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Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 2.8.2013
Book from: Personal collection

“My name’s Quinn. If you buy into my reputation, I’m the most notorious demon hunter in New England. But rumors of my badassery have been slightly exaggerated. Instead of having kung-fu skills and a closet full of medieval weapons, I’m an ex-junkie with a talent for being in the wrong place at the right time. Or the right place at the wrong time. Or…whatever.

Wanted for crimes against inhumanity I (mostly) didn’t commit, I was nearly a midnight snack for a werewolf until I was ‘saved’ by a vampire calling itself the Bride of Quiet. Already cursed by a werewolf bite, the vamp took a pint out of me too. So now… now, well, you wouldn’t think it could get worse, but you’d be dead wrong.”

The recently released Blood Oranges looks to be kicking up some dust in the vicinity of urban/paranormal fantasy, which is as it should be: Caitlín Kiernan, writing under the pseudonym of Kathleen Tierney, aimed it as a rejoinder to many of the more questionable indulgences of the genre, whether they be tramp-stamped, pleather-clad heroines or beglittered vampires. It’s also a fast-paced, profane, and combustive little thriller with an unapologetically queer, thoroughly ornery protagonist who’s suffered the tragicomical fate of being transformed into the world’s only werepire. (At least her heroin addiction is gone.)

Since I lack a generalized sense of vindictiveness towards urban-whatever fantasy, I don’t find particular satisfaction in trope-busting per se, and some of Quinn’s acid meta-commentaries – about how if she had been a character in that kind of book, this would have happened that way, but she’s not, so it didn’t – do go on a bit. What does interest me about the device is how it helps inform Quinn as a character. As fun as pyrotechnics and various deaths-by-werewolf can be, I found it far more rousing to watch the way that, tedious particulars aside, Quinn constructs and references narratives, then unceremoniously shreds them in her wake. Junkies lie, she tells us very early on. And so, after she’s rattled off a grimly spectacular rendition of her origins as a monster-slayer, it soon comes out that in fact she’s “been stretching the truth like it was a big handful of raspberry-flavored saltwater taffy.” The real origin story involves significantly more clumsiness and bad timing on the part of the defunct monsters.

While Quinn never repeats that gambit to quite that degree in the rest of the novel, digressions and evasions continue to criss-cross and loop around her narration – pop-cultural riffs and potshots, reminiscences that slide back and forth across time and various shadings of the truth. Combined with the raw prose (Quinn warns us that she’s no writer), what comes across is the voice of a young woman who’s talking too fast, sometimes too loudly or too softly, compulsively running her hands through her hair, and not much meeting your eyes – someone rough, vibrant, and, despite the efforts of numerous supernatural beings, very much alive.

Quinn doesn’t have enough agency to be a really free-wheeling trickster character (like many of Kiernan’s characters, she’s trapped in a relationship with a dubiously benevolent protector/mentor/creator), but in her exuberant roughness, her scrappiness, her avowed suspicion of anything resembling a moral code, there’s a definite, electric touch of the trickster spirit. Temper that with the sense of submerged loss that’s another constant in Kiernan’s work, and you have a protagonist whose wry, sometimes melancholy self-awareness convincingly undergirds the satire.

Go to:
Caitlin R. Kiernan: bio and works reviewed
“So Runs the World Away,” by Caitlin R. Kiernan (2001): review by Emera
Alabaster, by Caitlin R. Kiernan (2006): review by Emera
The Red Tree, by Caitlin R. Kiernan (2009): review by Emera

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Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 10.8.2012
Read the story online at Tor.com here.

This is my first time reading anything by Rachel Swirsky; I’ve had her multiply-award-winning/nominated “The Lady Who Plucked Red Flowers Beneath the Queen’s Window” bookmarked for a while, but got lured into this one first on the basis that it’s illustrated by Sam Weber, one of my favorite contemporary illustrators of weird stuff.

