Review: Bitter in the Mouth by Monique Truong

Cover courtesy of Random House

Bitter in the Mouth by Monique Truong is a coming of age story narrated by Linda Hammerick, looking back on her childhood in Boiling Springs, North Carolina in the 70s and 80s. The main drama of the book is the interactions between different members of Linda’s family, and Linda’s efforts to make her way amid the secrets and dysfunctions around her. One of these secrets is Linda’s, which she only shares with her best friend: Linda has the very rare condition of lexical-gustatory synesthesia. When she hears certain words, she can taste them.

Although her synesthesia is not the whole point of the book, it is a major component, and also the origin of the title, so I’ll start with it. It’s a brilliant device, and such an obvious shortcut to evocative writing that I’m surprised I’ve never seen it used this way before. Lots of writers employ synesthesia in their prose, as a poetic device (e.g. describing a noise as sharp, describing pain as bright), but here it’s built into the character. It allows Truong to frequently assail the reader with the most immediate, vivid sense one can evoke in the written word—taste. Peach cobbler, bread and butter pickles, and sourdough bread register with a reader at an intensity which fuzzy, shrill, or sea foam green do not. At the same time, taste descriptions are normally very difficult to work into a story, because most of the time we aren’t tasting anything. So having a character who experiences vivid, hyper-specific tastes when she hears words feels like a cheat, but an effective one nonetheless. There’s such a pleasure in discovering which words pair with which flavors, in reading dialogue that is peppered with dozens of tastes.

And that is, ultimately, why the synesthesia isn’t just a gimmick, or a way to quickly pull the reader into any scene: Truong commits to it fully in multiple ways which cause complications for the book. The first, most obvious commitment is that the tastes are always rendered in the dialogue, every single time. For instance, here is her teacher calling role:

“HammerickDrPepper, Lindamint.”
“Herehardboiledegg.”
“Harrispecan, Wadeorangesherbet.”
“Herehardboiledegg.” (30)

As I said, this is like jabbing a live wire into the reader’s insular cortex (good đź‘Ť), but it effectively throttles the dialogue (bad đź‘Ž or at least a challenge for a writer.) Truong doesn’t just turn it off when it’s inconvenient—it’s always there, just like it’s always there for Linda. And that’s the other major way Truong commits to complication—Linda’s synesthesia is frequently a hindrance to her. In school, she has trouble focusing, and eventually has to start smoking (which dampens the “incomings”) so she can improve her grades. This compelling, juicy literary device has realistic consequences for the character and how she interacts with others; who she does and doesn’t reveal it to is a major plot point.

The other thing that sells it, that makes it rich rather than cheap, is that the pairings of flavors with words are arbitrary. It would be so easy to make a kind of game of this, and communicate Linda’s feelings about certain characters or places through her synesthesia, but that’s not how it works with people who really have it. For Linda, “Dill” is faithful—it tastes like itself—but most food words are not. She enjoys it when her mom calls her selfish, because “selfish” tastes like corn on the cob. This means Linda has a very different relationship with words than everyone around her—an extreme version of the way all of us experience certain tastes, emotions, and even words, in unique, incommunicable ways. As Linda narrates, “But we all haven’t tasted the same unripe fruit. In order to feel not so alone in the world, we blur the lines of our subjective memories, and we say to one another, ‘I know exactly what you mean!'” (15)

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Review: Long Division by Kiese Laymon

Cover courtesy of Simon & Schuster

Kiese Laymon is a phenomenal writer, and you can tell so the moment you begin any of his three books. I reviewed his memoir Heavy a couple years ago, and have finally read his other two books, starting with Long Division, a novel. I read the 2021 edition, which I’ll talk more about later. The book is split into two halves which read starting from either side of the book, and ending in the middle.

“Book One,” (though Laymon says you can read them in any order, I chose the obvious order) follows a black Mississippian boy named City, in the year 2013. He and his school rival, Lavander Peeler, both make a scene at the national “Can You Use that Word in a Sentence” competition, and City is sent to stay with his grandmother in the rural town of Melahatchie. There, he contends with violent racists, his grandmother’s church, the reaction to his outburst at the competition (which has gone viral in the way things really could go viral back in 2013), and the disappearance of his neighbor, a girl named Baize Shephard. Also, he’s found a strange book titled Long Division, in which he is the main character.

In “Book Two,” a black Mississippian boy named City living in Melahatchie is in love with his friend Shalaya Crump, in the year 1985. Shalaya reveals to him that she’s found a way to travel to the future (2013), and she’s worried that in the future she’s dead. She can also travel to the past, 1964, where her and City’s grandpas are about to be killed by the klan. In 1964, the two meet Evan Altshuler, who wants to help them save their grandpas and his own family from. In 2013, they meet Baize Shephard.

Regardless of which half you start with, character is the first thing that jumps out, especially City, the narrator. He has a lot of opinions, a lot that he needs to let you know about Lavander Peeler, about Principle Reeves, about the “Can You Use that Word in a Sentence” competition, about Melahatchie, about Baize Shephard, and about himself. He’s self conscious in a way that stops short of providing a perfect accounting of his inner working at all times, but still goes a lot deeper than most 14-year-old protagonists do. Despite his braggadocio, City is scared and sad about a lot of things. Sometimes he admits this to himself, sometimes he admits only to the way it feels in his body.

