Category Archives: Goths

Steampunk! An Anthology of Fantastically Rich and Strange Stories

Steampunk! An Anthology of Fantastically Rich and Strange Storiesis a cromulent collection of short stories, though uneven like most (maybe all) multi-author collections. I do appreciate the emphasis by editor Kelly Link on steampunk stories outside of the now-iconic Victorian London steampunk setting. I like the thickly urban setting – it’s what drew me to the sub-genre in the first place – but I can get fiercely irritated with the way some steampunk fetishizes the upper class twit of the year with his goggles and laboratory that I sometimes find in that setting. So, to the individual stories.

“Some Unfortunate Future Day” by Cassandra Clare: Inoffensive piece of atmosphere that fails to say anything at all, cutting out right when the real narrative choices need to be made. The daughter of a mad scientist is abandoned by her father to go fight in some ill-defined war, leaving her in the care of Romantic talking dolls in a crumbling Gothic house. A soldier falls out of the sky, which leads to a lot of naive narrative imaginings from the girl, and then the obvious use of a Chekhovian timepiece and then…the end! It’s like a chapter cut out of a larger narrative where all the implications come to fruition in the next chapter. But the story is pretty enough, I guess, and the only thing I really hated was the entirety of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 64 used as an epigraph. Seriously, who does that for a short story? Ugh. 

“The Last Ride of the Glory Girls” by Libba Bray. I would absolutely kill for a Glory Girls novel, which is not to say this doesn’t function as a short story. Reminded me strongly of Firefly, with its frontier planet full of harsh religion and frontier cruelties, written in a stylized dialect that totally works. Pinkertons, train heists, girl bandits, divided loyalties: all the things that make Old West stories a hand-to-hand combat of colonialism. There is also arresting baptism by sludge sequence here, a very tactile metaphor for the industrial revolution, etc etc. 

“Clockwork Fagin” by Cory Doctorow. Very anecdotal story, told in the first person by a boy matriculating in an orphanage of children mangled in punk-shifted industrial factories. “Clockwork Fagin” is obviously a Dickens riff – Fagin was the antagonist in Oliver Twist - with its social consciousness and the plight of youngsters in the industrial machine. Full marks for being a story that doesn’t fetishize the corsets and monocles set, instead focusing on the organized rebellion of the working class. Workers of the world, unite! 

“Seven Days Beset by Demons” by Shawn Cheng. Seven deadly sins in comic form with perplexing steampunk ornament and terrible lettering. At least it’s short. 

“Hand in Glove” by Ysabeau S. Wilce. Too smart for her own good detective gets on the trail of a serial killer, despite an indigent man having already been convicted to hang for the murders. Some of the plot mechanics were unsuccessful – I didn’t like the mad scientists much – but the narrative voice is snappy, and the overall aims of the story worthy. The ways entrenched bureaucracies, like the police force, use and abuse science are always worth examining. 

“Ghost of Cwmlech Manor” by Delia Sherman. Not really to my taste, but a goodhearted little story. Cwmlech Manor is haunted by the ghost of the once mistress of the manor, killed in the English Civil War by Cavaliers looking for loot. The main character is a plucky girl type, who is pragmatic about her romanticism. 

Best of all, I loved the story that went with [Cwmlech Manor] – very romantic and a girl as the hero – a rare enough thing in romantic tales, where the young girls always act like ninnies and end up dead of a broken heart, often as not.

You can see the grammar is tortured, but the sentiment is neat. Her remark about the legend ends up describing her own story. Go girls. 

“Gethsemane” by Elizabeth Knox. A perplexing story, one with interesting themes that never came together satisfactorily for me. The setting on a Caribbean island (?) was cool, as were the racial themes: passing, folklore, even the old school non-Romerian zombie. But the plot ranged over too many characters, and shifted perspectives weirdly. I admit I just didn’t get it, but I suspect there was something here to get. 

“The Summer People” by Kelly Link. Editor, edit thyself! Which is a bitchy thing to say, and I don’t really mean it. This isn’t a bad story at all, but its steampunk elements are so nominal as to make it feel like a shoehorn job in the collection. It’s not even so much that I don’t think magic has a place in steampunkery – there’s a growing body of dash-punk work out there that shifts history by magic instead of technology – but that this magic doesn’t really do that. That said, I enjoyed this story about a girl tasked with minding the summer people, who we first are to understand are summer vacationers to her poor, rural setting. I liked her relationship with a vacationer-turned-resident, a girl who is slightly enamored of all the folksy poverty, which is of course only folksy to outsiders. The ending is a bit obvious, and the denouement more truncated than I would like, but a good story anyway. Fine, Kelly, you win. 

“Peace in Our Time” by Garth Nix. I’m on record as a Nix fan, but the more I see of his short fiction, the more I think he shouldn’t write it. The narrative voice was daft and grated, and the characterization poor. It wasn’t so much a story as a situation, one that ended in a OH DO YOU SEE? reveal that hearkened to the hokiest of Twilight Zone endings. Bah. 

“Nowhere Fast” by Christopher Rowe. Another short story that ends right before it should get interesting, where the real conflicts are going to begin. I don’t feel as irritated by this as the Clare short story, because at least this world is aiming for something more than pretty but useless. This is one of those post-apocalyptic utopias that no one bothers to write anymore – two generations past peak oil in a fiercely local America. A boy in a car, of all things, shows up in town, which kicks over a bunch of anthills. Given how bound up in our national identity the automobile is, it was interesting to consider the American landscape without them. 

“Finishing School” by Kathleen Jennings. Another comic. Slender reimagining of the invention of flight, this time by a daughter of Scottish and Chinese parents who is stuck in an Australian school for girls. Nice metaphors of girlish exuberance. When a friend’s mom got divorced, she took Amelia as a middle name. We long for flight sometimes, and sometimes we should get it. 

