If the Fates Allow (CBR13 #57)

If the Fates Allow: A Short Story

A few weeks ago, I saw an announcement on Rainbow Rowell’s Instagram that she was releasing a holiday short story this year and I rejoiced. I like Rowell’s short form work as much as I like her novel length ones. I’ve read Kindred Spirits, her 2016 take on fandom and waiting in line for Star Wars. Rowell also has holiday themed ones: Almost Midnight, 2017’s collection that includes both Kindred Spirits and Midnights. Midnights tracks a pair across several years’ worth of New Year’s Eves and 2019’s Pumpkinheads which is a delightful graphic novel that celebrates all things Halloween.

If the Fates Allow brings Reagan from Fangirl forward in time to now, including all the COVID-19 reality we’ve been living through the past nearly two years, and gives us a peek into her in her early 30s (I think, the math is throwing me a bit). Reagan is still just as kick-ass as she was when we first met her: she’s quippy and quick, she’s a bit of a misanthrope but she cares about the people who matter to her. In 40 pages we learn that social distancing came easily to Reagan (girl, I feel you). Maybe a little too easily (yep). But it’s Christmas 2020 and Reagan doesn’t want her grandpa to be alone for his first Christmas as a widower, and like everyone else (who is properly isolating) he’s already spent too much time on his own. After quarantining for two weeks Reagan leaves Lincoln and heads back to her hometown to spend the holiday with him. What Reagan wasn’t expecting or planning for was to run into the boy next door. Mason’s family has lived next to her grandpa for years, and like Reagan he is all grown up now, not that Reagan can remember him from their shared years in high school. The person in front of her now is considerate and funny, and just the sort to put himself in a bit of danger to help someone who needs it.

In their short time together Mason’s warmth defrosts Reagan a bit. Not that he’s trying to, one of the things I liked best about Mason was that he wasn’t put out by how prickly Reagan is, in fact, he appears to like it (and perhaps always has). This is Rowell, she’s able to craft quality characters quickly and she deftly handles how COVID effected interacting with others, both those we know well and those we’re meeting again. I’m going with four stars for this because it wraps up a bit too quickly, and I didn’t feel like the first and second halves were balanced, but I was glad to have spent the time back in this fictional neck of the woods and I’m sure I’ll probably read it again before the end of the year.

(There’s also another check-in on Levi and Cath, like in Landline, and it made me smile to read it.)

A Good Heretic (CBR13 #40)

A Good Heretic (Wayfarers, #0.5)

There are a handful of authors that I am simply delighted Cannonball Read has put on my reading radar. Becky Chambers is absolutely one of those. Her The Wayfarers series helped to cement for me my enjoyment of space based science fiction, while simultaneously reaffirming that one doesn’t need to rely on the hero’s journey in order to write excellent genre fiction. My favorite genre books are all character driven, and that is just the kind of exploration and survival stories to which Chambers excels.

A Good Heretic finds its existence in the sidelines of The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet and one (including me) can be forgiven for not necessarily remembering the plot specifics this many years out from publication as that book spends over 400 pages bouncing from one small adventure to another. But that book doesn’t really need much else, and neither does this short story. For both their strengths lie in the small things. In the Galactic Commons, an interstellar, interspecies union established for ease of trade and travel, Faster than Light travel is illegal, so transportation between systems is facilitated through a vast network of constructed wormholes. The construction of wormholes is impossible without the mathematical contributions of the Sianat, a reclusive race who intentionally infect themselves with a virus that enhances specific cognitive abilities (at the cost of shortening their lifespan). Infected Sianat are properly called “Pairs,” and think of themselves as plural entities. In The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, we’re introduced to mainstream Sianat culture through Ohan, a Navigator aboard a tunneling ship. However, we receive a glimpse of an alternate Sianat way of life through the character Mas, who we meet briefly late in the book. A Good Heretic is her story, a story of what happens when they life we are destined for is not actually the life that we have grown to anticipate.

Chambers has the gift of writing these stories of people living on spaceships who act like people you interact with every day. Chambers captures what informs our humanity and she uses the small details that tell us so much about who we are to craft vivid writing with exceptional world-building. What Chambers can do in a matter of sentences to build her locations is superb.

