The Steady Running of the Hour, by Justin Go

The Steady Running of the Hour,
by Justin Go
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
ISBN: 1476704589
480 pages, hardcover
Published 15th April 2014
Source: Goodreads

Recently graduated from college, American Tristan Campbell is in a directionless limbo when he receives a formal letter from a firm of British solicitors asking him to contact them about an important matter. The solicitors explain to Campbell that he may be heir to a sizable estate left by a former mountaineer and World War I officer named Ashley Walsingham.

Since Ashley’s death during an attempt to ascend Mt Everest, the firm has managed his estate, which was never claimed by the woman to whom Ashely left it, his former lover Imogen Soames-Andersson. The solicitors have established Tristan as the last living blood relative of the Soames-Anderssons, but whether Imogen is a direct ancestor is uncertain, a secret hidden in the shadows of a doomed, illicit affair between Imogen and Ashley.

Tristan finds himself drawn into a personal research quest that spans across Europe from Britain through France into Germany and Scandinavian lands to discover whether his grandmother was really the bastard child of Ashley and Imogen rather than the legitimate daughter of Imogen’s sister as had been officially recorded in time.

Justin Go writes Tristan’s genealogical quest  with contrapuntal chapters that reveal the events in the lives of Ashley and Imogen from their meeting until Imogen’s disappearance. With this plot and structure the novel suggests categorization as part mystery, romance, and historical novel.  Though containing these elements, The Steady Running of the Hour never actually fulfills the promise of any of these genres, leaving its purpose more in the field of general literary fiction. While Go’s debut novel shows a great deal of promise and an artistic mastery of the cadence of writing, I didn’t see it as a success.

The difficulty for the novel comes from its size and scope. The Steady Running of the Hour is really material enough for two novels, Tristan’s modern-day search for ‘treasure’ and the historical romance of Ashely & Imogen set against the backdrop of The Great War. Go uses these two separate stories to draw parallels between them and cover one all-encompassing theme of the effect that history and events have on personal relationships. Personal both in the decisions of individuals and the connections between people, connections that are fighting to be maintained against forces that try to rend them asunder.

The surface of the novel’s plot is that Tristan is searching for his claim to the inheritance. A ticking clock is even provided in that Tristan has limited time to uncover evidence for his claim before the stipulations of the will force the solicitors to divide the estate between charities. Yet the ‘treasure hunt’ for Tristan isn’t about obtaining wealth, but more a discovery of self, of identity and of past. His growing obsession with this hunt begins to interfere with the opportunities that appear in Tristan’s life, most notably a relationship (perhaps platonic, perhaps more) with a young French woman he meets.

The situation of Tristan ends up paralleling the star-crossed lover situation faced by Imogen and Ashley. Ultimately it is not Imogen’s family or the scandal of illicit relations that separate the lovers, but Ashley’s conflicting desires to live on the edge, whether as an Alpinist or as officer in the War, his pursuit of a life different from alternatives available with Imogen.

Ultimately, it becomes hard to manage this grand comparison across time and setting while still leaving the reader satisfied. Go does please the reader with the style of his writing. From the opening of the book I loved how the text flowed, and the careful poetic choice of words and sentence structure makes the grandiose novel enjoyable to read. The emotional strengths of this writing are most clear in the passages describing Ashley’s experiences during World War I. These horrors are handled so very well.

Unfortunately, The Steady Running of the Hour is not just a historical novel about World War I , or of a doomed Mt. Everest expedition (a subject that Go clearly researched deeply). It also tries to connect to the present life of Tristan, and his inclusion as protagonist demands some sort of reason or purpose to drive him – hence the quest plot and an additional ‘romance’.

Yet, the novel doesn’t really feature a romance angle as much as an unfulfilled romance. Ashley & Imogen’s relationship is brief and actually never particularly believable. Go seems more concerned with their individual personalities and the aftermath of their liaisons than their actual connection. Likewise, Tristan and the young French girl demonstrate an attraction (somewhat inexplicably) that is just as unfulfilled – leaving the novel to climax around the issue of whether Tristan will choose a life devoted to his quest as Ashley did, or if he will choose ‘the girl’.

