Archive for the ‘Genre Reading List’ Category

What’s that? A bird? A plane? A review of an anthology paying tribute to one of science fiction’s most singularly game-changing writers?

It’s probably that last one.

It should go without saying but: spoilers below. It is difficult to review anything without spoiling something. Thus, there will be no kvetching about spoilers.

Octavia’s Brood edited by adrienne maree brown and Walidah Imarisha, out April 14, is a collection of stories, essays, and–in one remarkable case–a T.V. script, which seeks to capture the visionary fiction aesthetic and social justice mentality of the great Octavia Butler. Brown and Imarisha solicited its contents from a wide range of activists, from journalist Dani McClain to actor LeVar Burton. The stories include speculative fiction of all stripes, including more recognizable spaceships-and-aliens sci-fi, fabulism, zombie apocalyptic horror, and–unsurprisingly–plenty of dystopian fiction.

In other words, there’s pretty much something for everyone between the covers of Octavia’s Brood, provided you’re interested in having your ideas and social assumptions challenged. Much like Butler’s work, this is an anthology driven by questioning and the questions asked–about race, gender, and sexuality in society–are not easy ones. Consequently, I recommend it as a slower read. Take some time to chew on what you’ve been given. Think about the stories and go back to them if you can. This is a book that requires patience and introspection; if you blow through it, you’re not going to get anything much out of it.

But assuming you are that kind of reader–and if you love Butler, you almost certainly are–definitely pick up this book. If you can, read it with some likeminded (or maybe slightly different-minded) friends. It will precipitate the types of conversations many of us want and need to have. Good fiction, like Butler’s fiction, can do that for us. It can make us grapple with the issues of our identity, the ways in which we conceive of one another, the often unnoticed harm that happens to those of us outside the margins.

That’s all well and good, Julia, you might be saying, but how were the stories? That’s what we read anthologies for, after all. Ideas can only get us so far.

I’ll admit, not everything in here was my cup of tea in terms of plot and structure, but as I said, that doesn’t seem to be the goal. There’s something sort of scattershot, sort of busy, in this approach–a cramming in of different types of stories to spur as much conversation as possible. And, because many of these people aren’t writers by trade, the quality of prose can be a little uneven at times. Some stories seemed to need more room to breathe. Others felt sluggishly paced. But there were plenty of gems, too, by my estimation.

My top five were:

“Revolution Shuffle” by Bao Phi. The anthology opener kicked it off with a socially conscious zombie twist worthy of early Romero. Hit all the right buttons for me and gave us that “on the edge of revolution” feel that persisted throughout Octavia’s Brood.

“The River” by adrienne maree brown. Hands down the most beautifully written story in the book and the prose lent itself to the eerier qualities of this ghostly story set in post-industrial Detroit.

“The Long Memory” by Morrigan Phillips. An unusual sort of tale that deals with the issue of cultural and social memory and the problems we encounter when only a handful of people are aware of that inheritance.

“The Surfacing” by Autumn Brown. Interesting in media res approach which details the ousting of a woman from her subterranean society, only for her to discover everything above wasn’t quite as she thought.

“Lalibela” by Gabriel Teodros. This story that shifts through space and time reminds us how much has changed and how little.

It should be noted, too, that the essays at the end of the anthology are pretty fantastic all on their own, especially if you like talking about Butler’s work or Star Wars.

On the whole, despite its flaws, I was glad for the opportunity to read Octavia’s Brood and dwell on its questions. I sincerely hope there will be more anthologies like it in the future.

7/10.

Yes, we’re back with some of the best the web had to offer in May and June:

From Scigentasy: “Gravity Well” A.J. Fitzwater. Gravity says: you crazy broads. Gaia’s embrace is too strong. What of your wayward suns? And how many tampons do you need between here and the moon anyway? I love the frenetic everything about this very short story.

From Tor.com: “Waters of Versailles” by Kelly Robson. Annette giggled. “Your pipes are weeping, monsieur.” Viva la novella! Seriously, this utterly charming alt-historical fantasy is the perfect argument for why this form belongs in genre publications.

From Strange Horizons: “Post-Apocalyptic Toothbrush” by Betsy Ladyzhets. Egads! A poem?! Just enjoy it, friends.

