Book Review: Her Body and Other Parties

by Carmen Maria MachadoHer-Body-And-Other-Parties

Carmen Maria Machado’s debut short story collection, Her Body and Other Parties, has marked her out as an effervescent talent in fermentation.

Her gorgeously lubricious, fantastically deranged, genre-twisting stories explore women’s bodies and the physical violence all too frequently visited upon them. Her narratives are strewn with surreal situations masquerading as humdrum lives, and many of her characters are propelled into states of half lunacy by their circumstances.

Machado’s feminal leitmotifs progress from tales of bariatric surgery and outbreaks of a fading disease to a woman’s terrifying struggle to hang on to her sanity in the wake of a brutal attack. Nothing in these clever little fables is ever quite as it seems – and there is invariably a sinister something lurking just beyond our range of vision.

Her language is pleasingly inventive throughout. In The Resident, her protagonist describes a woman’s dress as a “shapeless frock whose fractal pattern spiralled dozens of holes into her torso and created in me immediate anxiety.”

Machado’s style won’t appeal to everyone – especially those who insist upon neat endings to their short fiction. Nevertheless, I feel sure there will be plenty of readers delighted by her virtuoso storytelling.

I look forward to the publication of House in Indiana, Machado’s forthcoming memoir, due for release in 2019.

Many thanks to Graywolf Press for supplying an advance review copy of this title.
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Short Fiction Review: The Water That Falls on You from Nowhere

by John Chu

waterfall

Every so often I like to read a stand-alone short story; one that isn’t necessarily part of a writer’s collection or taken from a multi-author anthology. A case in point is a 6,655-word composition I chanced upon while skimming Goodreads recently. It piqued my interest sufficiently for me to take time out from the novel I was then reading.

The Water That Falls on You from Nowhere by John Chu first appeared on Tor.com in 2013 – a “publisher neutral” website aimed at sci-fi and fantasy readers – before going on to win the Hugo Award for Best Short Story the following year.

Almost as soon as I started reading, I realised it would be difficult to accurately fit this tale into a single genre because it was equally at home under the lgbtq+ fiction heading. Indeed, this very issue had caused (and continues to cause) consternation amongst the purists who felt it should never have won a competition voted on by members of the World Science Fiction Convention. Nevertheless, as a piece of imaginative writing, it seems to have proved enduringly popular with short story lovers.

John Chu is a writer, translator and podcast narrator who earns his living as a microprocessor architect. In his story we enter a future world where a deluge of freezing cold water plummets from the sky on to the head of any person telling a lie (evasiveness merely turns the air muggy). The downpour, however, serves only as a backdrop to the main narrative, which is about a loving relationship between two young men and the problems one of them has coming-out to his traditional Chinese parents.

I won’t give away any more of the plot, but I found it heart-warming and original. The ideal mini, literary interlude.

The Water That Falls on You from Nowhere was also published in Some of the Best From Tor.com, 2013 Edition (Tor.com Anthologies).

This story is freely available to read at Tor.com.

Book Review: Aphra Behn: A Secret Life

by Janet Todd

The 17th century dramatist, Aphra Behn, is a notoriously tricky subject for biographers to tackle. For such a gregarious and ostensibly dissolute figure, facts about her are rudimentary and her background is almost impenetrable – but that hasn’t stopped the British scholar Janet Todd from achieving a phenomenal feat with her freshly revised life history of the dynamic playwright.

Behn is celebrated for being one of the first English women to earn a living from her pen. She courageously shattered many cultural conventions of her day, while in some ways remaining in step with her times. She was a major influence on female writers for years to come, but her prosopography is murky, which to some extent was intentional on her part.

“Aphra Behn is not so much a woman to be unmasked as an unending combination of masks and intrigue, and her work delivers different images and sometimes contradictory views.” – Janet Todd

Believed to have been born around 1640, Aphra Behn rose from obscurity to work as a secret agent in Antwerp for the newly returned English King. She lived through a time of immense political upheaval, when the decadent Charles II and his court returned from exile, ushering in a new era both in fashion and the arts.

Todd’s research into the period is breathtaking, and the limited knowledge we possess about Behn is used to create a stout and thoroughly detailed biography, which reveals much about the people with whom she associated and the places she frequented in Restoration London. Inevitably, there is speculation over the man she married, her intimate friendships and bisexuality – though, there is a wealth of information pertaining to her plays and poetry – however, this volume is as close as we are likely to get to the woman behind the mask.

A gripping portrait of an enigmatic character.

Many thanks to Bloomsbury Publishing Plc for the advance review copy of this title.

Book Review: Tove Jansson Life, Art, Words: The Authorised Biography

by Boel Westin, Silvester Mazzarella (Translator)

Tove Jansson, author of the Moomins and one of the great idiosyncratic talents of the 20th century, must surely have found her ideal biographer in Boel Westin. With previously published works on Lewis Carroll and August Strindberg, this Professor of Literature at the University of Stockholm knew Jansson personally and wrote a PhD dissertation on her ideologies and philosophies.

A Swedish-speaking Finn, Jansson was both novelist and artist, but became so well known for creating her bevy of eccentric “beings” (most closely resembling terrestrial manatees or curvaceous hippos) that people tend to be unaware she was a respected painter, cartoonist and illustrator in her homeland long before becoming a world-famous children’s author. Westin does much to rectify this oversight, with some of her most captivating chapters devoted to Tove’s time as a humble student, her early exhibitions, travels in Europe and her struggle to cope during the dark and depressing war years. Of this period Jansson wrote:

“One day people will say that we lived in interesting times, in a great period. But I think the great events around us have only diminished us. People cannot manage to be magnificent in a long-lasting war.”

Westin was given complete access to Jansson’s vast personal archive of notes, letters, diaries, illustrations and sketches in order to research this fascinating 500-page book: an affectionate, honest but never salacious life history. She treats with respect Tove’s deep and joyous relationships with women, most notably her soul-mate, Tuulikki Pietilä (known as Tooti), describing their extraordinary, symbiotic existence with immense understanding and warmth. She also explores in considerable detail her artistic background (her father was a sculptor, her mother a graphic designer), close friendships, passion for isolated islands and the years following the final Moomin story when she focussed on writing for adults.

The Moomin books, published between 1945 and 1970, became big business from the 1950s onwards and their popularity merely increased with longevity. These days, when you visit Finland, you can stay in Moomin-themed hotel rooms; go to Moominworld, a theme park on the island of Kailo; and enjoy savoury pancakes at the Moomin cafe in Kuopio. Indeed, so much are these small philosophical trolls now an integral part of Finnish culture, they even adorn the wings of Finnair – fondly known as ‘The Official Airline of the Moomins’.

It is no longer necessary for fans to travel to the Nordics in order to seek out Moomin merchandise, for they can now drop into The Moomin Shop in London’s Covent Garden Market and acquire anything from Moomin-themed make-up bags and bath towels to Snufkin candles and Little My cushion covers. There are even Moomin cafes and shops to be found as far afield as Japan, Hong Kong, China and Thailand.

One wonders what the famously high-principled Jansson would have made of this extreme commercialisation of her creations. She was exceedingly protective of her work throughout her life and seldom permitted companies to use her inventions for profit – refusing Walt Disney’s request for the exclusive rights to the word Moomin. Nevertheless, I feel sure she would be quietly pleased that the Moomins continue to resonate with 21st century children and adults in countries across the globe.

In this intelligent and meticulously researched biography (adeptly translated by Silvester Mazzarella), Westin has succeeded in capturing the spirit of Tove Jansson (who passed away in 2001 at the age of 86) – a singular woman with a strong work ethic and rich imagination – in short, a genius of Moominmental proportions.