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Sunday, July 26, 2015

Mat Johnson: "Loving Day"

Author:  Mat Johnson  
Title:  Loving Day 
Ratings:  Violence3; Sensuality4; Humor—3   
Publisher:  Spiegel & Grau (Random House) (5/2015)

                    PUBLISHER'S BLURB                    

     Warren Duffy has returned to America for all the worst reasons: His marriage to a beautiful Welsh woman has come apart; his comics shop in Cardiff has failed; and his Irish American father has died, bequeathing to Warren his last possession, a roofless, half-renovated mansion in the heart of black Philadelphia. 

     On his first night in his new home, Warren spies two figures outside in the grass. When he screws up the nerve to confront them, they disappear. The next day he encounters ghosts of a different kind: In the face of a teenage girl he meets at a comics convention he sees the mingled features of his white father and his black mother, both now dead. The girl, Tal, is his daughter, and she's been raised to think she's white. 


     
Spinning from these revelations, Warren sets off to remake his life with a reluctant daughter he’s never known, in a haunted house with a history he knows too well. In their search for a new life, he and Tal struggle with ghosts, fall in with a Utopian mixed-race cult, and ignite a riot on Loving Day, the unsung holiday for interracial lovers.


                    MY REVIEW                    

     Mat Johnson, son of an African American mother and an Irish American father, writes this novel as a semi-autobiographical metaphor about race and identity in America. The book's title comes from an unofficial holiday commemorating the Supreme Court's 1967 ruling in Loving v. Virginia that struck down all laws banning interracial marriage in America. In the book, the protagonist compares the celebration to a "Mulatto Christmas." In an interview on NPR's "Fresh Air," Johnson explains that one reason he wrote the book was because he was tired of constantly having to explain himself—his identity, his race, his ethnicity—to people. "I am tired of talking about this. It really feels like I'm walking around all day with an ink stain in my breast pocket. You know? That ink stain might be four years old, but every time I walk down the hall, somebody's like, hey, you know, you got an ink stain in your pocket. It's...unbelievably exhausting. So...this book is being born today...But for me, it's the funeral for this book, and it's the funeral for having to talk about these issues...I needed to say them. I needed to get them all out on paper, but I don't need to keep them with me forever...I want to put them in the pages of the book, close the book, and keep it...at your local library where I don't have to carry this stuff anymore." In Loving Day, Johnson's protagonist, Warren Duffy, calls himself "a racial optical illusion…black, with an asterisk. The asterisk is my whole body." Later he refers to himself as an "Afro-Celt. Not even half of the right kind of honky."

     As the story opens, Warren has just returned to Philadelphia feeling like his life has been a succession of failures: his broken marriage, his sputtering career as an "inept" comic book artist, his lack of money, and now the inheritance left to him by his recently deceased father—a dilapidated, roofless monstrosity of a house: "In the ghetto there is a mansion, and it is my father's house. It sits on seven acres, surrounded by growling row homes, frozen in an architectural class war. Its expansive lawn is utterly useless, wild like it smokes its own grass and dreams of being a jungle…This house is a job for a legion, not one person. It would kill one person. It did—my father. I am one person now. My father's house is on me I see it from the back of the cab, up on its hill, rotting." Warren views it as "Sisyphus's boulder, just with doors and beams" and immediately decides that he will probably burn it down for the insurance money.

     As if the horrific house were not enough on its own, Warren soon realizes that it is haunted by the ghosts of a man and a woman: The man is "bald, black, ageless, clothes without distinction in the gloom." The woman is "clothed in a dirty gown, the lingerie of a drug-addled seductress. She's a white woman, gaunt cheeks like bones around the dark hollows of her eye sockets." The ghosts begin "staring at the house, walking backward. Away from me. Until they reach the fence to the street and float up, and over." Warren soon convinces himself that these were actually real people, probably crackheads from the neighborhood who broke into the house, but the ghosts return from time to time, and their presence brings about some major changes in his life. 

