Book Review: The Secret Loves of Geek Girls: Expanded Edition, edited by Hope Nicholson (2016)

Tuesday, April 4th, 2017

A Love Letter to Geek Girls, Young and Old

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through Edelweiss. Trigger warning for allusions to rape.)

You know where God lives and God is in paint and ink and pencil and the page: you fell in love and became that love. Transformed, like in a fairy tale. A girl who became a wolf, focused and hungry for only one thing: story.

You never stopped hunting stories. Little wolf, persistent but timid, prowling shelves and stacks; anywhere there were books, that was the forest you claimed. You found a frontier in your school library, rushing inside every morning with exquisite relief because books were home, books were where you were most alive, books were places you could pretend you were brave. Books were walls against everything that frightened you.

– “Ghost,” Marjorie Liu

The Brontë sisters had such lady boners for the Duke of Wellington that they wrote hundreds of pages of fanfiction about the guy.

– “How Fanfiction Made Me Gay,” J. M. Frey

Any project with Margaret Atwood’s name attached is an instabuy for me, so there was no doubt that I’d preorder a copy of the new and expanded edition of The Secret Loves of Geek Girls. (My only question is, where the heck was I when the Kickstarter was open?)

While Atwood’s quartet of four-panel comics is cute and super-relatable, it’s actually not the highlight of the anthology (surprise!). Nope, that honor would have to go to Marjorie Liu’s essay “Ghost,” which is simply breathtaking, threatening to unspool your soul till its innermost bits are laid bare – and then stitch and crimp you back together, stronger and bolder than before. (And all in the space of four and a half pages, at that.) Of course, being a sucker for pop culture criticism, Laura Neubert’s “They Bury You in White” and Megan Kearney’s “Regards to the Golbin King” are close ties for second place.

A mix of short nonfiction and comics (“They Bury You in White” and “Regards to the Golbin King” both fall into this category), the many and varied contributions to The Secret Loves of Geek Girls tackle a wide range of topics, from falling in love with fictional characters to navigating the perils and pitfalls of dating, both on- and offline; exploring and defining one’s sexuality in the pre- and post-digital age; surviving and thriving after a divorce; bonding over shared passions; and the perks of platonic relationships and girly gossip.

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: The Meaning of Michelle: 16 Writers on the Iconic First Lady and How Her Journey Inspires Our Own, Veronica Chambers, ed. (2017)

Friday, January 13th, 2017

A bittersweet love letter to the outgoing FLOTUS.

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through NetGalley. Trigger warning for discussions of racism and misogyny.)

Barack and Michelle Obama served this country for two terms as President and First Lady of the United States of America. Imagine that. America shaped in the image of a black man—with a black woman by his side. Even after eight years of watching them daily in the press, the fact that the most powerful man in the world is a Black man is still breathtaking to me. The fact that he goes home to a tight-knit, loving family headed by a Black woman is soul-stirring. That woman is Michelle. Michelle! That name now carries a whole world of meaning. And a whole world of memory. And a whole world of a magic.

(“Preface,” Ava Duvernay)

Thank you, Michelle, for showing a generation of women, including me and my daughter, what it means to dwell in possibility.

(“Acknowledgements,” Veronica Chambers)

For all of my adult life – the entire time I’ve been paying attention to politics, really – I’ve vastly preferred our president’s wives over their husbands: Hillary Clinton, Laura Bush, and now Michelle Obama. (The same will probably hold true of Melania, but it’s an impossibly low bar, okay.) No matter their political allegiances, the FLOTUSes (FLOTI?) tend to be a least a shade more progressive than their men, especially when it comes to “women’s issues” like reproductive freedom. Not that they’re allowed to voice these views: American prefers its First Ladies be seen, not heard, functioning as little more than their husbands’ appendages or cheerleaders. “Stepford Wives-in-Chief,” Tiffany Dufu puts it. Remember how viciously then-FLOTUS Hillary was shot down for daring to advance health care reform?

