REVIEW: Summer of the Mariposas by Guadalupe Garcia McCall

Syncretic religion mixes two separate religious traditions—say, Christianity with  African Orisha worship—and combines them in a new way that honors both traditions. Garcia McCall has mixes Aztec and Mexican mythology with the ultimate quest story, The Odyssey and come up with a charming, richly layered YA novel. In a small Texas town, the 5 Garza sisters find a dead body floating in their summer watering hole. Odilia, the eldest of the girls, has a vision of Llorona, the mythic weeping woman, who tells her that she and her sisters must return the man’s body to his family in Mexico. She gives Odilia a pair of magic earrings that allow her to call on the magical intervention of Tonantzin, the sacred Aztec mother goddess, should they need it. Since the girls have a grandmother who lives in Mexico, they decide to go visit her as well. Thus begins their odyssey. Along the way, they have many adventures, including run-ins with wily sorceresses, lechuzas (owl-women), evil warlocks and chupacabras (goat blood suckers).  Their adventures are thrilling, full of magic and sometimes quite funny.

Summer of the Mariposas is more than just a high concept work of fiction. The characters, even the magical ones, are real. The five sisters have distinct personalities—Brave Odilia, headstrong Juanita, the twins Velia and Delia who are both bratty and trade on their beauty, and the naïve 10-year old Pita. Odilia is the narrator of the story, and Garcia McCall manages to be both lyrical in her descriptions while also capturing the voices of twenty-first century teenagers. In addition to being a quest story, it is also a story about families and complicated relationships. Summer of the Mariposas weaves the mythic and the mundane together seamlessly. It is a superior work of magical realism. I look forward to seeing what Guadalupe Garcia McCall will write next.

Tu Books

The 2010 Carl Brandon Society Awards Announced

The Carl Brandon Society, an organization that seeks to increase ethnic and racial diversity in Speculative Fiction, announced the 2010 Awards.

Karen Lord won the Carl Brandon Parallax Award for an outstanding work of speculative fiction by a writer of color. Nnedi Okorafor won the Carl Brandon Kindred Award for an outstanding work of speculative fiction dealing with race and ethnicity.

I read both of them two years ago and loved them both, for very different reasons. Digging through my notes, I unearthed mini-reviews of both of them.

A charming retold Sengalese folktale, very lighthearted and magical.  A whiff of Tutu0la, a sprinkle of Okri, a dash of LIKE WATER FOR CHOCOLATE, told in a witty, wise storytellers voice.  Tricksters and magic and morality tales abound in this colorful story.

I really wanted to enjoy this book–but I couldn’t. And perhaps that was the point. Okorafor uses the trappings of fantasy–a young sorceress, her training, a prophetic quest–to discuss dark subject matters, particularly, the matter of sub-Saharan Africa. So it’s an oddly compelling mash-up of Chinua Achebe and a J.K. Rowling coming of age novel. Issues, like weaponized rape, genocide, slavery, color-caste racism, genital mutilation, and sexism exist along side casual magic (shape-shifting, teleportation, and other dimensions). The characters do go through hell, but the author does manage to inject warmth and humor into the tale. While the first person narrative is engaging, the reader (or this reader) noticed that the text was in conversation with other texts, both literary and political. It made for a richer read, but I fear that other readers might miss the significance and be left in the dark. In short, this is not escapist fantasy literature, though the magic here will transport you to another world. Allegory enrobes this story.

Who Fears Death reminds one of The Unconquered Country, by Geoff Ryman and Ben Okri’s tales of Azarro the Spirit Child. This is a brave book, full of some horrific images.

Congratulations to both authors!

Review: The Cipher by Kathe Koja

Nicholas, a video store clerk and would be poet, and his quasi-lover Nakota, waitress/artist find a mysterious hole in an abandoned storage room. The hole seems to be bottomless and made of pure darkness. The slacker couple begin to drop things down the hole, which spits them back up, beautifully and terrifyingly altered.  Nakota, a ruthless seeker of mystical experience, drops a video camera down the hole, and films what is in there. Nicholas is slightly less gung-ho about the obviously paranormal phenomenon, but ends up having a rather personal and symbiotic relationship with the void, which they dub The Funhole.


This novel is an exemplar of what I’d call Existential Horror fiction. While there are supernatural things that go in the novel, they highlight the anomie and isolation that goes on in Nicholas’ rapidly deteriorating mental state.  The horror also comes from the demimonde Koja evokes—that of bored artists trying to push the envelope, and the characters, particularly Nakota. The unclean, perverted energy of the Funhole—which at times is described as a mouth or an anus—and the graphic body horror is leavened by Nicholas’ mordant sense of humor. He narrates the tale in an associative stream-of-conscious style full of wry asides. Images of decay, and industrial rot and wounds flow through the hallucinatory prose. You can smell and taste the bizarre odors that issue from the Funhole. A friend of mine read the book 20 years ago, and said that it was one of the few books that made him feel ‘unclean’ after reading it.

