mythic

You Should Read: Kelly Link’s STRANGER THINGS HAPPEN (2001)

If you’ve all read and loved Kelly Link for the last decade it might surprise you to know that until about 6 months ago, I’d never heard of her. Thanks to some writers I admire pointing her out to me, I bought the .epub of her first short story collection, Stranger Things Happen, and read it all over a couple of days. (I’ve been bringing my nook to work with me, and this makes catching up on my To Read pile much easier, in little bits at a time).

“Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose” – A dead man isn’t sure where he is, what his name is, or how he died, but is quite certain that dead people shouldn’t masturbate as often as he does. The story is told in a series of letters the dead mad writes to his nearly-forgotten wife, hoping for her forgiveness, with little footnotes about his emotional state and other activities. The story makes perfect sense if you can imagine yourself in a place built from old memory and surrounded by waiting. My first impression of Link is that she writes longing very well.

“Water Off a Black Dog’s Back” – “Carnation, Lily” lacked description in a way that fits a story about a man who exists nowhere and remembers very little. “Waters” mirrors that tale, in the way that a mirror reflects the same image back to you, but backwards. Link’s voice is clear but at the same time, “Water” is full of details and adjectives. There is sound and there are smells and the taste of strawberry wine and the prickle of a black dog’s discarded fur. Mostly, the story is about a boy who has never lost anything, falling in love with a girl who expects loss to find her.

“The Specialist’s Hat” – Sometimes ghost stories are stories told by ghosts, about people who might be alive or might be Dead or might just be plain old regular dead. Also, don’t ignore your children, because while you’re keeping them out of your hair they’ll find their own way into trouble without you there to save them.

“Flying Lessons” – A much better take on the “updating a Greek myth” trope than I usually read.

“Travels With The Snow Queen” – Oh, second-person present-tense POV, how I hate you. But it’s fairy tales we’re after in this story, and tales are told, unfolding conversationally as if you are the subject and the listener all at once. I can forgive the perspective on this because I get the importance Link feels this story has.

“The Vanishing Act” – Another story about what happens when parents forget their children are still there. Where “The Specialist’s Hat” ends on a dour note, “Vanishing” at least has hope, and green water, and photographs of far off lands. It might not be a happy story, but it has the potential to be one after the words have trailed off the page, and I like having the option.

“Survivor’s Ball, or, The Donner Party” – I’m wondering if Link imagines that no one has heard of the Donner party, and therefore her introduction of them has a novel quality? Aside from that, this story might be about survival, or it might be about the kind of men who follow a woman to the end of the world, too empty of life to find their own path … and moth-like, follow the first bright flame of a girl into darkness.

“Shoes and Marriage” – this is four flash pieces strung together, pretending to be a short story, and I’d have preferred she left them as flash pieces. Of them, my favourite was the one about the pageant girls. I, too, would sit with my love under the blankets and fall head over heels for Miss Kansas. I appreciated the nod to Lovecraft too.

“Most of My Friends Are Two-Thirds Water” – One of the most traditionally-formatted stories in the collection, Link allows a presumably-female narrator tell the story of how her friend Jak went mad, or, possibly, the story of how an invasion of blond alien women has really messed up his chances to get a date to have sex with him. Either one.

“Louise’s Ghost” – I’m not sure how necessary it was to make both of the women in this story carry the same name. I get that it’s a comment on the inter-changeability of women and all of that, and in the context of the story it’s possible to follow which is who, but only with some effort. It’s not that I prefer my stories to be simplistic, and I am willing to work at a good piece of insight, but it didn’t pay off for me. I didn’t learn anything about the human condition or being a woman or loss or … anything to make me feel that the purposefully convoluted characters were worth the effort. Perhaps if it had come earlier in the book I would have felt differently, but by this point we’ve already had ghosts (“Carnation, Lily” and “Hat”), unpleasant children (“Vanishing”), vague men (“Water” and “Donner Party”), strong women making all the decisions (“Flying Lessons” and “Travels”) and death (“Flying Lessons”, and again, “Carnation” and “Hat”). It seems the only new thing was the trick with the names.

