Fred Coppersmith’s Favorite Stories of 2016 (includes my @apexmag tale!)

Over on Twitter, author and publisher Fred Coppersmith has been tweeting about stories he likes all through the year. He starts off with my Apex Magazine story, “That Lucky Old Sun“. Thanks, Fred!

He’s curated the whole list on Storify, which I’ve embedded below:

#SFWApro

What I’ve Been Watching: The Everybody Dies Edition

I haven’t done a movie review post lately, so this list covers a couple of months of watching. These should all still be available to watch streaming on Netflix and other services. As always, my reviews are mainly about the writing; though of course a film with a great script can still be shot poorly, the writing shines through, while a poorly-written script will still be obvious no matter how much money is thrown into the production. (See below, World War Z.)

Starting with the best:

 

MV5BMTU4NTg4NzgzMF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwOTU1NTMxMDE@._V1_SX640_SY720_

HOW I LIVE NOW, 2013. Saorse Ronan, Tom Holland, George MacKay. Director: Kevin MacDonald

5/5 stars.

Originally a novel by Meg Rosoff, published 2004 (winner: British Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize and the American Printz Award for young-adult literature). I haven’t read the novel but from what I can tell, the movie doesn’t diverge from it much, only cutting out scenes/people to get it down to a 1h41m runtime.

This is a beautiful, haunting, and — most importantly — organically logical story of a teenage girl who naively chooses to stay in England on the eve of a war rather than go home to her American father and stepmother, who’d sent her away in the first place. It’s the story of kids who are left stranded when their mom gets called away and isn’t able to return, who are separated, conscripted, and ultimately have to fight their way back to each other. It’s about making a family, making choices, taking risks, and doing so while the adults around them either ignore what they need or actively try to hurt them.

The kids can’t possibly make all of the right choices, even though for a moment it seems they’ll be okay in their country home, away from the mess of the world. That summer paradise is ripped away by the advancing army, and serves as a dreamlike reminder of the innocent joy they’ll never have again. Truly, they never will: some of the kids are killed, and the rest are changed forever. Daisy, the MC, isn’t nice or likeable to begin with, but neither is she cruel. She’s an unhappy teenager, simple as that. She grows over the course of the film, becoming a mother and protector, but the change isn’t capricious. She fails in a lot of ways as she learns to get the important things right.

There are consequences to everyone’s actions. The characters have motivation and agency and needs, and while displayed subtly, they’re also obvious in the context of the story. The director manages to keep the pace moving without rushing too fast or dragging behind. There are no montages; there is nothing shown outside of the Daisy’s experience, yet the story is complete and bursting with detail. It’s tight 3rd person, excellently scripted, and I highly recommend it as an example of how YA storytelling should be done. I normally avoid anything with teenage main characters because it doesn’t speak to my life now, and I don’t get terribly nostalgic for my own past since what I have now is so much better. But I’ve seen this twice now, and would watch it again, because it’s not about “teenagers”. It’s about real, textured, people who just happen to be kids.

Continue reading

You Should Read Maureen F. McHugh’s “After The Apocalypse”

I knew that Maureen F. McHugh was going to be a Guest of Honor at the 2013 Readercon, but I hadn’t read any of her work. Luckily I was given a copy of her short story collection, After the Apocalypse, and I found time to open it over the holidays. Well, there were some stone steps involved, and a patch of ice, and a day spent lying in bed trying to not move anything that was sore, but it was during the holiday break so that’s close enough.

I had no idea what I was going to get into when I opened the book. The first page of the first story opens on a zombie preserve. A guy, a prisoner, dropped off there to survive, and oh yeah it used to a be a real city, this place full of walking dead. It used to be Cleveland.

Yeah, that’s when I fell in love with the book.

I wasn’t wrong, either. McHugh’s prose is easy, flows well from one sentence to the next, without too many sharp edges or dictionary words, but the stories aren’t simple. They’re full of smart ideas. “The Naturalist”, the first in the collection, skips past the zombie apocalypse to a point where we could get rid of the last stragglers if we wanted to … but what we had another use for them? From that concept comes another simple idea – what if the guy sent to get eaten by zombies started studying them instead?

It’s not too much of a stretch, and in fact, none of McHugh’s stories are. There a few steps beyond what we have now, in some cases just a little hop into tomorrow, but you can trace them all back to something recognizable. “Special Economics” takes the idea of biotech advances in China and reduces it down to a young factory girl working off her debt. “Useless Things” shows us an American Southwest after an economic crash but doesn’t use the setting to explore large-scale effects of poverty. McHugh focuses tightly onto one older woman, living in the desert, making ends meet with a skill she learned before the jobs disappeared.

