Book Review: Sisters of the Revolution: A Feminist Speculative Fiction Anthology

Book Review: Sisters of the Revolution: A Feminist Speculative Fiction Anthology edited by Ann & Jeff VanderMeer

As the subtitle of this volume indicates, it’s a collection of 29 short stories written from a feminist perspective. There are selections from the 1960s through the 2000s–SF, fantasy, horror and a couple of stories that seem to be included out of courtesy because of “surrealism.”

Sisters of the Revolution

The anthology begins with “The Forbidden Words of Margaret A.” by L. Timmel Duchamp, an account of a journalist’s meeting with a woman whose use of language is considered so dangerous that a Constitutional amendment has been passed to specifically ban those words. The journalist has a photo-op with Margaret A. in the prison that woman is being held in, and the experience changes her. It’s an interesting use of literary techniques to suggest the power of Margaret A.’s words without ever directly quoting them.

The final story is “Home by the Sea” by Elisabeth Vonarburg, in which a gynoid in a post-apocalyptic world returns to her mother/creator to ask some questions. The answers to those questions both disturb and give new hope. Like several other stories in the volume, this one deals with the nature of motherhood, and the mother-daughter relationship.

There are some of the classic stories that are almost mandatory for the subject of feminist speculative fiction: “The Screwfly Solution” by James Tiptree, Jr. (men abruptly start murdering people they’re sexually attracted to, mostly women but the story tacitly acknowledges homosexuality); “When It Changed” by Joanna Russ (a planet with an all-female society is contacted by men from Earth after centuries of isolation–it originally ran in Again, Dangerous Visions, an anthology for stories with themes considered too controversial to be published elsewhere, times have changed); and Octavia K. Butler’s “The Evening the Morning and the Night” (a woman with a genetic disorder discovers that she has a gift that fits her exactly for a specific job, whether she wants that job or not.)

The anthologists have also made an effort to include stories that are “intersectional”, providing perspectives from other parts of the world. “The Palm Tree Bandit” by Nnedi Okorofor tells the story of a Nigerian woman who defies a sexist tradition and starts one of her own. Nalo Hopkinson’s “The Glass Bottle Trick” is a retelling of the Bluebeard story in modern Jamaica (this time the women avenge their own), and “Tales from the Breast” by Hiromi Goto, wherein a Japanese-Canadian woman discovers a solution to her breastfeeding problems.

Some other standouts include: “The Grammarian’s Five Daughters” by Eleanor Arnason (a fairy tale about language); “The Fall River Axe Murders” by Angela Carter (one of the stories that really doesn’t feel like speculative fiction, but is really well-written, set in the moments just before Lizzie Borden is about to get up and kill her parents) and “Stable Strategies for Middle Management” by Eileen Gunn (how far would you go to fit into the corporate culture? Would you let them shoot you up with insect genes?)

Tanith Lee’s “Northern Chess” is a fantasy tale of a warrior woman infiltrating a castle cursed to be a deathtrap by an evil alchemist. It’s exciting, but the ending relies on a now-hoary twist. Still worth reading if you haven’t had the chance before.

Most of the other stories are at least middling good. The weakest for me was “My Flannel Knickers” by Leonora Carrington, which falls into the surrealist category and seems to be about a woman who has rejected conventional beauty standards. Probably.

Rape, sexualized violence and domestic abuse are discussed; I’d put this book as suitable for bright senior high schoolers, though individual stories could be enjoyable by younger readers.

Recommended for feminists, those interested in feminist themes, and anthology fans.

Book Review: Jewish Noir

Book Review: Jewish Noir edited by Kenneth Wishnia

Many of the themes of noir fiction, alienation, hostile society, darkness and bitter endings, resonate with the experience of Jewish people.  So it’s not surprising that it was easy to find submissions for an anthology of thirty-plus noir stories with Jewish themes.  (Not all of the authors are themselves Jewish; see if you can guess which ones.)

Jewish Noir

The volume opens with “Devil for a Witch” by R.S. Brenner.   A man caught embezzling for what he thinks are good causes has his death faked by the FBI so that he can go undercover in the Klu Klux Klan.  The title comes from an old saying about trading a known danger for an unknown one, and this assignment turns out to be perilous indeed.  The author bio mentions that this is an excerpt from an upcoming novel.

Most of the stories in this collection are appearing for the first time, but two are not.  “A Simke (A Celebration)” by Yente Serdatsky was first published in Yiddish in 1912, and this is its first publication in English.  It’s a melancholy tale of a woman whose refusal to conform to the social norms of Russian-Jewish immigrants made her popular in her youth, but isolates her now that she is middle-aged.  Harlan Ellison® contributes a story first published in 1960. “The Final Shtick”, about a comedian returning to the small town he had good reason to flee, and his feelings concerning this.

