Archive

Archive for the ‘classic’ Category

Book Review: Rubyfruit Jungle by Rita Mae Brown

Image of a digital book cover. A plant with green leaves and the red lips of a kiss on it is in the background of the book title.

Summary:
This bawdy book originally published in 1973 tells the story of Molly Bolt, the adoptive daughter of a dirt-poor Southern couple who boldly forges her own path in America. With her startling beauty and crackling wit, Molly finds that women are drawn to her wherever she goes – and she refuses to apologize for loving them back. 

Review:
I’ve been trying to read more queer classics and not solely limit myself to modern queer books. I stumbled upon this when looking for other books published around the same time as Tales of the City (review). While I absolutely appreciate how groundbreaking this was at the time, it didn’t work for me. I’ll have to give a couple of spoilers to be able to discuss why, so be forewarned!

Let’s start with what I did like. The prose calls out the racism of the north at a time when Jim Crow was still around in the south. Just because things may be better from a legal perspective doesn’t mean they actually are any less racist. This isn’t done in a preachy way. It comes about smoothly as Molly’s family moves from the hills of Pennsylvania to Florida. I really liked Molly’s dad, and the arc of her relationship with him. I loved how Molly’s first crush in middle school on another little girl named Leota is depicted. I appreciated how key moments in Molly’s life makes it clear she has to conform to succeed, and she refuses to do it. It hauntingly shows how minoritized people are kept down.

This is told in the first person, and Molly isn’t, to me, particularly likeable. I really wanted to like her. But I didn’t. She’s crass, abrasive, quite reactionary. She looks down on other people even while insisting she doesn’t. Ok, so for most of the book she’s a teenager or a young adult working her way through college. No one is perfect, and she has a lot stacked against her. But I would say she just becomes more full of herself as the novel progresses. I didn’t feel like she really learned anything. I suspect I’m supposed to think she did based on her final film school project, but it was hard for me to be moved by a film I didn’t see.

Something about Molly that particularly bothered me was an instance that really reminded me of some movies from the 70s I’ve seen, where a woman will say no to sex, but then the guy gets a little rough, gets her a little drunk, and later she basically says she’s grateful he took “advantage of her” because she really wanted it deep down (aka he raped her but she liked it). Well, Molly takes on the role of the aggressor in just such a situation in this book.I get it that this was a common trope at the time this book was written, and I’m imagining the goal was to show the same scene but with two women. But just because something was commonly shown in media at the time doesn’t make it right. I just can’t view Molly as a heroine when that’s how she engages with other women.

The other thing that’s problematic about Molly is that, since she’s adopted, she likes to say she doesn’t technically know her race. She bases this on having dark hair. At the end of the book she finds out she’s half…wait for it…French. She sees a photo of her father, and he’s French with dark hair. She never confronts herself about why she had this weird obsession with imagining herself as partially another minoritized race.

One more thing I feel I ought to mention is that Molly has a tendency to speak very negatively about butch presenting lesbians. It’s ok to not be into dating butches yourself. It’s even ok if you yourself find the butch/femme dynamic odd (although why you should care is beyond me). What bothers me, though, is how she describes butch women every single time she sees them. It’s downright insulting. You can be kind to other queer people you aren’t attracted to.

Again, I don’t expect characters to be perfect. Indeed, I think first person books with an imperfect main character are important for understanding other people’s perspective. But I do expect some growth and development over time. I felt throughout the book like Molly had no interest in self-improvement or reflection, and she never even has an epiphany that maybe she should.

Overall, why I understand why this book was groundbreaking, and it certainly had some memorable scenes, I felt the main character is unlikeable and doesn’t grow or change over time. I really liked her dad though. He was a morally flawed, complex character who I really felt could have held up his own fascinating book.

If you found this review helpful, please consider tipping me on ko-fi, checking out my digital items available in my ko-fi shop, buying one of my publications, or using one of my referral/coupon codesThank you for your support!

3 out of 5 stars

Length: 221 pages – average but on the shorter side

Source: Library

Buy It (Amazon or Bookshop.org)

Book Review: Coffee Will Make You Black by April Sinclair (Series, #1)

Image of a digital book cover. A Black teenage girl with a fro and a bright head band holds her hands around her mouth accentuating it. The title of the novel comes out of her mouth as a speech bubble.

Summary:
Set on Chicago’s Southside in the mid-to-late 60s, following Jean “Stevie” Stevenson, a young Black woman growing up through the Civil Rights and Black Power movements. Stevie longs to fit in with the cool crowd. Fighting her mother every step of the way, she begins to experiment with talkin’ trash, “kicking butt,” and boys. With the assassination of Dr. King she gains a new political awareness, which makes her decide to wear her hair in a ‘fro instead of straightened, to refuse to use skin bleach, and to confront prejudice. She also finds herself questioning her sexuality. As readers follow Stevie’s at times harrowing, at times hilarious story, they will learn what it was like to be Black before Black was beautiful.

