REVIEW: “And No Torment Shall Touch Them” by James Patrick Kelly

Review of James Patrick Kelly, “And No Torment Shall Touch Them”, Asimov’s Science Fiction November/December (2017): 75-85 — Purchase Here. Reviewed by Kiera Lesley.

What happens when a loved one uploads themselves after death and hang around the family affairs afterwards like a bad smell?

We open with Carli’s Nonno interrupting his own, very formal and religious, funeral. Carli’s Nonno’s consciousness from just before he died has been uploaded and is able to manifest as a hologram at will to continue to observe and comment on his family’s lives and decisions. After a lifetime of running the family, Nonno’s uploaded ghost continues on to continue commenting. And he’s not restricted to observing only when he’s visible. He’s there, always, omnipotent – in some ways more controlling and present than in life.

The perspective shifts in this keep the pacing quick and allow the constraints that having Nonno around in perpetuity as they apply to each family member contrast and reveal themselves slowly. This is a story driven by layered internal conflicts – interpersonal, inter-generational, and individual. The religious and family themes here are deliberate and used effectively. The idea of consciousness uploading after death is not new, but the angle Kelly has chosen here of inter-generational family bonds and restrictions prevented from progressing in the natural order – some emerging and some breaking down – is very clever and took a second read for me to really appreciate.

REVIEW: “The Fall Shall Further the Flight in Me” by Rachael K. Jones

Review of Rachael K. Jones, “The Fall Shall Further the Flight in Me”, Podcastle: 493 — Listen Online. Reviewed by Heather Rose Jones

Never is the importance of audio fiction sources more stark than with works like this that require the rhythms of oral performance for their impact and meaning. “The Fall Shall Further the Flight in Me” hovers in the space between prose and poetry, not only in the rhythms of the language, but in the demanding impressionist imagery. It’s the story of two peoples at opposite ends of gravity, each of whom mistakenly views the other place as heaven. Ananda comes from a line of holy women who, by long repentance and asceticism gain the tenuous ability to climb up to heaven, where they will petition for needful things like an end to drought. Sano is a winged thing from above, where only by intense self-control can one still the wings sufficiently to descend to the earth, which they call Paradise.

The poetic tale of how these two met and found their fate is only one aspect of this story. The second part is the imagery of how both cultures create an ideal of holiness and purification that demands (or at least to) self-harm. On Ananda’s side it is self-starvation and wounding herself with thorny bracelets (not too subtle Christ imagery). On Sano’s side, her desperation leads her to short-cut the meditative route to descent by mutilating herself. I think it isn’t accidental that both characters are represented as female. To say more would be to spoil the resolution, which is worth achieving on your own. Listen to this jewel some time when you can give it your full and unhurried attention.

(Originally published 2016 in Clockwork Phoenix 5.)

REVIEW: “The White Fox” by L. P. Lee

Review of L. P. Lee, “The White Fox”, Podcastle: 492 — Listen Online. Reviewed by Heather Rose Jones

“The White Fox” is an evocative fantasy-of-agency, though of a somewhat displaced agency. The protagonist is escaping from a briefly-sketched prison camp in Japanese occupied Korea and receives the assistance of a supernatural figure when she (I think it’s a woman? It’s told in first person and the reader is female–not sure if gender was explicit) is in danger of being recaptured. While the story was solidly written, I felt distanced from the immediacy of the action. The memory and threat of the prison camp didn’t feel viscerally tangible, and thinking back, I cant remember a clear motivation for why the protagonist was offered protection and assistance. I thing part of my reaction is that the protagonist was a bit of a “damsel” – in peril and rescued, but saved by outside agency. I liked the way the mythic elements were solidly rooted to place and culture and time. And, as usual, I really enjoyed how the setting was established with casual brushstrokes, leading the listener to construct their own understanding rather than having it handed to them. But overall the story felt…thin.

(Originally published 2015 in Eastlit.)

REVIEW: “At Cooney’s” by Delia Sherman

Review of Delia Sherman’s, “At Cooney’s”, Uncanny Magazine Volume, 18 (2017): Read Online. Reviewed by Jodie Baker.

Delia Sherman certainly has a way with sensory description. After a few lines of “At Conney’s” I felt like I had been whisked away to the dingy bar of her imagination:

Down on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, there’s a little bar called Cooney’s. It’s an old bar, with a tin ceiling and carved-up tables and a floor you don’t want to look at too hard and no air-conditioning to break up the historic atmosphere of stale beer and dusty upholstery and unwashed hair.

Enter Ali, the story’s narrator, who is sitting in Cooneys with her friends Grace and Michael. Grace & Ali argue with Michael about how ‘his man Dylan didn’t invent poetic protest songs.’ and discuss the history of black musical protest. It’s 1968, and Ali is in love with Grace. Grace is black, Ali we’re left to assume is white. Ali doesn’t know how Grace will react if a girl professes their love to her. So, from its opening moments, “At Cooney’s” is a smart, politically focused story.

During an emotional breakdown, Ali stumbles into the bathroom only to find herself transported back in time. Sherman creates real jeopardy with this device. The past is not a safe space for Ali. She arrives without money, or I.D. And her 60’s fashion choices get her branded as a girl dressing as a man.

Even returning to her present doesn’t guarantee Ali safety. It’s 1968, a time when Michael can ask, without much censure, whether the young girls on stage are ‘lezzies’. This choice to transport a narrator from the reader’s past into their own past, and then return them to a historical present, sets “At Cooney’s” apart. Sherman’s story challenges the idea that the present is always a safe space; a space where underrepresented characters are required to “be grateful”.   

