Thursday, December 30, 2010

A cappella Zoo #5 (2010)

A cappella Zoo #5, Fall 2010. Pp. 119. ISSN 1945-7480. $4.00.

Reviewed by Nick Jackson

The vibrant orange and blue cover of this collection of stories and poems is a good reflection of the lively and multifarious contents. There are some beautifully written and powerful pieces of fiction and poems in this issue. According to the website, A cappella Zoo is a magazine of magic realism and slipstream with a strong literary slant that has been running since 2008. Editor Colin Meldrum’s interest in science fiction and mythology comes through strongly. Many of the stories feature animals: some fantastic birds, a herd of pigs, an enigmatic snake, a mute lake creature and an engaging Chilean sea blob. But what is wonderful about many of these stories is how the characters are obsessed with and subtly changed by these animals.

In Nancy Gold’s exquisite opening story, ‘Showtime’, bird wings sprout from the human protagonists and flight is a poignant metaphor for escape from the pain of reality. Gold’s intense drama of spoiled human desire is described with unsentimental directness. There is something sinister about the birds in Kate Riedel’s ‘Birds Every Child Should Know’, or at least about the way they appear and disappear. The story is inconclusive but this does not detract from its strangely powerful effect.

In Mike Meginnis’s ‘The Snake Charmer’s Teeth’, the snake creates a temporal and thematic link between two stories—that of a power-seeking snake charmer and that of a young girl suffering abuse by her father. The concept of the story is interesting but I was rather put off by the long strings of adjectives Meginnis uses and although the characters are well drawn the dialogue seems oddly unnatural. Meginnis gives his story an exotic setting but I found the lack of a specific cultural location frustrating. The author is fond of lines hinting at enigma such as: “Do not think this means what it does not mean.” But since the mystery of this line is never explained I was left feeling a little cheated. It’s a shame that the author knows so little of snake biology that his serpent has green blood.

In ‘Borges’ Bookstore’, David Misialowski takes the Argentinean writer’s idea of the infinitely expanding library to a chilling conclusion and evokes a dark labyrinthine setting for his tale of retribution and despair. The compulsive acquisition of books that is the nemesis of Misialowski’s character has its echoes in ‘The Collector of Van de Voys’ by Edmond Caldwell. This is one of the outstanding pieces of fiction in the magazine. From a deceptively prosaic beginning, the reader is pitched into a surreal nightmare that allows the imagination to solve the puzzle of its carefully arranged narrative clues and vivid imagery.

Benjamin Robinson’s ‘The Abandoned City’ works in a similar way on the reader’s imagination, pulling back from an overt explanation of its mysterious core. An ice-cream manufacturer invents a new brand of ice-cream, the flavours of which have a sinister origin. It is only the author’s skill in keeping the tone light and the dialogue snappy which prevents the story from having an extremely unpleasant after-taste, but it’s put me right off Raspberry Ripple.

Although less powerfully written, ‘Somewhere Near Gerasa’ by Alex Myers captures the crazed voice of the madman from the biblical parable in which the exorcised demons take possession of herd of pigs. Jason Jordan’s ‘Pestilence’ is chockfull of ideas and has a chirpy style though I found the story, about a block of flats visited by a series of unexplained physical phenomena, curiously uninvolving. The fact that the residents of the flats are known as One, Two, Three and Four doesn’t help me to feel interested in them as individuals. The story is narrated by one of the residents to a visiting reporter but this technique has the effect of distancing events still further. The daily plagues that haunt the occupants of the house hold no element of surprise for the narrator and this sense of acceptance kills off some of the story’s dramatic potential.

A story that worked much more effectively, due mainly to the beautifully described relationship between an aging couple, was Theodore Carter’s ‘The Life Story of a Chilean Sea Blob’ in which the blob in question acts as a metaphor for the change that engulfs the couple’s life. The author tells this story with a great deal of gentle humour and a wry sense of the absurd elements that make up long-term relationships. ‘The Creature from the Lake’ by Hayes Greenwood Moore works in a similar way—the eponymous creature, though more of a presence in the story than the blob, works mostly to illuminate the relationship between the human couple who adopt it. This was another excellently written piece.