From Lightspeed: “Emergency Repair” by Kate M. Galey. Queers Destroy Science Fiction! is here! And you should indeed read and/or listen to all of the stories, but this one by newcomer Galey is just all sorts of lovely and wonderful.

From Escape Pod“Beyond the Trenches We Lie” by A. T. Greenblatt. This morning, the Globs are waiting for us, just like always. Despite what the official propaganda shows, we, this little band of ragged soldiers, don’t even bother to line up anymore. My preferred flavor of military sci-fi.

From Daily Science Fiction: “The Pixie Game”  by Anna Zumbro. Jack puts his face close to the leaves and sticks out his tongue. Gage sees a rustle and a flash of green, then a tiny figure clinging to the tip of Jack’s tongue before it retracts. Gross but somehow also very poignant? Go figure.

From Glittership: “King Tide” by Alison Wilgus. Some particular trick of the moon, the weather, and the Earth’s closeness to the sun had pulled the tide all the way to 5th Avenue, a good half-block further uphill than usual. Wilgus also writes/draws comics and is generally awesome.

From Uncanny Magazine: “Young Woman in a Garden” by Delia Sherman. When Theresa finally found La Roseraie at the end of an unpaved, narrow road, she was tired and dusty and on the verge of being annoyed. For those of you who like a little art history with your speculative fiction.

Happy reading everyone! Tell me your recommendations in the comments!

Yes, we’re back with some of the best the web had to offer in March and April:

From Nightmare: “Ishq” by Usman T. Malik. The open sewerage ravine near Mochi Gate slowly began to fill up with wet leaves, bird nests, shopping bags, old shoes, and Hashim sat by the dead girl, waiting, waiting. Beautifully eerie piece about grief, love, and illness.

From Pseudopod: Flash on the Borderlands XXIV: Femmes Fatales. There’s a little something for everyone in this trio of flashes. Nice change of pace, too.

From Podcastle: “The Specialist’s Hat” by Kelly Link. One of my absolutely favorite Link stories and read just perfectly.

From Apex: “Silver Buttons All Down His Back” by A.C. Wise. It’s just past dawn; the sleek lines of the rocket stand against a sky silvering from deep blue to almost-white where it touches the horizon. The moon is a slim crescent, grinning. I adored this story set in the not-too-distant future which explores the ways it which we hurt each other–especially when we’re expecting to be hurt ourselves.

From Daily Science Fiction: “Robo-rotica” by Sarina Dorie.  The title probably says it all. Laughed so hard I cried.

From Lightspeed: “The New Atlantis” by Ursula K. LeGuin. Delicately and easily, the long curving tentacle followed the curves of the carved figure, the eight petal-limbs, the round eyes. Did it recognize its image?  Does LeGuin still have it, you might be wondering? Damn right she does.

From Strange Horizons: “City of Salt” by Arkady Martine. I am the jackal gnawing on the bones of the city; I am the city, being devoured. I stayed. I earned it. Truly unusual, as well as richly imagined and vividly told.

From Lackington’s: “Ambergris, or The Sea-Sacrifice” by Rhonda Eikamp. The sound was the world, the world’s horn, commanding, the conch-shell that held them all in its whorls and would never let them go until they had drowned in life. Gorgeous and original fairy tale about a father and his powerful daughter.

From The Golden Key: “Water Lily Monster” by Anne Lacy. Often the first story in an issue is quite good, but this one just hits it out of the park. Had me at the first line: When night comes, the crocodil mamma rises to the surface and wakes her goblin babes.

From Shimmer: “You Can Do It Again” by Michael Ian Bell. Beautifully told tale with a striking, almost frenetic pace that provides a unique look at grief, regret, and the inability to let go.

From Clarkesworld: “Postcards from Monster Island” by Emily Devenport. If you love GodzillaKing KongPacific Rim, etc., you’ll dig this story.

From GlitterShip: “How to Become A Robot in 12 Easy Steps” by A. Merc Rustad. A thoughtful meditation on the nature of identity, sexuality, and depression. With robots.

Happy reading everyone! Tell me your recommendations in the comments!

That’s right–in addition to periodic “Watch it Now” posts, at the end of every month, I’ll also collate some of the best online speculative fiction reads for your enjoyment. These will include flash fiction, short fiction, novellas, and novelettes from science fiction, horror, fantasy, and everything in between. They will always be free publications, although I encourage you to support them if you can.

