Tuesday, September 30, 2008

World Fantasy Award Nominee: Tiny Deaths

Tiny Deaths
Robert Shearman
Comma Press: 2007
Nominated for the 2008 World Fantasy Award: Collection

Before the double World Fantasy Award nomination (for this collection and for the story "Damned If You Don't"), I had never heard of Robert Shearman or this collection, but as major award nominations provide excellent opportunities to read that which I would never have otherwise encountered, there is something to be said for a World Fantasy Award nomination.

In the comments I've made about some of the stories in Tiny Deaths I have mentioned that the stories are "one-trick ponies" and that they are "charming, but just a little twisted". Neither is a bad thing, though "one-trick pony" could be read as such.

The thing is, the stories of Tiny Deaths are one-trick ponies. In nearly every case they have one thing about them which twists the story: the woman giving birth to furniture in "So Proud", reincarnation of Natalie as an ash-tray in "Ashes to Ash", a woman who has to die individually for each person in her life in "Favourite", and a television that bleeds in "Static". The rest of the story is normal, more or less, and the stories are short enough that Shearman is riding the one trick, the one main "idea" of the story. What makes all this work is that each story is short. Shearman never overstays his welcome in any given story. He gets in, tells a quick story, and gets out.

The reader is left with the brief pleasure of each story and gets to move on to the next.

This also means that outside of three stories ("Mortal Coil", "Damned If You Don't", and "Tiny Deaths"), the rest of the fiction in Tiny Deaths is not exactly memorable. The stories here are more than pleasant to read, but they are light reading. Again, not a knock. The world needs light reading and good stories which serve their purpose and entertain. At no point is there a sense that Shearman is trying to do more than any of the stories should be doing.

The point is, the fiction in Tiny Deaths works.

I may be a little surprised by the nomination, but these are delightful, charming, yet just a little bit twisted stories and they are a pleasure to read.

Having already read the Ellen Klages collection Portable Childhoods, I'm not sure that Tiny Deaths is strong enough to win the World Fantasy Award. It is, however, a solid collection and worth the time to check out. Comma Press is a UK publisher, so it may be difficult (or expensive) to find a copy in the United States, but if available, check it out. There's some good stuff in here.

Reading copy provided courtesy of Comma Press.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Thinner, by Stephen King

If we forget about the abysmal 2007 release of Stephen King’s trunk Bachman novel Blaze, then we can say that that Thinner is the second to last of King’s novels published under the Richard Bachman pseudonym Richard Bachman. If readers know what is good for them, they will forget all about Blaze anyway. Besides, Blaze was a trunk novel which would have been published long before Thinner saw the light of day in 1984. So, Thinner really is the second to last Bachman Book. The Bachman novels were leaner, sometimes meaner straight horror novels with only the occasional tinge of a supernatural element. This is different from the earlier novels published as Stephen King. The King novels tend to have a stronger sense of the supernatural.

The opening of Thinner, and just a little bit at the end, is the only thing supernatural about the novel and even that supernatural bit is only window dressing. The novel opens with Billy Halleck, a 250 pound defense lawyer, remembering being touched and being cursed by an old gypsy at a carnival. “Thinner”, the gypsy whispered to the obese protagonist.

The first several chapters count down Billy’s weight, from 248 and inexorably down beyond the point of healthy weight loss and into the fear. This is where Thinner lives and breathes, in the fear. Thinner may open with a gypsy curse, and the reader may see the affects of the curse with each passing chapter as Halleck loses pound after pound, but where Thinner (and Stephen King) is most successful is in describing the fear Billy Halleck has over the weight loss and the effect it has on his family. Thinner is a story of personal horror. The horror of Billy Halleck’s personal hell spirals out of his control as even eating 8000 calories a day only slows down the weight loss, but never halts it, and only for a time.

At first Billy seeks medical answers from his cocaine snorting doctor Mike Houston, but later turns to a gangster to help with revenge, just as the gypsy curse itself was a form of revenge. Over the course of his career Stephen King can certainly be accused of writing to excess, of publishing overly bloated novels which could only benefit from trimming 100 or so pages out and tightening up the narrative. Even Christine, as good as it is, could have been trimmed to strengthen the novel (says the reviewer who is not a professional writer or editor). Thinner is not one of those books. Thinner is, pun intended, a lean, mean novel.

The tightness of the storytelling ratchets up the tension and each time Billy Halleck steps on the scale the fear increases. There is nothing he can do and each pound puts him closer to a horrible death and closer to the end of the novel where something has to happen to change the status quo, even if we don’t know how the novel will end.

As is the case in other King novels, Thinner’s ending is a bit of a pyrrhic victory. The price was far too high (for the characters, just about perfect for the readers), but that is part of the journey and it may have been the only way to end the novel. Brutal, brutal ending, but a very good one.

Thinner is one of the stronger Bachman Books (along with The Long Walk) and is a solid effort in the first year of King’s second decade of publishing.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Vacation Reading

Vacation Time!

By the time you are reading this I’ll be on the road and starting my vacation. But, don’t worry gentle reader, I’ve pre-loaded some content to post over the next week or so to keep you covered. So, except for not responding to e-mail or comments, it’ll be like I never left!

As I do every year, I’ll have a small collection of books and magazines accompanying me and my wife. We drive, and there is probably 50 hours of driving (total), which means I’ll have around 25 hours of passenger time.

This post was written a week ago, so there may be a minor change or two (the overall trip is shorter, so I may drop a book), but here’s what I expect to have with me:

Move Under Ground – Nick Mamatas
Plugged In – Maureen McHugh and L. Timmel Duchamp
The Gospel of the Knife – Will Shetterly
Territory – Emma Bull
Implied Spaces – Walter Jon Williams

Plus, an issue each of Weird Tales and Asimovs. I may also bring Electric Velocipede #14, but I think this will wait until I come home.

Five books and two magazines sounds like a lot, but the first two are rather short and if Shetterly’s novel is anything like his short fiction, it’ll be a smooth and easy read. I don’t want to weigh my bag down with too many books, but I really don’t want to be left with nothing to read.

I’m tempted to bring A Fortress of Shadows from Glen Cook, which is a thick omnibus of two Dread Empire novels, because there’s nothing like a long car ride to help get through a slow book (I made it through To Green Angel Tower last year in the car), but I think it might wait until I get back.

I may also sub in Elizabeth Bear's Undertow for something, but I'm not sure about that yet.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Tiny Deaths: "Tiny Deaths"

The title story "Tiny Deaths" is a variation of the story of Jesus Christ and the Resurrection. It's told with a bit of moxie in the sense that Shearman brings a 21st Century inner monologue to Jesus and doesn't really work with the concept that Jesus is God.

Shearman starts first with Jesus and the cross. Several pages into the story, Jesus dies. He expects to awaken in heaven. Instead, he is reborn, living another life. The only thing is that Jesus lives the life of a swarthy man who ends up killing another and is crucified. It's the murderer on the cross NEXT to Jesus, the one who is told will go to heaven for saying that Jesus did no wrong. Yeah, him.

Again and again Jesus is reborn, with full knowledge of each life he had previously lived and is reborn into a life during the era of Christ. Sometimes as an apostle, sometimes as a woman, sometimes as someone who never got anywhere close to Christ. The frustration of Jesus (the one being reborn, not the Primary Jesus who gets crucified) comes through.

"Tiny Deaths" is a fascinating story, not the least because the reader is waiting to see what life Jesus will be reborn as next. In "Tiny Deaths" Jesus plays nearly all the roles at one time or another, and yet is either unable or unwilling to change the way the game plays out.

One of the best stories in the collection.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Tiny Deaths: "So Proud"

"So Proud" is an interesting story in the Tiny Deaths collection. Like many stories here, it is a bit of a one-trick pony. The thing is that Robert Shearman's handling of the tricks are what makes the stories worth the time.

The trick in "So Proud" is that a woman is impregnated by her husband. She gives birth a couple days later to a couch. This happens again and again and she gives birth to various pieces of furniture. The husband sells the furniture, their children, for money.

Shearman's prose allows quick and easy reading while still entertaining.

The next time she fell pregnant he didn't get angry at all. On the contrary. He brought her cups of tea, kept asking how she was, wanted to make sure she didn't overexert herself. And he'd nuzzle her swelling belly, kiss it, and whisper to it - what are you going to be when you grow up? What are you going to be?

Then she gives birth to more furniture. On the surface, this sounds kind of dumb, but somehow Shearman makes the story work.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Tiny Deaths: "Ashes to Ash"

I'm skipping over "Grappo" because I have nothing to say about it, but "Ashes to Ash" is a "charming but somewhat twisted" story and I love half of it.

