Category Archives: short stories

grim

Young Adult Anthology: Grim

I received my copy from NetGalley.com and Harlequin Teen. Thanks.

Because I might as well use my minor in folklore for something, I’ll begin my review of Grim, a collection of young adult short stories, with a little bit of pedantry about the fairy tale. Broadly speaking, there’s two kinds of fairy tale: the Märchen, which are orally transmitted folk tales with no specific origin and wide variation, and the literary fairy tales, which are written by a single person. Some of the distinction can be a little mushy, like with the large and glorious oral and literary history of the Arthurian legend, which has a lot of switch-backs and cross-pollination between literary and oral history.

Sometimes it’s less so, like when you’re dealing with the works of Hans Christian Anderson, Charles Perrault, or Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve, who wrote The Snow Queen, Puss in Boots, and Beauty & The Beast, respectively (and among other things.) Though these stories use traditional folkloric motifs, they were written stories, often designed for court or salon readerships, like de Villeneuve, or children, like Andersen and Perrault. Andersen hat-tipped Dickens in The Little Match Girl, and was hat-tipped in turn by C.S. Lewis in the character of the Snow Queen in Narnia. (And this second has become her most famous incarnation. The Turkish Delight, I’m given to understand, was Lewis’s doing.) The tales are more part of a literary tradition than an oral one.

It really shows in something like Perrault’s Puss in Boots, which is a pretty classic clever servant story (like Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro which got him in such hot water). Certainly Perrault is using some clever cat folklores – which lends some dissonance when the the immoral Puss is used to prop the moral of industry and sticktoitiveness – but the boots, the gormless third son, the instructive tone are new, literary elements. The essential amorality of the folk motifs makes the whole thing kinda funny though, no matter how many admonishments of industry are included.

Our booted feline friend was part of some of the earliest editions of what eventually became Mother Goose, an editorial invention for publishing instructive tales for children in the growing middle class in England, set alongside other sanitized (and anglicized) Märchen. Amusingly, concern-trolling has been around since the invention of children’s literature. Observe (from the wikis):

The renowned illustrator of Dickens’ novels and stories, George Cruikshank, was shocked that parents would allow their children to read “Puss in Boots” and declared: “As it stood the tale was a succession of successful falsehoods—a clever lesson in lying!—a system of imposture rewarded with the greatest worldly advantages.”

Perrault shines a folk tale into something suitable for children, but certain things will not out.

Folk tales are often violent, sexual and political. The frog is transforms into a prince not because the princess kisses him, but because she throws him against the wall. Cinderella’s sisters cut their feet to fit the slipper, and are caught out because of dripping blood. Sleeping Beauty awakens from her slumber when she gives birth to twins, because the prince was charming enough to rape her while unconscious. So.many.people get their eyes pecked out by birds. Folk tales are often not about imparting morals, but about exploring sometimes gruesome economic, political, familial and sexual imbalances through the metaphorical. Folk tales aren’t didactic or instructive, in the strictest sense, while literary stories often are, especially when they are aimed at children.

And if it looks like I’m bagging oral folklore, I’m not. Folk tales like the ones collected by the Brothers Grimm, Lady Gregory (a firm friend of W.B. Yeats) or Andrew Lang (who was also a Homeric scholar) were, often, very much not for children, and can have unnerving elements of horror and the macabre. A lot of these cats had very specific 18th and 19th Century ideas about “the folk” as “noble savages” or specific nationalist agendas. (I’m looking at you, Yeats.) There’s fairly good evidence that even the Grimms, who prided themselves on their impartial collection and transmission, mucked about with the stories they were collecting for whatever purposes. The whole relationship between the oral and literary traditions is pretty complex stuff, well more complex that my opening paragraph implies.

Jesus, my head has really come to a point here. My purpose, if I can find it, was really to talk about the ways the fairy story has been used in oral and literary traditions, and it’s interesting to see these young adult iterations published by Harlequin Teen in the larger tradition of packaging some seriously wicked shit to impart morals to children. There are still a lot of plucky kids, though they seem to have shifted gender from the the lucky son to the Strong Female Protagonist. Love is the answer more often than I remember from Andrew Lang’s Fairy Books or Grimm’s Tales, where marriages often occurred between people just because girls are a prize for lucky boys. Several of the stories here push back at that notion. There’s also more revenge than I remember. Because so many of the oral folk tales are not terribly psychological – young Hans left one day to make his fortune, etc, with no real bother about his internal state – few historical folk tales have the requisite psyche to really pull a gotcha at the end. You can with a short story though; good.

Anyway, at this point I should probably get into the individual stories.

“The Key” by Rachel Hawkins. I liked the writing on this – the main character is one of those world-weary teens I find charming – but it’s not a story so much as a situation. I find this often with writers who are primarily novelists dabbling in the short story form. They write prologues to larger fictions, and then bite them off.

“Figment” by Jeri Smith-Ready. This was one where my general crank level was too high, because there’s really nothing wrong with the story, but it still grated me a little. The characters are drawn with a steady hand, and overall its cute and playful with just enough drama that it’s not too lightweight. I just didn’t like this specific treatment of Puss in Boots, mechanically speaking, because turning that immoral schemer into a plush toy that just wants to be loved just seems wrong.

“The Twelfth Girl” by Malinda Lo. Dark and class conscious take on the Twelve Dancing Princesses with a wonderfully pyrrhic ending. Very good.

“The Raven Princess” by Jon Skovron. The recounting of the Grimm version of the princess who was transformed into a raven and then won by a plucky young man hews close to the original, but does manage to provide a fresh angle and perspective. It felt a little message-y at points – and that’s how you behave like a good person! – but the story does have a kind heart.

“Thinner than Water” by Saundra Mitchell. Resounding props for taking on Donkeyskin or Catskin in a young adult short story. There are a whole bunch of related folk tales about kings attempting (or succeeding) in marrying their daughters and how the girls trick their way out, but the central horror of incest and sexual assault is serious shit. Mitchell’s story vividly relates the way the girl is isolated and made complicit in her abuse, and doesn’t flinch. Maybe you get out, but you probably won’t get out clean, and you’re not the only one.

“Before the Rose Bloomed: A Retelling of the Snow Queen” by Ellen Hopkins. Reeeally straightforward retelling which isn’t bad, but also doesn’t add anything. Felt plodding.