Review:
After reading Tales of the City by Armistead Maupin (review) and finding myself disappointed with how it handled race, I intentionally looked for older classics of LGBTQIA+ lit written by Black authors. (As a starting place. I intend to continue this searching with other BIPOC groups). In my search I found this book listed as an own voices depiction of a queer young Black woman in the South Side of Chicago. My library had a digital copy, so I was off.

First published in 1995, this is certainly an own voices book. The author grew up in Chicago in the same time period as Stevie, and that authenticity really shines through. The book is divided into three parts. Part 1 (spring 1965 to summer 1967), Part 2 (fall 1967 to fall 1968), and Part 3 (fall 1969 to spring 1970). Part 1 begins in Stevie’s last year of middle school. It establishes the systemic racism Stevie and her family live with that the Civil Rights movement that Stevie will later become involved in in high school. It also demonstrates Stevie’s difficult relationship with her mother. In Part 2, Stevie enters high school, Dr. King is assassinated, and Stevie starts to push back on racism and colorism. In Part 3, Stevie starts to question her sexuality and also the lack of interracial friendships and relationships she sees among her friends and family.

In some ways this was a tough book to read. It pulls no punches about what life was like for a young Black girl at this time. Although it always pains me to read about racism and colorism, there was an extra twinge in reading this because Stevie is just such an immediately likable little girl with a protective mother. The book opens with Stevie asking her mother what a virgin is (because a boy at school asked her if she was one), and her mother not wanting to tell her. This reminded me of all the conversations about Black girls being forced to grow up too fast and letting them stay the little girls they are. Although I advocate for frank talks about sexuality with questioning children, I also understood her mother’s impulse to keep Stevie little just a while longer.

Stevie’s sexuality is left open-ended in this book, in spite of my finding it on a list of lesbian fiction originally. Essentially the idea is posited that sometimes adolescents feel confused only to realize later they’re straight. I wondered if this is what happens with Stevie so peaked at the sequel. (spoiler warning!) Apparently in the sequel Stevie identifies as bisexual. This thrilled me, because there’s so little representation of bisexual folks in literature, but also because I felt a bit of a twinge of recognition when reading about Stevie’s confusion in the book. Part of why she’s so confused about if she’s straight or a lesbian is because the answer is neither. It was a great depiction.

I did feel the book ended kind of abruptly. It’s definitely a bit of a plot hanger that leaves you yearning for the sequel. Not in an uncomfortable way but more in a I want to see Stevie finish growing up way. Plus, it’s the start of the 1970s, and that’s such a fun time period to read about.

Overall, this own voices book gives a realistic yet fun depiction of growing up Black in the South Side of Chicago in the 1960s. If you’re coming for the queer content, hang in there, it shows up in Part 3. A great way to diversify your reading.

4 out of 5 stars

Length: 256 pages – average but on the shorter side

Source: Library

Buy It (Amazon or Bookshop.org)

Get the Reading Group / Book Club Discussion Guide
A beautifully graphic designed 2 page PDF that contains: 1 icebreaker, 9 discussion questions arranged from least to most challenging, 1 wrap-up question, and 3 read-a-like book suggestions
View a list of all my Discussion Guides.

Support me on Ko-fi

View my publications

Book Review: Tales of the City by Armistead Maupin (Series, #1)

March 8, 2022 2 comments
Image of a digital book cover with a cartoon drawing of a street in San Francisco.

Summary:
San Francisco, 1976. A naïve young secretary, fresh out of Cleveland, tumbles headlong into a brave new world of laundromat Lotharios, pot-growing landladies, cut throat debutantes, and Jockey Shorts dance contests. The saga that ensues is manic, romantic, tawdry, touching, and outrageous

Review:
This was first published as a novel in 1978, although it was published prior to that as a serialized story in a San Francisco newspaper. It is considered a classic of LGBTQIA+ literature. The first tv show miniseries based upon it that premiered in 1994 had a same-sex kiss made history and was also protested (source). The Netflix reboot/update in 2019 brought fresh attention to it, and I thought it was high-time I read the classic.

It’s clear that some restraints were placed upon Maupin, either by the newspaper or simply the culture of the time. Our window into the queer world in San Francisco is given to us by Mary Ann Singleton – a single cis straight woman who comes from Cleveland for a visit and decides to stay. She’s invited into Barbary Lane and declared one of us, although why exactly she’s considered part of the found family is not resolved in the first book.

