The Radium Girls: Or, How Capitalism and Materialism F*ck Over Vulnerable People

Author’s note: Written February 13, 2019

The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America's Shining Women by Kate Moore is a nonfiction book about the young women who worked as dial painters, not only handling the highly radioactive substance radium, but ingesting, and even playing with it.

Radium was lauded as the most wonderful discovery in then-modern science. They treated numerous diseases with it. They laced cosmetics and supplements with it. But a significant volume of radium was used to paint watch dials and military equipment for the war effort. Hundreds of girls joined the ranks to paint for persuasively high wages, and those wages are what kept girls working for long periods of time.

Everyone was extremely optimistic. It was a prosperous and exciting time. Girls worked for a few years and then moved on to build families or take other jobs, and everything was swell.

At least, until it wasn't.

The reality is that no one in authority wanted to do anything about radium complaints because of money—and "jurisdiction", and shitty, ineffective laws. These radium-producing companies generated a lot of income. They improved towns and paid high wages. They were the pride of their communities. But when things started to go wrong, nobody wanted to look closer. When the country is ravaged by the Great Depression, one doesn't simply kill off the only company making money in the entire community. In Ottowa, the community at large got so mad about the lawsuits that the girls were ostracized by their neighbors and nearly chased out of their church.

Countless women died miserable deaths after being plagued by mysterious misery in life. And nobody cared about these women. Because the money was too good.

Those in power knew early on that radium was dangerous. They just didn't tell the girls. By 1906, it was established that radium could have disastrous effects on the human body. And yet it was not until nearly 1940 that the country and affected women saw change. The EPA was established in large part because of these women, and the radiation in these factory sites is still in the process of being cleaned up. So was OSHA.

Ultimately, these poor women benefited society in a way that has saved more lives than were lost in the battle in the 70ish years that have passed. But that in no way lessens the tragedy their families were forced to suffer. It does not lessen the absolutely deplorable disinterest of the radium companies to their former employees. It does not justify their unnecessary deaths. The body horror is real in this book. If you have ever needed a root canal, you understand a sliver of a shadow of the end months, years, of these women's lives. I needed 3 simultaneously in March 2018, and I legit wanted to die. I don't think I'm made of strong enough stuff to have survived what those women braved every single day, just to participate in their own lives.

I cried at the end. I scraped by without tears up until then, but not for lack of emotion. By the end it was just too much. Readers need to understand that every reference in this book is real, and this was real suffering that women endured under the boot of capitalism. Consumerism. People wanted the radium products. So the radium companies kept making money. Hand over fist. So why would governing bodies want to kill the industry? It relies on radium, too. Moore offers readers a real, genuine and personal view into the intimate, personal lives of victims. Moore's prose fluctuates in quality from elegant to perhaps tacky or a bit over-the-top, and there are points where she focuses too heavily on on particular detail—Grace's death, for example, receives far too much page time—to the detriment of other details—Grace's death eclipsed any details about the other 4 women involved in that first court case. However, Moore's attention to detail is at times admirable, even where it is clearly manufactured for the sake of connecting to the reader's humanity and empathy. Through this, you grow close enough to these women that you feel it when they die. It takes an emotional toll—but it's worth it, and it's important to pay respects to these largely unsung heroes who have, through their absolute suffering and misfortune, prevented the mutilation of countless more.

The reality of life is that you cannot trust a corporation that exists solely to make money—as all corporations are. While we live at a particular intersection of economic struggle and increasing social awareness of the oppression and suppression of vulnerable people—i.e. literally everyone who can't afford to not have a job—that makes us acutely aware of the "fakeness" (no it's not a word but my brain is struggling) of everything organizations do to "prove" that they care about us: Corporations don't have morals, they have cunning marketing teams. Doritos and Skittles don't give two fucks about the LGBT+ community; they care about a public image that continues to make them money. Corporations are inherently exploitative, and will not make changes until they are, in some manner, forced to do so. Any concession for safety was forced through government agencies, laws, and fines significant enough to discourage violating them. We've seen it time and again with a variety of company's in a wider variety of industries. Nobody making money off of a particular activity is going to adjust operations to something that costs more money, even if it's better for workers or the environment. Don't even get me started on ecological damage caused by corporations and capitalism.

Consumerism is nearly synonymous with capitalism, but the ultimate evolution of consumerism is materialism, which is a flaw that lies in us. We value convenience over conscience. We accept a lot of unideal things—topical: private information/security violations by the social media and online shopping sites we frequent—because it's more convenient. I don't have to leave my house to buy stuff when I can get it online, and I don't like to go out into public, so even though I actively complain about companies—cough cough Amazon cough cough—I still spend hundreds of dollars there every year. We are all, and have always been, at fault—to a lesser degree than the corporations we're forced to support (because finances are always a factor, as well as the availability of competition, and variety of products), but at fault nevertheless.

Especially when you are markedly and unfailingly aware of the curse of capitalism, it takes a strong stomach and stronger resolve to go through the entirety of this book. But, again, it is worth it. Steel your heart—and your sympathy—and take the plunge.

Don't worry: There's no radium in the pages.

