REVIEW: Lunch with the Do-Nothings at the Tammy Dinette by Killian B. Brewer

Lunch with the Do Nothings at the Tammy Dinette by Killian B. Brewer (January 12, 2017); 232 pages. Available from Interlude Press here.

Somehow, this book slipped past me when it was released back in January, and I only came to it in the past few weeks. It was a sort of late blooming, I suppose.
Lunch… is the story of Marcus, who travels to a little (some would say “Podunk”) town when his grandmother—a grandmother he has never met, due in large part to a rootless mother who kept his life moving from town to town when he was a child—dies and leaves him her house. He comes to town, then, with the intention of quickly tying up any death-related loose ends, selling her property and getting the heck out of Dodge and back to Atlanta, where he’s got a life. (Of course, he’s leaving that life, too—his partner, Robert, is a controlling, manipulative jerk who hit Marcus hard enough to blacken his eye, so Marcus has left him behind in Atlanta and is trying to think himself into a new life.) While in town trying to settle his business, Marcus meets a gaggle of his grandmother’s friends (I think “gaggle” might not be the term for groups of people, but I’m not sure “group” really conveys the real Bodysnatchers-like conspiratory power of this bunch), who call themselves The Do-Nothings and hold regular meetings at a local diner, and who decide to sneak together to get him fixed up with a “good man” and make him stay in town. Despite their misguided efforts, Marcus finds Hank, who is, by all accounts, a “good man.” As a consequence of finding what he wants in a place he doesn’t want, Marcus is faced with questions about what to do with his life: where he will live, what he will do for a living (oh, yes, I forgot to mention the career crisis for Marcus that’s throwing a wrench in the works here), how he will be happy. (It’s another sort of late blooming, I suppose.)

There’s the kind of Southern Charm here about which all of us Northerners seem to fantasize—tough, stubborn, a bit weirdly-executed and don’t-mess-with-us-dangerous, but loving, protective and well-meaning—that reminds one a bit of those great woman-focused south-set stories like Fried Green Tomatoes and Steel Magnolias, but without that icky schlock stories like that seem intent on doling out. (It feels like the author is not a Northern Fantasizer, but Real Life Southerner.) One is in no danger of choking on pink chintz or juleps or too much saccharine, Poor-Fragile-Diabetic-Shelby-Who-Dies-So-We-Learn-a-Lesson oversentiment (I may have an extra bug up my butt about Steel Magnolias, since I am a juvenile diabetic like Shelby, but I think my point still stands). There’s a light-touch comedy, too, that comes from taking delight in irony: tough-as-nails, ostensibly past-prime Southern belles protecting a young gay man by the means with which they’re familiar (socials, gossip, rifle-wielding).

This novel strikes the right balance between danger and quirk, serious and funny, moving speedily through the plot when it needs to, slowing down when there’s a rose to smell or a point to develop. The characters are lovable and relatable, even to a somewhat cynical Northerner like me. The humor is gentle but easy and fun; the comedy comes from strong character development and not situation (which, in my book, is the best kind of humor).

The romance that Marcus finds is, yes, with a charming and attractive man, but this is not the only romance offered—there’s also the romance of Marcus with his past, with the feeling of family and fitting in and care that the Do-Nothings offer, with the open possibilities of his future, his love of cooking (he discovers this here), even the town’s easy charm. Taken together, all these love stories add up to a person figuring out what (and whom) he loves, how he wants to live, who he is at heart. It’s actually a kind of second chance at this since, though Marcus is quite young, he’s already settled into a life in Atlanta, one which is uprooted and shaken about when he meets the Do-Nothings.

I guess you could call it a kind of late blooming.

REVIEW: Beneath the Stars by Lynn Charles

Beneath the Stars by Lynn Charles (February 16, 2017); 300 pages. Available from Interlude Press here.

 

Beneath the Stars by Lynn Charles tells the romance of Sid, a clothing designer and C-DRT volunteer (those are the folks who support the firefighters and other rescue workers on the scene of a disaster) and Eddie, a firefighter (who is also the fire chief). Playing large parts in this romance are the struggles each character faces with family and loss: Sid’s mother died when he was younger, and his father is in the throes of dementia when the novel begins; Eddie had a baby with his friend Maggie, who died of cancer not many years after, leaving Eddie to raise their now-5-year-old child, Adrian. The two men meet on the scene of a fire and strike up a relationship, but they must figure out how to accommodate their responsibilities to take care of other people and things (Eddie, the fire victims and his son Adrian; Sid, aside from his work as firefighter support, has his suffering father and his fledgling clothing-design business, Bastra).

