the Little Red Reviewer

And my Deep Space Nine watch-a-thon continues!  Such comfort TV!

 

I’m even having fun with the filler episodes. Because me, I’m reading way, way too much into the throw away scenes.  Who knew that Deep Space Nine was such a cornucopia of writing prompts, and so many filler scenes that actually have buckets of depth?

 

Here’s the next four episodes of Season 3. I didn’t think to snap some pictures while I was watching, so all photos were stolen of the Memory Alpha Wiki for Deep Space Nine.

 

Second Skin (S3 Ep5) – If you really love Nana Visitor, this is the episode for you!   Kira gets some confusing communications, someone wants to talk to her about a prison that she was never at, but the records clearly show she was there. How could she be at the prison, but also with her rebellion friends at the same time?   Kira gets kidnapped, and wakes up in a strange room, surrounded by Cardassians.

 

When she looks in the mirror, she sees an impossibility – that she now a Cardassian.  Is it a trick? A hallucination?  I’m sure her cosmetics are supposed to be the height of Cardassian fashion, but wow, not a good look. Her captors explain that she was a Cardassian special agent, who volunteered to undergo some kind of memory technobabble to infiltrate the Bajoran rebellion. And isn’t it wonderful, that they’ve retrieved her and brought her home? Her memories of her Cardassian life should resurface anytime now!  Kira has become something she abhors.  There are tons of psychological tricks played on Kira to get her to doubt that she is Bajoran.  This could be a Black Mirror episode?!

Kira and her “dad”

She’s is stuck in this Cardassian house, with her “dad”.  He tries to comfort her because that’s what dad’s do, but he also respects her enough to give her space and time, because that’s also what dad’s do.  It’s got to be weird for Kira, to have faith in the “the only good Cardassian is a dead Cardassian”, but then she meets this middle aged guy who is a dad. Who cares about his daughter.  This guy, who knows that his daughter doesn’t have to agree with him on everything, and that he loves her, so it doesn’t matter that they have disagreements. Basically, he’s the perfect dad. Kira’s got to reconcile the fact that Cardassians have fathers, and those fathers are sometimes okay people.    The whole big thing that’s going on?  Yeah, it’s not about Kira, it’s about the dad.  I feel so bad for dad!

 

And then . . .   Garak to the rescue!

 

The Abandoned (S3 Ep6) – 16 year old Jake is dating a 20 year old Dabo girl, and since Sisko isn’t sure how he feels about that, so he hosts the two lovebirds for dinner. It’s funny, me calling them “love birds”, because they never do anything more than hold hands and kiss with their noses (nose kisses are THE cutest).  Sisko can’t believe his son is growing up so quickly, he misses taking care of a child.

 

Meanwhile,  Quark purchased some salvage sight unseen.  The salvage is mostly junk, except for an incubator thing with a baby inside it!!  Uh, so it’s a good thing he bought this salvage, otherwise the baby might have died!

 

The humanoid baby goes to sickbay, where no one can figure out it’s race or planet or origin. The child very, very quickly grows into an adolescent, and my first thought was “hey, when this kid grows into a teenager next week, he can be a new friend for Jake!”.   Well, he does grow into a teenager a few days later, and now it’s obvious where he’s from – this is a young Gem Hadar, the Gamma Quandrant soldiers of the Dominion! And now he’s loose on the station! And oh by the way, the Gem Hadar are enslaved by the Dominion through a genetic modification causing an addiction to a enzyme only the Dominion can supply. The Dominion created biological slaves who could never rebel.

this kid has some hella awesome hair!

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I met author Tom Doyle years ago at a science fiction convention, and I was lucky enough to stay in touch with him afterwards.   He’s the author of the American Craftsman trilogy, and his short fiction and non-fiction essays have appeared in Strange Horizons, Daily Science Fiction, Perihelion, Paradox Magazine, Kasma SF Magazine, and elsewhere.

 

Many years ago, when Doyle was at Clarion, he wrote a short story which was later sold to Strange Horizons.  And now, he’s expanded that short story into a full length novel!  You can learn more about Tom Doyle and his work at his website TomDoyleAuthor.com or by following him on twitter or facebook.

 

Doyle’s newest full length novel, Border Crosser, (Amazon link) available Oct 1 tells the story of Eris, who is smart, sexy, and can’t remember her loyalties. She has a type of purposeful amnesia – because she can not remember her loyalties, nothing shows up on the “emotional scanners”, allowing her to infiltrate anywhere she needs to go, or chooses to go. Able to trick the scanners, she’s the perfect undercover secret agent.

 

Eris’s employers are quite sure that her emotional  amnesia means she won’t survive long enough to learn about her past.  Maybe they shouldn’t underestimate her!

Doyle let me pick his brain about how emotional amnesia could benefit someone, how Eris handles her mental health condition, his favorite scenes to write in Border Crosser, his writing process, his band, and more!