Short but sweet is Tania Herschman’s ‘Einstein Plays Guitar’. Herschman displays a talent for immediacy of dialogue and the clinching detail that makes a piece of flash fiction work. ‘A Tale of a Snowy Night’ by Naoko Awa (translated by Toshiya Kamei) is a much slower story that unfolds in a dream-like sequence but leaves its magic unfulfilled, fading into an exquisitely expressed nothingness.

The best of the remaining stories was Phillip Neel’s ‘The Crushing’ which starts in a low key but quickly spirals into a thought-provoking and, at times, viscerally engaging indictment of modern consumer culture. Catherine Sharpe’s ‘Shades of Grey’ is a much more tightly-focussed human drama about a woman who receives mysterious messages on her mobile phone. The story captures some lovely details of everyday life and the small but keen suffering imposed by our relationship with technology. Melissa Ross’s ‘Movie Man’ is possibly the most innovative piece in the collection in terms of its lack of narrative structure and general weirdness. This was an odd and rather inaccessible piece for me.

The fiction in this collection is interspersed with some very fine poems: Feng Sun Chen’s ‘Eclipse’ evokes the numbness of bereavement with great economy and vivid imagery. Kristine Ong Muslim’s ‘Conrad’ series is a poignant mini-saga. ‘Sleepmaps’ by Barry Napier and ‘Antarctica’ by Amy DeBevoise address the current preoccupation with consumerism and the environment in startling dream-like images.

I was impressed too with the way some of the poems echoed the bird themes of the fiction. Of particular note was Charlene Logan Burnett’s ‘Circling of Cranes’: - It is said of the crane, if you ask him / he will carry across migratory oceans / smaller birds, the souls of the dead, a lost maiden folded between the scapulas of his wings.

I loved the surreal insect imagery of Travis Blankenship’s ‘Molesting the Legend’, even if the poem’s subject remained inaccessible to me. The language of Daniela Schonberg’s ‘Let This Be My Refuge’ is perhaps a little too rich but I found it hard to resist: how delicate your words / hung, framing your obsidian features / like long lappets of moon jellyfish, / the acoustic notes plucked to puncture.

Also effective were Lisa Groves’s ‘The Cat and the Fiddle’ and Anna Jaquiery’s ‘Fragmentation’. ‘:sign language:’ by
Joseph A.W. Quintela was interesting in its use of layout and had some arresting phrases: dry prairie stretched like sprouted saran wrap, and cool as a radio-active cucumber. Nathaniel Taggart’s ‘How to Fall Down’ has a gently magical opening: The birds are unfixed furniture. Humming / wings spill ink on the canvas and a brutal ending. ‘What the Calf Daughter Knows’ by Rob Cook is an even more disturbing poem that delights in the reiteration of its carnivorous images. There was a possibility for this poem to convey its message in a subtly surreal way through a series of images but the poet seemed to want to render his message unambiguous: Then the teenagers emptied on the ground / a bag of what they called happy burgers. / They said I was a calf.

A capella Zoo is an engaging and beautifully-presented ‘zine which features some talented authors and poets. The mythological and science fiction preferences of the editor certainly lived up to my expectations of these genres. As for slipstream—with the exception of Melissa Ross’s ‘Movie Man’ and Phillip Neel’s ‘The Crushing’, the stories seem to aim more in the direction of the literary mainstream.

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Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Gardner, Strange Men in Pinstripe Suits (2010)

Cate Gardner, Strange Men in Pinstripe Suits. Strange Publications, 2010. ISBN 9780982026649. $11.99.

Reviewed by Steven Pirie

This is without doubt a most unusual collection of short stories. It’s nice when a writer finds a unique voice, and Cate Gardner has done just that with Strange Men in Pinstripe Suits. The book is a trade paperback edition, just short of 200 pages in length, with a rather monochrome cover that’s nevertheless still pleasing on the eye. Roughly half the stories are previously unpublished. The rest are reprints, but given Gardner’s fiction has graced the likes of Postscripts, Fantasy Magazine, Shock Totem and other professional venues, it’s clear a reprint is not something to sneer upon. I found the book available for purchase on the publisher’s website, and at Amazon.com, but it’s not currently available from Amazon.co.uk. This struck me as odd given that Gardner is an English author; whether this is an oversight, or if there is a reason for the omission, I’m not sure.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Gates/Holt, Rigor Amortis (2010)

Jaym Gates and Erika Holt (eds.), Rigor Amortis. Absolute XPress, 2010. Pp. 148. ISBN 9781894817837. $14.95 print / $2.99 e-book.

