Slipping: Stories, Essays, & Other Writing, by Lauren Beukes

Slipping: Stories, Essays, & Other Writing Book Cover Slipping: Stories, Essays, & Other Writing
Lauren Beukes
Short stories, essays, science fiction, fantasy, non-fiction
Tachyon publications
November 29 2016

In her edgy, satiric debut collection, award-winning South African journalist and author Lauren Beukes (The Shining Girls, Moxyland) never holds back. Nothing is simple and everything is perilous when humans are involved: corruption, greed, and even love (of a sort).

A permanent corporate branding gives a young woman enhanced physical abilities and a nearly-constant high
Recruits lifted out of poverty find a far worse fate collecting biohazardous plants on an inhospitable world
The only adult survivor of the apocalypse decides he will be the savior of teenagers; the teenagers are not amused.

From Johannesburg to outer space, these previously uncollected tales are a compelling, dark, and slippery ride.

I think I've read all of Beukes' novels, that I know of. That alone says something about how I feel about her writing, doesn't it? "Edgy" isn't an adjective that often comes to my mind, but I suppose it applies, given that I tend to give her stories, like, 90ies MTV vignettes in my mind.

This is an excellent collection of stories, essays, and tidbits. A couple of these stories blew me away;  I wanted them to be something like 800+ page novels rather than ending in just their few measly pages, but of course, that's a feature, not a bug.

Still, Lauren Beukes, if you should ever consider making The Green into a grand-scale trilogy tale, you have at least one reader embarrassingly ready to press the pre-order button.  Seriously.  You take me to another planet, you plonk me down in a ragtag bunch of economically disadvantaged recruits, braving a terrifying alien jungle, mining for materials of military interest. There are things out there. Oh, actually, we've utilized some of these things.  Look, you don't mind slime molds, do you? ...  This was all very Weyland-Yutani and Ripley's differing views on the xenomorphs, and I adore it.

And I always want more slime molds in my fiction.

The title story, Slipping, is another excellent one. I never really expected to care about sports, but, as it turns out, I care a lot about Olympics if the participants are all variously... enhanced. Modified.  These Olymic Games are really showcases for technology, selling to the military or whoever else might take an interest.  Of course, when the abilities come from what you add,  the athletic prowess, or indeed anything else, of the person you add it to isn't terribly important.

Not all the stories in this collection are speculative in nature, some are near-future enough to be practically now, and some are entirely untouched, but the author's voice remains the same; Sharp, clear, and with a hint of a dry laugh between the paragraphs.

Non-fiction is gathered at the end of the book. Of these, I especially liked On Beauty: A letter to my five-year old daughter,  which is what the title says it is. Once you've made it this far through the book, you'll have a good idea what kind of message is being conveyed.

Definitely one of the strongest story collections of my 2016, and a lot of fun for those of us who liked Moxyland and Zoo City just as much as The Shining Girls and Broken Monsters.

Nightmares: A new decade of modern horror, edited by Ellen Datlow

Nightmares: A new decade of modern horror Book Cover Nightmares: A new decade of modern horror
Ellen Datlow (editor)
Tachyon publications
November 1 2016

Ooh, look. Another horror anthology! I apparently read quite a number of them, and yet, Nightmares: A new decade of modern horror stands out from the rest.  This is partly because many of the stories wander over that line that separate entertainment-horror from needs a set of trigger warnings-horror.  It's probably good to be prepared for that, because going unknowingly from a ghost story to a tale of various kinds of child abuse can be upsetting.

Good horror can be upsetting.  It isn't always, or even most of the time, but it's definitely a part of the thematic landscape.  I'm not normally shaken by zombies and body snatchers and whatnot - but this anthology offered not just one, but many stories still haunting me weeks after reading.

So, well. I'll mention some of my favourites - not necessarily the most shocking, just the ones I personally liked best:

"Closet dreams" by Lisa Tuttle is bleak and awful. A young girl has been kidnapped and is held captive, a very long time, in a closet. Expertly written, and definitely one of the stories I can't get out of my head.

"The Goosle" by Margo Lanagan is a dark fantasy - Hansel without Gretel, a few years after the first visit to the witch's house.  Everything is really enormously grimdark, but the witch's special diet is the least of the terrible things.

