What I’ve Been Reading: Lynda Barry’s CRUDDY

Some books about children are for children; Lynda Barry’s Cruddy is definitely not.

First, a warning: this book contains themes, sometimes graphic descriptions, of subjects and events which might be triggering to readers, including suicide, murder, child abuse, child sexual assault, racism, sexism, ableism, mistreatment of people with special needs, drug use, runaways, institutionalization, and animal abuse.

If you still want to give Cruddy a try after all of that… you should. It’s probably the best-written depiction of a troubled child’s life that I’ve ever read. It’s perfect in a lot of ways. It’s hard to read, because it unflinchingly flays open some of the worst things a child can go through, but it’s easy to read, too, because Barry writes clean. Her tone is even throughout; there are no missteps, no awkwardly written passages. You meet Roberta, the 16-year-old narrator, on the first page, and until the book closes, there’s nothing to kick you off the ride.

It’s a hell of a trip, though. Nothing about Roberta’s life is easy or comforting, and even what seems positive for a moment is only in comparison to how crushingly terrible everything else is. But that’s the thing about a life in desolation — little moments of joy that other people, happier people, with more good in their lives, that might never be noticed, instead take on a monumental property. A shared moment can be enough to pin a life on.

Barry makes sense of the little moments and the big ones, weaving them all together so well you barely notice which is which.

I wasn’t surprised by any of it, but I suspect that’s because my childhood was not very different from Roberta’s. Better in some ways, worse in others, with some parts in common, and other parts that didn’t have to be shared because the overall feeling of growing up unwanted, unliked, outside of everyone else: that, I recognize. For other readers, it might be too hard to keep turning the page. That’s okay. But if you can get through it, Cruddy is a masterclass in writing about survival, PTSD, self-harm, suicidal ideation, from the perspective of a child whose parents (and their lack of parenting) made her a perpetual victim.  The story, Robert’as voice, feels real. It’s possible, probable, and tangible, even though we wish it couldn’t be.

Read it because you want to know what life is like for people with worse luck than your own. Read it because you want to know how to write terrible, unimaginable, darkness without losing a grip on the light. Read it because it is beautifully written, in a way that makes it appear simpler than it is, to make even those dark parts easier to digest.

Read it because though almost everything Roberta tells you about her life is bad, Cruddy is perfectly, solidly, good.

What I’ve Been Reading: Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy

There are two things I have to admit before we can talk about the Southern Reach trilogy:

  1. My partner and I have a secret, special place online… a shared folder of ebooks. This magical spot includes every DRM-free file we’ve ever bought, plus all the digital books and magazines we’ve gotten free at cons, as contributor copies, or in giveaways. Between the two of us, we have hundreds of reading options, collected over a decade.
  2. Last November, he got me a tablet for my birthday. It was inexpensive, a few years out of date, and doesn’t run very quickly, on purpose, because I wanted something with a 10 inch screen that I couldn’t use for games. I wanted a reading tablet, something to help me get through that giant digital to-be-read pile. The tablet I was gifted is absolutely perfect for the job.

So, you’d think I read a lot. I haven’t been. For a couple of years, I haven’t been able to get into a headspace for reading for pleasure, so unless a book or story promised to enhance my writing techniques or was for research, I put in the “someday” pile and moved on.

Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation, US cover.

Last week, I opened up Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation, the first book in his Southern Reach trilogy. I’d put off reading it for a long time, partly because I had this idea in my head that it was going to be hard to read. Smarter than I am. Too literary for my mood. More… something, than I was ready for. It’s not.

Annihilation is so well written that it feels easy. I didn’t notice the work that must have gone into writing it at all, even though it’s my job to analyze writing, break down work into its component parts. I planned to, when I started reading, but I forgot about studying the technique as I got into the story.  Annihilation is that rare kind of beautiful epic which creates an entire world yet effortlessly flows from the page as fast as you can move your eyeballs. I tore through the first book and ended up reading the whole trilogy in two days. Continue reading

Review: Beneath Ceaseless Skies #168

Steady on Her Feet, by K.J. Kabza

3/5*

Starts a little slow; the presentation of the placard would have been better a little farther down, once we’d already had a taste of Kabza’s delightful world to bite into. Still, it picks up slowly over a few paragraphs, and then suddenly you’re off and running, fully immersed in a genuinely (darkly) entertaining adventure. Like being chased down alleyways at night, when you only think you know where you’re going, the story moves along through the expected twists and turns, until it curves too sharply into its finale. The end makes a sort of sense, but the character reveals aren’t well-established, and require a lot of disbelief to keep you from tossing the whole thing out when the kind and/or stupid suddenly become gleefully malevolent. Too bad, because until then, the story was quite good, but it’s clear that Kabza had an end in mind when writing, and was going to get there regardless of whether or not the rest of the story supported it.

A Screech of Gulls, by Alec Helms

5/5*

The story begins with the listing and naming of things, and in the explanation of those names, the story unfolds. This is a lovely, languid, way to infodump, and I’m always glad to see it done well. It carries on with details and objects, setting the scene by telling you about the things in it as they come up, instead of all at once. This is a worldbuilding sort of fantastic reality, the kind that clearly takes place somewhere and somewhen else, but Helms never overwhelms with useless prose. There are new words in the dialogue that make sense because of context, rather than relying on an explanation, and that shows Helms thinks we’re smart enough to understand — a respect I always appreciate in an author. In the end, the story is so simple, but it’s beautifully told, with the weight of realism and solid emotional impact. Worth reading even if you’re not a fan of “fantasy” because this one isn’t, really (there’s little to no magic, it’s just not a story from our world) but it is extremely well-written.