“Portrait of Lisane de Patagnia” is a dark, erotically charged tale concerning an embittered artist with more magical than painterly ability, who is summoned to fulfill a final commission for her former teacher, the incandescent, ambition-devoured Lisane de Patagnia. In this world, magically imbued artwork is considered inferior to sheer human talent, which is a good parallel to contemporary regard of technology-assisted/-enhanced skills – the devaluation by some of digital artwork as compared to traditional, say.

The story’s Italian-Renaissance-inspired setting is refreshing, and the few descriptions of magic are unsettlingly beautiful, playing off of the cool poise of the narrator’s voice. (I particularly liked the opening description: the narrator’s process of painting a river sips away at the jug of water next to her.)

However, though Swirsky is clearly familiar with the principles and history of visual art (the story touches on a Brunelleschi-analogue who invented linear perspective, which serves as the basis of a pleasing image of his artistic lineage stretching out into the present), she doesn’t write about any of it very movingly. The descriptions of composition are labored (“the oval of his head bowed toward the shaking rectangle of his chest, his newly shorn hair dark against his pale scalp”), and when writing about color, rather than the evocative, alchemical specificity of actual artists’ pigments, she relies on a commonplace toolkit of “emerald” green, “faint yellow,” and so forth. When you could be using names like Naples yellow, madder lake, azurite, and bone black instead, why wouldn’t you? The cumulative effect was that I rarely felt as if I were actually inside an artist’s head.

When it comes to the story’s negotiation of the relationship between artist and art, I cringed to see a scene dramatically hinged on the old chestnut, “What is art but madness anyway?” Clearly it’s meant as an indictment of Lisane’s psychological failings that she pulls that one out, but such literal use was to me indicative of the story’s failings as a whole: it renders a conflict centered on romantic clichés about art in careful but often broad strokes, and lacks in freshness and exactitude of image and feeling as a result. It’s thoughtful, but not complex. (See also the fact that it explains its own conclusions in the last few paragraphs, when it could have ended just as well with them hanging unsaid but obvious.)

Go to:

Rachel Swirsky: author bio and works reviewed
Read the story at Tor.com

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Apologies for the utter deadness around here lately; Kakaner is fiendishly, horrendously, unspeakably busy with a very exciting new job, and I’ve been occupied trying to not get kicked out of wildly succeed in my graduate program.

But here’s another round of gender-subversive fun for fans of Revolutionary Girl Utena, and anyone whose interest was piqued by my review of Osamu Tezuka’s Princess Knight: Katie O’Neill’s gently goofy and heartfelt new webcomic Princess Princess, in which a dashing princess errant is the one to rescue a tower-immured damsel.

“I have a sword, a unicorn, and kick-butt hair!” – Princess Amira

Princess Princess updates once weekly, and is predicted to run up to 30 or 40 pages. You can also find additional art and bonus comics over at its Tumblr.

– E

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Reviewer: Emera
Dates read: The very end of December 2011
Read from: Vampire Stories by Women, ed. by Stephen Jones (2001).

“Venus Rising on Water” (1991), by Tanith Lee:

“Like long hair, the weeds grew down the façades of the city, over shutters and leaden doors, into the pale green silk of the lagoon. Ten hundred ancient mansions crumbled. Sometimes a flight of birds was exhaled from their crowded mass, or a thread of smoke was drawn up into the sky. Day long a mist bloomed on the water, out of which distant towers rose like snakes of deadly gold. Once in every month a boat passed, carving the lagoon that had seemed thickened beyond movement. Far less often, here and there, a shutter cracked open and the weed hair broke, a stream of plaster fell like a blue ray. Then, some faint face peered out, probably eclipsed by a mask. It was a place of veils. Visitors were occasional…”

Tanith Lee, you’re my favorite. Lee frames this story as a “clash between the future and the past” – I read it as something approaching cosmic horror, although here the cosmic is actually subsumed by more domestic monsters. Either way, Lee writes a humanity under threat.

