REVIEW: “Recordings of a More Personal Nature” by Bogi Takács

Review of Bogi Takács, “Recordings of a More Personal Nature” in The Trans Space Octopus Congregation Stories, (Lethe Press, Inc., 2019): 125-136 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

Content note: Mind control, drug use, self-harm, cutting, torture, dissociation, allusions to suicide.

So many things I love about this story:

1. Great background metaphysics — unlike any world building I’ve come across before.
2. The importance of the formation of the self via memories, something I’ve explored quite a bit in my own writing!
3. The way the story combines those two with the way it dwells more on the horror of being cut off from one’s sense of self than on the mechanics of how the archive works.

And I loved the twist at the end, when the reason why this culture depends so on their archive is revealed. This was just an all round very satisfying story.

(Originally published in Apex Magazine November 2013).

REVIEW: The Trans Space Octopus Congregation Stories by Bogi Takács

Review of Bogi Takács, The Trans Space Octopus Congregation Stories, (Lethe Press, Inc., 2019) — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman.

This debut short story collection by Bogi Takács contains twenty-three stories (what a wealth!). Most of the stories included here have previous appeared in various other journals and anthologies. I know some people complain about “double-dipping”, but in my mind, this is precisely what short story collections are about: Bringing together the oeuvre of an author that had been previously disparately scattered, often inaccessibly a few years after publication, into a single accessible source.

If I were to identify an overarching thread or theme that runs through the stories, it is — sadly — not octopuses but rather a paradoxical lack of care for gender entwined with a deep, abiding care for gender. Many of the stories are in 1st person POV, and we can go an entire story without learning the narrator’s name or gender or anything else; but in others, trans and nonbinary characters are strongly represented, in a wonderfully positive and affirming light. I really appreciated how Takács was able to use the medium of fiction as a means to explore both the importance of gender but also how very unimportant it can be.

I also appreciated very much how many of the SF stories were based in actual science, complete with footnotes at the end of the story for further research or to pieces that formed Takács’s inspiration. The very best of SF fiction is, in my opinion, indistinguishable from fact, and I wish more authors would cite their sources in the way that Takács does!

As is usual, we’ll review each of the stories individually, and link the reviews here when published:

Detailed content notes for the stories are available — but at the end of the collection, which puts the onus on the reader to seek out the warnings to doublecheck that each story will not be problematic. (As opposed to when the notes are either collected and presented before the stories, or when each story is accompanied by its own note.) Some of the warnings cut across stories: There are quite a lot that are labelled with ‘body horror’. I will label each story review with the content warnings from the book.

Though I’ve been a follower of Takács on twitter for awhile now, this was my first exposure to their fiction. It’s also the first time I’ve actually reached out to request an ARC of a book, and doing so all I could think — and all I could think while reading and reviewing the stories in the anthology — was I hope I do them justice. I sometimes marvel at the fact that I get to live in an age when we have #ownvoices books representing so many different experiences. We are privileged to have these authors and their stories, and I’m privileged to read them. You should read them too!

REVIEW: “40 Facts About the Strip Mall at the Corner of Never and Was” by Alex Acks

Review of Alex Acks, “40 Facts About the Strip Mall at the Corner of Never and Was”, Shimmer 46 (2018): 44-47 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman.

1. I love the title.
2. This piece is exactly what it says it is.
3. It’s surprising how well you can tell a story through a series of facts.
4. Ordinarily, strip malls feel to me like the last defense of a city against the end of civilisation: They are horrid and desolate things. But this one is not; perhaps because it has already gone beyond the pale.
5. I find it hard to believe that no one ever buys the butter pecan. Butter pecan is one of the top three ice cream flavors (joint first with mint chocolate chip and caramel cashew).
6. Sprinkles should never be optional.
7. Instead of giving you 40 facts about this story, I’ll end with a seventh and final one: You ought to read it.

And that’s a fact.

REVIEW: “The Extent” by Johanna R. Staples-Ager

Review of Johanna R. Staples-Ager, “The Extent”, Luna Station Quarterly 38 (2019): Read online. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman.

The confessional narrative that makes up this story is intensely personal and private, and it feels a bit like reading someone’s diary to be reading this story. It is bracketed on either end by scene-setting/framing context, presented in a cold, factual sort of way that I found made it difficult for me to extract much info from, and I had to re-read the opening framing part after having finished reading the entire story.

Doing so made the inner narrative so much colder, so much more real. This is one of those stories that sits uncomfortably in your gut because the boundary between speculative fiction and nonfiction is so smoothly blurred.

