Mini Reviews, Vol. 8

MiniReviews
Sometimes, I don’t have a lot to say other than, “Man, I liked this.” So, here are some things I’ve liked recently.

alt text The Janus Tree by Glen Hirshberg

Two stories from this anthology that are going to stick with me: “You Become the Neighborhood” and “Shomer.” “You Become the Neighborhood” has a rather ambiguous path and maybe a zigger ending, but, man, the ending is enough to make any arachnophobe uneasy. “Shomer” is a more direct tale and more indicative of Hirshberg’s ability evoke creepiness. In both cases, Hirshberg takes what is “normal,” points out the shadows and uncertainty, and then populates those places with… well…

Interestingly, this collection also includes “Like Lick Em Sticks, Like Tina Fey,” which would seem to be the short story jumping off point for the novel Motherless Child. This is a great place the get a taste for that in-progress trilogy.

alt text “Kindred Spirits” by Rainbow Rowell

A charming tale about…waiting in line. Okay, waiting in line for the Star Wars: The Force Awakens, but it’s also about expectations and assumptions. Elena loves Star Wars and expects to be part of a celebration of that love. Instead, she faces that embarrassment that sometimes occurs when you love something deeply and slightly irrationally—even when among other fans of that thing. The notion of the “true fan” is handled lightly along with how we casually judge others without knowing anything about them.

alt text “Mystery of Asgina Lake” by Caren Rich

It might be the end of the summer vacation for many, but it’s just the beginning for Ella and Lena. This is a solid monster tale from Caren Rich with a great action climax that left me wondering, “What was that ting?!” I also loved that Ella and Lena were just casually tomboyish geek girls. Ella is gung-ho for adventure and Lena goes along, but with a good stock of comic books to keep boredom at bay. Originally included on the Fantastic Creatures Fellowship of Fantasy anthology.

The Janus Tree is 5.5/10 Books of Summer!

Review ~ Wicked Wonders

This book was provided to me by Tachyon Publications via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Cover via Goodreads

Wicked Wonders by Ellen Klages

The Scott O’Dell award-winning author of The Green Glass Sea returns with her second collection: a new decade of lyrical stories with vintage flair.

Inside of these critically-acclaimed tales are memorable characters who are smart, subversive, and singular. A rebellious child identifies with wicked Maleficent instead of Sleeping Beauty. Best friends Anna and Corry share a last melancholy morning before emigration to another planet. A prep-school girl requires more than mere luck to win at dice with a faerie. Ladies who lunch keeping dividing that one last bite of dessert in the paradox of female politeness.

Whether on a habitat on Mars or in a boardinghouse in London, discover Ellen Klages’ wicked, wondrous adventures full of brazenness, wit, empathy, and courage. (via Goodreads)

Why was I interested in this book?
I almost didn’t read this book.

I saw it on offer at NetGalley from Tachyon Publications (the only publisher that I’m auto-approved with—why they put up with my grumpy reviews, I don’t know) and I was interested. But then I remembered that I had just purchased a Glen Hirshberg anthology, and I didn’t really need another short story anthology, and I have a never-ending TBR pile mostly because I request too many ARCs and…I let Wicker Wonders pass by.

But then I got an email from Tachyon about widgets or something, and I guess I clicked a request link, and BAM! Wicked Wonders was ready for download. So, I read it, as one does when books show up.

And I’m glad I did.

What Worked
Ray Bradbury is one of my favorite authors. I especially love his tales of childhood: adventures on bicycles to dark carnivals in the midst of summer thunderstorms. Great stuff, but it occurred to me sometime  in my 30s that all of Bradbury’s protagonists were boys. Makes sense since that’s his experience of the world, but I kind of wished that there were some of those kinds of stories with girl protagonists. Because, why not? Girls have adventures too.

Enter Ellen Klages and Wicked Wonders:

She intends to be a good girl, but shrubs and sheds and unlocked cupboards beckon.

Yep, Klages hooked me right there with that line.

The stories range across the spectrum of speculative fiction. “Singing on a Star” and “Friday Night at St. Cecilia’s” are strongly fantastical and “Goodnight Moons” is a straight-up sci-fi tale. On the other end, “The Education of a Witch” is only fantasy tinged and “Amicae Aeternum” is more of a bitter-sweet best-friends(who are girls!)-on-bikes story than space opera. There are even a couple of stories with no fantastic elements what-so-ever, including my favorite “Hey, Presto!” Had I known there was going to be a well-done historical fiction story with magicians I would have never hesitated to request this book!

