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junipergreen

pareidolia

science fiction, new weird, old weird, very weird - and everything else. often, though not always, discussed in relation to gender identity and (a)sexuality.

Currently reading

And Chaos Died
Joanna Russ
A Tale of Two Cities
Charles Dickens

Reading Delany's "Aye, and Gomorrah..." while being asexual...

...is something I've put off for a long time. 3830 words I've put off reading because I feared them to be uncomfortable. Then I read them anyway, looking for a way to procrastinate. There's nothing as motivating as being unmotivated for work. It's just 3830 words after all. And yes, they were uncomfortable, but in a different way than I've feared. I should have had more trust in Delany; even when he writes about people being othered by society and describes their othering in great detail, he himself does not other. A rare quality in a human, exceptionally rare among science fiction authors.

 

So, what's it about? Aye, and Gomorrah..., first published in 1967, tells about a group of people called Spacers, astronauts. To prevent radiation damage in space, spacers are neutered before puberty, giving them an androgynous appearance and an absolute disinterest in sex. Frelks are people who fetishize spacers, being attracted to their lack of sexual attraction. Although having no real interest in sexual encounters, spacers seek out frelks and prostitute themselves; not only for financial gain, but maybe also to enjoy the power they hold over frelks. Maybe to battle loneliness. 

 

The future Delany builds here has fully accepted all kinds of homosexuality, but spacers and frelks stay outsiders. Spacers are people constantly on the move, of indeterminable sex (and gender?), not belonging anywhere. Frelks' attraction to spacers is seen as a perversion. 

 

Here is a more thorough analyses of the text, positing how the story parallels homosexuality - and how the meaning of it has changed over the years. The author describes the spacers as "the ultimate Other, of our world but of the stars, of our species but unable to propagate it", a description I find quite fitting.

Here is a trans-reading of the story, a perspective I cannot offer.

 

Both reviews make good points, and I just want to add a few things from my perspective. Being written 1966, Aye, and Gomorrah... indeed parallels both spacers and frelks with queer folks; it very probably was written without asexuals in mind, given even the term didn't mean back then what it does today. But be it as it may, my reading of this story is perforce informed by being asexual and aromantic. There's nothing I can do about it, so I'm focusing my points on aspects related to aceness. 

 

The forceful nature of the spacers' alteration, as the text calls it, is what makes this story somewhat uncomfortable, as is their objectification by frelks. According to the story, spacers are chosen by selecting children whose “sexual responses are hopelessly retarded” - it's left as an exercise for the reader to figure out what the hell that's supposed to mean. Whatever it means, they have no choice in the whole process, no autonomy. This is made somewhat less uncomfortable to read by being told from the POV of a spacer, someone who seems quite comfortable with being who they are. Who's fine as they are, with the body they have. 

 

Two things really struck home for me here: how unwelcome spacers are even in queer spaces (anyone following the so-called "ace-discourse" on social media knows what I'm talking about; I'm not going to reiterate it for the rest, sorry), and how other people essentially see them as children (even one of the reviewers I've linked to above seems to agree with this assessment. I don't know if Delany does.) This infantilization is exactly what happens to people who express a disinterest in sexual activity*; if you also happen to have no interest in romantic relationships, people don't even see you as human any more. I'm not whining, that's simply stating facts. 

 

Some things that left a rather bad taste in my mouth: spacers are shown as being ultimately lonely, prostituting themselves to overcome this loneliness. Delany apparently described Aye, and Gomorrah... as a story "about the desire for desire". 

Keeping in mind that this story very probably does not refer to people like me, with this it still hits on something that's known to a lot of asexuals: Non-ace people seem to believe we are doomed to be lonely, that we cannot find happiness, and that we actually lack desire/attraction.** For some people on the ace-spectrum that might be the case; loneliness due to misunderstandings or due to not wanting to compromise in relationships with non-ace people is definitely a thing. But it's not our fate. There's still a lot of work to be done to disentangle meaningful relationships from sex (and, on the aro side of things, to disentangle meaningful relationships from romance), but ace and aro people can and do have fulfilled relationships. 

As to the question of "desire for desire": Do I desire to desire? The answer is: actually, no. Frankly, it just seems like too much work. 

 

One thing I cannot argue about is how well the story is written. OMFG, that guy can write! It leaves me green with envy. Showing not telling, not underestimating the reader, acutely observed, with an eye for detail and a clear sense of rhythm, this 3830 words are a joy to read.

 

*Being asexual means not experiencing sexual attraction to humans of any gender. As anything in life, it's a spectrum, with people who never experience sexual attraction at one end of it, non-ace people at the other end, and people who sometimes or under specific circumstances do feel sexual attraction somewhere in the middle. Attraction doesn't equal action, so some asexuals do have sex, and enjoy having sex, for a variety of reasons. 

** I repeat: Being asexual means not experiencing sexual attraction to humans of any gender. Attraction is seen as something else than desire. I personally experience neither attraction nor desire, which gives me a hard time to differentiate between the two (how do you tell one nothing from another nothing?), but for most people these seem to be different things. 

So What Does Good Asexual and Aromantic Representation Look Like?

