‘Wide Brown Land’ print proof sighted …

18 03 2018

Oh, look! The printed proofs of my Titan-themed short story collection Wide Brown Land have now turned up:

Wide_Brown_Land_proof_pic

I’m biased, of course, but I’m really pleased with how Shauna O’Meara’s cover art has come out. I also like how well the cover meshes with Lewis Morley’s (Ditmar-shortlisted) artwork on its smaller cousin, last year’s novella release Matters Arising from the Identification of the Body:

WBL_and_MA

(That’s an artificial backdrop, though with heat, high wind, dust and distant bushfire smoke, the Canberra skies seem to be unusually titanian this afternoon, so perhaps I hardly needed the backdrop.)

I should be able to provide links for purchase, etc., a bit closer to the release date of 2nd April, so, in the time-honoured tradition of self-promoting as much as I think I can get away with, there’ll be another update or two between now and then.

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Book review: Jagannath, by Karin Tidbeck

28 12 2017

Karin Tidbeck is a Swedish speculative fiction writer and creative writing instructor who works in both Swedish and English. (There’s a fascinating afterword by Tidbeck which offers an analysis on the differences between those of her stories written initially in English and those that started life in Swedish.) To date, her books comprise one novel, Amatka, released in both Swedish and English, one Swedish-language short story collection Vem är Arvid Pekon? containing eight stories, and one English-language collection Jagganath containing thirteen stories, the first seven of which also appear in Vem är Arvid Pekon? (I’ve previously also reviewed Amatka, here.)

Jagannath

I’ll offer brief comments on each story, before I give an overall summary.

In ‘Beatrice’, Franz, a physician, and printer’s assistant Anna both fall in love; not with each other, but with, respectively, an airship and a steam engine. This is a tragic and surprisingly tender tale that sets up the tone of the collection very effectively.

‘Some Letters for Ove Linström’ is an eerie, fae-tinged tale of a late father, a lost mother, and a daughter trying to find her way in the world.

‘Miss Nyberg and I’ tells of the relationship, seen through the eyes of its possibly-envious narrator, between a rebellious green-thumbed artist and the small, possibly wooden, homunculus that has been her life’s secret companion. It’s a wistful and quietly beautiful story, but also elusive.

‘Rebecka’ is a sexual assault survivor who wishes she wasn’t, but her numerous attempts to take her own life are divinely intercepted (then left to be cleaned up by Rebecka’s loyal friend Sarah). This is a compact, powerful, highly disturbing tale which goes to some very dark places, as uncomfortable and as resonant in several ways as Connie Willis’s ‘All My Darling Daughters’.

In ‘Herr Cederberg’, the eponymous plump businessman of the title pursues a flight of fancy inspired by two teenage passersby jokily comparing him to a bumblebee. This is an entertaining enough story, but it seems decidedly lightweight when placed against those preceding it.

‘Who is Arvid Pekon?’ will be innately recognisable to (and will probably confirm several of the suspicions of) anyone who has had the misfortune to telephone a government department, where former ventriloquist Arvid answers calls with a disturbing versatility. This is probably the most humorous of the stories in the collection, blunted only by an abrupt and not particularly illuminating ending.

‘Brita’s Holiday Village’ seems like the perfect retreat for a narrator who wishes to finish a novel she doesn’t know how to start. But what’s with the large pupae hanging from the trees? This one is, by Tidbeck’s standards, almost straightforward, its ominousness overt rather than camouflaged.

‘Reindeer Mountain’, the collection’s longest story, is seen through the eyes of twelve-year-old Cilla, who accompanies her sister Sara and her mother to the decaying, trash-filled cottage from which their curmudgeonly granduncle Johann is shortly to be evicted. While the girls are exploring the cottage’s attic, they discover a chest containing the wedding dress of their great-grandmother, a woman claimed (by several in the extended family) to have been a vittra, a form of elfin nature spirit whose genetic heritage in this case appears to be a propensity to eccentricity and temperamentality. Brooding and elegiac.

‘Cloudberry Jam’ is a bizarre, affecting tale of a strange birth and an attempt to shape the nature of that which will not be shaped. To summarise it in greater detail would probably not illuminate much.