Little Red Reviewer: Congrats on your new novel, Border Crosser! Is this novel connected to your short story “Crossing Borders” which was published at Strange Horizons?

Tom Doyle: Thanks! Yes, “Crossing Borders,” my science fiction tale of Eris, a border personality secret agent causing interstellar chaos in the far-future, was the kernel for this novel. That story was my first pro sale. I wrote the story during the emotionally most intense part of the Clarion Workshop, and I think it shows.

LRR: When I read the description for the book, I was intrigued by Eris’s “emotional amnesia”, and how her memory issues allow her to get past emotional scanners. Scanners at the border that detect your long-term intentions? That’s wild! I’ve got to know more about how these scanners work, how to get around them, and how you came up with this idea!

TD: The idea for border scanners emerged from choosing to write about a borderline personality character. Emotional amnesia is a common aspect of borderline personality disorder (BPD). This means that someone has difficulty remembering how they felt before about events, things, and people. Eris’s emotional amnesia has been amplified by her secret employers, who want her loyalties to be extremely flexible.

In the original short story, I didn’t give Eris a particular skill set that fully explained the label “border crosser” – it was more a statement about personality type. But the novel required something more. So I thought more about situations in which emotional amnesia could be an advantage and came up with the border scanner.

The border scanner is a minimally intrusive look at intentions (this future has good reasons to fear anything more intrusive). Such scans are standard when crossing one of the many far-future borders; for example, boarding a starship or landing on another inhabited world. It’s the equivalent of our airport security or passport control and customs.

The person administering the scan asks some standard questions, like “Do you intend any harm toward me, the government, the planet, etc.?” A person without Eris’s version of emotional amnesia would be caught by the mental scanner. But Eris’s mind has been conditioned to idle in an emotionally neutral setting during such scans. At those moments, she doesn’t intend harm, though she may want to get closer to certain people.

LRR: Tell us some interesting things about Eris. What makes her a compelling character?

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You know how you read a short story, like it but maybe don’t entirely get it, and then years later that story pops back into your head and everything about it hits you like a ton of bricks?

 

Or, you read a story and then forget the details.  And then years later, something happens, and you’re reminded of that story, but you can only remember bits and pieces, and you’re not even sure if you are remembering it correctly?

 

What I could remember, was that the woman in the story likes living by herself. She liked cooking. She’s not good with people. She’d left her old life, the one where she felt she didn’t fit in, for a few life where things (to her) felt balanced, where she understands the rules and things make more sense. Where there were no people. Except people keep trying to rescue her? This weird, creepy (maybe imaginary?) guy protects her.  He can’t possibly be imaginary!

 

I think I was supposed to be scared of the creepy guy with the filthy hat? I wasn’t.  He took care of the woman, he didn’t try to make her change, so he was “good peeps” in my book.

 

I remembered the story being fairly ambiguous. There were practically no details on the page, as if the characters knew that saying something would make it true, so they just don’t say certain things. And I like ambiguous stories. I don’t need all my questions answered, I prefer questions to stay unanswered, so that I can chew on them, well, forever.  I remembered feeling like I could relate to the woman, to the fact that she was OK with her quiet life.

 

Thanks to Lesley Conner’s help, the story that’s been rattling around my brain non-stop for about five months now is “She Gave Her Heart, He Took Her Marrow”, by Sam Fleming. It ran in Apex Magazine in December of 2015.  Go read it.

 

Rereading it, the woman on the island’s name is Chancery.  Hedron, the creepy guy in the dirty hat, is most definitely not “good peeps”, but I’m still not afraid of him.  Chancery lives a quiet life, she can hear herself think. She can put her coping mechanisms in a jar and put the jar on the shelf, because she finally lives somewhere where she doesn’t need her coping mechanisms.  I was a little jealous, that she no longer needed her coping mechanisms, she seems to be living an introvert’s best life.

 

I still love how hazy the story is, like the entire thing happens within a fog bank. Is Chance starving to death? Is she eating a few thousand calories a day? Can both of those statements be true? Is one of her coping mechanisms avoiding the truth about what’s going on?

 

Sometimes you have to sit with a story for a while, for you to understand why it clicks so much with you.  I had to soak this one up for five years.

 

Rereading the story, the thing that pisses me off most is how Kay treats Chancery. How could she?

 

I’m still not afraid of Hedron. But I’m pretty sure I’m supposed to be.  I guess if Chance isn’t afraid of him, then I won’t be. I trust her judgement.  LOL, maybe I’m a little like Chance’s dog?

 

I like that this story has been rattling around my head for 5 years. It’s a little strange, but not surprising to me, how much I can relate to Chance. I’m happy she’s found a place to live where she doesn’t need her coping mechanisms anymore.

 

Anyway, go read the story, let me know what you think of it.

