Consider this review with several grains of salt, as I'm close with the editor, the publishers, and three or four contributors. That being said, thisConsider this review with several grains of salt, as I'm close with the editor, the publishers, and three or four contributors. That being said, this is an excellent, at times challenging collection of short fiction. Its title is a bit misleading, I think, lending to the idea (at first glance) that these stories will be more about actual monsters in the classical sense. Or worse, the lazy, Joss Whedon sense where literally every character at one point or another expressly states that they are a monster because they're good guys but also flawed and they want to make sure you know that because relatability, and because this is what passes these days for character development in a major motion picture (see: Avengers: AoU).
The monsters in this collection aren't "Monsters" with a capital M, nor does the title expressly relate to the monsters hiding in plain sight, but to the potential for the monstrous in all people, interactions, and eventualities. It's broad, with stories spanning all manner of genre from horror to sci-fi, grounded spec, fantasy, and my favourite, the straight-up weird. However broad the overarching theme, the stories feel married to one another—while many of the stories diverge in tone and execution, not one feels out of place. And even in those entries that simply didn't "do" anything for me, the level of craft remained extremely high throughout.
As mentioned previously, some stories work (for me) better than others. The high points of this collection are "Tasting Gomoa," "Dead Sea Fruit," "The Nazir," "A Handful of Earth," "Night They Missed the Horror Show," "If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love," "Boyfriend and Shark," "Mantis Wives," "Out They Come," and "You Go Where it Takes You." Definitely a propensity toward the weird in my selections. Of these, I think "Tasting Gomoa," "Dead Sea Fruit," and "Out They Come" were, unquestionably, my favourites in the collection.
A few others were enjoyable, and I could see why they were in this collection as they very much fit both thematically and in terms of quality, but I was left wanting more: "The Emperor's Old Bones," "The Things," "Muo-Ka's Child," "Six," "Ghostweight," "Dream of the Fisherman's Wife." The quality of each of these stories is without question, but either their characters or their world just didn't sit as well as I would have liked (and in the case of "The Things," I just couldn't divorce myself enough from the film it uses as its basis to enjoy the story on its own merits—it was more distracting than anything).
The only stories I truly did not enjoy were "The Bread We Eat in Dreams," "Never the Same," "Proboscis," "Theories of Pain," and "Terrible Lizards." None were bad or poorly written, but in "Dreams," Never," and "Proboscis," I was not able to find a foothold in the stories being told, mostly due to issues with character and setting, and found myself as a result being kept at a distance. With the last two stories (which are also the final entries in the collection), I found their style overwhelmed whatever meaning I was meant to gleam from the stories at hand.
It's worth mentioning I don't read many multi-author anthologies. In fact, this is one of my first, save academic material read while in university. My tastes are for more single-author collections, as I find it easier to grasp the trajectory of one author's vision rather than a plethora. But these stories do work together, and while challenging, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and is certainly worth investing your time and money in. I do not recommend attempting to plow through it though, as due to the nature of the stories and the variety of voices (which are wonderfully diverse), I feel as if each story needs to "sit" in one's mind for a bit. The end result is a rewarding, unique collection that goes a great distance further than its title initially implies....more
Seen the French film High Tension? Great, then don't bother with this. This is one of those instances where the very predictable twist at the end unraSeen the French film High Tension? Great, then don't bother with this. This is one of those instances where the very predictable twist at the end unravels the book in such a way that it undoes everything worthwhile that came before. It's not revelatory; it's cheap and unearned, and also offensively stupid in the way that it plays into a very old trope of fear of mental illness. This is a broken narrative and very much not worth even the brisk two to three hours it takes to read.
Christ, I try not to shit on a book too heavily, but I really, really dislike pretty much everything about this title. ...more
Was finding it to be an okay story for the most part—overwritten in spots with characters I didn't feel all that sympathetic toward. But then he wentWas finding it to be an okay story for the most part—overwritten in spots with characters I didn't feel all that sympathetic toward. But then he went and killed a dog, and then proceeded to detail just how gory the scene was in the aftermath. I don't have many trigger points that get me to say "fuck this" with a book, but Hill succeeded. Could not care less what happens after this point in the narrative—I'm just done....more
I really wanted to like this more than I did in the end. The actual product is a thing of beauty, from the minimalist cover to the illustrations throuI really wanted to like this more than I did in the end. The actual product is a thing of beauty, from the minimalist cover to the illustrations throughout. My issues were more with the writing and the collection of stories. To the latter point, and this is a pet peeve of mine with short fiction collections, I didn't feel much in the way of connective tissue, thematic or otherwise, between the narratives. Illustrated entries like "Critical Theory Archie" and "Mr. Spock Says Things from Episodes of Girls" were cute and well illustrated, but felt as if they belonged in a different collection altogether—similarly with "Jon Paul Fiorentino Interviews His Mother," which holds the coveted final spot in the collection and again feels entirely removed from the rest. It reminds me of Lynn Coady's Hellgoing a bit (yes, that won the Giller, but I still don't know why—The Antagonist was worlds stronger) in that this feels more like a collection of B-sides that maybe didn't fit anywhere else.
