The Uncrossing by Melissa Eastlake

Hey, friends! It’s been a while since I’ve done a Sunday Review, but here I am with this lovely ARC and a whole lot of feelings so strap in! Considering a few of my recent posts have been less than light-hearted, this should be a welcome reprieve.

So first, let me preface this by registering my biases. Melissa is a fellow Hollins graduate and has guested on my blog. I reached out to her for the ARC in advance of her upcoming October 2nd release. It is a YA M/M Romance. You can preorder this lovely little book for $3.99 at Amazon last time I looked. This is a spoiler-free review.

On to the review!

I don’t read a lot of romances, but I always really enjoy the good ones. My favorite anime genre is definitely shoujo, though I’m picky, and I am a huge fan of urban fantasy and very aware that the line between “urban fantasy” and “paranormal romance” is often a gray one. I would, however, classify this book solidly in the paranormal romance category if it were being marketed to adults – the romance is the main plot motivator in this book, despite the magical elements. The book is also firmly young adult, with the two main love interests, Luke and Jeremy, both being in their late teens. There’s a lot to love here if you like romantic anime like Princess Jellyfish (with its awkward love comedy between a shining, magical rich boy and the traumatized but brilliant girl who is oblivious to his interest) or Yuri! on Ice (with two male protagonists and the added professional element). Jeremy is a beautiful, somewhat awkward, very anxious little princeling, and Luke is a grounded, charismatic character who can’t leave well enough alone more often than not and happens to be somewhat bound to Jeremy’s family. They both are clear, at times unpredictable, and lots of fun. The story benefits from the fact that, though Jeremy and Luke’s relationship is primary, other relationships are well-developed. These include Jeremy’s relationship with his brothers Sergei and Alexei, the heads of a magical mafia family, the Kovrovs, and Luke’s relationships with his family, who had previously served the Kovrovs and continue to be affiliated with them. There’s a strong supernatural element throughout, and a mystery that potentially threatens the lives of both Jeremy and Luke, as well as their families.

My two critiques of the book were simple. I would have liked to see more of Luke’s relationship with his sister, who he was closest to, and more of his family in general and their past. I really wanted to learn more about them, though I don’t think the book suffered. It’s more of a personal desire. The way their magic worked, for example, and the stresses of growing up in a biracial, bicultural family, were super interesting to me. I’d be interested in knowing more.

On a less selfish note, I do wish that the cover had not been white-washed – the character that I assume to be Luke on the cover does not look like the Luke I had in my head. The author often has limited input on covers, so given the specificity of the text I can’t imagine this was intentional on her part. It is otherwise beautiful, and I’m glad they didn’t flinch from showing m/m affection.

All in all, The Uncrossing was a fun, mostly light-hearted read, with high enough stakes to keep me engaged and characters I wanted to shelter from the world like the precious cinnamon rolls they are. I recommend this book if you are looking for positive LGBT representation and a cute romance wrapped up in magic.

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Weird Western tales

The Weird West as a fantasy subgenre is one that I’ve really been enjoying lately, and has cultivated a vibrant readership over the past few years. I’d say my first introduction to it was R.S. Belcher’s Golgotha books, but I have read a lot of other books in the same vein since then. This post collects some of those titles with a brief overview of the salient positives and negatives for each, spoiler-free.

I grew up for a good chunk of my childhood out west, in Arizona to be precise. I also grew up reading the Sackett books by Louis L’Amour. So reading these weird western titles is super nostalgic for me, but also constantly amazing. Somehow, it seems like this genre is the one providing some of the most innovative takes on sexuality, gender roles, and race – which honestly shouldn’t surprise me, given how rich the history of the territories was in the US both pre- and post-Civil War. So without further ado, in no particular order, I give you some of my favorites.

Silver on the Road, by Laura Anne Gilman

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NPR described this book as “pure American myth” and I can think of no better description, honestly. This is my favorite of all these novels, starring the Left Hand of the Devil, Isobel, in a dreamy coming of age that sucks you down into a world that’s larger than life. Though Isobel is young and at times naive, this is not a young adult book – the themes are too large and too dark. Magic lives in the Devil’s West, and it sinks its claws in whether you like it or not. This is the true American frontier, the archetype of a time in our history that formed so much of our cultural identity. If you read no other book on this list, read this one.

