Book Review: Sisters of the Revolution: A Feminist Speculative Fiction Anthology

Book Review: Sisters of the Revolution: A Feminist Speculative Fiction Anthology edited by Ann & Jeff VanderMeer

As the subtitle of this volume indicates, it’s a collection of 29 short stories written from a feminist perspective. There are selections from the 1960s through the 2000s–SF, fantasy, horror and a couple of stories that seem to be included out of courtesy because of “surrealism.”

Sisters of the Revolution

The anthology begins with “The Forbidden Words of Margaret A.” by L. Timmel Duchamp, an account of a journalist’s meeting with a woman whose use of language is considered so dangerous that a Constitutional amendment has been passed to specifically ban those words. The journalist has a photo-op with Margaret A. in the prison that woman is being held in, and the experience changes her. It’s an interesting use of literary techniques to suggest the power of Margaret A.’s words without ever directly quoting them.

The final story is “Home by the Sea” by Elisabeth Vonarburg, in which a gynoid in a post-apocalyptic world returns to her mother/creator to ask some questions. The answers to those questions both disturb and give new hope. Like several other stories in the volume, this one deals with the nature of motherhood, and the mother-daughter relationship.

There are some of the classic stories that are almost mandatory for the subject of feminist speculative fiction: “The Screwfly Solution” by James Tiptree, Jr. (men abruptly start murdering people they’re sexually attracted to, mostly women but the story tacitly acknowledges homosexuality); “When It Changed” by Joanna Russ (a planet with an all-female society is contacted by men from Earth after centuries of isolation–it originally ran in Again, Dangerous Visions, an anthology for stories with themes considered too controversial to be published elsewhere, times have changed); and Octavia K. Butler’s “The Evening the Morning and the Night” (a woman with a genetic disorder discovers that she has a gift that fits her exactly for a specific job, whether she wants that job or not.)

The anthologists have also made an effort to include stories that are “intersectional”, providing perspectives from other parts of the world. “The Palm Tree Bandit” by Nnedi Okorofor tells the story of a Nigerian woman who defies a sexist tradition and starts one of her own. Nalo Hopkinson’s “The Glass Bottle Trick” is a retelling of the Bluebeard story in modern Jamaica (this time the women avenge their own), and “Tales from the Breast” by Hiromi Goto, wherein a Japanese-Canadian woman discovers a solution to her breastfeeding problems.

Some other standouts include: “The Grammarian’s Five Daughters” by Eleanor Arnason (a fairy tale about language); “The Fall River Axe Murders” by Angela Carter (one of the stories that really doesn’t feel like speculative fiction, but is really well-written, set in the moments just before Lizzie Borden is about to get up and kill her parents) and “Stable Strategies for Middle Management” by Eileen Gunn (how far would you go to fit into the corporate culture? Would you let them shoot you up with insect genes?)

Tanith Lee’s “Northern Chess” is a fantasy tale of a warrior woman infiltrating a castle cursed to be a deathtrap by an evil alchemist. It’s exciting, but the ending relies on a now-hoary twist. Still worth reading if you haven’t had the chance before.

Most of the other stories are at least middling good. The weakest for me was “My Flannel Knickers” by Leonora Carrington, which falls into the surrealist category and seems to be about a woman who has rejected conventional beauty standards. Probably.

Rape, sexualized violence and domestic abuse are discussed; I’d put this book as suitable for bright senior high schoolers, though individual stories could be enjoyable by younger readers.

Recommended for feminists, those interested in feminist themes, and anthology fans.

Book Review: Shot in the Face: A Savage Journey to the Heart of Transmetropolitan

Book Review: Shot in the Face: A Savage Journey to the Heart of Transmetropolitan edited by Chad Nevett

Disclaimer:  I received this book through a Goodreads giveaway for the purpose of writing this review.

Shot in the Face

Transmetropolitan was a science fiction comic book series co-created by writer Warren Ellis and artist Darick Robertson that ran under the Helix and Vertigo imprints for sixty issues from 1997-2002.  It details the journey of “gonzo journalist” Spider Jerusalem as he is forced to return to the sprawling City and becomes involved in presidential politics.  The foul-mouthed and personally noxious Jerusalem has one redeeming quality, an absolute dedication to tell the truth as he sees it, and in the bizarre world of the future, that quality is vital.

