Astra Crompton's Blog: A Literary Diary

April 25, 2018

The Time Traveler's Handbook

The Time Traveler's Handbook by David Goldblatt, James Wyllie, and John Dalberg-Acton is a fun romp through history presented as a series of excursions booked through a Time Travel Agency, similar to booking excursions through a cruise line.

The excursions are as varied as sporting events (The Rumble in the Jungle) to explorations (Kublai Khan's Court with Marco Polo) to historic music moments (Woodstock Festival) to natural disasters (The Eruption of Vesuvius at Pompeii). Each event is given grounding in the social, political, and geographic climate of the day, before launching into the goal of what you will experience on the 'excursion'.

In this clever framework, the authors speak directly to the reader, looping you in to momentous events of human history. They provide maps of the region, including outlining the standard costs of the day for food, lodging, or entertainments. They cover what manner of cuisine you can expect, with often tongue-in-cheek side notes (for instance, in Kublai Khan's court, they recommend vegans skip this excursion on grounds of being unable to eat anything on offer). They also cover what manner of garb would be appropriate, including addressing gender norms where possible, as well as ensuring to place their 'clients' in inconspicuous positions so that they can blend in with the folk of the day without inadvertently causing space-time continuum collapses.

Fun, engaging, and diverse, the book was an excellent introduction to famous occurrences. They took care to include many graphics (from photos to paintings), direct quotes from contemporary scholars, and references to the differences from the modern world. This keeps the reader simultaneously grounded in their own experience while comparing that to the vicarious experiences offered by their Time Travel Agency.

The Time Traveler's Handbook was attractively presented, with a gorgeous gold-foil embossed orange and black hardcover, and glossy pages with plenty to satiate the senses—so at $10 on a discount rack was one of the best book finds I've had the fortune of discovering. The topics were all interesting in their own ways, and I was inspired to do further reading after the behind-the-scenes looks at riots and revels. There were even some locations I've personally visited (Checkpoint Charlie and Herculaneum, especially) that I relived in these pages thanks to the minutiae the authors picked up on that matched my own experiences.

The only detractor was a number of typos throughout the book that seemed strangely incongruous with the care of its design. Most merely tripped up the prose, but a couple of these required me to reread passages to determine who they were referring to (he instead of she, for example), or references to on XX page, where the page number had not been filled in. All in all, these typographical gaffs can be forgiven for the multiple strengths of this small but dense volume.

It really just made me wish such an Agency were real, so I could take their various excursions! But remember, travellers are forbidden from bringing back souvenirs. After all, a paradox would completely spoil your vacation!
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Published on April 25, 2018 12:38 Tags: astra-crompton, book-reviews, history, time-travel, time-travellers-handbook

February 26, 2018

The Best American Fantasy & SF Short Stories

Let me be clear, the title of this post is the title of the book, not my opinion of it. I love short stories. I find them an excellent way of discovering new writers, exploring interesting ideas, and gaining food for thought. In some cases, short stories can be the medium in which a writer shines brightest (see Margaret Atwood's Wilderness Tips).

This...was a difficult book to get through. It was not so much an exercise in great storytelling (which I feel any book claiming it is a "best" collection ought to put primary focus on) as it was a thought experiment that took prose right off the rails. The guest editor for the collection claims out of a hundred entries, these twenty got top spot because they all left her with an emotional resonance, but the only emotion this collection left me with was irritation.

The first few stories were so obtuse, and tried so painfully hard to be clever, that I could not even absorb them. One of the tales was so syntactically heavy-handed that I couldn't read more than a page in a sitting without rolling my eyes. Is this, I thought in despair, what constitutes great fiction, these days??

If it weren't for the shining light that was Kij Johnson's The Apartment Dweller's Bestiary, almost a third of the way into the book, I would not have been able to slog through it all. Kij's entry was a collection of vignettes, organized in alphabetical order and leapfrogging in theme from one POV to the next. The result was a whimsical, playful poke into the fantastical faery-esque creatures that dwell in human homes. But deeper than this, each of the creatures served as a commentary about (and often allegory for) different types of relationships, attitudes towards them, and revelations of the self. From unspoken loneliness, to relationships stagnating, from jilted lovers, to cold feet, Kij's offering juxtaposed the mundane and accessible range of human emotion with the fantastic realm of the not-quite-seen. It was magical. Easily the best thing the book had to offer.

