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Book Review – The Girl With No Hands and Other Tales by Angela Slatter

January 2, 2012 Leave a comment

Angela Slatter has written and published a great deal of stories in the ‘reloaded fairytale’ genre in recent years, many of which are collected in this volume from Ticonderoga and also in Sourdough from Tartarus Press. The Girl With No Hands and Other Tales won the Aurealis Award in 2010 for Best Collection, and it’s not hard to see why. Slatter reworks a host of traditional fairytales, many of which will be familiar to all but some which are more obscure, putting a fresh, feminist slant on these already macabre offerings.

“Bluebeard” is told from the perspective of Lily, the daughter of the girlfriend of a wealthy banker, Davide. Lily isn’t impressed with her mother’s subordination to Davide, and as it turns out they’re all in more danger than they first realise. There’s a locked room hiding a nasty secret, a devilish mother, and no Prince Charming required to save the day. “Bluebeard” cleverly inverts the premise of this familiar fairytale, leaving the reader scrambling to discover the source of the murders.

“The Jacaranda Wife” is an Australian version of the Selkie myths, in which James Willoughby finds a  white-skinned, violet-eyed woman asleep under the jacaranda tree in his garden. Set in the 1840s, this story sees James all too happy to take this strange, mute woman for his wife, despite the warnings of the Indigenous workers on his farmstead. Jealous of his new wife’s affinity for the jacaranda tree, and fearful that she will disappear back into it, James orders all such trees in the area cut down, but one stubborn tree remains standing.

“Red Skein” reworks the ubiquitous Red Riding Hood myth, empowering Matilda by making her more than capable of defending herself in the forest. The story also focuses on the relationship between the young girl and her grandmother, who is here decidedly not enfeebled. Similarly, “The Little Match Girl” empowers the ordinarily pathetic match girl from Hans Christian Andersen’s story by making her fully grown and with the ability to choose her own end.

“The Dead Ones Don’t Hurt You” is one of the few contemporary tales in The Girl With No Hands and, initially at least, it is also written in one of the lightest tones in the volume. After a string of abusive relationships, Melanie bites the bullet and orders a EZ-Boy, an “ever-faithful Zombie Boyfriend” (p140). The zombie, whom she calls Billy, is perfectly docile, all too happy to clean Melanie’s house during the day and, as she boasts,  “never complains about, y’know, eating at the Y” (p 142). Billy’s passivity and his failure to interpret ambiguous instructions turn Melanie from abused to abuser, and that’s before the appearance of an EZ-Girl.

“Light as Mist, Heavy As Hope” is a retelling of Rumplestiltzkin. In it, Alice is brought to the attention of an impoverished king when her father boasts of her skill in weaving straw into gold. Alice is also in danger of being molested by her widowed father, due to her resemblance to her mother. In the castle, the girl is forced to attempt the impossible task under threat of strangulation, but a mysterious helper comes to her rescue.  On the first two nights, Alice is able to pay the extortionist with her mother’s jewellery, but on the third, only her as-yet unconceived child will suffice. Alice is forced to desecrate her mother’s grave to escape this unwanted fate.

The title story, “The Girl With No Hands”, is a particularly gruesome yarn in which the greedy Miller trades “whatever is sitting in [his] backyard” (p180) with the Devil in exchange for unimaginable wealth. Unfortunately, the Miller’s finds his daughter, Madchen, in the backyard when he returns home, and thus begins a rapid fall from grace for all concerned. Madchen’s mother, Hilde, vainly tries to stop her daughter from becoming the Devil’s bride, and the odious Miller chops off the girl’s hands at the Devil’s request in response. Madchen flees and eventually marries a King, but her new-found happiness is again imperilled by the Devil’s trickery.

The Girl With No Hands and Other Tales is a collection of intelligent, lusciously-written fairytales with modern sensibilities. In these pages, our heroines almost never bow before the might of their often-boorish fathers and husbands, and the resulting fare makes for highly entertaining reading.

Book Review – Ghost Seas by Steven Utley

December 15, 2011 Leave a comment

This edition of Ghost Seas is a 2009 reprint of the original 1997 collection by US writer Steven Utley. Utley is a member of a talented crowd of Texans who made names for themselves in the 70s. Other members of the Turkey City Writer’s Workshop include Lisa Tuttle, Bruce Sterling and Howard Waldrop, the latter of whom is an amazing (and amazingly oddball) writer himself. There are some similarities between Waldrop and Utley in terms of their writing, and they’ve collaborated on at least one major story, “Custer’s Last Jump,” as well as the delightfully whimsical “Willow Beeman” in this collection. Utley’s solo stories are impressive in their construction, but even more so in terms of the range of subjects and genres employed. This writer’s reluctance to produce novels, or to stick to one genre,  is part of the reason he remains an “Internationally Unknown Author”, as the Afterword helps to explain.

