THE WORLD BEFORE US, by Aislinn Hunter

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The World Before Us
By Aislinn Hunter
Hogarth – 31st March 2015
ISBN 9780553418521 – 432 Pages – Hardcover
Source: Blogging For Books


My latest review is up today on Strange Horizons, a great weekly SFF eZine. Hunter’s The World Before Us is a literary novel with dabs of historical and fantasy genres, written in a voice that I really enjoyed.
“…Within the corridors of a small, present-day London museum that is dying from lack of funds, thirty-four-year-old archivist Jane Standen seeks solace in a final research project. She is investigating the mysterious disappearance from a Victorian-era mental institution, Whitmore, of a woman known to history only as “N.” Though records mention the woman in a mere passing whisper, Jane feels compelled to uncover the truth of N’s identity and ultimate fate…”

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

Last Stories and Other Stories, by William T. Vollmann

Last Stories and Other Stories,
by William T. Vollmann
Publisher: Viking
ASIN: B00G3L0ZV4
692 pages, eBook
Published 10th July 2014
Source: NetGalley

Contents:
I –
“Escape” (Sarajevo)
“Listening for the Shells” (Sarajevo)
“Leader” (Mostar)
II – 
“The Treasure of Jovo Cirtovich” (Trieste)
“The Madonna’s Forehead” (Trieste)
“Cat Goddess” (Trieste)
“The Trench Ghost” (Redipuglia, Tungesnes)
III –
“The Faithful Wife” (Bohemia and Trieste)
“Doroteja” (Bohemia)
“The Judge’s Promise” (Bohemia)
IV –
“June Eighteenth” (Trieste and Queretaro)
“The Cemetery of the World” (Veracruz)
“Two Kings in Zinogava” (Veracruz)
V –
“The White-Armed Lady” (Stavanger)
“Where Your Treasure Is” (Stavanger, Lillehammer)
“The Memory Stone” (Stavanger)
“The Narrow Passage” (Stavanger)
“The Queen’s Grave” (Klepp)
“Star of Norway” (Lillehammer)
VI – 
“The Forgetful Ghost (Tokyo)
“The Ghost of Rainy Mountain” (Nikko)
“The Camera Ghost” (Tokyo)
“The Cherry Tree Ghost” (Kyoto, Nikko)
“Paper Ghosts” (Tokyo)
VII –
“Defiance Too Late” (Unknown)
“Widow’s Weeds” (Kauai, Paris)
“The Banquet of Death” (Buenos Aires)
“The Grave-House” (Unknown)
(Unknown)
(Toronto)
“When We Were Seventeen” (USA)
“The Answer” (Unknown)
“Goodbye” (Kamakura)

 If this Halloween you are looking for a new and unique type of ghost story, and if literary fiction akin to a dry red wine is your treat of choice, then Vollmann’s gigantic new collection Last Stories and Other Stories may be just the thing for you.
Each of the seven parts of this collection is made up of multiple, connected stories. Varying in setting and time, the parts are linked together both in style and theme. From the war-ravaged years in the former Yugoslavia, to the romantically haunting mountains of Japan, to the memories of a dying man, Vollmann’s stories are preoccupied with all aspects of death. Drawing on regional legend, many of these stories contain elements of fantasy and horror, but in each case to service the literary meditation on the passing of people and things, not simply for the advancement of some plot. Sometimes the ghosts are literal, sometimes they appear more figuratively. Throughout, they are rendered with some delightfully beautiful prose.
Vollmann’s collection stands as a comprehensive and meticulous literary study on “Last Stories”. The stories here confront death at the moment of its personal arrival or its expected visitation on a beloved one, in the last gasps of a people or in an existence that is only defined in memory. Though written with very similar style and voice, the variety of international and historical setting allows the reader to glimpse the human understanding of death through the lens of multiple traditions and myth.
The downside to Last Stories and Other Stories is just how comprehensive it is: it’s density and its girth. At close to 700 pages, this collection could easily contain multiple single collections. In fact, each part could stand on its own. The first parts are the most grounded in realism, and given the book’s description of being about ‘ghost stories’ I was surprised to find this a huge stretch of interpretation until hundreds of pages in when that element finally arose as one aspect of the collection’s theme. Echoing the size of the book, many of the stories are particularly long, and Vollmann’s style of storytelling tends toward the rambling. The language may be beautiful throughout, but it is still rambling.
I personally found Last Stories and Other Stories most effective in small doses, rather than in reading cover-to-cover. These tales are filled with particularly insightful and lush reflections on the grave. But there is only so much of the rich text that I could handle before it simply became daunting in its scope and frustrating in its pace.
If you are a fan of highbrow literary fiction, and particularly if you would like a slight dose of the supernatural or grim for the season, then this is a quite brilliant collection that should be checked out. I’ll return to it again just for the sake of studying its language, but only in small doses at a time. You may wish to approach it similarly.