This book is a collection of essays on various aspects of Transmetropolitan, from its publishing history to how it compares to other works by Mr. Ellis.  It’s been in my To Be Read pile for a long time, since its publication in 2013, as I had meant to actually read Transmetropolitan first.  But the volumes I needed were checked out at the library, and weeks went by and then I lost track of this book.  Having it surface again, I decided to read it without finishing the original series.

The essays, for the most part, seem pretty solid.  There’s one that compares and contrasts Spider Jerusalem with Hunter S. Thompson, who was a major inspiration for the character, and another on whether Jerusalem counts as a “super-hero” as well as detailed looks at the plot structure and interviews with the creators.  Some of the essays could have used another proofreader pass, as I spotted spellchecker typos and sentence fragments.

The essay “Supporting Players: Women in Transmetropolitan” by Greg Burgas seemed a little off as he does not even mention two minor characters who show Spider Jerusalem’s less stellar qualities, mentioned in a couple of the other essays, and seemingly this essay would have been the place to go into depth about them.

Several pages from the comics are reproduced in black and white to illustrate points, and there are a few stills from a documentary about Ellis.

As one might expect, there’s a lot of rough language in here, mostly in quotes from the series, and discussions of edgy topics–consider this to have the same “mature readers” designation as the comics.

Primarily recommended to fans of Transmetropolitan or of Warren Ellis in general.  If you haven’t read the series yet, you will be better served by doing that first.

Book Review: Infinity Five

Book Review: Infinity Five edited by Robert Hoskins

This is the fifth and last (so far as I know) of the Infinity series of science fiction anthologies from Lancer Books.  As mentioned in my review of Infinity Two, they’re heavy on the New Wave style of story, free to have sex scenes and rough language (but not yet skilled at their use) and experimental storytelling styles.  The opening editorial mentions that SF has become a respectable genre for adults, but I’m not sure you could tell from this book.

Infinity Five

SPOILER WARNING: I’m going to be giving away some of the endings.

“The Science Fiction Hall of Fame” by Robert Silverberg starts us off with one of the more experimental pieces, Short fragments from different stories cobbled together around the reminiscences of an avid science fiction fan who has a recurring nightmare about possible futures.  It feels like Mr. Silverberg just grabbed random pages from rejected stories to fill out the length.  At the end, the nightmare becomes reality, and the fear vanishes.

“In Between Then and Now” by Arthur Byron Cover is about two immortal and nigh-omnipotent beings that have been fighting since they can remember.  One of them has a realization that his feelings have changed, but the other isn’t quite ready to accept this.

“Kelly, Frederic Michael: 1928-1987” by William F. Nolan is another “randomish fragments” story.  Mr. Kelly is dying on an alien planet, and his mind slips back and forth.

“Nostalgia Tripping” by Alan Brennert has people listening to oldies radio, except that what precisely the oldies are, and the history that created them, keeps changing.  It turns out that time travel has been invented and harnessed solely to change history to create these new “oldies” because 2003 is just that bleak.  An interesting concept, but perhaps wasted on such a short story.

“She/Her” by Robert Thurston is about telepathic aliens whose planet is undergoing first contact with humans.   Among the new concepts the visitors have brought with them is the significance of gender, as the humans innocently try to fit the aliens into their stereotypes.  This is actually a decent story with a good try at thinking in alien mindsets.

“Trashing” by Barry N. Malzberg goes back to trippy as an assassin attempts to kill a madman who is spreading riots and disorder.  Or is that really what’s happening?

“Hello, Walls and Fences” by Russell Bates is about an artist, or maybe an engineer, who’s asked to do something he finds repugnant by a wealthy man.   Unfortunately, he’s got a wife to feed (this was back when most married women were expected not to have jobs) and his solo work doesn’t sell, so at the end he has to accept the rich man’s job.  We never really find out what the process is or why the artist/engineer doesn’t like it.

“Free at Last” by Ron Goulart moves towards the silly.  A man with a Wide Open Marriage in 1992 is cheating on it by having a secret affair with his invalid aunt’s nurse.  Wide Open, of course, means no secrets.  As part of this, he’s also concealing that his aunt is already dead.  However, the man from the U.S. Department of Transition, which provides free funerals for all American citizens, is getting suspicious.  This one has a lot of extrapolating Seventies California goofiness into the future.  It’s maybe the best story in the issue.