The book is definitely a product of the 1970s. 1970s fashion and freewheeling culture are everywhere. Lack of acceptance of queer people is a real threat and concern, and the AIDS crisis had not yet hit. It’s an interesting snapshot of a very particular point in time.

While characters are quite loose about who they will sleep with, there’s also a lack of diversity in the cast of main characters that’s jarring. Especially for a story set in a city that’s so diverse. Particularly noticeable to me was how the Asian-American characters are all peripheral, even with this being San Francisco. I don’t think this lack of diversity is a product of its time – there were other very forward-thinking works of fiction at the same time as this. This lack of diversity is something to keep in mind when approaching the book.

There are also two plot twists that revolve around race, and I don’t think either is handled with particular grace. The race of someone’s lover is identified by pointing to a yellow flower. This is obviously offensive. While it seems to me that the character who does this is someone we’re supposed to think badly of, on the other hand, it seemed to me that this was supposed to be a funny moment. And it definitely was not. In the other case, a character reveals that they believe that the only way to become a successful model is to be Black. It is unclear what the other character they are speaking to thinks of that. I think this instance may be intentionally leaving it up to the reader to decide what they think, but it’s also a strange plot point in a book that’s mostly about hookups and very little about careers.

This reminded me very much of other books and tv shows that have dramatic, gasp-inducing storylines with large casts of characters whose lives intertwine and overlap in mysterious ways. Think Jane the Virgin or Desperate Housewives just with fewer identical twins and less murder (so far…..) and more queer characters. If you like that type of storytelling, then you’ll likely find this hilarious and engaging. If you don’t, then you probably won’t.

I personally found it to be a rapid read with an engaging storyline and funny chapter titles. I wished it had been more forward-thinking and intersectional, but I also respect that the mere depiction of queer people in a soap opera like story was quite groundbreaking. I appreciate it for what it is, and it was a fun, quick read.

4 out of 5 stars

Length: 386 pages – average but on the longer side

Source: Library

Buy It (Amazon or Bookshop.org)

Get the Reading Group / Book Club Discussion Guide
A beautifully graphic designed 2 page PDF that contains: 1 icebreaker, 9 discussion questions arranged from least to most challenging, 1 wrap-up question, and 3 read-a-like book suggestions
View a list of all my Discussion Guides.

Support me on Ko-fi

View my publications

Book Review: We by Yevgeny Zamyatin

December 9, 2021 Leave a comment
Image of a book cover. A floating eye looks down a city. It notes there is an introduction by Margaret Atwood.

Summary:
In a glass-enclosed city of perfectly straight lines, ruled over by an all-powerful “Benefactor,” the citizens of the totalitarian society of OneState are regulated by spies and secret police; wear identical clothing; and are distinguished only by a number assigned to them at birth. That is, until D-503, a mathematician who dreams in numbers, makes a discovery: he has an individual soul. He can feel things. He can fall in love. And, in doing so, he begins to dangerously veer from the norms of his society, becoming embroiled in a plot to destroy OneState and liberate the city.

Set in the twenty-sixth century AD, We was the forerunner of canonical works from George Orwell and Alduous Huxley, among others. It was suppressed for more than sixty years in Russia and remains a resounding cry for individual freedom, as well as a powerful, exciting, and vivid work of science fiction that still feels relevant today. Bela Shayevich’s bold new translation breathes new life into Yevgeny Zamyatin’s seminal work and refreshes it for our current era. 

Review:
The history of this book is fascinating. Smuggled out of Soviet Russia and only ever published in translation in exile from Russia. Published before 1984 and Brave New World and said to have been at least some level of influence on both. So it’s absolutely an important read from the perspective of scifi history.

A what-if version of automation and industrialization. These successes have led to a society where humans no longer have mothers, fathers, or even real names. Instead they have numbers. D-503 is our narrator. He’s designing a rocket ship for the space program. He falls in with I-330, a woman working with a kind of back to nature resistance.

I’m not sure I liked either society depicted. It kind of reminded me of one of the societies depicted in The Time Machine that I didn’t like all that much either. But I was definitely moved and engaged and wanted to find out what happened. (The ending is bleak. I’m not sure why I hoped for anything else!)

One thing that made this a challenging read is that D-503 refers to I-330 as I. This made some sentences confusing since it’s also narrated in the first person from his point of view. It was not unusual for me to have to re-start a sentence after realizing it was actually about I-330 and not D-503 or vice versa. It’s unclear to me how much of this is a translation choice and how much of it is authentic to the book as originally written in Russian.

Another thing that rubbed me the wrong way is how the Black character is described. There’s a large, recurring focus on the size of his lips. On the one hand, the depiction of this character is very open-minded and equal. He and D-503 are both sort of married to the same woman, know it, and all consider themselves friends. But, on the other hand, the focus on his lips repeatedly was jarring. I’m again, not sure if this was in the original Russian or an awkward translation.

