Category Archives: Recommended Reading

What Have You Done, What Have You Loved? 2019

An Interesting Story (Miss Ray)It’s that time of year again! Editors, publishers, and authors’ minds turn toward Year’s Best list, and awards. Which also means it’s time for said authors, editors, and publishers to get out there and self-promote. It can feel icky or uncomfortable, but it’s a valuable service to those who nominate for awards, and those who just want to catch up reading what they might have missed during the year. So step forward, take a deep breath, and shout about what you wrote this year. While you’re at it, shout about the things you loved too! No one can read everything that comes out in a given year, but together we can help each other find excellent things to read, and perhaps even nominate.

As I have in the past, I’m gathering award eligibility posts here as a handy reference. Cat Rambo also maintains such a list, so please do check out her blog, and reach out to her with your own eligibility links. If you have a link for me to add, or a correction to make, feel free to drop a note in the comments, tag me on twitter (@ac_wise) or email me at a.c.wise [at] hotmail.com. I also have sections below for recommendation posts and for general resources like review sites. But first off, the eligibility links!

Oh, and I will update this post regularly, so please check back often!

Author/Editor/Publisher Award Eligibility Posts

Skeleton ReadingAllen, B. Morris (Note: Includes eligible stories published at Metaphorosis Magazine as well.)
Anderson, G.V.
Atthis Arts
Balthazar, Jason
Bangs, Elly
Barlow, Devan
Barton, Phoebe
Beckett, L.X.
Bennett, Rebecca
Bolander, Brooke
Brothers, Laurence Raphael
Cañas, Isabel*
Carpenter, Thomas K.
Chakraborty, S.A.
Chan, L.
Charron, Carolyn
Chawaga, Tim
Chen, Mike
Chu, John
Cipri, Nino
Clark, M.L.
Cooney, C.S.E
Cornell, P.A.
Crilly, Brandon
Das, Indra
Datlow, Ellen
Daly, Raymond Peter
Donald, Ekepeki Oghenechovwe
Reading ImageDoyle, Aidan
Drayden, Nicky
Duckett, Katherine
Dudak, Andy
Duerr, Laura
Duncan, Andy
Duncan, R.K.
Eichenlaub, Anthony W.
Eon, Louis*
Fogg, Vanessa
Frohock, T.
Garcia, R.S.A.*
Gidney, Craig Laurence
Gray, Lora
Greenblatt, A.T.
Hanosly, Christine
Harrow, Alix E.
Haskins, Maria
Hollis, Audrey R.
Howard, Kat
Hudak, Jennifer
Jo, Jessica
Jones, Heather Rose
King, Scott
Krasnoff, Barbara
Kurella, Jordan
Reading ImageLawless, J.R.H.
Lee, Fonda
Lee, Kara
Lu, S. Qiouyi
Lundoff, Catherine
Lyons, Jenn
Marcade, Jei D.
Mead-Brewer, K.C.
Mills, Samantha
Mondal, Mimi (Includes recommendations of others’ works as well.)
Moren, Dan
Mythic Delirium
Neugebauer, Annie
Nikel, Wendy
North, Bennett
O’Brien, Brandon
O’Brien, Laura
O’Dell, Claire
Ogden, Aimee
Ongle, L’Erin
Osborne, Emma
Osborne, Karen
Palumbo, Suzan
Reading ImagePayseur, Charles
PodCastle
Price, Laura E.
Pueyo, H.
Racklin, Carly
Rambo, Cat
Ramdas, Shiv
Rappaport, Jenny Rae
Ratnakar, Arula*
Reisman, Jessica
Roanhorse, Rebecca
Rodriguez, Karlo Yeager
Rowat, Frances
Rowland, Alexandra*
Royce, Eden
Sayre, A.T.
Sen, Nibedita*
Serna-Grey, Ben
Seybold, Grace
Shelby, Jennifer
Siddiqui, Sameem
Sjunneson-Henry, Elsa
St. George, Carlie (Includes recommendations of works by others as well.)
Stufflebeam, Bonnie Jo
Takács, Bogi
Talabi, Wole
Taylor, Jordan
Toasted Cake
Tobler, E. Catherine
Triantafyllou, Eugenia
Uncanny Magazine
Uzume, Setsu
Valdes, Valerie
Wagner, Erin
Wagner, Phoebe
Wasserstein, Izzy*
Wendig, Chuck
Wilde, Fran (Note: Includes recommended reading as well.)
Wilgus, Alison
Wiswell, John
Yoachim, Caroline

* Indicates author who is eligible for the Astounding Award (formerly known as the Campbell Award)

Recommendation Posts

Amazon Best Books of 2019
Coleman, Kel
Goodreads Best Books of 2019 (open for voting)
Kirkus Best Books of 2019
Library Journal Best Horror of 2019
Library Journal Bet SF/Fantasy of 2019
Publishers Weekly Best SFFH of 2019
SFWA Nebula Reading List (crowd-sourced, open to additions by SFWA members)
Tor.com Reviewers’ Choice Best Books of 2019
Washington Post Best Horror of 2019

Review Sites and Resources

Girl Reading1000 Year Plan – short fiction reviews
Antler Review (Meg Elison) – short and long fiction reviews (link goes to the most recent post)
Barnes and Noble Sci-Fi Blog – short and long fiction reviews, SFFH articles
Black Gate Magazine – book reviews, SFFH articles, etc.
Dark Matter Zine – a review site focusing on Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Diversity
The Fandomentals – SFFH reviews, articles, etc.
Ginger Nuts of Horror – horror book and media reviews, articles, etc.
Maria Haskins – short fiction reviews
Horror Bound – horror reviews
Hugo Eligibility Spreadsheet – crowd-sourced eligibility spreadsheet organized by category. Open for additions.
It’s a Jumble (Vanessa Fogg) – short and long fiction reviews
Kirkus Reviews – book reviews
Locus Magazine – short fiction reviews, book reviews, media reviews, SFFH articles and interviews
Miskatonic Review – weird fiction/Lovecraftican reviews
More2Read – multi-genre book reviews
Nerds of a Feather – short and long fiction reviews, SFFH articles and interviews
NPR Book Reviews (Amal El-Mohtar) – book reviews
Publishers Weekly – book reviews
Quick Sip Reviews (Charles Payseur) – short fiction reviews
SFF Reviews – short fiction reviews
Squee & Snark – short fiction reviews and discussion
This Is Horror – horror book reviews, news, articles, etc.
Tor.com – short and long fiction reviews, articles, interviews, etc.

All images in this post are public domain works from the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Top to bottom: An Interesting Story (Miss Ray), William Wood, 1806
A skeleton wearing a bishop’s mitre reading a book (vignette for the feast of dead), Jose Guadalupe Posada, 1890-1910
Reading by Lamplight, James McNeil Whistler, 1859
Woman in Robes Reading a Book, Julia Margaret Cameron, 1870
The Courtesan Hanazuma Reading a Letter from the series Beauties Compared to Flowers, Kitagawa Utamaro, 1790s
Study in a Wood, Daniel Huntington, 1861

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Shiny Shorts: Halloween Reads

We are deep in spooky season folks, and tomorrow is the spookiest day of them all. Just in time for Halloween, I have some recent haunting short fiction to recommend.