There is a wide range of possible stories for asexual or aromantic people but too often the only ones on offer are: acearos who are shown to be robotic and stay robotic or acearos who are shown to be heartless and/or robotic but then are eventually ‘saved’ by an unexpected relationship.

 

Too true.

Feb 17th - 23rd is Aromantic Awareness Week

Aromantic-Official will be hosting prompts and reblogging a few responses for Arospec Awareness Week.

 

Being aromantic means to not experience romantic attraction to any gender. It does NOT mean that aromantic people are heartless, robotic or cold. We do experience other forms of attraction, be it sexual or aesthetic, and other forms of love that can be just as intense and meaningful as romantic love.

 

AVEN - the Asexual Visibility and Education Network - offers a more detailed explanation: http://wiki.asexuality.org/Aromantic

Black Butler 5 – Bring on the Food Porn

Black Butler, Vol. 5 - Yana Toboso

Seriously, this has more food porn than Hannibal. Unfortunately, no one eats Viscount of Druitt.

 

It’s the second part of the INDIAN BUTLER ARC and here comes the Queens.

 

Queen Victoria holds a curry competition. The winner will be rewarded with the Royal Warrant, a signature for high quality and almost guaranteed to boost sales. Ciel wants to expand his business and plans to participate. The curry will of course be prepared by none other than Sebastian, butler extraordinaire, gifted with wicked skill at handling cutlery and a demonic sense of smell and taste. But there’s one problem: Indian butler Agni is one of the contestants as well, and he’s not only Indian, that “Right Hand of God” of his is also able to concoct the perfect blend of spices. Whose curry will sway the jury? Who will be favoured by the Queen? And why do we have to deal with handsome-but-pervy Viscount of Druitt again?

 

Frankly, this whole thing is more than a bit cringe-worthy, culturally insensitive, and smacks of exoticism. My main gripe is how Mina, Prince Soma’s nanny, gets vilified by the narrative, because honestly, that woman has a few good points to make.

 

Saving grace are the very sensual descriptions of food, and that another layer is added to Ciel and Sebastian’s relationship. Yes, Ciel wants the Royal Warrant, but even more than that, he wants to see Sebastian lose. This volume drives home how antagonistic their back-and-forth can become and gives a first taste of what Ciel is capable of when he’s bored. I love the expression on Ciel’s face when he realizes that his butler has the real chance of actually winning the contest. He’s so pissed.

 

The curry contest also introduces Queen Victoria and one of her servants, John “I wear my totally not anachronistic sunglasses at night” Brown. The volume is sufficiently different from the anime to offer some surprises, contains the trademark inane humour, and a rather touching moment

when Agni calls Sebastian a “friend”, something Sebastian has never experienced before

(show spoiler)

but it’s far from being my favourite instalment. Thank the gods it’s rather short.

 

More next month; I think I’m not yet ready to go through the Circus Arc again.

 

Ciel, you little shit, I may like you after all.

Black Butler 4 – Let‘s Spice Things Up

Black Butler, Vol. 4 - Yana Toboso

← Oh Bassy, too sexy for your gloves, aren‘t ya?

 

It‘s the INDIAN BUTLER ARC and there will be curry. Eventually.

 

In his capacity as Queen Victoria‘s watchdog, Ciel has been called to London to investigate attacks on English businessmen and soldiers who have recently returned from India. Their search leads Ciel and Sebastian¹ to the East End, where they team up with Lau. When they are attacked by angry Indian immigrants themselves, two new acquaintances come to the rescue: Prince Soma and his servant Agni, who are looking for Soma‘s nanny Mina – and now Soma just won‘t leave Ciel‘s side.

 

Frankly, this whole story arc is a bit stupid and boring. Not much happens. (To his credit, even Ciel is bored by the case. This game doesn‘t amuse him much.) This volume essentially serves to do three things:

1. to explain what Ciel‘s role as watchdog to the Queen and as one of the Aristocrats of Evil actually means;

2. to provide the first flashback to the traumatic events that let him summon Sebastian (who apparently wears hooker boots when no one is watching);

3. to introduce some new regulars: For one we have Ran-Mao, Lau‘s… whatever she is, another favourite of mine. She doesn‘t talk much, but when she does, she has a point, and she‘s generally bad-ass. Then there‘s Prince Soma Asman Gandal, son and heir to the King of Bengal – pretty, impulsive, spoiled Soma, even more of a brat than Ciel. Last but not least we‘ve got Agni, aka „The Right Hand of God“, a human imbued with superhuman strength. Soma and Agni aren‘t among my best liked characters, but I can see their significance.²

 

They serve as a mirror for Ciel and Sebastian: Ciel summoned Sebastian in a time of need, theirs is a relationship born out of hunger, hurt and despair. Agni turned to Soma out of gratitude, when the Prince saved the formerly brutal and selfish man from being hanged for his sins. Ciel created Sebastian, gave him his name and I assume also his form; Soma created Agni by letting him die a symbolic death and declaring him reborn, giving him a new name and occupation as well. Both butlers are loyal to a fault, but for very different reasons: for Sebastian, serving a master well is a demon’s aesthetics, for Agni it’s about love and faith.

