Nine Reviews by Sean Melican

Nine Reviews by Sean Melican

Seven Touches of Music. Zoran Zivkovic. Alice Copple-Tosic, translator. Aio Publishing. ISBN: 1-933083-04-2

Feeling Very Strange: The Slipstream Anthology. James Patrick Kelly and John Kessel, editors. Tachyon Publications. ISBN: 1-892391-35-X

New Dreams for Old. Mike Resnick. Pyr. www.pyrsf.com ISBN: 1-59102-441-2

Strange Birds. Written by Gene Wolfe and inspired by the artwork of Lisa Snellings-Clark. DreamHaven Books. ISBN: not found

Catalyst: A Novel of Alien Contact. Nina Kiriki Hoffman. Tachyon Publications. ISBN: 1-892391-38-4

Monster Blood Tattoo: Book One: Foundling. D.M. Cornish. G.P. Putnam’s Sons. ISBN: 0-399-24638-X

Changeling. Delia Sherman. Viking. ISBN: 0-670-05967-6

The Crooked Letter. Sean Williams. Pyr. ISBN: 1-59102-438-2

The Keeper. Sarah Langan. HarperTorch. ISBN: 0-06-087290-X

Oh, what a busy summer! Short stories, young adult, big fat fantasies, horror. So, for my regular readers (I like to believe I have them) the reviews are shorter than usual. (To quote Shakespeare, “Brevity.”) I’ve broken up this column into sections. Thanks to L. Timmel Duchamp for her kind permission.

Short Fiction

The message, they say, is more important than the medium. But I confess that the book-as-artifact, while not as critical as the book-as-narrative, is a personal fetish. A well-constructed book suggests to the reader that this book, the one in his or her hands, contains a narrative more important and of better quality (Read me first! it says.) than the cheap paperback by his or her bedside. You know the kind. The spine breaks if you open the pages enough to actually read them. They become yellow and brittle. They fall out when the cheap glue fails.

Aio Publishing puts out some of the most wonderful books-as-artifact I’ve seen. Zoran Zivkovic’s Seven Touches of Music is just such an artifact. The cover is thick and pleasant to the touch. The interior of the cover is textured, the pages are thick and creamy and edged in black. I lingered on most pages just to enjoy the sensual pleasures.

Of course, a diamond-studded garbage bag still contains rotten eggs, discarded coffee grounds, raw chicken squirmy with maggots. But fortunately, Mr. Zivkovic’s stories are gems. (Technically, he calls his collections ‘mosaic novels’ and they do intertwine, but each story can stand on its own.) Each of the seven linked stories has characters who are, well, touched by music. Mr. Zivkovic explores how music affects are emotions, intellects, memories, lives. How a touch of music can lead to personal discovery, a second life, a forgotten moment. None of these stories is easily classifiable, and that is what gives them their strengths.

For example, the first, “The Whisper,” involves a frustrated special education teacher, Dr. Martin. “He never taught his pupils anything; nor did he test them, or even talk to them. He did address them, of course, but he could never be certain that they took in any of his words. There was rarely any reaction; when there was, it was enigmatic.” But when Dr. Martin plays Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in F Minor, Opus 21, one student behaves in a manner that leads Dr. Martin into the mathematical structure of the universe and the deepest mysteries of the human mind. But while a more traditional story would find Mr. Martin solving the mystery, Mr. Zivkovic is anything but traditional. Yet, the ending is deeply satisfying on a level uncommon in genre.

This is a book to savor, to read and reread, to love. And not just for the words, but for the entirety. Aio will be bringing at least two more of Mr. Zivkovic’s mosaic novels to English readers.

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It is my opinion that every anthology of quality genre fiction should be celebrated. Various market forces have conspired to destroy the anthology, and yet it continues to live. And Feeling Very Strange, unlike many anthologies, does not contain a single weak story. As an anthology, this book is just about perfect.

However, the purpose is, as the editors write, “To form a canon [my italics] out of mist and wishful thinking.” Mr. Kelly and Mr. Kessel should be applauded for the attempt and hopefully, like the numerous best of year anthologies that together create a meaningful dialogue about what science fiction, fantasy and horror are (and are not) and what makes a great story in those genres, this book will be a seed crystal. (According to the August 2006 issue of Locus, another similar anthology Paraspheres has just been released.)