 

And you can also read my interview with the author.  I didn’t understand the significance at the time, but in the interview, when Sam Fleming says “what if there weren’t?”, that line has stuck with me, all these years.

 

Dear Sam Fleming:  Thank you for writing this story.  It is what Introvert-me needed to read, and reread, and reread.  Letting this story rattle around in my head, has been good for me.

 

I think telecommuting has also been good for me.  It’s been nice to not be five seconds away from sensory overload all the time.

I had plans to talk about more Vandana Singh short stories, I swear.  There’s also a Sam Fleming short story that I really need to blog my way through my feelings about.

 

But? DVDs.

 

One of my BFFs lent me all of Star Trek: Deep Space 9 on DVD, and I can’t not watch it. First of all, this is the perfect comfort TV to watch during *gestures at everything* and second off all, I’m pretty sure I never saw the end of this series, and third of all, Avery Brooks is freaking amazing.   The last few seasons ran from 1997 – 1999, and those were my first years in college, which mean: School, really good libraries, jobs with weird hours, college parties, and worst of all, for the first time in years I had access to cable TV.   why watch DS9 when I could watch MTV?  Also, pretty sure I was too broke in 1999 to even own a TV. So yep, pretty sure I never saw the last seasons.

 

I wasn’t sure where to start, in this cornucopia of ALL THE SEASONS, so I started at season three.  There’s 4 episodes to a disc, so yep, I’mma blog about the first four episodes of season three.  And who knows? Maybe this is the start of a series of blog posts about Way. Too. Much. Deep Space. Nine.

 

You’re welcome.

 

And no, I don’t feel bad about spoiling a show that ran on TV 20 years ago.  Stuff I say in these blog posts? I might be remembering stuff not-exactly from the episode. oops.

 

And as per my usual, it’s the throw away lines that make the biggest impression on me. And a few other things that made me chuckle.

 

The first two episodes of season three are a two parter, “The Search Part I”, and “The Search, Part II”.  There is an obvious threat on the other side of the wormhole, the Dominion.  It’s decided that the best way to avoid all out war with The Dominion is to locate the founders of that civilization, and convince them that The Federation isn’t a threat. We’re friendly! We like to trade! We just want to be friends! We come in peace!

 

At the opening of the episode, Sisko introduces around a new Federation security officer, to the bristleling of Odo. He feels he’s being pushed out, fired, betrayed, and he is mad AF. That isn’t exactly what’s happening? But? The Federation likes team players, they like people who “think like them”, and well, Odo isn’t, and doesn’t. It’s a very subtle “fit in or fuck off”. And boy is Odo pissed off!!  I’m on his side here, especially when the new Federation security officer starts flirting with Odo’s BFF Kira.  You know, it’s not like Odo had much of a choice. The Federation showed up, took over his space station, offered him a job one day, and he said “ok”. Sisko treats Odo with respect, but the rest of the Federation doesn’t. Those jerks.

 

Because Quark has previously done some profitable trade with a few Gamma Quandrant families, he’s brought along on the Gamma Quandrant “Find the Founders!” mission as a sort-of-trade-negotiator.  So, it’s Sisko, Dax, Odo, Kira, Quark, and maybe Bashir goes too? I don’t remember, it’s been a few days since I watched the episodes.   It’s sort of “who cares” who goes on the away mission, because apparently everything in the Gamma Quandrant is only 3 hours away from the wormhole, and the really important thing is that Odo feels drawn towards a certain nebula.

 

Odo ends up stealing a shuttle (dude. That “not a team player thing”? You just proved the Federation’s point!), and he and Kira explore the nebula and find a rogue planet, and land the shuttle.  Of course they can breathe the air on some rando planet! Where do you think this is, southern California?    They are able to land on the planet, and come across an ocean of . . .  goo?

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Someone on twitter (thank you, whoever you were!)  recommended Vandana Singh’s short story “Ambiguity Machines: An Examination”, and offered a link to the story on Tor.com.  I gave it a whirl, and was immediately hooked. In reminded me of Ken Liu’s short story “The Bookmaking Habits of Select Species”, and I recognized my favorite method of story telling, which at first glance can seem to be stories that dance around a plot and characters while resolutely refusing to be trapped by said plot. And yet, so much is communicated about what is happening and sometimes why those thing happen, and what those things mean to the people they are happening to.

 

I guess it’s more like a fantastical story telling version of future archaeology?

 

Let me unpack that a little.

 

In Liu’s short story, there is no plot, there is no characters, there is no conflict. If you’re zipping through the story, you won’t recognize the beginning, middle, or end, but if you read a little closer, it’s all there. It’s just a story that gives a few paragraphs about a bunch of space-faring alien civilizations, and how they make books – how they ensure others can access their stories and their thoughts.  Within the story, there are no human interactions with the aliens, no earthly judgements of  their societies. It is as if to put a human character in would a barrier between the reader and the records of these cultures.    Singh’s “Ambiguity Machine’s” felt like that too – no barrier between the records of events and the reader, no “main character” to pass judgement or offer opinions,  just records of what had happened, along with a request that someone interpret the records.