(show spoiler)

 

Agni is also the only one who can compete with Sebastian’s capability as a butler, and even bests him in some regards. Much to Sebastian's chagrin, he even manages to put the Phantomhive staff to good use – through the sheer superpower of positive reinforcement.

 

I wasn’t too in love with some of the panels here. Sebastian’s movements are smooth, fluid, and gracious. You can really see this, especially when the two butlers are fencing. Agni is supposed to be wicked fast, so he’s often depicted rather blurred, and - I didn’t really like the look of it? But the full colour panels are exceptionally beautiful, and there are still many, many details to appreciate, like the intricate china and most of all the clothes. Oh, the pretty clothes. I love Victorian attire for men anyway, and then we have Lau’s Chinese robes and Soma’s Indian dresses (not to forget Bassy’s hooker boots)³… it’s all so very, very pretty. I also love how Ciel’s eye patch changes from casual to formal depending on occasion, and he apparently has a separate one for fencing lessons, too.

 

This adventure will continue for another volume of not-much-happening, but at least it’s nice to look at. And it still has it’s moments of humour…

 

hell of a deer

(That's from the anime, obviously) 

 

And we get a taste of Professor Sebas-chan:

 

¹ That’s pronounced Se-bust-chiun, btw, not in the American way.

² Btw, never look at character sheets. I've spoiled myself for one of the Big Twists that way. But at least, knowing what to look for, I can now see how carefully Yana Toboso set it all up.

³ Eh, I’m just jealous. I’ve never learned to walk in really high heels. Hell, I’m glad if I find shoes that fit (the disadvantage of having very long, but very slim feet)

 

 

Netzpolitik.de - EU-Urheberrecht: Verhandler meißelten Uploadfilter in Stein

Ich kotze. 

 

Ich kann noch nicht abschätzen, was Art. 11 der Reform jetzt für Reviews mit Zitaten, Auszügen oder Bildern auf dieser und auf ähnlichen Seiten bedeutet. Nichts Gutes, schätze ich mal. Art. 13, die faktische Verpflichtung zu Uploadfiltern, ist totaler Mist.

 

Das ist der erste Schritt, um die Kontrolle über Netzinhalte in die Hand großer Verlage zu legen. 

 

Hier ist noch ein weiterer Artikel in der Süddeutschen, der ausführlich auf die Nachteile der Urheberrechtsreform eingeht.

Ich weiß nicht, ob es was hilft, aber hier ist auch noch ein Link zu einer Petition von change.org.

Black Butler 3 – Psycho Killer Qu'est-ce que c'est

Black Butler, Vol. 3 - Yana Toboso

You know they say that when you die, your whole life flashes before your eyes?

It‘s your Cinematic Record, being reviewed and judged by the Gods of Death.

 

It‘s the conclusion of the Jack the Ripper arc, and there will be blood. Even more blood than there has already been. And there has already been so. much. red.

 

**some character spoilers, but it's pretty much the first thing you find about this character anyway, so I'm not really giving away too much**

 

With the example of Madame Red, the author shows how adept she is at providing her characters with a Tragic Backstory™. It‘s a bit cliché and not totally unsurprising, but it actually gives Madame Red more depth and makes the reader feel for her. The Tragic Backstory™ will become par for the course, and this first glimpse is already tugging at the heartstrings. And can it be that there’s just the tiniest bit of foreshadowing, just the most tantalizing hint in what is left unsaid, for the even more tragic event that sat the whole story in motion?

 

The author doesn't leave much time to dwell on this question, because tonight it‘s butler versus butler in an epic battle to death.

Under the uncaring eye of a full moon, it’s icy black versus fiery red, cold calculation versus hot passion, mastery of movements versus the brute force of lust, Romeo versus Jul--- erm, okay, it’s Sebastian Michaelis versus Grell Sutcliff. Demon versus shinigami.

 

The German translation gets wonderfully Shakespearean here, punctuating Grell’s taste for drama, and the ensuing battle is a thing to behold.

 

Yeah, Grell. Far from being shy and clumsy, Grell (sometimes spelled Grelle) is a shinigami, a God of Death from Japanese mythology – or a Grim Reaper, as they are called in the English version. The mangaka adds a nice spin to the myth, turning the Reapers into a kind of bureaucratic organisation. Members of the Grim Reaper Dispatch are tasked with reviewing human lives, shown as Cinematic Records at the moment of death, and to decide if the person is worthy to go on living or has to die for good. To reap the souls they use their Death Scythes, costume made and often anachronistic tools. Grell comes equipped with a chainsaw, William T. Spears, a shinigami of higher rank who also appears on stage here, uses pruning shears. I especially appreciate the fact that all Grim Reapers are terrible nearsighted and get to wear costume made glasses.

Grim Reapers are the natural adversaries to demons, as both species go after human souls; Reapers to lie them to rest, demons to snatch them away and devour them.

 

The fight scenes between Sebastian and Grell are beautifully realised for the most part; there are just very few panels that I found to be confusing. The opponents are not only quite evenly matched – at first – Grell is also an outrageous flirt, much to Sebastian’s dismay. You can tell that Sebastian is just done with that shit. Not that Grell cares, because Grell has a major crush on the handsome devil.