     The issue of racial identity is introduced early on at a comics convention when Warren finds himself and several black illustrators relegated to the "Urban" section—in the corner of the convention room back by the exit. In order to blend in with and be accepted by his black colleagues, he lets "my black voice come out, to compensate for my ambiguous appearance. Let the bass take over my tongue. Let the South of Mom's ancestry inform the rhythm of my words in a way few white men could pull off." It is at this convention that Warren is confronted by Tal, a teen-age girl, and her grandfather. When he looks into Tal's face, "I see my dad…And then I see my mom…I see my mother, and her mother, Gramma Jones, and Aunt Katie. Faces I thought were gone from existence, they are right in front of me. Jumbled all together in this tan Jewish girl…" Yes, Tal is Warren's daughter, the product of a clumsy sexual escapade when he was just sixteen. 

     Soon enough, Tal moves into the mansion with Warren, and he tries to find her a school that will enhance her perceptions of her new-to-her black heritage. She isn't thrilled about her father's ethnicity: "I thought you would be Israeli or something. I hate rap music…I guess I'm going to have to start using hot sauce on all my food now." Warren awkwardly tries to reassure her: "There's Team White, and there's Team Black, okay? You probably didn't even know you were on Team White before, most of Team White's members never do. They just think they're 'normal.' But if you're black, and you go with Team White, that makes you a sellout. A traitor. And plus you'll never be accepted as a full member if they know the truth about you. It's all good though. Because there's Team Black where, okay, you may have to work sometimes to be accepted if you look like us, but your membership is clearly stated. In the bylaws."

     Johnson is brilliant in his satirization of the search for schools, first trying an Afrocentric charter school that emphasizes all things African, from languages to dances to clothing. Then, they try the Mélange Center, a mixed-race community organization that is squatting in a municipal park, and which embraces and advocates balance between both races that make up a biracial person's genetic heritage. In order to be accepted as a teacher at the school (in exchange for Tal's tuition fees), Warren has to take a test with questions like "Was O.J. Simpson guilty?" and "What are your feelings about mayonnaise?"

     In his own mind, Warren labels the Mélange group "Mulattopians," and he is stunned to find that one of their teachers is Sunita (Sun) Habersham, the mixed-race woman who challenged him during his panel presentation at the comics convention. From the audience, Sun loudly questioned why Warren had adopted only his black identity, and she denounced him as a sunflower ("yellow on the outside, brown on the inside. A slang term for a biracial person who denies their mixed nature, only recognizing their black identity"; the opposite of an oreo). When Sun sees Warren and Tal at the gates of Mélange, her response is, "Look at that. The world's biggest sunflower has come to bloom." Warren falls for Sun almost immediately, but she keeps him at a distance, and their relationship grows more and more complex as the story plays out.

     Johnson is an adept comic observer, and I found myself chuckling at his frequent sardonic observations. Here, he describes the appearance of the family lawyer: "Sirleaf Day is carpeted in cloth. He's got a Kenyan dashiki, Sudanese mud cloth pants, and a little Ghanian kente hat. Its like Africa finally united, but just in his wardrobe….Sirleaf speaks three languages: Street, Caucasian, and Brotherman." 

     Another great line comes late in the book after Warren is shunned by the Mélange community: "The only thing worse than a cult is a cult that won't have you as a member." 

     And then there is Mélange's Loving Day celebration, with zonkey rides (a pony painted with black and white stripes) and a Miss Cegenation Pageant. Both black and white protesters picket the Loving Day celebration. The black contingent—all garbed in black tee shirts and waving black, red, and green balloonsis led by the pretentious principal of the Afrocentric school, who keeps shouting "Umoja!" (the Swahili word for united). The white protesters arrive in buses. Warren muses, "None of the white folks…speak Swahili, I would wager. They probably think it's Zulu for 'Sharia Law.'" Both sides shout their slogans: "'Biracialism buys into racism!' I can hear the black side chanting now. 'Segregation is wrong!' is yelled from the white side, without any hint of irony."

     Johnson's book is a keen-edged, incisive, satirical, frequently hilarious take on race in America. His protagonist, Warren Duffy, is a quick-witted neurotic, cynic whose deadpan commentsboth humorous and moroseare always spot on. Tal is a delight—an appealing but annoying teenager who now has just one more reason to feel alienated from her tribe—if she can ever figure out exactly who/what her tribe is. The secondary characters are over-the-top in their words and actions, particularly the members of the Mélange community. And the house itself is also a spectacular character—a monster representing the ghosts of the past (real ghosts in this case) from which Warren must disengage himself ("to be free of the past in a blaze of glory") if he is to move on with Taland, perhaps, Sunitainto their uncertain future. Click HERE to read an excerpt from Loving Day.

