Sunday, October 17, 2010

Horror Stories

A mixed bag of genre stuff this entry. I'm trying to weed out books I know I'm not going to read, to donate to the book drive that will be happening to support National Novel Writing Month. I can't let any anthologies go without at least reading a couple of stories in each. So:

From Cthulhu's Reign, edited by Darrell Schweitzer (the concept of the anthology is "what the world will be like after Cthulthu and the other Lovecraftian monsters return to Earth):

304. Such Bright and Risen Madness in our Names by Jay Lake. Lake takes the anthology's premise and narrows it down to the personal level: the narrator is one of an ever-dwindling group of "rebel" humans / near-humans striving to maintain some kind of resistance against Cthulhu and the humans/near-humans who serve "him." In Lake's interpretation, there seem to be very few baseline humans left: almost everyone has undergone some kind of physical change since the Olde Ones returned. The narrator ends up involved in a plan to wipe out the Lovecraftians, but if every other form of resistance has failed, what are the odds this one will succeed? And is our narrator willing to do what it takes? What works about this story is that it could just as easily be about a resistance cell in an over-run third world country -- if the dictators in the story were not actual monsters, the emotions and interplay of the three main people in this story would be just as heart-wrenching and their decisions would be just as difficult to try to understand. The best genre stories speak to the "real" world, and this ranks right up there.

305. The Seals of New R'Lyeh by Gregory Frost almost crosses genre -- it's a crime caper (let's see if they can steal the heavily-guarded Seals), it's a sort-of buddy flick (if the buddies don't actually like each other but work together anyway) and it's at least dark fantasy, if not outright horror (after all, the setting is The World After Cthulhu Returns). At least twice, I thought I knew where this story was going and found that it wasn't going there. Frost makes several neat turns in the story work with just a word or two; he never beats you over the head with clues to where things are headed, but the clues are there nonetheless in the way the story progresses. See if you can put it together before the end; I'll admit, I didn't but afterwards said "of course!"

And now four from the first Dark Delicacies anthology, edited by Del Howison and Jeff Gelb:

306. The Reincarnate by Ray Bradbury. Is there anything like a Ray Bradbury short story? This is one of those stories that is addressed directly to the reader-as-main-character: "After a while you will get over being afraid." This type of story is, I think, very hard to pull off even in the short form. So far, Bradbury and Norman Partridge seem to be the only authors that come to mind has having succeeded enough for me to not only remember the story, but to add it to my list of favorites. Bradbury's starts off a little rocky for me, but within a trio of paragraphs I was pulled right in and stayed in the story through the really satisfying ending.

307. Part of the Game by F. Paul Wilson. This is a tidy little "pulp / penny dreadful" type story. 1930s Chinatown setting, prejudiced white detective tries to horn in on the gambling and other illicit activities from which a mysterious figure called The Mandarin takes a cut. He tells the Mandarin's Emissary that he wants to "be a part of the game," or else he will bring the entire police department to bear and essentially shut Chinatown down. Famous last words, of course. What I really liked about this story is that Wilson does not attempt to make the detective, or the emissary, or the Mandarin himself, at all sympathetic. Occasionally, a story in which everyone is simply out for himself is exactly what the reader needs. This was one of those times for me. And it's not that the detective is a particularly flat character -- he has motivation and such -- it's just that he's thoroughly unlikeable. Great story, and I'm wondering if Wilson intended "The Mandarin" to be Fu Manchu.

308. Bloody Mary Morning by John Farris. I'm not a "gore horror" fan so much -- I'd much rather watch or read a psychological horror story than see the latest SAW movie. Farris' tale sort of walks the line between the two. There is a lot of blood here, and described in very cinematic terms, even though there are only three deaths. The blood permeates the entire story, and just when I thought it was getting to be a bit too much and perhaps a bit cliche ... Farris ends the story on a grace note that makes you realize why all the blood was necessary and what it was really all about. The psychological dramatic tension (will he get away with it, is the best I can summarize without giving anything away) walks you through a few cliches but not in any way that feels cliched.

309. A Gentleman of the Old School by Chelsea Quinn Yarbro. I read this because it is a Count Saint-Germain story, and it's been years since I've read a Saint-Germain story. That being said ... it's not really a horror story. In fact, I'm not really sure what to call it. It's got murder mystery and serial killer elements in it, it's got the whole "will she learn his secret and what will happen if she does" element, and it's got that "intrepid reporter who might be getting in over her head" element. And they somehow work together, but there's nothing particularly horrific about the story, nor is there anything really in the way of a satisfactory exploration of the serial killer aspect. For fans of Saint-Germain, I think it's a great little character moment, but others might wonder just what the story is doing in this collection.