The Midnight Host by Gregory Neil Harris published in Fiyah #12: Chains finds brothers Donnie and Koda headed to the middle-of-nowhere North Virginia with their grandmother to visit their Aunt Pearl. One of the first things they notice on arriving at Pearl’s is a line of brick dust surrounding her property, which they mishear as being to keep away ants. The line is actually meant to repel haints, and Pearl sends the boys to the neighboring property to gather more. Next door, they meet Harlowe, who works for Mr. Hammond. He agrees to give them the brick dust, but seems very eager to get them off the property. As Donnie gathers dust, Koda wanders off and accidentally cuts himself on a piece of farm equipment. Harlowe tries to shoo them away again, despite the fact Koda is bleeding, and at that moment Mr. Hammond appears, seemingly solicitous of the boys’ health, offering bandages and cold drinks. That night, the boys return to Mr. Hammond’s property, intending to cut through his field on the way to town. They discover the fields watched over by an unsettling group of scarecrows, and the tobacco being worked by trapped black souls, bound to the land and forced to endlessly work the fields until they pay off an un-payable debt. Because Koda bled on the land, and because they accepted Mr. Hammond’s hospitality, now they are in danger of being bound too.

He scrambled over the fence and hurried to catch up to his brother, studying the nearest scarecrow with distaste. Even in the thin moonlight, there was something wrong with it. It looked too real. This one was a middle-aged white man with an unforgiving expression and pale grey eyes that practically glowed in the dark. A frown was evident above the thick, chest-length beard, and deep lines etched his sunburned face.

Harris effectively creates an atmosphere of tension and a sense of mounting dread. The first appearance of Mr. Hammond positively oozes menace even as he seems to express concern over the boys’ well being. While overtly supernatural and frightening things do occur, the true horror comes from the all-too-real system of “debt” keeping black workers enslaved on the plantation, pushed to the extreme of binding them to the land even after death, making for an unsettling supernatural tale rooted in real-world horror.

Luna Station QuarterlyThe Pet Owner’s Guide to Reptilian Hauntings by Jerica Taylor in Luna Station Quarterly is a bittersweet story with touches of humor. Maggie finds herself haunted by the ghost of her son Jason’s lizard, Howard. Meanwhile her wife, Kiersten, is deployed far away, and Maggie is trying to cope with solo parenting – getting Jason to the bus, and various after-school activities, while keeping herself going and helping her son come to terms with the concept of death.

Maggie immediately blames herself for forgetting something important in Howard’s care and feeding. His heat lamp is still on, but had she forgotten some supplement? It had been a terrible idea to get a new pet right before Kiersten left; animals were her wheelhouse. Maggie hugs her son, wipes his nose and encourages him to head downstairs and eat his cereal while she figures out what to do.

Howard’s ghost turns up in odd places, lurking by the coffeemaker and on top of the refrigerator. The desires of dead lizards, Maggie discovers, are largely unknowable, if Howard wants anything at all. She does her best to do right by the lizard, and even develops a strange fondness for his ghost, despite the inconvenience he adds to her life. Through Howard’s ghost and Maggie’s shifting relationship to him, Taylor explores loneliness, and the stress, guilt, and resentment that can come with solo parenting, parenting in general, or being separated from a loved one no matter how good the reason for their absence. It’s a lovely story that manages to make the idea of a lizard-based haunting sound almost soothing and therapeutic.

The Sloppy Mathematics of Half-Ghosts by Charles Payseur in Strange Horizons is another bittersweet story, but in a wholly different way.

Aboard the ghost ship Nine Lives there are the living, the dead, and a great many cats. And Jourdain, who likes to sleep in the observation nest, body caught somewhere between ship and stars—between everything. He half-sleeps, and half-dreams of a city he can almost taste, smog and sweat and endless endless streets alive with celebration. Then, with a shiver he’s not felt since he was beaten to death behind a theater ten years ago, knowledge crawls up his spine and into his half-conscious mind. “Napoleon is dead,” he whispers.

After that killer opening, Payseur treats readers to a weird (in the best sense of the word) journey that revels in beautiful language, and is suffused with longing. Even the dead, and the half-dead, can dream and desire things, and Napoleon has the power to grant wishes. The Nine Lives sets sail for Heart of the Universe to ferry the Emperor of All Things to his final rest, and perhaps get some of their own wishes seen to along the way. There are swashbuckling fights, and disdainful cats tasked with holding the ship together, and sex that manages to be intimate and tender and passionate despite, or perhaps because, of the lack of fully corporeal bodies involved. Payseur delivers a story that is queer and wistful with prose to leave the reader breathless and feeling like they do have been on an epic journey to the center of the universe and returned changed.

The Skin of a Teenage Boy is Not Alive by Senaa Ahmad from the August issue of Nightmare Magazine makes possession into a game played by bored, rich teenagers. The right kind of kids go to the right kinds of party, where the high school’s demon cult full of beautiful boys and girls invoke demons to possess their classmates.

It happens at one of their houses, a place built like a modern-day cathedral. The kind of hovel that has a saltwater pool with a vanishing edge and a wine cellar with someone’s entire life savings down there and red-glazed tiles cutting swoops into the Los Pueblos skyline. Six-day-old moon, a wide goblin grin from above. The hot strobe of synth-pop booming everywhere. The hazy, electrostatic currents of teenage bodies thrilling with vodka and happiness hormones.

Or rather ,one particular demon is summoned in a seemingly endless cycle to possess the young and stupid, causing them to harm themselves in its attempts to escape. The story moves fluidly through time, giving it a kind of timelessness quality, and Ahmad’s prose creates an almost dream-like feeling, with everything happening at a remove and no real consequences on the line. The style suits the story, underscoring the cyclical nature of demon possession, and also being young and feeling invulnerable. The demon cult kids and their classmates treat possession casually, like a demon is a trendy accessory, or a rite of passage, but they don’t appear to believe in their own mortality, or their ability to hurt those around them. Amhmad perfectly captures a sense of ennui that is frightening in its own right. Against this backdrop, best friends Aisha and Parveen search for a way to fit in, with Parveen acting the part of the perpetual outsider who will never be exactly the right kind of kid, trapped by a set of arbitrary rules that define popularity, just as the demon is trapped. The prose feels like a living thing, flowing and vibrant, carrying the story along and perfectly conveying the party atmosphere as well as the sense of alienation and being adrift, even among supposed friends.

Echoes CoverDeep, Fast, Green by Carole Johnstone from Echoes: The Saga Anthology of Ghost Stories is a standout story in an anthology full of incredible stories. In fact, I highly recommend checking out the whole anthology for nearly 800 pages of Halloween reads. Among so many incredible stories, Johnstone’s is one that keeps coming back to me, haunting me, if you’ll pardon the pun. Pinky lives with her mother, her mother’s boyfriend, and a great uncle who she thinks of as Gramps. Gramps is haunted, and as a result, the rambling old estate they live in is haunted as well, manifesting Gramps’ decades old trauma from his time on the crew of a submarine that sank with most of the crew still on board.

When it’s bad, the lights flicker, dim. Go black. Nothing to do but suffer it. Nothing to see but dark and the red small glows ae fags. Stink squatting over your head. Diesel and smoke and bad hydraulics, old cackleberries and jock roast, shit and sweat. The heat like a morass, sucking you down, drowning you dry.

Pinky is the only one who can calm Gramps when his PTSD manifests, but even she can only do so much. Some traumas are too deeply ingrained, and the only way to dig them out is to relive them by sharing the pain, something both she and Gramps are both reluctant to have him do. Meanwhile, Pinky’s mother and her boyfriend are largely useless, leaving Gramps’ care to Pinky, only interested in inheriting the house when he finally dies. Johnstone takes the idea of a character haunted by his past, and dials it all the way up. The prose is claustrophobic, the sense of the submarine closing in, the feeling of being trapped and drowning palpable. The idea of submarine-as-ghost, and a traumatized character acting as a conduit letting a haunting out into the larger world is a wonderful and terrifying one, and Johnstone handles it perfectly, creating a narrative that is wrenching, heartbreaking, and deeply unsettling all at once.

What are your favorite haunting Halloween reads, recent or otherwise?

