Linked article: “34 Books by Women of Color to Read This Year”

Searching for unicors in publishers’ catalogs“, indeed. A useful list by Electric Literature‘s R.O. Kwon. Titles that caught Mod Clo’s attention:

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Human Acts by Han Kang

Han Kang’s Booker Prize International-winning The Vegetarian, depicting a woman’s ferocious struggle with her family, was one of the most celebrated, and unnerving, books of 2016. Her new novel, which takes place in 1980 during the Gwangju Uprising in South Korea, is no less unsettling. During the ten-day protests, the military killed hundreds of unarmed students and civilians: Human Acts bears fictional witness to these dead, and to the travails of those who survived.

 

 

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Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

Min Jin Lee had the initial idea for what would become Pachinko in 1989: in college, she attended a talk by an American missionary who worked with ethnic Koreans in Japan, historically a marginalized group. She began writing fiction about Korean Japanese in 1996; then, when she lived in Tokyo for four years in 2007, she restarted her novel-in-progress. Almost 30 years in the making, Pachinko is a testament to Lee’s determination to give voice to lives that have been, as she’s said in an interview, “denied, erased, and despised.”

 

 

Not directly, listed, but searching for other novels by Danzy Senna (listed in the article) I found this:

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From Caucasia, With Love by Danzi Senna

Birdie and Cole are the daughters of a black father and a white mother, intellectuals and activists in the Civil Rights Movement in 1970s Boston. The sisters are so close that they have created a private language, yet to the outside world they can’t be sisters: Birdie appears to be white, while Cole is dark enough to fit in with the other kids at the Afrocentric school they attend. For Birdie, Cole is the mirror in which she can see her own blackness. Then their parents’ marriage falls apart. Their father’s new black girlfriend won’t even look at Birdie, while their mother gives her life over to the Movement: at night the sisters watch mysterious men arrive with bundles shaped like rifles.

One night Birdie watches her father and his girlfriend drive away with Cole—they have gone to Brazil, she will later learn, where her father hopes for a racial equality he will never find in the States. The next morning—in the belief that the Feds are after them—Birdie and her mother leave everything behind: their house and possessions, their friends, and—most disturbing of all—their identity. Passing as the daughter and wife of a deceased Jewish professor, Birdie and her mother finally make their home in New Hampshire.

Desperate to find Cole, yet afraid of betraying her mother and herself to some unknown danger, Birdie must learn to navigate the white world—so that when she sets off in search of her sister, she is ready for what she will find.

COVER WIN! “The Watchmaker of Filigree Street”

l-orologiaio-di-filigree-street

I was gonna tell you “YAY! An Italian NOT FAIL cover!”… but then I checked, and they simply didn’t try. The Italian publisher used the same cover as the original English edition. Which: progress? But also: shows a few things, huh… Italian cover designs are so behind still. Sigh.
But really! This is an amazing cover! Catches the eye, looks antique, it’s perfect for a book set in Victorian England. I might very well read it.

Also, Italian publishers REALLY have to let go of the egotism. Was it necessary to slap the publishing house’s logo in there? And to write on the cover “Bompiani novel”? STOP. THAT.

– mod Clo

Dumped: “Diaspora” by Greg Egan

diaspora

Title: Diaspora

Author: Greg Egan

Dumped by: Captain Clo

Verdict: opinionated, debatable 1 star. Moving on to better places.

Sometimes, a book just doesn’t click for you. It’s one of those cases when you have to honestly say “it’s not you, it’s me” and just dump the book. Life is too short to force yourself to finish a book you don’t enjoy.
(Sometimes the sentence “it’s not me, it’s you!” also applies, but not this time.)
Such was the case for me and Greg Egan’s “Diaspora”.
It’s clear that the author writes extremely hard sci-fi; the first 30 pages or so are entirely dedicated to describe, in excruciating detail, how an AI is born and how it develops a sense of self, all in a excruciatingly detailed virtual city that orchestrates its birth.
Key word being: excruciatingly.
I’m sure experts of the field and enthusiasts might enjoy that, but from my point of view that’s just a giant narrative faux pas. Author appeal is at the origin of every novel, but in my opinion, a book that indulges its own author’s very narrow interests is in need of a good editor. Also, after I finally labored over this part, nothing happened. The pace was slow and it wasn’t clear what the plot was. Granted, I didn’t make it over the 18% mark, but good narration gives you the stakes of the plot in the first chapter. Or at least, that’s what I always thought.