 

Full colour Grell Sutcliff. I’m a little bit in love.¹

Grell

 

It’s this weird mix of blood & gore and hysteric, sometimes improper humour that made me love the anime so much and that also works very well on paper. In addition, the mangaka uses the symbol of chess to great effect, showing Ciel’s cold, calculating side, as well as Sebastian’s careful manipulations of the soul he plans to eat some day.

 

After an intense battle and a moving farewell, we get a cute chapter of fluff. Okay, it starts with a not so cute nightmare, and then it gets almost worst, as Elizabeth “call me Lizzy” Midford and her mum, Ciel’s aunt Frances, come to visit.² And you do not mess with Aunt Frances! The prim and proper lady won’t have the boys wearing their emo bangs, and she’s very adamant that Ciel proves his worth as Lizzy’s future husband. Apart from being fluff, the chapter shows a different side of Ciel, a side that still cares about the people dear to him, and provides another glimpse into what Sebastian thinks about his young master.

 

Also, Ciel is a Sagittarius! That could somewhat explain the whole "forgetting about the revenge plot when some other stuff comes along" kind of thing. Us sags are some easily distracted squirrels.

 

All in all, this was the strongest volume so far. (I read it in German, not in Spanish, but I'm too lazy to add the proper edition.)

 

Ciel is *not* a morning person.

Ciel in the morning

 

 

¹ Considering Grell's part in the Ripper plot, it seems quite a marvel that the shinigami is generally well liked with the audience, and that the anime gets away with essentially playing the character for comic relief. Well, I’m just into redheards. And I bet the over-the-top personality, going from good-natured, if a bit vulgar flirt to murderous psychotic rage in the blink of an eye, plays a big part in the Red Reaper’s popularity. In a cast of characters that are extra, Grell is EXTRA-extra. But like with most characters here – and that’s even true for Elizabeth “call me Lizzy” Middleford – there’s more to Grell than it seems.

² I can hear Elizabeth’s voice in my head! I don’t want to hear Elizabeth’s voice in my head!

Black Butler 2 – Hunting Famous Killers

Black Butler - Yana Toboso, Tomo Kimura

Sebastian, demon butler of the emo hair, doesn‘t actually like to wear his hair this long. That‘s a titbit of information missing from the anime.

 

The manga provides more of Sebastian‘s inner monologues. In the anime, he seems rather unflappable; here, he smarts under his assumed role as a butler, bristles at Ciel‘s spoiled behaviour, and is quite exasperated with the less then helpful household staff. Poor guy really has to restrain himself. And what does a demon of a butler do when everything gets too much and he has to calm down a bit? He goes and pets a cat. Very relatable.¹

 

This issue opens the first real sub-story arc². Young Earl Ciel Phantomhive is not only an aristocrat and head of a successful business. Following in his ancestors footsteps, he works as Queen Victoria’s “watchdog” - consorting with London’s underworld to keep a balance between righteous citizens and criminals. Here we see him at one of his cases: prostitutes are getting murdered and Ciel has to hunt – dun-dun-DUN -

 

Jack the Ripper.

 

Well, it’s Victorian England, what did you expect?

 

With the help of Sebastian and a few acquaintances, the list of suspects is narrowed down to a certain Aleister Chamber, Viscount of Druitt, a pervy slime ball with medical experience, an interest in the occult, and a taste for very young girls. To catch his interest, Ciel has to dress up as a girl and go to one of Druitt’s parties. Of course he gets himself captured again and has to be saved by Sebastian – again.

This part of the story made me extremely uncomfortable when watching the anime. Ciel is heavily sexualised here. It’s played for laughs, but I guess I’m just too old for this kind of “fun”³. But remember when I said the good outweighs the bad? The good is a story that moves smoothly and consistently and has a few surprises up its sleeve. Because as a chagrined Ciel has to find out, Druitt’s eventual capture has not at all solved the case and the murderer continues their gruesome work.

 

The other good thing are the characters. As already mentioned, we get to see more of Sebastian, more of his sarcastic wit and sardonic humour. Ciel’s character is developed further, too. He’s a spoiled child, but also a severely traumatized child, who had to grow up far too fast, and who, courtesy of his name, has to live on the dark side of life, as one of the “Aristocrats of Evil”. In result, he often acts cruel and apparently without feeling. He sees life as a game and people as his chess pieces, to be moved around at will. But behind that all lies hurt. Ciel is a character whose motivations I can understand and whom I feel for, but I wouldn’t go so far to say I like him.

 

We also meet some other crucial characters: Ciel’s aunt Angelina Dalles, nicknamed Madame Red, her shy and clumsy butler Grell Sutcliff, Mr. Lau, head of the English branch of Chinese foreign trait, and Undertaker, a - surprise! - undertaker and Ciel’s frequent informant about the going-ons in the underworld. Some of this characters will become regulars, some of them – won’t.

 

From this cast, Undertaker is one of the most mysterious and intriguing figures in this story, and a fan favourite. Also a favourite of mine. He has helped the Phantomhive family since years, but his motives are as much a mystery (for now) as are his eyes. He has an evil sense of humour and requests to be paid in laughs. Not as easy as it sounds, but Sebastian finally gets a laugh out of him – and the reader can just wonder what he had to do for that.