The story opens by talking about Natalie's mother and her position against smoking and Natalie doesn't smoke and at this point I can't really say that I care.

And then...
She was never even remotely tempted, and so when the bus cannoned into her at forty miles an hour, and spread Natalie across the road and the central reservation, Natalie's lungs were as pink and pristine as they could be.

It gets better.

Natalie is reincarnated as an ash tray. Specifically, the ash tray in her parents' house.

This is the part that I love and it is worth the rest of the story, but the opening idea never quite delivers the promise. The rest of the story is dull, it has a slight narration from Natalie-As-Ash-Tray about her mother and the changes in the family situation and if Natalie wasn't an Ash Tray the balance of the story would have nothing.

I just love the opening idea, but the rest of the story isn't there.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Tiny Deaths: "Perfect"

When I finished reading Robert Shearman's story "Perfect" the first thing I thought was "oh, that was a sad story" and I thought those words in a sad tone.

The opening of "Perfect" does not really anticipate the ending, not in a sense where an opening telegraphs the conclusion. The story ostensibly features a mother and a father taking their eight year old daughter, Tanya, on a short day-trip. Tanya is described as being absolutely perfect. The father works far too hard to make the trip a success and make sure Tanya is happy. The mother has something on her mind and snipes at the father.

Something is going on. It's not a story about a trip, and it isn't a story about Tanya, no matter what the title and opening paragraphs suggest. It's a story about the parents and what is really going on between them. The obvious is divorce, but is that would be the simple explanation.

"Perfect" isn't about the simple explanation.

As with much of this collection, "Perfect" is a quiet story that is charming and just a little bit twisted.

I might need to stop writing anything about the stories in Tiny Deaths because the "charming and just a little bit twisted" line might come out in my description of every other story.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Interzone Contest

Mark this one down for shameless and blatant promotion. Yeah, I posted about this back on the 12th, but hey, at least I'm telling you exactly what I'm doing and why: Basically, I want a free subscription to Interzone and I'm hoping to win one by doing this. So...yeah.

Here's the link
to Jason Sanford's contest. The dude's pretty happy that Interzone published a story of his ("The Ships Like Clouds, Risen by Their Rain"), so he's running the contest (along with Interzone, of course). He sent me a PDF of the story, so I hope I like it. We'll see.

Here's what Sanford has to say about Interzone
For those who don't know, Interzone is a bi-monthly British science fiction magazine often counted as one of the most influential genre publications of the last 25 years. Among the writers who got their start in their pages are Stephen Baxter, Greg Egan, Kim Newman, Alastair Reynolds and Charles Stross (per the magazine's Wikipedia entry). With a stable of authors like that, the 1980s and early 90s were truly glory times for Interzone.

Strangely enough, that's not an author list that sells me the magazine, but I know that's a fairly prominent and solid list of names. Despite that, Interzone is a magazine I've been interested in for a while (seriously, that's not just blatant promotional bullshit). I have a hard enough time finding Realms of Fantasy or F&SF, so a SF magazine from across the pond would be damn near impossible for me to get. Yeah, subscribe. Whatever. I'm po' and while I'm cool with single issue purchases (which is why I love stuff like Electric Velocipede which publishes twice a year), actually subscribing is well out of the budget for American publications, let alone British.

So, what's a guy to do?

Enter a contest. Do some shameless and blatant promotion.

I'd tell you all to go and help a brother out (not me, that Sanford guy), promote the contest and get your entries in, but that wouldn't exactly help this brother out, now would it? If you want to help out this brother then you won't go enter the contest at all. More entries lowers my chances. Of course, that's not really what Sanford's trying to do here, but if I'm being honest here (and being my blog, I'm nothing but honest), I figure I had to throw it out.

It is cool, though, that they're running a contest that will net some American (we need more stuff, you see) 6 issues of Interzone.

Oh, yeah. The contest is only open to U.S. Residents.

Dagger Key: "Limbo"

Just a few quick thoughts on the Lucius Shepard story "Limbo".

"Limbo" opens up with criminal Michael Shellane on the run from his former criminal associates. Early on in the story the word "assassins" is used, so Shellane needs to get away. He tries the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and rather than crossing to Canada takes another road and hides out at a lake cabin. There he meets a scared and partially emotionally broken (but beautiful, of course) woman named Grace.

Given the title of the story and the hints of supernatural things going on with the lake and a mysterious "dark house" and the weird behavior of Grace the reader starts to wonder if Shellane is already dead or in purgatory. Mentioning the wondering is no spoiler, but does frame the story. What is going on here?

There are questions of love and death and purgatory rolling around the first two thirds of the story and this is the best part of the story, the parts with Shellane and Grace and the lake and the wondering.

It is only when Shepard gets a bit more concrete and explores the mystery of the Dark House that he loses me as a reader. Perhaps I was simply disinterested in the Dark House, but the story Shepard initially told with Shellane and Grace takes a very weird turn and the tone of the story dramatically changes. The story gets darker, and weirder. It is not that Shepard told a whimsical story but the Dark House stuff didn't fit the first parts of the story.

"Limbo" does not completely satisfy, but it is a mostly strong story and like any Lucius Shepard story, it is worth reading. Even a Shepard story which does not fire on all cylinders is still a good story.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

At Ease With the Dead: "The Brook"

“The Brook”
John Llewellyn Probert
At Ease With the Dead

“The Brook” does not get off to a promising start. John Probert opens the story with the narrator informing the reader that he (narrator) will tell the reader something that happened back at school and then reassures the reader that this isn’t the standard boy-overcoming-adversity story and that instead the story is far weirder and that by telling the story the narrator will hopefully better be able to deal with what happened.

There may be a way to turn me off a story quicker than a narrator aware there is a real life reader, but I’m just not sure what it is at the moment. One paragraph into the story and I’m already wishing this was the story about a church and an island. The second paragraph opens with the following line. “Up to a certain point my childhood was entirely normal...” Oh, please.

My problem with the rest of the story is similar to my problem with the opening of the story: the narrator (and in turn John Probert) is trying to be far too self-aware and clever with description. Too precious.

Early on in life it had become plain to me that I was one of those individuals incapable of participating in team events in any way which could be considered useful. Seeing as the school prided itself on its (admittedly impressive) record or sporting achievements, it should come as no surprise that, in the pecking order that is life at such an educational establishment, I consequently found myself somewhere just below the boys who were unable to participate in Friday afternoon cadet military training on the grounds that their parents were conscientious objectors


The positive thing here is that the prose flows easily and that “The Brook” is a quick read. It has more of a feel for a YA story than not. This may appeal to a large number of readers, presumably younger readers who will identify with the teenaged narrator and his somewhat snarky narration. Of course, this easy style and YA-feel comes across a little out of placing following “The Church on the Island”, but as this is the second story I cannot say which story might be out of place in the anthology.

The story concerns itself with an odd incident with an English textbook, a Tennyson poem that isn’t, children getting sick, and a substitute teacher. It’s a weird story, and so much as I could get past the narration of the story, it isn’t bad, but any time the narration attempts to be teenaged-clever, Probert loses me again. As easy as “The Brook” reads it is a frustrating story. There is enough good stuff in the story to entertain and engage the reader, but I want to kick the narrator.

Friday, September 19, 2008

what i'm saying when i'm not talking about "Cold Snap"

I learned my lesson last year when I attempted to read “The Man Who Got Off the Ghost Train”, a World Fantasy Award nominated novella from Kim Newman. “The Man Who Got Off the Ghost Train” was part of The Man from the Diogenes Club collection and rather than jump in and read the nominated story first, I started to read all of the Diogenes Club stories. By the time I had finished five or six stories and was about to read “The Man Who Got Off the Ghost Train” I was so sick of the Diogenes Club that no matter how good that novella may have possibly been, I was unable to give the story a fair shake. All of the frustration and disappointment of the earlier Diogenes Club stories overwhelmed any fair reading I might have been able to give that novella.

So, the lesson is that when I grab a collection or anthology in order to read a nominated story, I will now read that nominated story first and then read the rest of the collection or anthology. I may lose something if the story is part of a series of linked stories, but at least I won’t be burned out on that author or collection when I get to the nominated story.

This lesson has served me well this year. The Robert Shearman story “Damned If You Don’t” is midway through Tiny Deaths and reading it first allowed me to come into the story fresh. Same with “The Cambist and Lord Iron” from Daniel Abraham and “The Evolution of Trickster Stories Among the Dogs of North Park After the Change” from Kij Johnson.

There was a certain amount of disappointment when I saw that not only was a novella from Kim Newman nominated for the World Fantasy Award, but also a new Diogenes Club collection was nominated. This is not to talk bad about Mr. Newman or those readers who enjoy his work, but I am very much not one of them.