“Beast/Beast” by Tessa Gratton. Very claustrophobic take on the Beauty & the Beast story, with one of the more interesting beasts I’ve seen in while. He’s like a golem sewn out of all manner of animals and plants and…stuff. The writing is very good, and while I’m troubled by certain things, they’re mostly the sorts of things I’m always troubled by in Beauty & the Beast stories. I’m still turning over that ending; a good sign.

“The Brothers Piggett” by Julie Kagawa. Men are pigs! hahaha. But seriously, this had just a brutal snap to it, which surprised me from a retelling of the Three Little Pigs. No girl is a reward for a boy when he acts like a decent person, and he doesn’t get to act like an indecent person when she is not rewarded to him. Well played.

“Untethered” by Sonia Gensler. The Little Shroud, itself, is somewhat inert and stubby, so a story based on it suffers from that brevity. This slid perspectives in a cool way, but it felt a little stagy to me. Well drawn relationships though.

“Better” by Shaun David Hutchinson. The Pied Piper of Hamelin…in space! I kid, I kid. I’m a sucker for generation ships and clone golems though, and the scifi setting was just aces. A nasty little piece of work, and while I’m rooting for our heroes, I’m also terrified of them.

“Light It Up” by Kimberly Derting. This retelling of Hansel & Gretel felt like it didn’t do enough work updating the premise to the present day – it was too literal – but it was fine, I guess. But cannibalism is hilarious, no matter how you slice it. (Get it?? Hahaha, I kill me.)

“Sharper Than a Serpent’s Tongue” by Christine Johnson. Again, the fairy tale motif needed to be better updated, and I think the attempt at a reversal was botched a little, though it might just be my weariness with the idea that “sometimes a curse can be a blessing!” The central part about how some parents should not be honored because they’re terrible parents is totally legit though.

“Real Boy” by Claudia Gray. Robot love story! There was something very old school Asimov about this – the rules! – but it functioned as a self-contained world, which is a nice bit of parallelism. It almost would have been better if we didn’t see the reveal at the end.

“Skin Trade” by Myra McEntire. Yeah, I don’t know. I can see where this was going, I just think it didn’t get there. Plus it was just lurid. I like lurid, even lurid for its own ends, but this felt forced. And again, not enough thought went into the update.

“Beauty and the Chad” by Sarah Rees Brennan. I really appreciate the light-hearted anachronism and general goofing, I just think I’m too damn old for this story. The beast in this retelling is a frat-bro, and frat-bros are the very worst for me. I completely recognize this is my own hang up, and frat-bros notwithstanding, this story was cute and funny, the sentient furniture especially.

“The Pink” by Amanda Hocking. Another reeaaallly straightforward retelling with very little heat or danger. The names were way dumb too.

“Sell Out” by Jackson Pearce. The premise was updated well, and I think it had more friction than a lot of the more straightforward retellings, but it also just didn’t do it for me. Age, again, may be a factor, as I bristle about the term “sell out” used by children who have zero idea. I’d like to see the sequel when the hammer falls, kiddo, because fall it will. (Somebody top off mommy’s drink; she’s being a crank again.)

In sum, a perfectly cromulent little collection, with nothing that overwowed me – “Beast/Beast” and “Thinner Than Water” came close – but also very few straight up failures. I have a couple of these writers pinned as interesting, and I’ll be sure to scoop something up next it comes to my attention. There are also a couple who have now been solidly cemented as not to my taste. Though I’m loathe to pretend I can predict what a teenager might think of this, I imagine someone less old and cranky will cotton to some of these stories better than I. Good job, demographics.

 

 

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The Rise & Fall of the Scandamerican Domestic

I picked up David Merkner’s debut collection, The Rise & Fall of the Scandamerican Domestic, solely on the basis of the title. “Hey,” I said to myself, “I’m a Scandamerican domestic!” I mean, whatever that’s supposed to mean, because, as far as I’m aware, Scandamerican isn’t a recognized word, and using domestic as a noun is a little off-label. Or you can use the term domestic as a noun, to mean a servant (domestic staff) or a fight between family members (a domestic dispute), but it rings weird in the title, like a stutter or something bitten off. As it turns off, my lame close reading of the title is a pretty accurate encapsulation of the book for me, this uncoined yet immediately recognizable term rubbing up against the non-normative and ambiguous servitude and dispute of Midwestern domestic life. The whole thing was alarmingly close to home and disturbingly kinked, and I felt a little like, Jesus, man, shut the fuck up about our business in front of guests. Uff da.

I didn’t love this collection, but probably more because I felt an itchy, too tight familiarity with it than anything, a sweater washed and then blocked wrong. The stories themselves have an almost prosaic surrealism, where shit that could never happens happens not because the events violate the rules of physics, necessarily, but because they violate other less conspicuous but nevertheless ironclad rules of social reality. I almost don’t want to give examples because each time I tried to with my husband, I turned into this “and then, and then, and then” idiot, laying out inexplicably related events, then back-tracking and trying to tie up the connectives which just made it worse. A man tries to make out with his mother’s pot-bellied pig after murdering her brother by accident. A couple tries to paint their house which ends up being this slippery metaphor. A man slits a dog’s throat at a funeral. Which is all somehow funny in ways that I can’t explain, don’t really think is funny, but am nevertheless laughing at. And I’m not laughing haha, I’m laughing fucked. I’m laughing grief. This may be more me than it.

I thought a fair amount of the term “magical realism” while I read, wondering, as I do, about genre and what a mess it is. I’ve gotten my back up about the use of the term magical realism in the past, because I’m a nerd, and I end up thinking, bitch, that’s just a nationalist fantasy novel. And all fantasy novels are nationalism fantasy novels, from Twilight’s Volturi Catholic panic down to there won’t be a Shire, Pippin. The term seems too specific to a certain era of South American fiction, and used only on North American writers when they don’t want to get genre cooties on their weirdness. But Scandamericans would be magical realism if the Midwest had such a thing. (The Midwest doesn’t have old money or history either, being one of the problems of the Midwest, but the kind of problem that eliminates some and creates others.) It’s not fantasy fantasy, but more weirdly personal; a private life of the domestic wars.

