Tag Archives: Recommended Reading

Review: The Annual Migration of Clouds

The Annual Migration of Clouds CoverECW Press was kind enough to send me a copy of Premee Mohamed’s The Annual Migration of Clouds, and let me tell you, I was thrilled that they did, since it was already on my must-read list for the year. I’m a big fan of Mohamed’s work, and this latest novella did not disappoint!

You don’t name it; you don’t give it a name either. They must have names for each other. I don’t know what mine calls itself and if it told me, I would try to forget, I swear I would.

Set in a post climate-disaster world, the novella opens with Reid receiving a coveted letter from Howse University in one of the domes, a near-magical place no one has ever come back from, but which promises a better life. She’s thrilled at first, until her mother begins to sow seeds of doubt in her mind – what if the university isn’t real, what if it’s only a scam, what will their neighborhood do without her.

Reid is already torn, plagued with guilt over leaving her mother behind and the thought of the extra work that will be pushed off onto her neighbors and friends. Their life is already one of scarcity and scraping by, and making matter worse, Reid and her mother both have a genetic disease known as Cad, a kind of parasitic, symbiotic creature living inside them that could go off at any minute, causing them to die in horrible pain.

The thing is of me, does not belong to me. Is its own thing. Speaks its own tongue. A semi-sapient fungus scribbling across my skin and the skin of my ancestors in crayon colors, turquoise, viridian, cerulean, pine.

Reid worries what will happen to her mother when she’s gone. She worries what will happen to her neighbors. She worries what will happen to herself. Reid’s best friend Henryk encourages her to go, as do several others. She wants to go, but that doesn’t stop her fear or her guilt. When a group of hunters offers Reid the opportunity to join them in bringing down wild boar, she sees her chance. If she’s successful in the hunt, Reid can leave her mother set-up with a nest egg in meat for trade before she goes. Hunting boar is dangerous however, and Reid knows the Cad inside her will go to great lengths to protect its host.

Pack of demons. Sulphur breath. Cloven as the devil. Calm down, quick: the invader in me cannot see what is happening, it only knows to respond to my fear.

The novella is beautifully-written in its exploration of environmental disaster, community, and complicated family relationships. Mohamed does a wonderful job of paralleling the Cad Reid inherits from her mother with the fears and guilt her mother passes down in a passive-aggressive fashion. Her mother accuses Reid of being selfish, and instead of being happy for Reid and trusting her, she lets her own selfish fears of being alone manifest in trying to guilt Reid into staying. There are hints at some underlying jealously in their relationship, even in the midst of the love. Some element of Reid’s mother seems to want to hold her back, resenting that she may have the opportunity for a better life when she herself never had that chance. The near-paralyzing fear Reid’s mother tries to infect her with is mirrored in the way the Cad literally freezes Reid when Hen is threatened by wild dogs and she wants to help him – both cause her pain in order to keep her safe, which is ultimately a means of protecting themselves.

Mohamed strikes a delicate balance in showing a family relationship which could be toxic or genuinely loving, symbiotic or parasitic. The question of whether Howse University is real is left open, underlining that life is complicated and full of risk and unknowns. The decisions Reid and her community face aren’t easy, and there’s always a chance of someone getting hurt, but should that stop them from living their lives and taking their chances on a better future? There is a comfort in the idea of sticking to tradition and what is known, over forging a new path through the world. Again, the fact that the disease is hereditary speaks in its own way to the idea of parents wanting what is best for their children, but smothering them in their efforts to protect them, versus children wanting to live their own lives and being forced to rebel in hurtful ways in order to do so.

The Annual Migration of Clouds does an excellent job of exploring all of this, and does an excellent job with all the relationships in the community as well. It’s a plausible imagining of post-collapse society and the way humanity has a tendency to survive and find ways to carry on.

In closing, I also have to call out the fact that this book is absolutely stunning as a physical object. There’s a silky, textured feel to the cover, and the cover art by Veronica Park is gorgeous and just keeps getting better the longer you look at it. The design is echoed throughout the book with the interior illustration that heads each chapter. If you like books-as-objects, this is another one that I recommend grabbing in hard copy.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Recommended Reading

What Have You Done, What Have You Loved? 2021

Hello, lovelies! I can hardly believe it, but we’re almost at year-end, which makes it the perfect time to look back on what we accomplished and the things that we loved. As I’ve been doing for several years now, I am once again compiling links to author/editor/publication eligibility posts, year-in-review posts, year’s best lists, and general reviews and resources. These posts serve several purposes – to help those who nominate works for awards to remember what eligible works have come out during the year and what category they fall into; to help readers find work they might have missed and might love; and for creators to reflect on the amazing things they accomplished over the year. If you are an author, editor, publisher, artist, poet, etc., I highly recommend making a post of your own, and if you do, please let me know! I’ll be putting together my own lists of my favorites of the year, along with what I published, at some point as well.

I’ve divided the post into a few hopefully helpful categories, and I will continue to update with new links as I receive them. Please do spread the word, tag me with your posts on twitter (@ac_wise), drop me an email at a.c.wise@hotmail.com, or drop links in the comments. I look forward to seeing what you made this year and what work you loved!

Note: Cat Rambo maintains a similar list, and they were kind enough to set up a webform to gather information for our posts. Please feel free to use the form as well and that will get both of us your information.

nullEligibility Posts

Links to authors/editors/publishers posting their award-eligible work, organized alphabetically. (** denotes an author eligible for the Astounding Award.)

Ajeigbe, Oluwatomwia

Alexander, Phoenix

Allen, B. Morris

Allen, Skye

Anderson, G.V.

Appel, John

Argentino, Joe

Arthurs, Bruce

Bailton, Adria

Bangs, Elly

Barb, Patrick

Barber, Jenny

Barrant Klein, Annika**

Bartles, Jason

Becard, Avery

Beckett, L.X.

Bell, E.D.E.

Bernardo, Renan

Bhatia, Gautam**

Blackwell, Laura

Bleu, Gabrielle

Booth, Die

Bradley, Lisa M.

Brewer, Steven D.

