Witty Repartee Triptych

At last! The first of my triptych reviews!

Triptych theme: Protagonists = (potentially) romantic couple engaging in near-constant witty repartee. AKA “The Nick & Norah Triptych”

Books in this triptych: 1. The Secret Adversary, by Agatha Christie (1922)  2. The Thin Man, by Dashiell Hammett (1934)   3. Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist, by Rachel Cohn & David Levithan (2006)

How it Came About:  Some time ago, when I was in Australia for WorldCon, the fabulous Peter Ball and I got to talking about our shared love for Nick & Norah, both movie and book, and he somehow got me to watch the DVD with commentary, which  was actually quite fascinating. Among other tidbits about how the two authors had collaborated to produce the book, Rachel Cohn said that part of her inspiration had been Hammett’s characters Nick and Norah Charles, a rich and glamorous married couple “who solve homicides in between wisecracks and martinis” (as described on the back of the book). Cohn said she wanted to capture that sense of fun and witiness in a romantic couple. I later discovered Nick & Norah Charles had a forerunner in Agatha Christie’s Tommy and Tuppence, who don’t drink quite so much but are just as clever when it comes to both wise-cracks and crime-solving.

Favorite things and fun quotes from this triptych below the fold!

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Why It’s Fantasy When Boy Meets Boy

Boy Meets Boy by David Levithan (co-author of Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist) is not a work of speculative fiction.  Or so I thought until I turned the first page.

Nothing in Boy Meets Boy defies the laws of physics.  The novel doesn’t feature any technological advances beyond cell phones and instant messaging.  It’s not just a clever title, it’s also a handy plot summary: Paul is a high school sophomore who falls for Noah, the charismatic boy who’s new in town.  Paul pursues Noah while navigating the complexities of friendships, ex-boyfriends, and high school life.

And yet as I began reading Boy Meets Boy, I got the strange feeling I was reading fantasy.  Maybe because Paul’s high school is not quite like any high school I know.  The star quarterback of the football team, Infinite Darlene, is also the homecoming queen; she has trouble getting along with the other drag queens in school because they feel she doesn’t care for her nails properly.  Paul’s kindergarten teacher helped him understand that he was gay, and when he came home to tell his mother, her reaction was to yell to his father, “Honey … Paul’s learned a new word!”  Paul helped found a gay-straight alliance in the sixth grade, mainly to help the straight kids with their fashion sense and dance moves.

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And We’re Back–Now with Triptychs!

At long last! By popular demand! Bread and Magic has returned to the intertubes! After several years of living the glamorous jet-setting lifestyle of a nonprofit professional working full-time-plus, I am happily returning to the more leisurely ways of a freelancer/writer. This is good news for you, dear reader, because it means lots of Ben Francisco facts and fictions headed your way!

This year, for some hand-waving reason, I have been doing my reading in triptychs: sets of three books that go together in some way. Some are actual trilogies, such as the original Song of Ice and Fire trilogy (which I finally got around to reading), while others are more thematic, such as the “Quirky Love Story” triptych that I’m currently working my way through. Some have weird connecting threads that may be hard to follow, such as my “Nick and Norah Triptych” (dedicated to Peter Ball). All are entertaining, at least for me, and are a fun way to push myself to read outside my usual genre comfort zones and to put those intertextual-analysis tools from my comp lit degree to some sort of use. And triptychs make great blogging material, too. I may even try to put up some sort of list of all the triptychs online somewhere. Any ideas about a platform that would be good for that? Goodreads, maybe?

During my long hiatus, a few things of note have happened:

  • My short story, “The Fermi Paradox,” was published in From Macho to Mariposa: New Gay Latino Fiction, a fab anthology made up of just what it says on the tin. Alas, despite the title, the story is not scifi, but it is full of gay geeky goodness. The antho also includes great stories by Justin Torres, Miguel Angel Angeles, and many others, so check it out!
  • I am truly nearly done with the first draft of my novel – all that remains is the epilogue. Am excited to jump into the revision phase. (As is my poor beleaguered writing group, which has been patiently reading through the novel in a drip-drip of chapters over the course of three years.)
  • I now have a puppy. Prepare yourself for adorable photos.