There is neat symmetry here: though the characters are dealing with very different forms of loss and caretaking, they both do. Negotiating their new relationship together is, in part, about negotiating the difficulties of those pulls in other directions (other people, other cities). Along the way, each becomes imbricated in the other’s concerns (Sid, for instance, becomes attached to Adrian; Eddie… well, I don’t want to give away the ending of the book, but Eddie gets attached, too).

This is a mature romance, in other words. Or, it’s a romance about mature people with mature-people problems: kids, illness, jobs, attachments, and very fully-realized lives outside each other. This is the kind of love story that’s hard to find: one in which the world doesn’t stop and end at the romance. I remember when I was young and fell in love—everything else fell away and was secondary; my life (my desires, my time, my location, everything) fit around my love. When I got older, though, falling in love meant having to figure out how to fit my love around my life instead. When two fully-realized lives come together, there’s fitting to be done, compromising and rethinking, falling in love with (or at least learning to tolerate) everything your lover cares for (family, friends, houses, etc.), figuring out how to share with someone else what’s always been yours alone. Very often, younger love gets to be more selfish; mature love has to learn to compromise.

(Don’t misunderstand: these guys are still pretty young, by my standards, but they’re established in their lives. They’re not Romeo-and-Juliet-aged teens. They’ve got roots and responsibilities. Maturity is about that, not the number of candles you put on your cake.

As a result of all the different kinds of attachment, this is a story of different kinds of love. I may be Greek, but I’ve done my best to forget everything I had to learn in Greek School as a kid (yes, non-Greeks, that’s a thing), so I don’t remember the different kinds of love the Greeks named, but I’m pretty sure they’re all here. There’s romantic love, of course, on center stage, but there’s also the love of children, fathers and mothers, friends… and beyond that, there’s the love that is passion for hobbies or work. All those kinds of love figure prominently here.

The title comes from the story’s theme of stars and constellations, a passion that Sid’s father Lou shares with his son. This connection to something more permanent and bigger-than-people fits, for me, with the story’s concern for maturity: love isn’t fleeting, and it’s not limited to your tiny sphere of concern, burning bright and hot, but igniting and burning out fast (like I remember it did when I was 16); mature love is something larger that shifts the world and gives gravity to all bodies,  a force by which to guide ships (was that Aphrodite?), to mark the seasons and the hours, and one that will outlast any single tiny life.

REVIEW: Storm Season by Pene Henson

REVIEW: Storm Season by Pene Henson (February 2. 2017); 226 pages. Available from Interlude Press here

 

OK, so first off I want to state that if I could have figured out how to print this review upside down, I would have done it, since the narrative in Storm Season takes place in Australia, and I am just that corny.

Now that I’ve gotten that off my chest, I can get on with the real business of telling you about this book. Storm Season tells the story of a woman (Lien) who lives in Sidney but goes camping in the relative wilds with her small cadre of friends, gets distracted while taking photographs, and falls down a hole. Or ravine. Chasm. Some nature-y pit. That’s not the point, and neither is my absolute ignorance of outdoorsy stuff. In this way, actually, I am very like Lien—she’s a city girl to her core, and part of the reason she falls is her insistence on wearing inappropriate-but-fashionable shoes. (She’s a journalist who covers fashion and music. In this way, I am nothing like Lien, because nobody should ever read what I have to say about what to wear. It would be wrong.)

The point is she bangs her ankle bad enough that she can’t get out of the pit or move around much, and she’s rescued by a park ranger (Claudie), who—due to flooding—can’t get her back to her campsite and takes her, instead, to stay with her at her own cabin until the roads and driveable again.

