The industrialized world depended on rubber once. There was rubber everywhere. But then, one day, it came to life.

Worldbuilding Wednesday 1/22/20: Malls

Oxford Valley Mall, PA, in the mid-1970s

In the recent hit Netflix Stranger Things the high school students hang out at Starcourt Mall to alleviate the boredom of their small-town lives. Though treated as an exotic element in the show, hanging out at the mall was, once, very common in the 1970s and 1980s. There was an element of snobbishness in it because, number one, you actually had to have money to buy something, and number two, because most were in suburbia, you had to have a car to get there, or know someone with a car. Or you could take the bus, like me and my friend did when my mother refused to drive us.  It was a whole afternoon’s excursion and we had to transfer in a bad part of the city. To naive 15-year-olds, it was like flying to Paris for the weekend in terms of time, money, and energy expended.

The mall pictured above is Oxford Valley, not the one we went to, but one we visited every once in a while. It opened in the year 1974 and as a child I remember running full speed down that winding spiral ramp pictured in the lower photo, clutching a double-dipped ice cream cone from Baskin Robbins — peanut butter and banana. My first credit card was from the Bamberger’s store.

Malls had many different naming conventions, depending on where they were and if they were upscale, outlet, suburban, or specialized. In my part of the east coast they tended to be named after historical places or landscape features, but in the big city, the names were more snobbish and creative. Here’s a list free for use. One of them is meant in fun — can you find it?



Shoppers World at Linden Park

Hardbattle Grand Junction

Cuban Square Mall

The Brick Market

The Lemon Yard

Gazena County Market

Midlands Mall

The Galleria at Cherryview

Angelfort Woods Market

Winter Gateway Center

Dillun Market

The Skymall at Sunset Field

Swan Place

Shieldburn Farmers Market

Aqueduct Town Center

The Terminal at Seafeld

King’s Olde Plum Orchard Mall

Shield Bridge Riverwalk

Stonefort Shopping Mall

Metro Fashion Outlets of Loganham

Oldbridge Shopping Mall

Eldertower Family Center

Limeiurs Riverview

Uptown City Center

Queen’s Trinity Yard

Hillfeld at the Hub

Moorcult Mall

Crossroads at Redvale

Metro Mills

The Promenade at Capitol Court

Bear Meadows Shopping  Mall

Frustration at the Hub

West Outlet Shops at Pennyhem

Playgrove Mall

Tri-Cities Luxury Court

The Mall at Summer Spirit

Pennythorough Shoppes

The Crossings at Rockfield

Cloughrin Shopping Mall

Gilaray Grand Junction

Heathland Bridge

Thorogood Pike Luxury Mall

Bayrion Shopping Center

Alamo Market Square

The Mall at Pointbattle

Trentham Place

Postover Crossing Mall

Outlet Shops at Anderweldt

Waltine Mall

Town Center at Alder Chapel

Belfred Mall

The Queen’s Quad at Shelderlay


Persepolis [Reading Challenge 2020]


by Marjane Satrapi
Pantheon Books, 2003

[Challenge # 29 : A graphic novel or comic book.]

I finally got around to reading Marjane Satrapi’s graphic novel Persepolis which served as the graphic novel for this year’s reading challenge. It retread a lot of the ground I had just visited when I read Reading Lolita in Tehran, but I loved it nonetheless. There’s a sequel that I will definitely be reading at some point.

The book is autobiographical, being about the author’s life in Iran as a young girl from the time of the Iranian revolution up to the age of 14. It differs from Lolita in that is told from the viewpoint of a child with no agency and no context for the tumultuous events she lives through. In a way, it book can be described as a female version of Art Speigelman’s Maus – simple childlike illustrations used to tell a more serious political story. Like Maus, it caused a lot of buzz when it came out and was even made into an animated film.

Sample page from the book

I don’t have much more to say except that I loved it and it made me consider doing my own graphic novel at some point.




Children of Virtue and Vengeance [Review]

Children of Virtue and Vengeance

by Tomi Adeyemi
Henry Holt and Co., 2019

I was impressed by Tomi Adeyemi’s Children of Blood and Bone when it came out in 2018. It was something different, an African-based culture handled in a Western fantasy way. There’s a monarchy, magic-users who are persecuted, swords and armor, and exotic mounts based on predatory cats. The gods of the world are based on Voudoun deities, each granting their maji followers a different kind of magic. That, and the Yoruba-based language snippets scattered about, brought something special to the table.  Though the book suffered from many of the problems current YA has been criticized for I was intrigued enough to see how the plot worked out and what happened to all the characters. The previous book ended with the maji’s magic returned to Orïsha and the villain of the book, King Saran, defeated. But victory came at a cost for the characters: there was betrayal, torture, family members murdered. The ending was ambiguous as to whether or not the magic’s return was a good thing, which I liked.

