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Books To Look For
Apropos of nothing, I was listening to an interview with Jeff VanderMeer on CBC Radio today (today being the middle of May). He and the show's host were discussing the current pandemic and VanderMeer was asked if what he's learned by living through our present situation would have impacted his own near future writing. Was he surprised by anything?
"It never occurred to me," VanderMeer replied, "that people would be as stupid as they're proving to be."
The comment's stuck with me. Not because I don't think some people are being monumentally stupid—they are—but because it made me realize that no matter how carefully we consider a new situation in our writing, something in real life is always going to come along to surprise us.
When you consider all the stories set in a post-apocalyptic future, we have the characters that bond together to try to overcome their situation, and we have the ones who try to take advantage of it, setting up new little fiefdoms and kingdoms at the expense of those around them.
But we don't get the stupid characters we see on current news reports.
If anyone were to write a story depicting what's going on in the world today—particularly having the leader of a major country wondering if perhaps we could inject cleaning products into human beings to "clean" the virus in them, or another leader claiming COVID-19 is just a flu while his countrymen are dying in horrible numbers—no one would be able to read it without laughing. No one would believe it.
But here we are, nonetheless.
And it's not remotely funny.
Perhaps that's why we need fiction.
Captured Within Waking Moments, Alan Allinger, Curating Alexandria, 2020, $11.99, tpb
At this point in the history of literature, pretty much every plot and every character already exists. It becomes the writer's job not to find something that's never been done before (because honestly, we probably wouldn't be able to connect with it if they did, it would be too alien for us to do so) but to bring us characters and tell their stories in a way that feels like it's never been done before.
That's something that Alan Allinger has mastered as well as anyone I've read.
His stories are set in the present day and steeped in mythology: Greek, Roman and…actually, I'm not sure. To which mythology does Santa Claus belong? They're mostly about ordinary people interacting with extraordinary beings who turn out to have as much in common with us as they don't.
So a narrator might meet Artemis in a Culver City bar, they might find themselves side-by-side with Athena, Ares, and Poseidon in a fight in another bar, entranced by a dryad on the bank of some wilderness creek, having a conversation with a mermaid in Venice Beach, or meeting Santa Claus at irregular intervals throughout their life.
Interspersed between the stories are a number of vignettes featuring a son and his rather enigmatic mother, and honestly while I'd love to know more about them I'm happy to at least make their acquaintance here, because they're fascinating, knowledgeable, and so very, very odd.
What is noticeable about all of these stories and the characters in them is that they are filled with that Sense of Wonder that first drew readers to fantasy in the last century, when a fantasy story was about enchantment and strangeness and beauty and melancholy, rather than a thinly disguised war story or mash-ups of the detective novel and fantasies such as most of what we have today.
Allinger writes with a warmth and affection for his characters and the situations they find themselves in. You can find echoes of Thomas Burnett Swann, Robert Nathan, and Peter S. Beagle in how he tells his story, but it's his own strong voice that reaches our ear rather than a watered-down version of someone else's.
I should probably note that I wrote the introduction for Captured Within Waking Moments. I don't benefit from having done so in any way except if you decide to give the collection a try and love it as much as I do, then I get the satisfaction of a job well done.
Although I do have to admit I feel a little jealous of those of you who get to read these stories for the first time, because I'll never have that moment again.
At least not until his next book.
Bayou Born, Hailey Edwards, Piatkus, 2017, $13.99, tpb
Bone Driven, Hailey Edwards, Piatkus, 2018, $13.99, tpb
Death Knell, Hailey Edwards, Piatkus, 2018, $13.99, tpb
Rise Against, Hailey Edwards, Piatkus, 2019, $5.99, eBook
End Game, Hailey Edwards, Piatkus, 2020, $4.99, eBook
Years ago, Luce Boudrou was rescued from a Mississippi swamp as a half-drowned, feral child with no memory, no family, and a pattern of strange metallic markings just under her skin. She was adopted by the policeman who rescued her and went on to follow his lead with her own career on the local police force. She made a life for herself in her father's hometown and had mostly settled into it, resigned to the fact that she'd probably never know the full mystery that was her past.