I’m going to gently put this book down and whisper very very lovingly, “You know what my good Science Teacher used to tell me? If you can’t explain something to your grandma, you don’t really know the subject you’re trying to explain, dear“. Words to live by, honestly.

REVIEW: “Every Heart A Doorway”, or: What if all possible fantasylands existed, and you could travel to them? (hint: you’re going to die)

every heart a doorway

Title: Every Heart A Doorway (novelette, 2016 winner of the Nebula Award for Best Novella)
Author: Seanan McGuire
Review by: Captain Clo
Verdict: imaginative worldbuilding, unimaginative plot, stilted writing in random places.

I’ve first hear about this book around the time it was nominated for the Nebula Award, since the book also features an asexual female protagonist and a transexual male side character. That said, simply having LGBT characters does not a good book make, and for all that this novelette is definitely enjoyable, it didn’t convince me. But if you:

  • are looking for a fairytale-styled fantasy with an asexual protagonist (which is, let’s face it, extremely rare)
  • like the idea of a trans boy as love interest/charming prince
  • don’t mind purple prose terribly much

this book is for you.

In my opinion, the best thing about this novelette is definitely the worldbuilding. The plot is based on the existence of a number of “fantasylands” or “parallel universes”, accessible through magical doors that only open for specific people (generally children, but not necessarily) at specific times. The core concept is the same as a journey through fairyland, with children spirited away to worlds that fall on two of four “directions”: Wicked or Virtue, Nonsense or Logic. The children pass years of subjective life in these worlds – whereas in the mundane world, only months or even days pass – and they stay willingly, as they feel that these worlds are perfect for them; or at least, those who manage to come back feel that these places resonated with some aspect of their selves so perfectly, that adjusting back to life in the mundane world is completely impossible.
(It’s implied that those who don’t fit in those worlds end up dead. Told you you’re going to die.)

That’s where the setting of the story, the Eleanor West’s Home For Wayward Children, comes into play. The Home is a boarding school for children and teens who have come back from such worlds so deeply changed, they can’t – or don’t want to – live a normal life anymore. Their only desire is to go back, but all of them were either kicked out (fairies are cruel like that, after all) or came back and lost their door. On a certain level, the Home reminded me of an asylum. At first is unclear whether these worlds are real or fabrications of the children’s minds, and a lot of their behaviours, in real life, would be considered signs of a deteriorating mental health. The protagonist, for example, went to an Underworld where people were forced to act as statues – without moving, eating, drinking or sleeping – and she learned that act so well, once she returned to the real world she claims she can eat and drink very little without problem. Her meals consist of fruit juice and a few fruits, and it’s easy to see in this a sign (a metaphor?) of anorexia. Most of the children in the boarding school have similar “disorders”, but in the end, their experiences are real, and so are the worlds they went to.

The descriptions of the worlds and how the children fit in them are all pretty interesting. There are worlds more obviously based on faitytales – with Goblin Kings and quests – and some based on classics such as Frankenstein and Dracula. Every world explains the idiosyncrasies of the children who came back from them. In their own vision, they came back as a truer version of themselves; according to their parents, they came back wrong. And so they send them to the Home to be fixed. On the one hand, the children are changed in ways that make them unable to live normally; all of them are obsessed with the idea of going back, and all of them hate who they were before. They can’t empathize with the parents who were left in anguish for months, and then had their children back, but so changed as to seem mentally ill. At the same time, however, all the parents who get a description are fundamentally bad parents. For example, Kade’s parents can’t accept his trans identity, which emerged once he came back, and want him to act like the “girl he was before”. The protagonist’s parents dig through her luggage and change all her chosen clothes for boarding school – all in black and white exclusively – with the more colourful ones she used to wear. Other parents are described as outright abusers. But, at the same time, what some of these children went through in those worlds they love so much IS abuse. The protagonist, Nancy, can’t aceept the simple fact that the world she went to was “High Wicked” – the creatures, or fairies if you want, that dwelled there abused her, forcing her to act as a living statue; she even knows that those who could not perform as well as her were killed, but she thinks nothing of it. She is, simply put, broken, and in mad love with the King of that world.