While this story is my least favorite of all the Chambers I’ve read (I am still holding onto the final Wayfarers book, The Galaxy, and the Ground Within) it is still a good small bite to get an idea if her writing is for you, with the addition of giving a bit of extra insight into one of the corners of her universe that didn’t get as much exploration as it might have in the larger series. But, while you do not have to have read The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet to read this one, it might make more sense if you have.

A Good Heretic is available in the Infinite Stars: Dark Frontiers anthology and also at this link for free.

The Bloody Chamber & Other Stories (CBR11 #63)

The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories

While I like to think of myself as generally well-read there are definite gaps in the more classic authors of certain genres. Authors I enjoy, including Neil Gaiman, have pointed to Angela Carter as an immense influence on their own work. Thankfully someone had gifted The Bloody Chamber & Other Stories to me a few years ago. The stories in the collection share a theme of being closely based upon fairytales or folk tales and Carter toys with Gothic fiction and gender, utilizing classic Gothic symbolism to push the narrative forward. These short stories emphasize terror and the gruesome, in order to build an atmosphere, while also working to flip certain gendered tropes on their heads. My quick assessment is: sometimes it worked too well and I didn’t care to continue.

A bit of digging around tells me that Carter’s fairy tale retellings are well known for being feminist. And I have to admit that while the stories didn’t always feel modern forty years after their initial publication, that doesn’t mean that Carter wasn’t doing important work that pushes us to work like Her Body & Other Parties. Carter’s feminism is tinged with wanting women to seize what they needed—power, freedom, sex—and seeing no fundamental difference between the sexes that could prevent that. In The Bloody Chamber & Other Stories Carter examines the traditional stories we tell through that lens, but it can mean that her female characters fall flat, or feel a bit one dimensional – she doesn’t allow her heroines much softness or weakness.

I find myself simultaneously running hot and cold with this collection. I appreciate the duality of Carter’s Beauty and the Beast retellings, “The Tiger’s Bride”  and “The Courtship of Mr. Lyon”, wherein she gives us the original ending where the beast transforms and also a reversal as the heroine transforms into a glorious tiger who is the proper mate to the Beast, who will from now on be true to his own nature and not disguise himself as a human. I can also trace the Gothic symbolism latent in “The Bloody Chamber,” as emphasis is placed on images of the ominous castle, the blood on the key, or a blood-red choker awarded the heroine as a wedding gift foreshadowing the story to come. However, I found the story itself dreadfully boring.

Carter doesn’t seem to have cared much about character development or plot, and instead focuses on emotion and creating images in the reader’s mind. Her technique and craft support her ability to do just that, leave sentences burned on the mind, so while this isn’t for me at the end of the day I was happy to pass it along to another friend whom I think might enjoy it much more.  

A Mind of Her Own (CBR11 #45)

A Mind of Her Own

This one was okay and therefore 2 stars. I don’t often rate books 1 or 2 stars, at this point in my Cannonball history my to read list is pretty well-honed in on books that I’m going to have a good response to (making them 3 stars or higher). But, back in the spring when I still had an Audible subscription this was one of their free Originals so I scooped it up.

I’m not sad I chose it, I just wish it knew what it wanted to be.

In 75 minutes of audiobook Paula McLain goes about telling the story of Marie Curie before she accomplished all the things that made her famous, when she was still Maria Sklodowska, a 25-year-old student of physics and chemistry at the Sorbonne.  McLain has several false starts, painting a picture of a stark and withdrawn Marie who has sworn off interpersonal relationships for the single-minded goal of succeeding where so few women were even allowed to be. She also pursues the Marie that excels where others do not. We also get the Marie who still Lived in Warsaw and watched her sister and mother die, and hatched a plan to get her remaining sister and herself the university degrees they would ned to pursue their dreams of medicine and science.

But, McLain never really commits to any of these versiosn of Marie, bouncing between them and overlaying the love story of Marie and Pierre and his steadfastness in contrast to her determination to return to Poland, to work in science, and to succeed. He imagines a life where they can do those things together (short of moving to Poland, but the real Pierre did offer to follow Marie there). She eventually capitulates and they are married, within 8 years they will earn the Nobel Prize.

