April 11th, 2018

book talk // transit.

Rachel Cusk’s Transit picks up the thread where Outline left off. Outline told the story of a woman, Faye, teaching a creative writing class in Greece, post-divorce; Transit roots itself more in reality and less in that dream-like vacation mindset. There are no yachts or plane rides or fabulous dinner venues, only the “trolls” downstairs who complain about her home renovations. I’d say, overall, the setting is far more domestic.

The novel begins: “An astrologer emailed me to say she had important new for me concerning events in my immediate future. She could see things that I could not; my personal details had come into her possession and had allowed her to study the planets for their information. She wished me to know that a major transit was due to occur shortly in my sky. This information was causing her great excitement when she considered the changes it might represent. For a small fee she would share it with me and enable me to turn it to my advantage.”

I read this opening section out loud to my partner, thrilled with the dry wit and the narrator’s voice before I had even turned the first page. How could anyone not want to read this book?

From the outset, it’s clear that Cusk intends to speak to the theme of fate, of life’s various intersections, the transit of the soul. Faye, although she seeks to be free of life’s constructs, still finds herself in very traditional situations. She is a mother. She is a divorcee. She is a home-owner. She has returned to a place she left behind. But the whole story is nontraditional, pieced together, a state of transition. Most obviously, Faye is renovating her house and all around her exists the physical debris of change. The renovation is not yet complete at the end of the book (which makes sense, considering there is a third still to come) and we are left with the feeling that in Outline she was a mere sketch, drifting about, not fully realized, whereas in Transit she is gaining a sense of herself and beginning the chrysalis process.

“I said that my current feelings of powerlessness had changed the way I looked at what happens and why, to the extent that I was beginning to see what other people called fate in the unfolding of events, as though living were merely an act of reading to find out what happens next. That idea — of one’s own life as something that had already been dictated — was strangely seductive, until you realized that it reduced other people to the moral status of characters and camouflaged their capacity to destroy. Yet the illusion of meaning recurred, much as you tried to resist it: like childhood, I said, which we treat as an explanatory text rather than merely as a formative experience of powerlessness.”

The structure is brilliant. Set up in a series of vignettes with no true connection to the future or the past, simply an observation made in the moment, you could probably open the book anywhere and enjoy it. Each anecdote almost impersonally transcribes deep conversations, sometimes with people the narrator barely knows. There is the thinnest veneer of a plot which weaves the story together, but it’s an undercurrent, not the focus.

This is a novel that I would hesitate to recommend, or would recommend with the caveat that it’s “not for everyone.” But, Transit appeals to me, personally, because in a novel comprised of conversations there exists the absence of small talk. There is no, “what do you do for a living?” This lack of pleasantries, the onset of intimacy, alarms people in reality. In the book, it almost seems commonplace. In my own conversations, I very rarely want to discuss the weather, but I will gladly tell you all of the thoughts weighing heavily upon my heart and soul. In this way, Cusk speaks very clearly to me, and I found myself frantically underlining passage after passage. I am truly anticipating the third and final book in this sort-of-a-trilogy.

Rating: 5/5
Recommended for: people who liked Outline or novels that aren’t really novels in trilogies that aren’t really trilogies.

(Read my review of Outline)

April 9th, 2018

comic con // silicon valley.

Saturday was Silicon Valley Comic Con. SVCC began in 2016, and has grown exponentially since then. There were around 60,000 attendees in the first year and an estimated 100,000 this past weekend. I actually attended last year and decided to replicate the experience — it seemed especially important when I was in the depths of post-ECCC ennui. So, we gathered a crew, bought Saturday passes, and headed to San Jose. SVCC is definitely a more local con than ECCC, but it also has a significantly smaller crowd, thereby affording attendees more space to linger at booths without getting pushed about by a host of foam swords. The one thing I was a little bummed about was the fact that they didn’t have the outdoor biergarten setup like last year, perhaps because the weather was initially supposed to be poor. Another complaint I heard from several people was that the line for to meet Stan Lee was prohibitively long and he also cancelled his panel because he wasn’t feeling well. Stan Lee is one of the true kings of geekdom, but he’s also 95 years old — I can imagine the con scene is both overwhelming and exhausting at this point. On the other hand, I did see several excited people who had gotten their photo-op and were showing it off.