The Six-Gun Tarot, by R.S. Belcher

Perhaps the best way for you to get hooked on this book is to read this handy excerpt from Tor.com. The first book in the Golgotha Series, this book draws on Mormon, Chinese, Native American, and esoteric Christian mythologies in a world tinged with steampunk. Maude Stapleton is my favorite character, and she has her own spinoff book later in the series that just came out this year which I haven’t had a chance to read yet. I’m very excited about it.

Dreadnought, by Cherie Priest

Dreadnought is a lovely little tale written by Cherie Priest, one of the big names in steampunk. This is in fact a steampunk book, one hundred percent. While I prefer her book Maplecroft, this book still is high on my list of her works. Maplecroft is set in New England, so it unfortunately doesn’t fit the theme here. Dreadnought, on the other hand, tells the story of a Civil War nurse traveling across the country, so it’s not solidly set in the West as it were. The frontier feeling of adventure remains, however, and it’s aided by trains and chemically induced zombification, so if you’re into those things I recommend this book highly.

Wake of Vultures, by Lila Bowen

This book is a lovely, introspective affair that spoke deeply to the little girl in me who wanted to be a boy. Basically, if you ever read the Song of the Lioness books and felt immeasurable kinship with Alanna, this book is for you. Unlike those books, however, Wake of Vultures also tackles race and sexuality, and takes the next step on the gender identity conversation that the Song of the Lioness either couldn’t or wouldn’t take. All of that is wrapped up in a wonderful odyssey to battle a terrifying monster or two.

Vermilion, by Molly Tanzer

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Speaking of gender identity and race, don’t miss this lovely installation. Featuring Chinese heritage, talking bears, and a badass genderqueer female character, not to mention vampires, this book is a galloping romp. It sets itself up for a sequel as well, which I hope it follows up on.

Jackalope Wives and The Tomato Thief, by T. Kingfisher

This is an example of saving the best for last. Also I’ve cheated a bit by including both of these titles – there are technically two novelettes here, one of which won the Hugo this year! It’s worth it to read both in order, since they are so short. You can get these two stories along with several other lovely tales in the collection Jackalope Wives and Other Stories. Ursula Vernon, aka T. Kingfisher, is one of my all-time favorite authors at this point and a  source of inspiration. And the main character of these two tales is a lovely old woman. I love reading about old women doing badass things.

Atomic Blonde

So PSA, I loved this movie.

I’ve seen some discussion of the problematic aspects of this film, and we’ll get to those because I want to unpack them. But I want to start by focusing on the positives. I had been waiting to see this movie for two weeks when I finally made it into the theater high on chocolate cake and the newest influx of birthday books. From the opening scenes, it did not disappoint. I was able to completely lose myself in this film, and that hasn’t happened to me in a long time.

For the most part, spoilers are going to come in the critique section. I’ll put a warning, so read away for the spoiler-free bits of glory.

From the opening scene of Atomic Blonde, I was hooked. No, I’m not talking about the part where the guy gets chased down and shot in the head, though the framing of that shot was unfairly beautiful. Actually, all of the movie was unfairly beautiful, a contrast to the gritty, high stakes plot and grungy setting. Shots alternate between glittering 1980s excess and austere Soviet spaces which reek of industrialism – bare concrete, geometric designs, poor lighting. There is so much neon in this movie – and spraypaint, and boom boxes, and cassette tapes. Do you also have nostalgic memories of growing up in the late 80s and early 90s? Do you want those memories to be turned into a spy novel where no one is ever good – basically replicating the 80s aesthetic? This movie is for you.*

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One of the things that was the most inspiring for me about this movie was not the dedicated femme fatale performance of Charlize Theron, though that was amazing. Nor was it the bitingly lovely and hardcore choreography of the fight scenes, though I was totally down with that. Nor was it, even, the way that the characters actually got hurt and had to live with those hurts and compensate for them. That was all awesome, but that was not the best thing. No, the best thing was how this movie brought the dramas of the Cold War into my timeline.

