Christina Vasilevski

Toronto Writer/Editor for Content Strategy and User Experience.

What I read in February

Writing News

Taking Tobin’s course in creative writing has really increased my confidence, and so I decided to try my hand at writing a few short stories (flash fiction, really) and entering them into contests. One of the contests is still ongoing, but I have great news about the other one: I made it on the shortlist of the Friends of the Merril Short Story Contest!

The winners won’t be announced for roughly another month, but being a finalist means that I still get a chance to pitch a novel to ChiZine Publications.

Of course, this means that this month, I’ll actually have to start writing a novel worth pitching. No pressure, right? I have a few ideas, but I don’t know if any of them are viable yet.

Reading News

February was a much tougher month than January. That always seems the case, I guess, as the rush of positivity from the new year slows to a trickle. So, I read only about half as much in February than I did the month before. Actually, I only finished that many – I certainly began other books, but my interest flagged; I started on strong with reading the first volume of Malcolm Lyon’s translation of The Arabian Nights (more about that here), but I ended up getting fatigued about a third of the way in.

In fact, apart from Silent Girl, the only other full-length book I finished last month was The Cat by Edeet Ravel. I liked it and sympathized with it immensely (like the main character in that book, I also experienced the pain and shock of losing someone very close to me because of a car crash), but the emotional impact of the novel faded very quickly after I finished it. Also, the cover copy made me feel like it was going to be more of a psychological horror piece where the main character feels constrained by her cat in a Yellow-Wallpaper-ish sort of way, but it turned out to be nothing like that at all.

However, as usual, I still read and listened to an abundance of short stories. I still haven’t caught up on my backlog of issues from Lightspeed (seriously, each issue is about as long as a full-length novel – reading one of them is a major commitment), but I did continue with my usual habits of Apex, Clarkesworld, and several podcasts. Here are a few of the highlights:

Lightspeed: I read the November 2012 issue and finished the July 2012 issue (which for some reason, I started reading several months ago and forgot about). My favourites from both include “Requiem in the Key of Prose” by Jake Kerr, “Ghost River Red” by Aidan Doyle, “Singing of Mount Abora” by Theodora Goss, “Gordon, the Self-Made Cat” by Peter S. Beagle, “Searching for Slave Leia” by Sandra McDonald, “As the Wheel Turns” by Aliette de Bodard, and “A Princess of Spain” by Carrie Vaughn.

Apex: I loved the February issue’s theme of stories reinterpreting or inspired by Shakespeare. In fact, it turned out to be a nice companion volume to Silent Girl, another book of stories inspired by Shakespearean plays. In this issue, I liked Kat Howard’s “The Face of Heaven So Fine.” Patricia C. Wrede’s retelling of the story of Hamlet from Gertrude’s point of view (“Mad Hamlet’s Mother”) was also quite interesting, but I think it would have had more punch if told in first person rather than third.

Clarkesworld: Oddly enough, the February 2013 issue still left me pretty lukewarm, like the January issue. Of the three stories published, my favourite was “The Wanderers” by Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam, for the audacity of its premise and its success in making such disjointed, ungrammatical sentences work. The other stories were so poignant as to nearly become parodies of Clarkesworld’s particular style (“Gravity” by Erzebet YellowBoy) or were all atmosphere with no substance (“Vacant Spaces” by Greg Kurzawa).

Escape Pod: The best EP story of February was “They Go Bump” by David Barr Kirtley – a great mix of science fiction and horror, with the horror being supplied by the paranoia of the human mind. Other good ones were “The Tamarisk Hunter” by Paulo Bacigalupi and “Punk Voyager” by Shaenon Garrity (technically, a bunch of Excape Pod, Pseudopod and Podcastle stories were podcast January, but what the hell).

Pseudopod: Pseudopod has had a really strong run for the past few months. In particular, I liked “Cry Room” by Ted Kosmatka, “Cell Call” by Marc Laidlaw, “The Persistence of Memory” by William Meikle, and “What Happens When You Wake Up in the Dark” by Michael Marshall Smith – the last one in particular had pitch-perfect narration.

