Faeries of Dreamdark: Blackbringer [Reading Challenge 2017]

Faeries of Dreamdark: Blackbringer, Laini Taylor
Faeries of Dreamdark: Blackbringer

by Laini Taylor
G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2007

[Challenge # 6: Out of the Park at First Bat]

(Note: I am reading and blogging these Challenge books out of order)

I’ve gotta say I have a lot of problems with post-Harry Potter YA books — the ones published after that first big boom. They look so fun and enticing, and I know they have a lot of fans — adult fans — who enthuse about them. But when I get to actually reading them, most of the tine I’m… meh. They just don’t deliver on their promise. The ones I have enjoyed, like The Giver, and the Dorothy Must Die series, have other stuff going on under the surface; for the former, it’s allegory and social commentary, for the latter, it’s the author’s in-depth research of L. Frank Baum’s original Oz books. I also enjoyed Tanith Lee’s Claidi series, but that’s more because it was Lee and had her trademark wild invention. So, my review of this YA book cannot be said to be unbiased, as I’m not exactly the intended audience.

Faeries of Dreamdark: Blackbringer, is the first published work by Laini Taylor, who also wrote the highly regarded YA urban fantasy novel A Daughter of Smoke and Bone and its sequels. Here, she posits a secret world of faeries, imps, devils, and sentient animals existing alongside the real one of 19th century Europe. The faeries have their own tribes, ruler, and history… of how ancient genies, more like efreet in this book, created the world and wove the spells that keep it running. In the past, there was a war among the genies and devils, the faeries helping the genies to put the devils — not red-skinned, goat-horned, Christian devils, but beings  more like demons — into sealed bottles and threw them in the sea. But now humans have risen to prominence and are fishing up those bottles, setting the devils free. Magpie Windwitch is a teenage faerie who tracks them down and slays them with the help of a group of sentient crows; her parents are faerie ethnologists of a sort, who travel the world researching the magic of distant fairy tribes. She is a fighter and warrior and competent at her task, a literal manic pixie dream girl without the manic.

As such, the story sounds like it should be novel and exciting, but it wasn’t. The plot was not constructed well and a lot of it depended on coincidence and false alarms. Chasing an errant devil to a catacomb in Rome, the heroine just happens to find an ancient, magical knife and an old fairie who tells her about that knife with his dying breath! An evil devil’s lackey just happens to wander into Dreamdark and be discovered at the right moment! A trusted childhood guardian just happens to have a secret power to wander into the land of the dead! A dragon lunges at the heroine, oh noes! Wait, false alarm, he’s really a good guy! The book also had the first-time novelist’s typical problem of unnecessary POV shifts, and, by extension, unnecessary POV characters who have their single cameo, then disappear. A particularly jarring one was where the hero and heroine first meet face to face and the author keeps switching back and forth between them. That’s just not done. Granted I had an ARC and not the published book, but I doubt they would have been straightened out by publication. ARCs, to my knowledge, are just to catch layout errors and the like. The work also could have been edited more strongly; it seemed very long for a borderline MG/YA book, at least 100,000 words. It got tedious and windy for me, and I’m an adult. Perhaps one-third of it could have been cut without losing anything vital. (A subplot involving a pretender Queen of Faerie could have been cut altogether.) I grant that the length might not have mattered to someone younger, who might really want to sink into the world the author created, while for a more widely read adult, there was really nothing new.

The prose was fine, if overdone in places. No problems there. It was evocative and fun for the most part, particularly a trip by the faeries to a girls’ boarding school. The world the author seemed spent on portraying is of faerie magic in decline, but, as presented, things were actually pretty chipper. I wouldn’t mind spending the night at a faerie B&B in Dreamdark forest, these faeries’ royal seat of power, for example. After a while, though, the wordiness began to annoy me, particularly the Rule of Threes, wherein three nouns that are used for ornamentation and/or description are given three in a row, like…  comfrey, nettles, and rosemary. Bluebells, lungwort and jack-in-the-pulpit. Like that, that, and that.