“Steam Girl” by Dylan Horrocks. I think I’m going to call this one out as the stand out of this collection. A nerdy, chubby boy semi-befriends a poor, outcast girl. She tells him stories of Steam Girl, an obvious self-avatar grown long-limbed and beautiful in her pulpy imaginings. Horrocks has a good sense of the teenage outcast – not the romantic one, with his bangs in his eyes, but the real kind: uncomfortable in his body, clueless, and slightly horndoggish, but not in a particularly nasty or cruel way. Escapism is important for people who have something to escape from, and this story is so sensitive to that equation. 

“Everything Amiable and Obliging” by Holly Black. Fine, I guess, but I don’t think all the implications of the central metaphors here were considered, so I feel all squicky in the end. A girl falls in love with a house automaton, and her family tries to dissuade her from her love of the dancing instructor robot. He’s part of the hive consciousness of the house, and there’s a lot of shouting and stuff about loving robots designed to give you exactly what you want. That’s not the squick part for me. The squick part was when this was equated with the other girl’s lack of agency in her own relationships, and then my brain started shouting, but wait! Are we characterizing the working class as automata? Are we really saying girls lack agency? I can see where Black was going with this, I just don’t think it was thought out enough. 

“The Oracle Engine” by M. T. Anderson. A Roman steampunk story. And not modern Roman, but the Classical kind. Holy shit, but this was fun. Written in that gossipy historian’s voice, the one that relates a bunch of folklore and quotes the classics, and then pulls back demurely and says there isn’t any basis for that conjecture. I was fully expecting a Mechanical Turk at the center of this story, which, if you are not familiar with the concept, was a chess-playing engine invented in the 18th C, but turned out to be a dude hiding in a box and not an automaton at all. (Amazon has named it’s crowd-sourcing venture after this, and this enterprise is why capchas have gotten so freaking annoying.) That would have been neat, but the actual center of the story is so much cooler and weirder. GIGO. 

Oh, and also? The scientific ornament was brilliant. Archimedes almost invented calculus, for crissakes, and while there’s no guarantees that the lunatics of the Middle Ages wouldn’t have lost his discoveries – like they did with how to make concrete - had Archimedes’s discoveries become widely known, it is a fun thought experiment to consider.

The Archived

To be clear, I only read the 108 page sneak peak of The Archivedby Victoria Schwab available on Netgalley, and not the whole novel. I’m unlikely to read the entire novel, not because this book is bad, but because I’m of a mind that most young adult fictions, especially paranormal fictions as sloppily built as this one, should be read in a sitting so you don’t have time to tear it down. The teaser ended up being a flinch. 

The idea here, in the abstract, is wonderful: people, upon death, are kept as recordings like books in an archive. But they have bodies like ghosts, like cordwood stacked. There’s a grief-stricken girl, and a family that has moved to escape grief, and a nifty old hotel. I liked those parts. But the girl is also one of those precocious ingenues that I don’t cotton to, who is talented beyond her experience. She is not the worst of these kind of characters, not by half, but when I put her sort of world-weary kvetching about responsibility alongside a magical system that makes zero sense once the flinch took, it just killed it for me. 

Again, I am not saying this is bad by any stretch, and The Archivedcould certainly tighten up and go somewhere in the end. The set-up, as I said, has some pretty great metaphorical possibilities, especially if you are a book nerd. And certainly, I have enjoyed many a book that had sloppy or silly paranormal systems, because the system is more framework for felt experience than it is some nerdily exact taxonomy. (Divergent, for example.) Credible examination of grief, from what I saw, but also annoyingly naive for grouches like me. Sometimes young adult literature is more for young adults than us slumming grown-ups, which isn’t really the fault of anyone. 

Sacrificial Magic: Right Book, Wrong Time

I forced this read, and I’m sorry, because I think I crimped my enjoyment. Sorry, Sacrificial Magic. You were the right book at the wrong time. Blame it on the library, which only lets me renew thrice before I have to return the book, and with 10 days left to go, I figured, screw it, I can read this in a Sunday. 

I read the first three books of the Downside Ghosts series in one of those cabin porch hazes, and I thoroughly enjoyed them. Chess Putnam is a ghostbuster (though this term is never used) in an alternate present: in the late 90s, murderous ghosts broke free into the world, killing maybe half the population of the earth. The only bulwark against this threat was The Church, a non-theistic organization which replaced all the other religious and governmental powers that be. But that’s all backstory; this series is about Chess and her city. Chess is a powerful fuckup with a seriously damaged past, someone who managed to claw up just barely to near-polite society through some native talent hitched to the driving need to get out of her squalid upbringing. But just barely. She’s a junkie and an emotional isolationist, and I just adore her. 

The first three books felt to me like they ran an emotional arc, with the third, City of Ghosts, rising to a crescendo of things I’d barely noticed hanging around on the edges twisting together into a big explosive clusterfuck. God, that was just grand. So, here, in Sacrificial Magic, I feel like we’re restarting a trajectory which will run for the next couple of books, and I’m just a little let down. It’s not that this book is place-holding, it is that it’s piece-moving. I liked a lot of the piece-moving, but, as I said, I forced it. 

I think for me the weakest parts of this series tend to be the ghostbusting Church plots. Chess is given an assignment, and in a sort of Noir-lite manner, that assignment intersects with her Street life, her dealers, her drug use, etc. Here the Church assignment felt especially weak, with too many people I didn’t give boo about and couldn’t differentiate doing things way too sins-of-the-past for me to respond. The assignment had to do with a high school, which gives framework for Chess to ruminate about her shitty education and upbringing, and that part I really enjoyed, as I did her tense and fractious relationships with Terrible, Lex, and Beulah. And hoorah, I’m loving that Chess finally has a female friend – and that she realizes she has friends at all. 