So the two women are forced by circumstance to spend a handful of days together, alone with each other, in a cabin in the wilderness, while kookaburras…make whatever noise they usually do… outside the windows. A few things happen here: first, Lien discovers that Claudie is that Claudie, an ex-indie rock darling, and she’s fascinated. (Why did Claudie quit the band and stop performing to hide in a cabin and be a park ranger? Lien’s Spidey—no, Clark Kent—senses are tingling for the story.) Second, Lien discovers that Claudie, while her polar opposite in most ways (Claudie’s fashion sense seems to be about the practical and bush-ready), is fascinating. And attractive. And, well, stuff happens, and it’s everything you’d hope from a trapped-in-a-cabin-with-a-love-interest narrative.

Eventually, as all storms seem to do, the storm passes, the roads clear, and Claudie can take Lien back to her campsite and her friends. But since Claudie lives in the bush and Lien lives in Sidney, taking her back means letting her go, and paradise is, indeed, Mr. Milton, apparently lost. Of course, that can’t be how it ends, can it? (Hint: it can’t.)

Storm Season is a romance and, like a good real romance, it’s part mystery and part adventure, but with a good soundtrack (if you could hear Claudie’s music, at least). It’s got the inward spiraling focus of strangers-to-friends-to-lovers intensity, without ever feeling claustrophobic. Both characters have connections outside their world together, and there are narratives outside their love story which come to matter (intrigue among Lien’s friends, the story of why Claudie quit making music).

It strikes me that this is a novel about trying to get away but then trying to find your way back. Lien absconds to the bush for a vacay, but hurts herself and can’t get home again. Claudie leaves music, leaves hope, leaves love, but Lien shows her she must figure out a way back into those things. I don’t want to give away more of the novel, but much of its plot and character development are about this going-away-and-returning.

In fact, this kind of form—a run away from the norm, and then a return, slightly different, but still familiar—has a long history in art. In music, it might be the fugue (a form whose name translates as “flight”). In psychology, too, it’s a “fugue state.” In nature, it’s the echo. In literature, I can’t help but think of Boccaccio’s Decameron (great for those who want dirty short stories), in which the unifying tale is one of a handful of friends who escape to the country to avoid the ravages of the Plague, and pass the time telling stories. It’s also the history of the topsy-turvey festival (most notably nowadays, Carnavale in Rio or Mardi Gras in New Orleans) in which revelers turn every societal norm on its head (traditionally paupers dress like kings, men dress as women, fish fly, etc., but nowadays it translates into breaking from “good” behavior and getting drunk and running around half-naked while you’re having sex and cussing a lot, I imagine), but for only a limited amount of time to let off the pressure of being normal, like a steam valve that lets the pot go on cooking.

Storm Season is in this tradition, albeit with a lot less naked running around and more intelligence and feeling. What’s interesting is that it not only revels in the topsey-turvey love-affair-in-a-remote-cabin narrative, but also explores the flip side, what happens when Carnavale is over and somebody has to sweep the streets, when Lien must go back to Sydney and Claudie must stay in her remote cabin and paradise goes slipping away, or falls, maybe, into one of those chasms.

REVIEW: The King and the Criminal by Charlotte Ashe

The King and Criminal by Charlotte Ashe (December 8. 2016); 325 pages. Available from Interlude Press here.

The King and the Criminal is the second book in the Heart of All Worlds series by Charlotte Ashe, and features much the same cast of characters as appeared in the first book, The Sidhe, with some focus shifts. Central are still Sehrys, who is a Sidhe of royal birth, and his betrothed, Brieden, who is a human. Along with them are royal humans Brissa Keshell and her sister Cliope; the Sidhe Tash, a former Sidhe slave trader-turned-good guy; and Firae, another Sidhe royal and the one to whom Sehrys had once been engaged.  There’s a breach of the protective border around the lands of Khryslee (which could only have been brought about deliberately, probably by a Sidhe), a war-mongering rival kingdom and several folks to be rescued from their clutches. I’m making it sound much more complicated than it really is: a cast of humans and Sidhe must band together despite their differences (some royal, some not, some actual convicted criminals) to stop the evil attempts of an evil opposing government. Unfortunately, for an American, this is starting to sound all too real.

There is, to be sure, some political intrigue here, and there’s some fantasy-magic mythology of which one must keep track (there’s a helpful summary of past politics, map and glossary of terms that makes this easier), but this is not the focus of the book. This is, I think, part picaresque and part western.