Brothers, Laurence Raphael

Buchanan, Andi

Burton, Rebecca**

Cahill, Martin

Calabria, Erin

Campbell, Chris

Chan, Grace**

Chand, Priya

Chng, Joyce

Chronister, Kay

Chrostek, John

Clark, C.L.

Clarke, Jeannine

Cleveland, Kristin


Cobbe, Elizabeth

Coleman, Kel**

Cornetto, Holley

Cossmass Infinities

Costello, Rob

Crighton, Katherine

Criley, Marc A.

Crilly, Brandon

Croal, Lyndsey

Czerneda, Julie

de Anda, Victor

de Haan, Laura

de Winter, Gunnar

Daley, Ray

Damken, Maggie

Dandenell, Karl

Das, Indrapramit

Datlow, Ellen

Day, Sarah**

Deeds, Marion

Demchuk, David

Dewes, J.S.

Dheada, Shiksha

Dila, Dilman

Donohue, Jennifer R.

Doocy, Maiga

Dotson, J. Dianne

Dunato, Jelena

Ekpeki, Oghenechovwe Donald

Farrenkopf, Corey

Feistner, Victoria

Felapton, Camestros

Fields, C.M.

Fogg, Vanessa

Forest, Elizabeth

Forrest, Francesca

Fox, Emily

Francia, Kate**

Fullerton, HL

Garcia, Rhonda J.

Key, Justin C.

Garcia Ley, K.

Garcia-Rosas, Nelly Geraldine

Gardner, Benjamin

Genova, Barbara

George, JL

Goldfuss, A.L.**

Grauer, Alyson

Greenblatt, A.T.

Ha, Thomas

Haber, Elad

Harn, Darby

Haskins, Maria

Haynes, Michael

Heijndermans, Joachim

Heike, Sylvia

Henry, Veronica G.

Hewitt, Alexander

Houser, Chip

Howell, A.P.

Hudak, Jennifer

Hughes, Louise

Hugo Eligibility Database

Iriarte, José Pablo

Jain, Sid**

Jiang, Ai

Jones, Shelly

Kasley, Vivian R.

Reading by LamplightKatsuyama, Umiyuri

Katz, Gwen C.

Keane, Paula

Khalid, Kehkashan

Khanna, Rajan

Kiggins, Mike

Kim, Isabelle J.

Kimbriel, K.E.

Kindred, LP

King, Scott

Kinney, Benjamin C.

Kobb, Shawn

Koch, Joanna

Kornher-Stace, Nicole

Kraner, Steph

Krishnan, M.L.

Kuhn, M.J.

Kulski, K.P.

Kurella, Jordan

LaFaro, Brennan

Laban, Monique

Lasser, John

Lavinge, C.J.**

Lee, PH

Leitch, Stina

Lévai, Jessica**

Lewis, L.D.

Lin, Monte

Louise, A.Z.

Low, P.H.**

Lowd, Mary E.

Lu, Lark Morgan

Luiz, Dante

McCarthy, J.A.W.

McConvey, J.R.

McGill, C.E.

McLeod, Lindz**

Madden, Anna

Madrigano, Clara

Magariti, Avra

Malik, Usman T.

Mamatas, Nick

Manney, PJ

Manusos, Lyndsie

Mehrotra, Rati

Miles, Jo

Miller, Janna

Mingault, Reed**

Mohamed, Premee

Moher, Aidan

Moore, L.H.

Moore, Nancy Jane

Mudie, Timothy

Murray, Meg

Napier, Kali

Navarette Diaz, Tato

Nason, Derek

Neugebauer, Annie

Nikel, Wendy

Ning, Leah**

Nirav, Hanna A.

Nogle, Christi

Ogundiran, Tobi

Othenin-Girard, Léon

Palumbo, Suzan

Pauling, Sarah

Payseur, Charles

Pearce, C.H.

Pichette, Marisca

Picknard, Mikyuki Jane

Pinsker, Sarah

Piper, Hailey

Psfetakis, Victor

Povanda, Jared

Queen of Swords Press

Sybil ReadingRajotte, Mary

Rambo, Cat

Ratnakar, Arula

Reynolds, Jeff

Ring, Lauren**

Rose, Christopher

Royce, Eden

St. George, Carlie

Salcedo, Sarah

Sand, R.P.**

Sayre, A.T.

Schrater, Maria

Sehgal, Divyansha

Seiberg, Effie

Seidel, Alexandra

Serrano, Arturo

Shirey, Austin

Shiveley, Jordan

Singh, Amal

Smith, Chloe

Space Cowboy Books

Speculatively Queer

Stanley, Nelson

Stelliform Press

Stemple, Adam

Stephens, Elise

Stewart, Andy

Stuart, Julian

Sutherland, K.A.

Taft, Eve

Talabi, Wole

Tales from the Trunk

Taylor, Jordan

Ten, Kristina

Thayer, A.P.

Thomas, Richard

Ticknor, M. Elizabeth

Tighe, Matt

Toase, Steve

Tobler, E. Catherine

Tordotcom Short Fiction and Books

Treasure, Rebecca E.**

Triantafyllou, Eugenia

Tsamaase, Tlotlo

Uncanny Magazine

Undertow Books

Van Alst, Jr., Theodore C.

Vaishnav, Minoti

Victoria, Ricardo

Wade, Juliette

Ward, Caias

Ward, Antonia Rachel

Wasserstein, Izzy

Wellington, Joelle

White, Gordon B.

Wigmore, Rem

Wilde, Fran

Willsey, Kristiana

Wilson, Lorraine

Wiswell, John

Wolverton, Nicole M.

Yates, April

Yates, Pauline

Yeager Rodriguez, Karlo

Yoachim, Caroline M.

Young, Eris

Zerby, Christopher

Favorites/Recommendation Lists

What did reviewers love this year? What books are your peers seriously digging? Click through the links below to find various recommended reading lists and various best of the year lists.