Unfortunately, the plot of the novelette itself isn’t about any of that; it’s about a string of vicious murders that start when Nancy joins the school. It’s a pretty standard murder story, with a pretty easy-to-spot culprit. I guess you could say that their motivations are more proof of how broken these children are, but… I just spent a page talking about the worldbuilding, and the plot paragraph is over already.

I don’t comment on a book’s writing style unless I find it egregious in some sense. The prose of this novelette made me roll my eyes in some places – random, odd places, not throughout the entire book, which ruined the reading experience. Those purple prose spots jarred my willing suspension of disbelief, and made me think of old-school fiction when goth style was all the rage (no offense to those who were into the rage… I was too). Take the description of Nancy:

“She wore black – black jeans, black ankle boots with tiny black buttons marching like soldiers from toe to calf – and she wore white – a loose tank top, the faux pearls bands around her wrists – and she had a ribbon the color of pomegranate seeds tied around the base of her ponytail. Her hair was bone-white streaked with runnels of black, like oil spilled on a marble floor, and her eyes were pale as ice.”

I can’t, for the life of me, figure out if the author is pulling my leg here. I haven’t read something that screams “edgy teen Mary Sue-self” this hard since My Immortal. Also there is something simply ridiculous in how stereotypically goth the entire concept of the Underworld Nancy went to is – with the fascinating Lord and Lady of the Dead playing wicked games with their subjects, everyone forced to wear black or white, the pomegranate seeds, and the fashion style inspired specifically by Waterhouse. The 17-year-old goth me is cackling. Some other characters are as equally quirky, with elaborate descriptions of their clothes and hair and hairstyle and eye colour… it does set the atmosphere, but it’s also very close to being a mash-up of several teenage “fascinations” for the hell of it. It adds colour, I enjoyed it, but underneath it all, the plot and the style are lacking.

The prose itself is too elaborate at times, adding explanations that are simply obvious, seemingly just for the joy of adding elaborate words – the very definition of purple prose, if you ask me. Take these examples:

“Nancy brought up the rear. Stillness and speed were diametrically opposed. But she did the best she could, and they reached the attic door at roughly the same time.” [Was this even necessary? “They walked to the door” wasn’t enough?]

“But the shaking continued as her traitorous body betrayed her, trembling like a leaf in a hard wind.” [Added appeal of too many alliterations: “traitorous body betrayed trembling”. Wow. That’s way too much. And use of two sets of synonims in one sentence?]

“[She] whimpered behind the gag that covered her mouth, eyes rolling wildly as she looked for a way out. She wasn’t finding one.” [You don’t say.]

“[Loriel said], but the heat was gone; her accusations had been met with reality, and they didn’t have anyplace else to go.” [Am I the only one thinking of a stereotypical high school drama were the mean girl is put in her place?]

Also, the author has a fascination for the Oklahoma accent that I really don’t get. I mean, it’s okay if you like it, that’s not the problem. The problem arises when said accent is described in slash fanfiction style:

“What’n the fuck are you doing in here again, Sumi?” he demanded, Oklahoma accent thick as peanut butter spread across a slice of toast.“

“His drawl grew thicker, dripping from his words like sweet and tempting honey.”