 

For my brain, these two stories, read 8 years apart from each other, were like hearing two pieces of music that were different, but seemed to be talking to each other, even though they had never met. (yes, I know I’m weird) (and i don’t know, maybe Signh and Lui are good friends? I have no idea)

 

Suffice to say, after reading Signh’s story,  I immediately ordered a paperback copy of her collection, Ambiguity Machines and Other Select Stories. And when the book arrived, the first words out of my mouth were “oh, shit”.

 

 

You see, I like to read before bed.  Usually, i’m already half asleep when I crawl into bed, so I’m looking to read something that if I find myself reading the same paragraph 5 times, or fall asleep halfway through, it won’t matter too much.   A short-ish story, something 5-10 pages, out of an anthology or collection is perfect for this.

 

None of the stories in the Singh collection were short, and none of them looked like “easy reads”. As I got further into the collection I realized these were not stories to drift away to, while falling asleep at night, these were stories to read in the morning, with strong coffee, and to spend the day absorbing and thinking about them, so as to then dream about them at night.

 

Everything I have read so far in this collection has been heart achingly beautiful,  each story requiring me some time afterwards to come back to myself. These stories are vistas.

 

(I feel really bad for whatever I read next. No matter how good it is, I fear it will be mediocre in comparison to this collection)

 

I’m going to tell you about “Ambiguity Machines: An Examination”, and about “Somadeva: A Sky River Sutra”,  even though I have more favorites.  Those others will have to wait for another blog post, I supposed.   “Ambiguity Machines” had me globetrotting via googlemaps, and “Somadeva” had me falling down the world’s best internet rabbit hole.

 

Ambiguity Machines was original published at tor.com in 2015, here’s the link:

https://www.tor.com/2015/04/29/ambiguity-machines-an-examination-vandana-singh/

Somadeva: A Sky River Sutra was originally published in 2010 at Strange Horizons, here’s the link:

http://strangehorizons.com/fiction/somadeva-a-sky-river-sutra/

 

warning, if I interpreted something correctly, there are major spoilers ahead for “Ambiguity Machines: An Examination”, and I guess maybe spoilers also for Somadeva? so hey, click on those links and enjoy some gorgeous fiction before reading the rest of this blog post.  😉

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I’ve been dipping my toes into Made to Order: Robots and Revolution, edited by Jonathan Strahan.   The cover led me to believe this is all robot stories, but what I found was more a spectrum of cyborg, to disembodied AIs, to actual robots.  As with all anthologies, some stories are forgettable, and some shine like supernovas.

 

I’ve not read everything in the antho yet, and maybe I never will.

 

But here are some stories that have already made an impression on me.

 

The Hurt Pattern, by Tochi Onyebuchi – What is this doing in a fiction anthology? Other than the “connect yourself to your computer at work, and then literally unplug”, the rest of this sure doesn’t feel like fiction.  To pay off his student loans, Kenny gets a job sorting data. Obvs, his job is more complicated than that, but he’s good at the work, and he makes friends. He makes some dangerous connections involving why certain cities are more violent than others, and how the uptick in violence is connected to, well, that’s spoiler territory. This story gonna make you mad.

 

Brother Rifle, by Daryl Gregory – A Marine suffering from PTSD alongside his traumatic brain injury. He doesn’t understand how this therapy is supposed to work, and worse, he feels like he is imposing on his family.  How exactly, is this implant supposed to safely let him start feeling emotions again? What’s the deal with the patterns on the cards? What’s the difference between a robot and someone who lost all emotion through a brain injury and now has no power of attorney over their own self? Story is a bit of a slow burn, that kind where you think you know where it’s going, and then that last scene hits you like a ton of bricks. Lots in this story hit close to home for me – how mental illness and PTSD is handled, how we expect people to magically get better after a few months of therapy. If i read this again, i’m gonna cry.

 

Bigger Fish, by Sarah Pinsker – quite the comfort read, which was sorely needed. A private detective is hired to investigate the death of a “gazillionaire water tycoon”. The man was home alone, with only his personal robots. This was a nostalgic Asimov-esque I Robot style story – obviously the robots killed the guy, but how to prove it, when a robot can’t harm a person? When you’re ready for a unicorn chaser, read this story.

 

A Guide for Working Breeds, by Vina Jae-Min Prasad –  super cute story, told entirely through online messages between two robots who become friends through a mentorship program.  They have drastically different personalities, so it’s super adorable when the “killer” starts buying gifts  for the young upstart. Sometimes even a teacher can learn a thing or two. This story is the perfect one to open the anthology – it is bright, optimistic, and laugh out loud adorable.  Maybe it’s because one of the ‘bots mentions dogs right at the beginning, That i couldn’t help but view both of these characters as robotic dogs, the young one as a cheerful, floppy eared puppy, and the older one one as a grizzled guard dog.

