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Karen Munro has commented on (7) products.

Don't Look Now and Other Stories
Don't Look Now and Other Stories

Karen Munro, February 24, 2012

I picked this up because I saw, in passing, someone's mention of the movie made from the title story. It raised up for me some misty memories of having seen the movie, with Donald Sutherland racing through the streets of Venice, chasing a phantasmal little girl in a red cloak...creepy stuff. I have a sideline in creepy, particularly as written by smart women like Shirley Jackson and Sarah Waters. It's a surprisingly small stable, and I'm always looking for more folks to add to it.

Du Maurier is sort of in the stable, for me. She's smart and she writes well, but her stories overall have a more contained, controlled feeling than Jackson's do. While Jackson can make an ordinary day in a housewife's life into a flesh-crawling voyage through the uncanny, Du Maurier seems more concerned with writing up ideas. Many of her ideas are good and interesting--"The Way of the Cross" comments on Christ's last days through the misadventures of a group of self-centered English tourists in Jerusalem, for instance--but at the end of the story, they feel like just that. Ideas, written out to their conclusion.

Some are better-executed than other. In "A Border-Line Case"* the twist ending is obvious well before it's revealed, and in "The Breakthrough," all the tension is unaccountably let off at the end of the story, through a main character's change of heart. "Don't Look Now" is arguably the best story in the bunch, although even it feels a little stale in spots.

Du Maurier is a very capable writer: the way she handles point of view and reader sympathies in "The Way of the Cross" is masterful. Her voice is authoritative and confident. But her stories feel more like exercises than true explorations into a frightening, uncontrolled world beneath or beyond our own. In other words, she's no Shirley Jackson. But apart from Jackson herself, who is?

* Editor, why did you let that title pass?
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Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight: An African Childhood by Alexandra Fuller
Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight: An African Childhood

Karen Munro, February 22, 2012

Wow. This was a terrific book. Beautifully written and wonderfully honest about growing up as a (more or less) colonial white in several African countries during revolutionary times. Most of the book is about Fuller's early childhood. She reconstructs times and places in incredible, absorbing detail--the smells, tastes, and feelings as well as the events.

And she has a story to tell. The places where she grew up (poor, remote African farms) were hard-scrabble and dangerous, but they were also humdrum. Driving in the family's mine-proofed Range Rover, with her mother holding an Uzi out the window, is ordinary stuff. The Fuller children squabble in the back seat like any American kids on an obligatory family road trip, and their father, like every father, carps when they need bathroom breaks. Fuller's smart enough to know that this stuff, well-written, is just as fascinating to read as any of her family's more dramatic exploits. (There are plenty of dramatic exploits.)

Race and politics in Africa are obviously complicated, and Fuller doesn't try to solve any problems with this book. She focuses instead on her own family, their struggles and flaws and agonies and joys. By the end of the book I felt like I knew them personally, and liked them despite some of their (in retrospect) questionable decisions and values. I read this ravenously and didn't want it to end. I almost read the Reading Group Guide in the back, just to make the book last a little longer. That's high praise.
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God's War by Kameron Hurley
God's War

Karen Munro, February 22, 2012

I picked this up after reading the first few sentences online:

"Nyx sold her womb somewhere between Punjai and Faleen, on the edge of the desert.

Drunk, but no longer bleeding, she pushed into a smoky cantina just after dark and ordered a pinch of morphine and a whiskey chaser. She bet all of her money on a boxer named Jaks, and lost it two rounds later when Jacks hit the floor like an antique harem girl."

That is a kick-ass entry to a story, if you ask me. Hang on, this is a long review.

This fiction adventure noir, maybe? It's a world of (mostly) post-apocalyptic Muslims of varying degrees of recognizability, in which most technology is driven by insects. Yes. Also, the two major nations of the planet have been at war forever, and partly as a result of this women have come to dominate society. Men get drafted as boys and sent to the front--and women volunteer to fight, too. But on the home front, at least in the country where we spend the most time, women are soldiers and politicians and businesspeople and pretty much everything else. They're also brutal to each other--the main pastime seems to be boxing, and just about every woman we meet has some violent tendencies or history. This isn't a pacifist Hertopia kind of world.

