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.

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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

10-books

Review ~ (The rest of) Don’t Look Now

Don’t Look Now by Daphne du Maurier

Cover via Goodreads

Five long stories about unremarkable people caught up in situations beyond the boundaries of their experience.

Venice, Crete, Ireland, Jerusalem, East Anglia. The settings of Miss Daphne du Maurier’s stories are as varied as the plots. A married couple enjoying a holiday in Venice are swept helplessly into a tragedy played out against a backdrop of murky canals and back alleys. A middle-aged schoolmaster gets involved with an American couple whose fishing expeditions are very far from being what they appear. A young actress, setting out on an impulsive but innocent quest, blunders into a situation which sweeps away all the roots of youthful self-confidence. One story, subtly mocking, follows the vicisitudes of an ill-assorted little party of pilgrims in Jerusalem. Another explores the meaning of life and death in a brilliantly original tale. Such unremarkable people, following their unexceptional paths, yet all caught up in situations beyond the boundaries of their experience and outside their control. Compelling, exciting, this collection shows once again what mastery of the short story Daphne du Maurier has. (via Goodreads)

For me, Daphne du Maurier is this year’s Steven Millhauser. Last year, I delved into a collection of Millhauser’s (The Barnum Museum) and found that I was torn. I really *loved* some of his stories. Others…not so much. I’m still not sure if I’d call myself a Millhauser fan, but I’m going to repeatedly give him chances. My opinion of du Maurier is shaping up similarly. I didn’t care for Rebecca, but there were some aspects that were enticing. Luckily, I had more du Maurier on a more compulsory reading list.

Don’t Look Now is a collection of five novellas originally titled after one of the other stories in the collection, “Not After Midnight.” The change came after “Don’t Look Now” was turned into a film in 1973 with Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie. That story was included in my Obscure Literary Monsters list and I reviewed it a few weeks ago. Since I didn’t immediate pull “The Birds,” which is on my Deal Me In list, I decided to finish off the anthology. And it is definitely a mixture of great and meh from me.

The second story in the collection is “The Breakthrough.” The late 60s and early 70s spawned a number of novels and movies that dealt with science investigating the supernatural. I didn’t expect to find such a story from du Maurier. “The Breakthrough” is a solid, right out of the Twilight Zone. “Not After Midnight” continues with an atmosphere of unease as a fairly insufferable character gets caught up in what may or may not be an archeological dive. There’s one incredibly tense scene that caused me to jump out of my skin when an outside noise intruded.

But then there’s “A Border-Line Case.” I have a theory that I might not like du Maurier’s female main characters. Like the second Mrs. de Winter, Shelagh came off as flighty. Maybe that’s uncharitable. Both of these characters make her own decisions (both involving older men), but they’re such bad decisions. Then, the reader is left to suffer through an extended period of whinging from the character.

“The Way of the Cross” is the only story of which I had a neutral opinion. It’s populated by (figuratively) many the characters we’ve already encountered: the annoying, the skeptical, the swinging, the delusional, and the completely unsure. In the end, I’m not sure what point there is to “The Way of the Cross,” but it wasn’t an entirely unpleasant journey.

Publishing info, my copy: Doubleday, 1974, hardback
Acquired: PaperbackSwap
Genre: all over the place

Review ~ The Two Sams

The Two Sams by Glen Hirshberg

Cover via Goodreads

In the title story of this unique collection a husband struggles with the grief and confusion of losing two children, and forms an odd bond with the infant spectrals that visit him in the night. “Dancing Men” depicts one of the creepiest rites of passage in recent memory, when a boy visits his deranged grandfather in the New Mexico desert. In “Mr. Dark’s Carnival,” a college professor confronts his own dark places in the form of a mysterious haunted house steeped in the folklore of grisly badlands justice. “Struwwelpeter” introduces us to a brilliant, treacherous adolescent whose violent tendencies and reckless mischief reach a sinister pinnacle as Halloween descends on a rundown, Pacific Northwest fishing village. Tormented by his guilty conscience, a young man plumbs the depths of atonement as he and his favorite cousin commune with the almighty Hawaiian surf in “Shipwreck Beach.” With The Two Sams author Glen Hirshberg uses his remarkable gift for capturing mood and atmosphere to suggest the possibility that the most troubling ghosts of all are not the ones that hover above us and walk through walls, but those that linger in our memories and haunt our souls. (via Goodreads)

I reread The Two Sams back in December. I get into a horror mood in the winter; it never fails. At the time, I think there was a reason behind the pick, but I don’t remember it now. Maybe I just needed something that I knew would be good.

I was reminded again of how well Hirshberg handles a sense of place in all of these stories. Even the two that I don’t like as much, “Shipwreck Beach” and “Dancing Men,” I can’t deny that I am there in those stories. “The Two Sams” still stood up as being creepy and poignant. And I had forgotten how much of a set up there is to “Mr. Dark’s Carnival” and its Twilight Zone ending. These are all solid, solid stories.

But I actually do have a ghost of a memory about why I decided to read The Two Sams and it had to do with the story “Struwwelpeter.” The original Der Struwwelpeter is a children’s book by Heinrich Hoffmann. In the book, “Shockheaded Peter” is a boy who won’t comb his hair or cut his nails and is therefore shunned. All the children in the book misbehave and suffer for it. Some in rather gruesome ways. Yes, it’s *that* kind of children’s book. The Peter of Hirshberg’s “Struwwelpeter” is a bad kid too. In a way the story is a companion to his novel The Snowman’s Children. Set in the late 70s, The Snowman’s Children relies on the biggest child-related issue of that time: abductions. In “Struwwelpeter,” we have school violence, the bugaboo of the 2000s. In retrospect, the one problem I have with this story is that I’m not sure I buy Peter as a truly disturbed kid, even though the story works in the moment.

Publishing info, my copy: Carroll & Graf, 2003, trade paperback
Acquired: PaperbackSwap
Genre: Horror
Previously: Reread, discovered Glen Hirshberg though a mixed anthology.