June 23, 2020

Book review — “THE GRAND TOUR: A Jackson’s Unreal Circus and Mobile Marmalade Collection” by E. Catherine Tobler


If you (like me) love Ray Bradbury and the stranger, somewhat surreal side of fantasy, horror, and science fiction, then this short story collection by E. Catherine Tobler is most definitely for you. For years, Tobler has been writing an amazing assortment of short stories (and a novella!) set in her weird, wonderful, unsettling, and sometimes rather terrifying, Circus world. In this collection, you will enter that Circus world, and meet characters who, while they seem strange on the surface, are probably far, far stranger beneath the skin.

Like the title suggests, the stories in The Grand Tour traverse both time and space, and the scope of this collection is part of what makes it special. The main attraction, though, is Tobler’s prose. Her writing is both lyrical and visceral, and manages to simultaneously cut, shimmer, and sing. Much like Ray Bradbury’s short fiction, Tobler’s stories play out in a twilight zone all their own, and she picks perspectives and points of view that tilt and skew your vision of the world, twisting reality into dreams and nightmares, turning dreams and nightmares into reality. I love her stories for their fierce beauty and unapologetic strangeness, and for the way she skilfully weaves together strands of science fiction and fantasy, myth and fairytale, often with just enough unsettling darkness and horror in the mix that you’re never quite sure where the stories might end up, or what the characters might do.

Tobler’s characters and creatures exist on the fringes and outskirts of society and the universe–either by choice or because they’ve been forced out. Her characters can be beautiful, for sure, but they are marked by pain and rage, fear and sadness, and they all seem to struggle (and sometimes fail) to find a place in the world. Even those who can change their shape (by choice or because they are forced to), don’t always manage to fit in, no matter how hard they try.

To quote the collection’s official blurb:

Step right up! Come one, come all, to Jackson’s Unreal Circus and Mobile Marmalade. The steam train may look older than your great-grandmother’s’ china, but within her metal corridors are destinations you have only ever dreamed. They’re real, friends, each and every one—and yours for the taking.

Witness Rabi, Vanquisher and Vanisher Extraordinaire, who can make coins and the past vanish before your very eyes. Dare to visit the Beauty and the Beast, our conjoined twins who are terrible and tortured by turns. Sample Beth’s marmalade, the sticky sweetness containing the very memory of the day you turned sixteen, and your beloved’s lips touched yours once and never again.It’s worth the price, traveler. Jackson’s Unreal Circus is where you can be whoever or whatever you want. Whether it be a ride on the Ferris wheel, slipping inside a skin that is not your own, or the opportunity to live as you never have before—it is all possible on this, the grandest of tours. The train beckons you—come, come!

For the first time, E. Catherine Tobler has compiled a collection of her popular circus stories. With nine stories ranging from the first publishing within this universe to a previously unpublished piece, this is your ticket to her magical world. Welcome to The Grand Tour.

I love all these stories, but a new favourite of mine (though it was first published several years ago), is “Vanishing Act”, where Tobler gives us a luminous scifi tale blended with magic that manages to be both unsettling and oddly heartwarming. “Lady Marmalade” is another favourite, featuring Beth who can see the threads of each person’s life, the knots and deviations, the other threads they are tied to; Beth, who turns memories into magic preserves, kept in jars.

Marmalade makes an important appearance in “Every Season”, a profoundly moving story of love and lust and life that is original to this collection. Here we meet Harper who has visited the Circus several times, and now has a collection of marmalade jars in his cupboard.

The first time, all those years ago, it had been a mistake; they hadn’t known what the marmalade could do, didn’t know it contained everything a person needed. Everything they avoided. Jars full of time and memory, not just marmalade.

And if you like this collection, please also pick up Tobler’s novella THE KRAKEN SEA, which is all about Jackson, of Jackson’s Unreal Circus.

You can even read my review of The Kraken Sea if you like!


June 5, 2020

My Sci-Fi, Fantasy & Horror Short Fiction Roundup - May 2020


No big words or small talk as an intro to this month's roundup. Just this. Listen to what black people are saying. Read what black writers are writing. Stay informed. Speak up. Take care of each other.

If you're donating your money, please consult Black Lives Matter's curated list of organizations to direct your donations.

If you're looking for causes and organizations in the speculative fiction community, then this thread from SFWA on Twitter has some suggestions for you.

Black Lives Matter.

There can be no real peace without real justice.

Akhulume by Larissa Irankunda in Fireside

I love this sharp and evocative story about language, the power of words, and the way we speak them. The narrator of the story is trapped in a strange place, among strange beings, and again and again their spoken words seem to destroy the captors, only for them to return as if nothing has happened. There is a sense of increasing desperation as the story progresses, with language revealed as a source of power and resistance, until... until the end, which hits hard. Gorgeous prose packed with emotional power. 

Warrior by Ebuka Prince Okoroafo in Daily SF

You didn't know how to tell Dada you had created a world in your head, and we were the products of that virtual construction, Yugo and I. We both looked like you, only that you always made us wear a smile, and hid your pain from us, always making us look like perfect kids. You hid in our bodies to deny yourself grief whenever the world ridiculed you.

A fierce and gorgeously written story about a girl who grows up different from the other children around her, even adults treat her like an outsider. She finds solace in a world, and characters, she creates in her head. But maybe, those creations find a life, and purpose, of their own. There are sharp splinters of both pain and hope in this story.

Have Your #Hugot Harvested At This Diwata-Owned CafĂ© by Vida Cruz in Strange Horizons

Food, delicious food, heartbreak, grief, power, and foodie culture all come together beautifully in this story by Vida Cruz. It's about eating one's feelings at the Heartbreak Cafe, and everything here is so vividly drawn that you find yourself head over heels in love with a fictional restaurant and probably terribly hungry by the end. This story truly is a feast for your senses, and your heart (broken or not).