It’s not just City though. From Lavander Peeler to Grandma, all these characters leap off the page, and then deepen, reveal richer hues within the bright colors that initially grabbed the reader’s attention. The scenes between City and Baize are dynamite, as she is just as boastful and opinionated as him—and this vibrancy, this vigor of spirit, makes the way the adults treat these young people that much more heartbreaking. The book puts a lot of focus on the cruelty inflicted on children, especially black children, through “education.” The prime example of this is the sentence competition in Book One, which kind of blew my mind and had me, for the first time, thinking about how bizarre and messed up spelling bees are. We meet 2013 City as a smart, verbally dextrous kid locked in a rivalry with the effete Lavander Peeler—and then we see that expansive, energetic persona squashed, curbed, even memified. City’s creative, imaginative, and righteously angry language is denied as not “correct, appropriate, or dynamic”—a dramatic, heightened version of the minute and myriad ways in which adults constantly rebuke children for their creativity, in which white people constantly seek the destruction or neutralization of black imagination.

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Review: Sex Fantasy by Sophia Foster-Dimino

Cover courtesy of Koyama Press

Sex Fantasy by Sophia-Foster Dimino is a collection of eight zines published between 2013 and 2017, plus two previously unpublished zines at the end. With one exception, the zines are not about sex fantasies, though they are about intimacy, relationships, and the gaps between people. The slight, but not total, mismatch between title and content is indicative of the way a lot of the book operates, in that it invites interpretation. It reaches for something, but doesn’t go all the way toward grasping it—the reader will have to do that on their own.

The book is divided into three sections of three issues each, and a fourth section of one. The first three zines are the most esoteric, consisting entirely of short declarative sentences (usually starting with “I”) paired with illustrations. Although there are a few moments of sequential art, there’s very little scene, and you could scramble the individual panels out of order and not change much. There isn’t even a consistent, recurring character that appears as the “I” or “you” in all the panels. They operate accumulatively—”I made an effort”, “I hit a wall”, “I wasn’t thinking”, “I’m useful” add up to a persona, an emotion. It’s textual-visual poetry, essentially—and like a good poem, you can slow down and appreciate each line, or panel in this case, as it’s own work of art. In fact, the format of the book encourages this, with each panel taking up an entire page, so that you’re only ever looking at two panels at once.

Although these first three zines aren’t my favorite in the collection, I think they hold some of my favorite individual panels. Some are very intricate, while others are imaginative or surprising in how they illustrate the text. “I like your socks” is printed beside a person wearing hamburger socks lightly stepping on someone’s face. “I’m a beverage vendor” appears beside a drink stand; the stand has three large jugs and three containers of ice or tapioca pearls; a bottle for tips; a vase with a flower; eight notes tacked to the stand’s single contiguous wall; a patterned canopy; empty cups held on pegs; a dangling bell; an OPEN sign; a vertical banner displaying a woman drinking from an enormous glass with a straw; and the “I”, sitting on a stool, wearing a spaghetti strap top, flip flops, a hair bow. The text is spare, but the illustrations are rich and suggestive of worlds that extend beyond their snapshot focus. They are not sex fantasies, but fantasy, or fancy, sure.

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Review: The Next American Metropolis by Peter Calthorpe

Cover courtesy of Princeton Architectural Press

I’ve been on a bit of an urbanism kick recently, and of the books I’ve read this one seems like the best introduction for anyone just getting into the topic. The Next American Metropolis opens with a long essay about the failures of planning (or rather, the failures of no planning, or piecemeal planning) in America, how this has negatively impacted the American city and the American citizen, and the solution: transit-oriented development. Next comes a set of guidelines and definitions for the various components of transit-oriented development and how to plan it, from the regional scale all the way down to regulations for individual lots. The final section is a kind of portfolio of projects that Calthorpe and his firm designed, with full-page color diagrams and maps, and accompanying text explaining how these plans embody different aspects of the preceding sections. So although you can read it straight through, and it is organized for you to do that, the book also functions as a reference book, or even an art book where you can flip to any page in the latter half and find some wonderfully rendered architectural sketches or zoning plans.

As I said, the book is a great introduction to urbanism, and particularly New Urbanism—though Calthorpe doesn’t really use that phrase, instead focusing on “transit-oriented development.” The two are part and parcel. The idea is to build things to a human scale, not (just) a car scale. The idea is that single-use zoning (e.g. vast blocks of homogenous residential, downtowns composed of just office towers) are poison to the life of a city, as is any automobile-oriented development. The freedom to get anywhere in a car isn’t freedom at all, it’s dependence. It means anyone without a car in these residential suburbs is stranded. It means the people getting around in cars live their lives entirely in closed-off, private spaces—their home, their office, the supermarket, their car—and never mingle with their neighbors and fellow citizens on the streets or in public parks and plazas. It means that pedestrians are unsafe and uncomfortable, forced to walk down long blocks with a low-density of street connections, or cross enormous unshaded parking lots when shopping for necessities.