A picaresque is a serial adventure focusing (by some accounts) on an unlikely hero (usually a rogue or a criminal) or (by other accounts) on a young hero who matures through the adventure. This is true of different characters in this novel—the first describes Tash, the criminal-turned-ally, and the second describes either Brissa (the young human queen learning to be a queen) or Brieden (the human fumbling his way into love and adulthood) or even Sehrys (the young-ish Sidhe learning how to balance his personal and political responsibilities and allegiances). A western, lots of people will tell you, is set in the American west, but having taught film genres, I’d disagree. (Many people, for instance, consider Star Wars a “space western.”) By my lights, and very basically speaking, a western is a kind of romance in which good guys oppose bad guys against a backdrop of nearly boundless territory in contest. So The Heart of All Worlds series might be a fantasy western picaresque.

All that is to say (in far too fancy a way) that there is adventure, political conflict and romance centering around territory and white hat-black hat rivalries.

As with the first novel in this series, the plot is woven so well and the characters so nicely drawn that readers will be sucked in quickly and held until the end, then wait impatiently for the next book in the series to resolve what this one leaves in the air. Also as with the first novel, The King/Criminal is set in very unfamiliar worlds and thus contains a large new mythology of beings, territory, politics, religion and powers, but requires little of the reader to understand it and be swallowed by it. I think that’s the mark of really well-written sci-fi and fantasy: one gets so pulled in, and is so seduced by the world created there, that what often seems like bells and whistles in lesser books just seems a natural, real part of the world of the novel. The point is, I think, whether or not the details of the world are in service of the plot and characters, or are superfluous embroidery upon their surface. In a good fantasy or sci-fi novel like this one, the details aren’t the point, they just help you see the point.

REVIEW: Idlewild by Jude Sierra

Idlewild by Jude Sierra (December 1, 2016); 250 pages. Available from Interlude Press at http://store.interludepress.com/products/idlewild-print-edition

Idlewild is the story of a Detroit restauranteur/widower who figures out how to rescue himself from isolation and loss after the tragedy of his husband’s death. (If that sounds like a metaphor for Detroit itself, well, maybe it is.) It’s also the story of a young guy trying to find himself, working his butt off to become someone he likes, and figuring out who he is. (If that also sounds like a metaphor for Detroit, so be it.) It’s the story of very different worlds meeting and working together, trying to resolve differences and make something great. And it’s kind of literally the story of Detroit itself, too, at least as a backdrop.

Asher and his partner John had opened Idlewild, a restaurant in the heart of Detroit, as their dream. But when John died suddenly, Asher wound up digging himself into Idlewild and losing almost everything—he’s since become estranged from John’s family and almost never leaves Idlewild (he lives above the restaurant, and when he’s not upstairs, he’s downstairs). He mourns alone, and works alone, even though there are lots of people around; as a result, he loses almost the entire staff who’d worked for him when John was alive, and must start fresh. He hires a new staff, which includes Tyler, a young guy from Detroit who’s trying to figure out his own direction. With Tyler comes renewal in all forms—both the restaurant and Asher are revitalized. Tyler goes through his own sort of revival when his life turns in directions different from what he’d originally planned. Though it only serves as a backdrop, Idlewild itself seems to be the key to all this change: it’s place where things happen, where new beginnings are possible.

What’s lovely in this novel is its care: both Asher and Tyler are drawn so sympathetically (a middle-aged man who’s grown prematurely old from tragically losing a man he loved, Asher struggles between past and future; Tyler is a younger guy trying to figure out where he stands between the privileged-but-sincere Asher and his justifiably-angry-and-less-privileged ex). Such great attention is given to their characters and histories. These guys make sense, and the reader can understand why they think the way they do.

The complexities these characters face are real, and extend beyond the personal. Or, rather, the complexities weave together the personal and the social/political, which is what makes them complexities in the first place. It also makes them good problems for narrative, since they’re not immediately and easily solved.

 

 

 

 

REVIEW: Sideshow by Amy Stilgenbauer

Sideshow by Amy Stilgebauer (August 25, 2016); 192 pages. Available from Interlude Press here.

