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Saturday, September 30, 2017

Strangers Among Us: A Science Fiction and Fantasy Anthology About Outcasts

I normally don't review anthologies unless I've committed to review them due to a request, or I downloaded them from Net Galley or Edelweiss.  One reason is that I usually don't read the entire anthology when I haven't agreed to review it.   A short story can get very short shrift from me, then I'm on to the next one.  So, in order to be fair to the anthology,  I'm going to be very open about the fact that I read about a third of Strangers Among Us edited by Susan Forest and Lucas K. Law.   I also didn't like every story that I did read.

I loved the theme of this anthology.  Outcasts and underdogs are often favorite characters for me.   I thought that there might be stories that would be intensely meaningful for me.  I also think that it's important to point out that this is a Canadian anthology and that part of the proceeds are going to the Canadian Mental Health Association.   There is information about mental illness appended to the anthology.   I got this book from the library.


I read some Goodreads reviews and noticed that my favorite story in the anthology was under attack.  These reviews then became the primary motivating factor behind my review.   I profoundly disagree with the perspective of those reviewers and I think that the opposing perspective should be aired.

The story in question is "Troubles" by Sherry Peters.  Before I read those reviews, I had different comments about this story in my book journal that I'm going to cover in this paragraph.  I almost didn't read this story because I dislike reading about the Fae.  What annoys me most about the Fae is that they engage in senseless struggles over dominance just like humans.   Since I don't enjoy reading about that type of human conflict, seeing it in a fantasy context is not an improvement.   On the other hand, I do love reading stories that take place in Ireland particularly if they deal with a human protagonist who has a paranormal gift.

In "Troubles" the central character, Melanie, was diagnosed as mentally ill. The story questioned the validity of this diagnosis. The reviewers who were opposed to this story apparently thought that questioning any diagnosis is tantamount to questioning the existence of mental illness.   It seems to me that psychology is not a science in the same way that mathematics is a science.  Two plus one will always equal three.  Psychology involves interpretation of behavior.   Interpretations are subjective.  This is why psychologists and psychiatrists can disagree about diagnoses.  There was a time when homosexuality was regarded as a mental illness due to prejudice.   The reason why psychology no longer views homosexuality as a mental illness is because of sustained advocacy for the cause of LGBT individuals.   If that diagnosis hadn't been questioned, nothing would have changed.

Fantasy and science fiction are "what if" genres.   "Troubles" asks "what if" the Fae were real.   One possibility is that it could invalidate a diagnosis of mental illness.  If Melanie really wasn't mentally ill because she saw the Fae, then trusting her perceptions is empowerment.  I think the idea that you should never question authority is harmful.   This is not the same as believing that those in authority  are always wrong.   I do wonder why people who think that authority should never be questioned were reading an anthology in support of outcasts and underdogs in the first place.

My favorite science fiction story in this anthology is "The Dog and the Sleepwalker" by James Alan Gardner.  He posits a society in which biotechnological augmentation is so common that people who aren't augmented are regarded as inferior.  They are actually called "dogs" which may offend dog lovers.   The "dog" protagonist is far from inferior.   In fact, "dogs" perform an essential function on spaceships.   I very much liked this portrayal of a person who was different as valuable.

Among the stories that I read in Strangers Among Us, the one that I disliked most was "The Wrath of Gaia" by Mahtab Narsimhan.  One reason why I disliked it is because the Indian author didn't use the name of the Hindu Earth Goddess.   Her name is Prithvi.  See this article about her on Wikipedia.  I knew this from my studies of Hindu mythology.  In fact, many years ago I wrote a poem about Prithvi.  The author portrays a pair of isolated women in a forest in India using the Greek name, Gaia, for the Earth Goddess.  I didn't find it believable that they would use the name Gaia.  It seemed inauthentic.

When I averaged the ratings of the stories I read, I came up with a grade of B  for the entire anthology.   This may be considered grade inflation since two thirds of the stories didn't hold my attention.   So I won't be rating this book on Goodreads.



Friday, September 29, 2017

Linen Shroud: An Expression of Diversity in 19th Century America

Linen Shroud by Destiny Kinal is the second book in a historical fiction trilogy. It takes place in 19th century America.  I haven't read Burning Silk, the first one.   Kinal includes background about the family that is the focus of this trilogy in Linen Shroud.  So I found that this book can stand on its own.

When I read in the description that it deals with characters who are a mix of French and Native American, my first thought was that a friend whose ethnic origins are similar would love this book.  I haven't changed my mind now that I've finished it.  I'll be giving my review copy, which I received for free from the indie publisher, to my friend for her birthday.  Although it's an ARC, it's a beautiful edition.  My friend should be happy to receive it.


  The most developed character in Linen Shroud is Delphine Montour.  I didn't always perceive her as sympathetic.  Delphine had believed that her people had thrown her away by sending her to boarding school,  but she eventually discovered that she was loved and needed.  She studied the traditional ways of her people, the Haudenosaunee who Euro-Americans call the Iroquois.  She became a leader among them.  I confess that I found Regina, the dedicated young suffragette, more likeable.  I wished that we could have seen more of Regina's feminist activities in the novel, but Kinal is interested in pursuing other themes.