What Didn’t Work
I am really picky about science fiction. For me, the most science fictiony story of Wicked Wonders, “Goodnight Moons,” was also the least successful. Happily, for me, science fiction is in the minority on this anthology.

Overall
I’m fairly sure that I haven’t read any Ellen Klages in the past. Coincidentally, I had also almost requested her latest novel Passing Strange from NetGalley when it was available, but had decided against it as well on the grounds that my TBR pile was too high. After reading Wicked Wonders…well, that TBR stack is just going to have to get stratospheric. Ms. Klages, you have a new fan.

Publishing info, my copy: Kindle/Adobe Digital Edition, Tachyon Publications, May 23, 2017
Acquired: NetGalley, 3/13/2017
Genre: speculative fiction

Standout Stories from the Fantasy & Science Fiction, Jan-Feb 2017

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The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, January-February 2017 edited by C. C. Finlay

I reviewed the Nov-Dec issue on January 27th. Here it is only March 22rd and I’ve finished the Jan-Feb issue. Progress! These are the standouts from the issue. Note: I didn’t say favorites.

“Vinegar and Cinnamon” by Nina Kiriki Hoffman

I could lead a comfortable rat-wizard life.

Maura is the golden child of the family; she has some ability with magic and is being taught how to use it. Sam is the good child of the family; he does his chores and then some to help the family get by. One day, by mistake, Maura turns Sam into a rat. And as a rat, Sam could have a very different life… Lovely story full of fairy tale and sibling rivalry.

“Alexandria” by Monica Byrne
This only slightly a science fiction story. Beth is a widower. A native of Kansas, she married a man, Keiji, from Japan. On their honeymoon, they went to Egypt to see the Lighthouse of Alexandria, not realizing it no longer existed. After that, they both “traveled” through their mutual love of books and maps. But now that Keiji is gone, Beth is left with farm land and very little to remember her husband by. So she builds a monument. The sci-fi elements are the sectional epigraphs from the future describing the confusing archaeological artifact found in what was once Kansas. It’s only March, but this might make it to my year end “best of.”

“Wetherfell’s Reef Runics” by Marc Laidlaw
According to the introduction, Marc Laidlaw lives on the island of Kauai. Therefore, I’m going to take his use of Hawaiian culture and slang as genuine and well-intentioned. I hope so, because it’s that Hawaiian flair that gives this light Lovecraftian story some extra omph.

“One Way” by Rick Norwood
Oh man, this story annoyed me. We start out with Harvey (has-been physicist), Jerry (boy genius), and Sam (uh, does the soldering). Together, just the three of them, build a perpetual energy machine…that just might destroy the world. My first objection to this story is the built-in-a-basement style engineering. That isn’t how things are developed and made. To recuse myself, I’m married to an engineer. The majority of my social circle are engineers. I’m a little protective of the fact that it takes many more people that anyone realizes to create the electronic wonders we use daily. And then there was Deloris, Jerry’s girlfriend. Deloris is an English major. Deloris doesn’t know science. Direct quote from Deloris: “That sounds important. I don’t know any science…” Deloris’s only purpose in the story is to have one of the male characters explain to her (and to us, the readers) what’s going on. It really bothered me that a story in one of the more prominent sci-fi literature magazines had such a poorly depicted female character. To further recuse myself, I have a degree in English literature. I also know some science.

Mini #RIPXI Reviews ~ Revenge & The Accidental Alchemist

MiniReviews

Revenge

Revenge by Yoko Ogawa
Translated by Stephen Snyder
Picador, 1998, 2013 (translation), trade paperback

Revenge has been on my Want To Read list for ages, but I was only recently reminded of it by a post at Outlandish Lit. A readathon and a trip to the library converged and here I am. I finally read Revenge! And I’m kind of sad that I didn’t read it before.

Revenge is a surprisingly thin book. Eleven tales are told in only 162 pages. The eleven stories, though, are really one interconnected puzzle of narrative. It was, perhaps, the perfect 24-hour readathon book. The chapters were short; I could put it down every-so-often to do some social media things, but the stories were compelling enough that I didn’t want to stay away for long. While it isn’t full-out supernatural there is definitely a delicious Japanese horror sensibility to Revenge.

