Skiffy & Fanty BookTube Roundup

If you didn’t already know, I contribute reviews to the Hugo-nominated Skiffy & Fanty Show, and sometimes they even allow me to take part in their podcasts. The gang has recently started adding features to our YouTube channel, including BookTube recordings. If you like SciFi and Fantasy (yes, that is where the name comes from) and don’t already subscribe to the podcast and/or YouTube, what are you waiting for?

So far, I’ve only contributed two BookTube reviews, and I have one more to record. I tried to pick shorter books received, so two of these are novellas I had been sent from the Tor.com press. I hope more will eventually come, but in the mean-time I thought it would be worthwhile to also post short written reviews here on the three books I covered:


Vigilance
By Robert Jackson Bennett
Tor.com Publishing — January 2019
ISBN: 9781250209436
208 Pages — Paperback

I’ve wanted to start The Divine Cities trilogy from him (hearing nothing but great things about it), but bookstores always seem to have all but the first book. So, I was happy to see this in the mail and have a chance to read something else by him. On the other hand, I immediately was put off by the cover and title. Like Batman and MacGyver, I loathe guns, and didn’t feel particularly eager to delve into a story about gun violence, even if satirical and critical. However, once started I couldn’t put it down, drawn into this near-future America where reality TV, terrorist threats, and cultural/moral apathy merge into a frightening, violent landscape. Bennett’s writing is brutal and unsubtle in both action and politics, the setup at first seems so over-the-top to appear unbelievably absurd as any type of realistic extrapolation for the future. But as you continue through the story and consider where we are, and how that trajectory could continue into the future if unchecked, it begins to seem horrifyingly more plausible were people to continue to lose hope and fall into despair. Even with all of its darkness, the satire and absurdity of it also makes for some humor, albeit dark humor. Short, powerful, and well worth reading.


©1998 EyeWire, Inc.

The Revenant Express
(Newbury and Hobbes Investigations #5)
By George Mann
Tor Books — February 2019
ISBN: 9780765334091
256 Pages — Hardback

Making the mistake of just glancing at its size and cover, I opened this book expecting it to be a young adult novel. Scant pages in with the grisly description of a murder victim, I realized the error. A lack of – or misplaced – expectations did nothing to dim my enjoyment for this exciting adventure, even without reading any of the previous books in the series. It took me a little while to understand the timeline of events that start this book, and their placement relative to those from the prior book in the Newbury & Hobbes Investigations series. A fair amount of character quirks and development also became lost to me because I began this mid-story, and this book 5 of the series is in fact the conclusion to a book 4 cliff-hanger. Thus, even though I enjoyed the steampunk/horror/mystery/spy adventure mashup of this, if you aren’t a reader of this series, it probably would be best to start at its beginning. I liked the mashed-up elements, despite not being a huge fan of steampunk, and in large part the enjoyment came from the story’s engaging female characters. If I come upon the earlier books of this series I’d pick them up without hesitation to read more.


The Test
By Sylvain Neuvel
Tor.com Publishing — March 2019
ISBN: 9781250312839
112 Pages — Paperback

Another dystopic vision from Tor.com, Neuvel’s explores speculative technological advancements to probe human psychology and the themes of immigration, community, and family. While answering examination questions for British Citizenship, Idir’s nervous anticipation and hopefulness are blasted away when a team of terrorists enter the immigration office, take hostages, and begin executing people. What this story says about psychology, morals, fear, and power is a brilliant commentary on immigration, nationalism. At the same time the story serves as a cautionary one on the dangerous ways that technology could be turned. Reading The Test, you might think you can see where Neuvel is taking things, and how he will go about it, but you begin to suspect what in the story might be really happening or not, forcing you into the same position of uncertainty as the characters find themselves. A reviewer I follow on Goodreads, Emily May, calls this a Black Mirror episode in novella format, and having now finally seen the show, I’d 100% agree. In fact, this should just be adapted into an episode, it would pack one hell of a punch. But for now, go read this touching and disturbing masterpiece.

A LARGER REALITY, Edited by Libia Brenda

A Larger Reality:
Speculative Fiction from the Bicultural Margins
Edited by Libia Brenda
Kickstarter — Cúmulo de Tesla — 2018
190 Pages — eBook


A bilingual anthology available for FREE download in English or Spanish, A Larger Reality: Speculative Fiction from the Bicultural Margins (Una realidad más amplia: Historias desde la periferia bicultural) arrived via a Kickstarter campaign initiated by The Mexicanx Initiative, with help from Fireside Magazine.

Awhile back I discussed this collection with Trish Matson and Brandon O’Brien as part of the “Reading Rangers” series of short fiction review/discussion for Skiffy & Fanty. You can listen to the podcast here for all of our varied thoughts on it.

Edited by Libia Brenda, the collection has a diverse selection of stories that span speculative classifications from science fiction to fantasy to horror. Some are lighter adventures and some are more serious in tone, or more experimental in style. At least among the three of us in the “Reading Rangers” discussion, we differed on which we enjoyed most versus didn’t appreciate. But readers are likely to find several stories here of interest, and all give a unique Mexicanx perspective. Approximately half are translated from the Spanish for the English edition, with the remainder presumably translated from the English for the Spanish one.

The highlights for me were:

“Fences” by José Luis Zárate and translated by Joey Whitfield is a post-apocalyptic story that makes a great start to the collection by introducing a theme that pops up in other stories as well, the falsity of being restricted to or choosing between binary identity. Caught between two worlds both literally and figuratively, the protagonist of the story is a character that can be recognized by anyone who has lived abroad.  