Abby Amaro does what everyone threatens to do at some point in life: she runs away with the circus. But unlike most of us (okay, well, at least unlike me), she doesn’t have many other options. She’s stuck with Frank, an emotionally-abusive and violent jerk who proposes marriage and doesn’t take it very well when she refuses. She’s a woman, an opera singer, in the 1950s. So she must leave her family behind, and her brother helps her abscond with a travelling circus.

She falls in with the sideshow carnies, and eventually meets the strong woman Suprema, and the two strike up a tentative, quiet romance. There are, of course, hurdles: she can’t quite connect up with her family from the road until it’s too late, she’s stuck rooming with a hostile burlesque performer, and even Frank rears his ugly head at one point. Troubles notwithstanding, Abby finds her sea legs (her trailer legs, anyway) and finds new connections and a new home.

On some level, this is about being Good by the standards of the moment. Good isn’t the same as good-to-yourself: Good for women at the time is forgetting your career, marrying the appropriate person and washing his socks without complaint for the rest of your life. Abby isn’t, apparently, such a good girl. I mean, she’s good, she’s just not Marry-a-Man-Even-though-He-Cheats-and-Have-No-Life-of-Your-Own-Because-Men-Are-Hard-to-Get-and-More-Valuable-than-You Good.

The characters here are well drawn—sympathetic or hateful (or sometimes a combination of both) without being too simple. The situation is the same—the novel takes the old “running away with the circus” trope and gives it real life. There’s lots to like here—not the least of which is a compelling situation and engaging plot.

This is a seamless story: believable, well-paced and involving. It’s about Abby finding a way to be happy, to do what she loves, even if it’s singing from the bally box instead of La Scala, or falling in love with a muscled woman instead of a philandering man. It’s about being strong and creative enough to do that.

REVIEW: Certainly, Possibly You by Lissa Reed

Certainly, Possibly You by Lissa Reed (September 22, 2016); 324 pages. Available from Interlude Press here.

Certainly, Possibly You is the second book in Lissa Reed’s Sucre Coeur series, which revolves around the lives of the folks who work at the Sucre Coeur bakery. While Definitely, Maybe Yours focused on the get-together of bakery manager and debonair British feller Craig Oliver with photographer Alex Scheff (a friend of-friend-of- guy), Certainly tells the story of bakery assistant Sarita (who’s friends with Craig) and ballroom dancer Maritza (who’s friends with Alex).

Maritza’s on her way up the dancy-pants ladder; she and her partner Nicky have made a name for themselves on the dancy-pants circuit. Sarita is an Amy Winehouse-haired graduate student trying to get somewhere, too. Both women are working in the service industry (Sarita at the bakery, Maritza as a waitress at a meatball-and-sauce joint) in Seattle when they’re introduced to each other at Alex’s studio party. The novel begins when Sarita wakes up hung over and surprised to find Maritza wearing Sarita’s T-shirt and little else. Though they have a bit of a rocky start, they do wind up starting something real with each other and it’s lovely.

Trouble is, of course, right there waiting. While Sarita’s brother Devesh and his husband Sunil are supportive, Sarita’s sister Anjali is a homophobic jerk, and her parents announce that they’re leaving the country (but not because of Anjali—I realize how that sounded). Maritza, for her part, must struggle with her nasty (and rather homophobic) dance partner/ex-lover Nicky, who turns out to be a vain, moustache-twirling villain who tries to wreck everything that’s blooming. (Which makes me giggle, thinking of him in shiny spandex dance pants and an unbuttoned satin shirt, machinating.) There’s missed connections, attempted blackmail, chiffon and muffins, all leading up to the moment when a huge opportunity for Maritza also brings the threat of distance to the new relationship between Maritza and Sarita.

There’s lots to like here: the characters are all believable and complex, just stubborn enough to be interesting but still real. There are enough missed connections and difficult communications to lay a great backdrop of dramatic tension. There are likeable characters for whom you want to root and there’s dancing and food. And there are (at least in mention) teacup Dobermans. (Dobermen?)

The jerks here (especially Anjali) have real motivation and aren’t just cardboard cutout antagonists and senseless homphobes. The good folks aren’t be-haloed innocents, either. Everybody gets a story and a complex inner life.  There’s even a recipe for baked goods at the back of the book.

