1Q 2013 Small Press Book Reviews

Near Far coverNear+Far by Cat Rambo.

Welcome to the dark and realistic future worlds of veteran science fiction writer Cat Rambo. Two of the stories in this double collection were originally published in Abyss & Apex so when it came out we asked to look at it. We were not disappointed. Buy this and you’ll get a lot of fiction for your dollar, too. Rambo explores the loss, anger, ambiguity and heartbreak of a rapidly changing world.

The Near collection is first.

“Close Your Eyes” was particularly effective, giving the readers two choices of  story openings and two endings. If a story lingers in your mind, in part, due to ambiguity . . . this has it in spades.

Next, the female superhero tale, “Ms. Liberty Gets a Haircut,” is full of cleverness, introspection, occasional feminism (not preachy, though) and outright humor. Example: Kilroy has joined AA and apologized to several villains she damaged unnecessarily while fighting intoxicated. Before each meal, she insists on praying, but she prays to her own, alien god, and an intolerant streak has evidenced. She’s apparently a fundamentalist of her own kind and believes the Earth will vanish in a puff of cinders and ash when the End Times come. That’s why she’s been working so hard to acquire money to get off-world, lest she be caught in the devastation.

All in all, it’s a story about knowing who you are.

We published “Ten Metaphors for Cyberspace” in The Best of Abyss & Apex, Volume One, as a prose poem. It’s hard to classify, but anything by Cat Rambo inspired by William Gibson that was, “Too much fun to write” is worth your time. Example: one metaphor for the net: A Crazy Quilt.

Embroideries of data links elaborate each patch, signaling its access type with their pattern, cross-stitch for unimpeded access near French knots of one-time passwords. The fabric tells the access fee, public denims and burlap against slicker subsidized sites made of mercerized cotton or flashy R-rated satin. Punch through the folds to the infrastructure built of bed linens, layers of uncountable threads, a wooly blanket of processes scratchy to the touch.

Probably my favorite piece in Near is “Memories of Moments, as Bright as Falling Stars.” It’s perfect: exactly how those particular people would react to the bleak future she sets out. Lyrical. Chilling. Loving. Painful. Real.

On the other hand, “RealFur” is…arch. Rambo says she’s tactile, and I’m more visually oriented, but it’s still an interesting story about a marriage falling apart.  And as for “Not Waving, Drowning”? How would you handle it if your spouse could start to read your mind? Perhaps it was the lies that kept us human, kept us from being forced to judge publicly, to confront the things that would tear us apart. Next, “Vocobox™” suggests what could happen when your cat could talk. It’s not really about the cat, though.

Anyone who was ever frustrated with Heinlein’s treatment of teenage girls in his fiction will like “Long Enough and Just So Long.” It even has a girl named Podkayne. Next up is a post-apocalyptic tale that shows how survivors cope with the end of the world. “Legends of the Gone” closes the Near sadly, fittingly, poetically.

Now, the Far collection, which in the dead tree version is upside down and on the back. Far (as in far future) starts out with “Futures,” a flash fiction celebration of alternative universes and time travel.

Then there is “Kallakak’s Cousins.” Funny, and the sort of tale where things keep getting worse until an improbable resolution; in other words it’s sort of Miles Vorkasigan, lite. “Amid the Words of War ” is a sad tale of an alien soldier (insectile) who is captured, tortured, released, and tortured by his own side.  This is followed by “Timesnip,” where a time-cloned suffragette plies her trade trying to sell a patriarchal society on time-cloning their glorious past, and instead lays the groundwork for a matriarchal revolution.

“Angry Rose’s Lament” is another A&A story, and all I can say is that if you’ve ever dealt with trying to sober up  someone you love—any any cost—you’ll really get this. “Seeking Nothing” also contains Angry Rose, but she’s not the focus; the tale is about a young man raised by fundamentalists on a lonely off-planet job, fresh out of school and wet behind the ears. And lonely.