The Accidental Alchemist (An Accidental Alchemist Mystery)

The Accidental Alchemist by Gigi Pandian
Midnight Ink, 2015, Kindle ebook

This cozy-ish mystery begins so promisingly with an animated gargoyle named Dorian Robert-Houdin. His “father” was historical magician Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin. Obviously, this caught my interest. The mystery set-up is also promising: a murder and theft—and Zoe Faust has only lived in her fixer-upper for a day! Unfortunately, solving the mystery ends up somewhat overly complex with a lot of repetitive scenes. In the end, the confluence of events really wasn’t very satisfying.

ripnineperilfirst
RIPXI Info | Reviews

Mini Reviews, Vol. 5 ~ Poe & Kidd

MiniReviews
alt textThe Unknown Poe, edited by Raymond Foye

I read this for #20BooksOfSummer rather than #RIPXI because I apparently have the philosophy of “Poe for any season.”

Two-thirds of this anthology is some of Poe’s lesser known poetry, some letters, and excerpts from a selection of Poe’s essays. Honestly, the poems were all included in The Unabridged Edgar Allan Poe which I already owned, the letters were intriguing, but not enough of them, and the excerpts were tantalizing, but too short. Poe had a sort of unified theory of the universe which can be seen in his fiction, but was more clearly outlined in his letters and essays. The last third of the book is a collection of appreciations by contemporary French writers, most notably Baudelaire. Poe was very big in France, but mostly, it seemed to me, because he was underappreciated by boorish Americans.

I bought this slim little anthology a few years back with a gift card my sister sent me for my birthday/Christmas. It’s a nice addition to my library, but, man, now I really want a collection of Poe’s letters.

alt text

Descent into the Depths of the Earth by Paul Kidd

Descent is the second in a trilogy written by Kidd and set in the D&D world of Greyhawk. More specifically, this and a group of other novels that came out from Wizards of the Coast in 2000-2001-ish all contain elements from classic Greyhawk modules of the same names with some other plot built around them. I haven’t read any of the non-Kidd novels because, well, I don’t care all that much about the conceit. It’s the characters that make Kidd’s novels so much fun.

Instead of the usual band of adventurers, we have a grim sentient-hell-hound-wearing ranger, The Justicar, an only slightly larcenous fairy wizard, Escalla, a usually drunk teamster, and a young soldier is only a soldier because he lives in a war zone. There’s a lot humor and the majority of the plot revolves around the machination of the Seeley Court and a murder mystery. To, you know, balance out the dungeon delving.

 

Review ~ The Doll-Master and Other Tales of Terror

This book was provided to me by Grove Atlantic and Mysterious Press via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

The Doll-Master and Other Tales of Terror by Joyce Carol Oates

Cover via Goodreads

From one of our most important contemporary writers, The Doll-Master and Other Tales of Terror is a bold, haunting collection of six stories.

In the title story, a young boy becomes obsessed with his cousin’s doll after she tragically passes away from leukemia. As he grows older, he begins to collect “found dolls” from the surrounding neighborhoods and stores his treasures in the abandoned carriage house on his family’s estate. But just what kind of dolls are they? In “Gun Accident,” a teenage girl is thrilled when her favorite teacher asks her to house-sit, even on short notice. But when an intruder forces his way into the house while the girl is there, the fate of more than one life is changed forever. In “Equatorial,” set in the exotic Galapagos, an affluent American wife experiences disorienting assaults upon her sense of who her charismatic husband really is, and what his plans may be for her.

In The Doll-Master and Other Tales of Terror, Joyce Carol Oates evokes the “fascination of the abomination” that is at the core of the most profound, the most unsettling, and the most memorable of dark mystery fiction. (via Goodreads)

In the past when I’ve read Joyce Carol Oates’ stories, I’ve wanted to make the grand proclamation that her works straddle the line between genre (the horror genre in particular) and literary, except that’s never entirely true. Genres rely on certain conventions and tropes. When Oates is at her best, she entirely sidesteps genre and instead gives readers discomfiting tales just a askew of reality. Most of the stories in this collection are, alas, much more straightforward.

“The Doll-Master,” “Big Momma,” and “Mystery, Inc.” are all fairly by-the-book stories. More genre than usual from Oates. The trapping are well done. “The Doll-Master” and “Big Momma” have a high creep factor. I wondered briefly if the stories lived on the same fictional block since both deal with missing children.”Mystery, Inc.” is a nice little jaunt into murder and book buying, but I think I would have enjoyed it more at the beginning of the collection. By the end, I was a little worn down with the grimness of the other stories. None of these three tales provided any sort of surprise. In fact, the endings felt telegraphed.

