alisa alering

Writer of fantasy and other fictions

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“Beautiful White Bodies,” by Alice Sola Kim

Fashion model in dolphin tank

Fashion model underwater in dolphin tank, Marineland, Florida (Library of Congress)

I stumbled on this story via the website for the James Tiptree, Jr. Award. I meant to read it after lunch, but once I had the page up in my browser, I read the first line. And then I read the first paragraph, and then…you get the idea. It did what a story is supposed to do – sucked me in and made me keep reading.

So what’s it all about, besides Busby Berkeley? Well, Justine’s a ‘boomerang’ twenty-something, living with her Mom and working at a coffee shop in her hometown when she notices that the local high school girls are coming down with an epidemic of preternatural anime-style beauty. Epidemic turns out to be the right word. Cue officials in face masks, and white isolation tents.

I especially liked four-eyed, snub-nosed, vintage-wearing, theater-kid Pearl. She was just the right mixture of attitude and self-pity. I liked the little interlude in Justine’s self-reflection when she talks about the “Different people marooned on different islands inside of you.” I liked the CDC guy’s line about “the beauty sickness no longer [being] co-morbid with popularity. I liked that I didn’t quite know what the end result of this epidemic actually was – just that it was a change, and a change with teeth (real or metaphorical, take your pick.)



Orange Mint and Honey, by Carleen Brice

Ack, almost out of time on the August Color Me Brown challenge and Carleen’s book deserves to be included.

briceShay (not LaShay, never LaShay, never ever ever!) is having trouble in graduate school. An unspecified trouble, but a trouble serious enough that her adviser firmly suggests she take a year off. She agrees to take a semester, and because she has nowhere else to go, moves in with her mother in Denver. Her AA-attending, new-baby having, flower-gardening mother who, when Shay was a baby, left her home alone at night while she went out and partied down with random men. Shay, not too surprisingly, has therefore learned to take care of herself, and to hate her mother. She has also learned to pull her hair out by the roots whenever she feels anxious.

This is a funny book. The cover makes it seem nice and inspirational, and Shay will get her groove back and make up with her mother and they will drink a lot of herbal tea and learn to bond. Okay, maybe they do, but it doesn’t start out that way. Shay has some seriously reasonable hatred festering in her and she brings it with her in a big old sack of grievance, starting on page one.

I really, really sympathized with Shay. If that were my mom, NOTHING, would make me more insanely furious than her getting her act together and becoming “the chocolate Martha Stewart.” Despite the many “serious” themes, this book was a fun, quick read.

Recommended reading:

Postcards from the Edge — Carrie Fisher

The Untelling — Tayari Jones

Amy’s Answering Machine: Messages from Mom — Amy Borkowski

(Color Me Brown is an August challenge by Color Online)


Joplin’s Ghost, by Tananarive Due

dueI’ve been meaning to read this for a long time, and the first chapters didn’t let me down; they were like deliciously trashy candy. Phoenix Smalls was nearly killed by a piano in her parent’s club when she was ten. Now she is in her twenties, signed to rap impresario G-Ronn’s Three Strikes record label, and poised to become the next hot R&B star. Except for that little problem where she keeps channeling Scott Joplin during live interviews and performances.

Chapters switch back and forth between Phoenix in the now, and Scott Joplin in the then. I guess it was interesting that Joplin’s dreams of the great African-American opera were tragically disappointed, and the poor man died of syphilis, and all that, but I kept waiting for the historical bits to be over so I could get back to the present day.  I was much more interested in Phoenix – her music career, her parents, her boyfriends, etc than I was in old Joplin.

There was also a lot here I didn’t buy. Because even though Phoenix is definitely haunted by Joplin, sees his ghost, dreams she’s his wife, etc., it’s really the piano that is the bad news, and that had blighted Joplin’s life before it tried going after hers. It’s a real stretch for me to believe in a ‘piano of evil’, and I can’t help but wonder if the author ended up blaming everything on an inanimate object as a workaround because she wanted Joplin to be the ghost, but didn’t want him to be actually bad.

