CALLIGRAPHY LESSON: THE COLLECTED STORIES, by Mikhail Shishkin

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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.

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.

Solaris Rising 3, Edited by Ian Whates

Solaris Rising 3: The New Solaris Book of Science Fiction,
Edited by Ian Whates
Publisher: Solaris
ISBN: 178108209X
448 pages, paperback
Published 14th August 2014
Source: NetGalley

Contents:
“When We Have Harvested the Nacre Rice”, by Benjanun Sriduangkaew
“The Goblin Hunter”, by Chris Beckett
“Homo Floresiensis”, by Ken Liu
“A Taste for Murder”, by Julia E. Czerneda
“Double Blind”, by Tony Ballantyne
“The Mashup”, by Sean Williams
“The Frost on Jade Buds”, by Aliette de Bodard
“Popular Images from the First Manned Mission to Enceladus”, by Alex Dally MacFarlane
“Red Lights, and Rain”, by Gareth L. Powell
“They Swim Through Sunset Seas”, by Laura Lam
“Faith Without Teeth”, by Ian Watson
“Thing and Sick”, by Adam Roberts
“The Sullen Engines”, by George Zebrowski
“Dark Harvest”, by Cat Sparks
“Fift and Shira”, by Benjamin Rosenbaum
“The Howl”, by Ian R. MacLeod & Martin Sketchley
“The Science of Chance”, by Nina Allen
“Endless”, by Rachel Swirsky

My thoughts on Solaris Rising 3 have been languishing for awhile now as a co-review was first planned for Skiffy & Fanty and then got delayed and didn’t end up happening. As I look back over the notes I had written and the skeleton of this review in correspondence with my colleague Cecily Kane I realize just how much I want to go back and read this un-themed collection again.

Yet, this is the first of the Solaris Rising series that I’ve had a chance to read, so I should probably go back and read the first two. It’s a testament to how enjoyable the stories are here in what is a stellar lineup of highly-regarded contributors that re-reading this again so soon feels like something warming and relaxing. Though there were a couple stories here that just didn’t work for me, it is probably still the best collection I read in 2014 for its sheer entertainment.

And my favorite stories in here were also quite a surprise to me. In his introduction, editor Whates comments on the opening line(s) of one story and how magnificent it is/they are. Though they are great I have to say that the opening lines of the collection, in Benjanun Sriduangaew’s “When We Harvested the Nacre-Rice” are far more stunning in its powerful flow and imagery. This ended up being my favorite story in the collection. I’d read a couple of other stories from the Hegemony universe and while I appreciated the poetic style and alien weirdness, they were a little dense; their vagueness left me feeling unmoored from the plot. With this, Sriduangaew’s writing fully connected with me.

Protagonists Pahayal and Etiesse are both delightfully rendered, complex mixtures of weakness and strength that draw forth reader empathy and disdain; their relationship is an echo of the larger issues of political control at the center of the story’s plot. Sriduangkaew handles the themes of dominance and submission, vulnerability and safety, trust and betrayal, creation and destruction with masterly control in scant pages.

I was likewise surprised to find the story I expected to love most in Solaris Rising 3, “Homo Floresiensis“, by Ken Liu to not resonate as strongly with me. Liu is one of my favorite authors and I would still call this story really good. But what I like about Liu is sort of what I like about a good film director like Kubrick or Hitchcock. He achieves a balance of great story, deeper meaning, and artistry in his creations. Liu’s story here is strong in he meaning department, and raises a big point about scientific advancement that I wish would crop up more often in the field. However, the structure of the story ends up making it feel like two separate entities of scenes that introduce and then scenes at the heart of the matter.

“Double Blind” by Tony Ballantyne, “The Mashup” by Sean Williams, “The Science of Chance” by Nina Allen, and “Thing and Sick” by Adam Roberts were all stories that I greatly enjoyed and each were science fiction mashups of sorts, whether taken literally (Williams’), with horror (Ballantyne’s and Robert’s) or  with mystery (Allen’s). These are all examples of a wide range of fine writing also across the board from light to subtly crafted to all out crazy.

“Thing and Sick” also represents one of a few stories in the collection that I quite liked for their approach to the concept of the alien “other”. A similar theme is taken up, at least in part, in the stories by Beckett, MacFarlane, Lam, Rosenbaum and the aforementioned Liu.