Utley’s use of science fiction tropes is often upstaged by his attention to real world events and settings, sometimes to the point where the SF devices are relegated to minor league importance. This is evident in “The Tall Grass”, which is notionally a time travel narrative in which two explorers crash land in the Devonian Period, hundreds of millions of years before our own time. Trapped in the ancient past and doomed to die, our protagonist spends his final minutes recalling his childhood on the island of Okinawa (where Utley himself lived at a similar age). The Okinawan childhood is described in loving detail, and the justification for the time travel motif is only given in the final lines when our unfortunate adventurer encounters a prehistoric centipede which he can’t remember to “flick, not swat” (p39).

More cohesive is “The Dinosaur Season”, a contemporary tale of Angstrom and his fellow dinosaur hunters at work on a dig in Texas. One of the scientists, Brian Barbee, meets an unfortunate end in the desert at the hands of those who would seek to oppose conventional scientific thinking regarding the vintage of dinosaur remains. At one point I thought this story was going to take a leap into the fantastic, but it remained firmly planted in the real world to the end, and the narrative is better for it as a result.

Utley’s fully science fictional stories, at least those collected in this volume, tend to be brief and often flippant in character. In “Upstart”, the all conquering and apparently omnipotent alien Sreen finally meet their match in the form of a human captain with the arrogance to defy them. “Race Relations” is more developed, but based on the premise that aliens kidnap humans for decades and return them to Earth transformed into hideous, hairy monsters who can only eat fruit. “Dog in the Manger” features a man vainly trying to save the Unipolitan Center (which houses many of the precious artifacts of world literature, music and art) from the military who would rather burn it down than have it fall into the hands of all-conquering aliens. The most amusing of these brief SF stories, “Michael Bates Michael Bates Michael Bates Michael”, is a fresh idea (to me at least) in the well-worn time travel paradox sub-genre.

My favourite story in Ghost Seas is probably “The Electricity of Heaven”, a truly fearsome tale that recalls the apocalyptic power of Cormac McCarthy’s novel Blood Meridian. Mr Maury is a newspaper editor living in Richmond during the American Civil War. Not especially concerned with printing the ‘truth’ in his paper, he refuses to believe that General Lee has been routed and that the Union forces are poised to destroy the Confederacy until he sees the proof with his own eyes. Skilfully written and obviously meticulously researched, and without any attempt to put a SF spin on proceedings, “The Electricity of Heaven” showcases the power of Utley’s work most impressively.

I can’t help but feel that Utley’s work demonstrates an ambivalent attitude toward the science fiction genre in general. “Haiti” helps to explain why this might be. The story is again lovingly crafted, and again contains a science fictional element that is here quite deliberately sidelined. The place is Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince, and the time is an indefinite future in which Man, and specifically American Man, has just landed on Mars. “Haiti” revolves around the trials of an American working in a local hospital, and specifically in trying to contain an outbreak of cholera in the city’s worst slum, Cite Carton. The slums and their piteous inhabitants are described in searing detail, and the turn of events, in which our protagonist fruitlessly seeks the assistance of the U.S. Embassy for medical supplies, seems all too real. The contrast between the squalor of Haiti and the opulence of America, with its colossally expensive Mars landing, is made explicitly clear. Mars, Utley seems to be saying, should be off limits until humans can provide a basic standard of living for those right here on Planet Earth, and it is here that the tension between Utley’s realism and the conventional optimism of science fiction is starkest.

And there, I think, is one of the reasons why Steven Utley is an excellent writer but not, at least not as far as Ghost Seas is concerned at least, an excellent science fiction writer (his upcoming collections, due out from Ticonderoga Publications over the next couple of years, may prove otherwise). Utley’s stories simply don’t embody the optimism of traditional science fiction. To my way of thinking, this is less a criticism of Utley and his work than it is of the field itself, which hasn’t always encouraged unpleasant truths to be aired.