Nightlife, NYC-Set Urban Fantasy from Rob Thurman (Cal Leandros series, Book 1)

Author’s note: Written August 23, 2016

This was my second read-through of this novel, done so for the purpose of refreshing my memory on the series in order to start reading the newer books that I never got to. Because now there are 9, and I have only read 4 (and a half) of them, I have a ways to go.
I read this first in high school and fell indelibly in love with the characters and the story, so I restarted this book with a very high opinion of it. Upon reexamination, I find that there are places where the prose gets a bit... unwieldy? Which is to say that sometimes Thurman's sentence structures don't flow quite right, and get too long, or seem to be missing a connecting word that might make them easier to understand. Especially in the first third of the book, there were multiple times where I had to stop and reread a sentence at least once or twice in order to actually determine what was meant, or the tone. I didn't find that it diminished the overall strength of the novel, though (for the most part).

Cal Leandros is only half human, and the other half is the ugliest of ugly monsters. His mom is an alcoholic fortune-telling "gypsy" (they're Romani; it's the term used in the book, although it is a slur, so I apologize for using it) who'd do anything for money (hence: Cal), but his older brother is the only real saving grace of the group. Niko—blond, strong, and wickedly intelligent—is Cal's savior, mentor, best friend, and companion, and the only reason this story doesn't go belly-up.
Cal and Niko are on the run from what they've dubbed Grendels, the nasty monsters responsible for Cal's non-human genetics. The boys have taken up residence in New York City, where non-human life is equally as common as anything else but goes unnoticed.

When shit hits the fan yet again, the two make plans to leave town and run, but leaving just isn't in the cards. They meet a very, very old creature by the name of Robin Goodfellow, a nasty troll named Abbagor, and then shit really hits the fan, and Cal is possessed by a real monster, whose tag-team plans involve the Unmaking of the World™.

Despite reading a bit like a "first novel" at times, the story is captivating and, at times, moving, although admittedly slow-moving at the start. Thurman does a good job of making the reader care about each of these characters and their fates. Furthermore, the entire duration of Cal's possession is written phenomenally well, because the perspective swap is flawless, and as the struggle for ownership of Cal's body begins to increase, the change in narrative/emotive display/etc. is so subtle and gradual that, unless you're good (or have already read it once and therefore know it's coming), it's very easy to miss.

The hiccups in sentence structure don't detract significantly enough from the story to mark it down from a 4-5 star rating, personally. Nightlife is definitely worth reading if you're a fan of urban fantasy lit, the interplay of brotherly relationships, and intense amounts of sass. Especially if you're looking for UF that isn't half sex scenes. I like my lit porn as much as the next human, but I also appreciate a strong UF novel that doesn't partake.

Stephen King's Carrie, an Exercise in Anger Management

Author’s note: Written Aug 3, 2016

A few months ago, I decided that, despite never having had any interest in Stephen King's material, he was an author whose work I should at least be marginally familiar with. Because I had no idea where to start (after all, the man is prolific), I turned to Facebook and asked my friends for "essential" reads, or his "best" work. I was overwhelmingly suggested his Dark Tower series, but I wasn't about to invest that much time or energy. Carrie it was.

I will say that within five pages, I was turned off in a very major way. I will say that by sixty pages in, I was already mad. And I am. It is a story of child abuse compounded by the emotional abuse of shitty peers, and it has made this girl spiteful, even hateful, and I cannot condemn her for it, because I understand it. Nonetheless, it makes my heart ache, and it makes a part of me absolutely fume.

This is, obviously, the point.

The story itself is cut through with journalistic exposition, some of it in the form of news stories, some in the form of 'witness' interviews, and some in scientific journalese. The idea is to circle this situation from a present, developing view, and a said-and-done retrospection from significantly outside the situation.

I read the bulk of this book on the plane returning to Boston from my brief vacation home, across the aisle from a preacher reading his Bible, which I found... amusingly ironic? Coincidental, really, but nonetheless. The truth is that I already knew the gist of the book's climax because there've been two movies and knowing was inescapable, but even so I was just numb to it. I was numb to the entire rest of the book.

Frankly, I didn't enjoy Carrie. I don't know if I ever could have enjoyed Carrie. Even at my most vindictive when I was younger and the brutality of my own social trauma was fresher in my mind, I couldn't have enjoyed any part of this. I'm still not convinced that the novel is designed to be "enjoyed" at all, but I'm left hoping nobody does. It is worth reading, I think, because it is innovative in its approach, and King's prose here is interesting and fluid. It is worth reading because it thrusts upon you the result of a life of seemingly small abuses, even if it is in a science-fictiony kind of way. Even so, I have no idea how to quantify a rating for the title in the terms of stars. Three seems insufficient, but four or five imply something I'm not convinced I want to imply.

So here's what I think:

  • I think that King's method of storytelling is at once fluid and disruptive. I think that it is well-structured and intriguing, and I appreciated the way that he wove thoughts into the structure by interrupting sentences with parenthetical phrases all in lower-case.

  • I simultaneously think that the semi random, and increasingly common over time, inclusion of journalistic material, interviews, etc. is really disruptive and can make it moderately difficult to keep track of what's actively going on. Furthermore, the perpetual flipping of perspective can make it difficult to keep track of characters if one comes in unprepared.

  • The book reads like King was expecting a movie deal out of it. He obviously got it, but what I mean is that, especially with the inclusion of all the exterior material—the article pieces, excerpts from books written by others, the Q&A's from court proceedings, etc—placed as it is, and the perspective swapping, and the fact that the entire book remains relatively "surface" (that is to say, not at any point overly analytical or introspective in a way that would be impossible to capture on a screen), it reads like it's prepped for transition into a screenplay. This isn't necessarily a negative, but I'm not willing to call it a positive, either.

