Book Review: Best Vegan Science Fiction & Fantasy of 2016 edited by B. Morris Allen (2017)

Thursday, July 13th, 2017

They’re Good Stories, Brent.

four out of five stars

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

I hate to think how things would have been if that dog had gone to a shelter. I wonder what the workers and volunteers would have done when the little guy started to expand like unspooling Christmas lights, impossibly bright, tangled in the shape of dog. It hurts my heart to picture that loving collection of cosmic bodies crouching in a kennel.

(“My Dog is the Constellation Canis Major” by Jarod K. Anderson)

Trans-human. That’s what I’m called, somehow. The word never felt right though, then least of all. Trans is too high, too grand for someone so cobbled together. So is human, I suppose. If I get hurt, I’m as like to spill oil as blood. That’s why the witch didn’t see me. She didn’t see a person, she just saw parts.

(“Strix Antiqua” by Hamilton Perez)

When I spotted this anthology of “vegan” science fiction and fantasy stories on NetGalley, I knew I had to have it. Though I love both genres, the animal exploitation that seems ubiquitous in each makes active compartmentalization while reading a must. (Though you could say the same of all literature, fwiw.) Vegan SF/F? Sign me up!

Alas, Best Vegan Science Fiction & Fantasy of 2016 isn’t quite what I envisioned. Instead of, say, stories featuring vegan protagonists, plots that involve daring animal rescues, or narratives that hinge on animal sentience or human/nonhuman kinship, the stories contained within these pages are “vegan” more for what you don’t see than the things you do. There are no scenes of animal cruelty, exploitation, or speciesism here. Often there aren’t any animals at all!

Not that this is necessarily a bad thing! On the contrary, some of the stories are downright magical. To no one’s surprise, my favorite was the sole story that did center a nonhuman in its narrative. In “My Dog is the Constellation Canis Major,” the narrator inherits a dog from his eccentric yet beloved grandmother; a creature who literally shines with love, and one the grieving guardian must ultimately set free.

I also adored Hamilton Perez’s “Strix Antiqua,” in which speciesism (automatonophobia? robophobia? technophobia?) proves to be the evil witch’s downfall. You might look at “Strix Antiqua” as vegan in the larger sense, e.g., in that it promotes compassion and respect for all animals, including those of the human variety. (Or, to expand the circle even further, all sentient beings, including those that are non-organic.) Likewise, “Closed Circuit” has a bit of a social justice bent, as the settlers of an abandoned mining colony fight for their freedom on a hostile planet/in a hostile world.

“Murder on the Adriana” is also worth a mention, if only because it brought to mind one of my favorite shows, Joss Whedon’s Firefly. (That one episode with Mal and Zoey’s war buddy Tracey in particular, which has forever earned a special place in my heart.)

The book ends on almost as strong a note as it begins, with Kelly Sandoval’s “Small Magics” – a twist on the trope of a gifted child leaving home to save the world. A mother’s love means knowing when to hold tight to your magical little munchkin…and when it’s time to send him out into the world to forge his own path.

Overall, this is a satisfying (if short!) collection of SF/F stories that won’t make animal lovers cringe with horror (or even just disapproval). Animals aren’t always introduced into the stories – but when they are, it’s with kindness and respect.

(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: Children of the New World: Stories, Alexander Weinstein (2016)

Friday, September 23rd, 2016

“a comeback story without a comeback”

five out of five stars

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

We were like babies. Like Adam and Eve, some said. We reached out toward one another to see how skin felt; we let our neighbors’ hands run across our arms. In this world, we seemed to understand, we were free to experience a physical connection that we’d always longed for in the real world but had never been able to achieve. Who can blame us for being reckless?

(“Children of the New World”)

Publicly, we sold memories under Quimbly, Barrett & Woods, but when it was just the three of us, working late into the night, we thought of ourselves as mapmakers. […] Here was the ocean, here the ships, here the hotel, here the path that led to town, here the street vendors, here the memories of children we never had and parents much better than the ones we did. And far out there was the edge of the world.

(“The Cartographers”)

It’s not often that I’m so truly and hopelessly blown away by a collection of short stories. Anthologies with multiple contributors are almost always a little choppy, and even those written by a single author tend to be a mixed bag. But Alexander Weinstein? He works some serious magic in Children of the New World.