Podcastle: Oddly enough, the two most notable stories by Podcastle that I heard in February were published in January: “Tiger in the BSE” by E.Lily Yu (yes, that E. Lily Yu) and “A Memory of Wind” by Rachel Swirsky. However, I think that I would have enjoyed the latter more if I had read it instead of listening to it – the narration of the story was competent, but not full of rage, and this is a story where rage definitely needs to be present. This is weird because normally, modern exegeses of Classical mythology are my catnip.

Daily Science Fiction: DSF publishes so many stories I’m just going to do a bullet list of my favourites instead.

  • “Substitutes” by Colin P. Davies
  • “The Needs of Hollow Men” by K.A. Rundell
  • “A Hairy Predicament” by Melissa Mead
  • “Maps” by Beth Cato
  • “The Small Print” by Amy McLane

So, that’s what going through February was like! What about you? Do you have any recommendations to make in the comments?

Book Review: Westlake Soul by Rio Youers

Westlake Soul by Rio YouersTitle: Westlake Soul
Author: Rio Youers
Publisher: ChiZine Publications
Format: Print
Rating: 5 out of 5

Note: This review contains ruminations about Life, the Universe, and Everything.

Before I read a book, I tend to have an idea of what it’s about, because I like spoilers. Every so often, though, I’ll read a book “blind”. In many cases, these stories are the most satisfying, because they’re so unexpected.

Westlake Soul is one such example.

Westlake Soul has the most powerful mind on the planet. He can leave his body and let his consciousness travel across the world, understand what other people are thinking, and even communicate telepathically with animals.

You know the cliché that humans use only 10% of their brains, the tip of the iceberg? Westlake figures that somehow, he’s managed to access the other 90% – to “flip the iceberg” – and access the unconscious realms of understanding that float below the surface.

He is, essentially, a superhero.

The thing is, all superheroes have weaknesses. Westlake’s is his body. He was a surfer until two years ago when he encountered a wave too big to handle off the coast of Tofino, British Columbia, and nearly drowned. Deprived of oxygen for almost 10 minutes, the sections of his brain died off one by one. Although he was rescued, his body – and to all observers, his mind as well – lies in a vegetative state.

Superheroes also have nemeses. Westlake’s is Dr. Quietus, a grim embodiment of death that chases him throughout the ruins of his shattered mind. For two years, while his body has lain in a hospital bed, his consciousness has fought and held Dr. Quietus at bay.

However, bad things are brewing in the wider world: his family has finally reconciled itself to the fact that he may never recover. Now Westlake is in a desperate race to break beyond the confines of his body and prove to them that although he may be down, he’s not out.

Westlake Soul tackles a lot of the Big Important Questions we ask ourselves. Do souls exist? Can we truly know what is best for people trapped within their own bodies – people who may still feel pain and hunger and wonder, but who can’t move or communicate? What would life be like if we broke down the walls of rationality and “flipped” our own respective icebergs?

Most importantly, if broken, can those walls be mended?

In a weird way, this book is an amalgam of several others I’ve read and enjoyed. Westlake is a man with a beautiful soul, full of compassion and dignity, which reminds me of the main character Paama from Redemption in Indigo, one of my favourite reads from 2012.

Beyond that, some of the philosophical concepts that Westlake’s mind explores – the universal wave function, infinite universes and infinite probabilities – remind me of Neil Turok’s The Universe Within. In a sense, this book is what I was hoping The Universe Within would be more like – a book that examines the kind of cosmic internal potential we all have.

Most importantly, it reminds me of one of the best books I’ve read in the last 3 years: The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, by Anne Fadiman. That book is too amazing and heartbreaking to talk about in this post, but by the end of it Lia Lee, the focus of that book, had also entered a persistent vegetative state.

It took me a long time to form this mental connection between both books. Out of curiosity, I Googled Lia Lee to see what had happened to her, and found that she died just four months ago.

