A QUILL LADDER by Jennifer Ellis (Review & Interview on Skiffy & Fanty)

My review of A Quill Laddder, the second book in Jennifer Ellis’ Derivatives of Displacement SciFi/Fantasy series for middle-grade readers is up at Skiffy and Fanty:

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“…The Derivatives of Displacement begins primarily through the point of view of fourteen-year-old Abbey Sinclair, a budding scientist with a love of physics and puzzles. Practical and analytic, Abbey tries to view the world with a calm reason, but she remains filled with a childlike wonder and imagination that compels her to consider a world beyond her previous understanding. Her boundaries between openness, scepticism, and disbelief become blurred when her older brother discovers a strange collection of stones that allow them, along with Abbey’s twin brother, to travel into another world that appears to be a part of their future…”

Read the full review piece here, and also check out the accompanying interview I did with Ellis on the book, the series, on writing YA/middle-grade novels, on being an indie author, and more!

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.