Maybe the less coherent observation I’m groping for is that Scandamericans runs its harsh (sur)realisms in collection because we can’t even bring ourselves to novel length. We have to run at our fantastic, coded history in collected short fictions because we aren’t even a nation, but an interstitial accident of geography and inertia. We’re not even the conquest of useless but something worse and therefore more comic. We shouldn’t even be here, and what we have to cling to, as a people, is our anecdotal longevity in a place not actually made for people. (My bitterness with the Midwest right now may have more to do with the punishing cold I’ve been stuck in for the last forever, no end in sight.) I thought of Winesburg, Ohio a fair amount, and the ways MFA programs in the Midwest push the shit out of that (or did in the Jurassic Age when I was in college), and the ways the stories in Scandamericans triangulated a specific kind of person – a dude, maybe kids, a wife, a house in the Madison suburbs – instead of a place.

And speaking of MFAs, this collection has the the shine of the MFA all over it, that rock tumbler which grits prose in a way that often embeds itself in my nails. This is good MFA writing to me though, the kind that moves from rough to shine, and the endings positively fucking gleam. I don’t know why I’m being a bitch about craft – but I am, don’t mistake me – because this is some well written stuff, the kind of thing that winds and then strangles. It’s good. For whatever reason (and this phrase means “for reasons I know but won’t divulge”) the subject of Freud’s concept of the narcissism of small differences kept coming up this holiday season in my conversations. Talking to my brother and his newly minted fiance and casually calling him a hipster and watching that tightening in his eyes. I don’t care about hipsterism, because I’m the wrong gender, age, and BMI to give a shit about that. But he’s not, and I used the term, and it probably bugged him. Sorry. That was this book, Merkner to me.

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The Rise & Fall of the Scandamerican Domestic hit me in the narcissism of small differences, in that place of close but not quite close enough. I can see see his truth because I hate it like I hate all things close to my truth but just across the kitchen table. I kind of hate this book because I get it. I kind of love it for the same reason. Not all of the short stories work, but the ones that hit me hit me in the face. The one about the couple painting their house hit me right in my profession as a house painter, all the notes I leave on a kitchen table over the course of a painting project turned over and written back. I feel priest-like in the things I see in my clients’ homes – in the sense that I see them but can’t relate them because it would be a violation – but I see them. I see them and keep silent. I don’t snoop, but I don’t have to. We wear it all on our sleeves but then tuck them hard into pockets. The connectives of course are surreal.

I got the violence in the story of the funeral, my cousin and I holding onto the back of one another’s necks, forehead to forehead, while he laid the most immaculate guilt trip on me like fine fucking china.  He wanted me to go to the second funeral, the one to be attended by people I despise. I resisted and drove home, and everyone in the car fell asleep. I watched the landscape go past like the only person who could, and later got the story of it, the second funeral. I would have murdered at that event, slit the throat of a dog in the back bedroom, and then I would have passed it off just the like the protagonist of the short story, the way you can pass off the murder of a dog in the back bedroom. You can pass off anything in the right social situation, stand like a mask and joke. It’s not funny haha but funny apocalypse. It’s funny Revelations according to Hans.

And although it looks like I’m dogging on this collection, I’m really not. There’s a story about a man who goes with his daughter down into a mine in “the only mountain in Wisconsin” – mountains being something the Midwest doesn’t have either – and sees a vision of her as an adult. Sounds lame when I relate it, but that last image, the daughter waving silently from a rock like a siren, and the daughter waving back just scrambled me. The candlelight vigil in another, all of the people turning away from the woman in whose name they are there. I can relate my irritations easier than I can my affections, because the affections are so fragile and inexplicable. The old saw about familiarity and contempt.

Fuck, I don’t know. The best and most true thing I can say about this collection is that it hit me where I live in ways that I usually only find in sex writing by the French or narratives of the zombie apocalypse.  (Make with that what you will.) I’d like to see Merkner do something long form, because he fairly kicks the shit out of the short form (except for the microfictions, but then me and microfiction are not friends, so it might just be me.) It was kinda perfect to read a short story or two in the middle of the holiday shitshow, parceling out this deranged comedy of the domestics after living through the same. Well done, me. Perfect timing.

 

 

 

You Can’t Take the Con from Me: The Last Stand of the California Browncoats

I am of the opinion that Mira Grant’s Newsflesh trilogy is perfect summer vacation reading. Even though those books are bloated by all kinds of Coke drinking, logistical chicanery, and wangst, the pages absolutely rip along, like finding a google hole of related self-important blog posts by a group of people who you kind of can’t stand, but also adore and want to have a drink with. I didn’t really track this while I was reading them, as I was too caught up rolling my eyes at the world mechanics – seriously, who is growing food or packing, shipping and delivering all the godamn stuff you assholes are ordering on the Internet - but Grant (possibly slyly) really captures the bullshit teapot tempest feel of the blogosphere. Only two privileged white kids who live with their parents can save us all! But, gosh, it was a lot of fun to read, and perfect for long summer evenings on the back porch. 

So I finished them up last summer, and in the last week of this summer, I discovered there are a bunch of enovellas set in the Newsflesh world. Sign me right up, gin and tonic in hand. San Diego 2014: The Last Stand of the California Browncoats feels a little like Hugo-bait (which I see worked, because this was nominated for the Hugo in the novella category for 2013). The Hugo is the more fannish of the sff awards, as it is decided by the participants in World Con, not SFWA or or other more trade-y organizations. Whether that sentence made any sense to you is probably a good indicator of whether this novella will work for you, as Browncoats is aimed pretty solidly at the nerd demographic. A novella about a zombie outbreak at a nerd con being voted on by nerd con participants is a good bet for the win. But hey, I’m a nerd and con goer, also for the win. 

But my nerdery aside, I think Browncoats minimized the things that bug me about the Newsflesh world: the tech-babble and less-than-punchy aphoristic intros and extros, the self-aggrandizement of douches, the shaky social architecture. The novella read much more like a lost chapter from World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War, with the whingeing, bloggerly interjections of the After the End Times staff kept to a minimum, and the wide ranging events of the Comic Con outbreak related though multiple perspectives and points of view. My favorite of the End Times staff, Mahir, has gone to interview the last known survivor of Comic Con 2014 thirty years later, and the proceedings have that same Studs Terkel retrospective sensibility which both dampens the immediate arm-wheeling and tinges everything with sadness – two things the Newsflesh world could use more of, imao. 

