THE ARRIVAL OF MISSIVES by Aliya Whiteley

 

The Arrival of Missives
By Aliya Whiteley
Unsung Stories – May 2016
ISBN 9781907389375 – 120 Pages – Paperback
Source: Direct from Publisher


The weight and devastation of the Great War (World War I) has ended. Young Shirley Fearn looks toward her future with hopeful dreams that echo English society’s wish to transition from the bleak, meaningless tragedy of war to a freedom of bright, purposeful possibility. The only child of a village farmer, Shirley has grown up under the expectation that she would settle as a housewife, marrying an eligible young man who could take over the farm. Finishing her schooling and entering into maturity, however, Shirley feels driven towards other goals: leaving a domestic life to train as a schoolteacher at a nearby college.
A strong respect and romantic infatuation with her schoolteacher, an injured veteran named Mr. Tiller, helps fuel those goals even more. But her illusions of who Mr. Tiller is and her place in his life become shattered when he comes to her with a wild story of visions of a future disaster, and demands for actions Shirley must take to prevent its fulfillment. With the approaching village celebration of May Day, the crowning of a new May Queen, and the dawn of a new Spring, Shirley is pulled between the expectations of her family, the demands of a mentor, her developing sexuality, and the independent drives of her spirit and intellect.
When Unsung Stories contacted me about providing a copy of this for review I really hesitated. Starting in a full time faculty position has gotten me really ‘behind’ in reviews that I’m just now getting back in the groove of putting up/submitting. Did I really want to take on something more? As a novella it is a short length commitment, but the novella form is not something I gravitate toward. And the last (and unfortunately only) book I’ve read from the press previously disappointed. But something made me say ‘okay I’ll give it a look’. I am so glad that I did because The Arrival of Missives is a beautifully written story, a joy to read that actually shows me how effective an appropriately constructed novella can be.
I hadn’t immediately recognized Aliya Whiteley’s name (as accomplished as she is), though I later realized I had previously read one of her stories in Strange Horizons. In a way this is fortunate as it really did make this new novella a complete surprise. And who doesn’t love becoming enraptured with the writing of someone unexpectedly? However, whether you are familiar with Whiteley or not, this bit of literature with a touch of genre science fiction and romance is worth considering for an afternoon’s pleasure.
At its core the novella is a simple coming of age story, but Whiteley expertly constructs it to address the themes on multiple levels, visiting the ‘old’ and the ‘new’ on multiple levels from personal, societal, historical, and science fictional (time travel). Shirley is a richly drawn character who struggles with issues of identity and independence, but in a way that avoids simple answers or cliché. The other characters are less developed, and the motivations and psyche of Mr. Tiller feel uncertain beyond the need to fulfill the plot. But as a novella the focus on Shirley and her point of view – which itself is confused about Mr. Tiller’s intentions and moral authority – make this necessary.
The language of The Arrival of Missives fits its setting, characters, and themes perfectly, and is filled with a range of emotion and descriptive color that simply make the novella a pleasant and engaging read. I recommend giving it a read.

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

Cosmocopia, by Paul Di Filippo

Cosmocopia, by Paul Di Filippo
Publisher: Open Road Media
ISBN: 1497664659
132 pages, eBook
Published: 2nd September 2014
(Originally publlished in 2008)
Source: NetGalley

