Long Hidden edited by Rose Fox & Daniel José Older

Read: 22 September, 2017

This is one of the more consistent short story anthologies I’ve read – there are a few stories that I really didn’t like, but the writing quality is fairly consistent throughout. Like most anthologies, however, there are some stand out great stories, some weak entries, and a lot of somewhat unmemorable middling entries.

I really liked the variety of backgrounds and settings on display, and it was great to see cultures and experiences that I really haven’t gotten to see in fiction before. I also appreciated that the editors chose a variety of authors, from the well-known multi-published, to the first time sale – without compromising on quality.

“Ogres of East Africa” by Sofia Samatar

The collection opens with an interesting idea – the “story” is actually a catalogue of ogres, with the narrative taking place in the marginal notes. The ogres are creative, reminding me of Amos Tutuola’s ghosts, though they don’t have much bearing on the story beyond the set up. The narrative is a bit bare bones. It just presents us with a few interesting characters at a single point in time.

“The Oud” by Thoraiya Dyer

This story reminded me a lot of Wolf Winter. There was the same conflict between the personal story taking place within the household and the big political story taking place at a distance yet invariably spilling into the home. There was also the same competition between the old and the new religion, the same sense of isolation, the same smashing together of peasant and royal lives… It was sad, but in a dreamy sort of way. I really enjoyed this one.

“Free Jim’s Mine” by Tananarive Due

On the surface, this is a story about a young family trying to escape from slavery. But within that setting, Due has woven a fairy tale. It’s an interesting story with solid writing.

“Ffydd (Faith)” by S. Lynn

Set in Wales in the wake of the first world war, a family deals with the aftermath of their experiences. Shoehorned into this setting we get a vampire, who appears to be feeding off the chickens. I believe the family is meant to be Quaker, which I suppose have faced some amount of religious persecution in the past, and I guess you could say the same for the Welsh, but this comes right after a story about an escaping slave. It’s hard to see where it fits in the theme of the anthology. I found the story itself to be a bit of a slog – it just kept going and going, but didn’t have the either the writing or the characters to sustain interest in a “slice of life” narrative. Even the addition of a vampire couldn’t save it. As is, it felt like it was trying to be coy about the vampirism in lieu of having anything interesting happen, and I’ve just seen far too many vampires for that to work.

“Across the Seam” by Sunny Moraine

In this story, a trans coal miner is recognized as a woman by Baba Yaga. I wasn’t gripped by the story itself – it played out a little too predictably and there was quite a bit that I think just passed me by. But I really enjoyed the core premise. Knowing a few Baba Yaga stories, it fits quite well to have her recognize the woman inside the coal miner.

“Numbers” by Rion Amilcar Scott

Mobsters meet sirens! It’s an interesting idea, coming together to become a story about loyalty. The writing is good, just not to my taste.

“Each Part Without Mercy” by Meg Jayanth

The magic in the story happens through the use of dreams, as dreams are used in the conquest of a city, and then in an attempted assassination. I really liked the story, but I didn’t think it worked too well in that format. The world building was so interesting that I wish this were a novel – with more time to develop the characters and explore their relationships. But because the story tried to cover so much ground in such a small word count, it felt like the ending came out of nowhere and story lacked a satisfying resolution. I would gladly read this again as a full length novel.

“The Witch of Tarup” by Claire Humphrey

This one is a simple little story about witchcraft in rural Denmark. There’s no great twist or insight, just a solidly written little portrait. This is another one that I could easily see as a novel, where the author could better explore the relationships and setting. But while I liked the story, I really don’t see how it fits with the theme of the anthology.

“Marigolds” by L.S. Johnson

Lesbian prostitutes in Paris. The magic system is quite interesting – bringing together menstruation and female sexuality. It’s not something that I’ve seen too often in fiction, despite how much it comes up in culture studies. And while it’s lovely to get a story about lesbians with a happy ending, I’m rather put off by the “Paris prostitutes” setting. It just comes up too much and is way too fetishized.

“Diyu” by Robert William Iveniuk

The story begins as an interesting period piece set among the Chinese workers on the Canadian railroad, then gets some good Lovecraftian suspense going when an Eldritch horror appears (particularly satisfying given what a raging racist Lovecraft himself was)… But then the story ruins all of that built up good will by over-describing both the horror itself and its backstory. It even had the alien horror chatting! After such a strong beginning, all suspense was sucked right out of the story and it fizzles to a close.