Con kid Lorelei goes off to sulk in her hotel while her parents set up the Firefly fan booth. A young woman is rescued by a Jedi when a zombie panel attacks. A blind woman and her dog get stuck in the booth. A starlet for a time-travel cop show – “My TV Guide interview was six paragraphs about my boobs and how they fit into my suit” – is abandoned by her handler with newlywed fans. There’s a lot of geek hat-tips to Who or the “fake geek girl” thing or – obviously – the Whedonverse, while pulling off a pretty good outbreak in a locked room scenario. 

Per usual with Newsflesh, I have some serious questions about Kellis-Amberlee, the disease that causes the zombiism, and why the zombies seem to hold off for a period other than narrative convenience and if they’re actually dead and stuff, but that’s not really no nevermind. One of the things I like about Grant’s novels is that the zombies are actually called zombies, not some coy new term. That a convention center full of geeks would leap to the term and start trying to hash out the “rules” for the outbreak based on fiction, even if they get it wrong, felt refreshing. Too often characters in fiction seem never to have heard of zombies, despite the zombie’s half-century of existence in its modern mobbing guise. 

So, my read of this was a perfect storm of situation and personality, aimed solidly at my demographic, fixing some broken things for me, and, ah, the drone of cicadas. It’s probably also the only of the novellas I’ve read so far that I might even recommend to people who haven’t read the trilogy, because as an episodic back story piece, you don’t really have to get into the whole thing. Fed is an alternate ending on Feed, and as such, is a major spoiler, and How Green This Land, How Blue This Sea occurs after the Newsflesh events, and is stupid. I haven’t read Countdown, but I will, Oscar, I will. It’s like 90 degrees and the first day of school, and for sure I can get it in before the leaves turn and the first homework is assigned. Allons-y! Rise up while you can!

Tethered by Meljean Brook: An Epistolary Review

Dearest Elizabeth,

I was thinking just yesterday of all the fun times we’ve shared, but especially how many letters I’ve sent you detailing my courtship with my amazing and perfect husband. Of course, not everything was amazing and perfect at first, as I’m sure you can recall. He’s an artist, of all things, and I just can’t abide all that girly drawing. I mean, I work in a male dominated profession, and it’s extremely threatening to me to have a guy hanging around questioning my authority with his feelings and stuff; how will my painting crew ever take me seriously? Certainly years of experience mean nothing when a woman in authority has an artsy boyfriend. I mean, the man uses product. Srsly.

So, Richard and I were hanging around, communing wordlessly using our eyes the way we do, when the most terrible thing happened! The set up is a little confusing, and in truth, even though it just happened I can’t really track the details, but the upshot is this: a college friend of his looked him up on facebook, and then after all the friend requests were sent and accepted, the college friend totally hacked Richard’s account and started posting all this bad stuff! He liked both Nickelback and Justin Bieber using Richard’s account! Who even does that?

Now, you know that Richard is an artist, but he’s also an 3133t h4xor, which, I might point out, is totally gender normative so I don’t even know why I was being so weird about the art thing. Anyhoo, He totally spray-painted some keyboards with camo like in the movie Hackers, and we were ready to roll with our boss plans to rehack the account and give the college douchebag some well earned comeuppance.

the hackers in the movie hackers huddled around a computer screen

Now, at this point in the letter, I believe it is customary actually to detail all the awesome ways we defeated the college douchebag, up to and including fun evil monologuing from the bad guy, but really we just kicked him into the ship’s engine and totally won using our wordless eye-gazing powers. And we didn’t kick him into the engine in a cool way, like when Malcolm Reynolds does it to that one dude after they’ve messed up the train heist for Nisca, but in a way that blows the narrative tension in our big rehacking takedown mission. Also, the bad guy lived on this really sweet sounding dystopian community, but I’m not going to tell you about that either. I’m going to tell you more about my eye-gazing superpowers and how me and Richard really love giving each other matching guns. Actually, he got an air-rifle this weekend and we had a really good time shooting at pop cans, and then we had some mildly kinky sex because I’ve got some real issues with male authority so that means that [letter redacted at this point].

[Still redacted]

[Still redacted]

Phew, that was hot, amirite? I mean, who doesn’t want to hear about how Richard and I have a love that is more love-like than any love that has ever loved before? And how our relationship is such a vortex of perfection that you can literally kick a bad guy into it and kill him? Or possibly I mean figuratively. Words were never my strong suit, and certainly now that I’ve got all this wordless eye-gazing going on, I’m out of practice.

So we launched all zig, we saved the princess, and then we deleted all reference to Two and a Half Men from Richard’s facebook page. Then we went upstairs and [still redacted].

Thanks for being such a great friend. I’m really hoping my next letter, which will be about Richard’s amazing sister, will be much more enjoyable.

Love & Zombies by Eric Shapiro

Love & Zombies by Eric Shapiro is one of those things I haven’t known what to say about because experience isn’t reflection. I enjoyed reading it, but I’m not sure I can say anything smart about it. I blew through a bunch of novellas all in row, which made me have a whole thing about what makes a good novella versus a novel or a short story, but then I waited too long to write any of those thoughts down. But let’s see if I can recreate some of it. 

First off, the novella is a funny beast, occupying an odd middle distance. Novellas can fail in a lot of ways: not concise enough, meaning they should have been cut to a short story, or taking on too much, meaning they should be a novel. (And the latter might not actually be true, because some of my most hated books were expanded from short stories and/or novellas.) I feel like this book fell into the latter category, in that there was a lot going on, but expanding this scenario would only weaken it, while the specific aims of the story needed a little more time. The most successful novellas I’ve read often occur in already established worlds, so the exposition is just gestural, and then we can go from there. It was the exposition stuff that didn’t work so great for me here, so. 

Love & Zombies starts with a very satisfying first person voice: self-effacing while self-aggrandizing, and just freaking funny. The way he introduces you to the other characters – a girlfriend, an asshole best friend – was really grand, with a lapping, anecdotal quality I enjoyed. Turns out the asshole friend wants to pull some ill-conceived and unethical job for a cuss-ton of money, and our protagonist goes along with it for pretty stupid and illogical reasons. Which was okay by me, because I’ve certainly done stupid things for stupid friends, and I’ve probably stupidly entreated friends to do stupid things for me, and sometimes they’ve even gone along with it. Childhood friends especially, because even though we were just friends because of proximity, when you think about it, nostalgia plays its ugly hand.