Pretty much with this book I was just shipping for Chess and Terrible, which is super fun, don’t get me wrong, but it made me feel a little antsy when the high school ghost plot was unfolding. Get out of the way, plot! Let us freak out about their last conversation! And the fact that Chess is still a huge junkie, the way she manages and feeds her addictions, continues to be one of the selling points of this series. There’s a scene where she notices others noticing her usage, and she gets really jealous and freaks: this is mine. This is my addiction. Quit looking. That we’re on book four, and Chess hasn’t had a big After School Special moment where she realizes Drugs Are Bad – addicts know drugs are bad, kids – is a very brave choice on the part of Kane. There are no easy answers, and the knowledge that you are fucked up beyond belief doesn’t magically cure you of the fuck up. Even addiction is one day at a time. Or one book at the wrong time; sorry again.

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Unholy Magic: Where I Store my Complaining

Before I set into bitching – this is going to be the review for the Downside Ghosts series by Stacia Kane series where I lay out my gripes with this world – I want to make sure I underline how much fun I’ve had reading these books. There are more than three at this point, but the first three seem to constitute an emotional arc. While I’ll probably check the others at some point, my lost weekend of slamming through the Downside Ghosts series is done since I just closed City of Ghosts a couple minutes ago. 

So, as a middle in a trilogy, or even as a second in a series of books, Unholy Magicis going to lag a little on the enjoyment level. Kane is very consistent in her writing style and plotting, which I count as a good thing – but consistency is the hobgoblin of readers getting a little wearied of certain things. As a second book, you’re not in that sparkle of new environments and the rush of new characters. You’re at that point in the relationship where you start noticing how your new beau has a tendency to snore or to clear his throat all the freaking time seriously what is that? The opening half is characterized by a lot of wheel spinning and the solving of mysteries I don’t care about, which brings me to the next thing.

Chess Putnam is a ghostbuster is a profoundly alternate history. In 1997 there was a ghostacalypse which tore down every religious and governmental institution we know. All institutions were replaced by The Church, a mystical but ultimately non-theistic order which is the only thing that can keep the ghosts at bay. One the one hand, it’s just fine to gesture to this profound upheaval, running your characters from their limited perspectives from street level, a street level I found richly detailed and, well, just cool. On the other, oh, come on. While I appreciate the lack of infodumps – well, Bob, you recall how the Elders of the Church formed a council which blahblahblah – sometimes the haziness was a little too hazy. Even when paying pretty close attention, I don’t really get how this whole ghost thing works, exactly, and there was more than one occasion where Chess would be in a dire magical situation and be like, oh, yeah, if I do this thing it’ll neutralize this other thing, and wheee! Now I’m out of that scrape. It’s not so much that the magic was inconsistent, it’s that I didn’t know enough about how it worked to do anything but roll my eyes and think, well, that’s convenient. Which is not to say that Chess doesn’t continue to be one of my favorite fuckups in urban fantasy. 

The opening mystery is one of those locked houses with a bunch of perverse rich sickos. Which is fine or whatever, but it took maybe longer than necessary for this to snick up with the other plot line, because you totes know it will. As I’ve said before, this is pretty straightforward detective Noir plotting, where everything is going to brew up into one giant clusterfuck. And whoo boy, when it does, the cluster fucks so godamn hard. Even while loving Chess as a character, she’s not a good person, and her failings come home to get her in a powerfully awful way. She’s a junkie, and while I didn’t think this ran entirely convincingly in the first book, there’s a withdrawal sequence here which had ants running all over my joints. Gah. But that sequence is just a warm up to her serious comeuppance for betrayals that you can dig why she did them, but oh, Lordy, being the betrayer is no fun park. Specially when you get caught out. 

Oh, and, quick edit, I’m on record as having a boner for city stories, ones that write a city as character. Triumph City, and its underside, the Downside, is really compelling to me. I like its markets and orphans and physicality. I like how Chess talks about neighborhood, the Street, the interactions of the poor and destitute, the ways the rich are insulated and clueless. Much as I love Downside, the fact that this must be a recognizable American city rankled me a bit. Is this DC? Where the fuck are we? I noticed this more in this book, with its casual chatter about LA and Hollywood. And, can we talk about the City of Ghosts? Is this place accessible from any city in the world? Or just in Triumph City? What happened in Russia during Haunted Week? Again, I’m not really complaining – this book is about the concerns of a person, and her concerns aren’t about the global experience of the ghostacalypse. But it would be sweet if this were addressed even sorta passingly. 

And, I would have really liked there to be at least one lady in this whole world other than Chess. There’s some bitchy librarian types and some dead whores, a psycho wife and a teenage daughter, but none of these women matter. Or they don’t really matter to Chess. This is pretty common in urban fantasy, or in romance more generally – the lone chick in a world of dudes – but it’s bunk to fail the Bechdel test no matter what the gender of the writer, no matter what the gender of the protagonist. (Aside on the Bechdel test – yes, this was developed for movies; yes, it’s not a measure of quality; yes, it’s not exactly fair to bring this up in a very specific instance. It’s a statistical test, a way of polling the relevance of women’s relationships within a genre. Which is why I get so disappointed when I see fucking sweet ass characters, girl characters who have real personalities and failings, written by sweet ass women writers whom I respect a good deal and still have those sweet ass characters only exist in a world where women don’t talk, don’t have real relationships.) Which is not to say this book doesn’t deal sensitively and convincingly with certain touchy subjects that are alarmingly common in women’s experience, things like the legacy and recovery from rape, prostitution and trafficking, and some other dire ass shit. The experience of women does matter in this world, which is why it seems notable that Chess doesn’t have even one ladyfriend at all. 

Anyway, blahblah, feminist hobbyhorse aside, this is an incredibly fun series, and the slackness of the early sections of this book give way to some really knuckle biting conflict, conflict that won’t rightly be resolved until the next book. Not that is is uncompleted – the locked house mystery comes to its little end – but the trajectory of Chess’s betrayals is still mid-arc. I kinda like downbeat, uncompleted endings, hanging in a welter of shame and survival, but mileage varies. I can say the next book deals with that stuff in a satisfying way to me, but that’s a retroactive assessment, fwiw. Booyah.

