FALLING IN LOVE WITH HOMINIDS by Nalo Hopkinson

26386436

Falling in Love with Hominids
By Nalo Hopkinson
Tachyon Publications – August 2015
ISBN 9781616961992 – 240 Pages – eBook
Source: NetGalley


Contents:
“The Easthound”
“Soul Case”
“Message in a Bottle”
“The Smile on the Face”
“Left Foot, Right”
“Old Habits”
“Emily Breakfast”
“Herbal”
“A Young Candy Daughter”
“A Raggy Dog, a Shaggy Dog”
“Shift”
“Delicious Monster”
“Snow Day”
“Flying Lessons”
“Whose Upward Flight I Love”
“Blushing”
“Ours is the Pretties”
“Men Sell Not Such in Any Town”

“I didn’t used to like people much.” So starts Hopkinson in the forward to her third short fiction collection, Falling in Love with Hominids. The title comes from a line by science fiction author Cordwainer Smith, whose “Instrumentality of Mankind” work Hopkinson cites as an important influence on her own writing.
“I loved his imagination, style, the poetry of his writing, his compassion. Loved his sensibility in writing about a racialized, manufactured underclass and telling some of the stories from their context.”
The stories within this collection originate from across roughly a decade span of Hopkinson’s writing career; with varied styles and themes they are absolutely unified only in their author. So then who is Hopkinson?
Born in Jamaica and raised in Guyana, Trinidad, and Canada, Hopkinson writes speculative fiction and fantasy that typically includes elements of Caribbean culture and tradition. Many readers appreciate this perspective that her heritage provides the field, and she is equally valued for sincere inclusion of characters who may be any combination of people-of-colo(u)r, female, or queer. Such unique perspective alone shouldn’t define her work though. Above all Hopkinson is talented, attracting the respect of writers such as Junot Díaz and earning accolades such as the 1999 Campbell Award for Best New Writer.
 –
The uniqueness of her perspective also doesn’t mean that her writing is just for people like her. It’s really important to have books by all kinds of people, not just straight, white men. But that doesn’t mean that a book by a straight, white man can’t speak to a queer, black woman. Or in this case, the reverse. Hopkinson’s writing touches all those qualities that her quote on Cordwainer Smith mentions. She writes universal, core themes of what it is to be human, to deal with despair and to fight it. As her forward to the collection relates, this comes from her own evolution as an individual in society.

“One of the progressions I’ve made is from being a depressed teenager who saw how powerless she was to change all the ills around her to being a mostly cheerful fifty-something who realizes there are all kinds of ways of working together towards positive change… So part of the work of these past few decades of my life has been the process of falling love with hominids.”

The opening story of this collection, “The Easthound”, is an exquisite introduction to the range of Hopkinson’s writing. Set in a post-apocalyptic world where adults become ‘sprouted’ into creatures that kill and feed upon the living, the story uses setting and a minimized plot as backdrop to focus on characters and emotion. This balance – tending towards what typically gets called literary – is typical of Hopkinson’s stories. Also common for her work, here she takes a general premise that should be familiar to science fiction fans and puts on her unique twist. Her writing is not usually ‘light’ reading and some of her stories benefit from multiple reads because nuanced characteristics aren’t at first registered. Yet, “The Easthound” demonstrates that Hopkinson can write taut action sequences amid more quiet moments of deep character introspection. The language can vary from the straight-forward to a more artistic poetry, such as lines in this story that form part of a ‘Loup-de-lou‘ game that children play.
Because of her range as a writer, readers may not enjoy or appreciate all the stories in the collection. Some, like “Flying Lessons” or “Blushing” seem designed to challenge the author and reader alike. “Soul Case” puts a lot of complexity into a relatively small bit of space. (Not unlike, perhaps, fitting a  soul and intelligence into the limitations of a human body, the ‘soul case’ of the title). For some its explorations of politics, history, race, and humanity will work brilliantly. Others may wish its soul had more room to breathe, to develop within the novella length. “Shift” adds a Caribbean twist to The Tempest, another example of a story grounded in something familiar to contrast with stories that have elements more unconventional – and verging on bizarro, like in “Emily Breakfast” or “Snow Day”.
Overall this collection conveys a feeling of reading folklore. Readers particularly drawn to that style of fantasy will probably easily enjoy Falling in Love with Hominids, as Hopkinson uses the style effectively even in the context of a science fiction tale. Some of the stories here have been included elsewhere, including “Best of…” anthologies, pointing to Hopkinson’s success and recognition. If you haven’t yet experienced her writing, there is no better place to get a representative view of it as this.

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

THE MONSTROUS, Edited by Ellen Datlow

24998915

The Monstrous
Edited by Ellen Datlow
Tachyon Publications – October 2015
ASIN B010MCWEI6 – 384 Pages – eBook
Source: NetGalley


Contents:
“A Natural History of Autumn” by Jeffrey Ford
“Ashputtle” by Peter Straub
“Giants in the Earth” by Dale Bailey
“The Beginning of the Year without Summer” by Caitlín R. Kiernan
“A Wish from a Bone” by Gemma Files
“The Last, Clean, Bright Summer” by Livia Llewellyn
“The Totals” by Adam-Troy Castro
“The Chill Clutch of the Unseen” by Kim Newman
“Down Among the Dead Men” by Jack Dann and Gardner Dozois
“Catching Flies” by Carole Johnstone
“Our Turn Too Will One Day Come” by Brian Hodge
“Grindstone” by Stephen Graham Jones
“Doll Hands” by Adam L.G. Nevill
“How I Met the Ghoul” by Sofia Samatar
“Jenny Come to Play” by Terry Dowling
“Miss Ill-Kept Runt” by Glen Hirshberg
“Chasing Sunset” by A.C. Wise
“The Monster Makers” by Steve Rasnic Tem
“Piano Man” by Christopher Fowler
“Corpsemouth” by John Langan

