Tuesday, December 3, 2013

#sonsofanarchy Tara heading out alone on the road? Suspect her death or kidnapping...

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Review: Lion's Blood by Steven Barnes

(Yet another review I wrote for BET Online that disappeared down the memory hole. I'm just grateful that I kept copies.)

Alternate histories usually take readers into interesting thought experiments. Tweak a presidential assassination in 1963 here, allow the vote counts to continue in 2000 there, kill off a budding young physicist named Einstein then and let’s all see where the chips may fall. I suppose if you were a black science fiction writer, you might ask what if Martin Luther King had lived or what would have happened historically to allow Africans to become the slave owners and Europeans to become the slaves?

As it turns out, Steven Barnes just happens to be a black science fiction writer—arguably one of the most well paid black genre writers in the nation—and his new book “Lion’s Blood” answers that last question. In fact, it could sort of be described as Steam Punk Noir where Islam becomes ascendant. Barnes focuses on the years of 1850 through 1873. It feels like Gone With the Wind in Blackface, mixed in with elements of “Braveheart” and that terrible film John Travolta starred in called “White Man’s Burden”, where black folks ran everything.

To sum up the plot, we watch young “Aidan” from the land of “Eire” see his father slaughtered and the remnants of his family (mother and sister) sold into slavery and taken to the Americas. The book not only tells us the story of Aidan but the very interesting story of his Islamic slaveholders, which feature wise instructors, tribal leaders, ethnic rivalries, transported Zulu warriors (tough customers on any continent apparently) and lots of martial arts and swordplay. For the record, Steven Barnes, who also wrote one of best new Outer Limits episodes that I’ve ever seen, is a martial artist and specializes in action/adventure. It shows.

I found the book to be an enthralling read, full of violence, gothic reverse Mandingo sex (Here’s my favorite sex line: “Already she had drained and rebuilt him three times”…Is it sex or tricky pipe construction?) and the kinds of inversions that you might expect. I suppose one of the subversive ideas behind this book is that perhaps white readers might sympathize more with a guy named “Aidan” as he goes through the gruesome process of “slavery”, replete with the almost obligatory whippings, petty beatings, brutal rapes, wretched transport conditions, castrations and the routine wanton humiliation of the oppressed that you would probably expect. The sad joke is that Aidan has it relatively good in that he lands in the home of a rich guy who could only be described as an Islamic Thomas Jefferson, or Wakil Abu Ali. He actually makes sure that his slaves are relatively well fed and can keep their bizarre and savage pagan and Christian rituals. What a guy.

How do we get to this place? An America where the Indian tribes still have half of the United States by the mid 1800s, where the Mexican “Aztecas” vie to control large swaths of land from Texas through Michigan and yet where steamships and dirigibles and science still seem to be on track? Barnes starts off his alternative history by having Socrates flee to Egypt and this leads to other world changing events, such as a plague wiping out most of Europe. I suppose, even at 460 pages, the book’s alt timeline raises more questions than it actually answers. For example, the hellish hothouse of the industrial revolution actually produced dramatic scientific leaps.  We know the “Lion’s Blood” world has a Da Vinci and a Mozart? How about a Marx, Newton or newspapers?

Actually, these are plot points that might be answered in a sequel, as one major plot point was left dangling, enticingly. In summation, I recommend “Lion’s Blood”.  Barnes gives us a Brave New World that serves as an excellent primer as to why slavery was so horrendous, horrific and just plain wrong, even if black folks are on a different end of the whip.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Charisma by Steven Barnes

(Originally published at BET Online. But I had a falling out with them and they removed all the reviews. So I'm returning them here.)

 Steven Barnes
 TOR Books

As a matter of record, let it be stated that this reviewer enjoyed the Harry Potter books and the Lord of the Rings movies very much. This is despite the belief that their writers live or have lived in what could only be called very White White White White White worlds. Tolkien could be forgiven. Afterall, those were the times. Not only that: any attempt by him to handle the race matter would turn out like Kipling’s patronizing romantic view of colonialism anyway. But J.K. Rowling? Hasn’t modern Britain turned into an island full of Indian and Jamaican immigrants? Don’t tell me Rowling never saw them, like Woody Allen’s missing black and Hispanic New Yorkers for all those years, with her modern eye. Her perceptions must have been dimmed by a devilish incantation. 

Surely, someone can write a good fantasy novel and have people of color play a significant role. Turns out that the ever prolific Steven Barnes has already written that good book and as you might imagine: It’s a bit darker than anything that Rowling has ever come up with, not just in tone, but casting. Or at least I don’t remember private assassins—partial to using hit and run techniques on bicycling kids—murderous drug dealing bikers and gay body builders with a mean streak ever taking a ride on Harry Potter’s magic train. Here’s a hint of Charisma’s NC-17 tone: an angry gang of male gay body builders aren’t just content to kick your butt silly. I’ll leave it at that.  