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Seed by Ania Ahlborn

I have this compulsion to call Seedby Ania Ahlborn “cute”, which I think might come off as bitchy and insulting. I don’t mean it that way though. Seedis a riff on The Bad Seed, which has been iterated many times since its mid-century publication: stage, film, and even Macaulay Culkin vehicles designed to “show his range”. (Also, whoa, looks like Ian McEwan wrote the screenplay for The Good Son. Trippy.) Anyway, The Bad Seedis this slightly hysterical examination of the whole nature/nurture where-does-evil-come-from? question. A perfectly adorable Aryan moppet from a good family – good in this case having the usual class/racial overtones – turns out to be a conniving sociopath. Being a product of the 50s, there’s a lot of Freud talk and socially Darwinistic stuff about criminality which doesn’t read too good anymore. 

But scary, creepy kids are a horror mainstay for good reason, which is that raising children is probably the scariest thing I can think of. If you don’t have kids of your own, then other people’s kids are just objectively creepy. (Sorry, other people’s children.) It’s all so confusing, and everyone is so judgmental, and there are days when you get that call from the school about an “incident” and just close your eyes and try to sound like a grown-up, but you know you’re just a fraud. 

Jack Winter is driving his family home one evening when a swerve to avoid the flashing retinas of a creature on the road results in a car accident. Nobody is killed but the car, which for this slightly less than politely impoverished family is a pretty serious financial blow. The youngest daughter starts behaving strangely, and Jack begins to ruminate on his own childhood encounters with whatever sharp-toothed beastie hides in the grass and the walls of the house. There’s never really a question as to whether this is anything but supernatural in origin – this is Old Scratch, not new psychology.

Seed is very Murder Tonight in the Trailer Park Southern Gothic, with all the requisite touches: crumbling house, sins of the father, trailer homes, card reading, religious in-laws. I thought the family sketches were very nicely drawn, with a naturalistic sense of the mixed irritation/affection of the long married – how fights get shorthanded and truncated, each knowing what the other will say and then nodding at the wheel-spinning with something like understanding. I liked the kids, who felt – when they we’re being creepy and evil, of course – like actual kids, not the truth-speaking moppets who drive me mad in many supernatural tales. Hell, if you get right down to it, I even liked when the kids were evil, because I think most parents have at least the one moment when they look down on their child having a nuclear tantrum and think, this child is possessed by the devil. One of mine had a creepy relationship with an imaginary friend who seemed less than imaginary sometimes. (I have a portrait drawn of Ghosty, which is a blank spot on the paper. When I asked about this, the answer was, “Oh, you can’t see him, but he’s there.” Shudder.) 

Jack is so strangely passive in the whole business, for reasons I found murky at best. On one level, I guess I dig it, in that it’s such an unbelievable bummer seeing my less-easy personality quirks visited upon the next generation – sorry about that introversion! and the social anxiety! – but on the other hand, seriously dude, you know what’s going on here, just say it out loud. At times it felt like his lack of affect was being treated as a supernatural quiet, like the hand of the devil was closing his throat, making him play out these scenes. When it wasn’t diablo-ex-machina – which I don’t exactly like, existentially speaking, but can accept in the confines of the story – Jack’s passivity just didn’t track for me. 

But, I still want to call this cute. It may be that the cuteness I am feeling is the very old school nature of the plotting, which serves up a series of reveals and visitations with a stair-treading escalation that isn’t really surprising. I mean, there’s a pet dog: where’s that gonna go? I’m sure he’ll get lots of treats and go live on a farm somewhere. Which isn’t to say I’m bagging on this, and as a slender (one might almost say cute) piece of atmospheric horror, Seedtreads the creaking Gothic stairs very competently. But given the straightforwardness of the plotting, I think this could almost be trimmed to deliver its gut-punches more quickly, like the truncated arguments between the parents. Everybody knows the dice are loaded, just roll them already.

The Demon Lover: Tam Lin in Newford

For the last month, I’ve been working my way through the ridiculous number of NetGalley titles I downloaded in a big frenzy once I remembered I had an account there. Of course I started with the stuff I knew was in my wheelhouse, to very good results. So time to start in on the less likely stuff! I’m generally not looking for taxing on my Sunday on the couch reads (or Sunday on the back porch, in more clement weather), and I figured something called The Demon Lover (by Juliet Dark, of course) with that cover would fit the bill. There’s a whole passel of books that have more or less that cover, and they tend to be young adult paranormal romance type stuff. Observe:

I’m not casting aspersions here, just making observations (partially because I have not read any of these books in question.) But given general impressions from reviews of similarly covered books, I figured I knew what I was in for here: young girl, maybe some tragedy in her young life to make her “deep”, meet cute with a bad boy/otherworldly creature, sudden love bordering on obsession, lots of angsting and misreading of the classics of Romantic literature. (Sorry to say, kids, but Cathy and Heathcliff can never be made to have a happy ending, and if they do, they are not Cathy and Heathcliff. Character is bloody destiny in that instance.)(Just kidding. I’m not sorry to say it.) But whatever Chardonnay-snorting near-snobbery from me aside, often these kinds of books have a vibrating energy to them, a pulse of often deeply misguided, but very real passion. You can do worse on a Sunday after reading a collection of considered, thoughtful, careful prose. Sometimes I don’t want to think but feel. 

So it was hugely surprising to me to find a musing, allusive, and referential novel here, complete with affectionate send-ups of academia and an almost matter-of-fact tone. Callie McFay – and I will take this moment to note that the names are awful, across the board – McFay barf is an adjunct professor type who has had some minor success with a Master’s-thesis-turned-pop-criticism book about vampires in the contemporary Gothic, and is now figuring out whether to publish or perish. She’s got a long-term long-distance bi-coastal relationship, and has obviously read a lot of Bakhtin, Gilbert & Gubar, and Marina Warner. Not that those things are related, making for a terrible sentence from me. Anyway, she decides to go in for a small college in upstate New York because of feelings, and pretty much all of the bitchy things I said would happen come to pass, except for the misreading of the classics part. Ms McFay (barf) has the Gothic classics down. And goddamn right. Oorah. 

