Thursday, September 16, 2010

REVIEW: Wilde Stories 2010 by Steve Berman (ed)

For some people, short stories are the ultimate literary form. Brevity is the soul of wit, so the saying goes, and there are those who believe that anything important enough to be said can be done so in less than 50 pages. Not this gal – give me a big, bloated, epic novel and I’ll take that over a short story any day of the week. Quite honestly, sitting down with a 1000 page epic makes me wet . . . the sense of anticipation, of rising climax, of delayed gratification, is almost sexual in nature.

That’s not to say I can’t appreciate a good story. When done well, they can be wondrous pieces of work. My introduction to Clive Barker was through the six slender volumes of the Books of Blood. After cutting my teeth on Pet Semetary, it was Steven King’s Night Shift collection that I gravitated to next. Even before that, having discovered him through my love of the Twilight Zone episodes, I devoured every Richard Matheson short story collection I could get my hands on.

So, that brings us to the Wilde Stories 2010 collection, edited by Steve Berman (a very good author in his own right).

For me, a great short story is built around one of two things – either the characters, or the setting/atmosphere. One or the other has to succeed in drawing the reader into the story; otherwise the plot itself falls flat. Here, rather predictably (since the gay theme most often originates with the narrator/protagonist), it's the characters that succeed. Although the restraints of the short story don't generally allow for a lot of growth, there were a few notable exceptions where I found the characters well developed. In particular, I’m referring to the entries by Bowes, Lane, and Hand.

Unfortunately, I didn’t find the setting/atmosphere aspect of these stories nearly as well developed. Looking back over the years, my favourite short stories are those that clearly establish a setting that drives the mood and the atmosphere of the story. As much as well developed characters can draw you into the story, it's a strong setting that isolates the reader from the real work and allows for that all-important denial of reality. Barron, Francisco, and Hand succeeded beautifully here, but (despite their respective stories' initial promise), Bowes and Lee just fell flat.

Aside from all that, there is some beautiful writing here. Personally, I’m not one to sit back and admire the language of a story, but a well-written story does creep a little deeper into your brain and establish some connections there. Although it’s been done before, I really like what Sheppard did with the ship's log, and I thought Hughes did an amazing job of telling an amusing story, as opposed to just telling a story with amusing elements. Hand and Lee, of course, are amazing in how they weave a tale, and I actually liked how ambiguous Cardamore's story was, despite some other reviewers’ feelings. Finally, I have to give Li credit for doing something different, but I found her accented syntax just too distracting.

All in all, for those who like their speculative fiction a little bit ‘gay’ then this a collection worth picking up. For most, I suspect it will be more of a pick-and-choose kind of collection, as opposed to a cover-to-cover read, but those stories that work, work well – and are worth the price of admission.

Friday, September 3, 2010

REVIEW: Torchwood - Almost Perfect by James Goss

Just reading the news this morning, and I see that Jane Espenson is working on a 3 episode arc for the new season of Torchwood.
  • Squealing moment of gurlish glee #1 – there’s officially going to be a new season of Torchwood
  • Squealing moment of gurlish glee #2 – one of my favourite Buffy writers is going to be involved
  • Squealing moment of gurlish glee #3 – she gives a shout out to the amazing James Marsters (who has, amazingly enough, kissed both Buffy & Captain Jack!)
So, on that note, I thought I’d dig a little bit and offer up a review I did last fall for my favourite Torchwood novel to date, Almost Perfect by James Goss.

OMG. Captain Jack being himself, Ianto Jones transformed into the ‘perfect’ woman, Captain Jack, lots of sex, and (did I mention?) Captain Jack. If you’re even a casual watcher of Torchwood, then you have to pick this book up! I stumbled across it in a bookstore one weekend, then ignored everyone and everything around me as I devoured most of it on the train ride home.

As the book begins, we learn that Ianto Jones has awakened with a gap in his memory, no clothes, and the body of a ‘perfect’ woman. Thanks to the alien device responsible (no spoiler here - this is Torchwood, after all), he is physically perfect. Mentally and emotionally, however, he is still the same shy, awkward, loveable young man he’s always been. He has to learn how to walk, how to dress, how to talk, and how to respond to the opposite sex. His struggles and grudging acceptance of the situation are beautifully handled, complete with generous doses of humour and sweetness.

Meanwhile, single men are disappearing from speed-dating nights all over town, victim of another ‘perfect’ woman. How she became so perfect, and what’s happening to her unfortunate dates, is all inextricably linked to Ianto’s situation – if only he could remember his last night as a man.

On top of all this, the solution to all of Cardiff’s problems involves Captain Jack literally diving into the gay community, which itself has become strangely ‘perfect’ over the past year. I won’t go into too much detail here, but the scenes at the gay dance club are absolutely priceless. The ending gets a little dark, but Torchwood is all about the interplay between light and dark, good and evil, hope and despair.

Well-written and thoroughly entertaining, this is not only a book that lives up to its promise, it’s a book that lives up to its inspiration. James Goss completely captures the tone and spirit of the TV show, and I cannot wait to see what he does next. Absolutely recommended!

