Short Stories

The Bone Mother | David Demchuk

Boy Eating

The Bone Mother is the first novel I’m reading for the project I’m currently working on: reading the nominees for the Shirley Jackson Award. The Bone Mother has already hit a very good spot with me and I enjoyed it immensely. I think in many ways it’s like Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children for adults, and has a resemblance to Lore. As I mentioned before I’m from Romania, but I have been educated and raised in Canada. This book is written by Canadian author David Demchuk and it draws its inspiration from photographs made by Romanian photographer Costică Acsinte between 1935-1945, and Eastern European folklore, so in many ways it felt very familiar and close to home. This novel was also long-listed for the Scotiabank Giller Prize, which is very impressive as it is his debut novel.

This ‘novel’ isn’t quite a novel in the traditional sense. It is a series of stories, each prefaced by a black and white photograph from Acsinte’s collection, with a new name in the title. The names are both Romanian and Ukrainian/Russian. The tales focus on three villages on the border of Ukraine and Romania, neighbouring “The Thimble Factory.” Images of thimbles are present throughout the book, and we quickly learn that those who inhabit these villages must work five years at the thimble factory. There are narratives surrounding those working in the thimble factory which are more snippets of daily life, interspersed with fables and folkloric anecdotes featuring the supernatural like Strigoi (Romanian myth, troubled spirits of the dead rising from the grave, sometimes similar to vampire folklore) and Rusalkas (Russian myth, water spirit). At the center of it all is the fear of the Night Police who take people in the dead of night, and the  most frightening figure at the center of the forest, not belonging to any village: the Bone Mother—she cooks and eats people who fail the tasks she gives them.

There are some phenomenal features to this work. The first is its juxtaposition of ‘regular’ folk next to these ‘supernatural’ beings as co-existing in the same spaces, while narrating it in a simplified, casual tone. The Bone Mother is never trying to scare you, but presents some narratives side by side of a history that may or may not have been. The way Demchuk also incorporates queer narratives gives the reader the impression that he is trying to look at various angles on the story of marginalized groups contrasting historical superstitions with contemporary oppression. There is also the juxtaposition of post-industrialism influence: the thimble factory, existing as a machine in the garden of folklore. The Bone Mother reminded me very much of a branch of literary theory contrasting naturalism with technology in literature. A work that comes to mind is the academic book by Leo Marx called The Machine in the Garden which explores the ways North America started out with such promise on untouched land with possibility, yet entered it with full industrial, assembly-line force, and how this is reflected in literature when the pastoral ideal clashes with technological advance. The way Demchuk presents these ideas in fiction is subtle but ever-present. Overall The Bone Mother very well written and had an innovative take on Eastern European folklore.

My only “problem” with this novel is that it’s not a novel. I thought the stories would combine as one, or that we would be introduced to some characters and then it would merge in novel-form. It maintained its short anecdote format, separated by images, that it was a little frustrating at times not knowing if it will merge or not. The short story format worked for what it is, however I’m wondering how it will rank against the other four nominees, and if this format would hold it back. What helped me a lot with this was getting the audiobook from Audible and following along in the text because they had different voice actors for each character and it brought them to life as diverse voices, with heavy Eastern European accents. Considering this is also a debut work, I think we can look forward to more from Demchuk and the book has done quite well so far making it on the list of two literary prizes already. This was a strong start!

The People’s Republic of Everything

39286411Earlier this year I read Nick Mamatas’s essay collection Starve Better: Surviving the Endless Horror of the Writing Life. The non-fictional work covered the skill and resilience involved in producing a successful and ‘sell-able’ short story as a freelance writer without waiting for divine inspiration. I immediately requested an ARC from Tachyon when I heard that The People’s Republic of Everything will be published this year. This collection includes fifteen short stories involving a spectrum of science fiction, horror, political satire, and atmospheric settings. Mamatas is very Lovecraftian in his writing style, a presence felt even in his non-fiction. He’s written seven novels and has been nominated for the Hugo, Locus, Wold Fantasy, Bram Stoker, Shirley Jackson, and International Horror Guild Awards.

This collection incorporates a range of stories written over the last ten years. I enjoyed that each story is followed up by Mamatas elaborating on how the story was written, but most importantly, the ever-frequently-asked question: where do your ideas come from? I really enjoyed this aspect because at times short stories in the speculative genre that cross over can be so odd I’m not sure I know what to think of them. Mamatas explains how he came up with the idea and what he was trying to achieve for each one of these short stories. Two stories in this volume are about collecting correspondence to create a personality-emulator. Mamatas writes after “Walking with a Ghost” that he was fascinated by the friendship and correspondence between Jack Kerouac and H.P. Lovecraft and their cult following, and the idea that one can gather enough data on a person’s way of addressing to be able to emulate ‘personhood.’ Yes, there is an AI Lovecraft in this collection. The second story follows a Marx and Engels partnership in the style of Sherlock Holmes and John Watson—told in a steampunk style. These are just two examples of the variety that can be found in this collection. In the middle there are some that struck a chord with me, particularly “Tom Silex, Spirit-Smasher” and “The Phylactery”–mainly because there was something very personal to them with a touch of humanity and interesting characters. There are a few stories published here for the first time for which even Mamatas has no further comments. Several of his stories focus on Communism and politics, and concludes with a novella (what used to be a screenplay) about the George W.H. Bush era and the invasion of Iraq which was picked up for a film and then dropped (but we get to enjoy it in novella format).