Charisma’s premise is actually pretty interesting. What would happen if you took the genetic structure of what we could call African American super people (Your Alis, Robert Johnsons, Oprahs and so forth) and genetically transferred their traits into young children from poor backgrounds. And what if it turns out that the book’s fictional black super achiever, Alexander Marcus, a black billionaire Rupert Murdoch with a military background, has a ruthless streak that the scientists didn’t know about? You would get some very ruthless and intelligent mutant kids (The X-Men are even mentioned.) who seem to live an ethic that Machiavelli or Sun Tzu would admire. You could argue that their murders are all self-defense, but it’s still grisly. The kids are such effective machines that at the book’s denouement—where the assassins, armed with their big guns and their Nam tactics, slowly unfold their plans to make the genetically altered kids summer Camp Charisma experience a fatal one—you might find yourself feeling a kind of precognitive pity for the assassins. Turned out to be right. It’s not unlike reading the “The Wrath of Khan: The Pre-Teen Years”, for those of you who get Star Trek references.

 The big thrill here is that you get your science fiction with a varied cast of color. Black folks are represented at almost every level of society doing interesting cool things. There’s the hack reporter looking for one last great headline, the struggling business owner mother of one, the ex-jock, the street kids, even the super achiever. Barnes even manages to touch upon class differences within the black community itself. These are insights missing from the movies these days, a lot of science fiction television, and even genre books for that matter. 

All in all, a very satisfying read. Don’t be surprised to find yourself racing through the final 100 pages even though you can see what’s coming. It would be nice to see this on screen, just as affirmation that black people can be included in Great Fantasy and it can still be a cool story as well.

Review: Bad Boy Brawly Brown by Walter Mosley


(Originally published at BET Online. But I had a falling out with them and they removed all the reviews. So I'm returning them here.)

As someone who’s not entirely thrilled with Walter Mosley’s science fiction—and by that I mean that I really didn’t like “Blue Light”—I’m happy to report that the writer has taken us back to the world of his now legendary and iconic private eye Easy Rawlins in Bad Boy Brawly Brown. With his Rawlins titles always marked with the name of a color, Walter Mosley offers more than just readably exciting genre books: they reach the level of passionate social history and Great Art. Bad Boy is no exception. I couldn’t put it down. 

This new book takes us to the Los Angeles of 1964. It features, in no particular order: the rise of a group that sounds suspiciously like both the Nation of Islam and the Black Panthers, some surprising commentary on the value of a high school education in a white society, and some out and out premonitions about the fate of black leaders and the COINTELPRO (The CIA’s counterintelligence operations and do a google search if you’re curious.) operations. 

By the way, we know this is fiction written by a black man because Easy essentially closes down the LA headquarters of COINTELPRO after a vigorous letter writing campaign to the NAACP and local media. Good job Easy. If only you were real…
There is also the usual assortment of shady characters, police beatings, fistfights, gunshots, big scores, dead bodies and dark sexual secrets. There’s also the question of whether Easy’s equally legendary sidekick Mouse actually died in the last book “A Little Yellow Dog”. All of the aforementioned factors are tied into a complicated Raymond Chandler plot that I wasn’t even close to figuring out until the very end. But, to be honest, I enjoyed the journey so much the destination became moot.

 After all, Mosley’s Easy Rawlins books aren’t just detective novels. They are, in fact, social snapshots of a time, of a place and of a people. If you want to see a perspective of how working class black folk were living in 1964—and you’re too lazy to dig through the works of Manning Marable or John Hope Franklin—just read the Rawlins books and you’ll get a pretty good perspective of How It Was. The busy work of his genre motifs of fisticuffs, corrupt cops and black female molls is always seen through a historical prism. The Vietnam War and the civil rights movement serve as the backdrops this time. (Where will Easy be during the Watts riots and the day Bobby Kennedy got shot…?) Yet it’s Mosley’s commentary about these ideas and movements, as seen through Easy’s jaded 44-year-old eyes, that’s just so interesting. For example, one character talks about how the cops plan to kill or discredit all the important black leaders. Easy makes the call that his adopted son Jesus would be better off being home taught than facing hostile instructors at the public school. 

There are also the usual Easyisms. Easy has a nice habit of falling into off the books Big Scores and then there’s this food thing. We learn that the collard greens have the scent of vinegar and bits of salt pork. The lasagna has a thick red sauce. Mosley really gives you the feel of a place with his eye for tastes, smells and textures. There’s also some great intelligence in the storytelling throughout. I thought it was a stroke of genius when we find that the smoker Rawlins huffs and heaves after just running two blocks. 

Final verdict: Bad Boy Brawly Brown is great storytelling combined with a social conscience. It’s a great read and just more proof that Walter Mosley just might be the best black male fiction writer alive today.  

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Will review your self published book for $50 dollars. Or even from your reputable publishing house....

I've decided to take a crack at the paid review business. Here's some ground rules:

I will charge $50 dollars for the review for any book sent to me that's under 300 pages. That's a competitive price compared to the other services out there.

I will charge $25 dollars for any  graphic novel that's thrown my way.

I will charge $10 dollars for any comic book that's sent to me, preferably as a PDF or an online file.

