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The Tudor dynasty fascinates me. Perhaps mostly because it culminated in one of England's most remarkable monarchs, Elizabeth I. Perhaps because of its role in history, as the beginning of England's emergence as one of the great powers of Europe in its own right. Perhaps because of the great religious turmoil surrounding the Anglicisation of the English church. And perhaps because of its beginnings in illicit love affairs - one between a widowed Valois princess and a minor Welsh lord, the other between a son of a king and the widow of a simple knight. I'm certainly not alone; the great figures of the Tudor era - Henry VIII, his two most notable wives, the faithful Katherine of Aragon and the enigmatic Anne Boleyn, and his daughters, Queens Mary and Elizabeth - are probably among the most written-about figures of English history.

And so, no matter how many interpretations, fact or fiction, I encounter of these towering figures, it seems I'm always ready for 'just one more.'

Having recently read Alison Weir's novel of Anne Boleyn, it seemed only proper that I read the first in her series about the queens of Henry VIII, Katherine of Aragon, The True Queen. Weir's research and scholarship gives the novel a richness of detail, and I think in this novel she succeeds in giving us a fully humanised portrait of her subject, something that I found lacking in her book about Anne Boleyn. Katherine's journey from naive princess to a queen who has seen too many betrayals, her love for Henry and growing sorrow over her failure to bear a male heir, her steadfast insistence on the legitimacy of her marriage and her one living child, the loneliness, isolation, and pain of separation from her daughter as the divorce proceedings advanced - all these are written with a ring of emotional truth.

Weir writes in an Author's Note: "I have tried in these pages to evoke the sights, textures, sounds, and smells of an age, a lost world of splendor and brutality, and a court in which love, or the game of it, held sway, but dynastic pressures overrode any romantic considerations. It was a world dominated by faith and by momentous religious change—and a world in which there were few saints. This was Katherine’s world, and we can only understand her properly within its context."

In my view, she has succeeded in her goal.

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Keeanga-Yamahtta ​Taylor, African American scholar, socialist and academic - she is assistant professor of African-American Studies at Princeton University - offers a profoundly incisive and extensively researched study of US politics American racism and Black resistance in recent decades in her book From ​#BlackLivesMatter ​to ​Black ​Liberation.

Taylor's viewpoint is grounded in both socialist and anti-racist theory - and her analysis looks at both economic and cultural forces. Taylor's focus here is on the era from the civil rights movement to the #BlackLivesMatter movement, the similarities and differences between the two movements, and ultimately on "the potential for a much broader anticapitalist movement that looks to transform not only the police but the entire United States." However, she begins her analysis with an examination of America's history as a racist state, from the earliest foundation of a slave-based economy to the exclusion of Black Americans from the benefits of the New Deal. In particular, Taylor points to the effects that the cultural myth of "American exceptionalism" has had, particularly in the Cold War period, in suppressing any consideration of institutional and systemic injustice in American society, and the subsequent evolution of the idea of the "culture of poverty" as the reason for the existence of economic and social inequity in the supposedly freest and most economically mobile country in the world.

"The government and its proponents in the financial world were making a global claim that the United States was good to its Black population, and at the same time they were promoting capitalism and private enterprise as the highest expressions of freedom. American boosters sustained the fiction of the “culture of poverty” as the pretext for the persisting inequality between Blacks and the rest of the country. In some ways, this was even more important as the United States continued its quest to project itself as an economic and political empire. Cold War liberalism was a political framework that viewed American racial problems as existing outside of or unrelated to its political economy and, more importantly, as problems that could be fixed within the system itself by changing the laws and creating 'equal opportunity.' "

Taylor notes the beginnings of a wider understanding of racial inequity as a systemic issue - and one with material as well as cultural elements -during the civil rights movement of the early 1960s, the extension of the welfare state under Johnson, and most significantly, in the multiple Black Liberation movements, and particularly The Black Panthers - that followed in the latter half of the 1960s.

"Hundreds of thousands of Black Americans drew even more radical conclusions about the nature of Black oppression in the United States as they were drawn directly into the radicalizing movement; hundreds of thousands more sympathized with the rebellions. The struggle broke through the isolation and confinement of life in segregated Black ghettos and upended the prevailing explanation that Blacks were responsible for the conditions in their neighborhoods. Mass struggle led to a political understanding of poverty in Black communities across the country. Black media captured stories of injustice as well as the various struggles to organize against it, feeding this process and knitting together a common Black view of Black oppression while simultaneously providing an alternative understanding for white people. A Harris poll taken in the summer of 1967, after major riots in Detroit and Newark, found 40 percent of whites believed that “the way Negroes have been treated in the slums and ghettos of big cities” and “the failure of white society to keep its promises to Negroes” were the leading causes of the rebellion. Many, including Martin Luther King Jr., began to connect Black oppression to a broader critique of capitalism."

Unfortunately, as Taylor demonstrates, this early materialist critique of the philosophies and methods of institutionalised racism faded in the 1970s as more conservative, 'personal responsibility' narratives take the central place in the debate on both racism and poverty, and the doctrine of 'colourblindness' emerged as a means of appearing non-racist while continuing to engage in administrative and economic practices that were inherently unjust to people of colour.

"Nixon’s turn to focusing on crime fit snugly with his broader use of colorblindness to champion his domestic policies. There was no need to invoke race in this campaign for law and order, but the consequences of the policies could not have been clearer. Crime was committed by bad people who made bad choices—it was not the product of an unequal social order that left Blacks and Puerto Ricans, in particular, isolated in urban enclaves with little access to good jobs, housing, or schools in a worsening economy. Instead, inequality left poor and working-class people of color to their own devices to advance in a society that had made next to no provisions for them to do so through legal or normative means. These kinds of constrained “choices” were made in white enclaves as well, but those were less surveilled and less likely to be criminalized by the police and the criminal justice system as a whole."

As the political climate in America became increasingly conservative in the years following Nixon - even among Democrats, but alarmingly so among Republicans - the twin narratives of colourblindness and the 'culture of poverty' became fixed as the foundations of public policy. Even among the middle class Blacks who increasingly gained access to positions of political and economic power, these narratives went unchallenged, while social and economic conditions worsened for poor blacks (and other people of colour). By the time that conditions were ripe for the emergence of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, as Taylor notes in comparing the situation in 2014 immediately prior to the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson to that preceding the emergence if the civil rights movement, "The main difference is that today, when poor or working-class Black people experience hardship, that hardship is likely being overseen by an African American in some position of authority. The development of the Black political establishment has not been a benign process. Many of these officials use their perches to articulate the worst stereotypes of Blacks in order to shift blame away from their own incompetence."

Taylor sees the betrayal of black communities by black politicians and elites as the inevitable outgrowth of a switch from grassroots resistance and critique of the political and economic power structure structures to a strategy based on electoral politics - one which, due to the nature of the political process in America left black politicians financially beholden to corporate money and conservative voting bloc brokers.

After examining political viewpoints surrounding the oppression of Black Americans, Taylor turns to an examination of racism and violence toward Blacks in criminal justice institutions.

At the turn of the twentieth century, African Americans began their long transition from living largely in rural areas to living predominantly in urban ones. In that time, there have been many changes in Black life, politics, and culture, but the threat and reality of police surveillance, scrutiny, violence, and even murder has remained remarkably consistent. The daily harm caused by the mere presence of police in Black communities has been a consistent feature of Black urban history and, increasingly, Black suburban history. Police brutality has been a consistent badge of inferiority and second-class citizenship. When the police enforce the law inconsistently and become the agents of lawlessness and disorder, it serves as a tangible reminder of the incompleteness of formal equality. You cannot truly be free when the police are able to set upon you at will, for no particular reason at all. It is a constant reminder of the space between freedom and “unfreedom,” where the contested citizenship of African Americans is held."

She opens with a discussion of laws restricting black movement, employment and home rental/ownership after the Civil War, laws whose violation was punished by enforced labour on municipal projects - thus beginning the carceral-based slavery system that has replaced the plantation-based slavery system.

"The desperate need for labor seemed insatiable; it turned all Black people into potential suspects and justified surveillance and scrutiny. Convict leasing was lucrative for employers compared to slavery, since it involved lower overhead expenses. As one observer put it, “Before the war we owned the Negroes. If a man had a good nigger, he could afford to take care of him; if he was sick get a doctor. He might even put gold plugs in his teeth. But these convicts: we don’t own ’em. One dies, get another.” The police were the linchpin to this new arrangement."

