Apr 13 2021

Love In Color: Mythical Tales From Around The World, Retold by Bolu Babalola

I finished this book of romantic short stories and thought to myself “why on earth did I think this was going to be more about myths than romance?” And then I copied the full title for this review and realized that it was because Love In Color has been marketed as such. Which is a bit baffling to me since, barring one story in this collection of thirteen, every single one of these tales ends in a Happily Ever After or Happily For Now, often in a significantly different manner from the original story. The original tale of Attem, for example, ends with our heroine, her lover and her servant being made truly gruesome examples of: the version here is definitely an improvement that still hearkens back to the folktale without losing any of the source material’s richness.

Arguably, that story, like the others in this book, is made richer by emphasizing female agency and the romantic aspects of each tale. Even the retelling of Scheherazade, with the only non-HEA/HFN ending here, is significantly less grimly patriarchal than the Thousand And One Nights original. Bolu Babalola determinedly reinterprets the stories, often setting them in modern milieus, and about half of the time it works. The stories of Yaa, Naleli and Zhinu are lovely subversions of their source material, with the questionable parts shorn off and female agency and love celebrated instead. More importantly, they feel like complete short stories, instead of ideas for longer works as almost all the rest of the folktale-based stories here do. Attem and Nefertiti’s stories, in particular, felt like outlines for dynamic novels of adventure and intrigue that I am interested in reading. As shorts, however, they taste less like appetizers than amuse bouches. It’s odd, too, how certain stories feel like just enough while others feel like too much. Psyche feels like an entire romance novel crammed into a short story sausage casing, while Orin — one of the original stories here — is perfect as is.

And yes, there are three stories collected at the end that are not founded in mythology. Tiara, the story of a woman reunited with the man who left her for his career, is the first and least successful in my opinion, though yours will likely vary based on what you think of long-distance romances. Orin and Alagomeji are both really terrific, and the fact that the latter is based on the lives of Ms Babalola’s parents is incredibly touching, ending the book on a note that perfectly matches the author’s heartfelt opening declaration as to her belief in romantic love.

Continue reading

Permanent link to this article: https://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2021/04/13/love-in-color-mythical-tales-from-around-the-world-retold-by-bolu-babalola/

Apr 12 2021

Dinosaur Explorers Vol. 8: Lord of the Skies by Redcode, Albbie & Air Team

As with the other Explorers titles produced by Malaysian company GempakStarz and distributed in America by Papercutz, Dinosaur Explorers is filled with the trademark coupling of gorgeous art with truly informative and educational text breaks. And while certain things don’t necessarily lend themselves well to cultural translations, others fall flat in any situation — or at least any situation in the year 2021, as we’re hopefully coming out of a global pandemic and should be thinking of how we can be kinder and more respectful of one another as human beings.

I am referring, of course, to the early gag of Rain and the professor, two of the most important characters in this book, deciding to not only spy on the two female members of the Dinosaur Explorers team as they bathe in hot springs but also to make derogatory comments as to the 13 year-old’s body not being developed enough to be worth spying on. While the feminine duo is depicted as being clever in the ways they foil these pervs, can we not normalize that kind of misogynistic behavior in the first place, especially in people we’re meant to root for? It’s deeply disrespectful, truly trash behavior, and I’m sick of seeing it in mainstream Asian comics.

The rest of the book isn’t terrible. The overall premise is that the team has accidentally traveled back in time and gotten stuck, able only to hop forward several hundred years or so with each jump. Given how long dinosaurs roamed the earth, this means that they spend a lot of time studying and trying to avoid being eaten by same. This volume focuses on the period when dinosaurs took to the skies, examining the known science behind what we believe of the time and providing a fanciful tale to bring home to readers the majesty and danger of these prehistoric creatures.

The story follows Rain as he and the two other teenage boys of the group, smart Sean and strong Stone, head off to gather food for the party, aided by their robot supercomputer Little S. Trying to gather eggs only gets them into trouble, so they eventually find their way to the sea to fish. Fortunately, seafood is plentiful, but amassing such a large amount draws the attention of predators. The boys will have to battle their way home, discovering unexpected allies through kindness and friendship.

Continue reading

Permanent link to this article: https://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2021/04/12/dinosaur-explorers-vol-8-lord-of-the-skies-by-redcode-albbie-air-team/

Apr 09 2021

An Interview with Oliver K. Langmead, author of Birds Of Paradise

Q. Every book has its own story about how it came to be conceived and written as it did. Birds Of Paradise had a particularly long gestation, as you note in your afterword. How did this novel evolve?