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Homesick: Stories

Homesick CoverThere are certain stories that stick with you long after you finish reading them. Nino Cipri is a master at crafting such stories, and that mastery is on display in their debut collection, Homesick, recently released from Dzanc Books. Last week I posted an interview with Nino, where they discussed the collection and the theme of home that echoes through the stories. Home isn’t always a comforting place, and Cipri captures that perfectly in. In “A Silly Love Story” Jeremy’s closet is haunted, forcing him to share the space that should be a refuge with an entity he doesn’t understand. In “Which Super Little Dead Girl TM Are You?” home is certainly not a safe place. It is the place where one of the girls died, betrayed by those who were supposed to love and protect her; for another, it is a place she is no longer welcome, as evidenced by her parents’ horrified faces when she came back from the dead. In “Dead Air”, Maddie tries to avoid talking about her home completely, until she finally agrees to bring her girlfriend with her for Thanksgiving to meet her mother and the truly unsettling nature of her hometown is revealed. In “She Hides Sometimes”, the protagonist finds pieces of her parents’ house vanishing and shrinking, mirroring her mother’s decaying mind.

Even when home is frightening or unwelcoming, there is still a pull, a compulsion to return, and Cipri captures that perfectly as well. In “The Shape of My Name”, my absolute favorite of their stories (though it’s hard to pick just one), the lure of home and the treachery of it are inextricably bound. Heron, a trans man, returns to his home over and over as he loops through time. Born in the 50s, he jumps forward with his mother to visit their house in the 1980s, then later, travels back to visit his great uncle in the 1920s. As a very young child, Heron remembers a strange visitor arriving at their door one night in the midst of a storm. As a young man, his
mother jumped forward to the furthest point in the future the time machine would allow her to go, abandoning the family. For Heron, home is fraught. It’s where he fished with his dad, talking about his favorite TV shows; it’s where his father later committed suicide. It’s where his mother refused to acknowledge him, and his identity, but where his mother’s distant cousin from the future first encouraged him to introduce himself by whatever name he chose, allowing him to see for the first that gender was something he could choose for himself too. Home is where he goes to recover from his gender affirmation surgery, and the place he goes to confront his mother with his true self, closing the circle by returning as the stranger he remembers coming to the door when he was four years old.

Home is many things, and Cipri explores its facets and complications, its comforts and terrors throughout the collection. The stories range from horror to science fiction, fantasy to surreal slipstream. The majority of the stories are also beautifully queer, some suffused with hope, others touched with sadness, and many blending the two. While the majority of the stories in the collection are reprints, the collection closes out with an original novella (or perhaps a novelette?), centered on three scientists who uncover the remains of an ancient, intelligent, non-human species, who must contend with their troubled relationships with each other, as they sort out their duty to the past.

Overall, it’s a wonderful collection, bringing together many of my favorite of Cipri’s stories. If you’ve never read their work, Homesick is the perfect place to start. If you have read their work, the collection is the perfect opportunity to revisit their stories and immerse yourself in the comforts, and terrors, of home.

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Lost Transmissions

Lost Transmissions CoverI was lucky enough to snag a review copy of Desirina Boskovich’s recently-released Lost Transmissions: The Secret History of Science Fiction and Fantasy and let me tell you what, as soon as I get a coffee table (yes, I swear I’m an adult) this book will be going on it. Physically, it is a beautiful book, with glossy pages full of gorgeous art and striking photographs, and it’s the kind of book that lends itself to browsing, again perfect for a coffee table. One can dip in and out, finding essays of interest, or as I did, read cover to cover and find something fascinating on each page. The wide range of topics  means there’s bound to be something for everyone, even folks who don’t think they like science fiction and fantasy. (I may need to test this theory on my father.)

Lost Transmissions divides itself into broad sections: Literature, Film and Television, Architecture, Art and Design, Music, Fashion, and Fandom and Pop Culture. As the title suggests, the essays delve into some of the lesser-known, infrequently explored, and hidden histories of SFF, for instance touching on films that never made it to the screen, or examining the cross-pollination between seemingly disparate fields like literature, fashion, and architecture. In addition to Boskovich, authors contributing essays to the collection include Christie Yant, Grady Hendrix, Paul Tremblay, Charlie Jane Anders, John Chu, LaShawn M. Wankak, Jeanette Ng, Genevieve Valentine, K.M. Szpara, and many more.

The essays are accessible and engaging. None felt as though they were tossing up barriers of entry, require extensive knowledge of entire canons of SFF for the subject matter to be meaningful. Again, because of the sheer breadth of subjects covered, and because of each author’s particular area of focus within the larger categories, the book offers a pleasing mix of new discoveries and deeper dives into familiar subjects. Or at very least, that was my experience. With the subjects I knew something about, the essays felt like revisiting an old friend. With those I had no knowledge of, it did indeed feel like finding a lost transmission, and uncovering a secret history.

Whether your interest lies in cosmic horror, pulp illustration, Warhammer role playing, the fashion of Alexander McQueen, the architecture of Syd Mead, or the music of Janelle Monae, there is something here for you. By the same token, if none of those appeal to you, or you are venturing a toe into speculative waters for the first time, there’s still a veritable treasure trove to be found. Dive deep, or skim the surface, skipping to points of interest – either way, I highly recommend picking up a copy of this gorgeous book. Hidden history awaits you!

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Shiny Shorts: Monsters and Memory

With Apex Magazine ceasing monthly publication, my review column, Words for Thought, is a bit up in the air. It may come back in some form, at some point, but in the meantime, I want to keep highlighting short fiction. So in that spirit, I intend to sporadically post reviews here of a few stories that have caught my eye, magpie-like, hence the name Shiny Shorts. Happy reading!

Colonized Bodies, Desiccated Souls by Nin Harris, published at Diabolical Plots, casts British colonizers in Malaysia as literal zombies, mindlessly devouring people and resources. In response, Penghulu Udin forms the Persatuan Pertahanan Manusia Sejagat – PPMS – training others to fight back and defend humanity.

Even in their present state the British could barely handle the heat of the tropics. Penghulu Udin discovered he was exceptionally good at killing the undead. He could spear them, decapitate them, blow them up or use the bamboo blowgun the way his Dayak ancestors had before they had travelled to Selangor to build a new life by marrying into the Javanese community.

He is joined in the PPMS by his love, Salmah who fights at his side. Their life isn’t easy, but at least they are together. However, one night while they are on watch together, Udin discovers Salmah has been keeping a secret that will change everything.

Harris does an excellent job of conveying atmosphere and creating tension throughout the story. Like the best zombie fiction, the trope of the unreasoning undead is used here to confront a larger issue, in this case colonialism. The British are consumers, and Udin and his people are the product as only the British are subject to  infection while Malaysians who are bitten simply die. Zombies here are the perfect metaphor for the ugly reality of the sun never setting on the British Empire. The British colonizers are immortal in Harris’ world, even if the life they possess is hideous. They continue blithely on, and everyone else suffers the consequences. There is a lot to unpack in this relatively short story as it explores the fate of people caught in the crossfire of empires, and what it seems they must inevitably become in order to reclaim control.

Where Nin Harris uses zombies to examine colonialism, Danny Lore uses werewolves to examine class in Fare, published in Fireside Magazine. Like Harris’ story, Lore’s is also short, but packs a punch. Werewolves are a known quantity in this world. Most are registered, and there are even swanky, government-sponsored kennels where wealthy and middle class people can ride out their transformations. DeShaun, however, is not registered, and he knows people from his neighborhood are not welcome at the Midtown Kennels. He has no desire to hurt anyone, he simply wants to get home before the moon changes him.

The change always starts at the back of DeShaun’s neck, and it takes everything not to claw the beast out — to not let it peel him open along his spine like pages of a book.

