Reviews of the Ephemeral

Posts Tagged ‘LGBT’

Mosaic of Air by Cherry Potts

In Short Stories on October 19, 2013 at 1:30 pm

-Reviewed by Andie Berryman

Mosaic of Air is a lesbian collection originally released in 1992 with its re-release in 2013. So why re-issue stories from a particular era, in this case the 1980s: would the stories now be a bit dated? In her foreword, author Cherry Potts examines this decision herself, she points out which particular lines are now mercifully obsolete (such as ”He couldn’t very well marry Phillip, could he?”), but also points to the stories which still, sadly, portray elements of contemporary lesbian life.

Mosaic of Air by Cherry Potts

There’s a short piece called ‘Second Glance’ about a woman ‘cautiously searching for the cues’ before speaking to a woman in a bar (which the author points to in the foreword), I passed it around some LGBT friends (in their 20s and 30s) to gauge a reaction, they all read the piece, nodding their heads and simply saying ‘yes’.

The ground-breaking era of the second wave of feminism and the elements of women’s lives is present throughout the collection. In ‘The Ballad of Polly and Ann’ that element is incest. Not many words are wasted on the perpetrator, rather the main protagonist’s unorthodox journey takes precedence. This (to my mind) mirrors the rise of rape crisis centres during the 1970s and 1980s, which started life primarily tackling incestuous abuse.

Then there’s the reclaiming of myths. The great joy in reading a Feminist collection like this is the re-imagining, from Woolf to Winterson, Cherry Potts also reimagines Helen of Troy as a mere beautiful pawn in the powerplay of the ancient world, but who, like most women in today’s society, negotiates the system. If you read nothing else in this book you must read ‘Arachne’s Daughters’; this takes apart a myth about Arachne (a human) challenging Athene (the goddess): ‘ ”Now, can you believe anyone would be so stupid?” ‘. It’s set as a speech given at a women-only meeting with a clever twist on why so many women shouldn’t fear spiders despite the extra legs and pincers ‘ ”Forgot something though didn’t they?…[Men]… How many Cancers and Scorpios are in the audience?” ‘.

Throughout is the filling of silence through the writing of experience. That’s quite clearly laid out in ‘Winter Festival’, a piece about being alone on what should be a day of being with a loved one: ‘ ”A day like any other, except perhaps for our expectations of it: unreasonable, companionable expectations”. One couldn’t imagine that story being relevant to the here and now, but it’s happening somewhere, to someone.

Another element in the canon of feminist writing is science fiction. There always seems to be a reaching out to space, a place which shouldn’t replicate patriarchal norms, but somehow does and distorts them slightly. ‘Mosaic of Air’ is an interesting parable featuring a proto-post-feminist lead, a computer programmer whose programme becomes sentient which surprisingly encases an abortion debate.

There is longing, there is the blessing of lust requited, written to my mind on a low frequency; this is what happened, it’s important that it’s displayed as an everyday facet of life. Cherry Potts’ writing quite rightly points out that lesbian life has been portrayed like an old postcard left behind the carriage clock on the mantelpiece for years; visitors have noticed it and yet not bothered to pick it up and discover the message on it, because it’s from Hebden Bridge and not Brighton’s clubs.

Steam-Powered II: More Lesbian Steampunk Stories

In anthology, Short Stories on November 3, 2011 at 10:24 am

-Reviewed by Tori Truslow

If books are like airships, and let’s say they are (both being imaginative human constructs, soaring above the reliable quotidian and carrying their passengers off on adventures), steampunk books are reality-hopping, time-tampering airships – rollicking good stuff, right? And yet my reproachfully teetering to-review pile contains several steampunky tomes that I haven’t yet brought myself to pick up, knowing from past encounters with their ilk that they’ll contain all of the steam and none of the punk. That suffix should imply a subversion that is often all too lacking in Brit-centric gears-n-gaslamp offerings. Thankfully, the crew of authors assembled by editor JoSelle Vanderhooft for Steam-Powered II put some of the punk back in – and some of them take the steam away entirely.