And finally three from Dark Delicacies II: Fear, also edited by Del Howison and Jeff Gelb:

310. Dog by Joe R. Lansdale. I normally try not to boil stories down to comparisons with other authors, but this story made me immediately think of two Stephen King works: CUJO (for perhaps the obvious reason), and "The Gingerbread Girl" (for reasons that hopefully will become apparent when you read the story). Which is not to say that Lansdale spends the story channeling King -- this is definitely a Lansdale story beginning to end. The tension just keeps ratcheting up through the story. I literally was sweating along with the main character, feeling chased and harried. And left the story with an unsettling feeling that this is the kind of thing that happens to you once, and you can't explain what it was all about but you hope you've done your time and it won't come around to bite you again. Which is meant as a great compliment.

311. First Born by John Farris. This Farris story didn't work quite as well for me as the one above, but it still had its nice twists. The main character is a famous actor who finds that he doesn't remember a promise he made 20 years ago to the man who started his career -- or at least that's what the odd voice on the other side of the phone claims. The caller wants the actor to turn over his first born child -- I'm not giving anything away here because the title pretty much leads you to that already. Farris works in a twist about halfway through that allows the story to resolve in a little bit of a different way than is typical. I think the details he leaves out (allowing the reader to piece things together) are more interesting than the details he leaves in.

312. The Ammonite Violin (Murder Ballad No. 4) by Caitlyn R. Kiernan. I know this is part of a longer book. I read it and decided that I really want to read that longer work now. Kiernan gives us a view through a serial killer's eyes -- a killer who has two passions, killing and collecting ammonite shells. He has a violin constructed using some of those shells and we spend most of the story wondering what his purpose is. It becomes very clear at the end. Kiernan does a great job of building that tension and wording things in such a way that even up to the end you're wondering exactly how the story is going to play out. Very well done.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Fungus of the Heart

Book 60: Fungus of the Heart by Jeremy C. Shipp, isbn 9781935738008, 158 pages, Raw Dog Screaming Press, $24.95

I was lucky enough to get an ARC in pdf form of Jeremy C. Shipp's forthcoming (sometime in November) short story collection of dark fantasy / dark sf / dark fairy tales / horror. Shipp's work is hard to define by just one genre. Most of the collection would probably fit the "dark fantasy" description, and almost all of them have some horror component. And at least two have a very "fairy tales but not of the Disney variety" feel to them.

I posted individual story reviews here. Overall, the collection is very strong. A few stories in particular stand out: the noirish "The Sun Never Sets in the Big City," the supernatural detective with a twist story "The Haunted House," the dialogue-driven "Boy in the Cabinet," and the wistful (and anti-war) "Spider House" are perhaps my four favorites of the collection. I can see the characters from "Haunted House" and "Spider House" both inhabiting full-length novels if not outright series. Special mention to "How To Make A Clown," which I think I would nominate for [info]lethepress 's WILDE STORIES anthology if I had a say. The only story in the collection that really didn't work for me at all was "Agape Walrus," but I know people for whom the very out-there nature of the story will be perfect.

You can pre-order the book directly from the publisher, Raw Dog Screaming. I think it's worth the paperback price at least -- and the collectors among you will probably want the hardcover.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Jeremy Shipp's Stories

A couple of months ago, author Jeremy C. Shipp sent out a call for reviewers on his Twitter. Some of those reviewers got print ARC's of Shipp's forthcoming short fiction collection FUNGUS OF THE HEART from the publisher. I was amongst those who got the ARC in .pdf form directly from the author. Here are my thoughts on the individual stories:

291. The Sun Never Rises in the Big City Shipp has a knack for combining genres, in this case mystery and horror. Most of the mystery-horror hybrids I've read have been in the Harry Dresden / urban fantasy mode. This one is decidedly not. The narrator pretends to be a noirish private dick with a sexy customer named Adeline who wants help confirming that her husband is cheating on her; the truth of the situation comes out quickly and the twists flow from there. It's still a mystery, it's just not the mystery you initially think it is. The true personality of the narrator becomes apparent as the story moves along. This one made an impression on me and made me wonder more about the world the characters live in.

