Category Archives: Reading

Flashback to Backlash: Susan Faludi plus 25 years (#SFWApro)

So as part of my research for rethinking Undead Sexist Cliches: the Book, I reread Susan Faludi’s 1991 book BACKLASH: The Undeclared War on American Women (cover design Janet Perr, all rights remain with current holder). Depressingly it isn’t at all dated.

Faludi’s thesis is simple: every time women have made big steps toward equality in America (19th century suffragettes, 20th century getting the right to vote, etc.), a backlash has risen to put them back into their place. While some of this is an organized effort by the right-wing to undo the gains since the hallowed age of the 1950s (this was before conservatives started openly pining for the Victorian age instead), Faludi is clear the backlash isn’t an organized movement, it’s a lot of people acting independently but with a shared agenda.

  • Fashion designers and makeup kings push for girly girl looks that require new wardrobes and expensive makeup.
  • Corporations push back against hiring women.
  • Movies put emphasis on Woman As Girlfriend/Mother/Homemaker over independent women.
  • Newspapers, TV news and magazines run endless stories about how the career woman is miserable, or lonely, or doomed to spinsterhood, or burning out, and longing for the good old days when she’d get married and stay home (there are comparatively few stories about men worrying about marriage or burning out or longing to find a woman who can keep them).
  • Feminists are invariably to blame for giving women the idea they can “have it all” (you know, family and career, how unreasonable) which is what makes women miserable, rather than the realization how sexist the system, and some individuals are.
  • Rape and abuse are still not taken seriously.

So we end up with an American landscape that portrays feminism and working mothers, etc., very negatively, plus practical restrictions: tougher abortion laws, opposition to hiring women (let alone affirmative action), and a lack of support for victims of rape or sexual harassment. Sound familiar? It’s been 25 years and the backlash is still ongoing.

If anything, it’s gotten worse in some ways. Faludi wrote before Rush Limbaugh and other right-wing radio heads were fouling the airwaves with talk of evil feminazis and poor, oppressed men folk. The potential horrors of online death threats and Twitter harassment didn’t even exist. Despite twelve years of Reagan and Bush I, we didn’t have anything as nightmarishly sexist as the Trump administration.

If there’s any comfort, it’s that while feminists are frequently at cross-purposes (another Faludi article), they haven’t thrown in the towel either. Which is not to make light of the situation. Increasing restrictions on abortion, lack of support for rape victims and opposition to birth control all make it harder for women to build an independent life.

The chapter on abortion was a real eye-opener for me. I’ve written before about how the rights of the fetus outweigh the rights of the aquarium that carries them. I didn’t realize how far back this had been going, though. Faludi provides plenty of examples of women who in the eyes of authorities did pregnancy wrong:

  • A woman lost custody of her infant for not eating healthy enough during pregnancy (there was no sign of actual harm to the baby)
  • Another woman lost custody for taking Valium during pregnancy.
  • One woman lost her baby because she’d had sex with her abusive husband, hadn’t gotten to the hospital fast enough and hadn’t done what her doctor told her.
  • A teenager was locked up because she “lacked motivation” to get good prenatal care.

And yet they wonder why the birth rate is declining.

A running theme in some of the debate is that abortion cuts out the father’s right to decide about his child. Which is still an issue for some right-wingers.

As far as giving me inspiration for Undead Sexist Cliches, Backlash definitely encourages me to write. I’m not sure it answers what bothers me about my first draft. And it does set a very high standard for contributing to the debate.

I’ll let you know when I figure it out.

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Hard copy short story out! (#SFWApro)

I love having hard copy versions of my story so I was delighted to receive a contributor copy of CRIMSON STREETS: A Story a Week and Other Tales (cover art by John Waltrip, all rights remain with current holder). This was the first collection of stories from the Crimson Street neo-pulp web magazine, and it included my No Good Deed Goes Unpunished. So obviously it’s the most awesome anthology you will read this year.

I read it while I was down in Florida earlier this month, and I enjoyed it. But I do think it would have been better read at a slower pace, instead of sitting and paging through it in that period before my fellow Mensans arrived (I’ve found this true of a number of anthologies over the year) Read as a clump, there are a few too many Tough PIs Backstabbed By Beautiful but Dangerous Broads stories — individually fine, but not so much one after the other. And I feel a little guilty to realize that my PI story (they’re not all in that genre) had a tough white male protagonist like all the others. Next time I submit, I won’t default to that template.

As individual stories, though, there were a number I really liked:

The Worst Gift by Jordan King-Lacroix is the best of the Backstabbed PI stories, if only for how convoluted the doublecrossing gets.