The set up is very pulpy, and therefore pretty bananas. Main character dude is feeling emasculated because his hot girlfriend is possibly too GGG, and he’s not feeling worthy of her. This kind of amazing perfect gf for an admitted loser could piss me off, but our MC actually acknowledges that his feeling are dumb, and doesn’t put his crap on her. The stupid, unethical thing in this case is to drive out into the Nevada desert from California, find a zombie, and then squire her to Las Vegas, which is where everything, in pulp style, goes even more pear-shaped. 

Oh, did I mention there were zombies? This being one of the things that didn’t work so great for me in this novella. Apparently there have been zombie outbreaks all over the flyover states, but places like southern California have heretofore been untouched by the zombie plague. Which, fine; maybe my irritation with this set up is that I live in a flyover state full of zombies, so this sort of coastal insouciance about the zombie plague reads a little lame. I think it works in the whole personal metaphors of the main character, so it’s fine, but it doesn’t work on a nuts-and-bolts nerd world-building level. I guess I’m just saying that the world doesn’t make any sense, except as a personal metaphor, which is why this both works and doesn’t as a novella. You can’t expand it, but you can’t contract it either. 

I’ll just say: I liked the voice on this thing a lot. The main character is right: I may not like him, but I love his girlfriend, or maybe I just like how he talks about his girlfriend. (Which is another thing: as much as he talks about the girlfriend, I didn’t feel like I got enough screen-time from her to really dig her, except as a construct of the protagonist. Which is also fine, on some levels, because it’s about him thinking about her and not her. Just, it would have been nice to get a third act snap where you see what he says about her from a slightly different vantage, which would be her vantage. First person though, whatever.) 

I liked the near-zombie girl and the throats she rips out half-pretending to zombification. I also liked a lot of choices made by the protagonist, because while nostalgia may be sweet, his friend was a huge asshole. I’m not enamored of the tie-up, which read too cutesy perfect for me. Maybe the average novella should end with blood on the floor, because we don’t have the investment in your usual novelistic HEA. Maybe. It’s possible I’m bloodthirsty in my needs. 

Two of the novellas I read in my novella week were DarkFuse titles: this and Worm by Tim Curran. Worm was decidedly more about gross pulp thrills, while this was more voice-driven, with a chatting, hipster douchebag protagonist and his admittedly stupid problems. You could almost smoosh them up into a single hot novel, something with killer voice and killer kills. I kind of did that by reading them back to back, which I would recommend. The nice thing about novellas is you can put them down in a sitting, much like a zombie. Love, however, takes more than a headshot to vanquish. A worthy take-home, all told. 

Thank you,NetGalley, for the ARC. 

Fox 8 by George Saunders

Pro-tip: don’t start reading the work of an author by half-assedly picking up a short story cut out of a larger collection and then offered up as a b-side extra, no matter how free it is from the library, no matter how attractive the cover. Don’t you want to eat that cover? I sure do. I’m not doing Saunders any favors as a reader by reading Fox 8: A Story first of his stuff, because even he knew there was something off about this. If you’d already read Tenth of December: Stories, from which this was excised, you might like it more, being able to place it within the album of ideas. 

But an epistolary short story written by a fox in fox dialect? Man, I don’t know, that’s maybe at least one gimmick too many. The puns made me roll my eyes, even though there was an “I know, rite?” that made me laugh, I’m embarrassed to admit. The whole thing struck me as trite and bossy, which is the worst kind of both of those things. This is all sounding meaner than I intend, and I’m sorry. Let me start again.

Based on a source I can’t remember or reproduce – seriously, I’m the worst reviewer today – Saunders briefly considered publishing this as a children’s book, complete with illustrations. (No, wait, here it is.) Which is where the few odd illustrations – which I would like to eat, I would like to reiterate – come from. There’s a term paper in there somewhere about didacticism in literary fiction and children’s lit, with a side bet in eco-lit as cultural superego, which, like all superegos, is both annoying and correct. 

I think this will be neat for Saunders enthusiasts, and I dig the whole single short story ebook thing being picked up by your more literary folk. Genre writers – at least romance and sf writers – have been doing this for a while, but all the press I saw about this single seemed surprised. 

I liked the very end? I can’t say I liked this, exactly, but it wasn’t bad. Definitely a matter of taste. 

Sigh.

Unforeseen: Journey Through Rust and Ruin by Sarah Bartsch

I swear by all that is holy that I’m going to figure out how to punch the Goodreads search engine right in the freaking neck. Twice. Hard.

Why, you ask? (Or maybe you don’t, but uncaring bystanders are next on my list when my blood is up.)

Let me explain. 

It all started a couple years ago when my husband dragged me to Bubonicon so we could see his boyfriend and hang out with other nerds. Being a somewhat reticent girl – don’t let my shouting online fool you; I am naturally a homebody and an introvert – I was maybe not all that jazzed about this in the abstract. But it was pretty much like coming home, because nerds (or more importantly, bookish, writerly nerds) are my people. One of those people I met was Sarah, and she is absolutely one of my favorites. 

So, it was with some trepidation I picked up her novella, Unforeseen: Journey Through Rust and Ruin, because I know what a horrible bitch I am in reviews sometimes. And she knows that too, which makes this whole process a little awkward. Mostly I just don’t write reviews for friends’ books that I dislike – truth is beauty and all that, but we all gotta live on this globe, and friends are better than any critique. But – phew! – I honestly liked this. 

Miyako is a samurai-daughter in an alt-Japan, c. 1915. My Japanese history is a little furry, but it seems that the reforms instituted in the Meiji Restoration never happened, and samurai continued on into the run-up to the first world war, but spreading out to the gentry and merchant classes in a way your more daimyo types wouldn’t have particularly liked. Miyako is one of these: trained into a system of honor and warfare, but not exactly comfortable there because of her class and gender. This Japan, not unlike the real 1915 Japan, is isolated from Western technology, but worried about the war brewing. She is sent on a mission into one of the semi-magical portals managed by the military to scavenge technology from whatever she finds on the other side. 

She walks through the glowing door into a world of scorched air and bandits, a dome city and automata. Which, oorah. This is deeply fun stuff, the kind of play through harsh, alien environments by competent but still uncomfortable girls that turns my crank as a reader. Miyako blusters her way through an environment alien to her sensibility, managing to keep from goggling at cars and trains and showers, but just barely. I want to ride on one of those, she thinks, again, and again, about all the wonders that this more modern, but still alternate Japanese city provides. Which is why I love science fiction, when you get down to it: the barely held-down freak-out about all the very cool things we can imagine and then walk through, as readers. Miyako supplies wonder to even the terrible things in the harsh world she ends up in.