The thirteen stories found within these pages are beautiful, imaginative, and deeply unsettling. Together, they create a portrait of a future beholden to technology: where consumers willingly and happily abandon memories based on fact in favor kinder, gentler fictions; where humans rarely leave the virtual world, let alone their houses; where people fornicate like mad but reproduce through cloning – and sometimes even programming. Where lovers can peel back all their layers – metaphorically and literally – and grant their partners access to every fleeting thought, emotion, and memory. Where even the apocalypse is powerless to break the hold that mere things – Lego toys and Kitchenaid mixers – exert over us.

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: Some Possible Solutions, Helen Phillips (2016)

Monday, May 30th, 2016

Tales With Teeth

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free ARC for review through LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers program.)

Once something I wrote made the judge of a contest indignant. He wrote, “This is something that this woman should share with her husband alone, if with anyone, and probably not even with him.”

If there’s one passage that best encapsulates Some Possible Solutions: Stories, it would be this.

Helen Phillips’s second collection of short fiction is vulgar, imposing, and (at times) weirdly funny: all of which I mean as a compliment. Phillips sees your appeals to smile and act like a lady and raises them with the shocker – flashed while sporting an oh-so-snarky smirk, of course.

Despite (or perhaps because of) the author’s penchant for bodily fluids and other gross things (“Flesh and Blood,” I’m looking at you!), the eighteen stories in Some Possible Solutions deal with Very Adult Matters: marriage and parenthood; growing up and growing apart; watching your parents age, sometimes ahead of their time, and the cosmic betrayal this entails; loneliness and (too much) togetherness; and sometimes smothering societal norms.

While I found the collection entertaining enough, I often felt left in the dust, unsure of what to think or how to interpret what I’d just read. Many of these stories are downright surreal. Usually when reading anthologies I’ll take notes, assigning a starred rating to each piece and summarizing it briefly to help with the coming review. My notes for Some Possible Solutions? Kind of a mess. See, e.g., “Game,” “How I Began To Bleed Again After Six Alarming Months Without,” and “The Worst,” the summaries of which read “I have no idea!,” “WEIRD.,” and “WTF,” respectively. I wasn’t even sure how to rate a few of the stories. That said, I didn’t give any story less than three stars, and even these are enjoyable reads.

(More below the fold…)

Mini-Review: The Mermaid Girl: A Story, Erika Swyler (2016)

Friday, May 27th, 2016

A short prequel story to The Book of Speculation.

four out of five stars

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

The problem with stealing the magician’s assistant from a carnival was that you were always waiting for her to disappear. […]

The problem with marrying the mermaid girl from the carnival was knowing that one day she’d swim away.

— 3.5 stars —

Simon and his younger sister Enola were just kids when their mother drowned. A former circus performer – a mermaid, in fact – Paulina bid her children farewell one day, walked the steps from their crumbling, 1700s colonial house down to the beach, and continued right on into the Atlantic Ocean.

Years later, Simon – now a librarian at Napawset library – comes into possession of a mysterious ledger dating back to the 1700s. His grandmother’s name, written all the way in the back, sets him on a journey through his family’s past – seemingly set on a collision course with Enola’s future. Simon makes a sinister discovery: all of the women in his matrilineal line die. They die young, but not before having a daughter; they die of drowning, even though all are mermaids; and they die of apparent suicides, even where no clear history of mental illness exists. Most shockingly of all, they all perish in the same way on the same day: July 24th.

The story begins in late June, and Enola has just announced that she’s returning home after a six-year absence.

(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-Reviews: Glitches and The Queen’s Army, Marissa Meyer (2011/2012)

Friday, October 16th, 2015

four out of five stars

Recently orphaned in a hover accident, we’re introduced to eleven-year-old Cinder as she travels from France to New Beijing. She is accompanied by her adoptive father Garan, a kindly but preoccupied scientist. The surgery that saved her life also left her with two synthetic limbs, and a netscreen where her memories should be. Cinder is a cyborg, in a world that doesn’t think too highly of them. (In a word, cyborgs are considered property.) Shortly after her arrival, Garan falls ill with Letumosis, leaving Cinder in the “care” of her cruel and bitter stepmother Adri, who already has two young daughters to care for.

Glitches is a nice way to kill time while you wait not-so-patiently for the next book in the series to come out. While enjoyable, it doesn’t really tell us anything that we don’t already know or can’t otherwise infer from Cinder. For example, I had hoped that we’d get a glimpse of Adri before she turned evil – that smiling, happy woman Cinder marvels over in the family’s early photographs – but not so much. The story gives a little context for Adri’s unhappiness – Garan is frequently absent, frittering time away on useless projects as the family slips further and further into debt – but at the end of the day, she’s still a nasty bigot. Ditto: Pearl, who’s already inherited her mother’s general awfulness.

Though it’s a prequel to Cinder – Book #1 in Marissa Meyer’s The Lunar Chronicles series – Glitches is probably best read after Cinder.

(This review is also available on Library Thing and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: nEvermore!: Tales of Murder, Mystery & the Macabre, Nancy Kilpatrick & Caro Soles, eds. (2015)

Wednesday, August 19th, 2015

There’s a piece by 16-year-old Margaret Atwood! Eeep!

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through Library Thing’s Early Reviewers program. Trigger warning for rape and other forms of violence, as well as transphobic and homophobic bullying and suicide.)

I consider myself a bit of a Poe fangirl. Not to the tune of being able to reenact entire scenes from The Tomb of Ligeia or keeping a raven as a pet; but as in the first (and only!) gift my father every personally picked out for me was a leather-bound collection of Poe’s complete works (I’m vegan now, but I keep it around for sentimental reasons) and I might, one day, name one of my rescue dogs Annabel Lee. It’s fair to say that I’m interested, but not obsessed.

So when I spotted nEvermore! in Library Thing’s July batch, it was Poe’s name that grabbed by attention – but Margaret Atwood’s that really sealed the deal. If I’m a bit of a Poe fangirl, then I’m freaking Annie Wilkes when it comes to Atwood. I exaggerate, but not by much.

Edited by Nancy Kilpatrick and Caro Soles, nEvermore!: Tales of Murder, Mystery & the Macabre features twenty-two stories that are inspired by Poe; contain elements from Poe’s oeuvre; and/or are retellings of his stories. Some are more modern takes on Poe, while others employ similar language and have the same weirdly sinister vibe. If you’re a hardcore Poe fan, probably you’ll get more out of the stories than the casual or non-fan; there’s a lot of name-dropping, as well as references to real, historical events from Poe’s life. However, I wouldn’t limit the audience just to those familiar with Poe; many of the stories are solid enough to stand on their own. Bonus points: Each story is prefaced with a brief introduction by the author(s), for added context.

(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: Unexpected Stories, Octavia E. Butler (2014)

Friday, March 6th, 2015

Two New-to-Us SF/F Short Stories from Octavia Butler

five out of five stars

Published eight years after her death, Unexpected Stories contains two all-new stories written by the great Octavia E. Butler: one fantasy, the other with more of a science fiction bent. As Walter Mosely observes in the forward, “In these stories we find two women faced with war or with peace. Carrying on their backs society’s future or its end.” One works within the confines of her position and the system which holds her there, while the other has escaped – albeit temporarily.

The beings in “A Necessary Being” are humanoid – but decidedly non-human. Their skin shifts and shimmers in shades of blue, signaling their emotions and intent; highest among them is the Hao, a pure blue being thought to be divine – a harbinger of good luck. Unfortunately, Hao are rare; occasionally a member of the judge caste may birth one “out of the air,” but more often they’re descended from a long line of Hao. Kohn tribes without a Hao are “tribes[s] in the process of dying.” This has caused a great many tribes to find a Hao wherever and however they can – even if this means kidnapping another tribe’s Hao, imprisoning him or her – sometimes crippling the captive Hao to prevent future escape.

(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…)

Mini-Review: Wolverton Station, Joe Hill (2014)

Wednesday, December 3rd, 2014

Cheeseburgers and Entitlement

five out of five stars

“I knew by the smell of you. You Americans have different accents – your southern accent, your California-surfer accent, your Noo Yawk accent.” Affecting an atrocious faux-Queens accent as he said it. “But you all smell the same.” […]

“What do we smell like?” Saunders asked.

“Like cheeseburgers,” said the wolf, and he barked with laughter. “And entitlement.”

When Saunders, aka “The Woodcutter” – a hatchet man for global coffee company Jimi Coffee – spots a wolf on the platform as his train pulls into Wolverton Station, he’s hardly surprised: his London trip has been plagued by protestors angered by the expansion of Jimi Coffee into British borders. Saunders’ M.O. is as ruthless as it is simple: find a quaint mom-n-pop store, set up shop nearby, and slowly but surely drive them out of business, even if it means running at a loss for months or even years. First Main Street, then the world. For this he earns a seven-figure salary, even as black and brown children labor in Jimi Coffee’s factories for mere pennies. The giant Uncle Sam effigy, complete with a larger-than-life, pink-as-a-baby’s-bottom penis? It comes with the ribbon cutting.

(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…)

Mini-Review: Thumprint: A Story, Joe Hill (2012)

Monday, November 17th, 2014

Cliffhanger ending is cliffhangery.

four out of five stars

You received a two-hundred-dollar-a-month bonus for every month you spent in the combat zone, and a part of her had relished the fact that her own life was valued so cheap. Mal would not have expected more.

But it didn’t occur to her, when she first learned she was going to Iraq, that they paid you that money for more than just the risk to your own life. It wasn’t a question of what could happen to you, but also a matter of what you might be asked to do to others. […]

Two hundred dollars a month was what it cost to make a torturer out of her.

After her tour in Iraq, PFC Mallory Grennan returned to her childhood home in Hammett, New York – newly empty since the death of her father, also a war veteran, just ten hours before she set foot back on US soil. Whereas her father had saved lives as a medic, Mal denigrated them: you wouldn’t know it from the photographs, but she was part of the naked pyramid fiasco at Abu Ghraib. And that appears to be the least of it: as a cop in the army, she regularly humiliated and assaulted suspected insurgents.

Now her past has followed her home, in the form of mysterious thumbprints, blank ink standing out starkly against white paper, left in her mailbox, under her door, on her windshield. Mal’s wronged so many people, both in the Middle East and right here at home; which one of them hates her so much that he wishes her dead?

(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…)

Mini-Review: “If at First…,” Peter F. Hamilton (2011)

Sunday, October 26th, 2014

A Crime Story with a Twist

four out of five stars

When tech genius Marcus Orthew’s Richmond research center is broken into by longtime stalker Toby Jensen, the case lands on the desk of Metropolitan Police Chief Detective David Lanson. Long since disillusioned by his job – which seems to be little more than filling out paperwork and verifying insurance claims – the Jensen case promises to be a career-changer. Literally.

In the interrogation room, Jensen makes some rather outlandish claims. Chief among them: that his boyhood friend Orthew is building a time machine. Instead of sending himself back in time, soon-to-be 50-year-old Orthew transmitted information – his consciousness – allowing his past self access to technologies and information that don’t yet exist. While the man is indeed a genius, his exorbitant wealth and success wouldn’t have been possible without the unfair advantages afforded him through time travel. And with continual use of the machine, he’s just a few buttons away from becoming a god among men.

While lieutenants Paul Mathews and Carmen Galloway dismiss Jensen as crazy, Lanson is unsettled by the circumstantial – yet creepy – evidence he brings to the table. Against his better judgment, Lanson gets a warrant for Orthew’s second lab…and that’s when his world goes sideways.

“If at First” is an enjoyable story with a couple of unexpected twists. What starts out as a tale from the hardboiled detective book quickly morphs into a science fiction/time travel story, and Hamilton continues to throw wrenches into Lanson’s narrative right up until the end. “If at First” would make a hella fun movie.

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

 

Comments (May contain spoilers!)

Diversity: None that I recall.

 

Mini-Review: “Last Woman On Earth,” C.V. Hunt (2013)

Saturday, October 25th, 2014

Perfectly Grim & Melancholic

four out of five stars

(Trigger warning for suicide and allusions to rape.)

“Last Woman On Earth” opens in a most unusual way: that is, with a brief primer on hanging techniques. The narrator is, as far as she can tell, the last woman on earth, and it’s a burden she’s long since tired of shouldering. She aims to kill herself, but not after enjoying one last sunrise and sunset from high atop the Seattle Space Needle.

In this distant future, the apocalypse arrives on the back of science: after generations of “pump[ing] their bodies full of contraceptives,” women’s reproductive systems have evolved into a state of persistent infertility. The declining birth rate affords men yet another excuse to exploit women – women’s bodies being the means of production, the very stuff of life – and women once again become the hunted. Kidnapping, rape, and human trafficking are at best overlooked in the name of saving the latest endangered species – us. So it’s no surprise when, during her final suicide trek to the West Coast, the narrator turns away from the only human she spots on the road – a man. It’s perilous to be a dwindling natural resource, after all.

For such a short story, “Last Woman On Earth” packs quite a punch. My only complaint? The author’s use of “rape” to denote something that is not rape (environmental degradation) – an especially egregious affront considering the theme of the story.

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)