I didn’t attend any panels (nothing piqued my interest on Saturday, but I wish I had gotten to see Mads Mikkelsen speak at the Star Wars panel on Friday night — sad), so my group mostly just wandered the show floors and autograph area looking at cosplay, the various booths, and hanging out. There weren’t any literary guests I was particularly interested in meeting either, so I didn’t queue for autographs, but we did spontaneously jump into a photo with Det. Ortega (Martha Higareda) from Altered Carbon. If you haven’t watched the show, it takes place in Bay City (aka: future San Francisco) 500 years in the future and is based on the cyperpunk novel of the same name by Richard K. Morgan. Det. Ortega is a badass, ball-busting Latina whose fight scenes showcase Higareda’s impressive physical acting.

Per usual, I mostly haunted Artist’s Alley and met a few new-to-me artists. I was also positively gleeful to find Jacqueline DeLeon selling prints, comics, and stickers. She’s a squee-level artist for me and I have watched her livestream digital paintings so many times that being able to buy her art (specifically the amethyst witch holographic print) and (finally) pick up her indie comic, Sirens of San Francisco, was a really fun experience. (I tagged all the artists in my Instagram post, if you’re interested).

Overall, it was a solid con that I hope will have some additions and improvements in the future — lots of good cosplay and local artists, an impressive guest list, and a fun group of friends. Now, I am looking forward to San Francisco Comic Con in June. I remain hopeful they will up their literary guest game, but, if not, I am still excited — especially because they relocated it to the Oakland Convention Center this year which makes me think (hope) it will be bigger than last year’s.

April 4th, 2018

this might be a manifesto.

“All my troubles at the moment are caused by the mere fact that I am trying more and more to be myself.” — Henry Miller, from a letter to Anaïs Nin

I made a pact with myself over the past year. I wanted to be more open and honest, internally and externally. I was tired of separating my true self from people with a phone screen. I was tired of living an inauthentic facade and pretending I didn’t want things, when actually I did — when I wanted quite a lot. Mostly, I wanted to be the biggest version of the best me. But, I was wholly unprepared for the fallout of this decision, both good and bad.

This week is my one year anniversary of moving to Berkeley. I decided I was tired of sharing a house with three other people and holding back what I really wanted to do (which was move in with my boyfriend) because of others’ opinions. I tested the idea to a chorus of, “ooh, that seems soon,” but, ultimately, I decided — screw it. Life’s too short, and all the rest of that cliched garbage that rings oh-so-true in a particularly passionate moment.

I can say now, it was the best decision I’ve ever made.

Moving to Berkeley shaped me, it made me whole again. It taught me what life could be like with a supportive partner and that ‘home’ is actually so many tiny, seemingly disparate things rather than one big, obvious one. Home is reading over eighty books in one apartment, remembering the particular way the sunlight hit you while you lingered over morning tea and a very good read; it’s also playing board games together and sharing a haphazard dinner of olives and popcorn, starting different D&D campaigns, hiking together, joining an urban wine club because we can; it’s finding a new yoga studio, new bookstores, new restaurants, new things to love. Home is buying a lot of plants. I was (am) finally happy again, like deep-down-sunshine-in-my-bone-marrow happy.

It’s been a year of self-discovery and reinvention and asking myself: “What do I want my life to look like?”

With this physical shift to a new place, I decided I wanted to cultivate positivity in all aspects of my life. I mean, why not? It seems so easy, so achievable when you’re happy. I planned weekend getaways, started cooking at home more, I lost weight, I decided to take college classes to get a raise at work, I started training for a new teaching position. It’s been stressful at times, but I am still here. I am still creating my best life.

As it turns out, some people don’t really like it when you try to positively change yourself, or when you succeed, or when you’re happy. Ideally, we humans want to surround ourselves with friends and partners who do like it, but we aren’t always that lucky. I’ve lost people in the process of trying to be direct, honest. I’ve been friend-ghosted and stood up. I’ve been called “competitive,” “jaded,” “opinionated,” and “snobby” — though I don’t know that those adjectives are particularly accurate, they stung. Alternatively, I have also been called “beautiful,” “a good friend,” “strong,” “intimidating,” “kind,” and “the most varied reader I have ever met” — you see, I wrote the good ones down, because the bad ones always linger in the periphery, whether you want them to or not, and the compliments tend to slip through your hands like sand.

There is no one-sentence takeaway from this experience. No whittled down top five list. My only salient point would be change is hard, loving yourself and letting yourself be loved is hard, striving is hard. But it’s so good too.

March 15th, 2018

dungeons & discourse // no. 4, poison heart.

