Shelf Life: Fantastic Stories Celebrating Bookstores edited by Greg Ketter

Shelf LifeTitle: Shelf Life: Fantastic Stories Celebrating Bookstores
Editor: Greg Ketter
Published: 3 October 2012
Publisher: Prime Books
Genre: science fiction, fantasy, horror, short stories
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Rating: 5/10

In 1977, Greg Ketter opened a bookstore mostly so he could get his own books more cheaply. 25 Years later, he still runs an independent bookstore and publishes work by authors he likes. As the 25-year anniversary approached, he decided to put together this sff and horror anthology “in which the bookstore was a character, a major component of the story, a true motivating factor”. He rejected those that were simply set in a bookstore, as well as stories that were book-oriented but did not have a suitably strong bookstore element.

The very first story actually seems like it should be in the latter category though, because its about fantastical book that just happens to be in a bookstore. In “From the Cradle” by Gene Wolf, a widow is looking for a new owner for a book that belonged to her husband. The story is told from the POV of a shop assistant who later becomes the store owner. Every time he brings this book out of its display, it flips open to a story that resonates with his own life. The store, however, is just a means of bringing the protagonist into regular contact with the book, and it could easily have been written differently.

Most of the stories in Shelf Life are true to Ketter’s rationale though. Not surprisingly, most of them use the romantic ideal of the old, cosy, often mysterious indie store where book-loving protagonists almost always find the perfect read, often with the help of a slightly eccentric owner or sales assistant. I find that this ideal bookstore is a bit of a fantasy in itself, although I’ve never had the pleasure of going to an indie bookstore in the US or England, where almost all of these stories are set. Other common tropes come up too, like seemingly vast bookstores full of treasures, bookstores that defy the laws of physics or have taken on a life of their own, and of course many characters wax lyrical abut the charm and beauty of a great bookstore. There’s an entire introduction by Neil Gaiman doing exactly that.

“A Book by it’s Cover” by P.C. Cacek is set in Nazi Germany and features a bookstore that has come to life like a golem because of all the ideas inside it. It’s gained the magical ability to turn people into books, with both wonderful and disastrous consequences.

In “Lost Books” by John J. Miller a broke writer is offered a home in a bookstore by the owner, an old man who he finds unnervingly familiar. He later recognises him as a famous Egyptian warrior from 4000BC.

In “One Copy Only”, Ramsey Campbell’s rather overwrought prose tells the tale of a bookstore that hits all the fantasy ideals – it’s a tumbledown old place known only to an tiny, passionate clientele, with an owner who recommends the most amazing books. It also has an otherworldly reading room, where the most favoured customers can read books that don’t exist anywhere else.

“Pixel Pixies” by Charles de Lint is a sweet fae story about a hob living in a bookstore that gets overrun by pixies from the internet.

These stories were all nice, but the only one I really loved was “The Hemingway Kittens” by A.R. Morlan. This might just be the cutest story I’ve ever read. A bookstore owner gets a pair of cats to kill the rats in her store, but they become permanent residents, beloved by the customers and extremely good for business. Years later, the third set of bookstore cats is provided by her quirky assistant Rik. He gives her two beautiful [Hemingway Kittens or polydactyl cats], which have have extra toes, giving them hand-like paws. The two kittens, named Jay and Zelda, display an uncanny intelligence, as if they actually understand speech and can read the books. I have to admit that there’s one aspect of these story that’s deeply implausible (no, it’s not the idea of cats who can read) but I found it so utterly charming that I didn’t care.

About halfway through the anthology though, I started to get bored. Either the less interesting stories got shoved in the back, or I just got increasingly tired of the theme. These stories sometimes had interesting ideas, but I didn’t like any of them that much, and I had to rely heavily on my notes to recall what they were about.

There are several more magical bookstores. In “Ballard’s Books” by Gerard Houarner, a man spends many years of his life search obsessively for a mythical bookstore that he once heard his father and uncle talking about. “Books” by David Bischoff features a suspicious secondhand bookstore full of priceless first editions being sold for only a few dollars. “Escapes” by Nina Kiriki Hoffman uses the idea of a books and a bookstore as an escape from life, particularly for the new employee, a woman who’s run away from her abusive partner. The magical bookstore offers both comfort and protection. In “The Cheese Stands Alone” by Harlan Ellison, a man stumbles across a decidedly creepy bookstore full of people who are just standing still, staring at the books in their hands. An very old woman tries to make him choose a book as well.

Most of the other stories are fantasy as well. “I Am Looking For a Book” by Patrick Weekes is the only humorous story, about a sorcerer or something looking for a book of power (or something) in a modern bookstore, only to be thwarted by unhelpful staff and caramel raisin biscotti. There’s a kind of story-vampire in “The Glutton” by Melanie Tem. Rather than feeding on blood, she lives off the stories people tell, but eventually drains them dry. This one’s also not really about the bookstore – it’s just a good place for the ‘vampire’ to feed. In “In the Bookshadow” by Marianne de Pierres, demons start appearing in a bookshop because too much soulless commercial crap is being sold. Based on that logic there should be demons in all the biggest bookstores, but perhaps this particular bookshop is being punished because it has the look and feel of an old-fashioned store but the manager is running it more like a chain store. In “Non-Returnable” by Rick Hautala, a bookseller keeps trying to return a book she ordered to the publisher, but it keeps coming back and also seems to be drinking her blood.