292. The Haunted House Another mystery-horror hybrid, this time with a narrating character who could fall more into the Harry Dresden mold. Ash possesses her clients in order to get deep into their psyches to help solve them find solutions to the emotional trauma / problems they have. I liked how Shipp doled out the information as to what was really going on slowly, eerily. Apparitions, manifestations of the client's personality and past, come and go, but not everything Ash encounters is a figment of her client's imagination. This story has a different kind of mystery-tension than the story that precedes it, even though they can be lumped under the same "mystery-horror" label.

293. Fungus of the Heart Shipp creates interesting worlds in these short stories. In this story, the narrator is a trained Sentinel, meant to protect The Protectors, a breed of humans who are set slightly apart from the rest -- their powers give them responsibility but also cause those they protect to pull away. But Nightingale, the Sentinel, has a mission: to rescue her lover, also a Protector, from the people who have kidnapped her. Nightingale is willing to do anything it takes to rescue Cailin; the question is will she forfeit her soul to do what she thinks is right? Shipp very capably addresses the issue of when it's time to let go, within the bigger issue of finding your own personal boundaries.

294. Boy in the Cabinet A lot of Shipp's stories seem to be dialogue-driven. This is one of those: a boy who lives in a cabinet talks to a Death Cat, a Cup, a Girl, and a Man. The Boy discovers things about his life, his past, his future. The relatively small amount of actual descriptive writing in the story actually increases the feeling that we're reading a fairy-tale. The cat in particular is a great character, ranking right up there with the cat in Neil Gaiman's CORALINE in terms of almost overshadowing the human main characters.

295. Just Another Vampire Story is also not your typical vampire story. I really don't feel like I can say much about why this story worked so well for me without spoiling the way Shipp plays the story out. I think I can summarize it: a husband cheats on his wife, and vampires fit into the resolution of their marital problems. By keeping the story in Steven's POV, and showing how little he really understands Helen, Shipp keeps the narrative tension tight. Possibly my second-favorite story in the book after the opening story.

296. Ticketyboo Another story that did not go at all where I thought it would, and that's a good thing. I'm not sure I ever got a really clear sense of where / what Ticketyboo actually is (although there's a heavy implication that again, I don't want to spoil; but I think it can also be interpreted as something very different from what's implied by the end of the story), but I did get a strong sense of the bond between the young siblings the story centers on. I found the choice of the name "Massa" for the surrogate mother figure to be a little odd but that's a minor quibble.

297. The Escapist is a legend among Gnomekind, the best greatest hope for ending the war with the Goblins. But is he really what the bards sing about? The Escapist IS the main character in the story, and we see what he really thinks of himself and his abilities and his past as compared to what his fellows think. I'm not sure if Shipp intended this as almost a treatise on the Cult of Personality, but the theme certainly fits the story. What happens when the Savior/Hero we think we need not only is not what we thought but is also not what he thinks he is? The story is also an absolutely great war story -- how far will we go to win a battle? What happens when one general decides to take matters into his own hands, literally?

298. Ula Morales I'll admit I don't "get" the title, but I'm pretty sure I got the story, about a ten year old girl with antlers raised by an oak tree who will go to any lengths to protect her forest. One of the shorter, more pointed stories in the collection. On the one hand, it feels light a great character piece; on the other hand it feels like maybe it could have used a bit more development -- but then again, being in first person I'm not sure how the story could have been expanded. So it's a bit of a catch-22.

299. Spider House In contrast to the preceding story this one not only cries for more exploration, it would be very easy for the author to do more with it. If Shipp hasn't yet considered expanding this into at least a novella, he should. The main character is heavily burdened with her past involvement in a war that at first seems a bit vaguely described and later, with just a few lines, takes on a dimension that is both cliche and creative. Her supporting characters include a pumpkin-dwelling Sprite with low self-esteem and a vampire who can travel through computers and is searching for details on the person who destroyed his village and his family. And then there is the foil, General Thomas Reed, who wants to pull Shanna back into the war. It's a great cast of characters that almost demand to be developed further, which is a compliment to the story and not a criticism. I feel like I already know these characters and now want to see where events take them.

300. Monkey Boy and the Monsters Another war-based story, with a far more "anime" feel to it. That's the term that just popped into my head. I can see this story as a wildly-insane Japanese cartoon. Which is not to say the story's silliness is its only dimension. Far from it. Underneath the story of Monkey Boy, his sidekick Soapy and their battle against zombies, werewolves and dirt, we get commentary on controlling parents, censoring bodies, puberty, teen angst, and prejudice against "Georgians." Reading this only a week or so after the latest gay-bullying-related suicide here in NJ, I couldn't help but layer my own thoughts and concerns onto Shipp's words. Sometimes the right story comes along at the right time, and for me this was one of those happenstances.