Amazon’s Best Books of 2021

Barnes & Noble Book of the Year Finalists

Die Booth Recommended Reading List

A.P. Howell Recommended Reading Thread

José Pablo Iriarte Recommended Reading Thread

Kirkus Best SFF of the Year

Library Journal Best Books of 2021

Nebula Recommended Reading List

NPR Favorite Speculative Fiction Books of 2021

NYPL Best Books for Adults 2021

NYT Best Books of 2021

Oprah Daily Favorite Books of 2021

Publisher’s Weekly Best Books of 2021

Lauren Ring Recommendation Thread

Shelf Awareness Favorite Books of 2021

Stoker Recommended Reading List

Time’s 100 Must Read Books of 2021

Waterstones Best Books of the Year Shortlist

Review Sites and Resources

Looking for yet more recommendations of things to read? The links below will help you find reviews, news, interviews, and more!

Lady Business

Lightspeed Magazine Reviews

Locus Magazine

Maria’s Reading

Nerds of a Feather

Nightmare Magazine Reviews

Quick Sip Reviews

Strange Horizons Fiction Reviews

Tor.com

Vanessa Fogg’s It’s a Jumble

Award Info

What awards are out there? Who can nominate works? What are the various deadlines? The links below may help answer your questions!

BSFA Awards – Nomination period for BSFA members is current open! Crowd-sourced suggestions and recommendations can be added to BSFA’s open spread-sheet by anyone.

Hugo Awards

Nebula Awards

Science Fiction Awards Database

Stoker Awards

 

Image Credits:

Girl Reading, Artist/Maker Unknown, c. 1932, Philadelphia Museum of Art

Reading by Lamplight, Wanda Gág, c. 1927, Philadelphia Museum of Art

Sybil Reading, Attributed to Ugo da Carpi, c. 1517-18, Philadelphia Museum of Art

1 Comment

Filed under award eligibility

Review: Shadow Atlas

Shadow Atlas CoverShadow Atlas: Dark Landscapes of the Americas edited by Carina Bissett, Hillary Dodge, and Joshua Viola is forthcoming from Hex Publishers at the end of November. They were kind enough to send me an advance copy, and let me say first off, this books is really wonderful as a physical object. If you’re the sort of person who likes books-as-objects, then I definitely recommend snagging a print copy of this one. The conceit of the anthology is that it collects various legends and hidden histories from across the Americas. These documents, gathered by the Umbra Arca Society, include case files, illustrations from agents in the field, and even blank pages for readers to contribute their own notes and thoughts to the titular Shadow Atlas. The cover wrap under the dust jacket is even designed to look like a leather-bound tome, complete with a mysterious clasp, which may or may not open of its own accord.

Authors contributing to the volume include Gwendolyn Kiste, Josh Malerman, Julia Rios, E. Lily Yu, and Kay Chronister, among many others. Interspersed among the stories and poems there are also snippets of history and maps in addition to the above-mentioned illustrations, case notes, and blank journal pages. Even when the stories themselves get dark, the anthology’s design is light-hearted and fun, and it’s a pleasure to flip through its pages.

While many of the stories draw on existing mythologies and legends, others rely on a more personal kind of mythology, or weird and inexplicable happenings encountered by one or two people. I’m a sucker for hidden histories, mythology, and folktales, and this loose theme gives authors a wide field to play with. A few of the stories really stood out to me, and they are highlighted below.

Moon-Eyed Women by Kay Chronister is the story of a Welsh immigrant living in America whose father has arranged for him to have a true Welsh bride. The moon-eyed women of the title are rumored to be descendants of the mythological Madoc, though descendant is a tricky term in this case as the women are constructed in the model of Blodeudwedd of Welsh myth who was built out of flower petals by the magicians Math and Gwydion.

Deep in the honeymoon passion, Roderick overlooks his new wife’s faults. He toils without complaint, taking on both his own labor and what should rightfully be hers: the cooking and the milking of the new cow, the gathering of the firewood. Seeing his Blodeuwedd flinch from the sun, he holds his tongue, thinks tenderly on the underground hollow where she waited all her life to belong to him.

Chronister’s eerie tale explores the dark side of what it might mean to belong to someone, and to have someone belong to you, as well as exploring the idea of purity. It also follows the implications of what it means to have compliant, constructed wife to a logical and unsettling conclusion.

Things to Do in Playland When You’re Dead by Gwendolyn Kiste is an ode to the past, where the America-that-was is in itself a ghost. The story nests haunting upon haunting, but these hauntings are more melancholy than frightening as a ghost wanders through the soon-to-be closed Playland exploring its fading glory, contemplating San Francisco’s history, and searching for their purpose in the afterlife.

At the front window, you meet Laffing Sal, who always lives up to her name. She’s the giant animatronic clown that never stops smiling, her wide eyes staring out through the glass. It doesn’t matter where you are in the park–nobody can ever escape the sound of that laugh. It follows your every step.

There is a sense of nostalgia to the story, but it also reckons with the darker side of San Francisco’s history – its earthquakes, its murders, its overdoses, and its heartbreak. Kiste strikes just the right balance of sorrow and hope in this short yet satisfying tale.

You Ought Not Smile As You Walk These Woods by Annie Neugebauer caused me to wonder whether a story can be simultaneously cute and horrifying. This one certainly feels like it strikes that balance with its dark sense of humor and a classic (in the violent and bloody sense) fairy tale feel. A grandson goes to visit his grandmother and isn’t wise enough to heed her advice. Being the typical arrogant, greedy, and not too bright youth of fairy tales, he steals what he shouldn’t and even though he tries to gift what he steals to his grandmother out of kindness, the results are still horrifying.

The man smiled, nodding, and promised her that he would not show his teeth, even though he knew that the fairies of East Texas are scavengers and opportunistic carnivores. The small flying mammals posed no threat to a big strong, young man such as himself.

Like all good fairy tales, this one comes with a moral: Always listen to your elders, respect nature, and never think you’re cleverer than a fairy – especially one with a fondness for teeth.

Xtabay by Julia Rios presents readers with a series of stories nested within stories, evoking mythology, urban legends, and ghostly tales. A young girl grapples with her family history, in particular the history of her Mexican father who spent his life desperately trying to fit in and be something he wasn’t. As a young man, his cousin constantly teased him about his virginity, which led to an unwise relationship with a mysterious girl. Rather than doing what he knew in his heart to be right, he allowed himself to give into pressure, resulting in tragedy and a curse that followed him for the rest of his life.

“I don’t care that you’re sorry,” said the girl. “He deserved to die. And so do all like him! And you? I curse your oppressor heart a thousand times! May you always find that the harder you try to be one of them, the more you will feel your own heart being devoured! And when it happens again, remember me.”

