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Lee Mandelo

Fiction and Excerpts [5]

Fiction and Excerpts [5]

Superstition Was a Compass: Nothing But Blackened Teeth by Cassandra Khaw

To celebrate an upcoming wedding between two of their number, a group of friends who grew up together in Malaysia reunite to spend one night in a crumbling Heian-era manor house. Ghostly thrill-seeking used to be their lifeblood, so an ancient mansion built on the bones of an entombed bride-to-be and more than two hundred companion girls holds a certain appeal. After all, what better place could there be to prepare for a marriage and blow an obscene amount of their near-billionaire friend Phillip’s inheritance?

However, the drawing together opens old wounds—jealousies, romantic failures, abandonments, privileges and cruelties—especially for Cat, who’s fresh off a six month long recovery from a serious depressive episode. But histories far nastier than their interpersonal squabbles lurk within the creaking foundations of the manor house… and the ghost of a centuries-dead bride has designs on the guests interrupting her estate’s moldering quiet. She’s bound to be getting a little lonely, buried down in the dirt.

[A review essay, with spoilers.]

Series: Queering SFF

Slasher 101: My Heart Is a Chainsaw by Stephen Graham Jones

Jade Daniels—or, JD—is a horror-obsessed loner staggering through the final months of her senior year of high school in rural Proofrock, Idaho. She writes extra-credit papers on “Slasher 101” for her history teacher to boost her grades, works as a custodian for the county after school, and avoids being home too often. Sometimes she camps out at the rundown remains of Camp Blood, site of a real-life slasher incident, waiting with baited breath—either to turn eighteen so she can skip town or for another cycle of killings to kick off.

So when a couple of young tourists go missing at the same time a conglomerate of wealthy families, the Founders, break ground across the town lake for their “Terra Nova” housing project, Jade can’t believe her luck. Signs are lining up, including the arrival of Letha Mondragon, whom Jade assumes must be the fresh final girl: she’s handsome, naïve, kind, blush-inducing. Unfortunately, the town’s gruesome histories are influencing the direction of this burgeoning horror flick, and getting stuck in the cycle isn’t as much of a relief as it was in Jade’s fantasies.

[A review.]

Neither One Thing Nor the Other: She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan

As a daughter born in an era of lethal drought and impoverishment, Zhu knows her fate before a fortune-teller confirms it: nothing. In contrast, her brother Zhu Chongba is pronounced to be destined for real greatness—but when bandits murder their father in front of them, Zhu Chongba dies as well. Fueled by a burning desire to survive at all costs, Zhu adopts her brother’s name and grasps for his fate. She becomes a young man, commits to monastic life, and nurtures that hunger to be someone, until a grim encounter with the Yuan’s eunuch general Ouyang sets her on the path toward empire.

Drawing inspiration from the historical Red Turban Rebellion, She Who Became the Sun (first of the Radiant Emperor duology) reimagines of the rise of Zhu Yuanzhang—from peasant to founder of the Ming Dynasty—and the concurrent collapse of the Mongol-led Yuan Dynasty… if Zhu had been the unnamed daughter instead.

[Read more]

Series: Queering SFF

Body, Books, Beauty: The Membranes by Chi Ta-Wei

Momo is the most celebrated dermal care technician in the T City undersea dome, with a curated list of clients and an intimate workspace she calls Salon Canary. However, after a journalist client nudges her to do a public interview, Momo’s estranged mother contacts her again. She asks to meet for the first time in two decades—the first time since Momo left for boarding school. The possibility of reuniting with her mother provokes a cascade of complicated memories and feelings, which Momo frames through questions about the nature of her attachments, her memories, and even the flesh of her own body.

First published in Taiwan in 1995, The Membranes is a classic of queer speculative fiction in Chinese—one that is, with this agile translation from Ari Larissa Heinrich, accessible to an English-language readership for the first time. As part of Columbia University Press’s “Modern Chinese Literature from Taiwan” series, this edition of the novel also comes with an excellent afterword titled “Promiscuous Literacy: Taipei Punk and the Queer Future of The Membranes.” The short essay conversationally explores the time and place that Chi Ta-Wei was writing from, an explosion of artistic and cultural development in mid-90’s Taiwan after the end of martial law—and reflects on what it’s like to read the book now, twenty-five years later.

