THE MONSTROUS, Edited by Ellen Datlow

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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.
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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.
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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.

THE DOORS YOU MARK ARE YOUR OWN, by Okla Elliott & Raul Clement

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The Doors You Mark Are Your Own
By Okla Elliott and Raul Clement
Dark House Press – 28th April 2015
ISBN 9781940430201 – 724 Pages – Paperback
Source: Publisher via Atticus Review


The Historical Literary Epic Meets the Post-Apocalyptic Future
The Doors You Mark Are Your Own is the first part of an ambitious amalgam of literary fiction spliced with post-apocalyptic and historical genres. Written by Elliott and Clement with the conceit that they are ‘translating’ a historical account written in ‘Slovnik’ by the fictional Aleksandr Tuvim, the saga reads on one level as an engrossing biography and social commentary of a speculative, future city-state. On another level it contains rich, interconnected character-driven narratives. Balancing epic world-building and other science fiction genre traits with literary depth, the authors take some of the best elements from across literature to fashion an addictively entertaining novel…”

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

INTRODUCING EVANGELICAL ECOTHEOLOGY

20665283Introducing Evangelical Ecotheology:
Foundations in Scripture, Theology, History, and Praxis
By Daniel L. Brunner, Jennifer L. Butler, and A.J. Swodoba
Baker Academic – 14th October 2014
ISBN 9780801049651 – 262 Pages – Paperback
Source: NetGalley


Existing in worlds of both religion and science I come across people who are radically biased against one or the other, and there will be certainly people who see this book and think it is too great a stretch of Biblical theology into realms of science, or politics. And there will be those who see the science, the ecology as clearly important, but the theology not mattering, even perhaps being detrimental. I’ve met ecologists who want nothing to do with Christianity because they feel that the religion has been used to great environmental harm, and see no value in it. I’ve met Christians who think scientists make up data that overemphasizes the fragility of the environment, or view any environmentalism as equating idolatry.
Thankfully this book exists as a focused middle of the road alternative to those who do not accept either of the extremes and feel there is a place for the two worlds to dialogue. And here, not surprisingly the emphasis is for arguing for Christian involvement in ecological concerns, and providing the resources to act, the intended audience is Christian, but it is geared towards either end of the cultural spectrum from progressive to more conservative.
I haven’t come across anything like Introducing Evangelical Ecotheology before and was curious to see how it was approached while not outright alienating people who may be close to the borders of the Christian spectrum extremes. Written by a trio of people from a range of Christian backgrounds, the text largely succeeds. The premise at the book’s heart is the concept that Jesus’ message was for all people and that he held specific regard for those on the margins of society. As we now see that people on the margins are most vulnerable to ecological conditions – and that the health of the environment is of growing concern – then care for the environment should be a concern for discipleship.
This premise is not simply asserted only to move ahead, but the authors spend time arguing for its accuracy. Throughout they try to base that argument on a combination of science, theological tradition, Biblical interpretation, and Jesus’ message in word or deed. Some may disagree with aspects of the premise even after the arguments – or find some arguments a stretch, but the authors do an admirable job of making an effort at convincing, again with experiences and interpretation born from varied sociopolitical backgrounds. Though they excel at discussing the theology and history, they do a good job of covering the science, though I’m not a climate or environmental scientist to be fully certain on all details. (I can’t recall if one author in particular tackled more of science talk than another though.)
As an integrated text from multiple voices, there are certain issues where precise agreement wasn’t reached. The authors chose to put key discussion of these issues into separate boxes called ‘Tension Points’ and within the purpose of the book it works very well, as the book’s best audience would likely be a book club type group or class within a church, who may find these good discussion points, providing a format to keep the talk civil between disagreeing views. A large number of references are also provided for a serious student’s interest in the topic to go deeper, or back to the sources.
Readable without dryness this would be a wonderful book for either an individual or group to read, and the latter portion of it provides challenges to take the ecotheological themes to heart and put them into practice in meaningful ways both large and small. While the intended audience is Christian the book as a whole or in key parts would also be effective for showing to non-Christians allies in addressing these ecological concerns, simply as evidence that not all Christians are uninterested or unconcerned over the health of the environment. Many see it the problems and see it as a failure on many levels (including within the faith) and feel called on levels both religious or humanist to address them.

