caitri: (Books)
 Crossposted from The Future Fire:

Judy Juanita, De Facto Feminism: Essays Straight Outta Oakland.EquiDistance Press, 2016. Pp 226. ISBN 978-0-9716352-1-0. $19.95.

Judy Juanita’s collection of essays De Facto Feminism: Essays Straight Outta Oakland is a mixture of previously published material from her long career in activism, including poetry, and more recent autobiographical reminiscences that relate to her 2013 novel Virgin Soul. This work does not relate to genre per se (unless we think of being Black in America today as being a dystopian experience, which, to be honest, we might well do). The sixteen essays, half dozen poems, and a collection of digital correspondence span from 1967 to 2015, much of which is drawn from the online magazine The Weeklings, cover expansive territory on Juanita’s career as an activist and an artist: she has been a member of the Black Panther Party, has taught in the first Black Studies program in the US, and is a playwright, poet, novelist and professor. She reminds us that creative work is activism too.

The earliest pieces in the volume, like ‘My California Childhood—a freedom childhood,’ ‘White Out,’ ‘Five Comrades in The Black Panther Party, 1967-1970,’ and ‘Black Womanhood #1’ revolve around Juanita’s coming of age in Oakland in the 1950s and 1960s, her time as a student and then teacher and activist, and how each identity informs the other. In ‘Black Womanhood #1’ she writes, “The black woman has her own turbulent and dialectical process of self-transforming. I know because I’m living it every day” (51). Though those words were originally written in 1967, they are still true now, for the author and millions of other women today. The following essay, ‘Tough Luck,’ focuses on another form of identity, with the author as poet. Juanita incorporates the text of several of her poems published during the period into the body of the memoir, demonstrating how she used her poetry and art to come to grips with her divorce and motherhood, and how these topics both bridged and separated her from the community of poets she was a part of.

‘Cleaning Other People’s Houses’ also utilizes a poem written during the period, when Juanita joins a friend’s cleaning business for a brief period. She does the work for extra cash and for the experience of having done so, to the horror of friends and colleagues. Cleaning other people’s homes is a voyeuristic experience: she sees a book about AIDS on a nightstand, followed by other books, followed by the revelation that one of the men she’s working for has been diagnosed with the disease. Another time she is semi-forced into another kind of labor when the matron of the house finishes reading Alice Walker’s The Color Purple and wants to discuss it with Juanita; she dryly notes that Walker championed Zora Neale Hurston, another Black novelist who worked in domestic labor to make ends meet. ‘A Playwright-in-progress’ describes her experiences in a series of writing workshops, trying to nail down exactly what she does want to write even as she faces the often unrelenting whiteness of most workshop and fellowship programs (a topic that author Junot Diaz has also written about, rather scathingly), while ‘Putting the Funny in the Novel’ recounts an ironic encounter with an editor who wants more humor in her experiences as a black woman and a Black Panther.

Juanita turns to literary criticism as well as reminiscence in ‘The N-word: Let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater.’ She discusses the multivariated uses the word takes on in August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play Fences (1987), cruel and affectionate, abusive and matter-of-fact. She also discusses the discomfort her students feel when they discuss the word, and the play, in class, and the discomfort she herself feels when the word is inflected differently by Black, white, and Asian students. She feels a discomfort about the divide between literary and genre fiction in ‘All the Women in My Family Read Terry Macmillan.’ Macmillan’s most famous novel is Waiting to Exhale (1992), a book that heralded a phenomenon of “black chick lit” that Juanita thinks has overtaken African-American literary fiction, and thus complicating the struggles of Black women writers like herself.

‘The Gun as Ultimate Performance Poem,’ nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2015, is a stand-out essay ruminating on the aftermath of the murder of Trayvon Martin and on the author’s own previous love affair with ‘the Gun’:
The Gun was the shatterer of the boundary between the personal and the political. I liked guns. They were talismanic and palm-friendly… The Gun is a revolt of the mind, an expulsion of hatred and thus a cleansing agent. Once it is fired, the act done, the two opposites are united forever, the killer and the killed written into history, memorialized or castigated.

To shun The Gun is to fear recklessness, to abhor chaos. Yet activists, oft called anarchistic, despise artists who don’t overtly join them. (107-8)
Taking up literal arms was how the Black Panther Party stood in opposition to the Black Arts Movement, but over time those guns became increasingly metaphorical instead. The “performance” of The Gun, Juanita argues, has taken over America in schools, theaters, and on the street. She concludes, “I liked guns. I hate The Gun” (115).

The final entry in the book is entitled ‘Acknowledge Me’ and consists of a series of emails with a colleague regarding the death of their mutual friend Peter Thorpe, a fellow playwright and mentor. The correspondence includes poems, imagined dialogues with Peter, discussions on works-in-progress, and ultimately coming to terms with grief. Most of the emails are dated from 2007, with a single entry in 2008, and then a rhapsodic conclusion in 2011 when the author’s novel is sold to Viking: “I’M A NOVELIST, I’M A NOVELIST, I’M A NOVELIST.” That shift from the literary form of writing—essays to fiction—reiterates a shift in identity as well, one that closes the book and, seemingly, provides a sense of closure for its author.

De Facto Feminism: Essays Straight Outta Oakland is a thought-provoking collection, one that should be read and taught alongside such classics as Bulkin, Pratt, and Smith’s 1984 Yours in Struggle: Three Feminist Perspectives on Anti-Semitism and Racism, Alice Walker’s 1998 Anything We Love Can Be Saved: A Writer’s Activism, and Patricia Hill Collins’s 2008 Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment. Though the book was prepared for print and published prior to Trump’s election in the US and the Resistance movement that has followed, its appearance when so many American readers and writers are struggling with how to incorporate political activism into their work makes the book incredibly timely and necessary. Art is survival, too.
caitri: (Books)
 Crossposted from The Future Fire:

Cassandra Khaw, Food of the Gods. Abaddon Books, 2017. pp 238. ISBN 978-1-78108-519-6. $15.00.

I finished reading Food of the Gods shortly after seeing the season finale of American Gods, and while some of the entries in Khaw’s collection were previously published, it’s hard not to think about what’s in the air that draws genre writers to recast myth in terms of the daily grind. (And I do know this isn’t exactly a novel idea, but these are the two texts that are on my mind immediately right now, so please bear with me.) Neil Gaiman’s original novel focused on gods-as-immigrants to America, with all the challenges that entails, as well as being a paean to steadily vanishing roadside kitsch; the TV series keeps the immigration story, but adds the violent intersection of race in contemporary America to the story that is, frankly, a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it element of the novel. Khaw is, like the younger Gaiman, a London-based writer, but unlike him she has her roots in Southeast Asia, and unlike American GodsFood of the Gods goes back and forth between London and Kuala Lumpur. Her hero/not-hero (but not anti-hero) is Rupert Wong, a former gangster who has become a chef to the literal underworld to save his karma, such as it is.

The book is made up of three novellas, all of which take place in swift chronological order. ‘Rupert Wong, Cannibal Chef’ is perhaps the most straightforward story; it’s a murder mystery in which Wong is hired to investigate the death of the daughter of Ao Qin, better known as the Chinese Dragon God (who is also the patron saint of the South China Sea, a small detail of increasingly global relevance). The second story, ‘Rupert Wong and the Ends of the Earth,’ takes place shortly afterwards in the aftermath of that story, and sees Wong being hastily paid off to London to take up a new position as chef for a restaurant run by Orpheus and frequented by the Greek pantheon. This story is perhaps the weakest because it fills in the space between the previous and the final entries; there isn’t an overriding plot and the best moments are Wong’s interactions while traveling on a fourteen hour flight and his arrival at customs. The final story, ‘Meat, Bone, Tea,’ has a minor mystery plot and concerns what is functionally a gang war between the Greek and Chinese pantheons that Wong is determined to survive, one way or another. The book closes with a series of epilogues and endings that simultaneously tie-up loose threads and offer possibilities for future sequels.

Khaw’s sharp writing more than makes up for the occasional deficits in plot; Rupert Wong is an engaging smartass of a character you can’t help rooting for, and the sensory details of his cooking are incredibly vivid (and indeed, mouthwatering, at least until you’re reminded that he’s usually cooking that other white meat, human pork). His best moments are when interacting with his undead girlfriend Minah (who is, in case you are wondering, much more interesting and sympathetic than Gaiman’s “dead wife Laura”) and her demonic dead fetus, an ectoplasmic vampire that Wong nicknames George and regularly feeds from a cut on his wrist. Unfortunately, Minah and George are removed from the series early on, though thankfully not to fuel Wong’s arc, and the stories are weaker for it, I think. Wong is at his best when he has someone to riff off of, and it’s only in ‘Meat, Bone, Tea’ when two new characters emerge for this purpose: Fariz, a fellow human in this metaphysical underworld, and Nyarlathotep, a fictional creation of H.P. Lovecraft rendered real through the popularity of the Chthulhu mythos. This is a fascinating idea, and one I wish bumped more against our ideas of mythology: (some of) the Chinese and Greek gods appear with their family dramas more or less intact, and yet somehow still diminished. Would certain other members, like, say, Nike, not be more empowered in our capitalist and overly branded world? What about other fictional characters? Surely Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy would at least be demigods by now?

Ultimately, Food of the Gods is a fast and light read. I feel like the talk-back of Southeast Asian culture never did the work it set out to do, either in London or in Kuala Lumpur, but it nonetheless appears as a counter to the omnipresent Western narratives that tend to dominate Anglo-American genre writing like Gaiman, or more recently, Jo Walton in her Thessaly series, and that’s nonetheless incredibly useful in the ongoing conversations around representation and diversity in genre writing. Khaw’s voice is needed in our discussions of genre and myth, and I look forward to what she comes up with next.
caitri: (Books)
 Crossposted at The Future Fire

Frances Hardinge, A Face Like Glass. Amulet Books, 2017. Pp 487. ISBN.978-1-4197-2484-8. $19.95.

Frances Hardinge’s A Face Like Glass first appeared in the UK in 2012 and has only just arrived in the US this spring. It straddles the gap between children’s literature and the young adult genre uneasily; the protagonist is a preteen girl named Neverfell, who is too young to be interested in the romance or nascent sexuality that is usually a hallmark of YA, and yet she is witness to the aftermath of numerous murders, and the threat of violence is often just off-page. And yet Hardinge loves playing with language in a way that recalls some of (what I think, anyway) is the finest children’s lit like The Phantom TollboothThe Neverending Story, or Alice in Wonderland—the latter of which the author has a small homage to when Neverfell follows a rabbit up rather than down, discovering a wider and scarier world in the process.