LADY. STOP. PLS.
Well, at least you could argue that Kade is treated exactly the same as a fascinating cis male would be in fanfic…

Another note I want to put out there is how Nancy’s asexuality is brought up in the narration. I can’t put my finger on what exactly didn’t work for me about it, but the two instances in which it was discussed seemed to me like two other parts in which the flow of narration was stilted. In particular, this:

“This was always the difficult part, back when she’d been at her old school: explaining that “asexual” and “aromantic” were different things. She liked holding hands and trading kisses. She’d had several boyfriends in elementary school, just like most of the other girls, and she had always found those practice relationships completely satisfying. It wasn’t until puberty had come along and changed the rules that she’d started pulling away in confusion and disinterest.“

This part is definitely too didactic, giving the reader a lecture on what asexuality is. Although I can understand the need to do so, I think it interrupts the flow of the story. The use of the terms “asexual” and “aromantic” don’t help either, since they’re not much used in common parlance and they sound almost like medical tems. Of course they aren’t, but the use of “ace” would have been better, maybe (it poses the problem of how many readers might know what ace means, of course). Conversely, Kade’s gender identity fits the narration much better. In bits and pieces, the reader learns how his experience in the fairyland he ended up in helped him to discover his identity, and how the discovery had him kicked out of that world. His gender identity is integrated with his backstory, and it works much better.

Cover Fail: The Italian Translation Of Leigh Bardugo’s “Shadow And Bone”

leigh bardugo covers

What. Is. This?

That’s what passed through my mind when I saw this Italian translation in a bookshop. Talk about cheap ripoff! I love the original covers of the Grisha Trilogy. They set the mood of the story: they use dark colours (definitely fitting for the story…), they evoke the different amplifiers Alina uses (in this case, with the shape of antlers), and they set the atmosphere for a Russian-themed story (the domes). And the lettering is stunning, perfectly merged with the rest of the cover’s design.

The Italian one? Oh my God, what a disaster. Flat. With random imagery (is that a dragon on the right side? And then a hawk? Why? And why is the girl – presumably Alina – holding a sword? Alina doesn’t use a sword! And what are those tattoos??). Cheap copyright-free font (why vaguely Art Noveau??).
It looks like it was done by an amateur. Look at the girl’s hands! What is that??

No wonder the other books in the trilogy were never published. With such shoddy work, I doubt this book sold enough to warrant the publishing of the rest. Which makes me so mad. There are so many good books translated into Italian that simply deserve better publishers.

REVIEW: “Rivers of London” & “Moon Over Soho”, or: so you’re a London nerd?

Title: Rivers Of London & Moon Over Soho (Peter Grant/Rivers of London series, book 1&2)

Author: Ben Aaronovitch

Review by: Captain Clo

Verdict: enjoyable, slightly bland, with a side serving of salt.

I’m reviewing these two together because I’ve read them one after the other, and I think they’re overall pretty similar. I was interested in this series because the protagonist is a biracial Londoner, and the books themselves are urban fantasy. (By the way: I understand why they do it, I understand it’s standard marketing procedure, but if I see a book advertised as any variation of “Harry Potter but edgier” one more time…)

chicago

If you:

  • are looking for a diverse protagonist and cast

  • are a London nerd

these books are for you.

The protagonist, Peter Grant, is not only a biracial police officer, he’s a sassy biracial police officer with a wicked sense of humour, a take-no-shit attitude but also a pretty warm way of approaching the whole problem with “I’m ambiguously brown but also an officer of the law”. Also, he will describe every single London landmark in painstaking detail, complete with its social and architectural history. I, not being a London enthusiast, found it annoying, but I can see why other readers might find it appealing.

The books are pretty straightforward detective stories; Rivers Of London follows the trail of bodies left by a misterious entity that possesses people and ultimately kills them; Moon Over Soho is about jazz vampires (no, I’m not kidding. In this universe, a “vampire” is a creature that absorbs life energy from someone else; it can be blood, but sometimes it’s musical talent. They’re still going to kill you very, very dead). Plus, you guessed it, magic. Peter becomes the apprentice of a sort-of secret branch of the London Police – the one that deals wiht magical crimes – and thus meets Nightingale, the last living wizard of the UK I just have to quote his introduction:

«He was about one-eighty in height – that’s six foot in old money – and dressed in a beautifully tailored suit that emphasised the width of his shoulders and a trim waist. I thought early forties with long, finely boned features and brown hair cute into an old-fashioned side parting. It was hard to tell in the sodium light but I thought his eyes were grey. He carried a silver-topped cane and I knew without looking that his shoes were handmade. All he needed was a slightly ethnic younger boyfriend and I’d have had to call the cliché police.»

