Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Reviewish: The Running of the Tyrannosaurs

I rarely pre-order books. This isn't because I don't love books or value authors (on the contrary, authors are my rockstars and I could build a queen-sized bed out of the books I own in physical copy) - this is because my to-read list is so long and I often don't get to a book fast enough to warrant the pre-order option. (And there's the matter of affording books better when they are on sale.)

Can we marvel, for a moment, at Roberto Calas' cover?
That said, I pre-ordered Stant Litore's The Running of the Tyrannosaurs. The morning it became available, I read it. You could say I devoured it - but I don't want to get even that close to making a dinosaur pun.

Like his previous works (The Zombie Bible and The Ansible Stories), Litore embraces some well-known fiction fodder that might be looked on as too cliche, and turns it into something truly great and worthy of deeper consideration.

Egret is a girl and athlete; she has been selected, altered by nanotechnology, and is a sacrifice for the people. She's an icon, a symbol, and she has been groomed to know and embrace that fact. The story is from her point of view, told in her self-assured voice, and relates the most important day of her life - Patriot Day. This is a day when Egret, and girls like her - embodiments of Liberty - will run with the scientifically resurrected tyrannosaurs for a spectacle.

It's easy to pull out some modern commentary from this story (the girls are rebuilt by their nanites to be 'perfect'), but it's the deeper layer that I found so engaging. Egret, all the runners on Patriot Day, are in competition with each other. This competitive spirit drives Egret, but as she moves through her day, as we get to view her thoughts so directly, there's something else going on. Something that not even Egret completely understands.

It's difficult to discuss it too much without giving spoilers.
It's the dawning of consciousness of a different sort that makes Egret an engaging voice and a perfect narrator for this story. Though it is internal and entirely a sort of stream-of-consciousness journey, Egret is extremely present in her experience. Her thoughts, like the events of Patriot Day, move at a brisk pace and never get bogged down.

The story is succinct, with just enough embellishment (in the form of a little back-story on our narrator) to make it a whole. As always, Litore's execution is spot-on. The story is cohesive and pulls the reader into the moment with Egret. Egret's voice is unique amongst the ever-growing pantheon of Litore's characters and brings the story a gritty, hot texture. The world building is just enough to situate you for the story, but leaves you intrigued to learn more. And - if rumors (from the author!) are true, readers will get a chance to get to know the world of this story more in a future novel.

If it's half as good as this installment (and I'm willing to wager it'll be twice as good), I'm looking forward to it.

Oh, better not forget the fire. Is this working for you? Heating things up? No, better leave the puns out of it. So concludes the second Fire Episode of Reviewish.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Reviewish: Ansible 15717

Today is a Fire Episode of Reviewish. I've been a little overwhelmed with health, school, and general life stuff - as a result, I'm behind the eight ball, as it were. (Is that the right expression? What does that mean? I always pictured it as a moment similar to when Indiana Jones is threatened with imminent crushing by the boulder trap.) In that sense, I'll be posting up several reviews in quicker succession than I have previously.

Fire Review #1: Ansible 15717, Book Three of the Ansible Stories from Stant Litore.

As ever, Stant Litore's prose is a delight to read. Ansible 15717 (the character flung across space (and maybe time)), instead of being an Ansible seemingly assigned to a random world, is a woman courted by Starmind, targetted for a world they know at least something about. It's disturbing to consider that Ansible 15715 and 15716 might've been purposefully selected for the worlds to which they were sent, now that I think about it...

In that sense, it is a relief - one unsought, one I didn't even realize I might have wanted - to have a narrator with a slightly higher level of control than the first two Ansibles. She is a woman deeply tied to her botany, well equipped (as well as one can be) to become part of a plant-based species and world.

Litore finds and walks that sweet spot between science-fiction and fantasy, perhaps reminding me of one reason those two genres are situated together so often. The inhabitants of this new planet, his description of them and their world, painted lush pictures in my mind while I read. If I were any good at art, this review would be peppered with delicate drawings of humanoid-like (but not quite) plants, lush jungle settings, colorful and dangerous flora of all sorts.

This is a story that builds itself in the mind's eye and gently enfolds you in its leafy embrace.

