calissa: A low angle photo of a book with a pair of glasses sitting on top. (Mt TBR)

Falling in Love with Hominids, Nalo Hopkinson, Tachyon Publications, short story collection, fantasy, magical realism, speculative fiction

Published: August 2015 by Tachyon Publications
Format reviewed: E-book (mobi)
Genres: Speculative fiction, fantasy, magical realism, LBGTQIA
Source: NetGalley
Available: Publisher (print and electronic) ~ Abbey’s ~ Amazon ~ Book Depository ~ Booktopia ~ Dymocks ~ Kobo

Disclaimer: I was provided with a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Nalo Hopkinson (Brown Girl in the Ring, Skin Folk) has been widely hailed as a highly significant voice in Caribbean and American fiction. She has been dubbed “one of our most important writers,” (Junot Diaz), with “an imagination that most of us would kill for” (Los Angeles Times), and her work has been called “stunning,” (New York Times) “rich in voice, humor, and dazzling imagery” (Kirkus), and “simply triumphant” (Dorothy Allison).

Falling in Love with Hominids presents over a dozen years of Hopkinson’s new, uncollected fiction, much of which has been unavailable in print. Her singular, vivid tales, which mix the modern with Afro-Carribean folklore, are occupied by creatures unpredictable and strange: chickens that breathe fire, adults who eat children, and spirits that haunt shopping malls.

I’ve been meaning to read Nalo Hopkinson’s work ever since she was the Guest of Honour at the Australian National Science Fiction Convention in 2013. This collection of short stories was the perfect starting point. It showcases the breadth of her talent through a wide variety of stories. Genres range from fantasy and magical realism to soft sci-fi and alternate history.

Diversity is a strong feature of this collection; the characters are even more varied than the genres. The protagonist of the very first story is a young disabled black girl and the rest of the stories contain all sorts of characters. Some are people of colour, some are queer, some are both. Occasionally this diversity is the point of a story. For example Shift reworks Shakespeare’s The Tempest into an interesting meditation on perceptions of black masculinity. However, more often diversity is incidental. I was particularly delighted by Emily Breakfast, which throws in casual mentions of queerness and kink into a story of fantastic domesticity.

Hopkinson has a way with language and this was particularly noticeable in her descriptions of bodies. She throws away narrow cultural definitions of beauty in favour of showing how bodies of all shapes and sizes can be desireable.

As is usual in any collection or anthology, not all of the stories appealed to me. In the introduction, Hopkinson mentions the bleak outlook she held on humanity when she was younger. This perspective definitely shows up in some of the stories, particularly the earlier ones, and didn’t especially appeal to me. I prefer optimistic stories and fortunately still found plenty to delight. Along with the two mentioned above, some particular favourites were:

The Smile on the Face: A teenage girl comes to terms with the cruelty of adolescence and her feelings about her body with a little assistance from her mother’s favourite myth.

Old Habits: A shopping centre is haunted by the ghosts of those who have died within and who are forced to relieve their death daily. A moving story about human dignity.

A Young Candy Daughter: The Christmas spirit manifests in a young girl with extraordinary abilities.

Falling in Love with Hominids is a though-provoking collection and one that will linger with the reader for a long time.

Mirrored from Earl Grey Editing.

calissa: A low angle photo of a book with a pair of glasses sitting on top. (Mt TBR)

22809098

Published: August 2014 by Twelfth Planet Press
Format reviewed: Paperback, 450 pages
Genres: Speculative fiction, fantasy, science fiction, magical realism
Source: Bought directly from the publisher
Reading Challenges: Australian Women Writers Challenge 2015
Available: Twelfth Planet Press (print and electronic) ~ Amazon ~ Book Depository ~ Booktopia  ~ Kobo ~ Smashwords

