Review: In Her Eyes

In Her EyesIn Her Eyes by Seth Chambers
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This novella is a powerful blend of crass, funny, sweet, sad and poignant. Alex, a curator at Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History, narrates most of this tale through the arc of him meeting and falling for the engimatic and crass Sing Song.

Alex soon discovers that Song is a Polymorph–a human able to alter her appearance and physicality at will. The rare genetic ability is much reviled, so Alex must keep Song’s secret and adapt to being with a “different” person every week, most everything changes except for her eyes and voice. This part of the tale almost hits an erotic/romantic tone.

But a darker tale emerges in Alex’s search for the true Song. She knows more than most what it means to be judged on appearance. Her ability to alter her look to meet Alex’s or society’s or her family’s expectations only obscures her true self. The turn toward the serious and sad startles with its raising of new issues: dysmorphia and gender dysphoria among others.

The novella is highly recommended. The use of true Chicago as the setting, was mere icing for this Chicago transplant.

In Her Eyes appears in The Year’s Best Science Fiction & Fantasy Novellas: 2015 edited by Paula Guran and published by Prime Books. It first appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, January/February 2014.
 
 
 
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Review: Dream Houses

Dream HousesDream Houses by Genevieve Valentine
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

It takes a special type of person to carve out an existence on a frontier. Many are running from something or have left everything and everyone far behind. In this novella, that frontier is space. The 5-person crew of Menkalinan does the long haul to remote, tiny Gliese and back at 5 years each way. All but the final 6 months of each passage is meant to be in hibernation.

An act of sabotage destroys the hibernation pods and kills the crew except for Amadis Reyes early in the trek, pulling her into a nearly 5-year journey without enough waking supplies and life support. Her only company is the ship’s AI, Capella, that seems to manipulate and hold back, especially about the contents of the locked cargo bay.

Amadis’ sanity is challenged in this psychologically twisted telling. She often thinks on her nomadic family and dreams of the many houses they did and did not occupy.

Dream Houses appears in The Year’s Best Science Fiction & Fantasy Novellas: 2015 edited by Paula Guran and published by Prime Books. It first appeared independently, published by WSFA Press and Wyrm Publishing. I’ve previously reviewed a couple short stories by Valentine: “Aberration” and “Abyssus Abyssum Invocat”.
 
 
 
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Review: Yesterday’s Kin

Yesterday's KinYesterday’s Kin by Nancy Kress
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Foremost, this sci-fi novella is about how individuals and cultures define family and feel kinship, examining genetic family versus chosen family. Individuals can adopt a culture nearly as easily as a family can adopt an individual. The magnifying glass peers at what draws people together and what pulls them apart, with friends or even causes at times supplanting family.

Aliens have landed on Earth creating the Embassy just offshore of NYC, but remaining isolationist for months. Finally, the off-world Worlders request geneticist Marianne Jenner and UN politicians for first contact. Worlders come in peace and with bad news: Earth is facing apocalypse by cosmic pathogenic nebula. The countdown begins with 10 months.

Marianne is successful in work but dysfunctional in family. Happily widowed from her alcoholic spouse, she regrets thin relationships with her 3 adult children who in turn have tense ties to each other. Elizabeth is isolationist-conservative in her views against non-Americans and non-Earthlings. Ryan is a liberal activist against invasive species, including the Worlders. Noah is a lost soul with a drug habit that overhauls his sense of self and belonging.

As news of the coming apocalypse spreads, fear and hatred are unleashed upon the Worlders who just want a cure for both Earth and their planet which is due to be hit 25 years later. The tale parallels contemporary xenophobia in times of terror and economic collapse.

Much of the science revolves around mitochondrial DNA and the desperate search for a vaccine with too little time for proper trials. The story is not about the science, but the good science is appreciated regardless. The alien technology remain merely that–alien.

Yesterday’s Kin appears in The Year’s Best Science Fiction & Fantasy Novellas: 2015 edited by Paula Guran and published by Prime Books. It first appeared independently, published by Tachyon Publications.
 
 
 
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Review: The Lightning Tree by Patrick Rothfuss

Lightning treeLightning Tree by Patrick Rothfuss
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This novella is exquisite in its storytelling from its playful yet careful dialogue to its near-poetic descriptions. Not surprisingly, Rothfuss wrote it on the heels of penning The Slow Regard of Silent Things which was itself startlingly beautiful. The 2 tales emerge from the same world as The Kingkiller Chronicle, each taking a deep look at a minor character.