"Lonegan's Luck" by Stephen Graham Jones - a clear favourite of mine! This story sits firmly in the aisle of fun-horror, introducing us to a classic snake oil-salesman in the old west, travelling from town to town.  He never revisits a town he's been to, with good reason.  Not that there'd be anyone left to recognise him, but still.

"The Shallows" by John Langan was a strange thing - it reminded me a little bit of Elizabeth Knox's "Wake", in that the story's present time is set after what was obviously a hideous apocalypse event - but in this story, the event must have been somewhat... Lovecraftian.  It is that flavour of weird, and I liked it a lot - I would have liked to explore this world at length, like, in a novel. 

"Shay Corsham Worsted" by Garth Nix - this story instantly made me add the author to my list of authors I need to read more of,  which is the kind of reaction I always hope to get from a short story.  An old man tries to stop a dangerous old military weapon from destroying everything, but he can't get through, the records are lost, and no one will believe him.  No one will recognise this particular weapon for what it is, just by looking at it...

Yep. Great anthology. Go get it if you feel like you could go for a smorgasboard of horror authors to further fatten your to-read shelf with.

Monstrous little voices: New tales from Shakespeare’s fantasy world (Collection)

Monstrous little voices: New tales from Shakespeare's Fantasy World Book Cover Monstrous little voices: New tales from Shakespeare's Fantasy World
Monstrous little voices #1-#5
Jonathan Barnes, Adrian Tchaikovsky, Emma Newman, Kate Heartfield, Foz Meadows
Abaddon Books
January 6 2016

Mischief, Magic, Love and War.
It is the Year of Our Lord 1601. The Tuscan War rages across the world, and every lord from Navarre to Illyria is embroiled in the fray. Cannon roar, pikemen clash, and witches stalk the night; even the fairy courts stand on the verge of chaos.
Five stories come together at the end of the war: that of bold Miranda and sly Puck; of wise Pomona and her prisoner Vertumnus; of gentle Lucia and the shade of Prospero; of noble Don Pedro and powerful Helena; and of Anne, a glovemaker’s wife. On these lovers and heroes the world itself may depend.
These are the stories Shakespeare never told. Five of the most exciting names in genre fiction today – Jonathan Barnes, Adrian Tchaikovsky, Emma Newman, Foz Meadows and Kate Heartfield – delve into the world the poet created to weave together a story of courage, transformation and magic.

Including an afterword by Dr. John Lavagnino, The London Shakespeare Centre, King's College London.

Most of my Shakespeare knowledge comes exclusively from piecing together references in everything else I read (or watch, or listen to).  Like the titles in James S.A. Corey's Expanse series,  or Seanan McGuire's October Daye, and the whole fae setup in the Dresden files, too.  Films like 10 things I hate about you.  

It's a bit awkward that I've never really read Shakespeare. (It can happen that way when you don't do your schooling in an English-speaking location! I did a huge amount of extracurricular reading, but my emphasis was with Russians, and though I always had it in mind, I never really found a good time or place to enter into the Shakespeare-thing.)

So, that out of the way, let me assure you that Monstrous little voices is a thoroughly enjoyable collection of stories, even to someone who isn't intimate with the material it plays around with.  

There are five stories collected here, different but interconnected, pulling together.  Foz Meadows' Coral bones is an unexpectedly happy escape-story featuring Miranda and Puck,  and leaves me awkward describing it that way, because an important point in the story is to do with choosing new names for oneself. 

My favourite in the collection is Kate Heartfield's The course of true love, featuring Vertumnus, Pomona, Mab, Hecate and Oberon, and probably several other known characters I didn't notice. I always love a female character who's too old to waffle about, like, you know, Granny Weatherwax, or, in this case, Pomona. 

The collection's last story, Jonathan Barnes' On the twelfth night, is different from the others - its protagonist is Anne Hathaway, her son Hamnet, and her husband, Will, who never went to London, and never wrote a play. 

Now that this collection has stirred my interest again, maybe it's time for me to go looking for some audio drama productions of a few plays - I just don't quite know which one to start with... 

A fantasy medley 3

A fantasy medley 3 Book Cover A fantasy medley 3
Fantasy medley #3 (no continuity)
Kevin Hearne, Laura Bickle, Aliette de Bodard, Jacqueline Carey
Fantasy, short stories
Subterranean Press
Dec 31 2015

A medley in which the reader visits a handful of established fantasy universes.