The story deftly explores themes of racism, class, and the expectations society places on men vs. women, where women must remain pure, while men are mocked for not making sexual “conquests”. Rios shows the way these gendered expectations tie back to issues of class, race, and colonization with the idea that lower-class women are expendable and good enough to fuck, but not worthy of marriage, and showing how constantly trying to fit into someone else’s image of what and who you should be slowly erodes you from the inside out.

Blood Sisters by Christa Wojciechowski weaves together personal mythology and local legends as a pair of childhood friends travel to Columbia on a last girls trip before one of them gets married. Tina is afraid of things changing and brings Beats to a supposedly cursed mountain where standing at the top as an unmarried person dooms you to always to be alone. On their last night in Columbia, they go drinking with two local men, one of whom reveals the mountain’s nature to Beats, and thus also reveals Tina’s betrayal.

Since seventh grade, Beats and I were one soul in two bodies. Her freckled limbs–the scar on her right knee from falling on my driveway–were as familiar as my own. My voice came out as hers. The smell of her body, dryer sheets mixed with the funk of her greasy old shepherd, was my smell. Our periods were always in synch.

The story realistically captures the way friendships can drift apart as people grow, from a time in your life where you know everything about the other person and they’re you’re entire world, to a time where you just exchange emails occasionally, and how scary that transition can be. It’s not about a friendship breaking or anything dramatic happening, simply the way things change over time. Tina’s feelings of jealously feel very real and grounded, as does her fear of change leading to destructive behavior. The story also offers an interesting exploration of belief and the power it has over people. Sometimes simply knowing about a supposed curse is enough to bring it about, whether the curse is “real” in any objective sense or not.

Keep an eye out for this anthology when it releases at the end of the November, and if it sounds like it’s up your alley, consider pre-ordering it now!

Leave a Comment

Filed under Recommended Reading

Review: Wild Time

Wild Time CoverWild Time by Rose Biggin and Keir Cooper (who were kind enough to provide me with a review copy) is a charming re-imagining of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The story focuses primarily on the fairies and the company of players as they make their own respective preparations for the wedding of Theseus and Hippolyta. Though the setting remains ancient Athens, where gods and magic are very much real, Biggin and Cooper give the novel a more contemporary voice that leads to a timeless feel.

Titania looked at the Changeling, who was waiting calmly, hands on his hips and looking very casual. There was a confidence to his shoulders, and his body was as smooth as if it had been newly polished. He wore a piece of cotton, delicately printed, that bared his hips, and at some point one of the fairies had picked a red flower and placed it lovingly in his hair. ‘My word,’ she said leading him beneath the tree. ‘You’re completely gorgeous, do you know that?’

The novel incorporates familiar elements from Shakespeare’s play – the wedding, Puck’s mischief, and Bottom’s transformation – but it also introduces new ones, including Theseus and Oberon doing shots on the night before the nuptials and getting increasingly drunk, nostalgic, and maudlin, and a raucous Amazonian bachelorette party riding through the streets of Athens, descending on unsuspecting vendors demanding custom-made weapons and a sampling of local cuisine. Other elements are familiar, yet given a fresh twist, such as the play performed by the players becoming a mash-up of the story of Pyramus and Thisbe and Death of a Salesman. One of the most refreshing updates is Oberon and Titania’s relationship, which is presented here as much healthier and more respectful, with actual communication between the two, and genuine love and passion, as opposed to full of bitterness, jealously, and trickery.

The lovers Lysander, Demetrius, Helena, and Hermia, play bit roles as cosmic phenomenon and celestial bodies on the margins of the story. There’s sex magic and revelry and a brief interlude where Puck steals a train in what appears to be modern-day London. Somehow, all these elements work together, feeling like fun nods and clever updates, never tipping over into being too cheesy or ridiculous. Despite the more contemporary language, the story somehow feels more firmly rooted in ancient Athens than many interpretations of the original play. Overall, Wild Time is a fun and sexy read, straddling the line between novella and novel (though I think it technically falls onto the novel side). If you’re a fan of re-imagined classics, this is definitely one to check out.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Recommended Reading

Howls from Hell Review

Howls from Hell Anthology CoverHowls from Hell is a forthcoming anthology from the HOWL Society (Horror-Obsessed Writing and Literature Society), edited by members of the Society, and showcasing the work of sixteen emerging writers from among its members. The anthology officially releases May 18, 2021, but is available for pre-order now. The Society was kind enough to provide me with an early copy for review.

The cover art by P.L. McMillan, who also contributes a story to the anthology, is striking, and each story is accompanied by an original illustration. All the illustrations, along with the design and layout work is done by Society members as well, proving this is a multi-talented group. The anthology as a physical object is sharp, professional-looking, and very nicely put together. Beyond the connecting thread of the HOWL Society, the anthology is un-themed, allowing authors to tackle a wide variety of subjects and approaches to horror. In these pages, you’ll find everything from quiet horror to the hyper-violent, supernatural horror, body horror, rural and suburban horror, and genre mash-ups with science fiction and fantasy. The variety of themes and approaches to horror is impressive, with a few stories in particular that  stood out to me.

“She’s Taken Away” by Shane Hawk is presented in the form of a police transcript of a conversation between Dr. Jay M. Landry and Annie Ellis, whose twin sister has been put away for terrible crimes. The piece is short, but with a strong voice, playing with the good twin/evil twin trope and exploring nature vs. nurture as the twins’ paths diverge and one sister engages in increasingly violent and disturbing behavior.

“Suspended in Light” by Alex Wolfgang is one of the quieter and more subtly unsettling stories in the anthology. A film student takes on a job cataloguing old film reels donated by a daughter cleaning out her mother’s estate. The first reel she watches features a man staring unnervingly at the camera, then setting up a second camera which seems to look back through the screen at her, causing her image to appear in a film shot over 80 years ago. The story effectively builds a sense of dread as it plays with the relationship between the viewer and the viewed, and looks at the sinister side of immortality on the silver screen, and what it means to capture memories through film.