The conclusion of the novel seems to have left many readers dissatisfied at aspects being unresolved clearly, most notably the truth of whether Tristan is a direct blood relation of Imogen and Ashley’s relationship. But this quest was never the major point of the novel, just the excuse for character motivation, a MacGuffin of impetus and a way to divulge the history to the reader incrementally.

The problem is that this unresolved motivational plot makes the novel feel rather fabricated. That sense of fabrication can also be seen symbolized in the solicitors’ behavior. They seem over-eager to push Tristan towards his search, yet keep secrets from him and stay rather aloof, giving you the sense that they aren’t being completely forthcoming with the terms of the estate, that they are fabricating this all to get Tristan to do something for them that they otherwise could not. That this is all a scam and Tristan is being duped. Just like the novel shows signs of authorial fabrication to try to achieve its goals.

And the reader can easily thus end up feeling duped. I think many readers have entered this novel full of false expectations of what kind of story and what kind of resolution (or lack thereof) they are going to get from the different elements of this sweeping literary novel. While some readers could easily bear guilt for this, it is also a result of an ambitious work that can lead the reader astray, that has difficulty in keeping control between its central literary goal and the elements of plot and character used to create it. Fans of rich literary fiction could still find this a notable, pleasing read, or those with interest in WWI. Casual readers desiring complete resolution should probably avoid it and wait for a more suitable showcase of Justin Go’s writing talents.

Two and a Half Stars out of Five

Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this from the Simon & Schuster through the Goodreads’ First-reads giveaway program 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.

So Much a Part of You, by Polly Dugan

So Much a Part of You, by Polly Dugan
Publisher: Little, Brown & Co.
ISBN: 0316320323
240 pages, hardcover
Expected Publication: 10th June 2014
Sources: Goodreads

Are you still friends with the people you grew up with? Those whom you were inseparable through elementary school? High school? Is your current life where you planned for it to be when you entered into college? Or graduated? Is it even heading in the direction you originally planned?

Is your life what your ancestors imagined would come from their struggles and success? Are you building a life and family, looking at your own children or grandchildren and hoping for what type of future life they will have?

Despite all we put of ourselves into relationships, could everything turn out terribly different from what we desire?

These are the types of questions explored by Dugan in the short collection of chronological stories. Connected one-to-the-next with shared characters, the collection as a whole spans across a few generations and families to reveal the broad effects of the passage of time and changing circumstances on individuals and relationships.

So Much a Part of You is not a reading experience where you follow a protagonist through an exciting plot and get to live vicariously through the adventures and how much you ‘like’ the character. This is a literary collection, about matters more general, and deeper. The situations in the stories of this collection may include tragedies or condition you’ve never experienced, from physical accidents, to alcoholism, to one-night-stands, or an abortion. The characters may make choices that you have never faced, or think you would never make.

What is relatable, what is emotionally resonant and evokes reflection  is the general effect these situations and choices have on the characters in the stories and that the reader can then apply to their own personal life. For we have all faced rough situations and tragedy. We have all made choices, good and bad.

So too with the characters in So Much a Part of You. None of them end up where they may have expected. In some cases this is unfortunate, and in others it becomes clear that a new and better relationship has opened up in their life, that they would never have foreseen, but which for that particular time and place is exactly what they need, and dearly precious.

With the connected format of the collection, readers are able to see some characters from different perspectives and periods, creating a complexity that would be harder to obtain from a single short story. Dugan’s writing is fluid and conversational, making this a relatively quick read. The overall emotional reflection it could engender will last longer.

Four Stars out of Five

I received a free advanced reading copy of this from the publisher through the Goodreads’ First-reads giveaway program.

Em and The Big Hoom, by Jerry Pinto

Em and The Big Hoom, by Jerry Pinto
Publisher: Viking (Penguin UK)
ISBN: 0670923583
224 pages, hardcover
Expected Publication (US): 24th June 2014
Sources: Goodreads & NetGalley

So often, literature focuses solely on conflicts, the inability of people to reconcile with others, themselves, or their environment. Like any story, Em and The Big Hoom, by Jerry Pinto contains conflict, adversity that its characters must face. The appeal of the novel is that despite the darkness it is suffused with humor and joy and is focused on how a family successfully holds together despite their hardship. In Em and The Big Hoom, communication abides even amid the unpredictability of madness.

