Book Review: Festival of Crime

Book Review: Festival of Crime Edited by Christine Husom, Mickie Turk & Michael Allan Mallory

Minnesotans have a reputation for being a bit mild-mannered and reserved.  But we love celebrations just as much as anyone else, and the state is filled with fairs and festivals, from small-town scarecrow contests to the crowded Pride in Minneapolis.  And sometimes crimes happen at these events.  Thus this collection from Twin Cities Sisters in Crime, a local writers group.

Festival of Crime

Most of these 19 tales are indeed crime stories, but not always murder, and a few have mystery elements.  A couple have supernatural elements, though only one has it proven.  Some merely take place at or near a festival, while others have it essential to the plot.

The collection begins with “Sawbill Checkpoint” by Michael Allan Mallory (wait, isn’t he one of the editors?)   A man is shot during a dogsled race, and his final word may be a vital clue…if only someone knew what it meant.  The last story is “All Sales Final” by Douglas Dorow.  A pair of art dealers discover a treasure trove owned by two elderly women.  Now, how to get it away from them before the old ladies figure out how much it’s worth?

Stories I enjoyed the most were “Looney Daze” by Cheryl Ullyot, in which a gambler woos a woman obsessed with wiener dog races; and “Corn on the  Cob” by Colin T. Nelson, about a sheriff faced with criminals he can’t put in jail, and an election coming up.

“No Time Like the Present” by E.B. Boatner is about a man who spots some anachronistically-dressed people, and learns their secret.  It feels a little too tidy, with a long-winded wrap-up.

Content warning:  homophobia, torture and domestic abuse come up in different stories.

The writing is decent on average, and I only spotted a couple of minor typos.   There are author bios in the back if you decide one of the stories makes you want to read more.

Recommended primarily for Minnesotan crime story fans, as they’ll be most familiar with the local color, but any fan of crime stories should be able to enjoy this.

Book Review: A Memory This Size and Other Stories: The Caine Prize for African Writing 2013

Book Review: A Memory This Size and Other Stories: The Caine Prize for African Writing 2013 Introduction by Lizzy Attree

The Caine Prize is awarded to a short story written by an African author (which primarily means one born in Africa–all the authors in this volume are from Sub-Saharan Africa), published in English in the last five years and submitted for consideration.  This volume contains the five stories that were shortlisted for the prize in 2013, plus twelve more written at a workshop sponsored by the Caine Prize.

A Memory This Size

The collection leads off with the 2013 winner, “Miracle” by Tope Folarin.  A group of Nigerian immigrants attend a tent revival in Texas.  A great faith healer is scheduled to appear, but will there be a miracle tonight, and what form will it take?  I found this to be rather a blah story, but I am not one of the judges for the contest and don’t know what criteria they based the decision on.  Nigerians dominate this volume, with four of the five shortlisted stories and several of the workshop ones as well.

Three of the five shortlisted stories have a heavy Africa-America connection, to the point that Chinelo Okparanta’s story is actually titled “America.”  A schoolteacher who wishes to join her lover there uses the Gulf oil spill as a wedge to try to convince the immigration people to give her a green card.   There’s an interesting ending in which the protagonist remembers hearing a folktale similar to ‘Jack the Giant-Killer” except that it stops short of the “ever after” with no explanation of what happens past a certain point.

The title story, “A Memory This Size” by Elnathan John concerns a man mourning for his brother, who died years ago, and yet he cannot let go.

There are common themes in these stories, most of which are “slice of life” tales:  government corruption, marital infidelity and environmental destruction.

There are a couple of stories that move into the “magical realism” camp (that is, fantasy, but not called that so critics can treat it as actual literature.)  The better one is “Howl” by Rotimi Babatunde, about a dog named Jack who may or may not have the extraordinary powers the villagers think, but is certainly not a normal dog.  “Clapping Hands for a Smiling Crocodile” by Stanley Onjezani Kenani, however, has the best title in this volume.  That story is about a fishing village threatened by oil developers, and the sacrifice one man makes to save their way of life.