“Aztlán” Liberated” by David Bowles is a science fiction military adventure featuring chupacabras that features indigenous characters in empowering roles. Reading it gives you feeling of watching an action movie.

 “A Truth Universally Accepted” by Julia Rios features themes and a plot that aren’t unfamiliar, but Rios uses them to create a potent exploration of identity and subjectivity. I’m not a fan of things written in the second person, but somehow this still worked for me.

“Kan/trahc” by Iliana Vargas and translated by Adrian Demopolus is a fascinating work that features a loss of coherence in both the protagonist and the text. Dark and surreally weird, the story has many levels of interpretation and is one that bears rereading.

“Ring a Ring ‘o Roses” by Raquel Castro and translated by Ruth Clarke involves a young girl who brings her pet zombie to school. One of a couple more comedic stories in the collection, this was both funny and touching, revealing the insecurities of childhood and how adults so easily ignore what children are up to.

“It All Makes Sense Here” by Alberto Chimal with translation by Jesse Ward, and “Music and Petals” by Gabriela Damián Miravete with translation by Megan Berkobien represent two of the more horrific stories in the collection. Many of Chimal’s stories deal with ambiguity, and here it is with what constitutes ‘monsters’ and how they are perceived and feared in society. Miravete’s story is a psychological horror of family secrets that is also quite disturbing.

“Clean Air will Smell like Silver Apricots”, written and translated by Andrea Chapela, with editing by Kelsi Vanada ends the collection with a poignant science fiction look at grief and memorials. Its bittersweet tone makes a nice palate cleanser after the stories that preceded.

As a contributor to Rachel Cordasco’s Speculative Fiction in Translation empire and champion of more translated fiction in general, I really appreciated the endeavor that this anthology represents. The high quality of the stories made it a success, and if you haven’t read it yet, you should go download a copy now. You can’t beat free.

CONTENTS:

  • “Fences” by José Luis Zárate (Translated from the Spanish by Joey Whitfield)
  • “Aztlán” Liberated” by David Bowles
  • “A Truth Universally Accepted” by Julia Rios
  • “Matachín” by Felecia Caton Garcia
  • “Kan/trahc” by Iliana Vargas (Translated from the Spanish by Adrian Demopolus)
  • “The Binder” by Angela Lujan
  • “Ring a Ring ‘o Roses” by Raquel Castro (Translated from the Spanish by Ruth Clarke)
  • “Shoot” by Pepe Rojo
  • “It All Makes Sense Here” by Alberto Chimal (Translated from the Spanish by Jesse Ward)
  • “Music and Petals” by Gabriela Damián Miravete (Translated from the Spanish by Megan Berkobien)
  • “Clean Air will Smell like Silver Apricots” by Andrea Chapela (Translated from the Spanish by the author, and edited by Kelsi Vanada)

THE AMBERLOUGH DOSSIER, by Lara Elena Donnelly


Amberlough, Armistice, & Amnesty
By Lara Elena Donnelly
Tor Books — 2017 – 2019
ISBN 9780765383822  — 416 Pages — Paperback
ISBN 9781250173560 — 400 Pages — Paperback
ISBN 9781250173621 — 384 Pages — Paperback
Source: Publisher


