Tag Archives: 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

No Man’s Land Review

No Man's Land CoverNo Man’s Land is a new novella from author A.J. Fitzwater, published in June by Paper Road Press. Set in North Otago, Aotearoa New Zealand during WWII, the story follows Dorothea “Tea” Gray, whose brother Robbie has gone off to war to be a sapper. Wanting to do her part, Tea joins the Land Service, and takes over Robbie’s former job shearing sheep and working on the MacGregor farm. Tea is joined by three other Land Service girls, Alison, Carmel, and Izzy, and a young man named Grant whose illness kept him from joining the service.

On the day she arrives at the farm, Tea is followed by a strange, shadowy dog, and her feeling of something odd going on only builds from there. Her senses are heightened, and she hears her brother’s voice in a way she becomes increasingly sure isn’t just her own inner monologue or wishful thinking. Grant and Izzy are secretive around her, as if they know more about Tea than she knows about herself. She hears a persistent hissing, like something calling to her, especially when she’s around water. She also experiences sensations, sights and sounds, she’s certain don’t belong to her, and might just belong to her brother Robbie on  distant continent in the midst of war. While trying to understand what’s happening to her, Tea still has to contend with daily life, the exhausting work of the farm, and not drawing the ire of Mr. MacGregor. Contrasted with the mundane world of the farm, hidden just beneath its surface, it seems there’s a whole other world waiting for Tea. Sometimes it seems as though there’s another being inside of her, one that frightens her, and that she can’t entirely control. Further complicating matters is Tea’s attraction to Izzy. All her life, Tea has been taught that a woman loving another woman, or a man loving another man is unnatural, not to mention illegal. Tea’s conflicted feelings strain her relationship with Izzy, who could be Tea’s closest ally, helping her understand the power within her, and her true magical nature.

A border collie, mostly black with a scattering of white on the bib and paws, yelped and skittered. Her shadow! It wasn’t male after all. The look the dog cast back at Tea made her shiver for a third time. The familiar-strange scent hit Tea, making her flinch. It was a scent she thought she’d only dreamed, one she associated with starlight, fresh-turned soil, warm cotton.

No Man’s Land is gorgeously-written, wrapped in beautiful cover art by Laya Rose Mutton-Rogers. Fitzwater has a real gift for prose and sensory description, which they deploy to great effect, creating a sense of breathless disorientation around the ebb and flow of nature, the magic within Tea, and the chaos of war. The language is the kind that snaps you up and gets you lost in the best of ways, but at the same time, the characters, especially Tea, keep the story grounded. We get snippets of Grant and Izzy’s perspectives as well, but for the most part, we’re in Tea’s head, right alongside her as she experiences frustration – from her mother unpacking all her practical clothes and filling her suitcase with clothing designed to help her catch a husband, to the way the men on the farm goad her and tease her and expect her to fail at “men’s work”, and her conflicted feelings about Izzy and the growing power she discovers within herself.

Need and desire are an underlying current in all of Tea’s thoughts and actions – not just physical desire, but the desire to be respected, taken seriously, and to do something that matters, especially when it comes to the war. With her brother so far away, Tea feels helpless, made worse by the fact that she feels trapped by the box of expectations placed around her as a woman. She wants to break out, forge her own way in the world, but at the same time, she’s afraid. All her life she’s been taught there’s a natural order to things – magic belongs in stories for children, and women are meant to be wives and mothers and nothing more. Even though Tea doesn’t truly believe either of those things deep down, she’s been conditioned to accept them. The war forms a backdrop, but the conflict in the novella is far more personal, as Tea wars with herself, and what she’s been taught to believe about the world versus the larger possibilities of who she is allowed to love, who she is allowed to be, and what she’s allowed to do with her life.

No Man’s Land brings to the forefront women’s history, and the kind of stories that often go untold in war narratives, shifting the focus from soldiers on the front line to those doing vital work back home. Farm labor is just as important to keeping the world turning, but history often overlooks jobs considered “menial” or “women’s work”. The novella also touches on queer history and rights, particularly in the epilogue taking place years after the war. Tea’s self-discovery is rooted in history and a personal journey, but soaked in the magic and wonder of the hidden world existing alongside ours. It’s a lovely book, and I highly recommend getting your hands on a copy right now.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Recommended Reading

Dominion: An Anthology of Speculative Fiction from Africa and the African Diaspora

Dominion CoverDominion: An Anthology of Speculative Fiction from Africa and the African Diaspora edited by Zelda Knight & Ekpeki Oghenechovwe Donald brings together an incredible group of authors, spinning tales of near-future science fiction, post-apocalyptic worlds, distant and mythic pasts, and more, imagining what might be, and what never was. The anthology officially comes out in August, but I was lucky enough to get a sneak peek.