For anyone familiar with editor Datlow the short review for her recent horror anthology The Monstrous would be that it is everything you’ve come to expect from her superb taste and expert experience. If you’ve liked previous anthologies from her, you’ll love this. If you’re a decided non-fan, I wouldn’t expect this anthology to change your mind, tastes in horror just don’t match.
 –
For anyone wanting to give modern horror a try who hasn’t read a Datlow anthology, this is a fine place to start, if not her previous curated volumes. Awhile back I reviewed another Datlow anthology, Fearful Symmetries. Several of the authors featured in that collection reappear here offering new works, and a small number of stories are actually duplicated. In the case of Gemma File’s “A Wish from a Bone” I particularly didn’t mind the rerun. Her story, featuring a TV documentary crew entering an ancient Middle Eastern tomb, is just as entertaining the second time though. A few of the authors I had hoped would also pop up in this anthology were absent, such as Helen Marshall, but this at least gave me the chance for some new discoveries.
The selections in The Monstrous run the gamut of the horror genre, from the subtle to the creepy, the graphic, and the weird. The anthology’s theme also fits a broad interpretation of ‘monstrous’. The monsters are human and beastly, earthly and supernatural, literal and figurative. In many cases the monstrous is unexpected, as are the directions and tones the stories may take. “The Last, Clean, Bright Summer” by Livia Llewellyn is perhaps the best example of the latter. The title of this story and its start suggest family-friendly positivity, pleasant days and warmth. But Llewellyn quickly turns behind the façade of tradition and happiness toward the darkness at the heart of a family gathering. This story is Lovecraftian in inspiration, but not so heavily as to ruin my appreciation of its  well-played contrasts.
 –
Peter Straub, a name that should be recognized by anyone familiar with horror, includes “Ashputtle” here, a creepy and subtle story about a kindergarten teacher who appears increasingly a bit ‘off’. Other authors in the collection should be known from short fiction markets, such as Dale Bailey (“Giants in the Earth”) whose work is often in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, or Sofia Samatar (“How I Met the Ghoul”) whose work has appeared throughout the major ezines, such as Lightspeed, Clarkesworld, and Uncanny magazines. Bailey’s story of coal miners encountering something abnormal does a great job handling settling and the inherent uneasiness of dangerous professions. Samatar, a Somali American, offers an uncommon (in the West) version of the ghoul, which in  Middle Eastern myth is something more like a desert-based mermaid, a beautiful spirit luring men to their demise.
There were only a couple of stories that I didn’t particularly enjoy in this collection, and most fall into a range I would call ‘very good’. A couple really grabbed me though. “Down Among the Dead Men” is a collaboration between a name unknown to me (Jack Dann) and a well-known science fiction editor (Gardner Dozois). Featuring a vampire in a concentration camp this is the kind of story that obviously has huge symbolic and emotional weight. The combination would be very easy to botch up, but Dann and Dozois pull it off amazingly, creating riveting drama that combines the monstrous and the human. Some may think that the Holocaust has enough horror in it without needing a supernatural addition. Yet, this element of a fantastic monster alongside human atrocity allows development and clarity of profound themes.
The collection ends with “Corpsemouth” by John Langan, a stellar example of an ‘epic’ short story. Including emotional complexity with strong characters and plot this story merges the modern with the ancient. In part its style reminds me of classic gothic horror tales of Britain, but with modern language and present-day context. This marks one of multiple stories in this collection that feature horrors that reveal themselves in relation to family. Perhaps this frequency is because of their power, monstrous realities we are innocently born into and cannot easily escape. Ones we have a responsibility of blood to face and overcome. “Corpsemouth” is a top take on this theme, bringing The Monstrous to a satisfying conclusion that makes me greedily await Datlow’s next project.

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

STORIES FOR CHIP: A TRIBUTE TO SAMUEL R. DELANY, Edited by Nisi Shawl & Bill Campbell

Just up today, my latest review for Skiffy & Fanty

chip

“Publishing since the age of twenty, Samuel R. Delany is a highly respected novelist and literary critic alike. Familiarly known as “Chip”, Delany has written science fiction and fantasy (SFF) known for pushing boundaries, for challenging the notions of speculative genres, and experimenting with approaches to literature in general. Delany’s writing both subverts conventions and transcends fiction to explore social realities, most notably the existence of the Other. Indeed, as a man who could be described with terms such as academic, homosexual, polymath, African-American, and intelligent, Delany writes from the point of view of the Other, a spectrum of under-represented perspectives within SFF.

Both Delany’s fiction and nonfiction have been hugely influential, inspiring, and appreciated, partly due to this unique vision. However, his works have also resonated so strongly because Delany’s vision is not just unique, but uniquely brilliant, honest, and perceptive. With all of its challenges and transgressions against comfortable familiarity, Delany’s work strikes universal human chords, conveying both beauty and progressive encouragement…” Read the entire review on Skiffy & Fanty here.

Disclaimer: I received a free advanced reading copy of this novel from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

I AM CRYING INSIDE AND OTHER STORIES by Clifford D. Simak

25730874

I Am Crying Inside and Other Stories
The Complete Short Fiction of Clifford D. Simak, Volume I
By Clifford D. Simak
(with Introductions by David W. Wixon, Editor)
Open Road Media – 20th October 2015
ISBN 9781504012652) – 332 Pages – eBook
Source: NetGalley


UPDATE: The release date for this was marked incorrectly on NetGalley and Goodreads, so I ended up publishing this WAY earlier than I would otherwise have. I’ve now updated the date here and on Goodreads based on the information on Amazon.com and the publisher’s website.