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

BEETHOVEN: ANGUISH AND TRIUMPH, by Jan Swafford

18222670Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph
By Jan Swafford
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt – 5th August 2014
ISBN 9780618054749 – 1077 Pages – Hardcover
Source: Goodreads


Passing a whopping 1000 pages (okay, around 900 minus the extensive endnotes) this Beethoven biography just kept me enraptured. Enough that I kept lugging the hardback to read at the bus stop and on the bus into work each day. Getting into work I began back diluting cultures to the compositions I had just been reading about. From this you can tell that Swafford has written a readable and inspiring biography of the Ludwig van.
Covering the totality of Beethoven’s life, Swafford also nicely givens contextual background from what is known about his immediate ancestors to the cultural and historical events that swirled around both locally and internationally. At times the biographical details on Beethoven’s benefactors seems a bit too detailed, though they are mostly discussed to highlight the ups and downs of Beethoven’s support, why he was appreciated by the upper class of the time and the limits of even their lifestyles to continuously supply patronage.
What really makes this lengthy biography work is that it isn’t merely a biography of Beethoven the person, but also Beethoven the composer in the sense that a good amount of space is spent both describing the process by which his major works were created and critique of the music itself. Swafford nicely attempts (and largely succeeds) at taking a step back from the long history of viewing Beethoven as a genius to to look objectively at his achievements.
For fans of classical music, serious or just vaguely familiar, this biography and discussion of his music will probably be appreciated. The musical analysis was at times more advanced than the basic music theory/history I was familiar with, but Swafford also does a fair job of explaining so that even the non professional musician will understand the main points, and a newbie will likely learn some wonderful things about music in general and about distinctions between different approaches (eras) of what is all lumped together as ‘classical’. In addition to covering the style of Beethoven’s output, Swafford also covers the basics of his contemporaries, particularly those he learned from.
If you are thinking about reading this but aren’t sure whether to commit to such a large work you can get a fair idea the whole thing by just reading a few chapters (interspersed with listening to some recordings I’d recommend). The first couple chapters are more laden with biography compared to a larger amount of musical focus further in, but you should still get a fair idea of Swafford’s scope and style.

Disclaimer: I received a free advanced reading copy of this from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt via Goodreads’ First-Reads Giveaway Program in exchange for an honest review.

The Director, by David Ignatius

The Director, by David Ignatius
Publisher: W.W. Norton & Co.
ISBN: 0393078140
386 pages, hardcover
Published: 2nd June 2014
Source: Goodreads First-Reads

 With The Director, David Ignatius sets out to update the spy novel to the present day realities of cyber-warfare, hacking, and post-Snowdon agency secrecy practices. The resulting story, full of realism and detail, is more akin to a combination of a political and techno thriller than to a spy novel. A fictionalized version of the nonfiction that Ignatius is expert in, The Director ends up being a series of information-laden meetings between characters, heavy on conveying facts or analysis and light on action. Despite the appeal and attraction of the novel’s plot and themes, this execution makes it a relatively dry read to get through, a political/spy thriller equivalent of the hard SF genre.

As its title implies, The Director involves protagonist Graham Weber, the newly-minted director of the CIA who is committed to turning the agency around into something more modern and efficient. Mere days into his tenure, a hacker with unsettling information enters a US consulate in Hamburg and soon after turns up dead. As inter- and intra-agency wheels begin to slowly turn, Weber places a young techno-geek agent named Morris in Germany to investigate the hacker’s claims and murder. However, it becomes slowly clear to Weber that the goals of Morris and of other bureaucrats in Washington may not coincide with his own.

On one hand the novel is about idealistic and naive Director Weber and his fight to navigate the bureaucracy of Washington DC and the influence of other players, and to ultimately overcome them for the ultimate good of the nation.  It is in this way that the novel reads more like a political thriller than a spy or action novel. The term ‘thriller’ doesn’t even necessarily apply. With his appointment as Director, Weber serves as proxy to facilitate the reader’s education into theories on the origins of the CIA, its current workings, and the possible future threats it faces.