In some this ‘regard’ at the other makes the story a critique of colonial aspects. MacFarlane’s “Popular Images from the First Manned Mission to Enceladus” delves into such themes through the use of a non-traditional narrative that describes propaganda-esque posters through the eras of expedition to Saturn’s moon. I adored the ideas here, but the reading ended up being a bit on the drier side. Beckett tackles colonial issues head-on with a far more traditional plot. However I also found his story to be one of the most disturbing in the violence of its action and language against the other, in  this case aliens and female. It was sort of hard to figure out whether certain aspects were honest portrayals of very ugly characters and a commentary or something unintentionally offensive. Extremely well written and powerful, I loved it, but feel warning should be made for sensitive readers.

In “Thing and Sick” and in “They Swim Through Sunset Seas” the treatment of the alien ‘other’ was more focused on the psychology or biology of the nonhuman entity. I particularly found Lam’s story to be poignant and a great SF focus on biological science and the basic emotions that intelligent life forms may share for better or for worse. Rosenbaum’s “Fift & Shira” is simply an excellent biological speculation on gender and social structures in a non-human community. The story itself is not as enthralling as the ideas at play, but for me as a biologist I remained captivated nonetheless.

On the other end of the spectrum I personally found nothing to appreciate in  Zebrowski’s “The Sullen Engines” or in Watson’s “Faith without Teeth”. The remaining stories were good, but just haven’t stuck with me as strongly. Fans of the particular authors will surely appreciate the additions here. If you didn’t get a chance to pick this up back when it came out and are a fan of SF, I really recommend checking this out, particularly if you are someone that doesn’t normally read shorter works in the field. You may find your next favorite author.

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

Note: Thanks to Cecily Kane for some editing of my rambling thoughts on Benjanun Sriduangaew’s “When We Harvested the Nacre-Rice” that made it into this final post.

Mr. Tall: Stories, by Tony Earley

Mr. Tall: Stories, by Tony Earley
Publisher: Little, Brown & Company
ISBN: 0316246115
224 pages, eBook
Published 26th August 2014
Source: NetGalley

Contents:
“Haunted Castles of the Barrier Islands”
“Mr. Tall”
“The Cryptozoologist”
“Yard Art”
“Have You Seen the Stolen Girl?”
“Just Married”
“Jack and the Mad Dog”

Like Margaret Atwood’s recent Stone Mattress, this wonderful collection of novellas could easily be described as a selection of “tales”. With a confident style and unadorned dialogue, Earley effectively combines literary exploration of the marriage relationship with aspects of the Southern American folk tale. The stories range from the conventional side of the spectrum to the wild, fantastical side that would be at home in a genre anthology.
“Just Married”, a set of character relationship portraits, and “Haunted Castles of the Barrier Islands” fall toward the conventional side. “Haunted Castles…” is a particularly strong opening to the collection, showcasing Earley’s talent at writing two characters dealing with life/relationship shifts. In this case concerning a wife and husband visiting a daughter now off at college, leaving the couple together in the isolation of a struggling relationship that contrasts the scenic, natural romanticism of the barrier islands they drive past on the way home. “Jack and the Mad Dog” falls at the other end with a clever play on a classic fairy-tale told with a meta fictional twist.
Earley’s most powerful tales fall in the middle of the spectrum. “The Cryptozoologist” and the best novella in the collection, “Mr Tall”, are special because they clearly combine the struggles of relationship at the crux of the protagonist’s being with the fantastic or symbolic elements of a folk tale. In “The Cryptozoologist” the loss of a spouse and the yearning to again feel the beauty of marriage and love becomes tied in time and place to a fleeting glimpse of a mythological creature and the burning desire to recapture a glimpse at its unique wonder.
“Mr Tall” fittingly gives this collection name. It conjures thoughts of the “tall tale”, and although the collection as a whole doesn’t really fit this form of folk tale, “Mr Tall” presents itself as a crafty twitching of the tall tale hallmarks. The historical story involves a young, naive, newly married woman whose devoted, but hard-working husband warns her not to visit their reclusive and seemingly dangerous neighbor, or approach his land. With certain unfulfilled feelings, general curiosity, and the boredom associated with being young and childless in the era, the wife ventures out exploring to learn more of this mysterious neighbor nicknamed Mr. Tall.  Exaggeration is subtly present in the town mythology surrounding Mr. Tall. And the wife is filled with a light-hearted optimism that one can find in a tall tale. Yet this tale is grounded in reality that is not entirely pleasant, and the story serves to illustrate the maturing of the protagonist from blissful naiveté to greater caution and fear. “Mr Tall” is a tremendous story with richly developed characters who show genuine aspects of humanity both positive and negative.
I haven’t read Tony Earley’s first collection, but it is going on my list of things to gladly read. I enjoy this kind of mixture of literary with genre, and it is particularly rare to see it done with the American folktale in my experience at least as a reader. I also need to reread “Jack and the Mad Dog”, for I fear I missed too much the first time, not ready for its unconventionality, and I think additional insights into the other novellas could come from rereading, a testament to the quality of this collection.