 

Review: Clarkesworld 101 (Feb 2015)

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LADY AND THE SHIP, by Atilgan Asikuzun

 

The Last Surviving Gondola Widow, by Kristine Kathryn Rusch

5/5 *

A properly steampunk story, in that the time period fits, it contained Victorian Super Technology, and actually used steam/coal to fuel the machines. Nicely researched alt-history focusing on Chicago after the Civil War; bonus points for including a magic system that makes sense, and a female main character that fit well within the context of the story. Good steampunk is hard to find, since it requires that the alt-tech is actually necessary for the world, and isn’t just gears slapped onto a story. Rusch’s characters, setting, and plot all work together into something extraordinary, and I’m delighted to have read it.

Indelible, by Gwendolyn Clare

2/5*

Eh. I can’t remember a worse story in Clarkesworld, which is usually home to the best of the best of SFF short fiction. It’s not terribly bad, it just isn’t good, isn’t unique, isn’t much different from work I reject on a regular basis. I’m tired of the Western/English predisposition to using ze/zer/mx for genderless pronouns; it’s not the only way to express “them” even in human languages, so why is it the only way we see it written in SFF? Especially considering that the main character has an Asian name — they have words in Chinese, Korean, Tagalog, and several other Asian languages for this exact situation that don’t translate into English as “zer”. (Much more likely to be “this person” or “that person”.) Beyond that, the story is nothing special. The twist at the end isn’t well-supported, and doesn’t answer the essential “question” that the opening evokes. Two stars only because it’s okay enough that if you were completely unfamiliar with this sort of tale, you might enjoy it somewhat.

(TW for rape, violence) The Three Resurrections of Jessica Churchill, by Kelly Robson

4/5*

Having it be 9/11 doesn’t add anything to the story for me, and sets the reader up looking for a connection which never quite materializes (and for me, wasn’t at all necessary to make the rest of the story work). And, I questioned the suddenness of the big decision at the very end, but not so much that I couldn’t buy it. Otherwise, it’s great! Visceral, moving, dark SF bordering on horror. I easily connected with the character — a teenage girl, sexually abused, neglected by her parents — but I don’t think you need to have been any of those things to be well and truly creeped out.

Meshed, by Rich Larson

5/5*

Ah, so good! Intelligent extrapolation from current events/cultural mores to a not-so-distant future, giving us a glimpse of crisp SF from the perspective of an everyday guy. It’s fun, quickly worded, completely plausible, and yet also emotionally solid. There is nothing in this story that I didn’t think, “Yes, sure, that could happen,” about.

The Osteomancer’s Son, by Greg van Eeekhout (First published in Asimov’s Science Fiction, April/May 2006.)

4/5*

I’m a fan of van Eeekhout’s work, but if you’re not, this story is a good introduction. It’s self-contained, but relates to his bone-magic tales, and gives the reader a sense of van Eeekhout’s casual, conversational style: the way he turns big reveals in side comments, and ends a sentence before the surprise has leaked all the way out of it. He’s a fun author, even when he’s telling a dark story, and this is an enjoyable read.

It Takes Two, by Nicola Griffith (First published in Eclipse Three, edited by Jonathan Strahan.)

3/5*

I was thrown immediately by the opening line: “It began, as these things often do, at a bar—” which immediately distances the reader by telling you that you’re not watching the scene unfold, you’re being told about the story after it’s already over. That particular story structure removes the immediacy of this tale, which already involves so much required belief in what one character is telling another at different points in the story. For me, that takes away from what should be the reader’s experience parallel to the narrator’s. As the story develops, it gets more interesting, if not very original, at least in being a newer (GLBT) presentation on a common theme. It’s a strong story, though, and if you like those “hooker with a heart of gold” stories, or the “it’s real love this time, I promise” trope, then you’ll enjoy Griffith’s telling of it.

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What I’ve Been Reading: Dial M for Monkey

3 of 5*

Only 60+ pages; this quick read can be started and finished in well under an hour, and that alone makes it not a waste of time. The stories are a mix of “high impact” and “needs an editor” – I kept wanting to revise or strike his last lines, over and over.

Maxwell sticks to a format of “Here’s the story, wait, no there’s a twist coming up, TWIST”, expanding it sometimes to “Here’s the story, wait, no there’s a twist coming up, wait for it, wait for it, really I mean it, keep waiting, TWIST, he he he” for most of the collection. Most of the characters are middle-aged, blue collar, London-area blokes, and a lot of the humor is crude (“He got hit in the balls with a block, lol” type of stuff.)

Probably the best are “I Almost Spanked A Monkey”, “Sprouts” (which is one of the few near-genre stories in the book), and “Is That To Go?”. All use Maxwell’s preferred format successfully, and none go on too long.

The longer pieces aren’t quite as good as the flash, IMO, but at the same time Maxwell brings in an earthy, working class, feel to his fiction that I don’t often see in lit flash. It’s an important perspective because it’s not often published, and some of the pieces do work very well. Don’t read it because it’s the best ever (it’s not) but it is a valuable use of an hour, even if you’re only learning what not to do yourself.