There’s a lot more to New Urbanism, but that’s the basic idea—we’ve built for the car and thus created inefficient, pollutant, and unpleasant cities; the solution is to build for pedestrians. You may be familiar with New Urbanism in some form already: if you’ve heard about neighborhoods or cities being “walkable,” well, that’s a principal of New Urbanism. This book was written in 1993, but the ideas are super relevant today because it has taken so long for cities to actually put them into practice. So if you’ve been wondering what exactly “walkable” means, or if this brief summary has piqued your interest, read this book! In the opening essay, Calthorpe provides great statistics about the growth of car-dependence, lengthening commutes, and some of the factors that drove mass suburbanization. He does just as good a job laying out the ideas and ideals of transit-oriented development, which are essentially timeless. The thing about New Urbanism is, it isn’t really new. It’s sort of how things were done in the era of streetcars, just before the mass proliferation of personal cars in America. This type of design works, and we’ve known it works for decades, and this 30-year-old book may as well have been published yesterday.

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Review: Lower Ed by Tressie McMillan Cottom

Hi! It’s been a while since I reviewed a book, or really posted anything on this website. I’ve been reading a ton of books recently though, and writing reviews is about all I can manage to write these days, so look forward to more of these over the next few months! Should be one each week, posted every Friday, just like the old days.

Cover courtesy of The New Press

Lower Ed is a non-fiction book about the rise of a new class of for-profit colleges—distinct from the old “mom and pop” for-profits—which operate as major investment vehicles and seek to capitalize on the ever-increasing demand for credentials, and the inability of American higher education or employers to meet it. There are a couple dominant narratives around for-profit colleges, which Tressie McMillan Cottom outlines. A) They are predatory institutions which exploit disadvantaged students (part and parcel with this is a view that these students are dupes); or B) They are a savvy, private response to the failure of public institutions to train workers for our modern labor market. McMillan Cottom avoids both of these oversimplifications, instead examining the ways in which all of these institutions and economic entities—the labor market, public universities, and for-profits—are contributing to a precarity, a risk shift, which is profitable for damn near everyone involved except the students/workers.

I will move past summary eventually, I swear, but these are some complex, rich ideas, so I’ve got to explain a bit more. “Risk shift” is something McMillan Cottom talks about a lot. Over the past few decades, risk has shifted away from the government and private employers, and onto individuals. What risk? Well, say you want to be a lawyer. You are taking a risk in going to law school, investing time and money that may not be returned to you (if, for example, no one hires you.) Say you’re an employer, looking for someone to be a barista. If you hire someone with no experience, and train them, you are risking that that time and pay will not return to you (say, for example, they leave the instant they get good at baristaing.) In the past, employers were more willing to take on that risk, providing on-the-job training and investing resources in keeping their employees by providing them advancement and, potentially, further education. This is less and less the case. While a cafĂ© may still take you on with no experience, more desirable jobs are likely to require experience up front. If they do take you on and spend time training you, they’ll minimize their risk by not paying you—hence that hateful practice, the unpaid internship. Our government has also, more and more, foisted risk onto individuals (perhaps in the belief that the job market is what it was in the 60s, with employers willing to share risk with their employees.) State and federal funding for higher education has not kept pace with demand, and so tuition costs have ballooned. Total student loan debt has increased by 389.5% since 2003, now over $1,500,000,000,000. $1 trillion and $500 billion, to be clear. That is risk shift.

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New Publication: Can I Talk to You?

Something a little different this time: I’ve published a Twine story! Twine is a program that lets you write choose-your-own-adventure-type texts, but using hyperlinks instead of page turns.

“Can I Talk to You?” is a short, interactive story about having a conversation with a friend who really needs someone to talk to right now. Your friend has asked you to come over to her place to “talk,” and you are terrified. You don’t know how to talk about serious topics, you’re just a shut-in who spends all your time writing fantasy novels, what could you possibly offer? Then your friend informs you she found a magic sword.

Includes four possible endings, multiple beverage choices, and lots of dialogue! You can download or play it in-browser on itch.io for free, or you can name your price if you want to kick some money my way.

Public Domain Day 2021: A Plea for Authors to Consider the Commons

Happy Public Domain Day! This year, works from 1925 enter the public domain in the US and many other countries. Read more about the public domain and what’s entering it this year on the CSPD.


illustration of a bear caught in a snare with two cubs by its sides.
Writing about this kind of stuff raises my blood pressure, so I’ll be showing off some public domain artwork throughout to break it up. Oil painting illustration from The Living Forest by Arthur Heming.

In the past, I’ve said that I think the burden to protect and expand the public domain falls most on creators. This year I’m going to focus specifically on one group, authors, their failure to live up to this responsibility, and the urgent need that they be more copyright literate and considerate of the public domain. Because this year, one case illustrates this problem perfectly—the Internet Archive.

The Internet Archive is a non-profit organization dedicated to digital archival. Its website hosts archived games, movies, music, books, Flash files, and past versions of other websites. Its mission is to preserve these cultural artifacts and provide easy access to them for researchers and the general public. These are works in the public domain, or works that have been uploaded by users. However, the Internet Archive also hosts many scans of copyrighted books through their Open Library, which are available to users through Controlled Digital Lending.