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

Stone Mattress: Nine Tales, by Margaret Atwood

Stone Mattress, by Margaret Atwood
Publisher: Nan A. Talese
(Knopf/Doubleday)
ISBN: 9780385539135
288 pages, eBook
Published 16th September 2014
Source: NetGalley

Contents:
“Alphinland”
“Revenant”
“Dark Lady”
“Lusus Naturae”
“The Dead Hand Loves You”
“The Freeze-Dried Groom”
“I Dream of Zenia with the Bright Red Teeth”
“Stone Mattress”
“Torching the Dusties”

 The cover image on Atwood’s new collection of a boulder precipitously balanced on a mound of rocks is a strikingly fitting image to describe the nine tales found within. The characters in these stories are mostly at that stage of life where Atwood finds herself, elderly and looking toward the increasingly limited future, considering legacy in recollection of the life they have led. Balanced between future and past, life and death, creative productivity and a corpus of work left behind, unresolved conflicts and distant traumas, hope and reflection, there is no morbid preoccupation among Atwood’s protagonists, but rather a careful stock on what existence has given and still has the power to supply.
Elements of these balanced themes can be seen in Atwood’s recent decision to take part in writing something for the future, a work that she can create while still drawing breath, but which will only be available for a future generation to experience fresh. And there is a certain similar nobility, generosity, and joy in how Atwood approaches aging, legacy, and the emotions of memory in these tales. As she has pointed out, tales is the proper word to describe the nuanced dreamlike reflection of these stories. Like the reality of memory these tales have a touch of the fantastic and wonderful.
Atwood’s power and prowess at the short story really shines forth in these nine tales, most forcefully in the opening three, linked, stories and the penultimate one that gives the collection its name. These four tales most prominently feature the Janus-faced nature of the collection, but in contrasting styles – contemplative in the triptych and with vengeful – perhaps righteous – violence in Stone Mattress.
Creating a collection of even this relatively short size with consistently captivating style and rich characterization is not an easy task, but Atwood manages to deliver without a stumble. If you haven’t read anything by Atwood or have only tried her novel length work, you should pick this up to discover what you have missed. Those that already enjoy her short fiction will read this new book with fond memories and appreciation of its graceful regard for that to come.

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

Irregular Verbs and Other Stories, by Matthew Johnson

Irregular Verbs and Other Stories, by Matthew Johnson
Publisher: ChiZine Publications
ISBN: 1771481773
340 pages, paperback
Published 18th June 2014
Source: NetGalley

Contents:
“Irregular Verbs”
“Another Country”
“Public Safety”
“Beyond the Fields You Know”
“What You Couldn’t Leave Behind”
“When We Have Time”
“The Wise Foolish Son”
“Long Pig”
“Talking Blues”
“The Face of the Waters”
“Outside Chance”
“Closing Time”
“Lagos”
“The Dragon’s Lesson”
Au coeur des ombres
“Jump, Frog!”
“The Afflicted”
“Holdfast”
“The Coldest War”
“Written by the Winners”
“Heroic Measures”
“The Last Islanders”

 The cover to this collection popped out to me on NetGalley, and the name Matthew Johnson immediately rang a bell of vague familiarity. I knew I’d read a lot by the author, mostly in Asimov’s Science Fiction, and also in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction and respected online publications like Strange Horizons and Fantasy Magazine (the latter now merged into Lightspeed).

I recalled his name with fondness, not a sense of trepidation. But I couldn’t really remember any particular story clearly from a title, nor did I have any sense in my head of what kind of story Johnson writes.

Going through this grand debut collection of twenty-two stories spanning over a decade of productivity, I begin to get a sense why. Johnson’s writing doesn’t fit neatly into a single sub-genre mold, nor within the confines of any particular style (to my note). His stories are incredibly varied within the vast SF/Fantasy field and the breadth of markets where he has published is a testament to how well he can move across the spectrum.

