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Lee Mandelo

Fiction and Excerpts [5]
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Fiction and Excerpts [5]

Unsheathing a Violent Wave of Tenderness: Just Like Home by Sarah Gailey

After her dying, estranged mother calls Vera Crowder back home, she packs her itinerant life into her car and drives cross-country. Returning to the house her father—an infamous serial killer—built with his own hands, brick by brick, is challenge enough. On arrival, however, she finds a parasitic artist renting space in their backyard shed, aiming to “collaborate” with the house’s psychic residues to craft his installation works. Between her ailing mother’s cruel mood swings, an interloper consuming her childhood memories for inspiration, the legacy of her father’s love alongside his crimes, and the Crowder house itself, Vera’s attempts to settle the estate rapidly devolve. Secrets, lies, and rot: what else lurks beneath those glossy floorboards?

Just Like Home is a vicious and visceral gothic horror story dedicated to “everyone who ever loved a monster.” One of the book’s opening questions is, how does someone wrestle with the knowledge that their beloved father—whose steady love offered protection from an abusive mother—was also a murderous sadist? Nothing gets easier, or gentler, or more pleasant from there as the Crowder narrative unfolds. Their familial psychodrama stitches cruelty, affection, eros, and fear together into a tapestry of betrayal. Vera is a taciturn, withholding protagonist. Returning to the house of her dreams and nightmares pries her open a fraction at a time, and as the novel progresses, the reader begins to understand—hair-raisingly!—that Francis Crowder was far from the only monster of the house

[[A review, spoilers follow.]]

I’ll Bloom Where I’m Planted: Wake the Bones by Elizabeth Kilcoyne

After a failed first year of college in Cincinnati, Laurel Early returns defeated to her family tobacco farm. She has every intention of putting aside her aspirations and resuming a steady, predictable, good-enough life—one split between practicing taxidermy and helping her uncle with the crops, maybe someday marrying her logical-choice guy friend Ricky. The problem is, something’s gone rotten on the Early farm, and the legacy of her witchy mother’s suicide casts a shadow over Laurel. As magic courses through the woods and the town’s whispers, those long-hidden secrets become far more pressing. Because it isn’t friendly magic—it’s the kind that lets her pile of discard bones assemble itself into a murderous night-stalking creature.

Besides the awful haunting of her farm, Laurel has another problem: her troubled relationships with childhood friends Isaac, Garret, and Ricky. They all need to negotiate one of the major barriers of adulthood together: some folks are going to leave, and some folks are going to stay—which is further complicated by sexuality, class, and educational access. At its heart Wake the Bones is an Appalachian gothic, and it has all the necessary trappings (like, spooky deer corpses). Simultaneously, though, it’s a coming of age novel about four young people whose opportunities and choices are shaped by experiences of poverty, farm labor, and their small town.

[A review.]

Series: Queering SFF

We Are One Thing: Boys, Beasts & Men by Sam J. Miller

Sam J. Miller’s long-anticipated first collection Boys, Beasts & Men gathers fourteen pieces of his deliciously strange, sexy, provocative short fiction. With original publication dates ranging from 2013 to 2019 and one piece new to the collection (plus the interstitial narrative woven between the stories), the book spans the work of almost a decade. As Amal El-Mohtar says in her introduction, these stories of “alternate presents and shadow futures” are further “transformed by their proximity to each other”—a revealing closeness.

[A review-essay.]

Series: Queering SFF

Testosterone Poisoning: Manhunt by Gretchen Felker-Martin

A virus hits the North American continent, transforming anyone with “too much” testosterone—and yeah, that includes people with PCOS—into a ravening monster. But society drags on, and so does daily life. Beth and Fran are manhunters, scouring the New England coast harvesting organs from the feral infected for the production of hormones to keep themselves and other women safely supplied. Their routine is interrupted, though, when a separatist TERF militia rolls into town—driving their good friend Indi to accept a job offer from a nearby billionaire bunker-brat to protect them. What could go wrong? Just about everything.

When I heard the premise of Manhunt, I thought, a gender apocalypse horror novel from a trans perspective? Yes, please, and thank you. Gretchen Felker-Martin builds onto the premise a hilariously spiteful reversal of the implicit cultural belief that “testosterone over a certain arbitrary level turns you into a slavering animal driven only to rape and eat raw meat”—basically asking, “okay, so what if that were true? Then what?” The conceit is both a nod to the classic Tiptree Jr. story, “The Screwfly Solution,” and an engagement with transphobic rhetoric spilling all over the place online.

[Read on.]

Series: Queering SFF

Straight to the Gut and Groin: Base Notes by Lara Elena Donnelly

Vic Fowler, perfumer and entrepreneur, has discovered a method for preserving physical memories—a kiss, a song, a fuck—through scent. The only catch is the necessary base material: the corpse of whoever one wishes to remember so thoroughly. Wealthy, dissolute businessmen are some of Vic’s best purchasers for these blends, but when one customer returns for a fresh commission that can’t be refused, the logistics require outside assistance. Vic draws a small cadre of fellow struggling artists onto the project, but as their relationships fray, tensions build, and ethics intrude, the question arises: Is there anything Vic won’t sacrifice, for art?