Told you he’s sassy.

(Suggestion: the reading experience can be henhanced by imagining Nightingale as Victor Nikiforov.)

Peter and Nightingale’s relationship will warm your heart. Nightingale is older than he looks, and sometimes he’s adorably lost when dealing with technology older than the sixties; he also carries a sombre sadness with him that Peter’s presence starts to soothe. It’s obvious that Nightingale hasn’t dealt with people in a long time, and he warms to Peter right away. Peter himself has endless questions and always new theories to test; Nightingale indulges this with relish and uses it to channel Peter’s scatterbrain attitude (“What an interesting question that is, it’s related to things we’re supposed to cover later in your studies, now I’ll tell you only after you finish this deadly boring exercise you don’t want to do”).

The cast of characters is not only diverse; the characters of colour are all essentially Londoners in new and refreshing ways. The coroner, Doctor Walid, for example, is introduced like this:

«I was introduced to Abdul Haqq Walid, a spry, gingery man in his fifties who spoke with a soft Highland accent.

[…]’Salem,’ I said.

Al salam alaikum,’ said Dr Walid, shaking my hand.» [Rivers of London]

I know I’m setting the bar incredibly low by saying that this is an example of diversity taken in stride instead of an awkward oh-my-god-a-MUSLIM, but such are the times in which we live. Dr Walid is described in a way that recognizes his religion, but by stressing his regional accent, the narrative doesn’t make him a foreigner, but a new Londoner.

In these two books, recurring diverse characters comprise Peter and his mother (a Fula from Sierra Leone), a black girl/spirit of the river, her Nigerian mother/goddess of the river (it makes sense in context… somewhat), Dr Walid himself, a lesbian police officer, and a muslim ninja girl*. No seriously, it’s great:

«One of them was a young Somali woman in a leather biker jacket and an expensive black silk hijab. She caught me looking and smiled.

‘Muslim ninja,’ she whispered.» [Moon Over Soho]

*yes I know a ninja girl is called a kunoichi. I’ve watched Naruto too.

That said, I couldn’t help but getting annoyed by the portrayal of black women in these two books. Especially in the first book, Peter deals with four regular black female characters: his mother, the goddess of the Thames, and two of her daughters. It’s unclear to me whether this is just Peter’s opinion – something that will be later proven wrong – but for being a biracial character, he certainly uses the concept of “things all black women do” a lot. It’s like the author (who is, by the way, not black) takes the stereotype and, after acknowledging it, just turns it around and makes it another sterotype. Take this excerpt from the first book, for example:

«People are conditioned by the media to think that black women are all shouting and head-shaking and girlfriending and ‘oh no, you didn’t’, and if they’re not sassy then they’re dignified and downtrodden and soldiering on and ‘I don’t understand why folks just can’t get along’. But if you see a black woman go quiet the way Tyburn did, the eyes bright, the lips straight and the face still as a death mask, you have made an enemy for life […]».

So, in one paragraph, Peter debunks the ‘sassy black woman’ stereotype, only to give us… another sterotype? I mean, I guess there aren’t countless different ways to deal with rage, but certainly all kind of women can show that quiet reaction to fury. And certainly, black women don’t have only three standardized reactions to rage? What really made me mad was this sentence, though:

«This I know for a fact: the reason African women have children is so that there’s someone else to do the housework.» [Rivers of London]

Oh really, Peter. Oh really.