As it stands, I'm uncomfortable about this book and I can't take up any really firm positions about it. I respect it, but I don't know that I "like" it. Nevertheless, I will maintain that it was worth my time and effort, and I would recommend reading it, if only for the cultural relevance of it.

Slaughterhouse-Five, A Gloriously Mundane Work of Art

Author’s note: Originally published July 27, 2016

This is a book that I read because I determined it was my duty to have done so. Having now completed it, I am glad to have consumed it, although I'll be perfectly honest with you: It took me awhile—even after its conclusion—to decide how I felt about it.

Vonnegut's prose here is at once smooth and inelegant, cut up by so many "So it goes"es that one almost wants to scream after awhile. This is, of course, half of the point of the novel, in some fashion or another. It took completing the novel and digesting the final lines for me to come to fully appreciate its nature, and I am not embarrassed in the least about this. I don't know what I was expecting, but what I got was not in the range of potentiality.

The brilliance of Slaughterhouse-Five is in its absolute mundanity, purely because of its subject matter. It is the carpet-bombing of Dresden and the rendered-insane man named Billy Pilgrim's life in and around it. The beauty of its frustrations are in that its great details are in the bits that seem not to matter, given the context.

Vonnegut shaves away at the focus of a scene until we are left with a very small detail, or conversation, or comment, and that in itself has equal chance of embodying a piece of the overarching trauma or being completely otherwise irrelevant. Vonnegut is a master of covering too-large topics by focusing down: you do not discuss the bombing; you instead illustrate the poor abused horses you rode back in on. You do not let on until the very end of the book that all of Billy Pilgrim's hallucinations about time and space travel and the aliens who abducted him were taken directly out of novels written by somebody else—and this you only mention quietly in passing, as if it were unimportant. Because, of course, it is.

Perhaps my favorite moment of Slaughterhouse-Five is the closing of the novel, which is so utterly anti-climactic that it has become the most perfect ending that I think I have ever read: The schoolteacher is executed. The soldiers are held in a stable. The doors are open because the war is over. Billy Pilgrim wanders out into a completely silent street with trees leafing out, not a vehicle in sight, save for an abandoned wagon drawn by two horses. And a bird said to Billy Pilgrim, "Poo-tee-weet?"

My excitement about this is difficult to quantify, but it is as I've said before: it is the pinnacle of the universe's indifference to humanity's struggles and conflict on both grand and individual scales. It is the universe throwing up its middle finger and saying "I really don't give a shit" about the end of a war, the cataclysmic events which have just happened to these people. It is the most beautiful, infuriating, perfect illustration of the way that life around us carries on, despite our own inability to do so.

Frankly, I am impressed by this novel. Even now, it feels weird to say I "liked" it when I was so constantly frustrated by it, but I definitely appreciate it. I appreciate the work that it does, the impact that it has had. I appreciate its layout and its very unapologetic plot and point. Mostly, I appreciate that it manages to do all of these things in such a truly mundane manner, which is all at once infuriating, hilarious, and moving. I appreciate that it covers trauma in this way because it speaks to my experience with trauma. If that means liking it, well, then I suppose I rather liked it a great deal.

Vision in Silver: Anne Bishop (The Others, book 3)

Author’s note: Written in 2015

Vision in Silver is, as the title mentions, the third book in Anne Bishop's series The Others.

When we began this journey, we joined Meg and her new arrival into the Lakeside Courtyard, where the terra indigene hire her as their new Human Liaison for their post office. Suddenly, everything begins to change, including the way that the Others view humans and the way that they all interact. But Meg's Controllers from the compound where she'd been held, designated by a number, were searching for her, and getting altogether too close for comfort.

Thanks to the Courtyard's unprecedented attachment to Meg, the threat is neutralized and the world begins to change. The Humans First and Last movement, often shortened to HFL, has come over from Cel-Romano and begun to take hold of Thaisia, and they are beginning to create havoc. Drugs called Gone Over Wolf and Feel Good are being manufactured from the blood of the Cassandra Sangue, girls like Meg who see prophesy when they cut their precious skin. These drugs are being used as weapons not only against the terra indigene—but also against each other.

Vision in Silver comes in with the wild expansion of the HFL across Thaisia, with nebulous threats of upcoming food shortages that make no sense under the conditions. There is a group of other Cassandra Sangue the terra indigene are trying to help, but most of them self-destruct, except for a few. One draws instead of making cuts because the Controllers aren't there to bind her fingers—and her drawings are eerily expressive—and she eventually calls herself Hope. Lieutenant Montgomery's daughter suddenly arrives on a train by herself with a stuffed bear in tow, but no mother—and now there are people coming in search of the secrets she brought along. HFL attacks the terra indigene at the marketplace where the Human pack took the Crows for a field trip—and the Elders (those terra indigene much older than any others, those who inhabit the wild country and are unseen and unknown to the humans in Thaisia) have declared a breach of trust: the Lakeside Courtyard has a brief amount of time to determine what of humanity may stay, but the rest will be eliminated.

Throughout Vision in Silver, the same kinds of philosophical questions posed in Murder of Crows appear: Are you more sympathetic toward the humans or the terra indigene? What does it mean to support one over the other? But more than that, and this is the key point seen in this novel particularly: Who do we trust when we sabotage our own people? Where do you turn when the people who are supposed to be on your side have chosen some other side that is both against the supposed danger-force (terra indigene, in this case) but also against any human who isn't against the Earth natives? To the forces that distrust you and your kind, consider you "clever meat", disposable, threatening? What if that's your only option?