It’s that focus that makes McHugh’s work personal and accessible. “Lost Boy” investigates the unusual amnesia affecting a boy lost during a dirty bomb attack in Baltimore. Not the aftermath of the bomb in the conventional sense, not the terrorists, not the long camera pan across a pile of bodies lying in the street outside of the bomb site. Just one teenage boy, misplaced in the chaos.

“The Kingdom of the Blind” includes a tech girl who loved Mycroft from Heinlein’s Moon is a Harsh Mistress – one of my favorite books – so there may have been a little fangirl squee on my part at that moment. The story itself wasn’t one of my favorites; it felt a little forced in places, though not much. It’s followed by “Going to France”, which is the only piece in the book that I didn’t like. I’m not sure if it’s the rambling tone of the story, or the fact that it included a mute autistic character who only served to be a part of the scenery. She’s got a superpower – flight – like some of the other characters, but while McHugh describes one flyer as being nervous after a brush with mortality, and another who “seemed caught up in dealing with logistics”, she then says “the autistic one was just pure compulsion”.

Not a fair description of most autistic people I know.

“The Effect of Centrifugal Forces” had an odd narrative flow and while the story mentioned an Avian Flu it’s really about a teen girl torn between a dying parent and an irresponsible one. It’s a story about a personal apocalypse, the end of life as she knew it. “After the Apocalypse” ends the book on a strong, dark, note, making up for the minor missteps of “Kingdom” and “France”. It blends the personal trauma with loss on a larger scale and puts into perspective a woman’s choice to save herself instead of anyone else. Doesn’t make light of it or, I think, approve of it, but the explanation is there. McHugh also plays with a present tense voice that isn’t as distracting as it could have been.

In the end, I loved this book. These stories are wonderful. McHugh writes in a evocative yet minimal way that I like to shoot for my own writing. She rarely tries to make it complicated, because she doesn’t have to. The stories are strong, they’re good, without making them fussy or overtly decorative. It’s a small book of short stories but it’s also a fine example of what writing can be: smart, clean, powerful.

I’m very glad I read it.

You Should Read: J. P. Moore’s TOOTHLESS

Summary: Toothless is an epic tale of war and redemption set in 12th century Europe. An ancient evil is on the march. An army of demons and undead rampages across the countryside, spreading death and destruction. Judgment has come. The world of the living teeters on the edge of ruin. One knight, a failed Templar, returns to the battlefield to avenge his wife and daughter. The dice are cast against him, and he is slain only to rise in service to the very evil that he hoped to destroy. He is a gifted minion. But life is not done with him yet. (From DragonMoon Press)

Toothless is the story of a zombie hero, if there can be such a thing, set in a medieval Europe devastated by the advance of a demonic army. Riding ahead of this unstoppable mass of death is a plague which strikes any living creature. Behind the plague comes the army of risen undead, pulled from the recently killed soldiers who died trying to defeat it. Toothless is told by an omniscient narrator who gives us the stories of two outcasts: Martin, the dead Templar who’s second life as a zombie with no lower jaw is the subject of most of the book, and Lil, the deformed psychic teen girl who just happens to be protected by the church.

Part of what I love about Moore’s work is that he took a story which, on its surface, seems a little ridiculous, and made it not only believable but gripping. His world is darker and gets darker still with the introduction of a main character that you slowly realize is never going to become a better person. Toothless is a monster. That he may also save world is beside the point. As an exploration of humanity, Toothless is terribly exciting because, freed from the living Martin’s responsibilities, he devolves into a creature who does remarkably bad things, over and over again. At some point the not-yet-dead around him realize his potential as a saviour, and rally around him on his journey to defeat the source of the desolation, but that doesn’t make Toothless a good guy. He still kills, still thrives on the blood and energy he’s washed in with the death of every victim, and is still an unabashed drunk.

He simply aims his talent for murder in the direction of the bad guys for a while.

Moore’s book, which began life as a podcast, is not cheerful, and only barely hopeful. It exists in an alternate history of our own Earth, in a dark age we very nearly can’t climb out of.

I loved reading this book.

I am, admittedly, a zombie fangirl, and I’m always on the lookout for new takes on the decreasingly-original theme. J.P. Moore’s Toothless is startlingly original, with a breadth and depth unusual in a zombie novel, but one that only adds to the feeling of withering melancholy which rises up from this story the way Martin rose up and became Toothless.

Toothless is due out October 31, 2010.