HISTORICAL NOTE: Warren Duffy explains that his falling-down home is actually the Loudoun House, which is an actual mansion in the Germantown section in Philadelphia. Click HERE for more information about the house and its history. 

BIOGRAPHY: Mat Johnson is the author of the novels Pym, Drop, and Hunting in Harlem, the nonfiction novella The Great Negro Plot, and the comic books Incognegro and Dark Rain. He is a recipient of the United States Artist James Baldwin Fellowship, The Hurston/Wright Legacy Award, a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers selection, and the John Dos Passos Prize for Literature. He is a Professor at the University of Houston Creative Writing Program.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

UPDATE! Maggie Toussaint: DREAMWALKER MYSTERY SERIES

UPDATE!

I have just updated an ongoing post for Maggie Toussaint's DREAMWALKER MYSTERY SERIES with a review of Bubba Done It, the second novel in the series.

Click on the pink-link series title above to go directly to the new review.

Monday, July 20, 2015

UPDATE! Laurell K. Hamilton: ANITA BLAKE SERIES

UPDATE!

I have just updated an ongoing post for Laurell K. Hamilton's ANITA BLAKE SERIES with a review of Dead Ice, the 24th novel in the series.

Click on the pink-link series title above to go directly to the new review. 

Friday, July 17, 2015

UPDATE! Jane Lindskold: ARTEMIS AWAKENING SERIES

UPDATE!

I have just updated an ongoing post for Jane Lindskold's ARTEMIS AWAKENING SERIES with a review of Artemis Invaded, the second novel in the series. 

Click on the pink-link series title above to go directly to the new review. 

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

UPDATE! S.J. Harper: FALLEN SIREN SERIES

UPDATE!

I have just updated an ongoing post for S. J. Harper's FALLEN SIREN SERIES with a review of "Forsaken," the second novella in the series.

Click on the pink-link series title above to go directly to the new review.

NOTE: S.J. Harper is a pseudonym for the writing team of Jeanne C. Stein and Samantha Sommersby. 


Monday, July 13, 2015

UPDATE! Terry Spear: HEART OF THE WOLF SERIES

UPDATE!

I have just updated an ongoing post for Terry Spear's HEART OF THE WOLF SERIES with a review of SEAL Wolf Hunting, the 16th novel in the series.


Click on the pink-link series title above to go directly to the new review. 

Friday, July 10, 2015

NEW SERIES! Lilith Saintcrow: GALLOW AND RAGGED

Author:  Lilith Saintcrow  
Series:  GALLOW AND RAGGED 
Plot Type:  Dark Urban Fantasy (UF)
Ratings:  Violence4; Sensuality2; Humor—1   
Publisher and Titles:  Orbit
          Trailer Park Fae (novel 16/2015)
          Roadside Magic (novel 21/2016)

                      WORLD-BUILDING                    

     The series combines two very different worlds: the rusted-out streets of a derelict city and the fanciful realms of the Seelie and the Unseelie sidhe (the Fae). The author presumes some basic knowledge of sidhe mythology on the part of the reader, so if you feel the need to refresh your memory, you can click HERE or HERE for in-depth information about the two sidhe courts. Also, a two-page glossary at the end of the book includes definitions of many of the sidhe creatures and terms that are scattered throughout the story. 

     As the series begins, the always-fatal blackboil plague is sweeping across the sidhe realms, hitting the fullborn-fae on both sides the hardest because sidhe with mixed blood are mostly immune. No one admits to knowing how the plague started, but Summer (the Seelie Queen) and Unwinter (the Unseelie King) are blaming each other. The first novel introduces the main players and its plot centers around efforts to find a cure for the plague in the midst of thick political intrigue.


The primary characters in the series are as follows:

   > Jeremiah Gallow (aka Queensglass): The series hero, a halfblood sidhe who lives in a trailer park in the mortal world. He was Summer's Armormaster until he ran away from the Seelie realm and went to live with his beloved mortal wife, Daisy, who died in a car accident (or was it?) five years ago. He is covered with magical tattoos (see the cover art) that give him speed, strength, and a bloodthirsty, almost sentient, lance.