 

undertaker

The Undertaker

 

And as the story progresses, we finally get to meet my very favourite character of Kuroshitsuji in all their extravagant, passionate, psychotic glory. (Well, almost all their glory, as the manga is restricted to black and white. The big reveal scene worked a lot better in colour.)

But that’s a story for the next installment.

 

Cat therapy for demon butlers

 

bb-cat

 

 

 

¹ Sebastian’s love for cats, driving him to complete distraction, is just the best thing about Kuroshitsuji. Cute as shit.

² The story arcs have individual names, but this one’s a tad spoilery, me thinks. And apparently spoiler tags don't work at the moment? It's not that important anyway. 

³ Viewed from a certain perspective, a lot of things in this manga could be seen as problematic. The sexualization of a 12-year-old is just one of these issues. I do notice that, and a lot of these things make me angry. But this is not your US-American, SJW approved comic book. If you’re looking for something adhering to US ideas about political correctness, better look elsewhere.

 

Kuroshitsuji / Black Butler - Yana Toboso

Black Butler, Vol. 1 - Yana Toboso, Tomo Kimura

I‘m currently binge-watching the Kuroshitsuji anime on Netflix, which drew me in with a mix of hysteric slapstick shenanigans, some pretty heavy violence, lots of tea and cake, interesting characters – and almost spit me out again with the Bishounen portrayal of a 12-year-old boy. Sometimes fan-service can be just too much. But in the end, the good outweighed the bad, and I‘m glad I stuck with it (it helped that the Black Butler‘s German voice actor, Bernhard Völger, has a very nice voice indeed and the perfect deadpan delivery.)

The anime goes its own ways after a few episodes, so I wanted to know how the story plays out in the manga. 

 

The story is set in some AU version of Victorian England, interpreted through a thoroughly Japanese lens. 12-year-old Ciel Phantomhive has recently lost his family and thus became head of the Phantomhive household and the successful Funtom Company, a manufacturer of toys and sweets. But his parents didn‘t just pass away – they have been brutally murdered, and Ciel has suffered grave abuse as well. He swears revenge and strikes a deal with the devil. Until this contract is fulfilled and the devil can reap Ciel‘s soul, he will pose as his butler, going by the name of Sebastian Michaelis.

So, it‘s basically a Gothic horror story about a devil grooming a young soul for consumption – told with black humour, weird anachronisms, creative misuse of cutlery, and in very pretty pictures. There are also some inappropriate sexual undertones I could have done without, but alas… it is what it is. Ciel’s revenge is a long time coming, by the way; there are 28 books (148 chapters) and counting. I plan detailed reviews for all of them. With gifs. Because if I go teenage girl, I go all the fucking way.

 

A butler and his silverware

 

The first book starts in medias res, as a slice of life chapter introducing us to the Phantomhive household: Besides Ciel and Sebastian, there’s the rather useless staff consisting of gardener Finnian, maid Mey-Rin (spelling differs in German and English translation), chef Bard, and former Butler Tanaka, who appears as a green tea drinking chibi most of the time. We get our first taste of Sebastian’s otherwordly competence, before the second chapter leads us to meet Ciel’s fiancee Elizabeth “call me Lizzy”, his cousin and so cute it makes me puke (sorry). In the third chapter, Ciel is kidnapped – for reasons that could have been better explained – by Italian mobsters. Who have cellphones (!) and whose fashion sense is also quite ahead of its time. Go figure.

Will Sebastian manage to rescue his young master in time to finish his dinner preperations?

 

This first volume is a decent start to the series, but I’m glad I already know it will get better. The storyline is a bit confusing, although I like the stark contrast between the staff’s innocent shenanigans and Sebastian’s brutal one-man-infiltration of the mobster mansion. The art is already great, the clothes are wonderfully detailed, there’s a great variety of faces, and even the backgrounds look convincing. Off to the next.

 

I'm reasonably sure that's not how people dressed in Victorian England.

Down for the Count - Martin Holmén

Down For the Count (Pushkin Vertigo) - Martin Holmen, Henning Koch

Kvisten in love.

 

The year is 1935, and ex-boxer gone private eye Harry Kvist has just been released from prison. He's also fallen in love with another prisoner whom he calls Doughboy. Doughboy will be released in seven days. Seven days to wait, and little does Kvist know that it will be one hell of a week.

 

This is the successor to Clinch, and just like the first part of the Stockholm trilogy it pulls no punches. An old friend of Kvisten's has been murdered, her disabled son is the prime suspect. Kvist believes the man to be innocent and starts an investigation of his own. 

 

So, is it Harry Kvisten Kvist in a magnificent comeback?

At least as far as the quality of the book is concerned, the answer is a resounding "yes". Down for the Count reads more smoothly than its predecessor, what's partly due to either the translator or an editor sticking to British English, and partly due to the author having finally stopped to reiterate every bloody streetname in the whole city of Stockholm. The attention to detail is still there, but it serves the story well. Holmén knows how to create atmosphere: This is the sooty, sweaty world of hard physical labour, a world of going paycheck to paycheck, hand to mouth, always hoping there's enough coin left to feed your family tomorrow. It's also a world where facism gains more and more ground; swastikas appear throughout the city, Nazis march, and the anti-semitism gets more blatant.