Maria’s prized top-notch ingredient – the one that allows humans to digest the food at all – is human heartbreak. And she is currently accepting applications from those willing to have theirs harvested.

February Moon by Josh Rountree in Beneath Ceaseless Skies

There are so many facets to this dark and terrible and wonderful story by Josh Rountree that appeal to me. I love stories about wolves, and I love retellings of Little Red Riding Hood. This isn't exactly a retelling of that fairytale, and yet the bones of that story are present in ways that make it feel both new and ancient. A woman lives alone with her children. Her husband is missing. Something stalks the woods. And now the locals are getting nosy... Fantastic dark fantasy.

The Honey of the World and the Queen of Crows by Dimitra Nikolaidou in Beneath Ceaseless Skies

An original and heart-piercing take on the afterlife, Nikolaidou's story takes place in wartime and is told from several points of view. In this realm between life and death, there's a bar, a soldier who thinks they are dead, a long-haired barman, and a nun. Each one tells a part of the tale, unfolding the secrets of the Queen of Crows and the truths you can taste in honey. Weaving together tales of love and loss, death and life, we find out that there's a deal to be made here and as always, there is a difficult price to pay.

Salt by Rosemary Melchior in Luna Station Quarterly

An excellent witch-tale where the witch in question, a woman named Sigga, has been shipped off to a penal colony of sorts with other lawbreakers. In this new place, just as where she came from, there are people who try to tell Sigga how to live, and try to frighten her to fall into line. And just like she did before, Sigga has her own way of doing things.

Of Roses and Kings by Melissa Marr in TOR.com

A wonderfully dark and twisted re-imagined take on Alice in Wonderland, where "Alice is now the Red Queen, and her maid must tread the fine line between favor and blame in this strange world." Marr's fabulous story tilts and shifts the perspective and the Wonderland world (and its inhabitants). I love the way this story imagines both the nature of Wonderland and the link between the our "real" world and this other realm. 

Mirrored by Jennifer Hudak in Flash Fiction Online

She turns back to me and picks up a brush. Mine is made of pine needles, the handle a broken stick, my hair tangled with leaves and crusted with mud, but she can’t see any of that. She sees what she expects to see.

This is a fantastic flash fiction story that takes the idea of changelings and human children and turns that idea on its head. Through a mirror, a changeling watches the human child she was supposed to replace, listening and watching as the girl and her mother bicker and spar. It's all both terrible and wonderful, and the ending is perfect.

A Stick of Clay, in the Hands of God, is Infinite Potential by JY Neon Yang in Clarkesworld

This science fiction novelette by Yang deals with gender, friendship, loyalty, and the confusion of figuring out who you are in the world and what your purpose is in it. It's all that AND it has giant robots and harrowing science fiction battles and warfare. At the heart of the story is a group of mech pilots and "holy sigils", who live their lives as part human and part machine. (It takes one pilot and one sigil to control a mech/robot.) It's a rich and textured world, and Yang's unflinching eye for emotional depth makes each character pop off the page.

We Are the Flower by Claire Humphrey in Podcastle (narrated by Jen R. Albert)

Fuck that noise, right? No wonder people come back and haunt shit over and over. It takes ten times longer than you think it should to find out anything useful.

A foul-mouthed ghost who is trying (maybe?) to come to terms with their demise, and understand what to do in the afterlife--that's the protagonist of this both hilarious and heartbreaking story by Humphrey. I love this to bits, and what really makes it shine to me is the voice: I had no idea how I craved a story about a fierce and sweary ghost.

Sleeping in Metal and Bone by Kristi DeMeester in The Dark

A woman dreams of needle-sharp hooks growing out of the ends of her fingers. She wakes up sweaty and hungry for things she should not be hungering for. Meanwhile, her husband is wrapped up in ensuring that she can get pregnant and carry a child to term after several failed attempts, and he clearly does not see nor understand what's moving beneath the surface of his wife's mind. DeMeester twists this tale darker and tighter and sharper with every paragraph, capturing the stifled emotions of a woman who has tried very hard for a long time to be what she is not. The ending feels like a scream and a breath of air when you've almost drowned.

Driving With Ghosts by Clara Madrigano in The Dark

During the summer when I was seventeen, I saw my first ghost.

That's the opening line of Madrigano's harrowing and mesmerizing tale. It starts off with the protagonist driving home drunk and seeing her late grandfather's car ahead of her on the road. The memories dredged up that night, the ghost she almost encounters, follow her through the years. Madrigano masterfully weaves together haunting real-life horrors with the presence of the ghost, weaving all of that into the narrative of childhood, adolescence, family, and a relationship that turns into its own horror story. I love ghost stories, and this one cuts deep.

This entire issue of The Dark is a spectacular read, with excellent reprints by Angela Slatter and Ray Cluley as well.

Riding Through the Desert by Laurence Raphael Brothers in Zooscape

Zooscape continues to deliver fabulous fiction with a very particular slant. It's an "e-zine of fantastic furry fiction. Here the animals can talk, magic flows, and the stars are in reach." In this particular story, there's a talking horse. Though it's a horse with some strange abilities beyond just the gift of speech. Susannah and the horse are travelling through the desert when we first meet them. Water is in short supply and both her and the horse are almost dead before they find their way to Pioche, Nevada. What happens once they get there is, in the words of the author, "a post-apocalyptic weird-western cosmic-horror interspecies romance", and YES, it is one heck of a tale.

Listen to the audio-version of the roundup.

First published at Curious Fictions. Art is a detail of  Serena Malyon's cover art for Luna Station Quarterly 41.