But here’s my problem: two alternate history Japans are a lot of alternate history Japans to manage in a novella. So I did some googling, and it turns out that Unforeseen is one of a number of shared world novel/las, which start with Gateway to Rust and Ruin. From the Empires of Steam and Rust website:

It is 1915, but not the one you know.

In Europe, the old empires stand on the brink of war, and war zeppelins darken the skies. In the East, China has spread its influence as far as the South American Coast, and may soon come into conflict with America, which has annexed Mexico, and is looking further south. But the plans of the great powers may all soon come to naught, for something new has come into the world.

On every continent, in every nation, holes have appeared, in the sky, in the ground, in the water, that seem to lead to another world. Some are no more than pin-pricks in reality. Some could swallow a battleship whole. Some seem to provide an instant conduit from place to place. A man entering one in Zurich might well come out another in the wilds of the Canadian Rockies an instant later. Others have no exit, and those who enter them are never seen again.

All are leaking.

Some emit strange gasses. Others birth weird animals and insects. Still others alter the environment around them in subtle, unsettling ways, and may eventually change the whole world.

Which, cool. I’m all in. I find the whole idea of shared world writing – where different authors bring their craft to a world with specific parameters – totally worthy. It’s such a friendly, personable way of writing fiction; a call and response between people who are often congenital introverts. But I would have really appreciated this introduction to the Steam & Rust world when I began reading Sarah’s story as some sort of preface or introduction. I am absolutely willing to sort all this stuff out on my own as a reader, and I did, but I admit my default is laziness.

So, you’re welcome, Steam & Rust readers. I went in and tried to make an Empires of Steam and Rust series on Goodreads, so you could see in in one place all of the shared world novel/las, but I ran into the absolute freaking shittiness of the Goodreads search function. Even though I was able to add three of the fictions, for some reasons Goodreads couldn’t cough up Revolution of Air and Rusteven though I can find the damn novella on a google search and it looks like Summers even did a godamn Goodreads giveaway. Double-you the actual fuck here? Why can’t Goodreads even see this novel? Rarrrrrrrrr, and then the throat punch.

Miyako makes her way through her adventure in her own alternate history with wit and some badass sword skills, learning the way the young often do that her world is more complex and crappy than she thought. Here’s my next criticism, and it’s the best one: I want more about her. Having established not one alt-Japan but two, and a set of characters and even a robot I admire, I would kill to see how this all plays out and what happens next. More, please, Sarah. <3

Corsets & Clockwork: 13 Steampunk Romances

I went up to the cabin with the best of intentions: a backpack full of books and the will to read them. But, what ended up happening was playing Munchkin, chatting about the local land scandal, and making and eating a lot of food. A very wonderful week, all told, despite the godamn half foot of snow that fell quite prettily down on all and sundry in freaking April, but not a week in which I clapped eyes on much reading. When I did eventually sit down to read, I did hack a bit on my assigned reading, but mostly I slunk off to Corsets & Clockwork: 13 Steampunk Romances.

Short stories do much better as distracted reading, and Corsets & Clockwork was the only short story collection in the backpack. I had grabbed it in a mad library rush, but also because I’ve been arguing with the hubby about the state of steampunk these days. I don’t think I’d care much about the genre in a vacuum, but my man has a huge chubby for the entire concept. He doesn’t read so much these days, but I do, so I keep reading and reporting back. I see a decided shift in steampunk towards more romantic sensibilities, which is an interesting shift from the early days of very dudey stuff like Alan Moore and William Gibson. Some of this I think is sartorial: steampunk is very much about how things look, and about ornamenting fetish objects. (Done well, I think it’s also about punk-history, but not everything is done well.) Which is not to say that the sartorial is always feminine, just that romance, as a genre, deals with the body in a way that many genres do not. The clothes make the genre.

Given that Corsets & Clockwork: 13 Steampunk Romances has the romance thing right in its title, it’s not a huge surprise that this collection felt sub-par to me. I’m not trashing romance here, but short form romances can be extremely weak: setting up and knocking down lovers and their cheesy impediments without a lot of thought towards form or function. There’s a reason it’s usually a romance novel, and that reason is that short stories (I think) by their very natures require a concision of characterization and/or a third act snap that romances either a) don’t require or b) actively eschew on a genre level. Sing it with me: not that there is anything wrong with this. After scanning over some reviews, I see that my feelings are out of step with people who are reading these stories as romances. Fair warning, I guess, and if you’re a romance reader primarily, just take everything I say and reverse it. See how even cranks can be helpful? I live to serve.

“Rude Mechanicals” by Lesley Livingston. Despite some goofy names that made me wince – Agamemnon, Quint, Kingfisher for crying out loud - the story of a mechanical girl who acts as Juliet in a shabby Shakespearean troupe to both comic and tragic ends made me smile. Romeo and Juliet is often disastrously misinterpreted, as far as I can tell, run in such a way that those teenaged idiots are somehow noble, when what they are is irrational in a completely different way from their irrational parents. Nobody gets to win, even posthumously, because there is no posthumous win. Anyway, my cranking aside, this was funny and clever and hit who can separate the dancer from the dance in a way I appreciated.

“The Cannibal Fiend of Rotherhithe” by Frewin Jones. This story is where I’m most out of step with other readers, because I hit several reviews that called this one bad, and I would absolutely, without a doubt call it the stand-out of the collection. Frankly, if I hadn’t hit something this bloody weird this early in my reading, I may not have even finished the collection. Beautifully sly narrative voice, fairy tale echoes which are Grimm not Disney, and a half-footed nearly incomplete ending that says more with a gesture than a statement. A rough, horrible fisherman on the Scottish coast captures a mermaid in his nets. The narrator demures as to logistics – one of the many times when the narrator points out something awful and then lets you try to sort it out, horribly – but the fisherman gets the mermaid with child. She dies in childbirth and is discarded, leaving the fisherman to raise a girl with sticky skin and shark’s teeth. She’s a monster with a monstrous upbringing, and her brutal reactions to the brutal world out there – the one that pretends not to smile with shark’s teeth – are raw and ugly and perfect. Even monsters deserve love, even while both the monster and the love are terrifying. I would absolutely seek out more of this writer’s work, in a heartbeat.