I also enjoyed “Stuck” by Davina Kawuma, told in a series of emails by a young woman who is tempted to have an affair.  One final email changes everything.

My least favorite story was “Foreign Aid” by Pede Hollist.  This tale of a man who returns to Sierra Leone after many years in America, thinking he will be a big man thanks to his money, was too predictable and made me cringe rather than care.

That said, I am glad I took the chance to read this book and learn what some African writers are doing.  There are thirteen volumes of Caine Prize stories published; check your inter-library loan system for any one of them.

I should also mention that there is some disturbing subject matter, and would best suited for college age and up.

Manga Review: Case Closed Volume 56

Manga Review: Case Closed Volume 56 by Gosho Aoyama

Quick recap for newer readers:  Shinichi Kudou (“Jimmy” in the US version) is a teen genius detective.  He runs afoul of a mysterious criminal organization, but their assassination attempt instead causes him to shrink to a childlike appearance.  To conceal his survival from the organization, Shinichi poses as Conan Edogawa, ward of inept private detective Kogoro Mouri (Richard Moore) and his teenage daughter Ran (Rachel) who happens to be Shinichi’s love interest.  Conan continues to solve crimes, though it’s harder to get people to listen to a small kid.  See my previous review for more.

Case Closed Vol. 56

The volume to hand is #56.  The first story is “Engagement Ring?!” which guest stars Detectives Sato and Takagi, and their slow-moving romance subplot.  Sato is suddenly wearing a gold ring on her left hand’s ring finger, and Takagi wasn’t the one who gave it to her.  The crime this time is the suicide (or is it?) of a mystery writer that Kogoro was supposed to participate in an interview with.  That writer also had a ring that turns out to be an important clue.  The case is also complicated in that Sato is one of the few police officers who’s noticed that “Sleeping Mouri” doesn’t move his lips when he gives the real solution, so Conan must figure out other ways to lead the police to the answer.

Next up is “The Witch Legend Mystery” which is loosely based on the story of a lost traveler who seeks shelter with a kindly old woman overnight.  He wakes up in the middle of the night due to an odd sound, peeks into the next room, and sees that the woman is actually an onibaba (anthropophagous demon granny) who is sharpening a knife in preparation for butchering him.

In this case, both the Detective Kids with Doctor Agasa, and two “hosts” and their client separately find themselves stranded near a mountain hut, and reluctantly taken in by the scary-looking old woman who lives there.  (A “host” is a handsome man who entertains women at a nightclub, getting them to buy drinks and expensive trinkets for them.)  The client winds up dead from a slit throat.  Was it the old woman, who one of the children saw sharpening a knife in the dead of night, or someone else?

The remainder of the volume is a series of connected stories that deal with the Eisuke Hondo subplot.  This mysterious youth is clumsy, but perceptive, and seems to be connected to the supposed missing (actually comatose) Rena Mizunashi, newscaster and associate of the Black Organization.   Conan’s Osakan counterpart Heiji Hattori (Harley) has discovered someone who may have know Eisuke’s father; also there’s only one known photograph of the man.  But when Conan, Doctor Agasa, and Ai (English name Anita, another survivor of childification) go to check that photo–it’s missing!

That problem resolved, Conan has some new clues.  Then Ran suggests visiting a friend of the Mouri family who is a huge Rena fan, to see if Eisuke really is her brother, as the photographs would suggest.  Conan and Sonoko (Serena) tag along, and Conan solves a bank transfer scam case on the way.  But news footage of Rena only confuses the issue–she apparently can’t be Eisuke’s sister, and the boy’s motives are still murky.

It’s nice to get some plot movement, so this is one of the volumes to pick up if you’re most interested in the “myth arc.’  Otherwise, it’s got a couple of decent mysteries that are typical for the series.

Book Review: Women of the Night

Book Review: Women of the Night edited by Martin H. Greenberg

With all the anthologies I’ve been reviewing, I’m surprised it took me this long to cover one edited by Martin H. Greenberg (1941-2011), who curated more than a thousand SF/F/Horror anthologies during his career.  He was an excellent packager:  If you wanted a book about alternate universe Elvises, he could find you a dozen decent to outstanding stories, even if he had to call a few authors to write them to order.