In 2017 Lara Elena Donnelly published her debut novel, Amberlough, set in the imaginary region of Gedda and written with the point-of-view of three protagonists living in Amberlough City. Cyril DePaul works at home and abroad as an intelligence agent for the Amberlough nation-state. But Cyril’s professional responsibilities conflict with his personal life: he has passionately fallen for Aristide Makricosta, a stripper/performer at the Busy Bee nightclub who also happens to be a criminal running a small-time smuggling operation. Cordelia Lehane is another stripper/performer at the Busy Bee who sometimes does smuggling runs for Aristide, but who mostly occupies herself with illicit drug sales and sleeping alternatively with the club’s owner or its resident comedian.
While on a sensitive mission in a neighboring nation-state, Cyril’s cover is blown amid the rise of a fascist political party called the One State Party. Cyril learns that members of the party, known as Ospies, also have plans for gaining control of Amberlough. With few options available to him, Cyril strikes a deal to save himself, and Aristide, from the rise of a regime opposed to homosexuality. As the conservative Ospies gain power in Amberlough, those at the central countercultural hub of the Busy Bee must also figure out how to survive the ramifications of Cyril’s decision and Ospie control.
The plot and setting of Amberlough take unmistakable historical inspiration from Germany’s Weimer Republic and the rise of the Nazi party. The wonderful art deco design for the covers of the novel and its sequels reinforce this period; the spirits of the characters do likewise. With such close parallels to reality, it’s at first baffling to understand why Donnelly chose to place her story in an invented universe. There is little to the novel that could otherwise define it as speculative fiction: no magic of fantasy, no steampunkesque tech of SF. Donnelly wouldn’t have even had to make Amberlough an alternate history, it could easily exist as straight-up mainstream historical literature. 
Divergence from history and the need for an invented world become clearer with the sequels. In 2018 and 2019 Tor Books released Armistice and Amnesty, respectively, to complete the trilogy. Despite ending in a bit of a cliffhanger, Amberlough does work thematically on its own. But deeper appreciation for what Donnelly has created comes from reading the trilogy as three parts of one singular work. In fact, the concept of three-in-one serves as a structural framework on multiple levels of the Amberlough Dossier trilogy. Donnelly divides each of the novels into three distinct parts that essentially 1) set the characters onto stage, 2) introduce/develop the challenge they face, and 3) usher in a denouement and conclusion. Each novel also features three point-of-view characters that together create a whole perspective of the plot.
As the series progresses following the Nazi-like rise of the Ospies in Amberlough, the plot and action don’t develop as one might expect, diverging from parallels to German history and the onset of a world war. The starts of Armistice and Amnesty are also marked by time jumps where significant developments in the characters and their socio-political situation have happened off-stage. This generates a thematic impression where Donnelly is not directly showing us how her characters are changing the world. Instead, they do a great deal off-stage and then she shows us how they respond to and survive the new situations they find themselves in as a result. For example, by the close of Amberlough the three protagonists (Cyril, Aristide, and Cordelia) are forced to flee the Ospie rise or stay to face its oppression with imprisonment or worse. By the start of Armistice, Cordelia now leads in exile an armed opposition to the Ospies. Aristide has found safe haven abroad as an actor, but as much as he’d like, he cannot forget or completely walk away from what he has fled. Due to events in the first book, Cyril is absent from Armistice, but replaced by the point-of-view of his diplomat sister, Lilian, who is merely mentioned in the first book. Cordelia sits out from the trio of point-of-view characters in Amnesty, making Aristide the one constant throughout the trilogy.
Aristide represents a fitting character to serve as the series constant, not merely due to the alliteration of his name with the novels’ titles. Quite simply, he is the most fun. The Han Solo of the trilogy, he is the devilish rogue who secretly has a heart. The guy who feigns indifferent independence, but who has actually fallen in love and is willing to make sacrifices for those he cares about. Aristide is a performer through-and-through, a man who hides his true name and past, who puts on affectation off the stage, speaking with an intentional stutter and dressing with a fashion to appear far more frivolous than reality. As a reader you can’t but help being equally enthralled by Aristide as Cyril. Though all the characters grow between the three novels, Aristide is the one character whose growth mostly occurs on the pages, rather than primarily during the time that passes between the novels. 
With its time jumps and off-stage action, the plot of the Amberlough Dossier series is not the source of its strength or success. I honestly found this a bit of a disappointment, and while plowing through them I couldn’t quite figure out why I still found them to be enthralling page-turners. After thinking a bit, I realized that it was the characters that had captured my attention, it really was like a character-driven ‘literary’ novel that just happened to be in a made-up world. Each of the characters is gloriously imperfect and quirky in their own endearing ways. Despite their faults, they pull through and survive changing political landscapes and crises, or sacrifice themselves to allowing the others to survive. Donnelly achieves her idiosyncratic characters with her richly descriptive language, but also a knack at giving them their unique voices. Aside from the fictitious geo-political names, Donnelly also develops an endearingly distinctive slang that Cordelia, in particular, uses.
By the end of the series the only significant criticism that I still had remaining pertains to an absent sense of place in the novels. Donnelly invents this universe and Gedda and beyond, but the reader is largely left uncertain of where exactly events are taking place, how locations relate to one another, or how political changes that happen off-stage actually came to pass. This makes it difficult to really appreciate any of the world-building aspects of a series that otherwise has little in the realms of the speculative genre. Each novel also comes with an identical map of Gedda that has to be the most useless map I have ever seen in a SFF novel, particularly when events of Armistice largely take place elsewhere.
Nonetheless, like its characters the Amberlough Dossier series charms despite its imperfections. It says a lot about what common people can accomplish in a harsh world of setbacks despite being outsiders, counterculture to a system of power. It shows that those accomplishments become born of the small decisions that individuals make because of their relationship with and love for others, whether familial or romantic. And it shows that the consequences of those decisions can be both joyous and devastating, but in either way can be met with courage and compassion.

TARGET IN THE NIGHT by Ricardo Piglia (Translated by Sergio Waisman)

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Target in the Night
(Emilio Renzi #2)
By Ricardo Piglia
(Translated from Blanco nocturno by Sergio Waisman)
Deep Vellum Publishing — October 2015
ISBN 9781941920169 — 288 Pages – Paperback
Source: Publisher


As unique a piece of crime/detective fiction that one will likely come across, Target in the Night is an acknowledged literary masterpiece, winner of the 2011 Premio internacional de novela Rómulo Gallegos and other prestigious prizes for Spanish language literature. In the few years since its translation into English by Deep Vellum Press, it has gotten even further positive reviews in multiple outlets. However, I found the novel to be a nigh impenetrable puzzle that I could never quite capture in the cross-hairs of my focus or enjoyment.
Set in a small, insular Argentinian town, the novel begins when Puerto Rican visitor Tony Durán is found murdered in his hotel room after flamboyantly arriving in town and sleeping with the twin Belladonna sisters, members of a powerful family that gained its wealth in the crooked industry of horse racing. Authorities make an arrest, but Police Inspector Croce remains unsatisfied, convinced there is something buried and committed to discover the truth behind Durán’s murder, no matter the cost. Emilio Renzi, a reporter who appears as a character in other novels by Piglia joins Croce in the investigation, and in this way Renzi serves as the point-of-view narrator of events, recounting them years after their completion in a nonlinear pattern.
While the plot of Target in the Night seems rather straight-forward and conventional for a crime thriller, it’s style is decidedly the opposite, from the aforementioned nonlinear structure to an unconventional focus away from details of the crime, or its resolution, themselves to a postmodern meditation on the politics of an intricate web of characters, on seeking interpretations of truth in a corrupt society where nebulous, authoritarian forces spin individuals into intractable realities.