Told from the perspective of a boy living with his family is small Mumbai flat, Em and The Big Hoom is a series of chapters that are each almost short stories themselves. Em, or Imelda, is the mother who is plagued with mental disease (bipolar disorder) that creates a paradoxical closeness to and distance from her husband (Austine or ‘The Big Hoom’), daughter (Susan), and son (the unnamed point-of-view character).

The son relates the emotional roller-coaster of life with a woman that everyone knows is ‘mad’, but whom they all love and try to support even through the darkest moments of attempted suicide. The son thinks constantly about both of his parents, their past and how they came together, the present, and the uncertain future that shows both promise of hope and the threat of instant disaster. Looking at his parents, the son is also forced to consider what genetic aspects he may have inherited from each: an admirable devotion of sacrifice and love displayed by his kind father, the sweet uncompromising honesty and playfulness of his mother, or her ‘madness’.

Both parents are well written, but Em is fabulously so, a woman who faces the weighty realization of her mental illness with a brutal honesty, yet simultaneously tries to lighten it with humor and memories of past joys. As the point-of-view character, the son is likewise complex, but the sister Susan seems present only to have another child in the story.

The beauty of the novel lies in Pinto’s writing, which mirrors the frank honesty of the characters. Though not flowery or decorated with an advanced vocabulary, Pinto’s writing is poetic. It flows gracefully and naturally with simple, but precise, words that convey deep emotion and thought, making the unnamed son who serves as the narrator familiar and relatable. The novel is highly quotable and many of the son’s thoughts or pondered questions would be excellent fodder for student or book group discussion.

A simple plot saturated with the dark undertones of mental illness, Em and The Big Hoom joyfully depicts a realistic optimism and hope that will be inspiring and enriching for readers of all kind.

Five Stars out of Five

I received a free copy of this from the publisher both electronically via NetGalley and through the Goodreads’ First-reads giveaway program.

(In a rare case of timing I was granted NetGalley access and then won a physical copy moments after getting that notice, before I was able to withdraw from the Goodreads giveaway contest. The physical copy will go to a friend and reviewer I hope will enjoy it as much as I have.)

Law of Desire, by Andrej Blatnik

Law of Desire, by Andrej Blatnik
Translated by Tamara M. Soban
Publisher: Dalkey Archive Press
ISBN: 1628970421
208 pages, paperback
Expected Publication: 14th July 2014
Source: NetGalley

True to its title, Law of Desire is a collection of short stories revolving around the condition of desire. The inclusion of the word ‘law’ implies the controlling influence that desire has over the characters and situations in the stories. Desire is something beyond control, immutable and compulsory. The type of desire explored in each story varies from the physical to the abstract and the stories themselves vary from short, surreal vignettes to more nuanced and longer explorations of character.

The longer stories tend to have distinct plots rather than simply prose that conveys a state of being, and I found I appreciated these the most. Among these, “Electric Guitar” is perhaps the most powerful, a ‘gut-wrenching’ subtle story of abuse that extends beyond a simple meditation on the collection’s theme.

However, “What We Talk About” is the leading, and most effective story in the collection. Here, a man meets a fascinating, but mysterious woman and the two have a rapid connection. The desire between the two (particularly from the point of view of the male protagonist) is palpable, but extends beyond mere sexual desire or even a desire for friendship. The two dance those steps of relationship that balance sharing and keeping secrets, where the man becomes compelled to discover the exact nature of the woman’s job which involves clients paying to talk to her on the phone.

These interactions reveal the corollary to the desire featured in all these stories, and that is ‘dissatisfaction’, a state of being that almost by definition must be present in order for engendering desire. The characters in Blatnik’s stories all exhibit some degree of intense dissatisfaction, sometimes internal, or sometime coming from external factors. Either way, this dissatisfaction ultimately arises from that theme that generally characterizes modern ‘literature’: a failure to communicate.

Thus, Blatnik’s stories all focus on some part of a circular chain that defines humanity. Failures to communicate (honestly to oneself or between individuals) leads to dissatisfaction. Dissatisfaction leads to desires. If unmet, desires continue to compound dissatisfaction. Yet, even if attained, these desires at best only lead to greater desire. Additionally, even if attained, one desire often doesn’t coincide with the desires of others (or conflicting desires within oneself). This failure of desires to exist in harmony (to communicate properly in other words) leads us right back to the start of the circle. The desire can never be fulfilled.