[A review.]

Series: Queering SFF

Hex-Related Data: Future Feeling by Joss Lake

Penfield R. Henderson, dog-walker with a trust fund and closeted-celebrity-fucker, has problems: a bitter parasocial obsession with transmasculine influencer Aiden Chase, a cramped dirty apartment in Bushwick he shares with the Witch and the Stoner-Hacker, and a deep-seated sense of inadequacy about his own awkward transition to manhood. After a bad run-in with Aiden, Penfield decides to cast a hex on him to send him back to the Shadowlands (the desaturated and miserable portion of transition where it all sucks endlessly) as punishment for his perceived perfection. But, unfortunately, the hex hits an unintended target: Blithe, a total stranger. The Rhiz, a benevolent web of queer elders, pairs Aiden and Penfield to caretake Blithe and pass on their trans wisdom to him in his time of need.

Future Feeling is a rambunctious novel full of hilarious, sly language games—but also advanced technology close enough to our own to feel relatable, dream-like flights of fanciful imagination, and an overarching concern with how trans and queer folks might form communities with one another. It’s very present in the current moment, despite (or because of!) its use of futurism. Lake has crafted a closely observed, referential, and occasionally self-critical portrait of the pettiness and loneliness and loveliness of Penfield’s internal life as he journeys toward acceptance.

[A review, with spoilers.]

Series: Queering SFF

“What do you feel?” — Mister Impossible by Maggie Stiefvater

In Mister Impossible, the second book of Maggie Stiefvater’s Dreamer Trilogy, Ronan Lynch hits the road with his mentor Bryde and the forger-dreamer Jordan Hennessy. They’re on a quest to restore the leyline energies that have been guttering, killing dreamers and putting their creations to sleep. But problems compound along the way: the Moderators aren’t giving up on their trail, Adam and Declan and Jordan are out of contact with their partners-siblings-dreamers, and all great power comes with consequences. Who’s to say that Ronan’s going in the right direction—and whether Bryde is someone he should be trusting after all?

Stiefvater has crafted an intricately plotted novel that engages with messy ethical conundrums, driven by a cast of fascinatingly amoral characters all aiming to do their version of the right thing at cross purposes. On a thematic level, Mister Impossible also carries a deep-running concern with the purpose of art and the responsibilities of creators to the world around them. Whether painted by Jordan Hennessy or pulled from the dreams of Ronan Lynch, whether cordoned off as a John Singer Sargent portrait in a museum or held in the palm as a slick, strange orb—art is a beautiful, dangerous, alive thing.

[A review, with spoilers.]

“Orienting Our Own Moral Compass!” — Defekt by Nino Cipri

Defekt is Nino Cipri’s second novella set in the world(s) of LitenVärld, a fictionalized IKEA, following Finna (2020) but perfectly readable as a stand-alone. While Jules does pop up in the background at the start of the book, our protagonist for this frightful multidimensional excursion is Derek: an employee whose loyalty to the LitenVärld family is unparalleled, whose living space is a shipping container at the backlot of the store and who’s never taken a sick day… until he starts coughing blood unexpectedly.

But the perfect employee shouldn’t need time off. Calling out sick leads Derek to be assigned to a special inventory team for a locked-in night of hunting defective products, like toy chests that have grown pincers and eyestalks, but that’s not even the strangest part. The honor of peak weirdness goes to the visiting inventory team, a set of four strangers who look and sound (almost) identical to him.

So, when it comes to facing down sentient furniture horrors, are five Dereks really better than one? Or are the furnishings come to life not the real problem?

[A review, with spoilers.]

Series: Queering SFF

Counterculture(s) Past: Izumi Suzuki’s Terminal Boredom

The first of two collections of Izumi Suzuki’s (1949-1986) work forthcoming from Verso Books, Terminal Boredom: Stories contains seven pieces appearing for the first time in English translation—in some cases more than forty years after their original release. However, from gender politics in a queer matriarchy to media oversaturation and disaffection, the themes of her fiction still thrum with a resistant, brightly grim tension. Passing decades certainly haven’t dulled the the razor’s cut of her punk sensibilities.

