Helen Oyeyemi – What is Not Yours is Not Yours

I managed to spend this week at home in bed with a terrible bronchitis, so not only didn’t I read a lot (90% of my time was spent sleeping, sweating, and coughing… seriously, it’s not pretty), but I also didn’t tell you about the books I had read prior to turning into a pale, clammy monster. Today, I feel a little better and can stare into a computer screen without headaches, so let’s do some catching-up, what do you say?

what-is-not-yours-is-not-yours2WHAT IS NOT YOURS IS NOT YOURS
by Helen Oyeyemi

Published by: Picador, 2016
Hardback: 263 pages
Short story collection
My rating: 7,5/10

First sentence: Once upon a time in Catalonia a baby was found in a chapel.

Playful, ambitious, and exquisitely imagined, What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours is cleverly built around the idea of keys, literal and metaphorical. The key to a house, the key to a heart, the key to a secret—Oyeyemi’s keys not only unlock elements of her characters’ lives, they promise further labyrinths on the other side. In “Books and Roses” one special key opens a library, a garden, and clues to at least two lovers’ fates. In “Is Your Blood as Red as This?” an unlikely key opens the heart of a student at a puppeteering school. “‘Sorry’ Doesn’t Sweeten Her Tea” involves a “house of locks,” where doors can be closed only with a key—with surprising, unobservable developments. And in “If a Book Is Locked There’s Probably a Good Reason for That Don’t You Think,” a key keeps a mystical diary locked (for good reason).

Oyeyemi’s creative vision and storytelling are effervescent, wise, and insightful, and her tales span multiple times and landscapes as they tease boundaries between coexisting realities. Is a key a gate, a gift, or an invitation? What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours captivates as it explores the many possible answers.

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Normally when I review story collections, I like to talk about each story a little bit but I won’t do that here. As with most collections, I loved some stories, liked others, and disliked one or two. But “dislike” isn’t the right word because the few stories that I’d rate a little lower are simply ones that didn’t stick in my mind, not even a week after I read them. I do remember while reading them that I thought they were weird, strangely-constructed tales that start one way, then take a crazy turn and end up being about something completely different. That doesn’t make them bad stories, they just didn’t work for me (much like Oyeyemi’s strange novel Mr. Fox).

Before I get into my favorite stories and why they are so wonderful, one thing about their interconnectedness. Oyeyemi tried what Angela Slatter does so perfectly in her story collections (in case you want my fangirling thoughts, here are my reviews for Sourdough and The Bitterwood Bible). One story’s side character comes back later as a protagonist, or a new side character, or we go back in time and see their childhood – and that’s how the stories are supposed to be connected and tell one bigger tale. Except it doesn’t really work all that well in What is Not Yours is Not Yours. First of all, the stories are so different in tone, setting, and time period, that it was difficult for me to find any sort of common ground. And when I did recognise a character from a previous story, I had a hard time reconciling that person in the current story with who I met before. There was one mention of some previous characters that made me smile, because we find out what happened to them after their story ended, but in most tales, I didn’t really need them to connect to the rest of the collections. The stories stand on their own.

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Now. Here’s why you should read this collection. It has fairy tale-esque stories, like “drownings”, filled with evil tyrants who drown their enemies in the swamp, princesses and the perfect fairy tale voice, but it also has paranormal-ish (and seriously creepy) tales like “Presence” about a couple who tries a new sort of therapy which is supposed to help the bereaved reconnect with their dead loved ones. It was a truly chilling tale, but the creepiness levels were always just right.

There is one story that chilled me to the bone for other reasons. When a Youtube video exposes a famous musician – Matyas Füst – as having beaten up a girl, the world answers. And it answers pretty much the way you’d expect our world to answer. The social media attacks are aimed mostly at the victim, the half-hearted apologies by the celebrity are eaten up by his fans, and hey, why not use this incident to write a new song that will make him some more millions? This story was both sickening and fascinating, because we also see how a fan tries to justify her idol’s actions so she can keep liking him.

Then he stood over her in all his wealth and fame and arrogance and shrugged when she said she wasn’t going to keep quiet about this. Matyas Füst had shrugged and asked her if she thought anybody was going to give a shit that someone like her had got hurt. A nameless junkie with seriously crazy English. Look at you, he said. And look at me.

But by far my favorite story – and maybe because it is such an uplifting, hopeful one – was “A brief history of the Homely Wench Society” which tells of two Cambridge University clubs. The Bettencourt Society is basically the rich boys’ club and no women are allowed in their hallowed halls. Except when they pick the most beautiful girls to have dinner with them. However, the not-so-beautiful girls are fighting back. They created their own club whose purpose is to see the Bettencourt Society go down.
While this story starts as a basic us vs. them/boys vs. girls/beautiful vs. plain/rich vs. poor type tale, it slowly unwinds into something more complex and more hopeful. And inter-club romances make it just a little bit harder to keep hating each other. My favorite part was definitely the prank the Homely Wenches pull by breaking into the Bettencourt library and exchanging some of their male-authored books with some female-authored ones they brought. And both sides soon have to admit that the others have pretty good taste in books (and nobody gives a shit if the writer was male or female). It was adorable and I loved every part of the story, but that prank and the ending especially left me beaming with joy.

The book’s opening story “Books and Roses” was also beautifully told and although it has a healthy dose of magical realism, was the perfect tale to fall into. It’s also the beginning of the collection’s theme of keys. Much like the recurring characters, I didn’t think the key theme added much to the collection, because the subject matter and voice is so different from one tale to the next, but it is a lovely bit of imagery. I was also reminded just how many things can be considered keys and in how many shapes and sizes keys actually come.

Pretty much as expected this was a mixed bag for me, but I will continue to keep my eye out for Helen Oyeyemi’s books. When she goes too abstract, I usually don’t get much out of her fiction, but when she hits a note I like, she really hits it. I can’t wait to discover what she will come up with next.

MY RATING:  7,5/10 – Very good!

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Angela Slatter – The Bitterwood Bible and Other Recountings

Well, this is how long I could keep away from Angela Slatter’s stories. A bit more than a week, which I used to order a paperback copy of Of Sorrow and Such… now that I’ve read The Bitterwood Bible – which is a sort of prequel collection to Sourdough – I am even more in love with Slatter’s style and ideas. I really hope that her Tor.com novella will expand her readership and get more of her stories into my hands.

bitterwood bibleTHE BITTERWOOD BIBLE AND OTHER RECOUNTINGS
by Angela Slatter

Published by: Tartarus Press, 2014
Ebook: 280 pages
Short story collection
Illustrated by:
Kathleen Jennings
My rating: 9,5/10

First sentence: The door is a rich red wood, heavily carved with improving scenes from the trials of Job.

Welcome back to the magic and pathos of Angela Slatter’s exquisitely imagined tales.
The Bitterwood Bible and Other Recountings returns to the world of Sourdough and Other Stories (Tartarus, 2010), introducing readers to the tales that came before. Stories where coffin-makers work hard to keep the dead beneath; where a plague maiden steals away the children of an ungrateful village; where poison girls are schooled in the art of assassination; where pirates disappear from the seas; where families and the ties that bind them can both ruin and resurrect and where books carry forth fairy tales, forbidden knowledge and dangerous secrets.
The Bitterwood Bible and Other Recountings is enhanced by eighty-six pen-and-ink illustrations by artist Kathleen Jennings.

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What is it about Angelas and fairy tales? In both forewords to Angela Slatter’s two collections, she is mentioned in one breath with that other famous Angela who did fairy tales her own way, Angela Carter. While I’d say Carter is a tad darker, I understand the comparison. But because of what this Angela (Slatter, that is) does – namely, connecting all of her short stories and using them to paint one large picture of a time and place – I must admit, I actually prefer her over Angela Carter.

bitterwood - badgersIn The Bitterwood Bible, we see what things were like before the events of Sourdough (reviewed here). Familiar names pop up, well-known settings are used, and one object that was almost a gimmick in Sourdough becomes quite important in these new stories. Since Slatter continues the trend of taking fairy tales and myth and folklore, and using them to build her own stories on top of them, I hardly need to say I loved this collection. But it was striking how much the author has developed, how much more crafty her tales are. What little critique I may have had for Sourdough can’t be repeated about Bitterwood. If there are twists to these new stories, such as in the first story “The coffin-maker’s daughter”, then these twists really hit home.

bitterwood - maiden in the iceI am absolutely in love with “The Maiden in the Ice” which, apart from being a wonderful story in and of itself, ties in nicely with the first story in Sourdough and made me immediately want to re-read it. I haven’t had the time yet but I believe that I will like that Sourdough story much more and see it in a very different light after reading “The Maiden in the Ice”.