Neverfell lives in Caverna, an underground world whose extensive caste-based society ranges from lowly Drudges to the highest members of Court. The central focus on Faces, or the ability make facial expressions, an art form which must be extensively practiced and which is limited by caste, with Drudges limited to only a small number (and none of them ever angry or dissatisfied) and members of Court with access to hundreds. Neverfell, as a girl from the world above, has ready access to numerous faces naturally, all of which ripple across her face and betray immediately whatever she really thinks. When she is discovered as a child by the Cheesemaker Grandible, he is horrified by this and has a mask made for her, convincing her that she must be astonishingly ugly. When a Master Facesmith visits the Cheesemaker, Neverfell hopes that she will help her make a Face of her own… and from there follows Neverfell’s adventures and misadventures in and out of Court, numerous mysteries around both Neverfell’s unknown origins and a series of murders, and finally, something like a revolution at the end.

A Face Like Glass is incredibly complex and sprawling as Neverfell climbs up and falls down the social ladder on several occasions. Unfortunately, Neverfell is both incredibly naive—which means that the other characters have to repeatedly explain what’s “really” going on to her, each situation’s dangers and benefits, and so on—and strangely without her own agency. She gets adopted by Grandible in the beginning; she is adopted literally or metaphorically throughout the rest of the book by other families, friends, and enemies for their own purposes, and so plot keeps happening with Neverfell usually a bystander. When she does take control in the final pages of the book, it is just before she takes an amnesia-inducing potion, so she only gets to see the effects of the successful plan, and so is rendered passive even by herself.

I had mixed feelings about this book—though I suspect they have more to do with an adult reading a children’s book than anything else. The plot is incredibly unhurried in a way that will likely work for a young reader who is reading slowly and with absorption, the better to enjoy the minutiae of description and detail that permeate the text. Unfortunately, I rather wished the characters would just get on with it, rather than telling one another their plans, explaining how the plans would work, then carrying out the plans, etc. The sprawling length of the story also meant that minor characters would be introduced briefly and only reappear a hundred or more pages later, by which time I had forgotten who they were and what they were meant to be doing; I wish a Dramatis Personae could have been provided, as it would have been helpful. On the other hand, I immensely respect the amount of thought that Hardinge put into her world, especially with its use of language and some truly memorable turns of phrase. As a side-effect of living underground, the time of day is delineated through counted hours; to be “out of clock” is to not match the schedule of hours, while to always be “on clock” is to maintain an unusually steady sleep and activity period. Other inventive elements include the True Crafts, in which True Wine, True Cheese, and so on, have properties beyond taste and smell, including the abilities to alter memories or provide hallucinogenic sensory experiences, among others.

I think young readers will get the most out of this book, but adults with sensitive children may want to peruse the volume first because of the violent scenes—which are admittedly far and few between—haunt the characters throughout. Adults will enjoy a well-told and absorbing adventure story, one without the seemingly omnipresent love triangles that have become cliche to so much of the YA genre. Neverfell is, if not altogether endearing, at least far from a cliche.


And a quick rec for Women in Noir Week:

Jacqueline Carey's novels Santa Olivia (2009) and Saints Astray (2011) are unlikely to be read as noir, but I would argue that they are closer to that genre than to conventional dystopia, as noir is characterized through its ethical ambiguity and fatalism, and dystopia through omnipresent degradation. In Carey's world, there is a valid escape to be had from the shitty not-too-distant future southwest US, where a queer Hispanic teen named Loup is torn between revenge for her dead brother and escaping to a better life for herself and her girlfriend Pilar. The outer world, including Mexico and Europe, has rebounded after a devastating pandemic in a way that the isolationist US has not. Loup's and Pilar's journey evolves beyond a quest for survival to one of discovery of this outside world, from tourist beaches to fashion and pop music.

Their saga concludes with their search for social justice for their home, still under martial law, and for equal rights for genetically modified humans, both of which are impeded by the complex oligarchy of the US government and military, as in this case being born, for Loup, is a crime of itself.
caitri: (Books)
 Crossposted at The Future Fire:

Norman Spinrad, The People’s Police. Tor Books, 2017. Pp 284. ISBN 978-0-7653-8427-0. $27.99.

The very best satires have enough truth at the core of their fiction to make them uncomfortable reading, and so is the case with Norman Spinrad’s The People’s Police. Spinrad is perhaps best known for his self-proclaimed anarchic ideals in his fiction, which fully come into play here: the central question asked is “Suppose the people and the police, who are so often on opposing sides in the US, actually came together for the benefit of all?” In this world, the order of government authority (and business world corruption) is at odds with everyday people and with the chaotic loa spirits, with the soul of New Orleans itself at stake: does the city belong to its everyday inhabitants or to the distant politicians and visiting tourists?

The novel takes place in a post-Katrina and post-2008 housing bubble-burst New Orleans, where the most pressing problem the police have is the unending numbers of eviction notices to be served, even among themselves. There are three main characters for the bulk of the action: Martin Luther “Luke” Martin, a former gang member who sees the police force as the biggest and best-armed gang of all; J.B. Lafitte, bar and brothel owner; and MaryLou Boudreau or Mama Legba, first mockingly and then accurately called “White Girl Who Dances With Loas” and “Voodoo Queen.” A fourth character, Colonel Terrence Hathaway, appears in the final act as a Christian and Army officer who sees a chance to do good in the world, and actually takes it. Along the way, a reality tv star is elected to political office, hurricane damage is mitigated by magic, and cooperative anarchism is a more reliable tool for governance than anyone would have expected. Things take a darker turn in the final pages of the book, which I don’t want to spoil too badly, but suffice to say that it’s an attempt to bring a little more realism into the story regarding localized American politics, especially in Louisiana, and that it works even if the romping tone that had proceeded it was more fun for the reader.

The insertion of the loas, mystical Voodoo spirits who can possess and speak through human bodies if they choose to do so, into the story introduces a fantastical element into the satire that does unsettle it a bit. Loas and Voodoo are a part of life in New Orleans and parts of the Deep South. Erzuli is the Haitian spirit of love, dancing, and luxury; she appears in the book as one of the entities that periodically possess Mama Legba. Mama Legba is a white woman, the child of hippies who live and perform in New Orleans: she’s the epitome of outsider and yet in the book she is never considered as such. When she is possessed by the loas, the African-American practitioners are surprised, but then disappear from the story in a way that made me uncomfortable as a reader: it does not make sense to bring up the fraught topic of race in America, in the South, and then immediately drop it. Indeed, engaging with it head-on would have been a service to the story, as would have been some additional scenes with Voodoo culture generally. It is clear that Spinrad did his research impeccably, and it would have been nice to see more of that, especially in contrast to the Christian character.

The People’s Police is a fast-paced, funny novel; almost a magical-realism counterpart to A Confederacy of Dunces. Nonetheless, there is a disconnect between its author and its content that troubles me: Spinrad is a white American writer currently residing in Paris, it is disconcerting therefore to read about black characters in New Orleans, whether as cops, pimps, or gangbangers (a term that is used in the text). While the writing itself is incredibly enjoyable and thought-provoking, it nonetheless performs acts of ventriloquism with a white man’s words coming out of black men’s mouths, ventriloquism I find troubling given our current discussions around both diversity in publishing and cultural appropriation. Coming from a mainstream genre publisher with a wide reach, in hardback no less, would it not have been better to instead publish a story of New Orleans by an actual resident of New Orleans, to signalboost new black writers rather than old white ones? (Lest anyone write and say “but there aren’t any!” let me point again to Kiini Ibura Salaam’s When the World Wounds (2016), which I reviewed here in February.) Further, the public is genuinely hungry for diverse texts by diverse authors, as witnessed by the furors that have erupted around the whitewashing aspects of Marvel’s Doctor Strange and Iron Fist. In 2017, we do not need or want cultural appropriation; as part of a global society, if we want kung fu dramas, we can legally download and watch the latest shows from China mere hours after their home release, and if we want to read about African-American stories and concerns, we can read books in their own words; last year, Ta-Nehisi Coates became a writer for Marvel’s Black Panther series and it was one of their most popular titles of last year. The old adage that works by diverse authors “won’t sell” is thus manifestly false. Readers can make up their own minds about how they feel about this aspect of reading and watching, but it is a topic that should at least be considered when deciding whether or not to pick up a new book.
caitri: (Books)
Crossposted at The Future Fire:

Kiini Ibura Salaam, When the World Wounds. Third Man Books, 2016. Pp. 184. ISBN 978-0-9913361-5-9. $15.95.

Kiini Ibura Salaam is an American writer of speculative fiction that directly engages with women and race in ways that are both thoughtful and disturbing. This is her second collection of short fiction; the first, Ancient, Ancient (2012) won the James Tiptree Jr. Award for that year. Salaam is a writer of short pieces that have largely previously appeared in collections; When the World Wounds consists of three short stories, two novelettes and a novella, only one of which is reprinted (and has been edited from the previous version). As such this collection will be of emphatic interest to her fans, and provide much food for thought for new readers.

‘The Malady of Need’ is an incredibly evocative, even erotic read. Told in the second person in an increasingly near-obligatory near-future dystopia, the pair of nameless characters, both men, engage in emotionally destructive romance and sexual encounters. Written in a series of vignettes that are increasingly frenetic and explicit, the narrator dissolves from wishful thinking to pained regret; it is something like Nine and a Half Weeks against a science fictional backdrop.

‘The Pull of the Wing’ takes place in the same universe as several of the stories from Ancient, Ancient. The protagonists are all alien, and convincingly so as Salaam deftly describes both their bodies (winged, with lenses and feelers) and the very different perceptions those bodies process; it reminded me of Martha Wells’s Raksura race from that eponymous series, exactly different and exactly similar enough to humans to be exotic but comprehensible. Unfortunately, having not read Salaam’s other book, I’m not sure how well this story illuminates the worldbuilding she has done before; the story itself concerns a group of friends who try to understand more about their world and, having reached a new comprehension of their lives and their species, seemingly wish that they hadn’t. It’s an odd story, and I’m still not sure how I feel about it.

‘The Taming’ is the story that stuck with me the longest; it’s about the domestication of wolves, from the point of view of a wolf. Like the rest of her writing, it is incredibly sensual and incredibly disturbing. Unlike the rest of the stories in the collection, it is accompanied by a small illustration of a wolf’s head in between each segment, unique to this version (the earlier version of this story in Interfictions is slightly different textually, and does not have the illustration). As a reader, part of me kept wondering if the wolf was indeed actually a wolf for reasons I can’t actually articulate— perhaps something in the specificity of the writing, perhaps only that I was reading in a time of incredible anxiety in the real world. Spoiler alert, the wolf is a wolf, but that does not make its encounter with domestication/civilization any less violent, nor its fate less worrisome. After all, it is the twenty-first century; we are sadly all too aware of what happens to wolves and the wild.

‘Hemmie’s Calenture’ straddles the space between magical realism and a more straightforwardly supernatural tale, told in titled vignettes that start as a fever dream and become something else. Hemmie is a slave in early nineteenth century Louisiana who is injured while trying to escape to freedom. An unnamed woman, who can sometimes speak to her directly through her mind, helps to heal her, and shows her another battle that is being fought in the forest and swamps alongside the more conventional battle between the British, French, and Americans. The woman charges Hemmie with gathering an army, and so she journeys to New Orleans to find (real historical figure) Joseph Savary and his battalion of Free Men of Color… who are not interested in her fight, and indeed, think her mad. At the end she finds a single soldier willing to accompany her, and the woman assures her that she does have an army after all. This is a resistance fable, and if it is rather different than the other stories, it is all the stronger for that: Freedom and change start in the spirit before they become true action.