 

This is the second volume in what looks like it will be a yearly series, and it builds impressively on the foundations laid by the first. For a good idea of the Steam-Powered ethos, it’s worth looking at Amal El-Mohtar’s afterword, ‘Winding Down the House: Taking the Steam out of Steampunk’. The argument is an important one: wanting steampunk to be all about steam robs much of the world, and many groups of people, of the chance to join in with everything that’s good about the genre – unless they corset their stories up in Victorian-style trappings. El-Mohtar talks about the writing of her own (excellent) story in the first volume of Steam-Powered, ‘To Follow the Waves’, set in Syria – where ‘there are better things to do with water than make steam’ – and how making the story’s technology steam-driven ‘would have meant my Damascus would be London with Arabic names tacked on, and that Syria could not participate in the exciting atmosphere of mystifying science that characterised Britain in the same period without developing precisely the same technology.’ She concludes: ‘I want a steampunk divorced from the necessity of steam’. Steam-Powered II, while not totally divorced from steam, offers various ways to question its necessity.

Steam-Powered 2: More Lesbian Steampunk Stories Tori Truslow JoSelle Vanderhooft

‘The Terracotta Bride’ by Zen Cho is a steamless story, set in a Chinese afterlife that seems part-traditional and part modelled on contemporary society, featuring a corrupt demon bureaucracy, paper hell-houses, and a living terracotta construct whose arrival changes everything. Is it steampunk? My first thought was, ‘who cares; it’s glorious!’ But what steampunk does (among other things) is to present worlds and eras changed by anachronistic technology – hopefully in a way that asks questions about those eras, and by extension about the present. Cho’s hell is an afterlife altered by technology in a way that also asks questions about the world of the living – steampunky in spirit, but no steam required.

 

Of the stories that do contain steam, several subvert the romanticisation of the steam age that characterises much of the genre. C.S.E. Cooney’s ‘The Canary of Candletown’ gives us the dark side of steam power with a harsh tale set in a Wild-Westy coal-mining settlement, where love blooms in cruel working conditions with heartbreaking results. Others point to the imperial overtones of steam power, as in Stephanie Lai’s ‘One Last Interruption Before We Begin’, set in an alternate Malaysia with water-driven technology. The British love-interest, an airship captain, quizzes the Chinese-Malay protagonist on their eschewal of steam:

“So what do you do with coal?”

Don’t have,” Shun Ping says. “We don’t have it, so we had to not need it.”

Surely we would have kept trading with you,” Elizabeth says. “The Queen would never have left anyone without sufficient resources!”

The story’s polemic comes out a little heavy in the dialogue, but the points are well made – not to mention that the setting is just really damn cool.

 

Stories like this one, and ‘The Terracotta Bride’, and Shveta Thakrar’s ‘Not the Moon but the Stars’ – set in a world where Siddhartha Gautama does not become the Buddha but a great king who employs wonder-working court engineers – make it clear that this anthology is not intended to cater to a homogenous readership. This cultural diversity is one of the anthology’s great strengths, as is the general diversity of the characters – ‘lesbian’ certainly doesn’t mean just one thing. Even more so than the first volume, this one presents a real range of protagonists and relationship structures. A few follow a fairly straightforward girl-meets-girl pattern, but there are also established relationships, some stable, some dysfunctional; all-woman love triangles; and other types of female relationship – familial or professional ties, rivalries, and even, in ‘Journey’s End’ by Elizabeth Porter Birdsall, a partnership between an engineer and a sentient ship. Two Western-style stories feature two beautifully drawn relationships: ‘Fruit Jar Drinkin’, Cheatin’ Heart Blues’ by Patty Templeton and ‘Deal’ by Nicole Kornher-Stace. The former pair make moonshine and give each other hell, and we only really meet one half of the latter, who spends the story spinning tall tales about her lover to throw detectives off her trail – both couples are totally believable, brilliantly voiced, and give a nice kicking in the teeth to the notion that the Western has to be a male genre.