 In Paul Di Filippo’s review column in last month’s issue of Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine he mentioned his novella Cosmocopia as an example of ‘posthumous fantasy’, a subgenre description that I hadn’t heard before, though I have certainly read. Stephen R. Donaldson’s Chronicles of Thomas Covenant come to mind. With the novella length, Di Filippo effectively focuses his exploration into a few basic themes that the genre can embody.
Frank Lazorg is a former talented fantasy illustrator whose artistic productivity and physical vitality have vanished from a stroke in his old age. His desire to achieve one last glorious creation prior to death seem within grasp, however, when a friends sends him a pigment extract for his paints that turns out to also be a potent, reinvigorating drug. Unable to resist the potential it provides, Lazorg takes the addictive, mind-altering drug. Augmenting the emotional turmoil of his past memories, and the fragility of his present, the drug pushes Lazorg into madness and tragic violence that ends up shattering his reality. Lazorg awakes, perhaps transferred, perhaps reborn, in a place familiar yet bizarrely different in biology and physics, perhaps with another chance at life.
The characters and the behavior of physical reality in the universe where Lazorg finds himself are vividly, imaginatively written by Di Filippo. Lazorg is forced to discover this familiar – though foreign – world along with the reader, and stumbling through his new life as he attempts to discover and outlet for his talents and rekindle the artistic creation he yearns for. And the reader begins to increasingly sympathize with Lazorg, who despite his monstrous actions, you want to see find personal redemption in his new lease on life. Despite his mistakes and selfishness, you see the touching love and devotion of those he now finds himself among, and how that has the potential at least to change him into something redeemed.
At the core, Di Filippo uses this posthumous fantasy set-up to explore those basic issues of life and death: Where do we go when we die? Is there an afterlife? Are we reborn? Are there other universes out there? Do we migrate life after life, closer and closer to some ultimate meaning, to a cosmic truth? Is there someone in control and if so do they deserve our respect, or our ire?
This novella isn’t about answering any of those questions, it is just about providing a weird journey that addresses some of these in a narrative to get you thinking about them. I don’t want to say too much about what happens to Lazorg in his new environment, or where he goes from there. I don’t want to reveal what the new world appears to be, because that would ruin the fun of reading this, or of coming up with your own interpretations. I personally found the ending to be perfect, perfectly ironic. If you missed out on this when it was first released as I had, I do recommend picking up this newly available ebook version to discover this.
Disclaimer: I received a free advanced electronic reading copy of this from Open Road Media via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Journal of the Plague Year

Journal of the Plague Year:
A Post-Apocalyptic Omnibus
 by Various
Publisher: Abaddon Books
ISBN: 1781082464
400 pages, paperback
Published: 12th August 2014
Source: NetGalley

Contents:
Orbital Decay, by Malcolm Ross
Dead Kelly, by C.B. Harvey
The Bloody Deluge, by Adrian Tchaikovsky

 Though I’ve read plenty of shared-universe novels, they all have fallen into the media-tie-in category, but I’d been intrigued by titles in the Abaddon catalog and the apocalyptic/post-apocalyptic setting of this “Afterblight” series seemed like something I’d easily enjoy. And this omnibus collection ended up being basically what I expected, nothing flashy or awe-inspiring, but a fresh and varied series of genre stories that keeps the reader entertained.
Each of the three novellas in the omnibus has its positive qualities, but each also came with problems for me. As such, no single story stood out above the others: none exceptional, yet each ultimately satisfying and worth the read. What impresses me most about Journal of the Plague Year is how unique each of the three novellas is. All apocalyptic, each falls into a particular sub-genre.
Orbital Decay has an emphasis on science fiction, and in terms of plot and set-up I found this the most intriguing. The American and Russian crew aboard a space station in orbit of Earth watch in isolation from the rest of humanity as the disease known as “The Cull” begins to spread throughout the world. The physical and psychological stresses of space coupled with international and personal tensions between crew-members become exacerbated as the characters watch the Apocalypse unfold below them to friends and family and some struggle to figure out the disease’s cause and how safe they are on the station.
The strengths of Ross’ contribution to the omnibus center on the characterizations, their individual psychology and interactions. Unfortunately in terms of science fiction, serious errors occur when dealing with biology, with Ross apparently confusing critical differences between viruses and bacteria. The sections dealing with the nature of the disease took me right out of the story into sighs and groans. There are also a lot of technical details in the story, but I can’t really comment how believable or accurate these were.
Dead Kelly is best classified in crime, or horror, being a tale full of degenerate criminals struggling for control and pursuing personal vendettas in the power vacuum following civilization’s collapse. Kelly is the former leader of a group that fell apart when a big heist went sour. Having faked his death, Kelly has been hiding out in the Australian outback, but now returns to his old familiar haunts and colleagues in the new post-Cull world. This story has a lot of raw energy, with a protagonist who is both revolting and compelling depending on the particular passage being read. It is a brutal story of betrayal, justice, and revenge.
And as such it is a lot of fun. Readers that can’t stomach intense situations or unlikable protagonists won’t want anything to do with this. The overall tone of Harvey’s novella as a revenge tale is rather familiar, however. Most of the story proceeds in expected fashion and thereby comes across as too simplistic. But to Harvey’s credit, it does end in a particularly strong fashion that is unexpected, yet ends up feeling just right.
The Bloody Deluge was the deepest of the three novellas, about big ideas of faith versus reason, order versus chaos, freedom versus control, hope versus despair. Here, Tchaikovsky tackles the big issues of what could happen to society and individuals faced with a post-apocalyptic landscape. Set in Eastern Europe, it has a certain novelty of setting, which helps against the familiarity of tackling these sorts of issues in the post-apocalyptic genre. Though the themes are well-worn, Tchaikovsky still has important things to say and handles them in a far more balanced and nuanced manner than I first expected.
This final novella falls into a general adventure genre where a group of individuals on the run from one cult-like community/power ends up falling into the protection/influence of another. The story can be separated into three distinct parts: the chase, the rescue/protection, and an ultimate battle. I found the final portion vastly superior to the opening, which really seemed to drag. I’m glad I stuck with it to read completely, but it would’ve been improved shortened.
In the end this should be a straight-forward decision for anyone considering reading Journal of the Plague Year – it’s safe to judge on its marketing appearance. If apocalyptic sci-fi and adventure stories are a genre you generally enjoy then this is worth checking out. If you are looking for a particular kind of emphasis (sci-fi, horror, or adventure) then you may want to just read a particular novella here rather than them all.
Three Stars out of Five