“What do you mean?” I hear you asking. Well, friends, I’m going to date myself here and admit that I was born the year before the Wall came down. Yet, as a child, I was always taught that the Cold War was something so far away. I think we have a habits of amnesia in this country, of distancing ourselves from very real upsets that we probably, even if unknowingly, lived through. It’s something I’ve seen a lot of people my age struggle with. We think of the Cold War as an artifact of the 50s, maybe the 60s. It certainly doesn’t affect us.

The events of Atomic Blonde may be fictional (I hope they are fictional) but nonetheless the story sheds light in a very immediate way on a relationship and time period that often feels like ancient history. I am totally here for more near-historical dramas, action movies, and political thrillers constructed with such attention to detail.

And now, on to the spoilers.

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There were two major issues with Atomic Blonde that bear discussing. Three, really. First, the movie was pretty white. I’m not savvy on a lot of the migration patterns of the late 80s in Berlin, so I can’t say that I can critique it fairly, but it’s worth noting. I hope that we can see something as original, fast-paced, and interesting as Atomic Blonde that also manages to incorporate POC in the future.

Second, this movie was pretty back and forth on the male gaze issue. There were scenes that were framed well in this regard – I particularly like how Lorraine beat that one guy up with her shoe, this amused me incredibly. Obviously she also spent a lot of the movie bruised, bleeding, and generally doing gross stuff with little regard for what others thought of that except as to how it affected her ability to get what she wanted. But there were numerous scenes of lingerie, and of sex, which were beautifully shot and often relevant to the plot, but which were maybe not so relevant as to be required. With the exception of two, these did not bother me. Which leads me to the biggest issue with the movie, and the one with the spoilers. Really, bail out now if you want to form your own opinions.

Continue reading “Atomic Blonde”

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

Remember how it was the S.O.’s birthday at some point recently, and he is a huge fan of The Fifth Element? Well, he saw the trailer for Valerian and decided he wanted to see it, so off we went to the theater.

I didn’t go into this movie with a lot of expectations, honestly. Thank goodness, because I was a disappointed even with the low expectations I had. This movie actually reminded me the most of M. Night Shyamalan’s Avatar: The Last Airbender adaptation. It was sprawling, tried to fit too much into one film, had terrible pacing, and generally made no sense. Also, it was sexist, but I expected that.

Spoilers, if you care. For the record, if I hadn’t made it clear, you should not watch this movie for the plot, but for the world (which was interesting), the visuals (which were awesome), and the ideas (which were undeveloped but had potential). If you’re looking for a good story, look elsewhere. It is my opinion that you could know the whole plot of the movie and possibly enjoy it more, since you could watch it for the technical bits of the filming and CGI and never hope for emotional impact.

Continue reading “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets”

Wonder Woman: a tale of two movies

I’ve been waiting a long time to write this post, because I wanted to make sure that I was writing it for the right reasons. Reading this article by Tabby Biddle at Huffington Post helped me clarify that I was not just being a random crazy person, and that my feelings were shared by at least some women. I don’t agree with everything in the article, but I agree with the sense of confusion and anger the writer felt at this iconic movie.

It’s funny, how a movie about women’s empowerment made me feel like that.

As the Huffington Post article describes, if you’ve seen Wonder Woman, you know the beginning is full of badass women. However, the main plot of the movie actually starts when Steve Trevor crash-lands his plane into the island of Themyscira. The pace really picks up here. Diana makes the somewhat strange decision to leave the island that is her home. Her mother makes the decision to not send anyone with her, which is curious since she is constantly worrying about Diana’s safety. The world of women, the world of sense in this case, since the character’s decisions do not jive here, begins to fall apart.

Diana leaves Themyscira, and journeys to the land of the patriarchy. And this is where I get annoyed.

There were so many opportunities to do a movie about World War I, one of the greatest conflicts of our history and one that is often overshadowed by the more recent World War II, in a way that would really shed light onto the politics and issues of the times, onto the broad way that the “war to end all wars” affected so many people. Not just the men who went to the fronts, but the women.

Oh, you didn’t know there were women at the fronts in World War I? Spoiler warning: women are everywhere.

Now I will say that Wonder Woman did a decent job of showing more than the pressed, American white male hero for this movie. Steve was definitely a focus, but there was an attempt to express nuance. The reference to the genocide carried out against the Native Americans, while a bit pat, was at least a step in the right direction. But somewhere, Wonder Woman decided to embrace the “exceptional woman” trope. Diana is able to hack it in the trenches, but Diana is an exception. She has super powers. Her hair is always perfect. She’s not even human, actually, so why should she be held to human norms? This echoes pretty strongly as well with the “just one of the guys” trope we see in a lot of media. The only woman Diana encounters is Etta Candy, a secretary. When she is introduced, Diana immediately denigrates her  and her career. “Where I come from, we call that slavery.”

By itself, Diana’s relationship with Etta would not be problematic. Put in the context of all of her other relationships with human women, it becomes so. We get, in order: the refugee who has somehow crossed no-man’s-land to be hysterical in the trenches; the elite ‘German’ woman whom Diana presumably beats up and leaves naked in the woods; and the evil scientist who, in the end, has simply been the pawn of a man and a male god masquerading as a man for the whole movie, despite her genius. (I could go on about how the only physically disabled or disfigured person with speaking lines is said same female scientist, but that’s a whole other post.)

Even in Themyscira, Diana was held apart. In that case, it was because she was a god (unknowing, but still a god). When she comes to the human world, it is made clear that, though she is treated like a woman at points, she is in fact included as one of the guys because of her godhood. That would be a sticky thing to deal with no matter who else was on screen with Diana. The fact that only men are onscreen for ninety percent of the time skews this equation from sticky to downright uncomfortable.

So, back to those women of World War I.

A good place to start is talking about how much the economic landscape changed in places like London during World War I. All the men were at war, for the most part, which meant, as in the US in World War II, that women stepped up to fill their jobs. Women weren’t just secretaries or spending their time shopping – they were working in factories, featured in propaganda posters, and probably doing other jobs besides. Women were everywhere. Half of a given population is women, on average, and half of the men were at war. For every one man on the average street, it would be fair to say you should see at least two women.

And women were on the front, too, mostly in noncombative capacities. Women were ambulance drivers, nurses, doctors, and reporters. Notably, Flora Sandes even served as active military. She received seven medals. Many of these women were British citizens, but women from other countries – France, notably, and others involved in this sprawling war – played similar rolls. Not one of these women, or one woman like them, appeared in this film.

Wonder Woman has been praised as a feminist movie. Perhaps the first half of this movie was in fact feminist. There were several named female characters, and some really interesting backstory and character dynamics (that unfortunately did not get developed to my satisfaction). But feminist writing does not only include women who are exceptional or outside of the patriarchy. It must engage with the patriarchy not just by sending a character in to yell at some old white dudes, but also by refusing to embrace the narratives accepted as history.

There are other things worth discussing with this movie. Steve Trevor’s almost-fridging is notable, as is the question of virtue and womanhood. Why the decision was made to base the movie in World War I and whether it actually furthered the thematic content of the movie as argued is worth exploring. Also, I could write a whole post on how I almost convinced myself that I liked this movie after reading Joss Whedon’s rejected trashfire of a script and the way that women are constantly gaslit for wanting fair and equal representation in media. But just paying attention to historical context and opportunity would have made this the movie we deserved, so I’ll stop here.

Further reading regarding some badass broads who were on the frontlines, mostly in World War II:

Rejected Princesses

Clare Hollingworth

 

 

A few recent reads

I’ve been reading a lot lately, because I’ve been super stressed, which means that I read every spare minute. Don’t ask me why this is. I can’t tell you. You would think that, being stressed, I would engage directly with my stressors and then take my time to enjoy books, but not. I’ve just been spamming everything and screaming internally.

The upside of this is that I have read a lot of good stuff recently. Most of my recent reads have been novellas, but I’ve also devoured some novel-length pieces (always more satisfying for me). So what have I been reading? So glad you asked.

Final Girls – I actually went on a binge of Seanan McGuire (aka Mira Grant) around the first of the month and read a bunch of stuff, including some of her free and Patreon-supported short stories in the Toby universe. That was after I read this novella, which was good in the way all ghost stories and haunted houses are good. I highly recommend.

Binti – I’m not sure what I was expecting from this novella, but it wasn’t exactly what I got. That’s not a bad thing. I can definitely see why it won so many awards, and I’m excited for the next one, though it’s not on my immediate to-read list. That said, I think that I will need to read the actual book next time, instead of listening to the audiobook. I love Robin Miles, but audiobook of a novella is a little too brief for me, I think. It was perfect for my drive back from a conference, though!

She Wolf and Cub – I’ve read a lot of Lilith Saintcrow, and I enjoy her stuff. Her worldbuilding is solid, as always, and her system of magic (or in this case, science) is inventive. Sandworms, dystopias, nanobots, and one really made lady – sign me up! I enjoyed this book, though it’s one of the more pulpy ones on this list.

One Fell Sweep – Speaking of pulpy, this is a new book by Ilona Andrews, who always fits that bill. Space vampires and lots of explosions lie within. Check it out if you need something light, but beware – it’s the third in a series.

A Closed and Common Orbit – Reading A Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet is not a prerequisite for this book in my opinion. That said, it does spoil a small part of the ending of the Hugo-nominee, so if you were planning to read that to see what the fuss was about you might want to get on it before you read this book. I liked this one loads better than Small, Angry Planet, which I honestly wasn’t a huge fan of, mostly because the pacing didn’t quite work for me. A solid book, with two powerfully complex and interesting characters narrating.

All Systems Red – This is a novella, and it is by Martha Wells, and if you know anything about my reading habits, you know I love Martha Wells. Admittedly, you may not realize because she puts out new stuff a little less frequently than, say, McGuire. Anyway, read her stuff, all of it is phenomenal and this novella is no exception. Hands down, Wells remains one of my favorite writers.

On my to read list for my honeymoon and the strenuous two weeks leading up to it, I have:

“Dark Warm Heart”: my grief over womanhood

This is not a light-hearted meditation. This is about a lot of things, congealing as they sometimes do for me, because of story. This is not the first time such things have solidified in this way, just the most recent.

This is about my grief. It is an old grief. It comes from the child who was not allowed to play tag with the boys, from the girl who was reminded by the men, and women, in her life of her powerlessness, from the adult, myself, who constantly struggles with the shackles of gender, nearly invisible until you move wrong, speak wrong, dress wrong – and run up against them strangling you. This is about being a woman. A woman who is awake. And it is about a story, a horror story that cut too deep, called “Dark Warm Heart.”

I read this story about the same time that Twitter, at least, reeled from yet another shooting. The victim was Karen Smith, an elementary school teacher who married a friend and then realized she had married a monster when he came into her classroom and took her life, as well as the life of one of her students, and then killed himself. This shooting was part of a larger epidemic. The article from Huffington Post discusses the statistics, seen in the above tweet. Teen Vogue did a wonderful job of continuing to unpack this in their article. As the writer Morgan Jerkins observed, “most murderers in murder-suicides are male and the most prevalent kind of murder-suicide is between two intimate partners, such as a man killing his wife or girlfriend.”

I read “Dark Warm Heart” before I knew any of this, of course. Not long before – I think I saw the first fragment of a headline cross my screen only about a half hour later. These stories, the real and the true, tangled in my brain. As they should.

If you want to read the story, the voice is beautiful, the writing is technically solid, the plot is compelling. It is chilling – if you’re into that sort of thing, do go. If you’re not, if you’re just here to listen to me ramble, be aware there are spoilers. Pretty much line-by-line spoilers.

This is a story about domestic violence. About the hunger of the male body and how women must accommodate it. About the isolation of womanhood – about not having anyone to lean on because you are supposed to lean on your husband. This is about how a wife and mother must sacrifice her flesh. I can’t tell if the author (Rich Larson, presumably male) intended for this story to be about that. I can’t tell if they meant this story as a critique, as a piece of feminine horror. For me it didn’t read that way. The character certainly never questioned her choice.

Kristine is a young woman. We presume she is newly married, from the text, though there’s no explicit discussion of how new. Her husband is returned from a research trip to the Arctic, where he has encountered something eldritch and strange. It has changed him. It is made clear, through text, that he chose this change. It may not have been much of a choice, but it was a choice nonetheless. From the story:

the wendigo gives to the man a dark warm heart of human meat. a man can die, or a man can eat. a man travelled by night. he ate the wendigo’s [offering]. the man lives, the hunger stays. hunger is the wendigo.

Through his choice, he is made a monster.

Kristine knows none of this when her husband returns. She knows that she is happy. She knows that she is pregnant. But she realizes something is wrong. He bites her, hurts her. She reaches out to her mother, hoping for advice, or succor.

Her mother tells her that Kristine is obligated to make it work. He’s her husband. She just needs to try harder. Give more. She never asks what, exactly, has made Kristine so skittish. She doesn’t want to listen.

Kristine’s husband, Noel, cannot contain his hunger. To his credit, he tries other ways of assuaging it. He tries to eat himself, but the curse doesn’t work that way. He thinks that he might eat a body in the morgue, but he is not able to get access. Feeble attempts, really. In the end, he has wanted his wife since he came home. His bite marks, forced on her already, tell that story clearly.

“What are you doing?” she whispered.

“Whatever I want,” Noel mumbled into her skin.

He never tries to eat another living person. There are so many other people on this planet, but he tries to eat his wife first, of all the living people in the world. She must be the one to feed his hunger.

“When dad died, you said you’d have traded anything, didn’t you?” Kristine asked. “Anyone or anything.”

Kristine makes a choice, too. Where her husband chose to make a dreadful bargain and live, where he chose to push his hunger, in the end, onto his wife, she chooses to accommodate it. She chooses, at the end of this story, to feed him – to give up a literal piece of her body to his hunger. Whether she should do this thing is never questioned by anyone except her, and then only in the darknesses of her mind.

How easily this story follows the pattern of abuse. The lack of questions, the lack of wanting answers, the isolation. How quickly she is expected to do what is best for everyone else, and not for herself. How easily she succumbs to male violence. How virtuous it must seem.

I am so tired of reading stories which rationalize male violence and female self-flagellation. Which not just rationalize, but normalize, even glorify, these things. Noel was a victim. Kristine was a martyr. Sure. Really Noel was a selfish fool who made a deal with the devil, or something very like it, and Kristine was the innocent told that she must do anything to save him. How often women must pay for the men in their lives’ mistakes, for their aggressions. It’s a uniquely feminine horror story. It’s a story about something that many don’t even acknowledge as an issue in life. And yet it sat wrong, on a day when yet another woman had lost her life to someone who should have been a partner. When the horror is all around us, and not acknowledged, how then do we read a supposedly fictional horror story and not grieve and rage?

I’m not the only person who has asked this question, and the same Tor.com published this timely post the next day on horror and women’s intuition. This post discusses the trope of the woman who, like Kristine, knows something is wrong. Cassandra-like, she tells of doom, but no one believes her. As the author, Emily Asher-Perrin, notes:

…some of these lessons are simply mirror images of terrors we know all too well—like a girl telling someone that she isn’t comfortable, and being told in response that she’s the worst kind of downer for daring to admit it.

Perhaps I just wish that the critique of Kristine and Noel’s supposed romance was laid out in more than unease and thrilling mystery. After all, Bluebeard was a story designed to keep young women obedient and it was a horror story, too. I want someone to acknowledge that the world, that society, failed Kristine. That she was backed into a corner with no one to rely on, no one to turn to, and only once choice: succumb in a way she might survive, or die. That the world fails women every day, and offers them this same choice. I wish, desperately, that this fiction might not just use that struggle, but acknowledge it in solidarity. And I don’t feel that that happened.