Between flashbacks and her experiences on this new world, there is a wonderful balance of the delicate and the willful, strength and weakness, pain and love. She never becomes immune to her humanity, even while embracing her new alien life and body.

All the aspects of this particular work that might be pulled out and highlighted as progressive/inclusive/intersectional (or, if you don't enjoy that sort of thing, "PC") are melded seamlessly into the story. Is it a big deal that the narrator is, as one reviewer on Amazon summarized, an "agnostic lesbian Muslim scientist"? In ways, it is. There is a lot of meat to consider here about representation and much deeper societal issues - But in the course of telling the story, Litore makes them simply part of the story - it never comes across that he's inserted these things with an agenda, they are never over-emphasized.

The true beauty of this diversity lies in the fact that it makes the Ansible's story the story of another human being - whole and perfect, even in her flaws. Every aspect is part of the weave of the fabric, not an embellishment or an afterthought applique - they belong there from the beginning. This, for me, is an ideal way of storytelling, of integrating all the beautiful variety of humanity.

In short; Ansible 15717 is another solidly written short story and brings a new world of beauty and terror to the Ansible Stories. Stant Litore has set the bar high for himself, his work, and he's continued to deliver.  If you've ever enjoyed any of his work, I highly recommend this (and all of the Ansible stories, if you haven't read any of them specifically). If you've never read anything by Stant Litore, the Ansible Stories are a great way to start.

Though they are not directly related, and I believe you CAN read the Ansibles in any order, I might recommend picking them up in order anyway. It is difficult for me to judge, having read them in order and being unable to unknow what I know to make the comparison, but each story builds in a little tidbit of information about the mysterious Starmind and what the Ansibles are about. That said, you are probably just fine reading them in any order (just like The Zombie Bible!).

Oh, right, I promised fire:

Monday, October 20, 2014

Reviewish: Love & Other Poisons - Silvia Moreno-Garcia

I don't know why I waited so long to read work by Silvia Moreno-Garcia. Honestly and truly. There wasn't any particular reason I put it off - I've know about her through Lovecraftian community associations for a while. I've followed/associated with her on Facebook since the Ladies & Squids conversation in a FB group spawned the clarion call for ladies writing in weird fiction to get a spotlight shone on them.

In fact, I'm exceedingly excited about the project that came out of that discussion: She Walks In Shadows - An all-woman Lovecraft anthology - the first, even. (I couldn't decide which link to use, so I thought I'd use the four most prominent/important links that will provide information on the project.)

Since then, I've dragged my feet in seeking out and devouring new fiction. My Reviewish posts represent a long-running backlog of reading - though not the only reading I'm doing (never mind the academia stuff) - that really got me excited about authors who were new-to-me. Silvia gets added to this list.

Sometimes I feel ashamed in going for offers of free books for reviews, but it's really the only way I can 'afford' to explore new authors. I'm a college student with 3 very flimsy and irregular part time jobs. My food budget for 1-2 weeks is what most people spend on a cheap dinner out. So, when Silvia posted that she was willing to give out a copy of her short story collection Love & Other Poisons in exchange for a review, I was more than happy to oblige.

I didn't know what to expect, but I was looking forward to the discovery of it all. I was not disappointed.

I will start by saying that the book itself - I read the electronic format - is well done. The cover art is lovely, and I only found a couple of places where there may or may not have been minor typos (they were so minor that I only remember they existed, not where they were. I should go back and make notes and forward those back to the author/publisher in case they want to fix them).

I read the collection on the bus and was so enthralled with it that a complete stranger tapped me on the shoulder to ask what I was reading. This has never happened to me before. It's true, though, I was enthralled.

Right out of the gate, the stories don't fall into too-familiar archetypes. They don't all follow the expectations we get for short stories from our mountains of literature or creative writing courses. What do they do? They weave a moment of time, a series of events, into a mural that stands out and stands up against the mundanity in which they exist. (Though I'd argue that some of the worlds the author presents through these stories are anything but mundane, even if you are steeped in fantastical literature.)

One theme that spoke strongly to me and I thus saw repeated was that of escaping with a "magical" companion. Don't read 'magical' literally - though you could. (That's a part of the allure of the collection on the whole - the promise and lure that something could be taken as so much more than it is, or that you can take at face value.)