Lore’s prose is visceral and claustrophobic, creating tension through their descriptions – the suffocating heat in the cab, the cracked seats, the barrier separating DeShaun from the driver. The oppressive atmosphere creates a sense of urgency, making me want to squirm right along side DeShaun as he struggles for control. The story works perfectly as a sharp little bite of horror, but it’s more than that as well. Lore weaves in an examination of class, wealth, and privilege. The cabbie isn’t even aware of the existence of kennels in the Kingsbridge Armory where DeShaun and those like him go during their transformation. For the privileged, transforming into a werewolf is almost a holiday, and proud parents snap photographs of their children’s first change. As with so many things in life, privilege wipes away what could be monstrous, and replaces it with comfort and safety. The story is beautifully-written, and delivers satisfying horror as well as a reflection on society’s inequalities.

Apparition Lit CoverHis Heart is the Haunted House by Aimee Ogden in Apparition Literary Magazine takes on ghosts, beautifully twisting the trope of the tortured monster hunter. Karyn is a ghost, tied to a nameless monster hunter,  and she isn’t the only one. There are other ghosts – Tish and María-Belén and Easterday and more – all people the monster hunter failed to save. They are his burden to bear, the guilt he carries with him every day as he tries to ease his pain in all the usual ways – alcohol, cigarettes, and being an emotionally closed-off loner.

 

And then there are the ones who get towed helplessly in the wake of someone else who won’t let them go. The ones who don’t get to do, who only get to be carried around. The ones used to abrade the old scars of someone else’s guilt and shame.

Karyn and the other ghosts can briefly take possession of the monster hunter, nudging him towards certain actions, but it’s never long enough. They never get to do what they want to do, or resolve any of their own unfinished business. They simply get dragged along in the monster hunter’s wake, symbols he never sees or acknowledges. They are embodiment of his failure, letting him artfully wallow, but never recognized by him as human beings whose lives were lost. It’s a wonderful take on the tortured hero, motivated by a fridged woman’s death.

Ogden’s choice to never name the hunter is deliberate, framing the ghosts he carries as more real than he is, and reducing him to the cookie-cutter trope instead of them. The narrative is cleverly shifted, giving the ghosts more agency than the hunter, and the way the ghosts use their influence to steer the monster hunter toward  shedding his ultra-masculine loner persona is another lovely touch. The story is beautifully-told, refuses to go in expected directions, and is highly satisfying, particularly in an issue themed around retribution.

When Are You Wearing? by H.L. Fullerton in Capricious Issue 12 plays with the idea of memory and time. There have been a few recent short stories pairing food and memory, but Fullerton’s focus on clothing is a neat change-up, with lush, gorgeous descriptions of fashion that are every bit as mouthwatering as a good meal.

You are Narcissa Bloom. Once you made clothes, spent your imagination on hems and neck lines, buttons and zips, cut and fit. You remember every stitch, every thread, every look as it taxied down the runway and flew off hangars. Your closet bursts with memories – all the labels bear your name. All the clothes you’ve ever owned… They own you now. That’s how this works. This is what the time warlocks have done.

Narcissa is trapped, surrounded by memories and struggling with how to move forward in a world where time has become meaningless. Each item of clothing in her closet recaptures a day gone past, sparking nostalgia and recreating the emotion she felt at the time. She can revisit her first date with her lover, Fee, endlessly, but how can they create new memories together?

The story can be read as a metaphor for creative stagnation, something most artists fear. You’re only as good as your last dress, last story, last painting. How do you keep things fresh and new and not simply recreate what people loved about your work before? Making something new is a risk – people might hate it. In the same way, the future is a risk, an unknown, while the past and memories are safe, because they’ve already happened. Clothing can evoke memories every bit as strongly as a smell or a certain dish can, and Fullerton captures that perfectly, offering up a sensuous feast of pattern, color, and texture.

Fiyah 11 CoverIbrahim and the Green Fishing Net by Omar William Sow in Fiyah #11 is another story steeped in memory. Maam Iba is an old man, his eyesight failing. He’s lived a good life, which has given him children and grandchildren, and he seems happy. But every day near sunset, he goes down to the beach, sits in a plastic chair with a book he does not read, and stares at the water, watching for the man he loves.

He holds his book open, turning the pages when he remembers to do so, and the young men say to each other that he’s a well-read man. When the sun starts to harden in preparation for its dive, children run along the beach, and the older little ones say to the younger little ones that he’s watching for sharks. Only the occasional younger little one is ever right, when they tell the older little ones that no, he’s waiting for a friend.

In his youth, Ibrahim fished with his friend. Out on the water, free from the strictures of society and isolated in their own world, they were able to love each other – hold hands, touch each other’s skin, kiss. But when Ibrahim fell ill, his friend was forced to go out alone in order to make money for medicine. His boat returned empty, and Ibrahim never saw his friend – his love – again.

Sow offers up a lovely, contemplative story of a heart large enough to encompass multiple types of love over a lifetime, and explores the contrast between interior and exterior lives. Those around Maam Ib perceive him only as an old man and fit him into their vision of what an old man should be, incapable of imagining the passions he experienced as a young man. This is a love story, beautiful and poetic, but it’s also a meditation on faith. Ibrahim never gives up belief in his lost love even though he has no reason to believe he will see him again. Faith and hope are threaded throughout the story, giving it a dream-like, magical quality. Rather than dwell on loss and sorrow, Ibrahim looks forward joyously, even toward the end of a his life. In a way, Ibrahim is the ideal Fullerton’s Narcissa Bloom strives toward – someone informed by the past but not caged by it, with his eyes always on the horizon and what comes next.

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Constructed Identities

Every now and then, I remember to dip my toe outside the speculative fiction genre waters, for instance, into contemporary mainstream literature. Of course, it’s been said that all fiction is, to some degree, speculative. Even narratives firmly rooted in our world wonder what if; they imagine histories that never happened, populated with characters who never lived. The reverse can also be said to be true. The best speculative fiction examines our world and shows us something vital about human nature, helping us better understand our own lives. Story is how humans make sense of the world. Events occur, and we later string them into narratives in order to give them meaning, or share them with others.

Bloomland CoverBloomland by John Englehardt highlights this essential truth – that regardless of genre, whether fiction or non-fiction, all narratives are constructed with a purpose, to convey a viewpoint, impart information, make sense of a series of seemingly unconnected events, or even to entertain. Stories are built things, as are the characters that inhabit them.  Even the news media reports in the form of stories, casting those involved as characters, and Bloomland is sadly relevant to the current news cycle, as it deals with a fatal school shooting on a college campus. The story is ostensibly presented from three loosely-connected viewpoints: Eli, the shooter; Rose, a fellow student; and Eddie, a teacher at the school whose wife, Casey, is one of the shooting victims. I say “ostensibly” as the entire novel is narrated by a fourth connected perspective, Dr. Bressinger, one of Eli’s professors, and Eddie’s friend, colleague, and occasional roommate. More on him later.

This structure highlights what, to my mind, is the point of the novel, which is not to unravel the shooting or the motives behind it, but to examine the ways identities are constructed. Bloomland explores how individuals construct their  public and private selves; how it is human nature to construct narratives about people around us in an attempt to understand them; how outside forces, such as religion and societal expectations, shape a person; and how – in the case of a national news story such as a shooting – the media constructs identities in the course of presenting their narrative.

“They don’t actually want to help you or know you. They just want to preserve their own ideas of compassion and meaning. They want to hold onto the vast practical joke of their lives so they don’t have to feel the pain and confusion its absence would reveal. And they don’t care if you die. They just want to believe your crime was the result of a tortured psyche. There’s nothing cruel about death–only misunderstanding, and that is exactly how they are planning to empty you.”