Finally “Shakespeare and Co.” by Jack Williamson was my least favourite story, a bit of dystopian sci fi with far too much boring infodumping. Also, it’s not about the famous bookstore in Paris, as I had hoped.

I would have liked to see a bit less nostalgia in this collection, and a bit more about about bookstores that aren’t magically quaint. Those might be the kinds of stores we love most, but it’s not the only kind we love. Online shopping has its own pleasures and conveniences (we don’t all live close to wonderful stores stocking everything we want), and I thought a story like “The Other Amazon” by Jenny Davidson (Clarkesworld Magazine, December, 2006) would add some variety. It’s about a woman with a serious Amazon book-buying habit, who one finds that she’s able to buy books that haven’t been written or published, but will be or could have been.

Naturally, a few of the stories in Shelf Life express disdain for large commercial chains, and that’s understandable, but as a booklover I still get excited when walking into those stores, I enjoyed working in one, and they’re an important source of books for many readers. The sales assistants might not be well-read and insightful enough to recommend the perfect book, but I have bloggers, and literary magazines, and Goodreads and my own judgement to help with that.

What about bookstores in non-Western settings? Or why not something completely off the charts? One of the most interesting stories I read last year was “The Bookmaking Habits of Select Species” by Ken Liu (Lightspeed Magazine, August, 2012) – an imagining of the ‘books’, ‘reading’ practices and literary habits of alien species. It makes me think – what might an alien bookstore be like? What would the idea of a bookstore be to beings who ‘read’ in a completely different way? That would really bring something fresh to Shelf Life. 

Anyway, I’m just throwing ideas around now. I think this collection could have been much, much better, but as it stands, it’s just nice. Quaint, a little stuffy. I’m sure most readers would find something to like or love here, but chances are the collection as a whole is not going to blow you away. It lacks the wild, expansive quality of sff, and is bogged down by too much of the same sort of thing. Maybe it’s best to read it slowly, a bite or two in between novels, rather than consuming it all in one go.

Once Upon a Time: New Fairy Tales edited by Paula Guran

Once Upon a TimeTitle: Once Upon a Time: New Fairy Tales
Editor: Paula Guran
Published: 2 October 2013
Publisher: Prime Books
Genre: short stories, fairy tales, fantasy, science fiction, magical realism
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Rating: 7/10

Once Upon a Time is an anthology of eighteen modern fairy tales by contemporary authors. Each story is prefaced with a note by the author describing their inspiration for the tale to follow, and where relevant I’ve provided links to original fairy tales in this review. I feel like I hardly need to review this though – I could just post the title and the pretty cover and fairy tale fans will reach for it as quickly as I did 🙂 Nevertheless, there are some lovely tales in here that deserve being mentioned, so onward!

The anthology opens with a particularly nice introduction by Paula Guran. She gives a ton of recommendations for books and movies inspired by fairy tales, as well as a list of online resources. She also shares some insights into the tale of Rapunzel, which was not only interesting for the story itself, but offers a way of thinking about fairytales in general. For example, Guran says how stupid she thought Rapunzel’s mother was, endangering her husband by insisting that he steal rampion from the witch’s garden (the witch of course, took Rapunzel as compensation). Later, Guran understood this in a different light – a pregnant woman’s cravings may be the result of dangerous vitamin deficiencies, so satisfying those cravings was very important in many folk traditions.

Not that you need to understand traditional cultures to appreciate the fairy tales in this collection. As Guran notes, “fairy tales have always resonated with the reader’s own time and place” and the authors in this collection use them to explore more modern themes and narrative styles. Some authors rewrite old tales. Others use common tropes – like curses, witches, the youngest son who everyone assumes is an idiot – to write original fairy tales. Sometimes the basic elements of a popular fairy tale are reworked for a completely different tale.

The authors work all sorts of magic with their creations. Very often, the passive female victims of the tales are transformed into heroines with the schemes and strengths to control their fates. Good and evil cease to be so easily defined. Familiar stories are told from fresh perspectives, and the motives of normally inscrutable characters are explored.

Of course, there are plenty of tales based on the favourites collected by Hans Christian Anderson and the Grimm brothers. “Tales That Fairies Tell” by Richard Bowes sees “Puss in Boots” in an alternate contemporary world. Puss is not simply a helpful cat but a kind of immortal trickster who amuses himself by changing the fortunes of hapless young men.

A.C. Wise also examines the questionable motives of fairy tale characters in “The Hush of Feathers, The Clamor of Wings” a modern-day version of “The Six Swans”. In her story the youngest brother has fallen in love with the sky, and been seduced by the witch. He doesn’t want to be human again, so he’s wasted his sister’s painful gift of silence. “The Mirror Tells All” by Erzebet Yellowboy retells “Snow White” as a strange mother/daughter tragedy of love and neglect.