This is part of an ongoing series: (no. 1, saltwater // no. 2, avian // no. 3, reunion)

The altercation had turned bloody rather quickly, all said. Those blasted bards immediately shape-shifted into giant scorpions, their venomous tails dripping with a chartreuse poison. The more impertinent female half-elf, Trella, had remained in her human form.

Recognizing that the situation had spiraled out of her meager diplomatic control, Osiria commanded Artemis to retreat and climbed atop the caravan housing Archimedes, who was now trilling in agitation. Adrenaline, coupled with her proximity to the forest’s treeline, caused the green magic to flow through her more freely. Barely needing to command it, a mere mutter sufficed, a mote of brambles sprang from the earth to encircle the caravan, viciously entangling the first scorpion’s many legs.

Osiria reared back and let her arrows fly — they struck true; but the scorpion found its mark as well — in her back. She cried out in white-hot pain as the stinger disengaged from her flesh, leaving an oozing wound in its wake. Poisoned and dazed, she struggled to maintain control of her senses as the battle continued around her.

Luckily, Hephaestus, and his paladin’s flail, struck down one of the scorpions. Both arachnids shifted back into their original form and, less formidable with only two legs, began, instead, begging to leave the battlefield with their lives. Trella was bloodied and slipping in and out of consciousness. Normally, Osiria would have victoriously preened a bit, but her own situation was not particularly enviable.

“We knew he was yours…,” one of them conceded in a whisper. He dejectedly handed Osiria the key to Archimedes’ cage.

Despite an overwhelming urge to vomit as the scorpion poison coursed through her, she used her remaining energy to free a visibly shaken and aggressively molting Archimedes.

“Hush, hush, we are together now,” she reassured the raptor.

“You’re hurt,” he pronounced.

“Astutely observed,” she conceded. Another wave of nausea washed over her and she found herself leaning heavily against the metal cage.

“I feel as though, perhaps, it’s worth reminding you that you have a potion of healing in your left pouch. Unless your intent is just to make me feel guilty?”

Osiria chuckled. But it hurt to chuckle. And she woozily fished around in her pouch until her fingers made contact with a small vial containing an ethereal blue liquid. She tipped it forward in a wry toast to Archimedes before downing the entire draught.

“I will be entirely well by nightfall, my heart, I assure you. Now, let’s get you back to the Tooth.” She winced. “Let’s get us both back.”

In the meantime, Duma had begun to pillage items from the gypsy caravans while simultaneously attempting to convince the nomads to steal their booty from the nobility, rather than wandering adventurers.

Osiria would have laughed at the thieving rogue’s attempts to reform a band of brigands, but she was in no mood to be amused and far more interested in Archimedes’ immediate condition. His head was drooping toward his chest and she scooped the large bird up in her arms like a feathered kitten — although he would have cringed at the analogy.

She felt their beast bond breaking, the crackling of disintegrating magic like static electricity ran through her body. Osiria acknowledged that she lacked the requisite energy to cast the spell again, and instead allowed her heightened senses to dull.

Back on the Kraken’s Tooth, two blood hawks supported one another within the aviary’s roost. Osiria managed an assurance from Rocco, the new beastkeeper, that the pair would be safe and looked after before throwing her exhausted body down in her berth — stray arrows, dried mushrooms, and a handful of recently fermented tea leaves fell softly from her many pouches and splayed out on the ground around her like a halo.

March 6th, 2018

comic con // emerald city.

What’s the word for: “I am so sad ECCC is over that I already bought passes to SVCC?” Because, that.

Attending comic conventions is a rather new hobby of mine. When I lived in Texas, cons that actually showcased comics were few and far between. Mostly, they were anime or anime & sci-fi — but with an anime-heavy push — which is, unfortunately, not my fandom. I never felt included or represented at cons.

Last year, I attended both the Silicon Valley & San Francisco ComicCons and discovered a different breed of convention — one focused more on comics, art, creators, and cosplay. This year, I had the opportunity to attend Emerald City ComicCon, which my partner assured me was even more art focused. And, wow! ECCC was more than I could have imagined.

We had weekend passes, but were only able to attend two full days due to our work schedules. Also, I had never been to Seattle before — so that alone was pretty cool.

We arrived early Friday, meeting up with our friend who was in line for a David Tennant autograph. We stopped in for the “official” ECCC merch (I bought so many t-shirts!) because we were obviously going to need a bag for our haul — then, we decided to hit Artist Alley first, and hard. There were several artists of note that I wanted to get merch from, specifically things they weren’t going to be selling online, and I had pre-commissioned an original piece of artwork as well. I am glad we stopped by Artist Alley on the first day, because I went a little crazy and ended up commissioning two more original works of my D&D character, Osiria — receiving these beautiful pieces from artists I admire ended up being the highlight of the entire con for me!