But then, on the night that the first book opens, a young woman is found in the same part of the swamp that Luce was, with the same markings under her skin, and Luce is determined to not only help this Jane Doe, but also to find out once and for all where they both came from, what the markings under their skin mean, and why they are the way they are.
Unfortunately, that opens a Pandora's box and sets Luce on a path that puts her up against an insurmountable danger that she and her family and friends have little chance to survive.
Okay, I know that's vague. But there are five books in this series, each naturally building on the previous one, and to talk too much about the details of the plot would be a disservice to any reader who decides to give this series a try.
Let me say instead that Hailey Edwards has a deft hand at mixing drama and action and character growth in a page-turning blend. I spent a few late nights having to just read a few more pages. On the downside—for this reader—there are some graphic sex scenes in the later books. I don't understand the fun of reading about somebody else's hot grapplings, but I know I'm in a minority there.
On the plus side, Edwards delivers a fresh take on urban fantasy that feels unlike anything you'll have read before. Her mythology, and the way she spools it out to us, does, however, remind me of the imaginative differences of Mark Henwick's Athanate series featuring the ex-marine Amber Farrell. Each series brings us levels upon levels of new information, with each bit of new knowledge ramping up the danger levels the characters have to face.
I especially appreciated the family of choice that Luce builds around herself, her utter loyalty to them, and her willingness to make the ultimate sacrifice to keep them safe. Her growth through the series is both believable and utterly satisfying.
If you like long stories, I suggest you give this a try. And when you're done you'll be delighted to find out that Edwards has a number of other completed series waiting for you to read next.
Stories My Pseudonym Wrote, Nina Kiriki Hoffman, Kiriki Press, 2020, $4.99, eBook
I've always had a fondness for Hoffman's work, from her YA through her middle grade books, and especially her adult short fiction. What I like the best is how fearless she can be in the latter, going wherever the story might take her. Her work for younger readers is quirky and fun, in amidst tackling some serious issues. Her adult stories can get downright strange, but in the best possible way.
If you'd like to get an idea of what I mean, you might try her 2012 collection Permeable Borders from Fairwood Press, of which Publishers Weekly said, "Hoffman's skills shine at short lengths, and this collection of perfect, gemlike stories would complement any library."
I wholeheartedly agree with this sentiment, and have a shelf full of her books complementing my own library.
But for all the years I've been enjoying her work, I'd never been aware of Robin Aurelian, the pseudonym from which this latest collection gets its title. The ad copy says, "Robin Aurelian began as someone who could sell stories when there were too many of Hoffman's stories in inventory, and went on to become someone stranger."
The stories in this collection are certainly strange. They're delivered in that understated prose that is Hoffman's hallmark, but venture past where the edges of the stories published under her own name end.
Here you'll meet street people trying to interact with the AI of an abandoned house. Truly alien foreign exchange students. The bizarreness of the man (?) with the jelly bones. Someone who rents out her body and finds it trashed when her consciousness returns to it. A society in which a Santa comes and takes away children's toys on an annual basis.
I loved this book from start to finish and—rare for me—read it in pretty much one sitting where normally I spread out a collection over a few days or longer.
Now Then and Everywhen, Rysa Walker, 47North, 2020, $14.95, tpb
A little research informs me that Rysa Walker has written a number of time travel books—a whole series of them, actually, called The Chronos Files—and apparently Now Then and Everywhen is a part of them. But fear not. Subtitled Chronos Origins, it's probably as good an entry point as we're going to get unless we go back to the first book in the series. That said, I got the impression that I was supposed to know characters and their importance simply by the mention of their name, so even though this is a prequel and therefore should be introducing us to her world and concepts, I probably missed a lot of the nuances.
Now, I love time travel stories, but this book took a long time for me to read. Not so much for its length (although it has a healthy weight) as for how the author chose to tell the story. There are two viewpoint characters and two plot lines. In the first we meet Tyson Reyes, a historian from 2304, who specializes in the history of the American civil rights movement. In the other is Madison Grace, who in 2136 discovers a device linked to her family's genetics that allows for time travel. In fact, in one of those head-scratching conundrums that can come in a time travel story, it's her finding the device that starts her on the path to get a team together to build it in the first place.
But I was willing to go along with that.