Ghost Boss by Jamie Mason is a well-done urban fantasy. A federal investigator discovers the mess created by some crooked occultists is more tangled than expected.

Seducing the Angel by Garry Kilworth has a Regency rake set out to prove he can seduce even an angel. Hilarity does not ensue.”

She’s a Knockout by Bruce Harris is a boxing story — there were a lot of those in the old pulps — and does a good job with a familiar set up. There’s a fighter who refuses to take a dive and the manager who has to explain this to the mob, and it doesn’t look good for either of them. I’m curious to people who’ve never seen this kind of story (it was used in more than a few movies and TV shows too, back when boxing was several degrees cooler than I think it is now) make of it.

A Story a Week by Trevor Boeltor was a lot of fun. A writer’s new agent demands he deliver a short story a week. It’s a struggle at first but then the ideas come to him. But it turns out there’s a drawback to his new profession …

King’s Ransom by Don Katnik may have been my favorite in the collection (well, not counting my own work). A group of hoods put the snatch on their small town’s famous writer. But he doesn’t have any money, and he’s not worth enough to his publisher or his agent … so he works out a plan with them to turn himself into a cash cow.

Like I said, this is probably best read slowly. But it is worth reading. So if you want to

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Doc Savage, a pink lady and headless killers! (#SFWApro)

I notice I frequently describe Doc Savage novels in this period as lots of chasing around. Dent and his various ghosts do a lot more of that than in earlier stories — one person gets kidnapped, gets snatched back, Doc goes after someone, finds they’ve already vamoosed, goes back to HQ finds out Monk and Ham have disappeared on another trail. All of which were elements in previous years, of course, but it seems much more frantic here (without sitting down for in-depth comparison, it’ll have to remain a subjective assessment). Case in point, the first of this month’s stories.

THE PINK LADY starts off with a bang: beautiful Lada Harland staggers into a hotel lobby during a storm, and when the shawl over her head slips, it turns out she’s a bright pink. Seconds later, men bust into the lobby and kill her, despite the intervention of young, good-looking Chet Farmer. When Chet learns Lada was trying to reach Doc Savage, he contacts him and asks in on the investigation.

More pink people turn up. Monk is turned pink at one point. And then comes lots of chasing and running and fingers pointed at various characters before we learn what it’s about. As with earlier novels such as Spook Hole or Mystery on the Snow it’s not a super-weapon but a business breakthrough, a ray that can change the colors of things. It could, for example, turn fabrics any color you wanted without the cost of dye supplies. The villains are turning black industrial diamonds into blue-white beauties. And it can turn people pink to pressure them into cooperating in return for a cure (gotta say, as threats go that’s not one of the better ones in this series). Despite all the chasing around, it’s enjoyable. And it did threw a twist I didn’t expect — instead of being one of Dent’s drifter heroes, Chet’s actually a disgruntled crook who wanted a bigger cut than the boss was willing to grant.

Alan Hathaway’s THE HEADLESS MEN, by contrast, is a super-weapon story, and quite an effective one. The masked villain’s tech can laser off a human head in an instant (that’s not the term they use, but the heat ray has the same effect), burn down a building — oh, and he has an army of headless corpses rising up to do his bidding. I figured the latter was a trick (although my explanation was wrong) but it’s still effective.

The mastermind seems to be pressuring the targets of his attacks into sending their payoff money to the Central American dictatorship of San Roble, thereby taking it away from any easy tracking by American banks or Doc Savage. The bad guy is also several steps ahead of Doc, sabotaging his dirigible, sending killers into Doc’s underground garage, and equipping himself with the kind of ultraviolet goggles Doc and his team frequently use. Despite some implausible details here and there, it’s pretty good. Certainly better than Hathaway’s debut effort.

The Cotter book on the Doc Savage series argues that books like this are turning into anachronisms: as Dent’s Doc Savage became increasingly down-to-Earth, these ghostwritten turns hark back to the more spectacular SF stories of the 1930s. Cotter seems to prefer the turn to a more realistic Doc; I’m not the only fan who disagrees. But that’s what makes horse races.

Covers by Emery Clark, all rights remain with current holder.