‘Volcano Woman’ is a short story that is about the power of a woman’s anger. When the protagonist is threatened by escalating street abuse—the kind that shifts from words to physical pursuit in an eyeblink—she escapes and finds a strange old woman who feeds her a comforting bowl of soup and applies a series of unguents that remake her into something else. When she faces her attacker again, she is the active cleansing fire of rage. The story’s prose is spare, but the message of the importance of purposeful anger is one that speaks to a multitude of political movements in the United States right now, but especially that of black women.

‘Because of the Bone Man’ is the final piece in this collection, a novella that takes on the 2005 Katrina flood of New Orleans along with the physical and emotional devastation that catastrophe wrought. The story takes place six months after the flood, just before Mardi Gras. Like ‘Hemmie’s Calenture,’ the story mixes the magical with the supernatural; it’s unclear if the Bone Man is a human or not, a personification of the celebratory ghoulish costumes of some of the parades, or not—nor does it matter. Either way, he makes paper mȃché masks culled from the storm’s debris, waterlogged photographs, and gives them to the ghosts of children killed in the storm. Salaam’s anger at the disaster’s aftermath—she is from New Orleans—bluntly confronts the harsh reality within the story; there are white dancers at the parades who are “thrilled to take the space black bodies usually occupied” (164) and the ghost of a Baby Doll dancer states that “Yeah, it was just a coincidence the levees broke where they did. It’s just a coincidence people like us is homeless and them with dry houses don’t look nothing like us” (174). Like several of the other stories, it concludes with hope, as the Bone Man finds a nun and together they make a miracle, using the masks to restore what children they can to life. This story speaks not just to psychological and emotional healing from trauma and adversity, but to the preservation of culture—and few things are as central to New Orleans culture as the Mardi Gras krewe culture.

When the World Wounds is not an easy book to read, but it is one that is well worth the time spent both for the stories told and for the absorbing, poetic prose of Salaam. While the stories in this collection share certain themes and modes of writing, they are all singular experiences that can’t be repeated, something that can’t be said for several single-author collections. Most especially, despite the darkness of much of the stories’ content, there is the prospect of hope and healing to be found—traits that many readers will need right now.
caitri: (books)
Crossposted at The Future Fire:

Cherie Priest, The Family Plot. Tor Books, 2016. Pp. 365. ISBN 978-0-7653-7824-8. $25.99.

I spent this past Halloween carefully reading Cherie Priest’s new novel, The Family Plot, in the daylight hours. Confession: I love ghost stories, but I also have a hyperactive imagination and am kind of a wimp, so I do my best to choose wisely when the season demands spookiness. Priest delivers the perfect kind of spookiness, familiar to everyone who has been in an old house (or any other building, for that matter) and felt sure that its past inhabitants have left something of themselves behind that is extraphysical. The action glides along smoothly, and I only ever put it down when the sunlight faded.

The Family Plot concerns two families: The Duttons, who run a family business in salvaging and make their living rescuing architectural decor and fixtures from houses prior to their demolition, and the Winthrops, an aristocratic Southern line whose final descendant is more than happy to see her expansive family estate reduced to its base parts and dispersed. Our heroine is Dahlia Dutton, whose father Chuck owns and runs Music City Salvage. Dahlia is an unconventional heroine: pushing forty, recently divorced but notably not subsumed by doubts or insecurities about it. When Augusta Winthrop comes to Chuck to sell him salvage rights to her family’s home, it looks like it will be the financial answer to a number of business problems, and Chuck doesn’t hesitate to put Dahlia, or Dahl as she is sometimes called, in charge of the job. One of the elements I particularly appreciated is that Dahl’s competence at her job is absolute, and though her crew is all-male she never once has to “prove” herself to them, nor are her abilities ever questioned. This is a small thing, but unusual in fiction (and unfortunately, in real life as well).

When they get to the Winthrop property to examine the house and its contents, there are hints that all is not as it should be, but the characters take note of them—hand and footprints that mysteriously appear and that don’t belong to any of them, odd apparitions, and so forth. Dahl and the others spend comparatively very little time trying to make sense of or justifying these incidents; eventually they all reveal to one another the odds things they have seen or experienced, and try to make sense of things. The ghosts that appear include the angry spirit of Abigail Winthrop, who may have had an illegitimate child and who disappeared mysteriously before her wedding; Hazel Winthrop, her sister, who is a benevolent spirit who more than once protects Dahl from Abigail; and the child Buddy Winthrop, who was Augusta’s father. As Dahl and her crew investigate while trying to do their work on time and on budget, they find a photo album that reveals the spirits’ identities, and a small cemetery that Augusta insists was a family Halloween joke (the Winthrops’ own family business was in monuments and stone cutting). On a hunch one of the crewmen digs into the fake cemetery, and exhumes a very real—and very old—body. At that point, Dahl accepts they have several mysteries to solve, and very little time to do it in before the ghosts physically harm one of them or the demolition crew comes in to take down the house, and its bits and pieces that could make or break the family business. Even in the face of the supernatural, one has to make a living, and Dahl is determined to do that much, at least.

In the Acknowledgement Priest credits the television show Salvage Dawgs as the inspiration for the novel; it’s a reality program that follows the company Black Dog Salvage as its crew goes to buildings slated for demolition and rescues marble fireplaces, stained glass windows, decorative old wooden doors, and other materials to be reused—the very job Dahl and her father are in. While the show never features ghosts as a practical issue to be overcome (to my knowledge), it is something that Priest’s characters recognize as a rarity, but just another part of the job. “Ghosts shouldn’t be news to you,” she tells her new crewmember, Brad, “All of us down here, we’re not just living on battlefields. We’re living on graveyards” (284). This is true not just of the American South, but everywhere humans have lived; too often fictional ghost stories overlook that until very recently, the norm was for everyone to die in their own home rather than antiseptic hospitals. And as something of a nod to the source material, at one point a character suggests they discourage the ghosts by using their phones and a camera to record their doings; after all, ghosts seldom do anything when television crews show up, and the moment adds a nice element of humor, too.

The Family Plot is a perfect ghost story, both for people who love ghost stories and for those who may be more reluctant to try the genre. It may be worthwhile to think of it as being similar to Guillermo del Toro’s 2015 film Crimson Peak, which was also about a house falling apart and filled with ghosts both helpful and harmful. It’s creepy rather than horrific (something that the marketing team for Crimson Peak at least did not understand, to the film’s box office detriment), and the emphasis is thoroughly on character and atmosphere rather than scares that startle at the first read but seem predictable and dull ever after. Though Priest has a sterling reputation as a world-builder, she’s underrated as a prose stylist; in her 2014/2015 novels Maplecroft and Chapelwood she married Lovecraftian mythos with credible historical voices, which is no mean feat, and in The Family Plot she expertly blends the American Deep South’s Gothic sensibility with the contemporary “shitty job” story beloved of television. While this is Priest’s first standalone novel in a while, I wouldn’t mind a sequel to it, whether with Dahl or the other characters.
caitri: (books)
Crossposted at The Future Fire:

Karen Vaughn, A Kiss for a Dead Film Star and Other Stories. Brain Mill Press, 2016. Pp. 111. ISBN 978-1-94208-338-2. $12.95.

The seeming inextricability of the forces of love and death, of eros and thanatos, are ones that have haunted the human condition since before stylus was put to clay. They are almost cliché at this point, but Karen Vaughn takes these ideas, pulling them this way and that, until she has this book—a collection of short stories that, each in their own way, confront the possibilities of the ineffable.

The collection starts with the titular story, ‘A Kiss for a Dead Film Star.’ The protagonist is teenage Isaac Rubenstein, and it is the day that Rudolph Valentino, ‘The Great Lover’ of silent cinema, has died. New York is swept by a wave of grief-stricken fan suicides, and Isaac is determined to be among them. The world splits: in one reality, he succeeds in slitting his wrists, while in another he is interrupted before he can complete the deed and has to spend another day at his job at the movie theater, pining for his best friend Asher, and mock-flirting with Asher’s younger sister Oralee. As his shift ends, it belatedly occurs to him that he can jump off the roof of the building where he works, but he is interrupted again, this time by Oralee who has been possessed of a peculiar feeling—as if she heard his ghost calling for help. This is a slipstream story about possibilities, one that is anchored by the specific possibilities of love and hope in a world that tends to insist that love and hope are things that should be denied to queer people. It is thoughtful and beautiful and stand-out.

The second story, however, ‘Still Life with Fossils,’ may well be my favorite. It concerns the bewildered point of view of a tyrannosaurus rex skeleton in a museum, trying to make sense of the small, odd creatures that carry boxes and occasionally flash lights. His only companion is the slightly more wiser, neighboring skeleton of a herbivore, who speculates that these must be the newly dominant lifeforms of their world. In this peculiar afterlife, they have only each other, until one day she is gone, replaced by the silent skeleton of a Triceratops. And so the Tyrannosaur waits, as his friend once did, for the new arrival to come to consciousness as well. There’s something bittersweet about the notion of change even in the afterlife, and as I’ve always been an enthusiast about visiting dinosaur bones in any museum that happens to have them, I very much enjoyed this take.

‘The Piscine Age’ and ‘The Angel Appearing to Corrine’ both flirt with something like magical realism. ‘The Piscine Age’ concerns a married couple whose lives are challenged when one of them develops a mysterious skin condition—a condition that consists of developing scales below the waist and, slowly, the fusion of legs into a tale. The process is incurable and painful, and they tearfully agree that this has to end. I was preparing myself for a messy, ableist conclusion, but thankfully Vaughn sidesteps expectations and has the character retreat to the sea instead. ‘The Angel Appearing to Corrine,’ in contrast, has one of the most uniquely happy endings I’ve seen in ages. Corrine immaculately conceives a child of sound waves, despite her doctor’s insistence that she’s really bearing a tumor; she gives birth to brilliant, redeeming song. This is the sort of story for anyone who has heard a particular piece of music and been struck dumb by its beauty; we talk a lot about the redemptive power of art, but here the metaphor is made literal, and it really works as a piece of fiction.

‘Limbs’ is an evocative story about migrant workers in the US, and it too has elements of magical realism to it. Marquita is a small child with a gift; much like a starfish, her limbs can be removed, and then grown back. This is a gift that she has to hide, but again, she’s a small child; sometimes things just happen. One afternoon a playmate dares her to do something stupid, she does, and it sets in motion an ugly chain of events that ultimately cost her family their home. The story is told through the perspective of her mother, Alejandra, who has hidden the same secret as her daughter for most of her life, and the events take place during one long, hot afternoon, in which emotions of fear, hate, hope, anger, and fear again play out across their community. This story too offers the possibility of hope, but at a dark remove, with the future left in doubt.