A creative world building element that I enjoyed is how this totalitarian regime keeps watch on its citizens. This was written before much technology, and so the citizens all live in glass homes. They have to get a special ticket to be able to pull the blinds. These are only issued for sanctioned sexual encounters. Thus to have private meetings, you must get tickets to have sexual relations with the person you want to meet with.

Recommended to those with an interest in the trajectory of scifi dystopias over time or with an interest in Russian literature.

3 out of 5 stars

Length: 256 pages – average but on the shorter side

Source: NetGalley

Buy It (Amazon or Bookshop.org)

Support me on Ko-fi

View my publications

Book Review: Bear by Marian Engel

October 12, 2021 2 comments
Photo of a physical book cover. The word BEAR in neon green font is on top of the coat of a bear with a woman's hand running through the fur.

Summary:
A librarian named Lou is called to a remote Canadian island to inventory the estate of a secretive Colonel whose most surprising secret is a bear who keeps her company–shocking company.

Review:
I don’t recall anymore how I heard about this book, but this is what I heard about it:

There’s this book that’s considered a Canadian classic where a librarian has sex with a bear.

Ok. I was left with questions. First, this sounds like erotica – how is it a classic? Second, as a trained librarian I immediately wondered if the librarian part was essential to the story. Third, does she really have sex with a bear? Then I became even more intrigued when I discovered I couldn’t get this book digitally but only in print AND it’s out of print in the US so it’s far cheaper to purchase it abroad and have it sent here. So, now that I got this book from the UK and read it (in one weekend), let me answer these questions for you.

First, I wouldn’t call this erotica. The point, in spite of the murmurings about it, is absolutely not about sex with a bear, whereas in erotica, the point is the sex. I in all honesty would say this is a book about burnout. Lou is an archivist who is in a rut. When the nameless Institute she works for sends her to this estate that has been left to them to inventory their materials, her time in nature and her experiences with the locals (yes, including Bear), reveals her massive burnout to her.

She wondered by what right she was there, and why she did what she did for a living. And who she was.

(pg 93)

Second, I would definitely say the librarian part is essential to the story. Librarianship is a feminized profession. This book was first published in 1976. It is an exploration of what it means to be a working woman and how the world views working women, even when our work is performed outside of the public’s eye (perhaps especially when our work is performed outside of the public’s eye). I also thought this book does an excellent job of showing how even though librarianship is a feminized profession, those in the positions of greatest power within libraries and archives are men. Lou’s boss is a man, and this is relevant to her negative work experience.

Third, does she actually have sex with a bear? Ok, slight spoiler warning here. There is no penetration. She tricks the bear to go down on her. That’s it. I didn’t find it particularly shocking, but I’m a millennial from the internet generation that grew up with the internet urban legend about the woman with the dog and the peanut butter so. I viewed the transgressive act with Bear as serving two purposes. First, Lou has a tendency toward self-sabotage, self-loathing, and self-punishment. I think transgressing in this way makes her see how she’s transgressing against herself and her own soul in other ways and makes her refind her own sense of self. Second, I think it’s important to note that at the beginning of the book an Indigenous woman named Lucy kind of hands off the caretaking of Bear to Lou. At the end of the book, she hands the caretaking back to Lucy. I view this as an acknowledgement that just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should. It doesn’t mean it’s your life calling. There are other interesting takes on this as a commentary on colonialism, which I also think are valid.

So do I see why this is a Canadian classic? Yes, absolutely. The whole story oozes Canada from the juxtaposition of the wilderness with the city to the entwining of European and local history to the acknowledgment of the realness and relevance of local Indigenous peoples. (These peoples are not of the past but are of the present, something I think Canadian literature often does a better job with than US literature).

I thought I was going to read this book and laugh at it, kind of like how folks on book-tok are laughing about the ice planet barbarians right now. Instead, I found a unique story about a woman’s time in the semi-wilderness and how it makes her confront her burnout and how her career is a poor fit for her. How her life setup is causing her to transgress and how that needs to change. A shocking way to get the point across? Perhaps. But an important point nonetheless.

4 out of 5 stars

Length: 167 pages – average but on the shorter side

Source: Purchased

Buy It (Amazon or Bookshop.org)

Get the Reading Group / Book Club Discussion Guide
A beautifully graphic designed 2 page PDF that contains: 1 icebreaker, 9 discussion questions arranged from least to most challenging, 1 wrap-up question, 3 read-a-like book suggestions
View a list of all my Discussion Guides.