A. In the end, it took me more than a decade to finish writing Birds of Paradise. It began as a colourful explosion of a book called Eden Rose, which was so full of ideas that I still sometimes turn back to it today. Of course, it was completely unpublishable. But over the years, I would occasionally turn back to that original idea (What if the first man was still alive today? What if all of Eden was scattered across the world? How far would he go to collect the pieces of the garden together again?) and write an entirely new draft from scratch, learning from each draft along the way. Back in 2016, after the publication of my second book, Metronome, I sat down again for a fresh new draft and made a promise to myself – no more compromises. It would take me another three years to finish writing it, but I can tell you that I did what I set out to do. I finally have a version of the book worthy of the idea behind it.

Q. As a person of faith who takes as metaphor the scripture on which you based your novel, I was particularly impressed with the layers of metaphor you continued to layer on here, particularly with the flooding and with humanity coming together at Pride. What inspired that for you?

A. My partner says that fantasy is an act of literalised metaphor, and I think there’s a lot of that here. Eden is (largely) regarded as metaphor in scripture (though Milton would disagree), and Birds of Paradise is an exercise in literalising it. What if Eden was real? What if pieces of it were still around? How would the first man feel about the world we live in today? But also – how would Adam express himself? Of course, he would use metaphors himself, because he’s human, and humans have always used metaphor as a significant means of understanding themselves and each other.

Continue reading

Permanent link to this article: https://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2021/04/09/an-interview-with-oliver-k-langmead-author-of-birds-of-paradise/

Apr 08 2021

Advanced Triggernometry (Triggernometry #2) by Stark Holborn

With this sequel to the gangbusters math- and gun-slinging debut of the Triggernometry series, Stark Holborn goes from tackling the heist trope to taking on the theme of Seven Samurai. Professor “Mad” Malago Brown has gone into hiding again, pretending to be a simple schoolmarm, when she’s approached by three desperate women from the nearby town of Summerville. A rancher named Austin has moved in and told the townsfolk that he’s the area’s new Capitol Representative. No one questioned this until Austin’s taxation went from inconvenient to deadly. When Marshal Miller went to the sheriff in the next town over for help, she was told to take it up with the local Capitol Representative — a vicious cycle that can only spell even more trouble, or worse, for a town already pressed to its limit.

Not knowing where else to turn, the townsfolk take a vote and decide to seek help from those deadliest of outlaws: mathematicians. Browne is hardly interested in upsetting her quiet new life in order to help people who, at best, look down on her kind, but her inability to let inequalities stand drives her to round up a crew to help Summerville fight back. And so seven mathematicians gather to help protect a small town against the Capitol and its Representative, hoping to strike a greater blow for freedom and equality.

I very much enjoyed this second Triggernometry novella, as Browne and her desperate crew fight enemies from both outside and inside Summerville, while winning hearts and minds to her cause. For whatever reason, the lack of back story (why, I still wonder, are mathematicians outlawed in this alternate universe?) seemed less pressing an issue for me than while reading the first book, so absorbed was I in the immediacy of the proceedings. I did wonder exactly what happened to the Kincaid boy when he was surrounded by the rest of the posse, but overall think this was a terrific alt-Western tale of math so fancy it looks like magic.

Continue reading

Permanent link to this article: https://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2021/04/08/advanced-triggernometry-triggernometry-2-by-stark-holborn/

Apr 07 2021

Triggernometry by Stark Holborn

Mathemagics is totally my jam, so I honestly have no idea why I’d never heard of this series till the author messaged me about it! In this first novella of the series, “Mad” Malago Browne is one of the mathematicians outlawed by the Capitol, eking out a living doing illicit math jobs in the Western States. When she and partner Pierre “Polecat” Fermat are betrayed by someone they thought they were helping, Browne swears off the outlaw life and goes into hiding as a simple railroad assistant in a small, out of the way town.

Fast forward five years and Fermat needs her for a big score that could give them enough money to flee the country and live unbothered across the border in Mexico. Browne is reluctant to give up her quiet life but, when forced to abandon it, resentfully joins Fermat as he puts together a crew. Betrayals, hijinks and acts of derring-do — usually involving a set of mathematical tools — ensue.