Book Review – Love In Vain by Lewis Shiner

December 6, 2011 Leave a comment

Lewis Shiner is known to me as one of the early cyberpunk authors, but his collection Love In Vain isn’t cyberpunk. It’s not even science fiction for the most part. It is, however, very good. Published by Ticonderoga in 2009, this collection of nearly two dozen stories showcases Shiner’s abilities at lengths ranging from flash fiction to novelette. Personally I found his longer works more interesting, not least the newer, previously uncollected “Perfidia”.

In “Perfidia”,  Frank Delacorte, a collector with a penchant for ebay auctions, stumbles on a highly irregular recording of a Glenn Miller song. In his attempt to unravel the mystery, Frank travels to Paris to trace the recording back to its original owner. Meanwhile, Frank’s father, who had been one of the American soldiers that liberated the Dachau concentration camp at the end of World War Two, lays dying in a US hospital. Shiner’s depiction of Paris circa 2000 is particularly atmospheric, and the story of Miller’s last tape is original and engaging. My only complaint is that the story ended long before I would like it to, which I guess is a compliment to Shiner’s technique, given that “Perfidia” is around 50 pages in length.

“Love in Vain” features the first of this collection’s failed marriage narratives. Dave McKenna is an Assistant D. A. tasked with interviewing Charlie, a convict who has confessed to far more murders than he could ever have possibly committed. He even admits to made-up murders, but oddly enough many of the facts he  provides turn out to be true. Dave has problems of his own, primarily his tenuous relationship with his wife Alice. Dave’s old friend Jack tries to lift him from his funk by taking him to see an old flame, Kristi Spector, who is now an exotic dancer, but nothing much seems to help. Jack explains:”There’s things you don’t want in your head. Once they get in there, you’re not the same any more.” (p61)  Dave’s personal problems, coupled with the stress of dealing with the unreliable Charlie, begin to loosen his grip on reality, and by the end of the story Dave is poised to lose more than just his home and marriage.

“Scales” features a female narrator with relationship problems of her own. Her marriage to Richard having hit rocky ground, she becomes increasingly concerned as her husband begins to behave erratically. The problem seems to be one of Richard’s students, Lili, who appears to have a particularly insidious hold over him. Having finally had enough of her husband’s cheating, she makes off with their infant daughter, Emily, but like most breakups it’s not as straightforward as that. Here Shiner verges on the territory of the fantastic, as Lili seems to be not only an adulteress, but perhaps not wholly human.

Fathers come in for a bit of a beating in Love In Vain, and “Match” is the purest example of this. Fathers in these stories are generally aged, inflexible and cruel, but the son in “Match” isn’t much nicer himself. Tennis provides the arena for a clash of wills between the frail and disapproving father and the absent, ungrateful son. The son wins the battle on the day, but loses the war as the father suffers his latest mini heart attack. “Match” is a good example of the emotional power of Shiner’s writing, which here as elsewhere is typically devoid of literary flourishes.

Another powerful realist tale is “Dirty Work”, in which a down-and-out type falls in with an ex-school mate of his, Dennis. Dennis has made good for himself in the world, and is now working as a lawyer getting rapists off their charges, even if some of the proceeds do seem to find their way up his nose. Dennis gives our protagonist a job trailing Lane Rochelle, an alleged rape victim. Feeling bad about the whole thing, but entirely too poor to contemplate knocking the money back, he starts following Lane around with a minimum of stealth. Perhaps significantly, “Dirty Work” is one of the few stories in Love In Vain where the protagonist is fairly happily married. Things turns nasty when the rapist Javier turns up at Lane’s house, but both he and our protagonist get their just desserts.

“Primes” is just as good as the stories described above, and it’s one of the few in this collection to contain science fictional elements. As Shiner explains in his Afterword, many of his stories are about failure: failure in relationships, failure at work, failure at life. In “Primes”, Nick returns home from work to discover that not only is his house now occupied by his wife’s dead former husband, but also that he has been made redundant at work by a cosmic occurrence on the grandest of scales. Two parallel universes seem to have merged into one, doubling the world’s population in an instant. This soon has disastrous consequences, and poor old Nick loses pretty much everything in the reshuffle that follows.

There are other kinds of stories in Love In Vain, and most of them are better than decent. The shorter works tended not to appeal to me as greatly as those described above, but there is one historical ghost story, “Gold”, which I found quite evocative. Famous personages like Elvis Presley, Nikolai Tesla and Lee Harvey Oswald feature in the shorter fantasies, and many of Shiner’s tales revolve around rock and roll in one way or another. “Jeff Beck” was my favourite of these. This is my way of saying that Shiner is a versatile writer whose work is likely to appeal to a variety of audiences, and thus you’re likely to find something to like here, too.

