Book Reaction: Wilde Stories 2016

31310785This is the kind of book that you read all at once and then keep close at hand to keep referring back to. 2016 was a great year for gay spec fic, with stories by veterans in the field such as Richard Bowes, and new-comers who are on their way to becoming the next big thing, like Sam J. Miller. The stories collected here are wonderfully diverse, from spaces of the imagination in the near future to the surreal.

These stories were largely published in major magazines originally, so I’d read a few of them before. But this collection is valuable in itself because it is a wealth of brilliant spec fic stories featuring gay characters. So often I feel strung along by bromantic novels that end happily ever with the main bro meeting a pretty girl in the final chapters. It’s a relief to suspend that hesitance I approach every story with, not wanting to be let down yet again.

And yet despite that hesitance, or because of it, I missed many brilliant stories throughout the year, such as “Imaginary Boys” by Paul Magrs, which instantly became a new favorite. This is a great resource to discover new writers (whether they’re new or you’re new to them) in the field of gay spec fic, and just an all-around essential book for anyone who needs more gay spec fic in their lives (and who doesn’t?)

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Book Review: Circuits & Slippers

csFirst, I have to say I was provided a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Begin honest review. Go.

This collection combines two of my favourite things—fairy tales and scifi. I’m fascinated by the intersection of fantasy and science fiction, and it’s really cool to see fairies translated into aliens, magic into technology, and ancient stories into futurescapes.

In a twitter chat with the authors recently, editor Jaylee James asked a question that strikes at the heart of the anthology:

“Do you think fairy tales will still be relevant in the distant future, or will we invent new fairy tales?”

Each story in Circuits & Slippers seeks to explore this question in some way.

Disclaimer: It’s really hard to review a collection of stories. Even in a collection by a single author, each story is a separate work with its own world, characters, and objectives. Since I can’t go into all of them here, I’ll just give you a little taste of what you can expect overall.

The anthology opens with “The Slumbering Hill,” a Sleeping Beauty retelling that sees Saira, a tech scavenger from a place called The Pits, journey across a desert to find a cozy town without tech where she discovers “fabric not yet made into clothing, seeds not yet grown, and ingredients not yet made into food.” The story is full of wonderfully imaginative details like these, and there is also a story within the story, a type of legend referred to as a “star story,” which is an answer to the earlier question as to the future of fairy tales. Anyway, the star story here is a scifi Sleeping Beauty tale that wraps up into the larger meta-narrative and comes to a satisfying conclusion that sets the perfect tone for the rest of the anthology.

The next tale is a retelling of Jack and the Beanstalk—but the beanstalk is a space elevator. This story has a similar atmosphere to the first, a wonderful blend of fable and future.

Then things take a dramatic turn with “Alone, and Palely Loitering,” which is about Galahad, who is an “automated museum curator,” an AI tasked with filling and protecting a grail with the history of Earth after its demise. While the lore it’s based on is still central, the story has a strong scifi atmosphere (in an awesome, creepy, “what happens when we’re gone?” kind of way.) Similarly, “The Last” tells the tale of the last woman from Earth, a warrior who was salvaged from the planet’s wreckage and preserved in a tower as a specimen of humanity. Her final mission…Project Rapunzel.

“CAT Beyond the Moon” mixes things up even more, with a very funny narrator who tells us about a girl named Cara who wants to attend the Newton-Nye institute, and doesn’t think she has a chance until CAT a “Creature for the Annihilation of Tragedy” comes along to help her—after getting a new pair of boots, of course. While the story is set far in the history of our own solar system, there are a lot of hilarious current references, such as the “tragic tale of the Downgrading of Pluto” which is taught to all the children in this world, and is yet another answer to the question of what fairy tales will become.

Another story that stands out is “Le Trotteur,” which takes us into a future version of the Quebecois legend of Alexis Lapointe, who in this reality is a Magskater hurling across gravity-defying tracks. The story has a fun, sporty feel because it’s driven by races and speed, yet finds time to slow down to incorporate the strong flavour of French language and culture.

“Fit for Purpose” is narrated by an android, which gives it a unique perspective, and there’s some interesting gender stuff going on here as the android is sexualized even though it doesn’t have a gender.