“Changing of the Gods” by Terry Carr, on the other hand, takes a bitter approach to extrapolation.  It is a future where all the mainstream religions have collapsed, to be replaced with the Ancient and Apostolic Church of Christ, Pragmatist.  Yet they still have Fifties style ad agencies.  Sam Luckman is a creative type for one of those agencies, which has been chosen by the Pragmatists to create an ad campaign for “family control” to battle the hideous overpopulation of the world.  Luckman’s personal life is in the toilet, and his disgust with youth-oriented culture and the betrayal of his closest relatives boils over into the advertisements he creates.

Warnings for on-screen incest, pedophilia, castration, body horror.  Also casual homophobia: “homosexual rapists” are said to haunt restrooms.  This is all meant to shock, but just comes off as trying too hard.   One begins to understand why Mr. Carr normally was restricted to editing.

“Interpose” by George Zebrowski has Jesus snatched from the Cross by cruel time travelers.  Jesus is also an alien, not that it does him any good as apparently all his powers were withdrawn for the Crucifixion.

“Greyworld” by Dean R, Koontz is a full novella.  An amnesiac man who is probably named Joel wakes up in a suspended animation pod in a deserted laboratory.  After some wandering around, he runs into a faceless man and passes out.  When Joel awakens, he’s still amnesiac, but is now in a New England country house with his hot wife and distrustful uncle-in-law.  Several more layers of reality ensue.  It’s similar in many ways to Keith Laumer’s Night of Delusions, which I reviewed earlier, but has a more stable (if highly implausible) ending.

“Isaac Under Pressure” by Scott Edelstein wraps up the volume with a quick joke story about unusual genie containers.

Overall, this collection has not aged well, and is only worth seeking out if you collect one of the authors whose story hasn’t been reprinted elsewhere.

 

 

Comic Book Review: Curse of the Were-Woman

Comic Book Review: Curse of the Were-Woman Written by Jason M. Burns, Art by Christopher Provencher

Patrick Dalton likes to think of himself as an “alpha male.”   He’s on the fast track to a partnership at his advertising agency, in excellent health, handsome, and gets laid practically every night.     This last makes Patrick the envy of his best friend Andy, who married the first woman that would take him, but likes to hear about conquests.

Curse of the Were-Woman

One of Patrick’s most important rules is that he never has sex with the same woman twice, and certainly not in a row.  He thinks this is best for both them and him, as he doesn’t want them to get attached and cramp his style.   He’s about to pull a disappearing act on his latest conquest, Tessa, when she wakes up and throws a fit.  He thinks he’s gotten away, but Patrick doesn’t know that Tessa is an actual magical witch.

Now Patrick becomes Patricia at nightfall every night, being restored at dawn, and he will remain a were-woman until he learns to truly understand and respect women.  Even with a little help from his new next door neighbor Amber, that might take longer than Patrick is comfortable with.

As you might guess, Patrick is a horrible person at the start of the story; one of those smug people who attributes bad reactions to his self-centered actions as jealousy or “wimmen be crazy.”   He scores often with his smooth veneer and surface manipulation, but he hasn’t figured out there are more important things than getting your rocks off.

And indeed, while Patrick/Patricia goes through some humiliating and painful experiences (getting a period on the second night!), the real point of the exercise is teaching him how to have an actual relationship with a woman.   And along the way, he learns to have more respect even for women he’s not attracted to.

As one might expect, there’s quite a bit of sexism on display here, mostly from Patrick, but his boss is exactly the sort of person you’d expect to promote a guy like Patrick, and Andy has learned nothing from his marriage.  (Andy’s wife is the stereotype of the woman who “let herself go” after the wedding, as well as a ball-buster.)

There’s vulgarity and sexual situations, so definitely not for children, but no on-screen sex,  and nudity confined to some cleavage and a quick glimpse of Patricia’s backside.

Those familiar with the gender-bender subgenre will find little new here, and the art is only so-so, but it’s nice to have an entire graphic novel in this category.

Overall, this romantic comedy is okay, but not a must-have.

