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Books To Look For
My Sister Rosa, by Justine Larbalestier, Soho Teen, 2016, $18.99, hc.
There's so much I love about this book, not least is how it so seamlessly tells vastly different stories at the same time, each informing the other.
If it was just a coming-of-age story, I'd have been content because it hits each and every mark with insight and resonance. But it's so much more, ranging all the way across the spectrum to be a chilling horror story that had me on the edge of my seat throughout. What I found especially interesting is how the author kept me just as invested in the quiet moments as she did when she let the darkness unfold.
Here's part of the book's cover copy: "What if the most terrifying person you know is your ten-year-old sister? Seventeen-year-old Aussie Che Taylor loves his younger sister, Rosa. But he's also certain that she's a psychopath—clinically, threateningly, dangerously."
When I was a kid, I took in all the monster and horror movies, watching Shock Theater after midnight on Friday nights, or going into town for all-night marathons at the movie theater. The monsters never scared me. Dracula. The Hammer films based on Edgar Allan Poe's work and that of Lovecraft. Frankenstein's Monster. What really got to me were the psychopathic serial killers.
They weren't called serial killers in those days—or at least the term wasn't in general parlance that I can remember. We called them psychopaths.
What horrified me about them was that they were real. The idea that you might run into a werewolf or vampire in real life remains laughable, but the person living next door could well be a serial killer. These days it's a staple of news outlets and every form of entertainment—maybe there are more of them, or maybe it just seems that way because of the instant dissemination of news stories. Either way, they seem far too common to warrant yet one more novel.
But they're still frightening.
For me, the "evil child" subgenre of horror has even less appeal. But it might be that I'm not seeing this clearly. Part of the job of horror—as well as some sf and dark fantasy—is to explore that which makes us uneasy. It might be as simple as seeing innocence being lost or corrupted. Or perhaps the roots lie in film director Joe Dante's words:
Could it be connected to the fact that more and more parents have difficulty balancing work responsibilities, child-rearing, and elder care (not to speak of nurturing their own relationships, personal and career aspirations) and are squeezed financially by the costs of raising children and taking care of their own aging parents? Therefore, is it any wonder that children in genre movies are portrayed as powerful, disruptive, and uncontrollable? Perhaps these menacing moppet movies reflect the fears inherent in helicopter parenting—that the minute you take your eyes off your child, something dreadful will happen.
In My Sister Rosa, Che knows his sister is evil, as does the reader, and we dread the slow countdown to the moment when she goes too far. It makes for a riveting read that is only heightened by the plot curves Larbalestier sends our way.
But the other parts of this story are just as absorbing.
Che turns seventeen just as his family lands in New York City, having moved from Australia by way of Bangkok. It's a crappy birthday for him. He's had to leave behind all his friends—yet again—and he still hasn't come close to fulfilling his bucket list: keep Rosa under control, improve his boxing, get a girlfriend, and return home to Sydney.
But things finally look up a little when he starts working out at his new boxing club and meets a girl his own age named Sojourner who loves boxing as much as he does. It doesn't hurt that she's also hot.
Rosa, meanwhile, is doing her usual thing, manipulating the people around her to make them miserable while never letting them realize that she's the one responsible for their pain. Her latest project is to come between a set of twins who happen to be the children of her parents' employers. And when she realizes that Che is finding some happiness with Sojourner and at the boxing club, she insinuates herself into these aspects of Che's life as well with predictably unhappy results.
Che is a wonderful viewpoint character and Larbalestier does a great job of bringing him to life as he learns to appreciate his growing happiness on the one hand, and the escalating darkness that Rosa is bringing into the lives of everyone around her.
The book doesn't go where you expect it to, but upon reflection, it goes where it inevitably had to.
When I got to the end of My Sister Rosa, I sat for a long moment with a tumult of emotions running through me and the desire to immediately start the book on the first page once again.
Fire, by Elizabeth Hand, PM Press, 2017, $13, pb
This is only the third book published by PM Press that I've read, the previous ones also being a mix of fiction and non-fiction. One was by Cory Doctorow, the other by Ursula K. Le Guin, both riveting. As is Fire.