Your money back if the review isn't completed and posted on this website within 7 days. I also promise to post the review on at least two other sites where your book is posted for sale including Amazon, Barnes and Noble,  Goodreads and Smashwords. That will be done within 10 days. Please remind me if I forget.

I imagine that I'll be looking at a lot of self published works and I hope to find a gem or two in those stacks. But I'd be happy to look at anything from the publishing houses as well. I guess that's what I'm used to reviewing anyway. I'm definitely interested in reviewing books by African American writers and anything related to science fiction or comics.

I don't promise to give a good review but I do promise to always be encouraging and not too cruel. It would be more of a Locus review as opposed to a cruel mean spirited Interzone review although the ones I've read seem to be very entertaining. We are now open for business. There should be a Paypal tag to pay in the upper right hand corner. The clock doesn't start ticking on the seven or 10 days until you've sent me the book.

Related: Here are some other reviews I've written. People actually pay me more for reviews yes I know its shocking. Helps to do reviews if you've actually read a book I've found. So if you like the quality of these reviews I would hope that you would utilize my services.

Here are some reviews that I did for BET online some years back.

Bad Boy Brawly Brown by Walter Mosley

Charisma by Steven Barnes

And I can review non fiction as well.

Miner's Canary by Lani Guinier

And this review of Thomas Friedman's book "The World is Flat" was turned into a podcast.

My comics reviews are all over the Internet. Here are some I'm proud of.

Comics Reviews at Locus Online.

Irredeemable 35 or Doc Doom inhabits Sue's Body and Makes Out With Reed Richards

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

The Miner's Canary by Lani Guinier

(Originally appeared In BET online around 2003 or so when BET did book reviews. I wrote a few of them.)

The Miner’s Canary
Subtitle: Enlisting Race, Resisting Power, Transforming Democracy
Publisher: Harvard University Press
Pages: 392
Price: $27.95
Authors: Lani Guinier and Gerald Torres

“In our view, unless we begin to rethink power, we are going to witness the slow but steady evisceration of American democracy as fewer and fewer people participate, as government decision-making loses legitimacy, and as private power becomes more and more concentrated in the hands of a few winners, who will not hesitate to take all. Put simply, we need to rethink power in order to save democracy.”
--from “The Miner’s Canary)

I first heard of Lani Guinier back in 1993 when the usual lot of sleazy Washington conservatives decided not only that she didn’t deserve an administration appointment, but didn’t even want to give this woman—who appeared super literate and impressive in every interview that I had seen—the courtesy of a public hearing. I figured if the Jesse Helms crowd didn’t even want her ideas aired, then I needed to find out what her “subversive” ideas were all about.

And after discovering her ideas I could see why the establishment (Or what I seriously refer to as “The Man”) found them so disturbing. Her ideas are truly revolutionary. Guinier, in her first book “Tyranny of the Majority”, makes the case that the winner take all election system itself not only hurts minority interests (any minority interests by the way, such as drug decriminalization supporters, proponents of alt fuels, the Hispanic voter etc.) but third party efforts as well and may in fact deaden the desire to participate in what appears to be a fixed political game—ever so transparent in these big lobby, big scandal, supreme court selected president times. If her ideas of proportional representation and smarter balloting were ever enacted, then conditions in the black community would certainly improve, but how do you advance minority interests in the face of hostile majorities?

Professor Guinier, now a tenured Harvard University professor, attempts to answer “how” in her new book “The Miner’s Canary”, which is subtitled: “Enlisting Race, Resisting Power, Transforming Democracy”. It was co-written by Gerald Torres, a University of Texas law professor who Guinier has collaborated with since 1990.  Word to the wise: This is a difficult and demanding read. If you find yourself uncomfortable around such ideas as magical realism, critical race theory, the writings of Michel Foucault and 60 pages of footnotes, then you might want to wait for the Cliff Notes version.

Patient and industrious readers, however, will appreciate the logical rigor of the book and its number of surprising insights and observations. Personally, I found the arguments outlining the limitations against affirmative action to be eye opening. Or as she asks indirectly: what real difference does it make if a black person runs AOL/Time Warner? I find this point compelling. Has “cosmetic diversity”, as Guinier phrases it, represented by a Tiger Woods or Condi Rice, alleviated the massive financial and social inequalities within the nation’s black communities? That’s known as a question that answers itself and it’s a tough question that Guinier and Torres attempt to answer.

The writers argue that beneficial change has to come by using the idea of “Political Race”. For example, the writers argue blacks will be the most effective leaders of change because blacks understand the structural problems of the society more clearly—the title refers to the idea that Blacks feel community problems first. The writers also highlight a number of cases where there were successful organizing efforts, which while based upon core black concerns, managed to bring in other cultural allies cultures while reaching their goals, whether it was union organizing or ensuring black participation in higher education after affirmative action plans have been dismantled.

I suppose the only question I had about the proposed remedies had to do with how grassroots organizing, no matter how inspired or creative, can overcome structural hostilities. After all, what if the poisoning of the canary is conscious? Still, if you’re looking for ideas as to how to move the racial discussion into winnable areas, “The Miner’s Canary” comes highly recommended during these dark and troubling times.