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!)

Mini-Review: “Wakulla Springs,” Andy Duncan & Ellen Klages (2013)

Thursday, October 16th, 2014

Not What I Expected!

four out of five stars

It’s said that the Wakulla Springs wilderness – including the fifteen miles of caves which cuts through the water’s depths – is home to a menagerie of creatures, both real and mythical: black panthers, rhesus macaques, the Clearwater Monster, the Skunk Ape, and a thousand-pound hammerhead known as Old Hitler. Yet “Wakulla Springs” is less a tale about monsters than it is the journey of one family (and, by extension, the evolution of social mores and attitudes). Beginning with matriarch Mayola, the story of the Williamses is inexorably linked to the Springs: by culture, tradition, and superstition – and a series of cheesy Tarzan movies shot on location in Wakulla County, Florida.

The plot’s surprisingly sparse, especially given the story’s length and description. (“Wakulla Springs” reads more like a novella than a short story.) Each of the four parts or chapters focuses on a different member of the Williams clan, and his or her experiences with Wakulla Springs and the exclusive, “whites only” resort situated on its banks. Cultural signposts indicate each segment’s particular timeline; while African-American Mayola tries to pursue her education in the Jim Crow south, by story’s end we meet her granddaughter, Dr. Anna Williams – a multiracial woman of African-American, white, and Cuban descent – visiting Wakulla Springs during sabbatical to study the encroachment of invasive species into the area.

It makes for an enjoyable and engaging read, even if most of the “monsters” we meet are of the human and institutional variety.

P.S.: Free Cheetah!

(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: Yes! The protagonists are pulled from several generations of the Williams clan, all of whom are connected to Wakulla Springs and the “whites only” resort located on its banks: African-American Mayola tries to pursue her education in the Jim Crow south, and by story’s end we meet her granddaughter, Dr. Anna Williams – a multiracial woman of African-American, white, and Cuban descent – visiting Wakulla Springs during sabbatical to study the encroachment of invasive species into the area.

 

Mini-Review: “Grace Immaculate,” Gregory Benford (2011)

Tuesday, October 14th, 2014

Too Short!

three out of five stars

Sometime in the unspecified future, humans make contact with extraterrestrials: “The first SETI signal turned up not in a concerted search for messages, but at the Australian Fast Transients study that looked for variable stars.” Thus begins a multigenerational, excruciatingly slow exchange of information and ideas with an alien species that we humans nickname the “Hydrans” (for their physical similarity to earth-bound hydras). Naturally, the evangelical Christian community wants in on the action – particularly when it begins to suspect that these aliens might be (gasp!) atheists – and so a coalition of churches builds a seven billion dollar beacon in order to proselytize to these heathen, hive-minded extraterrestrials. Needless to say, things don’t go so well for the hapless Hydrans.

Benford plants the seed of what could be a very interesting story, yet it remains just that – a seed. “Grace Immaculate” is a very quick read, ending seemingly before it even begins. The ending is appropriately ambiguous, yet still quite unsatisfying. I’d really love to see this as either a longer short story or even a novella.

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

Mini-Review: W.U.M.E.: A short story, Marc Poliquin (2014)

Friday, August 8th, 2014

Contains the Seeds of a Chilling Dystopian Novel

three out of five stars

Kate Murdoch is seven months pregnant – and under contract with her husband’s employer. In exchange for covering all the fees associated with Kate’s pregnancy and delivery, Kate granted SnazzyCorp the right to imprint her baby Ben starting in the third trimester.

Developed by Carson Hill, the Wired Uterine Manipulation and Encryption Procedure – W.U.M.E. for short – is a way for corporations to cultivate brand loyalty while people are still in the womb. Hill’s assistant, Virginia Williams, served as test subject #1; when her child was born, the newborn immediately refused her mother’s breast in favor of ChemLax baby formula. Years later, and the procedure has taken off; instead of competing for consumers, companies wage war over access to fetuses on the battlegrounds of their mothers’ bodies.

When Kate has a sudden change of heart and attempts to break the contract, SnazzyCorp kidnaps her from her bed in the dead of night in order to subject her and Ben to forced imprinting. Ostensibly saved in the nick of time by a mysterious rescuer known only as Nate, Kate soon finds herself in an even more horrifying situation: imprisoned as a Carrier in the Factory, a clandestine human trafficking facility run by SnazzyCorp competitor GloboDiTech Ltd.

