criticism is that we never see him in a scene that isn’t about his PTSD. There’s little sense of what he was like before, or what he’s like beneath the array of harrowing symptoms.

The actual relationship in the book is between Hailey and her quirky new boyfriend. I believed them as a couple— he’s aggressively quirky, she’s quirkily aggressive— but the book felt like it should be more about the father-daughter relationship. The generic teen romance didn’t interact much with the Dad-has-PTSD story, resulting in a book that felt like two different books awkwardly integrated.

And then there was the accidentally hilarious climax, complete with physics-defying injuries. Read more... )

Even in much better books of the kind, include Anderson’s own better books, I find it frustrating that after an entire book full of lovingly depicted trauma, the healing is almost always summarized briefly rather than shown in depth, or at all. Or, to phrase it fannishly, you get 386 pages of hurt and 7 sentences of comfort.

Part of the issue may be structural. If you follow the forms we’re taught in school, a story is supposed to have a beginning, a long period of rising action, a short climax, and a very short conclusion. If the decision to seek help is the climax, you can’t see the healing, because that’s the conclusion. The only way you can show the process of healing, if you stick with this model, is if the start of healing begins right after the beginning, and the healing is the rising action. I’ve read books like that— The Secret Garden comes to mind— but they’re rare.

If I may make a modest proposal: there is no law of nature stating that all American books and movies must slavishly adhere to a single model of dramatic structure. There are perfectly valid alternate types of structure.

I wish more writers would try some other model out when they’re writing trauma stories, so they could show more of the recovery. It can be very interesting and dramatic, seriously. And it’s way better than the OMGWTF you broke your ribs how climax of this one.

As for this book, as far as books featuring a daughter living with her veteran father with PTSD go, I liked Flora Segunda better.

The Impossible Knife of Memory
rachelmanija: (Books: old)
( Jun. 10th, 2014 10:55 am)
I am looking for a movie reference for something I'm writing that meets a few qualifications:

1. Romantic. Must strongly feature a heterosexual romance which is played straight, as it were. The movie can be dark/cynical/ironic in general, but the romance has to be taken seriously. I'm looking for the kind of grand, lush quality as Bride with White Hair or Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon.

2. Not fantasy, not wuxia, not science fiction, and NOT A WAR MOVIE. Ideally, it would be contemporary, but historical might be OK.

3. Must feature action or violence, ideally involving guns. Ideally involving lots of guns. No movies where all the action is traditional martial arts.

4. Must have a noticeably awesome soundtrack. Ideally this would largely consist of songs rather than being orchestral. But not a musical. That is, the characters shouldn't be singing.

To get a sense of what I mean by this, most Quentin Tarantino movies, The Godfather, and Blade Runner fit the "noticeably awesome soundtrack" requirement. It's not that the songs themselves need to be brilliant works of heartbreaking genius, but they need to be used well/interestingly/memorably within the movie. People who liked the movie should include the awesomeness of the music in their post-movie discussion.

5. No old mainstream classics like Casablanca.

Optional but this would be nice: Protagonist should be Asian or Asian-American.

Also optional but nice: A quirky/indie/offbeat vibe.

I miiiight drop the "action" qualification for a quirky Asian movie that fits all the other criteria.

Tarantino has several movies that almost fit, and I might end up going with one of his if I don't find something better.

I feel like the movie I'm looking for was probably directed by Tsui Hark, Wong Kar-Wai, or John Woo, and the right one just isn't coming to mind. The main things I'm stuck on are that I can't recall which movies have good soundtracks or made interesting use of music. Did John Woo ever direct a movie where the actual main emotional relationship was a straight romance rather than a relationship between men?
Deborah Ross solicited me to write a story for a new Darkover anthology a while back, and was very understanding about extending the deadline when I had a grad school-related crisis. Thank you, Deborah!

The anthology is out now. My story is a novelette (10K) about a genetically engineered sex slave and an emmasca (intersex person). It features food porn, hurt-comfort, psychic powers, and wilderness survival (typical Rachel tropes), and an asshole father (mandatory Darkover trope.) Also rabbithorns. I assume those are rabbits with horns.