Her perfume is earthly, rich and dark, like rotted roses; a sweetness at first, then a potency, then grown too strong, and finally the hint of decay as she moves past the folk in the streets, those in the markets.

If you didn’t think there could be a new and interesting way to update vampires, well, you are wrong! So wrong! Angela Slatter takes vampires and just… does strange and interesting things with them. Hers are neither only sexy and dark, nor purely tortured innocent-ish beings. They are a bit of everything and something different entirely. And they certainly don’t sparkle. I’d say the vampire craze is mostly over and lots of readers may even go out of their way to avoid vampire stories, but lend me a bit of your trust and just try this one. It’s really something else.

“St. Dymphna’s School” merges seamlessly from one type of tale – at least the type I expected it to be – into quite another. It follows a heroine both determined to do what she came for, (almost) no matter the cost, and yet compassionate and understanding that the people surrounding her shouldn’t be hurt just because they don’t help her achieve her goals. In this tale, another character makes a reappearance from Sourdough, or more accurately – an appearance after being mentioned in Sourdough.

bitterwood - st dymphnas kiss

I said above that Slatter isn’t quite as dark as Carter, but that doesn’t mean that these stories are for children or light-hearted. There is one story that  never explicitly mentions the terrible things that happen to its protagonist, but it will break your heart a hundred times over. Even stories with a quirkier, lighter tone manage to twist a knife in you at the end, leaving you filled with horror and shock.

“By the Weeping Gate” is the only story that’s a bit slow to start but it wouldn’t be in this collection if it didn’t deliver the same powerful punch at the end that Slatter’s other stories do. The last story in the collection presents almost a seamless sequel to “By the Weeping Gate” and not only ties these two stories together, but connects the entire book into one big whole beautiful thing.

If Sourdough was about the story of a place and the women living there over the course of several generations, then Bitterwood is about The Little Sisters of St. Florian, women who collect and preserve knowledge, who copy rare (and not so rare) books, some of them mundane, some dangerous, and what happens to their order. The recounting of their last days made me cry a little, as it combines powerful writing with a heart-wrenching story.

One last raving paragraph must go to illustrator Kathleen Jennings, whose work I knew from Catherynne Valente’s The Bread We Eat in Dreams. The style is immediately recognisable and her little drawings are full of detail (albeit a little small on an e-reader). She did excellent work, choosing what to depict – sometimes objects, sometimes animals, and sometimes the characters. I was always a bit giggly when I swiped to the next page and saw an illustration come up. Really wonderfully done!

The longer I read this book, the more superlative my exlamations about it became. From “Hey, I really like this” I went quickly to “This is amazeballs” straight on to “I fucking adore everything Angela Slatter writes!!!” – I gather from other people’s reviews that these are the natural stages of book love when reading Angela Slatter. I kept Of Sorrow and Such for last, because chronology, but you’ll probably be seeing a review of it in December, despite all my well-laid plans for reading exactly what’s on my challenge lists… sorry reading challenges.

Next year promises the publication of Slatter’s first novel Vigil. I don’t even know what it’s about. All I know is that I need it yesterday, and the sequel too!

MY RATING:  9,5/10 – Oh my God, so close to perfection!

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Second opinions
(because you know I’m not completely trustworthy when I adore a book this much – although it did win the World Fantasy Award. Just sayin’…)

 

Nalo Hopkinson – Falling in Love with Hominids

Look, I would read anything by Nalo Hopkinson, but that cover is STUNNING! The colors, that woman, her hair, the sketchy art. I want to print a poster of this and put it on my wall. No wonder I jumped at the chance of a review copy. After reading the content – yeah, yeah, I know that’s the important bit – I am once again reminded of Hopkinson’s ability to write amazingly diverse stories, and at the same time a bit worried that her best work is her older stuff…

falling in love with hominidsFALLING IN LOVE WITH HOMINIDS
by Nalo Hopkinson

Published by: Tachyon Publications, 11 August 2015
Ebook: 240 pages
Short story collection
My rating: 8/10

First sentence: I didn’t used to like people much.

Nalo Hopkinson (Brown Girl in the Ring, The Salt Roads, Sister Mine) is an internationally-beloved storyteller. Hailed by the Los Angeles Times as having “an imagination that most of us would kill for,” her Afro-Caribbean, Canadian, and American influences shine in truly unique stories that are filled with striking imagery, unlikely beauty, and delightful strangeness.
In this long-awaited collection, Hopkinson continues to expand the boundaries of culture and imagination. Whether she is retelling The Tempest as a new Caribbean myth, filling a shopping mall with unfulfilled ghosts, or herding chickens that occasionally breathe fire, Hopkinson continues to create bold fiction that transcends boundaries and borders.

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Falling in Love With Hominids  was pure delight. I read few short story collections but when I do – despite other plans – I tend to read them like a novel. I don’t read one story, wait a few days, then read the next. I read story after story after story until it’s time to sleep or go to work or, you know, all that other grown-up stuff that gets in the way of reading. This makes it difficult to review single stories because they blur together in my memory, some I don’t remember very well at all, but others stand out.

The collection’s first story “The Easthound” is such a standout story. It first appeared in an anthology called After: Dystopian and Post-Apocalyptic Tales and that is exactly the kind of story it is. A group of children and young adults fight for survival in a world infested with what I first assumed to be zombies. Hopkinson is more original than that and the focus of the story is not that survival but much more presonal. It reminded me of the YA novel This is Not a Test which attempted to do in 300 pages what Nalo Hopkinson managed much better in one little short story.

My favorite story of the collection was the hilarious, whimsical “Emily Breakfast”. Emily Breakfast is a missing chicken – yes, really. Cranston, a young man goes to pick up fresh eggs for breakfast and notices one of the three chickens is missing. He and his wonderful cat Rose of Sharon go and search for Emily Breakfast. The plot is really simple, but what made this so entertaining was the almost sneaky world-building and the wonderful tone of voice. Yes, a man searching for his missing chicken really can be super entertaining and smart and funny. Oh, this was so funny. I particularly loved Rose of Sharon, who is so very clearly a cat and at the same time definitely not from this world.

Another tale that stuck in my memory is Hopkinson’s take on Shakespeare’s Tempest. In “Shift”, we follow Caliban and Ariel as one tries to lead a free life and the other, while driven by the same motive of freedom, looks to have him imprisoned again. This read like a folktale, or a dream. The distinct voices, the characterisation, the language – everything about this story was magical.

While writing this, I just remembered the heartbreaking “Old Habits”, a ghost story about the people who died in a shopping mall. Not only do they have to come to terms with being dead and having lost their sense of smell, taste, and touch, they also have to relive their death every day, as it occurred. The ending wasn’t really surprising but the journey there was heartbreaking.

The reason I mentioned Hopkinson’s older work being better is that the only previously unpublished story in the collection, “Flying Lessons”, was disappointing, and so short it felt like she had to put it in just to give us something new. I also greatly preferred her older novel Midnight Robber to the Nebula winning Sister Mine. Now that small gripe is out of the way, let me say that I adored almost all of the stories featured here, especially because they are so different in theme and style. Although Nalo Hopkinson mentions in the foreword that the only connecting tissue between these stories is, well, her being their author, I disagree. As varied as the collection is, I believe its stories are also connected by their diversity. Almost all characters are people of color, there were at least three stories featuring queer couples, and several characters with disabilities. Hopkinson also puts a distinct flavor of Caribbean myth in everything she writes and I can’t get enough of it.

Regardless of their publication dates, I preferred the stories featured in the first half of this collection. For some reason, the last few stories just didn’t work for me, perhaps with the exception of Hopkinson’s foray into Bordertown. I had heard about this shared universe before, although I don’t know any of the characters or world-building it’s based on. “Ours is the Prettiest” is Hopkinson’s contribution to Welcome to Bordertown and I believe it speaks for her that I enjoyed the story immensely, despite not knowing Bordertown and its inhabitants. This story served up an interesting twist that had more to do with character than, say, a shocking plot element. Well done, indeed!

Despite the few stories that I didn’t find very memorable and others that I simply disliked – Hopkinson’s twist on Bluebeard could have been executed better and wasn’t very original – the collection overall was just wonderful. Whether she explores strange plants, runaway chickens, shopping mall ghosts, or my favorite story from Unnatural Creatures, “The Smile on the Face”, Hopkinson is one of the most intriguing voices in fantasy and I intend to keep reading whatever she publishes.

MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent

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Second opinions:

Theodora Goss – In the Forest of Forgetting

I came across Theodora Goss’ name via TV Tropes. Searching for “Mythpunk”, a term coined by Cat Valente (you can see where this is going, can’t you?), Goss was mentioned as a good example of mythpunk writers. It’s easy to see why I pounced on her books once I’d heard her mentioned in the same breath as my favorite writer and even recommended by her at one point. Pouncing was a good decision, I now have another favorite to add to my list!

in the forest of forgettingIN THE FOREST OF FORGETTING
by Theodora Goss

Published by: Prime Books, 2006
Hardcover: 284 pages
Short story collection
My rating: 9/10

First sentence: This rose has twelve petals.

A collection of sixteen postmodern gothic fairy tales from award-winning author Theodora Goss, first published in 2006 by Prime Books and finally made available as an ebook by Papaveria Press. These stories are a treasure for all of those who are already passionate about Theodora Goss’s work, as well as for those who have yet to discover it.

Theodora Goss’ first major short story collection showcases such stories as “The Rose in Twelve Petals,” “The Rapid Advance of Sorrow,” “Lily, With Clouds,” “In the Forest of Forgetting,” “Sleeping With Bears” and many more. Also includes an introduction by Terri Windling and cover by Virginia Lee.

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I should have seen this coming but I am utterly, utterly in love. Theodora Goss is my new writer crush and this collection more than impressed me. I expected mostly fairy tales and mythology played with in interesting ways, and I did get that. But there is so much more to be found here. What struck me most was the stories’ readability. Unlike Valente’s prose, Goss writes almost as if she were sitting across from you, telling you these stories out loud. I planned to read a story or two per night and that worked for the first two days. After that, I ate up the rest of the collection in one sitting.

In the Forest of Forgetting-Tangerine-lilac.inddThe first story, “The Rose in Twelve Petals”, does exactly what it says on the tin. It plays with fairy tale tropes but, while enjoyable, didn’t surprise or overwhelm me. Except then Goss takes on cancer as a subject, and communism, and racism. Don’t think for a second that any of these heavy topics are used like a hammer or for preaching, no, they are gently played with. Goss wraps heavy themes in light words and lets her readers make up their own minds about what it all means. Both “Lily, With Clouds” and “In the Forest of Forgetting” were powerful yet very different stories about cancer, although the first one is much more about ignorant, arrogant sisters with no room for imagination. It’s also about art and how it can change a person’s life. I adored these stories so, so much.

But then “Miss Emily Gray” came along and completely swept me off my feet. Its teenage protagonist gets a little more than she hoped for – for a long time, you can’t be sure if her father’s new wife is an evil stepmother, a wicked witch, or a misunderstood lady. But it is a lot of fun finding out. I also think, Goss writes teenagers extremely well.

“Look at Alice, and Ozma. Literature, at least imaginative literature, is ruled by adolescent girls.”

Until I let Google enlighten me, I didn’t know that Theodora Goss is a Hungarian American writer – but I might as well have guessed. There are several stories that are set in Hungary or feature Hungarians (sometimes Hungarians living elsewhere) and that convey a real sense of place without long lectures or exposition. With that come references, some more obvious than others, to the Soviet Union and Communism’s effect on freedom in general and art in particular. Sometimes, it’s just a throwaway line that sets the scene, sometimes we get a fuller image of how artists were restrained in their creativity. These snippets all paint a full and bright picture – which is why this book counts as a stop on my literary world trip.

I am haunted by ghosts, invisible, impalpable: the ghosts of silver spoons and margarine tubs, the smell of paprikás cooking on Sunday afternoons. The ghost of a country.

However, this is only a small part of the collection’s diversity. One story,  “A Statement in the Case”, is a statement given to the police about a rather mysterious death, we discover distant memories of a dying ballerina in “Death Comes for Ervina”, and there is a recurring character in several stories who I suspect may not be entirely human…

As much as I loved the stories that explore culture, art, death, and cancer, it will always be one particular kind that speaks to me most: the one about the other world, existing just next to ours. In “Pip and the Fairies“, Philippa, the heroine in her mother’s childrens’ book series, returns to her childhood home after many years of being a rich and successful actress. She remembers what inspired her mother to come up with “Pip” and her trips to fairyland – or was it the other way around? Did her mother’s books create her memories? We can’t know for sure but whether it’s all pretend or real magic, it’s wonderful to read.

This is the sort of thing people like: the implication that, despite their minivans and microwaves, if they found the door in the wall, they too could enter fairyland.

The collection ends with a beautiful tale about teenage girlfriends who decide one day to become witches and take lessons with Miss Gray. Their adventures tie together some of the previous stories, but can also be read on their own. Considering that these stories all somehow fit together, I’m sure I missed at least half the connections and clues, reading a story here and there, without giving much thought to the bigger picture. But that just makes me look forward to my first re-read even more. Theodora Goss lets you travel across borders, both real and imaginary, and leads you through story after story in a light, conversational tone. She is like Cat Valente’s less flowery sister. I’ll see you after I’ve bought her entire backlist of books.

MY RATING: 9/10  – Close to perfection!

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Catherynne M. Valente – Indistinguishable From Magic

You all know I go a little coo-coo when it comes to Cat Valente’s books, right? So I pre-ordered this sometime last year, as soon as I found out it would be published. Now imagine my shriek of joy when I got an e-ARC in my mailbox. Yes, it was loud. The boyfriend thought I had seriously injured myself. And then I sank into a cloud of words and didn’t come up for air until I was finished.

indistinguishable from magicINDISTINGUISHABLE FROM MAGIC
by Catherynne M. Valente

Published by: Mad Norwegian Press, 6 May 2014
Paperback: 244 pages
Standalone non-fiction
Review copy from the publisher
My rating: 8/10

First sentence: These days, it’s almost a Cartesian axiom: I am a geeky postmodern girl, therefore I love Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

In Indistinguishable from Magic, more than 60 essays by New York Times-bestselling author Catherynne M. Valente (The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland, The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland) are brought together in print for the first time, sharing Cat’s observations and insights about fairy tales and myths, pop culture, gender and race issues, an amateur’s life on planet Earth and much more. Join Cat as she studies the fantasy genre’s inner clockwork to better comprehend its infatuation with medievalism (AKA “dragon bad, sword pretty”), considers the undervalued importance of the laundry machine to women’s rights in locales as wide-ranging as Japan and the steampunk genre, and comes to understand that so much of shaping fantasy works is about making puppets seem real and sympathetic (otherwise, you’re just playing with dolls).

Also featured: Cat takes a hard look at why she can’t stop writing about Persephone, dwells upon the legacy of poets in Cleveland, and examines how stories teach us how to survive – if Gretel can kill the witch, Snow White can return from the dead, and Rapunzel can live in the desert, trust that you can too.

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Mad Norwegian Press are known (by me, at least) for such collections as Chicks Dig Time Lords and Whedonistas and the feshly-Hugo-nominated Queers Dig Time Lords –  book-shaped love letters to fandom. But they also publish collections of essays by single authors. Having been to her blog a couple of times, I know that I enjoy Cat’s non-fiction almost as much as the made-up stories she shares with her readers. The release of Indistinguishable From Magic has been pushed back a couple of months but, trust me, you want to get your hands on this!

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” – Arthur C. Clarke

My approach to collections is usually to read them front to back and then maybe go back to my favorite pieces and re-read them. I went the same way about Indistinguishable From Magic, except I went back all the time to highlight passages, and jot down book recommendations, and make notes to look this or that thing up on the internet later. It is a treasure cove of geeky goodness.

But most impressively, this book made me feel more accepted and more understood than anything else I’d read before. Growing up as someone who loves fantasy books wasn’t particularly harrowing on me. I always had friends and they accepted my quirks as a given, not questioning why I would be into that weird stuff about made-up worlds, why I would name my pets after Hobbits and characters from Labyrinth. But still, there was nobody around who shared that obsession. Then the internet happened and suddenly, I wasn’t so alone anymore. Cat Valente gets that. Oh, how she gets it.

I choose magic. I choose invented histories. I choose epic battles between armies of wolves and spriggans. I choose witchraft, ray guns, AI, and dark gods. I choose swashbuckling, cruel queens, and talking beasts. I choose cross-dressing orphan heroines. I choose unreliable narrators. I choose my friends.

Whether I share her opinion on the importance of folklore or not (I do), whether I agree with her paper – “Follow the Yellow Brick Road” – on Alice, Dorothy, and The Nutcracker‘s Clara, I couldn’t help but feel like I was talking to a friend. In fact, if I hadn’t admired and envied her before, after this collection, I want to be her best friend. Someone I can call late at night to talk about that old Doctor Who episode that made me cry again, or how underrated Flora Segunda is. I think she’d just get it, happily brew herself a cup of cocoa and discuss the night away.

