J.J. McAvoy

BlackRainbowMcAvoyBlack Rainbow
by J.J. McAvoy
2015

ThatThingMcAvoyThat Thing Between Eli and Gwen
by J.J. McAvoy
2016

SugarBabyMcAvoySugar Baby Beautiful
by J.J. McAvoy
2015

 

So I wavered on writing these books up because they’re in a genre I don’t generally admit to reading: the short, extremely self-indulgent, quite graphic, romance novel. It’s a genre that pretty much defines the guilty pleasure book for a lot of women (it’s a money-maker genre in the publishing industry.) They’re not, generally speaking, good books, but they can be intensely satisfying and relaxing brain candy.

J.J. McAvoy might have managed to break the mold for this genre, though, because I think her books might be genuinely good. They are certainly significantly better than any other books in this genre that I’ve ever read. The issues the characters deal with are relatively believable and sympathetic, but more importantly her characters are all smart and witty and just a bit mean without ever being cruel.

Reading these books really highlighted for me how my favorite characters are all at least a tiny bit mean. I don’t like cruelty, but neither do I like a milksop. These characters, they talk and they bicker and they’re in their partner’s weight-class as far as those fights go, and they genuinely apologize on the rare occasions they go too far or hit an exposed nerve. The books transcend the self-indulgent fantasy by being about characters who are enjoyable in their own right.

And then McAvoy modified the standard plot arc in a way that I’m really impressed with. I’m going to put that beneath a spoiler cut, although there won’t be any specific spoilers.

I won’t recommend the books to everyone, because you do have to enjoy the genre first, but if you do, then you should absolutely try these.

Plot arch spoilers:

Continue reading

March by John Lewis

marchtrilogy960x510

March, books 1, 2, and 3
written by John Lewis and Andrew Aydin
illustrated by Nate Powell
2013, 2015, 2016

John Lewis is a g**d*** hero and every school child should learn his story and every adult should know it. That’s my take away from these books. I am embarrassed at how much of these events I didn’t previously know.

These books were both heart-wrenching and inspirational, made all the more so by the starkness of the story telling. Lewis is not specifically trying to be heart-wrenching or inspirational, he’s just telling the story. And the story is intrinsically heart-wrenching and inspirational.

John Lewis felt, feels, so strongly about achieving what is right that he knowingly walked into situations where he could be killed, refusing to physically fight back, and instead demanding that the world be better than it was through acts of faith and friendship in the face of hatred and anger. That takes levels of courage that I can’t really comprehend and yet want so much. He wanted to live and yet was willing to risk his life to accomplish something because, live or die, succeed or fail, just the attempt would be worth it.

That is a freaking hero.

These books are autobiographical and nonfiction. They give the reader a look at a specific part of history that often gets glossed over in the textbooks. But it’s important history, in part because it’s still ongoing. These events were only some fifty years ago and John Lewis is still alive and working today. And the issues he dealt with are still being dealt with today as well. These books make you think. They don’t necessarily tell you what to think, but they show you events that require thought.

So read them.

Read them now.

Something that gets to me about modern politics is how scared people are. Trump’s supporters want to cower behind a wall, protected from anyone and everything different from them. Trump’s detractors are terrified that he’s going to either kill them outright for being different or force them into a poor homogenous society cowering behind a wall. (I’m over simplifying, but I stand by the summary.)

John Lewis’s life is a testament against that level of fear. He could face fear and not let his warp who he was or change him into someone he didn’t want to be. Everyone should learn that lesson.

Another thing that struck me in these books was how evil some of the white people were. It’s generally not covered in text books, but it’s still historical fact—and not even all that historical. But there were just ordinary citizens who were also monsters and they raised their kids to be monsters. They went out of their way to kill, spread misery and spew anger.

It has occurred to me before that there is a level of cognitive dissonance in this type of violent racism, that clearly shows that the racists know themselves to be in the wrong and lying to themselves. True-believer racists go the white-man’s-burden route. But by violently trying to create a society that they consider to be natural, they demonstrate just how unnatural it really is.

These books also got me thinking about how methods change and evolve in every war as both sides learn how best to attack and defend. In the 1960s, the civil rights leaders made being jailed work for them by overfilling the jails and refusing to pay bail, forcing the cities to take the expense.

Unfortunately, racists have evolved since then and have turned the jail system into a for-profit venture and they benefit off the number of black bodies they imprison.

I’m reminded of the story of Jesus turning the other cheek. It’s often seen as purely an act of humility, but that’s because not many people know the cultural implications of Jesus story. Left and right hands were seen very differently, as were open handed slaps and backhanded slaps. Jesus wasn’t merely submitting to being slapped again, he was changing the situation so that the person slapping him faced a very different set of options.

I’m not sure what the modern version should be, but I do know that it needs to change with the times.