CONTENTS:
“Installment Plan”
“I Had No Head and My Eyes Were Floating Away Up In the Air”
“Small Deer”
“Ogre”
“Gleaners”
“Madness From Mars”
“Gunsmoke Interlude”
“I Am Crying All Inside”
“The Call From Beyond”
“All the Traps of Earth”

Aside from Isaac Asimov novels and the first volume of the Science Fiction Hall of Fame, I haven’t really read much classic science fiction. I feel there is something worthwhile in expanding horizons, also into the historical context of the past, so I was pleased to have a chance to check out the start to this collection of the complete short fiction by Golden Age author Clifford D. Simak.
As you might expect for something written over half-a-century ago some of Simak’s stories are a bit dated in terms of both the science and culturally. But they aren’t particularly offensive to modern sensibilities and there is still a lot to be enjoyed within these stories. It should appeal to anyone wanting more exposure to classic tales of the genre from an author whose stories age relatively well and people who want to revisit beloved Simak tales.
This first volume of a planned fourteen in the collection doesn’t seem to have any particular scheme to its organization, but the tales do span a range of the types of stories and themes that I gather Hugo and Nebula Award-winning Simak is best known for. Each story is preceded by a short introduction from editor and executor of Simak’s writing estate, David W. Dixon.
I Am Crying Inside and Other Stories begins with a longer story that features Simak’s repeated exploration of robotic intelligence and emotion. Robots are obviously a frequently visited topic in SF, not new even in Simak’s time. Despite the familiarity of the types of questions/dilemmas regarding robots that Simak delves into, his take still doesn’t come off as cliched now, or dull. While I find the opening story “Installment Plan” to be overly long, it did resonate with how human the robots were it in, not mere automatons, but created instruments that had emotions and personalities. Simak’s robots seem more alive and human than many of his human protagonists. The concluding story “All the Traps of Earth” returns to the robot themes in a far more powerful story where a robot who has escaped mandatory memory erasure finds a home and purpose elsewhere beyond, but not completely divorced from, humanity.
“Small Deer” and “Gleaners” are two representatives of Simak time-travel stories. The latter is about a group that goes back in time to retrieve objects of value and felt like an early version of a story that I’ve seen crop up often in recent years still. Simak’s seems less about the cleverness of the time-travel setup as about the intrigue of the story and characters. “Small Deer” on the other hand is more about the idea than the particular adventure of the plot. In it a man goes back in time to witness the extinction of the dinosaurs and discovers what killed them may be back again for humankind. I enjoyed the story for its “Twilight Zone” type vibe, and it is an example of a Simak tale that includes some elements of horror.
Simak, who won a Stoker achievement award in its first year of being offered, does employ light horror in some of his stories, most evident here with “Madness from Mars” and “The Call from Beyond”. The latter can be accurately described as Simak trying some Lovecraft flavors. Both stories feature humanity discovering something unsettling and strange as a result of space exploration. These weren’t my favorite stories here, and the science in “Madness from Mars” is particularly dated, but they are fairly good.
The titular “I Am Crying All Inside” and “Gunsmoke Interlude” were the stories I least enjoyed. The latter is straight up pulp Western, a genre I simply could care less about. “I Am Crying All Inside” is one of the most emotionally resonant stories here, the most touching. While Simak made his robots larger-than-life, it seems he usually made his humans more salt-of-the-Earth. Wixon quotes Simak in the intro to this story as responding to criticism of his human protagonists as ‘losers’ with the explanation: “I like losers”. The folksy nature and regional dialect of the voice in the story ruined it for me.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, “I Had No Head and My Eyes Were Floating Away Up In the Air” and “Ogre” were my favorite stories of the bunch. I largely liked both of these stories because of the biological elements they contained and their shared theme of anti-exploitation.
The former story though is weakened by going on far too long for what it is, and with a fair amount of repetition. In it a man arrives on another planet intent on stripping it of its resources for his own economic benefit, with nothing but contempt and disregard for the planet’s ‘simple’, ‘uncultured’ inhabitants. But after an ‘accident’ leaving him dead, the planet’s lifeforms resurrect him in a body more suitable for the environment and he learns the hard way that his preconceptions are way off, and his greed abhorred. Actually, the guy never really ‘learns’ the errors of his way as much as the reader is given a cautionary tale. I loved the biological alien detail here linked to the planet’s properties, and for a time at least I read with an interpretation that the planet itself was a sentient life guiding these events.
“Ogre” is another fairly long story, but this time rightly so. It features wonderful biological speculation of sentient plant life and plant life adopted to give photosynthetic capabilities to humans through symbiosis. Interesting stuff, and coupled with it we get a plot again warning against the dangers of exploiting another culture and resources. In this story, members of exploration group try to prevent another human from harvesting sentient trees (that are also musical) and taking them back to Earth. Another notable aspect to the story is that it features a set of space exploration rules very much akin to what years later would form the ‘Prime Directive’ of Star Trek‘s Federation.
Overall I’m looking forward to seeing the other volumes collecting Simak’s fiction, and this reaffirms to me the use of at least trying out some classic Golden Age SFF. It is impossible now to read everything that has gone before to form the genre field and still keep up with the exciting directions it is going today to evolve from that past. But dipping into the historical perspective is valuable not just in showing what has been done well, but also what mistakes to not make or move on from. And it is reassuring – though simultaneously slightly depressing – to see social themes still explored today already brought up so many decades ago in that Golden Age of SF.