“The Girl Detective” – When I started reading it, I didn’t realise that it was the last story of the book. Another rebooted myth, mixed with a little Nancy Drew, strongly in Link’s style.

One thing that stood out at me was the lack of a strong male character. Each man that appears is a wraith, a shadow of his potential, wrapped up in or around the women in his life. The women are the movers and doers and decision makers. Even when the main character is male, the women compel an action from them as if the men have no choice but the react. The closest one comes to a male-driven story is “Water”, where he does choose to chase after Rachel, but only to be able to settle into the comfortable stillness of letting her make the choices. He will subsume himself in her family and become part of the things which happen around her.

I don’t like Link’s men very much. I prefer strength and clarity of self. But, as characters, they do highlight their female counterparts in interesting ways.

Overall, I loved this collection. Link’s stories aren’t purposefully linear, as is she is remembering important bits while telling a different part of the story. She pauses delicately to tell you the piece she’d forgotten and then goes on with the piece she’d started with. Link is clearly a storyteller, letting you imagine the words falling from her lips instead of imagining yourself as a character in the tale. The whole thing has a rambling smoothness to it that turns even a chronologically fragmented piece of writing into one solid story. There were a few that I didn’t love as much as the others but I think that was more a case of too much of the same thing all in one place. Perhaps if I’d read them all, individually, with some months of space in between, I would feel differently. Perhaps not, but there are enough great stories in Stranger Things Happen that it doesn’t matter.

Kelly Link, Stranger Things Happen, Small Beer Press, 2001.

You Should Read: China Miéville’s THE CITY AND THE CITY

Summary: When a murdered woman is found in the city of Beszel, somewhere at the edge of Europe, it looks to be a routine case for Inspector Tyador Borlú of the Extreme Crime Squad. But as he investigates, the evidence points to conspiracies far stranger and more deadly than anything he could have imagined. (From Random House)

A very good book is one which, when it’s over, you can’t clearly define a place where you’d have written it differently. The City and The City is like that for me. I started the beginning of the book being intrigued by a noir-ish murder mystery, then being confused by the concept of the split towns, then fascinated by the controversial history of the place.

Imagine a detective story set in a non-US country that’s a little old-fashioned, maybe just getting used to the idea of 21st century commercialism. Set it in a place that used to have a bigger, grander, and ultimately impossible sort of economy, a place that has recently become exposed to the influence of the West, like Russia after the fall of the USSR. Now take the feel of the place, and set it somewhere geographically more Mediterranean, or move it West so that it’s still in Europe but closer to Spain. Give it a strange set of rules about who you can look at, which buildings you can acknowledge, which traffic accidents you’re allowed to notice. Into that story I want you to set an old-school detective, working in a strictly controlled environment with only barely-modern equipment and forensic science, who’s got to discover the identity of a dead girl that no one admits to knowing, and who might be from that part of the city that you’ve been raised since birth to ignore.

With all of that, you might have an idea of what Mieville’s book is capable of. This one geographically confined place morphs into three cities by the time the tale is done, due to overlapping and contested territories, but Mieville makes it work for him, until you’re nodding along with the story thinking, “Oh, well, yeah, that makes sense.” Of course, that’s not even half of the story, which also involves the people who patrol the borders of a city that is both two places and only one place at the same time, a few more murders, and one hell of a conspiracy theory.

The City and The City does make sense after all, and by the time you reach the end and the conclusion and the understanding washes over you and you finally see not just one city but all three of them at the same time, the book becomes so clear you wonder why you didn’t notice that in the first place.