If I were writing a blurb for this novel, which I would never be asked to do because my sentences heretofore have been for shit, I would say: Pamela Dean’s Tam Linmeets Charles de Lint‘s Newford. On acid. Actually, just kidding about the on acid part; that’s just a bad joke about blurbcraft. But The Demon Loverhas the everyday boringness (and I mean this mostly kindly) of Dean’s college fairy tale, and the nose-picking earnest wonder of de Lint’s “North American” - this means Canadian - city and its denizens. (I kind of can’t believe what a bitch I’m being here, and I’m sorry.) I had to swear off reading any more de Lint (except for short fiction) because of inherent blackness in my heart – Newford is just too wonderful for me – so the parts of this that reminded me of that fell flat. But Dean’s Blackstone College is pretty much my collegiate soul, so split differences at will. 

There are many aside observations here I enjoyed about the contemporary Gothic and its workings, but ultimately the action of the prose didn’t do it for me, and I can’t figure what the thesis might be, if you’ll allow me academical phrasing on this. Ms McFay falls in with an incubus, that soul-sucking Romantic/Gothic fantasy of the perfectly Byronic, tragic dude, and while I appreciated the clear-eyed, innuendo-less conversations about what that might mean, I had a hard time connecting with the emotional stakes. Some of this is tone, which is more sensible than usually found in Gothic romance. But certainly, this could be a function of my long-married pragmatic heart, which doesn’t have much patience with dramatic passion with assholes and users anymore. That is too much like work, and the rewards of not being sucked dry and killed by your lover are pretty awesome, especially if you don’t have the dress-billowing mania to make up for the whole Romantic death business. Lest I sound too negative, I do appreciate how this all works out for McFay, and the hard choices she makes, I just…I’m going to have to admit I’m getting old here. Gothic romance is freaking exhausting, which is possibly the take-home message here, which makes this book a little bit awesome. 

So, anyway, enjoyably smart fun, though maybe not the kind of fun advertised on the tin. And I downloaded this because I really wanted to get to The Water Witch, whose cover was much more enticing to me. Billowy dresses, you’re fine and all, but half-naked chicks rising out of the water? That’s the show. We’ll see what happens next Sunday on the couch.

mad scientist's daughter

The Mad Scientist’s Daughter: Collapsing Sadness

When I was in junior high, I knew this girl who claimed to be a test tube baby. She claimed a lot of fantastic things, like that she had no sense of smell because of the scientific tinkering of her experimental origins, and some other odd physical anomalies. I pretty much knew this was bullshit, but this was back before I could spend 15 seconds typing into a screen on my cell browser “first test tube baby US” and get the name and birthdate of Elizabeth Jordan Carr, born on December 28, 1981. Ms Carr was the 15th test tube baby in the world – as the NYTimes article notes,” in vitro,” the more commonplace term now, means “in glass” – born a full 7 years after the girl I knew had been born. I remember questioning my friend gently about her sense of smell: do you have trouble tasting things? Is it all just bland like you have a cold? Oh no, I taste everything fine. Oh, I thought, bullshit. We were never close or anything – in truth, I didn’t like her much – but I let all this slide.

Even with my somewhat flimsy adolescent class sense, I knew how poor her family was. They – she, her mother, and a round-robin of her mother’s “boyfriends” – lived above a corner grocery, the kind that sells Campbell’s soup for double its price, cigarettes and 3.2 beer. Her family didn’t even have a phone, but used the pay phone on the corner. They weren’t the only ones, and there was this complicated set of protocols and negotiations when you called it – gather ’round children, because pay phones used to exist, and they used to accept incoming calls: the guy who would bang on the door to the stairs leading to their apartment, leaving the phone hanging, the guy who wouldn’t, the corner store owner with an angry, thick accent who would go through periods of 86ing her family (I think for non-payment of their credit, but also for more noise-centered complaints). Corner store owners used to extend credit, young’ens, in a notebook-under-the-register kind of way. They still may, if the great gossiping neighbor center who is Mohammed at the corner store on my block is any indication. I’ve certainly walked out of S-Mart with goods I didn’t have the money for, but just because I forgot my wallet like an idiot. I could be into him for hundreds if I were closer to the edge. There but for the grace of God, etc.

So I knew what she said was bullshit, but I got why she was running that line of bullshit. The science fictional aspects of her supposed conception added a shine of dramatic ethics to her impoverished upbringing. Again, children, this was long enough ago that the whole concept of “test tube babies” had this op-ed worthy hand-wringing about it. You could still run the false-Darwinian line about how in vitro fertilization was violating the spirit, if maybe not the letter, of survival of the fittest with a straight face – nevermind any business about God and His Will and whatnot – and you could run it without hitting millions of children who have been conceived this way since then. I myself know at least a half dozen. I’m not saying that the ethics of in vitro fertilization have been solved or anything. I got into a surprisingly fractious argument with my husband about a specific messed up situation created by IVF, and we concluded our argument with the understanding that even people who generally agree about the broad moral questions are going to get tripped up by issues of gender, personhood, and ownership. At a certain point, all that crystalline logical scaffold teeters and collapses into hard core interpersonal gut-reaction.