Then, another slog through lukewarm entries that left me feeling nothing much, and a couple I detested. Granted there were a few with interesting concepts or passably appealing authorial voices, but not enough to warrant praise here.

Thankfully, a second gem: Dale Bailey's Lightning Jack's Last Ride. This dystopian not-too-far-future tale takes place during the oil wars, which have torn the US of A asunder. It follows a gang of oil thieves, very much in the vein of an Old West train heist meets Fast and the Furious. But what really gives this short story glittering panache is Dale's authorial voice; it feels like a roaring 20s gang picture--a little bit film noir, a little bit Mad Max--but visceral, personal, and shameless. There is a delicious murkiness to characters that have such purity of motive yet callously grey morals. The story is not all car chases, but it has a relentless, inevitable pull, like a crash you can't look away from. The visuals are artful and excellently delivered, from the crackle of the CCV footage to the smell of grease and hay. It was a perfect glimpse into an almost-real world that leaves you both shivering for how near we are to that truth and titillated to have witnessed it. Speculative fiction at its finest.

Followed by some more forgettable tales, including some by big-name authors that I've never gotten around to reading (and now am certainly put off of ever giving them my time).

But the last entry was worthy of a mention: Ambiguity Machines by Vandana Singh. This one felt as though it belonged in Psi Fi magazine: it was extremely philosophical, with probing questions that teetered between the scientific and the spiritual. Offered in three segments that were intertwined in subtle (and minor) ways, each examines a root concept of interconnectedness as it pertains to belief, to time, and to groups of people. Presented as a test for neophytes on which they must write an exam paper, the ideas in Singh's piece are so rich and thought provoking that I hope university classes do use it as an exercise.

In the end, I haven't thrown the book out a moving vehicle because these three, if nothing else, deserve further readings and reflection. The quality of the book is patchy at best, with offerings too varied to feel there was any sort of thread, and themes too disparate to ever fully capture any one reader's heart. Die-hard lovers of fantasy will be disappointed as the fantasy portions (which apparently constitutes 10 of the stories) was very low and urban as best, but speculative fiction lovers might be better mollified.

What I will say is: look up these three short stories, or at least Kij Johnson, Dale Bailey, and Vananda Singh, for they have a beautiful marriage of excellent prose, unique voices, and fresh ideas.
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February 19, 2018

Half a War

Riveting, visceral, and driven prose, once again. Abercrombie remains my favourite author in the fantasy genre.

The Shattered Sea trilogy is a Viking-inspired fantasy, and is considered his first offering for the YA audience (his previous books being more adult-oriented). That said, I started reading the trilogy not knowing it was intended as a YA, and it seems that Joe Abercrombie did not know it was YA either, until somewhere in book 2. By this third instalment, the tale feels more firmly planted in YA expectations, with the focus shifting firmly to the relationships and budding romances between its young protagonists.

Still, Abercrombie refuses to play by the rules, much to my delight. There are no saccharine happily-ever-afters here. Each of the characters faces ache and longing, sure enough...but frequently for the world shifting around them, forcing them to change into something beyond what they wanted for themselves. There is still sex, with as much honesty and clumsiness as one should expect from Abercrombie's writing. It is refreshing that these people are so human. Even the ones who are described as being stunningly beautiful are still balls of nerves, and not spared the indignity of throwing up all over themselves.

For those who have read the first two Shattered Sea books, expect Abercrombie to focus on a different cast here yet again, with the heroes from the previous book shifting to a background role. It would enable one to stumble into book 3 and follow it cleanly even if they hadn't read the other two first -- but as always, the subtle references woven throughout gain depth and poignancy if the entire series has been absorbed.

Abercrombie remains one of the few authors who can write "strong female characters" that feel both distinct and impressive, without any of the annoying tropes that turn me off of these roles in so many fantasy books. His female characters are not merely men with breasts, nor are they constantly trying to prove themselves the equal of men. They all have their own roles, expectations, and struggles that arise from their station(s) and talents. They also display a lovely variety of strength, from the tenderness of Owd to the vengeance of Thorn, from the majesty mingled with mercy of Skara, to the hard work of Rin. Abercrombie's women form a seamless part of the world's fabric that is as realistic as it is refreshing to read.

While it is likely not set in the same world as Abercrombie's other books, I like to imagine it's simply another continent from his First Law trilogy, as the lore of this Viking-inspired setting is rich and haunting. The Shattered Sea's mystery and horror seems extremely timely for the events going on in the world presently. The concept of the Elf Relics make this story stand apart from other Viking-styled fantasies, and the richness of the characters are instantly unforgettable.