This frolicking tale centers on Bast, showing a single day–albeit a full one–in which the mysterious student of Kvothe’s learns some minor lessons and dispenses others to the village’s children [and one adult]. Charged with the simple tasks to collect some eggs and carrots and to get some reading done, Bast takes off on a long, winding adventure with each step informing the next.

Unbeknownst to the adults in town, Bast has been trading truths, lies, charms and curses to the children to receive favors and secrets which he employs cleverly to his advantage. The interactions can be riotously funny one minute, especially in dealing with precocious Kostrel who’s selling the pertinent details of where and when winsome Emberlee bathes:

Bast raised an half-interested eyebrow. “Is that so?”

Kostrel grinned. “You faker. Don’t pretend you don’t care.”

“Of course I care,” Bast said. “She’s the sixth prettiest girl in town, after all.”

“Sixth?” the boy said, indignant. “She’s the second prettiest and you know it . . . I want a favor and information,” the boy said with a small smirk. His dark eyes were sharp in his lean face. “I want good answers to three questions. And it’s worth it. Because Emberlee is the third prettiest girl in town.”

Bast opened his mouth as if he were going to protest, then shrugged and smiled. “No favor. But I’ll give you three answers on a subject named beforehand,” he countered.

Kostrel nodded in agreement. “Three full answers,” he said. “With no equivocating or bullshittery.”

The tale can also veer heartbreakingly somber, especially when visibly bruised Rike worries about both his mom’s safety with his father’s drinking and his own self-worth.

Bast opened his mouth, then hesitated and closed it again. He looked up and saw the first of twilight’s stars emerge. He looked down at the boy. He sighed. He wasn’t good at this.

So much was so easy . . . Fooling folk was simple as singing. Tricking folk and telling lies, it was like breathing.

But this? Convincing someone of the truth that they were too twisted to see? How could you even begin?

It was baffling. These creatures. They were fraught and frayed in their desire. A snake would never poison itself, but these folk made an art of it. They wrapped themselves in fears and wept at being blind. It was infuriating. It was enough to break a heart.

The Lightning Tree appears in The Year’s Best Science Fiction & Fantasy Novellas: 2015 edited by Paula Guran and published by Prime Books. It first appeared in Rogues, eds. George R. R. Martin & Gardner Dozois (Bantam).

 
 
 
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Entropy excerpt–an apocalyptic microscene

The morning is the mottled gray-pink of bad meat. A cloud scrim hides layers of more clouds and the dawn and the sun. The heavy air condenses on the wind shield sending rivulets scuttling up and over the car.

My dread is tinged with a growing nervousness. What was merely butterflies in the stomach is quickly becoming cockroaches under the covers—I don’t know what I’ll find in Madison. There’s only been a couple of other cars on the interstate between Rockford and Madison, if one doesn’t count the dozens of abandoned cars. The silence of the road gives way to a bull bellowing without his harem. It’s the quiet I dislike.

But has it been thirty miles since I last checked? Close enough. Besides, we’re getting close to Madison. I turn the car radio on. The static is set at a low enough volume to let Jared sleep. I hit “Search” and let the car cycle through the frequencies. It searches. And it searches. And cycles.

“Nothing?” says Jared as if we expected nothing. He’s still in his sleep position with arms crossed, eyes closed, his head leaning on the window. I turn the radio off.

“Nothing.”

Review: The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy and Horror: 2015

The Year's Best Dark Fantasy & Horror, 2015 EditionThe Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & Horror, 2015 Edition by Paula Guran
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Ostracism, cruelty, loneliness and desperation rise to the top in this anthology of the best of the best of the new dark and dreary. A great many of these short stories and novellas are excellent in this 6th annual edition of this collection. Editor Paula Guran can be counted on cast a wide net when it comes to tone and genre, but to glean the best therein.