The scary ending didn’t work for me, because the majority of the book was more entertaining than scary, so when it came down to it, I really couldn’t feel the threat. This all sounds like criticism, but I gobbled the book right up, and am all set to rush right out and check out one of Due’s vampire stories.

(Don’t know who Scott Joplin is? You know his music, 100% for sure. I have a recording of some of his rags, but even I didn’t realize that the ubiquitous tune ‘The Entertainer‘ was his.)

Recommended readings:

Voodoo Dreams — Jewell Parker Rhodes

Baby Brother’s Blues — Pearl Cleage

Blood Colony — Tananarive Due

(Color Me Brown is an August challenge by Color Online)


Wife of the Gods, by Kwei Quartey (Color Me Brown challenge)

map-ghanaWife of the Gods is set in Ghana. For those of you who don’t know, Ghana is a coastal country in West Africa. The President visited there recently.

Detective Darko Dawson lives in the capital city, Accra, but is assigned to the murder of a young health worker in the small town of Ketanu because someone there doesn’t trust the local police force. Dawson speaks the local language, and his Aunt Osewa lives in a nearby village. Twenty-five years ago, Darko’s own mother journeyed to the same village to visit her sister, and  never returned.

Various suspects–the faith healer, the AIDS activist, the local priest–represent a conflict between traditional and modern ideas. Darko himself is disgusted with the priest who keeps young girls in concubinage as ‘wives of the gods’ but cannot help but feel that he himself may be have been cursed.

The mystery is competent, but Quartey shines at showing-off modern-day Ghana, vivid and alive. It is classic country-as-character and it is well done. Quartey, who was born and schooled in Accra, and has since lived in the US for many years has both an insider’s and an outsider’s perspective, which is wonderful for making a reader feel like the aforesaid insider.

He contrasts the speeding  capital with the more traditional village life, but remarks on how Ketanu has sprawled and the forest has shrunk in the years since his last visit. He shows the tension between supernatural/religious belief and medical/technical knowledge without denying the value of the superstition. He describes the people, the public and private lives, and the culture of the country, for which he clearly has great affection and understanding.

For more contrasts, check out Quartey’s blog that reports on his research trip to Ghana. He has lots of great pix, like the pair below.


Recommended readings:

Aya of Yop City – Marguerite Abouet

The Silence of the Rain – Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza

The next Inspector Dawson mystery – Kwei Quartey

(Color Me Brown is an August challenge by Color Online)


‘Childcare’ by Lorrie Moore

Paul sent me this story because, he said, the voice reminded him of my stories. Because I am trying to do my duty by the short story, and because I am desperate–not so much to know how my writing looks to others but how it would look to me if only I could see it–I read it over last Saturday’s breakfast.

Reading fiction I admire, I sometimes fall into fits of despair because I know, deeply, that I could never write sentences like the ones on the page. They just wouldn’t come out of me like that. The arrangement of words is unexpected, the content unfamiliar, the tone rotated 15 degrees, and it is a million light years from anything that would occur to me. I end up thinking ‘If this is good and I can’t do it, then what I can do must not be good.’

Children by josefnovak33/flickr

Children by josefnovak33/flickr

The first sentence of ‘Childcare’ is:

“The cold came late that fall, and the songbirds were caught off guard.”

This is a sentence I can imagine myself writing. Score one for Paul.

Other possible similarities I can see would be in the humor (I loved the bit where she uses her roommate’s vibrator to stir her chocolate milk. I would do that to a character.) and the way people talk across each other, making motions through conversations without ever really connecting, and possibly the end, where I was not sure exactly what had happened (or failed to happen) but I was sure it was bad. Long, sad, inevitable and to be endured. So, what do you think, Paul, were these the things you meant? (It will be perfect if you say ‘Not at all’.)