301. Agape Walrus I am forced to admit that this particular story, about a rare "love walrus" named Kevin Donihe, his zombie lover, and three visitors to their remote home who are all looking for something. It was, perhaps, just a little too "out there" for me, but I'm sure the story will work very well for others. It felt like the silliness that propelled the Monkey Boy story (with the more serious undercurrent) took a wrong turn here; for me, too much of what goes on in this story felt more like it was there for shock value than for anything else.

302. Kingdom Come Another story I can't say too much about without spoiling the best part of the story. The story is about a man who takes his family on vacation in a national park in a world where people are equipped with Filters that essentially sound like high-tech "rose colored glasses." Early on, the narrator mentions his Filter editing out the utility wires and pollution so he can enjoy the view. The story of course takes a darker turn when the narrator's son disappears -- the author really excels at this "dark sf / dark fantasy / mystery" sort of mash-up. The story feels like it falters a bit in the middle and almost shows all the cards too soon, but it redeems itself in the final act and delivers a neat ending and (as with several other stories in the collection) a decided anti-war message.

303. How to Make a Clown is another of Shipp's dialogue-driven stories. It takes a more careful reading to really parse apart what's going on, but it is worth the effort. The opening is a bit rocky (what is up with that Clown, anyway), but the rest of the story has a romantic side in among the weirdness that I really liked. If I had a say, I'd recommend this story for Lethe Press' next Wilde Stories anthology.

Full book review will be posted over on my LJ and various other online places a little later tonight.

Friday, October 8, 2010

4 Story reviews

A mixed bag of genres, before I start my usual "Month of Horror" reading:

287. The Fall of the Moon by Jay Lake, from the October 2010 issue of Realms of Fantasy. In a world that seems to be in the future of our own (based on the use of certain words and the way characters refer to what used to be), a young man realizes that the insular, despondent life of his family's village is not all there is -- and that taking a risk (even if it is a risk prophecied by a book he finds under a bed) to see what's beyond the horizon is better than staying miserable. Jay Lake's short tale of Hassan and the boat he builds is rife with great details that reveal a world turned extremely dangerous (ocean tides bring in a flood of rodents, but also a flood of predators), but Hassan himself is what propels the story to its open end. Well done.

288. Twins by C.E. Morgan, from the June 14/21, 2010 issue of The New Yorker. This is one of those stories that I really can't figure out what to say about. I didn't hate it, I didn't dislike it even, but I also can't say I liked it. It's the story of very young twin brothers, one light-skinned and one dark, the progeny of mixed parents. It's told with a focus on the darker, less daring, brother and his interactions with more his more daring twin, their smothering single mother, and their distant father. It's full of physical detail that evokes the industrial area of Cincinnati, an area I've passed through and could picture. But I didn't click with the characters or the point of the story.

289. Torhec The Sculptor by Tanith Lee, from the October/November, 2010 issue of Asimov's Science Fiction. I'm going to sound like a broken record if someone goes back and rereads all of my Tanith Lee reviews in succession, but I love how she creates alternate Earths that are just a tweak or two away from our own. Is this story far in our future or in an alternate dimension? I don't know, and I'm not sure it really matters. The story is really about the ephemeral nature of art and the ever-lasting nature of man's pride and his doubt. The title character is an artist who creates, and then destroys. He does not sell collectors. Until the "multinaire" Von Glanz names a price high enough. Torhec and Von Glanz are opposite sides of "playing God," one destroying and one preserving. Or are they really all that different? Great story.

290. Death and the Countess by Win Scott Eckert, from The Avenger Chronicles. Another fun foray into the Wold-Newton Crossover Universe by Eckert, this one centering on Richard Benson, the gray-faced Avenger of the pulp magazines, and his team Justice Inc. They are drawn into a conspiracy in which a mysterious Countess is demonstrating a deadly new weapon to be auctioned off to the highest bidder -- and every major nation on the Allied and Axis sides of the soon-to-be World War Two want to get their hands on it. I won't spoil the fun of figuring out just how many other pulp (and other) literary figures Win manages to reference, since that's half the point of the story. A fun, easy read.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Order of the Phoenix

I actually finished "re-listening" to this three weeks ago, and just have not gotten around to writing my review. (Part of that was, honestly, my goal of making the second half of September "Non-Genre Fortnight," and thus wanting to hold off on this review until those books' reviews were written and posted. Which they have now done.)