The other major thing that bothered me about the book was the relationship of human history to faerie history. The fairy wars and other historical events, like the disappearance of the dragons, are referenced by years passed, generally thousands, or tens of thousands. But unless fairy years are longer, they don’t match up with human history, which, by the mentions of Rome, ancient catacombs, dams, and girls’ schools with taxidermy and globes, is this one, which last time I checked was billions of years old, not created whole-cloth by genies a couple hundred thousand years ago. That’s still the last Ice Age. It’s never explained by the author how these two versions co-exist, which is weird. Evolution is mentioned in that the fairies know humans descended from the monkeys in the trees, yet modern-day forest animals are spoke of as being created at the beginning of the world.

OK, it’s just a book for high middle-grade students about faeries. But it bothers me, because it’s also doing a disservice to those young people, who surely are learning about geology, biology, and evolution in school. Or I hope. Anyway, fie on the author for no thought given to the reasoning powers of junior readers.

In the end, would I give this book to any of my nieces? Yes, it’s enjoyable, and the heroine is a good role model.

Medusa Revealed

I have a long-running fascination with Medusa the Gorgon.

I’ve often wondered about this and was glad someone had the balls to draw it.

Immigration and Easter Animals

bunnies for immigration

As a writer of the profane and fantastic (erotica, horror, fantasy, science fiction) I often take inspiration from the world around me and from the amazing city I live in. But there is no way I can turn the following news into a story, because it’s just so indicative of the current regime’s vile policies.

I was at my local Fred Meyer store the other day when I observed an elderly woman in a motorized wheelchair picking out some small stuffed Easter bunnies and whatnot and putting them into her basket. She dropped a few, and I went over to pick them up. We started talking. She told me she was buying them for the kids of Mexican immigrants in the church she goes to. I said, How thoughtful of you. She then went on to say the parents were deliberately keeping their kids from public school, because they were afraid the officials there might turn them in and they would get deported (!) She said she hoped the animals would cheer them up.

I cannot unhear this. This is too horrible. People, the immigrants here have a right to go to school. Their parents, by the act of working here, support the economy of this country. In the act of living here and working, they are paying rent to American landlords, paying tax to local economies, and buying from American stores. Not just little things like Slurpees and hamburgers, but big ticket items like computers and cars. How anyone can not realize this, I don’t know.

Anyway, I can only hope the little ones eventually can get back to school.

Junction True [Review]

Junction True
Junction True

by Ray Fawkes (Writer) and  Vince Locke (Illustrator)
Top Shelf Productions, 2015

Junction Total is a technosex horror thriller set in a near future world, or perhaps a sideways-in-time version of this one, where hipsters and goths maintain constant connection to their blogs and blog audiences. The latest pursuit among the cream of them is neumod: body modifications part bio and part hardware, like sweet-tasting hallucinogenic tears or phosphorescent runes that dance around under the skin, advertising their wearers’ arousal. But the most extreme of them is the Junction True, where a couple has their digestive systems rerouted so the Master can give nourishment to their sub, or “puppet” through a locking metal socket, both portals keyed only to each other. The puppet cannot eat on his/her own; they have total dependence on the Master. It’s the ultimate D/s relationship. When blogger Dirk Brody becomes infatuated with blue-dreadlocked Teralyn, a neumod fixture on the scene, the plot is set in motion: her price for returning his attraction is to become her gut-controlled puppet. Being not too bright, he accedes, and the rest of the story concerns the illegal operation they have and its repercussions.

There’s also a subplot where Dirk’s friend, Gothic Lolita Naoko, does research for her own blog on how neumod modifications have disfigured and ruined the lives of their owners, with some sly commentary that could have come from the lips of today’s out-there bodymod advocates (One character windily opines neumod failures are not victims, but explorers and pioneers, even as she displays arms covered with horrid red scars.) Naturally, Naoko also discovers Teralyn is unstable and psychotic, but by that time it’s too late to save Dirk.