ISBN: 978-0-345-49751-2 (0-345-49751-1) Format: Hardcover, 336 pages (Though I read it as an eBook)

 

You Should Read: Seanan McGuire’s A LOCAL HABITATION

Synopsis: After spending fourteen years lost to both the fae and mortal worlds, only to be dragged back into Faerie by the murder of someone close to her, October “Toby” Daye really just wants to spend a little time getting her footing. She’s putting her life back together. Unfortunately, this means going back to work for Duke Sylvester Torquill of Shadowed Hills, doing her duty as a knight errant. That isn’t the sort of thing that exactly lends itself to a quiet existence, and before she knows it, Toby’s back on the road, heading for the County of Tamed Lightning in Fremont, California to check on Sylvester’s niece, January. (From Seanan McGuire‘s site)

NOTE: This is the second novel in the October Daye series. My review of the first novel, Rosemary and Rue, can be found HERE.

So, Toby isn’t dead yet. This is good both because there are a few more books in this series still to be published, and because she fills a niche that no one else in her world seems to want to take over. Given how much damage she takes in the process of solving her mysteries, that’s not really a surprise. October Daye (Toby, if you don’t want her to hit you) is still under oath to her liege, still living in her low-rent apartment in the City, and still oblivious to the fairly obvious feelings of the men around her. What’s new is the part where she’s sent off to solve a new crime, gets injured in new and interesting ways, and meets a few more of the less savory types of fae.

The basic story is that Toby is busy living her faux-human life in San Francisco, where she follows cheating spouses and finds missing kids for a living. After she spent 14 years as a fish, and then some more time as the anti-social store clerk we meet in Rosemary and Rue, it’s nice to see that Toby is trying to make friends again, and the book opens with her enjoying a girls night out with a few changeling ladies from her old life. Her life hasn’t changed too much though: same job, same cats, same rosegoblin, same giant case of the dumb where Tybalt is concerned.

What should have been a simple request by Duke Sylvester ends up putting Toby, and the pure-blood page, Quentin, in the middle of two warring Fairie counties. If that weren’t dicey enough, our detective has happened upon a murder that needs solving.

McGuire keeps to the strict first-person perspective that helps set this series apart from other books in the genre. Toby doesn’t know anything that she doesn’t have direct knowledge of, which means that there are times she gets it wrong. Even better, McGuire doesn’t “cheat” by giving Toby a dozen well-informed advisers to fill her in on everything under the sun. There were a few times that  I’d figured out a clue before Toby did, and that added to the feeling of anticipation. When you can see the monster just outside the window, the story isn’t so much about figuring out if the monster is really there as it is finding out what your heroine will do when it finally catches up to her. McGuire gives us monsters, and Toby is a hero, however reluctantly, because the harder it gets, the more she resigns herself to never giving up.

Lately it seems that everyone wants to write the perfect killer sex goddess, who breaks a thousand hearts while simultaneously defeating the undead/vampire/werewolf/mage/human horde. Toby might be attractive (some of the other characters seem to think so, though she appears to be too busy to look in a mirror most days) and she might be able to survive quite a few gunshots, but she also makes mistakes. I don’t like everything she does but these flaws make Toby real. Real isn’t cookie cutter. Real isn’t perfect. Real isn’t straightforward. You can cheer for her or be confused by her, outsmart her or be enlightened by her, want to be her or be glad you’re not, but one thing you won’t be able to do is predict what Toby will do next.

To find out, I suggest buying An Artificial Night, third book in the October Daye series, due out September 2010.

Seanan McGuire, A Local Habitation, DAW Books, 2010. ISBN 0756405963

* I read A Local Habitation as an ebook, a departure from my usual method of devouring paper-and-print texts. I bought the ebook version because my local bookstore didn’t have a copy in stock, and I didn’t want to wait a week for Amazon to ship me one. I didn’t love having to read it on my iPod (I see an ebook reader purchase in my future) but I didn’t have any problems with the formatting or readability of the book itself. I still plan to buy books the usual way, but it’s nice to know that with this series, digital is an option.

 

You Should Read: Seanan McGuire’s ROSEMARY AND RUE

Synopsis: The world of Faerie never disappeared: it merely went into hiding, continuing to exist parallel to our own. Secrecy is the key to Faerie’s survival—but no secret can be kept forever, and when the fae and mortal worlds collide, changelings are born. Half-human, half-fae, outsiders from birth, these second-class children of Faerie spend their lives fighting for the respect of their immortal relations. Or, in the case of October “Toby” Daye, rejecting it completely. After getting burned by both sides of her heritage, Toby has denied the fae world, retreating into a “normal” life. Unfortunately for her, Faerie has other ideas.