Disclaimer: I received a free 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

The Frangipani Hotel, by Violet Kupersmith

The Frangipani Hotel,
by Violet Kupersmith
Publisher: Spiegel & Grau
ASIN: B00FO5Z9Z2
256 pages, Kindle Edition
Published April 2014
Source: NetGalley

Caught between two worlds. This statement could apply equally to the living characters in this collection of short stories, and the ghosts that haunt them. The types of ghosts vary between stories and even within, from the literal sense, to the metaphoric sense of past history haunting the present, or a distant homeland or heritage haunting new life in America. United by shadows of Vietnam, its culture, and these themes of haunting and straddling worlds, Kupersmith’s debut is quite impressive.

Though featuring ghosts, these stories fit into a genre category of fantasy more than horror, except in a very classical sense. None of the stories are particularly scary, though they are spiced with an atmosphere, or at times an ambiguity that could be considered disturbing. Although being grounded in Vietnamese culture and traditional ghost stories, these tales remind me greatly both in content and style of the classic ghost stories by M.R. James, a type of Vietnamese gothic if one can imagine that. Beyond genre, they can quite easily be classified as literary, with a rich, descriptive style of sentences that sing atmospheric melodies in the reader’s ear to firmly establish the mood of the collection, taking the setting beyond exotic to eerie.

The stories that stand out strongest in my mind a week or so after reading the collection are three: the one giving its name to the title of the book, featuring a thirsty ghost haunting a family who runs a run-down hotel, one with a Vietnamese-American girl struggling with issues of self image and weight who is sent to her visit her grandmother back in the foreign homeland, and one where a man is tricked into transporting a very ill looking young man across the Vietnamese countryside, featuring an ominous warning. Each of these stories were powerfully brilliant, easily worth the ‘price of admission’ to the collection, with the latter story being the closest one to approach horror, where the ‘ghost’ actually appears quite unequivocally dangerous, more animal than human.

Kupersmith shows great talent here, and a lot of promise, but I wouldn’t categorize all of the stories here on the same level. While none were poor, several felt less magical or substantial. Moreover, the classic ghost story style employed by Kupersmith (so reminiscent to me of James) includes the format of setting up stories within stories. For instance several stories begin with some characters meeting and one prior to relate a ghostly yarn to the other(s) after something in their conversation brings this mysterious odd event from their past (or a past story they heard related) to mind. The weakest moments of the stories in this collection I felt came when Kupersmith devoted relatively large amounts of text to the characters in these conversations, and the events in their lives that eventually ends up leading to the revelation of the actual ghost story. At best the meta-connections between ‘story’ and ‘story within story’ become clear and revelatory. Frequently though this wasn’t clear to me and I finished the story wishing a fair bit of it had ended up cut out during editing.

As a collection of literary short fiction with fantastic and cultural spins, “The Frangipani Hotel: Stories” is not astounding, but it is really good and well-worth reading for anyone who likes short stories, and particularly to those who have some kind of ties to Vietnam or an affection for classic-style ghost stories. Beyond Vietnam, many of the stories also take place in Houston. So that, coupled with Kupersmith’s background from the Philly area, certainly led to a strong geographic affinity for me with her, despite my knowing little of Vietnam. Even with no connection to the material here, however, this collection is noteworthy, if just simply for an introduction to an exciting talent whose writing it bears keeping eyes upon.

Five Stars out of Five

Snowblind, by Christopher Golden

Snowblind, by Christopher Golden
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
ASIN: B00F8HRRBU
320 pages, Kindle Edition
Published January  2014
Source: NetGalley

There are aspects of “Snowblind” that make for fantastic horror. Chief among them is Golden’s talent for establishing mood, writing a novel that overall exudes creepiness, accentuating the horror that can easily greet those who step outside in the long dark of winter nights in the chilled air of falling snow. This kind of mood dominates the first portion of the novel, and Golden contrasts the chill of winter with a sort of general warmth and hopefulness in the air of relationships among his characters, a broad cast encompassing several townspeople. I enjoyed the first half of the novel and the slow building towards horror, a horror where the weather seems to take on a sinister life of its own.

However, as with many horrors, the eventual reveal of its nature comes off as far less spooky than the mind may have imagined, and in this case, even a bit melodramatic, leading up to an ending that doesn’t fulfill that promise of the early pages. I know Golden has written media-tie-in stories, and that background shows strongly in the final pages of “Snowblind” where the plot becomes increasingly reminiscent of a network television show, with less darkness and horror and more feel-good wrap up of the more sympathetic characters.

If you are a fan of horror, this could be a worthwhile winter’s night read that will heighten the affect of the novel’s pervasive mood. I imagine many readers won’t be as disappointed with the novel’s close as I, and I admit that even with that ultimate disappointment at the end that I did enjoy the overall creepy journey.

Three Stars out of Five