Reviewed by Don Campbell

Sex and Death; do any two things more preoccupy the human condition? Sex makes us feel alive, it is instrumental in the creation of life itself. Death is our only certainty, our inevitable decay is only a matter of time and our control over it is miniscule at best. Perhaps we get to pick the where, when and how, but we never get a choice about the if.

In Rigor Amortis we have a book that is not really about sex and death. It’s more about sex and undeath. That crawling hunger we all feel replaced by another kind entirely. The lengths we might go to out of lonely desperation or simply the grief of a lost love, those stories are here too. Sometimes it’s gray-green flesh meeting pink or perhaps some straight-up zombie on zombie action. These are stories of loss, experimentation, and control. Genitals grind, teeth scrape on bone, and sometimes it’s happening all at the same time as strips of flesh slough away or are torn off in a passionate frenzy.

The book began as a Twitter joke by Gates and some of the authors, a commentary on the oversaturation of zombie-related fiction on the market. It took on a life of its own and soon Holt brought the collection to the attention of Absolute XPress, a direct-to-reader publisher known for a focus on genre books. The trip from Twitter to “real book” was a surprisingly short one and an interesting example of how different modern technology has made the writer’s struggle. The book itself is in four sections labeled Romance, Revenge, Risk and Raunch, and coming in at only 134 pages, it is a short and sweet collection of flash fiction. Most of the stories found here are no more than a page or two long making them easily, ahem, digested in a single sitting.

The Romance section contains stories such as ‘Til Death Do Our Parts’ by Kaolin Imago Fire (14) in which a freshly turned couple are intent to spend what little remaining time they have together in fiery passion. It is only a couple of pages but one gets the sense of urgency they both feel at their quickly deteriorating state as simple things become more and more difficult. As well as ‘Surrender’ by Xander Briggs (22), a quick tale of a woman trapped in her home by the ravening hordes and the now nearly mindless man she loved having just enough of his self left in his rotted skull to come looking for her.

Revenge contains stories of a more sinister nature, like ‘Love, Love (And Chains) Will Keep Us Together’ by R. Schuyler Devin (37) in which a man’s dream girl comes literally bursting into his apartment, infected and insane, and he does the only reasonable thing he can think of, hold her prisoner and use her as a squirming sex doll. The Revenge section contains the most examples of the human being the aggressor rather than the victim, and in the case of ‘Syd’s Turn’ by R. E. VanNewkirk (58), a powder procured from a local bokor leads to a new type of BDSM play in which a young couple take turns zombifying each other into sexual submission. Incensed over his treatment during his last zombification, the titular Syd takes his turn at being master too far for too long. As the rotting flesh sloughs off of his beloved it is then that you get the true horror of the situation, and it is a story about how sometimes when we give power over ourselves to others, we may find that they abuse it beyond return.

Risk is the section for experimentation, the section in which Michael Phillips dreams of surrendering to the zombie apocalypse in his prose poem ‘Waking Up Someone Who Isn’t Me’ (77). It is a place where a “Z-curious” girl can make a Craigslist hookup with the undead girl of her dreams (no maggots please) in Sarah Goslee’s ‘My Summer Romance’ (81). From one perspective it could be seen as the tale of a doomed romance, from another it is a cautionary yarn about the dangers of online predators. It is a tale of misguided exploration and restraint that ends as all summer romances must, in horrible bloodshed.