In addition to ethnic and spiritual identity, Kinal dealt extensively with resistance to the factory system through the traditional cottage industry that the Huguenot ancestors of many of the central characters had brought from France.  Factories prioritized efficiency at the price of labor conditions that were often horrific.   I am accustomed to reading about this conflict from the perspective of labor organizers who made factories more tolerable, not from the perspective of those who believed in a more humane and sustainable alternative to factories.  This family wasn't stuck in the medieval period.  They adopted some innovations that allowed their business to survive and thrive while continuing to respect their workers.  This is a historical viewpoint that I found refreshing and inspiring.

Unfortunately, Kinal's Christian theology seemed confused to me.  She portrays the French ancestors of this family as worshipers of the Black Madonna who were  both Huguenots and Cathars. Huguenots are not at all the same thing as Cathars.  Both were heresies from the perspective of the Catholic Church, but Huguenots were Protestants who didn't believe in the veneration of any form of the Madonna.  They followed the doctrines of John Calvin.  There is a very good article on Wikipedia about this subject at John Calvin on the Virgin Mary. I've encountered much disagreement about what the Cathars believed.  I don't think that those who believe that the Black Madonna was venerated by the Cathars can establish a connection between their version of the Cathars, and the historical Cathars who were persecuted in the Albigensian Crusade.  When I read web pages that take the view that Cathars worshiped the divine feminine, I noticed that they conflated the persecutions of the Cathars and the Templars which took place a century apart.    If I run a separate search on the Black Madonna and persecution, I come up with nothing.   This is because the Black Madonna has been very much a part of the Catholic Church in a great many localities from Poland to Mexico.

Since Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code has popularized the meme of Cathars as forerunners of the women's spirituality movement,  many people will have no problem with this idea at all.  It wasn't a very prominent theme in Linen Shroud, but I am capable of morphing into an academic oriented nitpicker when I find myself historically annoyed while in the process of reading a novel.

I was only temporarily annoyed, however.  There were so many wonderful and moving scenes in Linen Shroud that I couldn't stay irked for long.   Linen Shroud will be released on November 1.   Readers of this review have a month to consider this book.   I recommend that you do decide to read it.  You may be as intrigued by this distinctive  family as I was.



Saturday, September 9, 2017

Starswept: Art As A Product In A Science Fiction Context

I encountered Mary Fan's work for the first time in the science fiction/mystery crossover anthology, Love, Murder and Mayhem which I reviewed here as part of the blog tour for that anthology.  I loved Mary Fan's story about the artificial intelligence named Sherlock and mentioned the YA Brave New Girls science fiction anthologies that she co-edits in that review. Mary Fan then sent me a review copy of Brave New Girls #2 which was released last month.   I reviewed it here and was rewarded with a great many more views than I expected.  

This brings me to the current review of Mary Fan's novel Starswept, a YA dystopian romance. I purchased it on Amazon when Mary Fan informed me that it had just been released.  Starswept is the first novel that I've read by this author.  I'm going to tell you in this review why science fiction fans should consider reading it even if they don't usually read YA or romance.   Mary Fan didn't request a review of Starswept from me.  I am voluntarily reviewing it because I think the readers of this blog will want to know about it.  


First, I'd like to call attention to the cover which made me want to read Starswept when I first saw it on Mary Fan's website.  It's not only beautiful, but it said to me that it's a science fiction novel about a musician.  There aren't very many of those.  The cover also told me that this book is part of the effort to bring diverse voices to science fiction and fantasy in defiance of a right wing attempt to suppress those voices.  See a 2016 article by Damien Walter about the "Sad Puppy" phenomenon that appeared in the U.K. Guardian here.

Mary Fan is a Chinese American author.  Her teen protagonist, Iris Lei, is also Chinese American. I thought that the name Iris was very appropriate.   In Greek mythology, Iris is the goddess of the rainbow which represents diversity in the current American cultural context.  In a biblical context, the rainbow represents a promise that the biblical deity will not destroy the world by flood.  So the rainbow is a hopeful symbol in the dark times that both we and Iris are experiencing.  For those who are reading this review in the distant future, a rainbow would be very welcome now in the face of  some truly horrifying hurricanes that are setting records for destruction.

I am not fond of dystopian darkness, but  I will read dystopias that deal with themes that I find compelling.   In our corporate society, the arts become commodities that meet the needs of particular audience segments.  This is fine so far as it goes, but the artist is integral to the arts.  Music, the particular art involved in Starswept , is very much dependent on the artist's performance.   Key elements in performance are such unquantifiable aspects as immersion--the ability of the artist and the audience to be "swept away" by the music.   No audience would be satisfied by a technically correct reproduction of the notes recorded in the musical score.  The audience and the artist both want to be moved by the experience.  Mary Fan's "if this goes on" premise asks what would happen if there was an attempt to control or even erase the uniqueness of each artist for corporate purposes. What if the one of a kind experience of a performance didn't matter so much to an audience of aliens who don't value individuality?  What would music and musicians become in such a setting?  