I have to say, I learned a lot of new terminology in this collection. For one, I never heard of dieselpunk before which according to a Google search is: “a genre similar to steampunk that combines the aesthetics of the diesel-based technology of the interwar period through to the 1950s with retro-futuristic technology and postmodern sensibilities,” or as Mamatas puts it “like steampunk, but greasier and more efficient.” Mamatas extracts the essence of several sub-genres and cult followings that are in themselves so niche, obscure, and esoteric and creates a genre that is uniquely him. Mamatas quite recently came out to say that he was done writing genre fiction, but I don’t think he has a genre to which his writing belongs. Kerouac’s language, Lovecraft’s atmosphere, and Bukowski’s coarseness are already sub-groups in larger literary circles where such few people have heard of them, read them (enough to create a fandom). But then, Mamatas takes elements from each and incorporates them in a writing style that is also a sub-genre of a sub-genre like: dieselpunk, cyberpunk, etc. Take all that and place it in an urbuan fantasy setting, and you got yourself a Nick Mamatas short story. See!? Not very easy to define.

I liked his writing style. On a sentence-level Mamatas in not pretentious nor exclusionary. His fiction is accessible if you want to be taken into the dark corners of niche-speculative fiction. I enjoyed them very much, and like every short story collection there will be a mixture of what works and what doesn’t on an individual level.

This collection has been announced to be published on September 8, 2018.

50 Book Check-In and Catch-Up

challI haven’t written for a bit but I have been reading, and I’m starting to have some feelings affecting my overall disposition and attitude towards books. I had my Goodreads goal set at 100. I’m now at 56, and I am sure I’ll reach 100 anyway, but numbers in general really stress me out. I like numbers at the end of a year so I can see what I liked, or what I picked up, but while I’m in the process they are overwhelming. There is an undeniable pressure on two accounts: the first is that I MUST reach that 100 goal, and the second is the rating. It’s a little complicated but sometimes I really enjoy a book, or it stays with me for a particular reason, but I wouldn’t consider it great literature. At the same time, others tackle extremely difficult subjects and important conversations must be had around them, but again, I wouldn’t consider it amazing. An idea worth a sentence or two stands out and I still remember it but I don’t know if I would read it again. I decided to set my count on Goodreads to “52” as if to say one book per week just so I don’t have to worry about it anymore, and from now on to review books without assigning them a rating on Goodreads UNLESS it is a 5 star-rating, or if it made me so mad I had to give it a low rating to emphasize how bad it was (rarely happens). I also need to keep my book-buying habit in check and spend less. I will try to focus on books I have, and use the library more. I am certainly doing better than last year, but it still requires some improvement. The majority of books however fall under the 2-4.5 ratings and the pros and cons add and take away on an individual level. I also learned something about myself and a particular pet-peeve I have lately which is this:

  • Books (normally culture-based or gender-based) that have a topic but instead end up being an autobiography of the author (who is often not of interest to me), or a series of people’s experiences. These kinds of books are disguised as “non-fiction” but at the end you learn nothing except for one person’s experience of life, which most certainly cannot be replicated. This same thing often results in people trying to have academic or non-biased conversations around a topic and suddenly attach their personal experience with this topic which now skews the topic in their favour because attacking their stance, means personally attack their experience. I am going to use an example to where a book failed and one succeeded. First you have books like Spinster by Kate Bolick. It is a cultural non-fiction book meant to discusses spinsterhood (by choice or not). Instead we get really large portions of Bolick’s life story and it turns into an autobiography using spinsterhood as a frame while mainly discussing her dating history and upbringing, and relationship with her mother. Then you have books like The Work of the Dead: A Cultural History of Mortal Remains by Thomas W. Laqueur. The book follows burial practices from various cultures, using examples from each, ties it all together around geography, architecture etc. and how it affects us on a human level. At no point is there a long story about all the people in Laqueur’s life and how he coped with death etc. Turning a cultural topic into an autobiography IS NOT cool (to me). Others might like it, but that’s not how I read.
  • “Self-Help” books that recycle everything from other self-help books but pretending that they’re original. This to me is a sign that the author didn’t read all that much (especially if they think they’re original). Sometimes it’s interesting to see how many people reach the same conclusions, but is it worth printing out so many copies and flooding the market and planet with hundreds of these?
  • Books about other books that again have hardly any analysis or insight but are completely one-sided and irrelevant to anyone else. Example: Dear Fahrenheit 451

9902278This has left me generally unenthusiastic about a big chunk of the books I read this year (and some from last year). Learning that will help me make better selections in the future, because obviously I’m at fault for picking these up. So here’s a list of books that I haven’t talked about in much detail but have been reading. A detailed post about Alan Watts will follow, and a full review of the Robertson Davies Cornish Trilogy. As for the rest, there is either nothing I can really criticize like in Naomi Morgenstern’s book and Not That Bad edited by Roxanne Gay, or the rest which didn’t have much of an impact on me but were “just okay.”