I want to give Peter the benefit of the doubt – and by extension, to Aaronovitch – but it’s hard when Peter’s own mother is a cluster of stereotypes who doesn’t get to tell her own story: she cleans offices for a living, and steals supplies from them; she’s the borderline abusive mother who stole toys from Peter when he was a kid to send them to his cousins in Sierra Leone. I guess the only stereotype she eludes is that she mothered only Peter. The problem, of course, is that Aaronovitch might have been trying to give Peter a flaw by writing this; but there’s no one in the narrative to prove Peter wrong (in these two books, at least). Same old problem, I know.

Also, and this is just something that makes me doubt my own ability to read, I am almost sure the race of Peter’s father was never explicitly described. His mother’s ethnicity is made explicit, but I re-read (well… skimmed) both books to find out his father’s, and found nothing. I couldn’t figure out if he’s white. Peter describes himself as ambiguously brown, so I assume his father is white, but he could also be another ambiguously brown man. The only other clue I could find was that Peter’s mother cooks very spicy food, but only her and Peter can eat it; his father gets a different plate. Is that a hint that he’s not African? But he could still be from somewhere else in Africa where they eat less spicy food, or he could be a Londoner, hell, he could just dislike pepper. I realize this is very minor, but still. Isn’t the purpose of a diverse cast to break the assumption that every character is white unless explicitly described as not? Did I miss something?

And then there’s the sex. This I really disliked, and that’s the reason for the side serving of salt. Mind you, I don’t mean there’s a lot of it; in fact, there are no sex scenes in Rivers of London. But in Moon Over Soho Peter meets the lover of a magical murder victim, and of course they end up in bed together in a heartbeat. Of course the sex is great and lenghty and there are multiple bouts in the same night. Of course Peter never thinks twice about going to bed with a witness (you get no points if you figure out what’s her role in the story). I can’t figure out if I, as a reader, am supposed to understand he’s under some magical compulsion, or if Peter is just that stupid (and lacking in the ethical department!). The easiness with which Peter just goes with it is appalling. I am by no means a prude (full disclosure: I write smut), so the problem cannot be the sex itself – the problem is that in these kind of novels, the heterosexual male protagonist becomes a stand-in for his heterosexual male writer’s fantasy of power. Which, of course involves having sex with as many beautiful femmes fatales as possible – a staple of the murder mystery novel. And it’s so unrealistic. It’s like these characters don’t have tastes, or compatibility, or simply other things to do; sex is offered? Sex is served! No questions asked! And of course the sex is always great, and with a supremely beautiful woman. Are there really people out there who are always up for it? Well, maybe, I guess. Is it acceptable that every single het male detective in these stories is like that? No, dammit. It completely ruins my reading experience. One moment I’m enjoying Peter’s banter with Nightingale, and the next one I’m rolling my eyes so far back my ancestors are feeling it.

“But Clo, you’re reading what basically amounts to an police novel, what did you expect?”, you might ask me. To which my answer would be, “Honestly, I don’t know what to tell you”.

The Covers File: “The Apprenticeship Of Big Toe P” around the world

the apprenticeship 01

the apprenticeship 02

When the tagline of a book is “the female protagonist wakes up one day with a penis in place of her big toe”, do publishers just tear out their hair when the time comes to create a cover?

Also: Italian Cover Fail.

As you can see, the American publisher (Kodansha USA) decided for a tasteful but suggestive big red P. Simple, but effective, once you read the synopsis.

The French publisher (Editions Philippe Picquier) bet on the feet feticism. Also, instead of using the veiled reference to the word “penis” as the original (”親指P“, “Oyayubi P“), it went full frontal, so to speak.

I… have honestly not idea what is going on in the original Japanese cover (Kodansha). But it’s pretty? It kind of suggests a rebirth, maybe, which is fitting.