A plucky girl reporter with the wonderfully foolishly exuberant name of Jonquil Hare goes exploring in a decaying future Venice, haunted by white rats, holograms of inhabitants past, and an ancient astronomer’s painting of a blue-skinned woman. (Lunar/aquatic blue-green, blue-yellow is the story’s sickly, unearthly color theme.) This not being the comfortingly rational universe of Tintin or Holmes, the irrational and unearthly win out, resoundingly declaring both their supremacy over and indifference to humanity. Jonquil is left in a destabilized reality. Sexual unease and gender ambiguity amplify the sense of murkiness, clammy fever dreams.

 —–

Another excellent name: Gala Blau’s 2001 “Outfangthief” takes its title from a Middle English term meaning “the right of a lord to pursue a thief outside the lord’s own jurisdiction.” This is the first splatterpunk – horror driven by extremity of violence, physical violence as emotional climax – I’ve read in a long while, and the effect does seem dated to me now. The villain’s cartoonish perversion takes away from the tragedy of the protagonist: a mother on the run from debts, who sees her teenage daughter drifting, and eventually, taken away from her.

Still, I was taken with Blau’s smoky, dire prose (“…Laura’s hand was splayed against the window, spreading mist from the star her fingers made. She was watching the obliteration of her view intently”) and Gothily surreal vampires (“The women were hunched on the back fence, regarding her with owlish eyes. They didn’t speak. Maybe they couldn’t”). I’ll be keeping an eye out for more of her work.

—-

I saved Caitlín Kiernan‘s “So Runs the World Away” (2001) for nearly last because, as with Lee, I admire and enjoy just about every one of her works. “So Runs…” introduces us to Dead Girl and Bobby, whom I first met (achronologically) in the collection Alabaster. As in “Les Fleurs Empoisonnées” in that collection, cruel, eccentric, clannish undead who dabble in taxidermy make an appearance; the emotional center is the kernel of less-dysfunctional family formed by Dead Girl and Bobby, and Dead Girl’s subaqueous stream-of-consciousness as she fumbles to distinguish her memories from those of her victims.

“And at the muddy bottom of the Seekonk River, in the lee of the Henderson Bridge, Dead Girl’s eyelids flutter as she stirs uneasily, frightening fish, fighting sleep and her dreams. But the night is still hours away, waiting on the far side of the scalding day, and so she holds Bobby tighter and he sighs and makes a small, lost sound that the river snatches and drags away towards the sea.”

The story ultimately hinges on Dead Girl’s choice to separate herself, and her chosen family: to cut them loose from paralyzing and toxic influences. Ultimately, she declares herself distinct, individual (though not solitary), and therefore valuable. Like many of Kiernan’s stories, then, “So Runs…” can be read as being about the negotiation of an abusive relationship.

– E

Go to:

Tanith Lee: bio and works reviewed
Caitlín R. Kiernan: bio and works reviewed

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Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 6.8.11
Book from: Personal collection

An ironic title: Carter’s take on “waywardness” and “wickedness” is far more subtle, of course. The women in this anthology – all written by women – are canny, worldly, self-directed. They are leery of others’ plans for them, and quietly attentive to their own desires – which is not to say that they are selfish, necessarily*, though they run the gamut when it comes to moral fiber. The mother in Elizabeth Jolley’s “The Last Crop” cheerfully cons a kindly doctor when she decides that she’d really rather keep and cultivate her inherited land after all. The women and girls in Jane Bowles’ “A Guatemalan Idyll” are capable of disturbingly calculated callousness – the youngest, Lilina, “[chooses] her toys according to the amount of power or responsibility she thought they would give her in the eyes of others.” The particular toy she considers in this story, a pet snake, ends up beheaded due to her (deliberate?) carelessness; Lilina’s only comment is, “Look how small her head is. She must have been a very small snake.”