While the collection is structured by topic – pop culture, gender in SFF, publishing – every section overflows with love for the genre and the community. Yes, there are rants about our failings, and pleas to behave like decent human beings – within fandom and outside of it – but the overwhelming feeling I got was this endless love for fantasy and science fiction. That’s something I can get behind.

indistinguishable from magic
Cat Valente also reveals a fair bit of herself through her writing. It depends, of course, on how you read her articles and how much you know about her already, but the fact that she can’t let go of Persephone speaks volumes. Her experience as an army wife, living in Japan, keeps coming up and if you’ve read a bit of her short fiction you’ll recognize sides of Cat in them that suddenly make all the more sense. You understand that behind that achingly beautiful prose is a full person with dreams and a past, and all the puzzle pieces fall together. So in a way, this is probably the Valente work in which she is most vulnerable and open about herself as a writer and as a human being. Obviously, I love her all the more for being that brave.

While Indistinguishable from Magic, as a book should, starts with a foreword, I will end this review with it. Unsurprisingly to anyone who knows a little bit about Cat Valente, the foreword is written by her friend Seanan McGuire. I have no words for how jealous I am of their friendship. The introduction not only shows off McGuire’s own hand at writing poetic prose but it shines with love and friendship and respect. And while I don’t know Cat Valente personally, I believe every word Seanan McGuire says about her. It is obvious from Valente’s prose that she must at least have a little bit of magic in her, eaten some of those pomegranate seeds, been sprinkled with just a thimble-ful of fairy dust.

 She is a poet and a poem, wrapped up in the same star-and-moon-tanned  palimpsest skin. She contains many contradictions. She’s the serious mermaid explaining to you why trading fins for feet was a feminist action, and why the sacrifice of a voice is sometimes a simple thing, because there are so many kinds of voices, child; the sea witch left you fingers, left you figures, left you everything you’ll ever need to make this tale your own. She’s the laughing gingerbread witch standing by the chicken coop, feathers in her hair and a promise on her lips that you may or may not want to hear, because promises are prophecies, in their own way, in their own time. She is her own once upon a time, and her own happy ending, and those are two of the best things in the world to be.

MY RATING:  8/10  –  Excellent

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Catherynne M. Valente – The Bread We Eat in Dreams

You know what’s coming.

bread we eat in dreamsTHE BREAD WE EAT IN DREAMS
by Catherynne M. Valente

Published by: Subterranean Press, 2013
Hardcover: 340 pages
Story Collection
My rating: 8/10

First sentence: She walks into my life legs first, a long drink of water in the desert of my thirties.

Subterranean Press proudly presents a major new collection by one of the brightest stars in the literary firmament. Catherynne M. Valente, the New York Times bestselling author of The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making and other acclaimed novels, now brings readers a treasure trove of stories and poems in The Bread We Eat in Dreams.
In the Locus Award-winning novelette “White Lines on a Green Field,” an old story plays out against a high school backdrop as Coyote is quarterback and king for a season. A girl named Mallow embarks on an adventure of memorable and magical politicks in “The Girl Who Ruled Fairyland—For a Little While.” The award-winning, tour de force novella “Silently and Very Fast” is an ancient epic set in a far-flung future, the intimate autobiography of an evolving A.I. And in the title story, the history of a New England town and that of an outcast demon are irrevocably linked.
The thirty-five pieces collected here explore an extraordinary breadth of styles and genres, as Valente presents readers with something fresh and evocative on every page. From noir to Native American myth, from folklore to the final frontier, each tale showcases Valente’s eloquence and originality.

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I’m still not a big short story reader, and I have found I prefer anthologies that collect many authors’ works surrounding a certain theme, rather than stories by just one writer, covering more topics. But Catherynne Valente turns everything she touches into gold. The variety of styles, themes, and characters collected in The Bread We Eat in Dreams shows off her unique talents and that she is one of the brightest stars in SFF writing at the moment.

As I say, I haven’t read many short story collections but never have I heard of one that starts so perfectly on the right note as The Bread We Eat in Dreams. In “The Consultant”, the titular character explains how we are all part of a fairy tale, we just don’t see it. How the popular cheerleader can be Cinderella, how the college professor’s student girlfriend can be the Little Mermaid, how any couple trying to have a baby can be Sleeping Beauty’s parents. It may be about fairy tales and how the pervade our lives but the style is that of a noir detective, solving desperate dames’ problems for them. It works beautifully.

She walks into my life legs first, a long drink of water in the desert of my thirties. Her shoes are red; her eyes are green. She’s an Italian flag in occupied territory, and I fall for her like Paris. She mixes my metaphors like a martini and serves up my heart tartare. They all do. Every time. They have to. It’s that kind of story.

The second story in the collection was also my favorite. It’s about Coyote, the trickster god, as a quarterback in high school. I loved everything about this story and would gladly nominate it for a Hugo if it hadn’t been published a few years ago. You can read “White Lines on a Green Field” on Subterranean Press’ homepage. I highly suggest you do.

Some of the stories and novellas I’ve read before. The poem “The Melancholy of Mechagirl” is the only piece of poetry by Valente that’s ever really gotten to me. I’m not much of a poetry fan. The other poems in the collection didn’t impress me much but that may be much more my own fault (for not understanding them or clicking with them properly) than Valente’s.
“Fade to White” and “Silently and Very Fast” (which I’ve written about here) as well as  “The Girl Who Ruled Fairyland – For A Little While” are still as hauntingly beautiful as they were when I first read them.

bread we eat in dreams illustration2Among the stories that were new to me, some really struck a chord.  “How to Raise a Minotaur” reads like a metaphor for a childhood of abuse, living with parents who don’t understand you. “Twenty-Five Facts About Santa Claus” is as funny as it is touching, and – another favorite – “We Without Us Were Shadows” tells of the Brontë siblings stepping into their own wild imagination.

There is a story about a teenager who played the (non-existent) fairy Fig in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. There is a brilliant take on Red Riding Hood that shows something Cat Valente keeps saying in interviews: If you are in a fairy tale, if you are Hansel or Gretel, Red Riding Hood or Rapunzel, even after you survive the terrible things that happen in the fairy tale, you will never be okay afterwards. Valente’s Red Riding Hood is just that character. She survived but she is broken, she carries the wolf with her wherever she goes, but she doesn’t want it to define her. It’s a beautiful piece of writing.

bread we eat in dreams illustration1Stefan Raets reviewed the collection for tor.com and he keeps mentioning author’s notes that accompany each story or poem. These don’t exist in my edition (I got the 40$ trade edition instead of the limited one, maybe that’s the reason?) and I would really have enjoyed them, especially with the stories whose mythology I’m not already familiar with. I’m fine with Greek and Norse gods, some African and Native American mythology, but I’m completely lost when it comes to Japanese spirits and gods and fairy tale creatures. A little help would have been appreciated. EDIT: Aaaaand I found them online. Should have looked there before I read the entire damn thing.

The one tiny thing that annoyed me was this German passage in “The Red Girl” (the Red Riding Hood story):

Die Wahrheit ist ich laufen immer und der Wald beendet nie. Die Blätter sind rot. Der Himmel ist rot. Der Weg ist rot und ich bin nie allein.

Now would it have killed you to have someone who speaks German proof-read that? At least conjugate your verbs… for goodness’ sake, I’d have fixed it for you for free. And for those who are curious about what it means, here’s my ad hoc translation:

The truth is I’m always running and the forest never ends. The leaves are red. The sky is red. The path is red and I’m never alone.

That minor flaw aside, I believe Subterranean Press have outdone themselves with this collection. It not only combines some of the best, mostly myth-inspired tales by a phenomenal writer, it’s also simply beautiful to look at. The illustrations by Kathleen Jennings may be small but they capture each story’s essence. And don’t even get me started on that wrap-around cover. It’s gorgeous. As is the entire book. It now sits proudly on my Cat Valente shelf where I believe it in the best company possible. The shelf is overflowing with longing and myth and love for all things magical.

divider1Table of Contents:
  • The Consultant
  • White Lines on a Green Field
  • The Bread We Eat in Dreams
  • The Melancholy of Mechagirl
  • A Voice Like a Hole
  • The Girl Who Ruled Fairyland—For a Little While
  • How to Raise a Minotaur
  • Mouse Koan
  • The Blueberry Queen of Wiscasset
  • In the Future When All’s Well
  • Fade to White
  • The Hydrodynamic Front
  • Static Overpressure
  • Even Honest Joe Loves an Ice-Cold Brotherhood Beer!
  • Optimum Burst Altitude
  • The Shadow Effect
  • Gimbels: Your Official Father’s Day Headquarters
  • Flash Blindness
  • Blast Wind
  • Ten Grays
  • Velocity Multiplied by Duration
  • Aeromaus
  • Red Engines
  • The Wolves of Brooklyn
  • One Breath, One Stroke
  • Kallisti
  • The Wedding
  • The Secret of Being a Cowboy
  • Twenty-Five Facts About Santa Claus
  • We Without Us Were Shadows
  • The Red Girl
  • Aquaman and the Duality of Self/Other, America, 1985
  • The Room
  • Silently and Very Fast
  • What the Dragon Said: A Love Story

Nnedi Okorafor – Kabu-Kabu

Making a resolution to read more diversely, to discover authors from places other than Europe or North America, is one thing. Actually discovering them is another story. I didn’t think I would be this glad to read fantasy by writers from different places of the world. But Nnedi Okorafor swept me away with the amazing Who Fears Death and, while very different from that novel, the short stories in Kabu-Kabu have cemented my appreciation for her as a writer.

kabu kabuKABU-KABU
by Nnedi Okorafor

Published by: Prime Books, October 2013
ISBN: 160701405X
ebook: 264 pages
Short story collection
review copy via NetGalley
My rating: 7/10

First sentence: Lance the Brave stood on the edge of the cliff panicking, his long blond hair blowing in the breeze.

