alisa alering

Writer of fantasy and other fictions


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Zombies vs. Unicorns (Review)

"Unicorn Drops," ca. 1853. Courtesy Library of Congress.

Let me state for the record, that I am solidly Team Unicorn. From the ages five to, oh, eighteen, I had unicorn stuffed animals, unicorn T-shirts, unicorn notebooks, unicorn puffy glitter stickers and unicorn daydreams. Possibly also a unicorn Trapper Keeper and a purple rainbow unicorn pencil with a scented eraser. Since I was still in the throes of this fascination well into the 1990’s, albeit somewhat ironically by then, I should probably count myself lucky that I didn’t end up with a unicorn tattoo. (It was this close. Truly.)

I am such a unicorn girl that when I moved to a new school in the 2nd grade and the music teacher (a lopsided troll of a man with a penchant for green suits paired with coordinating green ties) bade us cease tooting our plastic recorders and join him for a rousing sing-along of “The Unicorn Song” — I actually cried. Have you heard this song? It’s so appalling, and so Christianity trumps magic-pagans-and-all-things-fun that it should give the Potter-is-AntiChrist sect divine ecstasies. I’ll leave you to look up the full lyrics for yourself, but try this verse on for size:

The ark started moving, it drifted with the tide
The unicorns looked up from the rocks and they cried
And the waters came down and sort of floated them away
That’s why you never see unicorns to this very day

THE UNICORNS CRIED! Because they’re GOING TO DIE. Not only that, they’re going to DIE FOREVER, all of them, GO EXTINCT. Yeah, great song for 2nd graders. Especially sensitive horse-lovers who live a little too strongly in their imaginary world. And my new classmates? They LOVED this song. It was, like, their favorite song ever, right up there with “Little Rabbit Foo-Foo,”(which, oddly enough, didn’t bother me at all. Look, I never said I was consistent.) We sang this song at least once a week for the next 6 years. I managed to get the snivel response under control, but the zeal with which my fellow students happily belted out the celebration of the extinction of an entire species may well have been the seeding of my continuing DISTRUST OF THE ENTIRE HUMAN RACE.

Later on in high school, I had a summer job at a Miniature Horse Farm – which is sort of like a circus crossed with a riding stable  – where I was paid minimum wage to braid colorful ribbons into pony hair, lift sniveling kids on and off the mechanical pony ride, be abused by illiterate shift supervisors, scoop (miniature) poop, and walk in the performance show three times a day, leading the unicorn (whose foam horn I attached with an elasticized shoelace backstage, right after I painted her hooves with silver glitter glue). Fascinating Gender Note: Though there were male and female employees, only girls were allowed to lead the unicorn. No such bias applied to leading the bad-tempered quick-spitting llama, thankfully.

So you can see, my unicorn credentials are SOLID.

That said, the stories I enjoyed most were the (cringe) zombie stories:

  • “Bougainvillea,” by Carrie Ryan
  • “Cold Hands,” by Cassandra Clare

Best unicorn story?

  • “A Thousand Flowers” by Margo Lanagan

Honorable Mentions go to:

  • “Prom Night,” by Libba Bray for use of Zoroastrian funeral rituals
  • “Princess Prettypants,” by Meg Cabot for the cameo by my most-favorite-ever summertime ice cream shack of social equalization, “The Chocolate Moose.”
  • The cover and endpaper art!

So, I did it. I read an entire 415-page anthology of short stories and it didn’t kill me. I even liked some of the stories. But if it had been 415 pages of novel, I would have had a much better time.

Maybe next time, I can try reading by the light of a unicorn’s horn. If all else fails, I can still get that tattoo.

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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.)


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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)


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Cane River, by Lalita Tademy

CC_coverCane River tells the story of 100 years of Lalita Tademy’s (mostly) female ancestors in Louisiana, from roughly 1830-1930 . It’s a novel, but all of the people really lived when and where she says they did.

Before choosing it, I read a lot of reviews that said this was a page-turner, and up-all-night-until-you-finish kind of book, and they were right. All of these women, from slave-born Elisabeth to independent Emily, confront their situations differently according to both their in-born personalities and the changing social environments in which they operate. Some have affectionate relationships with their white French lovers, and some are in it for what they can get (actually, for what they can keep), and some have no choice about whose children they bear. In a situation where they cannot call their bodies or lives their own, they struggle to keep family together, to hold on to this one tangible thing.

As I read, I did find myself wondering which bits of the stories were real events in the lives of the people who lived, and which were emotions and attitudes made-up by the author, which just made it more intriguing. Even in the case of the double murder (!!) for which newspaper articles and coroner reports are reproduced, you still don’t know what really happened.

I found myself utterly fascinated by the photos. Except for the very earliest, there are good photos of every one of the main characters. There is the basic pleasure of scrutinizing their faces for the personalities they show in the novel. Then I kept looking at this family, in their suits and dresses and carefully pinned hair, and wondering how the society of rural Louisiana could justify denying them basic rights –like marrying their white lovers, inheriting the property of their white fathers, and riding in the front of the bus –because they were black, when they were so obviously white. The impossibility of looking at these pale faces and chestnut hair and seeing an obvious ‘other’, reveals the history of racist rationalization as so completely batshit crazy.

Recommended reading:

Kindred — Octavia E. Butler

Passing — Nella Larsen

The Cazalet Chronicles – Elizabeth Jane Howard

Wench –Dolen Perkins-Valdez (coming Jan 2010)

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


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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)


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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.

markets

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)