While A Mind of Her Own didn’t hang together for me, it certainly wasn’t the fault of Hillary Huber’s narration, she did a great job with the material at hand.

Her Body and Other Parties (CBR11 #31)

Image result for her body and other parties

Her Body and Other Parties is all about expectations – both the ones on the page for the characters Machado created and for the reader as they come to the much hyped but little described work. I knew going in that the book was pushing boundaries, igniting conversations (the husband stitch, for example), and refused to stick to one genre at any given time, let alone for the entire collection.

Having completed the book I understand why reviewers have, one the whole, been relatively mute on details. There isn’t an easy way to try to capture what Machado is working towards. Her Body and Other Parties is simultaneously gothic and speculative, bending the lines of realistic fiction and fantasy. Most reviews cover “The Husband Stitch” and the novella-within-a-short-story-collection reinterpretation of Law & Order: SVU, “Especially Heinous”, which are admittedly very dramatic and easy to focus on, but my favorite in the collection is a much quieter look at the end of the world, “Inventory”. Machado takes one woman’s coping mechanism (list making) to recount a component of one’s life not often so honestly and quietly spoken of (bisexual sexual history) that in turn tells the story of the collapse of civilization due to a pandemic. It reminded me of Station Eleven in all the best ways while taking the appropriate sized bite of a narrative.

Because, that is my complaint about this collection, and it pains me to have a complaint at all with such a well-written, mechanically beautiful collection. Machado swings big in this, and sometimes it feels that she overshoots what is currently within her powers. “The Husband Stitch” plays with its origin points and makes a larger point, right up until it doesn’t – the landing is missed. Once I noticed that in the first story, I noticed it again in several other places. It is such a tough line in novellas, finding the right amount of story to tell. I’m hopefully Machado continues to refine her technique, because she is one of the few people working in this medium that I know I want to read again.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read.

Almost Midnight (CBR9 #75)

happy new year

Happy New Year! As a treat to myself I purchased this sparkly-covered illustrated version of two of Rainbow Rowell’s short stories which I have already read and reviewed. I love Simini Blocker’s art (I have two of her posters at home) and I love Rainbow Rowell so this was a bit of a no brainer for me.

For those of you unfamiliar, these are pretty good gateway drugs to Rainbow. Midnights is very much like her novel length works. We experience four new years’ eves with two teens who are clearly in love with each other and don’t necessarily know what to do with those feelings. I am fond of proselytizing the good word of Rowell’s ability to craft delightful, wonderful characters and these two are no less delightful and wonderful than her others.  I first read this story three years ago and they are firmly lodged in my memory the way few other story’s characters are. Also, it pulls at the heartstrings, the watching the one you want not quite manage to want you as well.

The second story is Kindred Spirits which focuses on Elena and her excitement to experience The Force Awakens,  her first true Star Wars theatre experience. We spend a few days in her company as she endeavors to have the line experience the original series and prequels audiences had. Hers isn’t like those, exactly, but she does come away with an experience all her own and a new friendship which helps her unpack the relationships she and others have to nerd culture. For me, I didn’t see The Last Jedi until just a few days ago and have watched certain sectors of fandom expose themselves as not being ready for where the movies are taking them. Rowell isn’t necessarily anticipating that, but this is a nice companion read to any viewing of a new Star Wars movie.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read, my last for CBR9. At Cannonball Read we read what we want, review it how we see fit (within a few guidelines), and raise money in the name of a fallen friend for the American Cancer Society. Registration for our 10th annual read is open through January 2018. 

Singapore Noir (CBR8 #71)

Read Harder wanted me to read a book by an author from Southeast Asia. A little google sleuthing turned up the book Singapore Noir edited by Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan, a native of Singapore, who in her introduction to the collection lays out the Singapore the world is familiar with as well as the Singapore explored in this work. What better way to complete the task than to read a collection of stories by authors hailing from, or simply familiar with, the area in question? And some are in Singlish (well, partly) which is another boon for me since I like works in dialect.