(Art by Jack T. Cole & Katie Longua)

A few other first day highlights: we played Kirby Star Allies for the Switch and it’s crazy fun, I wore my “Crit the Patriarchy” shirt and received a load of compliments — said compliments also inadvertently led me to purchasing some D20 earrings to match, Brad got to meet Stan Sakai (author of Usagi Yojimbo), we sat in on a Critical Roll panel (where there was a fan proposal during the q&a!?), and we tried out the ECCC exclusive brews in the biergarten (yeah, there’s a biergarten). After a couple of ciders, I ran into the Copic marker booth and sang an angelic: “ahhhhhaaaahhh!” which was immediately reciprocated by a booth worker — cons are filled with other dorks and I love it. In the end, I successfully limited myself to five markers, and we all went out for margaritas.

Saturday was a lot more crowded, which was exciting for all the cosplay watching, but definitely increased the difficulty level in navigating the Show Floor. That didn’t stop me! My major goal for the day was to get the first Liveship Traders book signed by Robin Hobb. I have been to a few fantasy literature conventions and I have never seen her signing — so, let’s just say my excitement level was such that I was the literal first person in line. Our interaction was brief, but perfect:

Me: “I loved this book [Ship of Magic] so much, I read it in college and it’s still my favorite.”
RH: “I had so much fun writing it.”
Me: “It was one of the first fantasy books I read with a female protagonist. A lot of male readers have told me they couldn’t get into it for that reason, but it made me really happy.”
RH: “Well, there are other books for them.”

Afterward, our triumvirate had lunch at Mod Pizza with all the cosplayers and I made my way over to Vault Comics (my favorite publisher, at the moment) and ended up spontaneously meeting the creators of Zojaqan (my favorite comic, at the moment) who signed a first issue for me! I didn’t fangirl too hard, and they seemed genuinely happy to meet a fan — the fan / creator interaction is my favorite thing about cons and our mutually enthusiastic interchange just served to underscore that. I also made my most hilarious purchases on Saturday — a Dwight Schrute Lying Cat by Zak Kinsella (which, if you know me, is the peak of two of my fandoms and I also happened to be wearing a Lying Cat shirt that day) and a “Kylo Ren is a Punk Bitch” t-shirt (ugh, I hate the new Star Wars movies so much).

We ended the day with one more trip to the biergarten and a series of photos in the Dark Horse Comics photobooth (sidenote: their props inspired me to attempt my own horned flower crown for Silicon Valley in April — I am going to pretend to be a Tiefling) right as the floor was closing. It was a perfect end to a perfect con and I can’t wait to go back next year. Also, this four day respite was a good reminder to take time for myself and my hobbies because I came back to work in the best mood I have been in for weeks.

February 21st, 2018

book talk // the perfect nanny.

What makes a thriller? In my opinion, it’s fast pacing, exploitative scenarios (there will be an obsession, probably an affair, ultimately a murder), and a generically accessible title.

Aside from the title, The Perfect Nanny by Leila Slimani is none of those things. Therefore, anyone referring to The Perfect Nanny  as the “French answer to Gone Girl” is doing Slimani a distinct disservice.

The novel opens with two simple lines: “The baby is dead. It only took a few seconds.” Echoes of Hemingway. We know from the beginning that something terrible has happened, but the build is slow and so focused on the inner thoughts of each character that the reader comes up gasping for air, attempting to escape the confines of their minds. The characters, and their inner monologues, are so quietly unsettling, but also entrenched in domesticity and a charade of manners that I hesitate to ascribe the “thriller” label to this novel.

My biggest issue is with the American title — The Perfect Nanny indeed lends itself to a cheap psychological thriller (a la Gone Girl) whereas the French title: Chanson Douce actually means “sweet song” — which the British edition tried to capture in titling the translation Lullaby. America, as usual, missed the point. In this New Yorker article, John Siciliano, Slimani’s editor at Penguin, said, “I didn’t want to call it ‘Lullaby,’ because that sounds sleepily forgettable, and my goal is to reach a big commercial readership. We’re getting this book into places like Walmart and Target.” But, this novel is more understated than all that.