What do a disabled superhero, a time-traveling Chinese-American figure skater, and a transgendered animal shifter have in common? They’re all stars of Kaleidoscope stories! Kaleidoscope collects fun, edgy, meditative, and hopeful YA science fiction and fantasy with diverse leads. These twenty original stories tell of scary futures, magical adventures, and the joys and heartbreaks of teenage life. Featuring New York Times bestselling and award winning authors along with newer voices: Garth Nix, Sofia Samatar, William Alexander, Karen Healey, E.C. Myers, Tansy Rayner Roberts, Ken Liu, Vylar Kaftan, Sean Williams, Amal El-Mohtar, Jim C. Hines, Faith Mudge, John Chu, Alena McNamara, Tim Susman, Gabriela Lee, Dirk Flinthart, Holly Kench, Sean Eads, and Shveta Thakrar.

In April, Kaleidoscope won both the Ditmar Award and the Aurealis Award for Best Anthology and I can see why. Not only does it do some wonderful things with representation, all the stories are of excellent quality. As with any anthology, there were a few stories I was less keen on, but that was mostly a matter of personal preference.

Diversity is at the heart of this anthology in a number of ways. There are queer characters, characters who use wheelchairs, characters dealing with depression and chronic illnesses, characters from a range of ethnic backgrounds. In some cases the diversity is intersectional. For example, Faith Mudge’s Signature features Priya, a wheelchair-using protagonist who has brown skin. However, the characters’ diversity tends not to be the focus of the story. To continue with the example of Signature, the story is about several characters who are caught in Faustian Bargains that have just come due. The diversity of the characters in this story is completely incidental to the plot–a part of who they are but not the whole of who they are. I loved this about the anthology.

Diversity also manifests in the tone of the stories, allowing for a nice range. Some of them were a little bit dark (Kiss and Kiss and Kiss and Tell by E.C. Meyers), some were heartbreaking (The Day the God Died by Alena McNamara). Others were fun and full of hope (Cookie Cutter Superhero by Tansy Rayner Roberts, Signature). I was pleased to see some magic realism included along with more traditional fantasy and science fiction. Ordinary Things by Vylar Kaftan hardly reads as speculative at all, while in Krishna Blue Shveta Thakrar uses magical realism (and some gorgeous language) to excellent effect. Of them all, Careful Magic by Karen Healey was my favourite. In this magical society, magic users declare themselves for Order or Chaos. Helen is a rare Order magic user and one who lives with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. One day her careful routine is interrupted by a classmate who needs help lifting a love spell.

One concern I had about the anthology was the use of the descriptor “disabled” on the back cover. I had been under the impression that this was offensive (or, at the very least, distasteful) to certain parties and could serve to undermine the anthology’s intended purpose. If any readers have thoughts on this topic, I would love to hear them, especially because this is a trend I have noticed continuing in the promotional material for Defying Doomsday.

However, overall I found Kaleidoscope an excellent anthology and well-deserving of the awards it has received.

Mirrored from Earl Grey Editing.

calissa: (Calissa)

24168051

Published: 2014 by Clan Destine Fictions
Format reviewed: E-book (mobi)
Genres: Science fiction
Source: Review copy provided by author
Disclaimer: Review copy provided by author in exchange for an honest review.

Cold Comfort and Other Tales is a collection of science fiction short stories, two of which are reprints and one of which is original.

The titular tale follows Vanja, a travelling trader who seeks a reclusive settlement and hidden knowledge. Worldbuilding is a strength of this collection and is showcased nicely in this story. Heated domes protect settlements that are not necessarily safer than the snowy wilderness. Adventuresome nature aside, Vanja shows herself to be a relatively sensible character when it comes to managing the risks. The story had a nice pace to it, though the ending left me somewhat unsatisfied. Its revelation of the bigger picture gave the impression this was simply the beginning of a longer tale.

In Through Wind and Weather, Nick and his semi-sentient spaceship battle the worst solar storm on record to make a vital delivery to a planet of settlers. A very short but well-executed story. I read it without being aware of the context of this story’s original publication and so the twist at the end came as a surprise.