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Batman, patriarchy, a princess and Nikola Tesla: graphic novels (#SFWApro)

I wasn’t impressed with Tom King’s I Am Gotham, but his second Bat-collection, BATMAN: I am Suicide, is way worse. The plot involves an implausible mission to rescue the emotion-bending Psycho-Pirate from Bane because his powers do better at healing Gotham Girl’s anguish than drugs (which raises the old question, why not just pay him to treat everyone with major emotional issues?). It wasn’t great, but King then layers on lots of pretentious waffling about Batman and Catwoman and hiding behind masks and knowing each other’s inner selves oh, and it wasn’t the Waynes’ death that created Batman but Bruce’s decision to almost commit suicide. Which actually worked better than I thought, but that’s not the same as saying it worked. For one thing, if Batman’s motive is to save the despairing rather than avenge his parents, King’s version should be radically different from anything we’ve seen in about 30 years (at least). And it isn’t. Overwrought and pretentious.

BITCH PLANET: The Extraordinary Machine by Kelly Sue DeConnick and Valentine De Landro hybridizes The Handmaid’s Tale with a women-in-prison picture: in a dystopian patriarchal future, “noncompliant” women (non-submissive, overweight, lesbian, etc.) are shipped to the title prison colony. When some of them are recruited into a sports competition, is it a chance to rebel, or a scheme by the authorities to wipe them out? Very good, particular some of the subtler moments. An official refuses to refer to one prisoner’s mother as anything but Mrs. [husband’s name]. A woman in a restaurant cringes when a man takes offense at what he thinks her expression is. I look forward to more. Cover by De Landro, all rights remain with current holder.

PRINCELESS: Be Yourself by Jeremy Whitley, Emily Martin and Brett Grunig has Adrienne try to rescue her boy-crazy sister Angoisse, only to discover Angoisse has found true love. Unfortunately said lover has an agenda of his own … Meanwhile Adrienne’s companions have to deal with a tribe of goblins threatened by a swamp monster. The usual fun from this series.

RASL: The Fire of St. George by Jeff Smith didn’t work as well for me as the first volume. While the story of Rasl trying to outrun the government agents pursuing him for his multiversal knowledge is god, this devotes way too much space for a reverential biography of Nikola Tesla as the super-genius who figured out radio, electricity and the wireless transmission of electricity — which in Smith’s version accidentally created the Tunguska fireball. While Smith is free in an SF story to make Tesla as amazing as he wants, he seems to believe his super-genius is reasonably plausible, and I’m skeptical. Still looking forward to Vol. 3 though.

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Literary teens, skyjackers, Vikings and Theseus; books (#SFWApro)

While I didn’t catch any movies during my Mensa vacation, I did get a lot of reading done in between the hanging out.

If I’d realized THE NIGHT GWEN STACY DIED by Sarah Bruni was a literary novel rather than a Y/A romance, I might have skipped it (as I’ve mentioned before, literary fiction isn’t usually my thing). Bruni writes very well but the story about a sort-of good girl getting lured by the bad boy to run away is stock, despite the comics references — his name is Peter Parker, he keeps referring to her as Gwen Stacy, Peter’s dead girlfriend. Yes, it does end tragically, but nowhere near as entertainingly (art by Gil Kane and John Romita, all rights remain with current holder).

THE SKIES BELONG TO US: Love and Terror in the Golden Age of Hijacking by Brendan I. Koerner focuses on the 1972 skyjacking by party girl Cathy Kernow and unstable veteran Roger Holder hoped to arrange a pardon for radical black activist Angela Davis. Instead, they wound up traveling to Algeria and hanging with Eldridge Cleaver, relocating to Paris and then parting (Holder came home, Kernow vanished, possibly into a new identity). Mixed in with this is the overall history of the Age of Skyjacking from the comical (one guy hijacked a plane to get to Smackover Arkansas) to the horrifying (a hijacker contemplated crashing the plane into a nuclear power plant) and the airlines’ reluctance at the to deal with it (protesting not only the cost of metal detectors, but the prospect of delaying passengers by using them). Koerner argues that just as headlines about skyjackers prompted more skyjacking, so the gradual slowdown in the early 1970s (the result of better security and foreign nations refusing to provide safe haven) choked the trend of oxygen (of course, the drop then led to everyone relaxing their security until 9/11). A good job covering something once familiar, now alien.