“Sleeping Beauty of Elista” by Ekaterina Sedia is the bleakest story in this collection, and the most stark example of a modern retelling. It combines the fairy tale with a true story that took place in Elista, Russia, where babies where infected with HIV/AIDS after getting injections with dirty needles. In that context, the prick of a needle and the notion of eternal sleep become so much more disturbing.

“The Road of Needles” by Caitlin R. Kiernan also manages to make a common fairy tale feature more unnerving – the forest. This was the most baffling story for me, a sci fi retelling of “Little Red Riding Hood” that mostly takes place in an artificial habitat. I didn’t have a good grasp on this story, but what I did really like about it was how excessively, dangerously lush the habitat is. Due to some technical glitch, the natural growth goes into overdrive, and the protagonist finds herself in a forest so thick and tangled that it really drives home the idea of a forest as a wild, threatening place; something that most modern readers don’t fully understand.

While the modern settings are fun, I also like the fact that many authors use the setting and classic feel of fairy tales, but with their own inventive touches. “The Lenten Rose” is Genevieve Valentine’s version of “The Snow Queen”. This story weaves in a lot of details from the original fairy tale, which I had never read. I found Valentine’s story too vague and confusing, so I read “The Snow Queen” and then re-read “The Lenten Rose”. It was so much better once I knew the original, so after this I made sure to read any fairy tale I was unfamiliar first (they’re all available online).

In her intro to the story, Valentine notes how the original tale ends a bit too happily with Kay and Gerda’s ordeals “vanishing from their minds, leaving them, the story suggests, essentially unchanged from the children they were when they began it”. “The Lenten Rose” tells a more realistically sorrowful story. Kay’s obsession with the Snow Queen might have to do with more than just the mirror shards in his eye and heart while Gerda’s  journey to find Kay has a kind of melancholy determination to it, rather than being fuelled purely by her love for Kay. And the entire ordeal leaves them irrevocably changed, trying not to think about the past.

Stories like “The Lenten Rose” have an edginess to them, like a piece of modern art. It’s interesting, but I have to admit that when it comes to fairy tales I prefer the ones the thrive on sheer plot and charm, like “Below the Sun Beneath” by Tanith Lee. This was one of my favourites, a retelling of “The Twelve Dancing Princesses” with fleshed-out details and a few delightful twists.

Two of my other favourites were also ones that just had really enjoyable stories. These ones are more original fairy tales using traditional tropes. “Flight” by Angela Slatter is about a princess who turns into a bird and is held prisoner by an evil witch. I thought the story was a bit too conventional at first, but Slatter does some interesting things with themes of gender, tradition good and evil, and freedom, so by the end I quite liked it.

“Castle of Masks” by Cory Skerry was a wonderful and surprising. In a village where young women are regularly offered as sacrifices to the Beast who lives in a castle, a boy named Justus dresses as a girl and takes the place of the next sacrifice. He’s a hunter and plans to slay the Beast, who took his sister the last time. The Beast wants company, however, so Justus has to play a careful gender game while looking for the right time to strike.

“Blanchefleur” by Theodora Goss ends the anthology on a perfect note. Although inspired by a fairy tale called “The White Cat” by Madame D’Aulnoy, Goss tells her own tale about a humble young man who everyone calls ‘Idiot’, but who travels far, learns a lot, and finds his fortune. It’s fully of fantastic talking animals with a range of personalities and it’s stories like this that make you love fairy tales in the first place.

There were a couple of stories based on fairy tales that were entirely new to me. “The Coin of Heart’s Desire” by Yoon Ha Lee is inspired by Korean folktales featuring the Dragon King Under the Sea. A young monarch approaches the dragon in the palace treasury to find impressive magical gifts for the powerful families of her kingdom. The dragon tests her by asking what she wants for herself. I’ve read and listened to several stories by Yoon Ha Lee, who I’ve come to know for her uniquely surreal stories. Some are so weird that I find them alienating, but this hits the right balance between the fantastical and the familiar.

“Born and Bread” by Kaaron Warren is based on a Russian fairy tale called Sivka Burka, which begins with a man who asks his three sons to bring bread to his grave for three nights after his death. Warren wondered “what sort of man would demand such a thing and what sort of bread would be best for a dead man”. She then answers this with an original fairy tale, about an ugly child who is born looking like dough, but has a wonderful personality and grows up to be a talented baker.

“The Giant in Repose” by Nathan Ballingrud is a metafictional reworking of a Norwegian fairy tale called “The Giant Who Had No Heart In His Body”. In the original, a youngest son/prince has to find the place where a giant keeps his heart. In Ballingrud’s version he strays from the Story and lives his own life, but because the Story is incomplete, the crow who played a role in the original calls him back to finish it.

“Lupine” by Nisi Shawl is one of the original tales, exploring the curse trope. A mother who hates her daughter gives her a potion that makes her “act hatefully toward those she loved and lovingly toward those she hated”, turning her life into a miserable existence. You will find another mother who is displeased by her child in “Egg” by Priya Sharma, a somewhat disturbing story about a wish. A wealthy, career woman wishes for a child, but she’s single and infertile. A witch grants her wish, but the child she gets is more bird than human. Raising her is akin to raising a child with severe mental deficiencies, and protagonist has to struggle with the vast differences between her expectations and the grim reality.