What if, at the end of the day, the most dangerous force in your life is actually your neighbor, and not nature?

Simon Wolfgard is working very hard to preserve some of humanity because Meg's presence in the Courtyard has changed everything: it allowed interaction with the Lakeside human police force, it precipitated the creation of a human pack inside the Courtyard where before there had been none. By the end of the novel, the question on humanity has turned into something a little different. How much 'human' will the terra indigene be able to absorb while still maintaining their core selves? And, furthermore, if they allow themselves to absorb more of humanity, will they change the kind of terra indigene that they are now?

Vision in Silver moved very slowly until about 75% of the way through, and then all of a sudden everything happened all at once. Up until I reached that point, I was a little disappointed in it, even though I could tell it was leading up to something particularly virulent (and I was right); I just wanted more. I'm moved to say that I was less impressed by this book than by the previous two, but I enjoyed it anyway. I'm very excited to see where book 4 takes us, and I eagerly await the culmination of Simon's and Meg's tiptoeing around letting each other know they care more than just casually. That isn't a spoiler; it's been obviously coming since they met. It's somewhat subtle and there are much bigger things going on in the world than their relationship, but it is kind of a really infuriating will-they-won't-they dance that I've found I really don't have time for anymore. For both Meg and Simon, life is complicated and difficult and there isn't enough time.

I really want to know what the Elders are going to do now, and I really can't wait for this son of a bitch Nicholas Scratch to get his comeuppance. Seriously, though.

So that's what I've got. I gave it a solid 4 stars on Goodreads just because of the disappointment mentioned above, but I'd have given it 4.5 if it were an option. Because it probably wasn't worth a full star. C'est la vie.

 

Changeless: Gail Carriger (The Parasol Protectorate, Book 2)

Author’s note: Written in 2015

Alexia Tarabotti is back! Now married to Conall Maccon, Alpha of the Woolsey pack, and promoted to Muh Jah on the Shadow Council for the Queen of England, life is busier than ever. All of the military regiments overseas have returned to England—and there's at least one setting up camp on her front lawn—and there's a rather peculiar force turning all members of the supernatural set human, at least in a particular area. When that space begins to move northward toward Scotland, following her husband, Alexia decides to follow him via dirigible. Forced into traveling with escorts, Alexia is joined by her French maid Angelique, her husband's claviger Tunstell (who is entirely in love with her friend Ivy Hisselpenny), her antagonistic half-sister Felicity—who is particularly angsty as the youngest sister is in the throes of planning her marriage, and—not to be outdone—her close friend Ivy Hisselpenny, who is newly engaged to one Captain Featherstonehaugh (but kind of irrevocably in love with Tunstell).

Before she leaves, however, she meets one particularly interesting French woman by the name of Madame Lefoux, who daylights as a hatmaker, but is a brilliant inventor behind closed doors, and was commissioned by Conall to make her one helluva parasol... that does everything but function as a parasol.

What's most interesting about Madame Lefoux is that she dresses in men's clothing, tailored to fit and accentuate her female body. She wears pants and waistcoats and cravats and the whole bit. It's glorious, if a bit scandalous. There are also some indications that she may be bisexual, as there is an interesting sexual/romantic tension between her and Alexia, and this all makes a very interesting commentary on sexuality and power in [modified] Victorian society. Whether that says anything about Alexia is kind of unspecified, although her "discomfort" might lend some clue.

On the dirigible, it becomes apparent that somebody is trying rather hard to rid England of Alexia, first by poisoning her food (which unfortunately affects Tunstell instead) and then by pushing her off the edge of the deck and apparently wrestling with Madame Lefoux. Alexia saves herself on the side of the beast, however, and makes it back to safety no worse for wear.

Once in Scotland, the group meets up with her husband and travels to Kingair Castle, where they are met with a surly, unattractive woman who is introduced as Conall's great-great-granddaughter. Alexia doesn't take too kindly to the sudden realization that her husband had been married once before and he never told her. Frankly, I can't blame her.

While in Kingair, at least as many issues arise as are solved. The source of the humanizing agent turns out to be a mummy brought back from Egypt. The individual ransacking Alexia's room and trying to kill her is her French maid, who had at some point in her past—surprise!—been romantically involved with Madame Lefoux.

But the real kicker to this book is the ending. And I'm telling you, I got so mad I fumed. I almost threw my book.

Alexia is pregnant. Surprise of the ages, since, theoretically, supernaturals are incapable of producing offspring. But despite the fact that Alexia couldn't possibly have slept with anyone else and certainly wouldn't lie about it, her bloody husband flips out and starts swearing at her in front of everybody until she and Madame Lefoux leave for London.

Now. Believe me. I understand that it looks bad. And Conall is emotional (at best). But this was simply uncalled for. He married a preternatural, which had never been done before, so I don't know why he couldn't believe that the union would be capable of producing something no one ever had before: a baby.

Murder of Crows: Anne Bishop (The Others, Book 2)

Author’s note: Written in late 2014

Murder of Crows is the sequel to Written in Red—reviewed here. Published in March of this year, this book is only available digitally or in hardcover—for a whopping $26.95, I should mention (which I definitely don't have right now). I downloaded a digital copy to tide me over until a paperback copy is available.