The final story, ‘Edna, Filled with Light,’ is also concerned with an uncertain future, one that grapples with the end, both in terms of human and terrestrial mortality. Edna is an elderly scientist who has been fascinated by meteors and meteorites all her life. On what may be her last day on Earth, the world is bombarded by increasing numbers of meteorites as she relives her memories: as a young girl fascinated by science and movie stars, as a young woman embarking on a love affair, caught in a world-changing car accident and then a hospital stay, another love affair just as important as her marriage, and a lifetime devoted to her calling. Sic transit gloria mundi, whether in the individual or the infinite.

The weight of these stories is much heavier than this slight volume should allow, and each of them packs an emotional punch. They are also compellingly readable. I tried to ration myself to one a day and failed; I had to go back and reread to make sure that each one got the attention it deserves. While enjoyable, they are not easy stories, as there is a wealth of description and emotion in each piece. Each story also feeds into the next in a way that is thematic and tells a journey of its own; this is a very different reading experience than many short story collections, which are almost haphazard in how they present various tales back-to-back. This isn’t a light read, but it’s a great one, and I highly recommend this collection to anyone looking for a thoughtful way to end their summer.
caitri: (books)
Crossposted at The Future Fire.

Vanessa Fogg, The Lilies of Dawn. Annorlunda Books, 2016. Pp 71. ISBN 978-1-94435-412-1. $7.99.

The novella is an underappreciated form; too often a reader can look up from a novel’s “soggy middle” and wish that some content had been streamlined, or finish a short story and wish that there had only been more. Vanessa Fogg’s The Lilies of Dawn is exactly the right size for the story that it wants to tell, a deliciously atmospheric tale that blends fairy tale and fantasy. I read it through in one sitting and you should consider doing the same.

The eponymous lilies of dawn grow in splendid isolation in the countryside, treasured for their use in medicines, and watched over by the Dawn Priestess. Kai is the latest in the long line of such priestesses, but she is preoccupied with a flock of destructive, mystical cranes that are slowly destroying each year’s crop, and the failing health of her mother. Without the medicine distilled from the lilies’ nectar, her mother, and many others, will die.

Into this grim scenario comes Kevak, a handsome doctor from the city who has come to study the lilies himself, and perhaps offer a solution to the problem of the cranes. Kai is attracted to him, but not altogether enamored; his coming is too mysterious, and some things just don’t add up. Eventually she confronts him, and he reveals the truth: He is the leader of the cranes, a daino or demigod transformed by his enemies, and trying to do the best for his people that he can under the circumstances. Because it is the Year of the Crane, he has been able to transform into a human, briefly, and try to effect a cure—if Kai will help him. But to save Kevek and his people, the price will be that year’s nectar harvest and so, possibly, her mother’s life.

I hesitate to say more about the actual plot of Lilies because reading it was such a treat. Fogg’s writing is incredibly vivid and at times poetic; it makes me wish that one day it will reappear in a heavily illustrated edition, especially given the lovely cover art by Likhain that already graces the slender paperback. Fogg is also incredibly skilled with detail and world-building; Kai’s relationships with her mother and her sister, and her own ambivalence with her calling, all rang true, as did her interest (I hate to reduce it to “fledgling romance”) in Kevak. A Dawn Priestess cannot marry; rather, it is her lot to, in her own time and choosing, discretely take a lover, and of the children that she will bear a daughter will eventually be her successor. Kevak offers an alternative, a lifetime of love and luxury rather than just duty and isolation, and it is incredibly tempting.

That this seems like a genuine crisis of choice and conscience rather than a plot point speaks to Fogg’s skill in sketching a new world within the margins of her story. And at their heart, many fairy tales and fantasies are about making a choice with full knowledge of what it entails, not just for one’s self but for one’s broader world. In Kai’s case, her choice can make or break the lives of Kevak’s people, or her own, made the more difficult because neither of them is in any way at fault, but only at the mercy of misfortune. And yet, Fogg is able to take this dire question, and submit it to the reader without rendering it utterly bleak, and indeed, with something like hope. This is no small feat; far from it. Fogg is an incredible writer, and I look forward to more of her work.
caitri: (books)
Crossposted at The Future Fire.

Brian Hastings, Song of the Deep. Sterling Children’s Books, 2016. Pp 170. ISBN 978-1-4549-2096-0. $12.95.

Song of the Deep by Brian Hastings is an illustrated chapter book for younger readers and a tie-in to the video game of the same name. Impressively, it absolutely stands on its own, with none of the awkward gimmickiness that can afflict tie-in material to other formats. Illustrated throughout and with accompanying maps on the endpapers, as well as sturdy hardback covers and a sewn binding, this is a book that can be read by youngsters over and over again and survive the rereading (and I do not say this lightly, having several nephews). It is also a surprisingly deep fairy tale about family, the lingering effects of war, and ecology—all written with a light hand such that children reading it now will still appreciate it in decades to come.

Song tells the story of Merryn, a young girl who lives alone with her father after the death of her mother. Merryn wants to go sailing with him but is deemed to young, and so spends most of her days with domestic chores and reading library books. One day her father is lost at sea, and she embarks on a mission to find him. In the best fairy tale tradition, she meets various friends along the way, including a clockwork seahorse, a baby sea serpent she names Swish, and a merrow, or mermaid, named Cara; she also finds out more about her lost mother. The locations on the map in the book are all visited, including the Glowkelp Forest, the Skeleton Reef, the Merrow Ruins, and the Forbidden City. Each of these locations is assuredly the setting from the video game, but they all feel organic to the story told here. Eventually Merryn finds her father and they return safely home, having made peace not only with her mother’s death, but with one another.

This could easily have been just a story of fathers and daughters, but it’s more than that. The book opens with a brief “Letter from the Author” explaining how the story came to be, starting with Hastings’s own daughter:

I wanted to create a hero for my daughter to look up to. I had noticed that when she told about the female characters she liked in movies, she would almost always start by saying how pretty they were. Being pretty had even become a big part of her own identity. She tended to receive more compliments on her appearance than for being artistic, kind, funny, smart, or hardworking. I wanted to make a story for her where the main character was heroic and memorable only because of her inner qualities. (n.p.)

This is the sort of information that generally appears in interviews about a book, rather than the book itself; that Hastings made a point of its inclusion underlines not just a pushback towards how girls—and women—are treated in media generally, but in genre and in video games as well. We need look back only at the recent (and still ongoing) Gamergate fracas to see the hostility displayed towards women in the video game industry. By making Merryn, a young, intelligent girl the hero of the journey, Hastings pushes back from within, and it’s a really wonderful change to the usual narrative of things.

The worldbuilding of the story is also interesting, with some particular elements of note. The unnamed world here is not ours; Cara the merrow explains how human explorers came long ago, and were at first friendly with the natives, before they became greedy and destructive. The aftermath of war is revealed in the ruins of cities, the ecological destruction of the sea and its inhabitants (Merryn’s father only sometimes returns home with a catch), and the remaining war machinery that poses a danger to Merryn and her friends. It is also revealed that Merryn’s mother, Meara, once knew Cara and that they were likely separated because of the war. Cara may well be one of the last of her kind, though there is hope to be found in the eggs that she shows Merryn towards the end. Likewise hope can be found when Swish’s mother, a magnificent queen leviathan, appears and aids in the final rescue and return home. A healthy respect for the environment and all creatures is the way to survival, rather than destructive greed; this is a good moral and general, and one that seems more relevant to the real world everyday.

Ultimately, this is a great book for young readers, whether or not they are girls, and is quite a bit of fun for older readers too. It is surprisingly thoughtful, and much of it will resonate long after the first reading.
caitri: (books)
Crossposted to The Future Fire.

Margrét Helgadóttir and Jo Thomas (eds.), African Monsters. Fox Spirit Books, 2015. Pp. 198. ISBN 9781909348844. $15.00.

African Monsters is the second volume of Fox Spirit’s monster anthologies; the first, European Monsters, was released in 2014. All of the contributing authors (and many of the artists) of African Monsters are from or have lived on that continent, and so the anthology draws on authentic and widely varying experiences of the countries represented rather than on a purely exotified collection. The book has also been nominated for Best Anthology in the 2016 British Fantasy Awards, a powerful acknowledgement of its quality as a collection in general. Most interestingly to me, in their introduction Helgadóttir and Thomas write that one of their goals with this series is to ‘rescue monsters’ and to return them to the ‘work for which they were originally designed: putting terror into people’s hearts’ (7). I find this striking in comparison to the current trend to “rescue” monsters by revising them, perhaps most notably in the guise of romantic and sexy vampires. While the transformational approach is one that has often been used to explore cultural anxieties, the engagement used here is to contrast folkloric tradition with contemporary experiences. As such, and in combination with the striking visual art integrated throughout the text, African Monsters provides a very different approach to content and to voices.

Most of the stories collected here share genre and format, the tales told through the dual lenses of horror and dark fantasy. They are also largely literal in their interpretation of the monstrous: all of the monsters contained in the book are very real both in the folklore and in their roles within the story, rather than being symbolic or metaphorical. The volume has black and white illustrations throughout, and most of its sixteen contributions are short stories, with no poems and only two entries that are fully graphic in form: ‘The Death of One’ by Su Opperman and ‘A Divided Sun’, written by James Bennett and the artist,Dave Johnson. Opperman’s story is characterized by its use of ink, here suggesting watery blurs for rainstorms, there economical brushstrokes for birds and other animals. Barring the use of written sound effects (‘Tok! Tok!’ ‘Slap!’), it contains only a single complete line of dialogue scattered across the panels of a violent struggle: ‘The death of one is… life to the other’ (59). It is telling that only when representing humanoid figures do the images become rough and violent, replaying a struggle between a ‘man’ and a ‘monster’ that ends with a ‘To be continued’ despite being a clear ending: it’s an immortal, primordial battle. In contrast, Bennett and Johnson’s narrative concerns a young English boy named Bobby who moves to South Africa with his father in the 1980s. The clashes of Apartheid contrast with the casual violence of bullying schoolboys, and in a happenstance encounter with a shaman, Bobby has a crucial realization: ‘He sees a divided sun. He knows it shines differently on him than the other people here. He stands in its light while people who dream and breathe just like him stand in the dark’ (194). This is the volume’s conclusion, but it hints at a thesis, which is that humans can be as monstrous as, well, our traditional monsters. This is not new territory, but by transparently connecting it to race and diaspora, it does push the issue forwards more aptly.