“Eat Me, Drink Me, Love Me” by Christopher Barzak and “Warrior Dreams” by Cinda Williams Chima  both explore the world of the fae. In Barzak’s tale, a girl spends a short time in that world, and longs to go back not just because it’s so sensual, but because it’s so much more liberal than her own small society where she can’t have the romantic relationship that she wants. “Warrior Dreams” is full of water fae-folk: nixies, grindylows, a Wendigo, a kelpie, a black dog, the Red Dwarf of Detroit. However, it takes place in an urban setting, with the far calling on a homeless ex-soldier to help them fight a monster who is devouring their kind.

The only story I haven’t mentioned yet is “The Spinning Wheel’s Tale” by Jane Yolen, partly because it’s my least favourite. It’s written from the POV of the spinning wheel that pricked Sleeping Beauty’s finger. Yolen has an impressive history with fairy tales, so I expected this story to be quite good, but somehow it just fell completely flat for me.

On the whole though, Once Upon a Time is a pretty strong collection. While nothing had me awe-struck like some short fiction, quite a few gave me the pleasure of simply reading a really good story. It’s also always fun to see how different writers interpret fairy tales or their tropes, and to be introduced to new ones. If you love fairy tales, this should be on your shelf.

Kabu Kabu by Nnedi Okorafor – review part 2

Kabu KabuTitle: Kabu Kabu
Nnedi Okorafor
Published: 2 October 2013
Prime Books
short stories, fantasy, science fiction
 eARC from the publisher via NetGalley

There was a lot I wanted to discuss about this collection, so I split the review. Part 1 is an introduction and deals with the folklore/mythology and politics that come up in the stories. Part 2 will deal with culture, miscellaneous observations, and wrap up the review.

Okorafor is American-born, and several of the stories involve the cross-cultural experiences of American Nigerians. In “Kabu Kabu”, Ngozi speaks about how much she misses Nigeria, while the driver of her taxi – an Igbo man – criticises her for not being Nigerian enough. Ngozi reappears as a child in “The House of Deformities”, where she and her sister Adoabi are visiting rural Nigeria. It’s based on a true story and is the first short story Okorafor ever wrote. For the most part, Ngozi and Adoabi love Nigeria and don’t mind the electricity being switched off at 8pm, having to wash in cold water, or not having TV. They’re not looking forward to going back to the states. The story is driven by their only real concerns: a scary news report about a man who kidnaps children (which feeds into Adoabi’s love of Stephen King and Clive Barker’s horror novels) and Ngozi’s revulsion at the toilets, which tend to be broken, disgusting, or absent.

“On the Road” features a Chicago cop staying with her grandmother and Aunt in a village, where she opens the door to a monster. Her grandmother scolds her for her lack of common sense:

“If you see a monster at your doorstep, the wise thing to do is shut the door.” She sucked her teeth and shook her head. “You Americanized Nigerians. No instinct.”

One thing that all the Nigerians love, no matter where they were born, is the food: fried plantain, punted yam, “egusi soup heavy with goat meat and stock fish”, spicy jollof rice, sweet fresh fruit. What intrigued me most was the palm wine, made by tapping the sweet sap of a palm tree and fermenting it. According to Nigerian culture, climbing and tapping palm trees is something only men are supposed to do. Not that that stops Okorafor’s women. In “The Popular Mechanic”, a father shows pride and affection for his daughter because she climbs and taps the palm trees to make wine for him. In “The Palm Tree Bandit”, Okorafor rebels against tradition through a story of a woman who secretly taps palm trees at night. There’s a touch of fantasy to it, and the ‘bandit’ eventually develops into a myth that revolutionises the culture.

The tension between women and culture comes up frequently in Kabu Kabu. I say “tension” because it’s not a simple matter of women being bound up within traditional, typically sexist cultures and being unable to do anything about it. Okorafor’s characters frequently resist tradition, work around it or just ignore it. They might give a nod to tradition but they won’t bow to it. In the post-apocalyptic “Tumaki” a young Muslim woman and her parents understand the need for hijab in their society, but at the same time she’s a skilled mechanic and spends most of her free time reading in her personal library. “Spider the Artist” initially seems to have a depressingly downtrodden woman:

No matter my education, as soon as I got married and brought to this damn place, I became like every other woman here, a simple village woman […] whose husband knocks her around every so often.

Rather than being defined as a victim however, she can contextualise her situation, finds an escape in the beautiful guitar music she plays, and goes on to form the most interesting and progressive relationship in the book.

Naturally, issues of sexuality and the body come up too. “How Inyang Got Her Wings” demonstrates a kind of female beauty that is very different from the western ideal (although no less harmful). Inyang, who has a lithe, muscular body, does not consider herself to be as attractive as her large sisters:

Inyang envied the way their huge squashy behinds and legs jiggled under their colorful rapas and how their lumpy arms couldn’t even wrap around their melon breasts. They were beautiful and normal.