The Perfect Nanny dissects the subtleties of racism, classism, and sexism. Everyone in the novel wants. Myriam, the mother, wants to work, Paul, the father, wants his old, carefree life back, and Louise, the nanny, wants to be needed. Myriam, tired of giving up her freedom to be a slave to her children, convinces her reluctant husband Paul, who assumes she’s a blissful mother, to support her in going back to work. Necessitating the acquisition of a nanny for their two children. As they’re searching for the perfect nanny, Paul says, “Not too old, no veils, no smokers,” and if the nanny has children of her own, “it’s better if they’re back in the homeland” so she is able to devote herself entirely to their whims. Louise is perfect, but Slimani has given Louise, a doll-like blonde woman, the job of an immigrant to increase the obviousness of her fringe existence. Louise, despite her carefully arranged bun and Peter Pan collar, belongs no where. Her abusive husband is dead, her own daughter ran away, and the other nannies are suspicious of her haughty mannerisms. As Myriam and Paul aspire toward a specific upper-middle class existence, Louise becomes integral, but she also becomes their blind spot and their shame.

Slowly, and without anyone overtly noticing, the classism creeps in. When Myriam goes shopping, she hides the new clothes in an old cloth bag and only opens them once Louise has gone. “Paul congratulates her on being so tactful.” Myriam feels guilty about staying out late, but Paul insists, “That’s what Louise is for!” Slimani also probes the concept of motherhood in ways that make the reader squirm. Her description of a new mother in the park is particularly unsettling: “She carries her body of pain and secretions, her body that smells of sour milk and blood. This flesh that she drags around with her, which she gives no care or rest.”

Slimani explores the tender boundaries that, when shattered, cause people to break. Over the course of many months, Louise realizes she has never had a space to call her own, a place she hasn’t shared with others. She has nothing except debts and solitude. She looks at herself, Myriam, and the children — the precariously balanced existence they inhabit — “Someone has to die. Someone has to die for us to be happy,” she repeats to herself. But, again, Slimani does not offer us any concrete answers. There is no big thing that causes Louise to snap, instead it’s a thousand tiny injustices.

Additionally, it’s worth noting that, Slimani is only the 12th woman, ever, to win the prestigious (and historically sexist) Prix Goncourt prize. This award is initially what made me sit up and pay attention to her work, and I’m glad I did as I will be thinking about this book for months to come.

Rating: 5/5
Recommended For: anyone looking for an alternative to mainstream thrillers

February 9th, 2018

dungeons & discourse // not your healer.

Is anyone really surprised that gatekeeping is alive and well in the tabletop gaming community?

An all-female, actual play DnD podcast I follow, The Broadswords, retweeted the meme screencap on the left with the comment “Can we vomit any harder?” Of course, as soon as it was retweeted more than, like, five times, male gamers came out to question, “hey, what’s with all the hate?”

As many females who have played MMOs or tabletop games can attest, we are often relegated (see also: forced) to the role of healer. Usually this happens without an explicit conversation, it’s just (whoops!) the only spot left or it’s incorrectly assumed that the female player wants this role. This hierarchy of female healers and male tanks is an ongoing joke in the lady-gaming community — it’s a stereotype, but, it’s one that male players seem to assume we aspire toward. A cursory browse of a WoW forum post on the topic brought me to this (male-given) explanation for the phenomenon: “Well im a guy and in my personal opinion or my state of mind if you will, i think it might be because that girls have a ‘mother/protective’ like instinct to nurse or take care of others.” The following replies were mostly slight variations of: “motherly nurturing instinct? the lack of a primal destructive competitive edge for DPS,” ” tanking is ‘too much pressure,'” “mother instinct,” ” I think it is a “power/control” issue,” and, my personal favorite, “DPS on the other hand is very competitive. Your worth is measured in numbers. Girls don’t particularly like that.”  (all grammatical errors have been preserved for posterity)

Personally, I have never enjoyed playing a healer, but I’ve never enjoyed tanking either. I have always tended toward damage dealers or DPS (monk in FFXI / XIV and ranger in DnD), but many male players in my linkshell or gaming groups have asked if I could also level white mage / healer, basically because they didn’t want to — the underlying message being: it’s a girl’s job. And it’s hard to DPS alone, so I generally needed the support of a party or group. In the end, I usually quit due to the frustration of not being taken seriously.

I still see a lot of gatekeeping, in tabletop gaming especially. For example, there was a DnD group I was playing in — five males, who were fairly experienced players, two females, who were newer — and the other female player was essentially boxed out for being too “normie.” So, how can female players ever be expected to learn the game and improve if the barrier to admittance is already knowing the game? If they are too “normie” to be given a chance in the first place? Her voice was essentially silenced and she just wasn’t invited back after two sessions. In retrospect, I wish I had spoken up for her, but I too was new and didn’t want to rock to the boat.