But, since I view major award nomination lists as a good reading list, I figured “what the hell” and gave Mr. Newman another shot. I read “Cold Snap”.

The story benefits from not having read the previous stories in The Secret Files of the Diogenes Club. “Cold Snap” is the last story in the collection and I am quite positive that had I attempted to read the rest of them that the book would have been tossed across the room long before I got to “Cold Snap”.

Without really talking about the story, since I’m really disinterested in discussing the Diogenes Club at any length, I semi-enjoyed “Cold Snap”. The over-description of flamboyant clothing was not there, and getting into some of the secret societies was interesting, as was the threat of the Cold demon that was about to freeze the planet. There is just something about the story, and the larger world of the Diogenes Club that simply falls flat for me as a reader. I’m not sure what, except that I certainly was not going to start from the front of the book and read any of the other stories. I’m pretty much done with the Diogenes Club until the next major award nomination (Hugo, Nebula, World Fantasy), and may that nomination not be soon. I am content with that decision.

The initial lesson from last year was a very good lesson to learn. If I felt the need to read a collection or anthology in order just to reach the single story I wanted to read for some award list, I would be a very frustrated reader.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Tiny Deaths: "Mortal Coil"

Let's say that everyone in the world was given a small slip of paper on it. Let's say that this slip of paper contained the person's name, the day they were going to die, and the cause of that death. What would this do? How would society react? How would employers react knowing when their employees would die and how long a potential employee have to live?

All interesting questions and all worth exploring in a story.

Robert Shearman touches upon all of these questions, but "Mortal Coil", the first story in Tiny Deaths, focuses more on Henry Clifford. Henry Clifford did not receive the note everyone else did. Henry Clifford did not receive a note at all. Shearman also touches upon how such a man might be treated, the anger, the disdain, the unconscious prejudice.

But, the story really isn't about that, either.

People start showing up at Henry's house saying that their note claimed they will die by Henry's hand and that they just want to get it done.

As with "Damned If You Don't", Robert Shearman has a very easy writing style, almost conversational. With "Mortal Coil" Shearman is writing about horrible things, terribly actions, and what should be an intensely dark subject. Somehow, the darkness feels lighthearted. The darkness is charming.

Having read two stories now, I'm hooked. These tiny deaths might be disguised literary crack.

It's good stuff.


Wednesday, September 17, 2008

World Fantasy Award Nominee: "Damned If You Don't"

“Damned If You Don’t”
Robert Shearman
Tiny Deaths

Comma Press: 2007
Nominated for the World Fantasy Award 2008: Short Story

According to Christian tradition the only way to heaven is belief or faith in God. Now, different denominations will have somewhat different definitions as to exactly what that means, but that’s the tent pole here. True Belief = Heaven, Disbelief = Hell.

Martin, the narrator of “Damned If You Don’t” was a wishy-washy Christian. He went to church every Sunday and he did the “right” things, but he never really believed. So, following his death, he found himself in Hell. Apparently Hell is somewhat crowded so Martin has a roommate. A dog. Sadly, dogs, too, can go to hell. As the dog explains, this is usually for dogs who "weren't kind to their masters. They bit them. Or wouldn't come when they called...Dogs not doing what dogs are meant to do", but Woofie is different. He’s in Hell for another reason. Perhaps disclosing that reason would not be too much of a spoiler, but let’s hold the reason back this time. Discovering who’s dog Woofie was is an integral part of the story and Shearman really doesn’t do the obvious with it.

Of course, the reader may ask if the reasons Martin and Woofie gave for being in Hell are really the whole story.

“Damned If You Don’t” is ultimately a sad story. This isn’t fire and brimstone, nor is it at all a “Christian” story. By the end, Shearman has done quite a few things, touching on the nature of Hell, God, friendship, marriage, zombies, death, prejudice, and blame. “Damned If You Don’t” is a quiet story. It doesn’t do or say anything flashy. It is charming, in a darkly twisted sort of way.

One of the strongest aspects of “Damned If You Don’t” is the friendship (and loss) of Martin and Woofie. The characters, their discussion, their existence in Hell and conversations about life are what drives the story. While the entire situation of “Damned If You Don’t” is fairly abnormal, it is the base normality of the story which makes the entire thing relatable. Hopefully no reader will be going to Hell, and hopefully no dog is doomed for eternity, but the characters and the roommate situation is understandable. It’s a situation most readers will be familiar with and can conceptualize.

“Damned If You Don’t” is a delightful story of the friendship that can develop in Hell. It is well worth the attention the story will likely get from the World Fantasy Award nomination.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

the end of Helix

The whole Helix / William Sanders controversy has been covered to death already, so I’m not going to get into that. For the perspective of the writers, check out Transcriptase. For the perspective of William Sanders, go here. It’s been done, and really, not much more needs to be said.

Except this.

I found out from Jennifer Pelland’s blog that Helix is closings its virtual doors.

Pelland makes it clear that she was aware this was in the works before the controversy, and other Helix writers chimed in to agree in the comments of that post. From Pelland:

I can vouch for the fact that they'd made these plans months before the kerfuffle.* In fact, knowing that made it more difficult for me to decide how to respond to the aforementioned kerfuffle. Saying that I'd never submit to them again would have been a hollow threat, because I knew that I'd never have another chance to send them a story anyway. And I wasn't sure that a boycott would have any effect on a magazine that was on its last two issues.

But there you have it. The news is out, and I will gladly vouch for them when they say that the kerfuffle didn't have anything to do with them closing their doors. – Jennifer Pelland

So, that’s it. Right? More or less. The announcement originally came from William Sanders, as it should, seeing as he is the editor of the publication.

The point is, all this was decided long before the Blogtrotters went into their latest shit-flinging frenzy. So as much as it no doubt pleases them to believe that they were responsible for taking down the Great Monster, they should rather offer thanks to the freeloaders who, simply by sitting on their rumps and doing nothing to support the magazine, did more to terminate Helix than all the sillywhining bastards put together.

Of course they won't believe this; they will choose to believe what they want to believe, just as they always do. If there is one thing the Blogtrotters and the Silly Righteous Girls have demonstrated throughout this affair, it is their total imperviousness to reality. – William Sanders

Now, I was bothered by the initial comments of Sanders which precipitated this whole thing as I would be bothered by pretty much anything that smacks of inappropriate hatred and racism. Sanders defended himself and I choose to believe that the intentions of his remarks were misunderstood. That he did not purposefully intend for his comments to reflect his views on ALL Muslims and that they were directed solely at terrorists. Fine. This, of course, does nothing to address the fact that his comments DID, in fact, come across as racist to a number of readers and that it should easily be understood why and how they came across as racist. Sometimes intention doesn’t matter.

So, when several writers expressed a problem with what Sanders said, he fired back. To me, Sanders came across as being offended and very angry that someone could possibly be offended by what he said. He lashed out, childish, and with venom.

Not to get too deep into the initial issue, as this has all been covered before, but what bothered me most about this whole situation was not necessarily the opening statement (bad as it came across), but rather in how Sanders responded to the criticism. It appears, and I’m couching my language in how I see it rather than in declarative statements because I don’t know the man and I only have my perception to work with, but it appears that Sanders was so angry that anyone would possibly be offended by something he said and no longer wish to be associated with his magazine that he accused those writers of having their panties in a wad (more or less) and of being cowards, among other less complimentary things. This is what bothered me the most. The fact that William Sanders could not comprehend that someone would honestly disagree with his viewpoint and that they did so in accordance to what they believe and that their actions followed their belief and not follow the crowd.

You’d think, or at least hope, that the announcement of the closing of Helix would be the end of it, but still the man keeps firing off his mouth to reassure everyone that the controversy had nothing to do with the closing of Helix. And that’s fair, to that extent. It is worth knowing this is a planned action with purpose. But still, Sanders continues to take shots at those authors who dared to take a stand for what they believed in.

He still considers the actions of the Transcriptase writes to be “ill-judged” and that at least two of the writers are “dishonest”.

Also you can check with your own heroines of the US HATES HELIX committee.

Jennifer Pelland, for one, definitely knew quite a long time ago that we were going to be closing, because I told her. In fact she withdrew a story she had submitted, and substituted a better one, after I explained that this would be her last chance to get a story into Helix. Jennifer is an honest person, however ill-judged her behavior in this matter; she'll tell you the truth.

I sort of think I said something to Samantha Henderson about it too, but I won't swear to that.

And of course Beth Bernobich knew about the decision, since she was still a member of the Legends group at the time we were discussing it; but I have no confidence in her telling the truth about anything. - William Sanders

Now, just as I don’t know William Sanders personally, I don’t know Jennifer Pelland or Beth Bernobich. Maybe Beth is a liar. But maybe not, and my guess is that the offense here is that Bernobich had the gall to be offended and sign up with Transcriptase. Just a guess.