Iris and all the other students at Iris' art school must find a patron before they become twenty one or they lose the opportunity to practice their art.   The need to find and keep a patron is scarcely new to the arts.  That's been going on for centuries, but what if there was no second chance?  Mozart could die in a garret at an even earlier age than he did.  The waste of talent and human potential in Starswept are frightening.  Mary Fan shows us dramatically how artists can be crushed through the eyes of Iris who is determined to escape such a fate.

Fortunately, Iris isn't the only one who struggles against the system in which she is caught.   Iris finds her romantic counterpart from among this underground group of rebels.   I was rooting for their relationship even though it seemed impossible.   Since this is the first book in a series, we don't know whether their cause will succeed.  The struggle continues, but the rainbow exemplified by Iris appears as a sign of hope in the sky. For me, Starswept is a strong candidate for best YA novel of 2017.



Saturday, September 2, 2017

Black Water Lilies--Murder in Monet's Village

I was astonished when my favorite Mystery/Thriller group on Goodreads selected Black Water Lilies by Michel Bussi as a monthly read.   They don't usually choose to read translated books--unless they're Scandinavian noir.  When I discovered that it's an art mystery that takes place in the village where impressionist Claude Monet painted water lilies, I signed on to read it.  I love books dealing with art and artists. The last time I mentioned that was in my July review of The Beacons I See here.  That book contained an adult autistic protagonist who sketched for personal growth and theraputic reasons.  So I'm interested in fictional artists as well as famous ones like Monet.

This mystery is written in an unusual way.   The most fascinating aspect is that readers won't be aware of the unconventionality of the narrative until the mystery has been fully resolved.   I would characterize this book as literary because the author plays with chronology and character identities. Bussi is making a statement about identity.  If you read this book solely to find out whodunit, you may be disappointed.  I enjoyed the fact that this novel ended so unexpectedly, and I thought that the way that Bussi  handled the plot and the characters was effective.  The character that I identified with the most was Fantine, a talented teen who hoped to follow in Monet's footsteps and become a great artist.

Fantine's quest relates to a statement made by a curator in the novel that it's against the interest of  art institutions devoted to the great artists of the past to find new talent because a living great artist who is currently producing work would displace artists like Monet among collectors.   I  disagree with this fictional curator's observation.  I may not be an expert, but based on my knowledge of art history, all great art appreciates in value over time.  A great living artist might hope that the work he or she is producing now could become as valuable as Monet's in a couple of centuries.

Monet is primarily known as an impressionist, but there are those who also consider him the founder of abstract expressionism.   The curator character mentioned in the above paragraph believes that the abstract paintings were a result of Monet's struggle with blindness in his last years, and that he was still painting water lilies.  If so, it's an accidental discovery of a new style which is an interesting development.  I found a 2010 article from The Daily Beast called Did Monet Invent Abstract Art? by Rachel Wolff. 

There's a quote that's found on the victim whose death is being investigated in Black Water Lilies.  It's from a poem by Louis Aragon who was a friend of Monet's.  Louis Aragon was a radical poet who was censored by the Vichy government during WWII.   I was glad to discover him through this book.   I found a poem of his that I thought was beautiful in the English translation here.  The last two verses are relevant to Black Water Lilies.

The setting is the village of Giverny whose main industry appears to be tourism.   The tourists expect to see the Giverny that Monet knew untouched by time.  One of the characters complains that the residents can't even make the most minor changes.   At one point in the narrative, trees planted in the 1980's were chopped down because they would ruin the tourists' view of Monet's pond.  This is a drawback of living in a location where the landscape itself is considered iconic.   That pond gives visitors a feeling of connection to Monet.  As someone who is fond of the French impressionists, I can understand why the tourists come. On the other hand, if this book is a true reflection of living in contemporary Giverny, I also can empathize with the contemporary residents. Some citizens of Giverny may feel that their needs are being ignored in favor of maintaining the village as a shrine to Monet's paintings of water lilies. I'm sure that there are readers who would respond to this objection by saying that the villagers benefit economically from tourism.   While that is true, the demand that the village look exactly the way it did in Monet's day seems excessive to me.

Bussi mentions the fact that Monet's house, gardens and pond were reconstructed in Japan.  This is actually very appropriate because Monet was so influenced by Japanese art.   There's a web page about this reconstruction in Kitagawa, Japan here.  Does the fact that a reconstruction exists take anything away from Giverny? I don't think so. I like the fact that the Kitagawa tribute to Monet exists because of Monet's cultural debt to Japan.

I thought this book was well-written and I learned a great deal about Monet, but as a mystery fan I felt dis-satisfied because I wanted justice for the victims.  That's a motivation for reading mysteries.  We find out whodunit and justice is achieved after all is revealed.  This isn't that sort of mystery.  I closed the book feeling badly for all the victims of the perpetrator.