And a final thought:

One of the things that I find difficult with any civil rights movement is that I can never do enough, and so I become paralyzed and wind up doing nothing. But Lewis makes the point with this story, the story of his life and the lives the people he worked with, that no one person can do everything and that’s okay. Because you do what you can, don’t do what you can’t, and rely on others to do what they can. Civil rights, all politics for that matter, isn’t a single sprint: it’s a marathon and a relay. You work together and you go for the long run, and you pass the baton back and forth. You have some wins and you have some devastating losses, but hopefully over the course of years and decades you wind up with more achievements than setbacks. And that is a message that is always important, but especially important in today’s political scene.

The Bible: Psalms

I had actually been really looking forward to Psalms because I thought there would be some good poetry here. I’m not a big poetry reader, not because I dislike it but because I am incredibly picky about it. But I like John Donne’s poetry, and Rita Dove’s poetry, and Ramprasad Sen’s poetry, and I’ve been getting a kick out of the “I lik the bred” poetry meme. As it turns out, I’m not a big fan of King David’s, King Solomon’s, or various other poets’ poetry that wound up in Psalms.

The introduction on the audio book version also raised expectations because apparently a lot of these are lyrics, intended to be set to music, and the original text includes instructions on the music. Cool!* If nothing else, I was going to amuse myself by trying to find Christian rock bands who had put the Psalms to music in a modern fashion. But the results are pretty rough. I mean, the music is fine, less rock and more spiritual/celtic maybe, which is disappointing, but the lyrics…

Just, wow, the Pslams are whiney. Either whiney or really blatantly hypocritical. Often, they’re both whiney and hypocritical. Just oof. I was disappointed. There’s just a lot of “these people are being mean to me, you need to beat them up” along with “you hate people who do violent things but love people who obey you, so let’s all do violent things to the people who don’t obey you.”

So just, nope.

Now, keep in mind that Psalms is broken into 5 sections and 150 poems, from a variety of poets discussing a variety of issues, so while I didn’t like the vast majority of it, that isn’t to say there aren’t a few exceptions.

There are some individual verses that ring out with power and touch the heart… but there’s always another verse that pretty much delivers the opposite message.

A couple of verses that spoke to me particularly strongly given the current political situation in the US are:

Psalm 94:20-21:

But you are opposed to dishonest lawmakers
Who gang up to murder innocent victims

Psalm 101:6-7 (by King David):

I will find trustworthy people to serve as my advisors
And only an honest person will serve as an official
No one who cheats or lies
Will have a position in my royal court

So, for a moment, it was a salve to my soul, a bit like watching West Wing.

But then there’s Psalm 106:34-35:

Our Lord, they disobeyed you
By refusing to destroy the nations.
Instead they were friendly
With those foreigners and followed their customers

So there really is something for everyone in these psalms, including the pro-genocide bigots. That is not a good thing.

But if you ever want to have a bible verse to support your position on any given issue, Psalms probably has you covered. You just have to decide to ignore all the context and hypocrisy.

Summary: A book of poetry that varies between emo whining and questionable historical accounts.

Moral: If you alternate between flattering and whining to a powerful being, they might be willing to act on your behalf.

* Especially cool since I have recently run across a lot of interesting discussions of how versatile hip-hop is, and how versatile Shakespeare is in much the same vein as hip-hop, and I just had high expectations.

Next Up: Proverbs

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

61unm4weinl-_aa300_Between the World and Me
by Ta-Nehisi Coates
2015

So 2016 proved to be a bit of a wake-up call for me in terms of politics and social justice. We have some serious problems in the US, regarding unjust inequality of human respect and public safety in addition to inequalities of income, access to education, access to healthcare, and access to overall opportunities.

I’ve come to the realization that it’s a sign of just how sheltered I’ve been that 2016 was a wake-up call rather than just another demonstration of what the world can be like. It was time and past for me to expand my horizons and get out of my comfort zone.

Ta-Nehisi Coates is only a couple of years older than me and this book is about his experience with being black in a white society. I’m white in a white society and thus a lot of racial issues are nearly invisible to me. I am not at all the intended audience for this book: he writes it as a black man to his black son about his experience with the way their blackness is seen by society. It is beautifully written and it’s an honor to be be allowed to read this somewhat intimate letter from a father to his son about his fears and hurts and anger.

It reminded me of Why Are They Angry With Us?, another book I highly recommend, but while that book was academic and intended for a general audience, Between the World and Me is very personal and intended for a specific audience of one, possibly expanded to include all young black men.

I’m glad I listened to it as an audio book rather than trying to read it as text. Coates reads it himself, which I always appreciate in audio books. But the real benefit of audio books is that they don’t stop unless you actively push the pause button. I found it a difficult book to hear but that very difficulty is what makes it all the more important that I listen.

 

Penric & Desdemona by Lois McMaster Bujold

 

Apparently Lois McMaster Bujold has decided to retire, which is somewhat dismaying as she has long been one of my favorite authors. On the other hand, what she’s decided to do in her semi-retirement is write novellas instead of novels and semi-self-publish them. (Spectrum Literacy Agency is listed as the publisher rather than a regular publishing house.) They are absolutely delightful and I love them and all three of the novellas that have come out so far have come out in 2016. The stories are available for purchase as Kindle books within weeks of them being written so I can track them on facebook.