Catarina is five years old when her father returns one day with an android named Finn. Cat is five, so she doesn’t quite get what Finn’s extraordinary assistance might mean. There have been automata and AI in this scorched, rebuilding world, but Finn is unique, more and less human than anything that came before. But five years old does not mean but be. She decides Finn is a ghost, because that makes sense to five. My daughter just turned six on Christmas, and we recently had a long conversation about how the Easter bunny and the tooth fairy are obviously me, but Santa is real. As much as I’ve always believed in not running bullshit on my kids, I just didn’t know what to say there. I figure in a year or two the world will inevitably crush her understandings of Santa’s precise reality, and it’s not like I need to be the messenger there. Which is one of the many things that clove me about this story: the way I completely empathized with both parent and child, feeling the hard shocks of understanding when Cat’s mother snaps at Cat’s choices – I wasn’t built to be a housewife; no girl is – while bleeding for the casual judgement. Jesus, what we do not in the name of love, but because of love and our studied ignorances. Finn acts as tutor to Cat, and the world and its ethical understanding changes around them as they change. They move from a world in which the term test tube babies dissolves into the commonplace in vitro fertilization, but that doesn’t mean the hard core interpersonal gut-reaction is just semantics.

I kind of don’t want to get into the mechanics of the plot, because I’m not sure concrete action says anything about the long tides of lived lives. Cat grows; she goes to school; she marries. That’s just facts. But about halfway through, I sat up on the couch and said to my husband, this is so sad, I’m not sure I can take it. I spend the next half of the book near weeping, and if I’m going to be honest, weeping. We are such disastrous creatures, humans, and it’s not such a huge surprise that the consciousnesses we create will be disastrous too. Part of this is that on a very overt level, this is an unrequited love story; this is an emotional response to intrusive technology, and the cultural scaffold is less important than the teetering and its fall into the personal.

I was very careful in the last paragraph not to use the word romance in relation with Finn & Cat, which I think belies in me a certain discomfort with love and sex and the domestic in fiction. Certainly, the term romance applies in many ways, though more in its capital-R incarnation: the Romance. Romanticism attempted to inject strong emotion into the bloody warfare of Classicism, valued folk art as authentic craft, got its rocks off on rocks, trees, and landscape. That’s all in here: a brooding, personal recollection of the world after ecological disaster, with an eye towards the beauty of that devastation; the folk art of weaving that Cat takes up, confusing her scientist parents, and on some level, herself; the near-Gothic near-Freudian setting of the family home, with the father in the basement and the android in the aerie. The opening section, with Cat catching fireflies in a jar, was almost too much for me – such vividly worn shorthand for wonder – but I promise this works long term.

Anyway, at some point, Clarke tips her hat to Kazuo Ishiguro and Maureen F. McHugh, and I smiled at the tip. We’re at the edge of science fiction here that thrills and bleeds with the literary wasteland of cool sentences and felt emotion, that understands that it’s not about whatever jibber jabber about the great Frankenstein’s Oedipal monster, but his daughter, growing up in a world that has transmuted from test tubes to in glass, but in glass in another language. There was a comment thread recently about this odd edge of genre, about how at a certain point science fiction sails over the edge into some more literary metafiction, and the literary metafiction sails right back, and they stand silhouetted on the water. Ishiguro’s clones, McHugh’s chimera, Atwood’s genetic engineering, Whitehead’s zombies, Boudinot’s Age of Fucked Up Shit – these creatures and stories all fall into this strange edge of the science fictional or the literary, one or the other or both in a quantum uncertainty.

But The Mad Scientist’s Daughteris also a romance. It is about love. It is about love in the most collapsingly personal way there is. God, and it’s so, so sad.

I didn’t understand why this novel had been published by Angry Robot, because, so far, what I’ve read from that publisher has been much more pulp sensible. (I am not using the term pulp as a brush-off or indicator of poor quality. Pulp doesn’t give a shit where it’s shelved.) But in writing this review, I get it now. The literary and the science fictional have been doing a dance since New Wave, running the ethics of technology met up with our humanity and the inherent surrealism of such a project, into a martial art of which part of the bookstore to shelve such a thing. Add in romance – the stories of love and the childhood bedroom, of uneasy marriages and disappointed parents – and the dance becomes something…maybe not new, but old, the way we who have lived through gigantic technological upheavals – and that is all of us – navigate the old, messy questions of consciousness and emotion in new mediated ways. This book takes a cell phone and calls that payphone on the corner. Who answers will break your heart. Or, in any case, it broke mine.

I got my copy from Netgalley and Angry Robot, in exchange for a fair review. Thank heavens.

Attachments: Chick-Lit for Nerds

The epistolary novel has been dead on arrival for a long time, maybe since even back in the day, but then my memory of anything by Samuel Richardson, force-read in intro classes in college, is hazy as hell. Even Austen, 200 years ago, rewrote “First Impressions”, an epistolary novel, into what would become Pride and Prejudice, and bless her heart for that. (Especially because I just recently read Austen’s Lady Susan, which was never re-written, and I could feel how the novel suffered from its epistolary format.) As a novel style, letter-writing hung on in Gothic longer, though I couldn’t exactly say why. Frankenstein, Dracula, and if my Internet search is to be believed, House of Leavesand The Historian are all epistolary, and slightly cheesy for it. It’s a weird way to have characters interact, maybe not a hundred years ago, but certainly now, and even a hundred years ago, letter-writing stories stripped out the narrator, who is the ace up the sleeve of any writer. Maybe. Don’t hold me to that statement.

Which is why it is fairly astonishing to find an epistolary novel written in this century (hell, even the last century) which works. Beth and Jennifer are both employees at a Midwestern newspaper, and friends; Lincoln is the man tasked with reading the emails flagged by whatever metric flags inter-office correspondence. In rom-com style, Lincoln reads the emails between these women, and becomes more and more smitten with the unmarried-but-attached Beth, while trying to cope with his life as it is: living with mom, hanging with his D&D crowd, being paid to be a voyeur. This is set right at the millennium shift, because even a decade later (now), such a scenario is unlikely. We all know what exact crap the work overlords are flagging or blocking, and get around such things using smartphones or off-work email. But I knew a sys-admin back in the day who had to read through a whole horrible romance with one of the company employees and a – for lack of a better phrase here – corporate spy from another company who was obviously using her for her corporate knowledge. My friend was so horrified and grossed out by reading this correspondence, which was both intimate and, knowing what he did about the other dude, totally Browning-esque in its damaged narrators. Which is a weird thing to say about real life, but art and life, etc.