Kabu Kabu – unregistered, illegal Nigerian taxis – generally get you where you need to go, but Nnedi Okorafor’s Kabu Kabu takes the reader to exciting, fantastic, magical, occasionally dangerous, and always imaginative locations. This debut short story collection by award-winning author Nnedi Okorafor includes notable previously-published short work, a new novella co-written with New York Times bestselling author Alan Dean Foster, and a brief forward by Whoopi Goldberg.

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Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED Talk about the danger of the single story still rings in my ears every time I read a book or story featuring a non-white protagonist. This collection by Nnedi Okorafor – go read the beautiful Who Fears Death – is the exact opposite of the “single story”. The range and diversity of these short stories is like a breath of fresh air. Given Okorafor’s own background, most stories feature Nigerians, but not exclusively. Some are set in Nigeria, some in America, some in completely different places. Most of her protagonists are women, but again, they are as diverse and different as they come.

But Okorafor doesn’t romanticize Nigeria either. The tales in this collection show off a range of situations and settings, many aspects of culture and character. You will find folktale-like stories without a clear setting or time, intentionally flat characters, and horrific plots, you will find others that are clearly set during modern times, showing all the wonders and horrors of Okorafor’s chosen locations. I’ve mentioned Nigeria a lot, but it isn’t the only place featured in these stories. Just the one that she keeps coming back to.

kabu kabu banner

The author’s favorite topics clearly shine through. Nigeria is one of them, windseekers another. There are not two, but three tales about windseekers, two of which tell essentially the same story. I felt a little cheated and, honestly, it gave the impression that the author’s ideas are quite limited (or that she is really obsessed with windseekers) – she also wrote a novel called Zahrah the Windseeker (which I have yet to read). In all fairness, the third of the windseeker stories, simply called “Windseekers”, did show a different side of these people, born with dada hair and the ability to fly, and I ended up liking that one best.

Of all the stories, “Spider the Artist” was easily my favorite. It is not only a great science fiction short story but would make a brilliant beginning for a novel. A young and unhappily married woman sits next to the pipeline at night and plays music. She ends up befriending one of the terrifying, robotic creatures who protect the pipeline from thieves and bond with it over their shared music. I loved every bit of this story and wouldn’t mind reading what happened after…

In “The Black Stain”, the author changes her tone to that of a cautionary tale. There is little characterisation, events happen quickly, but their repercussions leave you thinking about the horrors humans are capable of inflicting on others. It is a sort of fairy-tale like origin story of Ewu, children of mixed race, who are considered demons, and another one of Okorafor’s favorite themes, seeing as Onyesonwu, the protagonist in Who Fears Death, is Ewu.

The titular story “Kabu-Kabu” was co-written with Alan Dean Foster. It is the story of a lawyer named Ngozi trying to catch a plane to go to her sister’s wedding in Nigeria. Late as she is, she jumps into a kabu kabu, a taxi that shows up out of the blue and whose driver promises to get her where she needs to go… there are just a few errands he has to run first. This story did so many things so well. Ngozi is a wonderfully relatable protagonist who mostly just asks herself WTF? The fact that she meets curious creatures and isn’t sure if she can trust her taxi driver is just a complication in a fun story with a slightly predictable ending.

kabu kabu plate

As with any collection, not all stories were up my alley, and some I didn’t like at all. The bulk of them were great, although I do think short stories are not the author’s strength. Nnedi Okorafor is definitely trying to make a point with this collection. In the afterword she tells the origin of her story “The Magical Negro” and I understand that she wants her readers to see that being branded magical or exotic or barbaric is not something Africans enjoy – yet it still happens all too often in SFF fiction. But perhaps she is trying to get that point across too hard. By no means did this happen in every story, but every so often, I would feel like the author was standing behind me, looking over my shoulder to see if I understood what she’s telling me about race and gender. Yes yes, I get it! I’m on your side! Stop hitting me over the head with the morality hammer already!

I picked the book up because I absolutely loved Who Fears Death. It fits neatly into my Read Around the World challenge, and I honestly think that I learned tons of new things and broadened my horizons – even if a lot of the stories took place in imaginary or alternate settings, not the real world. Okorafor shows the good and the bad, both exploitation and hope, strength and evil of the people. And she adds a healthy dose of magic to the mix.

Recommended, although I personally look forward to cozying up with one of Okorafor’s novels again.

MY RATING:  7/10  – Very Good!

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Todd McCaffrey (ed.) – Dragonwriter: A Tribute to Anne McCaffrey and Pern

I stumbled across the unmistakable Michael Whelan cover that usually indicates a Pern book to me on NetGalley. A quick glance at the “synopsis” and I knew I wanted to read this. I love Anne McCaffrey’s Pern series and while I started reading them as a teenager, I still enjoy returning to that world of weyrs, dragonriders and Harpers. Why not learn more about the writer herself and take a look back at her career?

dragonwriterDRAGONWRITER: A Tribute to Anne McCaffrey and Pern
edited by Todd McCaffrey

Published by: Smart Pop, August 2013
ISBN: 9781937856830
ebook: 288 pages
Standalone
Non-fiction

My rating: 8,5/10

First sentence: All too often we try to measure a person by cold, hard facts: when they were born, when they died, their marriages, their children, their schooling.

When Anne McCaffrey passed in November 2011, it was not only those closest to her who mourned her death; legions of readers also felt the loss deeply. The pioneering science fiction author behind the Dragonriders of Pern® series crafted intricate stories, enthralling worlds, and strong heroines that profoundly impacted the science fiction community and genre.
In Dragonwriter, Anne’s son and Pern writer Todd McCaffrey collects memories and stories about the beloved author, along with insights into her writing and legacy, from those who knew her best. Nebula Award-winner Elizabeth Moon relates the lessons she learned from Pern’s Lessa (and from Lessa’s creator); Hugo Award-winner David Brin recalls Anne’s steadfast belief that the world to come will be better than the one before; legendary SFF artist Michael Whelan shares (and tells stories about) never-before-published Pern sketches from his archives; and more.
Join Anne’s co-writers, fellow science fiction authors, family, and friends in remembering her life, and exploring how her mind and pen shaped not only the Weyrs of Pern, but also the literary landscape as we know it.
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I had a plan for this. I thought: This is nice. These are short little pieces on Anne McCaffrey and her novels, memories and anecdotes, just long enough for my way to and from work each day. One chapter per subway ride. It could have worked out so well and this book would have lasted me for weeks. Alas, I found myself drawn more and more into what people had to say about the late, great Dragonlady. I picked this volume up even though I have The Republic of Thieves right here (and half-read, I might add).

This collection brings together a variety of pieces about Anne McCaffrey, her work, and the influence she’s had on her surroundings. I was not for a second surprised to find one recurring description of Anne – lovingly called Annie by many: that of an open-hearted, generous, kind, and sharply clever woman who helped those around her grow and thrive. If I hadn’t read any of her books, I would want to now. I also would have liked to be friends with her, have visited her in her ever-open Dragonhold in Ireland, and heard her sing.

You will find a diverse range of pieces in this collection. While some essays are simple (yet touching) memories of encounters withe Anne, of growing and lasting friendships, others recount how her fiction has helped them through the rough patches in life. Yet others read like an in-depth analysis of Anne’s impact on the science fiction genre, or how religion figures into the world of Pern. Her former collaborators talk about how they came to be Anne’s friends, a couple of young writers share how Anne helped save their career with her endless confidence in their talent and good advice.

anne mccaffrey
All three of Anne’s children contributed to the collection. While Alec’s story is more about him than his mother, one can see her influence on his life and her support for all his activism. Gigi (Georgeanne, Anne’s only daughter) tells how Anne McCaffrey was a “universal mother” for her, her brothers, and all their friends and colleagues.

