Thursday, April 28, 2022

Spear, by Nicola Griffith

I've seen a lot of hype about Nicola Griffith's new short novel, Spear. It's a take on the Arthurian cycle, highlighting some Celtic (Welsh and Irish) aspects. It tells the story of a young woman, who is evidently magical in some way owing to her (mysterious, for most of the book) parentage. She leaves her mother (a single-parent) and ranges about Wales as a (male) knight-to-be, and thus journeys to the court of Artos in Caer Leon, romancing women there and along the way. The story is well-written (much better than the off-putting blog-style found in most Tordotcom books), and the queer take on the Arthurian court is interesting. However, the book does have some problems--the start-up is too slow, and at times the actions and motivations of the characters don't jibe precisely with the narrative, pulling the reader out of the story to wonder what is happening and why. Sometimes, too, the depiction feels a bit like a Mary Sue novel. It's still pretty good overall, but it could have benefited from another deep critical look at the structure and the expression of character motivations.

Thursday, April 21, 2022

Serpentine by Philip Pullman

Serpentine is a very short tale by Pullman, written for a fundraising concern in 2004, and finally published in 2020 as a small book with illustrations by Tom Doxbury. It basically fills in a small gap of the story of Lyra Silvertongue after the events of the three-volumed His Dark Materials. As a story it is even less substantial than the similar small books Lyra's Oxford (2003) and Once Upon a Time in the North (2008). But it has a pleasant epilogue-styled feel, and whets one's appetite for further tales in the same universe.

Sunday, April 10, 2022

All Systems Red by Martha Wells

All Systems Red (2017) by Martha Wells is the story of a security bot (a murderbot, in this case) who is hired to protect some scientific explorers on an early expedition to a new planet. The conspiracies multiply: is the (cheap, corner-cutting) corporation behind the sabotages and attacks on them?  Or is it a competitive expedition?  Or something even more subversive? It's a moderately engaging tale, though I wouldn't have suspected it capable of winning (as it did) a Nebula Award for Best Novella.  It's also the first of several related novellas that comprise The Murderbot Diaries. While I enjoyed this first one, I don't feel at all compelled to continue the series. Too many other things to read that look more enticing.

Friday, March 25, 2022

Maiden, Mother, Crone, edited by Gwen Benaway

I was directed to this book, published in 2019, to read one specific story, but as I've never before encountered an anthology made up of stories about "fantastical trans femmes" I thought I'd read the whole thing. It's fairly short, eleven stories spread out in under 150 pages.  A few stories were underdeveloped, and clearly by writers still learning the craft. Most were okay or passable stories, but they all encompassed some similarities: the trans protagonists all have a sense of being very special, together with an aggrieved sense of being misunderstood and looked down upon. With one exception, all the males in the stories are there to be evil. One story ("Freeing the Bitch") reads completely like fanfiction--all the boxes of representation and identity are successively checked, as if that is the point of storytelling. The story that was recommended  to me ("i shall remains"--yes the author refuses conventional punctuation and capitalization) was indeed interesting-- a deliberate response to Ursula K. Le Guin's famous story "Those Who Walk Away from Omelas," which is quoted in the  headnote to the story. The book's editor (who also contributed one story) Gwen Benaway described herself as "a trans girl of Anishinaabe and Metis descent"--indiginous peoples of the Great Lakes area of Canada and the U.S. The truth of this assertion was questioned (on Twitter and elsewhere) in 2020, and Benaway has since been cancelled. The publisher of this book, Bedside Press, ceased operations in 2021.  I have no idea if the two events are related, but the book is now out of print and copies are scarce. So it goes. 

Friday, March 11, 2022

The Haunting Season: Eight Ghostly Tales for Long Winter Nights

The Haunting Season is an odd volume containing eight stories by eight supposed bestselling writers. The writers are seven women and one man. No editor is credited, so one wonders: how did stories get selected for this book? All eight writers are British, and none seem to be especially known on this side of the Atlantic. I've read novels by two of them before, the one by Bridget Collins was reviewed at this site on January 30, 2019. Collins's story opens this volume, and I found it as unsatisfying as her novel. Stories by Imogen Hermes Gowar, Laura Purcell, and Kirin Millwood Hargrave, are somewhat traditional. Stories by Andrew Michael Hurley (the other author I've read before) and Elizabeth Macneal attempt to do something more unusual, but they don't pull it off successfully. The story by Jess Kidd  begins with a photographer called in to photograph an extremely beautiful young dead woman. It pulls the reader in, but soon goes off in tangents, leaving an unsatisfying denouement. The story by Natasha Pulley ("The Eel Singers") is the strangest and most interesting one in the book: odd characters are affected by the landscape and history of an isolated region of the fens. As a themed anthology, the book doesn't work. As a modern example of the ghostly tradition, the book doesn't work. None of the stories are terrible, but none are especially good. Most of them read like first drafts--which could have been bettered with some thought applied to them during revision. A disappointment overall.

Thursday, March 3, 2022

Jack of Hearts (and Other Parts) by L.C. Rosen

Religious zealotry is once again operating in full force, as increasingly books are being banned on topics that such zealots deem should be silenced. These include ideas related to race and to LGBTQ issues. Jack of Hearts (and Other Parts) (2018)  by L.C. Rosen is one such challenged title (which I learned of and read because of the nudnik challenges). It concerns a gay New York City high schooler who conducts a (off-school) website sex column while at the same time being stalked and threatened by an anonymous supposed admirer. Books like this which exhibit sympathy and understanding of sexual (and other) minorities should not be banned by myopic zealots, but stocked openly in every high school library.

Monday, February 21, 2022

Frozen Hell by John W. Campbell Jr.

Frozen Hell is the original manuscript version of John W. Campbell, Jr.'s, 1938 novella "Who Goes There?"--better known via various filmed versions, The Thing from Another World (1951), John Carpenter's The Thing (1982), and the very similarly plotted prequel, also titled The Thing (2011). This new edition is probably the worst example of shameless exploitation and overhype that I've ever encountered. The Preface attempts (and fails) to add excitement to the discovery of this lost first version (it was found in a library archive, wow). A long Introduction by Robert Silverberg puts the story in context. "Frozen Hell" itself is basically the same as "Who Goes There?" but with three slow and uninteresting extra chapters at the beginning. Padding out this slim volume further are five preview chapters of a proposed sequel, to be written by the publisher, but the writing of this is so filled with cliches of phrasing and of situation that one can only hope that the world is spared from any more. Silverberg aptly notes that Campbell's dropping of the first three chapters was a great improvement.  "Who Goes There?" is worth reading.  This resurrected discarded draft is not.