Exploration of this vicious circle seems Blatnik’s desire as writer, and he successfully achieves that goal as far as possible – though as art primarily, not always in the most ‘entertaining’ of fashions. In interviews with Blatnik he discusses the freedom that writers within formerly Communist portions of Europe now have to focus on this modern literature of every-day conflict within and between individuals rather than producing works that have some specific political or cultural role (subversive or not). Interestingly though, this shift in Slovenian (and related) literature follows the same pattern of theme that Blatnik explores in this collection. The dissatisfaction of what was possible or relevant to artistically produce under a relatively oppressive regime has led to a desire to write simpler, modern literature of people failing to communicate. Given the enormous popularity of this collection in its native language, the desire to consume this kind of work is also abundant.

Within the confines of its culture and origins, Law of Desire likely resonates in the continued uncertainty of the future. Several of the stories even seem to take the characters out of time and place (out of plot) to represent something extremely relevant to the condition of its audience. For the general reader of the English translation, this poignancy may be lost, but the universality of that central dissatisfaction-desire loop make this a worthwhile literary read for those that appreciate more artistic writing. Even if not all stories connect, a few brilliant ones in this collection make it worth checking out.

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.

The Hundred-Year House, by Rebecca Makkai

The Hundred-Year House,
by Rebecca Makkai
Publisher: Viking (Penguin Books)
ASIN: B00G3L163K
352 pages, Kindle Edition
Expected Publication: 10th July 2014
Source: NetGalley

 Somewhere in the first part of Makkai’s impressive The Hundred-Year House there is a line or two referencing classic ghost stories of history that were not really about anything supernatural, but were rather psychological, about the descent of a character’s mind and the loss of their grip on reality or self. And in this first part, set in the late 1990s, it seems as if Makkai is doing something similar here with her characters.

The protagonist of this first part is Doug, a failing academic who (seeking to find a university position) should be working on a paper about a relatively unknown poet, but instead has become involved in writing formulaic children’s books. To aid his chosen (or forced) research and get back on track, Doug takes advantage of his connections through marriage. Zee, his wife and an established professor, who is heir to an estate which once served as an artist’s colony where the poet had stayed. Zee and Doug go to stay in the old house on the grounds, where they are joined by Zee’s mother, step-father, and her step-brother and his wife.

While Doug finds writing about the poet difficult, he becomes increasingly pulled into the mystery of what occurred at the artist’s colony in the past and why Zee’s mother-in-law seems so averse to letting him access any records or memorabilia from the time stored in the attic under lock. As Zee sets in motion a devious plan to create an open position for Doug at her university, Doug enters deeper into guarding his secret investigations into the house’s past and his clandestine children’s book writing from Zee. And unexpectedly, he finds himself drawing closer to his sister-in-law.

This first section is thus filled with secrets and intrigue, deep mysteries, catastrophic assumptions, and lies. Set against the backdrop of an old house where odd things occur and rumors of ghosts abound, all seems poised for the novel to continue down a course where Doug, Zee, and the others fall apart (individually in the psychological sense; and quite literally in their union as family). But rather than continue down this path and allow the characters to fully uncover one another’s secrets and the complete history of the house and estate, Makkai leaves these people and takes the reader back into the past with a step to the mid 1950’s, and in the parts that follow additional steps back, ultimately to the very foundations of the house.

For The Hundred-Year House isn’t just a ghost story with emphasis on the people, it is a story about place, as the title betrays. The novel later contains a comment by a character that living in this house in the presence of ghosts doesn’t feel to them as they would expect or understand. We normally view ‘haunting’ as the past coming to intrude and influence our present, to the point that the phrase “haunted by the past” appears redundant. In this house, the character explains, it is more as if its future is reaching back to form the history. And this is indeed the precise experience the reader is having, most obviously from this backward stepping through time as we learn some of the truth of events or unexpected relations between people we met through stories earlier in the novel, in the future.