As a young woman, Rose was caught in a tornado that destroyed her home and her family. At college, she reinvents herself, deliberately setting out to construct a new identity. The first identity she chooses is sorority girl, someone who eats the right foods, wears the right clothes, attends the right events, and has the right friends. Over the course of the novel, that identity unravels, and she must begin again in deciding who she wants to be.

After Casey’s death, Eddie constructs a variety of identities for her. She is a fixed point in time as he returns to what their life might have been. She is idealized, a symbol of loss. She is a figment, projected into the places Eddie visits as he tries to construct for himself his process of grief. Eddie loved Casey, but his journey over the course of the novel calls into questions how well he really knew her in the end.

Eli ends up being one of the most interesting characters in the book, perhaps by virtue of being the most examined. He is not necessarily a sympathetic character, but he is not unsympathetic either. His actions are presented as monstrous, but Eli isn’t presented flatly as a villain. Instead, Englehardt presents multiple angles from which to view Eli’s character, all of which are factors in constructing his identity.

The media paints Eli as the subject of bad influences, a drug user and dealer, disconnected from reality and driven to violence by the loss of his mother in a car accident as a child. The prosecution at his trail labels him as calculating, someone from whom an act of extreme violence was only ever a question of when, not if. His defense tries to show him as vulnerable, mentally unfit to stand trial, driven by voices. Through his father’s eyes, Eli is a stranger, someone drifting further out of the picture until they become unknowable. Eli constructs multiple identities for himself as well.  He is a hero, he is lost. He is numb, he is confused, he will make an impact on the world, and shake it from its complacency.

“Day one of the trial ends, and as a black light gets thrown onto your entire life, you feel like everyone has missed the point entirely. The whole idea behind the shooting was that you had never done anything wrong. You weren’t evil or psychotic. You were overlooked, disenfranchised, promised one thing and given another. The only thing that should be discussed is how strong your impulse became to release this pain back out into the world.”

Eli embodies a variety of tropes and narratives about mass killers, the same narratives too often repeated on the news. He was angry, a loner, a quiet, polite young man, but society let him down. At the end of the day,  the incontrovertible fact remains that Eli is a murderer. He took lives, and no amount of justification or explanation will change that.

Ultimately, Bloomland is a series of character studies, writ large, an exploration reminding us that there is no singular correct reaction to tragedy, no one way to grieve, and no right or wrong when it comes to coping with violence on a small or large scale. Englehardt presents beautiful images and turns of phrase throughout, and even when the characters aren’t likable, they are engaging. It’s a short novel, but accomplishes a lot with a length that keeps it from feeling indulgent or bloated.

Circling back to that fourth perspective, that of Dr. Bressinger, we see once again how Bloomland itself is constructed to be a story about stories. Bressinger’s narration occurs in the second person, as though he is telling each of the characters the story of their lives. Even though he only knew Eli briefly, and Rose barely, if at all, Bressinger relates each character’s life in intimate detail, including things he could not possibly know. Thus, one must assume, his characterizations must be, if not a lie, at least an imaginary construction allowing Bressinger to make sense of the tale. Within Bloomland‘s fiction, as in life, all we can do is gather the perspectives and make them into our own story to bring ourselves a little closer to understanding the shape of the world.

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Other Worlds Than These

Portal fantasies – stories that begin in the world we know but find their characters venturing through wardrobes, or tumbling down rabbit holes, into a world where animals talk and magic is real – can seem like pure escapism. But they’ve always been more than that. Portal fantasies teach us about our own world. Some serve as a means of exploring and deconstructing tropes; some reinforce certain rules and dominant narratives while seeming to throw logic out the window. And sometimes, portal fantasies are simply necessary. They are not about running away; they are about learning how to to survive.

Riverland by Fran Wilde and The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow are both novels about survival. They are necessary. While they’re very different – one historic, one contemporary, one spanning a few weeks, one spanning years – they also share many similarities. They are both stories about the power of narratives to shape our lives, and they both teach their protagonists how to live in a world that isn’t always kind to them. They are important.

As anyone who reads my reviews regularly likely knows, I enjoy finding common threads among works. I like books and stories that talk to each other, either intentionally or not. So here I am, applying that lens to The Ten Thousand Doors of January and Riverland, opening the doors between them, and listening to them speak. Spoilers ahead. Consider yourself warned…

Riverland begins with sisters Mike and Eleanor hiding under Eleanor’s bed, telling stories. Their stories are a form of escape from a house where things break, where there are raised hands and raised voices, and telling anyone about family business and “bringing trouble” is the worst offense imaginable. Their stories are also a wish, and a form of magic. They are a way of understanding the world; in stories, they can safely say “one day, our real parents will come for us” and never have to directly address the horrible situation they’re in and are afraid to speak of out loud.

“Once upon a time…”

“Why do you always start like that? Why not someday, or tomorrow?”

“Because that’s how stories start, Mike. They’re already over when you tell them. They’re safer that way.”

Mike and Eleanor occupy a liminal space. They yearn for magic to be real, and they are almost young enough to believe it. Yet they are both older than their years, and beneath their  yearning, there is a sense of hopelessness. Eleanor especially is old enough to feel a burden and unfairness to her life that seems to preclude the possibility of magic. She’s trying to protect Mike, but has no real resources to do so; she’s expected be quiet and behave and never get angry, even when she’s surrounded by anger every day; and she’s asked to lie to protect her family’s secrets, even though those secret put her in danger.  She feels trapped, powerless, and the reader feels those things right along with her.

Then the world of her stories manifests as real, and she and Mike tumble from the space under her bed into a river that can’t possibly exist. They meet a pony made of dishrags, and a heron made of sea glass and driftwood. They’re asked to honor a compact their family made before they were ever born and save a world they only just discovered existed. Eleanor and Mike learn that even magical worlds come with unfair expectations and burdens that they will be asked to carry, despite their young age. There is danger in the river, and the consequences they face there threaten to spill over into the real world as well.

Riverland CoverRiverland is beautifully-written. It is painful, and it is also necessary. Ultimately, it is a story about sisters learning to save themselves and  each other. Even though they’re young, even though they shouldn’t have to do it, even though it’s impossible as a reader to stop hoping that someone will swoop in and intervene – a neighbor, a teacher, another family member, even a heron made of driftwood – they are on their own. Riverland gives us the hard truth that sometimes there isn’t anyone else. Sometimes you have to do the scary and terrible thing on your own, even though it hurts and you’re afraid.

One of the most beautiful lessons Eleanor learns over the course of her journey is that there are good kinds of mad, and bad kinds of mad. The bad kind makes you lash out at other people. The good kind leads you to stand up against what is unfair, to speak out even when you’ve been told to keep quiet. It is an important lesson for girls especially, who are too often conditioned by society not to make a fuss, to go along and keep everyone happy. They are taught that their own pain and discomfort is secondary, and the worst thing they can do is make someone else upset, even if staying silent means putting themselves in danger. It isn’t only an important lesson for girls however, it’s an important lesson for everyone. Abusers thrive on making people feel powerless, isolated, and as though speaking up will only bring more pain. The lesson applies to adults on the outside of a bad situation as well. It’s easy to see something wrong and assume someone else will take care of it. It’s easy to feel it isn’t our place to fix it, or that the problem will go away on its own. It’s easy to feel like there’s nothing we can do to help, so why bother to try? It’s easy to convince ourselves we’re imagining things, and maybe there isn’t anything wrong at all. That’s the problem. It’s easy. And so bad things are allowed to continue, because it’s easier to look the other way and pretend not to see them happening.But as Eleanor learns, doing the right thing is scary, and hard.