Book Review – Dead Sea Fruit by Kaaron Warren

November 30, 2011 2 comments

Kaaron Warren’s collection Dead Sea Fruit, which was released by Ticonderoga Publications last year, is quite simply one of the best single author collections I’ve read. In his introduction, Lucius Shepard (no slouch in the art of short story writing himself) claims that Warren is one of the few writers who is both a stylist and a storyteller, and he’s right. Some of these stories are not only technically masterful, but emotionally gruelling, horrific, and just plain awesome.

In the title story, “Dead Sea Fruit”, our protagonist is a dentist tasked with visiting the ward of the Pretty Girls, women so weak from anoxeria that “they don’t have the strength to defecate” (p21). The fabled Ash Mouth Man seems to be the source of the Pretty Girls’ worries, as once he kisses them (and nobody can resist) everything they eat tastes of ashes. Not even our protagonist is immune to the Ash Mouth Man’s charm, despite her expertise in oral hygiene.

“Down to the Silver Spirits” is similarly impressive in its treatment of childless, IVF-failure couples who will go to any length to fall pregnant, even if the child within isn’t entirely theirs, or even entirely human. Lured by the words of the trickster Maria Maroni and her strange son Hugo, the couples are coaxed below ground to Cairness, the city of the silver spirits. Here I was struck by Warren’s seemingly effortless control over the tropes of several genres: science fiction, fantasy, horror and realistic fiction.

“Cooling the Crows” is urban fantasy, I suppose, but the genre elements are handled far more subtly than they would be in the hands of a lesser writer. Here Geoff is tasked by Management with ‘cooling’ a certain nightspot that has attracted an unwelcome clientele. He’s had his difficulties with certain situations before, and this time it seems he’s bitten off more than he can chew, not least the vampiric Bailey.

“Guarding the Mound” is particularly effective in the way that it weaves fantastic and science fictional elements. Upon losing his family, the diminutive Din is forced to stand watch over the vaguely-Egyptian-seeming Chieftain for all eternity. During this time, Din is given access to the inner worlds of his descendants down the centuries, but the future seems neither transcendental nor enlightening, casting into doubt the usefulness of Din’s sacred pact with the dead Chieftain.

I actually had to stop reading “The Grinding House” at one point, not because I was bored, but because I couldn’t go on. Thomas Disch’s first novel The Genocides springs to mind as something similarly unrelenting in its depiction of the end of humanity through the most disgusting and pitiless of scourges. Worse, no one in this story seems especially to care about that or the dire state of the world they are inhabiting. This novella length work is the tale of Rab, Nick, Sasha, Bevan and the bone grinder himself,  the odious Jeremiah, in their flight from the bone disease that threatens to consume them all. I’ve read some disturbing stories in the past, and it seems I’m pretty much impervious to actually becoming horrified by horror, but “The Grinding House” is one of the nastiest things I’ve had the (mis)fortune to read. Very few writers can match this kind of intensity.

“Sins of the Ancestors”, which is new to this collection, is set in a future time where the Department of Unsolved Crime has the authority to put to death the descendants of murderers who were never brought to justice. Yolanda is a woman with a nasty trade: she’s paid by rich men to scare them half to death, and subsequently suffers their scorn and abuse. In the course of her attempts to clear her ancestor’s name (and her own) of the murder she feels he never committed, Yolanda uncovers the identity of the true murderer, after which point the shoe is very much on the other foot.

And then there’s “Ghost Jail”, another emotionally onerous tale set in an unspecified time and place that might be our own unwelcome future. In it, the beggar woman Rashmilla sells peas at funerals, but her real strength is in subduing the vicious ghosts that seem to hover everywhere. Lisa is a journalist with a belief in free speech and the power of Selena, a DJ with the gumption to say all the things that Lisa is too afraid to write. Things turn sour when Lisa pushes the local Police Chief too far, after which she is consigned to the ghost-ridden Cewa Flats, where not even Rashmilla can save her.

Dead Sea Fruit came as a complete surprise to me. I expect every single author collection published in this country to be good, but not this good.  You owe it to yourself to give Dead Sea Fruit your full attention if you haven’t already.