This makes it necessary, and rewarding, to pay careful attention while reading Makkai’s novel. It is beautifully crafted, a complex weave of characters that makes the tapestry of this house, this estate, which becomes almost a life in itself for the reader and for those people in the story who feel manipulated by what is to come. Quite ingeniously this playing with time and cause-and-effect is more literally born-out in the sub-plot of the first section when Zee manipulates and creates a false story to try and destroy the reputation of a professor. Though based on lies, the charges end up becoming accepted true by all (even the falsely accused) as if history were rewritten by the future (paralleling the rewriting Zee does of the other professor’s Internet browsing history).

The Hundred-Year House is quite good, and rich. It is a novel that invites rereading to capture all the details – I can only guess the many things I missed through the nature of its construction and my spotty memory. Although I read it on a Kindle due to the format of NetGalley advanced reading copies, I’d recommend buying or checking out a physical copy of this, it is the type of work where you’ll appreciate the physical text and scents of reading in front of you, permitting you to flip back and forth between sections and time periods when those ‘aha’ moments hit. This is a haunting book, in no way supernatural, but surely powerful.

Five Stars out of Five

 

Fearful Symmetries, Edited by Ellen Datlow

Fearful Symmetries
Edited by Ellen Datlow
Publisher: ChiZine
ASIN: B00EXOT73U
400 pages, Kindle Edition
Published May 2014
Source: NetGalley

Contents:

“A Wish From a Bone” by Gemma Files
“The Atlas of Hell” by Nathan Ballingrud
“The Witch Moth” by Bruce McAllister
“Kaiju” by Gary McMahon
“Will The Real Psycho In This Story Please Stand Up?” by Pat Cadigan
“In the Year of Omens” by Helen Marshall
“The Four Darks” by Terry Dowling
“The Spindly Man” by Stephen Graham Jones
“The Window” by Brian Evenson
“Mount Chary Galore” by Jeffrey Ford
“Ballad of an Echo Whisperer” by Caitlín R. Kiernan
“Suffer Little Children” by Robert Shearman
“Power” by Michael Marshall Smith
“Bridge of Sighs” by Kaaron Warren
“The Worms Crawl In,” by Laird Barron
“The Attic” by Catherine MacLeod
“Wendigo Nights” by Siobhan Carroll
“Episode Three: On the Great Plains, in the Snow” by John Langan
“Catching Flies” by Carole Johnstone
“Shay Corsham Worsted” by Garth Nix

Ellen Datlow’s name to me is synonymous with horror anthology. I see the two together so often, and usually with accolades, that I decided I really did need to just read one of her collections. This one really impressed me in its variety and its quality. I typically enjoy reading horror stories like these around Halloween time, and this collection would be suited well for that kind of celebration. The hard decision will be whether to reread this one or try out another one of her collections.

A review of each single story seems excessive, and there isn’t a single story that failed here. There are no common themes uniting this collection other than the very general fitting into the category of horror or dark tales. They range from very realistic to paranormal, from gruesome gore-filled feasts to nuanced, atmospheric tales, from pulp to literary. Fairly well-ranged in background and style, this is an ideal volume to discover new authors or names that you may merely recognize.

Frankly, it is hard to even pick out favorites from this. For someone like me who has a wide range of tastes across the genre, each of these represents top contributions to their respective category of story type. If you are discriminating regarding the type of horror you like then this may not be the best collection. There will certainly be some or several stories here that you like, but others may hold no interest, in which case you might search elsewhere for a themed collection or just read certain selections here. But for those wanting an intro or return to the range that the horror genre has available, “Fearful Symmetries” is absolutely perfect.

Five Stars out of Five

Selected Stories, by Kjell Askildsen

Selected Stories, by Kjell Askildsen
Publisher: Columbia University Press
ISBN: 1628970286
100 pages, paperback
Published May 2014
Source: NetGalley

Any review I compose of this brief collection of short stories is going to be colored by the horrendous formatting issues that the advanced reading copy presented on the Kindle. Each story’s title was missing and the spacing between paragraphs was irregular, sometimes a line break was present, other times not. The combination of these issues meant that stories would end and the next would begin without any visual clue. It therefore became exceedingly hard to tell if a new story had begun or not. Sometimes a change in style or voice made it clear, but the similar tone and themes of several of these stories made this annoyingly unclear.