While reading the contents didn’t jog specific memories, several of the stories became immediately familiar once starting them anew in this collection. With that special joy of rediscovering something beloved but neglected I savored this group of stories, notably “Another Country” and “The Afflicted”. Though I recalled loving each originally, I had never connected that they were written by the same person, likely because these two stories are very different on the surface – one an alternate history or time travel mashup of sorts and another a post-apocalyptic zombie tale.

Yet both feature a strong emotional resonance that reaches beyond the plot. For Johnson’s stories are full of realistic characters with basic human struggles that readers can relate to. Even when those characters are temporally displaced Romans struggling in present day culture and bureaucracy, or a young woman trying to provide medical aid and hope to the populace of a plague-ravaged wasteland.

Others, including in the introduction to this collection, have discussed the importance of language and communication as a defining characteristic link between Johnson’s stories. This theme is certainly present in several stories here, mostly notably the title piece of the collection, “Irregular Verbs”. New to me, this opening story is profoundly powerful and moving, the type of short story that should be featured in a Best of… literary collection regardless of the fantasy ‘created’ world in which it is set. A perfect tale tot start this collection, because you don’t want to stop reading after it closes.

The plot and culture of Irregular Verbs rests on this theme of linguistic communication, of words. I believe a better (well more accurate) common theme between Johnson’s works, however, involves the setting. It isn’t so much as Johnson’s characters are struggling to find the proper precise words to communicate, it is that they are struggling to exist in a time and a place where they are not really meant to be. His characters are ‘fish out of water’ or ‘strangers in a strange land’.

For instance in the wonderfully spooky “Beyond the Fields You Know” (the sole story I’d classify as horror in the collection) the child protagonist is enticed into a dark, magical realm of slavery, a place and position he should not be in, and that of course he is trying to find escape from. And sometimes the character learns that the setting they are trying to free themselves from is actually what they need most (“Closing Time”). In others (“The Dragon’s Lesson” or the previously mentioned “Another Country” and “The Afflicted”) the characters struggle to maintain a personal culture or moral outlook that is in direct opposition to the society they find themselves within.

With such a large collection as this with stories varying in every way imaginable, including from humorously light to deeply serious, it is likely that there will be some things in this collection that you might not like as much as others. And that’s okay. There are a few authors out there who I can adore for each thing they produce, but many quality writers like Johnson who will produce something amazing one day and something that just isn’t my cup of tea the next.

The high points of this vast collection, though, make it an easy recommendation for any fan of speculative fiction, particularly if you are someone that normally doesn’t read the shorter published works out there. A handful of exceptional tales that deserve universal note beyond the realms of genre (such as the lead-off “Irregular Verbs”) also should give this collection a certain broader appeal.

Four Stars out of Five

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

Saffron and Brimstone: Strange Stories, by Elizabeth Hand

Saffron and Brimstone: Strange Stories, by Elizabeth Hand
Publisher: Open Road Media
ISBN: 149760186X
251 pages, eBook
Published 3rd June 2014
(original publ. 2006)
Source: NetGalley

Contents:
“Cleopatra Brimstone”
“Pavane for a Prince of the Air”
“The Least Trumps”
“Wonderwall”
“The Lost Domain: Four Story Variations”
“Kronia”
“Calypso in Berlin”
“Echo”
“The Saffron Gatherers”

There is a wonderful duality on display in this fabulous collection from Elizabeth Hand and a complexity of readings that make it a powerful piece of literary fantasy. First there is the title alone. Saffron and Brimstone evokes the biological and chemical. Or two forms of the biological (botanical and animal as in the brimstone moth).  Or two forms of similar animals (brimstone moth vs. butterfly). Or two conflicting aromas, pleasantly fragrant and sulfurous foul. Or two conflicting styles held in careful balance, the achingly dark and the moments of peace and hope.

These are indeed Strange Stories. They fit into the typical paradoxical mold of Hand’s work, new interpretations and celebrations of the classical and old, for example the New Age or neo-paganism themes of “Pavane for a Prince of the Air”or the mythological inspirations behind “The Lost Domain”. The organization of the collection itself represents a dichotomy, four thematically-linked novella length works followed by another set of intentionally linked (though originally published separately) tales that make up “The Lost Domian”.