The problem is that neither plot line is all that narratively compelling. You keep waiting for the plots to meet each other—because you know they have to—but it doesn't happen until around two thirds of the way into book. So what I found happening was that I'd put the book down (because life intrudes on one's reading time, as it will) and was never in a real hurry to pick it up again.
I did enjoy it whenever I returned, however. The characters were likable, and what they were up to was interesting enough. Having lived through the American civil rights movement (albeit as a neighbor to the north) I've a particular interest in how events unfolded, from a historical perspective as well as exploring it from a fictive one. I also got a kick at the part the Beatles played in those times. So when a massive time shift occurs, changing that time in history, I was absorbed with all the ramifications that the small differences could make. Of course, further down the time line, where Tyson and Madison originate, the changes are disastrous.
But it wasn't until the plots finally came together that I felt the compulsion against putting the book down until I found out what was going on and how, and if the protagonists could set things right.
When I understood the reasons behind what had been happening, I also understood why this is book one in a series (I'm not going to spoil things by telling you exactly why that's the case) although Now Then and Everywhen does come to a satisfying conclusion on its own. The thing is I'm not entirely sure how I feel about what's been revealed. I'm also not sure that I'll read the next one.
The time travel elements are intriguing and I like the author's prose, but this might be one of those books that will appeal most to those who are already readers of the original Chronos Files.
Knights Magica, BR Kingsolver, BR Kingsolver, 2020, $14.99, tpb
A couple of columns back, I went on a bit of a rant about how Well of Magic, the author's previous book in the Rosie O'Grady's Paranormal Bar and Grill series, just stopped with the story unfinished. I don't plan to revisit the points I made then, and my mind hasn't changed with how I feel about the issue, but since the fifth and last book in the series dropped, I thought I would take a brief look at how things got tied up.
I ended up being a little disappointed, but in this case it's on me and my expectations, and it's not the fault of the author. The earlier books had a tone I really liked: the growth of the protagonist Erin's character arc, how she built her family of choice. Even though there was danger and action, the prose still had a warmth and a light touch that I enjoyed.
Things got darker in book four. The latest, Knights Magica, eschews everything I liked about the earlier part of the series and is basically a book about war.
I get it. Considering how events unfolded as they did through the series, I suppose there was nowhere else to go. And Kingsolver's writing remains top notch. But Knights Magica ended up being less interesting to me than the earlier books.
I would never expect an author to do anything except follow the path of their own muse, and I have complete respect for Kingsolver for having done just that. But it wasn't what I was looking for, and—as I said above—that's on me.
Dead Girls, Francesca Lia Block, Fabula Rasa, 2019, $14.95, tpb
Synchronicity's a funny thing. I've been thinking about Francesca Lia Block, wondering if she had anything new out or if maybe I should just reread the Weetzie Bat books, when what appears in my P.O. Box but a new collection of her poetry.
If you're only familiar with her prose it probably won't come as a surprise to you that she also writes poetry. Her novels and stories are a happy marriage of simple, down-to-earth storytelling and absolute luminosity that can, at times, already read like verse. But when she does it deliberately, as she does here, the lines result in a powerful experience for the reader as they follow one another down the page.
The slim volume is divided into three parts introduced by "Dead Girls Song," which sets the tone for what is to come.
"Tales" has her riffing on fairy tales, turning their traditional plots upside down, recasting the characters and sometimes putting them in contemporary settings, sometimes those that are timeless.
"Myths" does the same for classical mythology, except here instead of alternate versions of, say, Rapunzel and Snow White, Bluebeard and Thumbelina, she revisits our ideas of Psyche, Orpheus, Persephone, Pan, and others. The last part, "Fables," looks at some familiar tropes with a poetic eye: the sandman and death, Tam Lin, the devil, and a powerful delve into the mind of a circus freak.
Dead Girls does what it's supposed to do. It allows us to see the familiar as though we've not seen it before, with language that is striking and bold and sometimes celestial. Even as changed as the source material is, you'll still learn something new about these enduring stories and probably something new about yourself. I know that every time I reread one (which I've done numerous times before sitting down to write this), I find an element I didn't notice in an earlier reading.
At times enigmatic, always enchanting, Dead Girls is Block writing at the top of her form.
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