The start of this novel is not immediate after the end of the previous, although the temporal distance between them is essentially negligible. Things in the human spaces are tense, and "gone over wolf"—the drug unveiled in Written in Red—is making its way around Thaisia.

Humans are baiting the Crows by putting "shinies" (i.e. anything that might attract a crow's attention) into trash cans on collection day and then poisoning food with GOW: attempted mass murder proceeds. Why Crows? Because they see everything and communicate with their crow counterparts—to put it simply: They know too much.

Although I am thoroughly enjoying Murder of Crows, I do have to admit that it doesn't start out—by which I mean the first 20-some chapters—at quite the same level of intensity. The main drama takes place outside of Lakeside—and in a different region, though growing ever-closer—and the body of what's taking place in Lakeside Courtyard is relationship drama between Meg and Simon. And we all saw that coming. The shoulders over which we're peeking are frequently new to us, the names being dropped are not familiar ones—and while this can feel random to the unseasoned, perhaps unprepared Bishop reader, it provides one with a set of puzzle pieces illuminating different areas on a multi-faceted situation--because this thing is bigger than a puzzle, and more complicated than a sphere; it has edges that can't be seen around and thus require new shoulders to illuminate those planes. I hope you're following.

All the cassandra sangue are prophesying the same thing, regardless of the questions asked, and even the euphoria can't mask the resulting terror/horror. Intuits--a breed of humans with terra indigene-like instincts—are sensing storms that have nothing to do with the weather. "Humans First and Last" is unfortunately gaining traction. Humans in Cel-Romano are building "flying machines." The terra indigene have evicted an entire hamlet for their crimes against the Crows. In essence: Shit's about to go down.

As the novel progresses, it becomes clear that Bishop is placing the reader in a very precarious moral, or ethical, debate: whose side are you on? Are you more sympathetic of the humans and their effort to gain more control over the world in which they're trying to live? Or are you more sympathetic to the Others, whose concern for the world outweighs their interest in the production of goods/services and the use for humans? While reading these novels, I am, of course, provided with the perspectives from both sides, and so I can sympathize with both humans and terra indigene. But am I supposed to sympathize with humans more because I am one, although am obviously living without the existence of a being higher up on my food chain? And if I am, what does it say if/that I'm not on the side of the humans? What does it say about me that I can ethically/morally/psychologically rationalize the motions of the terra indigene and their feelings? I don't entirely know at this point—although I will say that as an environmentalist who has hit "fuck humanity, bro" so hard, I'm really just on the side of the terra indigene—but it's an interesting question, and it's one that won't really leave me alone. I think that's kind of the point.

This isn't the only issue readers face: in dealing with the cassandra sangue, Namid's wondrous and terrible creation, was it ethical to allow for benevolent ownership? Was it ethical for these girls to be 'owned' and essentially have their lives run as if they were prison inmates? Considering the self-destruction they caused if left to their own devices, was it ethical to let them exist on their own, without guardianship? Could we rationalize putting these girls into concentration camps to prevent them from potentially killing themselves?

While the issue is hardly literally relevant to society, it may be metaphorically ethical when thinking about other things or situations. In some respects, it somewhat mirrors the complicated issue that the United States had with the mental institution framework back in the 70s, with note to the abuse within the system. With a little thought—and perhaps some extrapolation—I'm sure the ethical question can be overlaid like a projection transparency* upon certain situations.

Murder of Crows was significantly shorter than Written in Red, coming in at 35 chapters and 354 pages--please don't ask me to drop the chapter and page count of the first novel, but it at least felt like at least half again that long, if not twice. Consequently, I had it read in a very, very short amount of time—I bought it yesterday afternoon and finished it about an hour ago—and I have to admit that I'm kind of disappointed in its length. The ending is good, is concise, but definitely leading into another.

*Did I just date myself by referencing that technology? I'm not even that old! The technology that we had in my school growing up was pretty old because we were a small school with few students (I graduated with a mere 21 other kids) and so we didn't get all that much funding. Granted; I started school before 2000, so it's not like other places had SmartBoards and we didn't. But still.

Written in Red: Anne Bishop (The Others, Book 1)

Author’s note: Written in late 2014

Having thoroughly enjoyed Ms. Bishop's Black Jewels series, I admit that I had very, very high expectations for this novel. However, where Black Jewels was often crass and indelicate—particularly in terms of sex/uality—The Others has none of that, although as of yet the sex has been glossed over when it's appeared. I suspect that the glossing is more because it's irrelevant than because she's not intending to highlight it ever; it wouldn't be the author's style. Written in Red so exceeded my expectations that I have shirked my duties the past two days just to read it. Now that I've finished it, I'm slightly perturbed that I didn't buy the second book at the same time.

Written in Red is the first book in what looks to be perhaps the most interesting fantasy series I have ever read—even more interesting than Bishop's Black Jewels series, a set of novels I devoured several years ago as a middle schooler, and have revisited tirelessly throughout the last 10 years since. First published last year, but released in paperback in March of this year, the obvious question that follows that claim is: What makes this book different?

As seen in three series prior to this from Bishop (by me, specifically), the author is far from averse to creating her own universes. Black Jewels, Ephemera and Tir Alainn are all series set in unique landscapes, designed to facilitate the types of events that play out within them. Unlike the three series listed above, The Others is a series that takes place in a world quite similar to our own, but with some very key differences.