The issue I have is that I believe the anthology has failed in its stated purpose for two reasons. (Buy the book for the stories. Really. My argument will not reduce by one atom the excellence of these stories.) The first is that many of the stories do not strike me as slipstream at all. Remember, slipstream is as much a void defined by what it is not (it’s not mainstream, science fiction, science fantasy, fantasy or horror) rather than what it is. In Bruce Sterling’s words, “… this is a kind of writing which simply makes you feel very strange; the way that living in the late twentieth century makes you feel, if you are a person of a certain sensibility.” The editors say, “We contend that slipstream… embraces cognitive dissonance rather than trying to reduce it.” For example, while Karen Joy Fowler’s “Lieserl” and Howard Waldrop’s “The Lions are Asleep this Night” (excellent stories, I feel the need to reiterate) are excellent examples of late twentieth century alternate history, I failed to ‘feel strange’ or experience cognitive dissonance while reading them. (To be fair, I’m fairly certain I miss an awful lot of Mr. Waldrop’s references.) Bruce Sterling’s “The Little Magic Shop” is a wonderful inversion of an old chestnut, but does an inversion make us feel strange? George Saunders’ “Sea Oak” has a zombie, but zombies stories are essentially a sub-genre of their own, and while odd, the story doesn’t seem to use the tropes in anything other than a conventional manner.

However, what is undoubtedly slipstream is Carol Emshwiller’s “Al.” The familiar trope is that of crashed spaceship, but the usual markers�discovery (usually by precocious children or government agents) and the standard dichotomy between love and fear: a mistake that writers and others make is assuming that complex human responses can be boiled down to childishly simple notions of good or evil (which are never as black and white as they seem… but this is not the place for such an analysis)�are missing. We only know it is about a crashed spaceship (At least I think so, but I’m not sure, which might be the mantra for readers of slipstream.) because of reference to James Hilton’s Lost Horizon and a story of the sudden appearance of remarkable stranger.

Aimee Bender’s “The Healer” starts with, “There were two mutant girls in the town: one had a hand made of fire, and one had a hand made of ice.” There is absolutely no authorial effort to rationalize. It simply is. (I believe this is what Mr. Sterling was writing about. So much of modern life is impossible to comprehend, but the reality is undeniable.) The impossible is, while written literally, used to analyze human behavior. (Another facet of slipstream.) The remainder of the story takes place in a perfectly mimetic world.

Jeffrey Ford’s “Bright Morning” is about as perfectly slipstream a story as imaginable. While initially it reads as a semi-fictional autobiography, there is a subtle shift in narrative where it becomes another semi-fictional autobiography.

Benjamin Rosenbaum’s “Biographical Notes to ‘A Discourse on the Nature of Causality, with Air-planes'” is slipstream because the title is critical, for the story referred to in the title (and it is a story, with the narrative arc and all) is entirely absent while the story that is present is presented as a forward by the author. It’s notable that both “Bright Morning” and “Biographical Notes…” are written by authors with the same name as the authors, but they are not the same authors. Nor are they what could practicably be referred to as alter egos for the flesh and blood authors you can meet at conventions never write even a sentence which would suggest that this isn’t ‘really me.’ Narrative and what many naively (but necessarily) name ‘real life’ are impossible to separate. (O what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to conceive… of a definition of slipstream.) The conceit of Mr. Rosenbaum’s story (the real Mr. Rosenbaum, and I know at least Mr. Ford would argue vociferously with the qualifier ‘real’) is that Mr. Rosenbaum lives in the world we know as pulp fiction, with enormous blimps, eccentric autocrats, and nonstop action with almost-cartoon villains bursting through doors waving weapons and exquisite chases through the underside of the dirigible. And, of course, a fascinating discourse on causality, which isn’t necessary in the fictional world of pulp fiction. The fictional Mr. Rosenbaum wishes to write a story in which the world is like ours where, “[The] idea smacks of Democratic materialism�as if the events of the world were produced purely by linear cause and effect,” and we assume, “A Discourse on the Nature of Causality, with Air-planes” is that story.

I can’t explain M. Rickert’s “You Have Never Been Here,” the only story original to the anthology, but it alone is worth the price of admission. Written in the second person, it is an ambitious and unfaltering analysis of identity.

The second reason I believe this book has failed (to form a canon of slipstream, not as an anthology of excellent stories) is that while the subject matter would be strange to a reader from fifty or a hundred years ago, the narrative structure (the story arc) would be perfectly comprehensible. None of these stories plays with language the way they play with genre tropes. And if dissonance or strangeness is the (or at least a) purpose of slipstream, then a playfulness of language, a conscious effort to use language to comment on, undermine or even (in a sense) demolish genre and even narrative itself is a necessary facet.