Ignatius’ experience as columnist for the Washington Post with expertise on the CIA and its workings make him ideal for writing a novel like this. However, his desire to saturate the novel with detailed verisimilitude in the place of action produces something that is hard to get through with enjoyment or captivation, particularly when having the expectation of reading fiction. The Director instead comes closer to delivering the kind of content and experience I’d rather expect from nonfiction.

Despite its title, the novel also spends a significant percentage of time on Morris and other agents of various nations or hacker organizations who meet with Weber or with Morris. Morris is such a key aspect to the novel that in some ways he seems like the actual protagonist who others, including Weber, are responding to. Only at the end, when things suddenly seem to unravel for Morris and Weber plays hidden cards does the novel turn fully back to Weber.

Ultimately, the premise and content of The Director is fascinating, and Ignatius can craft a very realistic and complex narrative around these elements. This kind of political thriller certainly has its fans, but for me the endless dry meetings between bureaucrats or other players simply made the reading experience feel boring and uneventful.

Two Stars out of Five

Her Husband’s Hands and Other Stories, Adam-Troy Castro

Her Husband’s Hands and Other Stories,
by Adam-Troy Castro
Publisher: Prime Books
ASIN: B00IC3QG1E
336 pages, Kindle Edition
Published February 2014
Source: NetGalley

An Adam-Troy Castro story was the cover feature for the first short story genre magazine issue I discovered, relatively late when entering grad school. I continue to wish his name would pop in issues more frequently. This collection is perfect for someone like me who is unfamiliar with a large amount of his previously published work.

The stories in this collection are united in being exceptional. They also share a common grim thread of disturbing themes or tones, at times moving into outright horror. This isn’t all Castro writes. In fact, he is rather adept at switching forms and styles. The stories here, however, illustrate his predilection and talent for darkness. Each showcases his ability to take core aspects of human relationships or conditions and taking them to extremes, to regions where the recognizable beauty of family, love, reproduction, etc begin to become warped into forms only partially recognizable, distorted and often very frightening.

In “Arvies” a world is postulated and explored where a devotion and respect for unborn life is taken to its extreme, at the expense and exploitation of the born, in the title story, with shades of ’50s B-movies, a grieving widow is reunited with her deceased soldier husband’s conscious, in the only part of his body left: an extreme of devotion and connection to the physical for ties to the emotional. “Shallow End of the Pool” takes sibling rivalry to extremes, and the closing “The Boy and the Box” switches up distortions from the human to the divine, taking a theology (in this case a rather poor theology) to absurd maximum.

I adored most of the other stories and appreciated the afterward by Castro regarding his writing and some of the inspirations and reactions to his work. (I still don’t get the significance of the title ‘Arvies’ though – ovaries??). “Our Future” stands out as the most unusual work here, more traditional and less disturbing, making it easy to see how it could form a part of a larger series of stories as it is. Though it doesn’t quite fit the collection perfectly it is a superb story with interesting ideas about ‘otherness’. The award-winning “Of a Sweet Slow Dance in the Wake of Temporary Dogs” was actually my least favorite story in that it just didn’t connect at all, meaning I may just need to reread it. The fragmentary and distant nature of its narrative voice was just too much the moment I read it I think.

The most profound and staggering story here is “Cherub”, a wonderfully conceived fable-esque fantasy where judging people’s moral standing from outward appearances is rendered fully manifest, but with the same basic problem. A gut-wrenchingly beautiful tale, said without hyperbole. This story conveys in purest terms Castro’s ability to look upon the basics of humanity, even in its darkness, and construct a fantastic story of the concept’s extremes without rendering anything clichéd, absurdly silly,or insincere. Instead, his stories stay brutally honest, despite extremes woven around speculative plots, transcending into a basic communication with the reader that more often than not connects with a wisp of beauty shining from within the outer layers of disturbing darkness.