With HROLF KRAKI’S SAGA Poul Anderson’s adapts the saga of the Skjoldungs, whose high point was the title Danish king establishing an oasis of peace in the violent world of post-Roman Europe, though a very brief one (and like Arthur, the real warrior was gradually eclipsed by his doughty followers). Anderson deftly sets this up as a tenth-century Danish bride telling the saga to her English in-laws, thereby rationalizing a lot of the exposition necessary. Very good, though it suffers from the nature of saga — that is, as it’s the story of the Skjoldung lineage rather than Hrolf per se, it doesn’t follow a conventional arc

Given how much I love Evangeline Walton’s Mabinogion quadrilogy, I’m really disappointed in THE SWORD IS FORGED, the first (and only) volume in a trilogy about Theseus (something she’d contemplated back in the 1950s, but decided not to compete with Mary Renault’s best-selling The Bull From the Sea). It’s very info-dumpy at times and where Walton’s Celts respected women, Theseus is insufferably patriarchal — which is true of course to Hellenic Greece, but that doesn’t make it readable, especially as Antiope largely submits to it in the hope of improving things later (and she’s waaaay too quick to accept being abducted off to Athens). I can’t say I’ll ever wish for Books Two and Three.

 

 

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A vigilante, a thief and a man of steel: graphic novels (#SFWApro)

KILL OR BE KILLED by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips (cover by Phillips, all rights remain with current holder) is an interesting variation on vigilante characters: after attempting suicide by jumping off a building, Dylan impossibly survives. A demon figure (real? Imaginary?) tells him that to keep his miraculous life the man needs to offer up one life a month. So off he goes to hunt down bad people, people vile enough to deserve execution. It’s to the creators’ credit that it held my interest despite some flaws (would anyone Dylan’s age actually remember the 1970s film Death Wish?).

RASL: The Drift by Jeff Smith was a more promising series start. The eponymous protagonist is an art thief who uses a dimension-jumping device to get away after his heists. Unfortunately this time he lands in an alt.Earth and doesn’t know how to get back, not to mention that a reptilian hit man is tracking him across parallel worlds. A strong beginning.

SECRET IDENTITY by Kurt Busiek and Stuart Immonen starts out with a Midwestern kid growing up burdened with the name of Clark Kent — which becomes less of a burden when it turns out he does, in fact, have powers just like the guy in the comics. But how can he use them effectively? What do the sinister government agents want from him? Can he balance his secret identity with his love for an Indian-American woman named Lois? This reflects Busiek’s view that comics and superpowers can make an effective metaphor for life (growing old, having kids, falling in love, etc.) and it works reasonably well, though it didn’t blow me away.

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Is Our Writers Learning? Worldbuilding and tension (#SFWApro)

When I read Cherie Priest’s Brimstone last month, I’d hoped to use it for an Is Our Writers Learning post. But I didn’t like it much, and that would make four negative reviews in a row, so I decided not to (hopefully whatever I get to this month, I’ll find fun). But I did learn something, hence this post.

As I mentioned in blogging about City of Blades (cover by Sam Weber, all rights to current holder), it seems I find world-building much less fascinating than a lot of specfic readers. What turned me off to Brimstone was that of the two POV characters, Anne’s chapters for the first half of the book were all about world building and scene setting. See Anne go to Florida! See her learn all about spiritualism and tarot reading! See the small town she lives in! The other protagonist, Tomas, carries the weight of the plot at first; Anne’s just sort of there.

But the book sold, and garnered some good reviews. Which made me think again about all the scenes I cut from this draft of Southern Discomfort. As I’ve mentioned before, I had a lot of scenes with the townies discussing politics and life in Pharisee. They didn’t advance the plot, just explored and developed the concept of life in a sleepy Georgia county controlled by elves. They didn’t go over so well with my beta readers, and they didn’t work that well for me when I reread them. So I cut or reworked them.

So …. did I make a mistake? Is this something that my someday-audience would delight in if I kept them?

I honestly don’t think so. If I’m not satisfied with them, it’s unlikely anyone else will be. I could rework and improve them, and I’ve done that in the scenes that I’ve kept. Part of the problem was a complete lack of tension or conflict in many of them; I could go back, put some in.

But I don’t think that would fix them. One big difference between Brimstone and my book is that Priest has exactly two POV characters. I have several — Joan, Cohen, Maria, and that’s just the core cast. The world-building scenes (or county-building scenes at least) used lots more. Most of them only appearing once. I know that left my betas at sea. And there’s no way I can use Maria for them, even though she’s an outsider like Anne. The truth is, Maria just wants to get out of Pharisee ASAP, so she really doesn’t care about politics.

For the background scenes I did think worth keeping, I used Liz Mitchell in many of them. Giving her a larger role and tying her more closely to Pharisee ties them together. Plus in this draft she has conflicts that will (I think) add some conflict to the scenes. All that will help, I think. I’ll see what I make of it when I reread it, probably at the start of August (I think a month break will give me a clearer head.

 

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