That’s it for now. Stay tuned!

In Which I am Surprised to Be Reading Several Series

Ack!  This is the obligatory oh-dear-I-haven’t-posted-for-more-than-a-month post.  I’ve been traveling near non-stop for work for the past couple of months, including a few not-fun episodes of being stranded in airports past 4 am.  This lifestyle has not been conducive to active participation in the blogosphere.

However (seamless transition), it has been conducive to a fair amount of reading.  To my surprise I’ve been reading several series.  Normally, I’m not one to read series, especially long series of thick books.  I look at a series like, say, George R.R. Martin’s epicly fat books of fantasy, and I think, “I really do want to read those, OR I could read, say, six unrelated books by six different authors in six different genres and learn lots of different tricks from all of them.”  And I invariably choose the later, because, well, basically, I’m a dilettante when it comes to my reading habits.

Yet, faced with epic multi-state journeys, somehow epic sagas seemed both appropriate and comforting.  These are the books that have been keeping me company in my travels:

  • C.J. Cherryh’s Foreigner series: A ship full of thousands of humans is stranded on an alien world, and after a devastating war between humans and the alien atevi, a fragile peace is made and a single human is appointed as the sole ambassador between the two species.  The series follows Bren, that sole ambassador, as he navigates between human and  atevi cultures–the latter of which has no concepts of friendship or love in the sense that humans understand them, but rather manchi, a feeling of devotion and loyalty to a leader and to certain associations.  This series is fascinating to me because it routinely breaks any number of writing 101 rules: the exposition is endless, the action often feels slow, and a number of character details and plot developments are “told” instead of “shown.”  And yet I find it utterly riveting.  I think it all works because (1) we’re so deeply in Bren’s head that it all flows naturally; (2) the alien culture is so rich and interesting I have no problem spending many pages exploring its most subtle nuances; and (3) Cherryh is just a master.
  • David Wellington’s Vampire series:  Wellington’s vampires are the antithesis of Laurell K Hamilton or Twilight vampires.  They are scary, vicious monsters and they most certainly do not sparkle.  The series follows Laura Caxton, a state trooper turned ersatz vampire hunter.  Wellington’s pacing and plot are brilliant, and the characters also evolve over the course of the series in interesting and unexpected ways.  (Full disclosure: Dave is a member of my NYC writing group.  I’ve gotten a taste of the upcoming fifth book, the final confrontation with the Big Bad, and am eagerly awaiting the chance to read the whole thing!)
  • Bryan Lee O’Malley’s Scott Pilgrim series: I’m a bit of a latecomer to this one, but am now a total convert. Scott Pilgrim is a young 20something doing many of those early 20somethings things–living with a roommate, dating, trying to make it in a band, navigating the world of landlords and jobs, etc. When he starts dating Ramona, he discovers he must fight her seven evil exes in order to continue dating her.  Fun fight scenes ensue, interspersed with soap operatic romantic drama.  O’Malley has basically invited a new sub-genre with this graphic series – superhero surrealism, perhaps? – and there’s a lot more to it than meets the eye.  And his ability to convey complex and intense emotions with only a few strokes of the pencil is mind-blowing.  Eagerly awaiting the final volume and the movie.

More travels coming up, but will try to at least pop in and say hi here with some regularity…

Ghost stories, Ursula Le Guin, and Gay Trading Cards…

… are among the topics that came up in David Grossman’s interview of me over at io9, along with some discussion of my short story, “Tio Gilberto and the Twenty-Seven Ghosts.”  Check the interview out here in case you didn’t catch it yet.  David had some great questions and it’s cool to see io9 initiating some discussion of LGBT themes in spec fic. The interview is part of io9’s new “short story club” discussion group, a very cool feature showcasing a different SF short story each week – and the stories are always available online for free, somewhere across the vast lands of the internets.