  1. The Curse of the Boyfriend Sweater by Alanna Okun.—young woman discusses her passion which is knitting. She weaves in parts of her life, the people in her life who have passed away and how knitting helps her cope with many things. It’s a book about art mixed with life. The topic being so micro-focused made it all work out.
  2. The Borrower by Rebecca Makkai—book about a 26-year-old librarian who has a favourite young patron who is stuck in a religious family and is homosexual. She takes it upon herself to save him. Fictional work. The main character is weirdly a lot like me so it was nice to read from a very personal self-invested perspective.
  3. Lady Killers Tori Telfer—book about women serial killers. It hopped back and forth between: look how baddass this woman was! and: even when they kill women aren’t taken seriously, like they get hardly any jail time and get silly nicknames instead of cool ones like Jack the Ripper. Sometimes the wording made it sound like certain serial killers plead insanity as a cover-up…but people who murder repeatedly are mentally ill. There were weird lines where the author uses mental illness as an excuse for murder, or as if the murderers chose it to get away from real jail, and you’re never quite sure what the author thinks it’s right or wrong.
  4. Not That Bad edited by Roxanne Gay: individual accounts of rape and how it affects women differently and all the different ways rape exists. This is extremely difficult to read because of the subject matter, and it opens an important conversation.
  5. The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck by Mark Manson: although it recycles many other philosophies it words it in a ‘bro-ish’ way for millennials using present-day examples and targeting out present-day anxieties. It was like an energy shot. Very quick, I liked the audiobook way better, because TONE is everything with this book.
  6. The Wisdom of Insecurity by Alan Watts—I’m going through an Alan Watts addiction phase right now. I will elaborate on him further. He is a philosopher who brings together Eastern Philosophy with Western Religion/Theology. He is in conversation with Buddhism, and the works of Carl Jung as well as several others. He’s currently my favourite person.
  7. The Wild Child: Intensive Parenting and Posthumanist Ethics by Naomi Morgenstern: this is an academic book that just got released looking at parenting and engages with several works like Room by Emma Donoghue, The Road by Cormac McCarthy, Lioner Shriver’s We Need to Talk about Kevin, Toni Morrison’s A Mercy, and a film called Prisoners. It is extremely well thought out and well-written, but again this is an academic work. The introduction alone engages with the works of Derrida, Philip Aries, and several other takes on childhood and child-bearing (particularly regarding scientific involvement) and Freudian psychoanalysis.
  8. The Rebel Angels by Robertson Davies: book one of the Cornish Trilogy, follows a group of eccentric academics in Toronto following the death of Arthur Cornish who was a really interesting art and manuscript collector. It involves a lot of wit. Reading this is like reading a rap battle between Winston Churchill and Oscar Wilde.
  9. Shrill by Lindy West: Lindy West’s account and experience of being overweight, being a feminist, and how she exists or sees herself in mainstream media.
  10. Vampires: Afield Guide to Creatures that Stalk the Night by Bob Curran: a very short book on Vampires not going into much depth on any particular subject.
  11. Cities in Flight by James Blish: science fiction work where science is the new religion. Buddy-read this with a few people and everyone had a hard time with how dated and verbose this book was.
  12. Zero Waste Home by Bea Johnson: the person who started the Zero-waste movement shares her experience with being Zero-waste when she is also a mother, fully employed, and applies this to her entire home with all her family memebers, showing people it is possible to live in the city and apply the Zero Waste Lifestyle.
  13. Starve Better—Nick Mamatas: explains the difficulties with writing, particularly science fiction and trying to make a living. He focuses much more on short stories and the craft of short stories, and/or the difficulties of selling short fiction
  14. The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid. A fictional work about a “famous” actress based on the likes of Elizabeth Taylor and other women from the good Hollywood years, being interviewed by a young journalist.

There were others that had no effect on me which I haven’t mentioned, but here’s a full account of what I read this year if it’s of interest.

WHAT I’M CURRENTLY READING 

  • Book II of the Cornish Trilogy by Robertson Davies called What’s Bred in the Bone
  • Listening to Out of Your Mind by Alan Watts on Audible
  • Buddy-reading The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry with James Chatham

 

 

What I plan to Do from Now On:

  • No more Goodreads Ratings, and ignore the count trackerpci
  • No more reading cultural/gender-studies books. Either scientific or historical non-fiction, or fiction.
  • Read better fictional works that have been around for a while and I know they are worth investing time in
  • Three Reviews will come soon including: Apocalypse Nyx by Kameron Hurley, The People’s Republic of Everything by Nick Mamatas, and At the Teahouse Cafe: Essays from the Middle Kingdom by Isham Cook.

