Interview with Carolina de Robertis, author of The Gods of Tango

In her new book The Gods of Tango, bestselling author Carolina de Robertis weaves together a story addressing the issues of race, class, immigration, and sexuality as beautifully as the tango weaves together the music of Argentina’s many immigrant communities. In language musical and brutal by turns, de Robertis tells the story of Leda, a young Italian immigrant who passes as a man in order to pursue her dream of becoming a tango musician. Along the way, we learn the back stories of many other characters and the obstacles they overcome — or fail to overcome — as their lives intersect with Leda’s. de Robertis took some time out of her busy schedule to talk with me about her work.

Image of a woman with long hair and red lipstick wearing a red sleeveless shirt.
Carolina de Robertis, author of The Gods of Tango

What inspired you to write this book and what sort of research did you need to do to write it?

I began with the seed of my own great-grandmother’s immigration experience, from Italy to Argentina. I quickly saw, however, that from that seed I wanted to grow a much larger story, not only about the great migration of that time to South America, but also about the rich cultural history of the tango’s origins, and about female transgression into an underworld of men.

I did a huge amount of research. I scoured libraries and bookstores, read piles of books in English, Spanish and Italian (badly), walked the streets of Buenos Aires and Montevideo and Naples and my ancestral village in Italy, took tango dance lessons and violin lessons, and consulted with all sorts of experts, from musicologists and musicians to friends on the transgender spectrum. Continue reading “Interview with Carolina de Robertis, author of The Gods of Tango”

Interview with Alexandra Delancey, Author of Lesbian Romance Always Her

Always Her, by Alexandra Delancy
Always Her, by Alexandra Delancy

Alexandra Delancey’s novellas Always Her and Me and Her chronicle the love story between newly-out Elise and ultra-cool tomboy Jack. I caught up with Alexandra recently to talk with her about her characters, her craft, and the business of publishing in the age of e-books.

Your characters are well-drawn and idiosyncratic, especially some of the more minor ones like Tatiana, Christie, and Alyssa. How did your own experience of the lesbian scene inform these characters?
That’s really nice to hear. I didn’t base any of them on individual people that I know, but I wanted to reflect the experience of being in your early twenties and being gay, or thinking that you might be gay, and the insecurities and preconceptions that sometimes accompany it. I spent my twenties discovering the lesbian scenes of several countries, and they all have their own norms and cliques. They can be frustrating at times, but they’re a lot of fun too. What I’ve always loved about the scene is that it gives you an opportunity to meet a much broader cross section of people than you otherwise might, so I tried to make my characters diverse in order to reflect that.

Tell me more about how the characters of Jack and Elise evolved.
I like writing tomboyish characters. Continue reading “Interview with Alexandra Delancey, Author of Lesbian Romance Always Her”

Review of Lesbian Romance Always Her, by Alexandra Delancy

Always Her, by Alexandra Delancy
Always Her, by Alexandra Delancy

In the new romance Always Her, Alexandra Delancey does an excellent job of evoking the angst and drama of the college lesbian scene. While I don’t necessarily agree with the identity politics of the characters, they do ring true for their milieu. Jack is that elusive object of lesbian desire: the cool butch who tends bar and had led a charmed life free of homophobia. Elise is the perfect wish fulfillment for every dyke who’s ever loved a straight girl: blonde-haired, shy, sweet, and only newly come to terms with her sexuality. The novella does a great job of building tension between the two to the final sex scene, which is most definitely a one-handed read.

Continue reading “Review of Lesbian Romance Always Her, by Alexandra Delancy”

Persephone, to Demeter, by Shawn Fawson

This poem comes from a collection put out by Dancing Girl Press in 2008 called “Billet-doux” (Love letters), which comes like a box of letters and postcards, each poem printed differently on a different missive. It must have taken the press a great deal of effort to produce these by hand. The format wouldn’t mean much, however, if the poetry itself weren’t high quality. I have many collections of poetry, and this is by far one of my favorite.

The myth of Persephone and Demeter has a great deal of personal significance for me. I appreciate the bare quality of this poem, and the hope offered at its end.