Inyang knows she will never be sent to the fattening huts, where young women are made beautiful by being kept in seclusion, fed fattening foods and circumcised before marriage.  Inyang was born with dada hair – dreadlocks – and women with dada hair are considered undesirable, believed to be the children of an evil water goddess. Nevertheless, she finds a kind of freedom in her ‘ugliness’. Her muscular body makes it easier to run through the forest, and because she doesn’t have to worry about virginity or marriage, she can enjoy acting on her sexual desires and chooses several lovers instead of being betrothed to one person. This is what made this one of my favourite stories in the anthology – not only is it a great coming-of-age story, it’s rare to see a YA tale where a young woman gets to enjoy sexual freedom like this, while also having to deal with the consequences. Most of the Windseeker stories address the sexual desires of the protagonist.

With themes and characters like this, not to mention the folklore and mythology I discussed in part one of this review, anyone who knows my tastes can understand why I like this collection. “Spider the Artist” and “How Inyang Got Her Wings” were my favourite stories and I enjoyed most of the others or at least some gem of an idea or a character within them.

There was nothing I actively disliked; my least favourite stories were just the ones that didn’t do much for me. War and real-world politics don’t resonate very strongly with me, even though they fit perfectly here. The political stories I enjoyed usually hooked me with something else. Some of the stories are just casual little bites of entertainment that amuse without making a strong impression, like “Long Juju Man” about a child trying to get a basket of eggs to her aunt without a prankster ghost breaking them, or “The Ghastly Bird”, about the dodo and an academic who loves them. “Asunder” is a more serious parable about love. “The Baboon War”, Okorafor admits, uses a cliche about black people fighting with baboon, but she says this actually happened to her mother; she just put a more fantastical spin on it for this tale. I quite liked “The Carpet”, a horror story about an evil carpet that has the classic feel of a haunted object story, but in a unique situation (also based on one of Okorafor’s experiences when visiting Nigeria).

This reminds me – be sure to read Okorafor’s notes at the end of the collection, as she gives brief insights into her stories. However, you can skip Whoopi Goldberg’s introduction, which is just a pointless bit of fluff praising the book. Not that it doesn’t deserve praise. Fans who are serious about broadening their sff horizons or who are always looking for something fresh and thought-provoking should undoubtedly be reading this.

Kabu Kabu by Nnedi Okorafor – review part 1

Kabu KabuTitle: Kabu Kabu
Nnedi Okorafor
Published: 2 October 2013
Prime Books
short stories, fantasy, science fiction
eARC from the publisher via NetGalley

Note: I have split this review into two parts.

Kabu Kabu is American-Nigerian author Nnedi Okorafor’s first short story anthology. Drawing on her heritage and personal experience, she offers up an array of fantasy and science fiction based on the culture clashes of Nigerians visiting from America, Nigerian folklore and mythology, the power and vulnerability of women in traditional cultures, and the politics of a land being pillaged for oil by western corporations.

I’ve really come to appreciate short stories this past year, and this collection feels fresh and exciting, partly because African influences aren’t often seen in these genres, and partly because Okorafor has such a wonderful imagination. Traditional lifestyles are seamlessly melded with futuristic tech, politics finds its expression in fantasy, and Okorafor writes rural Nigeria with rich colours, tastes and depths, avoiding the dreary pessimism or stupid romanticism than you too often find in stories about African countries. Her stories are also full of intelligent, determined women breaking the stereotypes of tradition.

The collection opens, appropriately, with “The Magical Negro”, a parody of the magical Negro trope found in American cinema. In doing so, Okorafor brushes aside stereotypical portrayals of black Africans, making way for the people who populate her tales.

“Kabu Kabu” also serves as an introduction of sorts, and I can see why the collection is named after it. Okorafor and co-author Alan Dean Foster transport the reader from a familiar environment (Chicago – western, American) into a more fantastical one. Ngozi, a 30-something lawyer, is late for her flight to Nigeria, where she is going to celebrate her sister’s wedding. The taxi she takes to the airport is a kabu kabu – an illegal Nigerian taxi. “Heroin drop-offs, 419 scams, and all sorts of other Nigerian-oriented shady business flashed through her mind” and she can’t believe got stuck with a sexist, reckless Nigerian driver in an illegal cab before even getting to the airport. Her experience becomes even more outlandish when the driver starts picking up ‘masquerades’ – “mythical beings […] spirits and ancestors”. Not only is Ngozi in an awkward situation, she’s terrified by the creatures she encounters.

This is a good stepping stone for the stories that follow. At first I found them a tad disorienting, because the folklore and mythology are unfamiliar. It’s not because it’s Nigerian per se – African settings are not new to me – but folklore and mythology in general is pretty fucking weird and often it’s only your familiarity with it that allows you to forget that. So these stories could be alienating. In the horror story “On the Road” a supernatural event is preceded by the presence of numerous green and orange lizards. Then a woman has her hands amputated, before seeing a giant lizard made out of hot gravel rise from the road, with vines from the forest wrapping around it. And I had no bloody idea what the point was. Much like Ngozi can’t comprehend the creatures that get into the taxi with her.

