the Little Red Reviewer

Archive for June 2014

Francesca forrest photoI recently read and reviewed Pen Pal, a most extraordinary novel by Francesca Forrest.  Click here to read my review of Pen Pal, but the super quick summary is that this epistolary novel focuses around the relationship between a girl named Em who lives in a floating community off the Gulf Coast, and Kaya, a political prisoner. Through Em’s letters and descriptions of her life, Kaya realizes she may have more in common with this girl than she thought.  This is a powerful and profound story of marginalization and empowerment.

Francesca was kind enough to answer a few of my questions about the novel, living in Japan, indie publishing, and her passion for helping preserve native and minority languages.

Let’s get to the interview!

LRR:  The novel is written in an epistolary fashion, with letters, diary entries, e-mails, even newspaper articles. Why did you decide to present the story that way?

FF: The novel grew out of a story that evolved on Livejournal. Em’s message in a bottle, was just as an idea that came to me one morning, and people wanted more. I had had the idea of Kaya in my head for years, and I thought, what if she were the one who answered? So a few days later I posted her response. And then, every few days, I’d post another letter. I really loved the format and thought it worked well for a serialization because the wait for the next post gave the readers the experience of waiting for the next letter, just like the characters.

When I decided to turn it into a novel, I decided to supplement the letters with diary entries and other “evidence” so I could tell a richer story. I think it’s interesting to think about what people choose to reveal where, and to whom, and I tried to play with that with the characters’ letters to different people, and with how what they write in their diaries differs from what they say in their letters.

LRR:  Can you tell us a little about how this story came together, and what your inspirations were?

FF: Kaya’s story grew from two dreams I had: one in which a witch, or maybe a goddess, asked me to resurrect a defunct festival in her honor, and one in which a priestess was held prisoner in temple over a volcanic crater. I asked myself how those situations could be tied together, and that got me thinking about cultural suppression and why and how it happens—and then I could see how there’d be parallels to the situation of Em, whose community floats alongside, but keeps apart from, dry-land society. Other inspirations: I was enchanted, long ago, when I heard of jubilee, an event that happens fairly regularly in Mobile Bay, Alabama, and occasionally elsewhere: fish flood the shallow waters near shore so thickly that you can go out and just scoop them up by the armful. This became the dawn of seagifts in Pen Pal. And I was inspired, too, by the story of the pen pal correspondence I mention on the Pen Pal website, between Manuel Noriega, back when he ruled Panama, and Sarah York, a young American girl. That story raised so many questions about adult and child interactions, ulterior motives, and the intersection of the personal and the political.

emlee

artwork by Kelsey Michele Soderstrom

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“The Ink Readers of Doi Saket” is available online at Tor.com. Head over, give it a read (don’t worry, it’s quick. and fun!), and come on back and let me know what you think.  and if his name sounds familiar, it’s because his novelette “The Boy Who Cast No Shadow” was nominate for a Hugo last year. Interested in what I thought of the rest of the Hugo nom’d short stories? Click here!

 

My thoughts on “The Ink Readers of Doi Saket” by Thomas Olde Heuvelt:

 

 

The story takes place in the Thai village of Doi Saket during the festival of Loi Krathong, when the river is filled with all manner of floating flowers and small boats. Within the floating flowers are the wishes of everyone in Thailand. Good health, long life, revenge, love, you know, the usual.  The villagers swim into the river to retrieve the wish filled boats and read the people’s wishes, knowing some of these wishes ARE going to come true, because that’s simply how this festival works. In the cases where the boat has capsized, specially trained monks read the smeared ink, and interpret what the person wanted as best they can.

 

(In a way, Doi Saket reminded me a little of The North Pole, where every child’s letter to Santa goes. Ask Santa for a video game, you might get it. Ask Santa for a pony, you’ll probably still just get a video game. Did Santa bring you something you asked for, or did you ask for something that was within your parent’s gift buying  budget?)

 

The villagers in Doi Saket also have wishes – to not die, not to have to wait so long for dinner to be ready, to be able to satisfy a lover. you know, the usual things. Young Tangmoo doesn’t really have anything to wish for. He enjoys watching the spectacle, and only at the last possible second does he find something useful to wish for.

 

There are some shady dealings happening in Doi Saket, and in too many ways that is an inadvertently integral part of the festival. Everything has to happen just so, so something else can happen, so something else can happen. It’s all connected like clockwork, and no one but the reader gets to appreciate all the connections.
The narrative weaves back around and through itself, with some wishes being granted through karma and coincidence, others through supernatural means, and others through, well, other means that I won’t go into.  And so much of the writing is just plain funny!  With so much of this ballot taking an emotional toll, can I tell you how much of a joy it was to just laugh out loud at a funny scene, or a descriptive nickname, or just the lightness and joy in living of the whole thing?

