Lexifabricographer For when the right word just won’t do…

October 23, 2013

TMoRP Day 7 – Magic for Beginners by Kelly Link (February)

My favourite short story from February was a novella, ‘Magic for Beginners’, from Kelly Link’s short story collection of the same name. I had a bit of an iffy relationship with the collection as a whole – Kelly Link’s stories (or at least the ones collected in this volume) are rambling, discursive and usually quite surreal narratives. Her language is beautiful. Her imagery is surprising and delightful as often as it’s dark. But the stories too often veered in unexpected and even random directions for me to completely satisfy me. On more than one story I liked where it started and disliked where it ended up. Admittedly most of them turned out to have quite strong story logic when I stopped to think about them, but that didn’t help during the act of reading.

‘Magic for Beginners’ is one such story, nesting layers of narrative inside one another so that each element seems to be a meta-commentary on the others. The thing is, what I found distracting in a number of the other stories was utterly compelling in this one. It’s the story of a boy named Jeremy who, along with his friends, is obsessed with a strange, surreal television program called The Library.

The show follows the adventures of Fox and the oddball inhabitants of the titular library, who encounter magician-pirates, magic books and the underground sea on the third floor. The episodes are broadcast out of order, most of the cast are never played by the same actors twice and the kids never know when the program will be shown. It’s compelling event television, in a way that probably won’t exist in a few years and consumes the lives of its young audience.

There’s much more to the plot of the story – the relationships between Jeremy and his friends, the thoughtlessness of his writer-father, a journey with his mother to wind up the affairs of a dead relative. Woven into all of that is the consuming mystery of what’s going on with The Library and what it might mean for Jeremy.

It’s a captivating, magical story that nails the way relationships build and change around (slightly obsessively) shared interests. How stories – especially beloved television shows, but any stories really – can provide an anchor when real life becomes overwhelming and confusing. It’s a story about how caring about stories can help you to care about people (and what can happen when they don’t). It’s amazing.

You can read ‘Magic for Beginners’ by Kelly Link on the old F&SF site here (or buy the collection, why not?)

My runner-up choices for best story from February were:

  • Either ‘Isles of the Sun’ or ‘Significant Dust’ by Margo Lanagan, which I talked about in my review of her Cracklescape collection
  • Nick Mamatas’ ‘Hideous Interview with Brief Man’, which is a piece of cold, brutal Lovecraftiana that I think Doctor Clam would get a kick out of (from Fiddleblack #8)
  • ‘On the Arrival of the Paddle Steamer on the Docks of V—-‘ by Peter M. Ball, now no longer available on the sadly defunct Eclipse Online website, nor anywhere else as far as I can tell. You’ll just have to take my word for it that it was pretty great.

February 16, 2013

Review – Cracklescape by Margo Lanagan

As with everything else, I’m already behind on the 2013 Australian Women Writers Challenge. Stupid self-imposed deadlines, why must you constantly mock me? Anyway, I’ve managed to do a bit of reading lately, so let’s get straight into it. This is the second book I’ve read for the AWWC13 and is my second review.

Cracklescape is award-winning fantasist Margo Lanagan‘s contribution to the Twelve Planets series from Twelfth Planet Press. It’s a collection of four short stories. The stories are unconnected, though the introduction rightly points out that they are all essentially ghost stories, albeit unusual and diverse examples of them.

‘The Duchess Dresser’ is a strange tale that seems to be more of a reflection on lifestyle and relationships in inner city apartment dwelling than it is about a piece of haunted antique furniture. The supernatural presence is a puzzle more than a threat, and most of the characters treat it as a mild curiosity when they think of it at all. I found the situation in the story a perfect expression of the routine accommodations that have to be made in living in close proximity with others that – when viewed from the outside – looks inconvenient at best and crazy at worst.

‘The Isles of the Sun’ is wonderful, a dreamy exaltation of  the power of children’s imagination on the one hand and a chilling plumb of the depths of parental fear on the other. Alternating perspectives between Elric, a young boy, and then his mother Jenny, Isles has a sense of dreadful inevitability that never quite lets the reader go, even after the point where it seems like it should.

‘Bajazzle’ is probably my least favourite of the four stories in Cracklescape (‘Isles’ is my favourite, or maybe ‘Significant Dust’). It’s a solidly told tale, but there’s something lurking behind the narrative that I don’t quite grasp. In the first half, a boorish middle-aged train commuter’s encounter with a group of young women staging an odd protest prompts him to reflect – not to his credit – on his marriage and unsatisfying sex life. In the second half he is served a supernatural comeuppance of a sort. It’s an engaging story, but I didn’t grok how the two halves fitted together or why the ending happens. The unpleasant sexist pig of a narrator probably didn’t help.

Finally, ‘Significant Dust’ rounds out the collection with, if not a bang, then a remarkably accomplished piece. It’s the story of a young woman who has fled her terrible reputation in her home town. She finds anonymous refuge among the human flotsam who have accumulated at a highway truck stop. There are ghosts and UFOs in the story – well, there might be – but the centrepiece is the slow, merciless revelation of what Vanessa did, its consequences and what she and others sacrificed in order for her to leave. There’s a cold horror to the way that the story refuses to end with the tragedy but carries the reader through the aftermath as well. ‘Significant Dust’ is powerful and accomplished.

I had been getting used to the Twelve Planets series having a strong sense of interconnectedness between the stories, but Cracklescape‘s stories (like the Kaaron Warren collection) are linked by themes rather than plots. Cracklescape continues the series’ impressive run of showcasing the talents of remarkable writers at the height of their powers. I didn’t care for a couple of the stories, but there was never a moment reading them that I was not certain that Lanagan knew exactly what she was doing and what she wanted to accomplished. Cracklescape is confident storytelling.

 

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