REVIEW: “Wireless” by Alex Acks

Review of Alex Acks, “Wireless”, in Wireless and More Steam-Powered Adventures (Queen of Swords Press, 2019): 131-184 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

I feel like I should have written this review much faster than I ended up writing it (from start to finish, over a month!) but that’s because this story turned out to be one that I read in bits and pieces rather than devouring in one go — not because it was difficult, or boring, or any other negative trait, but because it was, strangely, comforting. I kept a copy of it on my phone, and read it a few pages at a time, every few days, when I needed something solid yet positive. I’m not sure I’ve ever consumed a story so slowly and enjoyed it so much.

In true steampunk fashion, “Wireless” had a lot more wild train chases than I ordinarily require for perfect enjoyment of a story — I may have glossed over one or two details of the exploits — but the politics surrounding the trains added a depth to the story and the world-building that I enjoyed. But what did I love best about this? The deep, steadfast, true, and abiding friendship and love between Ramos and Simms. They know each other intimately well, they are the perfect foibles for each other, and it’s just so refreshing to have such a strong relationship between two characters without any sexual tension encroaching upon it. Moar relationships like this, plz kthnx. Wrap them up with a bunch more well-rounded figures with interesting backstories and a twist on modern technologies that was quite clever and inspired, and you get something that is just a very good story.

REVIEW: “The Painter of Trees” by Suzanne Palmer

Review of Suzanne Palmer, “The Painter of Trees”, Clarkesworld Issue 153, June (2019): Read Online. Reviewed by Myra Naik.

This is a multilayered story with a great deal of depth. It alternates between a first and third person voice, so you’re left guessing which of the characters our narrator is.

The characters are part of a council who have inhabited a new world. They’re taking over land that isn’t theirs – a forward march only, in their own words. No negativity or nostalgia for the past allowed. They’re all cogs in a wheel with no space to be creative or unique. And they’re reminded of it continually. The great thing about this story is how widely it is open to interpretation.

For me, it was an allegory of the Native American culture. I don’t know if that’s what the author was going for here, but this is what it related to in my opinion. The creatures outside the narrators habitat are slowly being driven out of their own land, just like the settlers did to the Native Americans. Eventually, it led to genocide, and this story also unravels what happened to the original inhabitants of the land.

A bit of history in a futuristic Sci Fi setting. The original inhabitants have not been described minutely, all we know is they are multi legged and do not have a face. They are also referred to as ‘it’. This can also be connected to Native American culture by way of a metaphor of how the colonizers treated them.

Calling them it strips them of their individuality, and leaves no respect. Them not having a face may be about how their identity and culture was forced away from so many. And they live in trees – they’re one with nature. Nature, who will not give up her secrets so easily to the grasping and grabby newcomers.

All this is just a very subjective idea of what I read between the lines. Even if you don’t, it is a still a wonderful story. You’ll keep guessing who the narrator actually is, and the world building will subtly draw you in.

This is a story that’s good at face value, and equally good should you choose to read between the lines.

REVIEW: “Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Memphis Minnie Sing the Stumps Down Good” by LaShawn M. Wanak

Review of LaShawn M. Wanak, “Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Memphis Minnie Sing the Stumps Down Good”, Apex Magazine 120 (2019): Originally published July 2018, FIYAH Magazine. Read Online. Reviewed by Joanna Z. Weston.

In this alternate history, taking place shortly after WWII, strange “stumps” in the shape of the recently deceased have begun to appear, formed from spores that have deadly effects on anybody around them when they mature. Curiously, certain people have the power to effect the stumps and facilitate their safe removal, through song. These people are employed by a government agency, the SPC (Stump Prevention Control), paired with handlers who deal with the actual stump removal, and worked for long hours to keep their communities safe. The catch is, these individuals are forbidden from singing in any other context, as they might bring a stump to maturity and thus endanger the people around them. This story follows the only two black women employed as exterminators in Chicago – a brash blues singer by the name of Memphis Minnie, and a meek church girl called Sister Rosetta Tharpe.

This story has so many of the themes that I love: strong relationships between women, the triumph of individuals over a controlling organization, and the healing power of self-expression. It even includes a bit of LGBTQ representation, which is always nice to see in a period piece. The friendship between these two black woman is richly developed, the way they look out for each other, manage their differences, and ultimately discover something the SPC does not want known, was a joy to witness. This is a longer story, coming in at almost 15,000 words, but it is well worth finding the time to sit down and savor it.