There is nothing inherently problematic with this unconventional approach. Were I to have read up a bit more on the novel prior to my starting reading, it may have lessened my frustrations with finding its rhythm, because all my expectations of a ‘detective novel’ would have been shed. But even so there remain some significant potential impediments for readers. One is an ignorance of its historical context. Target in the Night is rife with not just abstract philosophical strains, but also with specific metaphor and commentary on Argentinian political unrest. The Spanish language here may be translated with fidelity, but I have no basis for making the full cultural connections the novel paints. The slow paced building of Piglia’s ideas through novel combined with a cold, almost emotionally distant personality of his characters exacerbates this inability to connect. Given the large number of eccentricities that Piglia gives his characters, I was surprised how hard it became for me to get into them, and the text.

Piglia, who sadly passed away in January of last year achieves some staggeringly impressive writing, that while not easily approachable is evocative and at times poetic. Despite that, this particular novel simply did not work for me. Readers who appreciate intellectual literature still might want to check Target in the Night out, particularly if more familiar with the history of Argentina than I. The mystery and detective aspects of the novel provide an adequate backdrop of plot for Piglia’s craft, just don’t expect that plot to become more than a means to an end.

Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

AMERICAN WAR by Omar El Akkad

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American War

By Omar El Akkad
Knopf — April 2017
ISBN 9780451493583 — 352 Pages — Hardcover


My latest review for Skiffy and Fanty is on Omar El Akkad’s debut novel, American War. Check out the complete review on the site, here.
My condensed review:
“A powerful & dark literary character study on the atrocities that war can breed in an individual, but fails in its speculative foundations and in its relevance to America.”

Cover reveal: NIGHTLY OWL, FATAL RAVEN by Jessica McHugh

Coming in June 2018, a dystopian fantasy novel from talented and prolific author Jessica McHugh and published by Raw Dog Screaming Press. Yesterday was the grand cover reveal for this novel, which I’m very excited about. McHugh and RDSP are a match made in the most twisted and best of dreams.

“Nightly Owl, Fatal Raven combines speculative world-building and a deep appreciation of the works of Shakespeare. This is a Fantasy novel with a fully-realized world of brutal struggles but it is also crafted with lyricism.

While the female protagonist who fights to change a heartless and cruel world will be familiar to readers of Dystopian fiction, the brutality and bitter battles echo the Grimdark movement in Fantasy and add an epic feel to this gritty adventure.

McHugh does not shrink from portraying the ugly realties of war but there is a kernal of hope amid all the darkness. Betrayal, revenge, memory and transformation through knowledge are themes explored in the novel. Readers who enjoyed Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games and Lois McMaster Bujold’s Paldin of Souls will be particularly interested in Nightly Owl, Fatal Raven.” — [Promotional Material]

The cover was designed by Jennifer Barnes, a co-founder of RDSP. Along with her husband, Jennifer does a huge amount of work to help make their publishing enterprise a success, and her contributions don’t always get the press or recognition they deserve. She’s done a great job on this cover, using a mixture of a dusk-like lightness with shadowy darkness to create just the right design/mood for capturing interest in the creepy and beautifully demented patterns of McHugh’s writing and vivid characters.

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Debuting 14th June 2018 • PRE-ORDER

Funerals are usually the end of the story, not the beginning.

Since the rise of The Council, an oligarchy of despots and deviants, the legendary Capesman undertakes daily soul collections from Cartesia’s wasteland cities and battlefields. He also frequents Malay Prison, where a vigilante named Shal plots her escape. Armed with a thirst for vengeance and a sharp Shakespearean tongue, Shal must navigate a maze of trauma to save Cartesia and protect her sister from the brutal machinations of Chancellor Doa.

It will require all of Shal’s strength and cunning to resurrect her former army, battle the betrayals of the past, and avenge her father’s death. Will she survive long enough to see the Council fall, or is the Capesman coming for her next?

 

About the Author: Jessica McHugh

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Jessica McHugh is a novelist and internationally produced playwright running amok in the fields of horror, sci-fi, young adult, and wherever else her peculiar mind leads. She’s had twenty-two books published in ten years, including her bizarro romp, The Green Kangaroos, her Post Mortem Press bestseller, Rabbits in the Garden, and her YA series, “The Darla Decker Diaries.”

Visit the Hook of a Book Facebook Event page for Nightly Owl, Fatal Raven to view videos by McHugh and enter a contest to win a copy of her new novel.