In the case of each of these titles, I've only happened upon them, somehow remaining oblivious to the rest of the publisher's large backlist and ongoing publishing plans. Given the other titles listed in the publisher's catalog at the end of this Elizabeth Hand collection, and the quality of the three titles I've read, that's something I need to remedy. Because they're excellent books, of course, but also because of the publisher's mission statement, which appeals to the old hippie/anarchist in me:
"We seek to create radical and stimulating fiction and nonfiction books, pamphlets, T-shirts, visual and audio materials to entertain, educate, and inspire you. We aim to distribute these through every available channel with every available technology, whether that means you are seeing anarchist classics at our bookfair stalls; reading our latest vegan cookbook at the café; downloading geeky fiction e-books; or digging new music and timely videos from our website."
Now, while I appreciate a publisher having an ideological slant, just as I appreciate a writer with something to say, that alone isn't a reason to support them. The best intentions can sometimes result in a heavy-handed discourse. Excellent art can be undermined by a shoddy or unprofessional presentation and/or design. There needs to be substance.
Happily, all three of the titles I've read thus far from PM Press provide exactly that. Substance and edge. And they look great. Smartly designed and easy to read in both paper and electronic editions. And a quick glance at the back catalog I mentioned earlier shows that they work with some of the best and most provocative writers in our field. Writers such as Rudy Rucker, Terry Bisson, John Shirley, Joe R. Lansdale, Karen Joy Fowler, Norman Spinrad, and Nalo Hopkinson, to name a few. And that's not even taking into account the non-genre writers, as well as the broad choice of writers from other fields, so they're certainly doing something right.
It reminds me a little of the latter part of the last century, when publishers had a strong sense of identity and readers would collect work from particular houses—DAW, Ace, Bantam Spectra, Del Rey—because they knew these imprints would deliver the kinds of stories they liked best.
That's the sense I get with PM Press except, instead of a certain style of book—such as how Del Rey was known for great epic fantasy, DAW delivered top notch heroic fantasy and space opera series, etc.—PM Press appears to be creating a community with the singular aim of making the world a better place.
One of the best ways to do that is to understand where the world stands, where it comes from, and where it might be going, and Elizabeth Hand hits every one of those points with Fire.
The fiction (or at least two of the stories) looks ahead to natural disasters, focusing on the small and personal, which makes the greater problems beyond the confines of the characters' lives all that more chilling. The third story, "Kronia," takes us into the confused mind of a time traveler—or perhaps, if we don't take what we're told at face value, the narrator is on the spectrum.
For the nonfiction, Hand profiles Alice Sheldon (James Tiptree, Jr.) and Thomas Disch. A good writer, when writing about the arts, makes you want to experience the work of their subjects, and Hand is very good at what she does, because the whole time I was reading, I wanted to go down to my library and reread books by her subjects while taking in her observations on them.
The lives of both these authors were filled with an unfair amount of tragedy, which makes their artistic accomplishments even more astonishing and poignant.
Rounding out the book is an interview with Hand by Terry Bisson, a bibliography, and a very heartfelt and revealing autobiographical essay in which Hand shows us the events in her life that led her to become the author she is today.
I loved everything about this book, just as I did with the Doctorow and Le Guin titles, and can't wait to explore some more of the PM Press catalog in the months to come. You can have a look for yourself at their website where you'll find not only some great sf but lots of fascinating titles covering everything from music, politics, and Latin America to gender studies and books on the African American and Native American experience.
Rivers of London: Night Witch, by Ben Aaronovitch & Andrew Cartmel, and Lee Sullivan, Titan Comics, 2016, $14.99, tpb.
First off, this is a graphic novel. A comic book. I mention this because I was taken to task recently by a reader who was quite interested in another graphic novel I was discussing in this column, only to find out near the end of the review that it wasn't prose. Somehow, even though everything about the book intrigued him, the delivery medium was a deal breaker.
I get it. We all have quirks in our reading habits. I have trouble reading something in second person. I can make it through a short story, but would never read a novel, because the entire time the author is telling me, "you're walking into the room," I can't shut off the voice in my head that's saying, "No, I'm not."
For some reason, first person doesn't affect me in the same way. Not because I think I'm telling the story (which is as implausible as second person, when you think about it), but because I'm able to accept as part of my suspension of disbelief that I'm reading an account that happened to someone else, as though I'm privy to their personal journal.
But I digress. Rivers of London: Night Witch is a graphic novel. If you like Ben Aaronovitch (and why wouldn't you?), you'll like this book, which is a completely new story set in his Rivers of London world, co-written with Andrew Cartmel (Doctor Who, The Vinyl Detective) and illustrated by Lee Sullivan.