A lot happens in this novella’s 50-odd pages, and I was panting to read more by the end of it. While a large part of this was due to how exciting the story had been, I also found myself wishing that more of the setting had been filled out. I know mathematicians had been outlawed by the Capitol States in this universe but I wanted to know why this version of the United States, a capitalist mecca going centuries back, would so violently repudiate math and therefore the means to economic and scientific dominion. And why, if Mexico was more accommodating to mathematicians, it hadn’t invited them all over and used their skills to overpower its determinedly ignorant northern neighbor. I really dug all the mathemagical fighting otherwise, so I’m very much hoping more of the setting is explored in the follow-up, due out tomorrow!

Continue reading

Permanent link to this article: https://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2021/04/07/triggernometry-by-stark-holborn/

Apr 06 2021

The Refrigerator Monologues by Catherynne M. Valente

In 1999, Gail Simone made a list “when it occurred to [her] that it’s not healthy to be a female character in comics. … These are superheroines who have been either depowered, raped, or cut up and stuck in the refrigerator. Some have been revived, even improved — although the question remains as to why they were thrown in the wood chipper in the first place.” Once you start to notice how often female characters exist merely to motivate male characters you can’t stop seeing it.

In The Refrigerator Monologues, Catherynne M. Valente gives voice to six such women. It’s a ferocious deconstruction of comic-book tales, undertaken by a true fan who wants them to be better, who knows they could be better, and who is utterly indignant about the laziness that keeps them from being what they could be. And in an age when comic-derived stories make billions at the box office and spawn many more tales on smaller screens, improving the source matter is hardly a trivial notion. Valente explains in her acknowledgments:

“From the bottom of my heart, I would like to thank the pantheon of comics writers, artists, and creators—great and small—who built the grand superhero universe in which we have all been swimming in over the last century. None of my girls and none of my heroes could possibly exist without them, and even when I get my anger on, I have nothing but respect and honor for the monumental feat of deliberate mythology that the have, and continue to, accomplish. …
“More specifically, the deepest bow and greatest thanks must go to Gail Simone, who first noticed, named, and collated evidence for the phenomenon of Women in Refrigerators and brought it to the attention of the culture at large and who has fought the good fight for decades. … On the other side of the coin, thank you to Even Ensler, whose The Vagina Monologues detonated the theatrical scene when I was coming-of-age as a young feminist-actress type of thing. Both in title and structure The Vagina Monologues gave me a sturdy framework on which to hang my frustration with the roles of women in superhero stories.” (pp. 149–50)

Continue reading

Permanent link to this article: https://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2021/04/06/the-refrigerator-monologues-by-catherynne-m-valente/

Apr 02 2021

Murder At Wedgefield Manor (A Jane Wunderly Mystery #2) by Erica Ruth Neubauer

After the events at Mena House, Egypt, in the first novel of this 1920s-set historical mystery series, our heroine, the widowed American Jane Wunderly, and her (obnoxious) Aunt Millie decide to take up residence at Wedgefield Manor, an estate in the English countryside owned by Lord Hughes, a former and possibly future paramour of Aunt Millie’s. But they aren’t just there for the sake of Aunt Millie’s romantic prospects. Lord Hughes’ adopted daughter, Lillian, is actually Millie’s child, and Millie wants to get to know her now-grown daughter a little better.

While Millie is working on her social life, Jane is taking advantage of the presence of a genuine RAF pilot and his Moth to take flying lessons, much to Millie’s disapproval. But it’s a far more mundane vehicle that causes tragedy for their household, when estate mechanic Simon Marshall goes for a nighttime drive and ends up the victim of a fatal crash. After the police discover that the car’s brakes were cut and that evidence points to Lord Hughes being the culprit, Jane must solve another murder mystery, as her aunt begs her for help in clearing his name and protecting their daughter.

This is a tidy puzzle of a murder mystery with some excellent ace-aro and lesbian representation. And while I did side eye Jane asking the veteran with the West Indies accent if he didn’t want to go “home” after the war, I thought the race and class consciousness throughout were pretty good. The main issue I had with this book is that it drags considerably in the middle third: fortunately, it picks up towards the end, even before I figured out whodunnit and why.

Overall, a decent cozy mystery that does the required job of cleansing my reading palate between books. Not too challenging, but better than half the stuff out there today (and I say that as someone who reads at least one cozy mystery a week.)

Murder At Wedgefield Manor by Erica Ruth Neubauer was published March 30 2021 by Kensington Books and is available from all good booksellers, including

Want it now? For the Kindle version, click here.