Christmastime and Books

Reflection

I think I’m a bit young to count any book as “tradition for Christmas” but there are two books and two short stories that I’ve made sure to read as often as I could around the Christmas period. My #1 rule is that the “Holiday Season” doesn’t begin until after Dec 10. Decorating the day right after Halloween is a little unsettling.

Making Christmas all about buying things in high consumerism anxiety, followed by Black Friday videos trending, and making this madness last from November 1 is something that takes away so much magic from Christmas for me. I was recently sent a mini list by Julie Morris, who wrote on the importance of being reflective on the presents you buy for yourself and others around the Christmas period, and the value of reflecting on how those gifts will improve our lives and those of the people around us. Here are some of the recommendations for more thoughtful gifts, if you are looking for ideas. I personally found it to be useful.

  1. A Yoga Studio Membership. If you’re someone who suffers from stress, yoga is a great way to find relief. Along with easing stress, some of yoga’s benefits include decreased pain, increased strength and weight management. The gift of a studio membership gives you the extra push to get your foot in the door — you’ll be more likely to give it a try when it’s a gift rather than something you bought yourself.
  2. A Meal Delivery Service. Meal delivery services have become popular in this age of hectic living. According to simplemost.com, meal delivery services are great for those with busy work schedules who may not have time to grocery shop. Meal delivery services are a great option if you want to eat healthy but struggle figuring out what to cook.
  3. Adult Coloring Books. Adult coloring books are another fad that’s become extremely popular, and for good reason. Adult coloring books have been proven to improve stress and mental health for many people. Don’t forget to ask for a variety of coloring utensils to use in your new books!
  4. Calendars and Planners. For people who are unorganized and can use some decluttering in their lives, calendars and planners are great options. Planners can help improve time management, increase productivity, and provide enjoyment when you’re able to cross things off your list. Planners are also a great place to put phone numbers, addresses, and emails.

It’s always great to try and improve your life in any way that you can. Asking for gifts that can help, rather than needless knick knacks, is a great way to start on your new resolutions. Consider sharing these ideas to help get your new year on the track.

Books

My #1 Novel for Christmas and favourite depiction of Santa Claus was written by Frank L. Baum: The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus.  This book is amazing. I love the mythological layers added to Santa. In this version he was raised by woodland creatures and fairies. It’s almost a bildungsroman where we get to see how Santa becomes who he is, and how he became immortal. The movie is an excellent adaptation as well.

Then there are these two stories by Hans Christian Andersen

So far I think I’ve read “The Little Match Girl” every year since I was six years old. It’s one of my absolute favourite stories of all time. I love this story so much I started illustrating it:

lit-matchscan0008

 

Then, there’s  Dickens’s novella A Christmas Carol. Yes, everyone reads it, but it’s pretty darn good. Also, it kind of makes you reflect on the year and the resolutions for the new one. I am the proud owner of many Charles Dickens Christmas stories

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Lastly, there are works that are not necessarily Christmas related, but they are personal associations with Christmas. For many, it’s a tradition to watch Harry Potter, The Nightmare Before Christmas, Home Alone, or Elf. Some associate Apple Cider, or Egg Nog with Christmas; particular tastes, and particular smells.

For me personally, Christmas means:

Smells: pine, and oranges

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The smells of Christmas

Food: Salata de Beouf (Romanian Dish for Christmas)

Books (non-related to the ones mentioned above): The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes

Movies I really enjoyed around the Christmas period: How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Peter Pan (2003), Little Women, Meet Me in St. Louis  and (recently added) Frozen. I also watch adaptations of the three main books/stories mentioned above, or Winnie the Pooh Christmas movies.

Lastly, I absolutely HATE every Christmas song, carol, and/or melody. I think they are so depressing (I’m sorry). I have seen wonderful performers, and family members sing them beautifully, but the melodies themselves put me in such a sad state of mind, I can’ t do it. (Let’s call it a quirk?)

To me, Christmas means the mythology of Santa, the coziness of winter, where the snow is a blanket over dormant parts of nature, and there’s good food, loving family, and a fire place. I want to feel cozy, comfortable, and safe, but I don’t want to experience the layer of sadness that also descends upon Christmas, which comes from the grayness in the atmosphere and from the Christmas songs (for me personally). I know that this is different for everyone and each individual experiences Christmas differently but every year I can’t ignore that there is a general sadness around this time. This feeling turns into optimism and excitement for the new year with plans, hopes, and new dreams. Life is about balance so I guess we need both feelings to get by. I hope that you will have a lovely Christmas time this year and no matter what happens, you get to enjoy at least a great short story!

holidays

Lore by Aaron Mahnke | Review

LORE

I’ve been trying to find ways to bring LORE into conversation, and on this blog several times without deviating from my main topic, unsure how, and then the book came out!  For anyone who doesn’t know the exact content of this “LORE” I will go into detail in the Book Review section. But first, I want to introduce you to all the formats LORE comes in. I’ve officially consumed LORE in every format.