The perfect example, Greer Gilman’s “A Crowd of Bone” (which, to be fair, would fill more than half the anthology) switches point of view so often the reader experience narrative vertigo. You can find it in Trampoline edited by Kelly Link. You can also read Philip Raines’ and Harvey Welles’ “The Fishie” (Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet – 12) for another excellent example of linguistic gymnastics. And while “Lieserl” is an excellent story, Ms. Fowler’s “The Elizabeth Complex”, which collapses the lives of three famous Elizabeth (Elizabeth I, Elizabeth Taylor and Lizzie Borden) to “… attack … the structures of oppression�including their linguistic and literary forms�[and] is slashingly outright.” (Taken from L. Timmel Duchamp’s monograph on the story, which can be found here and is well worth reading in its entirety. You can read the story in either Ms. Fowler’s collection Black Glass or the anthology The Best of Crank!. Both collections are worth owning, incidentally.)

The other linguistic possibility that I felt was missed by the editors was the potential for uncertainty as to whether a story of genre tropes should be read literally or allegorically/metaphorically depending entirely on the what classification the story receives by editors. For example, Maureen McHugh’s “Laika Comes Back Safe” (not included here) involves a boy who claims to be a werewolf, but the reader never sees any evidence of his condition, except evidence which, if the story were published in a mainstream magazine, would be construed as a medical condition one could look up in The Merck Manual Home Edition. (And not lycanthropy.) Is he really a werewolf, or is he physiologically sick? And does it matter? (You can read this story in Ms. McHugh’s collection Mothers and Other Monsters.) The other example is Kelly Link’s (yes, I refer to her, and her and her husband’s magazine and publishing company frequently) “The Hortlak” (also not included here, though her amazing “The Specialist’s Hat” is) which has creatures called zombies, but if it were to published in a mainstream magazine, the zombies would be read as metaphors for modern suburbanites because, aside from the word zombie they don’t display any behaviors that are both categorically zombie and categorically un-human. They shuffle and don’t really speak much, for example, but they don’t eat brains. Like Ms. McHugh’s story, the narrative itself is ambiguous, depending on the surrounding material, and treats narrative not as an isolated event, but another thread in the fabric of consensual reality. (And questioning, of course, the nature of that supposed reality.)

It occurred to me as I wrote this that I have to some extent written a partial table of contents for my own slipstream anthology, if I was ever asked to edit one. (Publishers, I can be reached through ideoreviewguy@yahoo.com). Since Mr. Kelly and Mr. Kessel admit that they have not attempted an exhaustive overview of slipstream, I assume that they expect and encourage vigorous debate.

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Mike Resnick is prolific and as such his collection New Dreams for Old is a mixed bag. His fans are legion and his awards numerous. Which he is not above letting us know, either, for almost every author’s introduction counts the awards for which the story has been nominated or won.

Mr. Resnick is breezy, so the stories flow by quickly; but at his best he is thoughtful. My favorite is the tender ghost slash love story “Travels With My Cats.” At a tender age, the narrator discovers that rare sort of book, the kind which is pleasurable to read many times. It gets packed away and rediscovered when he is much older. He searches for other books by the author, but there are none, and then for the author herself. Mr. Resnick writes of love (real love, not lust or convenience, but a meeting of minds, if I may be so trite) with a rare talent, which is also evident in “A Princess of Earth,” “Down Memory Lane,” the heartbreaking “For I Have Touched the Sky” and “Robots Don’t Cry.” (Another story which relies on the implied omission of the title; if robots don’t cry, who does?) “43 Antarean Dynasties” exhibits another kind of love, the bittersweet love for a lost civilization. And the hatred of those too ignorant to appreciate it.

“The Elephants of Neptune” (slipstream, really), “Old MacDonald Had a Farm” and “Hothouse Flowers” are ol’-fashioned what-if? scenarios, but their concision packs a wallop otherwise lost in the sort of story (you know the kind I mean) in which the author, convinced the idea isn’t enough, writes long and meaningless scenes with characters he (or more rarely, she) doesn’t truly care about for the sake of ‘character development.’ But Mr. Resnick cares about all his characters, and knows how much to show and when to write THE END.

While there are a few lousy stories, one of which I thought was entirely amateurish, the majority are worth reading.