Namely, humans are definitely not at the top of the food chain. Taking their place in Namid, the name for the world in which they live, are the terra indigene, or, the 'Earth Natives'. Preceding the story is a brief history of the world, which explains that when humans tried to spread out onto new continents, the Others ate them. All of them. The third human to lead his people into the Others's territory was smarter than his predecessors and brought trade items, which paved the way for human–terra indigene interaction over the course of the next several generations until hamlets became towns became cities, but were still under the thumb of creatures far from averse to eating them.

The novel follows a young woman (age 24) by the name of Meg Corbyn, who has escaped from somewhere and is seeking someplace to live freely. She finds herself in a Courtyard (areas fully controlled by Others in which human law does not apply) and applies for a position called "Liaison"—not even knowing what it meant. Simon Wolfgard (a Wolf, but for the first time in my fantasy career, never a werewolf) hires her instead of turning her away, even though her hair stinks (she dyed parts of it orange in an attempt to disguise herself) and it is apparent that she's not quite telling him the whole truth. It turns out that the Liaison's job is actually a mail collector/sorter/distributor, and must be human because of a slew of impertinent-here reasons.

As Meg acquaints herself with the position, she sets numerous terra indigene on edge, irritates many, confuses many others, and yet somehow befriends every single one of them. Meg's life before running away was a caged one, in which she was considered property and designated CS759—cassandra-sangue 759: Meg was a blood prophet, whose skin was deliberately sliced open in order to obtain prophecies from her... for a price. A steep price, as it were, which is why her Controller is rather insistent upon her return.

The main plots in this novel include the plot for requisition of Meg Corbyn, an aspiring actress's attempt to gain forbidden information and ultimately steal a Wolf pup, and the sudden appearance of a terrifying new drug that cannot be explained by humans or terra indigene until the very end, when Simon Wolfgard figures it out—this is a note that becomes enormously important to the play-out of the sequel.

Through a dramatic series of frustrating events, told through a cycle of perspectives not limited to Meg and Simon, we get to know a relatively large cast of characters through not only their own consciousnesses, but also through the minds of those around them. While the novel is packed with drama and high tension, there is also a massive amount of humor—two things Bishop is very, very good at pairing and balancing. Because Meg manages to befriend nearly everybody—including those the Sanguinati (based on Vampires, but definitely more dangerous than that) and Wolves privately fear: the elementals (for lack of a better word)—her health and well-being are highly important to a number of persons, and when those two things are threatened, the human populations (especially her enemies) are essentially attacked via weather until the threat is, how shall I say, neutralized.

Written in Red begins to touch upon what will become the core themes of the book series, which tend to revolve around a very Us versus Them dichotomy, where 'Us' consist of the Others, and 'Them' consists of the human populations trying to expand their territories and economic power—at least until the narration-perspective changes. What happens, as with any sociopolitical/socioeconomic dispute, is that you find people caught in the balance who understand the need for groups to work together instead of against each other, and those people become "sympathizers" who are subsequently lumped in with "Us" by "Them". Is this beginning to sound familiar? If you're even remotely globally conscious, it should.

But tagging onto this theme is the notion of sympathy and loyalty. The Others are old, and have had control of their world, of protecting Namid for centuries. The humans want a mile if given an inch and are very bitter about being restricted. They need more to accomplish more: the constant struggle of humanity, no? Do you sympathize with the "monsters" who go so far as to eat wayward humans? Do you sympathize with humans because you are one? Do you sympathize with Others because they're doing what they believe is right? Do you sympathize with humans for wanting to be more? It's a really tough call, and Bishop's use of constant narration switching between persons and sides makes it a very difficult question to answer. Frankly, I think moral questions rarely have a clear answer, and if they do you're probably not thinking broadly enough (with  exceptions).

At no point in this book (or series, for that matter) does Bishop ever begin to explicitly philosophize or wax poetic about this issue either externally or through the mind of the current narrator—at least not obtrusively. The struggles are there, and apparent, if you are open to them, but they are not force fed to you through exposition. For this, I was enormously grateful as a reader. This is a very overt example of the effectiveness of scene over exposition (although I am definitely not opposed to expository writing, even in novels), and absolutely deserves the attention of any die-hard fantasy reader.

Even if, or especially if, you have read Bishop's other material and not found it particularly to your writing, The Others is a breath of fresh air for anyone who likes fantasy with integrity.

Bishop's novel has received five brilliantly shiny gold stars from this lit critic and novel enthusiast. As an enthusiast, my opinion may be a bit biased—especially considering how fond I am of the author—but nobody's complained about my interpretation yet, so I guess I can't be that opaquely slanted. Or maybe I am, and that's not a bad thing yet.

Soulless: Gail Carriger (The Parasol Protectorate, Book 1)

Author’s note: Written in 2014, this writing style is no longer indicative of my modus operandi, but I stand by the gist of my points herein.

CONTAINS SPOILERS. BE ON YOUR GUARD.

Soulless is the first novel in a series of 5 by Gail Carriger, a writer who is both hilarious and brilliant, and unquestionably has my loyalty after just this one novel.

I read it in the span of about a day and a half, just purely because I was so into it. And I was putting off my homework. As per usual. So sue me. (Don't, please, I beg you.)