  1. The Podcast

lore-logo-lightFor the month of October I binge-listened to the entire LORE Podcast (still ongoing) and caught up to the latest one. My new job allows for the listening of podcasts and audio books, so Aaron Mahnke has been my “coworker” for the last two months. Needless to say, I loved it. Every episode features a different macabre topic in which Mahnke weaves together several narratives that have been historically recorded and fit the topic. He does an excellent job, and the literary allusions, and pop-culture references are on point. One of the many reasons I adore this project is that it’s highly inter-textual.

LPJ1200S PSDThe podcast won best history podcast last year. The podcast is accompanied by music throughout and occasional commercials. New episodes are released every two weeks on Mondays. If you’re like me and late to the party just be happy. It’s a GOOD party, and you get to binge, which is awesome! The musical accompaniment is by Chad Lawson, who will soon release an album featuring the songs from LORE called A Grave Mistake. 

2. The TV Show

MV5BMjA3ODQwNzM0OF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMjY5MTczMzI@._V1_UX182_CR0,0,182,268_AL_Just as I was deep mid-podcast, on October 15, Amazon Prime Video released Season 1 of LORE which features six of the most chilling episodes. It was so much scarier seeing these tales performed with live people and seeing the settings (most are set in times different from our own). The costumes and settings really gave another dimension to these little histories. The direction of this season was excellent. The music, mixed with live demonstrations of some of these horrific things, made me far more afraid than I thought I would be (especially since I knew from the podcast how they end). Although I found some criticisms online where people dislike that Mahnke’s voice narrates throughout the show, I found his voice to be comforting when things got scary. He was the familiar constant, and I needed that.

3. The Audiobook

LOREThis was actually my favourite format of the four, which I’ll explain at length below. It maintains the ‘cleanliness’ of the book, but it also has Mahnke’s voice and some musical effects which I loved from the Podcast. I got this from Audible. Although I completely understand why in the podcasts people often take requests for placing ads throughout, it can be a little annoying while listening, but with the audio-book, it was commercial-free and the transitions between topics were so smooth. This audio-book is a reading of the book below.

 

4. LORE: Monstrous Creatures | Book Review

images (1)This book is made of the transcripts from the LORE Podcast mentioned above and edited in such a way that results in a very smooth transition from one tale to the next. The book itself is a mere fraction of what is to be a longer series, published by Del Rey. The second book Wicked Mortals is set for release in May of 2018 and the third book has been announced, but the cover has not been revealed.

The book cover and the accompanying illustrations are made by M.S. Corley whose contribution to this work gives LORE yet another layer of talent and atmosphere. His illustrations are so morbid and simultaneously whimsical. I think the two choices for colors: the red and black, relate to the section in the book “Doing Tricks, Shifting Shapes” where Mahnke writes:

“Black and red, for a very long time, were considered bad colors, so if you wanted to describe something as evil, of course it was black or red or both.” (Mahnke, 76)

The content of LORE is made up of vignettes and separate accounts of mysterious sightings, happenings, or experiments done by humans. The range is anywhere from the supernatural to the scientific. All of them are rooted in real recordings and stories, even if at times humans just ‘claimed’ to have seen or done something. Mahnke reminds us with this work, that not too long ago oral testimony is all we really had, and that a lot of people were highly superstitious.

The way he captures these stories is in the same spirit of the Grimm Brothers. He collected and compiled tales of the macabre, but roots each firmly in historical context. I found it very useful to understand why and how certain practices were done in a particular time period. Mahnke references historical figures, other works of literature, and the sources from which one can find the details of each of these records. What I found most exciting is that he brings together stories from all over the world. We are globally united in our  fear of the unknown, death, and the unexplained and Mahnke forces readers (and listeners) to look at that aspect of our human nature. He writes:

“We fear death because it means the loss of control, the loss of purpose and freedom. Death, in the eyes of many people, robs us of our identity and replaces it with finality.”