That's one of the things I loved about this book--its bold creation of a world where women dominate, and where women are socially, physically, and in all other ways tough and capable. Setting aside the fact that this is a world where magicians use bug technology to repair amputations and mortal injuries, the women in this world are bad-ass. Or maybe they're just people. It's a sad statement that it's so unusual to read about women in roles that men would usually fill, kicking asses and getting their asses kicked--but it is unusual. And Hurley does a great job of making her women real.

I appreciated so many things about this book--that the dominant religious ideology was Muslim rather than Christian, that the main characters are almost all non-white, that our antihero Nyx isn't a stick figure, and that she doesn't stay pretty. There's a phenomenon in novels and movies that feature "strong" or "kick-ass" women (cf. Tomb Raider, Charlie's Angels, Kill Bill, Underworld, et al)--let's call it the "reasonable facsimile" phenomenon. It's when authors or directors decide they're going to capitalize on a trend provide a strong female role model--and they do so by casting a skinny white girl in a tank top, and telling her to look brooding. Usually the reasonable facsimile doesn't have a realistic or profound story arc, or much character development (if she's a secondary character she may be defined solely by a skill, like rock climbing), or much to do besides fake-fight guys who would kick her ass in real life, because she has wrists like twigs and has clearly come from the Fighting School of Pilates. Seriously, watching Michelle Rodriguez decline from her tough, meaty role in Girlfight to the dumb bullshit action stuff she does now...that's the reasonable facsimile tragedy, right there.

But anyway. I loved that this book doesn't dredge up the reasonable facsimile. Nyx, as a protagonist, is thorny and crude and rebarbative, she's physically large and strong, she carries weight both literally and figuratively. She has a full, complete character arc, a history, and (presumably) a future--since this is the first book in a trilogy. I admit I didn't follow all the political intrigue in this one, but that's me--I tend to read lightly over that stuff, and dwell more in the scenes. And it's possible that some of that explanation got a little convoluted, in an effort to propel us to the ending. I can forgive that, because the world of the book is so original and well-imagined, and because I liked the characters that live in it.

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Ghosts by Gaslight: Stories of Steampunk and Supernatural Suspense by Jack Dann
Ghosts by Gaslight: Stories of Steampunk and Supernatural Suspense

Karen Munro, February 22, 2012

The "steampunk" in the title is a little misleading, which is fine by me--I'm not super-interested in clockwork and steam engines for their own sake. Many of the stories aren't really even about ghosts, or at least they don't seem particularly "ghosty" to me. There are Satanic enclaves, mad inventors and their hideous machines, mummies, and time travel, all loosely bound together with phantasmagoric ties. The real throughline of the collection is the nineteenth century, that spooky, obsessive period of colonial expansion and industralization. The stories are all well-written, though some fall short of truly chilling effects. Standouts for me were Laird Barron's "Blackwood's Baby," and Peter Beagle's "Music, When Soft Voices Die." Garth Nix's "The Curious Case of the Moondawn Daffodils Murder" is a light, funny takeoff on Conan Doyle, and a break from the generally grim proceedings. A solid collection, with good representation from Australia and the UK--though of 17 stories, 14 are by men. (We do notice these things, folks.)
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Eyes Like Sky and Coal and Moonlight by Cat Rambo
Eyes Like Sky and Coal and Moonlight

Karen Munro, February 22, 2012

I like how Rambo does speculative fiction. Her span is great: there are tragic robots in here as well as enslaved centaurs and zombie girls. There's a beautiful, sad story about Jumbo the elephant (the real one, from Barnum & Bailey's circus) which I highly recommend: "Towering Monarch of His Race." There's a creepy, tragic tale of pioneers suffering through a deadly winter: "Events at Fort Plentitude," also highly recommended. There's humor and epic fantasy and fairy tales and pirates. It's all stuff you might also come across in Steven Millhauser or Kelly Link or George Saunders, but Rambo has her own distinct, highly readable take on it, and I gobbled this collection up in just a few days. Delicious.
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