Book 59: Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
by J.K. Rowling, read by Jim Dale, isbn 9780807220290, 870 pages / 23 cds, Scholastic / Listening Library, $13.95 / $75.00

If I were hard-pressed to list the Potter books from favorite to l east favorite (understanding that even "least favorite" is still very much enjoyed), OotP would probably place 3rd from the top. PRISONER OF AZKABAN will always be my favorite, and I think GOBLET OF FIRE will always come in a close second. ORDER OF THE PHOENIX and DEATHLY HALLOWS probably tie for third, with OotP just slightly edging out the series finale if push comes to shove.

That said, the book is still not perfect. Listening to Jim Dale perform it on cd, it becomes very apparent where the book slows down and almost terminally loses me: Hagrid's flashback. Please note that I'm not saying Hagrid's flashback is a waste of space: it is important that Harry & company learn where Hagrid has been, what he's been attempting to do both for Dumbledore and for his own purposes; it's important that we the readers know what Hagrid's been up to so that we understand just why it's so important that Dolores Umbridge not know what Hagrid's been up to. But still, for all the importance of that chapter -- it is slooooowww going even with the best of readers. I thought, when I first read the book, that it was my own problem, but listening to Jim Dale showed me that it's the chapter itself (and friends who are Potter fans have largely expressed the same problem). Thankfully, that's one of the few problems I have with the book.

Overall, despite the 870-page length, I find ORDER to be a tightly-plotted book that just keeps moving towards a conclusion we see coming long before Harry does. Even on my initial read of the book the week it was published, I could tell early on that Voldemort had figured out how to use his connection to Harry to manipulate our hero and knew that the trip to the Ministry was not going to end well. No, I did not (probably could not have) predict(ed) Sirius' death in the climactic scene; but I knew something horrible would happen. How could it not, with the tension and dread Rowling builds up in the preceding 700 pages? Of course, people had been predicting "an important character's" death for months before the book came out, and Rowling expertly teases us just before the halfway point with the near-death of Arthur Weasley. Harry never quite, in the books, comes to view Arthur as a father figure the way he does Sirius and Dumbledore, but Arthur's near death should have been the warning sign to all of us: in order for Harry to grow into the role prophecied for him at the end of the book, he needs to grow beyond what his father-figures can provide for him. Arthur, being not quite a father figure, survives his encounter with Nagini (and that wretched Muggle invention, "stitches!"). We should have known that Sirius and Dumbledore would not fare as well.

Rowling uses the animosity she's developed between Harry and Snape (as well as Snape and Sirius) to good advantage in propelling this story. Had Harry taken Occlumency lessons from just about anyone else, he might have been more successful. Had Snape been teaching the skill to just about anyone else, he might have come up with a better method of teaching it. (It's my opinion that Snape isn't actually a bad teacher, when he concentrates on his chosen subject(s). It's his mentoring side that is lacking, probably because he didn't have very good mentors when he was a kid. One wonders exactly where Dumbledore was during the school-days of the Marauders and "Snivellus.") And of course it is Snape's taunting of the house-bound Sirius that contributes, at least a little bit, to Sirius' willingly to chance being caught just to be out and doing something. (To be fair, it's also Sirius' nature -- Remus would never let Snape's taunting get to him, whereas Sirius just uses Snape's taunts to justify doing what he wants to do anyway.)

Rowling does an interesting thing with the Sirius/Harry relationship in this book: she allows the other characters to call Sirius and Harry on the dynamic that has developed between them. Molly Weasley is not the only character to point out that Sirius is trying to replace James and make up for all the years they didn't have together to get into trouble and raise hell. It makes me wonder if, once he was married, James became so much less of a wild-child that Sirius was already feeling the distance growing even before James and Lily were murdered. And Harry, of course, just wants a father who loves him so badly that he's willing to let Sirius egg him on to do the un-wise/un-safe thing -- the thought of disappointing Sirius pushes Harry to not really think through the consequences of his actions.