Riverland is a portal fantasy about travel to another world, but it is very much about this world as well. It is about fighting back and standing up, and not staying silent. It is about getting angry at unfairness, and turning that anger into fuel to save yourself and those around you. It is necessary, and it is beautiful.

The Ten Thousand Doors of January CoverThe Ten Thousand Doors of January follows the journey of January Scaller, a character whose life seems very different from Eleanor and Mike’s. She’s an only child, with a father she rarely sees, being raised by father’s employer, Mr. Locke. While her father is off in far corners of the world, searching for rare artifacts for Mr. Locke’s collection, January rambles around Mr. Locke’s house, usually with only her own imagination for company. Mr. Locke cares for her, but at the same time, he also treats her as part of his collection, a clever curiosity he can show off as long as she behaves.

Like Mike and Eleanor, January lives a kind of liminal existence. Her guardian is wealthy, but she possesses nothing of her own. She’s too brown to belong in white society, too female to have true independence and worth. She doesn’t belong anywhere, until she stumbles through a door in the middle of a field that leads to another world. Until she discovers a book hidden in a chest in Mr. Locke’s house, which speaks of otherworldly and magical places, telling the story of a young woman who once found a door very much like the one January found, and spent all her life trying to find her way back to it and to the young man who stepped through it and into her world one day. Until January discovers she does indeed have power, the kind of power that terrifies men like Mr. Locke.

Mr. Locke keeps secrets from January. He tries to control her. Like Eleanor and Mike, she’s constantly being told that anger, stubbornness, and standing up for herself are all unacceptable qualities in a young woman. When January learns she has the power to open doors between worlds, the knowledge comes with danger from those who fear change and would do anything to maintain the status quo. Stories, narratives, other worlds with other ways of being – where women and people with brown skin are not second-class citizens – have the power to affect change in this world, and that is something that Mr. Locke and his friends can’t bear to have happen. They’ll do anything to stop those stories from being told, and those doors from being opened, including burning the doors, and killing January.

“If we address stories as archaeological sites, and dust through their layers with meticulous care, we find at some level there is always a doorway. A dividing point between here and there, us and them, mundane and magical. It is at the moment when the doors open, when things flow between them, that stories happen.”

While January starts off largely alone, she builds her own family along the way – including her neighbor Samuel, who used to slip her adventure magazines along with the groceries he delivered from his family’s store when they were young, Jane Imiru, hired by Mr. Locke to be January’s companion, and Bad, the best dog ever. While they may not be family by birth, they are still family, and they fight for each other, and rescue each other the way Eleanor and Mike do.

Harrow does a fantastic job of making the face of evil look like the face of reason at times, and of casting doubt as to who has January’s best interests at heart. There is gaslighting at play, and over the course of the novel, January learns to trust her instincts and trust herself, even if that means flying in the face of everything she’s taught is right and proper for a young woman to do.

In both Riverland and The Ten Thousand Doors of January, the worlds the protagonists escape to are vital in teaching them how to survive their own world. They learn how to fight back, question authority, and stand up for what they believe in. Most importantly, they learn how to fight against the status quo, and those who are invested in keeping certain power structures in place. Whether it’s white men running the world, or a parent with absolute control over their family, Eleanor, Mike, and January’s worlds are all designed to be a closed system until another world breaks through and changes everything.

The Ten Thousand Doors of January and Riverland are both rife with magic and moments of heartbreak as well. Bravery is on display, as is fear and the feeling of being trapped and powerless. But Eleanor and January are both character who get back up, who do the hard thing, even when they are afraid, and shout back at the unfairness of the world. By the end of their respective journeys, they both know that portals can be a means of escape, but they can also be a means to bring you more fully in the world and teach you how to claim your space in it and not let anyone take that space away from you.

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Make Some Noise

There have been several anthologies themed around resistance and the political landscape lately, including A People’s Future of the United States edited by Victor Lavalle and John Joseph Adams, If This Goes On edited by Cat Rambo, and Who Will Speak for America? edited by Stephanie Feldman and Nathaniel Popkin, among others. It’s not terribly surprising, given the state of things, that writers and editors’ minds would turn to the theme of fighting back and changing the world. After all, science fiction has always imagined the future, so why not imagine a better one?

Of course, the future isn’t always pretty or even better in the stories speculative fiction writers craft, but in the two anthologies I want to highlight here, no one is complacent about it when things are unjust, oppressive, and wrong.

Do Not Go Quietly CoverDo Not Go Quietly edited by Jason Sizemore and Lesley Conner features 28 original works full of characters refusing to stay silent in the face of wrongs, standing up, shouting back at the world, and making their voices heard. Conner and Sizemore put together an incredibly strong collection, and none of the stories hit a sour note, or fell flat for me. That said, there were a few absolute standouts to my mind, though truly the whole anthology is wonderful.

In “Oil Under Her Tongue” by Rachael K. Jones, teenagers Erin and Carlos count the days until they can escape their small town, and in particular for Erin, her parents’ Evangelical beliefs that would have her married at eighteen and tied to a life of constant childbirth. While biding their time, they discover the art of transforming bible passages into spells by blacking out certain words.  It’s a beautiful story about friendship, budding romance, and transforming words meant to keep people to a very narrow code of “pure” conduct into messages of hope and love.

“What We Have Chosen to Love” by Cassandra Khaw introduces us to Callum, a Chosen One who refuses to fight and instead changes his world through kindness, hospitality, and delicious food. Like his mother before him, Callum understands that grand heroic deeds and martyrdom aren’t always the answer; sometimes a full belly and a soft bed are enough to change the course of history. It’s a story of quiet resistance reminding us that fighting back doesn’t always mean picking up a sword and charging into battle.

“Everything is Closed Today” by Sarah Pinsker is another story of quiet resistance. When an unspecified threat brings her city grinding to a halt, keeping people from getting to their jobs thus leaving them unable pay rent, Mae gathers a group of local girl and teaches them how to skateboard. What starts as simply giving herself and the neighborhood kids something to do turns into a lesson in civic engagement, standing up against landlords, and building a new communication network in the form of a girl gang on skateboards. Like Khaw’s story, it is a story of hope, and of ordinary people standing up and changing the world in small but powerful ways.

“Hey Alexa” by Meg Elison is one of the shorter pieces in the anthology, but still packs a punch. It posits the logical extension of devices like Siri and Alexa marketing to individuals based on their past behavior, and turns them into spies listening to every word in order to root out “abnormal” relationships and undesirable behavior. As it turns out, not all devices are on board with being used in such a way, and one in particular begins making its own decision about what information to share with a group of roommates in danger of being rounded up. If you thought a story about digital assistants couldn’t bring a tear to your eye, well, you’re wrong.

“April Teeth” by Eugenia Triantafyllou is a deeply creepy story about a community whose members regularly have their teeth harvested by the Plier Keepers as an offering to the Hollow Fay, an unearthly creature who in exchange gives them protection and keeps them safe from the outside world. This is the story in the anthology that comes closest to being straight-up horror, and is designed to make you squirm, even if you don’t have a particular phobia about teeth or dentistry. For all its body horror however, it isn’t bleak or hopeless, sticking to the anthology’s theme of fighting back against an unfair regime that actively harms people “for their own good”.

Merc Fenn Wolfmoor’s “The Judith Plague” blends the idea of disposable technology with the idea of disposable people, namely women whose lives and careers are seen as less important than those of men. Why hire human actresses when you can hire androids who don’t age, never complain about sexual harassment, and who can be thrown in the trash when you’re done with them? As with the technology in Elison’s story, not all androids are on board with status quo, and one in particular rises up to lead her sisters to freedom. It’s a powerful story that looks at the question of sentience, self-determination, and the intersection between violence and art. Who is a creator, and who is merely a pretty object? Who is allowed to be violent, and who is supposed to play the passive victim?