In the first story, "Goddess of the crossroads", Kevin Hearne invites us into the world of his Iron Druid series, which I have not yet read.  Here, we get a story featuring Shakespeare in his own time, a bunch of witches, and a nice display of what I have to assume is how the magic works in this particular world.  I enjoyed the voice and telling of the story, and probably will seek out these books when I need a new series-thing to read.

Second story, "Ashes", appears to be an origin story for Laura Bickle's series about Anya Kalinczyk and her salamander familiar. Anya is a rare kind of medium, and turns out to have other peculiar qualities, but her day job is with the Detroit fire department.   In this story, she's hunting for the Nain Rouge,  which I had never previously heard of, but wikipedia confirms: This is actually a thing.  The Nain Rouge, "Red dwarf", is a Detroit urban legend in a "harbinger of doom" kind of way, and just as in the story, there are related parades and whatnot.  The more you know!

Do I feel like spending more time with Anya and Sparky the salamander? Maybe not immediately - I didn't feel like she could knock out my existing queue of "urban fantasy protagonists punching things in book series"-stuff.

The third story is by Aliette de Bodard, and "The death of Aiguillon" takes place some sixty years prior to the events of the novel The house of shattered wings.  This is a world I know and enjoy already, and it centres on a couple of the characters I was most fascinated by in the novel.  Awesome!  But would I like it quite as much if I didn't already have larger context for the characters and events?   Probably not - but I suspect that's true of all the three first stories in A fantasy medley 3.

The fourth and last story, however, is a standalone:  Jacqueline Carey's "One hundred ablutions".  I've never read this author before, though I have been sort-of meaning to.  I really liked this story about a subjugated desert people and the mysterious people who rule over them - it lingers on, weeks after reading.

I think this collection is most of all a special interest piece for fans of one or more of the universes represented - which is a-okay.   (I really do respect that - as a specially interested fan myself, it is proving very hard to get my hands on A fantasy medley 2 and its stories..!)

Falling in love with hominids, by Nalo Hopkinson

Falling in love with hominids Book Cover Falling in love with hominids
Nalo Hopkinson
Fantasy, speculative fiction, short stories
August 11 2015

Nalo Hopkinson's Falling in love with hominids adds more evidence to the "Short story collections can be fantastic things!"-pile.   Everything, every story, is flabberghasting. Or bamboozling. Or, y'know, awesome.

It starts with creepy-strange The Easthound.  Can you imagine Octavia Butler setting out to write a Stephen King horror? Or... um... the other way around?  And they were both having a bit of a John Wyndham moment? It's still not an adequate description of what Nalo Hopkinson does here, but attempting to describe it that way might tell you something.

Maybe progressive, inclusive fantasy is what you're thirsting for? There's not one, but several, thriving same-sex relationships in here, protagonists who speak to each other in pidgin English, startling religion, girls claiming ownership of themselves. It's not forced - it's just what naturally grows out of this, uh, this sparkling greenhouse. Yeah, that's right. I said it. Sparkling greenhouse.  There's a review for you.

Message in a bottle is one of the most stunning time-traveller tales I've ever read.  It sounds like a very standard genre trope when described that way, but, I assure you, there's nothing standard about this one.

Many of the stories zoom in on age transitions, especially puberty.  No wonder - living inside a body that changes independent of your own volition or control, sometimes so violently it seems like the difference is visible from one day to the next - what's more alien and fantastic than that? ...At least, that's how Nalo Hopkinson makes me think about it.  Something much, much more magical than just sulking and painting one's bedroom black. (Yes, I did.  No, I have no idea why black walls were important to me at the time.)

Questions are asked, such as: What do you do, exactly, when an elephant appears in your very small apartment, far above ground?

And - there's A raggy dog, a shaggy dog, a story that taught me quite a few things about orchids.  This particular type of orchid is going to haunt me for a long, long time.

It's kind of funny how haunting is an incredibly positive term when talking about fiction, right? (I have one shelf on GR called simply 'haunters', though I only set it up to see what recommendations would be generated from two - indeed, haunting - novels.)  And in a relatively small collection of short stories, finding more than one or two haunters  is highly unexpected.

...And here I found at least three of them.

I absolutely recommend this collection. To any speculative fiction reader when in the mood for organic-magic rather than chilly space.  Though if you're in  a chilly space, this might be the best possible heat blanket.  Well, except for an actual blanket. You understand me.