It was pretty clear the Junction Total was used as metaphor for an all-consuming D/s relationship that goes from bedroom play to real life. Yet the story wasn’t much of a love story. The doomed couple decide to become doomed far too quickly; there really was no clear reason for Dirk to become so smitten with Teralyn that he hands over his life, even if he thinks it will make good blog fodder. There was no clear reason for his disillusionment either, which seems to occur only days after their joint coming-out party. The love story at the heart of the novel felt skipped over, which was a shame — the book could have done with being at least two chapters longer, or at least had some of the non-essential stuff (like the doctor endlessly pontificating) excised in favor of character development. One thing the story did play up was the Junction connection as sexual. Teralyn’s portal is on her back, where Dirk’s is where his stomach is, so when they are connected, and their metallic tentacles interlock, he looks like he’s buggering her. This brought up to question of who really is the Master in a situation like that… the one with the responsibility, or the one who is the object of the responsibility? The first is a moral acceptance, the second is physical. It’s suggested that the Master has the short end of the stick, even if they have the power… Dirk enjoys it, while Teralyn is not so thrilled.

I was a big fan of the artwork. The horror was soft-pedaled, and the tragedy enhanced, by the watercolor panels, which had a delicate, fairy tale feel. The characters were as pretty and graceful as ballet dancers, as hauntingly damaged as absinthe drinkers. (The artist also worked with Nail Gaiman on The Sandman, which I have never read, so I’ll check that out.) It was the major enjoyment of the story for me, and I felt the plot itself should have been more up to it.

A few things about the story did not make sense. The mechanics of the Junction Total are never fully explained, only talked around, but it is stated that “most” of the puppet’s digestive tract is removed. Yet later on in the story the characters are hooked up to giant, refrigerator-sized sustenance units through their portals when their partners aren’t there. A portable IV bag and line would suffice for water and nutrients, and a colostomy bag if the large intestine is gone. If the stomach had been left, water could still be absorbed by the body.

In the end, the story did have some thought-provoking things to say about body modification outlaws and how they justify themselves, but stopped short of a declared editorial stance.

The final question the story seems to ask: Is bodily modification (and perhaps the idea of a D/s relationship) a route of self-actualization… or self-destruction?

drawing by Vincent Locke

A sketch by Vincent Locke (not from the novel reviewed)

Photo Inspiration


Sometimes the stories write themselves…

Tiger Lung [Reading Challenge 2017]

Tiger Lung by Simon Roy, Jason Wordie

Tiger Lung

by Simon Roy and Jason Wordie
Dark Horse Originals, 2014

(Note that I am not doing this challenge in numerical order!)

The Seattle Public Library is among the finest for a metropolitan area in the US. Each branch specializes in a different genre, and for my branch, it’s graphic novels. By browsing in this row and pulling out books at random you are sure to find great reading material.

I chose Tiger Lung because, by the name, I thought it had to do with Chinese history, as lung is the traditional name for the Chinese dragon. But it turned out to be something better, three tales set in Paleolithic times, 30,000 years ago in what is now the modern-day Ukraine. Glaciers were still extant and ice age conditions, with conifer forests, steppes, and mammoths, and survival was harsh and not guaranteed.

The book was actually a collection of three stories plus some bonus material, less a graphic novel and more of an anthology. The three were thematically similar, dealing with the ways the spiritual world intersected the world of the living. The artistic style was loose and sketchy, full of life and movement, as if the artist had actually lived amongst these people and had sketched them on the fly. It actually did a lot to humanize them for me. They evince apprehension, puzzlement, even irony — they carry their children on their shoulders and even want to sleep late. The warmth of them comes through, but also the grittiness — guts, dirt, frayed leather, and broken teeth.