Of course, I have my favorites when it comes to venues, so if you have a recommendation from another source, please don’t hesitate to share.

For February, I suggest the following 7 works for your enjoyment:

From Lightspeed“And the Winners Will Be Swept Out to Sea” by Maria Dahvana Headley. I am not afraid of monsters. I’ve never been afraid of monsters. I’m afraid of love. The prose here is frenetic and gorgeous. I also encourage you to listen to the audio version!

From Escape Pod: “The Evening, The Morning and the Night” by Octavia Butler. Technically the story is a much older one (from 1987) but is it ever a bad idea to revisit Butler, especially when she’s read so brilliantly?

From Strange Horizons: “Limestone, Lye, and the Buzzing of Flies” by Kate Heartfield. No—that is the wrong memory. That didn’t happen. Not to me. A truly unsettling and unique tale.

From Daily Science Fiction: “Marking Time” by Stephanie Burgis. Everyone’s lives are made of moments. Beautifully wrought magical realist meditation on regret.

From Jersey Devil Press: “The Nature of Johnny’s Medicine” by Sloan Thomas. I trust in my destiny as much as anyone around . . . maybe more. There’s a wonderful subtleness to this one.

From The Dark Magazine: “In the Dreams Full of Sleep, Beakless Birds Can Fly” by Patricia Russo. Better a child with wings and a beak, better a child that flew away, than one who never grew, who wasted away and died. Heartbreaking and lovely. Amazing what you could with dialogue and silences.

From Apex Magazine: “The Best Little Cleaning Robot in All of Faerie” by Susan Jane Bigelow. When everybody on the bridge of the interstellar mercenary cruiser Zinnia fell into a magic sleep… Hilarious and different and obviously it gets you at the first line.

Happy reading everyone! Tell me your recommendations in the comments!

Today’s review is of The Brothers Cabal by Jonathan L. Howard, out September 30.

Please note that The Brothers Cabal is the fourth of Howard’s Johannes Cabal series. To begin at the beginning (as you should), start with Johannes Cabal the Necromancer.

And as always, reviews have spoilers.

Confession: I adore the Johannes Cabal books. If you’re looking for any sort of objectivity in your book reviews, you’re not going to find that here. I like to think my opinion is totally warranted, but I frankly don’t care. These are just my kind of books.

The Brothers Cabal picks up where The Fear Institute left off: Johannes, after his adventures against Nyarlathotep and time as a ghoul, finds himself on the brink of death just outside his garden gate. A strong and mysterious stranger picks him up, takes him into the house, and begins to care for him. The book closes with Johannes’ recognition of the figure and the line: “But . . . you’re dead . . .”

Which prompted a lot of all-caps texting and tweeting amongst my Cabal-reading buddies. There was only one person who could possibly have rescued Johannes and that was Horst, his brother-turned-vampire-turned-pile-of-dust who we haven’t seen since his demise in book one. And Horst it certainly is.

The Brothers Cabal, happily, answers nearly all of our Horst-related questions, while naturally raising a whole host of new ones in their stead. A diabolical secret society–in cahoots with an unknown entity called the Red Queen–has raised Horst from his post-undeath death with the intention of making him their Lord of the Dead, one of four supernatural generals to lead their army of horrors against the human world. We learn of Horst’s adventures through his narration to Johannes, who is still weak and in bed at the beginning of the novel. The newly-risen Horst must navigate a remote, central European castle full of zombies, were-creatures of all types, spies, and enterprising businessmen. Eventually, he falls in with the Dee Society on the side of humanity and convinces Johannes to join their cause.

The Brothers Cabal possesses the irresistible charm of the previous Cabal books, which is to say: these books are fun. Sure, there are unspeakable horrors and Elder Gods and evil carnivals and terrible deals with the devil. But Howard relates everything with a razor sharp wit that makes even the most gruesome aspects of Cabal’s adventures entertaining as hell. It doesn’t hurt that Johannes is such a fantastic character to begin with–coldly logical and of utterly dubious morals, but inflicted with a soul and an anything-but-cold mission. One of the pleasures of The Brothers Cabal is following Horst as he learns of his brother’s most recent dealings–in particular that Johannes has saved the world not once but twice since Horst’s death.