My favorites:
"Man in Blue Overcoat"
"Shedding  Her Own Skin"
"Distant Deeps or Skies"
"A Puddle of Blood"

These four stories interestingly contain an equal balance of staying and leaving, and being tempted away from one's regular life.  But it's not quite temptation; in at least a couple cases, it is an opportunity for escape.

I wonder if Theresa ever accepts the offer of the nahual.

Honorable Mentions:
"Kaleidoscope" - the theme here is other lives. This story resounded with me as this is a scenario I've conjured in my mind in relation to particular people in my life. If it's nothing you've experienced, you might not connect the same way to the story.
"Enchantment" - oddly enough, this is the story I was reading when the stranger on the bus interrupted me. It's about self-narratives and the people around us who might choose to play the roles we've assigned them, and what happens when we ruin our own stories by pushing too hard, lingering too long in a moment.
"A Handful of Earth" - can't knock a callback to Dracula and what happens to his 'brides' when he's gone away.  It's a look into the evolution of a vampire, and what that story might look like from the inside.

I could go on and on about almost every story in the collection. There's nothing bad for me to say about any of them. Some I obviously liked more than others, but I didn't dislike any of them. I didn't find any of them particularly "weak" and none of them felt like filler. Though my experience is admittedly sparse when it comes to single-author short story collections, this one stands as a very solid example. It is likely to be the standard against which I judge other single-author collections going forward.

Many of these stories crafted worlds I wanted to explore beyond their boundaries. That is the beauty of a well wrought short piece; being able to tell a story in the context of a whole other world that makes sense, and to make it feel as though there is a whole wide, fleshed-out world behind it. It leaves you wanting more but not unsatisfied. Silvia Moreno-Garcia nails it.

I'm looking forward to picking up more of her work.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Reviewish: I Will Hold My Death Close

These are much more full-reviews than just... 'reviewish'. At first, the "Reviewish" title came into being because I didn't intend to do reviews of films or books or anything else. However, giving my own views on a film got this started and the name seems to work. I don't consider myself a professional reviewer or even an expert one - or any other authority-implying descriptions. I just know what I like or don't and why in each case. I like sharing.

Continuing in that vein, I was given an advanced review copy of Stant Litore's newest installation in the Zombie Bible stories, I Will Hold My Death Close (available for pre-order, releases August 26th).

In short: I loved it. It didn't get to me quite as strongly as No Lasting Burial, but that text had a lot more time to build up and grow on me. In the short time available, the narrator in I Will Hold My Death Close still grabs a reader tightly and doesn't let go. She is just as unique and powerful as the narrators in the author's Ansible stories.

I pretty well summed up my feelings in my Amazon review, reproduced here for ease of reading:
Another snapshot from the world of The Zombie Bible. Confronted by death - both figurative and literal - the heroine of the story has to learn to face it, to take her death (and her life - what remains of it) and make it her own. In a world where her destiny seems to be entirely out of her hands, her death is one thing she refuses to give into someone else's control.
"I Will Hold My Death Close" is a beautiful and heart-wrenching narrative; it grabs you by the collar and doesn't let you look away. The narrator's voice is eloquent and earnest. This is, perhaps, the most striking part of Litore's storytelling; he has yet to disappoint me in the voices he harnesses to tell his tales. Like the Ansible stories, this character is her own and creates a portrait of a unique person, in her own set of circumstances, with her own particular point of view.
Solid writing & characterization with the personality I've come to expect of the Zombie Bible stories, I wouldn't hesitate to recommend this to any reader who's enjoyed Litore's work before. I'd also comfortably suggest it to someone curious about the series - it's short and gives a pretty good impression of what one can expect in the rest of the series (which is in no particular order).
If I had anything to complain about, it would be the length - but not for any good reason, I just wanted more! It's a quick read, but the narrative is whole & complete; it didn't need "more" telling to bulk it out.
Not part of my review, I want to add that the ending particularly engaged me. A sort of epilogue, it was the perfect way to wrap up, inscribe, and carry on the narrative of Yeptha's daugther. If a story is a fine meal, this ending was the perfect bite on which to end it.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Reviewish: Ansible 15715 & Ansible 15716

"Ansible 15715" & "Ansible 15716", Stant Litore

*This has made me want to talk about the concept of ansibles, but I will save that for another time.