Another one of my favourites, “Compatible” is a hilarious and touching story about an alien studying human hair. It involves a trans human and a “more-male-than-female” alien who can’t quite be Earth-gendered. Here is an example of the humour: “I’m just now realizing how expressive eyebrows can be. Maybe humans use the hair on their head to communicate with other humans, and that’s why they’re obsessed [with it].” Maybe you have to read it in context, but trust me, when you do it’s hilarious.

These are just the stories that stood out to me, but the rest of the anthology doesn’t disappoint. There are cool scifi twists on some of the most conventional tales, like Goldilocks, Red Riding Hood, and Beauty and the Beast. And as you find yourself slipping deeper into this timeless future, it becomes clear that the stories themselves are both the questions and the answers—blending the wisdom of the past, the progress of the present, and our hope for the future. Fairy tales are timeless because, in the telling and evolving, they inspire us to push ourselves to the stars.

Circuits & Slippers comes out in paperback and kindle ebook on September 29th.

Book Reaction: Star Maker

I have to admit, it was hard to get into this book. I have tried to read it twice before and ended up skimming both times. Star Maker was written in the 1930s and the language is often dry and difficult, and there is very little plot. This is definitely a work of science fiction, but more than anything it is a travel log of a disembodied consciousness’s journey through the cosmos. A majority of the “story” consists of long-winded descriptions of planets and species. These planets are bizarre, yet well-thought out. And although I said there is little plot, there is definitely a progression to the book that lead me to a very rewarding experience I completely missed out on when skimming it before.StarMaker-Cover
Now what makes me give this book five stars? It is mind-blowingly brilliant. It continually made me feel like I was learning things I shouldn’t know, like I was being let in on secrets of the universe that are typically invisible. I haven’t read anything like this in a long, long time. Star Maker is not a perfect book, and it is very challenging, but it is one of the greatest works of science fiction ever written, and it awoke a curiosity in me that I haven’t known since childhood, making me ask why, why, why?
If you want to enjoy this book, don’t come to it expecting a fast plot or an easy read. Come ready to challenge your perspective of the universe and ask questions you forgot you needed to answer.
5/5 stars

Book Review: Player Piano

cover_0I first picked this book up about three years ago, around the time I started my first full-time job. I’ve always been a dreamerand had a fear of selling my time and becoming a slave of the 9-5. Through this book I was seeking a way to make myself feel better about signing my soul over to the corporate world. I’d heard that this was a book that explored the idea of why work is important, why we need to keep busy and productive to be happy. But I was disappointed that Vonnegut’s conversational tone wasn’t present in his first novel, and found the story to be slow and boring. I read the first few chapters and put it down.

Fast forward three years into the future. To now. I absorbed the book in a couple days. I couldn’t put it down. What changed? Me. I’ve had my ups and downs in the corporate world since the first time I tried to read Player Piano. I now understand the cut-throat world of office politics, but also the fulfillment of a job well-done and the structure of a set schedule.

I’ve seen my job begin to be phased out by automation software, so the story of a working force displaced by machines really hits home. But what really kept me turning the pages was the career of the protagonist, Paul Proteus, one of the few people left with a stable job after machines replace humans in almost every part of society. What really drives the novel is Paul’s identity crises as he tries to decide if he wants to go for a promotion or give it all up to follow his ideals.

FIG16Despite the fact that it was written in 1952, and the technology sometimes feels dated (audio is always recorded on cassettes, and computers use physical cards to record data), Player Piano is a terrifyingly relevant story that brings to life a future that we have already stepped foot in.

Though Vonnegut hadn’t established his voice yet, Player Piano is a great work of literature reminiscent of other satirical dystopian masterpieces. Vonnegut acknowledged that he “cheerfully ripped off the plot of Brave New World,” and it’s easy to see the similarities, but his story is a fresh one, with a wealth of insight to offer us more than half a century later. This is now one of my favorite Vonnegut novels (And I’ve read most of them). It belongs on the shelf alongside Brave New World (We)Fahrenheit 451, and 1984.

Book Reaction: Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan

Mr Penumbra's 24 hr BookstoreI’ve started labeling these posts “Book Reactions” rather than “Book Reviews” because I don’t want to write up a full review on every book I read, but I want to share what excites me about them.

So, Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. Where to begin? I loved everything about this book.

I hadn’t heard of it until a friend recommended it, then it sat in my virtual reading list for months, until I finally picked it up last week. Maybe it was for the best that I didn’t read the book sooner, because I have since worked in marketing and now as a technical writer for a software development company, so I totally get where the main character Clay is coming from when he is let go from his marketing/programmer job and thrown into the world.

Clay is a really fun character to spend time with and he pulled me in right away. I really wanted to follow him through his world and see what he was up to, meet the interesting, brilliant artists and programmers and obsessive readers. The other thing that drew me in is the physical books vs. internet-culture debate that rages through the novel, and Clay’s thoughts on both sides. I love honest he is, how one minute he is fighting to create a marketing campaign for a failing bookstore, the next contemplating buying a book on Amazon because it’s cheaper.

As the novel progresses, an intriguing plot develops, and more fascinating characters and ideas about the future of humanity are presented. I devoured this book in a couple days because I had to know what happened, had to discover its secrets-and I genuinely enjoyed spending time with Clay and his friends.

As I was reading the copy I checked out from the library, I found myself wishing I was reading an ebook for the poetic experience it would provide. This was such a brilliant, beautiful reversal on the concept of a paper book being the sarcophagous of the literary form. This excitement for technology is alive in the pages of the novel whether you read the physical book or the ebook (though I can’t vouch for the audiobook if there is one, it may have some differences-you’ll get this if you read the book). As it was, I read a well-loved paper copy that was creased in just the right places, cover worn but not damaged, pages turned but not torn-and this was satisfying as well.

This physical book vs. ebook dilemma really sums up my experience with Mr. Penumbra’s 24 Hour Bookstore. It is a celebration of the written word and its power in all forms. It is a celebration of humanity, of life, and a love-letter to the potential greatness in us all.

To learn more about Robin Sloan and Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, visit his website.

Book Reaction: Above by Isla Morley

I was planning to review this book, but I decided to only post a quick reaction instead because everything I want to say about it would give away one of the things I loved most about it. All I will say about that is: in a way, this book is a retelling of Plato’s Cave. It’s bizarre that I came across this book when I did because I was just trying to think of a way to write a novel based on the allegory of Plato’s Cave, but figured the idea was too vast. I couldn’t figure out how to contain all the implications in the lives of characters and in the pages of a book, but Morley nails it.

The reason I’m talking around this book rather than about it is because I felt like I was at first being carried along the currents of a predictable story about a girl named Blythe who is kidnapped and forced to live in an abandoned bunker. In her captivity her present is interwoven with memories of the real world she is cut off from.

Maybe I was oblivious, or maybe I was just too close to Blythe’s experience, feeling the lack of wind and the soil all around instead of below, but I was shocked and fascinated by what happened in the middle of the book. It swept me along and made me look at the world in a different way.

This book was an exciting and surprising experience for me, and one that I won’t soon forget. It is crafted from madness and terror and all the ugliness of the world, but it is also a beautiful thing, held together by Morley’s poetic voice.

Isla Morley’s debut novel, COME SUNDAY, was awarded the Janet Heidinger Kafka Award for Fiction in 2009, and was a finalist for the Commonwealth Prize.  It has been translated into seven languages. She has lived in some of the most culturally diverse places of the world, including Johannesburg, London and Honolulu.  Now in the Los Angeles area, she shares a home with her husband, daughter, two cats, a dog and a tortoise.

 

 

 

Book Review: Swamplandia!

I reviewed St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves a few years ago, and read Vampires in the Lemon Grove a while back, though never wrote up my reactions. After finally diving into Swamplandia!, I want to take some time to reflect on it. Overall, Russell’s first novel feels very different from her stories, but still has that Karen Russell quality which has won her a Pulitzer nomination and a Genius Grant.