“Collected Likenesses” by Jamey Hatley

This is a story about retributive magic and generational pain, exploring the aftermath of slavery. I found the second person narrative a bit jarring, as is the glimpse-by-glimpse narration. But despite these, it’s one of the collection’s strongest stories. It’s simple – easily summarised in a sentence – yet has quite a lot going on.

“Angela and the Scar” by Michael Janairo

In the Philippines, locals are losing the fight against the Yanquis until a forest spirit (kapfre) gets involved. This was one of the anthology’s middling entries – not great, not bad. It’s perfect filler. The idea of enlisting the land itself to aid in a freedom conflict is an interesting one (particularly in the context of guerrilla warfare), but the author doesn’t really do anything with it other than have it happen. I did like the way the kapfre was represented – it’s alien, and its help is very capriciously given. There’s a sense that it could just as easily (and happily) turn against the locals as against the Yanquis.

“The Colts” by Benjamin Parzybok

Another middling entry, this time about Hungarian zombies. The story takes place in a moment in time, as the main characters continue to act out the revolution that killed them while putting to rest the remainder of the living selves. The writing is solid, but this is another story that just doesn’t really do anything with its premise.

“Nine” by Kima Jones

I really didn’t like this one. The whole story seems to be exposition, yet I never actually got a feel for either the setting or the characters. The characters are puppetted through the story without appearing to really care about anything.

“The Heart and the Feather” by Christina Lynch

The story is about a family with Ambras Syndrome, or Hypertrichosis, which is characterised by abnormal hair growth over the whole body. This story didn’t really sit well with me. It uses real people and a real condition, but doesn’t really do anything with it – making it a bit of a spectacle. I struggled to see how this story fits with the theme of the anthology. The only thing I can think of is that it deals with the enslavement of the “Other” for entertainment, but the “Other” is presented as bestial, and that’s some very dangerous ground. There seems to be a lesson that the “Other” characters are good while it is the humans who are responsible for the evil happening in the story, but that’s undercut by having the responsible human be an actual, literal werewolf. So then what is the point, other than that some “Others” are fine, some are more at home in nature living as animals, and some eat children? I think this is the only story in the collection that I really disliked.

“A Score of Roses” by Troy L. Wiggins

This is a little story about two (magical?) people meeting and having a baby, and the baby is special in some way. The writing is solid and engaging, but the story doesn’t really go anywhere. It feels more like a first chapter than a complete story and, honestly, I can recall very little of this story now that a few days have passed since I read it.

“Neither Witch nor Fairy” by Nnghi Vo

This one is another story about a trans woman (or girl, in this case) being recognized by a supernatural creature. This time, the supernatural creatures are Irish. The setting lends a bit of an extra dimension to the self-discovery story, as the main character believes herself to be a Changeling, since she never feels like she fits as the boy she is thought to be. The story doesn’t stand out as anything special or particularly memorable, but it’s a solid entry.

“A Deeper Echo” by David Jón Fuller

This story read like heartbreaking wish fulfilment – a First Nations father, recently returned from fighting for the Canadian government, comes after his children who were stolen first by the schools, and then by a white woman. Oh, and also, he can change into a wolf. I’m attracted to the subject, so that may have carried me through a story that didn’t otherwise stand out. But this is certainly a solid addition to the anthology.

“Knotting Grass, Holding Ring” by Ken Liu

This is the first original story I’ve read by Liu, though I have read a few of his translations, and I absolutely loved it! The writing is lyrical, the setting is vivid, and the characters shone through brilliantly. This was by far one of my favourite stories in the collection!

“Jooni” by Kemba Banton

Another story with a bit too much exposition, but otherwise quite solid. The story takes place in a single moment as a freed slave deals with her trauma and recovers her sense of hope.

“There Will Be One Vacant Chair” by Sarah Pinsker

Hungarian Jews fight in the US Civil War while a disabled brother is forced to stay at home. The magic in this story involves reincarnation. This is another one that I think would have worked better as a longer piece – perhaps a novella. I would have liked more exploration into Julius’s theology.

“It’s War” by Nnedi Okorafor

This is another story that shows us its characters in a single moment, implying rather than narrating all that comes before and after. There’s a girl who can fly, there are women protesting taxation, and it all just kinda gets thrown together without explanation. It had a very similar feel to Okorafor’s Who Fears Death. The writing is fantastic, but I found something lacking in it as a story. I wanted either more about the protesters or more about the girl, but the two threads just didn’t seem to fit together.

