the Little Red Reviewer

Archive for February 2021

Much thanks to Annorlunda Books for providing an ARC of Lagoonfire by Francesca Forrest, out March 3, 2021.  You can read my interview with Francesca Forrest here

 

On the surface, Lagoonfire is a mystery starring an investigator whose best friends are retired gods. 

 

And underneath that first mystery was a garden that unfurled into verdant blossoms, as an entire world unfolded in front of me.  One of the many things I loved about Lagoonfire is how it felt like opening my eyes.  You know how you feel when you walk into a bookstore, or a library, or a museum you’ve never been in before and your face just lights up? Yeah, Lagoonfire feels like that.

 

Hmmm . . .  now that I really think about it, Lagoonfire isn’t a mystery. 

 

It’s about how the stories we tell shape us and our world and our beliefs. It’s about how the people we love will lie to us, to protect us. It’s about how love makes us selfish.  It’s about how easily the present can erase the past, if we let it. And we always let it.  It’s about how if we tell ourselves a story enough times, it becomes our truth, and a fact, and how facts are not always the truth, just the version of history we were convinced of, so we live as if the story was real, because that’s easier/safer than the alternative.  I really love stories like this, and I love how Forrest tells this story.

 

The sequel to Forrest’s 2018 novella The Inconvenient God, Lagoonfire works perfectly well as a stand alone. That said, The Inconvenient God (read my review) is an absolute treat, and absolutely worth reading, and worth reading first, because Lagoonfire has so many big reveals.

Lagoonfire was so good, it took me a few hours to come back to myself after I’d finished reading it. It took me a few hours to remember how to form words into sentences.  (Books literally floor me, ok?)

 

Decommissioner Thirty-Seven prefers that people call her by her formal title, not her real name. Her friends know her name of course, but she cringes when they use it.  If she has to, she’ll allow people to call her by her childhood nickname, Sweeting. 

 

She’s worked at The Polity’s Ministry of Divinities most of her adult life, and I should be very clear about what her profession entails. As a decommissioner, her job is is literally decommission, or “retire”, deities.  They become mortal, to then live out a regular mortal lifespan, and then die.  Gods no longer worshipped become truly forgotten. In the name of unity and progress,  the Polity has the ability to give mere mortals power over any god who roams the earth, as prayers to a multitude of local harvest gods and goddesses now become shiny modern devotions to the Abstraction of the Harvest.  The Polity views this as bringing harmony and equality to all. And should you forget that harmony and prioritizing the common good are virtues, the Polity’s job is to ensure that you remember.

 

The story opens with a freak flood at a new shoreline construction project. Decommissioner Thirty-Seven is asked to check in on her friend Laloran-Morna and make sure he wasn’t responsible.  He’s not just a retired guy that she’s friends with, Laloran-Morna was an ocean god that she decommissioned, she botched the job, and they became friends afterwards (long story).  And how could he be responsible?  Laloran-Morna lives in a 4th floor apartment, requires nearly 24 hour home care, and is practically on his death bed.  There’s no possible way he can make it to the seashore, so he asks Sweeting to go to the shore to pray in his place, to his lost lover.

 

Why does Sweeting seem okay working for The Polity? They seem authoritarian and kinda horrible!

 

Why do these retired gods seem okay with being mortal, and no longer having worshippers?

 

Why doesn’t Sweeting want anyone to know her real name?

 

If you’ve ever read a Francesca Forrest, you’ll know that what the story is “about” isn’t what the story is about. 

 

What if you were the god of a particular place, and that place no longer existed?

 

Calling Lagoonfire a mystery is like calling Buckinham Palace a building. Like, yes, it is a building, but it’s so much more than a building! 

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I love absurdity.  A flying angry bear,  talking animals, weird creatures, intelligent fungi, guns that shoot bears (the bullets are bears. Live bears come out of the gun when you pull the trigger!). Absurdity, I say bring it!

 

I’d been hearing about Vandermeer’s A Peculiar Peril for a while now, and I knew nearly nothing about it. I knew that it had something to do with Thackery T Lambshead, I knew it had Vandermeer’s brand of weirdness, and reading the back cover copy made me laugh out loud, so we were off to a good start!  If you mashed up Mieville’s Perdido Street Station with a Neil Gaiman,  you might end up with something on the same plane as A Peculiar Peril.  