Of course, the reader has witnessed all of Johannes adventures and his reaction to Horst’s death in the first book. It surprises us not at all that Johannes so readily agrees to help Horst and his new allies. He will never be a warm and fuzzy kind of protagonist, but that’s ultimately what makes Johannes such a wonderful antihero. His rediscovery of his very inconvenient humanity is often as poignant as it is hilarious.

Meanwhile, Horst struggles to maintain his own humanity. He does internal battle with the insidious little voice of his vampirism, which bids him to drink at his leisure and cares little for the sanctity of life. While many of these exchanges are laugh-out-loud funny, we also understand the very real threat to Horst’s integrity.

Nor is The Brothers Cabal lacking in action. We have the usual zombies and vampires, but there’s also everything from a were-badger to a gigantic other-dimensional Daddy Longlegs and evil acidic amoebas. Other than the Dee Society, Horst befriends a flying circus of lady entomopter pilots. The battles are lively and suspenseful without being too drawn out or overly cinematic.

If the novel falters at all, it may be in the mystery of the Red Queen and her intentions. The book ends on a chilling cliffhanger, but we understand little of what might happen. I believe this has more to do with the book’s placement in the series than any failure of its plot or execution. By book four, it’s hard for any story to feel like a standalone adventure. Also, I would definitely suggest rereading the first three if it’s been a while.

Regardless, The Brothers Cabal is a highly entertaining continuation of the series, and I can’t wait to read more.

8/10

What better way to revitalize The Girl Who Loved Zombies than a book review?

By the way, new posts every Tuesday and Thursday, may Azathoth devour the cosmos if I fail.

It should go without saying but: spoilers below. It is difficult to review anything without spoiling something. Thus, there will be no kvetching about spoilers.

Cheryl Priest’s Maplecroft, out September 2, is a Gothic epistolary yarn set in the seaside town of Fall River, Massachusetts. The town’s inhabitants are falling prey to a mysterious illness in the spring of 1894. Victims grow distant and distracted. They lose their appetites and their vitality, grow pale and bloated like creatures from the sea. Eventually, they take their own lives or those of their loved ones in grotesque and unimaginable ways. Something lurks out in the Atlantic; something just awakened calls to the people of Fall River. And only one person has any notion of what’s happening: the infamous Lizzie Borden.

Maplecroft, the first of Priest’s Borden Dispatches series, follows Lizzie, her sister Emma, and Owen Seabury, M.D., as they attempt to make sense of the bizarre phenomena afflicting their town. Emma, much older and a brilliant scientist, is also consumptive and often bedridden. Seabury, a widower, treated Lizzie’s parents before they died–from multiple axe wounds, as the song tells us, but also as the first victims of Fall River’s plague. Other witnesses to the mystery include Lizzie’s lover Nance, Detective Simon Wolf from Boston, and Phillip Zollicoffer of Miskatonic University. In true Lovecraftian style, the more our protagonists investigate, the more they risk their lives, their sanity, and their very souls.

I often say of Cherie Priest that she writes the books I want to read. From her Clockwork Century series (steampunk and zombies!) to her Eden Moore trilogy (Southern Gothic ghost stories!), I’m always happy to pick up her books, and Maplecroft is no exception. It was especially rewarding to see Priest experimenting with form–the epistolary works nearly perfectly–and returning to a darker, slower horror. What I found particularly brilliant in Maplecroft was the gradual dissolution of our heroes’ relationships. As the Bordens and Seabury delve deeper into the otherworldly threat, they lose faith in each other. They grow suspicious, petty, and cruel, without realizing what’s happening to them. Their involvement has real ramifications, and the novel closes on a rather bleak note. Little is resolved, although the immediate danger seems to have passed. I.e., it’s a damn good thing this is a series.

Priest’s appeal isn’t, of course, just zombies and gadgets, ghosts and Civil War battlefields, or unspeakable horrors and notorious mass murderers. What she does with gender–nearly effortlessly–is absolute essential to speculative fiction as a whole and horror in particular. The women in Priest’s stories are complicated heroes, not Mary Sues. Many are older. All of them have experienced trials and tragedy. They’re weathered. Real. Multidimensional. And although the men in her stories lend a helping hand when they can, these women are believably capable. Lizzie Borden fights off the creatures lurking in the night for her friends and family. But she is also haunted by what she’s seen and done. Priest reimagines her, vindicates her in many ways, but does not completely redeem her. There’s a darkness in Lizzie, too, which saves Maplecroft from being purely revisionist.