The short story contributions are all thoughtful, though some more thought-provoking than others. My particular favorite is ‘A Whisper in the Reeds’ by Nerine Dorman, which makes use of the Zambezi river spirits as a seductive threat similar to Greek sirens or English mermaids. When he sees a beautiful young woman bathing, the narrator, Karl, remarks that it would be a turn-on… if he were a straight guy. His older lover, Gareth, gives him a Nyami Nyami pendant for protection, both from the spirits, and the suggestion of a ghost from the dead lover of his youth. Jealous of the past, resentful of the present, Karl discards the Nyami Nyami by the river, and it goes about as well as one might expect.‘That Woman’ by S Lotz is more of a mystery, in which a visiting police officer tries to make sense of both a series of murders and accusations of witchcraft. This one plays against expectations: when it is revealed that the witchcraft is real, but the men murdered attempted to rape a child, the police officer concedes that justice has been done. Nnedi Okorafor’s story ‘On the Road’ particularly struck me as it relates the story of a young woman returning from Chicago to visit her family in Nigeria. On this particular visit she encounters mmuo spirits who leave their mark on her, but that,

was like being the victim of an unsolved hit and run. No one knew the motive. No real answers. No revelation. No “aha” moment. So all I knew was pain, mystification, terror, and the eerie feeling of having my face seductively licked by death… I never return home from Nigeria the same person I was before. But this time takes the cake. (21)

Humans can’t make sense of the monstrous, or the supernatural. Perhaps that is the key to monstrosity itself.

This is a very strong collection, and I enjoyed its contributions. However, if the book has a weakness then it is the concrete cultural sensibility of the monstrous in this specific context: Going in with no prior knowledge of African monsters myself, I felt that a lot of the subtleties of the texts went right by me, and were only partially remedied by some internet research after the fact. As such, there was a kind of sameness to many of the stories: A monster would appear, bad things would happen. I felt like this could have been mitigated with just a couple of lines introducing the stories’ content and giving them a sense of place. While several stories directly referenced specific cities like Johannesburg, most did not, and the notes on the contributors at the end similarly only sometimes mentioned where they live or came from. As such there is an element of disconnection to the texts for the unfamiliar reader; ‘Africa’ remains rather abstract. This could have been easily mitigated with only a couple of words, or even section headings between sets of stories. I hope this is something that might be taken into account for future volumes to aid the reader.

I would consider African Monsters to be something of an exploratory volume: readers will get the most out of it if they go in wanting something different, rather than just a preconceived idea of genre or of monsters themselves; it is definitely not material that will be found commonly while casually reading through other collections or magazines. And while some of the stories wrangle with issues of colonialism, most of the stories take place in the present day, showing a contemporary, lived-in space that is seldom seen by most of the West. Reading it was a treat, and I look forward to future entries in the series.
caitri: (books)
Crossposted at The Future Fire.

Anna Kyle, Omega Rising. World Weaver Press, 2016. Pp. 270. ISBN 978-0-69266-950-1. $13.95.

Paranormal Romance is a hybrid genre that has flirted with oversaturating the market in recent years, largely because of the Young Adult vampire romance craze that peaked with the Twilight franchise. It then edged into the adult market with the Sookie Stackhouse Southern Vampire series that was popularized through True Blood (though that particular series of books and shows bear less resemblance to one another than one might think), as well as with J.R. Ward’s Black Dagger Brotherhood novels, which surprisingly have notbeen adapted to screen. While the popularity of vampires has waned in recent years, the genre still flourishes with a multitude of other supernatural creatures that vary from angels to werewolves. Werewolves make up several of the main characters in Omega Rising, Anna Kyle’s debut novel and the first of a series called Wolf King; though this book was released just this past June, the second volume, Skye Falling, is already slated for publication in August. That’s quick turnaround, and I imagine her growing fan-base will be pleased. Omega Rising didn’t feel like the first of a series to me, as Kyle’s worldbuilding is incredibly advanced and a lot was happening; the quick pace, especially in the second half of the volume, made it feel like it should be the third or fourth in a series, not the first. But let me back up, and tell you about the story itself.

Cass Nolan runs a ranch with an assortment of quirky characters, her own found family after a life on the run from an abusive aunt. She sometimes talks to the ghost of her twin sister, a twin she has convinced herself must surely be imaginary, and she suffers from burns when she is touched—at least until she meets the mysterious Nathan Rivers, who shows up at her ranch looking for work. Nathan is secretly a werewolf and an Enforcer for the shadowy Enforcement Agency fighting an Endless War against magic-users like the Omegas. The Omegas themselves are a hybrid race who combine the traits of shapeshifters, known as the Joined, with that of the mages, and are considered deadly threats to the natural (as well as the paranormal) order of things. Nathan is patrolling the area looking for the murderer of a shifter; he is also hunting for his brother’s murderer. His brother was also killed by magic, and so Nathan carries a personal vendetta against mages, as well as a professional one. His life is complicated both by his immediate attraction to Cass and the fact that pretty much every member of her ranch staff is, unbeknownst to her, a shifter as well.

If this seems like a lot to take in (and a lot of capitals, which is perhaps one of the hallmarks of the genre), this is actually only the first few chapters of the book; lots happens, and very quickly, too. Kyle also has a gift for creating snappy dialogue, and if one of the weaknesses of her text is some less-drawn characterizations for the minor characters, the blank spaces are filled in with wit and panache. In a way, Omega Risingreminded me a lot of Andy Weir’s novel The Martian; if that novel was like a very detailed screenplay, Kyle’s novel is a lot more like the prospectus for a television serial—and believe it or not, I do mean that in a positive way. There is a definite sense of seriality to it, though there is a thrilling conclusion and enough dangling plot threads that promise still more adventures, rather than the cliffhanger approach that has been favored by other writers of late. One of the things that also surprised me about the novel was that it bucked the trend in the genre with the sex scenes, which are few and brief (and belied by the near-obligatory naked male torso on the cover) rather than lengthy and explicit affairs (as it were). Kyle also did without the equally near-obligatory trope of the couple coming apart because of a misunderstanding or secrets and then getting back together: Nathan reveals his true nature to Cass, as do the other shifters, with surprisingly little drama, and she likewise accepts this aspect of her friends and would-be lover with aplomb, though with fewer pop culture references than I half-expected given some of the other dialogues.

Ultimately, this is a fun sort of beach or popcorn read, entertaining and light. I do think that because it is Paranormal Romance, this will make or break the deal for prospective readers: if you like the genre you will probably like it, if you don’t then you probably won’t. Kyle conforms to most aspects of the genre, and that has its pleasures too. And if you aren’t sure, then Omega Rising may well be worth checking out for all of the reasons mentioned above.
caitri: (books)
I just finished it tonight AND I AM SO FRUSTRATED because I had been looking forward to it SO MUCH and FOR A YEAR was not what I was expecting/wanting. >_< Which is, you know, my fault, but still:

The last book concluded with The Just City (per Plato) being removed from ancient Greece to another planet in the 25th century, and they were about to make contact with outside humanity. I was looking forward to a great deal of conversations centering around philosophy, ethical differences and evolutions, and technology.

What I got was a time travel caper where Apollo and others have to rescue Athene because she wanted to go to the primordial Chaos and she got stuck there. While I appreciated what Walton did with her discussions of time, Fate, and Necessity (which roundabouts reminded me of the Prophets from DS9), the whole re-contact plot was relegated to the margins. Not the sidelines, the margins. There is ONE on-page conversation between the "future" humans and the Platonists, which, frankly, felt like a waste of an awesome idea.

What I take from this is I need to find time to write a version of the story that I want. Because that's how I roll. but oy.



I beta'd a lovely story for [ profile] fritz42, posted here.

I found out via another friend that I was quoted in a keynote at this year's Slayage which makes me feel extraordinarily delighted and slightly important. ;)

I'm so behind on so many things. How does this happen to me? IDEK.
caitri: (books)
Crossposted at The Future Fire:

Kate Forsyth, The Rebirth of Rapunzel: A Mythic Biography of the Maiden in the Tower. Fablecroft Publishing, 2016. Pp 272. ISBN 978-0-9925534-9-4. $29.95.

I’ve always been fascinated by fairy tales, and the more so when I was old enough to understand the history behind the genre. Though some of the stories find their antecedents in oral folklore, many emerged as part of a literary trend in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries—a trend that was pioneered by numerous women writers at the French court just prior to the Enlightenment. If you’ve ever wondered why so many tales involve young women who are forced to marry beasts or who are abused by tyrannical step-mothers, it’s because their proto-feminist authors were writing from experience, and the “happily ever afters” that were promised were the ultimate in wish-fulfillment. Kate Forsyth played with both of these elements in her 2012 novel Bitter Greens, interweaving a retelling of the Rapunzel story with that of its seventeenth century author, Charlotte-Rose de la Force. In The Rebirth of Rapunzel, Forsyth revisits both the original tale and her own rewriting of it, and explores numerous other versions of the story along the way. In what she and scholars call a mythic biography, she closely examines the history and transformations of Rapunzel, and what they mean to her as a writer.

The book contains three sections: ‘The Rebirth of Rapunzel,’ which is a scholarly exploration of the Rapunzel tale, and includes an extensive bibliography of retellings; ‘Persinette,’ a reprint of a 1989 translation by Jack Zipes of de la Force’s 1697 Rapunzel text; and ‘Books Are Dangerous,’ a series of short essays on genre by Forsyth, several of which have previously appeared elsewhere. The ‘Rebirth’ section makes up the bulk of the volume, consisting of six chapters of analysis of the Rapunzel tale. Its academic prose is very readable but a little ungainly and repetitive: Forsyth explains more than once Stephen Knight’s concept of mythic biography and similar scholarly ideas in a way that isn’t necessary. She also returns more than once to how she utilized various motifs in writing her own novel that I think will be revelatory to those who have read Bitter Greens; I have not but now I want to pick it up, actually.

Forsyth also describes how she first read the Rapunzel tale as a child in hospital. Through both accidents and illnesses she spent a number of her early years sick and in isolation, and so internalized something of the idea of the lonely girl in a tower. Later on one of her tear ducts was infected such that eventually she was given an artificial glass duct, a surgery that was not only life-saving but connected her even more intimately to the Rapunzel tale’s theme of the ‘healing tears.’ While a number of scholarly treatises on fairy tales have emphasized psychoanalytic readings to show how readers have absorbed and responded to these stories, the way Forsyth writes about them so frankly and honestly lends itself not just to a case study but almost as a literal embodiment of how we interact with story.

Jack Zipes’ translation of ‘Persinette’ in the second section of the book is drawn from his 1989 book Beauty and the Beast and Other Classic French Fairy Tales. Zipes is one of the pioneering academics who started closely reconsidering the fairy tale as a literary form in the twentieth century; his studies include Breaking the Magic Spell: Radical Theories of Folk and Fairy Tales (1979), Fairy Tales and the Art of Subversion: The Classical Genre for Children and the Process of Civilization (1985), Happily Ever After: Fairy Tales, Children and the Culture Industry (1997), and The Irresistible Fairy Tale: The Cultural and Social History of a Genre (2012), among many others. As Forsyth explains in the ‘Rebirth’ section, Charlotte-Rose de la Force’s version of the story was the first to include all the tropes of what we would consider to be the Rapunzel tale: the parents exchanging the unborn child to a fairy/witch for a plant the mother craves (rampion, better known as parsley but also called Rapunzel), the girl alone in the tower, the hair ladder and the prince, the lovers’ separation and their reunion with the happy tears that heal the blinded prince.