My response to this whole situation was to not even be a “freeloader”, support Helix or go to the Helix website. I have read three of the Helix stories on Transcriptase – the Jennifer Pelland stories, because she writes damn good stories. I plan to read some more, starting with Nora Jemisin. Given the statements of Sanders, even if Helix was to continue, I just can’t support that market in any form.

At the same time, I am sorry to see a paying market for speculative fiction to fall by the wayside, even it was intentional. I feel there should be more opportunities for quality fiction to see the light of day and have the writers paid. Judging solely by the work of Pelland, William Sanders has an excellent editorial eye.

On the other hand, I can’t divorce the stories or the magazine from the personality and statements of the editor. I don’t judge the stories or the writers by having been published in Helix, nor will I boycott the writers, but the leadership of Helix caused Helix itself to be something I could not support. Am I glad that Helix is closing its doors? No, not really. I do remain troubled by the words and attitude of William Sanders. I would have rather Sanders stepped down and Helix continued, but that was not an option here.

If anything positive comes out of the Helix controversy and from the closing of Helix, let it be this: Transcriptase. Check out the stories. There are three from Jennifer Pelland that I can vouch for as being outstanding.

Monday, September 15, 2008

August 2008 Reading

A little late, but better than never. Here's everything I read in August. Links are to my reviews

1. The Demon and the City - Liz Williams
2. The Healthy Dead - Steven Erikson
3. The Gunslinger - Stephen King
4. Reaper's Gale - Steven Erikson
5. Hell and Earth - Elizabeth Bear
6. Star Wars Legacy: Claws of the Dragon - John Ostrander
7. Jedi Twilight - Michael Reaves
8. The Swarm War - Troy Denning
9. The Wreck of the Godspeed and Other Stories - James Patrick Kelly
10. The Clone Wars - Karen Traviss
11. Renegade - L. Timmel Duchamp
12. Wild Cards: Aces Abroad - George R. R. Martin (editor)
13. The Force Unleashed - Sean Williams

92 books finished on the year.

Pending reviews from this list:

Hell and Earth: Exactly when this review goes live will depend entirely on what happens with my Ink and Steel review. Both are written, but I don’t have a timetable for when they’ll show up. Or where.

Renegade: After I finish with the Godspeed review I’ll work on this one. It’ll probably post here, though I have hopes it’ll go elsewhere.

Now, for some thoughts on stuff I haven’t reviewed and probably won’t:

Reaper’s Gale: Turned out far better than I hoped. My expectation for Erikson has taken a sharp dip in recent years. He is succumbing to glacially slow openings to his novels but at some point in the last two there is a point where it all turns and I’m gripped. Not sure where the point is, but after putting the book down for a month after 150 pages I came back to it and felt that Erikson advanced the story and did some interesting things with the world.

The Gunslinger: Now that I’m reading King in mostly publication order I’m taking care to make sure that I’ve read all the books published before each Dark Tower novel. I’d been down on King recently but The Gunslinger is a heck of a book.

Star Wars: Jedi Twilight was good. The Clone Wars was disappointing for a Traviss novel, but far better than the next two. The Swarm War sucked, as did the other two books in the Dark Nest trilogy. The Force Unleashed...well, it had potential and it wasn’t bad, but for something that was venturing into “The Dark Times”, it didn’t really do anything all that interesting. Up until an ending that felt a bit rushed, I thought there was going to be a sequel to TFU because I didn’t think Sean Williams had enough time to wrap up the story. Ah well.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

World Fantasy Award Nominee: Portable Childhoods

Portable Childhoods
Ellen Klages
Tachyon Publications: 2007
Nominated for the World Fantasy Award: Collection

Science Fiction is, I've read, a literature of setting. For some, that means other planets, other worlds, other dimensions. For me, it's the past, but a slightly alternate past, a reality that existed - at least in my imagination - just below the surface of everyday life. Ellen Klages, pg. 209

Portable Childhoods is the debut short story collection from Ellen Klages. In her afterword to the collection Klages writes about why she writes science fiction. For Klages it is not an escape into the future or a desire to explore the stars. Rather, Ellen Klages writes "to tap into that (literally) unadulterated sense of delight and wonder." She writes "stories about being a kid."

It is important to point out the very next thing Klages has to say in her afterword.
They are not children's stories.

Though the stories of Portable Childhoods may be about childhood, in various stages, they are not children's stories. The distinction is important. Stories about childhood are able to tap into that sense of wonder which can be defining aspect of science fiction and that which may be frequently felt by younger readers who are discovering science fiction for the first time. The best and most honest stories of Portable Childhoods are rife with a sense of wonder, or, a child's sense of discovery. These are not children's stories. They are informed and understood through the eyes of an adult and these are adult visions of childhood.

The third story in the collection, "The Green Glass Sea", takes the testing of the atomic bomb in July 1945 and rather than telling a story directly about the testing, instead tells a story of ten year old Dewey Kerrigan on a weekend trip with the family she stayed with while her father was
working on the bomb. This is understood by the adult reader and by the end of the story the adult reader knows exactly what the title signifies. A child reader should be able to pick up that there is significance in the sea of green glass at the end of the story, but like Dewey, may only see that while the green glass was somehow created by Dewey's father it was really only a special present.

While there is an American cultural heritage around the atomic bomb that film, television, and even the education system should help inform, there is nothing inherent about the American experience to help a younger adult to truly grasp and perhaps understand what is going on in "The Green Glass Sea". The significance is for those who know what Los Alamos means, why this story has to be set in 1945, and how that green glass was created.

Or, does this not give enough credit to children?

Several of the stories in Portable Childhoods focus a variety of childhood experiences, from the persecution of step-mothers in "Basement Magic" to God's childhood in "Intelligent Design", from not fitting the physical ideals of a mother in "Flying Over Water" to discovering that emotions and memories have tastes in "A Taste of Summer", not to mention the title story which shows glimpses of childhood as viewed by the mother in ten scenes. As suggested by the title of this collection, the bulk of the stories touch upon memories of childhoods that adults take from place to place and can remember quite clearly, even if they never lived these particular lives.

This is not to say that every story in the collection is a story about "being a kid". Two stories, in particular, stand out: "Triangle" and "Time Gypsy".

"Triangle" touches upon the horror of the Nazi persecution of homosexuals through the discovery of a pink badge in an antique shop. The story is horrifying. It is an essential part of this collection, but it might be jarring for readers expecting another story of childhood (not that the stories about "being a kid" are all that happy).

"Time Gypsy", perhaps the strongest story in the collection, touches upon time travel and the paradox inherent in time travel. Like the other stories Klages tells, "Time Gypsy" is not about time travel any more than "The Green Glass Sea" is about atomic bombs. Instead, the story is about relationships, love, the past, and identity. It is also probably about other things which are not readily evident.

This praise of the best stories of Portable Childhoods is not to suggest that every story is superb or that there are not disappointments (I'm looking at you, "Ringing Up Baby), but taken as a whole Portable Childhoods is an exceptional collection. More often than not the stories contained within easily engage and entertain. They strike chords within the reader. The less successful stories do not linger in the memory like an angry specter. The fade, leaving the stronger stories to shine all that much brighter.

Reading copy provide courtesy of Tachyon Publications.

Further discussion of the stories of Portable Childhoods can be found below:
"Basement Magic"
"Intelligent Design"
"The Green Glass Sea"
"Clip Art"
One Post for Four Stories: "Mobius, Stripped of a Muse", "Be Prepared", "Travel Agency", "Ringing Up Baby"
"Time Gypsy"
"A Taste of Summer"
"Guy's Day Out"
"Portable Childhoods"
"In the House of Seven Librarians"

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Christine, by Stephen King

Outside of my recent read of The Gunslinger, I’ve been in something of a Stephen King funk. Over the last twelve months I’ve read three good King books (The Gunslinger, The Stand, Skeleton Crew) and five garbage King novels (The Colorado Kid, Blaze, Cujo, Firestarter, and Lisey’s Story). No matter how good the good was, and it was, well, good; the bad really stunk. While 3 for 8 would be an excellent batting average, 37.5% is not a good hit percentage for a writer.

I felt burned out, but my most recent read was The Gunslinger and that almost revitalized my interest in King except that The Gunslinger was part of a series and most of King’s work is standalone. The Dark Tower may be great, but the novels surrounding The Gunslinger and King’s most recent output has not been consistently stellar.