‘Pyret’ is a fictionalised study of a creature from Scandinavian mythology, the ‘Pyret’, a generally benign animal-mimic thought to have been displaced by urbanisation and changes in land use patterns. It is, ultimately, strongly atmospheric and just a little bit creepy.

‘Augusta Prima’ inhabits a timeless realm built on privilege and cruelty. But when she discovers a working pocketwatch in the jacket pocket of a corpse (presumably a casualty of the lethal games of croquet played by Augusta and her peers) she finds sprawled beneath a garden shrub, she starts to question what time is, and why her surroundings don’t obey it.

The three ‘Aunts’, who live in the same orangery visited by Augusta in the preceding story, are dedicated to the task of gorging themselves to the point of a Mr-Creosote-like obesity. This surreal and macabre piece may, or may not, be a comment upon inequality.

In ‘Jagannath’, newborn symbiont is put to work helping out with the peristalsis gang within the belly of Mother, a perambulating meatship on a far-future Earth. But Mother is dying … This one’s your average rite-of-passage tale, filled with uncomfortable mechanovisceral detail.

Having now read both Amatka and Jagannath, I’m tempted to say that Tidbeck’s shorter fiction is stranger than readers of her novel might expect, perhaps because the internal logic to a short story need not be so constrained by the requirements of plot as is the case in a longer work. The logic, by the way, is one of the things most notable about Tidbeck’s stories: though they are, demonstrably, all kinds of weird, they still strive to make sense, and the various outcomes have a kind of grim inevitability about them which is both appealing and disconcerting—this, I think, is true of all of Jagannath‘s stories with the possible exception of ‘Who is Arvid Pekon?’, which seems determined not to distil any discernible meaning or completion. Though all the stories, more or less, are immersive and fascinating in their own various ways, those that most strongly impressed me were ‘Beatrice’, ‘Rebecka’, ‘Some Letters for Ove Linström’, and ‘Reindeer Mountain’.

 





Book review: Karate Chop, by Dorthe Nors

23 11 2017

Dorthe Nors is a Danish writer (and former translator of Swedish crime novels) who has been awarded the P O Enqvist Literary Prize and was this year a finalist in the Man Booker International Prize. I’ve previously reviewed her novel Mirror, Shoulder, Signal here.

KarateChop

Karate Chop (Kantslag, 2008, translated by Martin Aitken) is a collection of fifteen of Nors’ short stories, previously published in magazines like Harper’s, Boston Review, and The New Yorker. They are pithy, quirky, and often unsettling. There is, overall, less of the situational humour here that I found so appealing in Mirror, Shoulder, Signal, but there is the same sense of closely-observed subterfuge, expressed here in a wide variety of scenarios. I’ll highlight a few:

In ‘The Buddhist’, a government official declares himself to be a Buddhist, so as to be a better person, and armed with a resultant sense of moral invulnerability, seeks to misrepresent himself into the position of CEO for a respected charity organisation. It’s whimsical, self-mocking, and sharp-edged.

In the cleverly-symbolic ‘The Big Tomato’, the narrator is working as a cleaner and home help for the wealthy Bangs. When the grocery delivery to their upscale New York apartment includes an unreasonably-large tomato, Mr Bang demands that the grocery send someone to take the tomato back, but the cleaner is the only person in the apartment when the delivery boy calls to collect it.

‘Karate Chop’ itself is a tale of an abusive relationship that is in its portrayal at once disturbingly intimate and clinically detached. Annelise is a special-needs teacher whose insight into human behaviour is not able to protect her from a string of doomed relationships with flawed men such as the bullying Carl Erik, father of one of the boys in her class.

‘Duckling’, one of the shortest pieces in the collection, is a getting-of-wisdom piece that catalogues a young girl’s awareness of the centrality of injustice as revealed through her duck-farmer father’s casual infidelity.

‘Hair Salon’, another vignette, engages principally by virtue of its close observation and offbeat introspection.

In several ways, Nors’ collection is reminiscent of another Scandinavian short-fiction collection I reviewed recently, Knots, by the Norwegian writer Gunnhild Øyehaug. Both of them are filled with acerbic, concise stories edged with absurdity and with a cynicism for human motives. Nors’ fiction is, I would say, less barbed, more polished, less allegorical, though there is certainly some common ground.