Support me on Ko-fi

View my publications

Book Review: Corregidora by Gayl Jones

Cover of the book Corregidora

Summary:
First published in 1975, this explores the adult life of Ursa Corregidora, a Black woman blues singer haunted by trauma – both intergenerational and the violent loss of her fertility. Her great-grandmother and grandmother both were enslaved by Corregidora – a Portuguese enslaver in Brazil. He raped both of them, meaning he was the father to all the Corregidora women until Ursa herself. Her female ancestors constantly told her the importance of keeping the truth of their suffering alive through telling the story down through the family. So what will happen to the story now that Ursa, an only child, can no longer have children of her own?

Review:
This made it to my to be read pile before the current surge in interest in the history of the blues, partially coming from the newly released movie The US vs. Billie Holiday. This book demonstrates how clearly the blues and the trauma inflicted on Black folks in the US are intertwined, with the blues granting an outlet for speaking on at least some of the suffering but also a source of Black joy.

I have seen some reviews talk about how this book is about Ursa’s anger. I strongly disagree. This book is about Ursa’s intergenerational and current trauma, but she is absolutely not, as the GoodReads summary states, “consumed by her hatred of the nineteenth-century slavemaster [Corregidora].” Ursa suffers from trauma and struggles to deal with this trauma, but she is not consumed by hatred. I dislike how this summary seems to place the blame for her suffering upon Ursa. Ursa is doing the best she can with a whole pile of trauma. She’s not perfect, but, in my opinion, this isn’t some cautionary tale about being consumed by hatred. It’s an eloquent depiction of the intergenerational trauma of slavery and racism.

It is so immediately understandable why Ursa’s whole world is rocked when she loses her fertility due to abuse at the hands of her husband. (This happens very early in the book and is not a spoiler). Not only does she have a drive to have children that many women have, but she also has the lifelong expectation that she will fight injustice and white supremacy by passing the true story of what happened to the women in her family down along to the next generation. How can she manage her life when it becomes impossible for her to fulfill that expectation?

This book is not just about fertility/infertility and intergenerational trauma but also about the blues. Why Ursa is so drawn to the blues and what she is willing to give up and fight for in order to continue to sing them. The balance of moving among these themes is handled very well.

There are also some difficult moments where we see that Ursa is homophobic. She has a female friend who engages in relationships with other women and Ursa is, at the very least, uncomfortable with this. However, I do not think the book is necessarily in agreement with Ursa. Time is spent discussing why two Black women might be empowered by loving each other. However, time is also dedicated to discussing how white women have also raped enslaved (and servant) Black women, and that memory is part of what makes Ursa so uncomfortable. It is not an easy topic, and there is also the additional layer that Ursa finds this out right after she’s lost her fertility and others are questioning whether she counts as a woman anymore due to this. I think this section is handled honestly but readers who are more sensitive to negative reactions to queerness should be aware of its presence in this book.

This book is an engaging, powerful, and in many ways, unexpected, read. While I think everyone could get something out of this, I specifically want to mention that if you’ve read the white women’s feminist classics of the 1960s and 1970s, you definitely need to pick this one up and diversify your perspective.

4 out of 5 stars

Length: 192 pages – average but on the shorter side

Source: Library

Buy It (Amazon or Bookshop.org)

Support me on Ko-fi

View my publications

Book Review: The Color Purple by Alice Walker

April 18, 2020 3 comments

colorpurpleSummary:
Alice Walker’s classic about Celie and her life in the deep American South between WWI and WWII. The simplest plot summary is the survivor of both rape by her father and a forced loveless marriage who then finds love with her husband’s mistress, Shug Avery. But it’s so much more than that.

Review:
For Black History Month in February I thought it was high time I got around to reading The Color Purple, which is also hailed by many of my friends and fellow members of the LGBTQ+ community as a classic for us as well. When I saw Audible had the audiobook version read by Alice Walker herself, well, it was a sign, and it was time.

I had always hesitated to read it because the plot summary made me not sure the book would work for me. Rape and incest are plots that I struggle with as is cheating in a marriage. But this book surprised me. It told what needed to be told about Celie’s childhood without dwelling on it too much or in a sensational way. And by the time Celie and Shug were getting together, I was rooting for them. Because how much of a real marriage is it when neither partner wants it?

There are many strengths to The Color Purple, but three things really stood out to me. First, it helped me to see the gray areas of people’s lives and experiences and how not everything is as clearcut as it might at first seem.

Second, the way Celie’s voice in the writing grows and changes as she grows and changes and then how the letters from her sister come in midway making it partially an epistolary novel – it’s incredible.

Finally how it explored the American “justice” system and its real impact on people’s lives and how often responses to crimes are racially motivated. It wasn’t preachy but it was very moving.

The only reason I’m not rating it at 5 stars is because, for me, it was not a life-changing book. I enjoyed it, and I respect it. However, I know for many others it is a life-changing book, and if you have been on the fence about reading it, I encourage you to do so.