I do have one very strong criticism and word of warning to readers: my copy did not come with a cookie, and I feel that a book series which revolves around the lives of people who work in a bakery should most definitely include a cookie.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

REVIEW: HOLD by Rachel Davidson Leigh

REVIEW: Hold by Rachel Davidson Leigh (October 20, 2016); 270 pages. Available from Interlude Press/Duet Books here.

As a poet-turned-fictioneer who is also crazy about crosswords and prone to avalanches of language when emotionally moved, I was drawn immediately to Hold by Rachel Davidson Leigh for its slippery, too-full, deceptively simple title. “Hold” can mean a lot of things—it’s a verb and a noun, and it can mean “grasp” or “detain,” “contain” or “remain secure.” I think, in this novel, it comes to mean all of those.

In simplest terms, this is the love story of high school kids Luke and Eddie. It’s a schoolmates-to-friends-to-boyfriends story at its heart: there are other love interests, dangers, and intervening concerns that threaten to keep them apart, but the reader knows at their first meeting that they belong together.

Luke is a high school student who has just returned to school after a long absence to mourn the death of his younger sister. When he returns, he finds high school life has moved on without him. He also finds a new kid who’s appeared during his absence, Eddie, popular guy, smiler, lacrosse player and—before long—love interest. One thinks of that phrase “to put on hold,” as in, “Luke’s life has been put on hold while he left school and mourned with his family, but now he’s back and trying to get his life un-stopped.”

It’s the not-so-simple terms that really draw on facets of “hold,” though.

For one, Luke discovers that he has the strange power to freeze time and everyone in it—a “hold,” he calls it—and this is in part the story of a teenager discovering his power and figuring out what to do with it. That motif is why, I think, superpower stories are most interesting in teens—it’s a super-magical magnification of what “normal” young folks go through. In fact, there’s lots of lore about powers (like psychokinesis… think Carrie… or werewolfiness… think Ginger Snaps) bubbling up in girls at the advent of menarche (the start of menstruation). Many cultures have histories of sending teens out into the wilderness (my mom used to threaten that, but I think she meant it differently) or staging other coming-of-age rituals (think quinceañera, confirmation, bar/bat mitzvah, sweet 16 celebrations, or even the conferral of voting rights in the U.S. or alcohol-drinking privileges in much of Europe).

What I mean to say is that the moment (teenhood) is fraught, a time we both fear (think of those roving bands of “wilding” teens in the news a few years back) and desire (need I bring up Springstein’s “Glory Days”?).  Hold sets itself right down in the middle of that mess: high school kid learns to manage his newly-found superpower while resolving a bully situation (a jerk called Wes), loving his best friends Dee and Marcos despite difficulties (for two, Wes is Dee’s brother and Luke has a crush on Marcos), and struggling into first love with Eddie.

It’s also a story about gossip, and the kind of hold it can have over people (see? there’s that word again). When word spreads that Eddie has a gun (and no spoilers here, but the kid isn’t exactly Capone), things start to really spiral, from whispers and ostracism to real dangers, like cops and more guns and rooftop escapes.

So “hold” is about wanting to grasp onto people (a new love interest, a sister who’s recently died, one’s friends) and grasp onto a moment (the innocence of pre-adulthood, before the fall). It’s about wanting to remain secure at a moment when everything seems to be shifting, and when guns start rumbling around the edges of the plot. It’s about the desire for detention (for holding back) and the desire for containment (for being held), for safety and for everything to just slow down and let me catch up already.

It’s a nicely complex story that’s still easy to follow and easy to get sucked into. I tore through this one almost nonstop, because I loved the world so. I’d decide to read a bit, and when I looked up, hours had somehow passed and my dogs were doing the Pee Dance and yelping to be taken out already. It was almost as if time had stopped, and I got to keep reading while the rest of the world was on hold.

 

 

 

 

Not Dead, I Swear

I just this afternoon decided to post an update here, since it has been a while, and to my horror, I have discovered that my last post was made in October 2016.

Okay, I have excuses. Mainly that I moved from Brooklyn (my home city for more than twenty years) and my apartment there (in which my wife and I lived for 16 years) to a quieter, greener pasture (and a big house with no other tenants) about an hour and a half north of Brooklyn.