But Ngozi eventually accepts the bizarre nature of the taxi, and one of the things I really like about this anthology is that the more you read, the better-acquainted you become with the culture, its mythology and politics. You might go in with many of the same stereotypes that flashed through Ngozi’s mind, but by the end you have a more nuanced understanding. For example, large green lizards make a brief appearance in one of the later stories as creatures from the spirit world. The lizards in “On the Road” suddenly make a bit more sense. A cute story called “Long Juju Man” a little girls tells us how everyone in the village knows about ghosts and how they love to eat rotten fruit. She runs into the legendary Long Juju Man – a sorcerer (“juju” is magic) who loved to play pranks, and died when he fell into a deep pit he’d dug for someone else. In “Bakasi Man”, I came across the line “Like my mother always says, ‘He who digs a pit for others will inevitably fall into it.'” It’s a simple phrase, but knowing the origin enriches the meaning.

“Bakasi Man” itself is about a hunchback, and apparently:

hunchbacks are not normal people. Even when they die, security has to be stationed at the gravesite for at least the first year, to prevent robbers from digging them up. It’s the hump that people want. A hunchback’s hump is said to be the source of his or her great power.

The story entwines folklore with politics, as a hunchbacked man rises to power by exploiting inter-tribal conflict. Okorafor is ambiguous about the hump – it is really the source of power, or is it powerful because people believe in it?

Tribal conflict comes up again in desperately bleak “The Black Stain”, a post-apocalyptic story about a family from a privileged tribe (the Uche) that loathes and enslaves another tribe (the Okeke). One interesting aspect of this story is that the Uche hate the Okeke because of their association with technology, which seems to have had a role in the unnamed apocalyptic event(s). Ironically, the Uche family make their money by selling scavenged computer parts. At first it seems like the story is very rural, very traditional (and very stereotypical), until you realise that it’s actually futuristic and society has passed through a technologically advanced stage only to be returned to a basic existence by unnamed post-apocalyptic events.

What makes the story so bleak is not just the grotesque racism or the setting, but what inspired it – the “Ewu” a monstrous child born of weaponised rape. Again, the story is ambiguous about the supernatural: it’s unclear whether monstrosity is ‘real’, or if it comes from the prejudice and oppression ingrained in those beliefs.

There are also four related stories about Windseekers – people who can fly and control the wind. They used to be a common sight in the skies, but in recent times people have ceased to believe in them and persecute them as witches.

The first of these stories is “How Inyang Got Her Wings” about a young woman who starts to fly when she hits puberty. Here we pick up the first few details of the Windseeker mythos – how Windseekers have ‘dada hair’ (dreadlocks), have a close connection with nature, and need to follow tradition by finding their soul mates if they wish to avoid disaster. “The Winds of Harmattan”, tells the story of Inyang’s aunt Asuquo, who was also a Windseeker. Like Inyang, she has a strong sexual appetite and men quickly become infatuated with her, but because she fails to marry the right man, she’s doomed.

Inyang appears decades later as a woman named Arro-yo (although I didn’t realise this until I read Okorafor’s notes at the end of the book) in the stories “Windseekers” and “Biafra”. “Windseekers” takes place in the lush science-fantasy-ish land of Ginen with its plant skyscrapers and organic tech. Inyang/Arro-yo has always resisted tradition and it’s in this story that we see the effects – the violent sexual tension between her and the man she should have married.

In “Biafra”, Arro-yo returns to Nigeria after travelling the world for many years, only to find it completely changed and in the middle of the Biafran War. Feeling guilty for selfishly staying away for so long, Arro-yo uses her powers as a Windseeker to alleviate as much suffering as she can, and this story has the most heart-wrenching scene in the anthology.

“Biafra” is one of the more brutal stories, but political issues come up often to drive the story or form its background. Another set of related stories deals with the the extraction of oil from Nigeria. One of these – Spider the Artist – was my absolute favourite from the anthology. A lonely unemployed woman is abused by her husband and as an escape, she sits in her backyard playing beautiful music on her father’s guitar. Sitting in her yard is dangerous though – oil pipelines run through it, and in the near-future world of this story, spider robots patrol the pipes against people who try to steal fuel, brutally slaughtering anyone who so much as touches them. The spider robots are known as Zombies, “the same name we call those “kill-and-go” soldiers who come in here harassing us every time something bites their brains.” What I loved about this tale was the relationship that forms between the narrator and a Zombie who comes to listen to her play music.

The events of “Spider the Artist” are rewritten in “The Popular Mechanic”. Here, the spider robots do not exist, but one of the main characters laments that the government has turned its people into “Robot zombies scrambling for a sip of fuel”, since locals can only get fuel illegally even though millions of litres are pumped out of the country every day. He becomes part robot himself, after he loses an arm in an explosion. His arm is replaced by a prototype mechanical arm that a western company is testing on Nigerians – a form of exploitation hiding behind the seeming benevolence of free advanced medical care.

The protagonist of “Icon” – an African-American journalist – portrays the oil issue from the other side of the fence:

The story was significant because the culprits were from the NDPM, the Niger Delta People’s Movement, a Nigerian terrorist organization bent on sabotaging and destroying any efforts Shell and other oil companies made to extract oil from this strip of the Niger Delta.

The journalist is not really invested in the issue though; he just wants a story like Shell wants Nigeria’s oil.