Although the common mythology is that vampires and werewolves lack souls because they're "undead" if you will, Carriger has flipped this concept around, instead claiming that they have an excess of soul, which is what allows them to be supernatural in the first place. Alexia Tarabotti, our heroine, is what they refer to as a preternatural, or an otherwise normal human being who has been born without a soul. What this means is that she counteracts all supernatural-ness; coming into contact with a supe causes an immediate reversion to humanity for the werewolf/vampire/ghost in question, which is particularly interesting and, at times, sort of dangerous. This soullessness is, in fact, hereditary, and she got the trait from her Italian father, a heritage she and her family are most embarrassed about because they are, after all, British in the nineteenth century. (From my studies, I've gathered that this disdain of foreigners was a pretty solid thing for these people; whether or not it still holds is up in the air.)

Because supernaturals are "public," if you will, there had to be some manipulation of history in order to account for it all. It's actually quite genius, the way that things are perfectly accounted for and addressed. I wasn't even expecting such interesting developments. Also, there is an overseeing organization called BUR--an acronym I've unfortunately forgotten at the moment, and my novel is across the room, and I'm naked and in bed, so I'm not getting it to tell you. Suck it--headed by one Lord Maccon, the 20-years new Alpha of the Woolsey pack.

Alexia is particularly bold and educated in the sciences, etc. Her father is dead and has been for quite awhile, and her mother remarried a proper Brit and had two more daughters--and I'll be the first to tell you that Alexia's entire immediate family is a group of bloody twits.

Anyway. The plot of this novel is that roves (independent vampires not connected to a Hive--as opposed to a coven) are going missing, and new, uneducated vampires are randomly showing up. Not only that, but Alexia's being targeted and followed and such. Drama and hilarity ensue, and untoward romance sparks between Alexia--considered a spinster at age 26--and Lord Maccon, which is also bloody hilarious, I should mention.

The remainder of the plot and such is certainly worth discussion, but I'm not going to thrill you with it because it simply won't do to elaborate on the entire plot, now, will it? What would be the point in ruining it? Regardless, it's definitely worth a read.

The Midnight Mayor: Kate Griffin (Matthew Swift Chronicles, Book 2)

Author’s note: Written prior to 2014, this writing style is no longer indicative of my modus operandi, but I stand by the gist of my points herein.

The Midnight Mayor by Kate Griffin

And so it continues.

Surprise! Swift survived the first novel. It got a bit hairy back there what with all the fighting and the murderous intentions. Secret societies, organizations pitted against magic (for "religious reasons"), psychotic colleagues, etc.

This novel opens just as abruptly as the last one did.

Matthew answers a public phone (because he will always answer the phone when it rings; it's part of who he is) and is blasted back down the street. And now he's being attacked by spectres, which are particularly rare for London. All I'll tell you is that the tools for their demise include beer and a cigarette. Happy imaginings. =]

Let me give you a visual of a spectre:

You've ever been strolling around a city and you see that kid shuffling along in a hoodie with the hood up and headphones going in, bobbing along to a beat that only they can hear? Now imagine said kid without a face. Just a gaseous space holding clothes in the proper shape. Now you've got a spectre--but you can hear their beats, and not all spectres bob to the same rhythm.

It's been said that, should the Ravens ever leave the Tower of London, should the Stone ever break, should the Wall be defaced, the city of London shall be damned. The Midnight Mayor's job is to protect the city--provided the Midnight Mayor actually exists, since Swift seems terribly skeptical--but if the city requires a protector, clearly there are things it requires protection from. Correct?

I am sure you have already deduced a few things with the help of the above paragraph coupled with the title. Namely, that the Midnight Mayor has died, that the position has been transferred to Matthew Swift, and that the city is in pretty deep shit.

Suddenly, the phrase "GIVE ME BACK MY HAT" is graffitti'ed across the city, written on the London Wall, on the wall where the Ravens were killed, on the window of the business housing the broken Stone--everywhere. Significant? You bet your ass.

Griffin does such a marvelous job creating suspense and then systematically untying knots which tie more knots until finally the whole thing comes undone at the end. You can't help but be drawn in, be captivated by her vivid imagery and intense, peculiar descriptions of things. She uses such unexpected language that catches you off guard but gives you a perfectly exact picture of what it is you're looking at and it's amazing. She has swiftly (hahahaha) become one of my very favorite and most inspiring authors--and it only took two novels. (One, actually, but we'll say two.)

Happy reading!

A Madness of Angels: Kate Griffin (Matthew Swift Chronicles, Book 1)

Author’s note: Written prior to 2014, this writing style is no longer indicative of my modus operandi, but I stand by the gist of my points herein.

And so it begins.

Matthew Swift is a sorcerer in London, but it is immediately apparent that he is more than that. He has been resurrected after having been dead for approximately two years.

Before the night is out, Matthew is attacked by a "litterbug" (a summoned monster composed of, you guessed it, garbage. Which, for the record, he defeats with a dustbin. Not to ruin it. It's a marvelous scene.

Newly resurrected, Swift's sole missions are to (a) find his murderer and return the favor, and (b) find who resurrected him, find out why, and then, quite likely, kill them as well.

So the novel progresses and you learn more and more peculiar things about this Swift, but things are still left unsaid, left in the dark and unexplained, leaving an air of mystery and suspense until finally the truth is spilled--but not all of it. Only one set of truths. As the book progresses, truths are revealed in clusters until finally the book ends and the final shoe finally drops. The perpetual mystery and vague confusion coupled with the peculiarity of the narrative--due to the intrinsic peculiarity of the narrator--are large parts of what keep the novel moving at the Andantino cum Accelerando (a little faster than "a walking pace" but steadily speeding up) tempo that it does.