Swamplandia! Is a beautiful, bold, ambitious novel set in the otherworldly Florida swampland. It is narrated by Ava Bigtree, a young girl who grows up in an alligator park in the depths of the swamp. After the death of her mother, the famous alligator wrestler Hilola Bigtree, Ava’s family is fragmented, sent in separate directions searching for pieces of the world to rebuild their lives with in the wake of their loss. Her father and brother Kiwi leave for the mainland to make money to save the failing park. Her sister Ossie disappears into the swamp intending to marry her ghost fiancée, and Ava herself embarks on a journey to find her sister.

My main complaint about St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves was that Russell’s word choice often seemed whimsical and out of place in her stories of mythic proportion. She has since refined her style and gone for atmosphere over whimsy in Swamplandia!, which is a welcome change of tone. Now, however, sometimes her word choice seems to err in the other direction, too big and obscure for the young narrator. This gargantuan vocabulary works when Ava’s studious brother Kiwi is in the limelight, but it feels out of place when we’re seeing the swamp from Ava’s perspective.

The rest of my review is going to sound harsh, so I want to make it clear that there is a lot that I love about this book. Karen Russell is a wonderful genius, so I’m going to be hard on the novel, because it deserves to be held against the greats. Speaking of which, she reminds me a lot of a modern day Italo Calvino, which I love.

As is often the case, what I liked and disliked most about this book were one and the same, namely the ambiguousness with which Ossie’s ghost boyfriends are presented. Are they real, or not? The possibility is intriguing, but the spirits appear to be real one minute and a fabrication the next. Maybe the point is that their existence is not so simple.

The mysterious aspects of the novel were handled well overall, but I was disappointed by the ambiguity of the supernatural elements of the story, because that ambiguity made the novel decidedly realistic, and the surreal quality of Russell’s stories is what I love most about them, the bizarre contrast of a minotaur with a human family or a vampire in a lemon grove.swamp

My second gripe is the ending. I won’t say too much because I don’t want to give it away, but there were several vastly different stories blazing trails through this book: the girl who grows up on an alligator farm, the girl who falls in love with ghosts, the boy who flees home to work in an underworld-themed amusement park, and the girl who embarks on a quest to the underworld with a mysterious stranger.

Each story is interesting in its own right, but they never quite seem to come together until the very end, at which point everything is suddenly resolved. The pacing of the last 100 pages feels off altogether, partly due to a major trauma Ava suffers toward the end of her journey. I won’t say what it is because it’s shocking, but it’s the kind of thing that sparks a novel of its own, not the kind of thing that should happen at the end of a sweeping, ambitious novel when many, many other things need to be resolved.

This book feels cluttered in some ways because there are so many different stories being told, but at its heart it is a novel about the swamp. Russell herself is a Florida native and often tells interviewers about how the swamp inspires her, how bizarre and beautiful it is. And that really comes through in Swamplandia! The swamp is a living (or maybe ghostly) presence in the novel that shapes the lives and deaths of its characters.

For now I think Russell’s ideas are better suited to stories, where she can let them loose to crash and clash, myth and man, and let their wildness take over. All this said, Russell is still one of my favourite contemporary writers, and I am excited to see what she comes up with next, be it short story or novel.

4/5 stars

karen-russell_custom-682cffba96008b453df4ba632725f10d9ffb640c-s6-c30Karen Russell, a native of Miami, has been featured in both The New Yorker’s debut fiction issue and New York magazine’s list of twenty-five people to watch under the age of twenty-six. She is a graduate of the Columbia MFA program and is the 2005 recipient of the Transatlantic Review/Henfield Foundation Award; her fiction has recently appeared in Conjunctions, Granta, Zoetrope, Oxford American, and The New Yorker.

She has written two collections of stories, St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves and Vampires in the Lemon Grove. Swamplandia (Feb 2011) is her first novel.

Book Review – Casualties by Kirsten Clodfelter

Book-Cover-194x300Describing Kirsten Clodfelter’s Casualties as a war book is like saying America is a war country. Yes, war is a prevalent theme throughout these five stories, but they are not primarily about war. These stories can not be defined by war, because they have so much more to offer, just as a country has more to offer than its soldiers and its potential for destruction.

Instead of being about war, these stories exist in a world at war; it is their setting, not their purpose.

From the moment you dive into Casualties, the silence is deafening. You are told by the title of the first story that “The Silence Here Owns Everything.” And that it does.