 

Fairy Tales for Robots by Sofia Samatar – just an absolutely beautiful story. As the protagonist spends one entire night telling fairy tales to her sleeping robot, she realizes how much fairy tales maybe do belong to robots, what with all the sleeping without dying, and the constant drudgery, and the ability to eat something poisonous and not die, and the oddities of how fairy tales allow characters to do superhuman things. We learn a few things about the narrator, how she sees herself compared to how the world sees her. And why shouldn’t robot children be told stories about impossible things? This story  is buried in the back of the anthology. My advice is that you read it first.

 

I like this idea of there being a spectrum between human and robot. Does a pacemaker make you a cyborg? What if you have a steel pin in your leg? How about an artificial limb, or a wheelchair that moves based on your brain waves?

 

Based on the cover art, I was worried this anthology was going to be “Robot Adventures!”, luckily, it isn’t. It’s mostly about humans who are on the cusp of something, and choosing to deal with those feelings, or suppress them.


Machine’s Last Testament by Benjanun Sriduangkaew

published May 2020

where I got it: received eArc (thanks!!)

 

 

Generations ago, humanity created an AI to help us become better people. We wanted to be more compassionate, less violent, we wanted to be better versions of ourselves, and we thought an AI could help us do that.

 

What could possibly go wrong?

 

At some point in the past, and for some reason, we abandoned the AI on a planet, while we explored the universe. Did the AI need to mature? Did we?

 

TL;DR:

  • AI who loves humanity, what could possibly go wrong? Check.
  • Stylish lesbians? Check
  • Some hot sexytimes? Check
  • Secret identities? Check
  • Subtexts on maturity and transcending our regrets? check.

 

While we colonized, warred, survived, and lived lives scattered across the stars, the lonesome AI named itself Samsara grew into her programming, and came to find us in our colonies in the dark skies.  Where the Samsara found us, it maimed and destroyed, allowing a small portion of refugees to come live on its planet, Anatta.  Warlords and Empires fell before Samsara.

 

Immigrants who behave become citizens, with all that the status of citizen offers.

 

Citizens who misbehave risk losing their citizenship and being sent back to the refugee camps, or worse, being sent to an off-planet refugee work camp.  Samsara, the all seeing AI knows everything about you, where you live, where you work, what you ate for breakfast, who you socialize with, how long you lingered somewhere.  Your thoughts are private, between you and Samsara.  You believe everything you see on television when you live on Anatta, because to do otherwise is to fight an all-powerful AI who is holding your citizenship hostage.

 

Suzhen Tang works at the Selection Bureau, her job is selecting potential future citizens out of the waves and waves of filthy starving refugees.  And like in C.S.E. Cooney’s Twice Drowned Saint, these people are desperate and will do anything and say anything to get into the famed cities of Anatta.

 

If only they knew.

 

As the story first unfolded, I thought Suzhen was boring. I wasn’t sure what to make of her. Well, she’s not boring, she’s careful.  If Samsara were to find out who Suzhen’s parents are, she’d surely be arrested and pulled in for questioning.  Suzhen’s armor is her silence. For her safety, she wears the mask of a shy introvert who has no hobbies. She takes no risk that she might tell her secrets to a friend or a lover.  The few people she socializes with, she won’t even tell them that she was once a refugee too, although I’m sure Taheen guessed ages ago.

 

Ovuha is a refugee, and Suzhen finds herself drawn to this tall, well spoken woman, and grants her probationary, barely potential citizenship.  Regardless of her  Ovuha will have to prove she is worthy.

 

This is where I’m gonna stop telling you about the plot, and tell you all the things I loved about this novella, and the one thing I wish had been different in it.  The plot is fucking fantastic, by the way. But you know me, i gotta talk about all the other stuff instead.

 

First off, the language, oh dear God the prose!  Please let me grow up to be an audiobook narrator so I can read this entire novella out loud! (hmm. . . i do have a voice recorder on my phone…. ) Sriduangkaew does this a lot – these gems of words that are placed just right and phrases are just barely flirting with meter, it’s like walking through prisms of agate and watching the light fragment into all it’s colors, and you just want to fall into it all. Let me try to explain in a way that makes sense – if you read This is How You Lose The Time War and thought to yourself “this language is beautiful, but this plot is I dunno?”, and you wanted to get you a novella that can do both, Machine’s Last Testament is that novella.

 

Yeah, so I have a total fan-girl crush her writing style, ok?

