Tag: Slipstream

Summerlong – Peter S. Beagle

Peter S. Beagle is best known for writing The Last Unicorn, which I haven’t read but heard of time and again as childhood-defining. For what it’s worth, I tried watching the animated feature but was vetoed by the other denizens of my household. I shall try another time, and crack open the copy of The Last Unicorn currently sitting on my shelf in due time.

Knowing only about Unicorn was insufficient preparation for reading Beagle’s recent novel, Summerlong, published by Tachyon Publications in September of last year. I made assumptions about what Summerlong would be based on nothing, and that is a huge disservice to what is an extraordinary novel.

Summerlong is on the outer fringes of fantasy, more a story of modern slipstream fiction like something by Haruki Murakami. It’s the kind of book where the boundaries of reality slowly erode and the characters’ realities unravel in consonance with the surreal.

In the case of Summerlong, a complicated-but-functional family on an island in the Puget Sound. A middle-aged couple, Abe and Joanna, have a straightforward life which is rocked by the arrival of Lioness Lazos, a mysterious young woman who enchants the couple completely.

With Lioness’s arrival, the unraveling begins on both macro and micro scales, from strange weather to bizarre animal appearances and children who can pull full-grown flowers from deep in the earth.

The story itself is excellent, full of emotion and tension, action and introspection, character and mystery. But the writing itself is so damn good that even if the plot was weak this would be a fantastic read. Beagle’s language is sophisticated but relatable, his characters bleeding through every word, every carefully placed comma, and the spaces between. Their pain and hope and love and confusion suffuse the text so completely that I achieved that sought-after state of readvana, wherein you look up from a book and you aren’t sure what life is, who you are, or what anything is.

I was enchanted by this book. I was transported, surprised, and amazed by it. If I had read a synopsis of it, I may have passed on it altogether, which would have been a terrible loss. It’s books like Summerlong that are defining points in a budding writer’s journey, where you read something and say “I want to be able to do that.”

Summerlong is available on Amazon and directly from Tachyon.

The Motion of Puppets – Keith Donohue

Keith Donohue’s The Motion of Puppets is a wonderful book. It’s an exquisite example of what I’d call literary fantasy, though I’m sure it’s more likely to be filed in “non-fiction” and called  slipstream or magical realism than anything else. But nomenclature and categorization are irrelevant at the end of the day. It’s the story and writing that matter.

The Motion of Puppets is a beautifully written story of a couple in Quebec who become separated by strange circumstances. Kay is part of a circus troupe performing locally, and her husband, Theo, is an academic working on a translation of a biography of Eadweard Muybridge—the photographer who first captured still images of horses in motion to show that they come completely off the ground as they gallop.

Theo’s a worrywart of sorts, and Kay is a free spirit, a distinction evident in their occupations as well as their behaviors. But despite their slight differences, they’re very much in love, and deeply committed to making their relationship work. They have the fire of new love in them, and they nurture that fire with care.

As part of their daily meanderings in the Old City Quebec, they regularly see an old wooden puppet under a bell jar in the window of a closed and always-dark puppet shop. Kay develops an almost obsessive love with the puppet, insisting that they walk by the shop regularly so she can stare in longing at the wooden puppet; it’s seemingly innocuous. And why wouldn’t it be?

After a late night of celebration with her co-performers (including a rather handsy rake of a man), Kay finds herself walking home alone. She feels she’s being watched, followed, so she rushes along her usual walk and finds the lights in the puppet shop on and the door unlocked for the first time. She vanishes.

Theo is beside himself with worry at Kay’s disappearance, and it affects his life in myriad ways: his mother-in-law suspects him of foul play, as do the police (at least initially); his translation work halts; he starts making daily trips to the theater where Kay performed, where he befriends Egon, a dwarf who works for the theater company.

Kay, meanwhile, has been transformed and transported to a new world. She has to learn to navigate her new surroundings and remember the life she’s lost, which grows more difficult with each passing day.

I’ll leave the synopsis at that, because this The Motion of Puppets really deserves your read. It’s written poetically, with a great cast of characters, and a plot that had me guessing where the story would wind up until the very last pages. It was magical and heartfelt, with a deftly applied layer of horror that never crossed over into the realm of “true” fright, but hovered just beyond the edge of sight, casting a shadow over every scene. In short, an excellent book.

The Motion of Puppets is available on Amazon.

Before I close this review, a short humblebrag: this review copy was sent over by Picador. Picador. Okay. I guess this review blog gets seen every now and again. Thanks for bearing with me.

Dreams of Distant Shores – Patricia McKillip

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Tachyon Publications has a knack for putting out excellent collections of short stories—in fact, it seems to be their specialty. This week’s “flavor” is Patricia Mckillip’s Dreams of Distant Shores, an excellent anthology that spans modern fiction, slipstream, and urban fantasy.

Dreams of Distant Shores contains five short stories and two novellas, and while you should certainly read the whole collection, I’d like to focus on the novellas in this review.

The first, The Gorgon in the Cupboard, is emblematic of Mckillip’s strengths at imbuing characters with tremendous reality and honesty. The cast is made up of artists and their many models and muses, principal among them a painter pining for another painter’s wife, and a peasant who has undergone the deepest of personal tragedies—the loss of a child.

Oh, and there’s a talking painting of Medusa, too.

The flow of The Gorgon in the Cupboard is fantastic. It maintains many threads effortlessly, while transmitting real emotion through believable characters using surreal moments and wavering sanity. The Gorgon in question, the Medusa on the protagonist’s painting, is nothing more than a par of eyes and a mouth, imbued with life—whether as a figment of his imagination or by some magical intervention—and a keen and biting wit that she uses to motivate him to look in different places for the muse he seeks.

The way McKillip uses painting, color, and the struggle to express the moving, sometimes ephemeral nature of the subject, is phenomenal. It puts you right there with the artists as they paint and cavort around town and the countryside. The introduction of Jo, the muse, is done in heartbreaking contrast—a rainy night finds her huddled with vagrants under the awning of a butcher’s shop, where she reminisces about the death of her infant child and aged mother. All she has to remember them by is her scarf. Once, she had been a model for the protagonist, but the manner of her initial departure was such that she wouldn’t dare return to his studio.

Things twist and turn, the Gorgon whispering encouragements and distractions into the painter’s unwilling ear, and the plot resolves nicely. All told, it’s a fabulous story.

But the story that shines brightest in the anthology is, without a doubt, Something Rich and Strange. Here, McKillip enters a Haruki Murakami-esque state, building a world and a “normal” life for her characters, then blurring the edges of reality slowly, until you’re plunged alongside the characters into the surreal and mythological. It’s a magnificent story, truly wonderful, and even if the rest of the stories were mediocre—they aren’t, the whole anthology is great—this story would be well worth picking up the whole book for.

Something Rich and Strange takes its name and much of its symbolism from Shakespeare’s The Tempest, dealing with sea-gods, temptation, betrayal, love, trust, and bravery. It’s a whirlwind story that buffeted me like a hurricane. The transition into surreality was so smoothly done that I looked at the world around me, confused and unsure of whether I, too, was falling into some kind of fey. Something Rich and Strange is brilliant. That’s the long and the short of it.

Dreams of Distant Shores is available on Amazon and Tachyon.com.