As one might expect, several of the stories concern Nazis, neo-Nazis and/or the Holocaust.  “Feeding the Crocodile” by Moe Prager is perhaps the strongest of these–a writer tells stories to a death camp commandant in hopes of surviving just a bit longer.  But the crocodile gets greedy.

There’s a fairly wide variety of protagonists in these stories.  Good people who do bad things, bad people who try to do good things, evil people who sink even lower, men and women, religious Jews and secular ones, Jews of different sexual orientations and skin colors.  Ethnic slurs and antisemitism are peppered throughout, and there is mention of child sexual abuse, suicide and rape.

“The Golem of Jericho” by Jonathan Santlofer is on the borderline with supernatural stories.  A bullied boy and his grandfather build a golem, which may or may not have killed the bullies; it’s certainly a mysterious coincidence.

The weakest story is “Her Daughter’s Bar Mitzvah: A Mother Talks to the Rabbi” by Adam D. Fisher which is just one long kvetch.  (My spell checker doesn’t flag that word, interesting.)  No crime, no hopeless ending, just complaining.

It should be noted here that this volume published by PM Press has no connection to the series of regional noir anthologies put out by Akashic Books despite the very similar presentation and book structure.

Most of the stories are good; recommended to noir fans who are willing to stretch their focus a little.

 

Book Review: Second Street Station

Book Review: Second Street Station by Lawrence H. Levy

The “historical mystery” sub-genre is the intersection of the mystery and historical fiction genres.   Pick a time period in the past (there’s no minimum gap requirement, but it’s best to pick one far enough back that everyone involved is conveniently dead), research it, stir some real life people and events into a fictional murder, and voila!  Many such have become well-loved mystery series.

Second Street Station

This particular volume is set in Brooklyn (still a separate city from New York at the time) in the 1880s.  The combination of a  high-profile murder case and political pressure from women’s groups results in Chief Campbell of the Second Street Station police to hire Mary Handley as Brooklyn’s first female police detective.  As Mary investigates the Goodrich murder, she must battle not only sexism, but the power of wealthy men who have dark secrets, and an unsuspected enemy from her past.

This story is very loosely based on a real life murder case, so don’t Google ‘Mary Handley” if you’re going to read this book, as it will reveal a huge spoiler.  However, a lot of extra plot has been added around those bare bones to make this a novel.   It is kind of fun to watch Mary being all competent and smart-mouthed (the author’s background in sitcom writing shows in her ready witticisms).

Mary Handley has very 21st Century attitudes, while the “bad guys” have more period-appropriate 19th Century prejudices.  This sometimes makes it feel like the writer is trying to appeal to modern readers more than trying to present an authentic feel to the story.  One glaring example is that Mary just happens to befriend a Chinese immigrant family whose father just happens to be a jujitsu master and teach Mary his skills.    Why a Chinese immigrant is a master of the traditionally Japanese art of jujitsu is never explained.

Remember what I said about the real-life people being conveniently dead?  This is important as Thomas Edison gets a “historical villain upgrade”, being even more vile (probably) than he was in actual history.   That’d be a clear case for libel if he were still around.  Oddly enough, one of the plot elements here reminded me of the Milestone Comics title Hardware; those familiar with that series will spot it too.

A lot of space is devoted to cocaine, still legal at that point, as Mary interacts with the Pembertons, inventors of Coca-Cola.

There is also a character referred to as “Bowler Hat” after his favorite headgear.  He is important to Mary’s life in several ways, mostly negative, though it’s clear from early on that he’s not involved in the murder she’s investigating.

In addition to the expected violence and some consensual sex, there is a gratuitous rape scene.  I was not pleased.  Mary’s also a bit of a potty-mouth.

All in all, the story is fanciful and readers should not think about it too hard lest it fall apart at the seams.  It’s diverting, but flawed.

Disclaimer:  I received this book from Blogging for Books on the premise that I would read and review it.  No other compensation is involved.

Magazine Review: Lapham’s Quarterly: Spring 2015 Swindle & Fraud

Magazine Review: Lapham’s Quarterly: Spring 2015 Swindle & Fraud Edited by Lewis H. Lapham

Mr. Lapham’s literary magazine is based on the principle that history has much to teach the present on many subjects, so presents excerpts from many famous (and not so famous) authors on a loose topic for the education and entertainment of its readers.  This issue covers swindle & fraud, and the topic of lying and stealing more generally.