The book has an wryly funny, if tragic beginning.  Young Jonathan Lambshead is officially now an orphan. His mother disappeared in the Alps and is presumed dead, and his grandfather Dr. Lambshead has passed away. The novel opens with Jonathan arriving at his grandfather’s mansion and no one is there to greet him.  Through letters and a phone call (delivered through a phone that isn’t plugged in), Jonathan learns that if he can only organize and catalog his grandfather’s collectables, he will inherit all!  Well, It’s a good thing Jonathan invited his best friends Rack and Danny to help him. (Rack and Danny are brother and sister, “Danny” is short for Danielle, “Rack” is short for something much longer)

 

If you thought this was to be another adventure through Dr Thackery T Lambshead’s Cabinet of Curiosities. . . you’d be wrong. But that’s ok!   By way of a strange map, an even stranger marmot, and yet stranger doors that go elsewhere, Jonathan, Rack, and Danny find themselves in an alternate Earth called Aurora, where Napoleon is a literal talking head,  Aleister Crowley hasn’t realized he’s not in control, monsters abound, animals talk, shadows do as they please, and thanks to one particular bridge, you’ll be scared of puffins for the rest of your life. 

 

All Jonathan wants is to understand what the hell is going on.  Why does he need to find the Golden Sphere? What is he supposed to do when he finds it? Why do people seem to talk in code whenever he’s around? Is Danny hiding something from him? What the heck is the Chateau Peppermint Blonkers (I LOVE that absurd name, don’t you?), and who can he trust? 

 

This book truly is absurdity piled on top of absurdity, and mostly in a good way. Let’s start with Aleister Crowley, because this poor guy is just so apeshit cray cray.  Vandermeer’s Crowley rules Aurora with an iron fist, a creeptastic familiar named Wretch, and increasingly nonsensical pronouncements involving household trash and rabid animals. Or well, Crowley thinks he runs the show, but as the story progresses we learn more about how Wretch is, well, keeping Crowley under control. One of Crowley’s advisors is Napoleon’s head. Just his head. And when Napoleon gets to chatty, Crowley puts him up on a tall pedestal where no one can see or hear him. There’s also a mechanical elephant with an escape hatch under its tail, involving a conversation that screams to be read out loud in your best Monty Python voice. 

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much thanks to Erewhon Books for providing an ARC!

 

 

The opening pages of On Fragile Waves includes a short visual poem.  

 

At first, I was worried, was the whole book going to be poetry of this style? Because while I respect poetry, I’m not so good at “getting it”.

 

Ah, but this particular visual poem!  As it tap-danced across the page, I “got it”! And in a way, I hoped the entire book would be like this.  

 

The entire book is, and isn’t, like those opening pages.   That opening poem gives sound and texture and context to a small family,  two parents who first have a daughter, and then a son, and then the relief that the war is finally over.  

 

The rest of the book is them realizing they were wrong, and that the only way to escape war is to escape Afghanistan.

 

You know how poetry can by design feel a bit detached, in a good way?  Because words or meter or space is in someway constrained, the poet only puts in what is most important.  Emotion gets put in over exposition, experience gets put in over worldbuilding. Gut punches get put in over grammar.  On Fragile Waves isn’t weighed down by the ornaments of expected story telling grammar, the open and close-quotes around dialog, the verbs that give rise to how the person spoke those words. Yes, they are ornaments that are designed to, among other things, add characterization and impact to dialog, and yes, without them the dialog can float like dreamy clouds.   The only punctuation in On Fragile Waves is the bare minimum necessary to get the story across.  

 

When I’ve come across stories with the bare minimum of punctuation, the bare minimum of worldbuilding, first of all I tend to really like it, and second I tend to wonder what were these characters going through that all they had was the bare minimum? Were they exhausted? Hungry? Terrified of being noticed?   Obviously, writing prose in this manner is nothing more than a deliberate choice the author makes, knowing they’ll just need to do other things to make sure it’s clear who is speaking, and to help the reader get to know the characters better. In a way, writing like this is like writing a huge prose poem – because of preset constraints, you have to remove things that aren’t necessary. 

 

I think readers will either love Yu’s style, or be very turned off by it. 

 

I loved it on the first page, and I was weeping by the end. I found Yu’s writing style, and the story that she told to be very, very effective.   There’s hardly any worldbuilding or visual descriptions in this book, yet I could see everything, I could hear the storms, I could see the fear on people’s faces.  There’s hardly any overt characterization, yet I knew Nour’s yearning to play with other kids, I heard everything their father wasn’t saying.  

On Fragile Waves is a masterwork of negative space,  of using only a few words to communicate everything.  When I find myself unable to express my feelings, I tend to complain that English is worthless, because words aren’t the language that works for what I want to communicate. I have so much in me, and using English means I have to crush all those things into boxy words that don’t mean what I’m trying to say, and so often, in the end, I end up saying nothing, and having people describe me as “quiet”.  In On Fragile Waves,  Yu showed me there is a way to say what I’m feeling, it is possible!  Huh.  sounds like I need to find all the authors that write with minimum punctuation, and read them. Looks like this writing style really, really speaks to me!

 

Most of the story is told by Firuzeh, who I think is around 8 years old at the beginning of the story, and maybe around 10 or 11 by the end. And what’s fascinating about telling most of the chapters from her point of view is that all the adults know what’s going on, and some of them speak quite plainly. And she has absolutely no idea what’s going on. Her younger brother, Nour understands even less.  Her lack of understanding is partly that her parents are trying to shield their children from the horrors of war, and partly because she’s only nine years old!

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holy crap, how are we already into February? how did that even happen?

anyways, February is looking hella fun for me.  and since there’s no possible way I can get through all of this in one month, likely I’ll still be reading and talking about these books in March . . . and maybe April too.

Here’s what my February looks like:

I’ve got some #VintageSciFi posts I still want to write

I read E. Lily Yu’s On Fragile Waves, and cried buckets. need to write a review. This book came out this week, so yeah, I really need to get that review written!

Am currently reading Jeff Vandermeer’s A Peculiar Peril (thanks public Library!), and Clelia Farris’s collection Creative Surgery.  I’m nearly finished with Creative Surgery, so hope to review that one soon. Peculiar Peril is a freakin’ doorstopper, so it’s gonna be a while. Peculiar Peril is gloriously absurd, it’s sort of like if Neil Gaiman wrote China Mieville’s Un Lun Dun? but crank the absurdity up to like 500, and then make it funny in certain spots and terrifying in other spots.

I also got Black Sun by Rebecca Roanhorse from the library, so need to start that soon, or renew it.

Francesca Forrest’s Lagoonfire (sequel to The Inconvenient God) comes out in early March and I want to read it RIGHT NOW because I’ve loved everything I’ve read by her. This is likely my next read once I finish Creative Surgery.

EPIC WIN, I scored an ARC of Nicole Kornher-Stace’s Jillian vs. Parasite Planet, which I also can’t wait to get to, because I love everything she writes.  This one doesn’t hit bookstore shelves until July so I guess I could wait a month or two to read it. My husband loves her work too, so there’s a good chance he’ll get to read this book before I do! Not fair! but, actually pretty fair.

I also got a nonfiction business/leadership book, Radical Candor from the library, it was recommended by a very close friend of mine.  Lots of good communication / management advice, plus it has swear words which makes me giggle. I love that the author is comfortable talking about her own failures.  Business books that are all “everything i do is perfect and gold, I have only ever have successes!” make me super suspicious, because no one is perfect, and the way we learn is by making mistakes.  The weirdest part about #adulting so far – suddenly finding myself excited about reading management / leadership books, and talking to my friends about them and my friends being excited to talk to me about their favorite titles. weird AF.

 

and lots of that reading will likely get derailed because:

I’m starting season four of Deep Space Nine

and

I’ve been working on this during the weekends.  (Link will take you to a twitter thread, you shouldn’t need a twitter account to view the thread)

Also? I’m feeling the itch for another book cull.  If you live in the US and you want a random package of 2-4 absolutely random books,  find a way to privately send me your mailing address (don’t put it in the comments where everyone can see!) and I’ll mail you a surprise bundle. This offer is good until I run out of lonely books on my bookshelves that need a loving home.

Edited to add:  Realizing many of you may have no idea how to privately contact me directly, here’s my email address:  redhead5318@gmail.com.   When I’m done with this giveaway, I’ll remove my address from this post.

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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.