Posts Tagged ‘ short stories ’

Karen Russell – Vampires in the Lemon Grove (Book Review)

Vampires in the Lemon Grove cover

Karen Russell – Vampires in the Lemon Grove

I spent most of my youth wishing that the literary world would take science fiction and fantasy seriously. Now that they do, I’m not sure what to make of it. Karen Russell’s Vampires in the Lemon Grove is a short story collection written in a literary style, but with a heavy reliance on fantastical tweaks. They’re occasionally fascinating, both for their investigation of human nature and their unusual ideas, but often unsatisfying.

The strange thing is that the stories don’t make the same mistakes. Some are too focused on their ideas, but the plots and characters don’t go anywhere. The title story, for example, starts with a clever twist on vampire tropes but just turns them into the sort of bland, unsatisfying ciphers that no one but book critics like. Other stories are just the opposite, with compelling people who seem lessened by the unrealistic elements that are shoe-horned in. “Proving Up” is an interesting story of frontier life, with a realistic idea that provides enough hook for a story: Settlers need a glass window to qualify for land under the Homesteader Act, so one boy makes a mad ride across the plains to ensure the one window in the area appears in every house that the inspector will visit. However, it takes a sudden supernatural turn that feels like it cheats everything that came before, by applying a sudden harsh judgment to the characters.

That judgment at the end of “Proving Up” is an example of the problem that plagues “literary” fantasy. Like magical realism before it, this genre is only accepted by the tastemakers when it has clear symbolic meaning. And while that sounds like something I should love, the application  is way too heavy-handed. The symbols in this book are a lot less subtle than I would expect from an award-winning author, but apparently people assume that a lack of realism necessitates a lack of subtlety. Nowhere is this more apparent than “Dougbert Shackleton’s Rules for Antarctic Tailgating”, a humorous story about someone who spends nine months of each year traveling to Antarctica to watch the “sporting event” of whales eating krill. Funny for a few pages, it soon gets weighed down in repeated mentions of all the people around him who die on the trip, or his bitter complaints about the ex-wife who left him for a more balanced man. If “Antarctic Tailgaiting” is meant to make fun of obsessed sports fans, it fails by being less sophisticated than the crowd it looks down on.

Russell could be a great writer if she found the right balance for her stories. “Reeling for the Empire” is a compelling story about factory workers turned into monstrous silkworms as a casualty of Japan’s Twentieth Century industrial awakening. It’s the sort of apt, unsettling metaphor that Paolo Bacigalupi would be proud of, and the regretful characters work well. However, I do wish it had a bit more plot. “The New Veterans”, though, only struggles because it has too much plot: It’s the story of a massage therapist who discovers she can manipulate a veteran’s tattoo to change his war memories and take the burden of his trauma for him. It doesn’t come to a conclusion about whether this is right or not, which is understandable, but it still goes back and forth on that decision too many times.

Vampires in the Lemon Grove is interesting and memorable, but rarely enjoyable. It’s a strange mix of elements that I like, but it doesn’t put them together in a way that I can recommend.

Grade: C


China Miéville – Looking for Jake (Book Review)

Looking For Jake cover

China Mieville - Looking For Jake

While novels are much more popular these days, I enjoy short story collections as well. Freed of the requirement to develop the same ideas for hundreds of pages, the author can toss out many different stories that capture the essence of their writing style. Also, readers tend to expect happy endings when they devote the time to a full novel, but short stories allow for much more unpredictable variety. Looking for Jake, a collection by China Miéville, has these aspects to some extent, but they seem less significant in this case.

For one thing, Miéville already tends to write stories with open, not completely happy endings. That isn’t any different in this collection than in his other works. The main difference is that he’s just setting up situations and leaving the reader to wonder how they will play out instead of letting us get to know the characters before things work out halfway for them. And since some of his novels (notably Perdido Street Station and Kraken) constantly threw ideas at the reader, the variety that these stories offer also doesn’t seem as different as it would for most authors.

