Category Archives: Reading

Signal boosting for Wednesday

M.K. Martin is a friend of mine, a veteran, and a former member of my local writing group. As she has the second in her post-viral apocalypse series Survivor’s Club available for pre-order this week, I’m giving y’all a heads up. I haven’t read the book but I heard her read segments of it to the group and she’s good. You can buy Book One and pre-order Book Two, Ashfall from Amazon or her publisher. The book comes out Independence Day.#SFWApro. Cool cover art by Aaron Smith.

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Cover images for the last Tuesday in May

Leading off with a Richard Powers cover for Clifford Simak — two great creators that taste great together.Next George A. Frederiksen provides a neat-looking mystery covder.This Rudolph Belarski cover doesn’t grab me as much as the blurb about “Satan of the Sea spreads evil tentacles …”And finally one by Virgil Finlay#SFWAPro. All rights to images remain with current holder.

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Dirt is matter out of place: three books

“Dirt is matter out of place” is the key insight of PURITY AND DANGER: An Analysis of the Concepts of Pollution and Taboo by Mary Douglas. I first read the book a little over a decade ago and reread it to accompany Miasma, below; as I thought it holds up well.

Douglas arguments is that things like purity/impurity, clean/dirty aren’t absolute, objective measures but subjective. Just as standards for cleanliness changed when cleaning became easier, so pure and impure, spiritually clean and contaminated, are subjective. The Old Testament marks out clear boundaries between what’s clean and unclean for Jews to eat; in our own era, as Douglas points out, we’d flinch from someone putting shoes on the table while we eat, even if there was no threat of getting dirt on our shoes. Matter out of place is disorder and therefore dangerous.

This is dated in some ways — Douglas’ argument that “primitive” shouldn’t be offensive as a description of certain cultures — and a lot of it is refuting other interpretations of taboo and uncleanness; Douglas mocks, for example, the idea that dietary restrictions in Leviticus are about avoiding unhealthy food (“That paints Moses as less a prophet than a divinely appointed health inspector.”). As she sees it, the “unclean” animals are those that cross boundaries in some way, such as swimming creatures without scales or fins, or birds that don’t fly. It’s thought provoking even if I’m not sure what the thoughts are.

Robert Parker cites Douglas frequently in MIASMA: Pollution and Purification in Early Greek Religion though he’s not sure about some of her specifics: would Jews have found anomalous animals any more unsettling than we find the tomato, the fruit that looks like a vegetable? In studying the role of spiritual pollution in ancient Greece, Parker is more uncertain about drawing conclusions than I remembered from first reading. Do stories of pollution and purification in Greek drama, for example, reflect real life or are they just using conventions the audience would understand? Does horror at being around patricides (among the worst of crimes in Hellenic culture) reflect a fear of pollution or merely revulsion of their evil acts? Did people stay their hand to avoid pollution or was it applied retroactively to explain tragedy (“Your whole family dead of the plague? Guess you shouldn’t have slept with a virgin priestess!”). A deep and very focused dive, but interesting despite the uncertainties.

DIRT AND DOMESTICITY: Constructions of the Feminine was a smaller book released to accompany photos in a museum exhibit. It looks at, in part, how housewives are supposed to purge dirt and disorder from the household but also avoid contamination; servants, particularly POC, provide a useful solution that lets the housewife (or the man of the house — plenty of single men have employed domestic staff) avoid touching dirt while taking credit for mastering it.

While I didn’t reread it, WEEDS: An Environmental History of Metropolitan America by Zachary Falck covers similar issues regarding plants that symbolize disorder and urban decay regardless of the supposed rational reasons for destroying them (fighting hay fever justifies uprooting ragweed but never grass). And like dirt, weeds can become a symbol for unwanted people too.

If you’re curious about how this applies in our modern world, I’ll recommend this old post, or this one.

#SFWApro. Top cover by Berni Wrightson, bottom by Neal Adams.

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Dogs, disorder and doom! Okay, not much doom.