Five stories rocked my world with their depth into the human condition, starting with V. H. Leslie’s “The Quiet Room” in which a divorced father claims his daughter after the death of his wife. The unresolved issues solidify into a haunting silence in the ghost story. “The Female Factory” by Lisa L. Hannett and Angela Slatter reveals the bleak conditions of a Tasmanian women’s prison in the early 19th C. “The Cats of River Street (1925)” by Caitlyn R. Kiernan gives a 100-year update to Lovecraft’s novella “The Shadow Over Innsmouth.” A century later, and the residents are as singularly secluded as ever. Kali Wallace’s “Water in Springtime” employs imagery not unlike a Miyazaki film centering on a strained mother-daughter relationship in a ravaged landscape. Finally, “The Floating Girls: A Documentary” by Damien Angelica Walters uses literalism to cast a fantastical light on real world problems when in the tale 300,000 teen girls from all over the world drift away into the ether never to be seen again.

I’ve reviewed each story contained in the anthology. My honorable mentions meriting 4-stars are:
Armstrong, Kelley–“The Screams of Dragons”
Bear, Elizabeth–“Madam Damnable’s Sewing Circle”
Bowes, Richard–“Sleep Walking Now and Then”
Gilbow, S. L.–“Mr. Hill’s Death”
Langan, John–“Children of the Fang”
Marshall, Helen–“Death and the Girl from Pi Delta Zeta”
Sanderson, Brandon–“Dreamer”
Tem, Steve Rasnic–“The Still, Cold Air”
Tidhar, Lavie–“Kur-A-Len”

Also included:
Bailey, Dale–“The End of the End of Everything”–3 stars
Kim, Alice Sola–“Mothers, Lock Up Your Daughters Because They Are Terrifying”–3 stars
Lee, Yoon Ha–“Combustion Hour”–3 stars
Malik, Usman T.–“Resurrection Points”–3 stars
Strantzas, Simon–“Emotional Dues”–3 stars
VanderMeer, Jeff–“Fragments from the Notes of a Dead Mycologist”–3 stars
Warren, Kaaron–“The Nursery Corner”–3 stars
Bulkin, Nadia–“Only Unity Saves the Damned”–2 stars
Files, Gemma–“A Wish from a Bone”–2 stars
Headley, Maria Dahvana–“Who is Your Executioner?”–2 stars
Wise, A. C.–“And the Carnival Leaves Town”–2 stars
Barron, Laird–“(Little Miss) Queen of Darkness”–1 star
Jones, Stephen Graham–“The Elvis Room”–1 star
Liu, Ken–“Running Shoes”–1 star

I received my copy of the anthology directly from Prime Books. This collection is highly recommended. Previously, I’ve reviewed three other Paula Guran edited, Prime Books anthologies:
After the End: Recent Apocalypses–4 stars
Extreme Zombies–4 stars
Mermaids and Other Mysteries of the Deep–4 stars
 
 
 
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The Requested Book Review

Lately I’ve been posting a lot of reviews, about 2/day. That’s easy when they’re mostly short stories, as I think each author and inclusion in an anthology deserves consideration. [I don’t do that for a single author collection of poems or short stories. That I treat as a single thing.]

My source material comes from all over: books from conventions [thanks Tor at C2E2!], Goodreads First Reads, Netgalley, recommendations etc. Recently, I wrote directly to the chief editor of a publishing house to note that they weren’t on Netgalley and that I wish they were because I would review them. No questions asked, they sent me their summer ARCs. I’m reviewing them.

Sometimes I’m approached by new authors. I love it. Authors are lovely people, and most want the honest feedback. That can be frustratingly hard to get. Beta-reading allows for changes to still be made, of course. Reviewing doesn’t. Most authors thank me and move on; only a couple have tried to squeeze me for an extra star. I’ll admit to my stinginess with 5-star reviews. That’s as it should be. NOT everything is amazing.

Once a publishing house contacted me for series of reviews just letting me know the upcoming publication dates. That was a great experience. They probably weren’t thrilled with the 2-star reviews but they rallied behind the 4-star ones and the one 5 I gave. [It deserved it.]

Recently, I had a review requested from neither an author nor a publisher but a promoter, a middle manager. Nope, not doing that again. Basically it felt like the desire was to hijack my blog with set information. I’m not a bulletin board. I’m a reader, reviewer, writer with some schooling that may or may not inform any of the above.

In the end, they didn’t get what they wanted. They got an honest review from me on the date I was ready to post it [3 weeks before schedule, but after publication]. And the book was excellent.

Luckily, that’s been the worst of it.