Having set the scene, as it were, by delineating the history of the conditions - institutional racism and its consequences for the average black person, police brutality, the narrative of a 'culture of poverty' and the co-opting of the black elite - which could, given the necessary spark, bring about a new Black liberation movement, Taylor takes a close look at the Obama regime and its influence on perceptions of racism. She recalls the initial optimism of blacks and progressive whites at the election of a black man to the office of President:

"The excitement about Obama turned into postelection euphoria. That was certainly the feeling in Chicago on election night, when a cross-section of the city converged in Grant Park to hear the country’s first Black president-elect address the nation. It was a rare, almost strange scene to see a multiracial crowd gathered in Chicago, one of the most segregated cities in the United States. That was the power of Obama’s calls for hope and change. On the eve of President Obama’s inauguration, 69 percent of Black respondents told CNN pollsters that Martin Luther King’s vision had been 'fulfilled.' In early 2011, asked whether they expected their children’s standard of living to be better or worse than their own, 60 percent of Blacks chose “better,” compared with only 36 percent of whites. This was not just blind hope: it was the expectation that things would, in fact, be better. One researcher described the broader context: 'Certainly, the Obama presidency has fueled euphoria in black circles. But even before Obama came on the scene, optimism was building—most notably among a new generation of black achievers who refused to believe they would be stymied by the bigotry that bedeviled their parents. Obama’s election was, in effect, the final revelation—the long awaited sign that a new American age had arrived.' "Now we have a sense of future,' said Yale sociologist Elijah Anderson. 'All of a sudden you have a stake. That stake is extremely important. If you have a stake, now there’s risk—you realize the consequences of compromising an unknowable future.' Almost 75 percent of African Americans in the South said that Obama would help America rid itself of racial prejudice. Forbes ran an enthusiastic editorial opinion in December 2008 titled 'Racism in America Is Over.' "

Disillusionment with Obama's reticence on racial issues and acceptance of the 'culture of poverty narrative among Blacks helped to build a loose coalition between social justice activists and the economic justice activists of the fledgling Occupy Wall Street movement.

"...Black Occupy activists organized “Occupy the Hood,” whose goal was to raise the profile of the Occupy movement in communities of color across the country and widen the range of people involved. Some “Occupy the Hood” organizers had also been involved in organizing against “stop-and-frisk.” Thus, not only did Occupy popularize economic and class inequality in the United States by demonstrating against corporate greed, fraud, and corruption throughout the finance industry, it also helped to make connections between those issues and racism. The public discussion over economic inequality rendered incoherent both Democratic and Republican politicians’ insistence on locating Black poverty in Black culture. While it obviously did not bury the arguments for culture and “personal responsibility,” Occupy helped to create the space for alternative explanations within mainstream politics, including seeing Black poverty and inequality as products of the system. The vicious attack and crackdown on the unarmed and peaceful Occupy encampments over the winter and into 2012 also provided a lesson about policing in the United States: the police were servants of the political establishment and the ruling elite. Not only were they racist, they were also shock troops for the status quo and bodyguards for the 1 percent."

Taylor pinpoints the killing of Trayvon Martin as the turning point that led to the coalescence of the BlackLivesMatter movement. Despite protests, demonstrations and attempts by Black and anti-racist activists to challenge the narrative, Martin was characterised as a dangerous criminal and his killer, George Zimmerman, as a victim.

"Out of despair over the verdict, community organizer Alicia Garza posted a simple hashtag on Facebook: “#blacklivesmatter.” It was a powerful rejoinder that spoke directly to the dehumanization and criminalization that made Martin seem suspicious in the first place and allowed the police to make no effort to find out to whom this boy belonged. It was a response to the oppression, inequality, and discrimination that devalue Black life every day. It was everything, in three simple words. Garza would go on, with fellow activists Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi, to transform the slogan into an organization with the same name: #BlackLivesMatter. In a widely read essay on the meaning of the slogan and the hopes for their new organization, Garza described #BlackLivesMatter as 'an ideological and political intervention in a world where Black lives are systematically and intentionally targeted for demise. It is an affirmation of Black folks’ contributions to this society, our humanity, and our resilience in the face of deadly oppression.' "

While the death of Martin ad the acquittal of his killer marked the beginning of the BlackLivesMatter movement, Taylor identifies the crucial moment when that ignited mass resistance in the killing of Michael Brown:

"For reasons that may never be clear, Brown’s death was a breaking point for the African Americans of Ferguson—but also for hundreds of thousands of Black people across the United States. Perhaps it was the inhumanity of the police leaving Brown’s body to fester in the hot summer sun for four and a half hours after killing him, keeping his parents away at gunpoint and with dogs. “We was treated like we wasn’t parents, you know?” Mike Brown Sr., said. “That’s what I didn’t understand. They sicced dogs on us. They wouldn’t let us identify his body. They pulled guns on us.” Maybe it was the military hardware the police brandished when protests against Brown’s death arose. With tanks and machine guns and a never-ending supply of tear gas, rubber bullets, and swinging batons, the Ferguson police department declared war on Black residents and anyone who stood in solidarity with them."

As she recounts the growing response to the deaths of Brown and other black boys and men at the hands of police across the country, Taylor draws clear distinctions between the positions of the black 'older statesmen' such as Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson who sought to defuse tensions and re-establish the legitimacy of the government in dealing with police violence and racism, and the younger generations of activists who sought immediate and direct action.

"The young people of Ferguson had great reverence and respect for the memory of the civil rights movement, but the reality is that its legacy meant little in their everyday lives. “I feel in my heart that they failed us,” Dontey Carter said of contemporary civil rights leaders. “They’re the reason things are like this now. They don’t represent us. That’s why we’re here for a new movement. And we have some warriors out here.” When Jesse Jackson Sr. arrived in Ferguson, he was confronted by a local activist, who said, “When you going to stop selling us out, Jesse? We don’t want you here in St. Louis!” Other activists did not go that far, but they did note that young Black people had been thrust into leadership on the ground in Ferguson because they were the ones under attack."

Taylor notes other differences between the BLM movement and the more established Black civil rights organisations - the prominence of women and LGBT people, its decentralised structure and use of social media, the flexibility of its tactics, its work in coalition building with labour and other movements, and the development of a "systemic analysis of policing.... that situated policing within a matrix of racism and inequality in the United States and beyond."

In the book's final chapter, Taylor discusses the ways in which radicalisation on political and economic issues - an analysis that links capitalism to the material conditions that Black and other marginalised people are faced - with is a necessary part of the struggle for Black liberation. She reminds us of the socialist perspectives adopted by 60s activists such as the Combahee River Collective and the Black Panthers, and traces the roots of black radicalism in the United States from the early days of the Communist Party in that country. Beginning with the words of Karl Marx on the relation between colonial exploitation, slavery, and capitalism, she outlines a radical understanding of the relation between the capitalist system and the oppression of black people, leading to the conclusion that only a restructuring of society which embraces economic as well as social justice can bring about the goal of black liberation.

"Racism in the United States has never been just about abusing Black and Brown people just for the sake of doing so. It has always been a means by which the most powerful white men in the country have justified their rule, made their money, and kept the rest of us at bay. To that end, racism, capitalism, and class rule have always been tangled together in such a way that it is impossible to imagine one without the other. Can there be Black liberation in the United States as the country is currently constituted? No. Capitalism is contingent on the absence of freedom and liberation for Black people and anyone else who does not directly benefit from its economic disorder. That, of course, does not mean there is nothing to do and no struggle worth waging. Building the struggles against racism, police violence, poverty, hunger, and all of the ways in which oppression and exploitation express themselves is critical to people’s basic survival in this society. But it is also within those struggles for the basic rights of existence that people learn how to struggle, how to strategize, and build movements and organizations. It is also how our confidence develops to counter the insistence that this society, as it is currently constructed, is the best that we can hope to achieve. People engaged in struggle learn to fight for more by fighting for and winning something. But the day-to-day struggles in which many people are engaged today must be connected to a much larger vision of what a different world could look like."

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I've long been meaning to read Katharine Burdekin's classic dystopia, Swastika Night, and given the political climate of the day, now seemed an appropriate time to finally get around to it. What makes Swastika Night stand out among the other anti-fascist dystopias of its era is the explicit connection that Burdekin makes between fascist ideology and what we would now call 'toxic masculinity.' As Daphne Patai notes in the Introduction to this Feminist Press edition:

"Though Burdekin’s feminist critique appears in her realistic fiction and even in her children’s book, she excelled above all in the creation of utopian fiction, and the special vantage point afforded by the imaginative leap into other ‘societies’ resulted in her two most important books: Swastika Night (1937) and Proud Man (1934). When these novels first appeared, contemporary reviewers tended to miss Burdekin’s important critique of what we today call gender ideology and sexual politics, though on occasion they noted her feminist sympathies, which, indeed, led some to guess that ‘Murray Constantine’ was a woman. With this reprint of Swastika Night, Burdekin’s works may finally begin to find their audience.