 

Another highlight is Alex Dally Macfarlane’s ‘Selin That Has Grown in the Desert’. This one’s also low on the steam. As a whole it’s a brilliant, understated anti-steampunk tale – and structurally a kind of anti-romance – which manages to do all that and still be sweetly (but certainly not saccharinely) uplifting.

 

Of the stories where both romance and politics play out in parallel, some pay more attention to the complexity or their interplay than others; stories like ‘One Last Interruption Before We Begin’ and Nisi Shawl’s ‘The Return of Cherie’ – a tantalising extract from a novel set in the Belgian Congo with characters navigating postcolonial concerns, global politics, and old love – worked better for me than ones like Sean Holland’s ‘Playing Chess in New Persepolis’, which features some enjoyable political intrigue via larger-than-life steam-driven chess games, plus some romance, but without the two ever quite meshing to the interesting and difficult degree that it does in the Lai and Shawl stories.

 

While certain stories shone out for me above others, they were all strong – this anthology was a marvel to read, a real magical mystery airship tour crewed by rebel mechanics and guerrilla historians. If the first Steam-Powered was daring, the second is dazzling. Go on, let it take you for a spin.

‘Do Not Pass Go’ Crime Stories by Joel Lane

In Pamphlets, Short Stories on July 20, 2011 at 5:21 pm

-Reviewed by Richard T. Watson

‘Do not pass go’ has been chosen as the title for Joel Lane’s short story pamphlet, the first in the new Hotwire imprint by Nine Arches Press. But that other Monopoly phrase, ‘Go to Jail’, would have been just as suitable; for these are works of crime fiction and throughout the pamphlet there is a sense of foreboding, a fear that someone’s going to get hurt and it’ll all end in tears.

Do Not Pass Go: Crime Stories by Joel Lane, published by Nine Arches Press and reviewed for Sabotage by Richard T. Watson

But each of Lane’s stories is also shot through with the blues and an accompanying sense of regret, of sadness. Sometimes this is explicit, like when blues band Nine Below Zero play a gig in ‘No More the Blues’ – a brief story that burns as slowly as good, soulful blues and gradually reveals more about its narrator before sidling offstage and subtly leaving him to his fate. The first story, ‘This Night Last Woman’, though much longer is similar in the way that music and regret go together.

“Memories don’t stay the same. That’s why people need music, to help them remember.”

‘This Night Last Woman’ gently ties memory with melody, before letting the association slide, never to return; it feels like Lane’s missing a trick there.

At other times, Lane’s writing is oblique as he fills in one or two details and leaves his reader to plump out the rest of the picture themselves. This is probably most telling in ‘The Black Dog’, a sweaty and morbid story that eventually reveals itself as a Police report documenting a sweaty, sticky death. As with all the narratorial voices in Do Not Pass Go, this one reports back on life/crime seemingly at one remove, as though the speaker is never quite in contact with the life going on around him. There’s a certain disconnect between story and teller, between life and human – and a sense that the one isn’t fulfilling the other.

My favourite example of Lane pitching small details comes in ‘Blue Mirror’ (the story’s name is taken from the – this time fictional – blues band at its centre). David, the band’s singer, slips past two men to whom he owes money and bursts out of a club onto the street…

“Outside, he turned on a loaded shoe and ran in the direction of Hurst Street”

The inclusion of that single word, ‘loaded’, is enough of a small detail to not only remind the reader of the weight David carries about him (literally if he gets arrested with drugs hidden in his shoe, but metaphorically as well), and also of the reason he is now running for his life. With that one word, Lane effortlessly captures the world of music stardom crumbling around David through his drug-fuelled behaviour, as well as pointing up that the drugs cost and David can’t pay the men who are chasing him.