I was apprehensive before I opened the pages of Christine. I shouldn’t have been. Christine is Stephen King firing on all cylinders. It’s a bit overlong and drawn out, but King nailed this one. The novel is narrated by a guy saying bad things happened in the past (which means at least one person got out alive), but the story opens with the friendship of cool guy and football player Dennis Guilder and pimply faced outcast Arnie Cunningham. Dennis is the guy who made sure that Arnie didn’t get it worse in high school than he already got it, who made Arnie’s school life even remotely bearable. They were friends. The friendship is tested when Arnie sees a nearly junked car, a 1958 Fury that he falls in love with and becomes obsessed with. He buys the car and that’s when things begin to change.

Arnie’s face began to clear up, he got a beautiful girlfriend, but he was obsessed with the car and anyone who got near the car immediately disliked Christine, the 1958 Fury. A boy and his car, told as only Stephen King can. This can’t possibly end well.

I knew I was in good hands (pun intended) early on in the novel when the boys get into a fight and in the middle of the fight someone grabs and squeezes Dennis’s balls. Yeah, it’s a bit crude, but it isn’t the grabbing which really solidified my comfort with the novel, it was King’s description. The paragraph of description of the pain and the feeling of that act was so perfect, so spot on, so assured that right then I knew that Christine would be all right.
If you're a man and you've slammed your nuts a good one at some point (and what man has not), you know. If you're a woman, you don't - can't. The initial agony is only the start; it fades, to be replaced by a dull, throbbing feeling of pressure that coils in the pit of the stomach. And what that feeling says is Hi, there! Good to be here, just sitting around in the pit of your stomach and making you feel like you're going to simultaneously blow lunch and shit your pants! I guess I'll just hang around for a while, okay? How does half an hour or so sound? Great! Getting your nuts squeezed is not one of life's great thrills. - pg 144

He had me, well, by the...nevermind.

In this novel of young love, obsession, cars, friendship, teenaged angst, music, high school, history, betrayal, and a haunted car, Stephen King delivers the goods. As in most Stephen King novels he takes more than a few pages longer than absolutely necessary to tell the story. Of course he does. When King is working his magic, this does not matter. King’s narration is steady, it is assured.

Stephen King takes his time getting to the horror. He builds and builds and perhaps the real horror is not what the haunted car physically does, but rather what the horror really is in Christine is the deterioration of a friendship and the effects the obsession has on Arnie Cunningham.

Christine is a fully satisfying novel from Stephen King, the kind I hope he has more of in his back catalogue that I just haven’t read yet. Many writers may lead their readers along by taking their hand, but if King decides a more direct approach and brings the reader along by the balls, well, that’s only to be expected. At his best Stephen King makes the reader feel the story, makes the reader experience and imagine being in that place at that time. This is one of his better novels.

Friday, September 12, 2008


A while back Jonathan McCalmont posted a little something about the ethics of book porn. Basically, the perspective he took is that when a blogger receives review copies from various publishing houses and then posts pictures of the books said blogger is explicitly engaging in publicity for the various publishing houses.

I’m projecting, but I don’t believe many bloggers will disagree with that perspective. The argument I have seen from various bloggers is that some of us receive more books than can be reasonably reviewed, let alone reviewed within a couple of months. So, to recognize the “generosity” of the publishers and to perhaps actively provide a little but of publicity, some bloggers will post pictures of the books. Most commonly this is called Book Porn.

It is fun (for some) to do and I know I enjoy looking at pictures of stacks of books. Old books, new books, skinny books, fat books. Books, books, books, we like books.

McCalmont’s problem is that he does not see the role of a critic is to engage in free publicity. Yes, a review of a book is publicity (negative or positive, it allows for a conversation about a book), but a review will (or should) engage critically with the text of a book and inform the reader of the review on whether or not a book is successful at whatever it is the critic feels the book should be doing. At this point I am putting some words into the mouth of McCalmont, so please see his post to read exactly what he said, but I think I am fairly well covering the essence. If not, the errors are mine.

If I am reading McCalmont’s post correct, he does not believe it is ethically appropriate to engage in publicity for a publisher on one hand and then attempt to critically analyze on the other hand. The publicity undermines the criticism.

I’ve thought about this quite a bit since I first read that post, flipping back and forth between what exactly I think about this.

I think there is a very fine line to tread here.

The easy way to not cross that ethical line in becoming a publisher’s shill is simply to not engage in any discourse or behavior that is not actively critical. By critical I don’t mean negative, but if we don’t provide free publicity without doing the work of a critic, then there will never be any semblance of a conflict of interest.

On the other hand, if we are being honest, most of us are also “fans” of the genre. Right now I am writing specifically about SFF, but in general this can apply to anything, not even just books at all. While we may not wish to simply parrot out the publicity statement of a publisher, we may be excited about a forthcoming release and we may want to write something non-critical about the forthcoming Matthew Stover novel Caine Black Knife, or the forthcoming zombie anthology from John Joseph Adams. We are engaging in publicity because we are talking about something without engaging the text itself (which, unless we have an ARC in our grubby little hands, we haven’t read yet). Is this wrong? Is this ethically questionable as a critic?

What about as a reviewer? Is there a difference?

Granted, if one does not really consider oneself a critic or even a reviewer, then this conversation does not apply. Personally, I’m not sure I have the tools to be a serious critic and engage the text on a variety of levels. I’ve read some serious criticism and I just don’t know that I can do that or even think of that. I do, however, consider myself a reviewer. I try to cover what the text says and on a good day engage beyond the most superficial levels. Describe a bit about the plot when appropriate but also write about the quality of the book in the best way I have available to me. I try to take what I do seriously, though some reviews are quite obviously far more serious than others with a great level of detail and care.

So, this question of ethics concerns me.

My opinion falls somewhere in between a hardline “no publicity” stance and a “post it all!” position. Reviewers, even critics, should still be permitted to discuss and anticipate in public books that they are interested in and anticipate without engaging with them critically. The line there should be obvious when it’s just people talking and when it is a critical evaluation. When we engage in this anticipatory conversation we are generally talking about stuff we think might not suck, or conversely, what will suck. On the other hand, I don’t feel it is appropriate to simply repost the text of a publicity statement (though it is obvious that it is publicity).

Book Porn? I’m on the fence, but I’m leaning towards not doing it, or “reportage” about what I’ve received, at all. I think the line is too fuzzy and if I am attempting to be serious about the reviews I do I’m not sure if this is something I am prepared to engage in. But I can be convinced because my mind is not at all settled on this matter. Maybe it doesn't matter.

But I wonder, if I write about Shadow Unit and talk about it as a fan on this blog and post when new episodes are up, I’m engaging in publicity, I know I am. Ethically, what does this say (if anything) about me as a reviewer?

Thursday, September 11, 2008

"The Girl Who Sang Rose Madder", by Elizabeth Bear

Em dropped her head, pressed her palms over her ears, and wished she were home in the hot tub with a bottle of Bordeaux and the Bad Seeds cranked up really loud.

She’d bet a platinum record there weren’t ten people in this audience who would know Nick Cave if he gave them a lap dance. 1976 was thirty fucking years ago, and none of the fat shuffling zombies in the chairs around her wanted to hear anything newer.

And that was a reason to hang up her guitar.

Elizabeth Bear
has written a damn fine rock and roll story in "The Girl Who Sang Rose Madder". She tells the story of Em, an aging and once rock goddess who hasn't picked up her guitar in years. The story opens with Em back stage at a rock concert where the headlining act is her sister's boyfriend, a sixty year old who looks like he is a walking corpse and who hasn't had a spark of something special in years.

"The Girl Who Sang Rose Madder" hits all the notes (no pun intended) to get across Em's disillusionment with her life, the loss of her music, old music fans who stay in the past, and quite a bit more. The story gets her disappointment.

On a very basic level "The Girl Who Sang Rose Madder" is a kick ass story of rock and roll, and perhaps the loss of it. It seems like the only stories I've read about rock and roll take it from the end of an era and not so much in the moment, and this is no different.

What Bear does different from a straight rock and roll story, though, is inject a fantasy element to the tale, though it isn't obvious from the start and it needs to be worked up towards rather than revealed up front. Except, that astute readers may catch what that element will be. I was not an astute reader, but the clues are there.

While I am very much a fan of Elizabeth Bear's novels, I have been a bit more hit and miss with her short fiction. I've found some excellent stories ("Orm the Beautiful", "And the Deep Blue Sea", "Your Collar"), but I have not been as overall excited by Bear's short work.

"The Girl Who Sang Rose Madder" is an exciting story, one that feels like rock and roll in similar ways to George R. R. Martin's The Armageddon Rag. Except this comparison isn't entirely fair because The Amageddon Rag is truly an outstanding novel, one of the best novels from one of fantasy's best writers. At its best, "The Girl Who Sang Rose Madder" evokes the Martin novel.