The Italian one. Oh my God. Why do Italian publishers work so very hard to make me ashamed of being Italian and in this industry. I am going to be understanding with this publisher (Marsilio), because I know it’s an indipendent publisher, without a giant budget, and that its Japanese Literature Catalog doesn’t sell that much. But this cover is so amateurish it’s offensive. The placing of title and author’s name is inexplicably uneven, and not a in a good quirky way. It has the name of the publishers smack-dab in the centre of the book, where no one wants to see it (ego much? no one cares). And the image is a weird surreal woman, wearing a shift that is supposed to remind us of a big toe, I guess. No sign of a penis anywhere (honestly, what a waste. Cowards). And why are her eyes covered? And, for the love of god, blue on yelllow? No.

 

Captain Clo

Synopsis fail: if you despise sci-fi, why are you writing about sci-fi?

 

La voce del padrone

So today, I was browsing the Italian Kobo site, since they have a promotion going on awarded books. A lot them were translation from English, which I avoid, so I looked for anything that wasn’t originally written in English. I was intrigued by the cover of La Voce del Padrone (English title: His Master’s Voice, by Stanislaw Lem), so I clicked on it and read the synopsis.
Oh, boy. Oh, the salt.
Don’t you just hate it when a synopsis is completely unable to tell you what the book is actually about? You know, what the plot is? It was so egregious, I just have to share.

Note: this is a classic sci-fi novel, from the same author of Solaria. It was written in 1968, but apparently never translated into Italian until this year.

Note 2: this synopsis was used on the Italian publisher’s site (in a shortened version) and on the Kobo site. Goodreads has a much better one, but it’s impossible to say if it was put on the site by the publisher).

“Before Stanislaw Lem wrote his masterpieces, the sci-fi imagery was hostage of its own perishable excesses, that is to say, of extraordinary devices, of sidereal and unfailingly menacing abysses, of mathematical abstrusities. It was an enjoyable arsenal, but technological innovation and real science – not the fantastical one – quickly made it obsolete. Lem, instead, managed to build perfect narrative machines that don’t get old, and thus he granted science fiction a place within Literature.”

So. Many. Terrible. Things. I. Hate. In. Two. Sentences (it was 2 in the original Italian). To whom is this book even marketed? Isn’t it marketed to sci-fi readers? It’s sci-fi. You can’t sell sci-fi to pretentious assholes who think sci-fi is – le GASP!! – not True Literature. This sci-fi book synopsis was written by someone who thinks sci-fi doesn’t deserve to be considered Literature. Imagine the disconnect. Because True Literature is Serious Business, and apparently imagination and space exploration and whatever aren’t. Also: the ghost of Mary Shelley, Patron Saint and Founder of sci-fi, is going to haunt this guy’s nightmares. I am not going to subject you to more of this flowery, ridiculous prose, but I’m leaving you this:

“Of course, the novel’s plot is still put into motion by the mystery of a message from space, like in a genre novel, but the main focus remains the overwhelming scenario that is created in the effort to decipher the message itself.”

Because genre novels are bad and they stink. Holy Mother of Salt, I don’t know what I hate more about this: the fact that it shits on hard sci-fi authors (who definitely don’t write about fantastical science), the fact that it shits on soft sci-fi authors (guess what, you can explore a number of human issues even when the narrative context is made-up?? Who knew?? I must wonder what this guy thinks of, I dunno, Greek tragedies, or the Odissey, or the Divine Comedy, or Paradise Lost), or the fact that it doesn’t actually explain what the plot is more than “it starts with a message from space”. No, seriously. It’s much longer than this, and completely, utterly useless. The only thing it says about the actual plot is the same thing you can understand from reading the cover, where it’s written, “who’s sending us messages from space?”

 

Captain Clo

REVIEW: “The Apprenticeship Of Big Toe P”, or: Who knew you could write about the sexcapades of a woman with a penis in place of a big toe so elegantly?

the apprenticeship of big toe p

Title: The Apprenticeship Of Big Toe P
Author: Rieko Matsuura
Review by: Captain Clo
Verdict: surreal, definitely different, wtf-inducing, a must. 4 stars
Trigger warning for: rape, sexual abuse

The set-up of this book is simply amazing. A normal, average, straight (but not for long…) woman wakes up one day to find that her big toe has transformed into a fully functional penis. The surreal, unexplained change sets into motion a journey of self-discovery that inevitably involves a lot of strange sexual adventures. It sounds like the set-up for a bawdy novel filled with gratuitous sex scenes… which The Apprenticeship Of Big Toe P isn’t. It’s surreal and elegant, and definitely not for easily-scandalized minds.