I had a similar experience playing FFXIV where I went into a boss fight without (gasp!) watching a YouTube play through first, so I had no idea what to do. I was unaware that you were supposed to already know how to beat the monster before you’d ever actually encountered it. My linkshell mates (all male) kept yelling at me and interrupting me over chat. So, what I had assumed would be fun, turned out to be a very negative experience, resulting in them telling me I needed to watch more YouTube videos if I was going to play with them again. One must be omniscient, apparently. This experience was the impetus for my leaving the linkshell, and eventually the game itself.

I still have issues with being interrupted while gaming, usually during DnD when I am trying to have a character moment in-game. Players cut in with OOC questions, directing a query at the DM who is engaging me, specifically, in a scene. It annoys me to no end because I feel like my character moments and choices are overshadowed by others’, seemingly more imperative, needs. It’s not a gaming deal-breaker for me, but I don’t like being the only one who constantly has to repeat herself because no one was listening. (Sidenote: as a teacher, I get interrupted enough at my job. I don’t want to constantly deal with being talked over in my personal life too.) This thread on Reddit (it’s about 2 years old, but still applicable) about being a female DM and dealing with interruptions provides two potential solutions for such a scenario. Option A: “name, I’m explaining something right now, I need you to stop talking until I’ve finished with other name‘s situation so they can make the best choice.” Option B: “You are busy talking and don’t notice a battle axe tied to the tree in front of you.” I prefer Option B.

The group I DM for now is all male — with a twist — I run the table. They are also almost all new players and I am a newer DM — which is fun because the game feels low-stakes and convivial most of the time. No one is more “hardcore” than anyone else. We are all learning and making a few mistakes as we go. Although I was nervous to the point of nausea the first time, we have a good groove going and they are quite respectful toward both me, my role as DM, the story, and one another (well, OOC, the barbarian has some separate issues — haha). Plus, I love story-telling and developing weird, esoteric characters who inhabit my rather in-depth worlds — I never would have had the opportunity to experience this role and develop a passion for it if my partner hadn’t encouraged me to take a leap and become a DM.

To circle back to the meme itself, I am lucky enough to have a partner who is also my DM, and brought me into his group because he genuinely loves me and wants us to spend more time together. Some of the male players suggested I needed an interview beforehand, but he shot that down and said I was nerd enough for all of them. So, this Valentine’s Day, I feel lucky to be both the most important person in his life and his damage-dealing ranger who can speak to hawks. Suck it, gender stereotypes!

February 5th, 2018

book talk // when to stop.

Once I crack the spine of a book, any book, I feel obligated to read it to completion, a compulsion to attain the ending. Luckily, I am a fairly good judge of my own taste and tend to choose books that make this less of an obligation and more of a pleasure. But, sometimes, I choose duds. And still, I will slog through. Usually, this creates a blockage in my reading flow and I will actively avoid the book. Since I am a monogamous book reader, basically this means I just stop reading.

So, this year, I have been practicing the art of stopping and have shelved two books “dnf” (did not finish) on Goodreads.

The first book was Red Clocks by Leni Zumas, which was a rather large disappointment because this was a highly-anticipated 2018 release for me. Described as a “ferociously imaginative novel, [where] abortion is once again illegal in America, in-vitro fertilization is banned, and the Personhood Amendment grants rights of life, liberty, and property to every embryo. In a small Oregon fishing town, five very different women navigate these new barriers” — I thought it would tick a lot of boxes.

However, instead, within the first few pages I was greeted with this description of a gynecological exam: “On a scale of one to ten, with ten being the shrill funk of an elderly cheese and one being no odor at all, how would he rank the smell of the biographer’s vagina? How does it compare with the other vaginas barreling through this exam room, day in, day out, years of vaginas, a crowd of vulvic ghosts? Plenty of women don’t shower beforehand, or are battling a yeast, or just happen naturally to stink in the nethers. [The gynocologist] has sniffed some ripe tangs in his time.”

Perhaps I am just not literary enough to comfortably associate the olfactory qualities of a vagina with varying levels of rotten cheese. I was also not a fan of the writing style, in general, and after 40-50 pages it hadn’t “grabbed” me. At any rate, goodbye, book.