“Possess and Serve” is a solid piece of sci-fi horror, imagining a future where individuals can subscribe to a service that allows them to summon an Assumed Control Unit officer to temporarily remotely possess their body to deescalate conflict and deal with other potentially dangerous situations. Sarah is one such officer who is summoned to the scene of a crime only to find that another Assumed Control Unit officer has possessed the body of the person who summoned them and is using said body to commit a horrific act. The story is tense, and nicely shows both the potential good enabled by technology and the ways technology might aid and abet the worst aspects of human nature.

“Sprout” by M. David Clarkson is another piece with a strong voice, offering up an atmospheric story of nature reclaiming and repurposing life to its own ends in gruesome ways. The story also explores the dynamics of power in a relationship built solely on lust, and the dangers of both feeling owed access to someone else’s body and blaming them for your actions.

“A Fistful of Murder” by Lindsey Ragsdale closes out the anthology with a unique twist on the cursed object trope. While making a purchase at a pet store, a man receives change which includes a $10 bill with the word kill written on it in red ink. The cashier is seemingly unable to see the message, but a mere accidental glance is enough to fill the man with an uncontrollable urge to cause pain and take life. The story brings into questions the idea whether violence is essential to the nature of man, or whether external factors – for example the literal idea of money as the root of all evil – is to blame.

With its wide range of themes and styles, there’s a little bit of something for everyone here, making Howls from Hell a satisfying read for horror fans.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Recommended Reading

And Then the Gray Heaven Review

And Then the Gray Heaven CoverOnce again I’m dipping my toes into the non-genre waters with an upcoming novella from Dzanc Books. And Then the Gray Heaven by RE Katz, which will be released on June 15, 2021, is a lovely meditation on loss, processing grief, queer found families, art as legacy, and networks of people supporting each other through the roughest times in their lives.

Jules is mourning the death of their partner, B, an artist and museum exhibition designer. Their grief is complicated by the fact that the hospital refuses to recognize their relationship, so Jules has to break into B’s hospital room to be with them at the end. B’s family is similarly wary of Jules, except for B’s brother, Alvin, though even he wasn’t there for B or Jules when they needed him the most. Following B’s death, Jules feels unmoored and alone. Seeing this, Jules’ neighbor Tina sends a family member to keep an eye on Jules – Theo. Theo and Jules strike up an immediate, sweet, and supportive friendship, which is the true heart of the novel. When Alvin unexpectedly arrives with a portion of B’s ashes to give to Jules, Jules hatches a plan to honor B’s memory by burying them within various museum exhibitions they helped design. Theo becomes Jules’ partner in crime, and they set off on a journey of remembrance and healing that brings Jules into contact with other people who were important to B’s life – an extended queer family that helps support Jules through their grief and helps them see that despite their initial feeling, they are far from alone.

We held cups of coffee with both hands and looked at each other. I said nothing. I was thinking about how I hadn’t talked to anyone about what had happened yet. This is what people have families for. I felt crushed into a fine powder–I was pigment. Windowsill blue. Ash taking air before gusting apart. No one to talk to and no reason to reach out. I didn’t want our friends to worry, and I had no information or comfort to offer them.

And Then the Gray Heaven feels deeply grounded in every day life, while also dealing with immense and complicated subjects like loss, love, grief, and neuroatypicality. The characters are richly drawn, and the web of support – the larger queer family – that B and Jules find around them at various points in their lives is heartening and immensely touching. The connectivity between people is mirrored through art, which weaves in and out of the story in various ways, from Jules’ first job as an airbrush artist, to B’s line of work. Art doesn’t merely connect individuals personally, but reflects a queer lineage and legacy, as subsequent generations of artists honor those who came before in their work, extending the network beyond a specific place and time, and opening up a larger world of people seeing and understanding each other.

The setting of the novel mirrors Jules’ journey, from the close confines of their apartment to the larger world of their roadtrip with Theo. As their network of friends grows, the world opens up, bringing them from the claustrophobia of grief and loss, back into the open spaces of hope and possibility. At such a short length, Katz manages to pack a lot into their work, making for a very impressive debut.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Recommended Reading

Lagoonfire Review

Lagoonfire CoverLagoonfire by Francesca Forrest is the second novelette in the author’s Tales of the Polity series published by Annorlunda Books. I reviewed the first entry in the series, The Inconvenient God, for The Book Smugglers in 2018. The novelettes each stand alone fairly well, centering on Decommisioner Thirty-Seven, also known as Sweeting, as she deals with a discrete case involving the decommissioning of gods once their worshippers have moved on.

In Lagoonfire, Sweeting is sent to investigate an incursion of sea water in a new development under construction to determine whether it might have been caused by Laloran-morna, the former god of warm waves. Even though she decommissioned him, the process didn’t entirely take, leaving him with a limited version of his powers. Since the development is going up in an area once sacred to Laloran-morna, Sweeting’s superiors suspect the former god may be trying to sabotage the construction, even though the now-mortal Laloron-morna currently lives in a compassionate care facility, close to dying. Over the years, he and Sweeting have become friends, and when she goes to ask him about the seawater, which he claims to know nothing about, he tasks her with helping him fulfil his dying wish to get a message to his lost love.

Sweeting quickly discovers the situation is far more complicated than it initially seemed. Laloron-morna’s love may be a forgotten goddess of an ancient people that most believe are only a myth. As she attempts to gather more information, Sweeting runs into a history professor named Ateni whose research seems to support her theory, but shortly after they meet, Ateni is accused of terrorist action and arrested. Convinced of Ateni’s innocence and trying to prove it, Sweeting gets herself caught up on the wrong side of the investigation as a possible co-conspirator as she seeks to unravel the mystery, clear Ateni’s name, and keep her promise to Laloron-morna before his time runs out.

And then the sun returned in full force, drawing mist up from the ground all around us and from our sodden clothes. It was clammy and uncomfortable–but also unearthly, beautiful. I turned slowly, letting my arms pass through the glowing streamers. So soon they would fade away, but in that moment, it was like being among celestial beings, clothed in light. I caught sight of Ateni’s face, lips parted, eyes shining. Yes, this was better, much better, for a dedication to Laloran-morna’s unknown love. I returned to the water’s edge and poured the palm wine, Ateni and the ghostly curls of mist my silent witnesses.