To the other point I mentioned, this is my first Fiorentino book and, well, his writing just didn't do it for me. It's not bad, but I found his humour, which is more absurdist than sarcastic, with characters often blurting out shit that anyone else would be horrified to speak aloud, simply tried too hard. It was manufactured comedy, and just didn't feel natural. But then, humour is one of the more subjective things in this world, so keep that in mind. This is a try before you buy, absolutely....more
Having just finished The Opposite House, and having now read all six of Helen Oyeyemi's books, I find I'm in a position with a writer that I haven't eHaving just finished The Opposite House, and having now read all six of Helen Oyeyemi's books, I find I'm in a position with a writer that I haven't ever found myself: being frustrated or let down to some degree with most of her books, yet knowing I will continue to read whatever she produces.
It's a strange situation where her writing in and of itself is lyrical, and often breathtaking in isolated moments, yet her stories often meander and lack a sense of character and narrative cohesion. I maintain that The Icarus Girl, her first book, is far and away the strongest, with Boy, Snow, Bird a close second (save for some out-of-the-blue BS that occurs at the end). Love the structural devices and the presence of the house itself in White is for Witching (many of the devices present and perfected in that book appear first in The Opposite House), but found myself cooling on its characters as the book progressed. Mr. Fox I need to revisit someday as I honestly cannot recall anything from that book other than it simply not working for me, but then it was my first of her works and probably not the best entry point. The Opposite House was... okay. I felt like the linkage between the parallel narratives was forced and that they never really came together in a satisfying or cohesive manner, even thematically, which is also part of the problem I had with her short fiction collection earlier this year, in which the stories not only went all over the place with frustrating tangents that really hurt the pacing of many entries, but that again, the linked elements between them felt very deliberately manufactured and not in any way organic.
It's a strange thing to be able to say to someone "I really like this author and you should read her," but to be able to follow up with "I wish I could recommend to you more than just one or two of her six books... but you should still totally give her a shot."...more
“Is it what they were talking about on the radio?” he asks, releasing my hand and sitting back in his chair. “A few years ago all anyone could talk ab“Is it what they were talking about on the radio?” he asks, releasing my hand and sitting back in his chair. “A few years ago all anyone could talk about was the UN passing an exception to the ban on human cloning. They were saying it was probably for medical research.”
“It was,” I reply, though I shouldn’t be surprised that Dr. Grath would put the pieces together. “There are four of us, in Chicago at least. I’m not sure how many across the country.”
“How does it work?” He’s very calm, for someone who’s just realized he’s sitting across the table from a clone of his best friend. It makes me want to hug him, though I don’t.
“They cut into your brain. The process kills you, but they’re able to extract pieces of the memory center of your brain and transfer it into a new body, into a clone of yourself. It’s sort of like injecting stem cells. The brain matter takes room in the clones and grows there. You become a new person,” I say. “Well, the same person, but a new body.”
“So how old are you?” he asks. He looks a little pale. I wonder if it was a good idea to tell him, if he’s too old and too fragile for these sorts of revelations.
“I guess, maybe a few months old? But they use hormones to rapidly age the clones so they match up with the age you are at the time of transfer. I guess they figured it would be a bit unnerving for adults to wake up in the bodies of infants. They’re all about the psychological effects, let me tell you. I have to go to a support group every week for a year.”
SUBlife: an experimental procedure, up for FDA approval, in which participants are selected via lottery to receive a new lease on life—quite literally. The lucky few, all of whom are dying from one thing or another, are cloned, their bodies aged to be what they were upon the death of their original models, and then given a transfer—bits of the brain’s memory centre are ported into the clone, so that the individual in question is able to start a second life with a full memory of their first.
If only it were so simple, though; as with any experimental procedure, the humans at the heart of it have their own issues, agendas, and reasons for wanting the ultimate of do-overs. Only in this instance they are forced to grapple with some larger-than-life questions, such as whether or not they are in fact the same people they once were, or if the transfer process, if vacating one body for another, has changed them or made them somehow less human.
Author Chiarella focuses the narrative on only one of these groups of people, cloned at Northwestern in Chicago: Hanna, an idealistic young painter with metastatic lung cancer; Linda, a mother and scholar trapped in a waking coma for eight years following a car accident; Connie, an actress who burned bright, got into drugs, and contracted HIV; and David, a right-wing US Congressman with a brain tumour the size of a golf ball.
Upon winning this lottery of lotteries, the four are given certain stipulations—they’re not to take up potentially life-altering pursuits such as skydiving and smoking, for example. Additionally, they are to meet as a support group every week for a year, to chart their progress, as the success of the program’s wider implementation rests on their cloned shoulders.
