Psst! She Reads Trashy Novels...

February 27, 2006

Rest in Peace: Octavia Butler

Octavia Butler passed away over the weekend. She had planned to keep writing into her eighties, but the dream of the MacArthur Genius Award winner - a woman whose barrier-breaking, genre-expanding writing inspired the dreams of so many other writers - was cut short. She was only 58.

Her books always left me a little bit sad and a little bit thoughtful when I finished them. I was a young teen when I discovered her books in the abysmally limited sci-fi section of my local library. She rocked my world. Butler was the only sci-fi author I'd ever read who dared approach race, sex, and the societal intersections and inequities of the two with something other than a glancing nod.

Added to that, she was a black woman writing sci-fi at a time when I didn't know any other girls who even read sci-fi. She was, and is, an inspiration.

Posted by sk :: 2/27/2006 :: 0 comments

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December 08, 2005

Review: Talyn by Holly Lisle

As NaNoWriMo is now NoMo', it's time for this miserable 30,000 word failure to catch up on her reviewing backlog. First up is Talyn, by Holly Lisle.

First and foremost, I must give props to Ms. Lisle for gifting the fantasy-reading public with an increasingly rare type of novel - the stand-alone fantasy novel. No "previouslies" or cliff-hanger endings here, just an engrossing, fast paced novel that ate my weekend and spit me out into the harsh light of Monday morning squinty and tired.

I haven't read a fantasy novel in ages. The thing that drove me away from the genre was the trend toward long-ass multi-book series. Yeah, yeah, I know Tolkein did it, but, dayum, how many of these fantasy writers are Tolkien? Uh-huh. I thought so.

Having recently struggled to get a mere 30,000 words into the old hard drive, I do admire the hard work and dedication that some writers put into producing a 5 book series in which each book contains no fewer than 400 pages. But damned if I've got the time or energy to read it. I want to visit a world of wonder and imagination, not pack up and move there. And don't get me started on the "between-books" wait (I'm looking at YOU J.K. Rowling!).

In addition to its refreshing stand-alone format, Talyn was also blessedly free of the other things that turn me off of fantasy novels - Eurofetishism, over-emphasis on magic, do-nothing whiny heroines, elves, and the word "magic" spelled with a "k".

The setting for Talyn is a well-grounded world that's as easy to slip into as a warm bath, though not nearly so comfortable. The Tonks and the Eastils have been fighting a magical war for three-hundred years, and each society is firmly entrenched in a culture of war. Talyn, one of the two main characters, is a soldier in the Tonk society - a "Shielder" who protects magical "Senders" from attack.

For the record, I am probably doing a terrible job of describing magic in the world of Talyn. Lisle does it with such straightforward ease, that you never notice how detailed her explanation is until you close the book and find that you can still remember the way it works. And, what's more, it makes its own kind of sense.

Life changes abruptly for Talyn when representatives from a third country broker a peace between the Tonks and the Eastils. Anyone who has read more than a couple of books in the Fantasy genre knows that cultures and people with ugly names are generally up to no good. So you'll know that as nice as peace between the Eastils and the Tonks sounds after 300 years of war, it can't be a good thing when its brokered by a people called the "Feegash". Nor can the Feegash diplomat who professes undying love for Talyn be as earnest as he seems when he's saddled with a name like "Skirmig".

I tell you, if I ever decide to found my own race of evil biracial bitches hellbent on magical world domination, I will give my minions names so saccharine, people will mistake us for a late-fifties girl group. We will dress tastefully, in flattering colors and comfortable clothes. We will be kind to children, servants and animals. And then one day - Bam! Evil World Domination. Who would ever have suspected Cutie-Pie and the LaLaLa's?

To further add to the Signs o' Evil, Talyn falls into a dark, compulsive sexual relationship with Skirmig. When Talyn requests his help in obtaining the release of some Eastil prisoners of war who have been forgotten by the governments of both countries, and tortured nearly to death by their guards, Skirmig agrees, but uses the incident to draw Talyn further into his web of dark, addictive sex.

And speaking of addictive, have I mentioned how this book ate my weekend? I won't say I couldn't put it down. I put it down on several occasions: twice to shower, once when I fell asleep at 4:30 AM, and once when I was eating a sandwich. So, there.

In order to save herself and her people, Talyn must overcome her ingrained enmity for the Eastils and work with one of the freed Eastil soldiers to break the Feegash's hold on both of their countries. Much of the book is told from Talyn's first-person perspective, and she is an engaging and likeable narrator. Even when she says or does things with which I might disagree, she remains fascinating.