Forrest once again perfectly blends magic and bureaucracy with touches of humor to bring the unique world of the Polity Series to life. Lagoonfire expands on The Inconvenient God, introducing more of Sweeting’s co-workers, along with several other decommissioned gods who act as an occasionally snarky, occasionally helpful chorus, but also as a found family, supporting each other and Sweeting. Sweeting’s character is deepened as well, as we learn why she’s so reluctant to share her name and prefers to go by her title or her childhood nickname. Coming to terms with the past is a major theme in the novelette, as is the question of who controls the narrative of history. Love, loss, memory, friendship, and found family are also resonant themes. Even at a short length, Forrest delivers a satisfying story and plenty of character development, while exploring the way history, including personal history, continues to shape the present. Identity, as a people, and as an individual person, can be shaped by history, but it’s always worth asking – whose history? Who is telling the story, and what do they have to gain by telling it that way? Forrest creates several interesting and effective parallels between the personal and the political when it comes to understanding the past and the ways in which the past informs the present and the future. Lagoonfire is a highly enjoyable novelette, and I hope there are more entries planned in the series.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Recommended Reading

Call it Horses Review

Call It Horses CoverOccasionally I do remember to stray outside the bounds of SFFH genre reading. My latest such foray was Call It Horses by Jessie van Eerden, courtesy of Dzanc Books who were kind enough to provide me with an advance copy of the book due to be released in March 2021. I’ve read several books published by Dzanc now, and I’m regularly impressed with the works they publish, books that are unafraid to experiment with voice and style, primarily literary, but also straying into genre territory with titles such as The Archive of Alternate Endings by Lindsey Darger and Nino Cipri’s collection Homesick.

Like Homesick, Call It Horses is the winner of the Dzanc Prize for Fiction. Set in 1990, the story follows the journey of three women – Frankie, Mave, and Nan – as they take a road trip into the desert, fulfilling Mave’s last wish as she’s dying of cancer. The novel is framed as a series of musings from Frankie (Mave’s niece) written to Mave’s lover, Ruth. Frankie’s parents died when she was sixteen, and Mave essentially raised her, though her role was more of a guardian, living in the house next to Frankie’s and keeping an eye on her from that distance, treating her more as an adult and a friend than a child in need of parenting. One of the core threads in the novel is the relationship between Frankie and Mave, which speaks to the larger questions the novel asks about love. What forms does love take? Does love need to be expressed to prove itself? Is love a finite resource, and are some people only capable of giving and receiving so much of it in a lifetime?

These questions are explored in a myriad of ways through the complicated relationships that exist between the characters. Nan is married to Dillon, who was the one truly passionate relationship of Frankie’s life, first a childhood friend, then briefly a lover. Frankie is married to Clay, a man she doesn’t love, but who is kind, gentle, and understanding. Ruth passed away several years ago, but she was the one true love of Mave’s life, and there hasn’t been anybody since. As a child, Frankie wrote letters to Ruth and received letters in exchange which fired her imagination, but as an adult, Frankie realizes she never really knew her.

Often you wrote of the desert, how in Sinai you heard the original language inside of language. How in Persia there could be no larger sense of night, of scope. Mostly you wrote about words themselves and about my own letters to Mave, which you’d been reading all along. Words without limits, blurred at the edges like bog land; words as rooms one walks into, words holding million-year-old-species like amber — see the trilobite and the ancient fern, the spinal column of something extinct still preserved in a word’s withered curve.

These explorations are quiet and meditative, as is everything in the novel. The story repeatedly touches on grief and loss, but not as dramatic touchpoints in the character’s lives, but rather as an inevitability, the cost of living. There’s an interesting tension between stillness and motion in the book. The story is that of a road trip with the characters literally always in motion. The narrative itself is constantly in fluid motion throughout time, recollections folded inside recollections in a non-linear exploration of the women’s intersecting lives. Yet at the same time, each character feels firmly stuck in place. They are either unable to pursue their desires, or uncertain what those desires are, caught in lives that aren’t fulfilling, and unable or unwilling to move on from their pasts. Ruth ends up representing a kind of ideal for all of them – the perfect love, the perfect life – but she is not a desire to move toward, she is safely in the past where she can remain idealized rather than realized, and no one has to hurt themselves further by trying to live up to her or confronting the reality of her existence.

The novel leans heavily into the literary and the poetic. It is grounded in the mundanities of everyday life, and yet dreamlike in its treatment of time, and fantastical in the flowery dialog the characters employ. It is a study in contrasts, and an interesting read for the rhythm of its language and its intimate exploration of the characters’ inner lives and the constant push and pull that exists between expectation and reality.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Recommended Reading

Eurasian Monsters Review

Eurasian Monsters CoverEurasian Monsters edited by Margrét Helgadóttir is the seventh and final installment in the Fox Spirit Books Monsters anthology series. Like the other installments in the series, including African Monsters, Asian Monsters, European Monsters, and more, this book is a lovely physical object. The 8.5 x 8.5 square format gives the anthology the feel of a children’s book of dark fairy tales or ghost stories, and each entry is accompanied by its own illustration. The majority of the stories are original to the volume (published in December 2020), with a few reprints thrown in, and includes work by authors such as Haralambi Markov, Alex Shvartsman, Bogi Takács, and Ekaterina Sedia. The anthology also offers a mix of stories originally written in the English language, and translations. As the title implies, all the tales offer their own take on monsters, legends, and supernatural creatures in various Eurasian settings. Overall, it was an enjoyable anthology, with a few stories in particular that really stood, highlighted below.

Daemons in Their Time by Marta Magdelena Lasik (translated by Piotr Swietlik) offers a fascinating blend of a technologically advanced world and old mythology. There’s a dreamlike quality to the prose as a rusalka follows a man through a desert wasteland, trying to get him to admit he’s not human, while he refuses to believe could possibly be anything but human.

You are lying. Perhaps even without knowing it, but you’re not telling the truth. I understand riddles. I recognize the correct answers even if I don’t know them. When you answer my question, my puzzle, I know, with the wisdom of a centuries-old rusalka, that it is not the correct answer.