Also, I wrapped up my final semester of being a college professor, which has been my life for–also–more than twenty years. I taught my final semester this past fall. I miss it and don’t miss it at the same time. (I do miss having people listen raptly when I speak…I’m a middle-aged fat woman, so under which other circumstances is that likely to happen for me? It doesn’t help that I retired reluctantly and prematurely mostly because my extemporaneous abilities have declined significantly, due in large part to the nasty tricks of Multiple Sclerosis, which makes teaching–at least the way I’m able to do it–almost impossible. I miss my mind as much as I miss having people respect me for my mind.)

Point is, my life has changed radically–mostly for the better, though I still sometimes feel wistful for my grimy, inconvenient, congested, highly-peopled life in Brooklyn. I’m a city mouse at heart, so where I am now feels like the country (though most people would probably disagree…but my neighbor has a tractor and my other neighbor raises ducks, and as soon as there’s farm equipment or non-dog/cat animals involved, that’s the country to me). It feels far too easy a life–even getting to a grocery or hardware store in my new town requires far less planning, energy and effort than it did in Brooklyn. Which, I recognize, is a stupid sentiment–there’s no valor in hardship; anyone who’s suffered not by choice will tell you that. But I can’t help the little creep of guilt and disappointment in myself at how easy I have it now.

Anyway, as I am more wont to do out here without the constant and senseless pressures of the honking, smelly, angry city to which I’d grown accustomed, I’ve wandered from my point. My point in writing: I’ve fallen down a rabbit hole of being stupidly busy with moving and then being stupidly tired from it, and have neglected what I really like to do (read and write). But I’ve got my new office mostly set up now, my books are all unpacked and in place, and I’ve figured out the proper way to make good tea with the water out here (it seems to require more tea leaves/bags than it did in Brooklyn… is this a thing with hard water?)

All this is to say that (1) I’m not dead as far as I know and (2) I will be back to posting book reviews and essays in this space right soonly. I’m happily making my way through Rachel Davidson Leigh’s novel Hold at the moment, which is a really lovely sci-fi (speculative fiction? alternate reality?) story about a guy who discovers he can freeze time, and I have a stack (okay, more of a virtual stack) of new novels waiting for me when I’ve finished that one.

Please don’t give up on me yet. I’ve got reviews and essays coming soon, I promise. It’s just that I find myself moving much slower, much closer to a reasonable speed of life, now that I don’t have the red amphetamine of NYC ramping me up into constant insomnia and fretting.

And that is a fact about which it’s clear how I should feel (relieved), but about which I’m not sure how I do feel (is it weird that I miss it a bit?). Not sleeping was bad for my already-teetering health, but made me much more productive.

We shall see, though: perhaps I am slower out here, but my thinking will be deeper and clearer. We’ll all find out soon enough.

 

REVIEW: Not Your Sidekick by C. B. Lee

Not Your Sidekick by C. B. Lee (September 8, 2016); 296 pages. Available from Interlude Press/Duet Books here.

I keep wanting to call this book “plucky.” I think that’s because it manages to balance itself nicely between pessimism about the future (or perhaps it’s skepticism about our vision of the future) and optimism about, well, being alive, love, goodness, all that. Optimism wins, but not without a hard fight.

Not Your Sidekick is a fun adventure set in a post WWIII future, in which a small percentage of the population is born with powers-beyond-average. Those people register with the government, and are subsequently permitted entry into the Heroes League of Heroes (and oh, goodness, but I get happy giggles at the ridiculous bureaucracy suggested by the redundancy of that name), take on a “super” alter ego and live kind of like Superman in the comics: a mundane life as an average person, and a secret life as a hero, roaming the streets, performing rescues, thwarting evil, and doing general good. The government assigns a certain percentage of these “super” people to become villains, so there’s a good-evil balance, and there’s consistent work for everyone.