Permanent link to this article: https://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2021/04/02/murder-at-wedgefield-manor-a-jane-wunderly-mystery-2-by-erica-ruth-neubauer/

Apr 01 2021

Chargés d’Affaires by Cordwainer Smith

When Cordwainer Smith first began publishing stories in the early 1950s, the genre was much further from the mainstream than it is today. Writing for magazines such as Galaxy or Worlds of If would have been considered extremely odd for one of America’s leading experts on psychological warfare and a Johns Hopkins professor of Asiatic Studies. And so he remained pseudonymous for most of his science fictional career, for that is exactly who Smith was in his day job: godson of Sun Yat-Sen, political science PhD at age 23, colonel in the army reserves, adviser to politicians and to secret services. Yet by the end of his life, cut short at age 53 in 1966, he was more open in his relations with the science fiction community. Chargés d’Affaires reflects this growing rapprochement.

His tales of the Instrumentality of Mankind had a wide range and sophistication about culture that displayed, or at least reflected, his extensive experience outside the United States. Smith drew on the myths and forms of Chinese storytelling, and he gave his stories a lyric solidity that implies a wholeness even for those that are the only one of vast periods of his future history, or the only one in which a particular planet appears.

It would not be quite right to call Chargés d’Affaires a novel; in total length it’s more like a novella, and its six parts are each fairly short, though their lyricism invites the reader to linger. It’s possible to read Chargés also as an oblique celebration of Smith’s own behind-the-scenes roles in his homeworld’s politics and history. In contrast to most of his other stories, the parts of this tale are not about the leaders or instigators of major events, they are about those who are in second in command. The title comes from the number two in an embassy, who is often the real power behind a figurehead ambassador or the person left in charge when the ambassador is recalled or incapacitated. Another hint that this work is more than usually autobiographical is in the third section, “Schuhmacher and the Cobbler.” Schuhmacher is not just a surname, of course, it’s German for “shoemaker,” which is exactly the modern term for the more archaic word “cordwainer.”

Unusually for a late Smith story, Chargés takes place in the first age of planoforming, a period when humanity settled thousands of worlds, but which is little explored in his published stories, which tend to cluster around the Rediscovery of Man some 7,000 years later. The six parts are linked by recurring themes, and a few common names that may or may not be the same characters appearing on different planets. Ambiguity is one of the joys of Smith’s work.

Each part is a full story, some thrilling, some tragic, all enchanting and unmistakably Smith. One final feature is the way that he structures the overall work. Although six different settings are involved, temporally they form a single earth year, with each part taking up themes and seasons at two-month intervals. True to his tendency to see the world as falling, he begins with the long, bright days of an extraterrestrial June. It’s possible also to read the Cobbler of the third part, which corresponds to October in the overall scheme, as a transposed Ray Bradbury; it’s equally possible that Smith is referring to a Chinese writer unknown to me; or indeed both. The fourth, “Calling Down the Rain” is funnier than most Smith tales, and no doubt draws on court comedies of the Ming era. So he continues through the planets and the months, ending Chargés with a sympathetic portrait of the key figure of April: a fool.

Permanent link to this article: https://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2021/04/01/charges-daffaires-by-cordwainer-smith/

Mar 31 2021

Down World by Rebecca Phelps

And here I thought I’d broken my streak of being grumpy with the science in speculative fiction novels! Granted, my last read, Oliver K Langmead’s terrific Birds Of Paradise, never pretended at being scientific, to its credit. But here I am reviewing another novel with half-baked scientific ideas that could have just been hand-waved entirely once we’d gotten past the quantum planes theory: instead, we’re fed the idea that the protagonist’s mother is secretly a groundbreaking physicist a la Marie Curie whose one! ONE! act of science is the ONE-time building of a chemical key that opens a portal to a parallel plane of existence much like our own.

Down World starts out really well. Marina O’Connell is transferring to East Township High School, built over the site of a 1940s military installation. It’s a weird, twisting complex, and when she gets lost on her first day, she’s relieved and flattered to be rescued by Brady Picelli, who’s happy to help her figure out how to get to her classes. But making friends turns out to be harder than she’d expected, so when she notices him and his girlfriend Piper sneaking off campus one day, she impulsively decides to follow. She’s somewhat taken aback when they head to the railroad station where her brother died several years ago. Piper gets on a train west, before Brady notices Marina spying on them.