Roadswell Press

Review: THE CITY’S SON by Tom Pollock

The City’s Son, the debut novel by Tom Pollock, shares it’s lineage with works such as Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere and China Mieville’s Un Lun Dun. Like those books, it features a hidden, magical London. Pollock’s London, though, is a decidedly more sinister and while it is nominally a young adult novel (plucky young heroine and hero against the world), there is definite note of horror in book. Pollock’s monsters and heroes, for instance, are created out of the rubbish city. The titular character, Filius Viae, is a young man the color of pavement, who sweats petrol. His is the son of the goddess of the streets, and his nursemaid/mentor is a gendershifting creature made of garbage and vermin. He rules over (or befriends, at any rate) various creatures, such as living streetlamp spirits and statues. The main antagonist (or “Big Bad”) is the god of decay, called Reach, and his various minions. The protagonist, a young grafitti artist, Beth Bradley, falls into the middle of this war.  The plot, a fairly standard one, runs along at brisk clip, with many scenes of violence and action. It’s the details of the world building that the book shines. Images of rot and decay, its smells and textures, ooze through the novel and it’s language. Tar, condoms, skittering roaches, slither through the the transformed city; the idea that there’s magic in cast-off things is a good one. The taxonomy of the creatures is clever.  While Reach has a bit of a Sauron thing going, Mater Viae, the goddess of the streets, is only marginally better. Like the gods of Greek and Egyptian mythology, she can be capricious and cruel. Pollock’s take on magic is inventive and full of wonder, and it is disgusting at the same time—a rare feat, indeed. The novel is the first in a series called The Skyscraper Throne. Those that like their fantasy gritty and grimy will find much to enjoy.

Gods Without Men by Hari Kunzru

I greatly enjoyed this mindfuck of a novel, full of magic, humor, and wonderful character sketches. Mystical and cynical, surrealistic, I’m not sure what it means, but I loved the journey. Fans of Steven Erickson should check this out.

GODS WITHOUT MEN reminds me of David Mitchell’s CLOUD ATLAS, but it is more structured than that loosely book. Hippie cults, the trickster God Coyote, yuppies, freak folk stars and Spanish missionaries all converge on a mysterious rock formation in the middle of the Mojave desert through different time frames and each experience some cataclysmic event.

Richard Labonte/PrideSource reviews FROM WHERE WE SIT

“From Where We Sit: Black Writers Write Black Youth,” edited by Victoria A. Brownworth. Tiny Satchel Press, 336 pages, $16.95 paper.

Editor Brownworth slots this anthology into the Young Adult genre, and, sure, teen characters are the focus of the stories. But there’s an elder sensibility in several that ought to entice older readers as well. That’s certainly the case with Jewelle Gomez’s “Caramelle 1864,” a spin-off from her celebrated 1991 novel, “The Gilda Stories.” Two young girls are at the story’s heart, but the theme of African-Americans defying repression – one that suffuses the collection – touches all ages. Craig Laurance Gidney’s “Bereft,” in which a black scholarship student at a Catholic school defies white bullies, is more youth-focused, as is Becky Birtha’s “Johnnieruth,” in which a tomboy’s sensed sexuality is stirred when she glimpses the shared affection of two women. Each of the 20 stories deals with what it means to be African-American, but the most searing is Lowell Boston’s “Ten to One,” in which a schoolboy, after defending himself from a white boy’s attack, is singled out by his redneck principal as the troublemaker. Asked to write an apology to the school, he scrawls, “I am not a nigger.”

Review of “Smoketown” by Tenea D. Johnson

SmoketownSmoketown by Tenea D. Johnson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Smoketown, the debut novel of Tenea D. Johnson, belongs in a rare subset of speculative fiction novels that examine the relationship between art and society. These books include Pat Murphy’s The City, Not Long After and a number of Samuel R. Delany’s work, most notably Dhalgren. Smoketown, like the aforementioned works, blurs the boundaries between perception, magic and science, and the futuristic/transformed landscape is both a living metaphor and geography.

Anna Armour, an artist, is at the center of the nested narratives that comprise the novel that takes place in a distant, post-climate changed Southern city called Leiodare. A generation ago, the city was overrun with a mysterious epidemic called The Crumble, believed to have been spread by birds. As a result, a force field has been erected around the city that blocks birds from entering the city. Armour moves into the city, awaiting her on-and-off again lover Peru, who lives a nomadic existence as a ‘virtuoso’–a living recorder of experiences for clients.

The cipher-like Peru is also the personal ‘virtuoso’ creator for Rory McClaren, the scion of the wealthy McClaren family, and its sole surviving member of the Crumble. Rory lives sequestered in his penthouse apartment, and has not left it for nearly 25 years, with no real human contact save through Peru’s complex and beautiful ‘virtus’ (virtual reality creations). Rory’s isolation is interrupted by the appearance of Dr. Eugenio Oliveria, a researcher and medical anthropologist at Leiodare’s office of Emergency Management.

Eugenio is also a sometime practitioner of a religion/lifestyle called Mendejano; he is linked by this religion—which focuses on nature and reveres birds as sacred—to his soul sister Lucine, who is more devout. Eugenio is interested in talking to survivors of the Crumble and finds the McClaren family at the center of his research.

Anna is the catalyst for the action that effects the entire city—and she is connected (indirectly, sometimes) to the change that ripples through the character’s lives. The introduction of magic in this mostly science fictional milieu makes perfect emotional sense.

The city of Leiodare is, itself, a character. It is a jungle city filled with many rich subcultures—including the titular Smoketown, a neighborhood of people of color who tend to numerous kilns. There is also an active gang culture—the main gang is called The Starlings.

Johnson weaves together all these strands together with lyrical prose and a thematic eye towards redemption and transformation.

View all my reviews