Operation Arcana, edited by John Joseph Adams

Operation Arcana Book Cover Operation Arcana
John Joseph Adams
Anthology, fantasy, military, short stories
March 3 2015

How do you make a reader suddenly very interested in anthologies? You make sure that reader gets really into a specific author, and that author is one who contributes to a lot of anthologies. Like, for example, Seanan McGuire. She, gloriously, writes stories for all the things.  And it is turning me into an anthology reader, developing an appreciation for how they can offer delicious samples of authors new and unknown to me. (I do think that's positive - even if I'm simultaneously admitting I require an established favourite to make me start reading.)

Her story is the second-to-last in Operation Arcana, an anthology of military fantasy.    After some debate, I decided to save this story, In skeleton leaves, for nearly-last, and read the stories in the order they were put in.  It was smart. Felt like dessert.  The story deals with a different kind of war, in Never-never-land.  It's dark and creeps up my spine in a tingly kind of way.

John Joseph Adams is the editor of many popular anthologies, as well as the editor/publisher of Lightspeed magazine (to which I subscribe)  and a co-host of the podcast The geek's guide to the galaxy (to which I keep failing to devote my ears, but it's not for lack of interest - just that I have a hard time deciding to listen to other stuff than audiobooks once I have the earphones on).

Because it's hard to talk about an anthology as a whole, I'll instead say some things about some of the stories.  Short stories are unavoidably hit-or-miss; some of them were great, some of them less able to hold my interest.

Myke Cole's Weapons in the Earth is a terribly bleak war prisoner story with goblins and cows, or something very like cows, and enough tangible detail and dirt that I'm suddenly quite interested in reading the author's Shadow-ops books.

Yoon Ha Lee's The graphology of hemorrhage is a little sad, but more than anything it's like an informational brochure about a beautiful handwriting/calligraphy/language-based magic system, with guidelines for use and possible side effects.  I'm interested and would like to see this system featured in longer stories.

Weston Ochse's American golem puts a vengeance-seeking golem into Afghanistan, on a mission to kill a named terrorist.  It's a fresh setting for a kind of Pinocchio-tale, that is, stories about constructed human-like things, and how human they really are. (Think all the episodes about Data or the doctor on Star Trek shows.)

Ari Marmell's Heavy sulfur offers an episode from the first world war, which was largely caused by, and fought by, occultists and demons. I like this setting a lot.  Occultism and the world wars are, obviously, a perfect fit.

Carrie Vaughn's Sealskin is pretty, and readable, though the title describes it in its entirety to anyone familiar with the relevant piece of folklore (which I am thanks to the aforementioned Seanan McGuire, actually).

Jonathan Maberry's The damned one hundred is one of the more memorable stories of this collection, which I didn't even realise until just now, typing things about it.  Like several of the other stories, it adresses the, um, desperate times that call for very desperate measures. Pretty much the core of all things epic, right?

Glen Cook's Bone eaters might be more meaningful to a reader with pre-existing familiarity with the Black Company, but it is actually good enough to make me want to read those books, so - that's a win.

I usually enjoy Linda Nagata's short stories, especially the horror-flavoured ones, and The way home is no exception. A band of soldiers have accidentally ended up in a terrible elsewhere, full of demons. There is a way home, but it's not... it's not that easy.

All in all, I had a good time with this anthology.  I came away with a couple of new author names added to my pay-attention-to list, and re-discovered how good military SFF writing can be, and that it is possibly the subgenre that provides the biggest, craziest, heaviest friendships.

The year’s best dark fantasy & horror, 2014 edition, edited by Paula Guran

The year's best dark fantasy & horror, 2014 edition Book Cover The year's best dark fantasy & horror, 2014 edition
yearly anthology
Paula Guran (editor)
Dark fantasy, Horror
Prime Books
June 17th 2014

Do I need to mention, to start with, that I'm not a very enthusiastic short story reader? I've been trying to mend this for years now, because there are so many awesome authors writing really awesome things in short form. I've read some that I genuinely liked, so I know I have it in me. Still, I find it so much harder for short stories to stick to me, you know? Time/immersion is one of my issues.  The other one is that quite a lot of short stories are of the "window"-variety, you know, they aren't actually stories, just glimpses of something going on somewhere that might have been interesting if you spent more time there.  I'm frustrated by that kind of thing.  I always want story.