As it turns out, no and yes. In Children of Virtue and Vengeance the maji, the persecuted class of the previous book, now have full access to their powers, but some of their oppressors have developed magic powers as well.  Called tîtáns, these nobles have powers like the maji’s but they don’t rely on clerical powers to call them forth; the powers are stronger, but also less controlled and more apt to kill their wielders. There’s also another class called cênters who are not only titans themselves but can the draw the magic and life force out of other tîtáns, to become super saiyan of a sort. Confused yet?

When they arrive back on Orïsha Zélie the maji, Tzain, her loyal brother, Amari the rebel princess and a new character, Roën the mercenary, must find and join with the other maji to school their awakened powers for a war, while Prince Inan – who wasn’t killed after all in the battle on the Holy Temple island – tries to steer the monarchy towards reconciliation and peace. But his mother, Queen Nehanda, is set against it, and she has become the most powerful tîtán and cênter of them all, a formidable, genocidal force.

War, hate, and genocide do play a big role in this book. Both sides are equally ruthless in their pursuit of victory. There are sweeping battles, betrayals, misunderstandings, misinterpretations, magical powers that mutate into even more magical powers, and torture both mental and physical. For the reader, it’s like being hit in the face with the shattered glass of a kaleidoscope for the length of the book. I hesitate to call it a book, even. It’s more like a thrill ride where you can’t process what you’ve experienced until you get off.

Which is not in its favor, for an adult at least. The structure is even more choppy than Children of Blood and Bone was and honestly, I can’t call it good, only addictive. Each short chapter rotates through the POV of either Amari, Zélie or Inan, and each is readable within five minutes in brief paragraphs seemingly constructed for the screen of a cellphone. Maybe it would have been better read this way, in short snatches. Strung together as a book, the constant drama and repetitiveness made it hard to read, much less process, for more than fifteen minutes straight. But I did very much want to see how the story played out.

Also tedious were the abundant scenes of magic use where the character’s skin glows, their hair floats, and they rise into the air with beams of light springing from their chests. I felt like I was bingeing on an anime series where the same transformation sequence is spliced in again and again. It’s not something that has the same effect in words as on a video screen.

Many of the plot elements felt tedious and contrived as well. Each short chapter ended on a startling cliffhanger, and most of them were deus ex machinas or conflict arising from easily resolved misunderstandings. Prince Inan is on the same page as the maji rebels, but somehow every time they try to broker peace, something happens that is mistaken as a threat by the other party, like Inan’s men disobeying his orders and following him, or someone overhears and misinterprets a snatch of conversation. This happened literally five or six times spaced evenly throughout the book, and each time it led to the exact same thing: dramacakes, which worked at odds to the resonant themes of the book (the hatred of the oppressed for the oppressors and vice versa, genocide) which should have been explored with more nuance and care. Everything was done for the sake of explosions exploding and displays of magic each more awesome than the last. In this book, even the dead are raised and the questions raised from their murder erased.

The idea of the series is sound. I only wish the author had handled it differently, less flashily. But, a lot of YA seems to be written this way, and a lot of young writers themselves write this way, from what I see available on Wattpad and similar sites. Maybe it’s a chicken-and-the-egg thing. I don’t know, and can’t judge it as the decline of traditional literature when it seems to serve a purpose in their development as writers.

So what can I say. Children of Virtue and Vengeance was tedious, it was interesting, and I will read the next one.


A Heart-shaped Face

Mural in Lima, Peru.


Reading Challenge 2020

My Authors Water Cooler reading challenge list for 2020. Out of a list of 50 categories, the participant chooses 12, the idea being you read one a month.


Cobalt Jade’s 2020 Reading Challenge List

2.    Armchair voyages: A book taking place somewhere you have always wanted to go, but have never been.
Henry Lawson’s Best Stories, Henry Lawson (Australia)
The National Poet of Australia.

12.  Take note: A book where music features prominently, or about musicians.
Buried Alive, Myra Friedman
Bio of 1960s rock star Janice Joplin, acclaimed in its time.