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Strange Birds is a collaboration between Lisa Snellings-Clark, a visual artist, and Gene Wolfe, who has written two stories based on Ms. Snellings-Clark’s work. The artwork is included. The first story, “On a Vacant Face A Bruise,” is the better of the two, a sometimes meandering story of a runaway who finds work as a carny in a strange circus. The other, “Sob in the Silence,” is as well-written as any Gene Wolfe story, but I’m afraid that the material, a horror story about a psychopath, fails to respond to the particular strengths of Mr. Wolfe in large part because the sorts of conceits and deceits practiced by Mr. Wolfe are better in the visual medium of television and movies (The Ring and Sixth Sense come to mind) when utilized for such a story.

Young Adult

I admit to only a passing familiarity with Nina Kiriki Hoffman’s work, mostly from various young adult anthologies. When Catalyst arrived, I was intrigued by the cover art: a sort of fiery eye surrounded by obviously alien skin reflecting a pretty boy. Cool covers suck me in. This is a cool cover.

Kaslin is a teenage boy whose father is an incompetent criminal and whose mother is a paramedic. Because of his father, they are on a world in which political corruption is unchecked. (Think New Jersey.) He is hounded by Histly, a girl who uses her augmented fingernail weapons to torture Kaslin. The book opens with him being chased into a cave into which he falls and makes alien contact. He and the universe will be changed forever. (Duh.) Moving at breakneck pace, Ms. Hoffman narrates the triple challenges of making first contact, surviving a girl who has as many political and financial weapons as she does physical, and navigating the political labyrinth of a corrupt and criminal society. (The chief export is narcotics. Think Trenton or Camden.)

But I have a difficulty in categorizing this as young adult. While it has the plot and language of an excellent young adult novel, by page twenty-one the aliens have licked Kaslin to orgasm. Ms. Hoffman isn’t delicate�she uses the word ejaculation�but she does portray the conflict between sexual excitement and the ‘ick’ factor of alien fellatio. (The only other young adult novel I recall using the word ‘ejaculation’ is from the fifth Harry Potter in which Ron ejaculates loudly.) The sexual component is critical to the story (whenever a teenage girl and a teenage a boy interact, it has to be, else it fails mimetically-assuming at least one is heterosexual) and is fairly realistic. It is not, repeat not, pornography: the purpose of the sex is not titillation. You can find much more explicit material on the internet. The purpose is to describe the realistic sexual lives of teenagers. It is disconcerting that sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy are never mentioned�from the standpoint that young adults should be made aware of potential consequences�but the world does have some rather astonishing medicine-autodocs in houses�so it would be ludicrous for our consequences to be problematic in their world.

It is dishonest, in a sense, to pretend that teenagers are as much intellectual creatures as adults (though, with some adults I’ve met…) when physiological changes, particularly sexual, are at their peak. It is equally dishonest to present teenage sexuality as controlled, either by teenagers themselves (impossible except with a superhuman will) or society, usually represented by parents. The truth is, teenage boys want it all, and they want it now. Young adult novels which present a chaste kiss as the satisfying pinnacle of teenage sexuality are fooling no one. I’m not advocating promiscuity or even teenage sex. Sex is a health risk and an emotionally charged event. But denial ain’t just a river in Egypt. Which is what makes Ms. Hoffman’s Catalyst such a worthwhile novel: it is unflinching honest.

It is my opinion that parents are the absolute arbiters of what is appropriate in any household. But it is also my opinion that young adults must flout (or at least challenge) parental proscriptions. (Like strength training, you can’t get stronger if you don’t exert force against something.) Frankly, if a parent believes that realistic teenage sexual relations (though not consequences) will lead their child into promiscuity (much like the idiots who believed Harry Potter would lead children into devil worship), then their young man or woman is precisely the one who should read this.

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But there is nothing wrong with dishonesty either, if the author can tell a riveting tale. And Mr. Cornish can. The book itself has beautiful interior illustrations by the author of several of the characters. The back has several appendices, including an exhaustive Explicarium (a glossary), several maps, calendars, diagrams of soldiers’ uniforms, and diagrams of ships.