Here's me describing my story in slightly more detail.

The anthology also features Janni Simner, Judith Tarr, Kari Sperring, and other excellent authors. If you like Darkover, you will probably like it.

Stars of Darkover (Darkover anthology Book 14)
Silup. Marvel at the possibilities of the human voice at about the 30-second mark.

I'm sure this would be even more impressive to me if I knew Tagalog, but I've been repeatedly annoying my neighbors with it anyway. Google translate informs me that it's about police corruption.

Pison (Steamroller). Also with some impressive rapping, and I actually like this one better as a song. I just had to share that mindblowing bit of "Silup."

ETA: And while I'm at it, here's the song that got me into Gloc-9. It's much more melodic than the two above, and comes with an awesomely angsty video. Magda (with Rico Blanco).

Since I currently mostly listen to music on CD in the car and on my laptop, I attempted to buy a CD from Amazon which, I was excited to see, was very cheap. When it arrived, I was perplexed to see a bunch of English tracks, including "Forever Thuggin" and "Fuck that Bitch."

I fed it into the player, already spinning a backstory in which Gloc-9 had done a first album in which some producers had twisted his arm to be commercial and do gangster rap in English. Clearly, after that he had been disillusioned, gone back to his roots, and started producing the socially conscious songs for which he is now known...

...and then the first track started playing, and I realized that in fact, there are two rappers of the same name, and I had the wrong one. I then sucked it up and paid out to order the actual albums I wanted from Filgoods, "Your online source for Filipino products."
Psychologist Alex Delaware gets tapped to help the police with a series of murders; his friend Milo the gay LAPD detective gets involved. So does a visiting Israeli cop, as one of the victims was the daughter of an Israeli diplomat.

I picked this up because it’s a mystery where the detective is a psychologist, and so is the author. It didn’t read differently from a book written by someone who’d just researched psychology, unfortunately. It’s set in LA, and I had the same feeling about that: there’s nothing inaccurate per se, but it’s not especially atmospheric and is somewhat cliched.

It’s clearly in the middle of the series, but I thought I could read them in any order. This turned out to be sort of true, but one of the characters, the Israeli cop, had a certain type of narrative weight that only occurs when they have been introduced very prominently somewhere else and have their own spin-off.

The book had good narrative drive, but became increasingly strange, melodramatic, and implausible as it went along. The plot turns on an evil MENSA club, of which the best I can say is that it’s at least marginally more plausible than the evil small press poets who were the villains of a non-comic novel I once read.

Delaware, who is happily married, goes undercover and is forced to pretend to flirt with an evil eugenicist sexpot. This is exactly as eye-rolly and slut-shaming as it sounds. And if a writer is going to go there at all, they need to make the hero make an actual choice between having sex or tanking the investigation. At the very least, Delaware needed to have a conversation with his wife about it. Instead, he tells her nothing, lets the Nazi slut molest him while alternately feeling self-righteously grossed out and guiltily turned on, and then, when he’s cornered by the slut-villain and seems about to finally have to make an actual choice, she is murdered by a third party. Psych!

As cop-outs go, this may be second only to the book in which the moustache-twirling sociopathic villain is confronted by the teenage pacifist hero. It looks like the latter will be forced to choose to compromise his principles and kill the villain, or keep his principles and let the villain kill his friends. But no! The villain conveniently decides to commit suicide by walking into the conveniently located ocean so the hero won’t have to dirty his hands.

Back to the Kellerman book, there is a lot of moralizing about how eugenics is wrong. Does anyone who is not a neo-Nazi think it’s not wrong? (I know, I’m sure many average people would be just fine with it. All the same, as a pressing current issue which needs a book to advocate against it, it’s an odd one to pick.) The subplot about the cop who sees such mind-destroying eeeeeeevil that he kills himself had similar issues-- the shocking reveal was that he'd had sex with exploited teenage prostitutes, which, yes, is very bad! But with the build-up it got, I was expecting him to have had sex with five-year-olds, then sacrificed them to Satan.

I am not sure I even understood exactly what happened at the climax, which was made even less coherent by Delaware being drugged and semi-conscious for it.