(In a wonderfully horrible play with point of view, Bowles half-distracts us from the impending violence in this scene by shifting the perspective to another character just long enough for the snake’s death to occur in the interim. [The other character, a boy, is meanwhile observing that he dislikes Lilina “probably because he suspected intuitively that she was a person who could fall over and over again into the same pile of broken glass and scream just as loudly the last time as the first.”] The aggregation of such effects in this story left me strangely unsettled, and, like the visiting traveler who eventually “escapes” from the Guatemalan women, feeling like I’d awoken from a fever dream.)

I’ve gotten way off track – there’s so much to talk about in each story. Carter’s own point about the morality of these women, questionable or otherwise, is that the range represented is a normal one. The women here are well-characterized individuals, flawed and proud individuals of varying ages and desires and backgrounds, rather than one-note femmes fatales or whores or shrews. They frequently “act out” simply by resisting, by hunkering down and continuing to dig out their own paths. The protagonist of Ama Ata Aidoo’s “The Plums,” a Ghanaian student named Sissie who is touring in Europe, looks askance at the advances of a lonely German housewife, and in the end sloughs her off and keeps traveling. Throughout the story, she registers an ironic combination of pity and quiet contempt for the German woman and for whiteness in general, reflecting that “it must be a pretty dangerous matter, being white. It made you awfully exposed, rendered you terribly vulnerable. Like being born without your skin or something.” (The German woman’s son and husband are both named Adolf, it’s worth noting.) By contrast, Sissie goes through the story shielded, observing and untouched, sometimes even cruel, behind her armor of self-respect.

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My favorite book-news of late! An uncensored edition of The Picture of Dorian Gray has been published, based on Wilde’s original typescript. Some previously snipped and pruned bits: Basil Hallward’s more explicit effusions towards Dorian (“It is quite true I have worshipped you with far more romance of feeling than a man should ever give to a friend”); a sinuously creepy/sexually charged episode in which a stranger pursues Dorian in the street, “passing and repassing him many times;” references to Dorian’s “mistresses;” and other elements that might offend “an innocent woman.”

—–

Ever wondered how all those prodigious sellers on Amazon actually get their books? A Slate contributor unloads his guilt regarding his current profession: trawling used-book sales with a barcode-reading PDA in search of books that can turn a profit online. It’s a pretty depressing read, but says some interesting things about bookselling, reading, and bibliophile culture.

“The book merchant of the high-cultural imagination is a literate compleat and serves the literate. He doesn’t need a scanner, because he knows more than the scanner knows. I fill a different niche—I deal in collectible or meaningful books only by accident. I’m not deep, but I am broad. My customer is anyone who needs a book that I happen to find and can make money from.”

“When I work with my scanner and there’s someone else shopping near me who wants to read books, I feel that my energy is all wrong—high-pitched, focused narrowly in the present, and jealous. Someone browsing through books does it with a diffuse, forgetful curiosity, a kind of open reckoning that she learned from reading.”

(emphasis mine, just because I liked the observation so much.)

—–

And my silly overlapping-fandom squee for the week: Cat Valente and Ursula Vernon briefly discuss an aviating capybara.

– E

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Date read: 1.10.11
Book from: University library
Reviewer: Emera

Snow White meets haunted-house melodrama meets quasi-vampire story with a decided hint of “Carmilla,” by the author of The Icarus Girl? Count me in. White is for Witching is the story of a family, and a house, distorted by the loss of a mother and a hidden history of trauma, xenophobia, and insanity. Miranda Silver blames herself for her mother’s death, and struggles with pica, a disorder that compels her to eat chalk and plastic. (I thought it might well be a pun on the “consumptive” heroine, in addition to hinting at Miri’s eventual realization of even worse appetites, and reflecting the novel’s motifs of misdirected desire and destruction from the inside out.) Her twin brother Eliot and bottled-up father Luc are too paralyzed by their own obsessions and griefs to do more than watch Miri on her slow course to destruction. In short, every character is an emotional closed circuit, furiously retracing the same neuroses without outlet or resolution. This includes, of course, the possessive and apparently sentient house, which has born witness to several generations of tortured Silver women.