Controlled Digital Lending is a way for libraries to lend books digitally, while still respecting copyright law (that’s the ‘controlled’ part.) Under Controlled Digital Lending, a library can only lend as many copies digitally as it physically owns. I’ll just quote the CDL website itself, because it explains it nicely: “… if a library owns three copies of a title and digitizes one copy, it may use CDL to circulate one digital copy and two print, or three digital copies, or two digital copies and one print; in all cases, it could only circulate the same number of copies that it owned before digitization.” Many of the scans in the Open Library come from local libraries throughout the world. If the library doesn’t have a book the reader wants, the reader can sponsor it, purchasing a physical copy of the book to be digitized and made available in the Open Library forever. This is nothing too strange—this is how libraries work, mostly1. Buy the book once—or receive it as a donation from someone else who bought it—and circulate it forever. CDL is kinda like an instantaneous interlibrary loan that can be accessed online.

The value of this service should be self-evident. If it isn’t, consider this year. Early on in the pandemic most libraries were closed, with only digital resources available. This is great for newer books and popular old books, but the vast majority of books under copyright don’t have ebook versions available on services like Overdrive or Hoopla—readers couldn’t even request that their libraries obtain those ebook versions, because they simply don’t exist. So in early 2020, the only way to access these works without purchasing them (I’ll get to this exception in a bit) was through Controlled Digital Lending. So many educators, students, and readers of all stripes would have to turn away from their local or institutional libraries and utilize the Internet Archive—more patrons than the Internet Archive’s holdings could possibly support. So they suspended all waitlists on their Open Library. Patrons still didn’t have access to DRM-free files, patrons were still only able to borrow for set periods of time, but the Internet Archive was no longer limiting circulation to one copy, one hold. As many people as wanted to could check out a book simultaneously, without having to wait.

Again, the value, the urgency, of this initiative should be self-evident. Even without the pandemic, access to books often poses problems for students with limited money. For example, with an entire class of students needing a book required by the syllabus, unless the local library has multiple copies, students are forced to buy their own or wait to get it through an Interlibrary Loan. The keyword here is waiting—in an academic setting, waiting is often not an option. Assignments, reading discussions, capstone projects, all have deadlines. If you’re just looking for a fun read, sure, you can wait, or pick out a different book that’s available right away. But if you’re hunting down a chapter cited by a book which covers the exact niche angle on the niche topic of your thesis, you can’t just borrow any old book, and you may not have time to wait for other patrons. Students with enough money could buy their required reading, but not everyone has the funds to purchase multiple texts, sometimes quite expensive, every semester. This is the whole point of libraries, after all—if everyone could afford to buy every book they read, we wouldn’t need libraries in the first place. For specific examples of people who benefited from the NEL, see this post on the Internet Archive blog.

The National Emergency Library was to run from March 24 “through June 30, 2020, or the end of the US national emergency, whichever is later.” Ultimately, it only ran until June 16th.

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New Publication: The War of Paraguay

Cover of The War of Paraguay. Text: A diplomatic history of South America's deadliest inter-state war

The translation I’ve been working on off and on for three years is finally complete! In celebration of Public Domain Day, I’m ceding the entirety of the publication, with the exception of the cover, to the public domain. If you want to throw some money my way you can set your price for it on Smashwords, or you can download a free copy in the following formats: Docx — Epub — Mobi — PDF.

Readers who’ve been following the blog for a while have seen earlier posts about this translation, including posts of each chapter translated. This version of the book is a much revised version of those posts, with the addition of translated footnotes, a translated appendix, expanded introduction, and a map of disputed territory and important locations. Those posts will remain up for posterity’s sake, but the version I am publishing today is vastly superior.

For those of you unfamiliar with this project, below is an excerpt of the Translator’s Foreword to give you an idea of what this book is, and why I’ve stuck with it through all this time:


Following my sophomore year of college, I decided to undertake a translation project. I didn’t have a specific text in mind—that was secondary to my desire to improve my Spanish and get some practice translating, which was a skill I wanted to develop.

So my criteria for choosing the source text were 1. That it be public domain, so I could post my translation online and eventually sell it. 2. That it be a work never before translated into English, so that I could feel I was not just doing a bad job that had already been done better. And 3. That the book be interesting to me.

This last criterion brought my attention the Paraguayan War, which I had only just learned about earlier that year, and which I was eager to know more about. Scanning the bibliography of its Wikipedia page I latched onto La guerra del Paraguay by Joaquim Nabuco, and although it satisfied all my criteria, this was truly a terrible choice for my first foray into translation.

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Review: The Gold Coast by Kim Stanley Robinson

Cover courtesy of Orbit Books

The Gold Coast is the second book in the Three Californias Triptych, written by Kim Stanley Robinson. The triptych portrays three visions of a future Orange County: the first, The Wild Shore, post-apocalyptic; the second, The Gold Coast, dystopian; and the third, Pacific Edge, utopian. I’m simplifying, but that’s the basic idea. For the most part, characters don’t carry over from one book to the next—you could pick this book up by itself no problem. I’ll talk more about the effect of reading it together with the others later, but suffice it to say it makes an excellent stand-alone novel.