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Mahnke drawn by Corley

At the 200-year-anniversary of the Brothers Grimm, Harvard professor Maria Tatar—expert on folklore and fairy tales— mentioned that the reason fairy tales are so deeply ingrained in our society and why we love them so much is because they’ve been told and retold so many times that all the boring bits have been left out. What we get now is the final product of a story that has been edited through generations. I think Mahnke’s work captures the same effect through the refining of folklore, and the editing process that these tales have experienced simply by being tested in the format of a Podcast prior to being committed to text. Of course the stories and their content prior to Mahnke’s work on them were refined through oral storytelling. Mahnke sometimes even extends the use of ‘lore’ or ‘folklore’ and appropriates it to other unifying communal activities like sports and how we all share a common language like the “Curse of the Bambino” in baseball folklore for example. Mahnke constantly reminds us of the power of stories:

“no realm holds more explanation for the unexplainable than folklore” (65)

“Given enough time, story–like water–will leave its mark and transform a place.” (127)

I don’t know if I’ve convinced you to give LORE a try if you haven’t, or to experience it in at least one of its formats, but clearly I love it! No one asked me to write a review, this is just me writing about my love for this whole production, because in trying to explain what I love about it, I understand myself better, and what I enjoy about this kind of storytelling. An additional Lore-related video I strongly enjoyed was Aaron Mahnke’s speech here, on how he started out, and what brought LORE to the phenomenon it is today. If you have enjoyed LORE and want to try Mahnke’s other works, here are some of this other works:

Also, this is the official link to all things LORE.

Starlings by Jo Walton | Review

35909363Jo Walton is a Welsh-Canadian fantasy and science fiction author. She is the winner of the John W. Cambell Award for Best New Writer in 2002, The World Fantasy award for her novel Tooth and Claw in 2004, and most famously known for her Nebula and Hugo award winning novel Among Others (2011). Most recently, the Thessaly trilogy has been completed and published as an omnibus containing The Just City, The Philosopher Kings, and Necessity: A Novel.  Starlings is the first collection of Walton’s shorter works and it will be published by Tachyon Publications.

In the introduction to Starlings Jo Walton writes:

“For the longest time I didn’t know how to write short stories…I had published nine novels before I figured out short stories…so that career advice for writers isn’t necessarily the way it has to work. Funny that…Writers are different and write in different ways and there is no off-the-peg writing advice that works for everyone.”

Walton knows her craft so well that even on works she says she “never found easy,” or “recently figured out,” she still manages to amaze and inspire.

Starlings is a mix of short stories, poetry, and even a play. This work is an accumulation of all the side projects Walton has been working on for seventeen years. I am a big fan of seeing an author in different moods, and at different skill levels across several years within the covers of the same book. This work is playful and experimental. Each short story, play, or section is followed by an afterword by Walton where one often encounters the words “experiment,” “exercise,” or “challenge.” Reading this collection felt like watching a wizard at the cauldron having fun with new spells.

At several points short stories are really just “poems in disguise” as Walton puts it. Her use of language is highly atmospheric. There are imagined letters between Jane Austen and her sister Cassandra, an encounter with an alien told from the perspective on an 89 year-old woman whose memories are slipping, as well as poems containing myths, legends, and familiar characters. My absolute favourite short story in this collection is “On the Wall.” This story was previously published for Strange Horizons back in 2001 and it’s a retelling of Snow White, pre-Snow White (character) told from the point of view of the magic mirror. In this tale we come to know how the magic mirror came into existence, gained consciousness, and how it came to the possession of who we now know as the Evil Queen. The mirror’s voice stayed with me several days after reading this short story:

“I do not know how long it was before I learned to reflect people. People move so fast, and must always be doing…I learned not merely to reflect them but to see them and to understand their words and commands…what I liked best was hour upon hour of contemplation, truly taking in and understanding something.”

Even the mirror, with all its abilities and magical power, feels inadequate and incomplete.

“I am a failure. I can only see what is never what is to come”

I recommend this collection to anyone who enjoys fantasy, Jo Walton’s previous works, or wants to try shorter works before committing to longer ones. Many thanks to Tachyon for sending me a copy for review.

 

July Wrap-Up

boarding pass

July was a good reading month for me. I enjoyed what I read immensely. It will become apparent from the list that what I read consisted mostly of science fiction. This year I seem to have been drawn more and more in this direction and I am enjoying it. Because I enjoyed most of these I had more thoughts on each work and wrote individual posts/reviews for most of the books listed below. This is just a monthly overview.

I also had a very auditory experience this month. I discovered a lot of podcasts so I spent a lot of time listening. Here are some of the ones I enjoyed and discovered this month: Serial, Uncanny, Clarkesworld, Escape Pod, Lore, The Sword and Laser, Welcome to Night Vale, and lastly, the one that JUST started so you can get on board now too if you want because it’s at the beginning is this sci-fi one called Steal the Stars launched by Tor.com

Books I read for Early Review

35097384Artemis by Andy Weir. This is Weir’s second book after The Martian and it is just as great. This book is about the first village on the moon following a great female lead who is of Middle Eastern origin and her side profession is smuggling contraband on the moon. This book is scheduled for publication by Crown Publishing on November 14, 2017. It’s available for pre-order. My full review is HERE.

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The Emerald Circus by Jane Yolen. This is an anthology of short stories that are retellings. It includes retellings of fairy tales, children’s literature, Arthurian legends, Robin Hood, Edgar Allan Poe, and Emily Dickinson. This book is scheduled for publication by Tachyon Publications on November 24, 2017. It’s available for pre-order. My full review is HERE.