The final story, ‘Rituals’, digs deepest of all into the effect of crime on the psyche – as a gang member deals with the consequences of interrupting a gay porn film before the money shot. That makes it sound more comedic than it is: any laughs found in Lane’s pamphlet are dark and grimy. ‘Rituals’ shows Lane at his most insightful, though, treading close to the edge of showing sympathy for the criminal while the title denounces the habits and face-saving that characterises a life of crime. Indeed, in this case, those rituals seem to be the beginnings of such lives – lives wasted to serve no real purpose but crime.

That sense of regret, of loss, plays all the way through Do Not Pass Go. The abiding impression is that of lives wasted away and ended. Really, though, these aren’t people whose lives have abruptly ended, whose journeys have been pulled up short; they are people who never really had the chance to pass Go.

‘The Tradesman’s Entrance’ by Cameron Vale

In Novella on July 12, 2011 at 4:00 pm

-Reviewed by Ian Chung

The Tradesman's Entrance by Cameron Vale, published by Vagabondage Press

If humour writing were crossed with erotica, one imagines the result would read something like Cameron Vale’s The Tradesman’s Entrance, a novelette from independent publisher Vagabondage Press. The ‘About Us’ page at the publisher’s website states that they ‘dislike the tendency in mainstream publishing to categorize and pigeonhole authors and their work into literary ghettos’, going on to declare ‘a commitment to providing an alternative’. Indeed, with its frank (but not entirely gratuitous) descriptions of gay sex, it is hard to imagine a work like Vale’s being put out by any of the mainstream publishers today, even if the sex is really secondary to what the publisher calls a ‘laugh-out-loud gay romantic comedy and treatise on class dynamics’.

For on one level, The Tradesman’s Entrance really is a straightforward story about fantasy coming to life. Protagonist Stephen Patterson writes romance novels for a living under the pseudonym Patience DeVere, but as the reader subsequently discovers, he also happens to be a virgin. As if just to pile trope upon trope, Vale introduces Dave the plumber (hence the title’s sexual pun) two pages into the first half of the novelette, Act I – Unexpected: Stage Left. Dave conveniently happens to be ‘a tall, tanned Adonis…sprung straight from the pages of one of [Stephen’s] over-wrought novels — dark, shoulder-skimming hair glinting copper in the sunlight, tastily trim and muscular body squeezed, but not entirely contained, by a low-slung pair of blue jeans and a tight, white workman’s vest’.

What follows is plenty of bantering between the two men over cups of tea and biscuits, which primarily serves to build up sexual tension that gets consummated in the second half of the novelette, unsubtly headed, Act II: The Cherry-Popping of Patience de Vere. Admittedly though, it is entertaining, watching Dave steadily break through Stephen’s uptight defences (psychological and physical alike), and ultimately, bed him in graphic fashion. As far as repartee goes, Vale’s writing is slick and solid enough to carry the fantasy forward, seeing it through even to its perfect ending that has been telegraphed pages before it actually takes place.

Yet what saves The Tradesman’s Entrance from being simply a casual romp is precisely how self-aware the storytelling is. From the sprinkling of deliberately bad writing (courtesy of Stephen’s abortive attempts at his new Clarissa Hart romance novel) to the grotesque physical perfection of plumber Dave, it is hard to escape the feeling that while Vale is unabashedly deploying the tropes of the erotica genre at full force, she is also implicitly skewering them because of how over the top their cumulative effect is. Personally speaking, there is also something aesthetically satisfying about the circularity of the narrative, all that sexual comedy being bookended by scenes of Stephen writing at his desktop. (I would definitely read a novel called The Biscuit Tin Philosopher.) The biographical note at the very end tosses out one last titbit, revealing that ‘Cameron Vale’ is itself a pen name. Calling The Tradesman’s Entrance metafictional would be a stretch, of course. It is, however, undoubtedly a good-natured blending of two writing genres that are not the most obvious of bedfellows.