Another week where things did not go as well as planned. But let’s start off with good news: I had my semi-annual checkup this week and all my signs (cholesterol, weight, blood pressure) are better than last time. So yay! This is good.

Otherwise this was a sub-par week. Wednesday Plushie was having a mood, constantly barking whenever I came close to having a coherent thought. Thursday morning, before the doctor’s appointment, I just couldn’t focus. I suppose not eating so they could get clear lab results might have something to do with that. The dogs were both needy this morning, plus we had the housekeepers in.

At several points I wound up working on The Savage Adventures because it required much less creative thought than anything else.

It would have been worse if I’d gone to the in-person writing group Tuesday (as I’ve mentioned before, I wake up exhausted), though next time I’m going. I’ll have to schedule around sleeping late Wednesday or something. I intend to read the first chapter of Let No Man Put Asunder so I worked on that this week, tightening it up.  I got a little work done on Oh the Places You’ll Go; in hindsight not getting more was because after getting it beta-read, I’d started seeing a bunch more stuff I wanted to change. Today I faced up to that and started a more thorough rewrite than I’d planned.

Oh, I also finished proofing 19-Infinity and got some cover sketches. So I guess I’m on the way to publication, though also nervous that somehow I’ll have missed something in editing. Maybe one more pass, just focusing on spelling and grammar? We’ll see.

A few links of interest: I have a post on various Silver Age comics scenes up at Atomic Junk Shop. For example —Does that look like a plain Jane to you? Another post looks at how often superheroes wind up fighting when a little talk could resolve things, like in the Spectre’s encounter with Anti-Matter Man below.Two of the Con-Tinual panels I’ve been on are up on YouTube, one on worldbuilding for small towns, one on Hammer Horror.

One last good note: someone checked out one of my books again on Hoopla. Thanks, whoever! Still, next week needs to be better.

#SFWApro. Art by Bob Kane, Carmine Infantino and Mike Sekowsky, all rights remain with current holders.

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Filed under Doc Savage, Nonfiction, Personal, Short Stories, Story Problems, The Dog Ate My Homework, Time management and goals, Writing

All’s Well … except the ending

“She attempts a face of what I presume to be her invisible suffering. Her brow furrows as though she’s about to take a difficult shit or else have a furious but forgettable orgasm.” So Miranda Fitch, the pain-ridden protagonist of ALL’S WELL by Mona Awad, describes one commercial for a supposed miracle pain-reliever. She is unconvinced.

Miranda was a stage actor until a fall inflicted her with crippling injuries and chronic pain that nobody has been able to treat. Now she works as a drama teacher, currently staging Shakespeare’s All’s Well That Ends Well. It’s not an A-list play and the students, and the parents, and the administration, would rather she put on one of the Great Plays, like say Macbeth. Miranda’s pushing back but losing; she’s also disgruntled that the department’s star player, Briana, has the leading role when she’s not the best for it. Everything’s wrong, Miranda’s given up on life and even her friends are growing tired of it.

Then Miranda meets three strange men (linked throughout the book with Macbeth‘s witches) who make cryptic promises of help. When she touches Briana during a rehearsal, Briana comes down with Miranda’s ill health and Miranda starts to heal. The rest of her pain goes into her physical therapist, whom it’s implied is a hack: he doesn’t listen to patients and is happy to earn his pay keeping them in recovery forever. With her renewed energy and some help from the three men she switches from Macbeth to All’s Well, gets a love life — nothing can go wrong now, right? But of course, there’s a price to pay for miracles …

The first part of the book is strictly real-world in its handling of Miranda and her problem but it kept me reading because the flyleaf description implied fantasy would be coming, and because Awad’s writing style is excellent. That said, it feels uncomfortably heavy on disability cliches such as the magical cure and the possibility her pain is all imaginary; if I had any experience with this kind of disability would I have liked the book as much?

The fantasy elements work fine at first but around two-thirds of the way into the book they fell apart. The story becomes surreal, slipping in and out of dreams and normal consciousness — or so it seems — and I’m not sure what was real or what wasn’t. When the three men and a number of other spirits show up to watch the performance it’s clear they’re there for payback but it’s unclear what. Or why Miranda sees her current lover transforming into her ex-husband.