First, if you like noir, then this book is right up your alley. It’s actually the fortieth or so collection put out by Akashic Books which has apparently, unbeknownst to me, been putting out a series of original noir anthologies since 2004. In case you are wondering the noir anthologies are all geographically organize
d, thus Singapore Noir.singapore

What did I learn about myself as a reader during this adventure? That I will consume noir quickly if given the opportunity, but that I should probably limit myself to one or two stories at a time since the genre has very specific rhythms which get very repetitive, very quickly since in all the works the protagonist is either a victim, a suspect, or a perpetrator. Add in the fact that that protagonist is usually self-destructive and is dealing with the legal, political or other system that is corrupt is, leading to lose-lose situation.

Highlights for me:

Last Time by Colin Goh, which follows a lawyer attempting to free the arm candy of a mobster. But is that really what’s happening?

Smile, Singapore by Colin Cheong, we spend the night in an interrogation room with a man who has committed a crime, but feels little remorse for the position he was put in.

Kena Sai by S.J. Rozan follows the life of an expatriate couple from beginning to end.

Honestly, this book is probably a 3.5 overall, since there were one or two I couldn’t get myself to care about enough to finish them, I have rounded down.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read. 

Waiting for Clark & Served Hot (CBR8 #62-63)

Mrs. Julien’s review of Waiting for Clark reminded me that I had picked up two Annabeth Albert books following ellepkay’s reviews, and should probably read them in between library books. While owning my romance reading habits, I have also been attempting to be more LGBTQ inclusive in my reading overall (with varying degrees of success), and felt overdue in that department.

Let’s start with the good.

Image result for waiting for clark

Waiting for Clark is based on a prompt and image given to Albert as part of the Goodreads M/M Romance Group’s “Love is an Open Road” event last year where members were asked to write a story prompt inspired by a photo of their choice. Albert got:

Dear Author,
My friends and I love cosplay, and this year we’re going all out for our city’s con. Yup, we’re going to go as members of the Justice League. I’m going as Batman, but I can’t figure out who’s going as a Superman. My friends are being a little cagey. What’s going on? How did I go from not knowing who Superman is to making out with the guy?

Photo Description:
In a cartoon drawing, Batman and Superman are locked in an embrace, kissing. Superman is taller and clutching Batman to him. Batman has more muscles and has visible tattoos on his arms. Superman has broader shoulders and dark hair. Batman is stretching up to meet him and has one foot kicked behind him. Behind them is a graffiti-covered wall, and Superman’s rainbow-lined cape swirls around them. The prompter specified that the picture is two men in cosplay costumes at a Comic Con convention.

Kept short and crisply paced, this story (under 100 pages) shows a balanced approach to its character development, giving us flashbacks to their college days and rooted in the here and now. Clark and Bryce (yep, Albert went all in on the Batman/Superman theme) had feelings for each other, but between not want to ruin their friendship and roommate relationship, dating other people, or living on different sides of the country if not ocean – things just didn’t work out. Enter our meet cute 5 years later, and Clark shows back up in his life, at a Comic Con with Bryce dressed as Batman and Clark as Superman.  Bryce doesn’t know how to trust it Clark, and Clark has to convince Bryce that they should give a relationship a try.

I appreciated the second chance tropes running through, the rounded out world of background characters, the steamy sex scenes (this does not have cuddling like The Hating Game), and the fact that both characters were out.

Three Stars

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As to the less good, the other Albert short that I picked up based on ellepkay’s review was Served Hot, first in the Portland Heat series. This one is the story of Robby ad David. Robby is a coffee cart owner and David is one of his regular customers, who walks several blocks, past several other coffee options, to see Robby. Set up with seasonal check-ins, it’s the story of Robby and David dating and falling for each other, and unpacking ALL of David’s considerable small-town closeted baggage.

This one had too much angst for me, too much trouble with communication, and ultimately suffered at only being told from Robby’s perspective. I can appreciate that Albert is trying to tell a variety of experiences, and that Robby is a POC protagonist (woo!) but this one felt like a slog, and nothing cruising it at right around 100 pages should feel that way. I don’t know that I’ll be checking back in with Albert’s writing any time soon.

2 stars.

These books were read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read. 

When the Women Come Out to Dance (CBR8 #5)

I’m continuing down my Elmore Leonard path and was off in search of the next Raylan story. Fire in the Hole is the third story, and it’s contained within this collection. When the Women Come Out to Dance is a collection of Leonard’s short stories, and since Audible suggested it and I’ve loved listening to the other Raylan stories: Pronto and Riding the Rap. (This collection of Elmore Leonard’s short fiction’s title was changed to Fire in the Hole capitalize on its connection to FX’s Justified.)