“Find Me Unafraid” by Shanaé Brown

Booker warns Charlotte that the Klan is coming and holds her door strong against them. In the daylight hours, he gives her the money she will need to get herself and her family out of the small town where the mob in white sheets prowl. I enjoyed most of the story, but found the reveal at the end to be a little obvious and forced (the dialogue exposition, in particular, was clunky – especially since I had already picked up on most of the information that was being revealed). I’m also not sure how I feel about Charlotte having magical powers as well. I understand why she did, but it felt like a bit too much supernatural in a story that was otherwise more on the pleasantly ambiguous side. Overall, though, I found this to be one of the anthology’s stronger stories.

“A Wedding in Hungry Days” by Nicolette Barischoff

This was one of my favourite stories in the anthology! It’s the story of a ghost girl in rural China who marries a living boy. It’s practical and hard, but also very tender. It’s about caring for one’s family and creating a community. The narrative voice skipped around a bit, which I don’t like much in general and especially dislike in a short story, but that’s really my only complaint.

“Medu” by Lisa Bolekaja

What if Medusa the Gorgon were a black cowgirl? On the surface, the story is about a conflict between two types of magical humans (the Medusa-like and something like a xenomorph), but I felt a strong “natural hair movement” vibe from the story as well.

“Lone Women” by Victor LaValle

Adelaide is a settler heading out to her claim in Montana. With her is a creature, locked up in a trunk. As I was reading the anthology, I tried not to look at the author names or biographies before I read the stories so that my assumptions about their identities wouldn’t colour my perceptions. But when Adelaide turned out to be pregnant from a one night stand, I rolled my eyes and was utterly unsurprised to find that the author is a man. It’s not so much what happens as how, and the way in which it’s told. The story is fine, but suffers from both too much and not enough going on. There’s the story of the four boys, but that doesn’t get the ominous buildup it should have had and feels more like sequel-baiting rather than being impactful to this story. Then there’s the sisterhood angle, that seems to be looking disability and Otherness, but concludes by implying that disabled people are okay as long as they can be useful. I liked some parts of this story, but others made me quite uncomfortable.

“The Dance of the White Demons” by Sabrina Vourvoulias

The anthology ends with a strong story about native South American resistance against Spanish invaders. The story itself is great (and I would gladly read a novel-length version), but it’s also the perfect choice to end the book. It closes the anthology with a message of hope and survival even through times of oppression.

An Irish Country Doctor by Patrick Taylor

Read: 29 December, 2013

Barry Laverty has taken a position as a doctor’s assistant in the small Irish village of Ballybucklebo – a town so small that he can barely find it on the map. When he arrives only to find the doctor, his new boss, in the middle of throwing a patient into a bush, he realises that his new life may take some getting used to.

An Irish Country Doctor is a sweet little read, unchallenging but enjoyable and heart-warming. The characters, though often rather stereotypical for this sort of story, are by measure amusing and sympathetic. The setting invokes a nostalgia for the simple country life, albeit one that the novel reminds us is in the middle of changing. As the author points out in his opening note: “The rural Ulster that I have portrayed has vanished.”

I was rather disappointed with the characterization of the love interest, Patricia. She is studying to be an engineer – hard enough for a woman today, let alone in the ’60s. Yet when she expresses her frustration, Barry somehow manages to make it all about him and how uncomfortable her feelings are for him. And though many events and conversations in the story should have given Barry some perspective on what Patricia was talking about, he never seems to make the connection – he never even tries to understand where she is coming from. The whole book is, at least in part, about him learning to see things the way his patients see them so that he can provide them with care that they will understand and accept, yet he just frustratingly manages never to apply that new-found skill to the one person he ought to have every motivation in the world to try and understand.

It’s a small complaint, though, since Patricia occurs only infrequently and is rather inconsequential to the plot.

The writing is solid, very readable. The pepperings of Ulster dialect/slang is a nice touch. The book is a great light, fluffy read to escape from a bad or stressful day.

Buy An Irish Country Doctor from Amazon and support this blog!

Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt

Read: 23 January, 2013

When I look back on my childhood I wonder how I managed to survive at all. It was, of course, a miserable childhood: the happy childhood is hardly worth your while. Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood.

Angela’s Ashes is a memoir of Francis McCourt’s childhood, first as a young child to Irish parents in America, and then growing into adulthood in Limerick, Ireland. It’s a childhood of extreme poverty, and all of consequences of that.

It’s a brutal book, and it never lets up. Several reviewers have called the book a “laundry list of the terrible things that happen to the McCourt family,” and in many ways that’s pretty accurate. The happiest moments of the novel, when little Frankie forms a connection with two separate girls, end with those girls dying. Yeah, that’s the kind of book this is.