As the title states, the common thread binding these stories is Africa and the African Diaspora, but the stories themselves range across the genres and sub-genres of speculative fiction, from horror, to fantasy, to science fiction, and everything in-between. A wide variety of voices and styles are on display here, and there’s a little bit of something for everyone. The editors assembled a strong collection, with several stories that were true standouts for me.

“Red_Bati” by Dilman Dila is a charming and touching story of a robot dog programmed with sentience by his former owner, who finds himself scooped up as salvage. With only the ghost of the old woman who was his former charge as his companion, he must plot his escape or risk being scrapped for parts. Red_Bati sees himself as a human trapped in a robot dog’s body, and at its heart, the story is a very human one as Red_Bati copes with feelings of obsolescence, abandonment, and searches for his place in the world.

Once his battery ran down, he would freeze and that would damage his e-m-data strips. Though these could be easily and cheaply replaced, he would lose all his data, all the codings that made him Red_Bati and not just another red basenji dog, all his records of Granny. He would die.

“A Mastery of German” by Marian Denise Moore explores the idea of inherited memory, and the ethics of gene editing. The story touches on how easily history can be lost, especially Black history, by looking at whose stories get preserved and told, versus whose stories are forgotten because they’re merely “ordinary” people. Moore raises complicated questions about how science might be deployed to pass skills and knowledge from generation to generation, and how easily the ability to do so might be exploited and corrupted.

Somewhere in the world, there is a man, seventy years old, a native New Orleanian who has never left the city save for the occasional Category 5 hurricane. He has a sixth-grade education but he has always held some kind of paying job. However, if you ask him a question in German, he will answer you without hesitation in an accent reminiscent of the region around Heidleberg.

“Sleep Papa, Sleep” by Suyi Okungbowa Davies edges into horror territory, with an unsettling story of a son who finds himself drawn into the family business of grave-robbing and body harvesting, despite his best efforts to escape and make a life for himself elsewhere. When he sells pieces of a corpse from an unmarked grave, he finds himself haunted by the remains of his father, and he must confront his choices – his guilt over leaving, his decision to return, and his unwitting breaking of taboo.

There are mud tracks on the floor tiles that he didn’t notice before. They run from the door, but don’t end at Max’s feet at the entrance to the kitchenette. The TV’s light is insufficient, so Max squints to follow the tracks, which he notices are odd because while one is a complete footprint, the opposite foot has most of the sole with no trace of toes.

Davies effectively harnesses truly chilling imagery to ultimately tell a story about family, responsibility, and being caught between a sense of duty, and a desire to make one’s own way in life.

“The Satellite Charmer” by Mame Bougouma Diene feels epic in scope as it follows the transcendence and evolution of Ibrahima, who throughout his life has felt a strange connection to the mining satellite stripping and exploiting his people’s land. The writing is lovely, and the story’s structure itself mirrors Ibrahima’s journey, opening into something larger as the tale progresses, the language shifting to hold the reader at a greater distance as Ibrahima increasingly loses touch with his humanity and becomes something more.

The beam was death: he knew that; but to him it was life, in a way he couldn’t quite understand. His senses heightened when it dropped, turning the clouds a deep red, every action anticipated by just a fraction. The future was not so much ahead of him, but already waiting for him to reach out and touch, if only he could break out of his body. Sometimes it almost felt like he could; that if he took a step forward and over the cliff to certain death he wouldn’t fall.

“Ife-Iyoku, The Tale of Imadeyunuagbon” by Epeki Oghenechovwe Donald closes out the anthology on a strong note with a powerful tale of a woman repeatedly denying the expectations placed upon her, and refusing to play the role others would assign her. Like “The Satellite Charmer”, the story has a post-apocalyptic feel, and follows the transcendence and evolution of one character, Imade, as she becomes something more than human. A small group of people survive the fallout of nuclear war in Africa and develop powers as a result; the sacred charge to survive leads them each to make difficult choices according to their beliefs, however Imade alone refuses the idea of destiny, and refuses to be used as a vessel for the survival of her people. The story explores of power, the expectations placed on men versus women, and like “Sleep Papa, Sleep” the weight of  tradition and society versus personal freedom.

She felt the blowing of a chilled wind, but Mama Inkiru’s wrapper did not stir in the wind. Mama Inkiru sailed slowly to her, and now she realized why everything seemed to hazy to her, why the wind had no effect on her, why she cast no shadow: Mama Inkiru was dead.

Dominion: An Anthology of Speculative Fiction from Africa and the African Diaspora is currently available for pre-order. I highly recommend getting your hands on a copy of this fantastic anthology and reveling in the wide variety of wonderful speculative tales within!

Leave a Comment

Filed under Recommended Reading

Way of the Laser Review

Way of the Laser CoverWhat might crime look like in the future? Will a terrifying bot tell us we have 20 seconds to comply before blowing us to smithereens? Will replicants hunt each other across bleak, neon-soaked cityscapes? Will crimes be prosecuted before they even occur on the advice of vaguely creepy mediums floating in vats of goo? The Way of the Laser: Future Crime Stories edited by Eric M. Bosarge and Joe M. McDermott brings together eighteen all-new stories by authors including Julie C. Day, Paul Jessup, EN Auslender, Patrice Sarath, Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam, and Marie Vibbert, among others offering up their own answer to this question. It’s not a matter of whether humans will continue to commit crimes in the future, but how will we do it, why will we do it, and how  technology and good old-fashioned intuition will factor into solving those crimes?

The authors have a wide variety of answers, providing fresh takes on crime tropes from heists to the quintessential English country murder. Algorithms are employed to pinpoint likely suspects in Patrice Sarath’s story of miners looking to make one big score that will solve all their financial problems, while clones come into play in Mur Lafferty’s whodunnit, complicating the question of inheritance and whether a murder has even occurred at all.

One of the most affecting stories in the collection is EN Auslender’s “Kalopsia”, which despite the futuristic touch of targeted advertising beamed directly at potential consumers, feels very of the moment. It concerns a woman named Angkasa, whose very existence is made illegal through unjust immigration laws, and her story is heartbreaking and hits very close to home in the current political environment as she struggles to simply survive while constantly being bombarded by ads for things she can never afford to buy.

When she dared peer through the wintry onslaught at the maelstrom of cars lined up and stuck in the road, barraged by bullets of ice, Optotrex’s holographic ad glowed in purple and blue hallows, stinging the rain and ice that fell through with holy desire. It bade her with a 20 meter tall male swimsuit model to see through the storm at the one true way: Optotrex would see for you if you saw your way to Optotrex.

In “Speculative Execution”, Julie C. Day offers up a tale full of slick and stylish prose and excellent worldbuilding that at once feels futuristic and echoes the smog-filled streets of old London with its mudlarks and rag and bone men scrabbling at the edges of society to make a living. Automatons and AI ghosts haunt the streets, and no one is ever truly un-watched or alone.

Dim light from a waning gibbous moon, along with orange-hued streetlamps, illuminated the glass-paned storefronts. The face of the human automaton in the Spirit Mother display window seemed equal parts arch and menacing rather than simply blank, something about the rivets running along the circumference of its hairless metal skull. Something about its heavy metal eyelids and thin metallic lips. And then there was the “Reserved” sign that hung around its bare metal neck.

“Our Lady of Turquoise Country” by Monica Joyce Evans takes place in a virtual game world populated by AI gods that wear the aspects of Egyptian and Aztec deities, which is at times reminiscent of Tad Williams’ Otherland series. Evans’ story feels epic in scope, while being relatively short in length, and packs and emotional punch as the protagonist is given a second chance to save a virtual child and help her grow.

Another standout in the anthology is “Sister Thrush” by Marie Vibbert, where the protagonist is drawn into a shady underworld by his hacker kid-sister who has paid the price for her crimes and is now on the run in the form of a mechanical bird. The story offers several clever twists, while also being a touching story of family caring for each other and fighting for each other while simultaneously frustrating the hell out of each other.

With a wide array of stories imagining the way crime might occur, be prevented, and solved in the future, this anthology is well-worth the read for SFFH authors doing what they do best – speculating about what changes the future might bring, and more importantly, examining the humanity at the core of those changes.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Recommended Reading

Read the Rainbow 2020

Pride Story Bundle AuthorsThe Pride StoryBundle is here, and I’m delighted to once again be a part of it! This year’s bundle includes my Nebula-finalist novella, Catfish Lullaby, alongside a fabulous collection of queer books at a pay-what-you-wish price. If you choose to pay at least $15, you get all 11 books included in the bundle, and you can also choose to have a portion of your purchase support the Rainbow Railroad, a wonderful organization that helps LGTBQIA+ individuals escape persecution and relocate from countries and areas where they are unsafe due to their identity and/or sexuality.

As I’ve done in past years, I wanted to once again put together a Pride Month recommended reading list to help you queer up your summer TBR pile. As an extra happy bonus, several of my recommendations happen to be included in the Pride StoryBundle! And now, on to the recommendations…

General Resources

As always, the Lambda Literary Awards is a great place to look for queer reading recommendations across all genres including speculative fiction, poetry, romance, non-fiction and more. A list of this year’s finalists and winners can be found here.

Author and reviewer extraordinaire Bogi Takács focuses on QUILTBAG+ fiction and in particular own voices work in eir reviews, and eir website is a wonderful resource for adding more queer titles to your TBR pile. E also has a Patreon with monthly book-buying guides and more.

Author and reviewer Charles Payseur offers monthly Queer SFF Short Fiction round ups through his Patreon , another great source for your shorter fiction needs.

Author Xan West/Corey Alexander’s website is another excellent resource for queer fiction with a focus on romance, erotica, and kink, featuring various fiction rounds ups and useful links and resources.

Novels, Collections, and Anthologies

A Spectral Hue CoverTranscendent 4: The Year’s Best Transgender Speculative Fiction edited by Bogi Takács. This series continues to impress, gathering the best trans speculative short fiction of the year in one convenient place, and helping to highlight stories that readers might have missed. It’s always a wonderful collection and a great way to potentially discover new-to-you authors.

A Spectral Hue by Craig Laurence Gidney. Conveniently part of this year’s Pride StoryBundle, this novel is simultaneously gorgeous and eerie, positing art as both a haunting and a sanctuary, depending on your perspective.

The Voyages of Cinrak the Dapper by A.J. Fitzwater. Also conveniently part of this year’s Pride StoryBundle, this is an utterly delightful collection which recounts the daring adventures of one incredibly dapper lesbian capybara pirate and her gallant crew. Joyous and queer, full of found family, romance, and excitement. You can read a fuller review of the collection here and my interview with the author here.

Capricious 9: Gender Diverse Pronouns Issue edited by Andi C. Buchanan. I’ve mentioned it before and I’ll mention it again since it’s also part of this year’s Pride StoryBundle and because it’s always worth highlighting this wonderful collection of stories exploring diverse pronouns and identities in a speculative fiction setting.

The Rampant by Julie C. Day. This novella is a finalist for the 2020 Lambda Literary Awards and offers a fresh take on the apocalypse as best friends Emilia and Gillian try to bring about the Sumerian rapture rather than prevent it, while dealing with their own various losses, griefs, and their budding romance. A more detailed review of the novella can be found here.

The Luminous Dead by Caitlin Starling. I’ve recommended it before, and I’ll recommend it again – a tense and claustrophobic sci-fi/horror novel, which finds Gyre, a caver, alone on a dangerous expedition with only her handler, Em, for remote support. In addition to being an excellent sci-fi horror novel, the novel provides a fascinating exploration of unreliably characters and power dynamics through the growing attraction between Gyre and Em.

Pet CoverGamechanger by L.X. Beckett is an epic, sweeping sci-fi novel that explores climate disaster and recovery in both the real and virtual worlds, and features a wonderful rivalry to romance relationship. A more detailed review can be found here.

Pet by Akwaeke Emezi. A powerful YA/Middle Grade novel that explores the concept of monstrosity hidden in plain sight, along with the monstrous nature of angels. Reviewed in more detail here.

Escaping Exodus by Nicky Drayden. A novel with a richly-built world featuring living generation ships, unforgettable characters, dark secrets and impossible choices. I’ve loved everyone of Drayden’s novels so far and this is no exception.

Homesick: Stories by Nino Cipri. The debut collection from a masterful short fiction writer. You can read my interview with the author here and my review of their collection here.

I could go on and on, but how about some short fiction to mix things up? I do love a good short story, and these are some fantastic ones!

Short Fiction

Familiar Face by Meg Ellison. A haunting short story that explores technology as a means of communicating with ghosts, as well as touching on friendship, loss, and grief.

Clarkesworld Issue 154 CoverForgive Me, My Love, For the Ice and the Sea by C.L. Clark. A gorgeously-written secondary world fantasy where the protagonist is faced with the painful truth that she may have to lose her lover in order to save her.

Rat and Finch Are Friends by Innocent Chizram Ilo. A lovely and bittersweet story of friendship, budding romance, and characters who are forced to hide their true selves in order to survive.

Many-Hearted Dog and Heron Who Stepped Past Time by Alex Yuschik. A beautiful and twisting story of love, loyalty, friendship, time-travel, and sacrifice.

Shattered Sidewalks of the Human Heart by Sam J. Miller. A story exploring monstrousness through the lens of classic cinema brought to life.

The Devil Squid Apocalypse by Alex Acks. A bad-ass musician helps save the world from invading squid monsters with the power of music. What more could you want from a story?

These are just a few of the many wonderful queer reads out there that can help bulk up your summer reading list. On that note, since one can never have too many recommendations, what are your own favorite queer reads, long or short? Drop them in the comments and share the summer reading love!

Leave a Comment

Filed under Recommended Reading