The final section, Raunch, is what its name implies. If you haven’t gotten your fill of squelching zombie genitalia by this point, this is the section for you. Your first stop is an undead sex club for a little gangbang action (don’t forget your penis!) in ‘Urbanites’ by Pete “Patch” Alberti (99). Afterward, make a stop in the restroom to tidy yourself up and maybe have a chance encounter with a beautiful stranger in V. R. Roadifer’s ‘Honey’ (109). We end the section and the anthology with ‘Cloudy With a Chance of Zombie Orgasm’ by Annette Dupree (119). It is a bizarre if somewhat clumsily titled piece about a sexually frustrated gun nut of a girl who finally finds the satisfaction she’s so longed for when an army of zombie lesbians show up at her doorstep wielding the ultimate love toys.

I’m just going to come right out and say it, I loved Rigor Amortis. Beginning to end and front to back. I have absolutely nothing really negative to say about it. The worst that can be said is that it is a book of zombie erotica, which has a certain squick factor that is certainly not for the squeamish, but it is well written squick for all of that.

It’s not just about sex and death, of course, but also about our relationships. It is about a longing to be together beyond the veil and how, given the opportunity, we can be overly cruel even to the ones we love. Especially to the ones we love. Our capacity to love is great, but our capacity to take advantage of even the most deleterious of situations can occlude it easily when we are put into a situation where the old rules no longer apply and the new rules barely exist if at all. Sometimes love is beautiful and sometimes it is rancid and festering and full of pain, but we hold onto it anyway. If these are the sort of stories that interest you, you could do far, far worse than this little anthology.

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Sunday, December 26, 2010

Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet #26 (2010)

Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet #26 (December 2010). Pp. 64. $5.00.

Reviewed by Keith Lawrence

Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, now in its fifteenth year, is just as eccentric a publication as its name suggests; possibly a genre magazine which does not claim to represent any particular genre, possibly a literary magazine without a dogmatic attachment to the trappings of high art. The pieces in LCRW #26 range in length from limericks to full-length short stories, and form a constellation of points somewhere within the square whose corners are SF, Fantasy, Slipstream and Magical Realism.

In general I liked the longer works best. Patty Houston’s ‘Elite Institute for the Study of Arc Welders’ Flash Fever’ is an intriguing story, simply written and set in a solid world of metalwork, bureaucracy and unrequited love. Similarly, Rahul Kanakia’s ‘The Other Realms Were Built With Trash’ gives us a deftly-imagined tale harvested from the details of fairy lore. ‘Three Hats’ by Jenny Terpsichore Abeles and ‘Death’s Shed’ by J. M. McDermott are low key but enjoyable short stories in the magical realism vein, and Sean Melican provides a historical novel about the pioneer military submariners in ‘Absence of Water’. This last is both interesting and educational, although I found the way its narrative jumps frequently and erratically between dates made the story much harder to follow than I thought it could have been and did not add a great deal. A minor caveat, though.

The highlight of LCRW #26 for me was ‘The Cruel Ship’s Captain’ by Harvey Welles and Philip Raines. It is an excellent example of writing which would be terribly belittled by assignment to a genre—a fantastical story of captives in a magical pirate ship which is crafted in beautifully intricate language. The setting and prose work together to make an entrancing tale. As a fantasy world Welles and Raines’ construction is original and thoughtful, a place that could easily provide a backdrop for a much longer work. In fact the only real problem with it was that as the first story in the issue it sets quite a challenging standard for the remaining pieces to live up to.

On the other hand I found ‘Alice: A Fantasia’ by Veronica Shanoes to be artistry taken a little far. I must admit I became slightly wary of this story when I realised after the first few paragraphs that the Alice of the title is that Alice (who must surely be one of the most overworked characters in literary history). It was the last third of the story, however, that really cemented my opinion—the prose gives way to a meticulous filigree stream-of-consciousness sort of thing which I found both bewildering and amazing. It is technically so clever that one cannot help but be impressed by how much careful work it must have taken, but at the same time it is an incomprehensible end to an otherwise straightforward tale.