The two major plotlines of the book follow Jim McPherson and his father Dennis McPherson. Dennis is an engineer working for Laguna Space Research, a defense contractor. It’s 2027 but the Cold War never ended. The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists has set their clock “one second to midnight man, set there for twenty years.” Jim is a part-time English teacher at a junior college, making ends meet by doing some clerical work at a real estate office too. He’s enchanted by the history of Orange County, the orange groves long ago torn out to make room for condos and freeways, which have so devoured the landscape recently that he and his friends refer to the county as “autopia,” and it’s residential areas as “condomundo.” He’s dissatisfied with the state of the world and the state of his own life, but doesn’t know what to do about either. So the two major plot-lines are 1. Dennis McPherson’s efforts to land a contract for a new missile defense system, and the hell of bureaucracy and inter-departmental rivalries which get in his way; and 2. Jim McPherson’s growing involvement in efforts to sabotage defense contractors in Orange County. These two plotlines will of course have to converge at some point.

That said, this isn’t a book driven by plotlines, and the two I just described aren’t exactly the focus. Where other novels direct their energy forward in chains of causal events, Gold Coast directs its energy outwards. More than anything characters drive the novel, representing a broad section of the young people of Orange County. Steadily, steadily, the world reveals itself through their different viewpoints, through the maneuvers of their daily lives. Jim is a prototypical lost young man, but the pitfalls of this trope (e.g. telling a story ostensibly about social issues by centering a middle class straight cis white man, most protected from the consequences of those issues) are avoided by the fact that the book takes on so many different viewpoints. Each chapter follows a specific character, and Jim’s chapters are just one tributary of the novel’s expansive river basin. The book almost feels like a sitcom at times, especially since so many of the viewpoint characters are part of the same friend group. So Jim’s aimlessness isn’t valorized or held up as some universal experience, it’s just one life cast among the lives of drug dealers, ambulance drivers, surfers, revolutionaries, art teachers. The one glaring failure is the lack of women. Sure, they’re around, but only one of them is given her own chapters. Oddly enough, it’s Jim’s mother. So while Robinson is admirable for including chapters following her life, which is indeed an expansive and realized life entirely separate from her son or her husband, he’s worth criticizing for otherwise showing Orange County entirely through male inhabitants.

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In Lieu of an Afterword

A month ago I published The Same Story Told, a pastoral post-apocalyptic fantasy retold six times in a row. I didn’t include an afterword at the end of the book, because I didn’t want to distract from the formal strangeness of the novel. The book already has six layers of overlapping, diverging narratives, plus a frame story, and I didn’t want to toss a totally non-diegetic commentary on top of all that. So this post is in lieu of an afterword. As with the afterwords for my short fiction and plays, I’ll talk about the origins of the book, and the process of writing it. If you haven’t read the book, don’t worry, there’s no spoilers! You can’t spoil a book that delivers the entire plot in the first thirty pages and then repeats it five more times! 🙂

That said, I dunno how interesting or intelligible this will be to someone who hasn’t read the book. Proceed at your own discretion, and if you do want to read the book, you can buy it on Smashwords, or read an excerpt of it here.

The initial idea for TSST was not fantasy, but sci-fi, though the core concept was the same. A spaceship crash lands on a distant planet. There’s only enough oxygen and food for a few people, so some are put into cryo-sleep, alternating throughout the years as they struggle to gather enough resources to repair their ship. Or something, I don’t really know—I brainstormed a lot of different possible scenarios, but pretty quickly gravitated towards a fantasy setting, with a world struck by plague instead of a distant lifeless planet.

Right from the start, I had the basic structure of the different character’s stories—one person asleep for all of it, providing a sort of historical perspective; one person awake for all of it; one person continuously awake at the beginning and end, but with a big gap in the middle; and two people alternating each year. I drew out graphs to visualize how each of these characters would age over time, the dynamics of older and younger shifting.

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New Publication: The Same Story Told

TSST-c-9The time is now! My novel, The Same Story Told, is now available on Smashwords and Amazon! Pick it up, or read an excerpt here. Here’s the synopsis:

Whistlers normally draw power for their incantations from the microbial sappers that infect their own bodies, but an incantation to infect others with sappers has been discovered, and the resulting plague has devastated the world. The only immunization against this plague is to be infected by a Whistler with a little more control over the bacterial life they create. Of the survivors gathered at the Academy of Sibilant Arts, Klobs is the youngest Whistler. At 14, she’s been entrusted with infecting just four people—her older brother Binlev, her mentor Daltob, and two friends from another academy, Hakleen and Boos.

These five are sent to reclaim a farming township, but soon a hostile group of Whistlers raids their food stores. Without enough food to make it to the harvest, Klobs uses her sappers to place Daltob and Hakleen in deep sleeps. Working in year-long shifts and year-long sleeps the five can conserve food, but each member of the group experiences a unique fragment of the same struggle, deviating, merging, echoing.

The Same Story Told tells each fragment one after the other, as well as the apocryphal legend that has arisen about the “Lost Expedition,” changing format and style to portray the same post-apocalyptic pastoral fantasy six times in a row.

Review: Familiar Face by Michael DeForge

familiar face
Cover courtesy of Drawn & Quarterly.