Base Notes is Lara Elena Donnelly’s first stand-alone novel, after completion of the Amberlough Dossier trilogy. Set amidst the ongoing gentrification of contemporary New York City, the novel balances mundane life, murderous desires, and the mysterious effects of Vic’s special perfumes alongside one another… until Vic’s house of cards begins to wobble under the weight of prior sins and present betrayals.

[A review, with spoilers.]

A Delicious Layer Cake of Tragedy and Romance: Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation by Mo Xiang Tong Xiu

I figured we should finish our big gay book-club at the same place we started: the “resurrection and revenge” (among other things!) of the infamous Wei Wuxian, in Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation (魔道祖师 / Mó Dào Zǔ Shī). Whether we’re talking fans whose fingernails got thoroughly gnawed awaiting the translations, or entirely new readers just discovering Mo Xiang Tong Xiu, this is probably the series they recognize at a glance. And honestly, if you’re a gay person online, the iconic image of two bunnies—one white and one black, sporting respective white and red ribbons—has probably crossed your timeline at some point.

As for me, separating my initial read of Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation from my fond memories of its live-action adaptation The Untamed is, maybe, an impossible proposition. Despite differences in settings, timelines, and narrative elements, the two texts share the same beating heart through the characters and their relationships. Plus, inside the fandom, word-of-mouth details from the novels constantly circulate as background for the show, like, “okay, so, the dismembered corpse parts are significant because—” or “in the books, they’re about to awkwardly fuck in some bushes.”

Same as the other installments, though, I’m aiming to give these novels their due consideration as novels first and foremost.

[Read on.]

Series: Queering SFF

The Joyful Liberation of True Love: Heaven Official’s Blessing by Mo Xiang Tong Xiu

I mentioned in the kick-off for our Mo Xiang Tong Xiu book club that I’d already downloaded a fan translation of Heaven Official’s Blessing (天官赐福 / Tiān Guān Cì Fú) before these editions were announced… which was 100% because I’d watched the single season of the animated series multiple times. I saw it first while house-sitting for friends, following an afternoon spent lounging outdoors petting their friendliest cat. I’d been craving sweetness, something fun and light—then I fell head-over-heels for the dynamic between Hua Cheng and Xie Lian. (Hard not to, frankly, with the sheer force of sensuality the animators imbued their version of the Crimson Rain Sought Flower with. Kudos to them on their labors, ahem.)

The donghua offers precisely zero contextualizing details, though, in the usual manner of adaptations that presume familiarity with the source material. Plus, I’d perceived many a fandom rumbling about how devastating (in the best way) the series gets as it goes on: multiple tiers of hidden identities, past slights and present betrayals, gender shenanigans, catastrophes and curses! I was thirsty for the actual books with all their promised glory… but due to the aforementioned PhD exams, never got around to opening that epub. So now, I’m reading the official translations instead.

[Read on.]

Series: Queering SFF

Screwball Comedy in Translation: The Scum Villain’s Self-Saving System by Mo Xiang Tong Xiu

For months, one of my pals has been muttering “god I can’t wait until you meet Shen Yuan” during all our book conversations. Before the translations were announced, even! I think it haunted him, knowing what awaited me but being unable to bring the textual encounter to fruition. The enthusiasm was contagious, though, and once I’d snagged my copies no force on earth could stop me from reading Scum Villain (人渣反派自救系统 / Rén Zhā Fǎnpài Zìjiù Xìtǒng) first.

The general premise goes something like, “the loudest anti-fan of trashy stallion webnovel dies in the midst of an impassioned critique rant and transmigrates as the cruel, untouchable teacher of the handsome protagonist—a protagonist whomst he, like, adores? Except his efforts to craft a ‘magnificent, high-quality, first-rate classic’ from the OG novel (and coincidentally, save his own skin)… ahem, change the story more than he anticipated.” By which I mean: things get gay.

[Read on.]

Series: Queering SFF

Queer Reading Pleasure: Three Novels by Mo Xiang Tong Xiu

One afternoon in August, I was fiddling with a course syllabus when an avalanche of messages and twitter alerts pinged through my phone. Online fandom pals, publishing newsfeeds, and real-life friends were doing a big “!!!” all over the place. The top independently owned manga and light novel publisher in North America, Seven Seas Entertainment, had announced their acquisition of Mo Xiang Tong Xiu’s wildly popular novel series The Scum Villain’s Self-Saving System (2014), Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation (2015), and Heaven Official’s Blessing (2017)—and thanks to their adoption of prior fan translations, the books would begin coming out as soon as winter.

Originally appearing as serial fiction through JJWXC, all three webnovels are fantastical stories set within wuxia or xianxia worlds—and as danmei books they’re, obviously, super gay. Since those initial publications each has also been adapted as either an animated or live-action series, most notably The Untamed (陈情令), which landed with a splash among Anglophone audiences in 2019. So, considering MXTX’s already boisterously-engaged transnational fandom, the simultaneous releases of these first volumes in English on December 14th made for a day triple-circled in hearts on tons of queer readers’ calendars.

Therefore I ask, what better books could there be for a Queering SFF reading series to kick off the new year than these?

[Read on.]

Series: Queering SFF

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.]

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