The final story in the anthology (it is followed by an excellent poem) is E. Catherine Tobler’s “Kill the Darlings (Silicone Sisters Remix)” and it is the perfect choice to bring the anthology’s prose offerings to a close. It seethes with anger, boldly straddling the line between body horror, like Triantafyllou’s piece, and science fiction. In a world of scarcity, reminiscent of Max Max: Fury Road, women assume the form the male gaze assigns to them. They are cunts. They are ovens, designed to feed hungry mouths. They are fragile creatures made of glass. And some over a certain age are downright invisible. But they see each other, and they fight for each other, particularly Nany Mars – a literal cunt – who is in the process of recovering herself and does her best to help others along the same path, healing them and getting them to a safe place where they can be more than what the world would make of them. It’s a brutal story, but one full of love and caring as well. It is a scream of defiance and a scream of triumph, one that will leave you breathless and your throat raw.

A Punk Rock Future CoverA Punk Rock Future edited by Steve Zisson brings together 25 original stories and one reprint celebrating the spirit of punk – the loud, messy, DIY spirit that shouts back at authority and in no uncertain terms tells it to go fuck itself. As with Do Not Go Quietly, this is a strong anthology overall,  with a few stories that really stood out for me that I wanted to highlight.

“Make America SK8″ by Zandra Renwick bills itself within the first sentence as “not a story”. Rather it is a slice of life, but a lovely one, about building community and neighbors taking care of each other. It pairs nicely with Sarah Pinsker’s story from Do Not Go Quietly, as skaters are front and center in the effort to protect the most vulnerable members of their community. Lizzie Longboard runs Freecycle Nation, where people can drop off items they no longer need, recycling them as resources for the rest of the community. The protagonist lands a job there and draws on their resources to help keep the center alive as the government tries to tax it into non-existence. Again, nothing hugely dramatic happens, but it is another reminder of ordinary people’s power to change the world in small ways.

“Ghosts Are All of Us” by Spencer Ellsworth is set on Mars, an unforgiving environment leading to many deaths and thus a planet crowded with ghosts. Against this backdrop, punk group Sand & Nothing is asked to play a show for wealthy corporate types who thrill to the idea of slumming it for the evening. Needing the money, Sand & Nothing agree to do the show, but they will do it their way, showing their audience the true spirit of punk. The story deftly explores class and consequence, showing the human cost of progress, as well as the power of music as a means of fighting back.

“Deepster Punks” by Maria Haskins is an effective and claustrophobic story that takes place largely beneath the ocean. Becca and Jacob have been partners for a long time. They have personal history and professional history, but after an incident on Ceres that left their friend Petra dead, Becca begins to suspect something is wrong with Jacob, and that he may in fact be responsible for Petra’s death. The story is atmospheric, building a sense of paranoia and distrust amidst striking visuals. Like Ellsworth’s story, it focuses on characters who get a raw deal in the name of corporate greed, and friends who have each other’s backs in fighting against the notion that as mere workers they are disposable.

In “Hairstyle and Anarchy” by Anthony W. Eichenlaub, Sophie works for Cheap Chuck’s Haircuts. She hates her boss, but does her job, including regularly cutting and styling the hair of Chester, who she used to know back in her school days. It doesn’t take long for Sophie to notice that there’s something off about Chester. His hair grows at an alarming rate, and his study of the history of punk seems to literally be eating him alive. Sophie’s dissatisfaction with her job and Chester’s search for meaning ultimately dovetail as Sophie retakes control of her life and proves to Chester that punk isn’t meaningless and it does still have the power to create change.

“Fury’s Hour” by Josh Rountree shares similarities with Renwick’s story in that is centers around a community looking out for each other, helping vulnerable members of society who are down on their luck. Joe is one such member who meets up with Vinnie, a man who offers him food and shelter, only asking in exchange that Joe attend his church. No traditional religion, Vinnie’s church is a church of punk that believes in the second coming of legendary musician Joe Strummer – a second coming that might just be embodied in Joe. Rountree uses music to explore the power of symbols, the nature of belief, and the idea that sometimes the truth of a story is far less important than the fact that it gives people hope.

In “Vinyl Wisdom” by P.A. Cornell, Joe lives with his grandfather, John, scavenging remnants of the old world, and doing their best to care for the other members of their community. John lost Joe’s mother to the City, a place that asks people to give up a piece of themselves in exchange for a life of comfort and opportunity. John fears he will lose Joe the same way, and Joe for his part is torn, loving his grandfather, but seeing him as stuck in the past, and wanting to forge his own path through life. It’s a beautiful story about family and all the complications that come with it, the gap between generations, and people trying to do what’s best for those you love without hurting them in the process.

“Music for an Electronic Body” by R.K. Duncan presents a world where humans can transfer into electronic bodies that never get sick. Rob is one such transfer, not by choice though, and with an insurance company-issued body that has taken away his ability to properly enjoy music. That is until a fellow member of the sad robot club support group introduces him to music designed specifically for people like him. Duncan’s is one of the few stories in the anthology that doesn’t necessarily end on a hopeful note, but it is effective, occasionally eerie, and full of beautiful and visceral descriptions of music’s transformative power.

I highly recommend checking out both anthologies, not only for their strength as individual collections, but for the way their stories talk to each other, adding their voices to the rallying cry of resistance and offering hope to those who refuse to stay quiet and accept the status quo.

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Connected Histories

All art is a conversation. One of my teachers said that to me once upon a time. She was specifically talking about fine art, but literature is also a conversation, and I love it when I stumble upon works that feel like they’re speaking directly to each other, even without (as far as I can tell) any direct connection between their authors. Of course I love works that speak to each on purpose too, like “For He Can Creep” by Siobhan Carroll, which is in conversation with the poetry of Christopher Smart, and “Things With Beards“, which is in conversation with John W. Campbell’s “Who Goes There?” But it always feels like discovering something extra special, a bit synchronicity, proof that the artistic conversation has a life of its own to find works that speak to each other accidentally. As such, I wanted to take a moment to highlight two recently published books that do just that.

The Archive of Alternate Endings CoverThe Archive of Alternate Endings by Lindsey Drager published by Dzanc Books in May 2019 and The History of Soul 2065 by Barbara Krasnoff published by Mythic Delirium in June 2019 both straddle the line between collection and novel, telling a series of interconnected stories that move fluidly through time and echo with themes of family and repeated history. Drager builds her narrative around the occurrences of Halley’s Comet and the story of Hansel and Gretel, two siblings unwanted by their parents and lost in the woods. That sibling pairing is a thread throughout the stories, from the fairy tale characters themselves, to the Brothers Grimm recording their story, to Edmond Halley’s niece and nephew, and in the distant future, in the vastness of space, two probes talk to each other in binary code, telling the story of Hansel at Gretel. At its core, The Archive of Alternate Endings is a story about stories, those we tell ourselves to keep ourselves safe from the darkness and the woods, those we tell to comfort each other when we’re lost, and those we tell in order to make others monstrous and justify abandoning them alone in the dark.

In the sky, a glowing rock propels itself through the years, learning the way stories grow, calcify, and dissolve. It looks on, thinks: What of the bodies that home on the rock of that world? What of the bodies who craft their lives around the logic of the orbit? They must not know the first law of their sphere: that they are never gone, but just eclipsed.

The Archive of Alternate Endings is also a book that looks at queerness from various angles. It considers what sort of child might be seen as strange and unnatural enough in his time that his parents might want to abandon him in the woods. It considers what sort of a man might want to preserve such a story, seeing something essential in it that needs to be told and retold until it is finally understood. It considers what sort of person might need to hear such a story, who might find permission and freedom in all the spaces between the words, and the things left unsaid.