I was not impressed by this. Perhaps earlier installments are better? I was hoping for some actual psychology. I did like that there were gay cops and Jewish cops, but the book overall was so not good.

Survival of the Fittest: An Alex Delaware Novel
This is a book I liked as a child, which I lost and then re-read as an adult.

I have to confess that I have never been a fan of Daniel Pinkwater. His books are just too surreal for my taste, and I don’t find them that funny. This is true of lots of widely-loved writers, most notably Douglas Adams. It’s not a criticism of them to say that I fail to appreciate their work.

However, while attempting to track down one of my missing childhood books, I found to my surprise that it was written by none other than Daniel Pinkwater, under the name of Manus Pinkwater. The few reviews I found noted that it was an early, non-representative work. “Not funny,” one said disapprovingly. This is probably why I liked it— not that it’s not funny, but that it’s not like his other books. It’s not surrealism, but magic realism: fantasy governed by whether the magic makes emotional sense, not by logical explanations.

Donald Chen, aka Chen Chi Wing, is the only Chinese boy in his school in New York City in an unspecified time in which it’s possible for a poor kid to buy the first edition of “Superman,” but it’s old and used. His horrible teacher is horrible to him, and while he’s not bullied, exactly, he doesn’t have friends either. He gets singled out for being poor, his mother is in the hospital (she doesn’t die, FYI), and he’s lonely.

After a particularly bruising experience, he starts packing comics into his school bag, then climbing the girders of the George Washington Bridge and reading comics all day. One day a winged man lands on the bridge beside him, not quite seeming to register him, like the pigeons who sometimes do the same thing. He’s clearly some sort of superhero, but described more with the language of fantasy. And he’s Chinese.

This atmospheric fantasy mixes precise details of ordinary life with small but very sense-of-wonder bits of fantasy. The magic is never explained, but is clearly there to help out the hero: both to give him a better time in his everyday life (his new teacher appreciates his art, which is inspired by scenes of ancient China that Wingman showed him), and to let him explore his culture in a way he wasn’t otherwise getting to do. But Wingman seems to have a life of his own, which has only brushed against that of a lonely little boy; at the end, they’re spending less time together, but still existing in the same world.

It’s a lovely little book, interspersed with cartoons. There’s some aspects that feel dated, but most of it still works. The deliberate timelessness helps. Even apart from that I identified with being the only person of my race in the school, I can see why it stuck in my memory for 30 years.

1. What am I working on?

A. Something secret that contains clones, werewolves, desert survival, hurt-comfort, psychic powers, and references to my current musical obsession, Filipino rapper Gloc-9. (Thank you for the mix CD, [personal profile] oracne!)

B. Firestorm, a novel I'm co-writing with Sherwood. The part we're currently on involves a post-apocalyptic arson investigation. It's the third book in the series for which Stranger is the first.

2. How does my work differ from others in my genre?

What genre? Seriously, I write in a lot. I would generally say that mine is less likely to focus on straight white guys. I think that's true of every genre I write in.

In general, I tend to have more lesbians, food descriptions, and references to Indian mythology than the average work in whatever genre I'm writing in. It's also more likely to be set in Los Angeles.

3. Why do I write what I do?

For money, for fun, to inform, to comfort, to influence, to entertain, to turn on, to give myself something I really want to read that doesn't exist yet, to make people happy.

4. How does my writing process work?

I stare at my laptop until drops of blood appear on my forehead. (Quote, more-or-less, by Ring Lardner). Also, I procrastinate on one thing I'm supposed to be writing by writing something else. That works pretty well. More broadly, I string together scenes I would like to read. Luckily I do enjoy re-reading my own work, so that also works pretty well.

Take the meme if you like it.
Every day, A wakes up in the body of a new person. They are always sixteen, and always within a certain geographical range of each other. Everything else varies. It began when A was an infant. Eventually A started counting days, and is now into the 6000s.