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

MUSIC FOR WARTIME: STORIES, by Rebecca Makkai

23398883

Music for Wartime: Stories
By Rebecca Makkai
Viking – 23rd June 2015
ISBN 9780525426691 – 240 Pages – Hardcover
Source: NetGalley


CONTENTS:
“The Singing Women”
“The Worst You Ever Feel”
“The November Story”
“The Miracle Years of Little Fork”
“Other Brands of Poison (First Legend)”
“The Briefcase”
“Peter Torrelli, Falling Apart”
“Couple of Lovers on a Red Background”
“Acolyte (Second Legend)”
“Everything We Know About the Bomber”
“Painted Ocean, Painted Ship”
“A Bird in the House (Third Legend)”
“Exposition”
“Cross”
“Good Saint Anthony Come Around”
“Suspension: April 20, 1984”
“The Museum of the Dearly Departed”

Roughly one year ago I read and reviewed Rebecca Makkai’s second novel The Hundred-Year House. Looking back to those recorded thoughts compared to my memory I realize that a large part of my response to her novel stemmed from the power and promise of Makkai’s writing overcoming some flaws in the construction of a full novel. As impressive as the novel was, it really does resembles a collection of shorter stories interwoven around the history of a family and home. I wasn’t looking forward to another novel by Makkai (and I still haven’t read her first), but was rather really itching to see what she could do with short fiction.
Her new collection Music for Wartime: Stories affirms that initial sense. Makkai writes an exceptional short story, filled with evocative language with plots that often take slight steps into the fantastic or surreal:
“When the nine-fingered violinist finally began playing, Aaron hid high up on the wooden staircase, as far above the party as the ghosts. He was a spider reigning over the web of oriental rug, that burst of red and black and gold, and from his spider limbs stretched invisible fibers, winding light and sticky around the forty guests, around his parents, around Radelscu the violinist.” 
As in The Hundred-Year House, there are not necessarily actual ghosts here, and the rest is metaphor. But these opening lines to “The Worst You Ever Feel”, the first major story of the collection, set the atmosphere for Makkai’s collection. The opening very short tale, “The Singing Women”, also serves as a sort of introduction, serving as a modern fairy tale, an anecdote that establishes repeating, unifying elements of Music for Wartime. Many of the stories, with their hint of oddity, will appear like fairy tales. Interspersed with the main longer stories are shorter flash-type stories. Of these, three are marked as “Legends” in their titles, and they carry a semi-biographical relation to the Makkai family history. These three short ‘legends’ recall elements of “The Singing Women” where the relation between the number three and fairy tales – their emotion and power – is brought up.
These shorter stories in the collection, particularly the three anecdotal ‘legends’ taken with “The Singing Women” will likely be the one aspect to Music for Wartime that divides reader reactions. Some may find them too short, and unnecessary. I however found their interludes to be among the most engaging, and they do help form the only structural coherence to the collection. For the stories of Music for Wartime are very distinct from one another. They range in emotion and humor, plots, and protagonists. Stories feature different ages, genders, and relationships. Though some aspect related to ‘music’ crops up in most (indeed all the stories I ended up mentioning in this review), there is no overarching theme to the collection. Similarly, the plots of any single story are somewhat difficult to summarize quickly. Each of the major stories has a healthy dose of complexity and can go in unexpected directions from the setup. Yet Makkai manages to keep firm hold of the reader without dropping any of the balls she has in the air.
Each of the main stories are great, but I do have some favorites. “The November Story” is about a woman involved in producing a reality show, who is tasked with manipulating contestants to form a relationship together, all while she struggles in managing her own real-life relationship with her girlfriend. “The Miracle Years of Little Fork” reminds me of the TV show Carnivale, with a blend of historical and hints of magic as a circus comes to a small town. “Couple of Lovers on a Red Background” may be the most surreal and memorable story in the collection. In this one a woman finds J.S. Bach living in her piano. She starts introducing him to the modern world, and soon enters into a sexual relationship with the goal of creating a child with an artistic genius. There is no explanation to this odd situation, it just is. And Makkai does exceptional things with it, digging into her protagonist’s psychology and themes of basic human drives. In “Cross” a cellist discovers near her driveway one of those memorial markers, placed after the death of a teenager in a car accident. Her annoyance with its presence contrasted with grief over a tragedy leads to a sort of crossroads in her own life: rediscovered friends and new opportunities.
I’ve noticed several other readers remark that they thoroughly enjoyed Music for Wartime despite not normally being fans of short fiction. Like those that would make a blanket statement of ‘I don’t like vegetables’, until they happen to taste vegetables cooked properly and deliciously, Makkai’s collection is likely to have a similar effect. The stories are well-written, engaging, and varied. They are literary, but approachable and have just enough of a twist of weirdness to be intriguing but not off-putting to a broad audience. I’ll join others in highly recommending this.

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

CALLIGRAPHY LESSON: THE COLLECTED STORIES, by Mikhail Shishkin

23282219

Calligraphy Lesson: The Collected Stories
By Mikhail Shishkin (Translated)
Deep Vellum Publishing – 12th May 2015
ISBN 9781941920039  – 180 Pages – Paperback
Source: Edelweiss


CONTENTS:
“The Half-Belt Overcoat” (Translated by Leo Shtutuin)
“Calligraphy Lesson” (Translated by Marion Schwartz)
“The Blind Musician” (Translated by Marion Schwartz)
“Language Saved” (Translated by Marion Schwartz)
“Nabakov’s Inkblot” (Translated by Mariya Bashkatova)
“Of Saucepans and Star-Showers” (Translated by Leo Shtutin)
“The Bell Tower of San Marco” (Translated by Sylvia Maizell)
“In a Boat Scratched on a Wall” (Translated by Marion Schwartz)