   > Robin Ragged: The series heroine, also a halfblood. She is Summer's "go-to" girl and is frequently sent into the mortal world to run errands and handle delicate matters. Robin has two major talents: her voice—which can instantly cause a sidhe or a mortal to die or to become so mutated (aka twisted) that the sidhe is unable to use his own magic—and her dealmaking, a rare talent that allows her to create chantments (aka spells) that last much longer than those of other sidhe. 

   > Summer: Former spouse, but now hated enemy of Unwinter. The beautiful, vicious, and vindictive Queen of the light realm has power over Robin because she holds in her custody a young human boy to whom Robin has built a protective attachment. Summer has the power to addict men to her just by touching them, after which they crave her attentions forever until they eventually wither away and die. Summer's lands are green and verdant, filled with flowers and birdsong.

   > Unwinter (aka Haahrhne the Hunter): Former spouse, but now hated enemy of Summer. The half-mad, wrath-filled King of the dark realm commands armies of scary sidhe monsters as well as heading up the terrifying Wild Hunt. His blackened lands are barren and desolate, with no plant or animal life at all. His evil minions have been hardest hit by the plague. 

   > Puck (aka the Fatherless; aka Goodfellow): In this mythology, he is a cruel, self-centered trickster who hides his wiles behind a wide, sharp-toothed grin. He is the deceiver who is at the center of every conflict, playing one side against the other as he collects dark secrets about everyone and uses them to his own advantage. No one is exempt from his malevolent schemes. Puck is the leader of the free sidhe who live in the mortal realm, although they don't trust him either.

                       NOVEL 1:  Trailer Park Fae                       
PUBLISHER'S BLURB:
     New York Times bestselling author Lilith Saintcrow returns to dark fantasy with a new series where the faery world inhabits diners, dive bars and trailer parks.

     Jeremiah Gallow is just another construction worker, and that's the way he likes it. He's left his past behind, but some things cannot be erased. Like the tattoos on his arms that transform into a weapon, or that he was once closer to the Queen of Summer than any half-human should be. But now Gallow, the half-sidhe once feared by all in Summer, is dragged back into the world of enchantment, danger, and fickle fae—by a woman who looks uncannily like his dead wife. Her name is Robin, and her secrets are more than enough to get them both killed. A plague has come, the fullborn-fae are dying, and the dark answer to Summer's Court is breaking loose. Be afraid, for Unwinter is riding…

     Click HERE to read an excerpt from the beginning of Trailer Park Fae.

MY REVIEW
     As is usual in the first book in a series, the author sets up the mythology, introduces the primary characters, and begins the conflict. Saintcrow doesn't spend as much time on world-building as I expected because she relies heavily on readers' prior knowledge of Fae mythology: the Seelie and Unseelie Courts with their rival rulers, sly Puck and his tricky ways, the egotistical arrogance of all of the sidhe, and so forth. I recommend that you skim through the brief Glossary just to become familiar with some of the names and terms that appear frequently in the text.

     The hero and heroine have fully developed back stories, so we know exactly how and why they have developed into the people they are now. Both had rough childhoods and came to the Seelie Court at a later age than most. Both hate Summer, fear Unwinter, and distrust Puck. Their relationship begins when Gallow saves Robin from certain death at the hands of a plague-ridden, full-born Unseelie Lord, thus making himself a target after having hidden in the mortal world for years. He is still grieving over the death of his mortal wife and is shocked when he sees Robin for the first time because she looks just like Daisy. Of course, this resemblance is an important part of the plot. The issue of Robin's paternal heritage simmers in the background, but you'll probably be able to figure it out long before it is revealed on the page.


     Puck spends his time spinning out a complicated scheme that he hopes will end with him as the leader of all the sidhe in the worldall realms, both Seelie and Unseelie. He capers from Summer to Unwinter to Gallow to Robin, always leaking ambiguous rumors and false information to fuel his plans. Although no one trusts Puck, they all rely on his information, arrogantly believing that they can figure out what is true and what is not. (As you might guess, they are almost always wrong about that.)