Any SF/Fantasy reader should give this a read, as well as anyone liking literary fiction on a darker edge. This is one collection I am picking up in physical form ASAP.

Five Stars out of Five

A History of Britain in Thirty-six Postage Stamps, by Chris West

A History of Britain in Thirty-six Postage Stamps, by Chris West
Publisher: Picador
ISBN: 1250035503
277 pages, hardcover
Published October 2013
Source: Goodreads First-Reads

Each time we’ve gone to a stamp show my wife and I first head to poster presentations to see what people have put together. Philatelists take a theme, or a bit of postage history and develop one to many panels that explore the concept in a mixture of text and stamp presentation. They can vary from very dry postal minutiae to stunning artistic displays, and all between.

West’s work here is basically an expansion of that concept into book form. It doesn’t pretend to be an exhaustive history of Britain, not even of that small portion of Britain’s history that has coincided with stamp production. Instead it simply presents a series of special stamps to show how that stamp reflects a particular portion or key event between the start of Queen Victoria’s reign (and the first use of a stamp) until present day. The history related has both breadth and snippets of depth, covering aspects postal, social, political, and cultural.

Reading this gives you insight into the aesthetics of stamp design – albeit Britain’s is a bit more tame and unadventurous compared to some other nations, and a well-balanced, though again, clearly and proudly British, insight into key events both within Britain and the world as a whole. Well written and captivating for anyone that enjoys history or stamps, I’d recommend it.

Personally I found the book to get better as it went along. Perhaps this is because I was more familiar with recent history than that of mid-late 1800s Britain. It may also be that the style and structure of the book, as little snippets of history, took some getting accustomed to.

Four Stars out of Five

Note to Self, by Peter Ward

Note to Self, by Peter Ward
Publisher: Diversion Books
ASIN: B00G3UXP1C
256 pages, Kindle Edition
Published September 2013
Source: NetGalley

I tore through the first two-thirds of this short, action-accelerated novel in a brief afternoon, but it took me the course of a busy second week to complete the final third. Sadly it was not just my busyness, but a declining interest that made this more difficult to finish off.

The novel wastes no time getting into the action, a multi-parallel-world SF ride. At the start, when things are still unclear to the reader and kept mysterious, Ward’s writing succeeds fabulously. Things fall apart, however, when Ward begins to answer some of the reader’s questions (or at times questions that hadn’t even occurred) and explain the details of the previously mysterious uncertain plot that unfolded in the protagonists life at such break-neck speed.

While the writing is perfectly fine at a more ‘local’ level, Ward runs into problems in crafting the plot believably, even for this kind of fantastic multiple-worlds scenario, making the overall composition of the story a bit of a mess. This kind of story can be fraught with plot holes, and loads of mind-bending complexity not unlike what can occur while trying to handle time traveling in a novel. Ward tries extensively to make this universe and the events that befall the characters be consistent, but I never really became convinced that was the case. Instead the attempts at explanation just seemed to draw attention to how terribly convenient events were for the protagonist and his friends, almost as if some ‘hand’ were guiding things so they would work out to fit the story.

For instance, objects traveling from one world to a parallel one will appear in the same space – even if ‘ground-level’ on one Earth is a mile underground in another. But notes can be passed between worlds into a pocket, no matter how subtly shifted, because THOSE can be passed by a slightly different means. Which begs more questions… Far more unbelievably, events in the climax occur with mind-boggling rapidity, where an entire Earth’s population is convinced they’ve been lied to by the protagonist simply yelling his arguments in panic to some citizens on the street. Just like that, they believe him and act.

I think the novel could have stood being developed into a longer work with more effort being placed in letting events flow naturally from the characters rather than forcing situations along the path the author had mapped. I liked that the novel was not just simply a mysterious SF adventure, but also had some interesting commentary on social media and the public’s willingness to turn ourselves over with profound trust to large, secretive organizations. The novel also highlights a relevant theme of exploiting the environment for short-term selfish gains, to support massive increases in technology and convenience at the expense of things far deeper. These are all great things to write about and consider, I just wish they had been done here in a more realistic, honest fashion.

Two Stars out of Five