Our Land Abounds, the original tale in the collection, is another where the worldbuilding really comes to the fore. It is a near future tale where most of the world is wracked by food shortages and the Republic of Australasia has closed off its borders in an effort to protect its plentiful food supply. Citizens who claim this supply should be shared with the rest of the world mysteriously disappear and illegal immigrants are hanged on discovery. I’d be curious to find out how the cultural references translate for international readers, but Australians will find it chillingly plausible in the current political climate.  I found the plot a little pedestrian, being overshadowed by the worldbuilding. However, that was rather the point and it asked some hard questions about empathy and the current state of society.

Cold Comfort and Other Tales is a short collection that will suck you in and spit you out again before you know it. Perfect for commutes or dipping into when you don’t have a lot of time.

Mirrored from Earl Grey Editing.

calissa: A low angle photo of a book with a pair of glasses sitting on top. (Mt TBR)

D6cover1cdl

Published: April 2014 by coeur de lion publishing
Format reviewed: E-book (mobi)
Genres: Sci-fi, horror
Source: Free from the publisher’s website

Dimension6 is a new electronic publication that was launched this year by Keith Stevenson of coeur de lion publishing. There are three issues a year, each featuring three short stories. This inaugural issue contained Ryder by Richard Harland, The Message by Charlotte Nash, and The Preservation Society by Jason Nahrung.

Ryder is set in country New South Wales during World War 1. Sally has come from Sydney to stay with relatives in safety. However, she’s soon bored out of her mind and finds herself drawn to Ryder, the town’s mysterious bad boy. This story was the wrong way to start off the collection for me and was almost enough to make me put the whole thing down. Although the premise was interesting, I didn’t feel there was enough done with it to justify the story. I also found the characters thoroughly unlikeable and the implications of the ending rather uncomfortable, though the story itself was reasonably well-written. It was disappointing that the author loci included afterwards only related to the story in the most distant of ways.

Charlotte Nash’s The Message more than made up for this disappointment. Set in the post-apocalyptic future, it tells the tale of a hunter who is sent into the dangerous urban wilderness to deliver a message to the enemy. Again, it had an interesting premise and one that seemed distantly related to Ryder. The story’s twists and shifts kept me on my toes, creating excellent tension. It was definitely my favourite story of the collection. I notice that Nash also wrote Ghost of Hephaestus in Phantazein, one of my favourites in that anthology. The Message has confirmed she’s an author I’m going to be watching out for.

The Preservation Society was a bit of a change after the two sci-fi stories. Set in Queensland, a human woman is auctioned off to a group of vampires. Horror isn’t generally my thing, but The Preservation Society did such a great job of focussing on its characters that it never left me feeling out of my comfort zone. In fact, the last line had me chuckling a little. The ending wasn’t too difficult to spot, but well worth the ride. Australian vampires are a preoccupation for Nahrung and he does it well.

Based on this first issue, Dimension6 is a market to keep your eye on if you’re interested in dark, spec-fic short stories. All issues are available for free at the publisher’s website.

Mirrored from Earl Grey Editing.

calissa: (Calissa)

Flower-and-Weed

Published: 2013 by FableCroft Publishing
Format reviewed: E-book (mobi)
Genres: Fantasy
Source: Purchased on Amazon

While not technically part of a series, Flower and Weed is a short story connected to Margo Lanagan’s novel Sea Hearts. It focuses on one of the minor characters from the novel and shares a glimpse into part of her life previously glossed over. Because the story takes place during the events of Sea Hearts and involve some minor spoilers, it is not really a story for those who haven’t read the novel. Likewise, this review contains minor spoilers for Sea Hearts and major spoilers for Flower and Weed.