“Wild Magic” by Ann Aguirre. Fine, I guess, but somewhat perfunctory, ending in and some day I shall be the queen of all I survey! in a way that makes me tired. A young girl who is the daughter of the ruling class, but, like, gifted with magical powers which are frowned upon – yawn – falls in love with Oliver Twist, even though he might, like, have an agenda. Felt like a preface to a larger work, ending just as the actual conflicts might begin, and in that way, is something of a failure as a short fiction. Not bad, but not interesting.

“Deadwood” by Michael Scott. I liked this up until the ending, which has one of those last minute reveals where the main characters turn out to be actual, historical figures. I’m not even kidding when I say I rolled my eyes and humphed when the main characters introduced themselves with their real names – oh my god, that was the worst. All I’m saying is that you have a short story named the same as this show:

then you should try a little fucking harder, cocksucker. I get that Deadwood is an actual historical place, and that David Milch did not invent it, but this Deadwood is nowhere near as interesting as either the historical Deadwood or the HBO series. That said, before the humphing and eye-rolling – seriously, why the fuck would [redacted] and [redacted] ever be hanging out together? let alone smooching? – the whole post-Civil War company town thing was workable, and the characterizations fun. There are many a fiction I wish ended earlier than they did, and this gets to be one. Ta da!

“Code of Blood” by Dru Pagliassotti. I skipped this one after a couple of pages. I know my track record with stories of the ingenue daughters of the ruling class and their tired rebellions via fucking the staff. (See, for example, “Wild Magic”, above.)

“The Clockwork Corset” by Adrienne Kress. Yet another daughter of the ruling class fucking the staff, but I was charmed by said aristocratic daughter joining the army and trying to pass as a boy for much of the proceedings. The passing-as-a-boy trope is an odd thing in fiction, usually requiring the girl to be both more and less dumb than she is. The ending here is…maybe not unsatisfying, but it doesn’t make work of all the potentials.

“The Airship Gemini” by Jaclyn Dolamore. Fascinating premise in a locked room environment which needs to be a longer fiction. “The Airship Gemini” doesn’t exactly work – there are too many lacunae – but I so seriously want it to, and the ways it doesn’t work are still compelling. A set of conjoined twins, just regular physical freaks – work as a show on a dirigible for magical folk – vampires, werewolves, etc – because freak is freak, but not all freak is the same. A self-serving doctor seeks to separate the girls, throwing the girls into crisis. I loved that the girls have no interest in separation – their connection is fact not deformity – and I loved their relationship with The Lizard Man. I thought the crisis and denouement was confused, but there’s a lot of here here.

“Under Amber Skies” by Maria V. Snyder. I actively hated this story. Set in a steampunky Poland just after the Nazi occupation, it managed to get high and mighty about resisting the Nazis because resisting Nazis might interfere with the romantic bullshit of some teenage girl. Zosia’s father is a mad scientist who has been building farm equipment & kitchen implements when the Nazis take over. Everyone assumes he’s begun making war machines for Poland to be used in the war effort, but he’s been missing for a couple months. Then Nazis try to take Zosia in for questioning. She escapes, and then the story turns into how Zosia’s Polish nationalist mother is evil, and Zosia’s dad would never make war machines despite the fact that we’re dealing with actual Nazis here, and apparently resisting Nazis is evil because war is bad and everyone should be a lover and not a fighter and war is wrong double plus times.

What the actual fuck? I am of the opinion that most writers should avoid Nazis in their fiction unless they are willing and able to take on the most Godwin of all genocides, but here it’s an actual disaster. I get how love is dreamy and wonderful and all, but this kind of judgmental bullshit about how resisting Nazis is wrong because of love, man makes me want to die. This story is stupid and childish and takes the easy way out in situations which are forever and decidedly less than easy. Uuuurrrgh.

“King of the Greenlight City” by Tessa Gratton. Starts out in a very traditional romance vein, where the principles meet cute and discover their magical powers and whatnot, and then builds to a third act OMIGOD which is pretty freaking hilariously subversive. We two are as one…ahahahaha. Sad. :(

“The Emperor’s Man” by Tiffany Trent. Yet another daughter of the ruling class banging the help – someone who actually has an academic placement should write a paper about this phenomenon – but better than my dismissive opening would imply. This is one of those coded histories, with a transported London in a magical setting. I feel like with a lot of these stories there is way too much going on in the weird department. Mixing werewolves, manticores, hard science, alternate history, and clockwork is way, way too much in a story 60 pages long or less, but this was cute and it functioned as a story. The only thing that made me itch was the way science was equated with mysticism. Just because something is an epistemology, does not mean all epistemologies are equivalent.

“Chickie Hill’s Badass Ride” by Dia Reeves. Snappy dialogue and narrative voice in a setting not usually seen in steampunkery. No one writes in the segregated American South, and if they do, they sure as shit don’t write almost light-hearted romps about black children being stolen by tentacled monsters who are easily mistaken for the Klan. I’m not entirely sure this story works, but full freaking points for a story where the casual fun belies a sharper message.

“The Vast Machinery of Dreams” by Caitlin Kittredge. Omg, another good one. I couldn’t even say what happened here, exactly, but the way the total freaking weirdness is held with a hard hard and doled out to the reader in snippets is masterful. A young boy with dreams both nightmarish and juvenile meets a girl who might be a monster, and Lovecraftian hijinks ensue. This is what happened; this isn’t what happened. ZOMG.

“Tick, Tick, Boom” by Kiersten White. Yet another daughter of the ruler class banging the help. Seriously, what is up with this? There is so much of this in this collection, and I am beginning seriously to wonder why it is that our romance lady avatars are all these high-born chickies who are discomforted by their status, and alleviate that discomfort by kissing the low-born? Why am I even talking in terms like this? Low-born? The fuck? I don’t even mean to be attacking this specific story, because it’s fine or whatever, despite the fact I saw the twist coming in the first page, and I don’t think it actually said anything at all. And it deals with political violence in a way I think is deeply lame. Har har, I blew up some people because I don’t like my daddy!

Woo boy, I must be cranky tonight, given how bitchy I’m being. Still though, what is going on here? Maybe it’s just the steampunk genre, and its hazy Victoriana written by (mostly) Americans who have zero clue about how the British class system works, and romanticize it. It’s yet another godamn Lady Diana plate. Yerch. Maybe I’ll come back with a coda some day, but for now I’m just feeling itchy and irritated that the one excellent story about a girl with shark’s teeth tricked me into the rest of this mess. Fine enough reading for the cabin, but back in the everyday I’m feeling much less charitable. Sorry.