“W.U.M.E.” is a chilling science fiction dystopia in the vein of The Handmaid’s Tale. It contains the seeds of a potentially great novel; unfortunately, at just twenty-one pages, it’s a little short on character development and world building for my taste. I would love to see the ideas presented here fleshed out in greater detail.

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

Mini-Review: Delivering Yaehala (A Fantasy Novelette), Annie Bellet (2011)

Friday, August 1st, 2014

Nine Moons, Two Unicorns, and One Scarred Young Woman

four out of five stars

Alone in the Namoh desert, Alila is immersed in the difficult and dangerous task of gathering frankincense resin from a cliff-side tree when “trouble [comes] in the form of a figure on horseback.” Tasked with lookout duty, her twin unicorns Gabi and Hezi are the first to sound the alarm. By the time Alila makes her way down to the injured rider, her horse has succumbed to his injuries. The woman is shaken but still alive – and noticeably pregnant, at that.

This isn’t any damsel in distress, however; Yaehala is the newest member of the Pashet’s Purdah, his “collection of perfect women.” She is a princess, carrying the heir to the Pashet’s throne. The Pashet’s First Serena hired mercenaries to kidnap Yaehala and cut the child from her belly so that she could claim the boy as her own, thus securing her place on the throne.

Though it goes against her better judgment, Alila decides to offer the princess passage to the sea, where she has ships waiting to ferry her out of the country. This is in no small part to make amends for past sins: accidentally killing her best friend and her unborn child in a fit of rage and grief. For this crime she was tattooed, mutilated, and banished to the desert, left for god to pass judgment on. She is “anathema. Marked. Forbidden.”

Yet, just as the gods sent Gabi and Hezi to heal Alila’s broken body, Yaehala offers her the chance to find forgiveness and redemption.

More a short story than a novella (or novelette), “Delivering Yaehala” is quick yet satisfying read that’s not short on suspense. One especially anxious moment sees Hezi and Yaehala taken captive by mercenaries (truth be told, my heart ached more for the unicorn than the woman riding her. I mean, c’mon! UNICORNS! Magical unicorns, with saliva that heals, muzzles that locate water, and horns that light up at night. The full nine!)

Another enjoyable story from Annie Bellet.

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

Book Review: Project Unicorn, Volume 1: 30 Young Adult Short Stories Featuring Lesbian Heroines, Sarah Diemer & Jennifer Diemer (2012)

Wednesday, July 30th, 2014

Monstrously Beautiful

five out of five stars

Project Unicorn (“A Lesbian YA Extravaganza!”) is a ya fiction project created by the wife-wife writing team of Sarah Diemer (Love Devours; The Dark Wife) and Jennifer Diemer (Sappho’s Fables). Though the project is currently on hold, the idea is this: every week they post two free short stories on their website; these are gathered in a monthly zine, along with two previously-unpublished titles, which you can buy on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, or Smashwords. There’s also a quarterly edition that includes the contents of the previous three ‘zines, which is also available on etsy. As of this writing, there exist six zines and two volumes.

I first discovered Project Unicorn by way of “The Witch Sea,” an enchanting story about a witch named Meriel and the unexpected love she feels for a sea creature named Nor. A multi-generational feud has placed Meriel in the heartbreaking position of denying Nor that which she most desperately years for: the depths of the sea. I loved it so much that I promptly added all of Sarah Diemer’s titles to my wishlist.

The stories found in Project Unicorn, Volume 1 are every bit as magical as “The Witch Sea.” Beautiful, glorious, rainbow-hued magic. Accompanied by a menagerie of fantastical creatures – Kelpie unicorns, werecats, Victorian mermaids, kind-hearted witches, demons, even trees made human – the authors invite us to find and embrace the weirdness, the alienation, the darkness within ourselves. Those monsters staring at us through the glass of a magical compact? They are different from us, but…also the same. And that’s a wonderful thing. There’s light in the forest, yo.

(More below the fold…)

Mini-Review: Nevermind the Bollocks, Annie Bellet (2014)

Friday, July 11th, 2014

Ante up, potatoes!

three out of five stars

The first rule of Purgatory: never underestimate (or upset) Elsie the sexbot. Unfortunately for chief tech Diarmuid “Mick” O’Malley, he’s about to do just this, by declining her illicit request to smuggle her off-world. (As Elsie morosely points out, Mick will eventually be granted leave, even if it’s in a body bag; while she, the immortal android, is stuck there for eternity.) Until he remembers the likely spy who, masquerading as a doctor, snuck in on a transport ship earlier that day. Surely the Siberian Syndicate equipped “Dr. Moretti” with an iron-clad escape plan; and as one of just five people who know the exact coordinates of the priceless Ambrosia planet, Mick can trade his intel for two seats on the getaway vehicle. But when Mick learns that Moretti’s mission was of the suicide variety, the trio is forced to improvise.

