Review of “Skin Like Porcelain Death” by Daniel José Older

“Skin Like Porcelain Death” by Daniel José Older

The problem with writing a review of Daniel José Older’s “Skin Like Porcelain Death” is that the voice in this story is so strong, so good, so wise and so funny, I don’t really much care what the story is about. It’s like, just keep talking DJO, I’m right there with you.

Maybe I’m exaggerating. I probably wouldn’t have enjoyed the read if the story had really sucked, and it didn’t, but on the other hand, the basic plot was not particularly original or interesting: Some dried up, heartless, evil old woman is luring (or using other women to lure) men in through their “wiles” and then stealing their souls (and putting them in porcelain dolls.) How is she able to do this? Why does this make her feel less lonely? Don’t know. Don’t care. We’ve seen this trope and we’re ready to accept it at face value. It doesn’t bother me in part because the way the story is packaged makes it feel the opposite of old and stale, and in part because the stealing of souls thing is not what this story is really about anyway. What it’s really about (in my opinion) is family, friends, community and continuity. And being of use, whatever you have to bring. In this case, the main character, Carlos, is half dead and half alive, which poses some challenges but also has some advantages in being able to help with a supernatural-type problem. This is probably why Carlos’s friend Victor asks him to help his teenaged cousin Jimmy, who’s in danger because Jimmy’s girlfriend is the soul-stealer’s granddaughter.

So what does it mean to be half dead and half alive? Some text from Older’s story might, if not explain this, explain why we’re ready buy whatever it is he’s selling:

    “You’re dead, right, Carlos?”

    I roll my eyes. We’ve half-stepped this conversation so many times and I’m tired of tiptoeing.

    “I’m partly dead.”

    “Right, whatever, you’re deadish.”

    The difference means nothing to him and I have to remind myself it’s only ’cause he doesn’t know any fully dead people. I deal with their chilly, translucent asses all the time.

Or later in the text when Carlo’s friend and partner Riley, who is fully a ghost, mouths off to some impolite elderly spirit watching them:

    “He’s either/or, abuelo, walk the eff along.” If nothing else, it’s good to have crude friends to stand up for you even when you don’t really need them to.

Yeah, it sure is.

I also love this story because of its New York City feel, like the descriptions of Marcus Garvey Park and of getting to Staten Island, where “… that damn ferry goes from occasional to barely-ever after midnight.” I admit that as a New Yorker who moved to Montréal some years ago, I can get kind of nostalgic, but only with accurate and unsentimental portrayals like Older’s. I also love the teenager dialogue, and how Older makes me feel a tenderness towards the six and a half foot kid who actually reminds me of someone in my own family.

There are also things that I didn’t like. Well, yeah, the old soul-stealing bitter old lady trope and the fact that the women in the story could have been more fully developed. At the same time, I did love the sensitivity of the main character and how the emotions of these guys are expressed in a succinct but touching way. My only other criticism is using American Girl dolls as imagery since they are so-not-porcelain. Still, I’m glad they were mentioned in the story because I have always had a pet peeve with those dolls — how they’re supposed to be multi-racial but all have the same features.

It’s clear that this story is part of a longer work. There is too much world-building that doesn’t get used much for it to be otherwise. Ordinarily this would bother me except that the story has a real and satisfying ending, and can therefore stand alone quite nicely. It is an ending that confirms the strength of this story as an expression of the connections between people, no matter how unusual or seemingly tenuous.

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Some thoughts on writing reviews

I recently attended a workshop on the role of the critic. There was a moderator (male) and three panelists (two male and one female.) The moderator asked different questions of each panelist to initiate discussion concerning why criticism (of literature, poetry, music) is important and what role it should play. A number of different theories were presented, an even greater number ignored, but all and all it was interesting.

At some point, the moderator talked to the female panelist about how difficult it can be to hire women who are interested in writing reviews, particularly if they might be called upon to review something that they didn’t like. The woman panelist seemed taken aback by this comment wondering, as I and probably most of the women in the audience were, how difficult it could really be to find women who would enthusiastically agree to be in a position of professionally reviewing literature. On the other hand, the woman on the panel had already presented her theory on giving negative feedback in a way that isn’t vicious or cutting, explaining why she believes that this is more useful both to the writer and to the literary community. For this reason, she wasn’t about to contradict the moderator’s observation that some women are not comfortable slamming other people’s work. Of course, this is not really the role of the critic anyway.

Towards the end of the workshop, this same female panelist observed that throughout the presentation, she had repeatedly been the last one to be called upon to speak or answer questions. She did this in a fairly non-adversarial way, allowing that it was perhaps partially her own fault for not being more assertive. I thought bullshit to myself, but OK, this way it was a discussion instead of a shouting match. Hmm, point taken.

Now that I have decided to write reviews of speculative fiction for my website, I have noticed that I find myself writing positive reviews. Why? Because I am not really interested in writing about stories that I don’t like — it’s reading something that moves or impresses me that motivates me to write about it in the first place. This is not to say that I would never want to write a negative review or critique, but I would be more apt to do that in the case of a piece of fiction that was getting a lot of attention. In such a case, why I didn’t like it could be of more interest. I also have no problem including my thoughts on what I saw as weaknesses in a story or book that I thought was generally good.

All of which is to say, the reason the reviews that you will read here are generally positive is not because I like everything I read. It’s just that I have chosen to write about the things that I think are good so that others might decide to read and perhaps enjoy these stories too.