J.P. Moore is @jpmoo on twitter, and the cover artist Scott Purdy is @scottpurdy on twitter

 

You Should Read: Stephen King’s THE STAND

Synopsis: One man escapes from a biological weapon facility after an accident, carrying with him the deadly virus known as Captain Tripps, a rapidly mutating flu that – in the ensuing weeks – wipes out most of the world’s population. In the aftermath, survivors choose between following an elderly black woman to Boulder or the dark man, Randall Flagg, who has set up his command post in Las Vegas. The two factions prepare for a confrontation between the forces of good and evil. (from StephenKing.com)

Obviously, the first question is: Why am I reviewing a book that came out in 1978?

The answer: I review what I read. My husband decided to read it this week, which means he and I are talking about it, and since I’ve read it dozens of times, I thought I should talk to you about it too. Good reason? Ok then.

Next question: What’s it about?

Normally I prefer to talk about my opinions instead of giving a more thorough overview, but The Stand is over 800 pages long, so the paragraph synopsis isn’t going to be quite enough. It begins with the setup, introducing you to the characters you’re going to be spending so much time with, a few that won’t stick around for very long, and the world itself, which as you can guess isn’t going to be with us for too long either. The Stand is told from the point of view of an omnipotent narrator, who sees all and knows all, so you get the thoughts and feelings of characters who don’t ever get to meet up with our hero, Stu Redmond. This book unfolds before you, no secrets held back, no stone left unturned. King can give you two sentences about a random girl, but in those two sentences you know something intimate about her character, making her a real person. Who’s about to die. Along with nearly everyone else on the planet.

You also get a New York charmer, smooth and a bit slimy, in Larry Underwood. He’s the underfoot, under-appreciated, underdog, that Larry Underwood, just trying to make a name for himself as a singer and guitar player. Of course, he “ain’t no good guy,” as his mother and just about every other woman in the book point out. It’s pretty obvious that Larry’s going to want to be Stu, since Stu’s the man that everyone is going to want to be. After all, he’s the guy that’s going to have the plan, save the girl, and lead his people out of the desert. He’s the Texan, the straightforward cowboy hero, and if he doesn’t have a horse to ride in on, well that’s ok, because King thoughtfully provides him with a motorcycle, which will do the trick. Hallelujah.

Thankfully, King doesn’t actually make Stu into someone quite so perfect, and even Stu ends up wanting to be more like the man everyone thinks he is. It just takes 500 pages to figure that out.

What’s the conflict?

You’d think the world as we know it dying in a fit of phlegm would be conflict enough, but it actually serves as the beginning of the story instead of the end. The real story is about the classic fight of good vs. evil. Larry isn’t the real bad guy, he’s just not a great guy to begin with, and has to struggle to learn how to be better. Stu isn’t the only good guy, either, he’s just trying to be the man everyone needs him to be. The bad guys of the story all have their reasons for being on the wrong side, making them complex characters who can’t easily be dismissed. Our Good Guy squad is rounded out by the Girl That Guys are in Love With, the Old Professor, the Disabled People, the Happy Hick, a few Doctors, and a Friendly Dog. On the other side of the story, the side with storm clouds, neon signs and hot rods, are a Slutty Teen, The Whore of Babylon, the Ex-Additcs, a Grumpy Cop, few Criminals, and some Wolves.

King needed truly bad and truly good to give all those other people flags to rally under. Good and Evil as archetypes are too simple to be human, since we have far too many flaws and hopes and guilty pleasures to ever be just one thing. King brings in the big guns, the angel and the demon, God and the Devil, and introduces their champions as the flag bearers for the darkness and the light.

The sheer number of characters in this novel is astounding – King’s population rivals that of a major metropolitan city.The Stand gives us old women, young women, mothers, new wives, children, and angry victims. It shows us a retarded man and a deaf-mute, who manage to find each other and, in their own ways, make useful contributions to their new society. It gives us bad guys, selfish guys, criminals, soldiers, stupid people, lost people, and Trashcan Man, who lives to burn. Each of them has a past, a present, a favorite thing. When you meet them in the story you see the color of their hair and the patterns on the soles of their shoes. It’s these details that make what was, otherwise, your average viral apocalypse into a story worth reading.

King’s power to tell a great story is in his willingness to go on, and on. And on. He’s not interested in getting to the end of the story as much as he wants to show you every excruciating detail along the way. If you’re looking for a book that will take you into the belly of a new world and carefully describe everything from the color of the dust beneath your feet to the feel of snow on your skin to the sound of wolves howling up on the mountain, I can’t recommend The Standstrongly enough.