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If you’ve been following this blog for a while, and if you follow me on twitter, you know that I love to cook.   One of my favorite food websites has long been Serious Eats, home of recipes, knife skills videos, How-To’s, podcasts, and all sorts of “how the heck to make this?” info.   Since I’ve been following Serious Eats for ages, I’ve also been following J. Kenji López-Alt for ages, everything from how to make perfect hard boiled eggs, to him showing us how to make Detroit Style Pizza (I love you Buddy’s!),  to his tips for just about everything else, and me drooling over The Food Lab.  Those pickles I never shut up about, and put on everything? They’re based on Kenji’s recipe.

 

J. Kenji López-Alt is currently the Chief Culinary Advisor at Serious Eats, and the chef and partner at Wursthall in San Mateo, California. His first book, The Food Lab, won the James Beard Award for General Cooking.

His newest book, Every Night is Pizza Night, is a children’s book about a little girl who goes on a culinary adventure. Illustrated by Gianna Ruggiero, it comes out on Sept 1st and is currently available for pre-order.  Every Night is Pizza Night promises to get even the pickiest eater excited about trying something new!   You can learn more about Kenji at his website www.kenjilopezalt.com, or by following him on twitter @kenjilopezalt, and you can learn more about illustrator Gianna Ruggiero by checking out her website, www.giannaruggiero.com.

 

(Yes, I know this is a book blog, and I know it is a science fiction and fantasy book blog. But I love cooking just as much as I love reading!  and I love reading about cooking, and I love home made pizza, and I love pizza from Buddy’s Pizza!)

 

When Kenji posted on twitter that he had a new book coming out, and would any bloggers be interested in interviewing him, I leapt at the chance.  He is a cooking hero of mine.  And that is how an interview with a chef, about a children’s book, showed up on a science fiction and fantasy book blog.

We better get to the interview, before I spend this entire blog post just telling you cool Kenji is.

 

Little Red Reviewer:  You’re a chef, a food columnist, and a kitchen science educator. Why write a kid’s book?

J. Kenji López-Alt: Because I had a daughter! I’ve loved books and especially children’s books for my whole life, and having my own child gave me the kick in the pants I needed to try and write one myself. I wrote the book just for her, but I’m lucky enough to have a wonderful relationship with my editors and publishers at W.W. Norton and now my illustrating partner, Gianna Ruggiero, which allowed me to bring it out into the wider world. It comes out September 1st, but I’ve been reading an advance copy to my daughter now for several months. She loves it and asks me to read it to her regularly, so no matter how well the book does as far as sales go, I feel like I’ve already accomplished my goal in writing it.

LRR:  Where did the idea for Pipo and and her neighborhood-spanning eating adventure come from? What were your inspirations for Pipo’s experiences with her friends?

J.K.L.: As the son of a Japanese mother and American father, now married to a Colombian woman, food diversity and cultural diversity has always played a huge role in my life. I was lucky enough to grow up in a city with immigrants from all over the world. In college, I lived in a house that was around 80% international students, and as I was learning to cook, I took that opportunity to talk to them about food from their homes and learn as much as I could about cuisines from all over the world. I think food is an important window into culture and history, and being open to new food experiences helps people be open to differences in culture and background. It’s a lesson that I think is important for young kids (especially picky eaters), so it seemed like a natural theme for me to explore. The shape of the story and her neighborhood was a total collaboration between me and my partner Gianna. We both grew up in multicultural cities, and I think Gianna’s illustrations of the neighborhood are incredible. I knew from the start that I wanted Pipo to learn about foods from all over the world, but the idea to contain it all within a single neighborhood came from me and Gianna’s collective experiences growing up.

LRR: What was it like to work with illustrator Gianna Ruggiero? How did the two of you work together to ensure her artwork conveyed the story you were telling? Do you have a favorite image that she created?

J.K.L: The experience was incredible. Gianna has such an imaginative, intelligent, and thoughtful mind and that’s reflected in her illustration style. We found each other via social media, but as soon as I saw her portfolio, I knew that I wanted to work with her. She has the ability to give characters personality and depth without any words at all, and that’s so important in a children’s book. The words and story are important, but equally important is the feelings and ideas that are conveyed outside of the words.

Collaborating so closely with someone on an artistic project was something brand new to me. I’m much more used to working alone and developing my own ideas, whether in writing or cooking or other fields. Learning to trust my partner and being open to outside ideas was essential. At the start, I felt the urge to write the story and describe exactly what I wanted the illustrations on each page to look like, but after talking with other children’s books authors, I realized that this was not the best way to work with an illustrator. Instead, I ended up writing the words, describing the personalities of the characters, then letting Gianna use her own skills to populate the world and bring the story to life. I cannot stress enough how important she was to the whole process. This is not my book, it’s ours.

LRR: I see Every Night is Pizza Night has a Pizza recipe! So, is that recipe for a New York style slice or a Detroit style square?

J.K.L.: Neither! It’s a pan pizza, which is more similar to a Detroit-style pizza, but it’s done in a round pan (either a cake pan or a cast iron skillet). I think it’s the easiest, most foolproof pizza recipe out there, and one that kids can very easily help out with at all stages of the process. I make it with my daughter regularly.