 

Books I read for Myself

Short Stories

  • Points of Origin” by Marissa K. Lingen from Tor.com – an elderly couple (80 years old) living alone on Mars, childless, find themselves with three grandchildren dropped at their doorstep since they had donated some genes to Earth many years ago. Soft sci-fi, but it gets at the heart.
  • In Libres” by Elizabeth Bear from Uncanny Magazine – our female protagonist needs one more source for her thesis on “the use of psychoactive plants in thaumaturgy” and enters the library with a Centaur friend who helps her. I loved this story so I had to re-read it. The librarian, the special collections…everything in this story is just great. This short story will be inserted in an anthology about Libraries in Sci-fi. See review for that HERE. There’s also a podcast with an audio of this story HERE.

Books

Central Station by Lavie Tidhar 

25986774I read Central Station at the very beginning of the month in one sitting following the text and listening to the audiobook at the same time. This is a fix-up novel where Tidhar gathered stories published over the years and combined them in one cohesive novel. Central Station is set in the future, and is a port or in-between place where people come and go and stay only temporarily. It follows several characters. Each “chapter” or story is dedicated to a character and then they feature as secondary characters in other stories. Similar to the “tavern scene” in Star Wars you have various ‘races’ of people like data vampires (strigoi) to give one example. I wrote a more detailed review here. I absolutely loved this book and I kind of want to re-read it soon. I’m glad this was the first of the month because it set my month on a good path.

Also I should mention that a lot of credit goes to the cover art for being so spectacular that it compelled me to pick it up all day long until it was finished.

Rendezvous With Rama by Arthur C. Clarke

774928I started working on a project where I set out to read all the Arthur C. Clarke Winners since its first prize (in 1987). More on that project: HERE. As I was making the list I realized that I haven’t actually read anything by Arthur C. Clarke himself so I read Rendezvous with Rama, the novel for which he received the Hugo and Nebula Award. The summary in short is that the year is 2130 and as time has passed humans have created protocols to prevent asteroids from hitting the Earth. A giant asteroid comes in proximity and it’s intimidating and new. As scientist look for Greek or Roman god names they have decided to label it “Rama” after the Hindu God instead. A space team lead by Commander Norton explore the asteroid Rama with their ship Endeavour featured on the cover. I had to write a more detailed review because the book put me in a really great place, and I wanted to explore the reasons why.

Welcome to Night Vale by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor 

23129410What started out as a podcast has been turned into a novel. I now have the book, the audiobook, and have subscribed to the podcast. I highly recommend reading this while listening to the audiobook like I have because the voices, narration style, and musical accompaniment make this an experience. Night Vale is a town in the ‘American’ desert. Everything in Night Vale is very weird. If I had to describe it to someone from scratch I would say it’s a cross between Twin Peaks, The Twilight Zone, and maybe even Lost or Once Upon a Time. In this town there is a radio station that we get to tune in, and a series of strange characters. Every chapter focuses on one character but then they feature in future narratives. I wrote more on Welcome to Night Vale in detail HERE, because there was a lot to say. Long story short: I loved it.

Binti by Nnedi Okorafor

25667918Binti is about a young female protagonist from the ‘Himba’ tribe. The Himba are a people very much connected to the Earth and no one leaves their community or Earth in general. In their traditions they wear anklets and a red-hued clay called Otjize. Binti is the first to be so advanced and secretly apply to Oozma University that she must leave her tribe and people knowing that it would ruin her prospects in the community afterwards. She is immediately perceived as different even in the commute towards Oozma but the way she describes her tribe is really beautiful:

“My tribe is obsessed with innovation and technology, but it is small, private, and, as I said, we don’t like to leave Earth. We prefer to explore the universe by traveling inward, as opposed to outward.”

“The ship was packed with outward-looking people who loved mathematics, experimenting, learning, reading, inventing, studying, obsessing, revealing.”

The novella is very short, it’s just slightly longer than what I would call a “short story.” In a short time Okorafor interacts with spirituality, intelligence, honour, cultural differences, and does so in a delicate and elegant way. I really enjoyed this novella and I will most likely pick up the next two.  I really liked the combination of mathematics, harmonizing in an inward spiritual way, and the involvement of symbols like the Otjize and Earthing, the astroglobe, and the edan to which Binti refers to again and again reminding her of home. This novella is both a Hugo and Nebula Award Winner.