Despite these reading issues, the heart of the collection still was clear, dark and minimalistic much like the cinema I have seen from the Scandinavian countries. I read most of the stories here as falling within a common framework of the protagonist (mostly male) feeling lost. Each tale was filled with coffee, cigarettes, booze, and isolated walks as the character tried to regain a place in their life or relationships, find their bearings. In a way, the poor formatting accentuated this feeling for the reader, and may have influenced this personal interpretation of the stories.

Most of Askildsen’s writing is understated, contrasting with the blunt simplicity of the sentences and words. Most sentences are short. They aren’t complex. And simple facts are stated. Yet, beneath this almost droning mindless simplicity lurks a real sense of foreboding and menacing, and at times horrific events and actual death or loss or subtly hidden even within the forthright simplicity of the grammar and structure.

This is something I’d want to reread in actual hardcopy form, the electronic doesn’t really do justice to the atmosphere of the stories. I want to smell the pages as I read them each. Or at least have better formatting. Though the experience was more like three stars, it definitely grew on me as I read more of this, and it certainly has compelled a curiosity to read more by the author, so a curve to four I believe is reasonable in light of the technical snafu.

Hence the unavoidable and unfortunate caveat for this title: a reread could conceivably lead to a shift in the star ratings in either direction.

Four Stars out of Five

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

All Our Names, by Dinaw Mengestu

All Our Names, by Dinaw Mengestu
Publisher: Knopf
ISBN: 0062300709
272 pages, hardcover
Published March 2014
Source: Goodreads First-Reads

Understated and deceptively simple, “All Our Names” is the type of novel where you need to stop yourself and allow sentences and passages to digest fully before moving on. It is all too easy to enter this story, fly through its pages without ever becoming engaged and simply write it off as insubstantial. It is not a novel where you enter the narrative flow of its plot and it to sweep you away. It requires attentiveness and personal reflection.

In other words, for its appreciation, Mengestu’s novel requires the reader behaves completely unlike its characters. In “All Our Names” the two point of view characters, Helen and Isaac (who has many names), have become disengaged from their lives. In the case of Isaac, this occurs through the process of living through a tumultuous period in post-colonial Uganda, where through a dear friend he becomes involved in political revolution. This history, leading to the violence and trauma that ultimately brings him to flee to the United States as an immigrant, is related in chapters that alternate with those from the point of view of Helen, a social case worker who is assigned to Isaac upon his arrival in the US Midwest. Helen has an almost immediate attraction to the distant, kind, and out-of-place Isaac. Their relationship pulls Helen further from her familiar job and relations in favor of experiencing simple existence in the company of Isaac.

This creates an interesting juxtaposition. On the one hand the characters are extremely distant, from one another and from the reader. We know few details about them, and even after learning the full story of Isaac’s past, we still no so little of him, not even his ‘real’ name. We learn little more about Helen. And each seems strangely indifferent to the lack of knowledge about one another. They are largely strangers, and while they have a certain curiosity, the point is not pressed. It doesn’t drive apart the relationship. Because ultimately, despite this distance of knowledge, emotionally the two are profoundly close. Isaac’s relationship with his friend in Uganda (also named Isaac, whose name he ‘took’ when fleeing to the US) is similarly based on a deep love without knowing the precise details of one another’s history.

The novel thereby seems to resonate around this idea that identity is superfluous, ultimately inconsequential, particularly when looking on this grand scale of national politics and social upheavals, from the revolutions of Uganda, to the racism of Jim Crow America. The characters in “All Our Names” have discovered that these labels that we use to identify one another: black, white, rebel, patriot, nationalist, immigrant, native, Isaac, Dickens, whatever – they ultimately are agents of division. Isaac (while either in Africa or North America), and Helen through association with him, have found deep human relationships of love to carry them through the tides of events, of uncertainties and new lands. They are no longer engaged with what is happening around them, they are not trying to control it, they are simply abiding, and living in a hope for a future. And they seem to have a realization that this relationship can transcend place and time.

Typically, I will enjoy novels more that achieve a sort of beauty coherent with the story that will also make the plot and characters a bit more developed and intimate. However, here I can’t criticize Mengestu for not doing this, because I read it as necessary to what he is trying to accomplish with this novel. While this isn’t my personal favorite kind of novel to read, I can appreciate the power and control of the writing he has produced here.

Five Stars out of Five