It feels like part of the bargain is that Miranda cross further into evil but maybe not. Absolutely nothing is clear, and as Brandon Sanderson says, when the ending revolves around magic, the author has to make it clear how it works. Awad doesn’t.

I still enjoyed the first two-thirds though.

#SFWApro. Cover by Jonathan Bush.

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It’s been a while since I did a paperback cover post …

So here we go! First a Barye Phillips cover for a political thriller, the first such to use the idea of mentally programmed sleeper agents.Another strange Patrick Woodroffe cover for one of Moorcock’s Prince Corum novels.I like this Victor Kalin cover for one of John Creasey’s (under a pen name) Gideon police procedurals.An Ed Emshwiller horror cover—And a Gervasio Gallardo cover I’ve posted before. Derleth’s Lovecraftian stories were piss-poor, but the cover’s sooo cool.#SFWApro. All rights to images remain with current holders.

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The 1970s in fact and fiction: books read

NO DIRECTION HOME: The American Family and the Fear of National Decline, 1968-1980 by Natasha Zaretsky argues that 1970s America saw the seismic shocks of the oil crisis, defeat in Vietnam and the loss of millions of good-playing blue-collar jobs as blows to the American family, not just the nation. Vietnam holding American prisoners of war, for example, deprived military families of husbands and fathers; the Arabs (or the oil companies) jacking up prices left families financially strapped, and so on. Even the Bicentennial devoted a lot of time to families as stressing roots and heritage played to minorities and activists who didn’t feel much like celebrating America.

Interpreting all this was another matter. Did losing the Vietnam War mean America had lost its military prowess or that we’d simply over-reached? Had OPEC made us the Arab nations’ play-toy or was the problem that Americans had become too greedy, consuming too much? A lot of the debate blamed women for whatever the problem was: women who didn’t want to give up family leadership when their husband came home, permissive moms whose spoiled kids became radical protesters, cold mothers who drove kids crazy, etc. Zaretsky concludes, however, that the sense of the decade as dysfunctional and despairing (as in Invisible Bridge) didn’t take hold until Ronald Reagan’s 1980 campaign portrayed the 1970s as the decade of The Family Besieged with himself as the solution. An interesting job.

VANISHING IN THE HAIGHT by Max Tomlinson is a 1978-set noir mystery in which a female ex-con turned PI goes to work for a San Francisco millionaire whose daughter wound up murdered a decade earlier, during the summer of love. Can the PI find the truth before the dying millionaire passes away? This is a solid mystery though I find the serial-killer POV chapters uninteresting, as I usually do. However I do like the period detail, from fashion to gas at the outrageous price of 65 cents a gallon.

#SFWApro. All rights to image remain with current holder.

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Women in black break the criminal code! One book, two movies

THE WOMAN IN BLACK by Susan Hill is an old-school ghost story in the style of M.R. James. A solicitor sitting with his family as the kids tell ghost stories reluctantly decides to set down one that happened to him, for the kids to read once he’s dead. We follow him to an isolated village to wrap up a deceased client’s estate, but it seems a spectral woman in black is watching wherever he goes. Ah, surely that’s his imagination, right? Right?

Much like the spooky stories of James’ era, this is slow, creepy, without gore, and full of descriptions of rural England (I don’t associate that with James in particular but it’s common to a lot of similar stories I’ve read). The results are effective and evocative, though the most nerve-wracking part was worrying whether the protagonist’s terrier would buy it (relax, he lives).

I’d probably have liked THE WOMAN IN BLACK (2012) more if I didn’t have the book fresh in my mind; it’s well executed but nowhere near the source material and the changes don’t improve anything (while Nigel Kneale’s TV adaptation also makes changes, I’ve read that it’s brilliant). Radcliffe plays the solicitor whose visit to the old mansion drives the eponymous ghost into a fit of even more child-slaying than usual — she’s a lot more murderous than the print version. Radcliffe is good in a tortured role and the film revealed to me that Hammer Films has (appropriately) risen from the dead, as they were one of the production companies involved in this.“You should have left when we told you to.”