The biggest difference is that his novels tend to be set in different worlds than ours, while the stories in Looking for Jake are consistently on modern-day Earth, or in the sorts of post-apocalyptic scenes that could be just a month away. This does create a different atmosphere for his writing. While Miéville’s fantasy/sci-fi “New Weird” blend had a horror influence in the mix, several of these stories could simply be classified as out-and-out horror. And his socially conscious metaphors seem more obvious in this setting, as well. This feels preachy at times (“Foundation” is about the nightmare creatures drawn to a man who participated in a real-life war crime), but is very effective in the best stories (“The Ball Room” begins as a standard ghost story, but becomes more unsettling when we wonder how a profit-driven corporation would react to such a situation).

On the whole, Looking for Jake offers an experience more like a standard Miéville novel than expected. That’s not a bad thing, though. Several of the stories are excellent. Some could have easily been dropped into one of his existing works with little effort: “Familiar” (a sympathetic look at a blob of flesh conjured by a wizard and then discarded) would fit right in to the world of New Crobuzon, and the horrors of “Details” (a creature that appears when your mind makes faces out of the random patterns in cracks or clouds) seem appropriate to the fractured world of cults in Kraken. Others don’t (yet) fit next to any novel, though. The uncertain protagonist of “Go Between”, who follows mysterious orders without knowing if he’s helping good guys, bad guys, or no one, is pure Miéville, but in a new way.

I often believe that short story collections make excellent introductions to an author. (See Neil Gaiman’s Fragile Things or Ted Chiang’s Stories of Your Life and Others.) In this case, though, Looking for Jake doesn’t feel any more like “pure” Miéville than his novels do, and it’s not as consistent as his best. Even if it’s not my go-to recommendation for new readers, though, this has quite a few stories that every fan should experience.

Grade: B-


Thoughts on Lovecraft

The Best of H.P. Lovecraft: Bloodcurdling Tales of the Horror and the Macabre

H.P. Lovecraft’s stories are well-known, but not frequently read. I personally had only read a few before I went through the Bloodcurdling Tales short story collection last month. Given that, I’m more interested in discussing the stories than giving them a formal review.

So, in brief: This is a collection of classic horror stories that often manage to be atmospheric and creepy. They seem clichéd, though, with flowery prose and predictable last-paragraph twists. As with many classics, the aspects that made it influential can be found everywhere now, and the flaws (as well as the things that simply didn’t age well) have been left behind in those new works. You can still see what made these stories so great, but they aren’t the must-reads they once were.

Grade: C+

Ok, now that that’s out of the way, here are my thoughts on these stories. Basic familiarity with Lovecraft and the Cthulhu Mythos is assumed, but this should be pretty easy to follow even for those (many) people who haven’t read them.

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Pump Six And Other Stories (Book Review)








Pump Six And Other Stories cover

Pump Six And Other Stories


Pump Six And Other Stories establishes its themes on the opening page: A massive new skyscraper is being built in the city of Chengdu, using new organic technology that will actually let it grow until it covers the entire city. The description is fascinating enough that readers of this fiction will feel some exhilaration at the future that technology promises. But then, the focus shifts to the main character of the story, a starving beggar boy who lives in the filth under the shadow of this skyscraper. Technology may offer a lot of potential, but what does it matter if it only helps an elite few, while the rest of humanity is used or discarded at the whim of the powerful?

These characters are actually lucky, compared to those who populate the other short stories in this collection. At least here, some people are gaining a better world. In most of Paolo Bacigalupi’s tales, the state of the world has become so horrible that even the abusive rich people would envy our standard of living today. Most of these futures are dominated by environmental disasters, but other evils are more directly man-made: Brutal Intellectual Property police are apparently the only law in “The Calorie Man”, while “The Fluted Girl” creates a culture of slavery by applying a system of stocks and investment to individual people. One of the great features of short stories is that they don’t have to end happily. Since readers don’t invest as much emotion and time into them as they do to novels, the author doesn’t feel obligated to provide a reassuring ending. Bacigalupi takes full advantage of this: Maybe half of the stories end on a note of hope for the protagonist, if you look at them right, but the overarching feeling is one of doom. Whether or not the damage is permanent, the reader will still despair at the path that humanity is taking.

And despair they will. Bacigalupi may be called a science fiction author, but these works are better described as horror. A true horror story doesn’t need shadowy monsters of fountains of blood, but should rather unsettle the reader’s comfortable life. The disasters shown in Pump Six And Other Stories feel extrapolated from the real world, and their “day after tomorrow” nature hits in a more visceral way than present-day Inconvenient Truths can.

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