One of the things I appreciate most about the story is that I'm pretty sure it is chock full of detail and stuff that I have no clue about and yet it is that very stuff which makes the story to feel rich. "The Girl Who Sang Rose Madder" is a good one, one of Bear's better short stories.

The Wreck of the Godspeed and Other Stories, by James Patrick Kelly

The Wreck of the Godspeed and Other Stories
James Patrick Kelly
Golden Gryphon Press: 2008

The Wreck of the Godspeed is the first fiction I have read from James Patrick Kelly, so I had no expectations coming into this collection. Coming on the heels of the Nancy Kress collection Nano Comes to Clifford Falls and being published by Golden Gryphon, I had hopes that this collection would be something outstanding. Outstanding was probably a bit much to hope for, but solid is reasonable. The stories here were published between June 2002 and June 2007.

"The Wreck of the Godspeed": The title story to open the collection gets us off to a peculiar start. Nothing is as it seems on the Godspeed, a interstellar ship which seeds colonies before moving on to the next colony to seed. It searches for habitable worlds. There is an eccentric mix of young adults who have been somehow selected to crew the ship and they begin to suspect something is wrong with the Godspeed (a ship with a personality) and this suspicion really begins the story. What came before was prologue. It's....an interesting story. A well written story, but it isn't necessarily a compelling story. "The Wreck of the Godspeed" is a bit overlong and it could have used some tightening. But, hey, what do I know? Even so, not a bad start to the collection.

"The Best Christmas Ever": There's something about a "last man on Earth" story and few of the ones I've read ever really address the difficulty that last man might have in coping with being the last man after years and years. The Last Man, Albert Hopkins, is tended to be a group of android / robot / artificial creatures who seem to exist solely to keep him sane. After the not quite disappointment but dissatisfaction of "The Wreck of the Godspeed", "The Best Christmas Ever" is a solid story. A strange one, but a good one.

"Men are Trouble": This is an interesting hardboiled detective story on an Earth where men no longer exist, having been removed / killed somehow by the aliens. Some women alive still remember men, but they are few. So, we have a detective story in which the detective is a woman but plays the role just like a man in the classic mold. This is really the whole point of the story, though I'm sure the author would disagree. Doesn't really matter what the case is, or the situation with the aliens (not really). Because of the removal of men from world Kelly doesn't so much play with expectations of gender as he simply takes a man and changes the gender. The world looks just like ours where women have stepped into all roles assumed by men. "Men Are Trouble" is fine for what it is, but not at all memorable.

"Luck": I'll admit it, I struggled with this story. It didn't work for me and as such, I don't know that I had a chance to really appreciate whatever Kelly might have attempted to do here. There's cavemen, a hunt for a mammoth, and I really didn't get much more from it. I gave up midway through.

"The Dark Side of Town": A wife knows her husband is spending more time on a sexual virtual reality game than he is with her and spends the story investigating the game. The subject of the story isn't something I would seek out to read, but Kelly pulls this one off quite well and delivers a bit of a surprise ending.

"The Leila Torn Show": A future police / detective procedural show has issues. Ratings. Creative decisions. The cast. The same issues any show would have, except "The Leila Torn Show" is narrated by The Leila Torn Show. Seriously. The story is narrated by the show itself. This is a great little story. There's all sorts of little television drama and Kelly gives the reader a look which is not usually seen in stories. "The Leila Torn Show" is something different and original and is one of the best stories in this collection. There are a couple other stories up to this level of quality and freshness, but "The Leila Torn Show" is a standout.

"Mother": "Mother" feels like a post-apocalyptic story, though it isn't. Maybe a Western. A woman wants to have a baby, but she doesn't want a baby the way the new alien overlords dictate to humans, she wants to have one her way without the strictures. The atmopshere of the story is of rebellion and frontier, and it works.

"Dividing the Sustain": As with most of the stories that were published in The New Space Opera, I am at a loss to talk about "Dividing the Sustain". It's a story of Been Watanabe changing his sexuality and alienating the other members of his small group on a colony ship, but in doing so seems to get involved in something bigger with the captain of the ship. It's a baffling story and one which I can't say I either enjoyed or really understood.

"The Edge of Nowhere": Here's a story I liked and liked a lot. The entire world seems to be confined to one small town, as if this was the end and the edge of existence where things pop in and out of reality, and there are these talking dogs looking for a book out of the library except the book hasn't been written yet. Weird, I know, but the human element of the story comes across well in the character of Lorraine Carraway. This drives the story and makes it work.

"The Ice is Singing": One of the shorter stories in this collection, "The Ice is Singing" opens with an ice skater seeing a body frozen underneath him in the lake. The story goes into the depression and sadness of the skater before looping back for an interesting revelation. For being such a short story, "The Ice is Singing" is still stronger than other stories here ten times its length. Which just goes to say, of course, that size isn't everything.

"Serpent": So, after Adam and Eve fell from grace and left the Garden of Eden the Garden didn't just disappear. Now, legend has the Archangel Michael standing outside the Gardn with a flaming sword, but that legend doesn't quite apply here. The Garden still exists and after humans were a disappointment, God started over again with new creation. Better made, one might argue. The Devil, the Serpent, still tempts. "Serpent" is an absolute pleasure to read. One can't get enough tempting in fiction. How Kelly deals with the serpent, the innocents, and humanity is fascinating and well done.

"Bernardo's House": This story could have been in a post-apocalyptic collection, though what happened is never made explicit. The focus of the story is the AI of the house of a rich man named Bernardo, a man who has many houses. Bernardo has not been home in years and the house wonders where he is. A young woman happens by and Bernardo's house must choose how to receive her and what that means for the house's loyalty. Not sure why I'm surprised, but this story was better than I expected. The character of the house was a compelling character.

"Burn": This is a tough story to get a read on. Initially the issue is that Kelly's language is difficult to grasp. What is a pukpuk? What is up with the burnings? This planet of Walden which seems to try to model after the Thoreau is a weird bit of naming conventions, living in harmony with an idealized version of the land, and it has its detractors. "Burn" is worth pushing through for, but it is not exactly a fully satisfying read. "Burn" is a bit too much work, and not to the extent that the intellectual concepts are difficult. Mostly just because it is difficult to understand what's going on. Or, it was for me.

The Wreck of the Godspeed is a mixed bag of fiction. Some stories are outstanding ("Serpent", "The Edge of Nowhere", "The Leila Torn Show") and some failed to engage with this reader on nearly any level ("Dividing the Sustain", "Luck"), but most of the stories had some interesting ideas with executions which failed to deliver on the promise of the story. This could be a failing of James Patrick Kelly or a failing of the reader. Perhaps another reader would find that The Wreck of the Godspeed is an exceptionally strong collection, but this one did not. There is excellence here and the collection is worth checking out just to read those three stories, but as a whole The Wreck of the Godspeed is not wholly up to the level one has come to expect from Golden Gryphon. They have put out stronger books and I'm sure they will again. The Wreck of the Godspeed is simply not that book.

Reading copy provided courtesy of Golden Gryphon Press.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Portable Childhoods: "In the House of the Seven Librarians"

The final story in Portable Childhoods is the story "In the House of the Seven Librarians", the story of what happens in a small library when a big budget new library opens across town. The story, of course, is not really about that. The story is about a girl named Dinsy who was given to this library as payment for decades of an overdue library fine. Dinsy is raised by the seven librarians who stayed behind at the old library.

The story follows most of Dinsy's life as she grows up into a young woman, it follows the stages of growing up from child-eyed wonder to irritable teenager to a strong young woman. All in a library nobody leaves. Must be a decent sized library.

I'm not sure the best way to describe this story, except that this is a delightful look inside a library and teems with working knowledge of library catalogs and books and with the love of both.

"In the House of the Seven Librarians" is not a perfect story, and it not one of the best stories in the collection, but it is very much fitting with the rest of the collection. It fits. It's enough.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Portable Childhoods: "Portable Childhoods"

The title story of this collection is a series of 10 scenes of a mother and her 9 year old daughter. The mother is never named, neither is the daughter. Names don't really matter, though it took me a couple scenes to really figure that out and also to grasp that these were all about the same mother and daughter. But, that also does not really matter, though it helps form a sense of continuity across the otherwise unconnected scenes.

The scenes are narrated through the eyes of the mother and glimpses of this child are nearly enough to make the reader want a 9 year old daughter just like the child in the story, even the moments where the mother struggles to be the parent because the child is being a child.

These are quiet moments: teaching the friend of her daughter how to bet at cards, teaching her daughter how to shuffle, cursive writing, and a delightful story about Columbus Day. Charming. Wonderful. Quiet. Ellen Klages is not doing anything flashy here, but she is giving a beautiful portrait of motherhood and childhood. It's a reminder that the best parts of life, of motherhood, and of childhood aren't the big moments. It's the quiet moments that most people don't see.