I will strive to be spoiler free.

Up front, I want to say that I wish I’d thought of this first. The Ansible Stories seem like the perfect depository/showcase for all the alien worlds that exist in our imaginations; places that have a story that (I feel I) would ruin the mystique to tell.

Each tale leaves you wanting more, but not with the feeling of missing something. Like an amuse-bouche, they are single bites and give you a taste of what the mind of the author might have to offer you.

As always, Stant Litore’s prose just fits. It’s not the same lyrical language from No Lasting Burial, but that is by necessity. Each piece is from the perspective of a different ‘Ansible’ and they are very individual characters. The language used feels like the language of someone talking to you (and they are talking to you) without lapsing into the mode of ‘bad monologuing’. Something I always wonder when I pick up reading a ‘new’ author (can I count my experience with Mr. Litore as ‘new’ anymore? probably not) is whether their writing quality is consistent across projects. It is my opinion that Litore’s work maintains its quality without being monotonous within itself.

There are some themes echoed between them, but they are not identical tales dressed in different clothes. Both deal with ideas of isolation and alienation and loss (facets of a different, whole nameless thing), but both do so in a slightly canted way from one another.

In a way, I would enjoy this as a ‘shared world’ style of stories because these tales ignite in me a desire to play in writing again, in the Ansible cosmos. I cannot fathom that I'm alone in this thought.  I hope this is considered as much of a compliment as I feel it to be.

Both of these stories have lingered with me since I read them. In a moment of complete dissociation, I came back from daydreaming feeling very, very odd - and my mind immediately related it to how the Ansibles must’ve felt in these stories. If the contents of 15715’s transmission didn’t reach to the secret corners of terror in my soul, that moment and thought certainly did.

I imagine an entire collection of these stories - and I imagine using those stories the way a tabletop gamer might use the Manual of Planes or Beyond Countless Doorways for new destinations reached in unconventional ways. I very much hope that these stories continue (there is a promise for 15717).

For the sake of review sites, I have to talk about the stories individually, but my mind already considers them a singular unit. I’m including these singular breakdowns here. 

Ansible 15715 - All the Lovecraft Flavor, without the Antiquarian Verbiage!

The reviews that mention the Lovecraftian flare of this piece are spot-on. This is Weird Fiction without the Pulp aesthetic and it works very well. (I’m a fan of the aesthetic of Pulp era fictions, but love & appreciate when some of the ‘weirder’ parts of its spirit works into more contemporary pieces.)

It is a quick read, and the character’s voice is consistent to the characterization. I did not experience any "fridge moments" and the only question I had at any point in the story had everything to do with knowing something that I couldn’t know because the character couldn’t know it. (Oh, first person stories, our torrid romance continues!)

Per the reviews of other readers, I imagine this story will be fairly unsettling - for me, it was pretty delightful. My tastes already lie firmly in Lovecraftian territory. And my mind often wanders in pretty lonely and isolated modes.

Ansible 15716 - Leaves One Wanting - to hear from more Ansibles

As I said of Ansible 15715, this piece is a quick and smooth read with a voice consistent with the characterization.

It was difficult to read this as a ‘regular’ reader; I had several inclinations while reading it to do so as a college Lit major. Take that as you will, though to me it is pretty high praise. It is Science Fiction and it is on the borders of what some might label “Weird”, but it is also deeply felt in the way that so much of Litore’s work manages to be. It speaks with a voice worthy of closer inspection and introspection – everything literature can & should aspire toward.

Without getting into spoilers, this Ansible tale is gentler in some ways and harsher in others than the one preceding it. It sacrifices none of Litore’s skill at weaving together a good story and the right kind of cadence for the telling.

Whenever I try to find words to capture the emotions elicited by this story, I find myself at a lack – or perhaps simply unable to communicate them adequately through the means available. Apropos, given the story about which I’m speaking.