She lay in a seizure-induced coma for 26 years. Westlake hung on for only two before his family lost hope – but Lia’s never did.

Do you think that, like Westlake, she was on the inside looking out all that time, aware of her family’s hopes and frustrations? If so, I don’t know if I would consider it a blessing or a curse.

Several books have delighted me this year with the joy of their images or the audacity of their characters. This book was the only one that made me want to cry. It’s beautiful and sad at the same time. In particular, the closing chapters where Westlake makes his one last effort to defy his fate, and the book’s deliciously ambiguous last line, are masterful. It even made me think of the final scene of Inception, where the top is left spinning. Whether Westlake’s final attempt to break his confines succeeds is left unsaid. But somehow, I’m happier not knowing.

Up next: The Empress of Mars by Kage Baker

Book Review: Every House is Haunted, by Ian Rogers

Title: Every House is Haunted
Author: Ian Rogers
Publisher: ChiZine Publications
Format: Print
Rating: 3 out of 5

Full disclosure: I’m friends with the author through Goodreads and Facebook, and am familiar with some of ChiZine’s staff;  although I have tried to remain neutral in this review, these circumstances have probably informed my opinion of this book.

Every House is Haunted is a collection of 22 short stories by Ian Rogers. Loosely arranged around the theme of homes – as both places and ideals – each story rubs up against the threshold between the real and the unreal. Although most of these stories are horror stories, they traffic more in the subtle dread of the soul than in gore.

The tales are broken up into five groups that refer to different parts of a house: “The Vestibule,” “The Library,” “The Attic,” “The Den,” and “The Cellar.” Those words alone should give the attentive reader a clue about what to expect, as they aren’t typically associated with modern-day housing. Instead, they make us think of houses that are old, or dark and decrepit – of places where dust and stale air linger.

Every House is Haunted has a few stand-out stories, such as the opener, “Aces,” about a teenage witch and her older brother, and how they each come to terms (or not) with her abilities. Other highlights include:

  • “Inheritor,” a mirror version of “Aces” that deals with a much more sinister brother-sister pairing;
  • “Cabin D,” about a man planning to destroy a haunted cabin as his heroic last act;
  • “The Nanny,” about a psychic investigator helping two murdered children enter the afterlife; and
  • “The Tattletail,” a winsome little story about a boy who wants to have a pet demon.

Other stories, like “The Currents” and “Leaves Brown,” are more subdued and could even fit comfortably within the traditional confines of Canadian Literature. “Leaves Brown” in particular is interesting because it’s the second of two stories in this collection (the first one being “Autumnology”) to talk about the impermanence of autumn compared to the other three seasons:

“You can travel to places in the world where it feels like summer all the time…or spring…or winter. But there isn’t any place on the planet where it’s always fall. That’s what makes it special. Fall is meant to be enjoyed in small doses. If the seasons were a four-course meal, then fall would be the dessert.”

Part of me wonders whether this passage should be taken as the book’s manifesto: things fade – especially things like sanity, the sanctity of life, and your ability to protect those you care about. Your choice to take those things for granted only puts you in peril.

Some of Rogers’ stories also contain well-realized characters, like the protagonist’s annoyingly hapless neighbour in “Charlotte’s Frequency” and Soelle, the main character in “Aces.” More often though, the characters remain ciphers and it is the situation itself that contains the story’s meat.

However, one of the main problems with this collection is that many of the story endings are either neutral towards, or in conflict with, the main plots. Sometimes, the tonal shift can be jarring, as at the end of “The Dark and the Young.” At other times, like in the story “The House on Ashley Avenue,” the ending is downright unsatisfactory; it’s open-ended and refuses to answer the questions introduced during the rising action and the climax. Perhaps this open-endedness is an attempt to make the stories sound more literary, but I prefer for these things to be more definitive.

Overall, though, I liked this collection, and was delighted to meet Ian in person at the World Fantasy Convention. I look forward to reading his other recent release, SuperNOIRtural Tales.