14.   No Cliff Notes this time: A book that’s required reading in most high schools or universities. Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen
OK, it’s time to tackle this.

18.   Out of Africa: A book taking place in Africa (including North Africa).
The Fate of Africa, Martin Meredith
History of Africa after colonization up to the 1990s.

22.   Setting sail: A book taking place mostly or all on water.
Blackfish City, Sam J. Miller
SF novel taking place in a floating city in the North Sea.

25.   Support the home team: A book by a fellow AWer.

26.   Face your fears: A book that intimidates you, for any reason
The Tale of Puddin’head Wilson, Mark Twain
Been wanting to read this for a while but haven’t read Twain since Huckleberry Finn.

29.   Three-color mythology: A graphic novel or comic book.
Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi
Life in Iran from the perspective of a child who lived it.

34.   Out of this world: A book taking place in space or on another planet.
Brightness Falls from the Air, Joan D. Vinge
The adventures of Cat the telepath continue.

37.   Literary literal alliteration: A book whose title or author’s name is an alliteration.
The Wind in the Willows, Kenneth Grahame
On my bucket list.

41.   Succinct: A book with a one-word title.
Lolita, Vladimer Nabokov
My cousin read this and I feel I should too.

47.   Just the facts, Ma’am: Non-fiction on any subject.
To Sleep with the Angels: The Story of a Fire, David Cowan
Account of the terrible fire in a Chicago Catholic school.

Worldbuilding Wednesday 1/15/20: Martial Arts Movies

Martial arts movies (kung fu in Hong Kong, wu xia pian in Mandarin) burst onto the international scene in the 1960s and early 1970s with the rise of charismatic actor Bruce Lee (he’s at the center of the pic above wielding nunchucks.) If you were not alive at the time, it’s hard to understand the impact he had. Kung fu schools sprang up in the most unlikely of places, and stores, too, selling exotic equipment such as ninja throwing stars. In metropolitan areas, there was always a UHF Fists of Fury Theater or the like broadcasting old movies on Saturday afternoons. A hit song, Kung Fu Fighting, was composed about the craze. Above it all, Bruce Lee reigned as the undisputed king, even after his death in 1973. **

The names of those movies shared common elements. Animals, types of fighters, locations were mixed and matched, often having the slimmest of relations to the movie’s content. Here’s some I generated myself.


Martial Arts movies that were never made

Inn of the Curious Dragon

Steel Monkey

Dirty Tiger

Black Iron Venom Boxer

House of Silent Blades

Two-Phoenix Fist

Tiger Town Beggar

Clan of the Red Dagger

Fox Flower Protectress

The Volcano Gang

Rogue Monkey Temple

One-Eyed Snow Hero

The Blind Leopard

Undisputed Street Fighter

The Red Kickboxer

Cousin of the Jade Panther

Blood of the Young Knight

Hyena Mountain Fighter

Invincible Cabal from Shantung

Number Five Octagon

Bodyguard of the Little Buddha

Kwangtung Blades

Drunken Force

Lotus Mask

Sisters of the Jade Wolf

Iron Under Fire

Cousin to the Bear

Sister Chrysanthemum

Clan of the Hand

Bangkok Buddha

The Big Boss of Little Tokyo

Ox Statue Butcher

** Another King, Elvis Presley, earned an eight-degree black belt in karate.

The Suitor

Apparantly he was a cold fish.
(Artwork by Randy Mora)

Worldbuilding Wednesday 1/8/20: Nail Polish Colors

Cutex introduced the first commercial nail polish in 1916.  Amazingly, the formula was derived from nitrocellulose, a chemical used in automotive paint, another new innovation of the time. Before this, people made do with henna, or concoctions of wax, egg whites, and gelatine. No longer! A new kind of beauty salon was born, and a new way of highlighting a mundane part of the human body. The trend was given a strong push by the Hollywood film industry and its attending glamour, and the manicure (as well as the pedicure) became a must for the fashion-conscious woman.

Early colors were fairly factual and only a little exotic in their description, such as Cutex’s Orange Crush and Chen-Yu’s Dragon Plum. When French company Revlon entered the business, however, names became more fanciful, like the classic Cherries in the Snow and Love That Red. The latter marks the point at which the name began to serve more to intrigue than to describe. What is the shade of the red in Love That Red? Is it a brick red, a fire engine red, what? We only know that we love it, and that everyone else does too. That was enough.

Today’s colors named by giants Essie and OPI take a further shift away from mere description, their punny names describing far-off places and situations, often sexual. A few from my collection are Don’t Be Koi, Play Date, and I’m Not Really A Waitress. You’d never know the colors were a dark orange, a purplish lilac, and a pinkish-red, respectively.

Interested in the history of nail polish?

Stumped for a nail polish (or lipstick) name? Here’s some randomgenned ones.


Nail Polish Colors

Scarlet Ever After

Shrimp for One

Venetian Ruby

Let There Be Cherries

Roll Out the Licorice

Violet Rose

Temple of Garnets

Sugarplum Confetti

Gaucho Plum

Auburn Brandy

Rum Butter Berry

Sunrise Metal

Papaya Bodega

Caribbean Copper

Orchids Forever

Skies of Violet

Free and Fired

Arabian Cardamom

Saffron Buick

Tropic Nude

Papaya Silk

Huckleberry Nectar

Crush n’ Blush

Mocha Twilight

Sugarplum Lily

Triple Nude

Parisian Tea

Hibiscus Rain

Oktoberfest Fire

Mocha Persimmon

The Raven Tower [Review]

The Raven Tower, by Ann Leckie

The Raven Tower

by Ann Leckie
Orbit Books, 2019

Ann Leckie’s fantasy novel The Raven Tower came out last year and received immediate buzz because of its unique structure and voice. Told in second person (that is, an unseen narrator addresses the main character as “you” and tells this You everything the You thinks and does) it wobbles between the present and past, the latter aimed not so much at the You as the reader to give them background on the story’s plot. Was it successful in this? Yes.

The tagline promises “there will be a reckoning” leading the reader to expect Game of Thrones shenanigans, but honestly, the plot is more like that of a mystery. Iradon is a land ruled by a human council and a leader-priest who is the Lease, or protégé, of the country’s patron god Raven. The god Raven rules in the actual body of a raven, and when that bird body dies, the Lease must commit suicide as well to “pay” the Raven with the sacrifice of life so it can reincarnate in a new bird body. The role of Lease is hereditary, passing from father to son, and accountable to a human council and the female priesthood of another god, the Forest.

The trouble begins when the god Raven’s bird body dies, but instead of killing himself the human Lease disappears, and his brother is sworn into the position under a cloud of suspicion.

Maawat, the son of the vanished ruler, is summoned from the south where he has been defending the borders of the kingdom, but he arrives too late to be sworn in as Lease and so sees his uncle sitting on the throne. So there’s a Hamlet subplot as well, but with a twist: Maawat is dogmatic, stubborn, and hot-tempered, and can’t accept that his father did not do the correct thing and kill himself. His aide Eolo, a transgender man, is the You of the story the narrator tells it to, but Maawat, in a sense, is the real protagonist. Eolo tries to help him and discovers a conspiracy between the usurping uncle and some foreigners to do away with the Raven god forever. In spite of the simplicity of the characters and setting – think Bronze Age — the plot was surprisingly intricate, like a Greek tragedy, complete with chorus.

That chorus, and the unseen narrator talking to Eolo, turns out to be Strength and Patience of the Hill, whom I’ll call Sapoth for short. Sapoth is a god embodied in the form of a picturesque boulder in the forest north of Vastai, and here Leckie gives her tale another unique twist. There are many gods in Leckie’s world, perhaps too many to count, but most of them are small potatoes. They have alliances apparent and not so apparent, between the humans who worship them and between themselves. It’s an ecosystem of worship, for Leckie’s gods enjoy human offerings and are sustained by them, growing in power by them in some unexplained way. (That way is not said, but IMO it didn’t need to be said – this is fantasy.)

There are also many rules about what they can and cannot do, rules similar to the wizardly powers derived from true names in Ursula K. LeGuin’s Earthsea series. God powers are in the main kinetic, and most of the time they perform small, carefully considered favors, such as guiding an arrow’s flight. In the one instance of war their powers are more extensive, goading wild animals to attack and creating warriors of wood. But such performances tax their powers greatly. They have a childlike mentality in that they consider consequences, but morality, ethics, and life and death do not occur to them. Their model is that of animism and the Japanese concept of kame or kami — imposing phenomena, or landscape features, which are divine simply because of their imposingness. I’ve never read a fantasy story with gods quite like Leckie’s. As an authorial creation, they are unique. These are the gods Earthsea might have had if it had not been anti-religion and pro-magic.

(The author also makes a subtle case to the reader, as Richard K. Morgan did in The Steel Remains, for the gods being disembodied alien intelligences, as they are presented as arriving on Leckie’s Not-Earth as fragments from a falling meteorite. The whole story might have been written as a what-if scenario for Bronze Age deities being actual existing entities for primitive human tribes. The mix of the divine with modern physical science also reminded me of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms… this novel had something of everything I’ve read in 2019.)

To the humans of the story the god’s existence is always in doubt. Only rarely do the gods speak clearly. It takes a lot of power to form human speech so most of the gods communicate by tokens or cards, using their kinetic powers to arrange them in patterns that communicate. The author implies ambiguity by showing how humans read meaning into this form of language where there is none, either because the god is sleeping, or is absent or dead. As in Richard Adams’ work, like Watership Down where farmers, cars, and trains are mythic and terrible to rabbits but mundane to the reader, there’s a sense of irony. The humans of the book are always questioning. At times they shifted toward the view that all of this was nonsense, only to be pulled back.

The book thus raised these questions: What is a god? What are the limits of its divine power and how does it help or harm humans? How does a god’s consciousness differ from a human’s, and what role does language play in it? Perhaps there was too much theorizing on these points, which periodically interrupted the narrative; but I did find them enjoyable and intelligent to read. The intellect behind the book always shone through, despite the simplicity, and sometimes naivete, of its style.

It also seems the author learned a lesson from feminist criticism of Earthsea. Sex and gender roles do not play parts in the plot either directly or indirectly, which I found very refreshing. In this it reminded me of some of Vonda McIntyre’s fiction, as well as Elizabeth Lynn’s: conscious, careful efforts by the author to create a plausible non-sexist society. Unlike them, though, Leckie doesn’t push a free love agenda, by which I mean a sexual milieu where everyone is at liberty to screw around with everyone else and no gets upset or jealous about it. There are consequences for sex in Leckie’s world, both traditional and untraditional. One character is pushed by her father to marry Maawat, and she refuses (but she is not ordered or forced to, as usually happens) and Eolo, as a transgender man, cannot serve in the army because born-women aren’t allowed to serve. There is also a story mentioned of a young man that pines for another young man, with no humans blinking an eye at it. These small mentions were effective at creating a believable, inclusive world, and I found them way less preachy that the free-love broad strokes.

But if there were looser gender roles in Vastai than Earthsea, there was also less grandeur. The Raven Tower doesn’t reach for stars like LeGuin did; there’s no resonance with myth. But then there isn’t any pesky cultural baggage or sex bashing either, and to give the author credit the various sexualities are presented as matter of fact and not exalted or idealized. Leckie’s civilization is a small, cozy one, taking place in a mid-sized town where silk fabric and honeyed dates are extravagant luxuries, and her earnest, simple prose didn’t wow me the way LeGuin’s did. But then Earthsea was based in the language of real world myth and poetry — and misogyny — which Leckie managed to wisely sidestep.

As the story progresses it becomes clear it is not a simple tale of good vs. evil. Twists and turns occur but there are no moral judgements on display, just the fallibility of the human spirit. The god Raven, initially a victim, is revealed as a pitiless aggressor, while the god Forest, which might have eco-friendly and female-centric in some other fantasy, is here an alien intelligence looking after its own interests. Maawat the prince, who is the story’s main character in spite of Eolo being the “You” and the one who figures things out, is selfish and hot-tempered, yet a calm and nonplussed leader. The ending comes in a rush, without the epic calamity the blurb seemed to call for, and then there’s one final twist to clean up the mess.

It was the final twist that exposed the story’s most visible flaw for me. Eolo should have been someone special to Sapoth to be worth all that narration time, yet he wasn’t. In the plot he served as the everyman character who witnesses the unfolding tragedy, like Hamlet’s Horatio. But Sapoth could have chosen any of the other major characters to serve as a sounding board. In other words, there was no resonance between Sapoth and Eolo. This was disappointing and left a loose end that would have been OK for me as a reader, but not as a writer. Eolo might have been depicted as the only one who could sense Sapoth, or Sapoth found something intriguing about Eolo, like his gender, which otherwise served no purpose in the plot.

That said, I did enjoy the book a lot, and even writing this I feel the enjoyment coming back. As much as I liked it, though, it’s not the kind of thing I would read again, because the solving of the mystery was such a great part of it. I would enthusiastically recommend it though. It’s a philosopher’s fantasy, a thoughtful and at times playful experiment of how ambiguities shape events, people, and societies. It’s something new.