The murder of Countess Evening Winterrose, one of the secret regents of the San Francisco Bay Area, pulls Toby back into the fae world. Unable to resist Evening’s dying curse, which binds her to investigate, Toby is forced to resume her old position as knight errant to the Duke of Shadowed Hills and begin renewing old alliances that may prove her only hope of solving the mystery…before the curse catches up with her. (From SeananMcGuire.com)

Seanan McGuire skips the backstory and drops you straight into the action with Rosemary and Rue, starting her debut novel with a crime already in progress. October Daye, who would prefer to be called Toby just the same way that you would prefer no one punched you in the face, is tracking down the kidnapped wife and daughter of her pure-blooded liege, Duke Sylvester. To complicate matters, it’s a crime committed by the Duke’s own brother, and tracking a fugitive fae through the human world means a lot of being subtle and trying to blend in. Have I mentioned that Toby isn’t very good at subtle? Instead of saving the day, she falls victim to the bad guy’s superior magic, is trapped in the body of an ornamental koi fish for over a decade, and loses her self-esteem and her family in one fell swoop.

The fish thing wears off, eventually, though too late for Toby to be able to explain it to the daughter she seemingly abandoned. This is the woman we get properly introduced to: a dejected, failed detective, living alone in a bad part of town with no friends, no family, no future, and a dead-end supermarket job that barely pays the rent. She lives in a dark place, to be sure, but much of that is of her own making, since Toby’s worked very hard to keep away anyone that might have made her feel better. Duke Sylvester? She doesn’t return his phone calls. Her old changeling friends? She makes excuses so she doesn’t have to see the happy families that they have, and she doesn’t. Her job? Her PI license lapsed while she was nibbling tourists’ bread in a cold pool, and she doesn’t have the confidence in herself to want to get it back. She has exactly one friend in the world, the Countess Winterrose, but of course Toby can’t see the woman’s helping her out of anything more than obligation. It’s a pity party, table for one, and only Toby Daye is invited.

This is where McGuire’s story really starts.

What do you do with a half-breed fairie woman who’s lost, literally, everything she held dear? You kill off her one remaining supporter, of course, and that’s exactly what happens when Winterrose is brutally murdered. Without any idea of what’s happening around her, Toby has to return to the only skill she has: finding the answers.

To be honest, I don’t read many fantasy novels. I prefer my fiction to be desolate, apocalyptic, and dangerous. Fairies, to me, are a lot like sparkly vampires: they’re based on creatures which were, originally, something much worse, but they’ve been prettied up to fit in with the buying habits of tween girls and unmarried aunts. Fairies now mean fluttery and flowery and beautiful, but I know better than to believe that. Fairies are supposed to be nasty, bitey little creatures, and impossibly beautiful ice queens, and confusing things made of mixed together bits of tree branches and stolen shoes. They’re not creatures of light and happiness, no matter how much glitter you slap on them. Too few people want to write about the dark side of fairies.

Seanan McGuire understands the dark.

She blends together Shakespeare, Irish legends, Japanese myth, medieval ballads, and Victorian Flower Fairies to tell a tale so familiar it doesn’t occur to you to look for where she’s gotten it wrong because it’s all unbelievably right. Toby lives in a world that makes sense, in a sad and disturbing way, because it’s our world, if you could see just a little more of it.

I started reading Rosemary and Rue, expecting to put it back down again, but I ended up hiding in the bedroom and telling my husband to make his own dinner so I didn’t have to quit until it was done. I loved this story, and can’t wait to read the next in what I hope is a very long series.

Seanan McGuire, Rosemary and Rue, DAW Books, 2009. 368 pages. ISBN 0756405718.

The second book in the series, A Local Habitation, is out as of March 2010, and I review it HERE.