But, hey.  I read this anthology,  The year's best dark fantasy & horror, 2014 edition.   A lot of it was enjoyable, too! I don't really know anything about the editor, Paula Guran, but I did know a lot of the names on the list of authors, which was what compelled me to read this thing in the first place.  The nice thing about a huge collection like this, of course, is the opportunity to discover new names to add to the mm, interesting-list.

Some of the stories were, inevitably, uninteresting to me. In a collection this size, that's no shocker.  Easy to forgive and forget, though, when there are highlights like these:

Phosphorus by Veronica Schanoes

I recently read about radiation poisoned factory girls in The Poisoner's Handbook (which is a great piece of non-fic for anyone with any curiosity about poisonous things and how lucky we are to inhabit a decade in which there are some sort of regulations) - so maybe I had some special interest in this short story about an Irish immigrant girl in London, poisoned like so many of her colleagues. Told in a haunting second person voice, the necrosis is detailed as much as old Nan's dreams of Eire.  Oh, yes, Old Nan. She knows a thing or two about, uh, a thing or two.  The story is brimming with atmosphere and some classic ghostliness around the edges.

(I thought I remembered the name Schanoes, and I did, because a while ago I read the short and similarly themed novella  Burning girlswhich can be had for free from Tor, because Tor is awesome like that. Schanoes is a name to remember if you have a penchant for hopeful/miserable immigration era spookiness.)

Shadows for Silence in the forests of Hell by Brandon Sanderson

Lengthy dark scariest-of-scary-forests story, in which some female characters kick ass, and man is generally worse than even a bunch of creepy zombie-ghosts.  It might sound like a spoiler, but it can't be, because just reading my sentence about it isn't going to convey any of what Sanderson makes you feel.   He takes the time to allow you to invest in the characters,  feel the darkness, scramble for your silver trinkets,  and the length allows some real narrative structure, so this made me very happy. And somewhat haunted, even a week after reading.  Silence and her family will be difficult to forget.

(I know, I know. More Sanderson is on the to-read list.  It's not a list. It's the cloud of titles sliding in and out of my most immediate awareness zone. Sanderson will slip inside it once I get some other epic fantasy things out of the way.)

The Plague by Ken Liu

Ultra-short, but a huge favourite to this reader, who has a throbbing heart for evolutionary/post-human ethical debacles. Or, well, horrors. It's often horrors.   These few pages pack a heavy punch,  though the "the tables have sure turned!"-thing isn't exactly unexpected or shocking. It's just harrowing. And neat.  I love it even though I wish it was a novel, or even three novels.

Moonstruck by Karin Tidbeck

Last December I visited Prague, and went to stare at the Copernicus clock at the turn of the hour, while munching some roasted chestnuts from a hot paper cone. I've had a special interest in the history of astronomy, because nerd, and this made it very easy to provide the visuals for Tidbeck's story, in which a strange and distant professor with an Eastern-ish European name sits by her telescope, while the moon is up to no good.  The writing is stark and stylish, and I'm glad I have the author's collection Jagannath somewhere on my kindle, shuffling closer to being paid attention to.

It takes me some time to read a thing like this. An anthology, I mean.  It becomes something I take a bite out of between chapters of other books.  I think I just get fatigued if I slip into too many different worlds/settings/moods in quick succession.  But being able to give it enough time helps to improve the experience of each of the stories;  there were others, aside from the ones mentioned above, that I'll remember for a while.  Some of them just do the horror thing where they manage to find a direct line of communication to my nerves, because of some weirdly specific theme or even just a sentence that strikes the right chord, but it doesn't necessarily mean the story is exceptional.  The most haunting horror-thing I've ever read was actually another short story, Stephen King's Survivor type- if you've read it, you'll know it's not exactly intellectually stimulating stuff, it's just... it just freaked me out, and still does, though I cannot really explain why.   That's how some of the stories in this anthology work, too.  Others, of course, fall flat, but for all I know they'll smack others in the face just like that Stephen King story did to me.

Anthologies are nice tasting menus for narrow sub-genres, I realise, and I should consider, um, considering them where I usually just go "Ok, point me at a novel that'll show me the features of this sub".  It is nice to have alternatives, and when offering recs to other readers, a short story is much less of a time investment than a novel. For good and bad.