4 out of 5 stars

Length: 295 pages – average but on the shorter side

Source: Audible

Buy It (Amazon or Bookshop.org)

Support me on Ko-fi

View my publications

Book Review: The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson (Audiobook narrated by Bernadette Dunne)

January 9, 2015 2 comments

cover_hauntingSummary:
Dr. Montague is a scholar of the occult, and he invites three other people to stay with him in Hill House, which is notorious for being haunted.  There’s jovial Theodora, timid Eleanor, and the future heir of the house, Luke. What starts as a light-hearted adventure quickly turns sinister in this horror classic.

Review:
I actually started reading this audiobook way back in September for the Readers Imbibing Peril challenge.  It’s only 7.5 hours long, so I thought it’d be a quick read.  I think the fact that it wasn’t demonstrates quite well how not drawn into the story I was.  This is a classic haunted house tale that perhaps might not work for the modern reader, depending on how much horror they generally imbibe.

This is going to be a quick review because I honestly don’t have too much to say about the book.  Four people arrive at a house. Things appear normal, except one of them, Eleanor, clearly is a bit more emotionally unstable than the rest.  She is, for instance, shocked that anyone is interested in her or asks her questions.  She also has trouble with her own identity, such as knowing for sure what she likes to eat.  Odd things start to happen in the house, and because Eleanor is odd, the others aren’t sure if it’s the house doing them or Eleanor herself.  Eleanor becomes overly attached to Theodora. Drama ensues.

None of the house horror scenes really got to me, because frankly I’ve seen worse in plenty of other horror I read.  I do love the genre.  The parts that actually disturbed me were when the others in the household were inexplicably cruel to Eleanor.  That dynamic of an odd woman randomly tossed in with strangers who proceed to be mean to her in a highschoolish way held my interest more than the house did.  People and their cruelty are so much more frightening than a haunted house.  I understand that the book is sort of leaving it up to the reader to wonder if the house or the people really drive Eleanor crazy, but frankly I think the ending removes all question on this point.

Similarly, there are definitely some undertones in the Theodora/Eleanor relationship that indicates they might possibly have had a fling early on and then Theodora abruptly distances herself from Eleanor when she gets too clingy.  None of this is said outright, however it is heavily implied that Theodora’s roommate back home is her lover who she had a quarrel with, and she and Eleanor establish a close bond early on in the book.  The problem is this all stays subtext and is never brought out in the open of the book.  I get it that this book was published in 1959 so it probably had to stay subtext and was most likely shocking to a reader in the 50s.  But to me, a modern reader, it felt like the book kept almost getting interesting and then backing off from it.  The combination of the former issue and this one meant that I was left feeling unengaged and uninterested.  Basically, I feel that the book didn’t go quite far enough to be shocking, horrifying, or titillating.

The audiobook narration by Bernadette Dunne was excellent as always, and the main reason I kept listening rather than just picking up a copy of the book and speed reading it.  I love listening to her voice.

Overall, this classic was boundary pushing when it was first published but it might not come across that way to a modern reader.  Readers who read a lot of modern horror might find this book a bit too tame for their tastes.  Those interested in the early works of the genre will still enjoy the read, as will modern readers looking for horror lite.  Readers looking for the rumored GLBTQ content in this book will most likely be disappointed by the subtlety of it, although those interested in early representation in literature will still find it interesting.

3 out of 5 stars

Source: Audible

Buy It

Book Review: American Science Fiction: Five Classic Novels 1956-58 (Series, #228)

Blue aliens walk in a long line by a yellow building that looks a bit like a spaceship.Summary:
The Library of America collects together great pieces of American literature into themed books.  This can be anything from an author, to writing on aviation, to the Harlem Renaissance, to transcendentalism.  Clearly this is a collection of classic 1950s scifi, in particular covering the time period from 1956 to 1958.  The books included in the collection, in order of publication date, are:

Double Star by Robert A. Heinlein (1956)–When out-of-work actor Lorenzo Smythe is approached in a bar by a space pilot with a job offer, he agrees to at least go meet the man’s boss and discuss it.  Quickly, however, Lorenzo finds himself being kidnapped into outer space and impersonating a missing important politician, John Joseph Bonforte, under slight duress.  They must keep the public from knowing the politician has been kidnapped and successfully participate in a Martian adoption ceremony or face interplanetary war.

The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester (1956)–In the future, men have discovered the ability to jaunte–to teleport from one location to the other.  The only catch is that you can only teleport to a place you have previously been.  This means that jauntes around the world are the domain of the wealthy who can make the journey first.  In this future of teleportation and telepaths, the rich have become a hipster elite, showing off their wealth by using outmoded and and outdated methods of transportation like cars and trains.  Foyle is one of the working poor. A hand on a spaceship that has an accident, leaving him in a closet grasping to the last straws of oxygen.  Another spaceship passes him by, after clearly seeing his flare, and he vows vengeance upon them if he ever escapes alive.  Which he does.  What follows is a tangle of intrigue across time and space.