That silence doesn’t always occur because no one’s speaking. In “Where Will I Go in Search of Your Safety,” we are introduced to this distance that sound can only attempt to penetrate. A deployed soldier named Daniel calls his wife and “As he talks, his faint, uneasy laughter is swallowed by the crackling static, and I’m reminded that what’s binding us together in this moment is fragile-an electromagnetic transmission carrying our voices through a distant satellite to cover the six thousand miles between us-and the science of this feels so unreal that it’s like magic.” This is my favorite passage from the book because it is brilliant and poignant and just plain beautiful.

Later in the story, Daniel’s voice is described as “sounding lost somewhere inside his own body.” The silence in this story owns everything, not because no one is talking, but because there is too much to say, words and sounds cannot carry their meanings across such distance of space and experience.

In “Homecoming” a mother feels the pressure of war from all around her, pressure to support her deployed husband, pressure to take care of their baby all alone, pressure to welcome her husband back to a home that has been overtaken by the silence of his absence. “This is also a type of warfare,” Clodfelter writes. And this powerful assertion runs throughout all of the stories in the book. War is not only soldiers on a battlefield. It is countries of mothers and wives, and everyone on the planet, fighting in just as many ways.

“My American Father” tells the story of a Kuwaiti girl whose life is torn by war from the moment she was conceived. Her father was overseas fighting a war at the time and returned home to America before she was even born. She never knew her father because war pulled him from her before she was gone. Yet at the same time, war was the reason she was born in the first place. This delicate balance is also a type of warfare.

The collection ends with “What Mothers Fear,” a story that dives into the warfront. It shows the final cost of war as a family endures bombings and the fallout, the fear and uncertainty of shattered lives. This story takes the collection to the other side of the war, revealing the truth that war is not just America, it is every country in the world. It is terrifying and uncertain to everyone, no matter where they live, which side of the battle they are on, no matter whether they are carrying guns or children.

ImageKirsten Clodfelter is the author of a chapbook of war-impact stories, Casualties, published by RopeWalk Press in 2013. An adjunct professor of English and composition at Indiana University Southeast and Ivy Tech Community College, she also works as a freelance writer, editor, and social media marketing consultant. She is the Series Editor of At the Margins, a small-press review series at As It Ought to Be, where she is both an editor and contributor. She lives in Southern Indiana with her incredible partner and the funniest, cutest little girl on the entire planet.

Book Review: Shadow Town, By Duncan Thornton

book-U6-A157-B161-R412Though it takes a while for the plot to get moving due to a complex world being set up (Involving nightmarish creatures such as Whisperers, Clatterfolk, Thralls, etc.) the world of the Vastlands is immediately vivid, original, and disturbingly reminiscent of the familiarity of our nightmares. Thornton brings a dark world to life in this book in which farmers are haunted by a plague of the Whisperers’ Words – powerful incantations which they whisper through the air to takes over the farmers’ bodies, turning them into sleepwalking undead Thralls who labour endlessly for the Whisperers. The two main characters, cousins Rose and Jack get caught up in the horrors of the Tanglewood, and eventually Shadow Town, as they journey from their grandmother’s farm.The story itself is an engaging, twisted fairy tale. One of the characters is even named Tamlin, reminiscent of the ballad of the same name. Shadow Town’s plot even loosely follows that of the ballad – though I won’t say how as that would reveal the plot.Though the characters and plot are well-developed, what really makes this book resonate with a haunting quality of its own is the world of the Vastlands themselves. Rose is a painter and sees the twisted landscape around her as potential material for paintings – the desert and Tanglewood become brushstrokes. Similarly, Thornton weaves the landscapes of the Vastlands into being with words (every word choice and metaphor echoes the bleak tone of the novel), creating a vivid and elaborate setting which is just as haunting as the Whisperers’ Words.

I recommend this book to anyone who enjoys fairy tales or dark children’s novels such as Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book. This is a story much darker and weightier than the all too common vampire or zombie novel.

Though the setting is vast enough to support a series, my biggest qualm with the book is that it felt like a contained novel more than the first entry in a series. I’m curious to see what new characters and locales of the Vastlands are revealed in book two of the series.