Up next: Seraphina, by Rachel Hartman

Book Review: Briarpatch by Tim Pratt

Title: Briarpatch
Author: Tim Pratt
Publisher: ChiZine Publications
Rating: 3 out of 5
Format: Print

Darrin’s life has taken an awful turn: Within the space of one month, he lost his job, his car, and his girlfriend, Bridget, who walked out of his life with no explanation. Six months later while wandering aimlessly around San Francisco, he encounters Bridget for the first time since she left him – only to see her jump to her death off the Golden Gate bridge.

In his search to find out why Bridget killed herself, he gets caught up in the web of connections surrounding the briarpatch, an interdimensional labyrinth that connects all worlds probable and improbable. And it turns out that among the the people who help or hinder his quest – his own traitorous best friend, an immortal man who wields the power of despair, a man with no sense of taste or smell, an earthy psychopath with a taste for chrome shotguns, and a man who drives the world’s most unusual car – Darrin may be most improbable visitor to the briarpatch yet.

Warning: spoilers below.

The best thing about Briarpatch is the worldbuilding. Imagine a bar that serves vampires, or a world of sentient bees that cooperate with beekeepers to produce hallucinogenic honey. That’s the kind of imagery that this book delivers with regularity. There are bridges of moonlight that could lead to paradise, and there are supernatural creatures in the shape of cars that show up just where they need to be. There are immortal people who involuntarily teleport in order to prevent themselves from being killed, and there are insane humans who shape-shift into bears.

The way the briarpatch and its effects on people are described, the more I want to visit it myself. There are moments of love and joy and despair, like the immortal man who wanted to be on the moonlit bridge so much that he nearly starved to death basking in its reflected glory – only to have his body become desperate enough to teleport him away to a riverbed so that he could avoid dying of dehydration.

However, in many cases, the plot has serious problems with exposition. The scheme of the main antagonist, Ismael Plenty, is byzantine at best: Ismael is immortal and wants to die, and feels that the only way he can do so is to enter a distant, hard-to-reach part of the briarpatch that shimmers with the light of Heaven. He is convinced that only Darrin can lead the way, because Darrin – like Ismael – is a pure, spontaneous manifestation of the briarpatch itself. Yet he’s also convinced that the only way Darrin can enter the briarpatch is to feel intense despair – which is why Ismael has orchestrated the collapse of his life. When Darrin reaches the brink of despair, Ismael plans to swoop in and offer entry to the briarpatch as the solution to his problems.

However, this plan flies in the face of Ismael’s interactions with other characters: Before he meets Darrin, he introduces not one, not two, but three of his friends to it, and they all agree, either knowingly or unknowingly, to be part of Ismael’s despair-inducing plan. If it’s so easy for him to convince Darrin’s friends about the importance of the briarpatch, why not approach Darrin himself honestly? I just don’t get it.

On top of that, there was one scene that stopped the action in its tracks, where several of the main characters met up and explained everything they knew to each other. In turn, they described in detail their interactions with Ismael and Darrin, and what Ismael promised each of them for their involvement. I understand that this scene needed to happen, but its placement in the book is disorienting: It’s in the middle, and a similar all-is-revealed scene happens right near the end. Having a climactic scene like that repeated alters the flow of the book and reduces the impact of the second version near the end.

Finally, while several of the characters are relatable or interesting to read about – Bridget, who is always yearning for new experiences; Orville, the aforementioned man without taste or smell; Arturo, who drives a supernatural being in the shape of a car with trance-inducing headlights – Darrin himself is not very memorable. He’s a reasonable, friendly every-man who likes to tool around San Fran taking unusual photographs. Yet he seems too bland and normal – not other-worldly enough – to be taken seriously as an avatar of such a surreal place as the briarpatch.

I liked Briarpatch, but I don’t think it’s as enjoyable as other stories of Pratt’s that I’ve encountered, like The Ghost of Christmas Possible or Cup and Table.

Up next: The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg