1Q 2011 Small Press Book Reviews

by Wendy S. Delmater

THE SUMMER OF THE APOCALYPSE by James Van Pelt (Fairwood Press)

A tour-de-force novel from prolific short story writer James Van Pelt.

Eric, now age 75, lives in a post-apocalyptic Colorado, at the foothills of the Rockies. He lives on the outskirts of a small pocket of illiterate scavengers of the old technology. These “jackals” harvest flotsam from the Gone Times: a resource which is rapidly running out. Eric wants them to rebuild or at least preserve what they can of civilization, but he is looked down on as being impractical and unrealistic by their leader – his own son.

So through a wilderness populated by small bands of feral humans and madmen with guns, he takes one last ramble to a local university. Eric’s grandsons secretly follow him. The reader also tags along, and in a series of extremely well-handled flashbacks we follow memories of the days when Eric’s teen life was changed forever by a fast-moving plague that killed so many and so quickly that global civilization fell apart. The braided experiences of 15-year-old Eric and 75-year-old Eric reinforce each other. Van Pelt is a master of his craft and leaves us transfixed with not one but two futures: both dystopian, both horrific, both hopeful. And for both Erics the love of family, in the end, trumps all.

All of this happens in a world so depopulated that people no longer need a last name. The book ends on Eric’s note of hope that humans—and what is important of the old civilization—may survive. But in Jim Van Pelt’s world, humanity’s future is far from certain.

THE IMMERSION BOOK OF SF, Edited by Carmelo Rafala (Immersion Press)

For this collection of short fiction “SF” stands for Speculative Fiction, not Science Fiction: a point I wish had been made clear on its cover which features a woman who has removed her spacesuit helmet. Nonetheless, there is much to recommend this anthology.

Standout stories include ‘Dolls” by Collin P. Davies, “Father’s Last Ride” by Aliette de Bodard, and “Lode Stars” by Lavie Tidhar.

“Dolls” is a story of dysfunctional families with the ability to keep their children young forever, as told by one of the children. Mandi is kept perpetually at eight years old, but is 28 and tired of the child pageant life. Running commentary is provided by her limited-intelligence AI doll, whose eyes are ruined yet has great insights. “We’re all artificial…all dolls” in one way or another, sighs Miss Mandi to the chipmonkey technician who will provide her with a drug that will finally let her age, if she will only pay his strange price. And if she takes the medicine, what will she see?

“Father’s Last Ride” involves people using ultra-light sleds to “ride” on the aurora borealis, and possibly meet the “ghosts” who live there. It’s a tale of loss and alienation, self-discovery and wonder, physics and self-realization. De Bodard infuses Ruth’s character with anger at her uncommunicative mother and confusion and pain at her long abandonment by—and loss of—her father. When she tries to recreate his last moments she not only finds the secret of his death, but the motive for his life, and the answers to her deepest questions. Very few stories are as packed with as much of a sense of wonder as this one.

“Lode Stars” explores life lived in a civilization that perches at the edges of, and venerates, black holes. Their major cultural centers circle singularities, which they call “God’s Eyes,” and they call themselves The Illuminati. There is a hierarchy of those who explore the mysteries of the Eyes, and star pilot Mikhaila intends to push through them all, if necessary, to discover the real reason her father fell alive into one of the Eyes. Assisting her are a strange cast of post-humans, Martian bioware, uploaded personalities, and an uncanny detective instinct. The answers, while incomplete, are stranger than those whose company she keeps.

Others stories I liked included Gareth Owens’ wry “Mango Dictionary and the Dragon Queen of Contract Evolution” and “Grave Robbers” by Anne Stringer: a tale of strange magic and stranger side effects. Also enjoyable: Gord Sellar’s faux Chinese tale of love and magic, “The Broken Pathway.”

ALEMBICAL 2, Edited by Arthur Dorrance & Lawrence M. Schoen   (Paper Golem)

This is an amazing collection. There are three novellas featured: “The Paragon Lure” by frequent Abyss & Apex contributor Tony Pi, “Second Chance” by David R. Levine, and “Iron Shoes” by J. Kathleen Cheney, whose work also appears in this issue of A&A. Pi and Cheney’s stories are fantasies. As is usual for David Levine, his story is hard science fiction that is much more about the characters than the technology. And may I state in passing that I’m personally thrilled that more genre fiction in the novella length is being published due to the wonderful work of small press publishers?