There is one story that stood out the me, although I enjoyed every single one of them, and that is “Changes Without Notice” by Angelina Adams. I haven’t read The Ship Who Sang (but I will!) but it becomes clear from this collection what it is about. Reading Adams’ story made me understand how that book must have touched her and how it actually changed her life. I admit, I am prone to being emotional when I read, but if this story doesn’t make you cry at least a litte, you must be heartless.

I won’t give away too much – I’ll just say that this collection has given me an amazing insight into who Anne McCaffrey was as a person, not just a writer. My conclusion is: I would have loved to have known her and I am truly sad she is gone.

Just because it needs to be mentioned: This collection was edited superbly. The stories’ succession made utter sense, especially to someone who hasn’t read all (or any) of Anne’s books. There are a few spoilers for two Pern novels (Dragonflight and Moreta: Dragonlady of Pern). Some stories mention other of Anne’s works that I am not familiar with. These stories are arranged in such a way that, in order to understand one story, we get an essential bit of knowlege from the one preceding it, be it Dragon*Con jargon or Anne’s training as an opera singer. I felt like I slowly got the inside scoop on an amazing woman.

Another thing that deserves praise is Michael Whelans piece. He talks about designing the covers for Anne’s Pern novels and, even in the e-ARC edition, shows some of the sketches that were sent to the publishers as cover ideas. Being me, I will buy this as a paper book once it’s out, not only to see the beautiful artwork in color (and larger scale) but to have this gem of a tribute gracing my shelves, right next to my small (but growing) collection of Anne McCaffrey novels.

RATING: 8,5/10  – Absolutely excellent

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  • Todd McCaffrey – Introduction
  • David Brin – Believer in us
  • Sharon Lee and Steve Miller – Why Are You Reading This Stupid Shirt?
  • John Goodwin – Star Power
  • David Gerrold – How the Dragonlady Saved My Life
  • Robert Neilson – Bookends
  • Elizabeth Moon – Lessons From Lessa
  • Robin Roberts – Flying in New Directions
  • Lois McMaster Bujold – Modeling the Writer’s Life
  • Wen Spencer – All the Weyrs of Pern
  • Jody Lynn Nye and Bill Fawcett – The McCaffrey Effect
  • Mercedes Lackey – The Ships That Were
  • Elizabeth Ann Scarborough – The Dragonlad’s Songs
  • Richart J. Woods – Religion on Pern?
  • Chelsea Quinn Yarbro – Anne and Horses
  • Michael Whelan – Picturing Pern
  • Alec Johnson – Red Star Rising
  • Angelina Adams – Changes Without Notice
  • Charlotte Moore – The Twithead With the Dragon Tattoo
  • Janis Ian – The Masterharper is Gone
  • Georgeanne Kennedy – Universal Mom
  • Todd McCaffrey – Afterword

Angela Carter – The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories

It’s funny how books lead to books and authors lead to authors, sometimes. In this case, a lot of different books and authors I had enjoyed all somehow pointed in the direction of Angela Carter and I firmly wanted to make Nights at the Circus my first read. Then, that reading slump got in the way and I picked the short stories over the novel. So fairytale retellings it was, and I have been shown yet another time how diverse and wide the literary field really is.

bloody chamberTHE BLOOD CHAMBER (and other stories)
by Angela Carter

Published by: Vintage, 2007 (1979)
ISBN: 9780099511090
Paperback: 176 pages

My rating: 7,5/10

First sentence: I remember how, that night, I lay awake in the wagon – lit in a tender, delicious ecstasy of excitement, my burning cheek pressed against the impeccable linen of the pillow and the pounding of my heart mimicking that of the great pistons ceaselessly thrusting the train that bore me through the night, away from Paris, away from girlhood, away from the white, enclosed quietude of my mother’s apartment, into the unguessable country of marriage.

From the familiar material of fairy tales and legends – Red Riding Hood, Bluebeard, Puss-in-Boots, Beauty and the Beast, vampires and werewolves – Angela Carter has created an absorbing collection of dark, sensual, fantastic stories.

Table of Contents:

The Bloody Chamber
The Courtship of Mr. Lyon
The Tiger’s Bride
Puss-in-Boots
The Erl-King
The Snow Child
The Lady of the House of Love
The Werewolf
The Company of Wolves
Wolf-Alice

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I stumbled across Angela Carter’s name while looking for writers similar to Cat Valente. Carter kept coming up as a prolific author who based her stories on mythology and fairytales, a feminist writer with deeply strange novels – that all sounded taylor-made for me. I was not disappointed. The book blurb promised dark retellings of Red Riding Hood, Beauty and the Beast, and – the titular tale – Bluebeard. Ranging in length and style, every story offered something original and most of them kept the promise of being dark and adult.

The Bloody Chamber is the first and longest story in this collection. A young girl marries an older, rich man and is taken to his castle. When leaving for a business trip. the Duke hands over the keys to every single door in the castle, all of which she is allowed to explore – with the exception of one room. Of course, that is the room she goes hunting for and where she makes a terrible discovery…
Two things impressed me immediately. This being my very first book by Angela Carter, I wasn’t quite prepared for her gift with language. The prose is powerful and vivid and conjures up images that create atmosphere. Where other writers spend pages upon pages describing in minute detail a setting or feeling, Carter needs one sentence and no more.

His wedding gift, clasped around my throat. A choker of rubies, two inches wide, like an extraordinarily precious slit throat.

At first, I simply adored the imagery and atmosphere of the story, but once the heroine finds the bloody chamber, the plot becomes the center of the story and I actually had chills running down my spine, fearing – just like the heroine – for her life. The ending was particularly satisfying because the protagonist does not need any prince to save her life. She is far from helpless but when help is needed, it comes in a rather unexpected shape – at least for a fairytale.

The Courtship of Mr. Lyon and The Tiger’s Bride are both retellings of Beauty and the Beast. They become a lot more interesting in their juxtaposition than they would be each on its own. While the first tale is very straight-forward, featuring a tender, sad, and shy beast slowly winning over the good-hearted Beauty’s heart, the second story is darker. The girl is gambled away by her father and thusly confined to the Beast’s castle. Both stories feature a transformation at the end, but they differ in tone and one of them may not end quite the way Disney envisioned it.

Puss, the Puss in Boots story represented here, was possibly my favorite tale. It is much lighter in tone and theme than the first three stories. What struck me the most was the rhythm of the language. It was poetic, not in the sense that it was flowery or painted elaborate pictures in my mind, but simply in the way that these words wanted to be read out loud. There are no rhymes in the story, it was just Puss’ narration that had a melody all its own.
I also came across this gem of a sentence which demonstrates the overall style very well.

I went about my ablutions, tonguing my arsehole with the impeccable hygienic integrity of cats, one leg stuck in the air like a ham bone; [click here for visuals]

The plot made me giggle as much as did Puss’ narration and his utter cat-ness. Like any good fairytale, it features a villain, a beautiful girl, a love-sick hero, and a couple of cats without whose cleverless their love might never have worked out. Whether it was Puss’ preference for certain architectural styles (because they are easier to climb) or his scheming with the tabby cat, this was a delight to read.

bloody chamber3The Erl-King was my least favorite story, not because it was bad – the language and description are as impressive as ever. But it isn’t really a story. I am quite familiar with the poem Der Erlkönig (everybody reads it in school) and while this strange being, living in the forest, somehow being the forest, was fascinating, I didn’t really recognise the creature from the poem. This tale is clearly sexual in nature with a girl describing how she embraces the Erl-King on the forest floor, his eyes the color of wet moss, his hair full of fallen leaves. But this story doesn’t really have a plot.

The shortest story, only a few pages long, was The Snow Child. At first, I expected something Snow Queen themed but once the husband, who is riding out with his wife, is wishing for a girl as white as snow, as red as blood, and as black as a raven’s feather, it became obvious which tale was being retold. Again, I commend Angela Carter for bringing characters to life on just a few pages, on telling a story and giving us an original ending.

While not strictly a fairytale retelling, The Lady of the House of Love is a vampire story, and a melancholy one at that. The Duchess, damned and living lonely in her darkened mansion, despises her bloodlust but succumbs to it nonetheless. Her cycle of bringing young men to her house, seduce them and feed on them, is weighing heavy on her soul (if vampires have souls, that is). When a young, virgin officer arrives at her house, she is blinded by his purity (and his blond hair) and knows him to be the lover the tarot cards predicted. I loved the imagery of this story even more than in The Bloody Chamber. It is the man who is a virgin and whose blood will stain the bedsheets on their “wedding night”, it is the woman, soothing him by saying she won’t hurt him, she will be gentle.
I didn’t even care how the story ended because being submerged in these themes and that setting was a joy. I wouldn’t have minded reading a longer story or even a novel about the sad vampire Duchess and the English officer.