Instead of one translator handling the entire collection, the stories are split between six: Daniel Joseph, David Boyd, Sam Bett, Helen O’Horan, Aiko Masubuchi, and Polly Barton. Across their individual stylistic approaches to Suzuki’s prose, bedrock features come through: crispness edging toward a cruel gloss in the dialogue, emotional saturation (or desaturation) as both literal experience and speculative metaphor, references to American films and Jazz music. The future, or a dream of the future, always arrives alongside struggle for people whose lives don’t match up to the mainstream—who stand a step outside of comfort.

[A review.]

A Science Fictional Domestic Thriller: The Echo Wife by Sarah Gailey

As her scientific career is climbing to fresh heights, Doctor Evelyn Caldwell finds out that her husband, Nathan, has been cheating on her—but not with a colleague. Instead, he’s hijacked her cloning research to create an ideal replacement wife from Evelyn’s own genetic material: Martine. She’s almost identical to Evelyn in appearance, but Nathan has altered her to be more subservient, family-oriented, and attentive to his needs. However, the real problems start when Martine calls Evelyn in a panic after killing Nathan in self-defense… and Evelyn decides to help with the cover-up.

The Echo Wife is a phenomenal, creepy, significant novel—but it’s a hard read, and wrestling with its implications is harder. The twisting, remorseless plot seamlessly combines domestic thriller with cutting-edge science fiction, dragging the reader along as the Caldwells’ secrets are unearthed one at a time. Sarah Gailey’s incisive prose lends to the suffocating atmosphere that pervades the book, maintaining a heightened state of discomfort that is magnified by thematic explorations of spousal abuse, cloning ethics, and straight-up murder.

[Onward; contains significant spoilers.]

A Harbor Full of Bones: The Blade Between by Sam J. Miller

Ronan Szepessy, a recently-sober gay photographer, promised himself he’d never come home to Hudson—no matter his father’s ailing health or his guilt over leaving the dying town behind. And he’s done well keeping that oath, until he wakes up on the train from New York City with no clear memories of boarding. When he arrives he realizes the city has changed: overrun with young, white, wealthy kids, antique stores and coffee bars blossoming in place of family businesses. Gentrification has forced locals from their homes and worsened fractures that have lingered under the surface for decades.

Hudson, though, has a long and gore-soaked history that throbs in the blood of its inhabitants: ghosts, nightmares, strange powers. The small gods that are the city do not take kindly to the incursion of outsiders, and neither do the real people losing their livelihoods. After Ronan reconnects with his childhood friends Dom and Attalah, now married, he and Attalah start a scheme to rescue their home—but the situation spirals out of control, and Ronan must come to terms with his own demons if he intends to stop the destruction he’s unwittingly set in motion.

[A review, with spoilers.]

Series: Queering SFF

I Await the Devil’s Coming: Plain Bad Heroines by Emily M. Danforth

Curses are stories are histories, and Plain Bad Heroines is full to the brim with all three. In 1902 the Brookhants School for Girls witnessed the romance of two students, Flo and Clara, with each other and with Mary Maclane’s scandalous memoir—a romance ending with their gruesome demise in a swarm of yellowjackets. After three more untimely deaths the school closed for good, forgotten until the present, when young Merritt Emmons’s queer novel about Brookhants becomes a breakout bestseller. Hollywood comes calling, bringing along lesbian indie it-girl Harper Harper and former child star Audrey Wells to star in the adaptation. But naturally, when these three young women arrive at the old school grounds to begin filming, the situation goes frighteningly awry.

Plain Bad Heroines is Danforth’s first adult novel and second overall, following the much-beloved young adult book The Miseducation of Cameron Post (2012). Illustrated by Sara Lautman with an echo of Edward Gorey, the book plays luxurious games with the reader, nesting stories within stories (within stories) as the hauntings unfold. Whether it’s the straightforward gothic of the 1902 plot(s) or the compulsive, prickly-sexy contemporary film production’s messy queer attractions, Danforth nails each beat. Plain Bad Heroines is scary, witty, and darkly taunting—without ever losing the core of heart inside the ghoulish cleverness of the prose.