The non-prose pieces I found similarly unsatisfying, if only because the better stories are so poetically written that they render the poems almost superfluous. In fact, this effect can be seen in the work of a single person: Lindsay Vella, who contributes five poems—three short ones (‘The way to the sea’, ‘Spit out the Seeds’, and ‘Thirst’), and two longer, more prose-style pieces (‘The Seamstress’ and ‘Poor summer, she doesn’t know she’s dying’). The two long pieces are works of straightforward but engaging imagery. The shorter poems, on the other hand, are linguistically pretty but for me too opaque to be truly satisfying. Poetry can (and should) leave room for personal interpretation, but a poem too open is like a blank sheet of paper—sometimes too daunting to project upon. Of course, preference in poetry is such a personal thing that one reader’s opinion will be quite unlike another’s, but I suspect I may not be alone in my opinion here. A similarly polarizing inclusion might be Darrell Schweitzer’s twin limericks: ‘Dueling Trilogies’, which were... well, not bad, but they did seem a little out of place with the rest of the issue (and I was not convinced that they can be spoken in the correct rhythm).

The only non-fiction piece—a version of Ted Chiang’s lecture ‘Reasoning about the Body’, was pleasant to read and thought-provoking, although it did invoke in me the odd sensation of agreeing completely with someone’s conclusion (that SF writers rely a bit heavily on certain tropes and would benefit from casting their net further) while being wildly ambiguous about the process by which they reach it—in particular, he relies on the argument which I have heard more than once recently, that every age reasons about the human brain in terms of their existing technology. It may be (since this lecture was given in May of this year) that the reason I have heard this before is that other people have taken his idea and run with it. But I have heard it enough times now to start to question how true it is—did Freud really think of the brain as operating in some way like a steam engine? We do, after all, now know a lot more about how the brain works, so perhaps our view of it as a computer is more reasonable and much closer to the truth. At any rate an interesting article, well worth the read.

Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet 26 also contains work by Carlea Holl-Jensen and Gwenda Bond. Overall I both enjoyed and was impressed by it, and would recommend anyone with a taste for poetical prose to give it a look. It is not without faults, but with every dubious piece surrounded by at least two good ones the reader will not be disappointed.

Technical Addendum: In writing this review I had access both to the PDF and EPUB versions of LCRW #26. The magazine is published in its electronic form by Weightless Books (an ebook-only publisher run by some of the same team that produce LCRW that provides a variety of books and magazines in EPUB and PDF formats). The PDF edition replicates the print edition, and is therefore perfectly laid-out but not ideal for reading on all devices. The EPUB edition, although considerably more readable on electronic book than the PDF, was laid-out rather haphazardly—the advert images were spread at random, and some of the advert text was rather unfortunately placed—for instance, ‘Poor summer, she doesn’t know she’s dying’ appears at first to tail off into something about people moving couches, actually a section of a following advert. Since the producers of the ebook and the publishers are in this case the same people, I would have expected a little closer attention to the finished product.

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Saturday, December 11, 2010

Rix (ed.), Blind Swimmer (2010)

David Rix (ed.), Blind Swimmer. Eibonvale Press, 2010. Pp. 360. ISBN 9780956214751. £10.00.

Reviewed by Kate Onyett

Creativity in isolation. This, we are told in the forward by editor David Rix, is the theme upon which Blind Swimmer, the new collection from Eibonvale Press, is founded, and the deciding factor when choosing stories for inclusion. It might be well at this point just to consider what he means. Is it possible to be creative in complete isolation? What constitutes “isolation”? When a collection of stories comes from a collection of disparate authors, it can help to consider the whys and hows of the collection’s intent as a means to determining the relativity of the stories. The book is a wide and varied mix of strange, ordinary, fantastic and irreverent stories that seem anything but isolated, filled as they are with the immediacy of their plot and description. Sometimes the characters themselves have only a secondary connection to “creativity” as they stumble towards their denouements.

Friday, December 03, 2010

Roberts (ed.), Zero Gravity (2010)

Alva J. Roberts (ed.), Zero Gravity: Adventures in Deep Space. PillHill Press, 2010. Pp. 266. ISBN 9781617060007. $16.99.