Persephone, to Demeter

I gather
handfuls of asphodels,
but their white edges
waste into air. I should be
thankful roots taste buttery
sweet and a feeling triggers–
your hair shaking out blue
sky, fingers pulling down knotted
threads of white birds
You seem
tiny then: stalks thicken with
shade distorting the light,
a shatter of wings where breast
and earth meet. But you are
careful, the rolling cart stands
upright on the precipice. Farmers
steady the harrow; smoke toils
on the horizon.
Each spring
I walk into daylight and offer
you this bouquet, this earth stripped
from my side making you radiant.

– Shawn Fawson
Billet Doux, Dancing Girl Press, 2008. Reprinted with permission of the publisher.

Was Terry Pratchett a Feminist?

Photograph of author Terry Pratchett at a book signing, courtesy of Myrmi via Wikimedia Commons

Terry Pratchett is one of the most prolific authors of our age. When he died yesterday (March 12, 2015) he left behind a massive oeuvre: more than 70 books, most of them about the Discworld, a flat planet carried on the back of four elephants who themselves stand back of the great turtle A’Tuin as it swims through space.

About a month ago I began re-reading Pratchett’s Discworld books. As I did so, this question kept roiling around in the back of my mind: Is Terry Pratchett a feminist? Continue reading “Was Terry Pratchett a Feminist?”

Book Review: Amazon Burning by Victoria Griffiths

amazon-burning-coverVictoria Griffith’s debut novel Amazon Burning follows the exploits of Emma Cohen, a journalism student who leaves New York under a cloud of suspicion. She arrives in Brazil to shadow her father, bureau chief for the Guardian newspaper. Ill at ease with upper-class Rio society, she jumps at the chance to accompany her father while he reports on the murder of an environmental activist in the Amazon rainforest.

On the way they meet up with the impossibly handsome and charming photographer Jimmy Feldman — a Brazilian-born son of expat parents. While Emma’s father is off reporting, Emma and Jimmy embark on their own investigation, attempting to navigate a web of corruption involving local officials, miners, rancher, smugglers, and other parties who stand to profit from the destruction of the rain forest.

One part eco-thriller, one part “new adult” romance, Griffith’s novel offers readers a close-up view of modern life in Brazil. Her vivid descriptions of the Amazon and the Yanomami who live in it are far more compelling than the love story between Emma and her hunky photographer. And the account of Emma’s troubles in New York seemed rather overwrought and improbable. Aside from these few false notes though, the book is well worth a read.

This review originally appeared on Gender Focus.

Review of The Dispossessed by Ursula LeGuin

Image of a book cover for The Dispossessed by Ursula K LeGuinArguably my favorite book, unarguably my favorite author, The Dispossessed tells the story of a brilliant physicist born and raised in a colony established on Anarres, the barren red moon of Urras, a blue planet that bears a striking resemblance to late-19th-century Earth. LeGuin’s Hainish cycle often explores socio-political issues at play in our own society, and this book is no exception. The Dispossessed describes what might have happened if a group of anarcho-communists (Odonians) had been able to establish and develop a society in isolation from the hierarchical, capitalist world that rejected it. I appreciate LeGuin’s evenhanded presentation of each world: the egalitarianism and austerity of Anarres, and the lush abundance and injustice of Urras.

Shevek leaves Urras because his work as a physicist isn’t considered “central” by Odionian society, but he struggles to maintain his ideals and his identity on a planet that grants him luxury and wealth while forcing others to live in hardship and poverty. As Shevek travels between the two worlds, his journey sheds light on the wonders and flaws of each.

On Anarres, it is an insult of the highest order to call someone a profiteer. In her 2014 acceptance speech for the National Book Award, LeGuin used the word “profiteers” to refer to the increasingly money-focused publishing industry. Anyone who’s read The Dispossessed will recognize the philosophy of the Odonians in the following excerpt from that speech:

“We need writers who can remember freedom: poets, visionaries, the realists of a larger reality. Right now, I think we need writers who know the difference between the production of a market commodity and the practice of an art. Developing written material to suit sales strategies in order to maximize corporate profits and advertising revenue is not quite the same thing as responsible book publishing or authorship.”

View the full speech via this link, or embedded below:

[A previous version of this review was posted on November 3, 2009 on Goodreads]

Book Review: The Fall of the Kings, by Ellen Kushner and Delia Sherman

Book cover for The Fall of the Kings by Ellen Kushner and Delia Sherman
The Fall of the Kings by Ellen Kushner and Delia Sherman

I first learned of Ellen Kushner’s work through her radio show “Sound and Spirit,” on WBGH. Grounded in the songs and stories of cultures throughout the world, her show explored the spiritual and religious traditions and themes that transcend divides of politics and dogma. This understanding of how ancient stories and archetypes echo through the ages blossoms forth in The Fall of The Kings. It’s one of the Swordspoint books, which take place in an unspecified country that bears some resemblance to 18th-century Venice or London.