The final section of the book consists of several short essays by Forsyth, all of them reprints of material written between 2006 and 2013. ‘The Birth of Fantasy,’ traces the history of fantasy as a genre back to Andrew Lang, connecting him to J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, and then concluding with a short discussion of George R.R. Martin. It is a short and thoughtful piece, but I think it misses something in only discussing popular male authors; for instance, despite the popularity of Lang’s Fairy books, he was only their editor and not their author, for the bulk of the stories were written by his wife, Leonora Blanche Alleyne Lang. This particular point is not one that is well-known outside of fairy tale studies, but given that there is a connection between both fairy tales and fantasy as being genres that are largely written and read by women with only certain males valorized in the canon, I find this familiar erasure disappointing, especially given Forsyth’s own focus on de la Force.

In contrast, ‘The Birth of Science Fiction’ focuses on Mary Shelley as the founding mother of SF, describing the familiar backstory of Mary and Percy’s vacation with Byron in Polidori and their challenge to each write ghost stories, which concluded for Mary with the writing and later publication of Frankenstein in 1818. ‘The Glass Slipper: A Classic Rediscovered’ is a more biographical piece describing Forsyth’s reading of Eleanor Farjeon’s The Glass Slipper as a child, and her search for and final rediscovery of the book as an adult. ‘Stories as Salvation’ is an earlier version of the first essay in the ‘Rebirth’ section, recounting Forsyth’s childhood illnesses and her discovery of Rapunzel. ‘Fuddling Up My Mucking Words Again’ is another biographical essay chronicling Forsyth’s struggles with stuttering, describing the neurological disorder that causes it and (too) briefly digressing to other well-known authors who were also afflicted, including Lewis Carroll and W. Somerset Maugham. ‘Books Are Dangerous’ describes Forsyth’s adventures in reading as both a child and adult; in a way this is most familiar of the essays because so many of us can clearly recall and empathize with those special books that totally take us out of ourselves. The final essay is ‘Rapunzel in the Antipodes,’ which returns to describing various transformations of the tale. The book concludes with a poem, ‘In the Tower,’ spoken by Rapunzel herself.

Ultimately, The Rebirth of Rapunzel: A Mythic Biography of the Maiden in the Tower is a fascinating and readable collection, and if the material at times overlaps and repeats, the originality of the vast remainder is utterly absorbing. I highly recommend it for anyone interested in fairy tales, genre, or honestly, just writing.
caitri: (books)
Crossposted at The Future Fire:

Hal Duncan, Testament. Eibonvale Press, 2015. Pp 398. ISBN 978-1-908125-42-2. £25.00 hb/£10.00 pb.

Speculative stories that rewrite the Bible (or its offshoots) are common enough to be nearly a dime a dozen; the sort of short story that begins with marooned astronauts on a hostile planet named Adam and Eve is a risible cliché for a reason. InTestament, Hal Duncan rewrites and intersperses the Gospels with commentary from an unnamed author, and if the product is not necessarily new, it is nonetheless absorbing.

Duncan creates two narratives in this work: the first being a somewhat straightforward recasting of Biblical text, typeset in familiar double columns and making small replacements, such as using “Worker” for “Creator” and “sublime” for “grace.” These are small changes that connote a world of meaning, especially shifts in meaning. Those readers who generally do not pay attention to translations—and Biblical translations, which of course are even more fraught in meaning—will be drawn to them here because of Duncan’s adept ventriloquizing of King James Bible style English. The second narrative is a contemporary one, typeset in a smaller, more traditionally “novel” format in brief bursts, and told in epistolary form to a violent, homophobic “lover of the sublime.” Truthfully, I was expecting these two threads to combine at some point in something like a traditional conversion narrative, but that didn’t quite happen—instead, the addressee becomes, in the end, the “everyman,” the reader. This transition shifts meaning too, as Duncan’s unnamed narrator exhorts first this assumed other to acknowledge everyday atrocities large and small for the crimes they are, whether they are groups of students being gassed by the police state or Syrian refugees fleeing en masse. The reader who has, until this moment, been aware of these events but felt themselves separate from the addressee, is then pushed into something like complicity as they are prodded to take action.

Above all, this story draws attention to reading Jesus as a crusader for social justice and something like a social anarchist. While these aspects aren’t exactly new to readers informed on historical theology, they will assuredly make a great impression on casual readers. Frankly, this is exactly the sort of book that would have most blown my mind in high school, in a profoundly thoughtful way, and as such I really hope it finds its way into the hands of younger readers who are, much as I was, stuck between a profoundly narrow-minded Christian milieu and a bigger, realer world not yet in reach. Despite preoccupations with violence and queer sex, the actual text itself is not all that explicit, with visceral images drawn in words from the pictures shown everyday on our television and computer screens.

My one complaint about the book is that the roles open to women remain small and largely passive—a choice especially at odds with past trends to retell Biblical tales through women in the mode of Anita Diamant’s The Red Tent and its imitators, or even to recast the new Savior as a woman, as James Morrow did in Only Begotten Daughter. If many feminist readings of texts get critiqued for being insufficiently intersectional, then this should also apply to this queer reading of the Gospels. While the relationship between Joshua, as Duncan dubs Jesus here, and Judas appears only late in the book, the homosocial bonds between he and all his followers are viewed closely at all times, while the Marys and Martha remain only on the periphery. (And in case you’re wondering, Joshua definitely doesn’t get married here, to the Magdalene or anyone else. While the legalization of gay marriage in multiple countries is still ongoing, I think it would have been a really interesting twist to have seen this profoundly socially aware, anarchist, queer Christ marry a dude, but that may just be me.)

Ultimately, Testament is a fascinating exercise in reconsidering revealed truth. Duncan’s book ends with the Fall of an Empire, a Pilate in riot gear, and the Everyman on the precipice of a new world in the making. Given how profoundly we, too, are on the brink, with rising fascism and global catastrophe edging ever forward, it’s well worth considering what roles we ourselves want to play in this new world, whether as readers or revolutionaries.
caitri: (books)
Crossposted to The Future Fire.

Kevin J. Anderson and Neil Peart, Clockwork Lives. ECW Press, 2015. Pp. 396. ISBN 978-1-77041-294-1. $24.95.

How does one fill the pages of a book?

I feel as though I can hear thousands of weary sighs from people at their keyboards following the conclusion of National Novel Writing Month, but in the case of Anderson and Peart’s collaborative novel Clockwork Lives, the answer is literally blood and tears. Marinda Peake’s deceased father has bequeathed her a blank alchemy book and a mission: to leave behind the comfortable life she has always known and fill the volume with the stories of others. Though billed as a steampunk Canterbury Tales, this novel has more in common with Michael Ende’s The Neverending Story in both form and concept. The tale itself expertly connects Marinda’s story with those that she collects, and the physical volume, bound in embossed faux-leather with marbled endpapers and filled with tinted, patterned pages to recall handmade papers, is a bibliophile’s delight. (An archival one too: the case binding with sewn endbands is absolutely going to last longer than your average mass-market hardback!) It also contains over a dozen full-page illustrations by Nick Robles to introduce each of the stories that Marinda collects via drops of blood provided by those she speaks with; each of the tales’ chapter headings includes an evocative blood splat and a shading from red-to-black as the “blood” becomes print. It’s a fun graphic design element, recalling the dual red and green inks used in Ende’s book to denote what story sections take place in the “real” and “imaginary” worlds.

Clockwork Lives is a sequel of sorts to Anderson’s previous novel Clockwork Angels(2012), which was written to accompany the Rush album of the same name, but familiarity with that book isn’t necessary; Lives stands very well on its own. The world it describes feels like the best possible steampunk adventure story that you read long ago and still half-remember: there are airships, clockwork people, sirens in the sea, a prosperous Atlantis, a magic bookshop, and a carnival with fascinating denizens. Marinda records a dozen stories for our perusal, but it’s easy to imagine a number of other, similar volumes emerging from Anderson’s capacious imagination and pen.

My one problem with the book is with an element presented both on the book’s back and its first page: “Some lives can be summed up in a sentence or two. Other lives are epics.” These lines are meant to goad Marinda on her journey; as she speaks to some people in her hometown (and elsewhere), their stories are given in only a line or two, or perhaps a paragraph. These people are unimportant says the alchemical book, and Anderson—and that bothers me. For one thing, most of the “epic” stories given belong to male characters; for another, almost all of those men, at least as interpreted by Robles, are white. The seemingly only exception is ‘The Strongman’s Tale’ in which the titular hero Golson is black, and his story is about knowing the limits of his strength. This is somewhat subverted a few pages later by Louisa, his friend (and carnival bearded lady) who explains to Marinda that she meddles with Golson’s weights so that he is continually improving and challenging himself, but the thrust of the story still rankles. Another story, ‘The Seeker’s Tale,’ belongs to Cabeza de Vaca, a fraudulent hero and explorer who truthfully spends most of his time in pubs; his illustrated appearance does not differentiate him from the other white heroes, despite his name. Too often real recorded history has minimized or erased the stories of non-white men; to see this enacted all over again in playful fiction is, frankly, annoying.

As for Marinda herself? Her story concludes rather abruptly with a love plot and a return home. The love plot doesn’t feel exactly organic, but it’s the sort of thing that we have become accustomed to as a conventional “happily ever after” and I won’t quibble with that, especially given how meta the novel is already. If it’s a story about stories, then we have to accept those elements that have become part of our narrative fabric, even if we wish they were more subversive, or played more with the form.

What Anderson does best with Clockwork Lives, I think, is engage with that particular love of books and stories that is so common to a certain kind of reader, and is again something that reminds me of Ende. Twice Marinda walks into a magical bookshop that has a portal to other universes; the eponymous bookseller of ‘The Bookseller’s Tale’ tells of her ventures to other bookshops slightly different than her own. As we all know, reading a good book is a kind of portal, too, one that lets you go to another world, explore for a while, and then come back, slightly changed.

This is a book for booklovers, steampunk aficionados, and with the holidays coming up, might make a good gift for anyone who enjoys a good yarn. Anderson gets a lot right here, and the book designers finished it off perfectly, which is not something that can always be said, alas. Marinda is also just the right sort of heroine for holiday reading, too: the sort who grows because of the people she meets, and the stories she reads.
caitri: (books)
Crossposted from The Future Fire:

Bascomb James (ed.), Far Orbit Apogee. World Weaver Press, 2015. Pp. 306. ISBN 978-0-6925-0976-0. $14.95.

Far Orbit Apogee is the second in a series of anthologies dedicated to space adventures edited by Bascomb James, with two more books slated as forthcoming in 2016. The aim of the series, James explains in the introduction, is dedication to “Grand Tradition storytelling for a modern audience,” with Grand Tradition defined as “a writing and storytelling style popular in mid-century SF publications composed of plot-driven fun-to-read adventure stories with a positive message and a sense of wonder” (5). Reading this volume with a critical eye, I honestly wasn’t sure if this collection was meant to participate in the ongoing schisms in genre fandom personified by the recent Puppygate crisis, or if it was only trying to appeal to new or nostalgic readers. “Grand Tradition” is a known phrase but one seldom used; outside of the occasional brief review blurb, the only other times I’ve seen it used was in a pair of anthologies edited by Gardner Dozois in the 1990s (The Good Old Stuff, containing classic reprints and published in 1998, and The Good New Stuff, a collection containing contemporary writers published in 1999). Nonetheless, James does provide what he aims to deliver: a diverse series of stories.