Let’s get the bad out of the way – this was far from my favorite Elmore Leonard experience. There are nine stories in this collection, and I’ll be honest a few of them I don’t remember 24 hours after finishing the audiobook. That has definitely affected my decision to rate this book at only 2 stars. It was merely okay.

Of the ones I remember  there were several of them were good, and a couple were quite good, and one or two I know I’m just missing  bigger story arcs because these are characters related to other Leonard stories. “Sparks” and the titular “When the Women Come Out to Dance” are solid works. Each cover women taking different illegal methods to get beyond a problem and each are well paced if slightly predictable and generally forgettable. I doubt I’ll be remembering them at all in a few weeks.

“Fire in the Hole” and “Karen Makes Out” each highlight some of Leonard’s most well-known characters: Raylan Givens and Karen Sisco. In “Fire in the Hole” Raylan returns to Harlan County and runs afoul of Boyd Crowder. You know the story if you’ve seen season one of Justified. “Karen Makes Out” happens after the events of Out of Sight, with Karen remaining unlucky as far as finding suitable law abiding male companionship. Each was good, but mostly because I was familiar with the characters.

My favorites in this collection were “Tenkiller” and “The Tonto Woman”. “Tenkiller” tells the story of Ben Webster (grandson of Carl Webster from The Hot Kid if you’re familiar – I was not) on his return to Oklahoma following the death of his fiancée. He runs across a family of criminals squatting on his family’s pecan farm and goes about getting back together with the first girl he loved and getting rid of the nuisance on the farm. Too long and meandering (like this review!) but still quite good. My favorite, a four star story on its own was “The Tonto Woman”. This had the crispest pacing and left the reader satisfied but looking for more. That’s my favorite balance in a short story. “The Tonto Woman” is a day in the life type story of a woman returned from twelve years of captivity and resettling amongst life as a literally marked woman. Or is she going to take up with a cattle rustler?

Amazon describes this collection as a series of short sketches that feature strong female characters in trouble. I don’t completely buy it. Most explicitly because there are no women focused on in at least one or two of the stories. Also, we aren’t given enough time with several of the women to really identify if they are strong or merely opportunistic. I know from my viewing of the Justified television series that I feel the Ava character in “Fire in the Hole” is strong, but I don’t know that I can feel that way simply from what we see on the page. Although, I am glad that the producers decided to keep Boyd around and that he was portrayed by the delightful Walton Goggins. I have the same lack of certainty with some of the others, including “Sparks”.

Read at your own choosing, you’ll be better able to tell your own interest level.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read. 

The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains (CBR7 #92)

Confession time: I listened to this book solely because I decided that I would not be finishing The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood for the Go Fug Yourself book club over on Goodreads. I spent two weeks actively avoiding listening to it on my commute to work, and on a three hour road trip to Philadelphia where I didn’t have a radio in the loaner car from work. I needed a palate cleanser, and I needed a moody atmospheric listen to go along with Halloween. Neil Gaiman sounded like a perfect idea.

And thanks to the fantastic review of Cannonball’s own Renton last year I had this on my to read list, and had downloaded it from Audible a few months ago when I saw it  Gaiman is in usual form here – he is playing with words, slowly releasing meaning in gradual layers. What I hadn’t remembered from Renton’s review was that part of it charm was in the artwork. To quote him “The most effective sections of the book have the text bleed into the artwork, as the story passes from paragraph to comic strip to full-page painting in one fluid movement.” Now, in listening to the Gaiman narrate the work I didn’t feel like I as missing it because as was also done in M is for Magic, the stories are interwoven with music to help create tension. That may have been what kept my rating down to a three and not up to a four like Renton’s.

So what was this novella all about anyway? Gaiman is at work with myths and lore again. We follow the tale of two men on a quest to the titular cave for gold, but it’s also rumination on what we do for love and greed. And also what we’re willing to sacrifice. A good read for anytime of the year, but definitely one suited to the fall and the shortening days.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read.