Of all the stories in the anthology, this is probably the one that edges closest to science fiction, yet there’s also a timelessness to it, despite the post-apocalyptic setting. The story deals with questions of identity and self knowledge, and coming to accept truths, even when they are difficult to face.

Bagatazh by Karina Shainyan (translated by Mike Olivson) has the feel of a classic ghost story, told around a campfire. Indeed, much of the story does take place in the vicinity of a campfire, as Katya, one of two guides tasked with guiding tourists on hike and camping excursion, begins to suspect they are being stalked by a local legend.

Boom. There is something large stirring in the night shadows beyond the fire. Katya recoils, as the air wheezes into her lungs and freezes, transforming into stone. Boom, says the heart, beating painfully in her eardrums. Boom-boom-boom. The dark mass stirs and mutters. The low flames dance as the details of the approaching figure come into view. Recognizing it, Katya relaxes, and realizes she can breathe again.

Tucked within the eerie, supernatural tale is the story of a woman who feels caught between two worlds, and thus like she belongs nowhere. Katya’s predicament is mirrored by the monster of the tale, a massive ancient frog, cursed by the spirits of the mountain for refusing to pay tribute to them because it claimed to be a creature of the water as much as a creature of land, not living full time in either, and thus owing allegiance to no one.

Nine Tongues Tell Of by Haralambi Markov is lovely story of the friendship that develops between an orphaned woman caring for her elderly grandfather, and a nine-headed mythical creature. Similar to Katya in Shainyan’s story, Damyana in Markov’s story never feels entirely as though she belongs to the human world. While the hala she faces is terrifying, and does have its monstrous aspects, the gifts she gives it in order to keep it from devouring her ultimately become an act of healing, allowing her to let go of her grief and lighten her spirit.

When her grandfather died and she truly became an orphan, Damyana brought his ashes, neatly packed in an urn–a ceramic box decorated with cherubs and painted in a mournful green. All seven heads shed tears then and gently the hala took the box into one of its maws and stored it away for safe-keeping.

As with many of the stories in the anthology, the monster in Markov’s tale shows itself to be more compassionate than many humans in its own way. While some of the monsters are truly monstrous, most stand in for various states of mind – anxiety, fear, a lack of belonging, or a desire to be loved. The humans are often the monstrous ones, where more often than not, the monsters simply are what they are – obeying their nature, and holding up a mirror to the mortals who encounter them.

The Visit by Maria Galina (translated by Mike Olivson) tells the story of Sergey Stepanonvich, a middle-aged man who is visited one night by Ded Moroz, a frightening Santa Claus-like figure. At first Ded Moroz claims he has come to make amends for Sergey’s childhood disappointment when he wished for a telescope for Christmas, and instead received a drum. Ded Moroz tells him that had he received the telescope, he might have achieved his childhood dream of becoming an astronomer, instead of ending up in a dead-end job he hates, divorced, alone, and overall let down by life. He brings gifts of food and whiskey as an apology, but the longer they talk, the more Sergey begins to suspect that Ded Moroz’s motives may not be entirely pure.

At the border where light met shadow, he could see red, gold, green, and silver reflections, somewhat unclear and out of focus. But if you looked at them indirectly, from the corner of your eye, they somehow became a sled with a high back, decorated with shining patterns, and unmoving white silhouettes which stood out from the snow, either wolves or huge dogs…

The slow unfolding of the tale, and the ultimate reveal of Ded Moroz’s nature is nicely done. The imagery is evocative, and the author deftly blends touches of humor with an increasingly dark exploration of whether simple external factors have the power to shape our entire lives, or whether humans are ultimately responsible for creating our own success and happiness, but would rather look to those outside forces as convenient things to blame when our lives don’t go as we imagined.

Veruska and the Lúdvérc by Bogi Takács spins a classic fairy tale of a young, kind-hearted girl named Veruska who discovers what appears to be a strange, orphaned bird, and takes it home, only to find that she has unwittingly brought home a monster.

Yet suddenly she heard a popping sound. The chick jumped off the oven-ledge and squealed with human words, in a little girl’s voice. “What shall I bring? What shall I bring?” Veruska rubbed her eyes, opened the curtain over the ledge and tried to see better in the light of the full moon. The fledgling suddenly looked much larger, like an adult’s fist in size.

The lúdvérc at first seems only mischievous, pulling pranks which Veruska is blamed for, but then turns more sinister. If Veruska isn’t able to fulfil its demands, it threatens eat her, as it has eaten many children like her before. The story unfolds in a satisfying battle of wits, as Veruska must rely on her cleverness to out-trick the trickster to save her life and that of her family.

Each story in the anthology offers its own unique take on the monstrous, with a wide variety of supernatural beings that range from frightening to tragic and everything in-between. It’s a fantastic addition to the Monsters series, all of which are well-worth checking out.

1 Comment

Filed under Recommended Reading

Shiny Shorts: Monster Summer

October isn’t the exclusive domain of monsters. Maybe it’s because I just finished re-watching  Gravity Falls, with its perfect summer of monsters, but monsters and summer seem like they should go hand in hand. After all, sometimes the oppressive heat makes monsters of us all, and we need a reminder of the chill of autumn creeping in. While not all of these stories are shiver inducing – some are more tragic, while others speak of hope – they all explore different facets of classic monsters.

Fiyah 15 CoverThe Black Menagerie by Endria Isa Richardson in Fiyah Issue #15 features shape-changing creatures, but the true monster of the story is fear itself, and what happens when people try to control that which they don’t understand.

Alta has lived in San Francisco for a very long time, longer than a single human lifetime. Her house, which bears a plaque identifying it as The Black Menagerie, is filled with all manner of animals, just as her body is covered with tattoos of animals, which she calls her siblings. She has been called by many names over the years, including witch. Her specialty is fear, drawing it out of one body and into her own, cultivating and tending it. Depending on perspective, she might be tending that fear and taking it into herself to protect others, or she might be honing it to use as a weapon.

She is no stranger to what fear can do to a body. She knows how to pull fear from people, ride it out of them–because fear needs to be kept and her body can keep it better than ours–but it has always been a choice, a relationship. Rituals are followed; roles are acknowledged. A door or a window is left open, and thus she is invited to complete the haunt.