     Saintcrow writes in the high-fantasy language of the sidhe, which ranges from eloquent descriptions to flowery narrative to dialogue that is difficult and time-consuming to translate into meaningful information. Just to give you a taste, here are the first two paragraphs of the book
     "Summer, soft green hills and shaded dells, lay breathless under a pall of smoky apply-blossom dusk. The other Summer, her white hands rising from indigo velvet to gleam in the gloaming, waved the rest of her handmaidens away. They fled, giggling in bell-clear voices and trailing their sigh-draperies, a slim golden-haired mortal boy among them fleet as a deer—Actaeon among the leaping hounds, perhaps. 

     Though that young man, so long ago, hadn't been torn apart by gray-sided, long-eared hounds. A different beast had run him to ground. the mortals, always confused, whispered among themselves, and their invented gods grew in the telling." 

     Here is another example: "Caprisoned only in darkness, the destrier born on cold stone-choked shores of the Dreaming Sea near the Rim stepped mincingly through…" (Note: No explanation is given for the Dreaming Sea or the Rim.

     Saintcrow can also be repetitious. For example, she uses the same words and phrases to describe Puck's hourglass-shaped pupils, green-yellow eyes, and extra-jointed brown fingers over and over again. Not to mention her frequent descriptions of Robin's russet hairall nearly the same in their wording.


     On the other hand, Saintcrow is adept in the show-not-tell department. In the following passage, we understand exactly how Robin feels about her Queen as she muses about Summer's beauty: "If the blackboil plague breached the Court, that white skin might be raddled in days, and that golden hair a snarl of dishwater. Her graceful slenderness would become a jenny-hag's bony withering. Eventually, Summer might choke out a gout of black brackish fluid, and expire, her eaten body collapsing into foul wet dust. A comforting thought, and one Robin kept despite the danger." So...definitely not best buds. Here is another example, which illustrates just how much lethal power Summer holds: "Her teeth flashed, and she bit [into a berry]…She sucked at it, a slight flush rising up her cheeks as it withered, and each tree in the orchard stirred uneasily…The rind crumbled, turning black and paper-thin. Her suckling did not cease until the fruit was no more than a smear of ash, flakes lifting from her white hand as she flicked the remains away."

     I won't deny that I was a bit discouraged by the slow pace caused by the heavy use of cryptic Fae-speak, particularly in the first few chapters, but once Robin and Gallow got involved in their slowly blossoming alliance, their quest for the plague cure, and their attempts to hide from Unwinter and his minions, I was hooked. Neither one trusts the otheror anyone else, for that matterso they are always saying things and taking actions that are completely misunderstood by the other, sometimes with horrific results. I confess that I skipped over many of the paragraphs that overflowed with the baroque Fae language. 


     But in the end, I really did enjoy this book. Once I got past the language issue and into the heart of the suspense-filled plot, I was pulled in by its tension, danger, and heartbreak. Saintcrow does an excellent job developing her characters, particularly the lead couple and the royal couple. Puck is in a category all his owna treacherous sociopath whose narrative is completely unreliable. His scenes are uncomfortable to read because you know that behind his cruel smile is a horrific plan that promises ruination and even death to both heroes and villains. I am looking forward to the next book, which will (I hope) resolve some elements of the cliff-hanger ending of Trailer Park Fae.



    FAIR WARNING: Do not read the following blurb for Roadside Magic    
    until you have read Trailer Park Fae because it contains SPOILERS.    

                      NOVEL 2:  Roadside Magic (due 1/26/2016)                      
PUBLISHER'S BLURB:
     Robin Ragged has revenge to wreak and redemption to steal. She knows the source of the plague ravaging the sidhe of both Courts, and that knowledge might be enough to buy off even the Hunt—if she can just survive.

     The poison in Jeremy Gallow's wound is slowly killing him. Old friends turn traitor and old enemies return, but he'll kill whoever he has to, to see his Robin safe.

     In the diners and trailer parks, the dive bars and greenbelts, the sidhe are hunting. Mercy and disaster follow in their wake. War looms, and on a rooftop in the heart of the city, the most dangerous sidhe of all is given new life. He has only one thought, this new hunter: Where is the Ragged? The Wild Hunt is riding...