Unmentionable by Therese Oneill

29467289Unmentionable by Therese Oneill is so funny and well-written but reading it I just felt incredibly sad. It had nothing to do with the author, but realizing how gruesome fashion and cultural expectations, as well as beauty standards have been for women even in the “progressive” West. As a reader I’ve looked at the Victorian period as a very classy, elegant, clean, polished time. I read novels from that period like candy and think how classy those people were, and what I would give to have those habits, and manners. Unmentionable woke me up. There are so many things we haven’t considered and rarely see in literature and film from this time period. Getting dressed in a corset that crushes your innards is just the beginning. Oneill explores the ways women back then handled pregnancy, periods, baths, clothing, flirting etiquette, marriage, and all cultural standards with such high expectations. She often makes a point of differentiating between high class and lower class women and looks at the injustices towards both (thought different, still pressing). The truth is we never picture Jane Eyre going to the washroom where there was no running water in the house with professional flushable toilets, or lying in bed with menstrual cramps. The content of this book is excellent, and I wish it was an introductory required reading before Victorian Literature courses because it really puts everything in perspective. The way it’s written however makes it very light and pleasant, because it’s put in such a way that is funny like “wasn’t this so silly, glad we don’t still do it.” The humour is ever-present. Some captioned photos make references to contemporary songs like “omg Becky look at her strut” (you know the song). The book also deals with mental illness and the way it was (or wasn’t) treated: ideas of hysteria, treatment for it, and mental breakdown from pure exhaustion. I really enjoyed this work, and I’m glad it has been written. I enjoyed the pictures, the adds, and humour though sometimes I found things a bit too sad to laugh. It is a pretty serious topic and I wish the language was slightly more academic at times, because it deserves that kind of attention. It did make me consider how fortunate I am to be born in this century.

The Cherry Blossom Rarely Smiles by Ioana Nitobe Lee

34181899I came across Ioana Nitobe Lee watching a Romanian talk show and she intrigued me right away. When she was a student of foreign languages in Romania, particularly fascinated with Japan, she met Ken who was Japanese royalty (an imperial prince). Ken was simultaneously fascinated by Romania and the music, language, and culture. Upon his visit Ken fell in love with Ioana and asked her to marry him. Together they left for Japan. What Ioana did not anticipate was how formal and ceremonial everything was. There was a long ceremony just for using the washroom, including changing one’s shoes several times. She had to wash herself at least twice a day, and have staff help and watch her every move. Isolated from her family and missing Romanian traditions, Ioana felt trapped. There were many cultural differences, but also class differences and Ioana went from simple Romanian citizen to Japanese royalty without warning. When she did return to Romania many people asked her to recount the tales of such differences which is why she wrote this book. This is a memoir. I read the English copy and I was a bit disappointed because this book deserves serious editorial work (it is self published). However, keeping in mind that this woman knows so many languages and she published this work alone, it remains impressive. Scattered throughout are many Romanian sayings, proverbs, or direct quotations (translations) from Romanian poets and writers. This put me in a very good place. No matter how choppy the English gets, she reminds you that she studied a lot, knows a lot, and is well-read. I found it problematic at times that she sort of sees her whole identity defined by her marriage to a Japanese prince. A simple Google search of her pretty much has “married to a Japanese prince” as a banner in all her excerpts. I was more fascinated by HER, as a person. I liked her knowledge tidbits, her memories from home, the literary quotations that stayed with her for life. I’m glad that she captured some of her essence in this book.

How to Be a Person in the World by Heather Havrilesky

27065373This sort of thing isn’t my cup of tea, I’m not sure why I picked it up. The title intrigued me. I also saw people comparing it to Cheryl Strayed’s book Tiny Beautiful Things so I gave it a try. Heather Havrilesky is a columnist and answers people’s personal questions at “Ask Polly”…basically Carrie Bradshaw in Sex and the City. I had one running thought reading this book which is: people in the West seem very preoccupied with the thought of being alone, the fear of being alone, or relationship drama (triangles, cheating, falling out of love, etc). This relationship preoccupation was pointed out during the French Revolution in Choderlos de Laclos’s Dangerous Liaisons and some theorize it started the revolution for pointing out to the working classes that the rich and wealthy had so much time and money they focused on trivial things like having side-affairs and seduction contests. Similarly, this book is very much a ‘Western,’ ‘well-off,’ daresay ‘white people problems.’ I do see its merit for existing out in the world and that is to remind the people who do despair over small problems in their life and obsess with such problems to remind them that they are not alone. It’s the same merit I see in shows like Dr. Phil. It may not be literary, poetically written, or applicable to all people…but it picks out an average middle-class problem/preoccupation and reminds readers that if they had a similar thought or problem chipping away at their happiness and self-worth, that they are not alone, and that they should learn to love themselves and be good people. It’s an easy read, I did it one sitting and it’s somewhat entertaining…in a schadenfreude kind of way. It was a 2 star read for me.

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I have also been reading Ken Liu’s The Grace of Kings which is Book One of the Dandelion Dynasty. I read only 122 pages out of 618 and I am enjoying it very much so far. I am also reading a non-fiction book on the history of Time Travel (in literature) by James Gleick. Both these books will be wrapped up and finished in August. Some of the books above, including the newly mentioned Ken Liu I got to enjoy alternating between the book and the audiobook. According to my Audible app, this month I listened to 11 Hours. I will be away for this weekend and I don’t see myself finishing anything new.