Flower and Weed is very much a story worth reading.  In my review of Sea Hearts, I mentioned that the novel was strongly feminist. It shows how the human women on Rollrock Island are replaced with slender, beautiful, emotionally-absent selkie wives. In this way, it comments on modern society’s obsession with weight and perfection. This is the negative side of the coin. Flower and Weed is the other side, showing us a fantastically fat-positive portrayal of sex. Worn down by the grief and depression of his selkie wife, our unnamed male narrator finds himself lusting after the only sexually-available human woman on the island. Trudel is full-bodied with freckled skin and red hair. She delights in the earthiness of sex–quite literally, as the pair rut in a field. She is an anathema to the standards of modern society and to Rollrock Island. Yet Lanagan uses her gorgeous command of language to show Trudel as desirable at all times. Even once our protagonist turns away from her in shame, it is the shame of being disloyal to his wife rather than shame at Trudel’s appearance and attitude.

Obviously, Flower and Weed is not a story that stands on its own legs. While there is some effort at developing an emotional connection between the reader and the narrator, it largely depends on the groundwork laid by Sea Hearts. It also means that the character’s journey can only ever be one that maintains the status quo, which I found vaguely dissatisfying, even while I acknowledge it was appropriate. Another thing that tripped me up was the change to Misskaella’s name–shown in Flower and Weed as Messkeletha. This could be an indication that Misskaella is so insignificant to the narrator that he doesn’t even know her proper name, but it slowed me down to begin with as I struggled to place the story within the context created by Sea Hearts.

However, overall I found Flower and Weed to be an excellent story and I highly recommend it to anyone who has read Sea Hearts.

 

Mirrored from Earl Grey Editing.

calissa: (Calissa)

23011835Published: 2014 by FableCroft Publishing
Format reviewed: E-book (mobi)
Series: None
Genres: Fantasy
Source: Review copy provided by the publisher
Challenges: Dewey’s Read-a-thon
Disclaimer: I know the publisher, cover artist and a couple of the contributors

In my September review of To Spin A Darker Stair, I anticipated that Phantazein would prove to be more of the same. Having now read it I can say: it is and it isn’t. Although Phantazein opens with a fairytale retelling and closes with a mythological retelling, the majority of its stories are original stories that retain a strong fairytale flavour.

The stories that make up the anthology had a nice mixture of cultures. While there were some stories that felt vaguely European, there were also some that drew on Asian, Arabic and South American influences. Not being from these cultures, I’m not in a position to judge whether these influences were handled with sensitivity. From an outsider’s perspective, they seemed respectfully done. The diversity made for a reasonably well-balanced anthology, with one exception: there were very few Australian-influenced elements. Cat Sparks’ story The Seventh Relic was the sole exception and a questionable one. Only those familiar with Buddhism in Australia are likely to identify the setting, which otherwise comes across as generically western.

There was also a nice mixture of relationships featured in the stories. Being fairytale-inspired, there were various family relationships (mother and daughter, mother and son, father and daughter, siblings etc) as well as romantic relationships and straightforward friendships. I would like to have seen a few more non-heterosexual romantic relationships. The Seventh Relic proved the exception here once again, though, as with the Australian setting, it tended to be understated.

Being the exception to both of my diversity-related criticisms, it is perhaps unsurprising that The Seventh Relic was also the only story that I felt didn’t quite fit the anthology. However, I feel this was less to do with the inclusion of those diverse elements than its tone, which came across as a little too biting in comparison to the more fairytale-esque stories.

My notable mentions were difficult to pick but include Twelfth by Faith Mudge, The Ghost of Hephaestus by Charlotte Nash and How the Jungle Got its Spirit Guardian by Vida Cruz. Twelfth was a retelling of the Grimm fairytale The Twelve Dancing Princesses. It had wonderful heart and no easy resolution. We didn’t quite get off on the right foot, as I had some trouble with the perspective at first and felt the beginning could have used some tightening up. However, it drew me in as the characters came more to life.

The Ghost of Hephaestus was an enchantingly romantic steampunk that tapped into Greek mythology and managed to hit all my buttons.