LRR: How is writing a book for children (and their parents!) different from writing, say, The Food Lab?

J.K.L.: It’s much, much harder! Most professional writers will tell you that hardest part of successful writing is finding your “voice.” The thing that makes your writing distinctly you, and that works for both you and your audience. My food writing voice is something that I’ve been writing in for decades now to the point where it’s second nature. So writing a big book like The Food Lab is a lot of work, but it’s work that flows easily and naturally for me now. Finding my children’s book voice was extremely difficult and time consuming. It involved lots and lots of research (I.E. ordering and reading hundreds of children’s books to see what I liked, what I didn’t, what made me laugh, what themes I connected with, etc.), then lots and lots of writing. For several months I would take my laptop to my restaurant after my daughter went to bed, and just sit and write for a few hours. The original story for Every Night is Pizza Night started at over 10,000 words and went through dozens of stylistic shifts, tonal shifts, changes in voice, and changes in theme until I was satisfied with it.

A lot of the art of editing lies in efficiency – making sure that every word you use expresses meaning in an efficient way. In children’s writing, this is taken to the extreme. You really have to learn to let go and understand that words in children’s books can merely be suggestive, allowing the illustrations and imagination do the work of adding complexity to characters and themes. The other difficult part in children’s book writing is that you need to write a story that works both for children and adults. Children are very sensitive to their parent’s feelings. If I laugh at something, my daughter will laugh at it too, sometimes without even understanding what it is she’s laughing at. If a parent is having fun reading, then their kid is going to be more likely to enjoy it as well. Every Night is Pizza Night has jokes and references in it that I hope work on both levels – for the children and their parents.

LRR: Would you do another children’s book if you had the opportunity? How about another kitchen chemistry book like The Food Lab?

J.K.L.: Absolutely. Writing a children’s book has been extremely rewarding, and it hasn’t even been released yet! I am currently working on a big food science book on cooking in a wok and things related to wok cooking, but after that I plan on focusing my attention on more children’s books. Gianna has some great ideas that we want to work on as well.

LRR: Thank you so much for letting me interview you! Is there anything else you’d like to share about Every Night is Pizza Night?

J.K.L.: Just that I hope you enjoy it, and I hope folks enjoy reading it with their kids and cooking up a storm afterwards.

LRR: Thank you so much! Interviewing you has been a dream come true for me!

The Tyrant Baru Cormorant, by Seth Dickinson (Empire of Masks #3)

published Aug 11, 2020

Where I got it: got an eARC

 

 

Trigger warnings:  Cancer. Body horror.  Asymptomatic, highly infectious, and deadly diseases.

 

I’ve never put a trigger warning on a review before. But then again, I’ve never read a book like this before.  Also? This review rambles all over the place and is way, way too long. #sorrynotsorry.

 

I’m always wary of books that are described as “ambitious”.  It’s an unfair bias of mine, I know, but I see “ambitious”, and I think “that author bit off more than they could chew”.  Takes one to know one, my favorite hobby is biting off more than I can chew, so I get the allure, trust me.

 

The Tyrant Baru Cormorant?  Oh yeah, this whole series is the definition of “ambitious”, and thankfully not my definition.   So often, the tag of “ambitious” leads to me being disappointed. Not this time!  This series covers imperialism, colonialism,  extortion and blackmail, nature vs nurture,  multiple solutions to the same problem,  advanced medical procedures (and, um, weaponized diseases), so much manipulation, and the kind of enforced cultural norms that makes 1984 or Brave New World look like a saturday morning kids cartoon.  Yes, it’s ambitious to the teeth, and yes Dickinson succeeds.

 

I’ve not been able to shut up about Baru Cormorant for the last few years. I love what this story says about societies and cultures, how to destroy them and how to keep them safe.  I love that while the story is about Baru, she’s not the center of the story (even though she thinks she is). I love that this series is bigger than just her, it’s bigger than what she knows.  To steal from Dark, what she knows is a drop, what she doesn’t know is an ocean.

 

It would take me a year to explain everything that’s going on in this book, and as it’s the third in a series, this is literally a volume in which everything comes together,  alliances are redefined to expose empire-destroying secrets, entire continents are brought into world-spanning negotiations, diseases and cures are bargained for, and a truly glorious long game comes to fruition.    There is seriously about five series worth of characters, ideas, and material crammed into three books, and it works.

 

Sorry, I’m gonna be spoiling books one and two.  But the spoilers? Believe it or not, they don’t matter.  It’s the pure gorgeousness of the prose, the characters, the depth of all the shit that is going on, that is what’s gonna knock your socks off of this series.  Doesn’t matter if i tell you the plot spoilers, because that isn’t going to spoil the best stuff, trust me.