Klages gets this, or more accurately, she conveys this.

Monday, September 08, 2008

Wild Cards: Aces Abroad

I’ve come to realize something from having now read the first four Wild Cards novels. They are very hit or miss, even within a single volume (as mosaic novels there are multiple story-threads written by multiple authors).

Aces Abroad
takes a contingent of delegates from the United States on a world-wide tour to examine the conditions of aces and jokers across the globe. The Contingent includes a Senator (Gregg Hartmann, himself a hidden Ace named Puppetman), several notable Aces (including the disgraced Golden Boy Jack Braun, the one who “named names” in the HUAC trials of the 50’s), the alien Dr. Tachyon, and a handful of jokers from New York City. The trip is half publicity, half investigation.

The background for this world is that in the 40’s an alien virus hit Earth and infected parts of the population, most notably in New York. 90% of those infected died horribly. 9.9% mutated into deformed men and women called jokers (the virus is called the Wild Cards virus), and the remaining .1% became Aces, normal humans with super powers. The jokers were relegated by choice and by societal disgust into ghettos, the New York ghetto was called Jokertown. The world was just like ours, up until the virus struck. After the virus there have been certain changes from history’s path (Fidel Castro played professional baseball and never led a Cuban revolution, the Dodgers stayed in New York), though quite a bit continues to mirror our world (HUAC, AIDS).

In other corners of the world jokers are treated horribly, as any malformed person might be in a third world nation.

There are storylines here, Gregg Hartmann’s gradual increase into power and worldwide acclaim, a charismatic Muslim fanatic is a Middle East power and will likely feature in future volumes, Peregrine’s romance and pregnancy, Tachyon’s guilt, and the connecting thread of the “Journals of Xavier Desmond”, the “mayor” of Jokertown.

Overall Aces Abroad is one of the stronger volumes in the series, though it is only volume four. But, some of the entries in Aces Abroad fell flat. Generally these were the stories which were such a side-show that they only tangentially tied into the larger narrative being woven in Aces Abroad. The stories which were the A or B stories of Aces Abroad were the most successful.

Once again, Mr. George R. R. Martin has put together a solid volume of Wild Cards stories and once again he leaves me wanting to get to the next volume, in this case Down and Dirty. This isn’t a perfect book, and few are even without the limitation of having so many authors working at one time, but Aces Abroad is still worth the time. The first Wild Cards novel was a bit of a scattershot, but things have improved and solidified since then.

I don’t know how common this is, but I saw the TOC of the newest Wild Cards novel Busted Flush (#19), and George R. R. Martin is not contributing a story. Now, I know he is the series editor and this is his baby, and he is busy working on A Dance with Dragons and all, but generally Mr. Martin’s contributions are the strongest parts of Wild Cards. At least, this is the case with Aces Abroad. Granted, I don’t expect him to contribute to the volumes which are complete novels written by a single author, but I look forward to his work in the other books. As I said before, I’ve only read four of the volumes, so perhaps he has taken previous steps away and this is not unusual, but it is disappointing all the same.

(after writing that last paragraph hours ago, I did some digging and after volume #5, Mr. Martin only makes three more appearances in Wild Cards as a writer. Come back, George, come back!)

Portable Childhoods: "Guy's Day Out"

If any story in this collection can be said to be extra personal to Ellen Klages, it is "Guy's Day Out". See, it is about the relationship between a father (Andrew) and his son (Tommy). Tommy has Down's Syndrome. It's a sweet story of parental love, of friendship, of dedication, of being tired, and without ever having to have experienced living with someone with Down's Syndrome, I dare say that Klages gets the little details right.

But, this gets to the personal aspect of "Guy's Day Out". Klages knows what she is writing about. In the Afterword to this collection, Ellen Klages reveals that her younger sister was born with Down's Syndrome.

"Guy's Day Out" comes across as neither angry nor preachy. Klages just simply covers the reality of living with it while skipping ahead across the years and seeing how little (and how much) changes. It's a sad story, but, perhaps, hopeful.

I'm really not sure how to "review" something like this, or even talk about "Guy's Day Out", so let me just say that at no time did "Guy's Day Out" feel out of place.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Portable Childhoods: "A Taste of Summer"

Here's another story which is about childhood, but is not a children's story. "A Taste of Summer" takes young Mattie Rodgers is on vacation with her parents and while her father is working on a boat, she takes a walk to a town store to get a popsicle. She isn't to cross the road, but of course, a girl by herself will. When a storm breaks she hides out in the store across the road and meets the owner's sister who shows Mattie a bit of magic in creating flavors of ice cream.

It's a cute story. I like how Klages described how certain flavors taste and feel, what they evoke and why someone would try to capture it in a flavor.

Compared to some of the longer stories in Portable Childhoods,"A Taste of Summer" is not nearly as strong, but it is overall a solid story entirely fitting with the theme and feel of the collection.

Saturday, September 06, 2008

Portable Childhoods: "Time Gyspy"

Thus far in the collection I am comfortable saying that "Time Gypsy" is easily my favorite Ellen Klages story. There are only two stories I haven't read and they will be hard pressed to prove me wrong. "Time Gypsy" is something else.

Dr. Carol McCullough is a Physics professor at Berkley and the Nobel Prize winning head of the Physics department asks to see her about Sara Baxter Clarke, a "crackpot from the 50's". Dr. McCullough is a scholar of Sara Baxter Clarke's theories in Physics. Dr. Chambers, the head of the department has figured out a way to make a working time machine and needs Dr. McCullough to go back in time to 1956 (from 2006), meet Sara Baxter Clarke, and get her hands on Clarke's final paper, the one she wrote before she mysteriously disappeared at age 28. If Dr. McCullough doesn't do this, well, she might as well look for a new school to teach at.

So, Carol McCullough does travel back forty years into the past, meets Sara Baxter Clarke, and nothing is at all what she expected.

I'm not telling this well. I'm not sure I can. This is what the story is about in a technical sense. It's not what the story is about at its heart nor does it describe how Ellen Klages is able to capture the imagination and emotion with "Time Gypsy".

"Time Gypsy" is a time travel story that follows the rules even if it is unexpected, it is a unconventional but perfectly normal love story, it is a story about honesty and integrity, about having the freedom to love as one wishes without persecution, it is a story featuring homosexuality without forcing any agenda or issue. Ellen Klages just tells the story as it is and the story just feels right. It feels true.

It's really, really good. Call me a sucker, but it was touching.

Friday, September 05, 2008

Dagger Key: "Emerald Street Expansions", and two others

I've previously read two of the stories in Dagger Key, "Stars Seen Through Stone" and "Dead Money". Here's what I said about each:

"Stars Seen Through Stone":
The story was originally published in Fantasy and Science Fiction and later in The Best of Lucius Shepard collection (forthcoming in August 2008). Like many other Lucius Shepard stories “Stars Seen Through Stone” is not an overtly SFF story. His fiction takes place in the real world, but a real world where sometimes something unexpected and unreal can occur. This is actually addressed early on in the story when the narrator mentions that the world contains all sorts of weirdness, but it is only the most extreme that anyone notices at all. “Stars Seen Through Stone” is set in 1970’s (sort of) Pennsylvania in a town called Black William (great name, by the way). Vernon is a small time, but moderately respected independent music producer and he signs a talented, if creepy, singer. There is an early incident with some odd ghost lights at the town library, but after that early incident the story follows Vernon developing his creepy singer, but comes back to the history of the town and the history of those odd lights. It is a quietly fascinating and compelling story, one that doesn’t necessarily jump out as being the story readers bang down the doors of their friends house to talk about, but it is also a really good story and one definitely worth the recognition of the various award nominations it has received.

"Dead Money":
The gambling story! Woo! "Dead Money" opens as a gambling story, but any Lucius Shepard story isn't just one thing. There is gambling, but also zombies, voodoo, more violence, some sort of criminal underworld, and a damn fine story with a wicked ending.

Now, the main reason I have this post up is that I've also read, just recently, "Emerald Street Expansions" and I have no idea what so ever how to write about it. Sure, I cheapened out on "Dead Money" back when I reviewed Shepard's Best of collection, but that was just a quick overview (still a great story, by the way, go find it and read "Dead Money") but "Emerald Street Expansions" is a bit of a mind fuck.

The protagonist is bored with his life so he accepts some sort procedure which is intended to bring out the personality / consciousness of some other person. To spice up his life. Things don't go the way he expects and the 15th Century French Poet he is given meets up with a host of other people who knew said poet back in the day. This is before the story just gets weird. There is an assault on the home of the woman who did the procedure where the narrator is attacked by all sorts of kitchen appliances which he himself designed to be lethal and that's when I sat back and wondered if "Emerald Street Expansions" would be better read if under the power of hallucinogenic drugs. I'm sure it would be a trip. If I actually took anything stronger than Sprite or Ibuprofen. Alas, I don't, so I'm left trying to figure out the story on my own.