In the brief introduction to each selection James also includes a short note about the form used (such as juvenile or YA fiction, coming-of-age, mystery, romance, and so forth) and then a biographical note for the author. Sometimes this can be distracting rather than entertaining; for example, attempting to digest juvenile fiction into less than a paragraph overlooks a great deal of genre history by necessity. Further, World Weaver Press is a small, independent press that specializes in genre publications; while the material was utterly professional the volume was less so, riddled intermittently with typesetting line issues and the occasional misspelling. There was also a factual error with regards to a citation of H.G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds, claiming that book’s publication date as 1848 rather than 1898. While admittedly these are nitpicks, they are ones that do distract from what is otherwise a solid publication. That said, I was impressed by the range and quality of most of the offerings presented here.

The volume contains thirteen stories, three of which are reprints that have appeared elsewhere in recent years, and one of which, ‘To Defend and Keep From Harm’ by Anne Salonen, is a story’s first appearance in English. James describes it as a paladin story, and while I’m not convinced that that’s a subgenre form, it was a fun adventure story. In contrast, James Van Pelt’s ‘This Story Will Win a Hugo’ is a recursive jaunt that doesn’t wink at the audience so much as backslap them with a familiarity that is uncomfortable and intentions that feel unkind, as a writer character creates an algorithm to study Hugo Award winners to see how they win, and imitate this formula to improve her own craft. That hiccup aside, the remaining stories are solid and entertaining: Jay Werkheiser’s ‘Contamination’ expertly sketches out the conflicts between science and human need, while Nestor M. Delfino’s ‘A Most Exceptional Scholarship’ meshes the hoary old boarding school tropes with alien diplomacy. Dave Creek’s ‘Murder at Tranquility Base’ is a mystery yarn about crime, tourism, and how history is treated in the future.

Julie Frost’s ‘The Affairs of Dragons’ is described as series story, but it is perhaps more accurate to simply call it space opera, as it has a set of heroes that have appeared in other works and will likely appear in others. It involves a familial crew trying to scrape by between jobs and getting caught up in adventures in the meantime; the titular dragons are aliens who are themselves having a familial spat. Kevin R. Pittsinger’s ‘Culture Shock’interweaves the dueling perspectives of adversaries forced to work together, while Wendy Sparrow’s ‘Lost in Transmutation’ explores similar territory using romance. Dominic Dulley’s ‘Dainty Jane’ is another juvenile adventure story where a teenage protagonist struggles to find her way after personal tragedy, and Milo James Fowler’s ‘Live by the Ten, Die by the Gun’ is space western right down to the cantankerous old Sheriff dealing with cattle rustlers.

My own favorite stories in the collection were Jennifer Campbell-Hicks’s ‘Masks,’ a “court intrigue” story in which, non-surprisingly, no one is who they seem to be, and yet, Hicks has a definite skill in pulling back layers to explore various characters, and Eric Del Carlo’s ‘N31ghb0rs,’ a robot story that favorably recalls Isaac Asimov’s yarns. The final story, Sam S. Kepfield’s ‘By the Shores of a Martian Sea’ is a story about terraforming, and will probably speak even more strongly to readers as we go forward with Martian explorations in real life.

This volume was a fun collection, and I quite enjoyed it, but I still remain bothered by the claims to return to “Grand Tradition” storytelling as a superior form of reading and writing. I read a lot, and not just for TFF-Reviews, and find that the schisms that have racked genre fandom in recent years and that claim a “return to form” lack any real awareness of SFF’s actual history. SFF has always had fun stories, and thoughtful stories, and stories meant to make political statements in times of crisis: it was true in 1906, in 1926, in 1936, in 1966, in 1986, and yes, even 2006 and, undoubtedly, 2016. That’s why SFF remains the true literature of ideas—it is where we can explore most openly the issues that preoccupy us in the everyday. As we change, the genre changes, but that’s true in all art forms. To claim otherwise is a nostalgia that ignores more than it champions.
caitri: (books)
Cross-posted from The Future Fire:

Cecelia Holland, Dragon Heart. Tor Books, 2015. Pp. 286. ISBN 978-0-7653-3794-8. $25.99.

Reviewed by Cait Coker

For the first time in ages, I’ve recently joined a writing group. Thus far we’ve had several conversations about writing genre, and what that means, both online and face-to-face. One of the things I’ve found puzzling, in both the teaching of writing and of speculative literature, is the difficulties that abound in describing what makes a genre, anygenre, a member of a specific category. It sounds simple, doesn’t it? Romance stories obviously have love as a consistent theme, mysteries a puzzle or murder to solve, science fiction has rocket ships (unless, of course, it doesn’t), fantasy has magic, and history has, well, history. But if we look more closely, it’s amazing how quickly these supposed walls disappear, and how excellent writers can take a hoary staple and utterly subvert it. Further, as the popularity of Young Adult literature has shown, genre mash-ups create entirely new sub-genres like dystopian romances or historic fantasy, among many others. And it’s with these thoughts in mind that I started reading Cecelia Holland’s Dragon Heart, a fantasy novel by a writer who has made her mark in historical fiction.

With over two dozen novels published, in addition to a handful of non-fiction works, Dragon Heart is Holland’s first work of speculative fiction in forty years; her previous effort wasFloating Worlds (1976), a story about Martian colonists. Despite this lapse, which would ordinarily indicate a lengthy work that the author had crafted over ages with conspicuous care and attention, Dragon Heart is both concise and rushed. Jeon is a young prince in an embattled kingdom come to a small cloister to fetch his sister Tirza back for their mother’s wedding; on their way home their ship is wrecked by a dragon and Tirza stolen away. Using her wits, she must charm the dragon to stay alive long enough to escape and find her brother and her way home again. This is also the entirety of the first chapter, and the breakneck pace of the story never lets up once you start. This is a gift and a curse; I couldn’t put the book down once I started, but so much happens that it’s a disorienting experience for the reader. Further, the book contains no maps and minimal references to geography, only place names, so I often had little idea where characters were, how long it took them to travel, or even worse, little indication as to what was happening or even why. I wonder if this is a problem with Holland’s historical novels, but I doubt it: a story located as being “in England” and as “Celts versus Saxons” or “Saxons versus Normans” would provide a load of cultural details, taken for granted, that the reader could sketch in for themselves. Displaced to an original world where the rules are never quite explained (there’s an Empire? and a small kingdom to conquer for… reasons?), I kept hoping there would be some key to understanding who the many characters were and why they were doing what they were doing. Alas, if there was, I couldn’t find it.

This might make it sound like I didn’t enjoy the book, but on the contrary, I enjoyed specific bits of it while being frustrated by the rest, and nonetheless, I respect the book for what it was doing: Holland doesn’t play by the rules here, and that can be a frustrating experience. The closest analogy I can think of is when I was reading George R. R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones for the first time and being genuinely shocked by the fate of Ned Stark. One does not kill one’s main characters willy-nilly (unless one does), and one does not introduce a dragon only to promptly forget about it for ages (unless one does). For a novel with a dragon on the cover and in the title, there is surprisingly little dragon on the page, but this too is a choice, and one Holland indicates early on when Tirza is doing her best impression of Scheherazade, constantly telling stories to live one day more:

Of all this Tirza made stories. As the generations piled one on another, like the rocks of Castle Ocean, King followed on King, rescuing Princesses, punishing the wicked, battling monsters in the sea, chasing pirates, and defending his people, stories sprouting and intertwining, growing on one another. She fed all these stories to the dragon, except one. (27)

By placing so much of the story without context, we have to query what it is that we as readers bring to what we’re reading, how we fill in the blanks of narrative with knowledge that we “know,” or have only learned through reading dozens of other, similar, books. A noble prince saving his sister from a fate worse than death? This is a familiar story, but… is that fate the dragon, or only the life that Tirza leads within the restrictive confines of a brutal patriarchy? Is a prince noble through his birth, or through the decisions he makes? The answers may, or may not, surprise you.
caitri: (books)
Cross-posted at The Future Fire:

Eva Darrows, The Awesome. Ravenstone Press, 2015. Pp. 246. ISBN 978-1-78108-324-6. $9.99.

The Awesome is the sort of profoundly, well, awesome book that makes me resent the fact that the great YA renaissance is taking place while I’m in my thirties. When I was an actual teenager, lo many moons ago, the sort of YA heroines I got were girls who either a) babysat (blah), b) solved mysteries (meh), c) or were dying tragically of cancer (UGH). Eventually I discovered the classic SFF juveniles by Robert Heinlein, Anne McCaffrey, and others, but I’ve been rereading some of them recently, and they are often unforgivably rapey as well as retro. Eva Darrows’ The Awesome, on the other hand, features a heroine I would have given anything to read (and more to just be) when I was fifteen: Maggie Cunningham is a hunter of supernatural creatures under her mother’s tutelage, dispatching monsters by day and night while not-really working on her GED. She’s snarky and badass, and utterly without the sort of girlish polish that Buffy the Vampire Slayer was always gifted with. She wears jeans and combat boots and sweatshirts, finds normal people and boys bewildering, and is consumed with a singular goal: to lose her virginity so that she can finally become a journeyman hunter.

Maggie’s world is one next door to our own—supernatural creatures are somewhat public, and their regulation is a matter of public safety. Supernaturals are documented, and there are a variety of government personnel to sort things out, with hunters being a bit like our own bounty hunters, bringing in or occasionally dispatching those creatures that are a public menace. Vampires are particularly tricky—especially because they can sense virgin blood, and it throw them into a feeding frenzy. As such, the physical loss of one’s virginity is a dual rite of passage, as one is then cleared to start hunting the truly dangerous prey. Maggie’s desire for her promotion leads her to Ian, a cousin of her friend Julie, and what becomes a mission to get laid becomes the sort of awkward adolescent love story that’s all the more sweet because they never once use the l-word.

To digress for a moment, a lot of popular YA series—Twilight, The Hunger Games, theMatched series, just for a few examples—have a love plot where the heroine has to choose between two boys, and often has no female friends at all. The Awesome turns these tropes on their heads: Maggie is unconcerned with boys—indeed, with “normal” kids in general—but has been friends with Julie since childhood. Further, Maggie’s closest relationship is with her mother Janice, who is one part John Winchester from Supernaturaland one part Lorelai Gilmore from Gilmore Girls; she mentors Maggie in the family business, is no-nonsense about sex and is generally a good humored, supportive mom. Sex, and Maggie’s desire for it, is treated without shame, guilt, or purple prose. The book is also clear that Ian is not Maggie’s “one true love” or anything like that, but what he is is a supportive boy who accepts Maggie for who she is and finds her attractive for who she is—a nonconventional but honest young woman. It’s also made clear that her very rejection of stereotypical femininity—her fighting skills as well as her status as a hunter—are traits he finds attractive. He has no desire to “protect” her or possess her, as so many YA male leads do, and she in turn enjoys his company. In short, they are complete equals who respect each other. It is sad that this makes The Awesome an exception rather than the rule, but we can hope that maybe, possibly, it will spark similar books and heroines.