The revelation of not only the existence of the Prophecy but also its exact wording (as well as the revelation that now only two people in the world know that exact wording, since Sybil Trelawney apparently blacks out when she makes prophecies) is of course what the whole book leads to. Coming as it does after the emotional death of Sirius, it's almost an anti-climactic moment. Yes, yes, we know -- Harry is destined to face down Voldemort, and one has to kill the other. We sort of had that figured out once we realized Voldemort was the behind-the-scenes bad-guy of the first five books (he's barely seen in PHOENIX, despite being mentioned every other page, so he counts as "behind the scenes"). Again, it's an important moment, but it can't compete with the death of Sirius for sheer punch-in-the-guts power.

Voldemort may be behind-the-scenes, but Rowling's true gift to the readers in this book is the creation of a character who shows you don't have to be the Ultimate Evil to still be a menace. Dolores Umbridge, Senior Under-Secretary to the Minister of Magic, Hogwarts High Inquisitor and Defense Against the Dark Arts ... teacher is not the right word, is it? A woman who truly believes she is doing the right thing by setting Dementors on "out of control liar Harry Potter," by dumbing-down the curricula of the DADA class to "protect" the children as well as the Ministry, by inflicting bodily harm on her charges in the name of "discipline," Dolores is that every-day sort of evil that lurks in all of our lives: the horrid teacher, the petulant boss, the distant spouse. She is as big a threat to Harry's well-being as Voldemort. To me she is the scarier of the threats, because the last time I checked there were no Dark Wizards running around the real world, but there are hundreds of people just like Dolores Umbridge.

I could go on and on, as I could for just about any book in the Potter series, but I have to stop typing sometime and press "post." Final analysis: despite the occasional slow spot, ORDER OF THE PHOENIX pushes along at top speed, sprinkling some great character background and some great comedic moments in with a ton of tension and action. Well worth the read.

On the audiobook side, I do have one question that will probably never be answered: what made Jim Dale and his directors decide to give Bellatrix and Narcissa BLACK (married names: LeStrange and Malfoy) French accents? It seems clear in the books that Bella and Cissa grew up in England just as their cousins Sirius and Regulus did -- Bellatrix's French last name is her married name. Radolphus and Rabistan LeStrange should have the French accents, not Bellatrix.

(and one final note to those who disagreed with my stance that Hermione's House-Elf Crusade in GOBLET goes nowhere -- thank you for not pointing out just how much it bears on the action of PHOENIX and eventually PRINCE. Any one of you could have not-so-gently reminded me that Hermione continues her crusade in PHOENIX by leaving knitted caps all around the Gryffindor common room, a move I'd completely forgotten about. One of you did point out that Hermione's treatment of Kreacher is an outgrowth of her SPEW movement, but I'd forgotten just how much it plays into the center of this book.)

Spirit Day

Spirit Day

Other Rooms Other Wonders

The book is a collection of 8 loosely-interconnected stories that take place in Pakistan in the present day. I've read three of the eight stories and reviewed them here in previous years (in fact, this was my third reading of the opening story, "Nawabdin Electrician"). The stories, all together, paint a picture of a society in which the Old way of doing things still hangs on and in which the younger generation struggles to fit, as well as a society in which status still matters greatly. Most of the stories have a very "traveling storyteller" tone to the narration, as I noted in my original review of "Nawabdin Electrician."

I liked each of the stories individually, but felt that perhaps there was a bit too much repetition when all grouped together. The stories "Saleema," "Provide, Provide" and "In Other Rooms, Other Wonders" all basically tell the same story from different vantage points and with different main characters. All three are about beautiful but poor young women who see the possibility of securing a better future for themselves by creating romantic/sexual connections with powerful older men. Yes the details of the stories are different but the basic point of the stories is the same. In fact, the basic point of almost all of the stories in this collection might be summed up as "no matter how much you plan and scheme and think you're making the right decision in the moment, nothing is ever 100% certain and life often twists in unexpected ways."

The sameness of the lesson from story to story is the book's only negative. The positives are: a writing style that feels part medieval troubadour, part travelogue; a depth of sensory description that can only be described as "sensual" regardless of whether the author is writing about the weather, the food, or the sex; and a mosaic quality that enables you to see the connections between even the most peripheral of characters. In fact, some of those peripheral connections had me wondering what had happened to certain characters "between the scenes," so to speak, and I wonder if Mueenuddin has other stories with these characters in mind.