REVIEW: I Will Fear No Evil by Robert Heinlein

I was chatting with a friend earlier tonight and she asked me about the first tg-themed novel I ever read. Much to my surprise, I really had to think about that. Ultimately, I decided that Robert Heinlein's oft-maligned work of bodyswapping and sexual revolutions would have to have been my first. I distinctly remember picking up a copy early in highschool and not liking it. The concept was mind-blowing, and very exciting to a confused teenager, but I struggled with the style. I remember picking it up again in university and appreciating it, but still not liking it. It's only been over the last year that I've finally finished the darn thing, and you know what . . . I'm still not sure I like it.

(I have to be honest - I’ve never been much of a Heinlein fan. I've tried reading several of his books, but they were just too sixties-sci-fi for my taste. Obviously, there has to be a good reason they’re considered classics . . . but the style just didn’t appeal to me.)

As the years have passed, my tastes have changed, and there are several books I put down in the past (some more than once!) that have since become favourites of mine. This isn’t one of those favourites, but it is one that entertained me for a weekend.

Before we get into things, though, let’s deal with the most common complaint regarding the book. Yes, it is sexist, anachronistic, and often patently offensive in it’s portrayal of BOTH genders. It’s also a book that was first published in 1970, and is the work of a man who began writing science fiction as early as 1939. Critiquing Heinlein for not being properly progressive regarding women 40 years ago is like lambasting Mark Twain for not being politically correct regarding race 135 years ago.

Anyway, the book introduces us to Johann, an elderly, crippled, bitter old man who also happens to be exceedingly rich. He knows his body is dying, but his brain is just fine. So, he comes up with the idea of transferring his brain to a new body upon his death. He doesn’t actually expect it to work, but figures it’s better to waste his money on a sliver of hope than to let his children squabble over it.

Not only does he not expect it to work, but he certainly does not expect to wake up in the body of a woman – specifically, that of Eunice, his beautiful young secretary. Fortunately for Johann, something of Eunice has survived to share her body with him. It’s never made clear whether this is her spirit, her memory, or just his imagination, but it serves to jumpstart the plot past the awkwardness you’d expect of a man who is suddenly a woman.

Once the legal/ethical/philosophical issues are dispensed with, much of the book deals with Johann’s (now Joan Eunice’s) sexual exploits. Again, yes, they’re sexist and sometimes crude, but also thoroughly entertaining.

Ultimately, what I took away from the book was an appreciation for the dilemma of sex vs gender vs sexual orientation - what does it means for a man’s mind to desire other women (while in a woman’s body), or for a woman’s body to continue desiring men (while guided by a man’s mind).

As I said, it’s an interesting book, and one that makes you think. It’s not the greatest story every written, but certainly a great concept.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

REVIEW: Annabel by Kathleen Winter

Like Wayne himself, Kathleen Winter’s novel is beautiful, but difficult. It’s remarkably well crafted, full of lovely prose and haunting images. From a pure language standpoint, it’s a delightful read, and one that reminds you what an author can do when she takes the time to choose every word carefully.

Annabel is full of beautiful (but harsh) scenery, and beautiful (but equally harsh) characters. That, I’m afraid, is where my dissatisfaction with the book originates. The story is very cold, almost clinical, and the characters are largely without emotion. There are a lot of powerful scenes in the book that elicit feelings of both hope and despair in the reader, but we’re alone in experiencing those feelings. The characters are like disinterested actors, simply walking through a rehearsal of their lines. The equally disinterested narrator tells us what happens to them, but offers no insight into what the characters are feeling. Thematically, I suspect very much that this emotional distance is intentional, but it creates a real issue with reader engagement.

As for the dilemma of Wayne/Annabel, I’m of mixed feelings there. This is absolutely a book about contradictions, and the contradiction of gender is first-and-foremost in every chapter. Annabel is not a book with a hermaphrodite character – it’s a book about a hermaphrodite character. With the exception of some medical interventions that are critical to driving the plot, however, Wayne/Annabel could just as easily have been a more traditional transgendered/transsexual character. The whole issue with the sequined bathing suit, for example, is something I particularly identified with.

However, it feels as if Kathleen Winter is using the biological construct of a hermaphrodite to justify (or even excuse) the fact that she is exploring a theme of gender identity. Undoubtedly, the physical fact of being a hermaphrodite, as opposed to the psychological theories of a transsexual, likely does as much to ease most readers through the story, as it does to ease the author through challenges I would have liked to see explored. As a transgendered reader, though, it feels like a cheat – and that annoyed me.

One thing I must say is that the author knows precisely how/where to end a story. Instead of a nice, tidy, storybook resolution for all involved, we’re left with a series of transitions. Kathleen Winter leaves us with a glimpse of characters who are changing, who are progressing from despair to hope . . . or, at least, the potential for hope. Like life, there are no guarantees of a happily ever after, but as readers we are made to feel comfortable enough to let the characters go, and trust them to take care of themselves.

Ultimately, it’s a book I can definitely say I admire but, sadly, not one that I can say I loved.