        –

This book from Deep Vellum Publishing marks the first collection of Mikhail Shishkin’s stories in English. Shishkin is a highly-regarded writer in contemporary Russian literature, a winner of multiple literary prizes whose name comes up with the likes of Haruki Murakami and Krasznahorkai László for potential candidacy for the Nobel Prize in Literature.
Shishkin’s writing is typical of the literary genre in its skillful achievement of complex, stylistic prose to evoke poignant themes common to all people, including love, life, family, and death. His particular style is impressionistic, which matches the characteristics of his dominating theme: language. The translation required for bringing these stories to Anglophones who cannot read Russian is wonderfully fitting with the primary concern of Shishkin’s prose. Through the narrators Shishkin argues that language is a barrier, something imperfect that can never express an exact truth. Twice he points to the story of the Tower of Babel as emblematic (the start of) the separations that language engenders.
Yet Shishkin’s stories explore this concept a bit more deeply, particularly in light of what language is able accomplish, despite its limitations through the art of prose, of the story. His debut 1993 story that gives the Calligraphy Lesson collection its name most strongly delves into this. In this story Shishkin considers words and their formation, whether through the process of basic writing, the art of calligraphy, or spoken and the power that they have to convey meaning both implicitly and explicitly. Moreover, he explores how language can be used to interpret complex human emotions and experience, such as the soul-numbing violence faced by the police investigator in the story.
Language allows organization of fragments, it allows the impression of a truth to be conveyed through imperfect means through the interpretations it permits. In one brilliantly written courtroom scene in the title story characters consider one word in Russian and the meaning, the ‘baggage’, that each letter of that word brings along with it, how they resonate in sound and appearance when written. Earlier in the story, Shishkin alternates scenes describing the composition of calligraphic text with scenes that mirror points in aspects of human interactions. Thus language itself is a translation, a transformation of ideas.
Aside from the repeated theme of language in general, Shishkin’s stories are also firmly embedded within the historical context of Russian literary history. (Footnotes and one brief, but very informative afterward are provided by the translators to give some grounding to readers.) The most recent story from Shishkin, 2013’s “Nabokov’s inkblot” illustrates this condition most directly with a character-driven tale that features a man considering his present, the weight that we attach to memories of the past, of historical significance broad or personal, and how they may be viewed quite differently in the light of the present moment.
The only limitation from the collection, from perhaps Shishkin’s short fiction in general, is the question of where it has grown – or can grow. His mastery of themes shines here, and he follows that dictum of writing what one knows best. His stories all feature male protagonists that resemble their author, literary-inclined Russians, some of whom like the author spend time residing in Switzerland. Can he write more than this? Does he need to even, if this where he excels, where he has something to say. For immediate purposes such questions are somewhat moot. This particular collection is short enough that the thematic repetition doesn’t try the reader, it is the perfect length for the stories to remain engaging. Additionally, stories vary in how far they extend the themes symbolically into the characters. For instance “The Blind Musician” considers language further within the realm of sight, with both the fallibility and unique abilities that blindness could offer.”In a Boat Scratched on a Wall” on the other hand is less of a narrative, something closer to an essay.
Books like this make me thankful for publishers of all kinds that support and facilitate translation of the world’s literature into English for the US market. In this case it offers accessibility to a major figure who I would otherwise be ignorant. Deep Vellum Publishing is a Dallas-based nonprofit literary arts organization that specializes in getting translations to market. You can find out more about the organization, their books and their translators at their site. One translator of many of the stories in Calligraphy Lesson, Marion Schwartz, was just shortlisted for the 2015 Read Russia prize for her translation of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina.
Through 5th June 2015 you can enter to win a copy of the Calligraphy Lesson collection through Goodreads’ Giveaway program.

Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this from Deep Vellum Publishing via Edelweiss in exchange for an honest review.

TRUTH OR DARE?, Edited by Max Booth III

23197861

Truth or Dare?
Edited By Max Booth III
Perpetual Motion Machine Publishing – 31st October 2015
ISBN 9780986059452  – 234 Pages – Paperback
Source: NetGalley


CONTENTS:
“Shackled to the Shadows”, by Richard Thomas
“An Unpleasant Truth about Death”, by Eric J. Guignard
“Mantid”, by Kenneth W. Cain
“A Ribbon, a Rover”, by Jessica McHugh
“Iz”, by Eli Wilde
“Laal Andhi”, by Usman T. Malik
“The Bone Witch”, by Chantal Noordeloos
“The Pole”, by William Meikle
“Lucy’s Arrow”, by Jay Wilburn
“Change”, by Peter & Shannon Giglio
“Marco Polo”, by James Chambers
“The Dog Metaphor”, by Vincenzo Bilof
“The Whited Sepulchre”, by Nik Korpon
“Rattlebone Express”, by Sanford Allen
“The Shadow Life of Suburbia”, by T. Fox Dunham
“The Other Bonfire”, by Jeremy C. Shipp
“Oh Fuck, it’s the Cops”, by Joe McKinney