A Case of Conscience by James Blish (1958)–A new inhabited planet, Lithia, has been discovered, and an exploratory Earth crew of four is sent to determine how Earth will respond to the planet.  Ruiz-Sanchez is a scientist and a member of this crew, but he’s also a Jesuit priest.  Although he admires and respects the reptilian-humanoid inhabitants of Lithia, he soon decides that the socialist, perfectly co-existing society must be an illusion of Satan, so he advises against maintaining ties with the planet.  The vote of the crew is a tie, however, so the UN must ultimately decide the fate.  While they are awaiting the decision, Ruiz-Sanchez and the others must raise and guardian a Lithian child who is sent as a present to Earth.  Soon, Ruiz-Sanchez starts having fears about just who the child might be.

Who? by Algis Budrys (1958)–In an alternate late 20th century, the Allies are still at a cold war with the Soviets.  The Allies’ best scientist, Martino, is working on a secret project called K-88 when there is an explosion. The first rescuers to him are Soviet.  The norm is for Allied prisoners to ultimately be returned across the line.  But the Soviets claim that Martino’s skull and arm were badly damaged and return him with a metal, robotic head and arm.  Is this man really Martino, or is he a Soviet plant?

The Big Time by Fritz Leiber (1958)–It’s the Time War, and the Spiders and Snakes are battling each other up and down the timeline in an attempt to give time the ultimate outcome they each are hoping for.  Nobody knows precisely who the spiders and snakes are, but they briefly resurrect humans and ask them if they want to participate in the war.  Those who say yes become the soldiers, nurses, and the Entertainers who provide rest and relaxation for the soldiers in the waystation.  One waystation is about to hit a ton of trouble when a package shows up and a soldier starts talking mutiny.

Review:
This is my third Library of America collection and, unfortunately, is the one I’ve liked least so far.  Perhaps I have simply discovered that the Red Scare overtakes American scifi of the late 1950s more than I had previously realized, and that is just not to my own personal scifi taste.  The collection still does what it purports to, though: it gathers a selection of the best of American scifi in a particular time period, letting the reader immerse herself and truly come to know a particular genre in a particular period.

Since this collection gathers up books written by different authors, I have reviewed the books individually as I read them.  Thus, here I will simply summarize my reviews to give you a feeling of the collection as a whole.

Double Star by Robert A. Heinlein
Similar to The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, Heinlein presents a delightful mix of wit, Hollywood glamor, and thought-provoking political speeches all in a well-imagined and engaging future society.  A fun piece of classic scifi that tosses together acting and politics in outer space with Martians who look like toadstools and a heavy sprinkling of wit.  The romance leaves something to be desired, and the tech isn’t particularly predictive or imaginative, but these are minor aspects of the story.  Recommended to fans of witty scifi who don’t mind a dash of political intrigue.
4 out of 5 stars
Full Review

The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester
The world building is so excellent and gets so much attention from Bester that it overshadows the more average vengeance plot with iffy morals.  Readers who enjoy immersing themselves in various possible futures will revel in the uniqueness and richness of the future presented here.  Those who believe firmly in punishment for crime as opposed to redemption may not be able to get past the plot to enjoy the setting.  Recommended to scifi fans interested in a unique future setting.
4 out of 5 stars
Full Review

A Case of Conscience by James Blish
Essentially, the book has interesting world-building and what could be a promising plot that get derailed by two-dimensional characters and too many bizarre plot-twists and occurrences.  It’s certainly an interesting read, particularly if you are interested in immersing yourself in this odd world Blish has created.  However, readers should not expect to connect with the characters on an emotional level and should be prepared for a bizarre plot.
3 out of 5 stars
Full Review

Who? by Algis Budrys
An interesting concept that wasn’t fully fleshed out nor the possible weaknesses fully addressed.  It is definitely a scifi of its time, with its hyper-focus on the Soviets and the Cold War that could almost feel kitschy today.  A short read with an interesting premise, albeit a lack of female scientists, soldiers, or government workers.  Recommended to scifi fans who enjoy some old-fashioned red scare in their reads and don’t need the science to be perfect.
3 out of 5 stars
Full Review

The Big Time by Fritz Leiber
A thought-provoking whodunit mystery set in an R&R waystation in a time-travel war.  Some aspects of the book did not age particularly well, such as the hysterical fear of Communism and the lack of women soldiers, but the heart of the book is timeless.  How do you know if those in charge are right or wrong, does love make you see things more or less clearly, and does evolution feel frightening and random when it’s happening.  Recommended to scifi fans with an interest in a scifi take on a Clue-like story.
3 out of 5 stars
Full Review