“Nevermind the Bollocks” is a fast-paced scifi thriller. Though it’s far from my favorite story by Annie Bellet, it’s a fun enough read, and at zero bucks you can’t go wrong. Some of the slang (British? Italian Mafia? Future speak? A combination of the three?) rubbed me the wrong way, but Elsie is charming in her own weird way.

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

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…)

Mini-Review: Of Bone and Steel and Other Soft Materials, Annie Bellet (2014)

Saturday, July 5th, 2014

Of Bone and Steel and Whiskers

four out of five stars

The programs in her control panel remembered her training, even if she fought to forget.

Ryska is scavenging in an industrial area in the outskirts of Tynda when she unwittingly stumbles into the middle of a botched kidnapping for ransom. The target – a young boy named Toma, son of the famed “Railway Demon” – reminds her of the boys she couldn’t save back at the Lab: Misha. Luka. Gregr. Her brothers and friends. Though it goes against her survival instinct, Ryska vows to help Toma escape his captors (and if his father rewards her with a fat bag of cash, all the better). Luckily, she has something that her sighted pursuers do not: high-tech sensory whiskers that allow her to see in the dark, and specialized combat training from her childhood in the Lab.

A short thriller/science fiction/dystopian story, “Of Bone and Steel and Other Soft Materials” feels like a little novelette in a larger series, meant to provide some backstory for or additional insight into a much-loved character. As I read, I yearned to learn more about Ryska and her time in the Lab, or to find out what she did with her reward money; sadly, “Of Bone and Steel” is all there is. Still, it’s a fun little read, overall well-written and fast-paced.

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

Mini-Review: Destiny, K.C. Maguire (2012)

Monday, June 30th, 2014

Boy Buys Girl, Girl Evolves

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic copy of this story for review through Library Thing’s Member Giveaways program. Also, the last paragraph contains a vague spoiler.)

“What’s the point of a new generation if we can live forever?” And there it is. My whole problem with the Transition. Truthfully, I always wanted kids. But Tara didn’t…and Destiny can’t. So what’s the point?

When Joe’s wife Tara leaves him after more than a decade of marriage, he does what many middle-aged, newly-single men of the future do: he buys a companionship android. At first glance, the T-26 known as Destiny might seem to be at odds with Joe’s longstanding resistance to the Transition – in which one’s consciousness is downloaded into a synthetic version of one’s body; everybody’s doing it! – but Destiny is a true android: preprogrammed with a variety of factory settings (Erotic, Housewife), she lacks any humanity of her own. Whereas Joe’s Transitioned friends are constant reminders of the crumbling wall between “human” and “machine,” Destiny is 100%, honest to goodness not-human.

Much like his plasma screen tv and toaster oven, Destiny is just another one of Joe’s toys. Until the day she isn’t. Destiny begins to learn. Evolve. Becomes sentient.

As Joe finds himself falling in love with an android, he must decide what’s more important to him: his humanity, increasingly rare these days – or eternal love.

Smart and full of heart, Destiny is a fun and quick read – a little too quick, if you ask me. I’d love to see this story expanded in novel form. The Habitat Facility is a nice touch, and it’s interesting to observe how Joe’s behavior parallels that of some nonhuman animals kept in confinement (pandas, for example, are notoriously reluctant to mate in zoos, leading to the rise of panda porn).

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

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:

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Book Review: Behind Dark Doors, Susan May (2014)

Friday, May 23rd, 2014

“The War Veteran” stands out…

three out of five stars

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

Susan May’s Behind Dark Doors is a collection of six short (most of them very short!) stories of suspense and horror:

“Hell’s Kitchen” – Game show contestant Gordon (named after Gordon Ramsey, natch) isn’t just competing for his own cooking show – but for his very life. (Hint: You don’t want to know what’s in the beef bourguignon.)

“Mitigating Circumstances” – Mom doesn’t want to hear that her delicious little baby boy Ben is a bully. But the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.