Michael DeForge’s characteristically busy panels full of simple, abstracted forms fit the world of Familiar Face, his latest comic, perfectly.  This is a world in unending flux. Every day there are updates, patches, optimizations, altering everything from the subway map of the city to people’s physical bodies. The changes are sometimes drastic and always immediate—no gradualism. One day the narrator character wakes up and finds her body has shrunk, another day the layout of her apartment building has totally shifted, and she’s surrounded by new, unknown neighbors. All these changes are for the benefit of the inhabitants of this world, supposedly, though from the outside they seem totally arbitrary.

As I said, DeForge’s art style is a perfect match. It doesn’t let your eyes sit still, and rarely explains itself. The narrator has a … cat? dog? A very angular spindly little creature which shows up in some panels depicting her apartment, never mentioned in the narrating text which runs over most of the graphic novel. That narrative text keeps the reader on track, helping them identify certain things (e.g. this text description of subway tracks is paired with a drawing of these veiny tubules, so those must be subway tracks), but on other matters the reader is left to strain at comprehension on their own. Is this squiggly blue bit here a car? A person? A dog? You’re as bewildered as the narrator, as anyone in this world, and often the panels are crammed full of this visual information, all in vibrant colors. Now, lots of what I’ve said here could be applied to other works by DeForge, but Familiar Face goes a step further by frequently changing the design of the main character. The one concession to the reader is that characters retain their color scheme, but that’s it—the changes go unremarked by the narrator, forcing the reader to keep pace. I remember at one point reading along and stopping short when I realized that the little four-legged creature I’d been following for a couple pages was, in fact, the narrator!Read More »

The Same Story Told: Excerpt

TSST-c-9So I haven’t actually announced this on the blog, but I will be publishing The Same Story Told, a novel(!), in just a couple weeks! The Same Story Told is a post-apocalyptic pastoral fantasy told six times in a row. After a gale of sappers has devastated the world, a group of five friends attempts to rebuild a farming town. When their stores of food are raided, the Whistler of the group must place some of them in a magically induced deep sleep to conserve resources, alternating in year-long shifts. Each member of the group experiences unique fragments of the same struggle to create a sustainable source of food, deviating, echoing, altering format and style. You can read a bit more about it and preorder it on Smashwords or Amazon.

The book is divided into five sections, one for each of the characters, and a sixth section for the apocryphal legend that has risen about “The Lost Expedition.” This sixth section is actually the first in the book, so to give you a look inside the book I’m posting it here in full:

The Lost Expedition

In the year 1,240, the same year that yits lit all the streets of Opasis, the same year the harvests overfilled the storehouses of Nesten, in the year 1,240 Bellengrew gripped the Seedlings with a rigid claw, then fell, and cracked, and desolated the world. The infectious sappers that had brought prosperity and advancement to the other city-states, Bellengrew used to raise enormous fanged animates and roll bombs five feet in diameter. The incantation for infectious sappers, a guarded secret entrusted only to the most sage scholars, the most loyal civil whistlers, was passed around loosely between the power-hungry commanders and captains of Bellengrew, until finally a spark caught within that overstuffed tinderbox, and burned across all the Breath.Read More »

New Publication: Yellowknife

“Yellowknife” is now available at Amazon and Smashwords! (And because I’m participating in Smashwords’s Authors Give Back sale, for the next couple days you can get it free from Smashwords!) For anyone who’s read my story “The Wisdom Goddess Star,” this novelette is set in the same world, though with a different group of characters.

yellowknife-c-1Inspector Naval is not that sort of inspector. He examines safety code violations, claims of mismanaged funds, workplace accidents. He is not a private eye, he is not a detective, he is not a genius of deductive reasoning. But Mars has scarcely any law enforcement, so when Margaret Hoehn turns up dead at an International Martian Program facility, Inspector Naval is the best the IMP can send.

Margaret Hoehn died at Yellowknife, an isolated research base mainly dedicated to studying the extraterrestrial bacteria found there. It was in the room containing this very bacteria that Hoehn was found dead from CO2 poisoning. In such a small facility, with constant surveillance footage ruling out most suspects, there’s a narrow pool of people who could’ve killed her—or maybe it was suicide, or just an accident. Regardless, Naval is still out of his depth, and he’ll have to adjust to the peculiar rhythms of life at the small, insular colony if he’s ever going to find out what really happened.

In addition to the novelette, this publication also includes an afterword by the author about how a mystery fiction class and research on Antarctica influenced the writing of the story.

New Publication: Classic Cage in some scripts Issue 3

some scripts issue 3My one act play Classic Cage is available in issue 3 of some scripts, their climate change-themed issue! The issue is available to read free for the next month, until June 11th, here. Here’s the synopsis:

Tara Cage is struggling to sell her next book. Publishers on Mars want another of her cheerful, optimistic Earth travelogues, the ones that made her so popular, but things have been getting bad on Earth. Climate change and economic upheaval have made Tara a lot more cynical, and sick of selling Mars a whitewashed version of her home planet. Her sister and literary agent, Michaela Cage, tries to grease the wheels with a potential publisher by getting a realtime FTL video connection between them on Mars and Tara on Earth. Unfortunately Tara’s internet connection has been screwy, making the video chat’s predictive AI patch over moments of lag with an AI version of Tara, compiled from calls made by Tara the last time she used it—which was twenty years ago. Between the upbeat, cheerful robo-Tara, and the true, jaded, bitter Tara, the publisher is getting mixed messages—though the AI seems to be making a better impression than Tara herself.