[Read more]

Distinctly Heterodox: Dead Lies Dreaming by Charles Stross

The emergence of superpowers among the population has dovetailed with austerity measures to create the situation in which Wendy Deere finds herself: a thief-taker paid to hunt a gang of robbers using their unregistered powers to pull off heists. The gang themselves, meanwhile, are a mash-up of queer outcasts trying to raise enough funds for their leader, Imp, to film a new Peter Pan movie… but their cat-and-mouse game is far from the real problem: the reappearance of a concordance to the true Necronomicon. Cultist billionaire Rupert de Montfort Bigge sets his second in command to acquiring the book, and she just happens to be Imp’s sister—so naturally, who’s she going to hire to help out besides her supervillain thief sibling?

Dead Lies Dreaming is currently billed as the tenth book in the ‘Laundry Files’ series, but per Stross, it’s more accurate to call it the first book in a Laundry-adjacent spinoff: new characters and new concerns, set in the same shambling-toward-apocalypse world we’re familiar with from the spies and managers of the previous nine books. And—thanks in part to the tightly structured fervor of the novel’s plot—that shift in perspective works. Dead Lies Dreaming is at once smothering with grim nastiness and a breath of fresh air in the broader series, which is approaching an ultimate end soon.

[A review, with spoilers.]

Just Bleed for Me: Watching A Nightmare on Elm Street 2 and the Documentary Scream, Queen!

In 1985 New Line Cinema produced A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge, taking a risky angle on the slasher that starred a ‘final boy’ possessed by the titular movie-monster. However, the gay subtext of the movie contributed to a negative public reception and the film tanked. More unfortunately, lead actor Mark Patton was gay… but wasn’t out at the time the film was released, so the role that was supposed to launch his career contributed to its end. He disappeared from Hollywood. Then fast forward to last year, when directors Roman Chimienti and Tyler Jensen along with Patton himself released Scream, Queen! My Nightmare on Elm Street – a documentary exploring those buried tensions in the film within the context of ‘80s media, the slasher genre, and horror fandom at large.

I kept hearing about the documentary on the queer podcasts I follow, and that whetted my appetite. Obviously I’d missed a part of gay horror history, and that just wouldn’t do. So, for spooky month, I decided to tackle a double-feature of A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge (1985) and Scream, Queen! My Nightmare on Elm Street (2019)—for the education, for the culture!—but had an unexpectedly emotional experience in the process.

[Read more]

Proof of an Iron Will: Where the Wild Ladies Are by Aoko Matsuda

Where the Wild Ladies Are by Aoko Matsuda (translated by Polly Barton) collects a set of linked short stories reimagining Japanese folktales in contemporary settings, shot through with exceptionally witty societal critique. Silent house-callers who watch over the babies of single mothers, lovers who must be scrubbed free of river mud each night, awkward but eerie saleswomen hawking lanterns, and vulpine shapeshifters to name a few feature in these tales… but rather than vengeful ghosts out to punish the living, Matsuda’s apparitions are complicated people in their own right with histories and interests.

Matsuda writes these tales of spirit(ed) women and dispirited men with impeccable comedic timing and a deceptively urbane tone that also carries biting commentary, while Barton’s translation maintains the rhythm of her prose with grace. The book is described as exuberant on the back cover, and the same word kept occurring to me. Wildness is dangerous but exuberant; these monstrous ladies are the same. At turns each might be kind, stubborn, careful, or cruel—but so might the living people they engage with and the world outside with its pressures around gender, respectability, class, and relationships.

[A review.]

The Expectations That Travelers Carried: The Disaster Tourist by Yun Ko-eun (trans. Lizzie Buehler)

The Disaster Tourist is a trim near-future speculative novel from Yun Ko-eun, the first of her novels to be translated and published in English. Ko Yona, our protagonist, has been an employee of the travel company Jungle for around ten years; Jungle creates “ethical” vacation packages to locations of catastrophe. Tsunami, earthquakes, volcanoes, radiation, prisons and asylums, mass killings: the humans involved and the sites of their trauma become the consumables offered in trade for tourists seeking that authentic experience and a bit of moral righteousness to assuage the guilt of rubbernecking.

But when Yona begins to experience sexual harassment from her boss and assumes this means she’s gotten an informal “yellow card”—implying she’s on her way out of the company—she attempts to resign. Instead of her resignation being accepted, she’s offered a ‘working vacation’ to check out one of their failing packages on the island of Mui and review it for cancellation. However, all is not as it seems on Mui, and Yona’s own complicity in the broader systems at work in Jungle’s interventions on local spaces begin to dreadfully evolve.

[A review.]

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