“I Hate Emma Carter” – When popular girl Angela bullies newcomer Emma, her hatred threatens to consume her.

(More below the fold…)

Mini-Review: A Matter of Survival, Linda Hull (2011)

Wednesday, May 7th, 2014

Expect the Unexpected

four out of five stars

When a small crew from Project EviroQuest accidentally crash-lands on Planet K24B, they decide to make the most of their stay. A secondary unit is slated to arrive in six months, bringing with it additional crew and supplies. Until then, the nine scientists and explorers set out to learn as much as they can about the plant and animal life on their new, temporary home.

One of just 143 planets within reach of Earth (at least given humankind’s current technological know-how), K24B is much like our own planet, with “an atmosphere almost identical to Earth.” But the animals dwelling within K24B’s plains, rainforests, deserts, and seas are as varied as they are unusual: Feathered cetaceans. Giant, human-sized spiders. Transparent snakes. Tiny green antelope. Birds as big as Pteranodons.

And zoologist Donna Rivera gets to discover, observe, and catalog them all! Alongside her mentor Regina Gilliam, to boot! Talk about living the dream.

Donna’s dream quickly turns into a nightmare, however, when the local fauna starts picking the crew members off in ones and twos and threes. Soon Donna and engineer Everett Jordan are the only ones left. Can they manage to stay alive until the reinforcements arrive?

But nothing is as it seems in this short story by Linda Hull.

A Matter of Survival is a quick, entertaining read that might be veer toward the fun-but-forgettable – if not for the unexpected ending. Normally I’m not a huge fan of this particular brand of plot twist, but it’s downright delicious here.

A matter of survival, indeed.

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

Book Review: The Ink Slingers Guild Presents Into the Abyss (2013)

Wednesday, January 22nd, 2014

“Do you sparkle?”

three out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free copy of this book for review through Goodreads’ First Reads program.)

A group of writers who come together for “support, inspiration and the occasional kick in the arse,” the Ink Slingers Guild has published two anthologies of its members’ work to date. Into the Abyss features ten essays (and one poem) based on one of the writing exercises performed at every ISG meeting. The authors were given three words – gravity, innocuous, and perilous – and directed to create a story that touches upon each concept. The result is an eclectic mix of noir (“The Scarab”), fantasy (“The Scarab,” “Sending Sally Home,” “The Heart of Ballion,” “Beginnings”), science fiction (“The Room,” “Revelation”), supernatural horror (“Jimmy,” “Complications,” “Rain”) and young adult fiction (“Jimmy”).

The Scarab – 1929, England. A PI discovers a strange, beetle-shaped amulet that transports him to ancient Egypt – and helps him unlock his destiny.

Sending Sally Home – A sweet fantasy romance in which a young woman, mistaken for a distant royal relative, is transported to another world where she falls in love with the wizard tasked with keeping vigil for her. From the title to the whimsical setting, the tale has a vaguely Whovian feel to it.

The Heart of Ballion – Ballion is a world created by men, not gods, as a safe haven for refugees. Forced to flee their own worlds by the genocidal Overlord, people from the worlds over are welcomed to Ballion by the Sorcerers, who open the Border at the direction of the Tower. But Ballion is also under attack: the Blackfire Riders have found a way in and are systemically destroying the Keystones, the heart of Ballion. Sorcerers Thryn and Aliell must transform Ballion in order to save it.

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: The Carvings Collection, Drake Vaughn (2013)

Monday, January 20th, 2014

A Mixed Bag of Horror Stories

three out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free copy of this book for review at the author’s invitation. Also, trigger warning for rape and animal abuse.)

The Carvings Collection contains ten horror stories from the “crinkled mind” of Drake Vaughn. The stories range from conceivably true crime (fundamentalists do the darnedest things!) to the supernatural/fantastical (vampires, werewolves, and giant cockroaches, oh my!) and “psychological tales of imagination gone wrong.”

Dolls – A young girl’s menagerie of dolls begins to act out scenes of abuse on each other – and on Ella, their owner. In this story, it’s the adults who are the real monsters.

Driver’s Seat – A woman dealing with apparent PTSD in the wake of a carjacking/murder spree reconnects with her husband through violence. (Or regains control by embracing her darker impulses? I don’t know, I was both confused and somewhat disturbed by this point.)

Master Key – A quartet of teens find more than they bargained for when they cut class to light up and happen upon the nether regions of their high school, which was built on the ruins of a (supposedly!) abandoned paper mill.