Like fictional utopias (‘good places’), dystopias (‘bad places’) provide a framework for levelling criticisms at the writer’s own historical moment. But in imagining in Swastika Night a Europe after seven centuries of Nazi domination, Burdekin was doing something more than sounding a warning about the dangers of fascism. Burdekin’s novel is important for us today because her analysis of fascism is formulated in terms that go beyond Hitler and the specifics of his time. Arguing that fascism is not qualitatively but only quantitatively different from the everyday reality of male dominance, a reality that polarises males and females in terms of gender roles, Burdekin satirises ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ modes of behaviour. Nazi ideology, from this point of view, is the culmination of what Burdekin calls the ‘cult of masculinity’. It is this connection, along with the strong argument against the cult of masculinity, that set Burdekin’s novel apart from the many other anti-fascist dystopias produced in the 1930s and 40s."

In Burdekin's vision of a Fascist future, Teutonic myth, warped medievalism, and the history of a Hitlerian victory in WW2 merge into a religious cult of masculinity, where God the Thunderer and his holy son Hitler preside in heaven over a hierarchy that begins with the German political elite - the Fuehrer and the Ring of Ten - and then widens out to include the Knights, the rank and file Nazis, and then foreign 'Hitlerians' (the 'converts' from other, conquered and occupied countries), all of whom are men. At the bottom of the social order are women - deemed barely more than dumb animals - and Christian men and other 'heathens.' Men are seen as heroic, beautiful, noble, women as ugly, weak, fit only for bearing sons for the glory of Hitler. But in the first pages, the reader is let in on a dire secret that has greatly concerned the upper echelons of this society - fewer and fewer female children are being born to Hitlerian women, a trend which if continued will mean an end to the Hitlerian edifice and possibly to all of humanity.

The novel focuses on three men, of different stations in life: Hermann, a young German of the Nazi class, content to work on the land as his ancestors have, and a devout believer in Hitler; Alfred, an Englishman with whom he became friends (and possibly lovers, there is much homoeroticism in the relationships between men in the novel) during a period of military service in England, a sceptic who believes that if the mystery cult of Hitlerism can be broken, the German Empire can be destroyed; and the old Knight Von Hess, who has seen too much and knows too many secrets - even the secret of history - to believe in anything.

It's a dark dystopia, and much like Orwell's 1984, a dystopia in which even the occasional candlelight of understanding and rebellion against the oppression flickers only for a few minutes, and then is blown out. At the end of the novel, there's no breaking of the bonds, only the faintest hope that some knowledge of the past, of the idea that things could be different, will survive, and someday be found by someone who can use that knowledge to begin a change.

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Trials by Whiteness, edited by science fiction author Jayme Goh, is the latest in Aqueduct Press' series of published essays and conversations arising from the annual WisCon (the oldest feminist-focused science fiction convention, held in Wisconsin). In recent years, Wiscon has ben making attempts to make its focus on feminism an intersectional one, looking at issues of representation, and safer space for POCs in conventions, among other things. In this, the Chronicles of the 40th WisCon, Goh has chosen to interrogate whiteness:

"I want to start a conversation on whiteness. We talk a great deal about representations of people of color in science fiction, because they are erased, invisiblized — they need to be foregrounded, in order to combat the overwhelming whiteness of the genre.

What we do not talk about is how whiteness, so pervasive, all-encompassing, is also invisible, like the water that fish live in. To talk about it is like naming racism — it’s bringing the bogeyman to life. In this logic, racism would not exist if we simply didn’t talk about it — similarly, the problem of whiteness, the problem of white culture, the problem of white supremacy, simply would not exist, because we do not talk about whiteness, do not pinpoint its murky edges. It is only a problem when Nazis are involved, and even then, mostly unremarked upon, because Nazis are not normal, so let’s not normalize them by talking about them."

She goes on to specify her theme as 'trials by whiteness': "... trials by whiteness that people of color face. The slow and steady stream of microaggressions and invalidations. The sudden eruptions of violence. The cold betrayals from loved ones in what should have been a safe and understanding space. We could talk about just white people, but the problem with whiteness is not really about white people per se, but about them in relation to non-white, the Other. To center white people in an analysis of whiteness is to repeat the problem."

The essays and creative works collected in this volume touch on this theme from many perspectives, in many voices. There's much to learn for this white reader in them. And much to remind me of how much I wish I could be a part of this community, these conversations, this learning and teaching and sharing.

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Judith Merril was one of the most influential American science fiction reviewers and editors of the 1960s. She introduced and championed the writers, works and revolutionary aesthetics of the British New Wave in North American, transforming the genre in the process.

In The Merril Theory of Lit’ry Criticism: Judith Merril’s Nonfiction, part of Aqueduct Press' Heirloom series, editor Ritch Calvin has brought together a number of works that illustrate the evolution of Merril's critical theory: review columns, anthology introductions, and other selected essays.

Calvin's introduction to the collection, which he titles "Introduction: The SF Aesthetics of Judith Merril," is in fact an essay that sums up the key aspects of Merril's thinking about science fiction - which she often referred to as science fantasy - as a mature theory of criticism. The essays of Merril collected in the volume show the development of that theory through her ongoing examination of the works of sff writers over the years. They also, as Calvin notes, offer

"...a history of SF, SF authors and editors, and SF publishing. In her reviews, introductions, and tributes, she chronicles the lives and work of many prominent and lesser known figures. She details the lives and deaths of a number of writers and editors. And she recounts the developments within the field as they happened. Over a period of twelve years, we get yearly, and sometimes monthly, updates on who is publishing, what is being written, and how the field is changing."

Reading through the introductions - the earliest of which is for the first edition of SF: The Year's Greatest Science Fiction and Fantasy, published in 1956, is indeed very much a journey through history. As I read her discussions of the authors and works included in these volumes - some of the names still well-known, others barely remembered - I found myself transported back in time, to the memories of the child reading all the sff books she could find in her local library, spending her precious allowance on sff monthly magazines and the occasional new book she found in the carousel bookstands that used to grace variety, department and grocery stores.

I'm grateful to these reminders of the past, to have brought back to mind stories and authors whose works are rarely in the "Best SF Short Stories" anthologies that pick a topic or a decade and republish the great stories that are always republished. I'm also happy to be learning about authors whose work I somehow never encountered as a child - in the hopes that I may some day find an online repository where I can read them now.

A wonderful book for anyone interested in learning about, or revisiting, the history of the genre.

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I was not familiar with Erin Wunker before I decided that her collection of essays, Notes from a Feminist Killjoy: Essays on Everyday Life, sounded interesting and possibly something I'd like to read. In looking her up on the Internet, I've learned that she is a feminist critic, author, and academic, having taught at Dalhousie University, where I was a student for one year, many years ago, and also at Acadia University - my alma mater.

I was won over by her preface, "Letter to My Daughter" in which she wrote:

"When I write about having a gendered body in the world, I think, now, about your tiny infant body. I think, now, about the only kind of prayer I utter with fervency: May you be comfortable in your body and know it is yours. If your body doesn’t fit you, may we find ways to make it yours. May your body only know pleasure and empowerment. May we give you the language to say yes, to say no. May the world be gentle with you. May you not lose that unselfconscious you-ness we hear from your crib when you wake up, singing. May you know the fierceness of strong friendships with women. May you be kind. May you feel held. May you write your own stories."

Yes, I thought, this is someone whose thoughts I want to know more of.

In her introduction, she says of this book:

"This book is a record of me trying to write about feminism at the interstices of critical and literary theory, pop culture, and feminist thinking. At the intersection of those methods and epistemological routes is me. I’m writing in the I. I’m inserting myself in a long and varied tradition of women and other marginalized people working from a situated position of knowledge. I’m also busting in on and turning over tables within the other long tradition of speaking subjects who use I without thinking twice about the privilege that entails. Me, I think twice, three, even four times about that privilege."

Reading this book, I ran across something on almost every page that made me want to share it with the world. That's rare. Some of those passages are definitional sorts of things, from her Introduction. Let me share a few of these with you, dear reader.

"Patriarchal culture is by definition a culture in which masculinity—in people and in things—is privileged as inherently foundational to other states of being. In a patriarchal culture, systems, institutions, and social interactions reinforce this hierarchy. When you live in a patriarchal culture, as in any culture, you begin learning its rules and regulations, as well as the way you fit into them, almost immediately. It’s important to note that patriarchal culture is not an equitable culture. It’s unfair for women and women-identified people, and it’s also unfair for men, though these unfairnesses are not the same, nor do all people experience them the same way. Like any culture or way of being, patriarchal culture appears to be inscrutable. It is so entrenched in our psyches and our ways of moving through the world that it seems impossible to change. "

"Feminist: one who recognizes that the material conditions of contemporary life are built on inequities of gender, race, and class. One who recognizes that patriarchal culture is inherently coercive and stifling for women and other Others. One who works to make those inequities visible and one who works to tear them down. One who recognizes the enormity of the task. One who keeps working."

"Intersectional feminism is a feminist methodology—a way of being, thinking, and moving through the world—that takes into account the multiple factors that shape an individual’s or a group’s lived experience. For example: if we take as a common denominator the category “woman” without an intersectional approach to feminism, we might be tempted to suggest that all women everywhere have certain shared experiences. And then let’s augment this claim with Hortense Spiller’s observation that when people talk about “women” in feminist circles, they usually means “white women.” 15 An intersectional approach, however, takes into account the ways in which different oppressive conditions—sexism, ableism, homophobia, racism, transphobia, classism and so on—are interconnected. We cannot talk about one system in utter isolation from another. The lived experience of a working-class white woman is not identical to the lived experience of an upper-class Black woman or a middle-class trans woman or a woman student who is paraplegic. As legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw points out, we would do well to employ an intersectional lens when looking at different systems of oppression. An intersectional feminist approach takes time and vigilance and practice. It requires that we attune our perceptions to more than our own experiences, thus opening the possibility—the necessity—of attending to the experiences of others."

These are, to me, clear and powerful explanations of some of the most basic, and most foundational and important ideas of feminist thought.

Following on the Introduction, which bears the perfectly apt subhead "Notes for You, Reading," and is an introduction, not just to the book, but to the kind of feminist thinking on which the book is based, Wunker includes three 'essais' - deliberately using the French to invoke the sense of attempts - from the perspective of a feminist 'killjoy' - one who seeks to kill the kinds of joy that take place in a patriarchal culture, that are grounded in the oppression of the Othered - on the topics of rape culture, friendship, and motherhood.

Her writing here is both deeply personal and deeply theoretical, and she cites and discourses on the work of many other women - often women of colour, and women from French-speaking Canada, something that I deeply appreciated, having seen too many books that quote only from the usual white American sources - with maybe a little something from bell hooks or Audre Lorde thrown in as a token non-white voice. And it was a welcome change to read feminist analysis situated in a Canadian perspective.

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Rebecca Solnit's latest collection of essays - The Mother of All Questions - is comprised of pieces written between 2014 and 2016, before the seachange in American life that followed the election of Donald Trump. It seems ironic to be reading, now, of Solnit's guarded optimism on some of the goals of feminist action, such as this passage from her introduction:

"This book deals with men who are ardent feminists as well as men who are serial rapists, and it is written in the recognition that all categories are leaky and we must use them provisionally. It addresses the rapid social changes of a revitalized feminist movement in North America and around the world that is not merely altering the laws. It’s changing our understanding of consent, power, rights, gender, voice, and representation. It is a gorgeously transformative movement led in particular by the young, on campuses, on social media, in the streets, and my admiration for this fearlessly unapologetic new generation of feminists and human rights activists is vast."

I say guarded, because she does follow this with a comment expressing her "...fear of the backlash against it, a backlash that is itself evidence of the threat feminism, as part of the broader project of liberation, poses to patriarchy and the status quo."

Well, the backlash is ramping up - defunding of Planned Parenthood, insane laws surrounding access to abortion that harass not only women who seek to terminate pregnancies but also those who suffer miscarriages, attempts to deny health insurance coverage to all kinds of women's health issues including childbirth - and so it is the more pessimistic parts of these essays, rather than the ones that look at some degree of progress and hope tor more, that resonate with me in my reading. Maybe some day I'll be able to reread this volume and feel the hope.

The cornerstone of the collection is a long essay on silence - the meanings of silence, who is silenced and when, and why, who does the silencing, who is not silenced. It opens thus:

"Silence is golden, or so I was told when I was young. Later, everything changed. Silence equals death, the queer activists fighting the neglect and repression around AIDS shouted in the streets. Silence is the ocean of the unsaid, the unspeakable, the repressed, the erased, the unheard. It surrounds the scattered islands made up of those allowed to speak and of what can be said and who listens. Silence occurs in many ways for many reasons; each of us has his or her own sea of unspoken words.

"English is full of overlapping words, but for the purposes of this essay, regard silence as what is imposed and quiet as what is sought. The tranquility of a quiet place, of quieting one’s own mind, of a retreat from words and bustle, is acoustically the same as the silence of intimidation or repression but psychically and politically something entirely different. What is unsaid because serenity and introspection are sought is as different from what is not said because the threats are high or the barriers are great as swimming is from drowning."

What follows is a discussion of the ways that the voices of the marginalised - Solnit focuses on women but acknowledges that her observations are true of any similarly oppressed and silenced group - are dismissed, ignored, repressed, and stopped, so that they cannot speak the truths of their lived experience, of discrimination, of targeted violence, of injustice and unregarded pain and suffering.

Other essays in the collection take on a variety of feminist issues, from the prevalence of rape jokes, to the expectation of motherhood for all women to the falsehood of the anthropological myth of man the hunter as the ingrained template of our gender-based social roles and expectations.

Solnit is always readable, and her critiques of misogyny and patriarchy are as always well thought out and expressed. I do, however, find myself wishing for more acknowledgement of intersectionality and the ways that the issues she addresses affect women of colour, queer and disabled women as distinct from 'women' - which too often means white women. But it must also be said that she does make such acknowledgements more often than other white feminists whose work I've read.

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Traveler of Worlds: Conversations with Robert Silverberg, by Alvaro Zinos-Amaro and Robert Silverberg, is one of the nominees for the 2017 Hugo awards in the Related Works category. It is a collection of interviews on a variety of subjects conducted by Zinos-Amaro with legendary sf writer Robert Silverberg.

In the Preface, Zinos-Amaro tells us that he became a devoted fan of Silverberg's work when he was still a teenager, an admiration that led to correspondence, then friendship, then a collaboration of sorts, in which Zinos-Amaro completed an unfinished novella by Silverberg, When the Blue Shift Comes. This long association, Zinos-Amaro suggests, was invaluable in helping him frame the interviews, based on his knowledge of Silverberg the writer snd Silverberg the man.

"Thus, while it is true in a literal sense that the conversations comprising Traveler of Worlds unfolded over four weekends in 2015, they were informed and shaped by years of deep, abiding curiosity about Silverberg’s art and life, his experiences, his attitudes and beliefs."

Each of the seven interviews is directed around a theme, but conducted with sufficient flexibility to embrace a variety of related thoughts. The first interview, titled "The Vividness of Landscape," explores Silverbergc's experiences as a world traveller, and how these influenced his work.

The next interview, "Aesthetics," which is one of the largest sections of the book, looks at Silverberg's ideas about writing as an artform - influences, theories, approaches to the structure and realisation of story, craft and technique - and art in general, from painting to opera, landscaping to film. The interview also devotes considerable time to Silverberg's assessment of many of the great writers of literature, including a longish discourse on various translations of Verne's works.

"In the Continuum" is a discussion of day-to day life for Silverberg, retired writer. In talking about his daily activities - professional, personal, and those shared with his wife Karen - Silverberg seems very conscious of the differences in his activities and schedules as a younger man, as someone still actively writing fiction as his job, and what he does now. At one point, he says: "Getting yourself to old age involves excusing yourself from a lot of things you once did. Saying, “I don’t need to do this,” or “I can’t do this, so don’t fool yourself into trying.” One by one, you let go of a lot of things that you formerly did. Or if you’re wise you do, instead of frantically running after them." This section also explores Silverberg's political views. He identifies himself as fiscally conservative - in the traditional sense, he accepts the idea that there should be some taxes, some regulation and some social network for the poor and disadvantaged - and socially libertarian, in that he rejects government intervention in non-economic matters. He has tended to support Republican politicians and expressed criticism of both Obama and Hilary Clinton. I wish I knew what he thinks of Trump.

The next section, "Enwonderment" takes its title from a word coined by Silverberg, who explains: "There are words like “empowerment” that are bandied about very freely, especially here in California. Enlightenment is also frequently heard. As well as I can remember this, I thought I would create “enwonderment” as a kind of analogous noun that explains what science fiction is supposed to do." In this section, Zinos-Amaro inquires about what things in his life have given Silverberg a sense of wonder, from his horticultural hobby to new developments in science, to, of course, science fiction and fantasy.

In "Libraries," Zinos-Amaro talks to Silverberg about libraries - the public and school libraries he frequented as a child and adolescent, the Columbia University library, the various international libraries he has visited as an adult, and his own personal library, which he began to seriously cultivate when as a working writer he had less time to spend doing reading and research outside his home. "So all through, from the Schenectady Avenue branch of the Brooklyn Public Library to my various school libraries—and I always took advantage of those—to the wonderfully sheltering high school library with the red leather banquettes, where I’d sit near a stained-glass window high above the quadrangle, to Columbia, libraries were always important to me. But when I became a professional writer I needed the time to work. I couldn’t spend my time commuting to libraries, especially as I got more and more remote from the nearest good library. I lived in Upper Manhattan, near Columbia, but I no longer had the stack pass, because I was no longer a student. Then I moved to a suburb where there was no library."

In the section titled "Potpourri," Zinos-Amaro poses Silverberg some questions submitted by fans as beginning points of conversation. A question about whether there is, or ever will be, a complete bibliography of all Silverberg's works in all genres, under all pseudonyms, leads to an anecdote about being investigated by the FBI for writing pornography. Silverberg also talks about what he considers to be good and bad writing, with examples from Thomas Hardy, Hemingway and Graham Green.

The final interview, "After the Myths Went Home," is devoted to Silverberg's responses to a question about "your perspective on age, and on what it’s like to look back on a professional writing career that’s lasted over six decades." The book concludes with a brief essay from Silverberg's wife, Karen Haber, about her life with Silverberg.

I enjoyed reading the interviews, seeing Silverberg's responses to some of Zinos-Amaro's questions, and came out with a sense of the man behind the books, although with a somewhat disjointed idea of the shape of his life. Worth reading for anyone who has enjoyed the works, and is curious about the man.


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I was pretty sure that I was going to both enjoy and be enlightened by Trevor Noah's Born a Crime from the first few pages, which were fill of witty, pithy, yet accurate and often poignant observations such as these:

"The genius of apartheid was convincing people who were the overwhelming majority to turn on each other. Apart hate, is what it was. You separate people into groups and make them hate one another so you can run them all."

"The Zulu went to war with the white man. The Xhosa played chess with the white man. For a long time neither was particularly successful, and each blamed the other for a problem neither had created. Bitterness festered. For decades those feelings were held in check by a common enemy. Then apartheid fell, Mandela walked free, and black South Africa went to war with itself."

"Like indigenous peoples around the world, black South Africans adopted the religion of our colonizers. By “adopt” I mean it was forced on us. The white man was quite stern with the native. 'You need to pray to Jesus,' he said. "Jesus will save you.' To which the native replied, 'Well, we do need to be saved—saved from you, but that’s beside the point. So let’s give this Jesus thing a shot.' "

"For a long time I didn’t understand why so many black people had abandoned their indigenous faith for Christianity. But the more we went to church and the longer I sat in those pews the more I learned about how Christianity works: If you’re Native American and you pray to the wolves, you’re a savage. If you’re African and you pray to your ancestors, you’re a primitive. But when white people pray to a guy who turns water into wine, well, that’s just common sense."

Noah's book is part autobiography, part South African history, and part social and political commentary, wrapped up in just enough wit and comedic structure and timing to make it flow smoothly and swiftly, until all of a sudden you're brought up short with a 'wtf?' feeling as you realise the full meaning of what you've just read.

I've had a lot of respect for Noah's presence on TV as a successor to Jon Stewart on The Daily Show. I now also have a lot of respect for him as an author - and as a man who lived through South Africa's troubled post-apartheid times and saw truths so clearly.

His account of his childhood, growing up as a child of mixed race, is lightly told, but horrifying. Under the segregation laws of South Africa, it was illegal for white people to have sex with non-white people; as a child of such a union, Noah was, as the title of the book says, 'born a crime.' His parents were not married - that would have been impossible - nor did they live together. Though his mother lived - quietly, secretly, illegally - in Johannesburg near his father's apartment, Noah could only spend time with his father in private.

"Where most children are proof of their parents’ love, I was the proof of their criminality. The only time I could be with my father was indoors. If we left the house, he’d have to walk across the street from us. My mom and I used to go to Joubert Park all the time. It’s the Central Park of Johannesburg—beautiful gardens, a zoo, a giant chessboard with human-sized pieces that people would play. My mother tells me that once, when I was a toddler, my dad tried to go with us. We were in the park, he was walking a good bit away from us, and I ran after him, screaming, “Daddy! Daddy! Daddy!” People started looking. He panicked and ran away. I thought it was a game and kept chasing him."

But it wasn't just his father who could not acknowledge him publicly. His mother, a dark-skinned Xhosa woman, could not be seen with a 'coloured' - the South African classification for person of mixed race - child without everyone knowing she had committed the crime of sleeping with a white man.

"It was illegal to be mixed (to have a black parent and a white parent), but it was not illegal to be colored (to have two parents who were both colored). So my mom moved me around the world as a colored child. She found a crèche in a colored area where she could leave me while she was at work. There was a colored woman named Queen who lived in our block of flats. When we wanted to go out to the park, my mom would invite her to go with us. Queen would walk next to me and act like she was my mother, and my mother would walk a few steps behind, like she was the maid working for the colored woman. I’ve got dozens of pictures of me walking with this woman who looks like me but who isn’t my mother. And the black woman standing behind us who looks like she’s photobombing the picture, that’s my mom. When we didn’t have a colored woman to walk with us, my mom would risk walking me on her own. She would hold my hand or carry me, but if the police showed up she would have to drop me and pretend I wasn’t hers, like I was a bag of weed."

It was just as much a problem when his mother took him to visit his black relatives in Soweto. A coloured child in a black township was just as much a threat to his family as a coloured child in a white city.

"My gran still tells the story of when I was three years old and, fed up with being a prisoner, I dug a hole under the gate in the driveway, wriggled through, and ran off. Everyone panicked. A search party went out and tracked me down. I had no idea how much danger I was putting everyone in. The family could have been deported, my gran could have been arrested, my mom might have gone to prison, and I probably would have been packed off to a home for colored kids. So I was kept inside."

Noah's memories of his childhood make one thing perfectly clear - that he attributes much of his own character to his mother's independence and choices to live as far as she could outside the legal and social limitations imposed by South African apartheid.

"My mom raised me as if there were no limitations on where I could go or what I could do. When I look back I realize she raised me like a white kid—not white culturally, but in the sense of believing that the world was my oyster, that I should speak up for myself, that my ideas and thoughts and decisions mattered.

We tell people to follow their dreams, but you can only dream of what you can imagine, and, depending on where you come from, your imagination can be quite limited. Growing up in Soweto, our dream was to put another room on our house. Maybe have a driveway. Maybe, someday, a cast-iron gate at the end of the driveway. Because that is all we knew. But the highest rung of what’s possible is far beyond the world you can see. My mother showed me what was possible. The thing that always amazed me about her life was that no one showed her. No one chose her. She did it on her own. She found her way through sheer force of will."

Noah completed the book prior to his becoming an American TV host, and the book itself contains very little about his professional life, or how he made the transition from a teenaged boy hustling pirated CDs to get by, to a well-known and admired comedian and TV personality. Perhaps that's for another book.

This one is the narrative of a mixed race child growing up in one of the most oppressive and racist societies in the world, and surviving. And it's well worth reading.

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Alison Weir's latest novel in her series about the wives of Henry VII, Anne Boleyn, A King's Obsession, is Weir's interpretation of the story of Anne Boleyn, the woman who triggered the creation of the Church of England through her relationship with King Henry.

There have been many different interpretations of Anne's life and character, from villainous harlot to innocent and loving victim of Henry's overwhelming desire to have a male heir. Weir takes an interesting path between the extremes, giving us an intelligent and ambitious Anne who may not have loved Henry, but consented to her pursuit of her for reasons more charitable than greed and power-madness, an Anne who did not betray the King in deed, but who may well have allowed the game of courtly love to go too far with a man, or men, for whom she felt greater emotional affinity than she did for her husband. Weir's Anne is an early church reformer, who pressed Henry to break with the Church of Rome, not just to facilitate their marriage, but to give Henry the power to correct abuses of the people by church and clergy.

Weir says about her interpretation of Anne: "In writing this novel from Anne’s point of view, I have tried to reconcile conflicting views of her, and to portray her as a flawed but very human heroine, a woman of great ambition, idealism, and courage who found herself in an increasingly frightening situation."

Weir is, as one would expect, painstaking in her research and she fills her novel with explicit detail, paying close attention to where Anne was, at various points in her life, and the people she was likely to have encountered and how they interacted. From that perspective, the book succeeds in giving us a fairly full picture of Anne's comings and goings, and her known and possible dealings with family, friends, and with members of the courts of three countries - Burgundy, France and England.

Unfortunately, I found this portrayal of Anne somewhat flat, as if, despite Weir's telling of the story from Anne's perspective, we are seeing more of the outward than the inner woman - a license the writer of history cannot take, but the writer of fiction must.

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Craig ​Timberg's Tinderbox: ​How ​the ​West ​Sparked ​the ​AIDS ​Epidemic was, as far as I can tell from reading a few reviews, somewhat controversial when it was first published. Certainly there's a lot in this book, which looks primarily at how the AIDS epidemic started, and the conditions that both encouraged and hindered its spread in Africa, that makes one stop and think.

Timberg begins with an anti-colonialist narrative of how AIDS finally, after centuries of being confined to the simian population of Central Africa with no significant or recorded crossing of species lines, erupted into the human population. He identifies Western engagement in Africa as the catalyst, from the vast social disruptions caused by European projects intended to steal the resource wealth of the continent by forcing its people to do the work of harvesting and transporting, to the effects of both Christianisation and forced separation of families on traditional patterns of marriage, initiation rituals and sexual activity.

In particular, he points to a history of circumcision as an initiation ritual, and the tendency to have polyamorous but closed circles of sexual relationships as two traditions that might have limited the spread of AIDS throughout Africa had they not been lost in the decades of colonialist exploitation and ' modernisation.'

Timberg presents considerable evidence that the greater resistance of circumcised men to HIV infection was noted on many occasions during early research into risk factors, but never considered as a potential part of prevention education and programming.

He also notes that in those instances where African nations focused on trying to change sexual behaviour, stressing the idea of faithfulness within relationships and partner reduction in general (such as the 'zero grazing' program in Uganda) rates of infection fell significantly.

The narrative he constructs around attempt to slow the rate of infections across Africa contrasts the mostly African-based programs focused on changing sexual behaviour with programs imposed from outside along with Western aid money, which stressed condom use. He also contrasts attempts to introduce multi-faceted prevention programs, such as ABC (abstinence, be faithful, condoms), with programs focusing only on using condoms. Summarising the findings of one epidemiologist who examined the effectiveness of condom-centred prevention programs, Timberg says:

"Hearst found that condoms rarely failed when used properly by individuals, but he couldn’t find any examples of condom promotion campaigns slowing HIV’s spread in African societies with widespread epidemics. He acknowledged their role in reducing infection in epidemics such as Thailand’s, where transmission was concentrated within the sex industry. But while African men often used condoms in casual hookups or with prostitutes, few did so with their wives or girlfriends, despite years of public health campaigns encouraging the practice. He also raised the unsettling possibility, stimulated by some disturbing findings his research team had made in Uganda, that aggressive condom promotion campaigns, often featuring racy images and double entendres, may make casual sex seem more acceptable, potentially helping to spread HIV."

Condoms seemed not the be the answer for Africa, a possibility that few Westerners were willing to accept. Instead, Timberg suggests that the program ultimately championed by his collaborator in this book, David Halperin, focused on circumcision, partner reduction and changes in sexual behaviour, would be more effective in African nations: "What existed in Africa’s AIDS Belt, and in only a couple of other places on earth, was a “lethal cocktail” of extensive heterosexual networks and low circumcision rates. Changing either factor, on a broad enough level, could cause the pace of new infections to slow dramatically."

While Timberg deplores the imposition of Western ideas of how to fight the spread of the disease on African cultures, he does not ignore the mistakes made by African governments - often prompted by a desire to refute Western perceptions of Africans as promiscuous, primitive, and sexually over-active, or by resistance to conditions attached to money intended to help prevent the rising number if new infections and treat those already infected.

It is an interesting book, and one that tries to look at the ways in which Western imperialism and ignorance have affected the path of the disease in Africa. I find myself wishing, though, for a book that covers similar ground written by an African.

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Voting for the Hugos means reading graphic novels, something I'm trying to do more of, but.... So many, many books, so very little time.

I continue to enjoy the Ms. Marvel series by G. Willow Wilson. In Vol. 5, Super Famous, the adventure plot has sone things to say about gentrification and the effects of urban redevelopment on communities, but it's the interpersonal material that's pure gold. As usual, the best parts are about Kamala trying to negotiate her day-to-day life while balancing that with being a suoerhero and member of the Avengers. Naturally, this goes terribly wrong as she tries to do what she thinks is expected from her on all sides, but everything ends well with Kamala learning some important lessons about priorities and staying sane and level-headed in the midst of chaos.

I had never really been aware of a superhero named Vision before reading the Hugo-nominated The Vision, Volume 1: Little Worse Than A Man, written by Tom King, and illustrated by Gabriel Hernandez Walta. The IMDB says he was in the recent Avengers films, but I guess my attention slid right over him in favour of the superheroes I did know.

In any case, this is an excellently written and deeply frightening graphic story - I want to know how it ends, but I'm not sure I want to read any more of it. Vision, apparently, is an artificial life form created with the use of the brainwaves of a real human being. At one point he had a human wife and children, but they died, so he has made himself a synthetic family to replace them, and moved them into a nice middle-class suburban neighbourhood. And just as sure as if this were a Steven King novel about death and hubris, things go horribly, horribly wrong. Small mistakes and misunderstandings, misjudgements, errors and then attempts to cover up the errors to make everything seem perfect on the surface, it all piles up.

The story is told in a very objective, almost mechanical fashion, almost in the style of a casebook or police report, a contrast to the increasingly violent and horror-filled events of the narrative. Not going to forget this soon.

Unfortunately, I was not nearly as enthused by Volume 1 of Brian K. Vaughan's Paper Girls. It's the story of four young teens - all girls who have early morning paper routes in the same typical American town in the '80s - who get caught up in something called The Ablution involving horribly disfigured teens from the future battling armoured warriors riding mutated pterodactyls and the disappearance of most of the people in their town. When one of the girls is shot by accident, the future teens offer help, and the girls team up with them temporarily and reluctantly. Various twists and turns later - all of which happen very suddenly and serve only to further confuse the reader (or at least, this reader) - the paper girls find themselves thrown forward in time, only to meet with the future self of one of them on a dark and lonely road. End Volume 1.

Alas, despite my confusion, I am not tempted to find out what's going on. The somewhat frantic pace, and the deliberate 'let's confuse everyone' tone of the work, left me cold, and not even the prospect of a story about four girls was enough to warm me up.

Interlude

Aug. 12th, 2017 11:39 am
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As readers of my other Dreamwidth journal may recall, I recently experienced a serious health crisis - which I am not yet recovered from - which cut short my writing about what I've read. I have a number if partially written pieces, sone of which are about Hugo reading, which I will finish and post as I am able to, even though the Hugo-related pieces are rather dated at this point.

I'm doing much more sleeping than reading or writing these days, so entries here may be sparse and sporadic for some time to come.
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Ta-Nehisi Coates' re-imagining of the black comic hero the Black Panther, is thoughtful, exciting, deeply political, and - sadly - too much for Marvel and its core readers, as the series has been cancelled. But we will have what Coates has already done with the series, as a testament to what hero comics can be.

Vol 1 of Black Panther, titled A Nation Under Our Feet, delivers us into a country in great turmoil. Previous writers - as I learn from various summaries on the Internet - have left the series a legacy of contradictions and tragedies. The country of Wakanda, a technologically advanced African society largely hidden from the rest of the world, ruled by a long line of absolute monarchs with mystical powers able to become the Black Panther. An orphaned king who left his people to be a superhero to the outside world, bringing the destructive wrath of evil supervillains down on the country he left in the hands of others.

Coates begins with a Wakanda in chaos. Unrest, rebellion, revolution threaten. The king, T'Challa, is here no wise and benevolent king, but a confused and conflicted man, not understanding why his people are at war with each other, and with him. The first novel casts T'Challa as, in fact, the 'bad guy' by default, because of his lack of comprehension, his lack of connection to his people. The various rebels seem on the side of good - especially the two renegade warriors Ayo and Aneka. Formerly members of the king's elite, all-female bodyguard (shades of the Dahomey warrior-wives of the king), they have become vigilantes fighting against a brutal leader in northern Wakanda whose regime is one of enslavement and rape of women. It is in this subplot that we most clearly see that T'Challa - and his advisors and military leaders and others of the royal faction - are completely out of touch with the situation of the people, and trapped in an out-moded mythos in which the king's word is unquestioned law, and tradition outweighs true justice. If T'Challa is to learn to become both leader and hero, he has a long way to go.

The artwork, by Brian Stelfreeze, is strong and powerful, with appropriate touches of a softer and more mystical style when the subject matter demands it.

I will be reading all there is of this Black Panther, and sorrowing when the story comes to its untimely end.

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Peter Grant is a probationary constable with the London police. He wants to be a detective one day, but his superiors see his future to lie in the realms of data entry - desk support for the coppers out on the street so they don't drown in paper work. Then, one night as he's standing guard on a crime scene, a witness comes forward with an account of the murder - the only problem is that Grant can't do anything with the information, because his witness is a ghost.

Thus begins Rivers of London, the first volume of Ben Aaronovitch's urban fantasy detective series. As is the common conceit in this subgenre, there is a secret branch of the police tasked with the investigation of crimes with a supernatural aspect - though the wrinkle here is that, in the belief that science is making the notion of having sorcerers on the police force obsolete, there's only one active member of the supernatural investigations unit, Chief Inspector Thomas Nightingale, and he's not welcomed by other senior investigators when he shows up.

But after he sees the ghost witness, Grant is approached by Nightingale and invited to become his apprentice, and the first new member of the supernatural investigations unit in a vey long time. Rivers of London is the story of Grant's first experiences with the magical and mystical side of police work, and his early days as an apprentice sorcerer.

As using magic seems to do things like short out modern technology, Grant is forced to turn to a colleague and friend, Constable Lesley May, for access to regular sources of information such as surveillance footage and police databases. May seems to take Grant's entry into the world of sorcery in stride, so much so that she's more or less acknowledged by her governor (Britcop speak for senior officer) as a liaison to the sorcery unit.

One thing I liked very much about Rivers of London that I don't always find in detective stories, fantasy or mundane, set in London is an acknowledgement of the multiracial makeup of the city. Grant himself is of mixed racial background, and in a marvellous comment on the ways that generations of immigration from former colonial holdings have changed the city, the current physical vessel of the spirit of Mother Thames is a black woman who understands her metaphysical circumstances within the framework of West African religious tradition.

I also enjoyed the way that Aaronovitch makes use of the history of London, from its early days as a Roman camp to the founding of the Bow Street Runners, weaving small threads from the enormous tapestry that is the two-thousand year story of London into the narrative.

In fact, I enjoyed Rivers of London and am rather intrigued to see where the next volume takes Peter Grant, and us.

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Two Serpents Rise, the second volume in Max Gladstone's Craft Sequence, continues to blend of fantasy and suspense in a world where religion and Craft - faith and magic - are sometimes complementary, and sometimes drastically opposed. In the first volume, we saw religion and Craft co-existing in relative harmony, in a city controlled by a god but depending on Craft to assess the situation when things go terribly wrong. In this installment, a practitioner of Craft fought with and destroyed a god, taking control of the territory it ruled for himself, driving the old priests underground. Where the god of Alt Coloumb was a relatively benign god, asking only the standard tribute of prayer and devotion, the gods in this case were of the sort that demanded ritual sacrifice, living hearts cut from human bodies and offered to the gods. The King in Red, the Craftsman who killed the gods, lost his lover to the altar stone.

The setting is the vast city of Dresediel Lex, built in the desert, dependent on the Craft of Red King Consolidated, its leading Concern - a magical conglomerate of people, energies and legal bindings - to supply the water its people need to survive. In order to expand its power base, RKC is on the midst of negotiations to merge with Heartstone, another Concern that manipulates the energies of two bound and sleeping demi-gods who take the shape of giant serpents.

When one of the the main reservoirs the city relies on is magically infested with tzimet, monsters that could poison the water and kill millions, Caleb Altemoc, one of RKC's risk management team, is called in to deal with the situation and ensure that it does not damage negotiations with Heartstone. He has several suspects to follow up on: the old priests, who have been waging guerilla warfare against the new order, and whose leader, the firmer high priest, is Caleb's father; and a mysterious 'cliff runner' - the ultimate in parkour - named Mal, who turns out to be a senior official with Heartstone. The problem is, both insist they are innocent. As incidents threatening the water supply multiply, it's up to Caleb to discover the truth behind them. And save the city.

It took me a little longer to get into this novel than the previous one in the series, probably because of the father-son conflict - it is such a common trope that I've developed a bit of an allergy to it through overexposure. But as the story developed and other layers were added, I became quite happily engaged with the story and its themes.

And I'm becoming quite intrigued with the ideas that Gladstone is working with in these novels. So far, in addition to the obvious question of the role and importance of faith in human nature, there are definite issues of the nature of good governance and the way that people, governments, financial systems and ecologies are interconnected. The legal language of the Craft and the flows of energy, devotion and 'soulstuff' in the novels are literalisations of the way that multiple systems in societies, and multiple societies, are entwined and affect one another. Very interesting stuff.

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I read Ms. Marvel Vol. 1, written by G. Willow Wilson, two years ago when it was nominated for a Hugo in the Best Graphic Story category. I enjoyed it, and read Vol. 2, and then sort of stopped.

The thing with Ms. Marvel and me is that I find the action parts of the stories kind of boring. What
I enjoy is the inbetween things, the glimpses of her homelife, the depiction of her internal struggles over heritage, culture and religion vs. living in a secular American city, over being a teenager with parents and an older brother and school to deal with vs. being a superhero and trying to fight evil. I enjoy watching her grow up - she is only 16 - and learn the lessons all people must learn, only writ large because her powers have made her larger than life in certain ways.

So I skimmed the comics, paying more attention to her relationships and internal growth than I do to the other stuff. And now it's time to catch up, because Vol. 5 has been nominated for a Hugo, which meant going back to read Vol. 3 and Vol. 4. In these volumes, the personal lessons have been integrated a bit more solidly into the plot, so I enjoyed reading these stories a bit more than the earlier ones.

In Vol. 3, Kamala meets Kamran, the son of old friends of her parents, and at first he seems perfect - they have so much in common, and he too turns out to be an Inhuman. The early warning signs are subtle, but then, abusers are often charming and hide their true natures well. By the time Kamala understands what he really is, he has used his powers to abduct her, imprison her, and try to force her to become a follower of an Inhuman called Lineage. He succeeds for a while in making Kamala feel guilty and at fault for what he's done to her, but when she realises just how much he is on the wrong side, she pulls herself together and kicks butt.

Ms. Marvel Vol. 4 is a bit of a change of pace, almost a sideline to something that is going on in the larger Marvel universe - the Incursion, we learn from Captain Marvel, aka Carol Danvers, and the end of the world, and other huge stuff - but for Ms. Marvel, it's about smaller, more personal things. Meeting and briefly working with her hero Carol Danvers. Saving her brother Aamir from Kamran, who wants to turn him into an inhuman to reinstate himself in Lineage's good graces. Coming out to her mother as Ms. Marvel. Mending bridges with old friends, and classmates. And confronting the emotional bonds between her and Bruno. I enjoyed this the most of all the Ms. Marvel stories so far, precisely because it's about these things, and the superhero action arc is going on somewhere else, with other superheroes taking point.

And now I'm caught up with Ms. Marvel and ready to read Vol. 5 for the Hugos.

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I keep meaning to read more graphic novels, but somehow it's mostly during the Hugo season that I actually do, and that's because of the Best Graphic Story category. I've enjoyed several of the specific volumes I've read for the Hugos, but somehow I rarely follow up on the multi-part stories.

Monstress Volume 1: The Awakening, written by Marjorie Liu and illustrated by Sana Takeda, is another of those graphic novels that was enjoyable while reading - though also deeply disturbing - but I'm not at all certain I'll be continuing to read it (unless more volumes are nominated for Hugos in future years). Not because it isn't a good story, because it is. But after lots if attempts, I've come to understand that I shy away from reading graphic novels because it is physically difficult fir me, and few stories are compelling enough to override that.

Some of those who read these reviews know that I have severe multiple chemical sensitivities and am bedbound due to multiple disabilities. What this means is that I can't read anything printed on paper - it's too toxic for me, especially paper with lots of ink, like graphic novels. So everything I read must be electronic. But because I spend all my tine lying in bed, everything I read, I read on an iPad. Any other device is too heavy. And I have arthritis and poor eyesight. There's no reader out there that allows me to read graphic novels without a lot of pinching and swiping around each page to get all the important dialogue and visual detail. And by the time I've read a few pages, my fingers and my eyes hurt. So.... I tend to shy away from graphic novels. Nonetheless, I will do my best to read those nominated and not let my circumstances bias me against the medium. So.... On with my thoughts on Monstress.

Visually, Monstress is a stunning piece of work - intricately drawn, dense but never 'busy,' a feast for the eyes. Takeda blends artistic traditions to create marvellous images, though she is at her best with inanimate subjects - architectural designs and atmospheric backgrounds, clothing, machines, furniture, and so on. Her living characters seem curiously unfinished, rather like dolls.

The narrative is complex and disturbing, set in a post-war, almost post-apocalyptic world where two enemy civilisations, still opposed but not actively at war, appear to be recovering from a cataclysmic event. On one side, the human federation in which considerable power lies with the all-female sorcerer-scientist order of the Cumaea; on the other, the non-human Arcanes, rumoured to have access to powers or beings known as the monstrum.

The story focuses on Maika, an Arcanic, a former slave of the Federation, living with other escapees and dispossessed arcanics in a sort of demilitarised zone between the two nations. She possesses powers she cannot use at will or control, though they appear when she is in great distress. She is connected in some way to the catastrophic event that ended open warfare between humans and arcanics. And she is seeking the truth about her mother and herself, a truth that she believes can only be found among the Cumaea.

At the beginning of the story, Maika has allowed herself to be captured and enslaved by humans. She and several other Arcanics, all children, have been claimed by the Cumaea as slaves, but from almost the beginning it is clear that the Cumaea - like other humans - see the Arcanes as animals and so fit subjects both for torture by those who seek pleasure in the children's pain, and scientific experimentation by those who seek to know more about the Arcanes and their power.

The story is hard to read, even harder to look at. Takeda's brilliant artwork is often used to portray scenes of humiliation, torture, vivisection, and violence. In an afterword to the first issue, Liu talks about the genesis of the story in her grandparents' memories of war and xenophobic hatred and violence - based on timing, I'm guessing her grandparents would have been survivors of the invasion of China by Imperial Japan, or both. Malka is a refugee, an orphan, an escaped slave, an amputee, a victim of war and violence and racial hatred, and she carries within her the power to wreak vengeance, or to simply spread violence indiscriminately as survivors of trauma often do. She has the capacity to be a monster, and it stems from her suffering and pain. It's one hell of a story, relevant in all times of violence and war, about what these all too common pursuits of humanity can do to our souls.
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The world of Max Gladstone's Craft Sequence fantasy novels is a unique one, where black magic, religion and law are intertwined, and the practices of both faith and Craft rely on a structure of legal contracts that bind both human and divine energies. There are real gods (though not so many as there once were, since the God Wars) whose obligations to and receipt of devotion from followers are bound by contracts, contracts to grant power in return for worship. Craftsmen and Craftswomen are magician-lawyers who use their own human energies to work magic, and who are called on to execute, negotiate, record, oversee, and when necessary litigate contract issues involving both humans and gods. Using the language of law, with its complexity and precision, to describe and constrain transactions of magical and divine power reminded me of Diane Duane's Young Wizards books, where a kind of symbolic mathematics is used in much the same way.

Three Parts Dead is the first novel written in the universe of the Craft, but not the first chronologically. However, Gladstone informs his readers that the novels can all stand alone - and the fact that he has built such a following of fans while writing the books out of chronological order supports this - so I'm exploring the series in publication order.

Just as Gladstone's Craft universe is a unique blend of magic and law, Three Parts Dead is a fusion of fantasy and the kind of legal thriller one expects from a John Grisham. Criminal investigation, interrogation of witnesses, following up on clues, and courtroom strategies mingle with magicians, gargoyles, vampires and gods.

Kirkus Reviews summarised the basic premise of the novel more succinctly than I could: "The God Kos has died in the city Alt Coulumb, and the international necromantic firm of Kelethres, Albrecht and Ao has been tasked by the Church to resurrect the god before panic and chaos causes the city to inevitably collapse upon itself. First-year associate Craftswoman Tara Abernathy and her senior-partner boss, Elayne Kevarian, travel to Alt Coulumb to bring the god back to life only to find out that Kos was, in fact, murdered. Tara leads the murder investigation, aided by Abelard, a chain-smoking priest, and his friend Cat, a junkie-cum-policewoman. As the trio navigates the ups and downs of Alt Coulumb, they are immersed in its history, politics and religious system." (https://www.kirkusreviews.com/features/max-gladstones-delightfully-misleading-three-parts/)

Gladstone's prose sings, carrying the reader deep into his world of gods and Craft. His characters are for the most part strongly realised and well-developed - though the villain of the piece came across as a bit too much of a mustache-twirling megalomanic. The plot is wonderfully twisted, with unexpected turns and sudden reversals and all the trappings of a superior suspense thriller. And the conclusion is quite satisfying. I'm looking forward to further exploration of the Craft Sequence.

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Recently, I've been thinking I was probably the only person in sff fandom who hadn't read The Expanse novels by James S. A. Corey (the pen name of writing duo Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck) - particularly following the success of the TV series based on them, which I have been watching and enjoying. But then the series showed up on the Hugo nominee list, and the second season of the series ended with some of my favourite characters in really hard-to-wait-for cliffhanger situations, so, I have two very good reasons to read the series.

The first novel in the series, Leviathan Wakes, is an interesting mix of classic space opera, hard-boiled detective noir, and political thriller. Given its beginnings as an MMORPG, it's not surprising that the worldbuilding is complex and detailed. The politics - from the unified Earth government to the rebellious Belter-based OPA - are well developed and realistic, and the places - Earth, a partly terraformed Mars, Lunar settlements, communities of anywhere from thousands to millions of inhabitants wormed into asteroids, and facilities on several of the outer planet moons - are fully realised, distinct entities, with their own characters, cultures, backgrounds and goals.

Navigating all of this is the hardest-luck group of misfit spacers I've seen in a long time. Before we're more than a few chapters in, James Holden, former XO of a belt-based ice-hauler and his faithful companions Naomi, Amos and Alex have had two ships blown to bits around them, inherited a state of the art battleship that's going to make them magnets for risky ventures, and stumbled into a mysterious secret that will tear apart the fragile balance of power of the entire solar system. Later on, they are joined - for a while - by Miller, a cynical cop on the way down obsessed with a missing woman named Julie Mao who just happens to be a key part of the mystery that's haunted - or cursed - Holden and his crew.

That mystery is an alien organic substance capable of manipulating biomass according to its internal programming - whatever that might have been. Seeded inside an icy rock two billion years ago by an unknown civilisation and sent to land on earth for reasons unknown, it ended up instead in orbit around Saturn when its vehicle was captured by gravity and became the satellite that humans would call Phoebe. It is eventually found and exploited by by Protogen Corporation - who named it the protomolecule - who hope to develop it into a salable weapon. Their 'research' ultimately leads to the deaths - or something perhaps worse - of millions of Belter 'test subjects' - among them, Julie Mao - in an attempt to understand and change the protomolecule's programming.

As Holden, his crew, and Miller follow the trail and learn more about the protomolecule and the actions of Protogen, the mission becomes not just keeping all-out war from erupting across the solar system, but protecting humanity from the the alien protomolecule and those who want to use it fir their own purposes.

The plot is tight and full of twists and excitement, the authors take care to seem scientifically plausible, and the action set-pieces are varied and imaginative. Where the book falls down is in characterisation and writing. There are some moments where the essence of the characters shines through, but it's infrequent and inconsistent. And the writing is for the most part pedestrian, at times even a touch clunky.

The story is so far more than enough to keep me reading, and wanting to know where it's all going, but the getting there sometimes feels a bit like slogging. I'm hoping that the later novels will be a bit improved in terms of technique, because I'm hooked on the plot.

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