The second book I shan’t be finishing, and the one I felt worse about putting aside, was The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz. I mean, this book won a Pulitzer! Surely, it deserves my attention and respect, right? The description paints Oscar as a Dominican ghetto nerd, “[he] dreams of becoming the Dominican J. R. R. Tolkien and, most of all, of finding love.”

Sounds charming, right? Wrong. The book itself is incredibly crude, interspersed with forced nerd jokes to maintain the thematic appeal. I think Diaz truly lost me about 160 pages in, after making a D&D joke while the female character (Oscar’s mother in a flashback of her youth) was subjected to a violent, albeit consensual, sexual encounter. He said she took “4d10” damage (which is a lot, leading me to believe the act was particularly violent) and I just lost my taste for the story. The casual violence and toxic masculinity had ceased to point a discerning finger and just started to feel gross. Oscar also came across as this whiny, emo boy nerd — “But, I’m a nice guy, why don’t girls like me? I’m so nice! And I love girls! And I am sensitive and nerdy! Here’s a Lord of the Rings joke to prove how nerdy! I tried to get with this one girl with great tits, but she loved a guy who hit her, and I was so nice to her, but she just saw me as a friend! Why didn’t she choose me?”

Another aspect that grated on me were the copious footnotes, sometimes half a page in length, describing Dominican history in minute detail (which was interesting, I just wish it had been incorporated more into the actual narrative rather than approximately twenty-thousand, seemingly random, asides). I generally tend to dislike footnotes that aren’t translations, so this could be a bit of bias on my part.

Now, these two books stare at me like scorned lovers from a discard pile I intend to take to the resale shop — every time I glimpse their spines, I feel a twinge of guilt, of failure. An urge to apologize to inanimate objects. However, life is simply too short and I’ve wasted enough days being pinned down by these narratives. I am being ruthless with my time this year! And I have to keep repeating the mantra: “just because it’s an award winner, doesn’t mean you have to like it.”

January 25th, 2018

dungeons & discourse // no. 3, reunion.

This is part of an ongoing series: (no. 1, saltwater // no. 2, avian)

The air smelled of burning and dense tendrils of silver grey smoke sat heavily within the clearing. Usually a comforting scent, it reminded Osiria of campfires and sleeping under the stars, she instead felt her stomach turn over at the sight of the goddess Umberlee’s charred temple. Ash fell and settled around her like dirty snow.

Once ashore, and rid of the Kenku, Hephaestus had used his influence as fledgling first mate of the Kraken’s Tooth to inquire about the location of Osiria’s missing blood hawk companion, Archimedes. A traveling beastmaster informed him that he’d seen a band of half-elf gypsies attempting to sell a blood hawk earlier that week — they’d had poor control of the animal and their struggle had drawn his attention. Osiria, not one to trust easily, was thankful and could acknowledge that Heph was attempting to endear himself to her. He was somewhat successful.

Within an hour, she’d tracked the roving, gypsy caravans to this spot — the still smoldering temple. Obviously, the nomads intended to loot anything of value and disappear, with Archimedes in tow. “Not going to happen,” Osiria murmured, striding forward. Duma and Heph trailed behind her as she threw the coverings off each caravan.

Archimedes was inside the third caravan she uncovered. He was trussed and hooded like some common fowl. Osiria grimaced at this careless treatment. The creature was obviously distressed — the cage was filled with molted vermillion feathers and she noted a few bald spots on his shoulders.

“Oh, my darling. Let me set you free,” she whispered.

Osiria reached through the bars; viridescent light spilled out of her fingers and coated Archimedes in an aura the color of verdant leaves.

She intended to use their magical link to question him about the potential for an escape, but, at the moment of contact, Archimedes cried out, “Behind you! Look behind you!” And Osiria turned to find herself staring down a crossbow.

The outstretched arm holding said bow was clad in the jolly colors of a bard and, as Osiria’s eyes traveled, the woman attached to the arm clearly favored bardic finery — tassels and small bells adorned her traveling tunic. Her dark hair was pushed back behind a pair of dully pointed ears — not quite elven. Half-elf, then, Osiria decided.

“Raise your arms and back away slowly. No one touches my things!”

“Your things? This hawk is hardly a ‘thing’ and, even less, belonging to you. He’s my companion, and you will release him at once,” Osiria commanded.

The bard did not move.

“You need proof? Archimedes, please indicate our bond with three short calls,” she requested.

“She isn’t going to believe you,” he warned.

“Just do it.”

“Let me scratch her eyes out instead.”

“You’re hardly in the position to be making threats,” Osiria countered.

