REVIEW: “Her Beautiful Body” by Adrienne Celt

Review of Adrienne Celt, “Her Beautiful Body”, Strange Horizons 5 Feb. 2018: Read online. Reviewed by Danielle Maurer.

This is one of those stories that makes you go “hmmm.”

The premise is simple enough. A woman’s body is being featured as a museum exhibit, and you are invited to experience the exhibit. The narrator is your tour guide, pointing out interesting features of her body, as well as commenting on the “activists” who are angry about the exhibit.

On the one hand, wow. What a metaphor for the objectification of women. This is literally a woman reduced only to the value of her body; the guide summarily dismisses the mind, saying that the body “could [not] possibly be improved by something so intangible and distant as consciousness.” The activists who focus on her life, on the things less physical that made her a person, are also dismissed by the narrator. Instead, we are left only with her body as an object to study and worship.

On the other hand, there’s something oddly beautiful and accepting in the description of the woman’s body. She is not perfect, but rather perfect in her imperfection. She has blemishes. And, as the guide states, “there are stories in her beautiful body.” This is true of anyone’s body, and there’s an almost empowering message there for women, who are so often judged by how closely their body meets society’s standard for perfection.

I’m really not sure how to feel about “Her Beautiful Body,” but perhaps that’s the point. It made me think and feel, and that’s some of the highest praise I can give to a story.

REVIEW: “Obscura” by Yoon Ha Lee

Review of Yoon Ha Lee, “Obscura”, Strange Horizons 29 Jan. 2018: Read online. Reviewed by Danielle Maurer.

There are plenty of stories floating around the world about Faustian bargains and cursed objects. The trope is commonly associated with musicians and artists. So it’s no surprise that in “Obscura,” as the name would suggest, the object in question is a camera which takes pictures of absences.

The fourteen-year-old narrator (it’s never definitively established whether the narrator is male or female,) meets a strange man with a stranger camera, and the stranger ends up bequeathing the camera to the narrator after warning the narrator not to use it on people for fear of what it might show. Humans aren’t so great at resisting temptation, however.

The story showcases Lee’s gift for words. The sentences are rarely long or flowery, but there’s a power in the bluntness, in a single, precise sentence of description. The camera itself is fascinating, as are the brother and sister who bring it into the narrator’s life. However, I found myself a little confused at what, exactly, the camera’s powers were. In a novella or novel, there would be more time to learn by osmosis, but here I would have loved a slightly clearer explanation.

That said, the story is still captivating. It draws you in easily, hooks you just as the narrator is hooked, and its climax and denouement are equally memorable. Well worth a read.

REVIEW: “The Glow-in-the-Dark Girls” by Senaa Ahmad

Review of Senaa Ahmad, “The Glow-in-the-Dark Girls”, Strange Horizons 15 Jan. 2018: Read online. Reviewed by Danielle Maurer.

What if the U.S. hadn’t just developed nuclear bombs, unthinking, cold machines capable of obliterating cities? What if they had also developed people who were capable of the same devastation?

That’s the premise behind Senaa Ahmad’s “The Glow-in-the-Dark Girls.” The narrator, an unnamed member of the eponymous group, is a girl from a poor neighborhood who volunteered to become an experiment. She and her sisters are walking bombs, capable of setting themselves on fire, of detonating and destroying a city. But humans aren’t meant to take that much radiation, and so not only are they prisoners of a sort – they’re also dying.

Ahmad does an excellent job of characterizing these women, of showing how the shifting political winds and the havoc they wreak affects them. She unfolds their collective emotional distress through the slow death of Nabeela, once their most glorious sister, featured on talk shows and interviews. Are they victims? Are they criminals? Ahmad never comes down strongly on either side, perhaps because there is no easy answer. They have killed so many, but they also chose this life because they thought it was their best option.

Ahmad’s prose draws the reader in as she unspools the story of these women, and her descriptions of the fires are evocative and powerful. “The Glow-in-the-Dark Girls” is a story that will stay with you after you read it.

REVIEW: “Refugee; or, a Nine-Item Representative Inventory of a Better World” by Iona Sharma

Review of Iona Sharma, “Refugee; or, a Nine-Item Representative Inventory of a Better World”, Strange Horizons 8 Jan. 2018: Read online. Reviewed by Danielle Maurer.

Some stories only work because of their fascinating concepts, and that is the case for this particular story. “Refugee; or, a Nine-Item Representative Inventory of a Better World” is told by an old woman who runs a sort of mystical shelter for those who are on the run. Some brand of magic, never fully explained, brings people across time to her door and the doors of her people. The strangers can rest for a brief time and recover their strength before they return to their world.