What a lovely title: “A Querulous Flute of Bone.” But this is unlike Paolo Bacigalupi’s “the Fluted Girl.” Instead, we are treated to a an artifact hunter, a seeker of distilled emotions, and a member of a race that changes its sex according to stimuli. He and his foil, another artifact hunter, seek the rarest artifact of all.

I loved next offering, the screwball farce “Zeppelin Follies,” with a merry band of romance writers and society with a penchant for body modification.

I’d give a resounding Eh” to “Space Elevator Music,” but you have to understand that slipstream and I are not on the best of terms. “Surrogates,” on the other hand, has people not on the best of terms: Belinda prefers her insanity chip to reality and lets it edit out certain people she’s not happy with.

The last two stories are “Five Ways to Fall in Love on Planet Porcelain” and “Bus Ride to Mars.” In “Porcelain,” a multiverse story in miniature,  you have perhaps the most finely crafted piece of the collection. The shock of regret that I did not publish this was very keen: this is Cat Rambo at her best. However, “Bus Ride to Mars” is a science fiction/slipstream riff on The Canterbury Tales.  I’m not a fan of slipstream, but this was well done.

Great collection. Very worth your time and treasure to get a copy. RECOMMENDED.

 broken aro cover sm

Broken Aro

by Jen Wylie

Setting is a character, and this setting was very interesting and well thought-out. The creativity needed build this sort of world should not be underestimated, especially because this is perhaps the thousandth iteration reinventing Elves, Dragons, and Fey – and it works. The supporting characters were also quite enjoyable and generally well-developed. There were great displays of self-sacrifice by two of the men alongside the heroine, Aro, as well as acts of brotherly love by the other men surrounding her.

I would dare even say that this is a fantasy tale about various manifestations of love (romantically, brotherly, etc.) and that’s something the overall genre sometimes lacks. But while “Broken Aro” is a high-flying adventure, it isn’t without noticeable flaws.

The protagonist, Arowyn Mason, didn’t seem to fit into this world. She felt too modern. Her constant use of the exclamation “gah” (modern slang), for example, kept throwing me out of the story. Also, the novel never explained the expectations of women in this culture, which left me with no basis to judge how Aro acted. Another issue was a sort of cyclical character growth Aro exhibited: a moment would arrive when I felt satisfied that Aro had learned something new and grown as a character, but then in the next chapter she would return to her set point as if nothing had changed.

Perhaps, though, I have become accustomed to kick-ass fantasy heroines: today’s female protagonists who have their emotional moments, but fight through to the end with  tough strength. Instead, Aro portrayed a level of naivety that might be frustrating to some… but I found it refreshing in a world with a surfeit of way-tough women. Jen Wylie displays a knack in story-telling and with further sharpening of those skills could become a master of the mainstream fantasy genre.

 

Dark Duet Cover

Dark Duet

by Linda B. Addison and Stephen M. Wilson.

I’ve never reviewed a poetry chapbook before. And although one of the authors is Abyss & Apex’s poetry editor, our Poetry Department has traditionally been its own shop, with its own submissions guidelines, email address,  and such. So I feel comfortable looking at this on that level. Also, although I was familiar with Linda’s work I’d never really studied Stephen’s poetry before. All I knew was that he and I had very similar tastes in genre poetry. I was expected to enjoy it, and I did. Stephen’s work is lyrical in a way that touches me to the core.

“Bell’arte del canto” started the collaboration on a wonderful note. Stephen’s “Lonely Starseed” has great imagery– like a hearth burning with cool starshine—and then Linda responds to that with “Star Seed’s Arietta.” It’s death and rebirth.

The collaborative poem, “Nocturne,” while it has lines like The snake dragon’s wings/blow across an Aeolian harp, was too dark for my tastes. This collection’s title warned me that it might contain such things. But Stephen’s “Quintessence” is everything a science fiction poem should, in my estimation, be:

The universe

e  x  p  a  n  d  s,

Phantom Energy

accelerating us towards our doom

(or a brighter tomorrow?)

 

We, each broken things,

seek an event horizon—

supernatural, technological,

alien, holy, or perverse—

Yes.