Reviewed by Don Campbell

Zero Gravity: Adventures in Deep Space is an anthology themed around stories firmly rooted in long term space exploration or in futures so advanced that space-faring ships have become the norm. Science vessels, space smugglers, and interstellar churches populate the book alongside alien beasts and creatures from beyond. Beyond the A.I. Singularity, beyond the edge of the solar system, sometimes beyond the light of the furthest stars, they are stories that deal with the future of humanity’s inevitable move to the stars with ideas rooted firmly in our social evolution, or lack thereof. The science in some stories may be farfetched, but how the characters deal with it is not. There will always be crime, there will always be fringe elements that live on the edge of social acceptability and even further, in the places others fear to tread. Human exploration has always been driven by a need to discover a better life, a place where one could live the life one wanted or a place where riches were abundant. Cities of gold, trade routes, lands of freedom. We are always looking for something better: there will always be those willing to take advantage of others if it means an easy score; always those who seek the precious freedom of living on their own terms, even when it means eking out a meager existence on the edge of survival.

The anthology opens with one of the latter, the story ‘Junker’s Fancy’ by Rosemary Jones (1), and it’s a strong opening, quickly pulling the reader into the far reaches of the solar system. It concerns a Junker—one of the space salvage operators who live most of their lives in their ships with minimal systems to extend time between dockings—named Jacie running across a major haul, a big government ship dead in the water. The only problem? One of the crew is still alive, but he doesn’t have long. What to do? Jones sets up her universe rather nicely in just the first few paragraphs so that when events start truly playing out, you feel at ease with the story. Every fantasy world has its own lexicon and hers is easy to grasp and understand quickly, helping drive the story telling forward rather than bogging it down in attempt to pepper her universe with flavor. Jacie is a character who lives most of her life alone in the far reaches, only docking to resupply. It’s an eremitical lifestyle and her unexpected passenger is a disruption, but is it a welcome one?

Also quite good was Kenneth Mark Hoover’s ‘To Stand Among Kings’ (88), which contains in its short span such a wealth of information about its particular universe that it is clear the author must have spent a significant amount of time creating races and political affiliations and seriously considering the evolution of society before beginning to write. This is a universe where the Church has split off so many times it has completely separated from Earth itself. The story is one of political intrigue and trade agreements, betrayal and wars fought over resources and the rights of an indigenous people. The ending was a bit weak, but the journey to that end was, as it always should be, pleasantly satisfying.

‘Tangwen’s Last Heist’ by C.B. Calsing (146) was a story that at first felt a little flat; it started out a bit too generic for my taste but managed to rope me in as I read on. It is the story of a smuggler who gets in over her head trying to go legit, and it is quite possibly my favorite of the book. Tangwen’s contract target turns out to be a little more heavily connected than even her client expects and a snap decision at a critical moment puts her into even hotter water than she had been in before. A bad situation for a girl simply trying to retire. Faced with an impossible situation, Tangwen attempts to do the right thing, only to be met with political corruption that seeks only to punish rather than listen.

All in all there are no singularly bad stories in the collection, but some are flawed. Some are perfectly good except for certain passages which feel weak or rushed. Others simply never quite live up to their subject material, such as Will Morton’s ‘Glacier Castle’ (188), which had some of the least credible dialogue in the book and was generally a mess. ‘Glacier Castle’ is the tale of a wrecked colony ship, woefully off course and stranded on a bitterly cold and inhospitable ice planet. In an effort to keep up morale while the ship’s crew effects repairs, it is decided that those not otherwise occupied would use the building equipment at hand to construct a great ice palace. The dialogue is clunky in places, the timeline difficult to follow. There are moments when I’m not sure how much time has passed or who exactly certain characters are. There is invented slang that never gets defined enough to make it feel natural. It is not a bad story on the whole but felt as though it needed another pass or two by the author to be ready for publication.

As a whole, Zero Gravity is full of stories that seem to understand that humanity is no longer physically evolving in the original sense. We no longer worry about those genetic markers that in the past made a mate unacceptable. Today we evolve through social interaction and technology and this will most likely still be the case as we hurl ourselves outward beyond the stars. On the perimeter of the universe it will be our technology and our ability to co-habitat with our fellows that will serve us and I feel this collection gets that right. It is just plain good reading that should easily please any fan of deep space fiction. It is light, good for afternoons on the porch or, if you’re like me, a quick story to relax a bit before bed.

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