The stories were not only interesting in an anthropological sense — the creators really seem to have done their research — but also in a horror one, which is of interest to me, as a horror writer. Terrifying encounters with the supernatural take place in the forest, under the glacial ice, and in the Realm of the Undead. The spirits are part human, part animal, depicted in pale, sickly pinks and blues, with transparent skin through which their internal organs glow eerily. Simon says in the afterword that these organs are glowing with power; but they also recall, to me, Aboriginal Australian art in which the animals’ interiors are depicted in X-ray style, perhaps in the same principle.

paleolithic kangaroo

I was also reminded of the famed “Sorcerer” dancing figure from the caves at Lascaux, itself a human-animal hybrid.

paleoithic Lascaux sorceror

These spirits are not wispy and ethereal ones though. They can rend and tear, throwing guts and gore everywhere.

The stories themselves are about the adventures of the nominal character, a shaman named Tiger Lung, the last of a hereditary line of shamans. Each tale is stand alone. In the first, a young Tiger Lung undertakes a journey under a glacier to retrieve the skull of his father, who had disappeared there months earlier. In the second, while traveling with a friend, he encounters a massacre, a strange girl, and a tribe of brutal were-hyenas. This one is my personal favorite. The black-and-white artwork is in pen overlaid with watercolor, loose yet fraught with tension. There’s also dark humor, and irony: the traveling companion has a Neanderthal wife who does the literal heavy lifting in the relationship. I was also fond of the hand-drawn, scribbled lettering, which added to the intimate tone for me.

The final story concerns a journey into the actual spirit world and again I liked the starkness of it. The coloration here was particularly fine, with the real world depicted in gold and sepia, the spirit one in ghostly pinks and blues, while the night scenes were in blueish-gray.

The sketches at the back were also a fine addition. I hope the rest of the creators’ work of this series is published together.

Cobalt Jade’s Tax Tips: Lifetime Learning Credit

I am starting a series today dealing with federal tax tips for freelance writers and artists. Many times those working independently aren’t aware of the deductions and tax breaks they may be able to receive in a complicated and overwhelming, but surprisingly fair, system.

In this post I will look at the Lifetime Learning Credit, a straightforward and easy credit the taxpayer can take for any accredited course(s) taken at any accredited university or school. How easy is that?

First off, let’s see where it goes.

1040-where-ed-credit-goes

Form 8863, Education Credits, is where you would do the math to figure this entry (or your tax program will do it for you.) It has three parts.

Part I of the form is for the American Opportunity Credit, which I might go into in a later post. You may happily ignore it for now.

Part II is for the Lifetime Learning Credit. Part III is where you enter your personal and school information. If you realize it’s beneficial to fill out Part III of the 8868 first, you’re right.

You don’t have to fill in the other areas in Part III to take this credit.

The final figure, circled in green, is carried over to Section II of the 8863 form.

Who can take this credit? Anyone paying for higher education for themselves, their spouse (if filing jointly) or a dependent, such as a child. For purposes of this post, I will assume only the freelancer themselves will be claiming the credit.

What kind of classes are eligible? Any, as long as they carry credits. Doesn’t matter if it’s related to your work as a freelancer or not. You don’t need to be enrolled in a higher education program either.

Where must those classes have been taken? Any college, university or vocational school eligible to participate in a student aid program administered by the U.S. Department of Education. Most do; if in doubt, ask the school upfront with a quick call to the admin office. The taxpayer must have been enrolled for at least one academic period during the tax year. Prepaid courses count for the same year they were paid for. For example, if you paid for a course in December 2015 for the quarter that begins in January 2016, those payments are deductible for 2015.

What payments are deductible? Tuition!  Plus any books, supplies, or equipment required to be paid to the institution as a condition of enrollment or attendance. For example, textbooks, lab fees, and safety goggles would count in order to take a biochemistry course, because the student would not be permitted to take the course without them. A medical dictionary, however, though useful, would not count, because it is optional on the part of the student.