Mueenuddin Short Stories

During the second half of September, I made a concerted effort to read more "non-genre" fiction, both book-length and in short story form. For the short stories, that meant at least trying to catch up on several months worth of stories from The New Yorker (partially successful), One Story and Library of America's Story of the Week (not successful on either front). It also meant finally reading Daniyal Mueenuddin's IN OTHER ROOMS, OTHER WONDERS. The book is a collection of 8 loosely-interconnected stories that take place in Pakistan in the present day. I've read three of the eight stories and reviewed them here in previous years (in fact, this was my third reading of the opening story, "Nawabdin Electrician"). The stories, all together, paint a picture of a society in which the Old way of doing things still hangs on and in which the younger generation struggles to fit, as well as a society in which status still matters greatly. Most of the stories have a very "traveling storyteller" tone to the narration, as I noted in my original review of "Nawabdin Electrician."

279. Nawabdin Electrician The lead-off story centers on the poorer strata of Pakistani farm-town society, and the wealthy land-owner KK Harouni and his family are only briefly seen (and only in the role of bestowing a motorbike on Nawab to help him get around). Almost every time I reread a story I get something different out of it. In this case, what I really noticed this time was the sensory detail of Mueenuddin's writing. Whether he's writing about the weather, the food, or actual sex (which we don't see in this story, but do in others), Mueenuddin's writing has to be described as "sensual." The story's moral, that sometimes it is impossible to forgive or forget, still comes across full force and the final scene is still brutal.

280. Saleema The second story in the collection brings up more detail of the household of KK Harouni, but still primarily from the staff / servants perspective. It's also the first story in the collection to address the theme of social mobility in Pakistani society. Saleema, suffering with a husband who is a drug addict, comes into the house employ and first sleeps with the cook Hassan, but eventually sets her sights on the older Rafik, the household's major domo. Without giving too much away, there are developments that make Saleema think her place in the world is set. But if there's one thing Mueenuddin seems to make a repeated point about in his stories, it's this: nothing is ever set and guaranteed regardless of your station in life or who you build "unbreakable" connections with.

281. Provide, Provide We don't really see much of KK Harouni in these stories despite his being the main "rich" person in the book. But we do see how his actions and decisions affect others. This story focuses on a former manager of some of Harouni's properties, who buys up land Harouni is forced to sell off to pay off business debts. Chaundrey Jaglani becomes a farm-owner in his own right and by all accounts is a good one. As happens in Saleema and in the title story of the collection, Jaglani falls in love with a girl initially hired as a servant. He becomes torn, later in life, by this decision. She, of course, thinks her life is set because of her connection to Jaglani. The regrets the main character expresses towards the end of the story (and the travails of those he leaves behind) really express again that idea that the decisions we make have repurcussions we cannot always predict.

282. About A Burning Girl This is the only story in the collection narrated in the first person. The narrator is a judge in the Lahore High Court, and the story largely seems an indictment of a corrupt judicial system as well as a corrupt police system. The judge's wife's favorite servant goes home to visit his brother, and is arrested for the immolation-death of the brother's wife. The Harounis are again peripheral characters, the servant's father having been cook for various Harouni family members (including the "nephew with the American wife" introduced in "Our Lady of Paris"). There is almost a detective-story aspect to this piece, but it never really feels like a "whodunnit," and the judge is way too ineffectual to be a convincing series detective (although his assistant could probably be the focus of a sharp detective novel).

283. In Other Rooms, Other Wonders The title story is a companion piece to "Saleema" and "Provide, Provide," in that it centers upon a young woman facing hard times who sees her chance to secure her future by becoming the companion of a more powerful man. In "Saleema," that powerful man was the major domo of KK Harouni's household. In "Other Rooms," the powerful man is Harouni himself and so we finally, halfway through the book, get a more detailed look at the powerful businessman and representative of the "old school" upper-class of Pakistan. KK is near the end of his life in this story and Husna, the young woman, doesn't at first seem predatory at all -- but opportunity goes to her head. Again, the story is about false pride and the assumption that nothing can ever go wrong. Saleema and Husna, in these two stories, mimic each other without, it seems, being aware of the other's existance.

284. Our Lady of Paris This story introduces us to KK Harouni's nephew Sohail and the young American woman he falls in love with. Taking place in Paris, I actually expected it to feature KK's estranged daughter mentioned in earlier stories but she fails to put in an appearance. Instead, what we get is a tight little family drama: Sohail has avoided having his parents meet his girlfriend until this story when they insist on journeying to Paris with him, although his mother is smart enough to rent separate apartments in a different part of the city. Helen, the girlfriend, and Rafia, the mother, begin a not-so-delicate dance to see where Sohail's ultimate loyalties lay and how they will be able to co-exist should Sohail marry Helen. Sohail's father figures into the picture as well, but mostly as a foil for the women. This is the story in the collection that feels the freshest perhaps because it is the only one that features a true change of scenery. With the Pakistani characters out of Pakistan, there is less emphasis on the running of households and more emphasis on the characters. It is also perhaps the only story in the book besides "Nawabdin Electrician" that features characters who are all of the same social status.