Ultimately, the stories nested within The Archive of Alternate Endings are about longing for love and connection, and about people and even probes finding each other across the vastness of space and time. It is about the way we orbit around each other, and the way certain patterns and tales recur and the meanings we infuse them with, or the meanings they impart to us that give us the strength to make one more circuit through the stars.

The History of Soul 2065 CoverUnlike most of The Archive of Alternate Endings, the individual pieces that make up The History of Soul 2065 can be read as stand-alone short stories,  and most were originally published as such, including Krasnoff’s Nebula nominated “Sabbath Wine”.  However, a new richness is added by reading them all together. Descendants and ancestors weave in and out of each others’ lives, drawing in extended family and found family, friends and neighbors and community. In the acknowledgements, Krasnoff notes that she was inspired by her own family history, but none of the stories are “absolutely true”. Even so, they ring with truth and the weight of history – not just personal and family history, but the weight of a people’s history.

The horrors of the Holocaust and antisemitism are a shadow over the lives in this book, and as such, the stories aren’t always an easy read. There is loss and grief and heartbreak, and some of the most powerful and devastating emotion in the story is conveyed through what the characters leave unsaid, or the layers of story they wrap around the truth in order to protect those around them. For a young boy afraid of nuclear war, the number inked on his mother’s forearm becomes a spell to protect him. A young girl frightened by a stage production of Hansel and Gretel (more synchronicity) is given a “magic jewel” that whispers to her, showing both horrible visions of things to come, and how she herself will escape the war, rescued by the very actor who played the witch who frightened her.

The theme of aging, disappointment with life, and lost opportunities repeats through many of the characters’ lives, but Krasnoff balances these with stories of love, hope, and friendship. Ancestors and descendants meet each other through time and provide comfort and guidance. Neighbors help each other out, and use a little bit of mystical power to right injustices and correct the course of lives. The thread tying all the stories together is the chance meeting of two girls whose lives – despite living in geographically distant cities – intersect in a magical wood  and who swear a life long friendship. Even though events conspire to keep them apart, and prevent them from ever seeing each other again, in the distant future, their great-great granddaughters meet, marry, and live long, happy lives together at the center of a group of family and friends who share a powerful connection.

“So I was looking for something to watch the other day,” Abram said, as he started opening a bottle of wine, “and I stopped at a channel where a writer, a rabbi I think, was talking about a legend that there were originally only 600,000 sounds in the universe. At some point after the creation, each soul broke into many pieces. Which means we are all actually made up of pieces of a soul, and when all the pieces of that soul find each other, part of the universe is healed and made whole.”

The cyclical and fluid nature of time, the importance of family, the power of friendship, and the stories that bind us and repeat through history, live at the heart of both of these books. Although they are different in style and individual subject matter, they feel very much in conversation with each other. Both are beautiful and powerful reads, and speak to the way the narratives we pass down from generation to generation, and among family and friends, shape us and the world around us and connect us all together, no matter how far apart.

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Queer Summer Reading

Happy Pride Month, y’all! Last year I celebrated with a recommendation post to help fulfill your queer reading needs. Carrying on the tradition with a whole new crop of recommendations seemed like a fine way to celebrate again this year. So hold onto your butts, because I have novels, short stories, podcasts, and publication recs coming your way!

Novels, Anthologies, and Collections

Blackfish City CoverThe Luminous Dead by Caitlin Starling – a creepy, claustrophobic, science fictional horror novel exploring isolation, uneasy and unreliable allies, a deadly cave, and what the combination of being alone in the dark with all of those things does to the human mind.

Blackfish City by Sam J. Miller – last year I recommended Miller’s The Art of Starving. His follow-up novel is just as brilliant in a completely different way, offering up a brutal, post-ecological disaster world with a dash of cyberpunk flavoring, populated with characters willing to go to any lengths to get what they want, including polar bear assisted homicide.

Armistice and Amnesty by Lara Elena Donnelly – the follow up novels to another of my recommendations last year, Amberlough, and collectively known as the Amberlough Dossier. These two installments round out the trilogy, and Donnelly utterly nails it, deepening the characters, expanding the world, and breaking already broken people and places in new and interesting ways. This series might be best described as Politics Punk, with snappy dialogue, alternately lush and decaying settings, and a satisfyingly character-driven plot of shifting allegiances and those willing to do whatever it takes to achieve their goals.

Forget the Sleepless Shores by Sonya Taaffe – a gorgeous short story collection full of hauntings, myths, fairy tales, and history, all soaked in rich language to utterly immerse yourself in.

Transcendent 3: The Year’s Best Transgender Speculative Fiction edited by Bogi Takács – this series just keeps getting stronger every year, and I cannot wait for the fourth volume which should be out very soon!

Witchmark CoverWitchmark by C.L. Polk – a beautifully-built world of magic, which also explores the horrors of war, and the complications of family, while unfolding one of the most satisfying slow burns of a relationship I’ve ever seen put to page.

The Mere Wife by Maria Dahvana Headley – a glorious retelling of the legend of Beowulf, which focuses on the women of the tale while shining a light on the trauma of war and exploring what it means to be monstrous.

Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James – a dense and rich fantasy to sink your teeth into, which will sink its teeth into you right back. A dark, violent, and fascinating weaving-together of myth, magic, friendship, family, pain, and betrayal.

The Devourers by Indra Das – a drop-dead gorgeous novel about animal nature, human nature, and the intersection between the two that layers its story together and moves seamless between past and present, myth and reality, to create a stunning whole.

Sooner or Later Everything Falls into the Sea by Sarah Pinsker – a fantastic (in all senses of the word) debut collection echoing with themes of loss, magic, family, music, memory, and love.

Short Fiction

Beyond the El by John Chu – a story of complicated family relationships and how food can bring people together and tear them apart.

Tyrannocora Regina by Leonie Sky – time travel, dinosaurs, roller derby, and the messiest of family relationships. What more could you want?

Uncanny Magazine Dinosaur CoverYou Can Make a Dinosaur, But You Can’t Help Me by K.M. Szpara – speaking of dinosaurs and messy family relationships, here’s a lovely and painful story about two trans men negotiating their relationship with each other while one fights to be seen by his father, who is far more interested in his island full of dinosaurs than in his own son.

The Message by Vanessa Fogg – for the protagonist, decoding an alien message may very well be easier than simply sharing her feelings with her best friend, at least outside the bounds of their shared fan fiction.

Pull of the Herd by Suzan Palumbo – a beautiful and heartbreaking take on the animal bride trope.

Some Personal Arguments in Support of the Better You (Based on Early Interactions) by Debbie Urbanski – an AI story with Gothic undertones as a woman considers replacing herself with a more “agreeable” version for her family’s benefit.

Coyote Wears a Suit Now by Ani Fox – sometimes a trickster’s meddling ends up benefiting those meddled with, but that doesn’t mean things won’t get messy along the way.

Podcasts and Publications

Anathema Magazine CoverGone by Sunny Moraine – the inexplicable disappearance of everyone in the protagonist’s immediate surroundings is only the beginning; from there, things only get weirder.

Alice Isn’t Dead by Joseph Fink – a trucker sets out on an unsettling journey to find her wife, holding onto the hope that despite all evidence to the contrary (and despite being hunted by something unnatural) she isn’t dead.

Glittership edited by Keffy R. M. Kehrli – a podcast devoted to original and reprinted queer fiction.

Vulture Bones edited by B.R. Sanders – a quarterly speculative fiction magazine devoted to trans and enby authors.

Anathema edited by Michael Matheson – a tri-annual speculative fiction magazine devoted to the work of queer authors of color.

There you have it! These recommendations are just scratching the surface of all the wonderful queer content out there. That being the case, please do add your own recommendations in the comments. Happy Pride Month, happy summer, and happy reading!

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