For the first half of the book, I read with mostly detached fascination. Everyone is so icily clever and dysfunctional that I couldn’t really care about them, and as in The Icarus Girl, Oyeyemi’s prose sometimes verges on mannered. Paragraphs drift into prose-poetic fragments, and overlapping phrases signal transitions between narrating characters; I found the latter a particularly heavy-handed stylistic device. Similarly, many of the haunted-house tableaux – Miri’s waking dreams of streets lined with “pale people,” for example – are presented with an arranged, glassy nightmarishness, an alienating hyper-aestheticization. What saved the book for me from feeling (if you’ll forgive the pun) too lifeless was Oyeyemi’s dense layering of Gothic and folkloric tropes.

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Date read: 11.1.07; reread once or twice since
Book from: Library originally; now personal collection
Reviewer: Emera

(There is nothing about this cover that does not amuse and please me. Consider it an honorary Bad Book Cover Friday?)

Tanith Lee‘s The Secret Books of Paradys are among the most exquisitely aestheticized and unabashedly Gothic works I’ve ever read, which means of course that I’m obsessed with them. The series is set in a parallel-universe version of Paris, known variously as Paradys, Paradis, Par Dis, and Paradise. (Lee has also written a more recent series about a para-Venice, The Secret Books of Venus, though I’ve yet to read them.) Each of the four volumes comprises interweaving, thematically unified stories. The books stand alone well, though they’re seeded with references to a few recurring elements within the universe – locations, names, a certain poet – and the fourth volume has a climactic finality to it. Each of the books is further themed by color (see what I mean about aestheticized?), frequently embodied in significant pieces of jewelry and, in The Book of the Damned, stained-glass windows. (Always makes me think of “The Masque of the Red Death.”)

The Book of the Damned takes as its themes sexual transgression and ambiguities of sex, gender, and identity, considered in three novellas. The first, “Stained with Crimson,” follows an ill-fated poet, Andre St. Jean, on a journey of sexual obsession in 19th-century Paradys. St. Jean is given a ruby scarab ring by a dying man on the hills of the Temple Church; soon after, he is introduced to the ring’s owner, the ineffably unobtainable Antonina von Aaron. Cue a game of predator and prey in which role reversals are linked with a cycle of death, rebirth, and sex changes. Oh yes, and vampires. I mean, obviously. This is perhaps my favorite out of all the Paradys tales, both for its sentimental associations, as it launched my Tanith Lee obsession, and for its no-holds-barred Gothstravaganza, ladled out in the most sonorous, decadent, purple-saturated language imaginable. Further layers of allegorical imagery incorporate Greek mythology (a Pan symbol, a trip down a deathly river) and the elements, the latter perhaps complementing the book’s primary-color triad.

“Malice in Saffron,” though little less wrought and hectic, takes a much grimmer turn. As with many of Lee’s works, its events are incited by sexual violence and abuse of women. The protagonist, Jehanine, is assaulted by her stepfather and rejected by her beloved brother. After fleeing the countryside, she finds shelter within a nunnery in medieval Paradys, but by night transforms herself into capricious, murderous Jehan, who roams the backstreets of Paradys with a gang of thieves. Like many of Lee’s vengeful heroines, Jehanine nears the brink of being consumed by her own desire for destruction, but ultimately finds peace and redemption. Jehanine, I suspect, is a distant Paradysian extrapolation of Joan of Arc/Jeanne d’Arc; her story also heavily references Cathar beliefs.

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Date read: 8.2.10
Book from: Borrowed from a friend
Reviewer: Emera

MW - Tezuka Osamu

Apparently not a single unpixellated version of this image wants to let me find it.