Women of the Night

In this particular case, the theme is “female vampires” of various sorts.  The introduction by John Helfers talks about how they have been relatively underrepresented as opposed to male vampires, but their literary pedigree is nearly as long.

The sixteen tales open with “One for the Road” by Stephen King, a sequel to Salem’s Lot.  A tourist managed to strand his family in what used to be Jerusalem’s Lot during the middle of a Maine blizzard.   He’s finally managed to find help, but it may be too late for his wife and child.  Spooky, but really requires you to have read the previous book for full effect.

The oldest story is from 1953, Philip K. Dick’s “The Cookie Lady.”  A young boy visits a nice old lady who offers him cookies and likes to listen to him read.  She’s a different kind of vampire.  Notably, the boy’s parents are right to be concerned, but for the wrong reasons–in a non-horror story, they’d be the bad guys.

As one might expect from the usual treatment of female vampires in fiction, there’s quite a bit of sexual references in the anthology, unfortunately including rape and pedophilia.  There’s also a fair amount of violence (what, you thought all blood donors were voluntary?)

Neil Gaiman’s “Snow, Glass, Apples” is an interesting twist on the Snow White tale, but I found it less transgressive than just kind of icky.  Still very well written.

“Sister Death” by Jane Yolen is better, I think, twisting together the myth of Lilith and the Holocaust.  Some very evocative imagery.

There’s a wide assortment of female vampires; sometimes villains, sometimes victims, and one or two are the heroes of their stories.  I think a couple of these have their endings muted because we know that there is a female vampire to begin with, even if within the story it’s a surprise.

The final story is “Do Not Hasten to Bid Me Adieu” bu Norman Partridge.  It’s a take on the Dracula novel, some parts of which are true in the story, and others made up by Bram Stoker.  Quincey Morris returns to Texas to fulfill a promise he made to Lucy, no matter how much blood it’s going to take.  There’s a bit of suspense at the end–is Quincey too late?

It’s a good line-up of authors with some nice stories, it would make a pleasant Halloween present for a vampire fan.

Book Review: The Avenger: Roaring Heart of the Crucible

Book Review: The Avenger: Roaring Heart of the Crucible edited by Nancy Holder & Joe Gentile

Moonstone Books is a publisher that specializes in new material about pulp magazine characters.  This is their third anthology of stories about Richard Henry Benson, the Avenger, and his organization, Justice, Inc.

Roaring Heart of the Crucible

For those who have not heard of the character before, Richard Henry Benson had his wife and child taken from him in a bizarre midair disappearance.  The shock of this and the claims that they had never been on the plane in the first place drove Mr. Benson to a nervous breakdown.  When he recovered his sanity, he found that his skin and hair had lost their pigmentation, and his face was now frozen.

In the process of tracking the criminals responsible, Mr. Benson became the Avenger and began assembling his team.

The fourteen stories in this volume are mostly inserted into the “classic” period of the original series, before “Murder on Wheels”, which changed the premise somewhat.  Some of the stories are very precisely placed indeed.  This means that Cole Wilson, who only joined Justice, Inc. at the end of “Murder on Wheels”, is absent from most of the book.  Perhaps fittingly, then, “An Excellent Beauty” by C.J. Henderson is a solo outing for this agent, with a twisted focus on his distinguishing feature of being “handsome.”

The most famous author in this anthology is Will Murray, whose “The Moth Murders” leads off the book.   It’s an appropriately creepy story, with a horrific murder method, a bizarre antagonist and an almost plausible explanation to end the story.

Another standout story is “The Box of Flesh” by Barry Reese, in which two seemingly unrelated investigations converge at the crossroads of stage magic and folklore.  It’s almost as creepy as the title makes it sound.