In fact, despite the problems of the past, her trip provides Ali with many examples of strength. It turns out, Cooney’s used to be a club where the clientele dressed to express their true gender identities without fear of censure. When the club is raided, she sees people for who ‘being busted is a familiar pain, like a bad hangover, the price they pay for letting it all hang out, even in a speakeasy.’ And yet, these people continue to come to Cooney’s and dress the way that makes them feel their best. There she meets Ronnie, an incredibly seductive character. It’s worth reading “At Cooney’s” just to watch Ronnie’s moves:

Her breath is warm, her voice like damp velvet. I shiver, my eyes on the couples gliding past, bright-eyed and flushed, absorbed in the music and each other. Ronnie’s lips move to my mouth, and somehow we’re still dancing as we kiss, slow, slow, quick-quick.

Ali returns to 1968 with new drive to get over her fear, and to tell Grace she loves her. And while the reader never knows how Grace reacts we’re left with hope hanging in the air.

REVIEW: “Crossing” by A. C. Wise

Review of A. C. Wise, “Crossing”, Podcastle 488 — Listen Online. Reviewed by Heather Rose Jones

This was a very lightly fantastic piece–the sort where a slight shift in point of view could make it simply imaginative realistic fiction rather than outright fantasy. It builds up gradually following the swimmer Emma Rose and her love affair with the sea and the idea of some day crossing the Channel. The figure that she meets beneath the water might be a mermaid, or it might be a personification of her obsession and self-doubt. We see the protagonist from childhood to early adulthood, working out how to balance her love for swimming with the other things she desires. Learning whether the mermaid is a jealous lover or simply herself. In some ways, I found the story a bit slow. More atmospheric than plot-driven. But the overall shape worked in the end, like a wave building up in the sea and eventually breaking on the shore.

(Originally published 2017 in LampLight.)

REVIEW: “In Search of Stars” by Matthew Bright

Review of Matthew Bright, “In Search of Stars”, Glittership Episode 43 (2017): Read/listen online. Reviewed by Julia K. Patt.

What an unusual, mysterious story.

Our unnamed narrator is a scientist living in Los Angeles; he develops a blue paint that makes people float away into the sky. This is what he does with his one-night stands, the men he takes back to his apartment. He wants these men, sometimes desperately, but doesn’t want to linger with them or see them again. There’s a sense that by releasing them into the atmosphere, our narrator is protecting himself, distancing himself from what he really wants.

Of course, not all of them go quietly or disappear unforgotten. We can understand, perhaps, why the narrator is so uneasy.

Anonymity dominates not only in his life but also in the city itself, a peculiar hybrid of shiny Hollywood glamour and “Good old American filth.” Where all the women are named Marilyn and even laundromats turn into something very different at night. No one is exactly as they seem or as they claim to be, including—especially—the man telling this story.

It’s a story rich in the unspoken, the undeclared, which becomes more than a little unsettling (in the best way). There’s very little dialogue, aside from the narrator’s conversations with Eugene, an old friend from school who works on movies. And even his time with Eugene eventually lapses into silence at the story’s conclusion.

Then the narrator must make a decision: to stay or float away himself and join the men he’s sent into the sky.

REVIEW: “Ghost Town” by Malinda Lo

Review of Malinda Lo, “Ghost Town”, Uncanny Magazine 18 (2017): Read Online. Reviewed by Jodie Baker.

As in her superb vampire story “The Cure”, Malinda Lo mixes romance, history, and the supernatural in “Ghost Town”. There’s less subtext to dive into in “Ghost Town” than in “The Cure”. Instead, it’s a solid contemporary story of new towns, hopes, prejudice, and ghosts which is relayed by a smart, observant teenager called Ty.

Ty’s family recently moved from San Francisco to Pinnacle ‘a dinky little town on the flat part of Colorado’, where coal was once a big industry. She can’t wait until she can move back to San Francisco where her hair, and her sexuality, don’t make her stand out so much. When the story starts she’s following her crush Mackenzie, one of the popular girls at her school, into The Spruce Street Guest House for a ghost hunt during the town’s big Halloween holiday season. When they arrive at the room Mackenzie wants to investigate, the girls find a homophobic slur written in fake blood. Instead of breaking down, as Mackenzie clearly hoped she would, Ty leads Mackenzie to the basement and a real scare.

In the second section of the story, it becomes clear why Ty is able move past the word on the wall, and how she is able to set up a prank of her own. The story has a backwards structure, so in the second part the reader sees Ty following Mackenzie to see if she’s going to be pranked. And in the third section we see Ty visiting the Guest House on a tour once Mackenzie has invited her to go ghost hunting.

In these sections, “Ghost Town” reveals itself as being truly Ty’s story; the story of her life in San Francisco, and how she experiences life in a small, middle of America town. I really enjoyed Ty’s voice, which is simple and down to earth, and would happily have read a longer work with her as the narrator. “Ghost Town” also a story about Ty taking steps to make sure she’s in control. The fact that she has to work so hard to stay safe is undeniably depressing. The fact that the story gives her the power to gain control is wonderful.

The ghosts are largely a device which allow Ty to gain control of a messed up situation with flair, but they also have their own fleeting story to tell. The ending makes it clear that the women found dead in the guest house were lovers, and that they’re together (possessively so) even in death. It’s a creepy cute way to end a story where one girl gets let down by her crush, and I enjoyed the fact that Lo brought an element of happy ever after even to a story containing a lot of sadness.