Jess Tran is born into a family of supers in the area of what used to be Nevada; her parents are—by day—a mild-mannered pair of Happy Middle-Class Suburbanites with 3 kids and—by…other day—Smasher and Shockwave, a dynamic crime-fighting duo. Jess’ brother Brendan is some sort of Super Science Nerd-Genius who cavorts with beakers and safety goggles in his free time. Her sister Claudia is a new hero, recently graduated from the Meta-Human Training Program and off being super somewhere, usually with Jess’ idol, the bright-toothed and model-flashy heroine Captain Orion. Jess has not developed any noticeable super powers (which she must discover before she turns 17 or she won’t be allowed to register as a Meta-Human—and thus, a hero—with the state). She lives with the disappointment and shame of being different from her family and rather un-special, until she takes an internship with the robotics company run by one of her parents’ arch nemeses, Master Mischief. There, Jess strikes up a friendship with the object of her Big Ole Crush, Abby, who’s working as some sort of secretary; Jess also struggles to keep up her friendships with Bells, her FTM bestie, and Emma, her cis-femme friend who has a painful crush on Bells, and tries to please her boss—or, at least, his representative, a mysterious person who wears a Master Mischief super suit, but is clearly not Him.

There’s twists here I’m trying not to give away: secret identities and secret feelings, plot twists and character 180s abound, like literary bumper cars. Suffice it to say, there’s lots of action, and Jess finds herself in the position of teaming up with her crush to save people she’s spent her life distrusting, loving someone she’d never expect, seeing her family and her heroes from a different perspective, and uncovering her own power (be it super or non-).

She does all this in the absence of her parents, with her friends—and her own intuition—to guide her.  In this way, the novel strikes me as the quintessential coming-of-age story, though the details may look very different from what we, in contemporary America/Europe, expect. But the heart is the same: young woman has to figure out her abilities, has to find her purpose, discovers desire and falls in love, then begins to drop her childhood illusions and see people for who they “really” are.

The protagonist, Jess, is compellingly sympathetic for almost anyone who has been a teenager (particularly a queer one); she’s awkward, unsure, fumbling through failures and the occasional hard-won success, full of longing. But I make the novel sound more heavy than it should—it’s fun, too. It’s set in an interesting future world, part Jetsons (a smooth, silver, automated fantasy) and part Brazil (a janky, steam-punk, be-tubed future bureaucracy.) (The best example of this is Jess’ family MonRobot, an older model who (that?) is charmingly inept and clunky, who vaccuums itself in circles and gets stuck in places and, though mostly a glorified Roomba, is still a wonderfully lovable little guy.) Jess is actually a pretty happy, driven character. Her friends are awesome. Her life, even without powers or a love affair, is pretty good. There’s love and intrigue, secrets and adventure to be had.

There’s also a really lovely aspect to this book that deserves its own mention: Jess is first-generation American (her parents emigrated to the North American Collective from somewhere in the former Asia), and though the novel doesn’t ever hammer this point at the reader, one can easily read the Discovering-One’s-Super-Difference and the Growing-Up-First-Gen-and-Not-White-in-America as parallel—or at least related—story lines about defining oneself, discovering one’s power, making an identity. There’s also the quiet little factor (again, not surfaced, but present enough to color the narrative) of an ethnically-Asian girl in a largely-Caucasian culture discovering her abilities and worth, despite that dominant culture often interpreting her as lesser–it rings relevant here. Of course, there’s also the parallel with queerness: a difference that’s both relevant and irrelevant, something one discovers about oneself, something that has the potential to change the way everyone else looks at you, something that often involves a secret identity or hidden life. I think of parallels with the lives of many women, too, and how they (okay, we) had to work hard to recognize our own abilities and value and place in the world.

The ties between the “superhero” narrative and the narrative of a non-white queer girl coming of age are there, certainly, but not the point—the point is a superhero story, and one that needn’t be qualified as a superhero story about a first-gen queer Asian girl. It’s just that readers often think of that kind of story as a qualified hero story (a hero story about…), rather than just a hero story. It’s a political decision to normalize her narrative, not make it all about her differences (her ethnicity, her gender, her sexuality). It’s a political decision that strikes me as really refreshing (we need both kinds of stories–those which insist on difference and those which insist on sameness–to be told). White, straight male heroes get to have narratives that don’t center on their identities, so why shouldn’t Jess?

This book is a bit of a departure in tone and style  from Lee’s first book, Seven Tears at High Tide, which I might call a supernatural romantic fairy tale (this book is quirky and bright, where the former book is mystical and almost mournful), but readers will notice a similar optimism, faith in friendship/love, and a dip into the unreal that manages to seem plausible even as it’s far from the details of the mundanity we know.