The last three tales all feature werewolves of a kind. The Werewolf retells Little Red Riding Hood, with the girl being on her guard and defending herself against the wolf only to find out what she had truly done at the end. I loved the set-up of the story, set in this harsh, cold country that sprang to life from the pages – and I equally loved the twist at the end. But my favorite werewolf story was The Company of Wolves, another retelling of the same story with the red-scarved girl meeting a hunter instead of a wolf and making a bet that he can reach her grandmother’s house before her if he goes through the woods, instead of staying on the path. The story follows the fairytale to a large degree, even containing “What big eyes you have” and so on. But I bet even the wolf didn’t expect Red Riding Hood to turn the ending on its head in that way. I loved it!
The last story, werewolf or otherwise, was Wolf-Alice. Alice herself is not a werewolf but a human who has been raised, for a while, by wild wolves in the woods. As she is found by humans they try to make her civilized, put her in dresses, wash her – only to cast her out because she is still a wild beast inside. She is sent to the Duke who suffers loneliness because of his own particular affliction.This tale was both heartbreaking and a little anti-climactic, although it does frame the collection beautifully in mentioning a bloody chamber once more when the little wolf-girl first menstruates and doesn’t know what is happening to her.
That said, it is a rare thing to read about menstruation in fiction at all – as if we were still living in the dark ages, when it is something to be hidden and be ashamed of.

In the end, I found something to love in every one of these stories, most obviously the fantastic language. Carter may not spend a lot of time describing her characters’ surroundings, but by throwing in French or Italian words and phrases, manages to create a sense of place without long expositions. Whether we are in France, in some undefined North country, dealing with Italian nobles or a Romanian Duchess, the atmosphere was graspable and real. Now that I’ve had my sample platter, I am more than ready to read a full Angela Carter Novel. I can’t wait to see what she does when she has more pages at her disposal for character development. I can only imagine it will be quite brilliant.

Neil Gaiman (ed.) – Unnatural Creatures

Turns out my reading slump is still going on in the back of my brain. I think Cat Valente is at least partially to blame because, let’s face it, after reading her work, everything else is a little bland im comparison. But short stories came to save me! I picked this up on a whim – and because Neil selected these stories – and from the first page of the first story I was all in. Thanks, Neil. It’s good to know your readers can rely on you even when we don’t read your own work.

unnatural creaturesUNNATURAL CREATURES
(eds.) Neil Gaiman, Maria Dahvana Headley

Published by: Harper Collins, 2013
ISBN: 0062236296
ebook: 480 pages

My rating: 8/10

First sentence: (from the introduction) When I was a boy, the best place in the world was in London, a short walk from South Kensington Station.

Unnatural Creatures is a collection of short stories about the fantastical things that exist only in our minds—collected and introduced by beloved New York Times bestselling author Neil Gaiman.
The sixteen stories gathered by Gaiman, winner of the Hugo and Nebula Awards, range from the whimsical to the terrifying. The magical creatures range from werewolves to sunbirds to beings never before classified. E. Nesbit, Diana Wynne Jones, Gahan Wilson, and other literary luminaries contribute to the anthology.
Sales of Unnatural Creatures benefit 826DC, a nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting students in their creative and expository writing, and to helping teachers inspire their students to write.

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unnatural introductionThis was an unexptected and incredibly pleasant surprise. I am not a big short story reader, even less a reader of collections, because even if I love one or two stories, I inevitable dislike others. That was the case here as well, but the good stories easily outweighed the bad ones, and almost every single unnatural creature was a joy to discovery. Different as they are in tone, style, and theme, these are all brilliant stories by fantastic writers that will – one day – make a great storybook for my own children.

I wasn’t surprised to love the stories by Nalo Hopkinson and Diana Wynne Jones the most, as these are two writers who have already stolen my heart with their novels. But Samuel Delany’s adventure short story took me by surprise, as did Grahan Wilsons “Inksplot”. At the very end, the list of contributors and the date of publication for each short story, offered another surprise. I had no idea (and wouldn’t have guessed from the stories themselves) that some of them were first published over 100 years ago. That just goes to show how timeless stories are and how undying our love for the fantastic.

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Grahan Wilson – --.--

I am not kidding, this is the actual title of the first story, and it set the perfect tone and mood for this collection. One of my biggest worries was that the titular Unnatural Creatures would be dealt with only in a Very Serious fashion, but this little story took turns in making me chuckle and horrified. An aristocrat and his butler are trying to deal with a mysterious black spot that appears on the table cloth but that won’t stay there. In fact, whenever you look away or so much as blink (Doctor Who, anyone?), the spot appears in a different place. And every time it moves, it grows.
What started out as a hilarious story of a gentleman trying to keep his house in order turns into a creepy hunt for a larger and larger black spot. I loved this story so much that I was a bit baffled by the abrupt and rather cliffhanger-y ending. If this were the beginning of a novel or novella, I would buy it in a heartbeat.The way it is, I’m a bit sorry that I don’t know how it all ends… Rating: 8,5/10

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E. Lily Yu – The Cartographer Wasps and the Anarchist Bees

What a strange little story. In it, people find out that when you boil wasps’ nests, the paper shows brilliantly accurate maps of the surrounding country, and so humans go and take down all the nests they can find. But one colony of wasps escapes and settles in the bees’ territory. They enslave the bees, setting up a whole new society which includes brainwashing bees when they are still larvae, making them work for the wasps, and teaching their doctrine to their own young.
As bizarre as the story was, I really enjoyed it. It felt like a surreal, animal dystopia, and made me deeply uncomfortable for the bees. Another thing it made me want to do is read more by E. Lily Yu. Her style really got to me and while I wouldn’t say this was my favorite story in this collection, it did follow me into my dreams. Rating: 8/10

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Frank R. Stockton – The Griffin and the Minor Canon

Here’s a story about a misunderstood griffin who has to deal with an entire town’s prejudice. Wanting nothing more than to see his own likeness, he flies into a small village whose church has a statue of a griffin that he wants to admire, lacking a mirror or quiet body of water. People flee in fear, even though the griffin hasn’t done anyone any harm. They send out the Minor Canon, to talk to the griffin and make sure he goes away again. But the Minor Canon and the griffin become friends of a sort, which brings down the people’s scorn on both of them.
This was a bittersweet story that took a few pages to get into, a story that I finished with one smiling and one crying eye. It shows how fear and lack of understanding (or lack of wishing to understand creatures that are different from oneself) can lead to prejudice and cruelty. Rating: 7/10

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Nnedi Okorafor – Ozioma the Wicked

This very simple tale tells the story of Ozioma, a girl who can talk to snakes and is shunned as a witch and an abomination. With hardly any friends, she contents herself in small tasks. Until a gigantic snake falls from the sky and terrfies her village. That’s when the people suddenly turn to her for help. Ozioma’s bravery and good heart make her face this snake-from-heaven and try to save her people – the same people who have mistreated her all her life.
What a beautiful story about being an outsider and yet caring about the ones who wouldn’t have you as their friend! The language wasn’t very complex, the plot straightforward, and the theme a simple one. But Okorafor is a powerful storyteller and made me care about her protagonist without being flowery or overly poetic. Rating: 7/10

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Neil Gaiman – Sunbird

I almost dare not say it but this was my least favorite story. Not only was it tedious to plough through, the twist at the end was obvious from a very early point and the four main characters kind of mushed together in a way that made it impossible for me to tell them apart – with the exception of Zebediah, who is, to say the least, strange from the very beginning. The Epicurean Society is always on the lookout for new and interesting things to eat. They’ve had everything from turkey, to beef, to unicorn and several types of beetle. It seems only the Sunbird has not been tasted yet, and so they set out for Egypt and prepare to catch and eat that mythical bird that comes from the sun.
I love Neil Gaiman, I really do, but this story was a mess. The pacing was off, the dialogue was boring, and the characters didn’t stand out at all. For a short story, it actually took me a long time to get through it and I thought of skipping it several times. Rating: 3,5/10

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Diana Wynne Jones – The Sage of Theare