Honestly, "Emerald Street Expansions" is as solidly written as one would hope for or expect from Lucius Shepard but I really can't recommend it. The narrator / protagonist is just about as unlikeable a character as possible to build a story around. If anything, I wanted bad things to happen to him to perhaps end the story sooner. This is besides the fact that I struggled to really figure out what the hell was going on and what Shepard was trying to communicate. Surely I missed something.


Either way, I'm ready for the next story and I'm ready to stop trying to figure this one out.

Portable Chilhoods: the shorter stories

While I would love to have individual posts on each and every story in Portable Childhoods there are some which are just a bit too short to give the attention of a full post on. So, here's a little roundup of stories which are not going to get the full length treatment.

"The Feed Bag": Actually...I'm not going to talk about this one at all. I want to acknowledge its presence, but as a general rule I don't read poetry and "The Feed Bag" is the lone poem in the collection. I'm sure it's good, but I don't have the tools to appreciate it and certainly not to talk about it.

"Mobius, Stripped of a Muse": Clever, huh? "Mobius Strip". Besides that little bit of snark, I rather liked this story. It is a previously unpublished story and it is a story that that begins as any other story until the writer of the story within a story steps back and can't figure out what next, except that stepping back is another writer stepping back. And so on and so forth until the Mobius Strip loops back on itself until it is back at the beginning of the story, except not really. It's one of those stories that is an interesting and fun exercise, and I'm glad it is in here, but at the same time "Mobius, Stripped of a Muse" is not one of the standout stories of the collection. It's tasty ice cream, but not the meat.

"Be Prepared": A short page and a half story about a chef on a galactic cruise line that gets taken over by pirates and as the alien pirates begin to devour the humans, he thinks about how the humans should be prepared in a culinary sort of way. The title, you see, it's a play on words. Not much you can really say about a page and a half of story, but it's fine for what it is. Klages has far better in this collection.

"Travel Agency": Two and a half pages. Another shortie. It's about, I hope, the power of books and reading to transport kids (of all ages) to another world. Literally, in this case, I think. In her afterword to this collection Klages writes "Many of my stories appear to have happy endings". I think that "Travel Agency" is a story which can be read a couple of different ways. One happy, another horrifying.

"Ringing Up Baby": A story with a borderline obnoxious character set. A mother is too busy for her own child so she has the nanny order up a second child as a playmate and sibling for her current child. I guess things work differently in the future. Anyway, the nanny lets the child choose the attributes of the new sibling. This story hit my "I Don't Care" button very early, but fortunately it isn't much longer than my tolerance.

That's it for this batch. There are five stories left, of which I've read three (and loved one). These will / should all get full posts. Then, the wrap-up / overview of Portable Childhoods.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Hart & Boot: "Hart and Boot"

"Hart and Boot" is the title story, sort of, of Tim Pratt's Hart & Boot collection. I only say "sort of" because the collection has an ampersand and the story has the word "and". Nit-picky, sure, but that's the way it goes. This is the first story in the collection.

I've read this story before. I know I have. Just checked Pratt's website and it was reprinted in The Best American Short Stories 2005. That's where. I liked it then.

I like it now.

"Hart and Boot" is the story of Pearl Hart, a cowgirl and criminal in the late 1800's who meets John Boot when he crawls out of a hole in the dirt near her feet. Naked. Pearl and John begin a life of crime robbing stagecoaches until they are caught. Then things get really interesting because John Boot seems to be either a ghost or a figment of Pearl's imagination turned real. One of the two. Not sure which. Maybe a third option.

Love it. It's a great opening to Hart & Boot.

Now, if that bastion of accurateness Wikipedia can be trusted, there is a historical Pearl Hart and Joe Boot. If the descriptions are accurate, it seems that Pratt took the basic storyline of these two and built something special around it and gave far different reasons for what happened than possibly could have happened.

It's great.

Portable Childhoods: "Triangle"

"Triangle" is a bit of a scary story for Ellen Klages. Oh, not scary so much in the sense that this is horror, though, at the end just a little bit, it is. Scary more in the sense of the overall theme of the story.

Michael is a gay college professor. Yes, this is a salient detail. Michael had a bit of a fight on the flight to a conference with his boyfriend, Willy. Klages gets into some back story about the relationship, what Michael did wrong, why the fight, and to make up for the fight Michael decides to go to an antique shop for a present.

He stumbles across a little hole in the wall antique shop, the sort of store that might be a magic shop or sell exotic animals one day and be gone the next. That sort of place. This antique shop has various military and historic war regalia, but as Michael is about to leave he sees a triangle. "Nazi Homosexual Badge, CA 1935. $75"

This is where the story gets scary. It's the following conversation between Michael and Willy, the history Klages reveals, the horror of what the triangle represents, and Michael's subsequent nightmare (and who can blame him?).

There's a bit more to the story, something I don't want to talk about because I don't want to give away all of Klages's surprises here, but "Triangle" is a moving, scary, haunting little story. It is all of this not because of the first 75% of the story, but all because of the last 25%.

Klages nails the dismount.

It should be obvious by this point for anyone reading through my story reviews that I'm very impressed with Portable Childhoods. I'll get more into this with the overall collection review, but I really wish I had read this book a year ago. Maybe now is the perfect time, but I feel like I've been missing out on something great by not having read this book until now.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

World Fantasy Award Nominee: The Mermaids

The Mermaids
Robert Edric
PS Publishing: 2007
Nominated for the 2008 World Fantasy Award: Novella

A fifteen year old girl is on trial. Oh, it may not be a real courtroom, but led before the town magistrate and minister by the town constable and her father. She is accused of something, of lying, of instigating, and perhaps of being a fifteen year old girl who makes other adults uncomfortable because she is somewhere in between a child and a woman. For pages Robert Edric dances around the issue, making the magistrate disclaim against the girl and inner monologue his disgust for her. Then, he switches to a description of the picturesque seaside resort town, a town on the edge of having a resort season and the tourists never returning. Back to the trial, for there is no better word for it. What did the girl and her four followers see? What did they do? What trouble did they cause to warrant this overbearing behavior from the magistrate?

And if no crime has been committed, what town or father would allow this?

The title of this novella provides expectation. The Mermaids. The girls saw mermaids? The girls claimed to have seen mermaids? Sarah Carr is fifteen. The youngest girl was five. Who is the magistrate and why is he so belligerently trying to force Sarah to admit she was lying?

All questions. As the opening pages melted into the meat of the story the experience of Sarah Carr waited, like a pregnant pause. Something had happened. Then, the truth. Or, part of the truth. The girls did, in fact, see mermaids. Three of them.

But...why the uproar? While the sighting and the claims by the girls should be given more credence than seeing Jesus on a French Fry, this is hardly something to upset a town. Not unless there was something more to the story.

Robert Edric plays a careful game in trying to suck in the reader by revealing as little as possible. He unwinds the story one careful thread at a time. If Edric wasn’t quite so good at it, the effect would be maddening. Instead, it is compelling. On and on we read, wondering just what is in store, wondering just what will change how we view the inquisition by the magistrate. What does he fear.

Revelations come in time, more or less.

What I spend most of the story wondering, though, is what sort of town is this? The air of persecution which so permeates The Mermaids is reminiscent of Lars von Trier’s extremely overrated film Dogville, where being different, being “other than what the town permits is enough to persecute and hate. This is what I question in The Mermaids, that there is an assumption that even a father such as Sarah’s would permit this faux trial to occur.

The Mermaids is, at its core, a simple story of disbelief in the face of the fantastic. It’s more, though. The heartbreak of the attack on a fifteen year old girl who, despite the discomfort of the magistrate, is no Lolita (though, even Lolita too was a victim). Sarah Carr is simply a young girl who saw something and believed what she saw. For that, for daring to tell the truth about what she saw, for daring to see the fantastic, the trial with unknown stakes proceeds. So, in a sense, The Mermaids is about truth, about belief, about the fear of small towns and sensitivity about how they are seen by the world, and not at all about mermaids. Despite the title.

The sense of wonder about whether Sarah is telling the truth and if the reader will ever be told the full story, if there is a full story to tell? That’s worth the price of admission.

The ultimate ending of the story, however, suggests that something else may have happened, something that is barely alluded to. Something far scarier and far more brutal. Is it true? If so, what does it mean for the story that came before? If not, again, what does it mean? I don't know, but if The Mermaids hadn't already provided food for thought, the ending gave something else.

Reading copy provided courtesy of PS Publishing.