A has always lived like this, cultivating philosophical detachment and a non-interference policy. A can access their hosts’ memories, and uses this to go through the paces of their host bodies’ lives, trying to leave everything exactly as they found it. Until A lands in the body of a complete asshole of a teenage boy named Justin, who has a girlfriend named Rhiannon. And A falls in love.

I’ve seen this premise, or something similar to it, a couple times before. The version closest to this one was a short story by Greg Egan called “The Safe-Deposit Box.” But the TV shows Quantum Leap and, to a lesser degree, Touched by an Angel, also played with this concept. It’s a great concept.

Overall, I liked the book. It has fantastic narrative drive and, as I said, a terrific concept. This review will sound more critical than I actually felt reading it; its flaws are interesting and worth discussing, so I’m going to spend more time on them than on what I liked. But seriously, it’s generally very good and if the premise sounds at all interesting, you should read it.

The biggest problem I had with it is that I was interested in the other lives, and in the question of how much a life could change in a single day. I was not very caught up in the love story. And the book is more about the love story. Especially by the halfway mark, A often completely ignores the body they’re inhabiting in favor of obsessing over how they were going to get to see Rhiannon (the logistics of finding transportation to her take up a large percentage of page time), and this was the opposite of what I was interested in.

Rhiannon never came to life as a character, nor did I ever see what she and A saw in each other. She’s a generic quirky girl. I kept thinking there was going to be some reveal about what in her past or current life was keeping her stuck in a borderline emotionally abusive relationship with Justin, when the latter has no apparent redeeming qualities whatsoever. But there isn’t one. She’s the object of desire, and that’s it.

I completely believe that in A’s situation, they would be obsessive and stalkery about a love interest – for one thing, some degree of stalking is required to get to know anyone at all, at least in the beginning. That being said, A was obsessive and stalkery and it didn’t make me root for their relationship.

The non-interference policy was frustrating because A was so inconsistent about it. In one quite vivid scene, A goes through agony in an addict’s body because A refuses to do drugs. (Why won’t A do drugs? I can think of lots of reasons, but A never says why. The conclusion I came to was that Levithan didn’t want to depict drug-taking.) But later, A is extremely reluctant to stop their host from committing suicide. Why is that verboten, but making a host’s body go through painful withdrawal isn’t even considered interference?

What I liked best about the book – the snapshots of all the different lives – also had some holes in it. A only speaks English, and must slowly rifle through a host’s memories to respond even haltingly and in a few words in any other language. If A has been this way since they were a baby, wouldn’t they have absorbed at least a couple other common languages? How could A have possibly cycled into multiple bodies whose language they didn’t know over a period of sixteen years without anyone ever noticing?

Late in the book, A wakes up in an obese body. Alone among all the many incarnations, A is grossed out by the body and gets no sense of the body’s interior life, apparently due to its fatness. Seriously? That’s where A and their infinite experience draws the line? I can see that it was important for A to meet Rhiannon in a body she was turned off by, but there were better ways to do it. (Like a body that bore a very strong resemblance to someone she hated, or to one of her relatives. Squick!)

I also ended up wanting A to experience their lives as more different. Many of them blend together and start seeming very similar. A may have no gender and no race, but people react very differently depending on one’s gender and race, and many other factors besides. I wanted A to notice that more, so they could adjust their behavior accordingly. A poor black boy, a middle-class Asian girl, a white girl in a wheelchair, and a middle-class white boy may have different experiences doing something as everyday as driving a car (a remarkable number of their teenage hosts conveniently had cars) or buying a soda from a convenience store.

And while I’m bitching: there was a subplot that got ought to have been extremely interesting (one of the hosts realized that they were a host and went after A) but was taken over by “evangelicals are idiots.” This was especially frustrating since it led to a fascinating plot revelation that could have taken the book in a whole new direction… about one chapter before the book ended. I wish that had been where that storyline had started.

Oh, and A didn’t sound like a teenager at all. A sounded like Chicken Soup for the Soul. I could buy that due to the circumstances of A’s life, but all the not-terribly-deep life wisdom sometimes got a bit much.

As I said, despite all these qualms, I did enjoy reading the book. It zips along, and I was always excited to get to the next day and the next body. Flawed but definitely worth reading.

Every Day


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