Whyyyy did I read this all in (pretty much) one sitting. Whatever the opposite of feel-good is, MW falls into that category. The whole time I was reading, I got the impression of Tezuka Osamu crowing, “Suffer in an agony of dread while I, the creator of such lovable, family-friendly classics of Japanese animation and comics as Astro Boy and Kimba the White Lion, manipulate your feelings with this unrelentingly dark thriller about a serial killer and the priest bound to him by guilt and love! Bwa ha ha ha!” Thanks, Tezuka. By the time I hit the last 20 pages, I was so overwrought with fatalistic dread that I had to put the book down for a few hours, before returning to the equally depressing final scenes.

For an illuminating bit of background, Wikipedia provided me with the following context: “This manga series is notable because it can be seen as Tezuka’s response to the gekiga (“dramatic pictures”) artists who emerged in the 1960s and 70s and an attempt to beat them at their own game.The gekiga artists of this period created gritty, adult-oriented works that sharply contrasted the softer, Disney-influenced style that Tezuka was associated with, a style that was seen as being out-of-step with the times.” So I think I’m not entirely wrong in detecting a certain amount of authorial glee in the proceedings.

MW is also a response to the use of chemical weaponry during the Vietnam War. MW‘s resident sociopath, Yuki Michio, the charming, long-lashed scion of a renowned family of kabuki actors, is a sociopath because he was exposed as a child to a neurotoxic weapon – MW – leaked from an island containment facility owned by Nation X (i.e. America). Father Garai, Yuki’s confidante and extremely guilty lover, feels bound to protect Yuki’s identity from the authorities because he, as an erstwhile hoodlum, was holding a nine-year-old Yuki captive at the time. He and Yuki were the only survivors; Garai joined the Church some time thereafter in an attempt to escape both his horror at having witnessed the disaster, and his guilt at his relationship with Yuki. (Yes, do the math there. Tezuka reaches for pretty much every variety of shock value, and even by the standards of anime/manga,  most of it is awful.)

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Reviewer: Emera

I liiiiive! Somewhat. There are still exams to come, but I have a comfortable breathing space at the moment, so I’m going to work on whittling down my absurd backlog of short story reviews. To start, here are two helpings of dark fantasy/sci-fi.

—-

The nurse said that when I’m moved to my permanent home, there will be mirrors to see my reflection and windows made of glass instead of plexiglass. I do not know what a mirror is. I have read the word in the dictionary, of course, and heard it spoken. I know the press of the “m”, the sensuous delicacy of the “r”, as though biting a very soft peach. But the mechanics of the word — its sensation and definition — are different than the thing itself. I must have looked in a mirror before, although really, who knows?

Kelly Barnhill‘s “Tabula Rasa” (read 4.4.10, from The Three-Lobed Burning Eye) plays out a well-worn premise – an amnesiac patient recovering from an unknown operation slowly recovers troubling memories of her past – but even if none of the ideas are new, the execution is suspenseful and atmospheric, with great details and often lovely prose. I can never help imagining a moody graphic-novel adaptation, complete with blotty ink washes and scrawled lettering, whenever I read a story like this.

Michael S. Dodd‘s “The Madwoman” (read 4.4.10, from The Three-Lobed Burning Eye) makes a lot more sense if you read the bit in his bio where he says that it was inspired by Storm Constantine. Transfigurations with cosmic consequences, combined with high-pitched melodrama and mild abuse of the English language – vintage Constantine. Unlike Constantine, though, Dodd creates too-portentous-for-you protagonists who are irritating and implausible rather than endearing.

“If you do not tell me,” Ylsa intoned in a velvet voice, “I shall eat these delicate morsels, one at a time, until you do.” With that pronouncement, she reached into the jar and withdrew a handful of the packets, pressing one to her lips.

“No!” Marisel screamed, and Ylsa shrank back for a moment at the sheer volume of the cry.

Mmm… yeah. It’s a shame because the premise has great potential, and some of the details are fun – I like that the main character is a shady apothecary, for example.

Go to:
Kelly Barnhill
Michael S. Dodd

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