Ultimately, I didn’t find Karate Chop quite as fulfilling as her Mirror, Shoulder, Signal, but it nonetheless contains some wonderful short-story writing, which I can certainly recommend to students of the form.





Book review: The Scent of Almonds and other stories, by Camilla Läckberg

29 05 2017

Camilla Läckberg is a Swedish crime writer whose novels, set in and around the fishing villa of Fjällbacka and featuring the investigative duo of Erica Falck (writer) and Patrik Hedström (police officer), have become one of the country’s most successful fictional exports. I’ve previously reviewed Läckberg’s first novel, The Ice Princess, here.

TheScentOfAlmonds

The Scent of Almonds and other stories (Mord och mandeldoft, 2013, translated by Tiina Nunnally) is built, as its title hints, around Läckberg’s novella The Scent of Almonds, to which three much shorter stories have been appended so as to yield a slightly less slim volume.

In the title novella, police officer Martin Molin (a colleague of Patrik Hedström) is trapped for a storm-wracked weekend in a boutique resort on an island off the mainland. It’s a weekend from hell, spent with the family from hell: not his own, but that of Lisette Liljecrona, to whom he has rather unwittingly found himself classed as ‘boyfriend’. The family dynamics are so appallingly awful that it’s almost a relief when wealthy patriarch Ruben, Lisette’s grandfather, is fatally poisoned during dinner—at least now Martin has a role to fall back on, that of investigating officer, to distance himself from the argumentative clan. But Martin is a reluctant Poirot, who lacks the ability to secure the crime scene, to dust for fingerprints, or to communicate with his superiors; how will he pinpoint the murderer?

The novella has a distinctly old-fashioned feel about it, which is not solely due to the isolated setting and the lack of cellphone reception: the range of possible suspects are introduced in the opening scenes, and it rolls from there, in a story that seems to channel both Conan Doyle and Christie. Läckberg revels in her descriptions of the storm’s severity and in her depictions of the Liljecrona family’s utter lack of redeeming features: one almost wants them all to be guilty. Martin isn’t a particularly engaging protagonist (which I think is a conscious decision on the author’s part, so as to provide contrast with the absent Patrik), but the story’s atmosphere more-or-less carries it.

The three short stories are all also rather old-fashioned, in that each one pretty much revolves around a single point or idea—which, I suppose, is the classical definition of the short story form. In ‘An Elegant Death’, heiress Lisbeth has been bashed to death by an unknown assailant in her second-hand clothes shop; in ‘Dreaming of Elisabeth’, Malin’s suspicions of her partner Lars’ behaviour grow with premonitions that she is about to suffer the same fate—drowning at sea—which befell Lars’ first partner Elisabeth; in ‘The Widows’ Café’, Marianne provides a special, and not exactly legal, service for the community’s domestic abuse victims. These stories all fulfil the requirements—the setup, the fulcrum, the twist—and yet they feel too constrained by their artifice: they’re too short to properly unsettle the reader in the manner that Läckberg’s longer fiction can, wherein she can get thoroughly stuck into the genuine horrors of domestic life.





Book review: Cracking the Sky, by Brenda Cooper

9 04 2017

Brenda Cooper is a futurist, the Chief Information Officer of the city of Kirkland, and an established author who has written around several SF novels. Her work has won the Endeavor Award and has been nominated for the Philip K Dick Award, and she has co-authored one novel (Building Harlequin’s Moon) and several short stories with Larry Niven. I co-edited one of Cooper’s stories, ‘Between Lines’, in the Light Touch Paper, Stand Clear anthology.

cracking_the_sky

Cracking the Sky is a collection of Cooper’s short fiction, and contains twenty-one short stories and novelettes. It’s organised into five sections, of which the first, ‘On A Future Earth’, is longest.

‘The Robot’s Girl’ is a wonderfully evocative piece—of novelette length, I suspect—in which a couple of young professionals, Paul and Aliss, become fixated on the circumstances of their neighbour, a twelve-year-old girl who lives in a house tended (and guarded) by a troupe of serious-minded and highly protective robots. Where are her parents? Why do the robots not permit human contact with their charge? This is the sort of story that fulfils the promise of Isaac Asimov’s pioneering ‘Susan Calvin’ stories, adding solid emotional depth to the technological fizz of the central idea.