Debuting 14th June 2018 • PRE-ORDER

 

GHOST SONGS: A MEMOIR by Regina McBride

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Ghost Songs: A Memoir
By Regina McBride
Tin House Books — October 2016
ISBN 9781941040430 — 350 Pages – Paperback
Source: Publisher


One dividend that comes from reviewing a wide spectrum of books (particularly when starting out) is that occasionally I discover a completely unexpected positive experience. Case in point: Tin House sends out a general call for interested readers in advanced review copies. I respond, with no particular idea of what they will send. But reading their literary journal regularly, I know to at least expect quality, whatever it may be. It’s what I precisely like about them, they publish a wide range of content, not eschewing genre, so long as it’s good.
And in my mail arrives Ghost Songs: A Memoir by Regina McBride. I think I audibly sighed in disappointment. Of all the possibilities, I got one of the few kinds of literary works that I didn’t think I could appreciate much, even if done exceptionally well. I appreciate history and biography. My skepticism rises a bit if it’s an autobiography. But memoir? I actually don’t know as I’ve ever before read anything that qualifies as memoir. It has always seemed suspect to me — too loose in its organization, style, and possibly even facts. I didn’t know a single thing about the author, so I looked in hopes that perhaps the topics/themes would be something familiarly enticing. But I saw things like: Ireland, poetry, mental health… sigh. Most of the description left me indifferent, but poetry — I rarely seem to feel emotional connection or resonance with poetry.
Nevertheless, I picked this memoir up and began reading, convincing myself that at the very least I would have a new experience, a chance to learn and momentarily extend my zone of reading comfort. Against all my intuition, I rapidly became engrossed in McBride’s beautiful, reflective writing, in a world of unfamiliar thoughts and experiences far from the focus of my typical reading. The cover blurb by Alice Sebold is definitely hyperbole. But the sentiment is  precisely accurate. In Ghost Songs McBride weaves a tapestry of family, individuality, culture, and grief with a melancholy, fragile prose. Organized frequently as short paragraphs, her phrases echo the flow and tide of memory, driven by association and sense rather than time.
The memoir begins with an eighteen-year-old McBride, talking to a psychologist about the ghosts that haunt her, the uncertainty of who she is, and the weight of genetics and experience that define her. McBride’s parents both died by their own hands, suicides separated by a mere five months, mother following father. Coming from a culture of strict Irish Catholicism, the McBrides all share common pressures of guilt, depression, and a frequent struggle to continue on. Regarding the moment after her father’s suicide McBride writes:
“I sit on the floor of my old bedroom, listening to my mother on the phone in her room making funeral arrangements. My father has done something irreparable. There is a new trajectory in place. Every cell and every particle around me knows how things will end. Every bright dust mote rushing through the sunlight and disappearing in shadow rings with inevitability. The house, the furniture, the trees, my brother and my sisters, even my mother — we all know, but it is not possible to accept this and keep going.” — (p. 90).
The mention of ‘every cell and every particle’ in this quote bears specific mention. One of the recurring themes in Ghost Songs that did resonate with me (because of my science background surely) is McBride’s use of the molecular — in some instances more precisely quantum — as metaphor. In spots, the concept is utilized for viewing events as composed of an infinite number of smaller moments, paring down burdensome trials into short, bearable units. Even if tragedy makes this hard to achieve.

“…‘When you work on a play, you have to look at the dramatic arc. You break it down into manageable parts, into beats. See how every event leads to the next.’

…But it is as though each death were an explosion that erased the connections between things. In my mind a fizzing whiteness hovers, particles refusing to settle.” — (p. 85).

Yet it is poetry that seems to be the most effective means of coping that McBride can utilize to find comfort and feel peace from the ghosts of her past. Given her Irish heritage this comes particularly from the poetry of Yeats and the mythology of her homeland. Ghost Songs culminates with McBride’s pilgrimage to Ireland and the self discoveries she makes there while searching for a personal Tír na nÓg. In poetic irony, this comfort ultimately comes from the same source as all of her pain: genetic and cultural inheritance, with her father’s appreciation of poetry. Recalling a moment with him, McBride describes a mosquito landing on her father and his allowing it to bite him. McBride then crushes it and her father comments:
“Some of that is your blood” — (p. 232).
He then references The Flea, a poem by John Donne. McBride relates:

“I tremble with hopefulness, the lines suggesting a closeness between the poem and the person being addressed. A poem might help heal the rift between us.” — (p. 232).

I don’t think I ever completely emotionally connected to elements of Ghost Songs as many readers might. Those with a fascination/experience with Irish American culture, with Yeats, or those who suffer from depression or other related issues might find the memoir strongly resonant. Nevertheless, I could see, feel, and believe the emotional effects these elements have on McBride. I won’t be chasing after more memoirs to read, but I’m certainly more open to trying them than I was previously, and I’m reminded of how beneficial it can be to just give something a try, no matter the preconceived notions. I will certainly recognize the name Regina McBride when I see it again, and I will gladly dig into the writing it appears above. As long as it’s not poetry. Well, maybe even then.
“A particular memory preoccupies me… My father is lost and doesn’t know where to go.” — (pp. 3 – 4).

“I sit up in the darkness in my room in Dublin and cry because I miss my mother. I cry because my mother died without a face.” — (p. 290).

Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

BEFORE by Carmen Boullosa

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Before
By Carmen Boullosa
(Translated by Peter Bush)
Deep Vellum Press — June 2016
ISBN 9781941920282 — 120 Pages – Paperback
Source: Publisher