Earlier books focused on political intrigue and traditions around sword-fighting, and evoked a time in which same-sex love was part and parcel of the fabric of society. As a bisexual woman, I find it refreshing to read about a world in which people were free to take male and female lovers without scandal, condemnation, or even much gossip.

The plot of The Fall of the Kings, which Kushner co-wrote with her partner Delia Sherman, turns not on its characters’ amorous adventures but on a deep, old archetype found in British folklore and tradition. Echoes of the story of the Oak King and the Holly King can be found in Sir Gawaine and the Green Knight, Le Mort D’Artur, accounts of William the Conqueror’s reign, and in modern Traditional British Witchcraft. Kushner takes this old myth and makes it new in a story that weaves love and sexuality, scholarship and magic, family duty and political intrigue, and ancient notions of kingship and leadership into a rich tapestry that touches the very deepest part of human experience.

Review of Sky Coyote by Kage Baker

Image of the book cover of Sky Coyote by Kage BakerBaker’s flip, hard-boiled voice offers a pleasant counterpoint to the ageless characters that inhabit The Company novels. In the 24th century, a mysterious entity known as Dr. Zeus, Incorporated (aka The Company) has discovered how to travel back in time. In order to save on the prohibitively expensive cost of time travel, The Company recruits young humans to undergo extensive surgical enhancement that transform them into immortal cyborgs to do their bidding through the ages.

Baker’s books offer both lucid prose and deft storytelling. She achieves the difficult task of delivering self-contained story arcs in each book while also enticing the reader to follow the thread of a longer-form plot, one that stretches from the dawn of humanity to the 24th century. Who are the mysterious forces behind The Company, and what is their eventual endgame?

In this installment, cyborg “Facilitator” Joseph embarks on an assignment in pre-Columbian Alta Calfornia. His job: to convince a Chumash village to abandon their ancestral home before white settlers wipe them out. To give his story credence, he appears to them as Sky Coyote, patron god of the tribe. Baker’s well-researched facts (she’s a native Californian and worked with the Living History Centre) lend verisimilitude to the fantastical story lines that might prove unbelievable in less skillful hands.

Review of Midwinterblood by Marcus Sedgwick

Image of the book cover of Midwinterblood by Marcus SedgewickMidwinterblood by Marcus Sedgwick is a lyrical, haunting book which I devoured in a single night. It was shelved in the science fiction/fantasy section of my local bookstore, but the novel really defies genre. It’s more in keeping with the Gabriel Garcia Marquez tradition of magical realism than the stereotypical pulp fiction often found in the sci-fi aisle.

I love narratives that challenge the linear nature of time and push at the edges of everyday reality, especially when they incorporate beautiful language and recurring motifs. This novel does all that and more.

Set on the same island in seven different time periods, the novel explores the themes of love and sacrifice as it weaves together characters who recur in different iterations and permutations. “I might be lots of people […] Why do I have to be just one? I am lots of people and I love all of the and they love me.”

Sedgewick drew inspiration from a painting in the Swedish National Gallery called Midvinterblot (Wikipedia link here). His vivid description of the painting and the way he brought its narrative to life inspired me to research it further. This passage from the book echoes its real-life reception, which relegated it to the dust-heap of history until almost a century after its creation:

“Sacrifice. That’s a somewhat… outdated… notion, isn’t it? In this modern world?”

“Outdated?” echoed Eric. Suddenly, he felt very old. He felt that he didn’t understand.

“The theme is old, but not outdated,” he explained, feeling bewildered. “And it refers to the island, whose very name is written in blood!”

“Really?” said one of the men.

“Indeed. People think the name of this island means ‘blessed,’ and so it does, but ‘blessed’ does not mean what people think it does. In the old tongue it was blestian and before that blotsian, and before that, just blod. It means sacrifice.”

“Sacrifice.”

“To bless means to sacrifice, and in blood.”

There is a pause. A long pause.

Then, “Good. Well, thank you for your time here today, Mr. Carlsson.”

With that they left.

[ NOTE: This review was originally published at Goodreads on 7/18/2014. ]