 

The brutally is still there, too. Harry's fists are still quicker than his head, and his opponents aren't exactly choir boys either. But this time our ex-boxer has company: Elin, the murder victim's estranged daughter, takes an interest in the case. She is the wits to Harry's fists, smart and graced with good people-skills. She's also the better detective. Maybe because she doesn't knock people out before they can answer her questions. She and Harry make a good team.

 

Just like in Clinch, the investigation moves at snail's pace, something I wasn't much bothered by because every thing else was so good. With all the delightful banter, Kvist's lovelorn longing, improper dog food, and the ever important question of waistcoat or no waistcoat, solving the case was just a bonus.

 

Highlight of the book is once again Harry Kvist himself, the epitome of a tough guy who thankfully has too much depth to become a stereotype. He's a brute raised by brutal circumstances, a survivor, someone who's been to the ground but never down for the count. Unschooled but street smart, violent but not cruel, with a big heart for underdogs like himself, he's the perfect anti-hero for hardboiled noir like this. He's also the kind of guy I respond to on a hormonal level. Yes, I'm asexual, but I still have a body, and that body goes for ueber-macho alpha-males. (There's also a kinda nurturing and caring side to Kvist, so maybe my body isn't all that mistaken).

 

There are some thoughts to be had on how these books deal with queerness, but I'll leave that for the third and last installment. 

 

Soundtrack: Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds, I Let Love In

Down for the Count - Reading progress update: I've read 22%.

Down For the Count (Pushkin Vertigo) - Martin Holmen, Henning Koch

Hey, the slang changed to proper British. Reads a lot smoother.

Clinch by Martin Holmén

Clinch - Martin Holmen, Henning Koch

Anybody can knock out an opponent, but only a technician can take a bloke's heart away from him.

 

Historic Scandinavian noir, set in Stockholm 1932, following a bisexual ex-boxer: how could I say no?

 

Harry Kvist is a former boxer who was quite popular at his time, but never quite made it to pro-status. December 1932 sees him working as a debt collector in Stockholm, a task that lets him put his fists to good use. His next assignment seems promising: rough up a debtor, collect the debt, get a lot of dough. The first part goes quite well – for Harry at least, not so much for the debtor – but then it‘s down the drain with no up in sight. When Harry returns the next day, the debtor‘s dead and he is framed for murder. Two people could attest to his innocence. The boy is out of the question, because Harry has already been sentenced for violation of paragraph 18 („indecency“) twice, and anyway, he punched him afterwards, so not the ideal situation to ask for a favour. The whore Harry chatted with is nowhere to be found. When a third witness leads to his release, Harry goes looking for the prostitute – and tries to find the real murderer as well.

 

noir rain

 

Clinch came to my attention 2016, when members of both the GR m/m group and the Pulp Fiction group started to read and review this book simultaneously – and seemed equally satisfied. There isn‘t that much overlap between those two groups (except when you count my presence in both of them as overlap; which I guess you can), so I was instantly intrigued. Yet I was hesitant to get my own copy: I planned to wait for a German translation, as Swedish translates better into German than into English, and I have a somewhat easier time with 1st person present tense in German to boot. But none seems to be forthcoming, and I finally ran out of patience. I‘m glad I did get over myself, because Clinch is certainly worth it.

 

My old trainer once said that boxing, at its best, makes you feel properly alive. This is wrong. Boxing is at its best when you’re completely empty inside, pressing on like some kind of automatic doll. One movement is not more than a natural extension of another. The body is abandoned to answer in a certain way to a given situation, hardened through thousands of hours of training. The fight turns into a physical self-examination, a receipt for the time that’s been invested. Street fighting is really no different; it just lacks a system of rules.

 

As far as noir goes, Clinch is firmly on the grittier, pulpier side of things. It’s a very physical story. The violence is as graphic as are the sex scenes, which end in not entirely consensual violence as well. But sensuous as those scenes are, Clinch isn’t celebrating violence; things aren’t prettied up or glorified. Amongst breaking bones and flowing blood there are few instances of tenderness, presented in a way that always make you question how genuine they actually are.

Holmén also adds some really nice touches: “The meat thermometer in his throat shows thirty-three degrees but I don’t know how long I’ve been out.”

 

The author plays some well known noir tropes to good effect and offers some top-notch character work. Harry Kvist has an intensity to him that I find hard to resist. He’s just as intense in his needs and in his longings as he is in his propensity towards violence. He’s not easy to decipher, but as his backstory is presented in little nuggets throughout the book, you get a pretty good idea about the man. I especially liked the fact that he isn’t a good detective. His fights have left him with an impaired memory, not the best prerequisite for detective work, and he often solely relies on his fists. But there’s no success to justify his brutality, which makes this character all the more tragic.