Yet, there is nothing outlandish about any of the stories here, despite fantastic or mythological elements, they all seem so familiar. This oxymoronic effect of strange familiarity is achieved through Hand’s mastery of the novella length. With all of their strangeness, or even horror, Hand fills her stories with details that verge on the mundane, that could be thrown away to achieve a short story that had the same plot and even themes, but would then end up horribly disfigured in style and tone. It is this extra space of the novella and details of the ordinary moments of the character’s life that grounds the stories in a reality and provides humanity to the characters. Again, a duality between the fantastic and the mundane, sometimes splitting the story (as in the opening “Cleopatra Brimstone”) into something that feels like two separate linked plots, a before and an after.

This transition between before and after characterizes the themes that link the first four novellas of the collection. Metamorphosis is rendered most literally in “Cleopatra Brimstone” with its symbolic inclusion of butterflies and the transformation of the protagonist into an agent of dark revenge fantasy after the trauma of rape. Representing the most blatant duality with Hand the author herself, “Cleopatra Brimstone” is brilliant and staggering despite its overt themes and clear autobiographical aspects.

The three novellas that follow continue this theme of metamorphosis, albeit with increasing subtlety. “Pavane for a Prince of the Air” is more akin to literary short fiction to anything genre, chronicling a man’s transformation into death from cancer and the transitional effects this has on his partner and friend. This beautiful tale is an emotional wringer, exploring death and mourning from a holistic point of view that shows how human lives and deaths have the power to transform. “The Least Trumps” and “Wonderwall” continue this exploration of transition, focusing on female protagonists at two stages of life, when older in relation to a mother and friends from the past, and when young at the height of rebellious angst. Each are exceptional and begin to thematically bridge with the second half of the collection by moving further from a focus on metamorphosis and increasingly onto desire.

I personally did not enjoy “The Lost Domain” nearly as much as the other half of Saffron and Brimstone. (Aside: The reason is their relation to Greek myth. I wasn’t a lit or Classics major, haven’t read much of mythology since high school, and what I have read drove me nuts or to boredom with its complex interconnected characters. Classical myth in literature is like immunology in biology to me – full of headache-inducing names and memorization.)

However, I do recognize the quality of each of the pieces here. As story variations, I read them as treatments on the theme of desire, much like Blatnik’s Law of Desire collection that I recently reviewed. Again here, Hand is exploring desire from its inherent property of being ultimately unattainable. Of the four variations I appreciate “Echo” the most, due in part to my actual familiarity with that myth, its apocalyptic setting, and having read the story at least twice before (its original publication and its recent inclusion in The Very Best of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Volume 2 that I also just reviewed. Getting to read “Echo” again in conjunction with the other stories of this series is worthwhile, given their original separate publications.

I’ve enjoyed previous works by Hand that I’ve had the opportunity to review through the same publisher: Last Summer on Mars Hill and Chip Crockett’s Christmas Carol. I enjoyed them both, but this collection has impressed me the most with its focus and purity. Though Saffron and Brimstone has been out for a number of years, this new eBook  release by Open Road Media offers an excellent cheap option to either introduce yourself to Hand’s talents or revisit her superb prose.

Five Stars out of Five

Disclaimer: I received a free electronic reading copy of this from Open Road Media via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

The Very Best of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Volume 2, Edited by Gordon Van Gelder

The Very Best of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Volume 2
Edited by Gordon Van Gelder
Publisher: Tachyon Publications
ISBN: 1616961635
432 pages, paperback
Expected Publication: 15th July 2014
Source: NetGalley

Contents:

“The Third Level” by Jack Finney
“Fondly Fahrenheit” by Alfred Bester
“The Cosmic Charge Account” by C. M. Kornbluth
“The Anything Box” by Zenna Henderson
“The Prize of Peril” by Robert Sheckley
“—All You Zombies—” by Robert A. Heinlein
“Green Magic” by Jack Vance
“The Doors of His Face, the Lamps of His Mouth” by Roger Zelazny
“Narrow Valley” by R. A. Lafferty
“Sundance” by Robert Silverberg
“Attack of the Giant Baby” by Kit Reed
“The Hundredth Dove” by Jane Yolen
“Jeffty Is Five” by Harlan Ellison®
“Salvador” by Lucius Shepard
“The Aliens Who Knew, I mean, Everything” by George Alec Effinger
“Rat” by J. P. Kelly
“The Friendship Light” by Gene Wolfe
“The Bone Woman” by Charles de Lint
“The Lincoln Train” by Maureen McHugh
“Maneki Neko” by Bruce Sterling
“Winemaster” by Robert Reed
“Suicide Coast” by M. John Harrison
“Have Not Have” by Geoff Ryman
“The People of Sand & Slag” by Paolo Bacigalupi
“Echo” by Liz Hand
“The New York Times at Special Bargain Rates” by Stephen King
“The Paper Menagerie” by Ken Liu