The other part of the book is told from the third-person POV of Gair, one of the freed Eastil prisoners. While I see the need to switch to the perspectives of other characters in a book of this length and complexity, the transition between first and third person POV is the least smooth aspect of the book. Don't get me wrong - I'm not saying it's bad. Really, Lisle suffers only by comparison to herself. She handles other tricky elements so well that the merely average quality of the first-person/third-person shift stands out.

The plot was well-plotted; the world was well-rounded, the characters each had their own personalities, and - this is a huge complement when someone is as bad with names as I am - I never got any of the characters confused. Talyn was a very entertaining story.

The book seemed to allude to deeper issues - to examine love across culture lines, to rebuke the idea of moral equivalency, and to say that there really are some values worth fighting for. On that level, Talyn didn't quite do it for me. Most Fantasy novels tend to reduce moral questions to simple either-or propositions like Good vs. Evil. That simplicity is part of the appeal of the Fantasy genre, and also its greatest stumbling block when it comes to any revealing examination of the human condition.

In Talyn the good guys are too good, and the bad guy is too evil to prompt any hesitation on the part of the reader to root for the good guys. The occasional atrocities of the ongoing Tonk-Eastil war have scarred both Talyn and Gair, but Skirmig is a knife-wielding, flesh-carving, baby-killing, soul-enslaving, sister-raping sadist bent on world domination. Hmm - tough choice.
Yes, Talyn overcomes her Tonk prejudices enough to team up with Gair and save the world, but Gair looks, talks and acts like an Eastil - is it really a stretch for her character? Now, obviously, given my background, I'm going to be rough on authors who wimp out when it comes to culture-crossin' love. Talyn's thought processes on learning to deal with Gair were interesting to read, and her growth arc felt earned, rather than forced for the sake of plot.

When I closed the cover on Talyn, I couldn't help thinking that it could have been a darker, more challenging book - and maybe before editorial, it was. But what I think it could have been does not detract from what it is -
a great read. I haven't got a tenth of the talent and skill that Holly Lisle probably puts into writing her grocery list, so I really have no right to say what her books could or should be. I'm happy to read, enjoy and occasionally review them.

Lisle definitely has the writing chops to master any type of story she decides to write. I've read a few of her other fantasy novels, and Fantasy is lucky to have her. She's consistently original and entertaining. I read in her blog that she also writes romance. If ever there was a genre that could use more originality and entertainment, it's Romance. I can't wait to see what Holly Lisle does with it.

Up next in the review backlog: Shame on it All by Zane and Mr. Right Now by Monica Jackson.

Posted by sk :: 12/08/2005 :: 1 comments

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December 01, 2005

I am a Racist

You're a racist, too. Now wait - don't get all up in a bunch. I'm not saying you get hot and bothered over fiery crosses and goose-stepping. I'm just saying that, for good or ill, you judge people based on their race - and probably their looks, weight and age, too.

Don't believe me? Take a test, and see for yourself. Thanks to the IAT tests, I learned that I like black people slightly more than white people, thin people slightly more than fat people, and young people slightly more than old people.

Does that mean I spend my free time throwing rocks at old, fat white people? Of course not. But it does mean that I have just as much potential toward hatred and cruelty as those mouth-breathing sheet-wearers I saw last night on Springer. How could I not? I'm human.

According to a link on Monica Jackson's blog, today is Blog Against Racism Day. How better to celebrate the occasion than for all of us to face the fact that as human beings, we have preconceived notions and preferences. There's no shame in admitting it - the only shame lies in giving in. Prejudice is a part of human nature, but so is transcendence.

The first step to overcoming our less-than-noble instincts is to acknowledge them. I'm a racist, you're a racist. Go ahead and admit it. Then get the hell over it.

Life is too short, and kindred spirits are too rare, for any of us to go turning our noses up at the good people with whom God graces our lives just because some backward little cro-magnon part of our brain that evolved to protect us from saber-toothed tigers has gone and gotten its wires crossed.*

Transcendence, baby. It's the word for the day, the name of the game, the only chance we've got to get along like the sisters and brothers we truly are. Transcendence. There's no way to escape racism - it's in us. We've got to grow past it, to transcend our baser natures.

So, yeah, I'm a racist. But you know what? I'm working on it.

*Yes, I used God and evolution in the same sentence - no matter what Pat Robertson says, they aren't mutually exclusive.