Archimedes complied with the request, albeit without much enthusiasm.

After the shrill cries of the hawk echoed through the clearing, a tense silence settled like a poisonous second skin. Everyone was on edge. Osiria ran her tongue along the back of her teeth; she could sense Duma twitching the strings of his drawn bow behind her, anxious to end this without time consuming diplomacy.

“You’re a Wood Elf. I know your tricks with animals! You’re a discriminating folk, you’ve never treated us with any respect,” the bard levelled her baseless accusations without disarming the crossbow.

“I travel with a half-elf,” she indicated Heph. “And I harbor no ill will against your kind, though you in particular are getting a little tiresome. The bond I share with my hawk is no trick, I assure you. Here, let me show you his sister, she waits in the trees. You will easily discern the family resemblance, I think.”

Osiria whistled a melody that rose above those on the ground and traveled, like a whisper, into the trees. In a moment, the air shifted as another, smaller crimson hawk propelled her body into view. Osiria smiled at Artemis’ approach. In the next moment, the obnoxious bard shifted the aim of her crossbow and took a spontaneous shot at the bird.

Osiria cried out in alarm, but Artemis daintily dodged the arrow before alighting on Archimedes’ cage where the two called to one another excitedly.

“That’s it,” Osiria snarled, as she drew the curved dagger at her waist and lunged forward.

January 22nd, 2018

book talk // the tiger’s daughter.

I love fantasy novels. However, I am rather particular in my taste. I don’t enjoy the monotony of endless battles or aggressive male tones. I seek, much like I do with my literary fiction, a story that creates a mood, builds an interesting world, and explores characterization. I found that in The Tiger’s Daughter by K. Arsenault Rivera.

The Tiger’s Daughter is “the story of an infamous Qorin warrior, Barsalayaa Shefali, a spoiled divine warrior empress, O-Shizuka [she’s Hokkaran], and a power that can reach through time and space to save a land from a truly insidious evil.”

Before I read the book I made the mistake of noting a few negative reviews on Goodreads. However, I have read several books in the past two years that I adored and Goodreads readers universally disliked or condemned. Still, I went into it with a slight apprehension and was pleasantly surprised.

The Tiger’s Daughter is, what I would call, a tome (~525 pages) told through letters. I’ve always been a fan of the epistolary novel, so I found this revelation to be a delightful one. I also think letters are a solid way to develop background without forcing the reader to entirely relive every little moment, only the important memories.

There is action, however, it’s mostly a character-driven love story. Shefali and Shizuka battle tigers, demons, and blackbloods, but that is not the focus of their tale. The story is also told primarily through Shefali’s letters, which act as flashbacks to their childhood for an older Shizuka, who is presently reading the letters in her palace bedroom. Basically, two warrior girls from differing backgrounds grow up together, fall in love, and battle demons. The writing is rather melodramatic in places, but I loved that the book handled a f/f romance with tenderness. I was very invested in the characters — solid, silent Shefali and spoiled, bossy Shizuka — and their unlikely relationship (considering how it began). Rivera also included a trans character — whose particular abilities, to me, recalled Le Guin’s Left Hand of Darkness. The inclusivity of this novel is definitely something to love, but the characters and world are what initially grabbed me.

I’ve seen several Goodreads reviews criticizing the racism and slurs used in the book. There’s an insinuation that Hokkaro is based on Japanese culture, while Qorin represents Mongolian and Xian represents Chinese — this is fairly obvious when you read the book — but I think it’s also obvious that the slurs are fictional, based in a fantasy world and, no matter what the similarities may be to our reality, it’s clearly fantasy. Rivera’s use of the slang “ricetongue,” for instance, is employed infrequently to establish a realistic fantasy world where racism and cultural bias exist. She is showing the reality of one culture attempting to subjugate another and the negative interactions that would, naturally, come along with that. As a D&D player, these conversations often occur regarding stereotypes against other races (for instance, elves are often distrustful of non-elves) so, I viewed it as realistic world-building.

My critique (aside from the melodrama) is that when the reader flashes to present Shizuka, the author occasionally flips verb tenses (past vs. present) and it got a little confusing for me in parts. That said, I believe this is Rivera’s first novel, so I am excited to see how her style improves or changes with the next book (The Pheonix Empress — coming out in August). I have a lot of questions that I hope the second book answers! Also, the cover art is incredibly beautiful — how could you pass this one up?

Rating: 4/5
Recommended For: fantasy lovers, people looking for a slow-burn LGBTQ romance