I’m posting my thoughts on the Hugo nominated short stories all week.  You can read Sofia Samatar’s nominated short story “Selkie Stories Are For Losers” over at Strange Horizons.  Click here to see how far I’ve gotten in my Hugo reading.

here’s what I thought:

She knows all the stories, the one where he hides her skin in a locked trunk, the one where it’s hidden in the attic, the one where it’s in his knapsack. And always in the end, the Selkie finds her skin and returns to the sea. Our narrator knows these stories like the back of her hand, yet she adamantly refuses to share them with her closest friend Mona. And since her Mom left, she could really use a friend who isn’t interested in Selkie stories.
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There was that magical moment when I realized exactly what the title was referring to. In Selkie stories, the reader is always meant to feel sorry for the Selkie who is trapped on land, and such stories reach their end when the Selkie finds their skin and returns to their underwater family. We’re rarely shown the other side of the equation.  It’s not “loser” as in “shape of an L on her forehead”, it’s “loser” as in the one who lost something, the one who found themselves on the losing side of a conflict, of history, of the law, of magic.
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She’s a little jealous of the Selkies in the stories, I think. That they inevitably return to their families like nothing ever happened, and that their families want them back. Everyone in “Selkie Stories are for Losers” seems to have something they are trying to return to, and failing. Here on land, we don’t have a choice – life marches on, leaving us behind.
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I loved the unpretentious, fearless, nothing-to-prove writing style. Like the best magical realism, this could be the narrator’s exact experience, or it could be a coping mechanism for what’s happened in her life. Sometimes when reading magical realism, I really do think about the possibility that an unreliable narrator has come up with a coping mechanism. That’s not meant as an insult to the character or the story or the author, it’s just an added dimension for me when reading magical realism. It’s fun for me to think about what’s really happening in the context of the story, and what the narrator is just making up.
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I read the story a few times, and never did learn the name of the narrator.  On the one hand, unnamed narrators are a pet peeve of mine, but on the other hand it means she could be anyone – my neighbor, the waitress at that little diner, the girl giggling with her friend at the corner store.

inversionsTaking a bit of a break from Hugo stuff (but not really), today I’m talking about Iain M. Banks’ Inversions, which I’m reading along with kamo of this is how she fight start, Brittian from Two Dudes in an Attic, and Matt from Feet for Brains. Head over to their blogs to see what they think of the book so far.

Chapter 12 is the magic stopping point for this discussion, and sometime next week we’ll all post about the end of the book. I always like to guess what’s going on, so I’m sure this first post of mine will be mostly observations, guesses and predictions. Inversions is the “culture novel that isn’t”, which makes it an excellent first Banks novel if you’ve never read him before.

 

All the guys are gonna be talking sportsball references and other intelligentsia, and I am umm…. not going to be.

 

When kamo was first telling me about the book, he mentioned the phrase “hiding in plain sight”.  Now, he’s read this book before, so I was assuming he used that phrase for a particular reason.  Remember those Hidden Pictures games in Children’s Highlights? how one large “hey! that’s a duck!” would leap right out at you, but you had to stare a little longer to find the spoon that was in the bark of the tree, or the banana that was in the swell of the waves in the lake, or the hippo that was in the clouds?  Reading Inversions is a little like that, with secrets hidden in plain sight, and also simply disguised as things that wouldn’t be noticed by the other characters. For example, this is a complex science fiction novel disguised as a rather straight forward  epic fantasy novel, complete with kings, wars, torturers, apprentices, concubines and spies.

 

Lemme ‘splain.  Apologies that this sounds plot heavy, Banks is one of those writers who puts so much subtext in that there is about nine novels jammed into the 12 chapters that I read. So yeah, it’s kinda plot heavy, but that’s nothing compared to the subtext. And it doesn’t ever feel heavy. This isn’t a book that’s going to break your brain (at least what I’ve read of it so far won’t).

Also? SPOILERS.

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You can read John Chu’s Hugo nominated short story “The Rain That Falls on You From Nowhere” over at Tor.com.  I’ll be posting reviews of the nominated short stories all week, click here to see how far I’ve gotten through the ballot!