What I also wanted to discuss was the culture that is depicted in Kabu Kabu, random observations and my overall thoughts about the collection, but that made the review too long for one post. I’ll post the rest in a day or two 🙂

Up for Review: Kabu Kabu

I’ve been meaning to read Nnedi Okorafor for a while, and so far I’ve only read a few of her short stories. Luckily, Prime Books is releasing a whole anthology of them 🙂

Kabu Kabu

Kabu Kabu by Nnedi Okorafor (Prime Books)

NetGalley Blurb:

Kabu kabu—unregistered illegal Nigerian taxis—generally get you where you need to go. Nnedi Okorafor’s Kabu Kabu, however, takes the reader to exciting, fantastic, magical, occasionally dangerous, and always imaginative locations you didn’t know you needed. This debut short story collection by an award-winning author includes notable previously  published material, a new novella co-written with New York Times-bestselling author Alan Dean Foster, six additional original stories, and a brief foreword by Whoopi Goldberg.

Kabu Kabu will be published on 2 October 2013 by Prime Books.

Prime Books

About the Author
Nnedi Okorafor was born in the United States to two Igbo (Nigerian) immigrant parents. She holds a PhD in English and is a tenured professor at Chicago State University. She resides in the suburbs of Chicago with her daughter Anyaugo.
Though American-born, Nnedi’s muse is Nigeria. Her parents began taking her and her siblings to visit relatives there when she was very young. Because Nigeria is her muse, this is where many of her stories take place, either literally or figuratively.
Because she grew up wanting to be an entomologist and even after becoming a writer maintained that love of insects and nature, her work is always filled with startlingly vivid flora and fauna.
And because Octavia Butler, Stephen King, Philip Pullman, Tove Jansson, Hayao Miyazaki, and Ngugi wa Thiong’o are her greatest influences, her work tends to be…on the creative side. – from the author’s website

After the End: Recent Apocalypses edited by Paula Guran

After the End edited by Paula GuranTitle: After the End: Recent Apocalypses
Paula Guran
Prime Books
 2 July 2013
short stories, science fiction, fantasy, horror
eARC from the publisher via NetGalley

In May I reviewed Pandemonium: Stories of the Apocalypse edited by Jared Shurin and  Anne C. Perry. Now I’ve got After the End: Recent Apocalypses edited by Paula Guran, an unrelated but thematically similar collection. As you can tell from the titles, Pandemonium‘s stories were based on the event itself while After the End deals with the aftermath. The collection is a ‘best of’, bringing together stories that were published from 2007 through 2012, with one exception published in 2002.

These stories don’t show much variety in the apocalypse itself – in almost all cases, humanity is entirely responsible for ruining the world through climate change, war, the destruction of natural resources, etc. There are no alien invasions, divine wars, Raptures, or zombies. Guran actually mentions the latter in her introduction – having edited three zombie anthologies already, she’s got them covered and decided to leave them out this time around.

There are different imaginings of post-apocalyptic futures however. Nnedi Okorofor’s “Tumaki” envisions a world where the laws of physics no longer apply and humans born with strange new powers have to hide from the violent prejudice of others. “The Cecelia Paradox” by John Mantooth may not actually be a post-apocalyptic story, but none of the characters know for sure: they’ve all been told that they cannot leave their building because the world outside is a diseased ruin that will kill them. A self-professed ‘god’ and his son rule over them, but are they all just part of a reality TV show? In “Isolation Point, California” by John Shirley, the remains of humanity are forced into isolation by a disease that turns anyone into a murdering psychopath the moment they step too close to another human.

In “Pump Six” by Paolo Bacigalupi, humans live alongside troglodytes, peaceful but moronic creatures who do nothing but hang around eating or having sex. Humans look down on them, but they’re going the same way – they’re interested only in instant gratification and are too stupid to repair their disintegrating infrastructure. I quite liked Bacigalupi’s depressing but ultimately hopeful tale of apocalypse by idiocy.

“Amaryllis” by Carrie Vaughn is good too; one of the more heartwarming stories. It’s dystopic at first glance – society is highly regulated, and people need permission from the authorities to have children. But it’s not nightmarish; more like a means of nurturing life in a damaged world. After all, how could we expect to live like we’ve always lived? The story Vaughn tells doesn’t rage against social institutions like most dystopias – it focuses on the people living in these new conditions and what they have made of their lives.

Incidentally, character-based narratives like this are the defining feature of After the End:

What the stories all have in common, other than the theme, is that they are about people: their actions, reactions, interactions, and relationships: their hopes, dreams and strategies, and failures. More than one someone has survived. The world may have ended, but there is still life.

And the survivors are what you’re most likely to remember from these stories. While the one I mentioned above offer more imaginative post-apocalyptic worlds, many go for the standard broken-down societies, with a few people eking out a meagre existence or travelling a dangerous dusty road to where they hope to find sanctuary. But that doesn’t make the collection boring – the characters who stand out and define the tale, and the authors use the post-apocalyptic landscape as a means of exploring character.

The protagonist of “We Will Never Live in the Castle” by Paul Tremblay, for example, is an alienated, geeky boy of the type who might have committed a Columbine-style massacre if the apocalypse hadn’t come along. Now he prides himself on having the knowledge and fortitude to survive alone. His anger and violent tendencies have not disappeared however, which does not bode well now that he lives in a world without rules.