It’s during the support group, however, that we learn the most from these characters—both of their pasts (all of which are troubled in some way, shape, or form, though none more than Linda’s) and of the challenges and fears they must confront due to the fact that, effectively, they’ve died and pulled a Jesus 2.0. Some of their challenges are quite personal, such as Hannah realizing that her muscle memory for painting has not carried over to her new body; on the other hand David’s plot deals not only with the fact that he bought his way into the experiment but that he did so knowing that the God his constituents believe in, and indeed their beliefs in general, starkly oppose human cloning and, in essence, humans playing god.
Right about now I need to say a couple of things, in the interest of fair play: first, I greatly enjoyed Chiarella’s novel. It plays fast and loose with the science, naturally, but she sells it about as much as she needs to. Because it’s not about the hows or the whys, or if it’s even possible, on any conceivable level, for something like this to work; it’s about the characters, and the asking of a very real, very straightforward question: What is it that makes us human?
The second thing I need to say, and this is where it gets a bit awkward for me, is that I am a very biased reviewer with respect to this specific book, and that what prompted me to pick this title up in the first place was in reading the synopsis and saying aloud in the bookstore, “Well, fuck me, this sounds familiar.” In short, my second book, which I’ve been working on for six years now and which is currently in its fifth round of edits, shares a number of elements with Chiarella’s at the DNA level—from the cloning and transferring of minds to the resultant questions and attempts to understand what’s lost in the process, as well as what’s gained. In short, this was both exciting and a little unnerving, because the last thing any writer wants to see is their ideas or similar approximations in another’s text—we all want to view ourselves as original snowflakes, after all.
Thankfully, however, Chiarella and I differ in our focus, and with respect to the specificity of certain things. As such, I was able to detach a little more from my own work and enjoy this for what it is—a fast-paced character study with some rather lofty ideas.
While I never lost interest in what was happening or the ways in which the story progressed, I do have a few issues with certain narrative choices, and things dropped too quickly or not touched upon at all.
On the strictly narrative side of things, the affair between Hannah and David, who on paper are ethical opposites that despise one another, never really rang true. While it’s justified as two basically reborn people attempting to rationalize their new and old lives and to better understand how to define their current existence, it still felt like one of those things that is inserted into the text because the author simply needed to create further conflict. In short, it didn’t feel earned, and was not helped in this regard by the gaps of sometimes months between each part, in which a fair amount of off-the-page development seemed to occur.
I also would have loved to see further exploration into questions of their autonomy, and whether or not their lack thereof in certain circumstances alters their individual perspectives on what they now are: humans, or products of a larger corporate and/or scientific entity. This concern is most evident when Linda becomes pregnant, at her husband’s request, to try and save their splintering family, only when she has second thoughts she learns she cannot abort the child because the SUBlife committee needs the data from her pregnancy. And because her life and body had been signed over to them, she is given no say in the matter.
It also would have been interesting to witness more of the political and societal fallout from the story getting leaked to the outside world. While yes, this is meant to be an intimate tale of what’s lost and what can be regained or reset on a life-by-life basis, it’s difficult, sometimes, to take a story like this and place it in such a tight bottle—because the ramifications of such a thing merely existing would be so far reaching and dramatic as to change the tenor of the world. It’s the Robert Sawyer problem—stories that change the world but feel like they’re the size and scope of a stage play. Where Chiarella succeeds, though, and where Sawyer fails and fails and fails some more, is in having strong, intelligent characters who are struggling to figure out what their changed identity means.
To bring it back around to my aforementioned bias, I felt while reading And Again that certain character changes came about a little quickly. There’s nothing paid to the idea that their bodies are new save for their fresh and youthful appearances and an inability to taste as they once did, or handle their liquor—or, as revealed later, to be able to carry a pregnancy to term. But there’s nothing to the idea that these bodies, prior to waking up, are unused and would need extensive physical rehab; there’s also little on the medical side of things concerned with the ways in which they function differently, with respect to remembering certain skills but not having the muscle memory to carry them out (ie: Hannah and her painting). One would think they’d be given more attentive care throughout, to adjust and track such things, given all that’s riding on their ability to re-enter their lives as effortlessly and conflict-free as possible. But again, I’m projecting my own ideas onto what is, in the end, a very different story with only a similar overarching conceit.
What carries this book in the end is the journey of its four main characters. Their paths are unpredictable, for the most part, and even when they do fall into either uncharacteristic or seemingly unearned behaviours, we give them grace because they are, in some ways literally, no longer themselves. And they are figuring out what that means at the same time we are learning both who they were and who they now are.
And Again is a quick read, and while I’m not always a fan of the first person, especially when switching between characters, Chiarella gives them each a unique enough voice that one never becomes lost. This is terrific summer reading that asks a little more of its readers than the standard popcorn fare, and is successful in what it sets out to do. Definitely recommended....more