 The prose is marvelous and intriguing; Griffin doesn't write in chapters. Sections are broken up with white space or " * * * "; larger sections are broken up as "Part One: [Title]", "The First Interlude: [Title]". It's fascinating. And I totally love it. But there's also a number of places where the writing totally breaks into stream of consciousness style, which is also terribly moving in-context. (Also because I know things you don't. hahaha.) It can catch you off-guard if you allow it to, but if you just get lost in the text as you're reading, it just works right into the story. Some of the paragraphs are these great, barely-connected run-on sentences (one or two sentences total in the paragraph) and it's magnetic. It really keeps you moving through the material because it's different in that it's a frequent change in prose style, which catches your attention even when you aren't conscious of it.

Happy reading!

Parched; The Seventh Sister: Z.L. Arkadie (Parched, Books 1 and 2)

Author’s note: Written prior to 2014, this writing style is no longer indicative of my modus operandi, but I stand by the gist of my points herein.

Parched by Z. L. Arkadie

Parched is the first book in the so-named series by Z.L. Arkadie. I found the second book (pictured below), The Seventh Sister, free for Amazon Kindle, and because I was bored and it was about vampires, I downloaded it. Upon its completion, I discovered that it's part of a series, which led me to book one, Parched.

The general idea is that Clarity, the protagonist of the first novel (but not the second), can essentially read minds and emotions off the people around her. While in college she meets a man by the name of Baron Ze Feldis, and it turns out that he's a vampire, or in the terms of the novel, a Selell.

Now, as it turns out, Clarity is one of seven, only three of whom do you meet by the end of this novel: Clarity, Adore, and Fawn.

Arkadie creates an interesting "other" world called Enu into which Clarity ventures to learn about who she is and what's going on.

The novel is packed full of mystery and plot for as short as it is, and it's enough to keep you reading.

Except.

1. Arkadie's prose is kind of godawful. I mean, don't get me wrong, her actual words aren't [usually] at fault, but she throws random commas in random places in which they don't belong, she's constantly separating her "in which"es and she called a fence "rod iron" instead of "wrought iron". I get that these are free books on Kindle, but the other five books in the series are all at least $2.99 and, as cheap as that is, I still feel like it's worth somebody's time to edit these things. They aren't that long; I read them both in a matter of a couple of hours total.

The following point(s) apply to both Parched and The Seventh Sister, which I have yet to discuss, but will shortly.

2. Her protagonists are super subject to Mary Sue syndrome. For anybody who doesn't speak author, this is a very common pitfall of authors *coughcough Christopher Paolini's Eragon coughcough* to "self-insert" the author into a text (exhibit A: Bella Swan via Twilight), or, more commonly as used today, over idealize the protagonist to the point where they are literally better than everybody else present. Prettier, smarter, "The One", "The Prophesy", etc. etc. Everyone wants them, they can do no wrong, you name it. Generally speaking, it's the placing of the protagonist above everybody else and largely assuming or insinuating that they are without fault. It's a huge problem in fiction writing, and the term got its start in Star Trek fanfiction (check Wikipedia). For the record, the term for males in this position is Marty Stu, which is, quite frankly, hilarious.

3. Neither of her protagonists in the first two novels have a unique voice with which they tell their stories, think, act, or reason. Both novels are told in the same storytelling style--which I can't condemn too hard because I understand how hard it can be to change your style--but even so, when you're working with characters who are separate people, they need to be employed with their own voices.

At this point, the question does have to become that of prose versus plot: Is the story itself enough to overpower the pitfalls? Honestly, I'm not certain. The fact that I've downloaded the third book to continue the story leans one way, but the fact that every other page I'm swearing to myself because of blatant, unacceptable errors leans the other. I gave it 4 stars on Goodreads because I did really enjoy the book--short as it was--but these are certainly things that have to be taken into consideration.

The Seventh Sister follows Zillael, the youngest (if I recall correctly) of the seven sisters, who is attending high school and taking care of herself because her mother (who actually isn't) is always out on business trips. Whatever.

Apparently Zillael has the gift of speed, which is one of the seven gifts inherited from her father, whom she has never met.

Zillael's teacher and classmate are also special persons--the teacher a guardian I think and her classmate a Wek (which is sorta like a guardian angel or something; it's difficult to explain), and they're charged with protecting her from Selells/vampires, except that she sort of falls for one? While also falling for the Wek. It's complicated.

Anyway.

That's all I can really say about the second one. I read it ages ago and I'm not especially in the mood to do it again. It was far shorter than Parched, and I read in Parched's afterword thingy that The Seventh Sister was more of a filler short or some such a matter. But it was fun. And it was free!

It is still subject to the same complaints as mentioned above, though. So. You know.  I still gave it 4 stars on Goodreads, because I enjoyed it. But. You know.

A common complaint of Arkadie's is that she tends to drop a shit ton of information all at once, or over time, and apparently people have difficulty keeping up or keeping it all straight. I didn't have that issue personally, but I'm used to reading really complicated, convoluted, in-depth material where every detail counts (like my Victorian literature for my university classes, for example. Can anybody say Charles Dickens?).  So that's my thing. No judgment on anybody making the complaint, I'm just saying that I'm used to it so it wasn't a problem.

Happy reading!