One of my favourites was After the Apocalypse by Maureen F. McHugh, about Jane and her daughter Franny, who are trekking through post-apocalyptic America. Jane ran away from home at 14 and has always been strong, rebellious and independent. Franny, however, was a “mistake” and Jane cannot stand how clingy, childish and whiny she is, especially in such difficult circumstances. One of the most memorable scenes in the story is when Jane leaves Franny outside while she goes into a house to scavenge for supplies. When Jane comes out, she sees a strange man talking to Franny. Her first thought is not that Franny might be in danger – instead she thinks of running away and abandoning her daughter to the care of a total stranger. Jane is not a particularly likeable character, but I loved the way McHugh used the post-apocalyptic setting to bring out the more heartless aspects of her character – in a world gone to ruin, is Jane still bound by the social conventions she’s frequently defied?

“Horses” by Livia Llewellyn also deals with unwanted post-apocalyptic parenthood. It’s also the bleakest story in this collection, if not one of the bleakest I’ve ever read. Kingston is a soldier who learns she’s pregnant the morning before she and her fellow soldiers are ordered to launch the bomb that will essentially bring their world to an end. She finds her way to a bomb shelter, and tries to use her pregnancy as a sympathy card to gain entrance, then offers to have an abortion when her request is denied. She eventually gets in an has the baby, but the shelter is it’s own kind of hell. The ending is utter horror, and I thought the story critiqued the failure to take responsibility for life and the folly of bringing new life into a world defined by death.

Luckily not all the stories are so dismal. “The Books” by Kage Baker is a book lover’s delight. Told in the style of someone reciting a story to a group, it tells the tale of three children who discover a huge library in an abandoned city. It’s not only about the appreciation of books (especially in a world where no one writes or prints them anymore) but about storytelling itself. One of the characters is a boy who frames their experiences as fantastical adventures, and it’s because of him that they go out to explore the city on their own.

“Never, Never, Three Times Never” by Simon Morden has a dreadful ‘villain’ and an ambiguous ending, but also features two of the most steadfast characters in the collection: a blind man and a woman in a wheelchair who have forged a loyal friendship that defies their odds in a ruined world. “True North” by M.J. Locke is the post-apocalyptic adventure story where a band of survivors journeys toward the promise of sanctuary. A man who wants to die after losing his wife finds fresh passion for life when he is ‘adopted’ by a band of children and the teenaged girl who leads and educates them. In another context, I might have found this story a bit sentimental, but good people and heartwarming stories become much more valuable after the world ends.

One of my favourite strong characters was in “Beat Me Daddy (Eight to the Bar)” by Cory Doctorow, featuring a band who uses the rhythm of automated planes flying overhead as part of their music. After biowarfare destroyed America, a group of survivors lives by scavenging the canned food and other supplies they dig out of  the rubble. A newcomer arrives and encourages them to try gardening instead – a far more sustainable food option. But to grow food, she has to fight against those who think it’s stupid to waste time on a garden when there’s food just lying around in the rubble. When it’s pointed out that the cans will eventually run out, the reply is that “There’s plenty of rubble to go around” or “We’ll defend [this place] until the food runs out, then we’ll move on” and “Someone will take care of that”. The antagonistic characters in the story are interested only in having the martial strength to keep outsiders off the land they’ve claimed and, presumably, to take over a new area once the food runs out.

Doctorow’s story made me think of the contemporary addiction to fossil fuels and the insufficient attention devoted to finding sustainable energy sources. The way the story switches the focus from fuel to gardening really emphasises how insane this attitude is. When the antagonists scoff at the idea of gardening in favour of scavenging and fighting, you want to strangle them for their short-sightedness. But that’s exactly what people are doing now, threatening to make these stories realities.

There were a couple of stories that I just didn’t get or like at all. “The Disappeared” by Blake Butler describes an apocalypse that is gory and surreal, and apparently features ghosts. Or something. I wasn’t quite sure what went on there. “Ragnarok” by Paul Park is written in the “form of an ancient verse Edda in Anglo-Saxon style”, which I found really boring. Margo Lanagan’s disturbing story of sexual abuse, “The Fifth Star in the Southern Cross”, was less confusing but felt unfinished – more like the idea of a post-apocalyptic world with only the beginnings of the story it spawned. “Goddess of Mercy” by Bruce Sterling had the kind of complex socio-political plot that usually leaves me bored and unfocused, although it was notable for being one of the only stories not set in the USA or England (Okorafor’s story was set in Nigeria, some stories move briefly to other locations and I think one or two have unnamed locations, but one of the shortcomings to this collection is that it’s culturally biased).

I liked enough of the stories to enjoy the anthology overall though, and when I didn’t like a story it wasn’t because I thought it was bad but because it just didn’t work for me. I also appreciated the fact that every story comes with a few introductory comments. Given that short stories have limited space for world building, it really helped to have one or two key pieces of information about the world, especially with the more complex ones. It also makes it easier to focus on the amazing characters that populate these stories. It’s a strong collection and I recommend it, not just for those who like post-apocalyptic stories, but for any sff fan who appreciates good writing.