In Conclusion
This is an interesting collection that shows how gradually fear of Communism came to take over American thought by the end of 1958.  The two earliest books in the collection are set in a far future with no concerns about the long-reaching impacts of the Cold War.  By the last two books, the futures are heavily impacted by the perceived threat of Communism, with one book even having time itself being unraveled and re-written in an attempt to stop the Russians.  The most light-hearted, entertaining book in the collection is Double Star.  I would recommend fans of witty scifi pick it up as soon as they get the chance.  The most thought-provoking, with a cool world that could work quite well for cosplay is The Stars My Destination.  It withstands the test of time quite well.  The most interesting world is the planet and culture of Lithia in James Blish’s A Case of Conscience.  The collection as a whole is primarily recommended to scifi fans with a heavy interest in how the Red Scare of 1950s America can be seen in scifi of the time.

3 out of 5 stars

Source: NetGalley

Buy It

Book Review: The Big Time by Fritz Leiber (Series, #1)

June 3, 2014 1 comment

On a yellow backgrond, two boxes over each other display a snake and a spider. The title and author of the book are written on the boxes.Summary:
It’s the Time War, and the Spiders and Snakes are battling each other up and down the timeline in an attempt to give time the ultimate outcome they each are hoping for.  Nobody knows precisely who the spiders and snakes are, but they briefly resurrect humans and ask them if they want to participate in the war.  Those who say yes become the soldiers, nurses, and the Entertainers who provide rest and relaxation for the soldiers in the waystation.  One waystation is about to hit a ton of trouble when a package shows up and a soldier starts talking mutiny.

Review:
I’m a fan of time-travel as a scifi trope, and I liked the concept of a time war, so when I saw this sitting on my virtual ARC pile, I figured it would be a quick, appealing read.  The book is less about time-travel, and more a type of scifi game of Clue, with everyone trapped in a waystation instead of a house trying to figure out who turned off the machine that connects them to the galaxy, rather than solve a murder.

The book takes place entirely within the waystation.  The waystation exists outside of time to give the time soldiers a place to recuperate without the pressures of time travel.  All but one of the soldiers are men, and most of the Entertainers are women.  The one female soldier is from ancient Greece, the clear idea being that her era of women are the only ones tough enough to be soldiers.  This definitely dated the book and led to some eye-rolling on my part.  On the plus side, the book is narrated by a woman, and she is definitely one of the brains of the bunch.  There thus is enough forward-thinking that the sexist distribution of time soldiers doesn’t ruin the book; it’s just irritating.

The crux of the book is the soldiers wondering who, exactly, is telling them what to do up and down the timeline and worrying that they are ruining time, not to mention the planet Earth they once knew.  The soldiers are told they’re on the side of the good guys, yet the good guys are insisting that Russia must be stopped at all costs, even if that means the Germans winning WWII.  Thus, the soldiers are awkwardly paired up with Nazis in the fight.  It’s interesting to force the Allies to attempt to see Germans in a different light.  However, the whole idea that Russia (and Communism) will ruin the world is just a bit dated.  It’s easy to get past, though, since the dilemma of how to know if who you are following is making the right choices is a timeless one.

The attempted mutineer ends up trying his mutiny because he falls in love with one of the Entertainers.

I decided they were the kind that love makes brave, which it doesn’t do to me. It just gives me two people to worry about. (loc 10353)

The attempted mutiny against the cause is thus kind of simultaneously blamed on love and on the woman behind the man starting the drama.  It’s true that love makes people do things they wouldn’t ordinarily do, but I do wish the characters were more even-handed in dealing out the blame for the mutiny to both halves of the couple.  On the plus side, it is left unclear if the mutiny is a good or bad idea, so whether the idealistic couple in love are right or not is up to the reader to decide.

The final bit of the book dives into theories about time-travel, time, and evolution.  It’s a bit of a heady side-swipe after the romping, Clue-like plot but it also shows how much of an impact the events of the book have on the narrator.  At the beginning, the narrator states it was a life-changing sequence of events, and the wrap-up deftly shows how it impacted her.

Overall, this is a thought-provoking whodunit mystery set in an R&R waystation in a time-travel war.  Some aspects of the book did not age particularly well, such as the hysterical fear of Communism and the lack of women soldiers, but the heart of the book is timeless.  How do you know if those in charge are right or wrong, does love make you see things more or less clearly, and does evolution feel frightening and random when it’s happening.  Recommended to scifi fans with an interest in a scifi take on a Clue-like story.

3 out of 5 stars

Source: NetGalley

Buy It