“Gun Accident” has a little more ambiguity to it, but it pales in comparison to one of Oates’ most famous stories “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?”. Both tread some of the same ground: a teen-aged girl in a house alone is visited by an older man. But these two stories are the ambiguity flip-sides of each other. “Where Are You Going…” is completely about tension and only approaches what the outcome of the situation might be. “Gun Accident” has no tension and is about the aftermath of the situation after it’s played out in our view. “Where Are You Going…” is the better story.

I’ll be honest, I didn’t make it through “Equatorial.” I was about 40 pages in and I had about 40 pages to go, but I really didn’t care what the situation was between paranoid Audrey and philandering Henry Wheeling.

“Soldier” is the best of the collection. The story deals with race and gun violence and what narrative are teased from the scaffolding of White Man Shoots Black Man while staying in the shooter’s point of view. It is not a comfortable story.

This collection might have suffered from my own expectations. The last few stories of Oates that I’ve read before it have been among her best. The Doll-Master isn’t her best, but most of the stories are still pretty good.

Publishing info, my copy: Kindle/ePub ARC, Grove/Atlantic, May 3. 2016
Acquired: NetGalley
Genre: horror, literary

Review ~ The Best Horror of the Year, Volume Seven

This book was provided to me by Night Shade Books via Edelweiss in exchange for an honest review.

The Best Horror of the Year Volume Seven edited by Ellen Datlow

Cover via Goodreads

For over three decades, Ellen Datlow has been at the center of horror. Bringing you the most frightening and terrifying stories, Datlow always has her finger on the pulse of what horror readers crave. Now, with the seventh volume of this series, Datlow is back again to bring you the stories that will keep you up at night.

With each passing year, science, technology, and the march of time shine light into the craggy corners of the universe, making the fears of an earlier generation seem quaint. But this “light” creates its own shadows. The Best Horror of the Year chronicles these shifting shadows. It is a catalog of terror, fear, and unpleasantness, as articulated by today’s most challenging and exciting writers.
(via Goodreads)

In The Best Horror of the Year, Volume Seven, Ellen Datlow once again skims the cream to introduce fickle readers like me to some of the shining stars of the horror lit world. There are twenty-two stories in this collection, two less than last year’s volume though I don’t remember so many longer works included in Volume Six. Not quite half are by female authors.

There seemed to me to be several board categories of stories:

For example, quite a few serial killers as narrators with Angela Slater’s “Winter Children,” Gemma File’s “This is Not For You” (which includes the conceit of a murderous virago cult), “Interstate Love Song (Murder Ballad No. 8)” by Caitlin Kiernan, and my personal favorite of the group “Wingless Beasts” by Lucy Taylor for desert gross-out factor. (Hadn’t realized that this group contained so many female authors…)

A couple of stories involved crime with law enforcement or detective involved. “The Atlas of Hell” by Nathan Ballingrud features an occult investigator named Jack Oleander, whose further adventures I would happily read. Rio Youers’ “Outside Heavenly” had a lot of True Crime feel to it, though with a much more supernatural conclusion.

I’m always a sucker for horror comedy and I got a kick out of Stephen Graham Jones’ “Chapter Six,” which asks the question, what would a pair of academic rivals do after the zombie apocalypse?

There were also a bunch of cosmic horror/forbidden knowledge tales. “Allochton” by Livia Llewellyn provides a semi answer to my question about the intersection of domestic and cosmic horror as a company wife is wooed by strange qualities in the geography around her. Laird Barron’s “The Worms Crawl In” also takes us out into the forest to meet doom.

Rhoads Brazos’s “Tred Upon the Brittle Shell” and John Langan’s “Ymir” both pull from ancient mythologies and both involve physical decent as well, although Dale Bailey’s “The Culvert” doesn’t go as deep into the earth, but leaves us as lost in a shifting labyrinth.

Two stories that I really enjoyed involved a more historical touch. “A Dweller in Amenty” by Genevieve Valentine involves the ins and outs of a sin eater and Keris McDonald takes us back to academia as a museum worker learns about Innocent Coats in “The Coat Off His Back.”

One last stand-out: “Depertures” by Carole Johnstone, creepy and gory and set in an airplane terminal. It excellently combines the mundane with the uncanny.

Publishing info, my copy: eARC in Kindle and ePub formats
Acquired: via Edelweiss
Genre: Horror

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