I find the best graphic stories based on established properties are those that involve the original creator in a primary role. You know you're getting the real deal, and that's certainly the case here.
Rivers of London is an urban fantasy series with a very different feel from those with which you might already be familiar. It's set in Britain (London, perhaps obviously?), and is as much police procedural as it is mythic fiction. But the magical elements are integral to the stories.
In Night Witch, the case begins with the daughter of a Russian oligarch being kidnapped from the family's new home in Kent, England, by what his wife claims is a leshy—a mythological forest creature that the Russians used in the Second World War against the Germans.
Enter PC Peter Grant, London's only wizard in training on the police force.
But the case isn't as straightforward a monster hunt/rescue as it seems. The Russian mob appears to be involved. Peter's mentor Nightingale has been abducted. And Peter's only useful aide is a Russian witch currently incarcerated in the British prison system.
If you're new to graphic novels, this is a good place to see how far they've come from the days of the Gold Key, Disney, or the superhero comics you might have grown up on. There are no superheroes bashing away at each other, and the art is moody and dark to suit the narrative. The authors also take full advantage of the medium, presenting a layered story in a way that you can't pull off in a regular prose version.
The characters are adults, facing their problems as adults, and—as often appears to be the case with a lot of British fiction I read—there's a wry sense of humor percolating away under the darker elements.
This is the second Rivers of London graphic novel Titan Comics has done, the first being Rivers of London: Body Work, and it's just as good as the one in hand. Both books, I should probably mention, are stand-alone stories that, for all their ties to Aaronovitch's body of work, still make excellent entry points into this world of his where British policework meets the supernatural.
Upside Down: Inverted Tropes in Storytelling, edited by Jaym Gates and Monica L. Valentinelli, Apex Publications, 2016, $18.95, tpb.
I never did get to the fiction in this anthology.
I've mentioned before that it takes me a while to get through an anthology since I don't like to read the stories all in a row, especially not when it's a themed anthology such as this one. Mind you, it's a loose theme—simply inverting the tropes one runs across in fiction—which lessens the worry of a sameness from story to story, but I found myself first reading one of the essays, which take up a good chunk of the latter part of the book.
I loved it, and went on to read all the other essays, and it's on their strength that I'd like to recommend Upside Down to you now, rather than wait for when I've gotten to the fiction. Readers curious about the part that theme plays in a story will get a lot from these essays, but the ones who will benefit the most, perhaps, are authors—regardless of whether they're at the start of their career or well-established—because we can never be reminded too often of the clichés that inevitably creep into our work.
Patrick Hester's "I'm Pretty Sure I've Read This Before" gives a good overview, and I really liked his writing style: familiar and loose, with lots of anecdotal asides, while still remaining focused and informative. The same goes for "Tropes as Erasers: A Transgender Perspective" by Keffy R. M. Kehrli, although his subject matter goes a little darker and will really make you think about the imbalances to be found in our field—not simply from a gender perspective but also from people of color.
Lucy A. Snyder's "Fractured Souls: The Evolution of the Gothic Double from Stevenson to King" was a bit of a letdown, well-written though it was. For me, the essay focuses too much on Stevenson's novella "The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" and King's The Drawing of the Three, which means that if you're unfamiliar with either, the impact of her points are greatly lessened. I would have liked to see her bring in more examples to open up her discussion to the field as a whole. Instead, it reads like a paper a scholar might deliver at a conference, focusing on minutiae that appeals more to other scholars who are also invested in similar studies.
"Into the Labyrinth: The Heroine's Journey" by A. C. Wise tackles the place of women. Unfortunately, for all the excellent things it had to say, it focuses more on media than the written word for my taste. Victor Raymond's "Escaping the Hall of Mirrors" makes numerous excellent points about the clichés surrounding the use of people of color by white authors and points to the ways this can be rectified. When you consider how much a part is played by "the other" in our genre (be it aliens, monsters, et al.), you'd think that at this point in time, we'd have figured out a way to avoid this particular trope.
Following the essays, the fiction writers also have short pieces explaining the tropes they've subverted in their stories, some of which are also thought-provoking and informative.
All in all, this "Discussing the Tropes" section of the book provided me with an absorbing evening of reading, and I'm now looking forward to starting the stories.
Bookburners, by Max Gladstone, Margaret Dunlap, Mur Lafferty, and Brian Frances Slattery, Saga Press, 2017, $21.99, tpb.