“My thoughts on The Water That Falls on You From Nowhere”, by John Chu:

No one knows how or why the water started falling, but once it appears it tends to follow the laws of physics. Outside, inside, summer or winter, it doesn’t matter. If you tell a lie, you are going to get wet. A whopper of a lie means a torrential drenching, whereas a little almost lie will merely spike the humidity in the room. Stating a paradox or open ended possible lie puts the speaker in such a state of painful anxiety, that doing exactly that has become quite a fad. Your best bet? Tell the truth or stay silent. No one ever drowned in a lie of omission.
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Matt and Gus have been together for a while now, and although Gus wants to sing his love from the rooftops, Matt still hasn’t come out to his parents.  In a do or die moment, they decide to visit Matt’s family for Christmas.
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This is a coming out story with a Science Fictional lie detector test.
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Matt has told his parents…. sort of.  As he explains to Gus, when writing or speaking to his parents, he uses the non-gendered Mandarin word that means sweetheart/spouse/lover. So his parents already know Matt has met the love of his life, they just don’t know that his sweetheart is a man.
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The story has a lot of Mandarin phrases, with Matt’s translation for Gus’s benefit. There’s some nice subtext here, of what’s lost in translation, either because the word or phrase doesn’t really have an English equivalent, or because the person doing the translating (Matt) is trying to insulate all parties from what  could be hurtful information.
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It’s an awkward Christmas dinner to be sure. There are some horrible scenes between Matt and his sister (not horrible writing, beautiful writing. Horrible as in the things she says to him, the things she expects from him, the things she accuses him of. Someone just needs to punch his sister in the face).  While the siblings are verbally sparring and soaking the entire kitchen, something wonderful is happening in the next room.  Something that won’t ever get lost in translation.
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At first, Matt annoyed me. He struck me as weak willed and wishy washy. But once I met his sister, those personality traits began to make much more sense, and they both were perfectly realistic characters.  There’s a quick scene between Gus and Matt’s parents that had me instantly in love with them.

 

All of the Hugo nominated short stories are available to read online, and you can read Rachel Swirsky’s lyrically haunting “If You Were A Dinosaur, My Love”, from the March issue of Apex Magazine, here.    (I’ll be posting reviews of the Hugo Nom’d short stories all week)

 

Here are my thoughts on “If You Were A Dinosour, My Love”, by Rachel Swirsky.

 

Half song, half prose poem, half prayer, with each paragraph beginning with the last phrase of the previous paragraph, the story put me in the mind of how a masterfully composed symphony returned to variations on a theme.

The title is the first line of the story, and it builds so very slowly –  she’s going through a thought experiment of if he was a dinosaur.  That his singing voice would be beautiful, that the geneticists would be all over him, that so he wouldn’t be lonely they would clone a mate for him, and even though she’d have lost him to a lady dinosaur, she wouldn’t be sad for losing him.

This is not a story, this is a kaleidoscope, with each touch, each incremental move of the barrel bringing something completely different into focus, taking you somewhere else, taking you one step closer to where the narrator is, at first, afraid to go. She wants to give you the imaginative, the impossible, the fantastically beautifully absurd before forcing you down to reality. You’re not sure where the story is going, you’re spiraling towards something, obviously, but the pitch perfect imagery is such a distraction that you don’t really care where you’re going. And then the end smacks you like a T-Rex’s jaw clamping down on your neck, and you suddenly know, without a doubt, exactly where that first sentence came from, where every sentence and thought came from. But a T-Rex is not about to eat you, this is reality and you are unfortunately, doomed to live.

You’ll be lured in by the lyricalness, pulled in further by the inescapable emotion, and then profoundly moved by the haunting devastation. This story killed me a little bit, and then I read it again, and it killed me a little bit more.  A truly amazing piece.

ApexMag46Swirsky

madonna and starshipThe Madonna and the Starship by James Morrow

published in June 2014

where I got it: received review copy from the publisher (thanks Tachyon!)

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With a cover like this and promises of provocative satire, how could I not read it?

 

Kurt Jastrow has the best day job a science fiction writer could ask for. In the 1950s, at the peak of live television, he’s the lead writer for Brock Barton and his Rocket Rangers.  A show every nine year old loves, Jastrow writes three shows a week (with Monday and Wednesday’s shows ending in cliffhangers, of course), and squeezes in a few minutes of actual science at the end of every episode.  It’s not a glamorous life to be sure, but Kurt has plenty of time to polish his science fiction stories, harass his shellshocked editor, and try to convince fellow writer Connie Osborne to go out on a date with him.

 

Everything was going swimmingly (if rather ho hum) for Kurt, until he gets a visit from extra terrestrial ultra-rationalists, who want to thank him for doing such an amazing job promoting scientific enlightenment via Brock Barton and the real science demonstrations at the end of the show. The aliens want to give Kurt his award on live TV! And oh, they want to punish anyone who isn’t rational like they are, namely the few million people who tune into the network’s religious programming every Sunday morning. Almost sounds like the alien invasion script someone like Kurt would write for a much better TV show than Brock Barton . . .

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some of the books reviewed here were free ARCs supplied by publishers/authors/other groups. Some of the books here I got from the library. the rest I *gasp!* actually paid for. I'll do my best to let you know what's what.