Before is a perfect example of what makes Deep Vellum Press so invaluable in providing access to English translations of modern world writers. Boullosa’s published works spans from poetry through plays to novels, generally focusing on themes of gender and feminism. This novella provides a finely distilled entry into her themes for those who can’t fluently read Spanish and/or are hesitant to commit to any one of her seventeen novels published in Mexico (with some translated and at least once in print in the US).
Billed as “part bildungsroman, part ghost story, part revenge novel,” Before is told by a woman who may — or may not — be dead, in an uncanny narration that disjointedly recollects her past, the relationships that kept her in fear while young through that uncertain journey to adulthood. Like Modiano, Boullosa’s seems particularly focused here on the theme of memory. Whereas the French novelist has often explored this on the collective cultural/national level, Boullosa’s prose dredges through the personal and familial.
   “(I feel surrounded on all sides by loose ends of memories I’ve invoked when telling you my story. They all rush up, want my hand, as if they were children, shouting ‘me first,’ and I don’t know which to take first, for fear that one will rush out, decide not to come back in a fit of pique. I lecture them: ‘Memories, be patient, let me take you one at a time to consider you more favorably, please understand that if you come at the right moment you’ll shine better in my eyes, you’ll burst and liberate all the treasures hiding on the backs of your roan mares…’ If only I could write what I relate and devote eternity to reading it…)” — pp. 43 – 44.
Before captures and celebrates the contradictions inherent in these relationships and their associated memories:
“My grandmother looked at me disappointedly because I wasn’t the boy she would have liked. My dad…he didn’t look at me that day or any subsequent day, till I lost count. Then, when I stopped noticing he wasn’t looking at me, he did look and did play with me. He was fantastic to play games with.” — p. 11.
Alongside her family, fear lurks as embodiment of the factor that has most influenced the narrator’s memories and development.
“Afterwards I fell asleep and the [terrifying sounds] that woke up…the ones that woke me up! I was in holy fear of them, a nameless tasteless fear, a fear outside of me, that went beyond me…” — p. 27.
Boullosa paints this fear as as a force that parallels the narrator’s sense of isolation from the universe around her, strengthening the forces of patriarchy that stifle her budding individualism and any self-confidence she might discover.
The melancholy tone of Before and its soupçon of the supernatural make it into an eerie auto-bereavement of how a woman began and how the power of others molded her into something else, an entity distinct from what she could have been.
“Because I’m not what I was like as a child. I am who I was, that’s true, I am or think I have been the same from the day I was born to today, but my eyes are not the same.” — p. 65.
The disjointed, fragmented nature of Before, characteristics inherent in memory, should not dissuade readers. Within the novella length this type of construction is palatable and apt. Those who appreciate intelligent, atmospheric meditations on these themes of womanhood, family, memory, and mortality shouldn’t hesitate to allow Before to speak to them.

Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

BIBLE ADVENTURES by Gabe Durham

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Bible Adventures
(Boss Fight Books #7)
By Gabe Durham
Boss Fight Books – March 2015
ISBN 9781940535074 – 99 Pages – eBook
Source: Publisher


NOTE: The following was originally written as “Adding Jesus Stuff” for publication on Atticus Reviews. Changes in their review editor and format delayed processing of this so that it became too late to post with them. I therefore am publishing it here as a start up to new reviews here at Reading 1000 Lives.

There doesn’t appear to be much Christian about the current President of the United States. Yet even he donned a Christian façade in efforts to court Evangelical voters. From gaining the vocal support of Dr. James Dobson – “I believe he really made a commitment, but he’s a baby Christian.” – to choosing a ‘born-again’ running mate, President 45 injected his campaign product with elements of politically conservative Christianity to capture a demographic that is keen for ‘Jesus stuff’ in their politics and often beyond.

As goes an exchange of dialogue from South Park’s 2003 season seven episode “Christian Rock Hard”:

Stan Marsh: You don’t even know anything about Christianity!

Eric Cartman: I know enough to exploit it.

This episode, where Cartman starts a band named ‘Faith + 1’, famously parodies Christian rock music, emphasizing the interchangeability of lyrics between that genre and secular love songs through substitution of proper names with ‘Jesus’. The parody of this episode isn’t limited to music media. Interjection of a Christian veneer into the retail process –whether for goods or services – is ubiquitous. This is because a flavor of Christianity exists that wants alternatives to secular options, whether just to support fellow Believers or to set themselves apart into a community free from the perceived immorality or shortcoming of the secular world’s institutions.

Whatever their reason, for those that want purely Christian options there exists a plethora of markets, often conveniently organized in directories: Christian schools, Christian romance novels, Christian dating services, Christian plumbers, Christian political candidates, Christian video games.

The latter is the subject of Bible Adventures, a book by Gabe Durham that chronicles the formation of Wisdom Tree, a developer of unlicensed video games with ‘Christian’ content for the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) console in the early 1990s. The seventh book in the Boss Fight Books series – which takes a critical, historical, and personal look at personally significant video games – this particular volume is written by the senior series editor, who also founded the series through a successful Kickstarter campaign. Typically the series books have considered well known, highly regarded video games. The games from Wisdom Tree’s catalog are decidedly neither. Yet, the description of these absurd, lazily produced games, the tale of their unlikely production, and the impressions that their limited success conveys regarding American Christian culture make the Wisdom Tree games a fascinating subject for analysis in the series.

Wisdom Tree stemmed from Color Dreams, a small company of video game developers meeting limited success at producing unlicensed NES games. Nintendo held strict guidelines for official games that included bans on nudity, sexual innuendo, excessive violence, gore, and drug use of any kind. Nintendo’s control forced game developers to alter existing games for transfer to the NES console. For example, the Vodka Drunkenski of Punch Out! became Soda Popinski, and the statues of bare-breasted females in Castlevania IV gained clothes. To prevent unlicensed game production for thee console, Nintendo created 10NES, a lock-out chip that only permitted ‘official’ games that included a secret key to function within the NES. Color Dreams, however, found a way to thwart the lock-out. On the cheap they created a series of games that, at times, violated Nintendo standards. But these games also quickly found a reputation for poor quality, and sales went nowhere. Additionally, the company faced the specter of Nintendo’s legal action. Color Dreams’ solution to all this involved tapping into a potential demographic of buying that wasn’t yet being specifically targeted by anyone: the Christian community.