Hauntingly beautiful story.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Reviewish: Deepest, Darkest Eden

Deepest, Darkest Eden - ed. Cody Goodfellow, Miskatonic River Press

I've been sitting on writing this review for a while, because what I've been trying to mentally do is form my thoughts into a quippy blurb that would really sell this collection to people who were looking to the reviews to help them decide. I finally realized though, that while I could probably do so, it is a disservice to the authors in the text and to readers for me to try to spin my opinion. (Reviews are opinions, no matter how well-backed.) It is far better that I just lay out my experience & thoughts plainly.

In short, this is a pretty tasty collection of stories that execute the art of pastiche perfectly. (I'm a fan of pastiche for several reasons; chief among them is that a pastiche is what brought me to a love of Arthur Conan Doyle's original Sherlock Holmes.) 

Full Cover art for Deepest, Darkest Eden
Revolving around, inspired by, progeny from frothy, dark, eldritch literary spawn of Clark Ashton Smith, these stories put out. Which is to say, they deliver exactly what's promised. Overall, each story (and poem - there are a couple) nails the atmospheric feeling of an ol' CAS tale. Details are heavy & rich and doom lingers. This is a great anthology if you're looking for something with that CAS flair. Or, if you've never experienced it. Be prepared, though - these stories (and their origin) come in a very particular flavor.

While I enjoyed the whole collection overall, there are a few worth note - both good and bad. I'll start with my primary candidates of best/worst:

"Daughter of The Elk Goddess" - Probably my favorite. In a way, the story was fairly predictable (after a while of reading, most stories are, aren't they?) - but the execution was so lovely that I couldn't help but love it. I enjoyed reading it the most, no doubt. Though I knew where things were going, I still reacted as though I hadn't. That's a mark of a good story teller; it took me to a destination, but the journey was the more worthy part.

"In Old Commoriom" - I enjoyed this story for the most part, but there were aspects of it that took away from the overall narrative. In places it seemed to drone, and then the ending tries for something clever and it really broke the build-up for me. In a couple places, the carefully wrought language seemed to slip into more contemporary parlance and that was a bit jarring. Not a bad story by any means, but one that had some "fridge moments" that didn't wait for me to put the story down to interrupt my enjoyment and make me ask "Wait, what?" Your mileage may vary.

That said, even if I considered "In Old Commoriom" one of the weakest stories in the book - it's STILL a 3 star story by itself (1=skip it, 3=decent enough to read, and pretty interesting - not enough to bring down my estimation of the text by any means.

Honorable Mentions: "The Lost Archetype" and "The Door from Earth" and "Zolamin and the Mad God" (which I forgot to mention in my Amazon review). These three were great reads. "The Lost Archetype" was peculiarly fulfilling; the ending was suitable and there was a good bit of tension in the telling, but overall it was just /fun/. "The Door from Earth" tickled all of the places in me that require a particular sort of ending. I admit to giggling a little - though the story isn't "funny". Finally, "Zolamin and the Mad God" was another that just... satisfied. I can't put my finger on it, and maybe that's why it slipped my mind when I put up my Amazon review... but it was definitely satisfying. All three were solidly crafted and gave the sense of a completed tale. I imagine each of them could easily also be expanded into larger works - but there's no feel of a need for that.

Ultimately, I wouldn't feel the need to offer any caveats if I were to suggest this collection to a reader looking for something with that Clark Ashton Smith, Robert E. Howard, or H. P. Lovecraft sort of feel. Similarly, if you've ever enjoyed anything in the sword & sorcery realm, I think there's plenty tot tickle your fancy in this collection. It was an enjoyable and engrossing read. 

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Reviewish: No Lasting Burial (The Zombie Bible)

Reviews of the arts are always going to be a very personal thing. What makes the difference (as I've mentioned many times in my real life, but maybe not here) is if a person has the self-awareness and analytical wherewithal to be able to adequately and accurately describe the WHY of their assertions. (Technical reviews of function tend to be a little less subjective - did a thing do the job it was supposed to do in the method in which it was supposed to do so?) I hope I can hold up to my own standards.

I start off with this sort-of disclaimer because I recently finished reading a book that I consider to be a great read because of its impact on me on that personal level.