The next Howard Hawks films following Fazil are lost, and I mistakenly thought that included The Dawn Patrol. It doesn’t but by the time I learned that I’d already watched THE CRIMINAL CODE (1931) out of sequence. Not that I think watching in sequence would give this adapted stage play any more oomph.

The key players are Phillips Holmes as a young man who kills a guy in a fit of passion and Walter Huston as the ambitious prosecutor who steamrolls Holmes and his attorney, resulting in the young man getting a ten-year stretch in the state pen. Wouldn’t you know, when Huston loses his bid for governor he gets prison warden as a consolation prize. And it seems a lot of crooks he put away have some resentment …

This has some striking moments, such as Huston confronting an angry mob of prisoners but the clunky moments outweigh the startling ones and Holmes is too bland to make his role work. What does work is Boris Karloff as a fellow inmate of Holmes, quietly plotting to settle scores with a pair of squealers. Karloff steals scenes merely by standing there, even though he’s not credited on that poster above; while he’d been working in Hollywood for more than a decade but mostly extras and bit parts. A role like this was quite a step up, though of course his star-breaking role as Frankenstein’s creature is looming. In any case The Criminal Code is better as a Karloff film than a Hawks. “What good is it to save a man if you destroy him while you do it?”


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Magic in fantasy: use vs. works

Back last December on Camestros Felapton’s blog (I don’t remember the specific post) there was a comment about two ways of approaching magic in fiction: “it seems to me that some ways of thinking about magic are ontological/analytical, and some are teleological/practical. How does the magic “work” vs how the magic is used. Which is most important to you as a reader/reviewer/critic? Which is most important to the writers creating these systems? Which is most important to the people who live in the worlds created by the writers? There isn’t a single right answer.”

Stories about how magic works would include, of course, the many stories with magic systems: the Mistborn books, Alan Moore’s tedious Promethea comics (very much about his theories of magic), D&D novels. Guy Gavriel Kay’s Fionavar Tapestry where wizards draw power from an individual’s life force. Randall Garrett’s Lord Darcy stories. A. Merritt’s science fantasies.

The Silver Age Dr. Strange stories by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko (who was probably the prime mover ont he project) are much more about how magic is used.  What’s important is that Stephen Strange uses magic to stand between us and the dark forces: Baron Mordo, Dormammu, Nightmare, Umar and Taboo, Tyrant of the Eighth Dimension.

Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden books likewise focus on magic in action: the bad guys using it to hurt people, Harry using it to protect them, as in the first book in the series, Storm Front. In Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories, what matters is Conan fighting the magic, not how it works.That doesn’t mean “magic has no rules” (the standard complaint by those science fiction fans who dislike fantasy). The Dresden books give us magic rules but the system isn’t the important thing; Ditko’s Dr. Strange stories use magic consistently, they just don’t spell them out. Conversely, stories that emphasize magic systems usually deal with how magic is used: the Lord Darcy stories are all about Darcy and his sidekick Sean using magic to solve crime.

Some stories are a mix of both. In Fritz Leiber’s Conjure Wife, there’s a lot about the rules of magic; protagonist Norman wins because he’s able to analyze them logically and apply them more effectively than his adversaries. However it’s also about how magic is used: stay-at-home wives working sorcery covertly to advance their husband’s careers.

In Southern Discomfort I deal with the rules enough to keep things consistent but I’m much more interested in what magic does. In Questionable Minds, the rules governing psychic power are much more important. In Let No Man Put Asunder, it’s all about how it’s used: there are multiple character operating under different magic system so the rules are a free-for-all (though individual characters’ skills stay consistent).No real deep insights, I know, but I still find Camestros’ comment interesting.

#SFWApro. Images top to bottom by Rodney Matthews, Steve Ditko, Lee Macleod and Samantha Collins. All rights remain with current holders.

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No wonder people think Tik-Tok is a problem!

I mean just look at it! Weird shit, man!#SFWApro. Cover by Peter Gudynas

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