Wisdom Tree thus formed from Color Dreams, with the goal of producing video games with Christianity-related content whose sale could be targeted to churches and the religious. Meanwhile, Nintendo would abstain from any litigation against Wisdom Tree out of feared backlash from parents or religious groups.

Through interviews with the people involved in Wisdom Tree’s formation Durham relates this background and history that led to the development of their game catalog. He also uses the opening chapters of Bible Adventures to explore the mindset of Color Dreams employees during the germination of this plan, and their reactions as implementation proceeded. The Color Dreams game developers were mostly not Christians themselves. Many were atheist, and Durham relates how after a long day of work the team would frequently decompress with a trip to the strip club. Dan Burke, one developer at Color Dreams who was actually Christian at the time related his point of view of the decision to form Wisdom Tree. Durham describes the interview with Burke:

“It’s religion we began with, and religion we circled back to over and over in our two-and-a-half hour conversation, but it never felt like a tangent. Belief was essential to the story of Burke’s time at the company. It was his Christian faith that made Burke quit Color Dreams, and it was his time at Color Dreams that made Burke lose his faith altogether.”

At first objecting to the company speciously using vague Christian content in order to make more money, Burke’s objections continued even after his loss of faith. Only now, as an atheist, he objected to the placement of preachy, religious content into children’s entertainment.

This simultaneous coexistence of faith and doubt – and the moral conflicts regarding methods, products, and intent – continued as Wisdom Tree started. Like Cartman, most of the non-Believing developers knew they could exploit Christians for gain. However, like President 45, they knew that to effectively do so would require an advocate the Christian community would recognize as one of their own. And so they recruited of a sales team led by a young pastor named Michael Wilson, and Brenda Huff, the former employee of a Christian book publisher. In contrast to the game developers, the sales team viewed their product as part of a ministry. Often including prayers during their meetings, they targeted sales efforts to churches and Christian supply stores, trumpeting the value of Wisdom Tree products for young Christians and Biblical education.

The first Wisdom Tree game was Bible Adventures, a three-in-one game that provides the title for Durham’s book. A huge success for the company, this game found a place in Durham’s heart when he first discovered it in his church’s library. And my experience is similar. Back in the day I owned the game solely because I noticed it one day as my mom shopped our local Christian supply store among the many Jesus-related Chotchkies. My mother rarely would let me buy a Nintendo game out of the blue. But this one had educational value! Religious value! It helped you memorize Bible verses! It taught you about faith through Bible stories! Could I have it, just this once? It was good for the soul! For thousands of other children, this sales pitch worked.

With Bible Adventures, and then with later Wisdom Tree games, Durham spends chapters describing game content and his impression of game playability alongside the history of its source and development. Whether familiar with those games or not, these chapters are entertaining, as long as you have some memory of games of that era in general.

Wisdom Tree’s Bible Adventures debut is a three-games-in-one cartridge built around the stories of Noah’s Ark, David and Goliath, and Baby Moses. With similar controls and game play, all three of these games were modeled after the successful Super Mario Brothers 2. Play of both the Noah and the David stories was built around the goal of gathering things: Pairs of animals and loads of goods for Noah, and level after level of lost sheep for David. Collecting for those quaint days before Pokémon Go. Along the way various malevolent beasts would attack or throw things at you to impede completion of your checklist. In its final level, the David game provides you the added ability to sling rocks at Philistines on the way up to a mountain-top confrontation with the famous giant of Gath. In Baby Moses you play Miriam (or his mom?), carrying Baby Moses to safety, with little to do other than avoid Egyptians eager to grab the babe and toss him to a quick drowning in the river. Durham writes about connections between the absolute silliness of this game and the rushed, cheap work of the game developers:

“…Moses’s mom is a picky Levite and she wants to abandon her baby where she wants. She also wants to hold her baby how she wants: Basically she just Super Mario 2’s the baby over her head like it’s an engorged vegetable… and impressively holds the baby aloft like that indefinitely. Even while running at up to 10 mph. That is, unless she throws Baby Moses across the screen, which is that the B button in this Bible Game for Children is for – hurling your baby mightily across the desert and hoping for the best… The reason… [that you can]… throw your child is simple: All the characters in Bible Adventures have the same controls – elderly Noah, buff young David, and our Levite Woman – and the buttons for each Adventure do the same thing: run, jump, pick up, and throw. Wisdom Tree could have programmed each of the three games to have different controls based on the needs of each game, but it would have taken more work.”

The strange thing is that, for both Durham and myself, Bible Adventures is a rather fun game to play. Maybe it is because collecting things are fun. Or maybe it is something else. Durham closes his discussion of each Wisdom Tree game with analysis of why the game failed utterly in its day, or why it, like Bible Adventures, was a success – at least initially. Despite its popularity at the time, the game now frequently makes lists of infamy among those considered worst ever. Durham spends time speculating why this may be: how it may reflect changing tastes or bias against the Christian content and views against its original intended audience.