Compiling any collection with the title “Best of” is never an easy task, the category is just too subjective, particularly in something like the arts and a short story collection. Though delving only into the pages of one literary magazine, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction (F&SF), the breadth of stories falling within the genre confines of its pages is huge. Compared to something like “The Best American” series, which F&SF has appeared within, the tales and writing styles here are far more diverse, but just as mighty.

The difficulty in really having a definitive, all-encompassing, all-pleasing ‘best of’ collection has in the past simply led me to avoid reading short story anthologies. I already read the new stories that come out, and after a while isn’t that sufficient? If you’ve been reading these longer than I (and most fans have) there’s probably even less new or unfamiliar out there. Thinking it wasn’t really worth it, I remember simply ignoring the first volume compiled by current F&SF editor Van Gelder.

But since then I’ve come to develop an appreciation for these anthologies, even when they aren’t full of stories I would consider to be ‘the best’, or even if there are a few in there which I don’t particularly enjoy. I’ve discovered there are other reasons to read a “Best of” collection despite that term not aligning with my personal opinions.

First, as alluded to within the intro to this volume, the stories here are all notable in the history of the genre, and the authors are ones any interested fan should have some experience reading. It simply is a matter of education. This collection gives an excellent survey across the decades of F&SF publication with tales that have largely withstood the test of time, right up to modern classics that sent ripples of wonder through the reading community upon their publication (like Ken Liu’s beautiful story here). There are so many authors whose names I know, but I have never read. I have a hard enough time reading interesting new things to also go back and read all the range of classics. Now, at least I can check a few more classic authors off my list – or perhaps more honestly add them to my list of things to read more of ASAP.

Second, this sort of “Best of” collection gives new readers the opportunity to discover that wide breadth of the fantasy and science (speculative) fiction genres, experiencing notable stories that vary from hard SF, to humor, to high fantasy, to urban fantasy, to dark horror, to genre mashups, etc. You don’t have to like everything. But if you like to read in general, you’ll probably find appreciation for most of the stories here.

Because all of the stories here are most certainly notable, even if not ‘the best’. They show to all readers, both new initiates or seasoned veterans who are re-experiencing, what a well-crafted story can look like in its myriad forms. With the chronological presentation through the decades of F&SF publication, the collection also gives glimpses into the changing styles or motifs of eras, and demonstrates just how greatly the earliest stories in the genre continue to inspire and shape current writing.

At least four of the stories here I have read before (and “Echo” I am about to read again in another collection of Elizabeth Hand’s work). Three of those four I recall liking greatly, but Stephen King’s story I had no particular memory of, other than that I had read it. I wondered if its inclusion (and King’s) was simply due to the celebrity of his name, to attract more readers. When I first came to F&SF, the knowledge that King, as a popular author I knew, had published works in its pages was a huge draw to trying it out.

So I wouldn’t blame the editor for putting King in for that primary reason. Perhaps it is the wisdom of experience from a few scant years, but I was pleasantly surprised to be so affected by his story here, to read something far more resonant and profound than I had expected based on a memory (or lack thereof). This just goes to show how re-reading notable stories – even if from the opinion of someone else – is beneficial. It’s been awhile since I’ve read King, but this made me wish he’d continue getting inspiration for short fiction writing – and publication in markets like F&SF.

The other stories here that were new to me I responded to much as what I would expect from a typical stellar issue of F&SF: many excellent, a few enjoyable but throwaway, and a couple that just weren’t my thing. You may react differently to individual stories here than I, but I suspect that if you are a fan of the genre, then you’ll also enjoy a similar high percentage of these.

If you happen to be rather new to the genres, have never read the magazine, or are just a casual reader who only recognizes Stephen King in the table of contents, give this collection a try and discover what literary universe is out there for you to enjoy and explore further.

Four Stars out of Five

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