 

Although gritty and brutal, this is not a fast-paced story. Holmén seems more interested in atmosphere and character than in a fast-moving series of events. He’s also a historian and it shows. The first part is a bit in danger of reading like a Swedish street directory. The second half more than makes up for it. The book is at its best when it zooms in on Harry and his relationships, be it his companionship with his landlord, the undertaker Lundin, his distaste for a certain ex-lover, or his relation to the femme fatale of this story, an ageing film star.

 

Bisexual characters in genre-fiction are still rare. Unapologetic bisexual men like Kvist even more so. I read a lot of SFF, and when we get trad-published SFF stories with queer characters, they often fall into the trap of either a) concentrating on the character's queerness, b) being so busy with being “diverse” that they forget to tell a story or c) giving the character no personality apart from being queer. The books churned out by Tor are the worst offenders in all of these regards, Indies and Angry Robot do somewhat better. As usual, crime fiction seems to be a bit ahead of the game. I keep asking for stories with queer characters that are simply good stories with good, believable characters who happen to be queer, and Clinch certainly fits that bill. This being the 1930's, Kvist’s bisexuality is cause for conflict, and the book buries quite a few gays, but that’s to be expected. Most importantly, Holmén gives you people, in all their complexity, with all their flaws. And that’s all I’m really asking for.

 

Henning Koch’s English translation flows quite well, although, as a GR reviewer has already remarked, he mixes British English and American English vernacular, and I’d wished for a bit more consistency.

 

Clinch is the first part in a trilogy, and now my hesitancy has one advantage: The two other parts are already published and I can read them right away (well, almost, I have a longish buddy read coming up).

 

Bonus points for avoiding the phrase “letting go of the breath one wasn’t aware one was holding”, and instead saying: “I notice that I’ve been holding my breath, then straining for air.” See, authors, there are variations you can use!

 

Soundtrack: Nick Cave's extra-sultry version of Leonard Cohen's "I'm Your Man"

Clinch - Reading progress update: I've read 50%.

Clinch - Martin Holmen, Henning Koch

Lookie there - it took almost half the book for the femme fatale to arrive, but now she's there, and of course she's got a long, slim cigarette holder *lol*

 

Yes, this is a bit stereotypical at times, and the plot moves with glacial pace - but there are also moments of brilliance, and Harry Kvist is a strangely addictive character. Im glad I got over my distaste for 1st person present tense and picked this up.

Clinch - Reading progress update: I've read 5%.

Clinch - Martin Holmen, Henning Koch

I didn't have any New Year resolutions, but I did plan to read more hopeful, positive books this year.

Accordingly, I picked up dark and gritty Scandinavian noir set in the 1930s.

Consistency - I don't have it.

Neujahr, Juli Zeh

— feeling bad smell
Neujahr: Roman - Juli Zeh

(German review only so far, sorry.)

 

Das Leid des weißen Mannes.

 

Es ist der Erste Erste Zweitausendundachtzehn und Henning fährt Rad. Er fährt auf Lanzarote, den Steilanstieg nach Femés hinauf. In Hennings Leben ist so weit alles in Ordnung. Er ist verheiratet, hat zwei Kinder, teilt sich mit seiner Frau Theresa Erziehungs- und Hausarbeit. Theresa macht, Henning funktioniert. Nur, dass natürlich gar nichts in Ordnung ist. Denn in der Nacht hebt ES seinen Kopf und beschert Henning Panikattacken. In einem Landhaus über Femés befällt ihn schließlich die Erinnerung an ein verdrängtes Kindheitsereignis.

 

Ich schicke mal voraus, dass mich das Thema des Buches schon beim Lesen des Klappentextes nicht sonderlich interessiert hat. Wäre es von jemand anderem als Juli Zeh geschrieben, hätte ich es nicht gelesen. Ich hätte es auch so nicht gekauft, es war ein Geschenk (über das ich mich auch sehr gefreut habe). Es ging dann auch komplett an meinem Geschmack vorbei.

 

Meiner letzter Roman von Juli Zeh war „Nullzeit“, der auch schon auf Lanzarote spielt. Im Vergleich mit ihren früheren Werken fiel mir als erstes auf, dass sie ihre Sprache extrem eingedampft hat. Diese Änderung im Stil machte sich schon in „Nullzeit“ bemerkbar, in „Neujahr“ bleibt sie noch wesentlich simpler. Verschwunden sind die überzogenen sprachlichen Bilder, die manchmal an die Grenzen des guten Geschmacks stoßenden Metaphern. Man kann das als „klare Sprache“ loben. Dieser Stil tut niemandem weh, stört nicht beim Bügeln – und langweilt mich zu Tode. Im zweiten Teil versucht Zeh dann, aus der Sicht eines Kindes zu schreiben, ein Kniff, den ich immer etwas bemüht finde, und der auch hier eher Fremdschämen als Begeisterung auslöst.

 

Immerhin versteht sich es noch, mit der Wahl ihres Personals zu irritieren. Ihre Charaktere waren nie Sympathieträger, Henning reiht sich da nahtlos ein: Ein alberner Hampelmann mit fragilem Ego, der sich von seiner gleichberechtigten Beziehung mit einer besserverdienenden Ehefrau, von Arbeit und Kindern überfordert fühlt, der kein wirklicher Ernährer sein kann und sich in seine Rolle als Vater nicht einfindet. Armer Henning.