New Publication: Red, Her Hand

Wow it’s been a while since one of these, but here we go, “Red, Her Hand” is now available at Amazon and Smashwords! (And because I’m participating in Smashwords’s Authors Give Back sale, you can currently get it free from Smashwords!)

RHH-c-1“Now the real power isn’t predicting the future. The real power is predicting the prophecy.”

Gailee is a poor girl living in the Predestined Empire, where prophecies, written centuries ago by cloistered prophets, dictate all law and governance. Gailee provides for her family by working as a transcriber in one of the courts that interprets these prophecies, and as a straw dealer to noble kids. Tuuqoi, one of her buyers, is a young noble fated to become a prophet soon, whose most daring transgression in life is steaming straw with Gailee. His life takes a turn for the roguish when Gailee, overcome by a sense of calling, enlists his help to fulfill her destiny and become a prophet herself.

In addition to this novelette, this publication also includes an afterword by the author about the inspirations that mixed together to make this story.

All My Ebooks Are Free on Smashwords from Now Through May 31, and So Is My Comic

EDIT: This post previously said the sale would last through April 20. The sale has now been extended to last through May 31.

As part of Smashwords’ Authors Give Back sale, all my ebooks on Smashwords are free from now through May 31. For catharsis, might I recommend “Beneath Them,” a short story about a devastating alien invasion and an apartment with a roach problem. For pure escapism, “The War on Hormones” is an angsty novelette about pharmaceutically asexual high schoolers at a performing arts school.

Also Last Year Comic Chronicle is free on Itchio, also through May 31.

If you aren’t already, listen to medical professionals and public health institutions. If you’ve got money to spare, there’s a lot of emergency funds that could use it right now. This is not the first global crisis we’ve faced and it won’t be the last, so let’s do our best and look out for each other!

Review: Dead Astronauts by Jeff VandeMeer

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Cover courtesy of Macmillan.

If a cataclysmic shattering world could write a novel, this would be it. The organizing principle of Dead Astronauts is not chronology, nor non-linear chronology (a book told out of order still postures itself against a fixed, correct order which the  reader can construct in their mind.) The organizing principle is ecology, iteration, echoes. I had a dream recently where someone told me they “experience things cumulatively,” which I find to be an oddly apt description of this novel. You experience this book cumulatively. The book takes place in the world of Borne, but it may as well not, because aside from the familiar post-apocalyptic landscape and the similarly surreal lifeforms that populate it, the way the world behaves is just totally different, starting with the timeline-hopping Dead Astronauts.

The second chapter of the book, and also the longest, follows these titular characters, “the three.” If not for this section, the book wouldn’t have anything close to a main plot, just lots of small stories filling in the histories of different places, the backstories of different characters. So, what is the narrative? “The three,” Grayson, Chen, and Moss, are on a seemingly futile mission to reclaim the City from the Company, a mission they’ve repeatedly undertaken across multiple alternate timelines, facing different variations of the same archetypal characters each time, often (always?) ending in failure.

But … why? This chapter was probably my least favorite—the parts of it that I liked most were the parts delving into the astronauts’ pasts, while the actual narrative through-line, this mission, just wasn’t all that compelling. What are they reclaiming the city for? What would they do once its reclaimed? The thing Grayson Chen and Moss seem to care about most is each other, not the City. Grayson and Moss may have personal reasons to want to exact vengeance on the Company, but … enh, that’s more my own speculation than anything the text explores. And unlike in the Area X trilogy, the hollowness of the mission isn’t developed and spotlighted as a theme, it just feels like flat writing.

Once the title characters get out of the way, other chapters shine a lot brighter, like that of Charlie X, a scientist at the Company with a fast deteriorating memory, or the chapter for the Dark Bird, a deadly, tortured creation of the Company. These chapters are much less narrative-focused, more non-linear and experimental (granted, even the Dead Astronauts section is far more experimental than something like, say, Borne—it’s a testament to how wild this book is that that chapter seems conventional in contrast to everything else.) Probably my favorite chapter was “Can’t Forget,” a vigorous, hateful 60 pages narrated by the Blue Fox, describing an ancestral memory of humankind’s assault on foxes, through fur-trapping and climate change up to the Company’s experiments on and exploitation of the Blue Fox as a biological reconnaissance tool. I could write a post about that chapter in itself—the use of huge walls of repeated text, the effect of actually reading through it, the defiant and truly inhuman voice VanderMeer achieves. There are a few single sentences in the chapter that floored me, simple phrases that land with explosive impact because of how the text builds up to them.

Truly, VanderMeer’s prose is great throughout the whole book, it’s as inventive as the novel’s overall structure. He gives lots of focus to the materiality of words, their sound, their weight when repeated over and over, with less emphasis on strict semantic meaning. Characters stutter out series of rhyming words, text appears in blocks with big vacuums of white space in between. Just as this world is full of characters whose striking, mythological stature transcends a more realist, psychological approach, the language often strives for force, vitality, in order to transcend the mere conveyance of information.