Most of the stories stay within the customary adventure pulp limit of “almost plausible,” but a couple do go straight into the science fiction genre.  There are also a number of references to other pulp characters, with the Domino Lady making a full guest appearance in “According to Plan of a One-Eyed Trickster” by Win Scott Eckert, which follows on from his stories in the two previous anthologies in this series.

While the stories are generally good about explaining who the characters are (and thus can get a little repetitious in this area),  for best effect, a reader should already be familiar with the Avenger characters; I recommend looking up a reprint of the first two or three stories in the original series.  Also, the book could have used another proofreading pass, as there are a couple of obvious typos.

If you are already an Avenger fan, or know one, this is a fun book.  You might also consider looking at the previous two volumes.

Book Review: Deathless

Book Review: Deathless  by Catherynne M. Valente

Marya Morevna is not like the other girls in Saint Petersburg/Petrograd/Leningrad.   She sees the husbands of her sisters while they are still birds.   But times are changing in Russia, now the Union of Soviet Socialistic Republics.   The People have no time for magic, and Marya does not see the bird that becomes her husband.   A pity, for this husband is named Koschei, and now she is snared in his story.

Deathless

Koschei the Deathless is a famous figure in Russian folktales, the sorcerer who has cut out his own heart, his death, and hidden it so that no man or thing can kill him.  In tale after tale, he falls in love with a beautiful woman, but she is in love with Ivan the Fool, and they find Koschei’s heart, no matter how well guarded.  There are variations to the tale, but they all end the same way.

This version is written by the author of The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland In a Boat of Her Own Making, and is set against the background of Russian history in the first half of the Twentieth Century.    The fairy tale creatures of Russian folklore have taken on new forms to match modern times.  Even Baba Yaga makes an appearance.

Marya is a complicated character.  Despite the rather disturbing courtship style of Koschei, Tsar of Life, she genuinely comes to love him, and helps him in his war with the Tsar of Death.  And yet she finds herself irresistibly drawn to her Ivan when he appears.  Marya wants to avoid the fate the story has for her, but makes decisions that drive her farther down that road.

Given that the non-graphic sex scenes dance on the line between rough sex and spousal abuse, I do not recommend this book below senior high level.  There’s also some very dubious consent that may trigger some readers.

For those who might be interested in Russian folklore, and fans of tragic romance.

Open Thread: Minicon 49

This past weekend, I went to Minicon 49 at the RadiShTree Hotel in Bloomington.   It’s a book-oriented science fiction convention with an older-skewing crowd, running around 500 people.  So it’s not overcrowded and a good place to talk to your once a year friends.

Art by Don Maitz, with additions by Pat  Scarramuza
Art by Don Maitz, with additions by Pat Scarramuza

This year’s theme was “Pirates and Airships” largely because the artist Guest of Honor was Don Maitz, who people who are not SF fans may know best from the Captain Morgan rum bottles.  (Fun information:  Mr. Maitz’s first draft of the Captain Morgan painting had the pirate in period-correct clothing, but he decided that the anachronistic outfit looked more “piratey.” )  Also on the Guest of Honor list were Jenny Wurtz (the Mistwraith series, and Mr. Maitz’s wife) and Catherynne M. Valente (the Fairyland series.)

Minicon 49 was listed as three and a half days, with some activities starting on Thursday, but I arrived Friday.   I attended the “Fandom or Fandoms?” panel, which discussed generational differences in how speculative fiction fandom is approached.  I stayed for the “Healthy Online Gaming: Just One More Turn” panel, which talked about online gaming addiction, how to prevent it, how to deal with it and how to spot if you have it.

Opening Ceremony (“ceremonies!”) were fun as always, with a rousing beginning,  Jenny Wurtz marching in playing the bagpipes.  I was saddened to learn that Blue Petal (a long time fannish personality who once played in a convention RPG I ran) had passed away.

After that,  I went to the “Navigating the World of Small Press Publishing” panel, with several authors and publishers discussed the joys and pitfalls of working with small presses.  One of the panelists didn’t make it as he was so busy selling his book that he lost track of time.  (Also because last minute mixups meant that panelists weren’t named in the programs.)