Released in 1991, Wisdom Tree’s Bible Adventures sold over ~350,000 copies. With such success, and feedback from players that they actually enjoyed the game, the company moved forward to put out even more games, each with a dash of added Jesus-stuff to target the willing audience. Some of these games were ‘originals’ like Bible Adventures. In other cases Wisdom Tree simply took previous titles from the Color Dreams archive and redesigned a few elements to now make them ‘Christian’. The first of this group was Joshua and the Battle of Jericho, a game modded from a ‘crawler’ game they had made titled Crystal Mines, where a robot mined through dirt for hidden treasures. About the ‘Christian-ized’ version, Durham writes:

Joshua is an uglier game [than Bible Adventures] but it was one I could play for longer, a maze crawler where you’re trying to collect all the little thingies to make a magic door appear. You shot music from your body, which first made enemies angry, then killed them. Truth was, it wasn’t much of a battle for Jericho. It played out more like the story of a little man, buried in dirt, trying to sing his way out.”

Durham completes the book with similar coverage of each Wisdom Tree title. The best random fact from this: The cartridge King of Kings: The Early Years, composed of three games built around minor stories around Jesus’ childhood, one of which involves the donkey transporting Mary, Joseph, and the baby Christ to Egypt. At one point you, controlling the donkey, must leap over a polar bear. Because somehow the flight to Egypt involved passage through the Arctic Circle!

Bible Adventures the book closes with summary and considerations to conclude its main theme of paradox: a company of atheists making Christian video games; lazily designed product that is relatively successful and fun to play despite poor quality; exploiting Christians for money while still sating their desire for content tailored with Christian themes, no matter how authentic.

“The fact that [Color Dreams founder] Lawton’s decision to make Bible games was based on money and not faith is more the rule than the exception in retail. Many of the biggest sellers of Christian stuff are actually the Christian-targeted arms of their flexi-theistic parent companies… The Cynical was of putting it is that these companies are squeezing dollars out of people who think that buying Christian merch is in some way supporting Christianity itself…”

However, as Durham quotes one Color Dreams employee responding to this criticism, this is “like expecting every company who delivered your kale to the market to be authentically ‘organic.”

Bible Adventures is therefore one-third history/biography, one-third video game analysis, and one-third reflection on the paradoxes that the Wisdom Tree story provides. Durham’s text is conversational, by no means academic. But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t some substance to the words. Durham makes clear that despite the coarseness of Wisdom Tree products, and their questionable ethics as peddlers of Christian content, their games provided a lot of fun and fond memories for many. Now if we could only say the same about President 45.

Disclaimer: I received a free electronic copy of this from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Kickstarter for 2084: An Anthology of Eleven Science Fiction Short Stories

I’m pleased to help announce the start of a Kickstarter campaign for a new SF anthology inspired by Orwell from Unsung Stories titled 2084: An Anthology of Eleven Science Fiction Stories (Print ISBN: 978-1-907389-50-4; Ebook ISBN: 978-1-907389-53-5)

To my recollection I previously reviewed two of their publications,  The Arrival of Missives by Aliya Whiteley (which I really loved) and Déjà Vu by Ian Hocking (which I didn’t enjoy as much, though others did). I have a new novella by them on deck to review, and I’m really looking forward to this collection, which will feature a new story by Whiteley, as well as stories from many other notable SF authors.


From the publisher’s press release:

“Unsung Stories have gathered eleven leading science fiction writers who have looked ahead to 2084, as Orwell did in 1948, for a new anthology – writers such as David Hutchinson, Christopher Priest, Lavie Tidhar, James Smythe, Jeff Noon and Anne Charnock, who are already famous for their visions of the near future.

As the events of 2017 reveal an ever more complex relationship between people and their governments, classic dystopian literature is proving its relevance once again. But as readers turn to classics, like Nineteen Eighty-Four, writers are also looking to our future, and what may lie there.

Speaking about the anthology, George Sandison, Managing Editor at Unsung Stories, said, “We knew when we first started work on the anthology that the idea was timely, but the start of 2017 has really hammered home how important writing like this is.

“Dystopian fiction gives us a space in which to explore today’s fears, and the nightmares of society. For many people the events of the last eighteen months have brought those dark futures much closer, so it’s inevitable that we turn to literature to help us understand why.

“The ideas at work in 2084 range from the familiar to the fantastic, but all are bound by a current and relevant sense of what we could lose, what’s at stake. As with Orwell’s work, decades from now, we will be looking back to our stories, to better understand today.”

2084 will be published by Unsung Stories in July 2017.”

The full contributor list is:

  • Desirina Boskovich
  • Anne Charnock (author of Sleeping Embers of an Ordinary Mind and A Calculated Life)
  • Ian Hocking (author of Deja Vu)
  • Dave Hutchinson (author of The Fractured Europe Sequence)
  • Cassandra Khaw (author of Hammers on Bone and Rupert Wong: Cannibal Chef)
  • Oliver Langmead (author of Dark Star and Metronome)
  • Jeff Noon (author of Vurt, Automated Alice, Pollen, and more)
  • Christopher Priest (author of The Prestige, The Dream Archipelago, The Gradual, and many more)
  • James Smythe (author of The Australia Trilogy, The Echo, The Explorer, and more)
  • Lavie Tidhar (author of A Man Lies Dreaming, Osama and Central Station)
  • Aliya Whiteley (author of The Beauty and The Arrival Of Missives)

Head over to the Kickstarter  page now to help support this anthology and take advantage of backer rewards! Also be sure to share the news with your social networks.