Posts Tagged ‘book reviews’

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.

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.