The story is familiar enough: An orphan, Rossamund (a girl’s name, for which he is teased and tortured by others), is raised in Madam Opera’s Estimable Marine Society for Foundling Boys and Girls, and when he comes of age, is chosen to be a lamplighter. But what he really wants is to be a lahzar, or monster fighter. (Who doesn’t?) The countryside is ravaged by a variety of monsters in a seemingly endless battle between lahzars and monsters. He is shanghaied, learns many lessons about people and the geography, escapes, meets a lazhar who dispatches a monster in a battle that leaves Rossamund thoroughly morally confused, discovers that a lamplighter might not be so bad after all, et cetera. Really, this is just an extended chapter of a huge novel, because by the end (and this ruins nothing) Rossamund has only just reached the lamplighter citadel where he is to be apprenticed. It is fun, fast-paced, well-written-I was hooked from the line, “He had arrived when he was little more than a wailing pink prune, left on the doorstep with an old piece of hatbox lining pinned to his swaddling.”�What a wonderfully unusual detail!�and chock full of detail: historical, magical, biological, chemical, medicinal, cultural. (But, alas, no sex.) The magic of the lazhars is biochemical, a neat change from the usual, the morality of monster-killing ambiguous, many of the characters and events morally complex. A fine, fine young adult book.

Delia Sherman’s Changeling is another fine young adult fantasy. Neef is a changeling (surprise!), which is a human child who has been swapped with a fairy child. Neef angers the Green Lady of Central Park, who protects Neef from most dangers, including the Hunt. But when Neef disobeys Astris, her fairy stepmother, she also angers the Green Lady, who removes her protection. And so it is a race away from the Hunt and into the wilds of New York to fulfill three (of course) tasks. The fun is in the details. Neef grows up on inverted fairy tales, such as Radiatorella, Sleeping Debutante, and the like. In her travels, she encounters a wide variety of fairies from around the world, not merely the usual. There’s a Guide in the back for those unfamiliar with some of the creatures. And the magical potions and non-fairy creatures she uses, while magical to her, are ordinary substances and metaphors or allegories for us. (Kids, if the Bear and the Bull confuse you, go here.)

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Big Fat Fantasy

Sean William’s The Crooked Letter is another reprint from Pyr and won the two biggest Australian awards the year it was published. It is a big fat fantasy (there are three more books) which follows, at least in the first book, the standard template for fantasy: a monstrous creature wants to have absolute control over more domains than he (rarely she) already controls and all that stands between total domination and the status quo is a small band of heroes. But while the template is familiar, the villians and heroes are drawn from a wide variety of mythologies. One of the heroes (well, sort of) is an Aztec deity. The monster who wants total control is Yod-which appears to be a contraction of Yhwh and God. The two main characters are the very rare mirror image twins Hadrian and Seth Castillo. Early on, Seth is killed but Hadrian is left alive. For what purpose? Well, it has to do with Yod’s master plan. The earth that we know is torn asunder as monsters of every sort ravage the world. Hadrian must survive except, if he doesn’t, there are some rather curious consequences. Seth’s death, however, is not the end of Seth, but the beginning of the template quest. But he is is not governed by physicality, but will, so that Seth’s perceptions are merely metaphors for unusual wills (creatures) which allows Mr. Williams free range to describe all sorts of nasty creatures without being constrained by the physics of the ‘real world.’ An engaging, thought-provoking book.

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Horror

(Full disclosure: Dan Braun, a member of Sarah Langan’s writing group, is also an editor at Ideomancer. It is through him that I received the advance reader’s edition.)

Sarah Langan’s first novel, The Keeper, is a horror novel in which the lives of a number of characters are told but comingle only at or near the climax. Susan Marley is Bedford, Maine’s whore. (The location isn’t the only nod to Stephen King.) She’s also mute, crazy, scary, and weird. But I guess if you’re desperate enough…

Bedford is a dying town, actually dead already, but unaware of the fact. The Clott Paper Mill, the reason for the town’s existence, has just closed. The real strength of Ms. Langan’s writing is in her depiction of the depression of the residents and the town. It feels right and the characters behave appropriately. Some simply wither. Others, who are younger, dream of running away somewhere else, or get high, have sex, or some combination thereof. (My father grew up in a small Illinois town which had a major train yard that directly or indirectly employed the population. It is difficult to rectify my knowledge of the husk of that city with the thriving one of my father’s memory.)

There are weaknesses. What is the otherworldly creature Liz Marley, Susan’s younger sister, discovers early on? The image is haunting but it is never revisited. Three characters central to one of the events that drives the climax enter so close to the event that they feel more like an authorial device than genuine characters. And most importantly, while the horror that changed Susan (and you’d have to be dense not to guess right from the beginning) is, well, horrible, it is sadly not terribly unique either. So why is that she is invested with all this power when other girls who have suffered the same thing are merely victims? What makes Susan different?

Still, this is an intriguing debut.


If you would like to have your book reviewed, contact me at ideoreviewguy@yahoo.com. If you bought a book because of me, please let the publisher and I know. If you’ve passed on something, don’t tell anyone.



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