I quite liked the writing style. I know that there are many who found it irritating, but the short sentences gave it that breathlessness that children get when telling a story. For me, this served to reflect the narrator’s youth during the events of the book, and it heightened its impact.

In some ways, given how relentlessly depressing the book is, I kept expecting it to get worse. Every time Frankie was alone with a priest, I thought “oh no, this is where it happens…” But, thankfully, it never does.

One thing that impressed upon me as I was reading was Frankie’s vulnerability and passivity. Even as an adult, when he’s finally making decisions for himself and leaving Ireland, he has very little say in what happens to him. Though bound for New York, the boat captain simply decides to go to Albany instead and he is forced to come along. When they make a stop and a woman decides to have sex with him, he can do little other than lie down and accept her advances. He may enjoy it and be glad it happened, but it’s still something that happens to him.

It was a frustrating read, of course, as so many of the problems stem from the father’s alcoholism, the mother’s complacency, and the lack of knowledge of both. But all the characters – even the father who takes his dole money to the pub while his children starve at home – are treated with such compassion that it’s hard to feel anything other than pity for the whole family.

It’s a wonderful book full of interesting characters and funny moments and sadness… It would have been so easy for McCourt to write with anger, to lay blame with the various individual choices, institutions, and the sexism that cause nearly all of the suffering he describes. But instead, he merely relays his experiences and we are left to draw our own complicated conclusions.

I highly recommend reading Angela’s Ashes. Just remember to keep tissues handy.

Buy Angela’s Ashes from Amazon and support this blog!

The Greener Shore by Morgan Llywelyn

Read: 17 March, 2009

In this sequel to Druids, Ainvar escapes from a Roman-ruled Gaul to the shores of Hibernia. Once there, he must learn the ways of Eriu, a strange woman who speaks to him from the Otherworld. As he forges a place for himself and his large family among the Gaels, he manages to tread on the toes of some locals. Unfortunately, his druidic powers have deserted him since the battle of Alesia, leaving him vulnerable. Meanwhile, Cormiac Ru must find the long-lost Maia, whom he believes himself destined to marry despite the fact that she was stolen and sold into Roman slavery as an infant.

POSITIVE: Llywelyn’s writing style has not much changed in the years between Druids and Greener Shore. This new novel has most of the same strengths and flaws as its predecessors. While this can certainly be a negative (it would have been nice to see the author correct what had held Druids back from being a great novel), I found it a positive – if only because Greener Shore didn’t suffer from the all-too-common sequel-itis. This was not a novel released hurriedly in the hopes that it would ride its predecessor’s laurels.

As in Druids, the beginning was rather painful, but the story soon picked up. I managed to fly through two-hundred pages in just a few hours.

NEGATIVES: There didn’t seem to be much direction to the novel. Druids had the creation of the Gaulish federation and the defeat of Caesar, but Greener Shore lacked any kind of similar goal. Rather, the plot ambled along until it reached an epiphany, but this was done in a rather lack-luster way. Had the epiphany been very good, or had the journey been dotted with thought-provoking insight, this would have been fine. Unfortunately, Greener Shore lacked both. Those many sayings peppering the novel that were clearly meant to be “deep” were rather quite obvious and common to most books that seek depth. Those little surprising, funny, and interesting sayings that sometimes found their way into Druids were lacking here.

I also found exposition of what had happened in the previous novel to be rather heavy-handed. I wish Llywelyn had either sought to make Greener Shore a stand-alone part of a saga, or a straight sequel of Druids. Instead, she gave it a completely different feel (which is a completely waffly term, I know – but it’s the best I can come up with) while constantly bogging it down with “as you know, Martha” moments where characters narrate the events of the first novel to characters who had been present! I raised a similar complaint when I read Druids. Llywelyn spends far too much time on exposition and simply does not seem to trust her readers.

The Greener Shore is only a sequel of Druids in the sense that it involves many of the same characters and takes place after the events of the early book. Yes, that sounds like the definition of a sequel, but Greener Shore is an entirely different book with a completely different story to tell. Change the names and strike out the cumbersome “in the last episode” passages and it would function perfectly as an independent novel. Those wanting more Druids will be disappointed. Those wanting more Llywelyn will not.

P.S.: If anyone can tell me why Ainvar keeps refering to Ireland by its Roman name instead of the name the Gaels use, please explain it to me. I would have assumed that he would be eager to accept just about anything other than the Roman designation. All I can think is that it was supposed to have some sort of symbolic significance when, at the end, he talks about remembering Eriu, but it just doesn’t make sense to me.

Buy The Greener Shore: A Novel of the Druids of Hibernia from Amazon to help me afford my eldritch druidic worship!