What kinds of payments are deductible? Only those you made, even if the payments were made with through a loan or with a gift. Scholarships and financial aid do not count.

How will you know what you’ve paid for the year? Your education institution may mail you a Form 1098-T after the end of the year. It looks like this and has all the information you need to know.

If you have not received one, don’t sweat. Assuming there is no financial aid involved, all that matters are the tuition and required fees, and if you have a record or receipt of them, that is OK.

Limit: Up to $2,000 per return, depending on the calculations.

Restrictions: You cannot claim the credit if you are married filing separately, or are claimed as a dependent on someone else’s tax return. You cannot count the classes as a business expense, American Opportunity Credit, or any other type of deduction. Once they are claimed for Lifetime Learning they cannot be claimed or deducted anywhere else on the return.

 

 

 

Stardust [Reading Challenge 2017]

Neil Gaiman Stardust

Stardust

by Neil Gaiman
HarperCollins; Reprint edition

[Challenge # 1: Coming to theater near you]

I had never read Neil Gaiman before, so I was pleasantly surprised by his “Fairy tale for Grown-ups” Stardust. (A movie was made of it in 2007 starring Clare Danes and Charlie Cox, but I haven’t seen it, so can’t compare.) It was not a long book, nor a quest one in the Tolkien mode, or an urban fantasy. The closest analog I can find to describe it would be Lord Dunsany crossed with hedge fantasy, that typically English genre where fairies and hobgoblins lurk yet in country villages or secret worlds in wardrobes. The basic plot did remind me, in fact, of Clive Barker’s Imagica — a sensual (read: there’s sex) parallel world with its own fantastic characters based on English tropes, and the hero who enters it — but without being detailed to death, or having Barker’s sense of claustrophobia.

Tristran — I kept reading it as Tristan — Thorn, the young hero, lives in one of those quaint villages that just happens to have a gate connecting it to the realms of Faerie. This isn’t made a big deal of in the story, just accepted by the inhabitants in a low-key, matter-of-fact way. Guards are posted at the gate to ensure no one enters, for their own safety. But once a year, Faerie denizens come to the meadow that is just beyond the gate, and a big fair takes place for them and the Victorian-era villagers alike. During one of these Tristan is conceived on a Faerie mother and left on his father’s doorstep after he is born. Again, not a lot of fuss is made about this. When he becomes a young man, he sees a shooting star fall beyond the Faerie gate and promises to retrieve it for the young woman he has a crush on, and thus starts the story. The star turns out to be a girl who was knocked out of the sky by a talisman thrown by a dying lord whose dastardly sons are out to retrieve it. At the same time, a witch is out to also capture the star for her youth-giving blood. Complications ensue between these four parties, their friends, and their enemies.

All this sounds chaotic, but it really wasn’t, again presented in a low-key, turn of the century way by an omniscient narrator who is calm and in control. The book read more epic and longer than it actually was, in a good way, which was refreshing to me. It kept my attention and I looked forward to the time I could read it, something that does not always happen with my recreational reading. The story did not have the rising-action-big climax-tiny denouement structure of a typical fantasy novel, which again was refreshing, and different. There were, in fact, several endings: the escape of the couple from Faerie, the revelation of the Tristran’s true heritage, his discovery that his crush was not who he thought she was and had a life of her own; and at least three more. These soft endings were refreshing after the big Hollywood climaxes of modern SF/fantasy, where it’s often heroes vs. bad guys in a titanic battle that goes on freaking forever, at the end of which the good guys escape by the slimmest of margins. Think of the climactic escape from the movie Chicken Run and you will understand what I mean, where the freedom of the heroes hinges on a string of Christmas tree lights and a blunt-nosed child’s pair of scissors. (This is amusingly spoofed in the slow-mo escape sequence at the end of the animated French movie The Triplets of Belleville, where it’s apparent the old ladies have the upper hand.)