No Lasting Burial, by Stant Litore (The Kindle edition is on sale for $2 - if you don't have a Kindle, you can still read it through the PC Cloud Reader or through the Kindle App on other devices - and the paperback is just under $9. I recently won a hard copy in a contest and it is really a well-printed book.)

I'm going to endeavor to avoid spoilers.

I'll try to start with the more technical aspects:

The writing is lovely. While the bulk of textual entertainment can be referred to as "prose", I tend to save this word for particularly well-wrought and beautiful language. This is not experimental or high-brow stunting; Litore's prose is direct and 'simple' (but not simplistic) while also being complex and, at times, layering in more meaning.

The story is engaging and moves along at a very steady clip. I was surprised at the size of the print-copy of the text. (I read the Kindle version.) It is a hefty book! Originally released in episodes on Amazon, it does have pacing that allows you to step away at the end of each episode, but I found that I didn't really want to. Still, it was convenient when I needed to. In total, I finished reading the book in less than 6 hours total. (Despite its 360+ page length - in electronic and in print format.)

Good word use, great story crafting - there's not much more I can ask for in a text.

Here's where things get tricky, though - at least, as I've encountered in talking to people who've never heard of this book. This is part of a series called "The Zombie Bible". I know that for most people, this immediately summons up ideas of zombie-insertion fiction and a certain level of cheese, camp, and/or gore. While there is some gore (none I found gratuitous - and I have used that word to apply to blood/violence in a Tarantino film, for some context of my use of the word), this book was not cheesy or campy. The zombies, though, are not just zombies. These are The Dead; they are/were people and they have something to say to the reader, just as much as any of the other characters.

Then there's the matter of this being a story about Christ and his invitation to Shimon (Peter) (and others) to follow him. My relationship with religion and faith have always been fairly distant, if not strained or estranged. I came up through churches with a lot of conflicting views, a tendency to take all the wrong things literally, and a drive to snuff out questions. These experiences did not cultivate a lot of faith or trust in me. However, this portrayal of a figure I've known since childhood was (to continue to overuse a word) beautiful.

If you are of a particular mindset, this book will probably challenge you in some ways. I hope, if you choose to read this, you'll be open to that challenge to think and examine what you think and why. I did not, however, find anything about the rendering of this story to conflict with the broader message I've since extracted about Christianity (love one another, be excellent to each other, God will take care of the sorting - not my job).

I tried, just now, while talking to a friend and trying to figure out how to "sell" someone on the idea of a text that is called "The Zombie Bible", to read a passage to him and explain just why and how it moved me. I couldn't read it out loud. As soon as I tried, I started to sob.

 "My mother ... she told me once that our father did not promise a life without pain. ... Not without pain. Only that he would weep with us. Only that his heart would break. Only that he would take each moment of suffering, each death, each, and hold it in his hands, and ... and bring from it something, something even more beautiful than what was lost."

This book was a really personal experience for me and that's all manner of odd to admit "out loud" when you're talking about a book that includes zombies. But they aren't just zombies, and no other threat (packs of wild dogs, Romans, or tribbles) could replace them. The Dead are so much more than that. They are a symbol and a metaphor. They are a binding and a sundering. And Litore's treatment of Christ did not threaten or scare or offend me. (I'm not very easy to offend.) If anything, it brought a little spark of faith and hope back to my life. It brought some humanity to a figure that so much of my experience has painted as pretty flat. If THIS were the Jesus I experienced in my youth, if THESE were the words given to me from that pulpit-of-authority when I needed them? I think things would've been different. Maybe I'd be different. Those words, that quote, are something that could've soothed some hurts when I was younger. Far better than any attempts at therapy or self-medication to sort through hurt and anger.

I cannot and will not apologize for works that touch me.

I am not, however, trying to convince anyone else to read this book for that experience. What books touch us is a unique experience for every individual. We all have our own special texts that impact, brand, mark us for life.

What I am saying, though, is that this is an honestly good read if one can set aside assumptions and take it in on its own terms; a 'second world' retelling of a familiar tale, with some hungry Dead.

If you're even a little curious, I encourage you to give it a read. And, at $2 (at the time of this posting), what can it hurt?