In ‘Savant Songs’, Adam is a doctoral student, and then a postdoc, for physics savant Elsa, a specialist in theories of the multiverse. Elsa’s communication with her own universe seems consistently perpendicular; is this an advantage, or a disadvantage, in seeking to establish the underpinnings of multiverse theory?

In ‘Riding in Mexico’, Isa is a Northwestern US university student taking a course which involves ‘riding’ a client’s mind: in laboratory sessions, she shares the sensory perceptions of Valeria, a young Mexican woman in difficult and possibly dangerous home circumstances. Isa has no way to help Valeria; all she can do is watch. As with much of Cooper’s writing, this piece is vivid and immediate.

‘The War of the Flowers’ details the predicament of single-mother Kelly, whose young daughter Cherry has to live in an interactive hypoallergenic environment so as not to trigger an extreme sensitivity arising from Kelly’s experimentation with tailored drugs before her pregnancy was diagnosed. What makes this story is, again, the clarity and urgency with which the scenario is depicted through Cooper’s prose.

In ‘Trainer of Whales’, kelp-farmer Kitha is outside the Dome when a seaquake hits. With no way of communicating with the denizens of Downbelow Dome, she has no way of knowing whether anyone within the Habitat, including her ten-year-old son Jonathon, is safe, or even alive. While this story is wonderfully imaginative and full of colourful and interesting ideas, it didn’t convince the way the four preceding stories did: its crisis seems more obviously confected, and the detail never transcends convenience to attain coherence.

In ‘Star of Humanity’, teacher trainee Tanya and vet student Susan receive internet invitations to a shadowy recruitment program, the Star of Humanity. Neither young woman is particularly keen on the idea of signing up to a program about which they have no useful information, but jobs are hard to come by. This is a story that asks a bit more than it answers, but it’s possible that it’s part of a larger sequence. (I suspect Cooper’s story in Light Touch Paper, Stand Clear, ‘Between Lines’, may well be another component of such a sequence.)

‘My Father’s Singularity’ is a difficult story to properly characterise. I suspect the best that I can do is to say that it’s a low-key exploration of the pain of technological advancement, and seems to compress a lot within a small frame.

The collection’s second section, ‘Space’, comprises three stories. ‘Trellis’ a story cowritten with Larry Niven, plays out as a rescue mission on an immense umbilical connecting Pluto with its mutually face-locked companion Charon. There’s a wealth of invention in the setting, but it has too much of the ‘cosy catastrophe’ about it and not enough of the slice-of-life futurism that is, I think, Cooper’s forte. (That said, it does seem to be a constructive collaboration. I can see traces of Niven’s worldbuilding in the setting alongside Cooper’s often-urgent characterisation, but it comes across as a blended rather than a chimeric construct.)

In ‘Second Shift’, Kami is an absent companion for Lance, a lone astronaut on a long-term asteroid-retrieval mission. She’s been warned not to get emotionally invested in her communications with Lance, but sometimes the heart doesn’t listen to instructions. This is a short, wistful, wise piece.

In ‘Blood Bonds’, Aline, Lissa’s twin, is clinging to VR-enhanced life support following a terrorist attack. As with the preceding story, this is essentially a tale of heartfelt communication across a seemingly-insurmountable barrier. There were aspects of the worldbuilding that broke suspension of disbelief for me—the handling of the lightspeed delay for communication between planets didn’t convince—but the remainder of the story is solid, if disorienting in places.

There are two stories in the ‘Stories From Fremont’s Children’ section, which apparently relate to Cooper’s series of YA novels starting with The Silver Ship and the Sea. I haven’t read any of the books in this series, and I imagine I’d have a stronger connection with the stories if I had. As it is, the stories, ‘The Hebras and the Demons and the Damned’ and ‘The Street of All Designs’ are readable enough, and possess sufficiently-engaging characters, but for me they lacked the power of Cooper’s best near-future work.