Anyway, point being, I pretty much loved the ways Beth and Jennifer interacted in their little illicit emails. They are snappy are funny, maybe even snappier and funnier than is likely, but then I know and correspond with a lot of funny folk, so it really isn’t a stretch except for in narrative unity stylins, which is more than ok for me in a novel. Lincoln’s sections are not in epistolary form, which is good, and I generally appreciated the ways the other characters were, um, characterized. Like you do. He’s got this absolutely foul-mouthed friend who ends up being a rigid traditionalist in some ways, and I totally know that guy. I know the attachment parenting friend who plays D&D with the guys. I know a lot of these people. It’s possible I even am some of these people, but, like, less quick to the quip. That I feel that way at all is fantastic, given that I usually want to strangle rom-com people until their tongues loll out. 

Which is probably the thing: this sort of careful, almost deliberately casual, snappy Gen-X rom-com is only going to work for certain types of folk. I mean, duh, any book at all out there is going to have its readership and not another – that’s presumably why we’re out here at all chattering about the books we read, trying to marry a book with its best audience – but I felt that decidedly here. While I know that this term is trouble, and I don’t want to get into a big fight about it, I feel like this is chick-lit for nerds, and as a nerd who has read the occasional chick-lit, hoorah. I’m too lazy to check if Bridget Jones’s Diarycounts as a epistolary novel – diary-form being somewhat more solipsistic, blahity blah – but Attachmentshit the same part of my brain that enjoyed that, in that it’s girly and fluffy while being smart and lightly allusive, and I appreciate the heck out of that. 

I’m not going to say it’s perfect – the crisis and denouement are rushed and somewhat unbelievable, not crediting the real ethical problems of voyeuristic email-reading like maybe you should – but whatever. I’m still back on jazzed as hell that a novel that falls into the dreaded category of women’s fiction doesn’t fail the Bechdel test, and doesn’t fail it hard. Love is great and all, but I’m so happy to find female friends who talk in the way female friends do about all everything and whatever. If you’re in the likely readership for this book, you know what I mean.

Hound of the Baskervilles!

So, in interests of full disclosure, I’m “friends” with Jamie Chase who did the art in The Hound of the Baskervilles. I shouldn’t even scare quote that, because it could come off as bitchy. I’ve met him several times at Bubonicon, I’m friends with him on facebook, and I’m a pretty enthusiastic fangirl of his art style, but we’re not, like, borrowing each other’s clothes. He’s pretty awesome though, and I had a conversation with him and a bunch of other folk maybe two years ago about this Sherlock Holmes comic he was about to start work on. So I totally squeed when I saw the finished product on Netgalley. I remember when! That never happens for me. 


My art education is pretty heterodox. I worked as a picture framer for nearly two decades, so I have a scatterdash education in print-making techniques so I could identify a lithograph from a giclée – which, fun fact, the word giclée comes from the French word for “spray”, referring to the spray of ink from an ink jet printer. No one has any idea what’s going to happen with ink jet ink in 50 years – it might just fall apart or go blue like photographs – so art buyer beware on that front. Not that this has anything to do with anything, and the point of this paragraph is supposed to be about how I deal with art. 

You frame an incredible amount of populist garbage as a picture framer, so just because I never had an academic education, doesn’t mean I believe the line that fine art world is out of touch with human emotion and too avant garde for its own sake or something. I mean, yes, the fine art world is this ridiculous circle jerk, but popular couch art is depressing too. I ended up gravitating toward abstract and genre art in my second decade framing, and I super appreciate people like Jamie Chase, who are doing these really odd things with vernacular, stuff that looks initially like a straight take, but there’s this cloaked subversion in it. God, I love his stuff so much. 


So, anyway, I also have some deeply held beliefs about Sherlock Holmes. I read the absolute crap out of every single word Conan-Doyle had on the subject when I was a teen, in addition to some words other writers had on the subject too. (Like the series by local historian Larry Millett, which has Holmes solving fun Minnesota mysteries like in Sherlock Holmes and the Ice Palace Murders.) Holmes, more than a lot of writing which gets fan-fictioned to death (like Jane Austen, for example), lends itself to adaption. Holmes is a pulp serial, and Conan-Doyle himself was seriously lax about chronology and canon. Watson took a bullet magically in both his shoulder and his leg while he was a doc in Afghanistan. You can fall into some serious nerd-fests trying to determine how many times Watson married and when exactly everything happened. Which is hilarious, because obviously Conan-Doyle was writing everything half-drunk, banging it out on a cost-per-word basis. There’s something brilliant about his slovenly prose, the way it rushes and jumps. The number of times he uses the word “ejaculate” to mean “exclaim” is enough to twss the modern reader into teh funnies. But Conan-Doyle’s prose fairly hurtles, immaturity aside, which makes a graphic adaption that excises most of the text a little sad. 

The Hound of the Baskervillesis an odd case, because it’s so incredibly famous, so iconic, but it’s not real typical of Holmes. Or, you know it is in the sense that Holmes tends to be really idiosyncratic. For one, Holmes stories tend to be urban, situated in the colonial crush or London, but there are a couple out in the Gothic hinterland, like the one with the bicycle or the one with the snake. (Sorry, I’m not bothering to look up their real titles.) So there’s precedent. The weird part is how focused on Watson Baskervillesis – how he’s left without Holmes for ages in the moors. Sherlock takes Watson down at the very beginning with the trick with the walking stick, and it’s pretty funny how that works – the authorial intervention of Holmes’s interpretive dick-move unsettling everything Watson observes in the later plot. 