I don’t think Gaiman is the quite the master of  prose a lot of readers think he is, but his language fits the story, it’s succinct yet robust, and though he often approaches twee territory, he never really goes there. On the whole, an enjoyable read, and I would recommend it.

 

Reading Challenge 2017

Inspired by the fine folks at the Writers Water Cooler forums, I have taken on a reading challenge for this year, my first ever. As a writer, I tend to not read a lot of fiction when I’m working, but of course as writers we must read, just to see how other writers do things, and keep up with what’s current. And it’s enjoyable, a joy I admit I’ve forgotten.

So here is my list, 12 topics chosen from a suggested list of 40, with each book I have chosen.

 

  1. Coming to a theater near you: A book made into a major motion picture. (Stardust by Neil Gaimon)
  2. East meets West: A book taking place in Asia (anywhere in Asia; Turkey to Japan, Siberia to Indonesia) (Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See) 
  3. What you read: A book you loved as a child. (The Jungle Books by Rudyard Kipling)
  4. Loose ends: A book you started last year and haven’t yet finished. (Cinder by Marissa Meyer)
  5. No hablo: A translation. (The King of the Fields, Isaac Bashevis Singer)
  6. Out of the park on first at bat: A debut. (Faeries of Dreamdark: Blackbringer, by Laini Taylor) 
  7. Huh, I never knew that: A book in a new-to-you genre. (The Aviary Gate, by Katie Hickman. It’s Historical Romance.)
  8. Rainbow warrior: A book with a color in the title. (Yellowtail, Crow Medicine Man and Sun Dance Chief, an Autobiography told to Michael Oren Fitzgerald)
  9. Who was that, again?: A book about a person you know little about. (The Secret History of the Mongol Queens, How the Daughters of Genghis Khan Rescued His Empire, by Jack Weatherford)
  10. God’s mansion has many rooms: A book based in a religion not your own. (Harm, by Brian W. Aldiss)
  11. Ye olde booke shoppe: A book written before 1700. (Gilgamesh.)
  12. Three-color mythology: A graphic novel or comic book. (Tiger Lung, by Roy Simon) 

 

 

 

Twilight’s Two Apples

On October 6th Little, Brown Books released the 10th Anniversary edition of Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight, which included a special bonus: the novel rewritten and gender-reversed, with Edward now Edyth, and Bella now Beau. The bonus was born of the author’s desire to show the story as truly universal and that the gender of the protagonists did not matter, in response to crticism of the original narrator’s tendency to be a moon-eyed damsel in distress.

I have not read either one, Twilight being in fact on my to-read list; but let’s examine the covers the Little, Brown chose for each one and see what they code.

twilight cover and life and death cover, by stephenie meyer

Red apple, green apple; on the surface both are pretty sweet (sorry for the pun) and a great example of series branding.In the first one, note that the female offers the apple, symbolic of temptation and loss of innocence, somewhat tentatively. The use of both hands cupping it implies it weighs heavily on her, that it requires more than the usual effort to hold.  Alternatively, she might be cupping it to protect it, like it’s her virginity. We can’t see the rest of her body, but she is holding it with arms lowered at the level of where her genitals might be. For someone to take it, the recipient must come close and bend low — an intimate position.

The male hand, in contrast, boldly holds the apple as if he were freely offering it to someone. There is almost a dare in it. He holds it away from his body. If it was given to him and he accepted it, he might be holding it at arm’s length, weighing and appraising. He might pitch it away in a second, or  take a bite. He might also be boasting of his possession of it. In any case, his ownership, offer, or acceptance are all active and decisive.

The typeface of Twilight is curving, slightly baroque, while the typeface used for Life and Death — a far more florid and ambitious title — is more modern and techno. The red apple implies sweetness and juiciness; the green, tartness and zest.

Not too hard to guess that the stories inside do indeed differ according to gender’s protagonist, and how, right?