Gothic Short Fiction: Top 5

We arrived at the cabin yesterday, and have been doing the slow, unloosening unwind of food and fire-ful conversation. Time out from one’s life is a strange, interstitial moment, sitting in a kitchen with my mother and my husband and arguing about literature and the state of the weather and the price of beans. Mum and I started in about Gothic fiction, because we have that in common. She taught a class in Gothic fiction way back when, using primary The Oxford Book of Gothic Tales. I read it along with her  at the time because I’m easy and I like books and I like short fiction. The Oxford Book of Gothic Tales ended up being one of the very best multi-author short story collections I’ve ever encountered. From the editorial choices to the brilliant fucking introduction, Chris Baldick knows whassup. (But, sadly, we made fun of his name a little because baldick.)

So we started arguing the top five Gothic short fictions, and Mum ended up with the following list:

“Jordan’s End” by Ellen Glasgow

A doctor goes to a remote, decaying Virginia farmhouse to treat the head of the family who is suffering from a hereditary disease. The doctor quickly realizes that not only the man, but his wife, aunts, and sons are all caught in a web woven of madness and death. Doom everywhere.

“The Gospel According to Mark” by Jorges Luis Borges

A student from Buenos Aires goes to visit his bumpkin cousin on a remote estancia during Lent, which is fall in the Southern hemisphere. To pass the time, he starts reading the Gospel of Mark to the degenerate, illiterate servants–which turns out to be a huge mistake.

“The Vampire of Kaldenstein” by Frederick Cowles

In the late 1930s, a clueless Brit takes a bicycle tour to a remote part of Germany, fails to heed the locals’ warning–to comic results. Don’t go to the castle, you idjit!

The Lady of the House of Love” by Angela Carter

A sad, young vampire waits in darkness in her ancestral castle for her true love to come to her. Many men and boys do, but wind up as blood donors. Another British bicyclist, this time a soldier o leave during WWI, shows up and spends the night with her. Will his blood be shed there or on the battlefields of France?

The Horla” by Guy DeMaupassant

Oh my god! Hysterical first person narrator wigs out when he thinks an invisible Brazilian chupachbra is haunting him. He grows crazier with every passing day until he finally decides to do something about his unseen tormentor.

Like the joke about lawyers at the bottom of the ocean, this is a good start. But my list would look a little different. I would add “The Bloody Countess” by Alejandra Pizarnik, which is so completely dirty and perverse and freaks me out with its semi-academic tone married to some seriously fucked up content. Elizabeth Bathory, man. The husband brought up Poe, because obvs, and we decided that “The Fall of the House of Usher” was the best of his Gothics. A young man comes to visit his friend and the friend’s tragic twin sister in their remote, crumbling estate.

In “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” by Joyce Carol Oates self-absorbed teenager Connie has all these fantasies about boyfriends, and when Arnold Friend pulls his red convertible into the driveway of her family home when her family is away at a barbeque, she gets a boyFriend from hell.

And then, of course, the patron saint of Southern Gothic, Flannery O’Connor with “A Good Man Is Hard to Find“. A Georgia couple, their bratty children and a grandma who fancies herself a Southern aristocrat, embark on a road trip. The grandmother’s insistence on seeing a plantation (that she later realizes is “gone with the wind”) ends with their rolling the family car on a dusty rural road.  Enter the Misfit, an escaped convict, and his sidekicks.

So, given this collection of freaking excellent stories, I think you could probably say something about the shape of the Gothic. An outsider comes into an often rural location. He (or occasionally she) might be a painful doofus. The rot of the inbred rural location might spread, or it might be a counterpoint to the mechanized horror of the industrial center. Monsters have faces; machine guns do not. Gothic more than other longstanding genres has a lot of female writers, and that makes sense to me: the creeping dread, the lack of agency, the limited locales. Women haven’t have the most control over our lives, historically speaking.
List:
Autumn setting
Remote, isolated location
Night, darkness
Enclosed spaces
Decaying houses, castles
Hereditary insanity, illness
Twins (doppelganger)
Madness
Grotesque body shapes
Inbreeding
Storms, floods, extreme cold or heat

So it was fun to talk lists, and the weird convergences – bicycles, apparently? – and I look forward to more food and talk and half-napping here on the North Shore.

The Horla by Guy de Maupassant

Neatly masterful short story which suffers for the contemporary reader from being too influential. Lovecraft was all over the first person descent into madness narrative like Chthulu on New England port towns, though of course he saw it here first. Nevertheless, the sheer whackadoo poetry of our unnamed narrator’s grappling with an unsubstantial succubus/doppelganger manages to hit tons of the tropes of Gothic fiction with a concision not usually seen: colonial panic, tortured aristos, unease with science/Modernism, weltering claustrophobia. 

Our apparently indolent narrator starts his diary – oh, yeah, it’s one of those – nattering on about trees and walks in the park. He sees a pretty white ship sail past the house. Isn’t that a pretty ship? I’m sure this won’t be important later. He starts suffering from insomnia and the vague sense that he is being watched, which he alleviates briefly by going on vacation a lot. But the visitations escalate, resulting in some really freaky descriptions of sleep paralysis. Yeesh. There’s an interlude of a woman being hypnotized as a parlor game which is milked for a full-blown freak out about human agency (especially the way it is intercut with some other revelations). 

By the end, our narrator is in exclamation point mode, his prose downright Old Testament in its panic. I would be willing to bet there are deliberate echoes of Job all over the place, but my Sunday schooling is rusty. The final attempt by the narrator to confine and destroy the Horla – as he has come to name this creature – tips horrifying in the extreme when – this is for serious a spoiler, but this clocks at maybe 20 pages, so the spoiler is more conceptual than anything –> when you realize this lunatic has burnt down his house with all the servants screaming to death within because of a creature not even he can see. Then he decides to kill himself. Tada!

Anyway, a neat little story, not partially because of the way it breathlessly drags you along with the madness, and then ever so subtly checks that madness. Oh my God! as the narrator yells dozens of times. Maybe we’re the monsters!

Oh, and I found this on Google books – excellent! But then it turned out that it was in French – bogus! So I found an English translation online here. You’re welcome.