285. Lily The Harounis are even more peripheral in this story of a rich young girl who wants to make a change in her life after a devastating car accident. She meets a fellow disaffected rich youth at a party, and he begins the slow dance of courting her. Ultimately, the story asks if we can really change who we are -- or perhaps it asks why people go so far overboard in changing themselves. Every relationship is about compromise in some sense, but Lily falls prey to what the Canadian band Motion Picture Ending calls "the superficial science / of changing all you are" to fit someone else. Lily wants so badly to escape herself and her social circle that she is willing to follow her suitor to his remote farm, which does not turn out to be the solution she thinks it will be.

286. A Spoiled Man The last story in the collection nicely book-ends with the opening story. In this tale, poor Rezak comes to work for Sohail Harouni and his American wife on their farm. He is a man accustomed to fitting everything he has in a small portable hut in which he also lives. Where Nawabdin, in the opening story, needed to find ways to support his large family, Rezak wants very little (in fact, needs very little) to support just himself but his possessions grow as the Harounis pay him far more than his previous employers. The story, it struck me when I first read it, is about how little we really need to survive and how we become dependent on the things we have. And, as with every other story in the collection, Rezak's tale is also about how the decisions we make seem sensible at the time but lead to places we never expected them to.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Robin And Ruby

Book 57: Robin And Ruby by K.M. Soehnlein, isbn 9780758232182, 276 pages, Kensington, $24.00

When I finished reading Soehnlein's THE WORLD OF NORMAL BOYS back in 2000, I was satisfied with the ending to a book I absolutely loved and was moved by. I knew the characters must go on to live their lives, but I wasn't clamoring for a sequel. So when I found out Soehnlein had written ROBIN AND RUBY, my first thought was "did you really need to go back to that well?" Upon reading the book, I'm glad he did.

R&R finds Robin MacKenzie now 20 years old, a college student working his summer away in Philadelphia alongside his childhood friend George and knee-deep in a relationship with a slightly older man that you know right away is just not working out. Robin's sister Ruby is now in high school, dating a boy who also doesn't seem quite right for her. She accompanies him to a party house on the Jersey Shore and a chance encounter with a boy from her past sets her off on a path that brings Robin and George to the Shore to find her.

Soehnlein does what I think is a wonderful job summarizing the earlier book, which took place when Robin was fourteen. The events of that book, surrounding Robin's homosexuality and the injury/death of his younger brother Jackson, haunt this book. We are never really free of our past, and Soehnlein works that idea into the novel without letting it completely overwhelm the story. Robin and Ruby's thoughts drift back to how Jackson's death affected them, how they've never really gotten out from under the shadow of being "Coma Boy's" siblings, how far apart their family has drifted thanks to divorce after Jackson's death. But the story itself propels on something completely different: the lives Robin and Ruby now lead, the fears and hopes they hold. At it's heart, ROBIN AND RUBY is a relationship drama: sexual relationships, creative relationships, familial relationships, and friendships. Robin's break-up with Peter and the changes in best friend George interweave with Robin's connection to Ruby's scriptwriting rich boyfriend Calvin; Calvin's connection to Robin reveals things about his personality to Ruby; the weekend at Calvin's sister's rented Shore house show Robin things about both herself and the life she would lead if she stayed in love with Calvin. And then there's the mystery boy from Ruby's past who brings memories of who she was after Jackson died compared with who she has become. NORMAL BOYS was told exclusively from Robin's point of view; Soehnlein rightly alternates sections of this book from both Robin and Ruby's points of view, the switching-back-and-forth happening more frequently as the book moves towards its conclusion.

Soehnlein also has a nice attention to period detail. I remembered that from NORMAL BOYS, where he sprinkled enough late 70s pop culture references to firmly root you in the era without being over-the-top. He does the same thing here for the early 80s: songs heard on the car radio or in the club bring back, for me at least, memories of where I was in those years.

I actually now find myself hoping, in a few years' time, that Soehnlein will write another book with these characters, showing us where they are as they move into the 90s.