The Elf Relics, specifically, raise many assumptions and questions, and I hope Abercrombie will explore the idea further in future books, as it sparked my curiosity like an itch I never really got to scratch. Their presence was a perfect opportunity to subtly comment on human attitudes that seem as eternal as time itself, with a sort of futility and brutality in an endless cycle. While Half a War ends the trilogy, it is certainly only the beginning of a new saga.

Abercrombie's fight scenes remain the best in the genre, so far as I'm concerned. If anything, the fact that this tale veered YA makes me wonder if some of my books might fit for YA, after all...
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Published on February 19, 2018 14:49 Tags: astra-crompton, half-a-war, joe-abercrombie, review, shattered-sea-trilogy

February 16, 2018

The Watchmaker of Filigree Street

The Watchmaker of Filigree Street was one of those books that I picked up, simply because I loved the cover design. Also, a book that was about both Victorian England and Japan?? It's pretty much all the things I like wrapped in one tale.

The setting is lush, with the backdrop of Victorian London and Japan adding richness and vibrancy that at times overshadows the characters themselves. While the story weaves around three unique people (Thaniel, Mori, and Grace), each with a peculiar view of the world, there is a hyper-awareness of every minute detail that at times makes Pulley's authorial hand disconcertingly visible through the seams of an otherwise tightly woven book.

The characters all take some time to flower, but with a little patience, the reason for their closed-offness becomes clear and relevant to their growth. I became very invested in Thaniel and Mori's quiet resolve against a world that seemed very indifferent to their passions and (impractical) interests in a traditional and tightly-laced England.

There is a touch of nearly steampunk whimsy in the worldbuilding that gives the tale a luminous quality that would be at home in a Jules Verne book, while the very real violence from an age of upheaval serves to heighten the mortality and fragility of those we care about.

Refreshing and clean, The Watchmaker of Filigree Street is a promising debut that subverts expectations and leaves you desperately aching for the vast spaces between us all.

Everything else I have to say about this book is very spoilery, so if you don't like no further.


Okay, just us left? Good.

See, here is what you have to understand about me: I'm very queer, and so I'm constantly parsing through culture and trying to find that spark of kinship. What that means in books is that I tend to read more into things than I should. And that was definitely a problem for me with this book: was I reading it way gayer than it was intended??

The moments between Thaniel and Mori were tender and intimate and, damnit, there was a lot of staring at each other's naked collarbones that seemed far more sensual than any straight man would do. I've read Oscar Wilde, and I understand a bit of the coding of gay culture at the time, but I wasn't sure how much of that the author was aware of (after finishing the book, I'm 98% certain Pulley did her homework).

So, I went through the whole book hoping and praying that these two lonely gentlemen were exactly what the other wanted and needed, and that more than any other element of the plot kept me reading. It was an excellent example of how the smallest gesture can mean the world.

The third wheel to all of this, of course, was Grace. I have a long history of hating "strong female protagonists" and Grace was a perfect example of why. She was boorish, lashing, self-centred, malicious, and jealous--all while looking down her nose on everyone else. The brief moments of tenderness she displayed were completely undermined by her complete obliviousness of the simplest personality traits in the very men she was hell-bent on manipulating to her own ends.

The only person in the entire world that Grace loves is Grace, and while that would be perfect material for a stage villain, she is not presented to us in those terms. Instead, she is set up to be some sort of sympathetic character at odds with her time and the disdain of sexist men. I found her actions deplorable, especially once she starts to understand how deeply Thaniel and Mori are connected. All of her doubts and theories about Mori's intentions, coupled with her flippant racism and homophobia (though historically accurate in general terms), in her seemed nothing short of hypocritical. After all, she hangs out with a bunch of suffragists who likely harbour a few queer ladies in their midst, and her sole "friend" is also a Japanese gentleman.

In the end, Grace is handed a practical prince on a silver platter after her homicidal efforts fall short of their mark. It left an ugly tarnish on my otherwise deep relief for Thaniel's freedom from her.

While there were elements of the story that rankled me, the writing was lush and Mori and Thaniel's story is worth experiencing. After all, if an author can make you feel something, they are skilled.
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Published on February 16, 2018 12:59 Tags: astra-crompton, book-review, natasha-pulley, watchmaker-of-filigree-street

January 18, 2018

The Turnip Princess

Von Schonwerth's collection has a romantic backstory: a contemporary of the Grimm Brothers, he copied down Bavarian tales, and unlike the Grimm tales, left the stories int he voices of their original tellers.