These novellas: Penric’s Demon, Penric and the Shaman, and Penric’s Mission (so far), are in the series, Penric & Desdemona, about a young man named Penric who acquires a demon he names Desdemona. In this world the acquisition of a demon is what makes an individual a sorcerer, “much like the acquisition of a horse makes an individual a rider.” The Church, which has oversight of the demons in this world, is not best pleased with the situation. Penric is sweet and adorable and Desdemona is a delight.

The stories are set in Bujold’s world of the five gods. The five gods being the Father, the Mother, the Brother, the Sister, and the Bastard (each of whom are interesting characters in their own right although only appearing for the briefest of scenes.)

I whole-heartedly recommend those books as well, each of which has the interesting aspect of being able to stand alone, although I recommend just going ahead and reading them all, and at least the first two in order.

cursechalion

The Curse of Chalion is the first book and a standard (beautifully done) fantasy novel of adventure and court politics.

paladinsouls

Paladin of Souls is set some years later and shares some characters with The Curse of Challion but mostly through references, and is interesting in its main character being a middle-aged woman, mother and widow, who has had a rough life and is trying to find her place again… with much adventure and court politics.

hallowedhunt

The Hallowed Hunt shares no characters with the other books except for the gods, and is actually set in a whole different country and time period. This one has the most intriguing and heart-breaking villain story arch that I think I’ve ever run across and is amazing, especially since I still love the main characters and want them to succeed.

And then the Penric novella’s come in and it’s only in reading them that I can put together the time line, since they’re set some centuries after The Hallowed Hunt and but some time before The Curse of Challion.

Anyway, I love all of these and think you should read them all, but I mostly needed to just gloat with joy about the three Penric & Desdemona novellas that have already been made available with murmurs of at least two more. Yay! They are wonderful!

 

WWW: Wake by Robert J. Sawyer

wakeWWW: Wake
by Robert J. Sawyer
2009

This was a really interesting book that gave me lots of thoughts. I was impressed with how well thought out the scenario was as the author presents the hows and whys of this artificial intelligence coming into being and develops from there. That was really cool.

There was also a diverse and interesting cast of characters in this interesting scenario.

All the positive features of this book just made it all the more disappointing that the writing felt really flat. I should have liked this book a lot more than I did.

I was half-way to blaming it on being a YA novel and me aging out of the genre… but it’s not that kind of problem. There are plenty of YA books that manage to be extremely lively and engaging and, frankly, there are also plenty of adult books that suffer from the same flat sort of presentation as this one.  There was just something about the writing that kept me from getting into it. This is particularly disappointing because this is the first book in a series of three: WWW: Wake, WWW: Watch, and WWW: Wonder.

The scenario is interesting enough that I wish I liked the book and I might still get myself to read WWW: Watch and WWW: Wonder just to see what else the author thinks would or could happen with an AI in existence. I am startled to find myself in the extremely rare situation of wishing that those thoughts were written as a nonfiction essay rather embedded in a story.

I don’t think the writing is necessarily bad, it just really doesn’t reach me. Hopefully there are other readers out there who appreciate this book and series more.

Gods’ Man by Lynd Ward

Lynd_Ward_(1929)_Gods'_Man_coverGods’ Man: A Novel in Woodcuts
by Lynd Ward
1929

I ran across a reference recently to the wordless novel as a genre that flourished in the 1920s and 1930s. Somehow, I had never run across this before (although I have a couple of picture books that are completely wordless and are awesome) so I decided I needed to check it out. According to Wikipedia, Gods’ Man is one of the preeminent examples of the genre, and I can absolutely see why.

The illustrations really are gorgeous. Some examples are:

Gods_Man_sun_image and Lynd_Ward_(1929)_Gods'_Man_-_surrounded_by_wineglasses

lw_gm025 and lyndwardwife

Just really gorgeous.

The story line is… very 1920s-1930s. A young man, an artist, comes from over the seas to the big city. He’s a kind soul who the fat cats of the city toast and celebrate. He falls in love, but she loves only money! He is distraught and sinks into despair, and is finally chased out of the city, barely making his escape. In the countryside he finds a wonderful woman who nurses him back to health and is all that is wonderful. They are very happy together, except there is no escaping the evil of the big city and all things must end (in a very melodramatic way).

I highly recommend it.

I also think it’s particularly funny that the only words in the entire book (aside from the various title pages), is the name of the inn where our protagonist stays when he first arrives in the city. The sign is legible and reads: “Slink Inn Eat” (Hahahaha!)

I think I like the genre overall. The other wordless books I have are Zoom by Istvan Banyai, which is bright and modern and surreal, and Christmas! and Rain, both by Peter Spier, which are sweet and adorable and heartwarming. I love them all.