Book Review: Strangers of Different Ink

Book Review: Strangers of Different Ink edited by Richard & Allen Okewole

Disclaimer:  I received this book through a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.

Strangers of Different Ink

This anthology of short stories appears to be primarily by authors in the Philadelphia area.  Other than that, there doesn’t seem to be a particular theme, and their genres vary widely.  The introduction by Tony Tokunbo Fernandez is a short modern poem.  I’m afraid I don’t get modern poetry.

  • “A Lot Can Happen in 26 Minutes” by Dennis Finocchiaro.  A college student counts smiles on a train.  The count is zero, until–a sweet story.
  • “Zadie” by Eric McKinley.  A young man discovers the true love of his life, which is not the title character, or the girl he thought it might be.  A turning point in life.
  • “Capeless City” by Roman Columbo.  The city of Philadelphia has no superheroes, and they’d like to keep it that way.  Unfortunately for Super Powers Investigator Dashiell “Dash” Cain, he may not be able to deliver on that.  This is the story that intrigued me enough to request the book.
  • “Historical Fiction of the Marquis DeSade and Rose Keller” by Cathy T. Colborn.   I’m not sure of the historical nature of Rose Keller.  A feisty young woman of Irish descent is intrigued by the writing  and mystique of the infamous Marquis, and accepts his invitation to visit him.  There’s a difference between romantic fantasy and the reality of relationships with a cruel man, though.  No onscreen sex.
  • “Icky” by Bruce Franchi.   A high school boy whose father is career military witnesses the disintegration of his parents’ marriage and his mother’s death.  There’s a sudden twist at the end which makes this story seem more like the first chapter or two in a young adult fantasy book.  As a result, it’s not quite satisfying.
  • “The Run” by Peter Baroth.   A law school student is pressured into taking some acquaintances to buy drugs.  It doesn’t turn out quite as planned, but is the outcome worse or better?
  • “The Death of St. Clare” by Jordan Blum.  This is an Uncle Tom’s Cabin fanfic, covering an incident that happened off-stage in the original book.  Augustine St. Clare was a relatively “good” slave-owner who had resolved to free Tom, but is killed in a tavern brawl, which leads to Tom being sold to Simon Legree.  It’s an interesting study of St. Clare’s character, and how slavery warped people’s thinking.   Period racism makes this an uncomfortable read.
  • “The Generous Bastard” by Solomon Babber.  A contrast of two couples, one long-married, the other just starting out in their relationship.  Based on a true story.
  • “The Barber of Suez” by K. Fred Mills Jr.  A mixed-race young man goes for his first barber visit (his father had cut his hair before that) and discovers a different part of his heritage.
  • “Choc” by Yohan Simpson.  A story based on true events.  Two children meet in Mumbai, with tragic consequences for both.  Trigger warnings for rape, physical and verbal abuse.  A grim ending for the book.

The stories that worked best for me were “Capeless City”, “The Death of St. Clare” and “Choc.”   “Icky” is probably the weakest story because it is so obviously meant as a first chapter, rather than a story in itself.  There’s a few typos, particularly in “Choc.”

This collection is probably of most interest to Philadelphia area readers, but when was the last time you read Uncle Tom’s Cabin fanfic?

Book Review: Thanks for the Feedback

Book Review: Thanks for the Feedback by Douglas Stone & Sheila Heen

Disclaimer:  I received this book as a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.  Also, the version I read was an Advance Readers’ Copy and some changes may be made in the final version.

Thanks for the Feedback

We’ve all been there.  You go above and beyond busting your butt on the job for a year, but your boss’ evaluation says “meets minimum standards” and no pay raise.  Your mother asks for the thousandth time why you can’t be more like your Nobel Prize winning sister who married a brain surgeon and has provided Mom with two lovely grandchildren.  A random crack from a passerby about your nose puts you in a depressed funk for the rest of the day.

We all get feedback that’s not useful, not helpful, unwanted, badly timed or just wrong.   It can really do a number on your psyche, or get rejected out of hand, no matter what the actual truth value of it is.   However, there can be parts of the feedback that would actually be useful if you can excise the wrong parts and the hurtful way it was delivered.