 

Alright, so a super fast sum-up, because there is too much to explain.  When the Empire of Masks came to Baru’s blissful village, they brought coin, trade, schools, vaccines, and their definition of cleanliness. A savant of sorts, Baru was chosen to attend their schools and take their exams.  When the Empire destroys her family, she vows to destroy them, from the inside out.     First step to destroying the Empire to pass their stupid test, and work her way up the ladder in their bureaucracy. Passing the test was easy.  Crashing the currency of Aurdwynn was easy.  Earning the trust of her allies? Understanding the family entanglements and regional relationships in Aurdwynn? Knowing who she can trust? Not so much.

 

(reading reviews, as opposed to my half-assed summaries more your thing? No problem. link to:  Review of book #1, The Traitor Baru Cormorant and review of book #2 The Monster Baru Cormorant)

 

Also? It’s really easy to be both naive and drunk on power when you’re like nineteen years old and have a  handler who constantly tells you how smart and how wonderful and how special you are.

 

In the ensuing invasion, Baru suffers a traumatic brain injury, permanently affecting her vision and perception.  There’s way more trauma to come, by the way, which we won’t talk about because spoilers.

 

In the second book, after “passing a test”, Baru is “gifted” with being taken back to the Imperial capital, Falcrest. As the only hostage-less cryptarch, no one quite knows what to do with her.  Yes, people had issues with the middle book, The Monster Baru Cormorant, and I understand those complaints. It’s very much a “middle book”, Baru doesn’t seem to know who she is,  she seems be pushed around more than usual,  etc.   I chose to view what she was doing as she was learning how the empire works, learning how the game of the larger world works,  trying to avoid the murderous gaze of Xate Yawa,  maybe starting to understand “the Farrier process”, and oh yeah, trying to recover from a brain injury, all at the same time.   I had a lot of sympathy for her, ok? And stop paying attention to what isn’t happening and start paying attention to what is happening. All that stuff with the Mbo Federal Princes? Pay attention, because that’s the important stuff.

 

Ok, all caught up?

 

Getting into the third book, what struck me as funny, was how small the Empire of Masks is on an actual map of the known world.   Like, they see themselves as the best, biggest, baddest,  bestest thing in the world, and the rest of the world is like “who are you again? Should I know you?”

 

This final book in the series has a ton of flashbacks. Not flashbacks of Baru’s youth, but flashbacks of Tau Indi’s youth, when Tau was just learning how to be a Federal Prince, alongside their best friends Kindala and Abdumasi, and what exactly happened that year that Cosgrad and Cardine spent with them. It was a year of jealousy and unspoken feelings, and Tau felt left behind when Abdu and Kindala decided what they needed to do, and didn’t discuss their decisions with Tau, who is convinced all can be solved through through the Mbo concept of trim.  Kindala and Abdu come up with their own solutions, solutions they don’t feel they can share with Tau.   (all the flashbacks make books 2 and 3 feel like one long book. I highly suggest binge reading this series so you can experience is as one long story, instead of three novels)

 

Meanwhile, in the now, Baru still has grand plans to destroy the empire from the inside. Her private polestar is “What would Tain Hu do?”,  and thinking about Tain Hu’s moral code keeps Baru in check, and helps her make better decisions.     Oh, and she found the Cancrioth, and the biological weapon that keeps the secret safe.

Read the rest of this entry »

Hey!  I was on a YouTube!  I moderated the Apex Magazine Q&A with the Editors.  Here’s a link to the Youtube!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kOoYzqcy4MM

 

The Q and A is with editors Jason Sizemore, Lesley Conner, Maurice Broaddus, and Shana DuBois. We got tons of cool questions, including questions about the financial dangers of putting fiction online for free, is funding through Kickstarter sustainable, what is the editor’s and slush readers process, what was Maurice’s vision for the Afrofuturism issue,  why is the magazine switching to 6 issues per year instead of 12, and more.  We had some technical issues with the Livestream, but the evening was a ton of fun, and now the video is on Youtube, forever!

oh, have you backed the Apex Mag kickstarter yet?

I am really excited for that Special Indigenous & Native Fantasists issue, I hope we get it!

 

sneak peak of the video:

oh, didn’t I mention? my big hair, Totoro, and some of my dinosaurs made a cameo.

 

I’ve done youtube chats, and podcasts, but the amount of backchannel chatter happening in something like this, it was unreal! and by unreal, what I mean was it was a thrill! all the behind the scenes stuff (that you don’t see!) gave me so much nostalgia of when I was a back stage theater kid in high school.  We knew what was happening on stage, on both wings, in the back, behind the scrim, up in the spot booth, at the board, everywhere.

SO FUN!!!!

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some of the books reviewed here were free ARCs supplied by publishers/authors/other groups. Some of the books here I got from the library. the rest I *gasp!* actually paid for. I'll do my best to let you know what's what.