FALLING IN LOVE WITH HOMINIDS by Nalo Hopkinson

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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.
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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 Memory Garden, by M. Rickert

The Memory Garden, by M. Rickert
Publisher: Sourcebook Landmarks
ASIN: B00HUTVFYE
304 pages, Kindle Edition
Published May 2014
Source: NetGalley

There is something magical in stories that focus on the relationship between the young (particularly in the tween and teen years) and the elderly. The traumas and uncertainties in the lives of the teen find a certain solace in the wizened eccentricities of the elder. The elderly have gotten through that period of their lives, but are not like the other adults. They are no longer in their productive prime and they are in another transition stage of our existence, one even more uncertain and potentially traumatic. From the other side, the connection with the vibrancy of youth seems to magically transform the elderly, as they recall with fondness moments of their own history, and perhaps reconsider past events that were more dark and difficult to confront in their earlier years. With “The Memory Garden”, M. Rickert explores these themes of the young connecting with the old through one teenager (Bay) and three older women, her adopted guardian (Nan) and two of Nan’s childhood friends, who Nan hasn’t had contact with in years (Ruthie and Mavis).

I know Mary Rickert’s name from her stories that have appeared in “The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction”, and it is always a joy to see novels appear from authors who I fondly recall from those pages. Like her stories, “The Memory Garden” is written in a delicate, understated manner. Bright, lush, and full of life on the surface, the lives (and deaths) in the novel hide dark matters underneath. Nicely, these serious (and unfortunately very realistic, not fantastic) horrors are included perfectly, neither downplayed nor exploited.

Rickert’s writing is beautiful, full of rich, sense-evocative elements. Most overtly, chapters are built around descriptions (definitions) of particular plants that fit into the theme or events of that given chapter. But throughout the book Rickert is able to fully immerse the reader in this fairy-tale like world with its sights, smells, feelings, and tastes. The highlight of the novel in this respect comes at a high point of the narrative arc as Ruthie concocts a lavish feast for the others built around edible flowers.

Although a couple of secondary characters are not strongly developed and largely fulfill plot-related purposes, the major characters of the novel – Bay and the three elder women – are superbly written, realistic women with personalities each unique and fitting for their ages and experiences. Given the three older ladies, my mind happened to go immediately to “The Golden Girls”. Indeed, each of the women had aspects to their personalities that I could map to Dorothy, Blanche, or Rose. (With Ruthie for instance reminding me often of Rose with here naive nature, to the point where my mind would read “Ruthie” as “Rose”). However, these personalities didn’t line up perfectly, and as the novel progressed, these elderly characters also changed significantly, and the reader learns that they each are far more than they show at first sight. These characters don’t just have secrets that get revealed, Rickert is able to show how they hold more of themselves inside than just some historical events. They keep emotions and personalities hidden due to their experiences, which in turn inform how they are interacting with Bay and the crises she faces.

The plot is more firmly in the ground of fantasy than the more agnostic ‘fantasy realism’, but it should nonetheless be an easy fantasy pill to swallow for general fiction readers. The plot of the novel is slow-moving, as well as the character development. Coupled with its understated style overall, it is not the most ‘engaging’ novel from the onset, requiring patience and lingering appreciation for the quiet beauty of the text as things slowly unfold. With the complex conclusion to it all, I can’t be remotely disappointed with the novel as a whole. Though I look forward to future novels from Rickert, I really hope to keep seeing “M. Rickert” in the table of contents in F&SF in the future still too.

Five Stars out of Five

A Man Came Out of a Door in the Mountain, by Adrianne Harun

A Man Came Out of a Door in the Mountain, by Adrianne Harun
Publisher: Penguin Books
ASIN: B00DMCPIQ4
272 pages, Kindle Edition
Published February 2014
Source: NetGalley

Halfway through this atypical novel I immediately marked Harun’s short story collection as something to read. I ended up tearing through “A Man Came Out of a Door in the Mountain” in a single day between two sittings, and while I’m not convinced that this novel completely works, it still did impress me and evoked a desire to seek out more of Harun’s work, particularly short stories.

Though completed relatively fast, the material in this novel is dense and complex, requiring a certain amount of savor. Although you may be tempted to devour it at once, in retrospect it will probably be more meaningful to take in pieces that can be reflected upon. It is an odd beast in its format. Too long for a novella, but seemingly not a complete novel either. With a relatively large cast of characters and the blurred lines between reality and the fantastic there is a lot of material to cover, and not all of it will be suitably resolved to many readers’ satisfactions. With her previous recognized work in short stories it isn’t too big a surprise that this ‘novel’ thereby exists as more of an intimately joined collection of stories, not even separated by chapter-to-chapter, but within and throughout. The narrative meanders from the main plotline, inspired by actual disappearances of young First Nations girls on a relatively isolated stretch of Canadian highway, to side stories that fit the setting, themes, and style of the work, but could equally exist on their own. Each section thereby isn’t encountered with any necessarily obvious connection to the overall plot.