The fourth section, ‘Short And To The Point’, contains seven stories of three pages or less each. Of these seven stories, the most successful to my mind is ‘My Grandfather’s River’, an impressively compact tale of dedication and memory; ‘Alien Graveyards’ is also effective. The others too often seemed incomplete and fragmentary: while they intrigued in places, I felt that they required more flesh to properly resonate with the reader.

There are two stories in the final ‘Military Science Fiction’ section. The first of these, ‘For the Love of Metal Dogs’, depicts a woodland skirmish from the viewpoint of a combined human / canine / robodog combat team. It’s a concise and well-envisaged piece which conveys its freight well enough.

The title story, ‘Cracking the Sky’, details a raid by a human / robodog troop on a clandestine laboratory facility. It’s tense and vivid.

There’s quite a bit of variety in this collection, which I would say is a good thing. I had some definite preferences within the stories: to my mind, the first (and longest) section, ‘On A Future Earth’, is generally the strongest. Cooper seems to be most adept at depicting imaginatively detailed near-future scenarios, and my favourite stories in the collection, ‘The Robot’s Girl’, ‘The War of the Flowers’, ‘My Father’s Singularity’, and ‘My Grandfather’s River’ all fall into this category, and each of these combines worldbuilding displaying plausible technological advancements with a powerful and nuanced emotional undercurrent and memorable characterisation. These are crystal-clear vistas of possible futures as well as highly satisfying stories in their own right. While one could convincingly argue that not every story in the collection is hard SF, I would say that a substantial majority are, and those that aren’t (chiefly, as I see it, the two Fremont stories and ‘Alien Graveyards’) still mostly play nice with the laws of physics. My perusal of Cooper’s longer fiction suggests that most of her novels are a touch more fanciful (time travel, cyberpunk, space opera) than the most solidly grounded of these stories; without intending to slight her output in these other styles, which I’m sure she can handle adroitly, I would nonetheless be especially keen to see some longer near-future SF work from her.

(This is the twelfth in my ‘XX Hard SF’ series of reviews, on women writers of hard SF. For the purpose behind the series of reviews, see my posts here and here; for a listing of the books reviewed in this project, refer here.)





Book review: Stockholm Noir, ed. Nathan Larson & Carl-Michael Edenborg

25 11 2016

Akashic Books’ ‘noir’ anthology series now numbers several dozen volumes, each employing as a backdrop a different city, each edited by someone who knows that city and its writers well.

stockholm-noir

There are thirteen stories in Stockholm Noir. I’ll provide brief commentary on each of them before offering a summation.

Åke Edwardson’s Stairway from Heaven is shot through (pun unintended) with noir tones, as a wealthy woman, Rebekah, offers the narrator (‘Peter Kampinsky’) a substantial sum of money to find a friend of hers, John. Kampinsky takes the assignment—money is always useful in his line of work—but Rebekah grows impatient with his methods, and things go pear-shaped. Edwardson has several crime novels to his name, none of which I’ve yet read. I’m impressed with Stairway, though, which opens the anthology very effectively.

Still in Kallhäll, by Johan Theorin (whose The Darkest Room I quite enjoyed), sets in play an inheritance ruse, as Klas manoeuvres to knock off his ditzy girlfriend’s grandfather, who owns an enviably-central apartment which, really, all things considered, is more-or-less going to waste. This one didn’t work so well for me: Theorin seems to be pushing for comic effect with the brash, somewhat cartoonish characterisation, and the result lacks the depths his more serious work is able to attain.

Martin Holmén’s The Smugglers features characters from his debut novel Clinch, as a young man waits at a pub’s table for what he feels certain is his doom. This is a powerfully atmospheric historical piece which tells just enough to leave the reader distinctly unsettled.

The Splendors and Miseries of a Swedish Crime Writer, by Malte Persson, is another somewhat tongue-in-cheek (not to say self-referential) piece, as the narrator, a struggling crime writer, is contacted by his high-achieving ex-girlfriend who wants to meet up. Things go bad, of course. This one works, more or less, and offers some good-natured digs at the genre for good measure.