Michelle Obama is in a league of her own, though. Like many Americans, I was captivated with her from Day 1. I loved that she refused to play the role of the bland, devoted wife; a blank canvas onto which Americans/voters could project their versions of ideal femininity. She spoke of Barack like he was a regular guy, rather than an up-and-coming rockstar politician. Yet it was evident that these two crazy kids were deeply in love. She (and her family) was a lightning rod for every bit of racist and sexist excrement the right could throw at her, yet Michelle handled it with grace and finesse. We watched as Lady O. – and her style – evolved from first to second term; she went from high-power lawyer to high-fashion mom, as described by Tanisha C. Ford (“She Slays”). She had fun, was comfortable in her skin, and was perfectly imperfect.

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: Difficult Women, Roxane Gay (2017)

Monday, January 9th, 2017

Stories about survival; stories we need now more than ever.

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free ARC for review through Netgalley. Trigger warning for domestic violence, child abuse, and rape.)

There once was a man. There is always some man.

You too have always been popular. I have seen the evidence in your childhood bedroom, meticulously preserved by your mother. Even now, you have packs of men following you, willing to make you their strange god. That is the only thing about you that scares me.

“I want a boy who will bring me a baby arm.”

“Honey, you’re not crazy. You’re a woman.”

Difficult Women brings together twenty-one short stories by Roxane Gay, all of which have previously been published elsewhere (or multiple elsewheres), most in slightly different forms and some under different titles. (I included the TOC at the bottom of this review; alternate titles are listed last, in parentheses.) However, the publications are so varied that it’s unlikely that you’ve seen, read, and/or own them all.

This is actually rather surprising to me, since the stories – published over a span of ~5 years – gel so well together. It really feels like each one was written specifically with this anthology in mind. The collection’s namesake, “Difficult Women,” perfectly encapsulates the spirit of the whole. Like the short story, this is book about loose women and frigid women; difficult women and crazy women; mothers and wives, daughters and dead girls. Women who have faced the unspeakable – rape and sexual assault; miscarriages or the death of a child; abuse and self-harm; alcoholism and alienation – and come out the other side. Not unscathed, but alive. These are stories of survival.

Usually I find anthologies to be somewhat uneven, but not so here. Every story grabs you by the heart and threatens to squeeze until it pops, right there in your chest cavity. Gay’s writing is raw and naked; grim, yet somehow, impossibly, imbued with hope. While some are straight-up contemporary, other tales are a strange, surreal mix of the real and unreal: In “I Am a Knife,” a woman fantasizes about cutting her twin’s fetus out of her body and transferring it to her own, the way she once did with the heart of a drunk driver who collided with their car, nearly killing her sister.

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: Slipping: Stories, Essays, & Other Writing, Lauren Beukes (2016)

Wednesday, November 30th, 2016

“I am fearfully and wonderfully made.”

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through NetGalley. Trigger warning for violence against women.)

a is for algebra

“It’s all equations,” she says. “It’s all explainable.” Like we could break down the whole universe into factors and exponents and multiples of x. Like there is no mystery to anything at all.

“Okay, what about love?” I shoot back, irritated at her practicality.

And she ripostes with: “Fine. xx + xy = xxx.”

She has to explain the bit about chromosomes. This is her idea of a dirty joke. Later, I wonder if this was also her idea of a come-on.

(“Alegbra”)

Don’t worry, she repeats, her back to him, laying out things with serrated edges and conducting pads and blunt wrenching teeth. You can’t dehumanize something that isn’t human.

(“Unaccounted”)

Pearl looks back at the protestors. One of the handwritten banners stays with her. “I am fearfully and wonderfully made,” it reads.

(“Slipping”)

I love Lauren Beukes, and I generally dig short stories – especially those belonging to the SF/dystopia genre. So I was pretty psyched to get my hands on an early copy of Slipping, Beukes’s very first collection of short fiction and non-fiction essays. (There’s also 2014’s Pop Tarts and Other Stories, which I’m not counting since it’s comprised of just three short stories – all of which appear here.)

Slipping starts off a little meh; not meh-bad, but meh-disappointing for a writer of this caliber. The titular “Slipping,” told from the POV of a sixteen-year-old girl who was recruited by investors and remade into a bio-engineered athlete after losing both legs in an accident, boasts some wonderful world-building – but the story’s religious aspects ultimately turned me off. Much to my relief, things start to pick up with the fourth story, “Branded” (corporate-sponsored nanotech) and mostly just get better from there.

The fiction generally has a science fiction/dystopian bent, with a few fantasy and contemporary pieces mixed in. There’s even a fairy tale of sorts: a modern-day retelling of “The Princess of the Pea” that’s both a critique of celebrity culture and an ode to female masturbation that (spoiler alert!) is all kinds of awesome. While all are unique and imaginative, a few themes are common across many of the stories: transhumanism, e.g. through technological advancements in prosthetics, nanotech, neuroanatomy, etc.; an erosion of privacy/the rise in the surveillance state; and a rise in corporate control, most notably over our bodies and selves.

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks about Race, Jesmyn Ward (2016)

Friday, August 19th, 2016

You need to read this book.

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through NetGalley.)

[W]e are writing an epic wherein black lives carry worth, wherein black boys can walk to the store and buy candy without thinking they will die, wherein black girls can have a bad day and be mouthy without being physically assaulted by a police officer, wherein cops see twelve-year-old black boys playing with fake guns as silly kids and not homicidal maniacs, wherein black women can stop to ask for directions without being shot in the face by paranoid white homeowners. I burn, and I hope.

– Jesmyn Ward, Introduction

A friend recently told me that when she gave birth to her son, before naming him, before even nursing him, her first thought was, I have to get him out of this country.

– Claudia Rankine, “The Condition of Black Life Is One of Mourning”

Anthologies tend to be pretty hit or miss with me, but the eighteen pieces in The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks about Race are uniformly excellent. There wasn’t a single poem or essay that I didn’t love. I devoured the whole thing in most of an afternoon, and was left hungering for more.

Inspired by James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time – “A Letter to My Nephew” in particular – Jesmyn Ward compiled a collection of essays on race by and for a new generation. The result is eclectic and surprising and just straight-up breathtaking.

I wasn’t sure what to expect – a more academic bent, perhaps? – but in this case, I think my preconceptions were a positive, because The Fire This Time upended them in the best way possible. Through a mix of poems, personal essays, letters, and creative nonfiction, the contributors explore a wide range of topics, both expected and not: the black immigrant experience; police brutality and the Black Lives Matter movement; walking while black; reassessing one’s long held identity in the wake of contemporary DNA testing; the legacy of slavery in New England; depression and loneliness as a consequence of cultural disconnectedness; constructing composite fathers; metafiction in hip hop; and “artistic rituals of labor,” from grandmamas to Outkast.

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: The Geek Feminist Revolution, Kameron Hurley (2016)

Monday, June 27th, 2016

Tell Them Stories

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through NetGalley.)

As a writer, it’s my job to construct new normals for people. It’s my job to show folks what’s possible. It’s my job to rewrite narratives. Because we can change these narratives. We can choose better ones. We can tear it all down, and build it up again. It makes us the most poorly paid but most powerful people in the world. And I take that power seriously.

The only time I’ve ever been praised for my weight repeatedly was when I was dying.

— 3.5 stars —

Award-winning science fiction writer Kameron Hurley has been blogging about feminism and pop culture for more than a decade. The Geek Feminist Revolution is a collection of 35 of her essays on feminism, writing, and geek culture, with 9 all-new pieces written specifically for this anthology. (See the TOC below for a full list.) The pieces are grouped into four sections: Level Up, which explores the craft (and challenges) of writing; Geek, which interrogates a variety of media, from the specific (Die Hard, Mad Max, True Detective) to the more general (toxic masculinity, Strong Female Protagonists, the gendered reception of unlikable protagonists); Let’s Get Personal, in which Hurley’s life serves as a sort of microcosm for the issues she explores here; and Revolution, which calls on authors and readers alike to create a more equal and just world.

The essays are enjoyable, engaging – and highly entertaining. Hurley has a brash, no-bullshit writing style that’s perfectly suited to the subject matter. While the overall collection doesn’t seem to have a unifying theme (“geek culture” is quite broad), the power of stories to shape our world is a thread that she picks up time and again.

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: The Unfinished World: And Other Stories, Amber Sparks (2016)

Friday, February 12th, 2016

The Unfinished World: Sorrowful to the End

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free e-ARC through Edelweiss in exchange for an honest review. Trigger warning for rape.)

It just goes to show, people said later. It just goes to show how fairy tales always stop too soon in the telling. Others said it was never a fairy tale at all. Anyone could see that. They were all too lovely, too obviously doomed. But the wisest said, that’s exactly what a fairy tale is. The happily-ever-after is just a false front. It hides the hungry darkness inside.

Sometimes he wonders if it would really be so bad, letting people flood into history like a tidal wave and sweep away the worst of it. Sure, the paradoxes would destroy us, but so what? Did a world that let happen the Holocaust and Hiroshima and the Trail of Tears and Stalin and Genghis Khan and Pol Pot deserve to be spared?

Every death is a love story. It’s the goodbye part, but the love is still there, wide as the world.

When I requested a copy of The Unfinished World: And Other Stories on Edelweiss, I thought I was getting the debut effort of io9 editor Charlie Jane Anders. I managed to confuse All the Birds in the Sky and The Unfinished World, probably on account of the covers are vaguely similar and both books come out the same week. But no matter: The Unfinished World was on my wishlist too, and even though it wasn’t quite what I was expecting – it’s a little more surreal than SF, time travel notwithstanding – it’s an enchanting collection of stories just the same.

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: The Gods of HP Lovecraft, edited by Aaron J. French (2015)

Friday, January 15th, 2016

A Solid Collection of Stories Rooted in the Lovecraft Mythos

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free copy of this book for review through Library Thing’s Early Reviewers program. Trigger warning for rape and animal abuse.)

Confession time: I’m not a fan of H.P. Lovecraft. I’m not not a fan, I just know very little about his work. Most of my limited knowledge comes from the recent World Fantasy Awards controversy (which, I must admit, doesn’t exactly make me want to run out and buy copy of The Complete Works of H.P. Lovecraft), and that one episode of Supernatural (which, as it just so happened, TNT reran this morning. Serendipity!)

I am, however, I huge Seanan McGuire fangirl, and it’s her contribution that sold me on this anthology. (Her short stories in particular are phenomenal, and “Down, Deep Down, Below the Waves” is no exception.) I’m glad, too, because The Gods of HP Lovecraft is a pretty solid collection of science fiction stories. As you can see, I rated everything a 4 or 5, which is pretty impressive; usually anthologies are more of a mixed bag for me. The individual summaries are relatively vague and un-spoilery, but please skip them if you’d rather read this book with fresh eyes.

(More below the fold…)

Mini-Review: Men Explain Things to Me, Rebecca Solnit (2014)

Monday, October 26th, 2015

#YesAllWomen

four out of five stars

(Trigger warning for violence, including rape and domestic violence.)

When I first heard of Men Explain Things to Me, I giddily mistook it for an extended essay on mansplaining. Alas, it’s actually a collection of nine previously published essays, kicked off by the book’s namesake, “Men Explain Things to Me” (which inspired the term “mansplaining,” though Solnit didn’t herself coin it; mainsplaining, of course, eventually led to whitesplaining and Damonsplaining). Any disappointment I might have initially felt was quickly assuaged by the general awesomeness of Solnit’s other pieces.

Nearly all of the essays are loosely organized around women’s rights and feminism; deconstructing and dismantling the patriarchy, if you will. Solnit masterfully examines and connects myriad topics: rape culture; the epidemic of violence against women; the very real threat that “gay marriage” poses to the unequal power dynamics inherent in traditional marriage; how Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s (“alleged”) assault of Nafissatou Diallo could be read as a microcosm of the IMF’s predatory abuse of power; the disappearing of women from history, from genealogy, from public conversations and places; the voluntary policing of women that so many men (and not a few women) eagerly engage in; and the power of language to name, shame, and effect change. Especially timely (sadly, as always) is her discussion of toxic masculinity and mass shootings, in reference to the 2014 Isla Vista killings.

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: Falling in Love with Hominids, Nalo Hopkinson (2015)

Friday, August 14th, 2015

Falling in love with hominids – despite our many failings.

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through NetGalley. Trigger warning for sexual assault. The individual story summaries contain general plot details and/or vague spoilers. If you’re rather approach the collection with unsullied eyes, skip these.)

Millie liked sleeping with the air on her skin, even though it was dangerous out of doors. It felt more dangerous indoors, what with everyone growing up.
(“The Easthound”)

“Who knows what a sea cucumber thinks of the conditions of its particular stretch of ocean floor?”
(“Message in a Bottle”)

Confession time: This is my very first time reading Nalo Hopkinson, despite the fact that I’ve collected several of her novels over the years. (So many books, so little time!) Given how much I enjoyed Falling in Love with Hominids, I aim to rectify this ASAP.

Falling in Love with Hominids is Hopkinson’s second collection of short fiction, published some fourteen years after Skin Folk. She’s also edited/contributed to four others: Whispers from the Cotton Tree Root: Caribbean Fabulist Fiction (2000); Mojo: Conjure Stories (2003); So Long Been Dreaming: Postcolonial Science Fiction & Fantasy (2004); and Tesseracts Nine: New Canadian Speculative Fiction (2005). Born in Jamaica and raised in a middle/creative class literary environment, Hopkinson moved to Toronto at the age of sixteen and currently lives in Riverside, California. Her work often draws on Caribbean history and language, and exhibits wonderful diversity: gender, race, sexuality, nationality, you name it.

These hallmarks are on full display in Falling in Love with Hominids, which features eighteen new and previously published tales. An eclectic mix of fantasy, science fiction, magical realism, fairy tale retellings, and the outright absurd, the stories found here are both highly entertaining and marvelously profound. The protagonists grapple with a variety of issues, from the mundane to the otherworldly: navigating the perilous landscape of adolescence; the politics of black hair; sexual abuse and assault; racism, misogyny, and homophobia; grief and loss; what it means to be human (and whether this status can even be relegated to humans); and the possibilities of alien visitation and botanic sentience.

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: Waiting for the Machines to Fall Asleep, Peter Öberg, ed. (2015)

Wednesday, July 29th, 2015

A Mostly-Solid Batch of Swedish Speculative Fiction with a Few Standouts

three out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic copy of this book for review from the publisher. Trigger warning for rape and violence.)

Short story collections are always a little tricky to rate, especially when there are a number of different contributors. In Waiting for the Machines to Fall Asleep, there are exactly twenty-six. The unifying factor? All are Swedish authors, and the anthology has a speculative fiction/scifi/fantastical bent. Keeping with the title, most of the contributions are science fiction, or at least science fiction-y, with robots and AI figuring into many of the plots. As promised, steampunk horses (in an old timey Western setting, no less!) and sassy goblins also make an appearance.

The result is a mostly-solid mix of speculative fiction, though the odd fantasy/fantastical stories felt a bit out of place and disrupted the overall feel of the collection. As usually happens with anthologies, I enjoyed some stories more than others; there are a few that I absolutely fell in love with, and will no doubt revisit again in the future (“The Rats” in particular) and, on the opposite end of the spectrum, I DNF’ed two of the tales (“Melody of the Yellow Bard,” which is way too wordy and could benefit from a more ruthless round of editing; and “The Philosopher’s Stone,” which seems like a perfectly fine story but just wasn’t for me).

Many of the pieces fall somewhere in the middle, with quite a few 3- and 4-star ratings, and a smattering of 2-stars.

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: Bloodchild and Other Stories, Octavia E. Butler (2005)

Wednesday, March 4th, 2015

These stories will burrow into your brain like a grub into an achti carcass.

five out of five stars

(Trigger warning for rape and sexual/reproductive exploitation.)

The truth is, I hate short story writing. Trying to do it has taught me much more about frustration and despair than I ever wanted to know.

Yet there is something seductive about writing short stories. It looks so easy. You come up with an idea, then ten, twenty, perhaps thirty pages later, you’ve got a finished story.

Well, maybe.

Don’t let Butler’s apparent distaste for short stories fool you; many of the stories collected here are shiny little masterpieces in their own right.

(…although I’d be lying if I said that I wouldn’t also love to see several of the stories fleshed out into full-length novels; “Bloodchild,” “Speech Sounds,” and “Amnesty,” I’m looking at you!)

The second edition of Bloodchild and Other Stories includes seven short stories (five previously published, two brand spanking new) and two essays (both reprints). While the essays offer advice to aspiring writers as well as insights into Butler’s childhood (“Shyness is shit.” might be the realest, rawest sentence in the whole damn book), the stories are that wonderfully creepy, complex, unsettling, and ultimately deeply profound brand of SF/F that I’ve come to associate with Butler: earth-based worlds characterized by rapidly crumbling dystopias, or alien societies in which the human survivors are forced into untenable compromises with their extraterrestrial saviors/overlords. Each piece is followed by a brief (but enlightening) Afterward penned by the author herself.

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: A Murder of Crows: Seventeen Tales of Monsters and the Macabre, DeAnna Knippling (2014)

Monday, January 19th, 2015

Stories within Stories

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free e-copy of this book for review though Library Thing’s Member Giveaways program. Also, trigger warning for rape.)

It was we crows who took your daughter, in case you were wondering. She didn’t run away. We had–I had–been watching her for some time, listening to her tell stories in the grass behind the house. She would sit near the chicken coop and watch the white chickens pick at the dirt, pulling up fat worms and clipping grasshoppers out of the air as they jumped toward the fields.

Some of them were good stories. Some of them were bad. But that’s what decided it, even more than any issue of mercy or salvation or anything else. Crows are, for one, possessive of stories. And also by then I had pecked almost all the elders into coming to listen to her at least once, except Facunde, who was then mad and responded to nobody’s pecking, not that I had had the courage to exactly take my beak to her. “She is like a daughter to me,” I had pled with the others. “She listens.” They laughed at me, they rattled their beaks, they came and heard her and were convinced, or at least bullied into pretending they were convinced.

We took her on the same cold winter day that you traded your son to the fairies, the wind blowing in cold gray threads, ruffling our feathers. It had snowed a few days before that, a storm that had killed your husband, or so it was said. The wind had snatched the snow out onto the prairie, hiding it in crevices. It had been a dry year, and even though it was still too cold to melt the snow, the thirsty dirt still found places to tuck it away in case of a thaw.

I stamped my feet on a sleeping branch while the others argued. Some argued that we should wait for spring. So many things are different, in the spring. But old Loyolo insisted: no, if we were to take the child, we would have to take her then and there: there had been at least one death already, and no one had heard the babe’s cry for hours.

We covered the oak trees, thousands of us, so many that the branches creaked and swayed under our weight. I don’t know if you noticed us, before it was too late. You were, it is to be admitted, busy.

The girl played on the swings, rocking herself back and forth in long, mournful creaks. She wore a too-small padded jacket and a dress decorated in small flowers. She was so clean that she still smelled of soap. Her feet were bare under their shoes, the skin scabbed and dry, almost scaly. Her wrists were pricked with gooseflesh, and her hair whipped in thin, colorless threads across her face as the wind caught it. The house had the smell of fresh death, under the peeling paint and the dusty windows, and seemed to murmur with forgotten languages, none of which were languages of love or tenderness. Afternoon was sinking into evening. The girl’s breath smelled like hunger.

“Now!” called old Loyolo, at some signal that not even I could have told you. And thousands of birds swept out of the trees toward her. From the middle of it, I can tell you, it seemed a kind of nightmare. Wings in my face, claws in my feathers. The sun was temporarily snuffed out, it was a myriad of bright slices reflected off black wings…

DeAnna Knippling’s A Murder of Crows is, at its heart, a love letter to the art of storytelling. A collection of short stories which forms the backbone of a larger narrative, the sixteen tales here – macabre, horrific, sometimes surreal – are shared with a grieving young girl by the murder (flock) of crows who rescued her from her wicked, murderous mother. (Crows being both connoisseurs and collectors of the oral tradition, natch.) Their story, told between the lines and in the margins of the other sixteen tales, is the seventeenth piece in this delightfully dark anthology.

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: Fist of the Spider Woman: Tales of Fear and Queer Desire, Amber Dawn, ed. (2009)

Monday, January 12th, 2015

“My terror is terror’s ubiquity.”

three out of five stars

(Trigger warning for rape. Also, some of the individual story descriptions may contain vague spoilers. Read at your own risk!)

In Fist of the Spider Woman, fifteen daring authors frankly ask themselves, “What am I afraid of?” The aim is not to quell our fears, but to embrace them. In doing so, their work takes on an entirely different form than the familiar thrills of contemporary Hollywood horror films.

Between the blurbs on the back cover and the wonderfully creepy artwork (by Julie Morstad) gracing its front, Fist of the Spider Woman is not at all what I expected. For starters, most of the stories aren’t particularly scary. With a few notable exceptions, you won’t find many supernatural baddies or serial slashers here. The fears explored within these pages tend towards the mundane as opposed to the otherworldly: Carrying on after the death of a loved one. Embracing vulnerability by learning to trust others. Accepting help. Being caught by karma. Our culture of fear. All of which is sprinkled with a liberal helping of sex. In fact, many of the stories in Fist read like erotica over horror (e.g., “Every Dark Desire” – vampire dominatrix porn; “Slug” – worm porn; “In Your Arms Forever” – ghost porn).

Not that there’s anything wrong with that; it’s just not what I thought I was getting when I picked this anthology up. (Though I must admit that many of the rape scenes turned my stomach; not for the mere presence of rape, which is disturbing enough on its own, but because the victims often come to enjoy their non-consensual abuse.)

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: Out of Tune, Jonathan Maberry, ed. (2014)

Monday, December 1st, 2014

A Solid Collection of Short Horror/Fantasy

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I receive a free e-copy of this book for review through Library Thing’s Early Reviewers program. Also, the story summaries may include spoilers, so skip them if you’d rather read the anthology with fresh eyes. Trigger warning for rape.)

Confession time. I requested a review copy of Out of Tune based solely on the merits of one of its contributors: Seanan McGuire. I devoured the Newsflesh trilogy (penned under the pseudonym Mira Grant) and thought that her contribution (“Each to Each”) was the single best thing in Lightspeed’s special “Women Destroy SF” issue (a magazine filled with awesome things, mind you). I recognized some of the other names, but no one struck a chord like McGuire. Additionally, my interest in old ballads pretty much begins and ends with covers recorded by my favorite folk singers – Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Woody Guthrie. I didn’t really have any expectations, good or bad, for this collection.

Overall, I came away pleasantly surprised. The fourteen stories in Out of Tune run the gamut: there’s lots of horror and fantasy, peppered with a little romance and some good, old-fashioned ghost stories. Some, like “Wendy, Darling,” incorporate elements of other, much-loved tales, while others have an air of historical fiction; here I’m thinking of “In Arkham Town, Where I Was Bound,” which features Edgar Allen Poe as the incidental narrator. The authors’ respective senses of humor – whether wry, playful, or just downright wicked – are evident throughout. A few of the stories are remarkably poignant and painfully beautiful; “Driving Jenny Home,” I’m looking at you. As for the Big Bads, you’ll spot a number of usual suspects – ghosts, demons, mermaids, and wicked women – as well as villains less common to ballads, such as gods from Norse mythology.

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: War Stories: New Military Science Fiction, Jaym Gates & Andrew Liptak, eds. (2014)

Monday, November 3rd, 2014

Buy it for “War Dog.” (Seriously!)

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic copy for review through Library Thing’s Early Reviewers program.)

War Stories is pretty hefty military SF anthology that boasts a wonderfully diverse group of authors, including veterans and active duty military personnel. The twenty-three stories in this timely collection tackle contemporary issues (drones and robotization of war; privacy rights; colonialism; PTSD) with an eye to the future. The result is a rather imaginative glimpse into the future of warfare, and the impact these changes (and sometimes, lack thereof) have on all those involved: soldiers, civilians, robots, clones, and, yes, even aliens.

As is usually the case with anthologies, the stories were rather hit and miss for me. Michael Barretta’s “War Dog” is easily my favorite of the bunch. It’s difficult to boil this masterpiece down into a pithy little sound bite, but let’s just say that it’s not what I expected. In the future Christian States of America, some veterans are welcomed back into the fold (assuming they’re not atheists, heathens, or homosexuals), while others – those having undergone more extreme genetic modifications – are put down like the dogs they’re widely assumed to be. “War Dog” is a weird, bittersweet, ill-fated romance between two veterans on different sides of the human/animal divide. It’s lovely and heartfelt and will hit you right in the feels. (Trigger warning for rape.)

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: And They Lived: A Short Story Anthology Sabrina Zbasnik (2014)

Wednesday, October 29th, 2014

Love the Feminist Fairy Tale Retellings!

three out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic copy of this book for review though Library Thing’s Member Giveaways program. Also, minor spoiler alert for the story summaries below. I tried not to include any major reveals, but if you’d rather approach this anthology with fresh eyes, skip the play-by-plays.)

The description for And They Lived – a collection of nine short stories by Sabrina Zbasnik – sucked me in immediately: “And They Lived isn’t just a dark turn and modernization of the fairy tales. It gives power back to the powerless in the classic stories. Women are no longer the victims and their story doesn’t end with true love’s kiss.” Feminist retellings of fairy tale classics? Sign me up!

While the book’s synopsis says that there are eight stories included here, the review copy I received from the author actually contains nine tales:

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: Forgotten Tigers and Other Stories, Annie Bellet (2014)

Monday, July 7th, 2014

For the Light-Bringers and Mist Dwellers

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic copy of this book for review through Library Thing’s Member Giveaway program.)

Lightbringing tigers and ghost lions. Serpent-boys and magic-sniffing rats. Disembodied alien consciousnesses and genocidal spider aliens. Annie Bellet’s imagination is populated by all manner of strange and exotic creatures – many of them dangerous, others surprisingly not so; in Forgotten Tigers and Other Stories, she conjures them forth, breathing life into each before letting them skitter across the pages and into her audience’s imaginations.

An eclectic mix of science fiction, fantasy, and dystopias (occasionally all at once), Forgotten Tigers is comprised of ten short stories: seven of them brand-new, three previously published. (Though this is my first time reading each one.)

Forgotten Tigers – Easie unexpectedly stumbles upon an alien scout while scavenging in the dumpsters behind the Dupigny Technical College. When it tosses him aside like just another piece of garbage, something in Easie snaps – and he fires the opening shot in what might be a intergalactic incident.

The Crimson Rice Job – Imagine a nutritionally superior rice that’s so easy to grow that a gentleman farmer would be hard-pressed to kill it with neglect. Now imagine that all the patents are held by mega-corps whose bottom lines could only be hurt by a self-perpetuating rice seed. How far would you go to get this much-needed crop into the hands of small farmers in countries racked by poverty and hunger?

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: Snow and Shadow, Dorothy Tse (2014)

Friday, June 13th, 2014

“This palace is a depraved place.”

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic copy of this book for review from the publisher.)

Dorothy Tse’s Snow and Shadow is like nothing you’ve ever read. Fantastical, surreal, and full of unexpected gore, the stories found within these pages are as odd as they are beautifully written. While some of the pieces start off with both feet seemingly planted firmly in this world (“in a vein of apparently innocent realism,” to quote translator Nicky Harman) before veering off into another, dreamlike dimension, others flaunt their peculiarities from the opening sentences. As if the unusual and absurd plots aren’t enough, Tse creates further distance by giving the stories’ protagonists impersonal names: some are just “the boy” or “the girl,” while others are named after objects (“Leaf” and “Knife”) or simply referred to by letters (“J,” “K,” and “Q” are especially popular choices). While some of the pieces are a little out there for my taste, there’s no denying that Tse is a gifted and masterful storyteller.

The collection is comprised of thirteen stories:

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: Spring Fevers, Matt Sinclair, ed. (2012)

Monday, June 9th, 2014

A Solid Collection

four out of five stars

(Trigger warning for discussions of rape.)

One in a series of seasonally-themed short fiction anthologies, the stories found in Spring Fevers revolve around the idea of spring: “Spring is the time of new beginnings, new life, new love. And fevers can result in pain, unexpected visions, and an appreciation for health and normalcy.” Relationships take center stage: from the shy first bloom of new love, with all the exciting possibilities it entails, to love long since withered, left for dead, and buried. Relationships between parents and children, husbands and wives, ideas and their creators, the government and the governed, the oppressed and their oppressors; the stories run the gamut, and span multiple genres: fantasy, supernatural, science fiction, historical fiction, contemporary fiction.

Spring Fevers first caught my attention because it includes a contribution by Mindy McGinnis. I absolutely adore her debut novel, Not a Drop to Drink, and hoped that “First Kiss” would help to tide me over until the release of In a Handful of Dust this fall. A supernatural rape revenge story, “First Kiss” is by far my favorite: creepy, unexpected, and very satisfying. At the current going price of zero dollars, you should check out Spring Fevers for this one alone.

(More below the fold…)