But you can be sure it will be beautifully written. Just as Harun shifts from plot progression to moments of isolated character introspection or folktale-like asides, so does her style shift from a more simple dialogue-driven narrative to rich poetic descriptions and a more open structure. Again, this could be an unwelcome distraction, it is ultimately hard to make the two styles, the two types of focus merge together into a coherent whole. The merging is most successful in that form of setting and of describing this eerie, chilling environment and situation. It is weakest, however, with the characters. Harun never seems to get a firm grasp on the majority of characters, some of whom seem important, only to vanish. As a result the reader also has a difficult time connecting to, or even following, the characters within the picture of the overall plot. You might get intimate snippets of them from segment to segment, but the tying of it all together fails.

Again, this likely stems from strengths in writing short stories as opposed to novels, or it may be exactly what Harun intends to do here. For me the reading experience could be described as intoxicating and intriguing, producing wonderful atmosphere and some fine writing to appreciate. But tying the plot and character engagement in its overall form never came together for me, leaving the experience strongly magical, lacking a practical physicality, like smelling scrumptious freshly baked cookies without getting that chance to chew, swallow, and feel fully sated.

But it has certainly left me hungry for more and to seek out something more filling in Harun’s other work.

Three-and-a-Half Stars out of Five

The Rathbones, by Janice Clark

The Rathbones, by Janice Clark
Publisher: Doubleday
ASIN: B00BE255W6
384 pages, Kindle Edition
Published August 2013
Source: NetGalley

For Clark’s writing and its impeccably rendered Gothic atmosphere the book easily deserves four stars, perhaps even garnering five. This is the second book in a row I’ve read that focuses on the sea, the last beside it, and this largely on it, recounting the last surviving members of a once thriving dynasty of New England whalers and one teenage girl’s discovery of that family history. Descriptions of the ocean, the life within it and around it, and the workings of sailing vessels are beautifully conveyed, allowing Clark to truly immerse the reader into this bizarre world of the Rathbone clan.

It surely is a bizarre world. Clark’s rich descriptions of settings and action are rooted in a mixture of Gothic mystique and mythological otherness. Magic fills the pages and envelopes the characters, sometimes merely imagined, sometimes quite real, and sometimes, well the reader can’t be too certain. Everything appears somewhat off-kilter in the novel, where you realize you are reading about a realistic time period, a realistic occupation, yet still filled with that otherworldliness of fable, of fairy tales. Things aren’t necessarily as they first appear, and only with the full revelation of the Rathbone past to the protagonist does the reader also fully grasp some answers behind the many mysteries.

I would expect these aspects to lead me to adore this book. Gothic, dark, mysterious, magical, top-shelf writing… this should have been an adult high-brow dose of John Bellairs. Edward Gorey could have done the little illustrations. This should have blown me away. Yet, it didn’t.

The weaknesses of the novel and the source of my disappointment came from the fact that it is simply dry. Lovely writing is admirable, and in a short story it can pack a punch, but to maintain that intensity over a novel and still keep things moving, still engage the reader in the story – not just the skill of the writing – that takes a lot. There is no humor here, no let up in the seriousness, in the Gothic bleak monotones. Poetic descriptions that dazzle give way to rapid actions that advance the plot amidst shadows of uncertainty. One rereads a passage wondering, ‘wait, did what I think just happen really happen, or did I miss something?’ The mysteries are so grandiose and murky, and the answers are given (at first) so subtly, that one has to pay strict attention, let a small detail fly by. With little let up, this can be exhausting.

This on its own isn’t that big of an issue for me, but it does go hand-in-hand with the weakness I found most hard to move past…the characters are all so lifeless. You do get some thoughts of the protagonist, a good idea of what drives her, and yet many of her actions are just inexplicable, as mysterious as her family’s past. By rendering everything with this atmosphere of magic and mystery, Clark takes away a great deal of humanity in her characters. Some behave like characters from myth, some are not remotely as they appear at first, but for most all of them you never get much sense of their thoughts and motivations. Even as the protagonist learns about her Rathbone ancestors, their story is recounted in a dry historical fashion, learning where they start, where they end up, but little of who they really were. Large numbers of Rathbone offspring in each generation are cast into gender-specific groups with names such as “The Worn Wives” giving them some simple characteristic all in common, but no individuality, no humanity.

To be fair, this characterization makes sense to fit within the mythological or fablistic foundations of the novel. But, unfortunately it also seriously detracts from enjoyment of the story, the plot, and from the reader’s desire to empathize with the characters. Finding a balance between their otherworldliness and their realism is difficult to achieve, and for some readers I’m not sure if Clark has done so here. I imagine that many readers will be blown away by the beautiful prose and atmosphere found in this novel, and others for whom that just won’t be enough to keep their interest. Or you’ll be like me and go for stretches in absolute love and awe with what you read interspersed with stretches of indifference.

Three Stars out of Five