If a cataclysmic shattering world could write a novel, this would be it. And because of its non-linear nature, because the narrative is more a decentralized history than a single plot, it beckons to be reread, reread in pieces, in sections, out of order or over and over again. If you like VanderMeer’s more experimental stuff, definitely check this out. There is little out there like it.

Public Domain Day 2020

Wow! More formerly copyrighted works released to the public domain! This year I don’t really have much of a post like I’ve done in previous years—I ended up being pretty busy these past couple months, and couldn’t put anything together in time for today. In lieu of my own blabbing, I recommend you read the Duke CSPD’s post on Public Domain Day 2020, if you’re interested in what works are newly public domain, and what works could’ve become public domain today if copyright law weren’t so draconian.

channelcon30-14That said, I am still releasing one of my own works to the public domain, as I have in years past. This year, that work is “ChannelCon ’30,” a novelette about “curators” who put together livestreams of public domain movies. Lindsey Xong and Amber Smith, two such curators, form the highly popular channel Amber Linz. Just like any popular curators, they go to ChannelCon, but quickly find the fans there divided into two sides engaged in an intense feud. As the Con falls into chaos, the two factions drive a wedge between Amber and Lindsey, and finding out who is behind the sabotage becomes crucial.

The original publication included an afterword, which I am also releasing to the public domain. You can download “ChannelCon ’30” in the following formats: PDF — Epub — Mobi — Docx. Read it, steal it, break it, put your name on it, whatever, happy Public Domain Day!!!

The War of Paraguay: Chapter XLI, The Final Resolution (1876). — The Pilcomayo Line and Arbitration. — Nabuco and Peace.

twop-c-10This post remains available for posterity’s sake, but a much revised and much expanded version of this translation is available completely for free! The revised version includes translated footnotes, a translated appendix, an expanded introduction, and a map of disputed territory and important locations. You can download a copy in the following formats: Docx — Epub — Mobi — PDF. Or, if you want to throw some money my way, you can set your price for it on Smashwords. And it’s in the public domain!

Note: This is the last chapter! Wow! Eventually I will put out an edited version, with all the footnotes translated, for purchase. However, this version of The War of Paraguay as it exists here on the blog will remain free to read in perpetuity.

On 25 June 1875, Rio Branco, tired of his long ministry, left the government to the Duke of Caxias. Caxias tasked Cotegipe, who came to be the soul and political director of the cabinet, with the post of Foreign Affairs. The Argentine issue had lasted too long and lost its force. Cotegipe was left with the labor of dealing with Irigoyen (1), Avellaneda’s new minister, to discuss an end to the situation created in 1872, and finalizing negotiations between Asunción and Buenos Aires on the foundation of arbitration, offered by Tejedor, a foundation that, although with some modifications, Tejedor himself made impossible to adopt when he negotiated directly with Sosa.

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Photo of President Rutherford B. Hayes, ca. 1880

Our government found Irigoyen quite favorably disposed. With negotiations between the Paraguayan envoy and the Minister of Foreign Affairs resumed in Buenos Aires, Baron Aguiar d’Andrade attends them as representative of Brazil; finally, a satisfactory result is reached, and the treaty is signed on 3 February 1876. The republic gains the line of Pilcomayo, the island of Cerrito, and resorts to submitting possession of Villa Occidental and its territory up to Río Verde to arbitration. A few months later Brazil withdraws its troops from Asunción and evacuates the island of Cerrito. The final result of the dispute is known: in 1878, President Hayes (2) rules in favor of Paraguay, and that republic takes back possession of Villa Occidental.

So peace had been made, granting the Argentine Republic those borders that Pimenta Bueno, Uruguay, and Jequitinhonha had recognized as lawfully Argentine on 7 December 1865; borders that, for another thing, were what Brazil agreed to, and what Mitre, signing the May 1st treaty, believed sufficient to satisfy the needs of his country; the same borders also, probably, which Varela thought of when condemning the right of conquest—only wanting, it may be supposed, to obtain some important Brazilian concession to Paraguay itself, in exchange for that condemnation.

Without Brazilian diplomacy—and without Paraguayan resistance consequently ceasing to exist—no Argentine diplomat would have dared to renounce possession of the right shore of the Paraguay, guaranteed by the alliance treaty. In this sense, one can say that Brazilian diplomacy lent a great service to the true Argentine interests, and to the realization of the aspirations of the most illustrious statesmen of the Plata, namely that the republic not come out of the war enriched with the territorial spoils of the defeated nation.

Unfortunately, the sincerity which should preside when dealing with matters of this stature did not always exist between the allies, and if they did not fall into a new war over the Paraguayan Chaco, it is owing to the painful experience they acquired in the previous campaign, and to fatigue. It is lamentable that, after existing for five years in such perfect harmony on the battlefields, both countries would arrive at such a state of public opinion; but one cannot doubt that for Argentina to launch a war after Cotegipe’s separate treaties, or Brazil after Tejedor’s withdrawal, only a little more popular enthusiasm was needed.Read More »