There is a reason why everybody loves Diana Wynne Jones. This is not only one of the best structured, plotted and paced story in the collection, it also deals with the subjects of free will, free thinking, breaking the rules, and, most importantly, asking questions. The very orderly, very much rule-abiding gods of Theare are afraid of a prophecy that warns of their Dissolution. They try to escape their fate – which of course backfires. We follow the young boy Thasper, who – above all things – asks questions. He questions everything, why the sun is bright, why his father (the god Imperion) is so shiny, why there are rules in the first place. I adored every single page and it goes to show DWJ’s talent that she brought her characters to life on so few pages, made me care about them and made me think for myself as well. All children’s literature should be this way – fun and light, but opening the mind to deeper thoughts and more complex subjects. Oh yes, and there’s a bonus point for the invisible dragon. Fantastically done! (I also went ahead and got the first book in her Chrestomanci series after this.) Rating: 9/10

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Saki – Gabriel-Ernest

I was wondering how long it would take for werewolves to appear. The chapter illustration gave it away before the story even started. When Van Cheele takes a walk through the woods on his property, he encounters a naked young man, sunning himself on a rock. This unsettling person refuses to leave the property and explains how he survives in the woods – by hunting. Deer, hare, but preferably human child-flesh. Despite the knowlege of having a werewolf at my hands, the story still sent chills down my spine. This clever, and very short, story managed to build up suspense, keep me on the edge of my seat, and then come to a not-so-nice conclusion. I enjoyed it immensely and I am still surprised that, with only a few lines of dialogue, Saki managed to make this werewolf-boy seem utterly strange and dangerous. Rating: 7/10

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E. Nesbit – The Cockatoucan; or, Great-Aunt Willoughby

Ah, now this was a delight to read. The young girl Matilda dreads to go visit her aunt Willoughby as much as she hates being put into tight frocks that scratch her arms and have too many buttons. By a fortunate turn of events, her nursemaid takes the wrong bus and the two arrive at a truly magical place. Here, everything is dictated by the whims of a cockatoucan – whenever the bird laughs, everything changes: men into boys, palaces into butcher’s shops, Thursdays into Sundays, and so on. It is up entirely to Matilda’s wits to bring peace to the kingdom.
I have a thing for whimsy and for stories about clever girls – both of which were represented here and, what’s more, excellently done. Every page solicited a grin or chuckle, Matilda was a delightful heroine with clever ideas and a good heart. This light-hearted romp was just a wagonload of fun. Rating: 8,5/10

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Maria Dahvana Headley – Moveable Beast

This story feels like the first modern one, although Okorafor’s Oziama had an iPod (which limits the time frame for the story to pretty modern times), because the language reads like a real modern 16-year-old girl is telling the story of her home, Bastardtown. In this 500-soul-village, things aren’t like in other towns. Angela works at an ice cream shoppe (!) and is deeply annoyed by a Beast Collector who has come to hunt the Beast that lives in their mini-forest. As to the nature of that beast, we don’t find out until the end but it is amusing and satisfying at the same time. The story may be short in comparison, but it had personality and atmosphere and made me want to pick up Headleys novel Queen of Kings which I have lying around here somewhere. Rating: 6,5/10

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Larry Niven – The Flight of the Horse

Over 1000 years into the future, one man is sent back in time to acquire a horse – by now extinct and only recognisable through its similarity to a drawing in a children’s book. When he arrives somewhere close to the year 1200, he does find what looks like a horse, with some slight but surely negligible differences. But getting this creature to cooperate and follow him into the future is harder than expected. And then there’s the thing about the horn…
I feel like a broken record by now but I also liked this story. Coming from a more science fiction-y angle, it was nice to see the unnatural creature through the eyes of a man who knows nothing about animals (at least not horses) or, apparently, mythology. The ending gave me a last-minute occasion to chuckle and rounded up the story very well. Compared to the other stories represented here, it wasn’t as memorable or original but definitely worth the quick read. Rating: 6,5/10

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Samuel R. Delany – Prismatica

Oh, I do love adventure stories. This one is actually structured in chapters and reminded me very much of a fairytale with its repetitive description and the number three playing a major part. Amos, a young and clever man, meets the greyest person he’s ever seen and takes on the task of retrieving three parts of a broken mirror for the grey gentleman. What starts out as a creepy but fairly straight forward ship journey turns into a fun adventure with cursed princesses, trapped princes, vain North Winds, and lots and lots of colors. I loved that the story was a bit longer and how it showed off Amos’ cleverness. I’ve only ever read Babel-17 by Delany but, after this sample of a very different kind of work, I will be sure to read more.  Because this was excellent! Rating: 8/10

divider1Megan Kurashige – The Manticore, The Mermaid, and Me

Now this was a bit of a mess. Beginning with the protagonist’s age, there were a lot of unclarities that diminished my reading pleasure. What I thought were two grown-ups turned out to be teenagers of an unknown age (I think). It all starts with their visit to the Natural History Museum to see the raccoon with wings some rogue taxidermist had made. But then it is a platypus that is promptly kidnapped and taken home, only to turn into a mermaid in the bathtub. Question marks were popping up over my head like crazy at this point. On their second visit, there is an incident with a manticore which leaves real scars and frightens the shit out of people – but all of these events are so random and make so little sense that I didn’t really know what I was reading. It left me with the feeling of a confused, chaotic thing that I couldn’t call a story if I wanted to. Rating: 4/10

divider1Anthony Boucher – The Compleat Werewolf

This somewhat silly, at times funny, story is about a university professor who finds out he is a werewolf – not the kind that has to transform at every full moon, but the kind that can change at will – rather, whenever a certain word is said. He has the apt name of Wolfe Wolf and drowns his worries about the beautiful Gloria in alcohol. The plan is: Get Gloria to accept his wedding proposal, but things don’t go exactly as he wants them to. Wolf’s mishaps are mostly funny, sometimes a bit bland, but offer a culminating end that was utterly satisfying. Plus, he makes a cat friend while he is a wolf, which lifted the whole story up a notch. I have a thing for speaking cats. Not great, a bit long for my taste, it was enjoyable nonetheless. Rating: 6/10

divider1Nalo Hopkinson – The Smile on the Face

Gilla, a girl living in the here and now, has to read for school but would much rather prepare for the party tonight. Taming her hair, comparing herself to her beautiful best friend, and generally worrying about high school things and growing up as a girl, offer a lot of interesting conflict right from the start. Hopkinson adds a mythology element to do with the cherry tree in Gilla’s yard. Because that tree seems to talk to her. When it drops a perfect cherry into her cloud of hair and Gilla accidentally swallows the pip, things really start to kick off…
The story’s biggest strength is definitely Gilla’s character. Oh, how well I understand this teenager questioning herself and every move she makes. Wondering whether she’s pretty enough, or slim enough, whether she should eat in front of people who already call her fat, why other rounder girls seemed to look beautiful so effortlessly. Any girl who has grown up not being perfect (so… everyone) will understand the torment and self-doubt going on in Gilla’s brain. Maybe the story spoke to me that intensely because I knew exactly what it feels like to be a bit too chubby, to be friends with a gorgeous girl, to get attention only in the form of insults or – worse – to be ignored completely.
The story gets better and better until, by the end, I deeply cared about Gilla and wanted her to gain some confidence as much as the Unnatural Creature represented here. The Smile on the Face may not be an intriguing title, but the story was easily one of my favorites in this collection. Rating: 9/10

divider1Avram Davidson – Or All the Seas With Oysters

I’m not sure how I feel about this story. Its strength is definitely the characters, rather than its particular – if very original – unnatural creature. It’s the story of two bicycle shop owners, one always on the lookout for lady customers he can seduce, the other introvert and bookish. Their relationship was simply charming to read about and their search for paperclips (there never are any paperclips when you need them!) understandably frustrating. I liked it for the protagonists but found the idea of a, if not sentient, sort-of-alive bicycle rather silly. Rating: 6,5/10

divider1Peter S. Beagle – Come Lady Death

The Last Unicorn was one of my first favorite fantasy stories and I can still watch the movie with enjoyment and wonder. So expectations for Beagle’s story were high. Lady Neville wants to throw the best ball there is, being bored with life in general and the endless repetitive balls in particular, and promptly decides to invite Death. The way she goes about handing the invitation to Death himself (herself, as it turns out) was shocking and a little heartbreaking. The ball itself though was a little boring to read, even when Lady Death arrives, and only the very fitting and satisfying ending made up for it. Maybe I am too biased because of my love for Beagle’s Unicorn but the language here underwhelmed me a bit. Rating: 6/10

All things considered, this was an excellent story collection and if Neil Gaiman should ever decide to compile another one, I’ll be the first to buy it. Reading one or two stories before bed was a wonderful experience and I jotted down so many authors’ names whose work I want to read (or read more). Highly recommended to people who like mythological creatures, a diverse range of short stories, and those who want to visit the Museum of Unnatural History with Neil Gaiman.