Anna-Karin Selberg’s Horse is mysterious and primal, as a woman (orphaned as a child in a drugland slaying) intercepts a heroin kingpin. It’s effective, though I can’t be sure that it isn’t a fragment of a larger piece.

From the Remains, by Inger Edelfeldt, is paranormal / urban fantasy, in which the narrator, a writer, finds a teenage girl living in her intolerably-cold summer cottage. It told too much, didn’t show enough, for my liking, nor did it hew to the core of noir.

Northbound, by Lena Wolff, is a nicely-written but rather disturbing report of a dating-site liaison, as the narrator decides to travel north from her Malmö home to hook up with the frankly revolting Caliban. If it’s true that some matches are made in Heaven, the opposite must also be true.

Torbjörn Elensky’s Kim has the narrator at a loose end in Gamla Stan on a summer evening, when he (or she: the narrator’s gender isn’t revealed) receives a phone call from an androgynous stranger, Kim, who’s being held captive and abused at an undisclosed nearby location. Kim begs for the narrator’s help …

In Black Ice, by Inger Frimansson, elderly widow Maj is alone in her large hilltop house when she hears someone moving around in the basement garage. There’s nobody there, of course, but when she returns upstairs some of her belongings are not as she’d left them. This story has a good sense of atmosphere, though it didn’t fully convince.

The Wahlberg Disease, by Carl Johan De Geer, refers to the migraines suffered by the photographer Arne Walhberg, whose Drottninggatan workspace and ailment the narrator has inherited. This doesn’t seem a deeply noirish story, and it rambles somewhat, but it also provides perhaps the most sharply-visual sense of place of any of the anthology’s contributions.

In Nineteen Pieces, by co-editor Carl-Michael Edenborg, Agneta Bengtsson is a middle-aged policewoman with a substance abuse problem and, it seems, a postal delivery problem: someone has begun sending her, on a daily basis, parcels containing amateurishly-butchered meat. The story is certainly appropriately dark, but it didn’t really work for me.

Unni Drougge’s Death Star traces the awkward interaction between Berit, who witnesses a young woman falling to her death from a building in the derelict canal district, and Rafel, a welder who works in one of the district’s businesses. This is a visceral and fairly effective piece.

Co-editor Nathan Larson’s 10/09/03 follows its jaded protagonist through the planning and execution of a savage political assassination in Stockholm’s NK department store. The writing is admirably propulsive, the story carries a sharp edge, but the narrator’s hyperworldly cynicism felt overdone. A dash of moderation would, I felt, have resulted in a stronger ending, both for the story and the book.

Anthologies are always a mixed bag, one way or another: there will be pieces which resonate more with the reader, others which seem somehow misplaced, or perhaps unfinished. This is true of Stockholm Noir (as is the habitual disclaimer that those stories I preferred might not be so much to another’s taste), but it does seem as though the overall compilation is a fairly solid sampler, with the highlights (for my money) being the stories by Edwardson, Holmén, Selberg, Wolff, and De Geer, in which the characterisation, the setting, and the ever-present sense of impending disaster transcend the gritty shock-and-awe affrontery that appears to mark the editors’ preferences.





The plot thickens, or something

17 07 2014

A new Gordon Mamon space-elevator murder mystery novella. A painterly xenohominid who cannot correctly choose the pigments that best represent the humble tomato; and the larger-scale problem this may signify. The complicated combination of ethical, economic, aesthetic, engineering, and tactical considerations that come into play when choosing the raygun that most ideally suits one’s own particular purposes. And my nastiest Titan story yet. It can all only mean one thing.

Actually, that’s a rather pointless assertion: it can very obviously mean any of several quite different things, the range of which I am not going to seek to encompass here. There is one thing that it does mean, and that one thing is this one thing: I have a second short story collection in the works, a follow-up, as it were, to Rare Unsigned Copy, and this second collection will be released (assuming all goes according to plan) at the start of October.

Most of the more titivating details, such as the full Table of Contents and the cover artwork, will be revealed closer to the time. For now, I can let slip that, like its predecessor, the new collection will be published (in print and e-book editions, as usual) by Peggy Bright Books, and edited by Edwina Harvey.

The title of this new collection? Well, after Rare Unsigned Copy, what else could it be? It’s Difficult Second Album.