If you’re looking for:

  • surreal, semi-magical realism fiction
  • an unconventional journey of queer self-discovery and sexual awakening
  • a cerebral outlook on sex scenes

this book is for you.

The protagonist, Kazumi, at the start of the novel is trapped in an unhappy life. Her best friend, Yoko, recently committed suicide, and her boyfriend is an asshole. She has no friends left now that Yoko is gone, and even her work is in jeopardy, since she was a partner in an agency Yoko herself had created. Most of all, however, Kazumi is tormented by the idea that Yoko was in love with her, and that she killed herself out of a misplaced desire to have Kazumi notice her. Kazumi is introverted and quite cold in her affections, to the point that she herself sometimes doubts she loves anyone in her life. She definitely doesn’t love her boyfriend, but she can’t admit to herself whether she loved Yoko or not, either. She has very little insight in all of her feelings – and that’s something she’s forced to deal with when her big toe changes into a penis. Her boyfriend is disgusted by it in a violent way that she doesn’t understand. More than anything, she finds it something curious and to be explored, if a little disquieting.

After leaving her boyfriend, Kazumi sets forth in a journey of sexual self-discovery that lands her first in the arms of a blind bisexual pianist, Shunji, and then in a drama-filled freak show that employs “sexual deviants” (some of them with conditions as surreal as Kazumi’s, others more medically plausible). Not everything she experiences is pleasant; more than one character treats her like an object, a wonderful toy and a monster, not like a person. But in the instances where her experiences with sex are pleasant, the scenes are elegantly-written, very detailed in a cerebral way that fits well with who Kazumi is: a woman detached from her feelings, who is just allowing herself to derive pleasure from sex, to put herself and her desires first, and to admit she’s not really straight after all.

It’s never really clear why, exactly, Kazumi is like she is, so cold and distant, to the point of being emotionless; she never recounts any traumatic experience that made her so withdrawn from human connections. The reader can come up with their own interpretation. I’m inclined to think Kazumi has been lying to herself for a long time about her sexuality and feelings, and that not even allowing herself to admit she’s bisexual and very attracted to women resulted in her locking away all her feelings – it was easier to not think about how she didn’t love her first boyfriend if she didn’t let herself love Yoko, because like that, she didn’t have anything to compare her feelings to. The emptiness she felt for the boyfriend was the same she felt for Yoko. This, however, is my personal interpretation.

For all that the book is very long (the Italian edition I read is 500 pages), I inhaled it. It’s definitely not a reading for weak stomachs though. Some situations described are quite disturbing, especially once Kazumi joins the freak show, and most characters are deeply flawed in some way. You can either see it as a point of realism – people with such conditions, rejected by society, certainly can have some issues – or as a flaw that dehumanizes them. Personally I don’t mind my characters a little fucked-up, but if you’re looking for queer characters represented in only a positive light, this book isn’t for you. Shunji, for example, is a – very strange – example of the unfaithful bisexual, but he’s not the only bisexual in the book, and his behaviour definitely falls into the pathological… yet he’s also a very lovable character. A lot of other characters are similarly flawed, sometimes to the point of being unsympathetic. All of them, however, serve their role in challenging Kazumi, especially her strange, detached view of human relationships and her internalized heteronormative ideas.

I’m not giving it a full 5 stars-score only because I found the ending a dissatisfying return to the status quo, in which Kazumi leaves her new girlfriend to go back to Shunji. Shunji isn’t so bad, but Kazumi’s lover goes back to her abusive, pathetic waste of space of a boyfriend too, moved by a displaced sense of responsibility to help him, since he’s a manchild. I’m used to Japanese Literature having “soft” endings, without the world turning upside-down as I would expect, but this was really a disappointment.