        –

I wish I would’ve had copy of this back around the time it was initially released, because it would be the perfect thing to read through the nights around Halloween. The short stories of this themed horror collection Truth or Dare of course share a framework around the party game. But they also share a common universe in setting and characters, the high school students of Greene Point High in Ohio who gather around a bonfire on Halloween night to reveal untold tales or meet the twisted challenges of peers.
While the shared aspect works fine as a setup, the collection doesn’t really hold up to many strong linkages between stories, and it is hard to envision how the events of all the stories could possibly all have occurred during this one supposed night. Yet, this aspect is something that can just be basically ignored, and each of the stories work fine with separate consideration as part of a shared theme collection rather than a shared universe narrative as well.
The stories reminded me of the quality and breadth that readers could expect from typical horror short fiction markets, including Nightmare Magazine, which I’m most familiar with, and the collection includes well-established authors and new-comers alike. A few of the stories didn’t impress me much, but on the whole the collection kept me entertained and provided the slight chills that scary stories and horror provide.
Truth or Dare opens with Thomas’ “Shackled to the Shadows”, which does a good job at setting the overall tone, first person narration, and a general structure shared by many of the loosely connected stories. With this story one already gets a sense that there are many levels of horror surrounding this high school game: the pains of being an outsider within the harsh realms of teenage existence, the monstrosity that people can manifest and the hatred it can in turn engender from victims. Beyond the internal viciousness of the characters there is also the impression of external malevolence, supernatural and ancient. In this opening story and beyond the reader sees that there is the horror of the story itself, but like all good campfire tales they conclude with hints of an even greater horror awakened, to come.
After the opening story heavy on tone, Guignard’s “An Unpleasant Truth about Death” relates an interesting plot about a near (or perhaps actual) death experience that highlights the dangers of intense curiosity and touches upon the power that games like Truth or Dare have, a superstitious hold of rules that one doesn’t take seriously on the level of rationality, but breeds deep fear in the soul upon transgression.
Though entertaining, Guignard’s story (or the one related by the character at least) has the feeling of being contrived – to have that creepy effect on the reader (or the fictional audience in the story). This isn’t a bad thing, I think it’s partially something integral to these kinds of stories, and it reminded me somewhat of the way classic creepy folklore goes, having an emotional effect but then triggering questions about how some plot detail could really happen – or why. This kind of effect casts doubt on whether the scary story is true, giving the audience a rational out to discount danger and allay fear. But what if it did happen?
Perhaps you can recall Schwartz’s classic Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark collections? Many of the stories in Truth or Dare reminded me of that style, tone, and plotting, but for an adult audience. Jessica McHugh’s “A Ribbon, Rover” is a great example of that, with a compelling plot that seems inventive yet also something born of ageless tales, mirroring the character of the story itself. I’ve read one novel of McHugh’s prior, but this is closer to actual classic horror and I look forward to reading more in that vein from her lovely mind. “The Bone Witch” and “Rattlebone Express” are two others that recalled those feelings of fairy tale and folklore in excellent modern fashion.
“The Bone Witch” also had slight tones of humor in it, despite a rather horrific situation and outcome. “Change” later in the collection from the Giglios also has this certain lightness, which provides some nice variety amid the more darkly emotional stories or the creature horrors of stories like “Mantid” and McKinney’s closing piece.
A few stories also delve into deeper waters of real horror, or in the case of “Iz” tackle the general issue of what makes a monster, what they do both to threaten society or perhaps provide for society. “The Pole” almost literally brings up Nazi skeletons in the closet and “Marco Polo” tackles the very real horrors of abuse. Malik provides a story (Laal Andhi, or Crimson Storm) of horrors from Pakistan, linking uncanny events with the real violence of terrorism, where macabre events from childhood end up imprinting damage on a young boy leading him to senseless and hopeless conflagration in the future.
A satisfying collection that would particularly fit reading in situations (beyond Halloween time) like a summer camping trip, Truth or Dare features a really good idea with the game as a theme for the horror genre. Even if Booth’s collection fails to make a cohesive narrative taken all together, it succeeds well in providing a range of tales that horror fans would enjoy and perhaps some new authors to discover.

Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this from Perpetual Motion Machine Publishing via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

THE BEST SCIENCE FICTION AND FANTASY OF THE YEAR, VOLUME 9


22609311The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year
(Volume 9)
Edited By Jonathan Strahan
Solaris – 12th May 2015
ISBN 9781781083093  – 624 Pages – Paperback
Source: NetGalley


CONTENTS:
“Slipping”, by Lauren Beukes (Twelve Tomorrows: MIT Technology Review SF Annual 2014)
“Moriabe’s Children”, by Paolo Bacigalupi (Monstrous Affections)
“The Vaporization Enthalpy of a Peculiar Pakistani Family”, by Usman T. Malik (Qualia Nous)
“The Lady and the Fox”, by Kelly Link (My True Love Gave to Me)
“Ten Rules for Being an Intergalactic Smuggler (The Successful Kind)”, by Holly Black (Monstrous Affections)
“The LONG HAUL, from the ANNALS OF TRANSPORTATION, The Pacific Monthly, May 2009”, by Ken Liu (Clarkesworld, Nov 2014)
“Tough Times All Over”, by Joe Abercrombie (Rogues)
“The Insects of Love”, by Genevieve Valentine (Tor.com, 28th May 2014)
“Cold Wind”, by Nicola Griffith (Tor.com, 16th Apr 2014)
“Interstate Love Song (Murder Ballad No. 8), by Caitlín R. Kiernan (Sirenia Digest #100, May 2014)
“Shadow Flock”, by Greg Egan (Coming Soon Enough)
“I Met a Man Who Wasn’t There”, by K.J. Parker (Subterranean Magazine, Winter 2014)
“Grand Jeté (The Great Leap)”, by Rachel Swirsky (Subterranean Magazine, Summer 2014)
“Mothers, Lock Up Your Daughters Because They are Terrifying”, by Alice Sola Kim (Tin House #61)
“Shay Corsham Worsted”, by Garth Nix (Fearful Symmetries)
“Kheldyu”, by Karl Schroeder (Reach for Infinity)
“Caligo Lane”, by Ellen Klages (Subterranean Magazine, Winter 2014)
“The Devil in America”, by Kai Ashanti Wilson (Tor.com 2nd Apr 2014)
“Tawny Petticoats”, by Michael Swanwick (Rogues)
“The Fifth Dragon”, by Ian McDonald (Reach for Infinity)
“The Truth About Owls”, by Amal El-Mohtar (Kaleidoscope)
“Four Days of Christmas”, by Tim Maughan (Terraform, Dec 2014)
“Covenant”, by Elizabeth Bear (Hieroglyph: Stories & Visions for a Better Future)
“Cimmeria: From the Journal of Imaginary Anthropology”, by Theodora Goss (Lightspeed, Jul 2014)
“Collateral”, by Peter Watts (Upgraded)
“The Scrivener”, by Eleanor Arnason (Subterranean Magazine, Winter 2014)
“Someday”, by James Patrick Kelly (Asimov’s Science Fiction, Apr/May 2014)
“Amicae Aeternum”, by Ellen Klages (Reach for Infinity)

