REVIEW: “Talking to Cancer” by Khaalidah Muhammad-Ali

Review of Khaalidah Muhammad-Ali, “Talking to Cancer”, Apex Magazine 112 (2018): Read Online. Originally published in Fiyah Magazine 2 (2017). Reviewed by Joanna Z. Weston.

A woman who can cure cancer by talking to it comes to terms with the fact that she can also cause it. This is a rich story about responsibility and gifts, but also forgiveness and acceptance.

Whens she was a girl, Layla learned that she could talk to cancer when she asked it not to kill her mother, and it listened. But it turns out that this gift is double-edged, and in moments of anger, she can also cause cancer to begin growing in a person. As far as premises go, this is a great one. It’s simple, but powerful. Cancer inspires so much fear and so much pain, that the stakes are automatically high.

Layla is a gloriously rich character, someone who has dedicated her life to healing, but also has darkness within her. She’s not an angel, but is instead a real woman with real struggles and real emotions, who is not always her best self. The twists of the story challenge her, forcing her to decide who she wants to be. That kind of internal experience is exactly what I love to see in a short story, so I was not disappointed here.

This is a masterful, engaging story, and I highly recommend heading over to Apex to check it out!

REVIEW: “Kerouac’s Renascence” by Tal M. Klein

Review of Tal M. Klein, “Kerouac’s Renascence”, Apex Magazine 110 (2018): Read Online. Reviewed by Joanna Z. Weston.

Kerouac is living in Japan, so that his sister will not see his declining health. Now that his illness has reached its final stage, he plans to go to California to grant himself a dignified death, aka euthanasia. Selling all his possessions leaves him with more money than anticipated, so he chooses to travel there by way of a 22 day cruise, as a final treat. Against his better judgment, he makes friends and falls in love. Then things get weird, and we as readers remember that we are reading a piece of speculative fiction.

I did not find Kerouac to be the most likable narrator, but he is engaging and sympathetic. His choice to isolate himself from the people who care about him – a choice made repeatedly during this story – is frustrating to read simply because it is so realistic. It’s such a common (if hurtful) human coping mechanism that I would not be surprised to learn that psychologists have a special term for it. And that’s really where this story shines, in the ordinary. Most of the story takes place in the “real” world, with speculative elements appearing around three quarters of the way through, and Klein captured my attention and my interest without them.

This story is on the longer end of what Apex publishes, which means that it has plenty of time to delve into smaller moments and build itself, yet it never felt meandering. The story is tight.

This piece deals with some heavy topics – chronic illness, assisted suicide, fear of death and pain – without becoming maudlin. It’s not a light piece, but neither would I describe it as ponderous. For all that Kerouac’s life has been consumed by these topics, his conscious thoughts tend to push them aside, which lets the story breath without ever letting us get distracted from the stakes.

The ending surprised me, so I don’t want to spoil it for anyone else, but I will say that the title is a bit of a clue. This is a strong story on a dark topic, but there is hope.

REVIEW: “Clap Your Hands” by Andrew F. Kooy

Review of Andrew F. Kooy, “Clap Your Hands”, Apex Magazine 107 (2018): Read Online. Reviewed by Joanna Z. Weston.

Fiction is rife with children unfairly blamed by their father for their mother’s death in childbirth. Fiction is also rife with corrupt revival preachers (just once, I’d like to see a revival preacher who doesn’t fake his own miracles). “Clap Your Hands” gives us a powerful combination of the two.

The story opens on a ten or eleven year old boy named Five, who has been abused by his preacher father, for his entire life. Despite this, he is essentially a sweet kid who loves listening to the Psalms, even as he fears hearing his father preach about hell and damnation (having heard a bit too much of that already). The first time someone shows him real kindness, he discovers an ability he didn’t know he had.

The speculative element in this story is subtle, but I didn’t mind that. It’s almost more magical realism than fantasy, dealing mostly with horrors of the human variety.

This is a dark story, without hope or redemption at the end. That being said, the prose is clean, clear, and lovely, which makes for a surprisingly enjoyable read. And it’s not long, which means there’s less time for the hopelessness to really sink its claws into you. Despite the dark ending, this is a well-crafted story and an engaging read.

REVIEW: Nocturnall by Beth Bernobich

Review of Beth Bernobich, Nocturnall (2015) — Read online. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman.

One of my favorite authors had a birthday, and my first thought was that I should reread my favorite book by her to celebrate, but I couldn’t because that book was packed up to move house. Then I figured I could do something better — I could give her the gift of a review. So, happy birthday, Beth, even if it’s three months late due to the queue at SFFReviews!

The novella Nocturnall is set in Bernobich’s River of Souls world, and I read it after having read the three main River of Souls novels, Passion Play, Queen’s Hunt, and Allegiance. I note this for two reasons — one, so that you go out and read them too, because they are amazing; two, because my reading of Nocturnall was shaped by having read the other three books. As a result, POSSIBLE SPOILERS BELOW.

The very best of books tell a story that comes to completion and yet leaves the reader wailing “but I want more! I want to know what happens next!!” Not only the immediate future next, but the long down the lines future. What happens not only a year from now, two years from now, three, but what happens twenty years from now, thirty, forty? What happens when the war has been won and the king and queen have been crowned? What happens when the first fire of romance is over, and has been translated into burning coals of comfortable companionship, always able to be stoked again, but sometimes glowing more dimly than others.

Nocturnall is the answer to that “what happens next”. The central characters of PP, QH, and A, Ilse Zhalina and Raul Kosenmark, return in this story, more than thirty-five years after we first meet them. More than half a life time, a life that hasn’t been easy for them, but it has been kind. They have surrounded themselves with the richness of strong familial relationships across and within generations steeped in memory and their love has strengthened with the years even as their bodies have weakened. Theirs is the story of a life (lives) that has worked — even though it has also been work.

It’s hard to describe the quite visceral reaction that reading of Ilse and Raul elicits in me. The first time I read Nocturnall, I was worried that in such a short story the slow build-up that one gets in PP would be lost and that it wouldn’t have the same spark. And then Bernobich drops the bombshell right away on page 4, out of nowhere, taking my breath away and reassuring me that I needn’t have worried: All her power is just as finely wrought in novella as it is in novel form. The first time I read it, I read it in one sitting during a long airport layover, and, Reader, I cried. I cried when I reached the end and I didn’t care who saw. I’m crying again now, as I reread the story and write this review.

Why do stories like this matter? Because the power of a story lies in how we are able to put ourselves in the shoes of the character and see how our own lives might unfold. When I was young, I read of fantasy heroines and dreamed of being one one day. But then I grew up (or at least, older), and I reread those stories and found the heroines were still young, and I was not, and I could no longer see myself in those stories. I started looking for evidence that it wasn’t too late, that I, who’ve already found my prince charming, who has familial ties that preclude any great quest, could still be the heroine of my own story. I started not only looking for heroines like me now, but heroines that I can look forward to becoming in the future, and if I can be half as awesome as Ilse, I would take that as a life well lived! Stories like this matter because they are a gift of possibility to every reader who reads them. That’s a way better gift than any review I could ever gift in return.