In other Tio Gilberto-related news, Realms of Fantasy just announced its first annual Reader Awards, and John Kaiine’s illustration of the story was the runner-up in the art category.  It’s a gorgeous illustration, so it’s not surprising that many Realms readers loved it.  Congrats, John!

Superhero Self-Help

Just finished reading From the Notebooks of Dr. Brain by Minister Faust.  The novel is a hilarious send-up of the superhero genre, told in the form of a self-help book for superheroes: “When Being A Superhero Can’t Save You from Yourself – Self-Help for Today’s Hyper-Hominids.”  The novel is narrated by Dr. Eva Brain-Silverman, who is leading six dysfunctional superheroes through group therapy in the wake of a fellow hero’s death. The opening paragraph gives a pretty good flavor:

You can wrap a steel I beam around your neck with your bare hands and wear it like a tie.  You can swim so quickly that you can go back in time to offer Columbus correct directions to India.  You can climb the outside of a building, regurgitate the ton of paper you’ve eaten, and weave a beautiful multilevel hive while not paying a cent in downtown rent.

But are you happy?

Faust not only riffs off superhero psychology to hilarious effect, he also explores a sort of alternate Marvel/DC universe that is as diverse as the real world.  His racial (and gender/sexual orientation) critique of the superhero genre is brilliantly constructed – and brings a lot of laughs along the way.

At about 100 pages in, the book started to feel a bit slow to me, and I even wondered if there was really enough material for a 385-page superhero send-up.  But then it quickly picked up again, and there was a series of twists and revelations that were unpredictable, engaging, and just plain fun.  As the novel approaches its climax, the complex social criticism beneath the humor comes into sharp focus, and the result is nothing less than mind-blowing.  My laughter and pleasure in the book slowly gave way to anger as the intensity of the larger plot became clear.  Without getting into spoiler territory, the ending is unexpected, but completely apt, and it got me thinking about endings more generally.  So many endings aim to leave the reader satisfied, sad, even horrified – but rarely is anger the intended reaction.  Perhaps more books ought to do so; there’s no shortage of injustice for us to be angry about.

My sense is that Faust’s critique is not so much of psychology but rather a certain aspect of the individualistic, self-help culture – a paradigm that, when taken to its extreme, tends to pathologize self-sacrifice and heroism, and leaves little room for an understanding of social justice.  It’s quite impressive that a book so successful in its humor is also so successful in its thought-provoking social commentary.

Faust is also brilliant at voice and dialogue – his mastery of multiple dialects reminded me of greats like Mark Twain, and that alone makes the book worth reading.  Recommended for anyone who loves superheroes, social criticism, or laughing out loud.

Tio Gilberto All Over the Internets!

My short story, “Tio Gilberto and the Twenty-Seven Ghosts,” is now available for free online at Realms of Fantasy’s website.  It’s also being featured next week in io9’s short-story reading club.  The short story club is a new feature at io9, and the first few stories featured included stories by Isaac Asimov and Elizabeth Bear, so it’s a thrill and an honor to be in such amazing company. 

BTW, io9 is one of the coolest places on the internets for sci-fi goodness, as exemplified by recent posts such as 38 reasons why Iron Man is cooler than Darth Vader, Patrick Stewart Explains How Shakespeare Prepares You for Science Fiction Acting, or 20 Great Infodumps from Science Fiction Novels.  Definitely worth adding to your RSS and/or regular routine of obsessive blog-checking. 

Anyway, I’m looking forward to the discussion of “Tio Gilberto” at io9 next Saturday. Many thanks to David Grossman at io9 and Doug Cohen and the gang at Realms for making Gilberto’s internet tour possible!