How the Jungle Got its Spirit Guardian drew on Aztec influences and had some interesting commentary on gender roles sold by some strong characters.

Overall, I found Phantazein to be very entertaining. Despite my criticisms, it had a nice mix of stories and I’d definitely recommend it to those who like fairytale-inspired fantasy.

Mirrored from Earl Grey Editing.

calissa: (Calissa)

Cover of To Spin A Darker Stair

To Spin A Darker Stair is a short chapbook that pairs two fairytale reworkings: A Delicate Architecture by Catherynne M Valente and The Oracle’s Tower by Faith Mudge. Valente’s story is a reprint, picked specifically to complement the story by Mudge.

Thematically, the stories are well-matched. Both carry a strong fairytale atmosphere and give the reader a sense that anything is possible. Both have a similar angle on their protagonist.

However, this similarity is a double-edged sword. A Delicate Architecture is a wonderfully deft tale, full of rich detail. Pairing it with The Oracle’s Tower serves to highlight the flaws in the latter–flaws that may have been overlooked if paired with a more contrasting story.

For example, A Delicate Architecture simply launches into the tale, drawing the reader along with a strikingly unique situation. The Oracle’s Tower, in contrast, follows a worn path wherein the narrator urges the reader to listen to her tale in a somewhat clumsy attempt to impart a sense of wisdom and urgency. This approach always tends to backfire a little for me; I rarely like being told what to do. The ending was framed likewise, setting out a possible conclusion to the story without being at all satisfying. It came across as a writer’s frantic attempt to wrap up the tale before the word count blew out.

The illustrations and cover art by Kathleen Jennings deserve a special mention. They tie the stories together beautifully and help strengthen the fairytale atmosphere.

Having said that, I thoroughly enjoyed the book. Being only 51 pages, it is the perfect travel book and I devoured the whole lot in a single bus trip. With Fablecroft Publishing  scheduled to launch the anthology Phantazein at Conflux 10, it seems certain we can expect more along the same theme from them–especially with Mudge and Jennings making reappearances. However, I also hope that  FableCroft will produce more of these chapbooks in the future to help enliven future commutes.

 

Mirrored from Earl Grey Editing.

calissa: A low angle photo of a book with a pair of glasses sitting on top. (Mt TBR)
It has been far, far too long since I last wrote a review. I'm out of practice!

To Spin A Darker Stair is a short chapbook that pairs two fairytale reworkings: "A Delicate Architecture" by Catherynne M Valente and "The Oracle's Tower" by Faith Mudge. Valente's story is a reprint, picked specifically to complement the story by Mudge.

Thematically, the stories are well-matched. Both carry a strong fairytale atmosphere and give the reader a sense that anything is possible. Both have a similar angle on their protagonist.

However, this similarity is a double-edged sword. "A Delicate Architecture" is a wonderfully deft tale, full of rich detail. Pairing it with "The Oracle's Tower" serves to highlight the flaws in the latter--flaws that may have perhaps been overlooked if paired with a more contrasting story.

For example, "A Delicate Architecture" simply launches into the tale, drawing the reader along with a strikingly unique situation. "The Oracle's Tower", in contrast, follows a worn path wherein the narrator urges the reader to listen to her tale in a somewhat clumsy attempt to impart a sense of wisdom and urgency. This approach always tends to backfire a little for me; I rarely like being told what to do. The ending was likewise framed, setting out a possible conclusion to the story without being at all satisfying. It came across as a writer's frantic attempt to wrap up the tale before the word count blew out.

Having said that, I thoroughly enjoyed the book. Being only 51 pages, it is the perfect travel book and I devoured the whole lot in a single bus trip. The illustrations and cover art by Kathleen Jennings beautifully ties the stories together.

(I should note that Kathleen has been nominated for a World Fantasy Award in Art once or twice and is an acquaintance of mine. Her website is well worth checking out. I particularly recommend the Daleks.)

Four stars out of five.

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