Posted by sk :: 12/01/2005 :: 1 comments

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November 21, 2005

Update: NaNoWriProMo

Some of you may have heard about NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month). For yours truly, November has been NaNoWriProMo (National Novel Writing Procrastination Month). It has also been NaNoWriProAnReONoMo (National Novel Writing Procrastination and Reading Other Novels Month) and NaNoWriProAnSitOnYoFatAssMo (National Novel Writing Procrastination and Sitting on Your Fat Ass Month).

Yes, instead of writing, I've been reading novels that have already been read and reviewed by everyone and their sister like Waiting to Exhale and Sex and the City. (I am unenthusiastic about Candace Bushnell, but after years of dissing her up and down the block for 4 Blondes, I figured I ought to read the book that made her famous so I can diss the woman in earnest.) And in twenty one days, I have only written 21,000 words on my unfinished, untitled novel(la). It is official: I suck.

So, in the interests of reaching that crazy-ass goal of 50,000 words by November 31, I'd better get to writing.

See you on December 1st.

P.S. Dang. Just checked the calendar. November only has 30 days. I am so behind!

Posted by sk :: 11/21/2005 :: 0 comments

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November 16, 2005

Review: Friday Night Chicas

In honor of my chicas who salsa-danced me into the ground last Friday, I picked up Friday Night Chicas, an anthology of Latina chick-lit stories. These four stories of Latina amigas out on the town were as fun and fast as a good salsa song - though considerably easier on the feet.

The first story, My Favorite Mistake by Mary Castillo is about an aspiring film producer named Isela who crashes a Hollywood party in search of a hot young director and instead winds up in the arms of the director's brother.

As an Angelena, you'd think I'd be happy to see my home city in print. But here's the thing. I hate fame-chasers. I have never had a soft spot in my heart for bright young things who come to L.A. in search of fame, fortune, and the next party. In my experience, those are exactly the sort of crass, grasping, superficial people who give this city a bad name.

So, while the writing was smooth, and Isela was a relatable character, my personal pet peeves once again prevented me from fully enjoying an otherwise light and breezy story.

The second story, Hearts are Wild describes hardworking lawyer Tori's night out in Miami with her four friends. Her friends treat her to a gambling cruise, and make her promise to leave her practical, boring side behind. Like My Favorite Mistake, Hearts are Wild is lite, frothy, stereotypical chick-lit complete with
  • Label Whore Descriptions - it's not just a black handbag or a lacy bra, it's a Prada bag or a La Perla bra.
  • Family Pressure to Marry - is there one heroine in all of Chicklitland who doesn't have a married sister, and a family who pressures her to be more like that sister?
  • Unwarranted Insecurity - Denizens of Chicklitland always seem to be thin but worried about their weight, and successful, but worried about their jobs.
If none of these things bother you, you'll probably find Heart are Wild to be a fun, if forgettable, read. Overall, I liked it.

Revenge of the Fashion Goddess contained the most dreaded plotline of all - the high school reunion plot. After suffering through four years as the only Latina in her Chicago high school, Cali Montalvo shows up at her high school reunion intending to impress her former classmates with her status as a budding NY fashion designer, and to confront the popular girls who bullied her younger self. And, maybe she wants to see her high school crush, Rick Capaldi, again, too.

Revenge was my least favorite of the four stories because I have never been fond of high school reunion stories, and because [spoiler] Rick is still technically married when he and Cali hook up. I have no problems with author Berta Platas' writing style - just her plotting. In addition to the tried and tired high school reunion theme, and the dealbreaker spoilered above, the plot also includes a supposedly comedic case of mistaken identity. Revenge is too short a story to fit all those cliches.

The last story The More Things Change, by Sofia Quintero was the weightiest of the four contenders. Instead of centering on shopping and romance, The More Things Change tells the story of the reunion of four college friends who drifted apart. When they reunite to take one of their number out for a bachelorette party at a New York strip club, their actions in the present, and remembrances of the past interweave to show that, the more things change...well, you know.

Although I wouldn't describe The More Things Change as "my style" of story, I found its focus on the complexities female friendship to be a welcome relief after the whirlwind romances presented in the other three stories. The More Things Change was an interesting read, if not always a fun one. I liked Quintero's choice of subject, and I'll probably look around for more of her work in the future.