Ninth in Strahan’s series of yearly collections, this is the first one I’ve read and it’s now a series I’ll be striving to fit into the reading list for years to come. It tends to favor the longer length of novella over shorter works, a factor that I’d a priori consider a major strike against. I’m not a huge fan of novellas, but there are certainly cases where they work exceptionally well for my taste. Most of the ones in this anthology do just that. As I write the paragraphs that follow I realize that a lot of the stories also tend towards the darker side, particularly the fantasy. I tend to like that style/ambience in stories, but obviously some readers may shy away from it.
The six stories that volume 9 begins with are all superb, representative of the quality and variety to come. I had already enjoyed both Ken Liu’s story and an earlier print (original?) of Holly Black’s fun space adventure with a compelling pair of characters (one human and one alien) and the interesting themes of monstrosity and the discoveries during coming-of-age. Kelly Link’s beautiful story is part urban fantasy and part fairy tale on family and friends set at Christmas. Similarly, Bacigalupi’s story is a fantasy hailing from the same original themed collection, but this one (unlike Link’s) is full of a darkness, a broken world, that I’d expect from him. Used to the SF stories I’ve normally seen from him though, this was a nice change done just as well. (I really need to read Monstrous Affections it seems). I’d already also read the latter story by Alice Sola Kim in Tin House that was reprint in Monstrous Affections too, and it is equally superb, though grounded in realism.
I have MITs Technology Review fiction issue on my shelf to read, and experiencing Beukes’ story from it in Strahan’s anthology makes me more eager to get to it. I’d only read Beukes’ The Shining Girls prior (which I found over-rated, but okay). The hard sci fi from her in this story is superb, featuring competitive sports and artificial enhancements taken to the next level. The tech is interesting here, but the humanity and depth of her protagonist is even more astounding.
Among those opening six, Usman T. Malik is yet another that blew me away with its effective treatment of terrorism and violence from a large scale focused down to the personal human level. This one just won a Stoker Award, and understandably, it is perhaps more horror than SF – and I recognize Malik mostly from appearances in Nightmare Magazine. Malik has another really powerful story in the themed collection Truth or Dare, that I’m reviewing next up. If you haven’t checked out his fiction yet, try either of these recent reprints. A latter story by Nix previously read in Fearful Symmetries also is truly horror in genre, though also a great story. I remember it vaguely from reading prior, but I think I enjoyed it this second time round even more.
The vague disbelief that I was so thoroughly enjoying these relatively long stories without growing restless or annoyed that I couldn’t finish in a bus ride finally broke with the seventh story, Abercrombie’s adventure from the Rogues collection. I have no idea if this is the case, but it felt as though I was supposed to already know these characters from somewhere, and I found it difficult to get into. Ultimately the story just kept going and I was long past caring. Swanwick’s story later from the same collection had the same effect. Egan’s also felt as though it was just a part of something larger, not a tale of its own.
Valentine and Griffith have a pair of stories that have a sort of ephemeral fantasies that have a beauty in the language but a strong tinge of darkness in their plots and ambience. Fitting in to this kind of story, Amal El-Mohtar’s “The Truth About Owls” is one of my favorites from this anthology. She does an absolutely beautiful job relating the life of her protagonist with interludes about the biology/behavior of owls, with mythology, and with language. I read this one right before going to sleep one night and it made a fantastic bed time story.
Lastly, there were a few cases that surprised me, both negatively and positively. (Abercrombie was kind of one too given that I loved the only other thing of his I’ve read: Half a King.) First, the story by Wilson is on an important and relevant theme of racial issues, explored partially through a fantastic lens. I expected to adore it and be moved. Instead I found the structure and length to be an impediment. Second, Ellen Klages is represented with two stories here, I found this surprising, inexplicable. One would have sufficed and given room for something else. I didn’t find either bad, but neither impressed me to understand why both were here. Third, I really enjoyed Schroeder’s SF adventure. I haven’t liked a lot of his stuff in the past in Analog, but this is probably because they were mostly serials. Here it felt just right, and his strength in telling a good story with hard SF elements and a bit of optimism fit perfectly amid the other types of stories in the collection.
Any serious fan of SF/Fantasy should find things of joy here, and readers who don’t normally read the genre may find the novella lengths that mostly make this up to be perfect for dipping into some of the best authors in the fields. They vary from the simple entertainment to the literary, from the fantastic to the realistic. Although I’d read a decent number of those included in this before, almost all that I had (if not all) were ones that initially had really impressed me. (The only ones not already mentioned above are “Someday” from Asimov’s and Theodora Goss’ story, which is a fantastic achievement in making a compelling story out of something that reads like a nonfiction, a history.) I appreciated reading all these stories a second time, affirming to me that anthologies are useful even if you’ve read the fields somewhat well.

Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this from Solaris via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

THERE’S SOMETHING I WANT YOU TO DO: STORIES, by Charles Baxter

22024692There’s Something I Want You to Do: Stories
By Charles Baxter
Pantheon – 3rd February 2015
ISBN 9781101870013  – 240 Pages – Hardcover
Source: Edelweiss


CONTENTS:
“Bravery”
“Loyalty”
“Chastity”
“Charity”
“Forbearance”
“Lust”
“Sloth”
“Avarice”
“Gluttony”
“Vanity”

 I absolutely loved this short collection of interconnected short stories that are broken down into two sections: virtues and vices, five each. The stories are linked by shared characters where secondary characters in one pop up in another. Though one in particular seemed to appear most frequently, each story does have a unique point of view, and voice.
The stories are character driven, ‘literary’ takes that highlight different relationships and the qualities that underlie, define them. The stories may each feature one key virtue/vice that gives it name, but others can be seen underlying, sometimes in those secondary characters that then come to the fore in the story where they serve as protagonist.
Aside from exploring these qualities of virtue or vice, the structure that Baxter employs serves well to humanize all of his characters. In one story a character’s actions may be rather incomprehensible, eliciting judgement from the protagonist and the reader perhaps. But then you walk in their shoes, and perhaps feel a little different. Perhaps that character you thought seemed so virtuous has a bit of a vice.
Delightfully written and not remotely pretentious, these stories accomplish that role of literary character development, eliciting human empathy, wonderfully well.

Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this from Pantheon via Edelweiss in exchange for an honest review.

DANGEROUS GAMES, Edited by Jonathan Oliver

21412123Dangerous Games
Edited by Jonathan Oliver
Solaris Books – 2nd December 2014
ISBN 9781781082683  – 320 Pages – Paperback
Source: NetGalley


CONTENTS:
“Big Man”, by Chuck Wendig
“The Yellow Door”, by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
“Die”, by Lavie Tidhar
“Chrysalises”, by Benjanun Sriduangkaew
“South Mountain”, by Paul Kearney
“The Game Changer”, by Libby McGugan
“Distinguishing Characteristics”, by Yoon Ha Lee
“Captain Zzapp!!! – Space Hero from 3000 AD”, by Gary Northfield (Comic)
“Death Pool”, by Melanie Tem
“The Bone Man’s Bride”, by Hillary Monahan
“Honourable Mention”, by Tade Thompson
“Loser”, by Rebecca Levene
“Two Sit Down, One Stands Up”, by Ivo Stourton
“Ready or Not”, by Gary McMahon
“The Monogamy of Wild Beasts”, by Robert Shearman
“The Stranger Cards”, by Nik Vincent
“All Things Fall Apart and Are Built Again”, by Helen Marshall
“Lefty Plays Bridge”, by Pat Cadigan

 Among the short story collections that I’ve read recently, Dangerous Games was unfortunately one that I enjoyed less. While certainly not a poor showing, I personally found most of the stories going in styles or directions that simply weren’t my favorite. This may be from the luck of the draw. I don’t love everything and in the game of collection readings there are going to be some that just don’t fit. It may also arise from the theme of the title, which limits the stories somewhat, where most fit into the description literally with characters in some dire scenario of competition. There is less here of internal struggle than one might find in a general collection or with another given theme.
“Big Man”, by Chuck Wendig opens the book with a story that was a superb choice for lead-off hitter. It sets the tone with a bit of darkness to accompany that ‘danger’ and presents a present day horror without flowery adornment with a very readable voice. It also introduces a common theme of making circumstances of the horror/fantasy open to reader interpretation.
While I enjoyed this start well enough the next series of stories made it more difficult for me to get into things. Lovecraftian stories (like Moreno-Garcia’s) elude me, perhaps I really just need to take the time and read some of his classic works. Lavie Tidhar is an author who I find hit or miss, and here the miss arises from a similar sense of the story not packing enough of a punch or depth despite well handled language; similarly, Sriduandkaew at times connects, but I often get lost in her dense word spinning web. This one (or duo of tales) just confused me despite reading twice.
This trend of the stories being okay but not really resonating with me in terms of the plot, action, or underlying theme continued through the comic by Northfield and beyond. I cannot comment at all on “Captain Zzapp…” at all. An eReader is simply useless to me for being able to resolve a comic’s panels or text.
Eventually I came to a pair of stories I really did adore, “Death Pool”, by Melanie Tem and “The Bone Man’s Bride”, by Hillary Monahan. These each had a strong sinister factor mixed with underlying themes/character psychology that connected with me, mental health in the case of addiction in the case of the former, and sacrifice/servitude in the latter. “Loser” which follows soon after had a similar dark tone with strong characterization to deal with a troubling subject that I found impressive.
“Two Sit Down, One Stands Up”, a spin on Russian Roulette, no pun intended 🙂 was the one more literal take on a game that kept me fully interested in as a tale, mostly because I was eager to see how it turned out. And as I enjoyed her Gifts for the One Who Comes After, I loved the mystique and mood of Helen Marshall’s story. However, while I loved the style and feel of the words on my brain, the plot left less of a mark as notable.
And that situation is somewhat emblematic of many of the other stories here, there may have been an elements that I enjoyed, but other aspects of the given work failed to engage me and that one aspect that hit just wasn’t strong enough to carry everything. In the end your reaction to this, like many collections will come down to personal preference and is harder to predict. But if the theme of Dangerous Games sounds interesting to you and you know a large chunk of these authors as ones you’ve liked before then it’s worth a try.

Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this from Solaris Books via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.