Other things I noticed about the story was how slow it started off, with the main character meandering around the cold winter streets, something I would be prone to do, but which I would feel was not permitted. I talked about this story with another writer this morning, and she had the same reservations. Because we are amateurs, we don’t know–is it still wrong if someone famous does it, if it is published in the New Yorker?

I was annoyed by the early passage describing the narrator’s Midwestern background, the menu & customs in the German restaurant, how the wines came in ‘red, white, or pink’.  It seemed not only too easy to make fun of these things (an amuse bouche of smug satisfaction for sophisticated New Yorker readers before the main course of yuppie adoption ennui?) but too knowing for the naive and protected voice of the narrator.

Did I like the story? With short stories I can never tell. I laughed a few times. I recognized the characters as people I have seen, if not known. But I don’t know if that adds up to enjoyment.

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The Little Stranger

The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters

The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters

I started listening to Sarah Waters’ new book The Little Stranger on Friday last week, while I was doing reluctant battle with the rowing machine. Usually audiobooks are exercise-only entertainment.  This weekend I snuck in an extra chapter while toiling over the litter boxes (we have 5 cats – it takes a while) and tuned-in again while driving to work today (time usually reserved for off-key singalongs to ‘Deewangi Deewangi’ and other filmi classics.)

I’m on the 3rd disc of 13, and nothing has ‘happened’ in any great plot-forwarding sense. I could care less. I want constantly to go back there, to be there– ‘there’ being tumbledown Hundreds Hall in 1949 — with the doctor, and Caroline, and watch the wallpaper peel as the days go by.

This is supposedly a ghost story and I’ve been having fun looking for the tiniest crumbs of supernatural foreshadowing, which are both few and shy. There has been no apparition, no bad luck, not even a feeling of unease. If I weren’t pre-fixed with the notion of a haunting, I doubt I’d even catch them.

I usually don’t listen to authors I enjoy this much-I want to savor them on the page, but I came to Waters through audiobooks – first with The Night Watch, then Fingersmith, so I decided not to interrupt a good thing. I think I’d listen to Waters no matter what subject she writes about. She is a storyteller, in the old-fashioned way, like Trollope or Austen or Ursula LeGuin. It doesn’t matter what she’s saying, I just want her to go on saying it.

But don’t you like the UK cover better?

The Little Stranger UK cover

The Little Stranger UK cover

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Ideas of Heaven – Joan Silber

Manuel Muñoz recommended this to me as an example of a short story that covers a long period of time.

It starts with the narrator’s childhood, and puts her world in context. Her father is fighting in the U.S. Civil War and while he is away she dreams he speaks to her from heaven. Then it jumps through to her courtship and marriage, but each event, each stage of her life is given establishing detail and grounding before we move forward to the main events and location of the story — remote, provincial China, in a missionaries’ compound.

Manuel noted that despite the potentially alienating aspects of the story (the historical setting, the unfamiliar nearly unimaginable location, the strong religious mission of the narrator), his students were really into it.  These elements are told without exoticization, as matter-of-fact and directly observed (did the author read genuine missionary accounts? She must have.) This is a (long) short story, but the events had the inevitable flow of a novel: there is love and marriage, decision and travel, birth and death, friendship and betrayal, politics and disaster. It’s all chronological order, none of it is flashback, and none of it feels rushed or shortchanged.

But theme is always there, always surrounding the characters, from the ghostly father in the beginning, to the children discussing heaven (The daughter would have flowers in hers, the son would have goats), to the final image of carrying our own death within us like a pregnancy, waiting all our lives for our death to be born. Unbelievable. Beautiful. Kick-ass.

This story would make a fabulous film. So much must be cut from a novel, to make room for the slowed-down time of a movie. But this could be done scene-by-scene, all events included, only slightly elaborated, and it would come out at a smooth 110 minutes. Do I say this because of that last scene, because I can see it in all the shouts and dust and swirls of color, I can see the lush cinematography, the pathos of the dying shot?

Damn. I think I liked this story. There’s a lot to be learned here.