Overall, Friday Night Chicas is a good book to check out of the library. The short story format goes fast, and the four stories are all amusing, if a little light for my tastes. Those who expect to find more depth or spice in Latina chick lit than is commonly found in the gringa variety will be sorely disappointed. If anything, Friday Night Chicas proves that no matter how you season it, most chick lit is pretty much the same.

Posted by sk :: 11/16/2005 :: 0 comments

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November 14, 2005

Review: Naked Brunch by Sparkle Hayter

The Also by Sparkle Hayter page near the front of Bandit Queen Boogie informed me that there was one book by the author which I had yet to read. Yesterday I was quite pleased to find the cleverly named and as-yet-unread-by-yours-truly Naked Brunch on the shelf at the Central Library. And today, the review.

I have often said "Free makes everything better." Free in this case, made Naked Brunch good, even though I'd expected better. If I had shelled out some of my hard-earned cash money for this novel, I might be less inclined to focus on the good and more inclined to point out how this book did not deliver the one thing I have come to expect from Sparkle Hayter without fail: the Funny.

Hayter's apparent foray into the muddied and over-crowded waters of the paranormal chicklit sub-sub genre delivers the wacky characters, witty writing, breakneck pacing and deliciously twisty plots that have made all of her other books so memorable. Unfortunately, Naked Brunch did not induce the standard 3-5 gigglefests that usually prompt my husband to look up from his book of serious, useful nonfiction and ask me what is so funny.

Naked Brunch is the story of mild-mannered, downtrodden New York legal secretary, Annie Engle. Like many a mild mannered, downtrodden New York chick-lit heroine, Annie has been bullied by her boss, taken for granted by her "friends," and dumped by the boyfriend she helped put through legal school in favor of a richer, prettier, blonder woman. So far, so familiar.

But don't get discouraged. Things get unfamiliar pretty fast in this book, and though there is a strong romantic thread and a mostly happy ending, any book that has the heroine vomit up a human eyeball midway through can never, truly, be chick-lit. In addition to the lack of a fetish for designer shoes, the other things that makes Annie different from her chick-lit cousins are the recurring dreams Annie has that she is a wolf running through a snowy field.

When the vegetarian Annie wakes one morning to find her window broken in, blood on her face, and raw meat lodged between her teeth she begins to suspect that her full-moon dream was no dream at all. An evil executive from the megalithic corporation for which Annie works has been found dead and half eaten in front of a restaurant called "Carnivore" in the Meatpacking district.
The "Mad Dog Murders" make front page news, everyone from a dim-bulb aging reporter, to a psychotic psychiatrist specializing in Lycanthrpopic Metamorphic Disorder, to a rogue werewolf, to the police and the Mayor's special task force are on Annie's trail.

Hayter handles the supernatural element of her story superbly. Some authors engage in long, boring discussions of rules for their supernatural elements, while others confuse the reader by providing no structure at all. Hayter gives you just enough information to keep you from getting confused, and encourages a healthy suspension of disbelief by keeping the plot moving swiftly from beat to beat and the narrative bounding from one crazy character to the next.

Hayter also does an excellent job sketching her wide, colorful cast of secondary characters quickly and efficiently. They really leap off the page, and I never once got any of them confused. Perhaps she did the job too well, though, because by the middle of the book I found myself far more interested the B plot concerning comically clueless anchorman Sam Deverell's attempts at "reporting" on the Mad Dog Murders than I was in the characters that actually committed those murders.

The C plot, which concerned a gossip columnist and Annie's shallow friends' attempts to become famous within a year, was less compelling and highly predictable. Still, as she has in other books, Hayter seamlessly wove the disparate strands of story together for a mostly satisfying, if somewhat predictable conclusion.

I feel a little bad saying that I didn't like this book as much as other books by Hayter. She set a high bar for herself, and deviated from what I wanted and expected when I went in search of the book. I have a feeling that if anyone else had written this book, I'd be raving about it instead of damning it with faint praise. Here are the facts: I devoured it in about 3.5 hours, and while it didn't have the requisite number of gigglefest moments, it was still fast, witty, amusing and well-written.

Posted by sk :: 11/14/2005 :: 0 comments

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November 05, 2005

Update: New Site Design

After months of mediocre site design, I finally found a template I like. Maybe this will motivate me to get out and start promoting this site.

What do you think of my pin-up girl? I wish I could say she looked just like me, but aside from the brown skin, curly hair and looong legs we don't look that much alike. She's cute, huh? The graphic and template came from Caz's template page. Thanks Caz!

Posted by sk :: 11/05/2005 ::