Linda’s “The Vortex of Damnation” explores the choices of the innocent in a haunting, visceral way.  Stephen’s response poem (this collaboration often takes the form of a poetic conversation) becomes one of the chill voices lashing out at those making such choices. “The Road” is Linda’s exploration of a bleak desert landscape, where  “memories of beaches cling to/the roots of cactus.” Riffing off of Carly Simon’s “You’re so Vain,” in “Son of a Gun” Stephen then talks of another desert, the one peopled by those seeking fame.  Then Linda’s “Circus of Willis” is a riposte to “Son of a Gun.”

In the section Libretto (love the illustration) the collaboration starts out with a dancer entrancing a king, weaving back and forth between the two subjects’ points of view. I am matter anti-matter; material ethereal chants the dancer. The otherworldliness of the poem comes from both party’s hinted-at shape-shifting and immortality.  Then, in “Threshold Exploration,’” Linda puts our society’s insane commercialism into an eternal context . . . in the seat of madness, we/ wait for days to end, for time/ to reverse/esrever, for infinity to/ uncover how we matter.

Perhaps “The World is a Desert” should be renamed “lament for the crack babies” but with such lyricism that title would never do it justice:

…changed by shadow creatures

born from the neglect

of infants conceived in drugged

mind    -less

                        ness.

“Juno’s Lament” is Stephen’s exploration of the aftermath of spousal betrayal—surely a dark topic if there ever was one—and this cuts like a surgeon’s knife. But as a nice change of pace, Simian Soliloquy had me grinning from ear to ear. Thus coincidence does make bards [of us all], indeed.

Linda’s “Remove/Mix/Hope” contrasts the mindsets of War and Peace. Linda’s absurdity “Lions in the Living Room” talks of everyday fears manifesting in slipstreamy ways. Stephen’s “In Praise of Mangos” is one of the poems the foreword likens to a deeply personal diary entry – but what a diarist. Here, he explores the nature of sin, passion, and way they erode commitments is cast as elegant strike-throughs.

Linda’s “Dying From This” talks about how poetry is born in pain. And in “Frost Bitten” Stephen takes us on a trip to faerie, where we dance with snow nymphs and find that time has passed us by. In the collaboration “Unfinished Symphony” our lives are all exactly that.  Another collaborative poem, “Shhhhhhhhh!” shows us halos and cogs—singed and backward wings/ the time-pieces of non-linear time/ tick-tocking in random patterns/ of pastfuturepresestfuturepastpast . . .which is followed by Linda’s poem “Ouroboros,” where i want a new Myth/ to become infinite/ good and renewed/ unconsumed by desire (you shouldn’t have eaten that mango, then, I suppose – ed.) Stephen’s response—”Uroboros”—time melting—/distorted like a soft piece by Dalí/ flight interrupted and i a scythe/ harvesting a field of scarlet poppies/ their stolen flames extinguished/ yet Phoenix will rise again in Me. . . A new Myth!

I believe “When Interior Light Becomes Bright (for Eartha Kitt)” is one of the best pieces in the chapbook. It gave me chills, it was so perfect. Well done, Ms. Addison. Then Stephen memorializes Princess Diana in a prose poem that spans fairy tales and the tenuous but very real such a person makes on all of our lives.

I’m not sure whether the “Aberration” explored in Stephen’s next poem is perfect nights with your lover, or lonely nights when the lover is dead and gone. Contrast that with Linda’s “Conversion,” which is an exploration of lovers so self centered they really do not see the other person:

Despite dreams of potent consumption,

neither can see the other

through eyes so brilliant with dark light

even demons wept, angels sigh.

“Pele” likens a critic to a rather unfriendly volcano. On the other hand, “Dico, King of Hat Tricks” (originally published in A&A) talks about a friendly ally. “Giving up the Ghost: California, circa 2013″ envisions ghost-powered automobiles. This is contrasts with “Meditation, circa 9025″ which does a rather unnerving end-run on genetic engineering powering things in the future.

I have not touched on all the poems in this collection, but everything from friendships to family ties, from humor to pain, love to loss, life to death is in here. It was a privilege to read.

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