This is for all you paper people who prefer to read a physical artifact rather than from a digital screen, which is where the sixteen chapters of Bookburners originally appeared. They were marketed like a prose TV show, with a different episode appearing each week through the run of the "season." You could also download audio versions as part of your $1.59 weekly admission.
We discussed the contents of the digital version in a previous column, but here's a brief recap:
The Bookburners is a secret group of—well, they don't call them librarians, but that's pretty much what they are. They chase down magical books (not spell books or grimoires, but books that actually are magic) and store them in a cavernous subterranean library hidden under the Vatican. The mood of the series runs from police procedural through weird fiction and wouldn't have been out of place in the old pulp magazines.
Like a TV show, each episode of the series tells an individual story while adding to the overall arc of the season. It begins with an NYC police detective named Sal Brooks who joins the team as a way to help her brother, who has been infected by the dire magic in a book he acquired.
After that, it becomes hard to discuss without giving too much away. I really liked parts of it; a few plot twists kind of annoyed me. The writing—considering there are four different cooks in the kitchen—delivers a pretty consistent voice, but I found myself appreciating the characterizations by Margaret Dunlap and Max Gladstone better than the sections written by the other two authors. If I was to have any real criticism, it's that the Big Bad of the season arc just switches in the middle.
I have to admit that the series makes a handsome, and hefty, book. And while I made some grumbly noises about the cost of the digital edition when you added up $1.59 per episode over its sixteen-week run, this paper edition is a real bargain.
The second season of the series has now finished its own run and can be found at the Serial Box website. I'm assuming that if this paper edition does well, we can expect a similar paper edition of Season Two somewhere down the road.
Hap and Leonard: Blood and Lemonade, by Joe R. Lansdale, Tachyon Publications, 2017, $15.95, tpb.
There's a tenderness to some of the stories in this collection that might surprise readers only familiar with Lansdale's over-the-top horror. But the reason Lansdale can get away with outrageous literary behavior the way he does is because at the center of his every story lie the beating hearts of characters who are as true and honest a reflection of a real person as Lansdale can make them.
But while the contemplative, even nostalgic, mood in much of this collection might come as a surprise to some, other readers—the ones who wandered past his fiction that got all the hoopla for its shock value—will recognize this other voice of the author's. We've seen it as far back as The Boar (1998), The Bottoms (2000), and even one of my favorite of his books, The Magic Wagon (1986), though to be honest, it's hard to pick a favorite.
The above-mentioned titles are set in East Texas, like much of Lansdale's fiction. The first two during the Depression, the other earlier. Hap and Leonard: Blood and Lemonade ups the time frame to the fifties/sixties, which I'm guessing were also Lansdale's formative years.
It's easy to assume that the stories in this collection are culled from Lansdale's own memories, or stories he heard growing up, and while that might well be the case, Lansdale's too good a writer, with a huge imagination, for us to simply accept that assumption.
What we can be assured of is that he knew people like this, knew the setting intimately, and if I've given the impression that these stories are all sunshine and light, I need to tell you that there are also dark and brutal moments. Which is basically true of most rural and semi-rural life in that time period, and not only in East Texas. It was certainly true where I grew up.
If you know the titular characters, you'll find this a treasure trove of material. It tells how the pair first met up and the early days of their friendship, relates stories of Hap's father, and ties it all together with scenes from their present-day lives. If you don't know them, it's a great introduction.
I'm a little biased when it comes to Lansdale's work. He's one of the great treasures of American fiction, and I have no doubt that when the dust settles years from now, he'll still be considered such.
I love an original voice in the fiction I read, and they don't come much more original than this. If you have the chance to go to a reading of his, don't miss it. It's the same as going to one of Neil Gaiman's readings. Once you hear them speak, you'll forever hear that voice in your head when you're back home reading their work, and trust me, that's a good thing.
I only had one disappointment with Hap and Leonard: Blood and Lemonade. Because I was reading it from an ebook galley, I had no idea where I was in the book until it came to an end. I could easily have read another two hundred pages of stories like this.
Oh, and if you also like to take in stories on your TV screen, season one of a Hap and Leonard series, produced for SundanceTV, is already available for you to stream, with a second season on the way.
Material to be considered for review in this column should be sent to Charles de Lint, P. O. Box 9480, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada K1G 3V2.
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Copyright © 1998–2020 Fantasy & Science Fiction All Rights Reserved Worldwide