The story is beautifully-written, full of evocative language and imagery as it explores humanity’s relationship to fear. Do we view fear, or the object of our fear, as an enemy, something to be caged and kept at bay? Or do we view fear as a companion, a healthy emotion ultimately keeping us safe? Are we willing to learn to walk beside our fear, understand the thing that makes us afraid, and cultivate a respect for it, or do we ultimately let fear make us destructive towards ourselves and others? Alta’s role as a woman, and as a Black woman specifically, plays into this dual-sided exploration of fear. How she is perceived often depends on who is looking. Fear of the “other” and dehumanization of women and Black people are themes threaded through the story, with parallels drawn to animals and the way they are treated by humans throughout. Alta is self-possessed and comfortable in her own skin; it is those viewing her from the outside who are the problem. They are the ones who ultimately weaponize their own fear, seeking to turn it against Alta simply for being a confident Black woman. A thread of sexuality and desire runs through the story as well, tied to the idea of comfort in a body versus the attempt to control, possess, or shame women for their sexuality. What is monstrous is in the eye of the beholder, and like many of the best monster stories, “The Black Menagerie” holds up a mirror to show us that what and how we fear says more about ourselves than it does about the things that frighten us.

Baba Yaga and the Seven Hills by Kristina Ten in the July Issue of Lightspeed is also set in San Francisco, and sees the titular witch of Russian mythology coping with the modern world. After a life (or more) of feeling unappreciated, Baba Yaga’s chicken-legged hut takes off on its own, forcing her to go in search of it. Along the way, she finds herself contending with roommates for the first time in her life, and seeking the advice of modern day magicians.

Why San Francisco? Baba Yaga needs help—serious help, magical help—and she knows San Francisco to be a place of magic. The city built on seven hills. Vehicles that drive themselves. Eyeglasses that hold alternate universes. Buildings that stay standing when the ground beneath them splits in two. If anyone can help her, they will be in San Francisco.

In the course of her search, Baba Yaga learns that magic doesn’t always look like spellcraft. Sometimes it looks like community, and making sure those around you feel loved and are fed. Magic potions aren’t always brewed up in cauldrons, sometimes they are baked into pot brownies to serve as a peace offering, take the edge off anxiety, and ultimately bring people together. Marketing can be its own form of magic, as can technology, leading an old witch to consider new perspectives, including kindness to roommates, even and perhaps especially, if your roommate also happens to be your house.

It’s a charming story, and sticks mostly to the light side of things, though Baba Yaga does occasionally still find herself with a craving to eat children. Ultimately, it is a story about turning over a new leaf, learning to see things from another person, or house’s, point of view. San Francisco is lovingly described, making it a character in its own right, vibrant and full of life, and possessing its own unique brand of magic, the way certain cities do.

The Dark August 2020 CoverBobbie and Her Father by Gillian Daniels in August’s issue of The Dark gives off a distinct Frankenstein vibe. Bobbie is a young girl who we first meet sitting on the couch, watching TV, a normal enough activity, but from the start there is a sense of something off. Bobbie isn’t allowed to open the door to strangers, which is normal enough as well, but what isn’t normal is that Bobbie has never interacted with another human other than her father. Naturally, she’s curious, and when one of her father’s co-workers comes looking for her father, Bobbie can’t resist opening the door, the first step to her world coming disastrously undone.

He stitches her up with clear thread, as if one more scar on her face would somehow be painful to her. One less scar wouldn’t give her the ability to dance or go outside. It will just be another line on her skin when she looks in the mirror and brushes her hair before bed, alone for hours in the dark, pretending she sleeps the way he sleeps.

Add to the idea of Frankenstein’s monster the awkwardness of being a pre-teen girl, cut off the from the world, and therein lies the story’s true monstrosity. Much like Frankenstein’s monster, Bobbie is a created thing, born of her father’s hubris, and much like Frankenstein’s monster, she is ultimately an innocent, a victim of the circumstances of her creation. Bobbie is stronger than any human, constantly having to be aware of the dangers of her own strength. She is deeply lonely, and merely wants to be loved, and that is her tragic downfall. The story is by turns heartbreaking and frightening, and while it is not without its death and gore, at its heart, it is a story of monstrous loneliness rather than monstrous rage. At the end of the day, Bobbie is like any other child, trying to find her place in the world, wanting be liked and understood and to form a connection with another human being, proving she too deserves to be considered part of humanity.

Slipping the Leash by Dan Micklethwaite published by PodCastle is a unique take on a werewolf story, one that may or may not actually contain a werewolf at all. The story is short, hovering just around flash length, but it packs in a lot, including war-related PTSD and family trauma. Aloysius “Louie” Proctor only wants to play music, but he knows he shouldn’t. He supposed to be content with being a family man, working a job he hates, keeping his head down and staying away from devilish things like smoky clubs and hot jazz.

All of these rules, these enforced expectations, they bristle the hairs on the nape of his neck. They carry him back to patrols in the forest, with gunfire and mortars, and the bark of trees splintering close to his head. Ears always ringing. Nose always streaming with the cold and the fear. Teeth always chattering, chewing through cigarettes before they caught light. And he couldn’t re-spark the Zippo, because what about snipers? Couldn’t retreat or go AWOL, because what about Freedom and what about God? What about whatever his daddy would say?

But despite what he knows he’s “supposed” to do, music has its hooks in Louie, exerting a pull as sure as the moon. There’s a crackling energy and rhythm to the prose that evokes the music Louie so wants to play. Micklethwaite perfectly evokes the tug-of-war beneath Louie’s skin, desire versus duty, true self versus the person he’s been told he should be. Werewolf imagery is effectively employed here, giving the story a sense of urgency, a sense of something buried rising to the surface. Is Louie truly monstrous, or is he simply slipping out of his day-to-day skin for a few brief and glorious moments of freedom?

In tangentially-related news, with the return of Apex Magazine next year, my Words for Thought review column will be coming back as well. Hopefully, in the interim, you’ve enjoyed Shiny Shorts. The year isn’t done yet, and I may post one or two more columns here as the mood strikes me, and either way, I’ll be on twitter shouting about short fiction and hopefully helping people find new stories to love. Happy reading!

Leave a Comment

Filed under Recommended Reading