 

Die weiblichen Figuren des Romans sind keinen Deut sympathischer.

 

Wie alle Romane von Juli Zeh ist auch dieser arg konstruiert, Steigung, Plateau mit Erinnerung, Abfahrt, und basiert auf mehr als erstaunlichen Zufällen. Das ist zu ertragen, wenn mich der Inhalt anspricht, nur war das hier leider nicht der Fall. Ich könnte jetzt analysieren, wie Hennings Kindheitserlebnisse sein Männlichkeitsbild und seine Selbstzweifel geprägt haben, wie sich das auf seine Beziehung zu Mutter, Schwester und Theresa auswirkt - aber so ganz habe ich nicht herausgefunden, was dieses Buch von mir will. Ich verstehe einfach nicht, warum das Leiden der Kinder auf fast 100 Seiten ausgewalzt werden muss. Derart platte emotionale Manipulation kenne ich von Juli Zeh nicht und sie hat mich weder unterhalten, noch brachte sie Erkenntnisgewinn.

 

Ich interessiere mich halt nicht für das Geschichten, die das Unglück mittelalter, weißer Männer in den Fokus rücken, und ergötze mich auch nicht gern am Leiden von Kindern. Ich kann mit dem Buch einfach nichts anfangen.

 

(Spider counter: already a lot)

Jade City by Fonda Lee

Jade City  - Fonda Lee

There are four types of stories I cannot resist: caper stories, Gothic horror in space, stories about boxing, and gangster dramas. Those stories don‘t have to be all that original; as long as they work well with all the known ingredients, they will make me happy.

 

Jade City is an extraordinarily good example of the gangster drama. Inspired by Mafia- and kung fu-films, set in a world were jade is magic, it tells a story about family, honour, and rivalling clans clashing in a bloody war.

 

The book requires a bit of patience. Fonda Lee takes her time to introduce readers to the world of Kekon and to her main characters. The story really kicks into gear about 30% in, and at the halfway point, all bets are off. Even then, it‘s not all action either: a lot of the clan warfare consists of politicking and strategy meetings. But when the action starts, it‘s epic.

 

The worldbuilding is thorough. Kekon is a small island, the world‘s only resource of bioenergetic jade. Jade lends heightened senses and strength to its wearers, but just Kekonese with special training have the ability to wield those powers. Other people will be consumed and destroyed. Now a new drug is hitting the streets, SN1, reducing the negative side effects of wearing jade, giving more people the ability to wear the precious stones – including Kekon‘s enemies.

The reader learns a lot about the culture, religion and history of Kekon, a little less about it‘s rivalling states Espenia (which I kept reading as Españia, but I think it‘s supposed to be either Britain or the USA) and Ygutan. The story is set in an alternative 1960s, and Kekon, especially the clans, is still pretty much a man‘s world; it‘s a patriarchal, somewhat racist and deeply superstitious society. The patriarchal structure is addressed head-on; I‘d wished for a bit more direct engagement with Kekonese racism, but maybe that‘s to come in the sequels.

 

The real highlight of this book are the characters. We follow the Kaul family of the No Peak clan, one of the two most powerful clans of Kekon. Lan is No Peak‘s leader, a kind and reasonable man, but maybe a bit to hesitant to lead his clan into war; Hilo is his younger, charismatic and hot-headed brother, heading the military side of the clan; Shae is the youngest sibling, returning to Kekon after she‘s left the island with her lover. Young Anden is their cousin, still training to once become a powerful jade worrier, a Green Bone. Their rivals are the Mountain, a clan that‘s getting into the business of producing and selling SN1. All characters, protagonists and antagonists alike, are compelling, their relationships feel real. I couldn‘t even really pick a favourite, a rare thing when reading stories with multiple POVs. Although the book is certainly violent (it's a gangster drama about clan warfare, after all; people are mutilated and die!), there's no explicit sexual violence; Lee wisely didn't fall into the trap of replacing sexual assault for character development, which is sadly still a thing, especially in fantasy that tries to be "edgy".

I liked the Kauls almost as much as I like a certain Shelby family; and considering how close the Peaky fucking Blinders are to my heart, you can take this as high praise.

 

The writing is serviceable, if a bit artless. The action scenes are great, the dialogue rings true most of the time, descriptions are sensual and vivid. But Lee also uses some clichés I could‘ve done without: characters are releasing „the breath they didn‘t even know they were holding“, every emotion shows in the characters‘ eyes (something I‘ve never seen happen in real life), and she has the odd habit of opening a sequence of dialogue with an adjective: „Coldly: ‚I have done so.‘“.

 

But that‘s a minor quibble. While the writing could improve a bit, and the story is at times a tad predictable, the worldbuilding and characters are simply a lot of fun. One element of the epic showdown even managed to surprise me.

The story is set up to be a trilogy, but this works well as a standalone. Nevertheless, I‘m looking forward to the sequel and another meeting with the Kauls. I hope to see more of Anden and Wen, Hilo's wife. I hope to get to know what's up with that unopened letter. And I hope for a few more surprises along the way.