Lapham;s Quarterly Spring 2015

The pieces are all short, none more than six pages, and most hanging around the two-three page mark.  A long time spectrum is covered, from the classic Trojan Horse gag to the sub-prime mortgage bubble of the 2000s.   After a lengthy editor’s introduction, we start with Lawrence Osborne buying his own death certificate.  Through many authors we proceed to Oscar Wilde’s short play “The Decay of Lying.”Along the way we hear from Charles Ponzi (his original scheme was legal, but he couldn’t raise money for it without resorting to fraud) and Malcolm X’s thoughts on how white politicians lie to black people to get their votes.

There are a few original essays to round out the issue, “Rogue Wounds” by Daniel Mason, on faking illness; “We Buy Broken Gold” by Clancy Martin , on the retail buying of precious metals and gems; and “A Fish Tale” by David Samuels, about Herman Melville and the nature of fiction in Moby Dick.

The issue is profusely illustrated with classic artworks and other depictions of the theme, infographics and short quotes.   Everything is properly attributed, or at least it appears to be.

The general selection of items is high quality, and since they’re short, if a particular piece doesn’t interest you, another one will be along quickly.  It helps that crime and corruption are such interesting topics.  The shortness does however mean that most of the topics are only touched upon in the briefest of terms and you will want to investigate further if a given one interests you.

Highly recommended for strong readers who have limited time at any sitting.

Magazine Review: Out of the Gutter #7

Magazine Review: Out of the Gutter #7 (Winter 2010)

Back in the day, the low-cost entertainment option of choice was the pulp magazine.  It contained fast, exciting stories on cruddy paper–a lowbrow art form that is still fondly remembered by some.  “Out of the Gutter” tries to be somewhat in that tradition.

Out of the Gutter #7

This is the “U.S. vs. U.K.” issue, with alternate stories from American and British authors.  They’re handily arranged by the time it takes to read them, with the shortest stories up front, interspersed with somewhat relevant quotes and bits of non-fiction.

Unfortunately, while the cover promises “pulp fiction and degenerate literature,” the stories tend much more strongly to the degenerate side of the equation.   Lots of drugs, sex (yes, including rape), strong language and of course violence, with few likable characters to be seen.  It’s kind of like pouring habañero sauce on your jalapeños; too much burn and not enough nutrition underneath.

That said, there are a couple of good stories.  “Darkness Creeps” by Stephen D. Rogers is a good snapshot of a petty bureaucrat trying to fix a town one atrocity at a time.  “Real Estate” by Benedict J. Jones is about a finger man investigating drug dealers’ deaths.  And “Pleading and Bleeding” by Charlie Wade follows two police officers tracking down a serial killer with a thing for bankers.

The non-fiction is more varied.  A comparison of infamous murderers of the U.S. and U.K.,  a remixed comic about social etiquette, and a piece suggesting that the Declaration of Independence was written by Thomas Paine rather than Thomas Jefferson are a sample of these.

Based on this issue, I would not recommend this magazine, but it was certainly an interesting read.

Book Review: USA Noir

Book Review: USA Noir edited by Johnny Temple

Disclaimer:  I received this book as a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.  This was an Advanced Reading Copy, and small changes may be made in the final product.

USA Noir

“Noir”, here, is short for noir fiction, a form of hard-boiled crime fiction by analogy with the cinematic film noir.  Noir fiction tends to focus on the seedier side of life, filled with petty criminals, people driven to extremes by circumstance, and bittersweet at best resolutions.  Akashic Books has been putting out anthologies of noir short stories grouped by location since 2004, and this is a “best of” collection.

The stories are grouped by themes such as “True Grit” and “Under the Influence”, and range across the continental United States.  (Yes, that includes the Twin Cities.)  Most are contemporary (one has Google Maps as a plot point) but there are a couple of period pieces set in the 1940s and Fifties.

Some standout stories include: “Animal Rescue” by Dennis Lehane (a man finds an abandoned puppy, and decides to keep it),  “Run Kiss Daddy” by Joyce Carol Oates (a man does not want to upset his new family), “Mastermind” by Reed Farrell Coleman (a dumb crook comes up with the perfect crime), “Loot” by Julie Smith (various people try to cash in on Hurricane Katrina), “Helper” by Joseph Bruchac (revenge comes looking for Indian Charlie, but he’s no pushover) and “Feeding Frenzy” by Tim Broderick (in comic book format, a Wall Street firm has lost a big contract, and the employees search for someone to blame.)

Thirty-seven stories in total, 500+ pages of entertainment.   There’s also a list of the other stories in the volumes these were reprinted from, and a list of awards the series has garnered.

If the genre is not warning enough, I should mention that sordid violence is common in these stories, and some may be triggery.

Overall, the stories are of good quality, and represent an excellent cross-section of today’s noir writers.    It’s good value for money.

Update:  “Animal Rescue” was turned into the 2014 movie “The Drop” starring Tom Hardy; here’s the trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Iy_ogNiryZ8

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