Priest handles Lizzie’s relationship with Nance equally well. Their relationship feels not at all like a gimmick, but rather adds dimension to the character (and historically, there has been some speculation about Borden’s sexual orientation). There are some beautifully written scenes between Nance and Lizzie. Lizzie’s desire to protect her lover from the terrible truths she’s learned, the animosity between Nance and Emma, and Nance’s irresistible attraction to the closed doors in Maplecroft all lend drama, tension, and suspense to the novel.

As a whole, Maplecroft succeeds completely. Like much of Priest’s work, it builds slowly, the characters and events accumulating in the book’s first half. Then, the novel turns–everything for Lizzie et al quickly goes to hell and there’s much to overcome before the end. This is not only characteristic of Priest’s work, of course, but the tradition which she manipulates here. Maplecroft is Gothic, Weird, Lovecraftian–and it follows the conventions of these subgenres very successfully. However, if you like your horror fast-paced rather than eerie, this likely isn’t the novel for you.

Otherwise: go for it.

8/10.

Usually, I’m pretty terrible about keeping up with the hot new fiction, especially genre fiction. E.g. I just read Poppy Z. Brite’s darkly fantastic Drawing Blood and that came out in 1994.

But this fall I did manage to read a handful of exciting recent releases, so I thought I would share my impressions in another round of mini-reviews.

1. This Book is Full of Spiders: Seriously, Dude, Don’t Touch It by David Wong: As it happens, John Dies At The End is one of my favorite sci-horror books ever. I love Dave and John and Amy. I love the near-poetic level of profanity. I love the bizarre, blitzed-out Lovecraftian backdrop. This Book occupies a slightly different space tonally and topically, but I enjoyed it almost as much as the original. (I mean, zombies-but-not-zombies? YES PLEASE.) And I thought it was a worthy development of Dave and John as heroes and hetero lifemates. If there’s a next chapter to their saga, I’m definitely looking forward to it.

2. The Inexplicables by Cherie Priest: The fifth installment in Priest’s Clockwork Century series, The Inexplicables might be my favorite story yet. Priest always makes wonderful character choices, but I was especially intrigued by her choice of Rector “Wreck ’em” Sherman as her protagonist here. He seems like the most anti-hero style character Priest has gone with and I think it brought a new dimension to the zombies and airships and daring ladies of the previous books. The Inexplicables returns us to Blight-infested Seattle for the first time since Boneshaker, where many familiar faces from the series are trying maintain law and order. And there’s a mysterious new creature lurking in the crumbling city…

3. Familiar by J. Robert Lennon: I acquired this book, which was put out by indie superstar Graywolf Press, in the Unstuck kickstarter way back — and I’m so glad I did! Lennon’s work occupies a space between genres in a way I really admire. Yes, this is a story which is possibly about parallel universes. But it is also very much a novel about family and parenthood and the ways in which our choices shape our lives and the people around us. Of course, it helps Lennon is a dynamic prose stylist and the book itself is just an impressively put-together object.

4. Red Rain by R.L. Stine: That’s right, the horror master of our youth has written a book for adults. If you were a Goosebumps fan growing up, this book is absolutely for you — Stine’s using all of his best tricks here. Moreover, I thought Red Rain was an fascinating insight into what the situations in Goosebumps and Fear Street must have seemed like from an adult perspective: childhood, utterly out of control. And like FamiliarRed Rain is an examination of parenthood and how it can make us shortsighted about the world. It’s also a classic “creepy kid” story, a personal favorite of mine.

5. Son by Lois Lowry: I had no idea Lowry had written more in The Giver universe until this fall when I attended National Bookfest and heard her read from the fourth and final book, Son. As you guys know, I adore The Giver. It remains, I think, one of the best examples of dystopian literature. And Son lives up to it. Forget the young adult/children’s designation, Lowry is simply a master storyteller. Mind you, this is a very different kind of novel from The Giver. In fact, Son is the story of someone much less remarkable within Jonah’s Community: one of the birthmothers. And somehow, through satisfying our curiosity, Lowry manages to ask more questions about the nature of life and love and motherhood.