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: The Very Best of Barry N. Malzberg, Barry N. Malzberg (2013)

Monday, November 4th, 2013

Not My Cup of Future Tea

two out of five stars

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

I’m a bit of a newcomer to science fiction – only in the last year have I discovered the likes of Joanna Russ, Suzette Haden Elgin, and Anne McCaffrey – and, having never heard of Barry N. Malzberg, I was unsure what to expect from this anthology.

The collection starts off on a strong note with “A Galaxy Called Rome,” a short story that’s ostensibly not a short story at all, but is rather presented as the author’s notes on how to write a short piece of science fiction. Accompanied only by a ship full of corpses (in cold storage for the day when their respective illnesses can be cured; until then, the bodies are stacked helpfully about the ship in order to absorb gamma rays), Lena is piloting the exploratory ship The Skipstone when it tumbles into a black galaxy. Here, time ceases to have meaning; Lena progresses through a thousand different lives, slowly building toward the day when she can find a way out of her predicament. Though not exactly an easy read, “A Galaxy Called Rome” is nonetheless an enjoyable piece of existential scifi, questioning what it means to be human in an infinite world.

After “A Galaxy Called Rome” – which is on the quirky side – the stories found in The Very Best of Barry N. Malzberg grow increasingly weird and esoteric. Wikipedia describes Malzberg’s style as “distinctive, with frequently long, elaborate though carefully constructed sentences and under-use of commas.” Further, Malzberg “uses metafiction techniques to subject the heroic conventions and literary limitations of space opera to biting satire.” Indeed, his beginnings as a playwright and prose fiction writer are evident in these stories. The result feels vaguely Orwellian, but much less readable.

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Book Review: L. Ron Hubbard Presents Writers of the Future, Volume 29, Dave Wolverton, ed. (2013)

Monday, August 26th, 2013

A thoroughly enjoyable collection of contemporary science fiction!

five out of five stars

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

L. Ron Hubbard’s Writers of the Future contest – now entering its thirtieth year, it’s one of the longest-running short story contests still in existence – attracts thousands of submissions a year. From this, a panel of judges selects just thirteen essays for publication in the annual anthology. Also included are thirteen illustrations similarly culled from the Illustrators of the Future contest, along with three instructional essays on the art of crafting and selling science fiction, written by professionals in the field. (This year’s collection includes one piece by contest founder L. Ron Hubbard himself.)

As suggested by such stiff competition, the essays included in the 2013 anthology are all thoroughly enjoyable, with one exception (Christopher Raynaga’s “The Grande Complication,” which I didn’t much care for). The collection starts of strong with Brian Trent’s “War Hero.” In the distant future, soldiers and war criminals have achieved virtual immortality with the ability to save one’s consciousness, downloading it into a new body (or multiple bodies) as needed – thus assuring the interminability of war, conflict, and the military-industrial complex. (As an added bonus, cross-gender downloading also carries with it some interesting sexual connotations.)

“Planetary Scouts,” by Stephen Sottong, is one of the lengthier stories in the collection – and it’s also one of my favorites. Having long since ventured off earth, humans are constantly in search of new planets to colonize. Enter the Planetary Scouts, who land on and probe (“explore” is too lofty a word) strange planets to determine whether they support “intelligent” life. If not, they’re considered open to human settlement. As always, a species’ intelligence is measured solely in human terms, leading to the genocide of countless “lesser” species who might not be able to grasp arithmetic – but are still sentient, capable of experiencing joy and suffering, with families and interests and lives of their own. On more than one occasion – such as when he and his partner Aidan explore a mostly aquatic planet to determine whether an intergalactic aquaculture company can install one giant fish farm on it – this crass policy leads to a crisis of conscience for young upstart Lester. (As it turns out, the planet is home to one enormous “distributed intelligence,” which is self-aware – and thus worthy of continued existence. More often than not, you’ll find yourself rooting for the aliens.) In more extreme cases, such as when it’s home to “dumb” animals or plant life that’s deemed harmful to humans, a planet may be “sterilized”: stripped of all life, leaving a clean slate for its future human overlords. Talk about your euphemisms!

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm: A New English Version, Philip Pullman (2012)

Thursday, February 7th, 2013

Come for the fairy tales, stay for the waggish commentary.

four out of five stars

When I first heard that Philip Pullman was to release a collection of Grimm’s fairy tales, I was super-excited. Not Book of Dust excited, but pretty stoked nonetheless. His Dark Materials is easily my favorite series of all time, and I’ll eagerly devour anything by or about Philip Pullman. Plus, fairy tales!

Alas, while I was hoping for a book of fairy tales from the Brothers Grimm as reimagined by Philip Pullman (e.g., along the lines of My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me; the rampant sexism found in so many fairy tales is just screaming out for feminist retellings, don’t you think?), the resulting collection is mostly faithful to the originals. Pullman has tweaked the tales here and there – borrowing pieces from one version to improve upon another, for example, and occasionally correcting inconsistencies and mistakes, such as in “The Three Snake Leaves” (with three whacks, the prince cuts the snake into three pieces, rather than the four dictated by simple math) – but aside from some light housekeeping, the stories are highly reminiscent of those I enjoyed as a child.

Of course, I can’t fault Pullman for failing to live up to my misplaced expectations – and, for what it is, Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm: A New English Version is an engaging and nostalgic collection of classic Grimm fairy tales. While you’ll recognize many of the standards – Cinderella, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Rumplestiltskin, Rapunzel, Hansel and Gretal, and the especially lovely “The Juniper Tree” all make appearances – you may also discover a few new favorites.

I absolutely fell in love with one of the last entries, “The Moon,” a sort of fairy tale-cum-creation myth that tells how the moon came into being. First belonging to a town, then purchased by four brothers who each insisted that their share be buried with them upon death, St. Peter finally retrieved it from the underworld and hung it in the sky where it could shine over all the world’s creatures. Every day, he removes a piece of it to remind humans of their folly, finally restoring it at the end of each month. Hello lunar cycle!

Each of the fifty tales is followed by information about the tale type and source, as well as a paragraph or two – or, if we’re especially lucky, an entire page – of commentary about the preceding fairy tale. Fans of Pullman will love this last bit, as it’s here where his personality and humor shine through. Take, for example, this notation on “The Girl with No Hands”:

“However, the tale itself is disgusting. The most repellent aspect is the cowardice of the miller, which goes quite unpunished. The tone of never-shaken piety is nauseating, and the restoration of the poor woman’s hands is simply preposterous.

“‘But aren’t fairy tales supposed to be full of preposterous things?’

“No. The resurrection of the little boy in ‘The Juniper Tree’, for example, feels truthful and right. This feels merely silly: instead of being struck with wonder, here we laugh. It’s ridiculous. This tale and others like it must have spoken so deeply to many audiences, though, for it to spread so widely, or perhaps a great many people like stories of maiming, cruelty and sentimental piety.”

Ouch!

Whether you’re a fan of fairy tales or just plain love Philip Pullman, most likely you’ll find something to savor in this collection.

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Book Review: Boy of Bone, K. R. Sands (2012)

Wednesday, August 15th, 2012

Her Dark Materials *

five out of five stars

If a collection of short stories “inspired by the mütter museum” strikes you as something that would lean inexorably toward the morbid and gory – the stuff of campfire ghost stories and Halloween horror tales – you’d be half right. While the twelve tales found in Boy of Bone are at turns gruesome and macabre (at times intimately so), author K.R. Sands exhibits great empathy and compassion for her subjects, despite having only conversed with them in her imagination. The result is a collection of fictional stories, inspired by real people and events, that manages to imbue “mere” museum displays – objects and artifacts – with a touching dose of humanity.

Through Sands, some of the “dead voices” who inhabit the Mütter Museum are given the means to speak, to tell us their stories, filled as they are with pain, grief, sadness, suffering – and, joy, peace, and divinity as well. From a man mourning the loss of his conjoined twin (“The Pump Twin”) to a scientist who has fallen “in love” with one of his own medical devices (“The Face Phantom”), the characters you meet within these pages will not soon be forgotten.

While it’s difficult to pick and choose favorites, I especially enjoyed:

* “Madame Sunday’s Horn” (a woman comes to accept and even embrace the unicorn horn growing from her forehead as a sign of god’s grace);

* “What Is Written, Sweet Sister?” (a young Union nurse requests the skin of her deceased soldier brother, so that it might be used to bind a prized family volume – not a Bible, but a book of Poe!); and

* “Boy of Bone” (the sister of a boy – long dead, suffocated by his skeleton’s skeleton – finds solace in the exhibition of his remains at the Mütter Museum).

Set in the antebellum south, “Black Bodies” is particularly raw and devastating. Here we meet an aging, paternalistic doctor who literally builds his career on the backs of black bodies. Though he fancies himself a “savior” of sorts to the poor African Americans he “serves” (dubiously so), he finds his narcissistic self-view challenged when he accepts an interview request by an out-of-town journalist. (A woman, at that!)

I must confess that I was unable to finish one piece – “Do Not Feed.” Inspired “by exhibit on lead poisoning and dog skulls,” the story – or what I could gather of it, anyway – centers on the moral crisis of a technician at an animal research facility. There in the soft comfort of my bed, surrounded by my own pack of seven rescue dogs, “Do Not Feed” (the title of which refers to the practice of starving vivisected animals prior to “euthanizing” [read: killing] them, so that they’ll leave less of a mess for the humans to mop up) proved just too much to bear. No doubt influenced by Sands’s experiences as an animal laboratory technician, I can only hope that the story’s ending reflects her own changing attitudes toward the necessity and humanity of animal research.

Boy of Bone is a gorgeously written, gorgeously illustrated tome – a work of art. Jon Lezinsky’s illustrations complement Sands’s words beautifully. Although … I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t disappointed to find that Boy of Bone doesn’t contain a single photo from the Mütter Museum. While I understand that the museum is fiercely protective of its exhibits (see, e.g., its strict photography policy), are a few pictures in a book that arguably helps to promote the museum too much to ask? One “inspiration” photo per story, perhaps? Especially considering that Sands is married to the director of the museum!

My only other complaint is that the author doesn’t go into much detail about the exhibits behind the stories; the only information we get about Sands’s inspirations amount to not-quite-one sentence blurbs sandwiched in the table of contents (e.g., “…by old photographs of medical subjects” [“Black Bodies”] or “…by the exhibit of a giant colon” [“Freddy Chang’s Live-Die Museum Restaurant”]). Coupled with the lack of information on the museum website, and you’re left to fill in the blanks with your own imagination.

Strong trigger warnings for violence, rape (including incest), racism, sexism, speciesism, and cruelty to animals.

* Also, how can I help but love an anthology whose forward shares a name with my favorite trilogy?

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

Book Review: The Tent, Margaret Atwood (2007)

Thursday, July 19th, 2012

“your tent is made of paper”

four out of five stars

Reminiscent in look and style of Good Bones and Simple Murders (1994), The Tent (2006) is a short collection of Margaret Atwood’s stories, prose, and poetry – much of it more recent, some of it previously published elsewhere (including “The Walrus,” “Harper’s Magazine,” and several special fundraising anthologies). As with three-poled tents, THE TENT is “supported,” in a manner of speaking, by three sections of related material.

While the stories are varied and diverse, time is a central theme, with lives bending, flexing, and twisting around the stuff. Time is not always linear, but folds and flexes (“Wibbly Wobbly Timey Wimey…Stuff,” in Doctor-speak.) Time “folds you in its arms and gives you one last kiss, and then it flattens you out and folds you up and tucks you away until it’s time for you to become someone else’s past time, and then time folds again.” [“Time Folds,” page 148.] Time softens and broadens, reunites and tears asunder. Time both binds and separates us all.

As with most anthologies, some of the pieces are more memorable than others. Most are complex, hinting at layer upon layer of meaning, the intricacies of which the reader can only begin to grasp. (Such is Margaret Atwood!) As per usual, those stories I love the best feature nonhuman protagonists (“Our Cat Enters Heaven” – and gets his testicles back; “Thylacine Ragout”; “The Animals Reject Their Names and Things Return to Their Origins”) or are retellings of classics, be they fairy tales or Shakespeare (“Encouraging the Young” – right into my gingerbread house; “It’s Not Easy Being Half-Divine”; “Horatio’s Version”; “Nightingale”). Nostalgic, heartbreaking, and not a little cruel, “Bring Back Mom: An Invocation” is another favorite, as is “Post-Colonial”: “It’s a constant worry, this we, this them.” [page 100]

Though I prefer Atwood’s novels to her shorter works, The Tent and other such collections are helping to tide me over until the release of Mad Adam. Let’s hope that she doesn’t take quite as long as dear Horatio!

Perfect for: hardcore Atwood fans, or lovers of feminist poetry and eclectic short fiction. Keep it on your nightstand for some impromptu, late-night reading.

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