In an unexpected twist, it turns out that Maggie is not the only one with a love interest: it turns out that Janice has had a relationship with a vampire named Jeff for quite a while. Maggie is resentful that Janice has kept this information from her—not least because she has been drilled her entire life to be suspicious of vampires and other supernaturals. Another complication arises when they discover Lauren, a young woman who has been unexpectedly resurrected as a fairly benign zombie. Lauren is content to make do with small wild animals and raw hamburger meat and becomes a member of their unconventional household until an alternative can be found. In short, Maggie’s small blood family extends into a wider family of choice. This is far from an unusual theme in speculative fiction, but given the general trend to read vampires as a metaphor for whatever society is anxious about in the given moment (most often immigrants, which is relevant here too because of the government agency that tracks their movements), the casual emphasis on inclusion is appreciated.

The Awesome is not deep reading, but it is terrifically entertaining. While in many ways it doesn’t break new ground, its valorization of women’s friendships and its honesty about teenage sex make it noteworthy. (In fact, the only other author I’ve seen to adamantly champion these facets is Meg Cabot, most famously the author of The Princess Diariesand other YA series. Unfortunately Cabot can sometimes be a difficult sell to teenagers—or adults—for that reason, but her writing is sharp and funny, so if you appreciate Darrows you will likely appreciate her as well.) It’s just, well, awesome.
caitri: (books)
Cross-posted at The Future Fire:

Margrét Helgadóttir, The Stars Seem So Far Away. Fox Spirit Books, 2015. Pp. 160. ISBN 978-1-909348-76-9. £5.00.

Margrét Helgadóttir’s debut book is a mosaic novel describing the lives of a disparate group of survivors in a future that seems to be coming closer every day. I read The Stars Seem So Far Away the same week that science reports confirmed that the East Antarctic ice sheets are melting more than previously thought, that the previous year’s worldwide weather temperatures were the hottest on record, and that the Amazon rainforests are starting to fail in soaking up carbon dioxide. Turning from news reports to a science fiction novel about climate collapse was heartening and disheartening at the same time, for Helgadóttir does not ask whether humanity will survive, but how they will do so.

Stars packs fourteen stories into a slim book; they are spare in description and action, but draw their world clearly. The overarching theme is of rescue from isolation, as each character begins his or her journey alone, mulls over the lost past, dodges threats in the present, and ultimately makes contact with another survivor. Four of the stories that fall in this vein, ‘Nora,’ ‘The Rescue,’ ‘Lost Bonds,’ and ‘A Sailor Girl Goes Ashore’ were previously published, and these introduce four of Helgadóttir’s protagonists: Nora, a woman who sails the open sea while avoiding pirates; Simak, a soldier charged with locating survivors and supplies; Bjørg, a young woman with protectors in the form of genetically-engineered polar bears, called isbos; and Aida, a formerly wealthy and protected teenage girl who becomes a refugee twice-over, first through immigration to the North and then through surviving a deadly plague. Zaki, Aida’s older brother, appears in other chapters detailing his adventures.

Some stories are so brief that they lack the build-up necessary for a truly satisfying conclusion. For instance, ‘The Women’s Island’ finds Nora and Aida travelling to an island where they never leave the shoreline as they are greeted by its three inhabitants, an old woman and her two “daughters.” Nora internally marvels that the girls appear to be well-fed and round-cheeked, but she quickly understands that these three are predators not unlike the pirates she eludes, for the true source of both the dried meat offered and the jewelry is human. Nora and Aida quickly retreat and continue their travels. A story that offers such mythic and genre possibilities and is so easily solved almost isn’t a story so much as an anecdote.

‘The End of the World’ suffers from the opposite problem, in that there is so much contained that the story can’t end satisfactorily. Simak and his team are investigating a sighting of a human bonfire when they find a pair of boys who lead them to the remains of what may be an abandoned church of some sort. The walls are decorated with images of animals—which are all but unrecognizable to Simak at first—and people, and there are numerous papers that appear to be a mixture of history and prophecies. The date “2049” is on several of these papers, but it’s unclear what relevance this date has for the characters. The story concludes with the promise that the place will be researched by scientists, and that one of the boys will go back to civilization with Simak. And—there are no further revelations about what these prophecies may indicate, the mystery of the bonfire is dropped, and neither of the boys reappear in the narrative.

The titular story, ‘The Stars Seem So Far Away,’ features Zaki meeting Roar Haugen, an aged former astronaut, who tells of his adventures in space and how the program fell apart due to lack of funding and mounting expenses. Meeting Zaki compels Roar to finally pick up and move away from the crashed airplane that has been his home for years, and they travel together to find a settlement with the last of the space explorers. In the meantime, Zaki contemplates redemption for abandoning his little sister, and they come across other survivors, both benign and not.

The concluding stories chart an abrupt shift from a focus on survival: the main characters become part of a space program to travel to human settlements on other worlds and find new opportunities there. Nora and Bjørg are conflicted about leaving behind the familiarities of home, while Simik, Aida, and Zaki are eager to go forth. This plot seems more hazily sketched in than the others—it’s unclear how the space program functions or what country or settlement runs it, or how, given the scarcity of supplies, it has enough fuel and food. In the final story, ‘Farewell,’ Zoar and the newly introduced Doctor Hege listen as Zaki reports over the radio the shuttle launch and achievement of orbit. Zoar declares that he’s done with adventures even as Hege thinks to herself that she’s not. And so the ending is really just the beginning.

The Stars Seem So Far Away is at times an awkward, freshman effort, but well worth reading, for what it lacks in polished prose it makes up for in vivid imagery. Despite the grimness of the world, it is by no means a dystopia; indeed, considering the wariness each character displays for strangers, the vast majority of people introduced are genuinely good people, and it is underlined over and over again that cooperation and collaboration are the way to survive. The few “bad” characters largely remain undeveloped ciphers, which is, I think, a weakness, but a minor one. I wish the book had been twice its length, the better to explore this world and its people, but in its brevity it manages to become something like a fable for the future, promising rewards for good deeds.
caitri: (books)
Crossposted at The Future Fire:

Lee S. Hawke, Division: A collection of science fiction fairytales. Blind Mirror Publishing, 2014. Pp. 114. ISBN 978-1-925299-01-4. $8.99.

The fairy tale is a peculiar genre: today we usually think of it as quaint, storybook fodder for small children. In fact, most of the fairy tales we know best grew out of a specific body of speculative literature that developed across the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in Europe. Like science fiction, the fairy tale form could be used to discuss and even mock the politics and social figures of the day. Lee S. Hawke’s collection of what he calls science fiction fairy tales,Division, is very much in the spirit of that old tradition, and each of the seven short stories in this slim volume shines and burns with too sharp observations of our contemporary world.

The first story, ‘The Soldier,’ seems too prescient by half. In the very near future, a sick man is taken by the military because he has survived a devastating illness; scientists believe that he, as a survivor, can be used to produce antibodies for a cure to it—and to other diseases. He becomes first a “soldier” in the effort to fight disease, and then a member of “the special forces,” assigned to fight off, if he can, Ebola, Malaria, and H5N1. His battlefield is the hospital, and his general is his doctor. As he combats sickness, he watches increasingly horrifying news reports of how the rest of the world is faring. Given last fall’s panic in America about Ebola, and the most recent spread of Measles at Disneyland, it is too easy to imagine the havoc wrought on civilization by illness, and the extreme measures taken by governments to stem the tides.

‘Dissimilation’ takes place against a smaller, yet in some ways equally bleak scale. Sara is a schoolgirl whose classes are taught through computer simulations, accessed by a memory jack at the back of her neck. Throughout the story she plugs in and out of the real world, such that the simulated world is rather more real to her than, well, the real one. However, a lonely child is still a lonely child, and bullies are still bullies even in cyberspace—as we should know all too well ourselves. ‘Please Connect’ also plays with the possibilities and excesses of our virtual worlds; in this world Richard and Susan meet for what at first appears to be an awkward experience of speed-dating. Their conversations reveal a future world upon which we are already vanguard, where everyone stays comfortably behind their computer screens for work and for games. It turns out the awkward dates are the prefatory meetings prior to government-sanctioned physical sex for procreation. While touching and human contact aren’t actually taboo, as they are in Gina Biggs’ science fiction webcomic Love Not Found, they are rare and discombobulating to the point of discomfort to the protagonists. It should be amusing that two people are so much more comfortable with a variety of computer screens than with each other, but it seems to be a world that is coming closer to us every day.

‘The Grey Wall’ is another story about isolation and a lonely child, this time in a suburbia that carries the dystopian echoes of both Ray Bradbury and Madeleine L’Engle. An unnamed boy explores the limited confines of his world, until he discovers the titular Grey Wall, and what lies beyond it. It treads rather close to a current trend in posthumanism writing in which artificial life is more human—and humane—than actual humans, but the conclusion is still unexpected and upsetting.

‘Beauty’ is a bit of an outlier in this collection, playing as it does on the somewhat worn trope of the futuristic beauty industry in which physical attributes can be changed instantly and easily. In this case, sex can be changed along with eyes, cheekbones, and various other attributes. I suppose this aspect is noteworthy compared to other, similar stories, but at the same time, it seems to me that not enough is done with the idea—especially given that in the contemporary, non-Anglo world sexual reassignment surgery is fairly commonplace. ‘Lemuria’ feels similarly worn with its premise of cursed viral media, but has enough new, intriguing elements to make up for it. This story remixes end-of-the-world fear with the consumption of social media and places it in the context of an alien invasion; the “Others” can locate humans through people watching videos of them on the Internet and devour them from within. The too-brief conclusion leaves it up to the reader whether the protagonist has ascended to the afterlife or only become part of a new hivemind. I wish more had been done with this aspect, which feels utterly new and offers quite a bit of food for thought.

The final story, ‘Division,’ is a story about a parent’s grief when her teenage daughter dies. The writing here is the sort we might talk about when we talk about the transcendence of genre—technically it doesn’t matter that the story takes place on a starship, it doesn’t matter that the grieving parents are two women, it doesn’t matter that the dead child was genetically engineered, because the focus of the story is on the emotions: of being separated from one you love deeply through death and from one you love deeply through grief. That the story nonetheless contains all of these things underlines how speculative fiction can confront the universal with all the intellectual dexterity of traditional “literary” fare.

If Hawke’s collection is a demonstration of the possibilities of genre, then his medium of the “science fiction fairytale” is a demonstration of the possibilities of form. Each of these stories takes something familiar and, as they say, makes it new again.


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