The next day, the entire town is abuzz: Piper has gone missing and her distraught parents don’t know what to do. Marina wants to come clean but Brady begs her not to, and brings her to Down World by way of explanation. Located deep beneath the school is a portal to an alternate reality that the students — or those students in the know, at least — call Down World. Marina walks through to a world where her brother is still alive and her parents aren’t mere shells of themselves, grieving their lost son. When she comes back out, Brady explains that Piper did something terrible in relation to Down World and has gone west to seek an answer. Little do Marina and Brady know that the answer will soon come back to their town and turn their entire lives upside down.

Very cool premise, lots of twists and turns, but the plot relies too much on Marina doing stupid things in order to advance it. And the second half or so of the novel is just so seriously under-baked. So many excellent ideas and beats are smushed into the last ten percent of the book especially. I wanted to empathize with the characters as they faced all these sudden reversals and revelations but it was like watching scenes unfold outside the window of a speeding train, racing past so quickly that I could barely register what happened, never mind how anyone felt about anything. The book is readable but the pacing is weird, especially in relation to Marina’s suddenly super-genius mom. It’s a complete book, but it doesn’t feel like a finished book to me, more’s the pity.

Down World by Rebecca Phelps was published March 30 2021 by Wattpad Books and is available from all good booksellers, including

Want it now? For the Kindle version, click here.

Permanent link to this article: https://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2021/03/31/down-world-by-rebecca-phelps/

Mar 30 2021

Birds Of Paradise by Oliver K. Langmead

A gorgeous, almost dream-like meditation on dissociation, love, belonging and grief, punctuated by flashes of violence and pain, Birds Of Paradise follows the first man, Adam, as he’s making his way through modern life. When a Hollywood security gig goes awry, he’s hustled out of the country by Rook, who along with several other of the first birds have formed the legal company Corvid & Corvid to secure the interests of the original inhabitants of Eden. The first animals can all switch seamlessly to human form and, like Adam, are undying.

Rook needs a favor from Adam, whose many millennia of existence have trained him in all manner of skills including fighting and survival. While each of the Corvids are individually wealthy, Magpie has started spending more of his brother’s money than usual, and has proven difficult for the busy Rook to track down. With Crow, Adam is sent to Edinburgh to find Magpie and find out what’s going on. But Scotland is also where Eve is, and Adam doesn’t know if he’s ready to face her again. As Adam traverses the British isles, he discovers both wondrous news and a grave threat to the scattered inhabitants of Eden. How far is he willing to go to get to the bottom of it all, and how much of his own long and painful past is he willing to face?

For being about an immortal — hardly the most immediately relatable situation — this book is such a mood. Adam is the ultimate survivor, and it’s taken an extraordinary toll on him, one that he wears like a buffering suit against the world. He is often baffled by modern life and modern people, so far removed from the simplicity of the original garden, when his life was one of tending to his charges and living in harmony with them and with his beloved. While Eve through the ages chose to study the human pursuits of medicine and architecture, Adam was content to garden and provide what necessary labor, for fighting or building, that their situation required. While Eve chose to actively engage with her descendants, Adam preferred books and to live at a remove. So the scenes where Adam is forced to interact with great numbers of his children should feel weird but instead come across as almost magical, whether it’s at a Pride parade in London or with a group of football-playing kids in Manchester. Positive social contact, especially for someone as singular and alone as Adam, is depicted as a gift, a reason for Adam to keep choosing to stay amidst humanity despite the horrifically negative contact he’ll occasionally encounter.

I don’t really want to say too much about the rest of the book for fear of giving the plot away, but I must say that the entire concept of dominion was really, really well handled here. Oliver K Langmead pulls no punches in his critique of certain aspects of Christian society — the kind that think that being white and wealthy conveys an innate superiority over everything else — so the clash between modern evil and a timeless, necessary violence feels cathartic to those of us unwilling to submit to an oligarchy that views the out-group as being lesser or even less than human. BoP is a bold fable rooted deep in religious mythology that holds up a mirror to modern society for all our good and evil, touching on climate change and inclusion, and urging stewardship over dominion, all wrapped up in a beautiful, sad parable for the ages.

We’ve been given the opportunity to interview Mr Langmead, so look out for that April 9th!

Birds Of Paradise by Oliver K. Langmead publishes today March 30th 2021 by Titan Books and is available from all good booksellers, including

Want it now? For the Kindle version, click here.

Permanent link to this article: https://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2021/03/30/birds-of-paradise-by-oliver-k-langmead/