Late night was party time (I especially enjoyed the Helsinki Worldcon bid party) and Moneyduck.  For those of you who have not heard of the latter, Moneyduck is a game where you write a word or phrase on a piece of paper and pass it to the next person.  That person draws a picture of the words.   They then conceal the original phrase and pass it to the next person, who writes words based on the pictures.  Repeat until the paper has gone all the way around the table.

On Saturday morning, I went to the Catherynne Valente Reading, where she gave us a snippet from her upcoming Fairyland book.  Should be interesting.

That afternoon, I moderated the “Anime for Speculative Fiction Fans” panel, the recommendations from which are in an earlier post.   There was a young woman in the front row who wanted to study moderation as she will be doing that for a Hetalia panel at ConVergence; that inspired me to do a good job, and I am told it showed.

Later that afternoon,  I also participated on the “Page 117” panel.   The idea was to pick a random page from a book, in this case the hundred and seventeenth, and read it aloud.  The panelists and audience then discussed whether they’d continue reading based on that page.   As it turns out, some good books have boring 117s.  One particular volume had a page that was so over the top macho action that it set me to giggles, even more when it was revealed that the protagonist was a woman.   All my entries were from books I was donating to the freebie table; they were all gone by the end of the day, and I hope the new owners enjoy them.

I wrapped up my panels for the day with “The Year in SF”  by which was meant primarily SF books.  There’s a few I am looking forward to seeing.  The parties I spent the most time at were the Ethel Romm Meet & Greet, and the Livejournal Party.

Sunday morning, I went to the Film Room’s presentation of “Wolf Children,” an anime movie about a widow who has to raise her kids/cubs alone in a world that hates and fears wolves.  It’s a bit melancholy.  After that was done, I stopped by the end of the Janny Wurtz interview.

My main panel for the day was “Maenads, Oracles and Madwomen”, which turned out to be mostly about Baba Yaga and how she is a liminal figure.  (One of the panelists mentioned how nice it was to be around a group of people who used the word “liminal” in conversation.)  After that, it was time for the “Mega Moneyduck Reveal” event.  A roll of paper had been set up by the Consuite, and the game had been played all weekend.  What started as the phrase “silent and very fast” wound up being something about birthday cake. There were some hilarious segues.

Closing ceremonies were also fun.  Catherynne Valente mentioned that she’d been nominated for a Hugo award; we’ll see how she does.  The ceremony culminated in the usual assassination of the MnStf President, and then it was time to go home.

The book I was reading for most of the weekend was “The Why of Things”, about causality.  it sparked several interesting conversations.  I’ll have a review of it up in a few days.  I also got to see pieces of three Syfy Original Movies, which all appeared to be parodies of giant monster flicks.

Next year is Minicon 50, which will be four (exhausting) days, and the planned guests of honor are Larry Niven, Jane Yolen, Brandon Sanderson and Adam Stemple.  You might want to get your registration in early.

Book Review: Pacific Crest Trailside Reader: Oregon and Washington: Adventure, History, and Legend on the Long – Distance Trail

Book Review: Pacific Crest Trailside Reader: Oregon and Washington: Adventure, History, and Legend on the Long – Distance Trail edited by Rees Hughes and Corey Lewis

Disclaimer: I received this book from a Goodreads giveaway on the assumption that I would write a review.

Pacific Crest Trailside ReaderThis anthology is a collection of short stories and essays regarding the Oregon and Washington legs of the Pacific Crest Trail, and there is a companion volume covering the California leg. Most of the pieces are true stories of hiking the long trail, but there are a couple of Coyote tales and some historical notes, as well as an essay on Mount St. Helens (not on the trail but visible from it) by Ursula K. LeGuin.

The stories take up only a few pages apiece, which makes it excellent reading for times when you only have a short minute or two to spare. There’s a strong unity of themes, and if you’re bored by tales of the great outdoors, this may not be the book for you.

I’d highly recommend this book to hikers, outdoorsy types and armchair adventurers; it might also do well for young adult readers and students who are taking related courses

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