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

 

Return of the Thin Man, by Dashiell Hammett

Return of the Thin Man,
by Dashiell Hammett
Publisher: Mysterious Press
ISBN: 080212156X
256 pages, paperback
Published October 2013
Source: Goodreads First-Reads

The “Thin Man” movies are among my favorite, and I can always go for a good film noir, but I haven’t yet read Dashiell Hammett, the writer responsible for so many of the classic characters and styles of these movies. It was a pleasure to finally read some of his work, though when it says “novella” it really does mean the ” “.

The two stories here are really informal scripts, written in a distinctive simple style intended for film production, in this case what became the movies “After the Thin Man” and “Another Thin Man”. The eventual films produced (that you should see if you haven’t) are not far removed from these treatments by Hammett. The witty dialogue was left largely intact in the screen version and surprisingly few details of the plot were taken out or altered.

As such, reading these is just as fun as watching the movies. So, if you are a fan of “The Thin Man” series and are open to experiencing them in a slightly different version in a different medium, then I’d highly recommend reading these. Similarly, if you haven’t seen the films but like crime mysteries and good humor and wit, then these will be entertaining stories to read, particularly the first, which is a bit more original than the second ‘novella’, which is largely a re-working of another Hammett story.

If you are familiar with the movies inside and out, then I’m not sure how much will be gained from reading these, other than that experience through a different form or getting to note the deviations from the final film product where they occur. It is interesting to note that those in control of enforcing the Production Code of the day were just as arbitrary and illogical as the MPAA today.

Three Stars out of Five

Chip Crockett’s Christmas Carol, by Elizabeth Hand

Chip Crockett’s Christmas Carol,
by Elizabeth Hand
Publisher: Open Road Media
ASIN: B00GM742EA
144 pages, Kindle Edition
Published December 2013
(Original Publ: 2001)
Source: NetGalley

A perfect little holiday season tale that blends a combination of inspirations including nostalgic memories of magical childhood entertainers, the frustrations and difficulties with raising autistic children, and of course Dickens’ classic Christmas tale.

This novella may be considered a fantasy, but only subtly so, in fact it is far more realistic than Dickens’, but just as powerful. The plot is simple and endearing, but builds slowly and purposefully throughout. What gives Hand’s a particular punch of soul to Hand’s story is the cast of strongly drawn characters, beautifully complete and human, good-hearted and resilient despite their flaws, both the ones they were born with or the ones that their environment has given them.

If you are looking for a nice quick read during the Christmas season in addition to, or in place of some classic tale, then consider picking this up.

Notably, proceeds of its sale go to the charity Autism Speaks in memory of a victim of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting.

Four Stars out of Five