Because, the other thing about Baskervillesis how soapy it is, how domestically Gothic. Stripped of the Doylian prose (sorry for this adjective), Baskervillesreads really Scooby Doo, what with the land deal mechanics of the plot and the fact you meet the villain straight away. (Spoiler alert, sort of, but there are very few characters here, in true Gothic style, and the red herrings are telegraphed in flaming semaphore.) So, on a technical level, I think a graphic version of Hound is a little hamstrung, especially one as faithful as this one, because the whole thing reads sillier than it does long form, what without all of Watson’s ejaculations. 

What? God! Why do you have to be so immature! 

Chase’s art is really sepia, with all the color bled out, and it took me a while to embrace it. I’m on record as a fangirl, but sometimes I have to be lead to the water before I drink. I was expecting something more Frazetta-pulp, more kaleidoscopic, because I think this would really work with stuff like The Sign of the Four what with its blow-darting aborigines and evil Mormons, etc, etc. But we’re in Goth-land here, and the Gothic is the world of the scary, soapy, reaction-shot close-up, and that’s what Chase delivers. Dude knows what I want before I want it. <3

So, anyway, I enjoyed this take on Holmes, but I think it’s a little hobbled by how the source material translates to the image, even with images as strong as this. I felt like the libretto – or whatever it’s called in comics – spent a lot of time hitting the obvious, quotable stuff in Holmes – the game is afoot! elementary! – while kinda missing the stuff that really makes Holmes the shit. But I seriously, seriously can’t wait for other Holmes adaptions from this team, because I think given this practice, they could come up with something mind-blowing. Eeee!

Revival: Speaking to My Soul

Oh dear. I adored this.

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One’s obsessions are hard to sort for their influence in affection. Revivalcertainly plays to some of my obsessions: the undead, the bleak midwinter Midwestern locale, the Gothic/Noir sensibility that relies on understatement more than worn tropes. Like in Raising Stony Mayhall, these are heartland zombies, flyover zombies, more concerned with the strange (dis)function of small, isolated communities than screaming bloodbaths. This blood creeps instead of splatters. I fairly loved both Revivaland Mayhall, but another should-be slam-dunk for me, Ashes, with its Wisconsin winter and plucky teens, didn’t work at all for me. The play out of one’s personal obsessions doesn’t always run to something that sinks into the skin. 

My mother and I once had a conversation about hometowns, about how people talk about them, and how we take those conversations personally. She’d had a conversation with someone who said some flip disparaging things about her hometown. They were true things to say, as far as observations from outsiders go, but to say those things to the local… maybe this was badly done. I’ve been careful since then about what I say to people about where they grew up. However, I love what I feel like are rightful depictions of the people I grew up with, the land and landscape, blahity blah, &c. Which is maybe why I never cottoned to Ashes: the opening was Wisconsin enough for me, but the whole cult-town thing felt like it was from central casting, one of those fictional places that could be anywhere (but you know, ultimately nowhere). Which is fine, and certainly not every book has to adhere to my sense of regionalism and placement. But good lord, when it happens, I flip the hell right right. When you speak to me from where I’m from, in the idiom of my location, I’m going to lose my shit. 

The undead in Revivalaren’t biters, to steal terminology from Mayhall. One day, the day of revival – and I think only on that day – all of the dead in a small area around Wausau, Wisconsin get back up. It’s not a lot of people – 23 I think the authorities know about – but then there are the undead who aren’t known to be undead – at least the one who’s a main character anyway. There are also…other things. While the perspective is not overly tight on any one character, it’s got that situated near-locality that only glances at the larger picture. This is the locality of trauma, relayed in conversations and status updates in the days and weeks after the event. 

It wasn’t so long ago that I watched horrified while a friend in Bryn Mawr, a neighborhood just on the edge of downtown here in Minneapolis, watched the bloody unfolding of the workplace shooting from split blinds, updating on facebook as it happened. It was awful, and it got worse last week with the school shooting in Connecticut. I stood in the snow waiting to get my kids that day – they the same ages as those gunned down – and the other mom whom I chatter with daily and I couldn’t meet each other’s eyes or we would lose it. “It feels like 9/11,” she said. Yeah, I thought, it does. I’m just as trapped miles from where it happened with my imagination running wild. All those classes letting out, their bodies whole and un-riddled with bullets. 

Civic trauma is local, even when it happens a thousand miles away. The area around Wausau in this book is quarantined, for lack of a better word: CDC roadblocks set up, for fear that this revival might be contagious; local police working through the usual round of domestic disturbances and drunk drivers, while also trying to manage the suspicion of the motivations of the dead. One woman, an elderly revival, pulls her magically regrowing teeth out with a pliers because if she didn’t, her false teeth won’t fit. Shudder. Shudder, shudder. And shudder some more with how her story plays out. The time scale shifts and moves, not with strict linearity, but the bright hardness of events that matter. There’s the thin edge of how the larger world is sorting the local traumas, but it’s just a thin thought, a moment in the larger smallness of how life plays out, the cabin fever of trauma. 

There are points when this civic/personal trauma is maybe cut too obviously in the book, like when the CDC doctor dude – a man whose parents are strict Muslims – notes the parallels between the suspicion for the revived with the suspicion for the Islamic – but it still worked. Especially given his half-out-loud conversation with a near-girlfriend back east, who can tell he’s started smoking again by the quality of his voice, the deepening of utterance in the wake of some fucked up shit. The way no one ever says straight out what they mean, or what is going on between them, this is the left-out communication of my people, my landscape. Mum recently joked about reading Main Street and wondering why no one ever said what they meant, but she’s not a Midwesterner like I have grown to be. Not-saying is the language I understand. 

So, the only complaint I have about this story is that I want MOAR and I want it NOW. This is pretty much the perfect package of my Midwestern cold and avoidance made inevitable and bloody and strange. This is all my obsessions made manifest, their closed mouths saying as much as blood in the snow. Uff da.