David Levine’s “Second Chance” is told from the point of view of a person exiting what turns out to be a clone vat, with implanted memories: cold, alone, confused and hurting. When Chaz finds others on the spacecraft they are startled and either distant or unkind. And what is he doing on this mission; he never finished his training! The unraveling mystery of what causes him to be treated as a pariah is neatly interwoven with the unraveling mysteries of the Tau Ceti system, and a mechanical mystery onboard the ship. It all ties together in a masterful crescendo that is one of the most powerful and moving stories of forgiveness and hope that I’ve ever read.

Tony Pi’s “The Paragon Lure” is a prequel to his “Metamorphoses in Amber”, published in Abyss & Apex (Issue #24: 4th Quarter 2007). Art dealer Felix Lea is a member of a nearly immortal group of shape-shifters, the Elect, who use the distilled power of insectoid metamorphosis trapped in Amber to heal and change. Their rivalries and power-balances shift over the centuries, so stories set in this world are a sort of alternate history. This time it’s about some fascinating and deadly unfinished business from the time Shakespeare and Queen Elizabeth, but set in present day England with cell phones, jewel thieves and their fences, and a police detective who just happens to be the daughter of the fence who works for Felix Lea. The Paragon Lure is a gem associated with Good Queen Bess, and it’s used to bait a deadly trap that has no concern for mere mortals. Highly recommended.

J. Kathleen Cheney’s “Iron Shoes” is tale that starts out in a turn-of-the-19th-century Saratoga Springs, NY, and ends up in the regions of the heart, by way of Ireland – and magic. Imogen Hawkes is a young widow with a problem: her late husband mortgaged the well-off family farm for a new thoroughbred horse barn, and her despicable next-door neighbor will foreclose unless she comes up with the money in two weeks, or she marries him. She pins her hopes on winning prize money a stakes horse race, but things keep go wrong, almost as if she and the farm have been cursed. Exactly as if things have been literally cursed: magic is involved. And literal magic fights back, both from her questionable parentage and in the person of a whirlwind that enters her life. Magic fights magic, love fights avarice and Imogen casts off the expectation of others and finally allows herself to be who she is. More than this I cannot say without giving too much away. I read it through three times in a row, and I’d gladly read it again. J. Kathleen Cheney is to fantasy what Catherine Asaro is to science fiction: there’s a reason that Cheney is a member of SFWA and the Romance Writers of America.

LAND THAT I LOVE, by William Freedman (Rebel e Publishers)

If you like The Daily Show and thought that George W. Bush was the world’s biggest idiot…if you like your political satire served up science-fiction style…if you can’t wait to get your hands on a book that names its native American characters things like “Stuffed in a Gym Locker” and “Should Switch to Decaf” – your book is here. If you thought the Iraq war was a complete waste of time and can envision a future where eating actual food is such a novelty that an army is incapacitated by cheeseburgers (and they did not even know to take off the paper wrappers before eating them)…if you think the warriors at the sharp end of the stick often know much more than their political masters…William Freedman is about to make your day.

Brought to you by a South African press, this book was written by a New Yorker who has not sacrificed a plot for humor. But, boy, does he sacrifice a number of sacred cows. Mark Twain was right: sacred cows do make the best hamburger, and Freedman serves up a fast food chain’s worth of satire and wit.

Land That I Love is Jon Stewart and Douglas Adams’ bastard love child.

BOOKS RECEIVED:

People Live Still in Cashtown Corners, by Tony Burgess (ChiZine Publications)

In the Mean Time, short story collection by Paul Tremblay (ChiZine Publications)

Every Shallow Cut, by Tom Picirilli (ChiZine Publications)

Napier’s Bones, by Derryl Murphy (ChiZine Publications)

Major Karnage, by Gord Zajac (ChiZine Publications)

Nexus: Ascension, by Robert Boyczuk’s (ChiZine Publications)

Sarah Court, by Craig Davidson (ChiZine Publications)

The Hair Wreath and Other Stories, by Halli Villegas (ChiZine Publications)


Upcoming reviews will include:

Quick Fall of Light by Sherrida Woodley (Gray Dog Press)

Panverse Two edited by Dario Ciriello (Panverse Publishing)

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