And that’s what this book is about.  It’s by two of the three authors of Difficult Conversations, because they learned that giving proper feedback and receiving feedback were both listed as very difficult conversations indeed.    Most businesses concentrate on teaching their managers to give feedback, so this book primarily works from the other direction, learning to receive feedback in a manner that makes it productive.

First, there’s some discussion of the three main types of feedback, appreciation, coaching and evaluation, what the difference is, and how each is useful in its own way.  Quite a bit of the book is examining the various types of “triggers” that can prevent feedback from being received correctly;  truth triggers (this information is factually wrong), relationship triggers (the person telling me this is not credible) and identity triggers (“so what you’re saying is that I’m an unfit parent?”)

The text examines how to spot that these triggers are happening and how to deal with them.   According to the authors, triggers can make the conversation about the triggers, rather than about the original feedback.  Redirecting the conversation to what the other person actually means by their feedback can be more productive.  One of the concepts I found most helpful was dealing with “switchtracks,” where both people in the conversation  are addressing different issues so both are monologuing about their own pet peeve, rather than addressing them one at a time.  Some of the suggested phrasing is things no human being would ever say in a natural conversation, but that’s what is supposed to make it effective by breaking the negative feedback cycle.

There’s a section on brain functions, which the authors acknowledge may become dated swiftly,   Neuroscience is a rapidly changing field and in five years time everything quoted here may be obsolete or proved wrong.  They do their best to explain current theory and how people can deal with their brain wiring to get better results from feedback.

Then comes the section on using the information on feedback in the actual process, including how to set boundaries (you need to receive feedback properly; that doesn’t mean you’re going to take the advice you’re given.)    There’s information on how to “coach your coach” so that they can learn to give you the feedback that will be the most helpful.  One thing they don’t really cover is dealing with trolls and bullies, people who deliberately give you wrong or injurious feedback for malicious purposes.  You’re still on your own to spot the difference between them and people who give hurtful feedback for non-malicious reasons.

Finally, there’s a chapter on how to integrate better feedback reception (and giving) into an organizational culture.

The acknowledgements are especially interesting as a model for showing appreciation, and there are extensive end notes.  The ARC did not have an index, but did include a “road map” that goes into more detail than the table of contents.  There are a number of illustrations; mostly figures.

Is this a useful book?  I would say yes.   It’s well-organized, has useful information in an understandable format, and has applicability in the real world.

That said, I think it is a book the readers will need to seek out for themselves.  Being given or recommended this book is a form of feedback that could be taken wrongly.  (“Are you implying I can’t take feedback?!”)  And being given this book by your manager will arouse as much suspicion as say, Who Moved My Cheese?, notorious as a book that management loves and employees find self-serving.

I recommend this book for business people,  college students (high school students might need a slightly simpler version), bloggers and anyone who finds themselves surrounded by idiots that never, ever give good feedback.

 

Book Review: Blind Dates and Broken Hearts: The Tragic Loves of Matthew Murdock

Book Review: Blind Dates and Broken Hearts: The Tragic Loves of Matthew Murdock by Ryan K. Lindsay

Disclaimer:  I received this book as a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.

Blind

Matthew Murdock is the Marvel Comics character known as Daredevil, a blind lawyer blessed with a “radar sense” that allows him to sense his surroundings which he uses to fight crime.  Since his creation in 1964, Daredevil has gone through several love interests, most of the relationships having ended badly.  In large part this is because of the Marvel formula of soap opera plotting ensuring that there must always be more drama coming, that no major character can ever stay happy.

This volume touches upon that, but is more interested in what it says about Matt Murdock and his relationships in-story.  There are sections on the five most important love interests in the Daredevil comics, from overly clingy Karen Page through dangerous Elektra to sensible Milla Donovan.  A couple of other girlfriends get a brief mention.  Each gets a look at her personality, their plot function and what their relationship with Daredevil tells us about him.

This is more an extended essay in a double-spaced pamphlet than a book.  There are a few illustrations and a couple of footnotes but no table of contents , bibliography or index.  I spotted a couple of spellchecker-passed typos.  On the good side, it really felt like the author had taken the time to reread the entire Daredevil series.

If you are a huge Daredevil fan or the kind of person who loves analyzing superheroes’ love lives, then Blind Dates and Broken Hearts is for you.  I really cannot recommend it to the layperson, as it assumes familiarity with the material.

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