As I said above, it’s a fascinating concept, and the story is couched in an inventive format that reveals it piece by piece. There’s a sense of history and a large world behind it, in the one-off comments made by the narrator and the hints of her lost love. Moreover, it’s clearly tied to our world somehow; the narrator mentions a Starbucks early on.

Without the novelty of that central idea, however, this story is a lot less engaging. There’s not really a plot here; ostensibly, it’s the appearance of the boy Corbie and the narrator’s interactions with him until he leaves, but these are covered only in brief sketches. We have the narrator’s presumably tragic love story with Kiran, but this too does not truly create any forward momentum. I’m left wishing for a full story featuring this old woman and the refugees she aids, something that introduces a conflict and grows toward a resolution.

REVIEW: “Big Mother” by Anya Ow

Review of Anya Ow, “Big Mother”, Strange Horizons 1 Jan. 2018: Read online. Reviewed by Danielle Maurer.

There’s something both horrific and beautiful about the story Anya Ow narrates in “Big Mother.” It effortlessly combines the terror of meeting something strange in the dark with a childhood nostalgia and sense of loss for the wild places of the world.

In “Big Mother,” the narrator recounts an experience she had as a young girl with her brother and three neighbor children. The children go fishing in the dark, searching for a snakehead, and accidentally hook something more dangerous. When the lure proves too strong for the oldest boy, the narrator must lead the other children to his rescue.

The story has something of the feel of Stranger Things to it, in that its climax revolves around one child going missing and his friends searching for him. It’s got a creepy creature too: the eponymous Big Mother, which the children dredge out of the canal. Though it starts a little slow, the horror element pulses strongly in the story’s middle and through the climax. It will keep you on the edge of your seat.

Our heroine is exactly what you would want in a horror story, bold and brave despite her fear. It is she and she alone that walks into the water to meet Big Mother, and she rescues the oldest boy by talking the monster down. The story concludes with a present-day epilogue, where we see how this childhood event resonated down through the narrator’s life and how sad she is that the modern world is swallowing the spaces where magic once dwelt.

It’s a beautiful tale, well-told and memorable in its execution from start to finish.

REVIEW: “The Birding: A Fairy Tale” by Natalia Theodoridou

Review of Natalia Theodoridou, “The Birding: A Fairy Tale”, Strange Horizons 18 Dec. 2017: Read online. Reviewed by Danielle Maurer.

Fairy tales, when they’re done well, are some of the most exquisite stories to read. Even when they’re set in our world, they have an otherworldly, dreamlike quality that sets them apart. In this regard, “The Birding: A Fairy Tale” lives up to its name.

Set in modern-day Greece in the aftermath of a plague that turns its victims into birds, this short story follows a pregnant woman named Maria as she searches the plague’s wreckage for her husband. It feels like “The Birds,” if the birds were mostly peaceful and the result of humans metamorphosing.

The story is engaging from the beginning; it starts with the classic of post-apocalyptic literature and film, the highway full of empty cars a direct sign to the reader that something is not well with the world. Maria is a sympathetic protagonist, and it’s easy to put ourselves in her shoes. She makes the choices we hope we would make, and the dashes of backstory Theodoridou inserts are just enough to paint a picture of her life and loss.

I had hoped for a different, happier ending – not the “and they lived happily ever after” sort, because that would be trite, but perhaps something that suggested a way for Maria and her child to move forward in this new world of birds. While it wasn’t what I wanted, Theodoridou does deliver a denouement full of poetic lines and beautiful imagery, and in the end, that beauty is what I like most about this modern-day fairytale.

REVIEW: “This World Is Full of Monsters” by Jeff VanderMeer

Review of Jeff VanderMeer, “This World Is Full of Monsters, Tor.com (2017): Read Online. Reviewed by Danielle Maurer.

Well, this story certainly gave new meaning to the word “face-plant.”

This odyssey of a short story (or possibly a novella–it’s rather long) follows our narrator as he is taken over by a “story-creature,” some kind of alien being that takes over the Earth and transforms our narrator bit by bit into something more like itself.

VanderMeer has a wondrous mastery of description, and the tale reads like a vivid nightmare or hallucination. His word choices paint an exquisite picture of a world gone mad and a narrator struggling through a metamorphosis he does not comprehend until the very end.

It also contains beautifully poetic moments, such as when the narrator remembers that he used to write obituaries; in a sense, this story is the narrator’s own obituary for his past life. There’s a sense of loss buried here, but also a sense of wonder and joy and potential in this new world. Indeed, the narrator wonders if he had slept a century and returned to a still-human world, would he have recognized it any better?

This weird tale manages to take what should be frightening body horror and alien invasion and turn it into something oddly uplifting by the end. It’s well worth your time to read.