This book gives a great insight into the priorities and focus of the people from the Bavarian region and their unsung history. If nothing else, the book is worth it for The Magic Quill, probably my new favourite fairy tale!

The Magic Quill follows a female protagonist who falls in love with a crow (they're that kind of story), and goes on an epic quest to save her beloved from a curse, giving her wealth and security to take whatever work she can get, putting off increasingly brazen advances of men, and finally, having had enough of their nonsense, stands up for herself and breaks the curse, freeing her Crow-Prince boyfriend and living happily ever after.

It is surprisingly modern and has a lot of whimsy and charm (especially in how she manages to defeat the unwanted sexual advances of the men on her journey). I'd love to see it translated as a graphic novel, or fleshed out in a modern retelling. Perhaps someday, when I have time, I will give it a try.

There is some repetition between the tales, especially as they are separated by theme, and so you get some back-to-back which feel like they're likely alternate versions from the same root tale. And because these are folktales jotted down as various unprofessional storytellers recounted them, many lack a point, or a clean structure, which makes the collection quirky, whimsical, and often downright bizarre. (My roomie and I read them together as bedtime stories, and often, when there was an unexpected and completely incongruous plot twist, we'd just say "THE END" before continuing reading, because at that point, you were just going along with a very wacky ride that must have been recounted by a drunk in a tavern several hundred years ago).

The book is perfect for picking up and putting down between other reading, so the stories don't all melt together into a muddle of people named Hans and perplexingly intimate relationships with nature. (Seriously, so many people named Hans.)

What is perhaps most fascinating is that the gender roles and heroes of these tales are much more diverse than the contemporary Grimm Brothers' fairy tales. There is also a distinct lack of deed = reward that we expect from more modern fairy tales. These ones instead often reward laziness, the ability to irritate, or random acts of fate. However, there are certainly great wealths of inspiration for modern retellings, and I hope that some writers take it upon them to blow off the dust of these forgotten fables and bring them back into the popular consciousness.
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Published on January 18, 2018 15:38

January 8, 2018

The Shape of Water

My first film (in theatres) of the year was The Shape of Water, the latest offering by Guillermo del Toro. I have a bad habit of walking into del Toro films with an expectation of what I think the film is going to be about, and I end up spending the first third of the film readjusting myself to what's actually going on (I'm looking at you, Crimson Peak, and you, Pan's Labyrinth!). This usually means I walk out of the theatre rather tharn, though visually stimulated, but it's not until subsequent viewings that I can actually appreciate the story for what it is.

Not so, Shape of Water. It was, for a change, exactly what I thought (and hoped!) it would be. As always, del Toro's aesthetics are equal parts saturated and bleak, to bring the historical period to life while still retaining a fairy tale feel. His clear love of classic film shines through with a whimsy and charm that fit this story like a satin glove. There was enough left mysterious that there seemed to be a sense of magic woven throughout, despite the backdrop of callous government agencies, and cold war spy thriller elements.

The two positive things that stood out most to me:

1) The beauty of showcasing a mute protagonist, and the unique story telling challenges it presented (a combination of screen subtitles and other characters translating ASL).

2) The positive sexuality of the female characters (especially from a male director). It stood out to me simply because it wasn't fetishized, but humanized in a way I don't think I've seen done before--at least, not without being coupled with a gritty undertone. These were just women who were sexual creatures, who enjoyed their pleasure, and who were willing to put up with unusual lovers (for better and worse) in order to meet their needs. It's not an overt theme in the picture, but its notes danced throughout the storytelling in a consistent and refreshing way.

By contrast, the male characters in the film were all, in their own ways, broken. Del Toro did an excellent job of showing how they each tried to handle the various disappointments, desperation, and loneliness of their lives, from quiet resignation, to outright defiance, to toxic self-denial.

The film was, despite the monster, and the (slightly cheesy) intro and extro narration that I could have done without, a tender look at human relationships in all their beautiful simplicity and fragile complexity.

The Shape of Water felt timeless.
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Published on January 08, 2018 01:44 Tags: 2018-films, astra-crompton-views, film-review, the-shape-of-water

A Literary Diary

Astra Crompton
I've never been good about keeping a journal, but I do love media and even more I love talking about my experience with media. This is intended to be a series of my reviews of the books I read (and pe ...more
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