Shadow Atlas: Dark Landscapes of the Americas

Edited by Carina Bissett, Hillary Dodge, and Joshua Viola

Shadow Atlas: Dark Landscapes of the Americas is an anthology of short stories, poetry, and artwork loosely connected by the tale of an underground society, the Umbra Arca. Sam and Dean Winchester would have belonged to the Umbra Arca, as would Indiana Jones and Peter Venkman and Abraham Von Helsing. I say this not to minimize or ridicule, but to give an idea of the manner in which the editors’ fictionalized-scholastic approach combines academia with spine-tingling creepiness and absolutely riveting adventure.

The setup is thus: the Umbra Arca Society is an association of historian/adventurers who travel the world looking for the truth about local legends. The Society is broken into four groups (one for each cardinal point of the compass) and each group “had but one purpose and mission: to explore ‘hidden realms’ that apparently exist all around us, and to bear witness and record the ‘shocking truths’ behind various myths and legends.” Each historian reports back to archivists in their home office, who preserve the information in their quadrant’s Shadow Atlas. One postulant has gone rogue and reported the Society to the FBI, and their transcripts – as well as editorial e-mails and letters pro- and con- various mythoi from various scholars – round out the book.

But it’s the stories that are the real treasure here. From relative newcomer Christa Wojciechowski’s simultaneously creepy and hilarious “Blood Sisters” to the illustrious Jane Yolen’s densely-packed “The Shadow Atlas” poems, the reader arises, dazed, from the depths of one tale only to fall headlong into the chasm of the next one. Special shout-out to Mercedes M. Yardley’s visceral “Sand and Salt,” which is going to have me listening closely to the shrieking wind for years to come.

It is my fervent hope that Bisset, Dodge, and Viola are already working on Shadow Atlas: Europe. This was a splendid ride.

Of Kings, Queens and Colonies

by Johnny Worthen

Johnny Worthen’s Of Kings, Queens and Colonies is A Parallel for Modern Times – a bit self-consciously, perhaps, but still relevant for all that.

The tale begins on a spaceship carrying settlers intending to colonize Tirgwenin, the last “unclaimed” planet in their solar system. It is nearly a thousand years since the evacuation of Old Earth, and the pollution brought about by Man’s relentless greed has rendered most of the new worlds nearly uninhabitable. (In a nod to current events, one shipboard family is kept separated from the rest due to being quarantined for a communicable virus which is decimating the population.) Their tales of Tirgwenin paint it as a new Eden, with a mystical sky and magical (though less-than-human) inhabitants.

Meanwhile Enskari, the planet they are leaving behind, is on the verge of war. The clashing of fanatical royal houses combined with class wars and religious persecution have convinced the king of a neighboring world that the time has come to build an armada and consolidate the entire planetary system under his rule – especially since Enskari has had the gall to install a woman on the throne.

Imagine that Offred joins the crew of the Millennium Falcon, and they all head off to see if they can find Rivendell on Arrakis. It’s like that.

It’s the age-old technique of using futuristic fantasy to ask at one remove the question, Are we as a species doomed to keep repeating the same mistakes? Judging by such commentary as, “Personal greed when backed by overwhelming resources crushes evolution and ethical behavior,” Worthen’s answer to this question is a qualified yes. As behooves a Creative Writing instructor, he elucidates his arguments clearly and simply:

(They) had deviated from the doctrine of the Saved, and because of this, they’d lost their human status. They could now be treated as different and damned, a clever philosophical distinction that allowed people to be chattel.

On the other hand, he also dumbfounds the reader with head-scratchers such as, “Their blood was as red as theirs and colored the mud a dirty death.”

If you are already a fan of Johnny Worthen’s work, well, here is some more of it. If not, Of Kings, Queens and Colonies may not be the best place to start.

Artificial Divide

Edited by Robert Kingett and Randy Lacey

Most anthologies have some sort of unifying theme, and the “hook” in Artificial Divide is that each of the sixteen contributing authors – and their protagonists – are blind.

That’s it – that’s the connecting thread, and diving into the stories knowing that fact adds an unexpected depth to one’s reading. Some of the authors are well-established, some are newcomers, but each of them just charges ahead and tells a story – a story about the adventures of a character who happens to be visually impaired, as opposed to a story about a visually impaired character who happens to have adventures.

Not all of the affected characters (or authors) are what a layperson might consider to be “completely” blind, nor are they all heroes. As Robert Kingett says in his introduction, “That’s the point, though. This anthology compiles snapshots of blindness to show that Blind people can be witty. Blind people can be crude. Blind people can be whimsical. Blind people can be clever or brash.”

Since the common thread in these stories is not plot-driven, there is something here to appeal to almost everyone. There is a literal fairy tale (Heather Meares’ Night Pixie), a celestial guardian (Touched by an Angel, Rebecca Blaevoet), a post-Apocalyptic love story (Melissa Yuan-Innes’ Catgirl, Heart and Skin), and comedy (Inspiration Porn Star, by M. Leona Godin). My favorite is A Firefly of Hope by Alice Eakes, a gripping page-turner that grabs you by the throat and drags you directly into the visceral narrative.  

Ultimately, Artificial Divide is no different than any other lovingly-curated collection of short stories.

And, to paraphrase its editor, that’s kinda the point.

October 14, 2021

#bookreview #artificialdivide #robertkingett #RandyLacey #anthology #shortstories #blind #visuallyimpaired #heathermeares #rebeccablaevoet #melissayuaninnes #mleonagodin #aliceeakes

“Samantha’s Sandwich Stand”

Author: Sonia Saikaley
Illustrator: Nathan Caro Fréchette

Samantha is bored, bored, bored until she gets the notion to start a “lemonade” stand selling her favorite homemade Lebanese cream-cheese-and-cucumber sandwiches instead of lemonade. Will her customers agree with her that “different is good?” With some help from her friends and a magical eagle, Samantha’s sandwich stand has a triumphant opening day.

Sonia Saikaley is a poet, so it stands to reason that her first children’s book would be rhythm-rich. Despite the book being aimed at 6–8-year-olds, Saikely manages to avoid the temptation to stick to a downbeat Seussian tempo. Instead, she inserts the occasional almost rap-like cadence:

            Naoko banged the drum with red drumsticks: Boom! Boom!! Boom!!!

            Just then, Samantha’s friend Jimmy zoom, zoom, zoomed by on his skateboard.

If there is a downside, it is that the book is almost aggressively multi-cultural. Samantha’s friends all return from visits to their respective areas of presumed ancestral origin (Scotland, Japan, and British Columbia) just in time to save the day with various travel souvenirs, and the deus ex machina eagle coming to the rescue upon being summoned by the Indigenous child may cause mild eye-rolling in adult readers. Still, minor stereotyping is unlikely to concern the book’s target audience, and in this reviewer’s opinion a slight touch of magic improves almost any tale.

Nathan Caro Fréchette’s illustrations are the perfect foil for the story. They are simple and colorful, yet surprisingly expressive. Too, his depictions of characters with different racial backgrounds are not merely tinted drawings of white people, which is refreshing. All in all, this is a pleasant tale of friendship, innovation, and appreciation – which are appropriate at any age.

October 11, 2021

#bookreview  #childrensbookreview #SoniaSaikaley #NathanCaroFréchette

“Porters” by Patrick Clark

Have you ever wondered what would happen if Philip K. Dick wrote an episode of CSI: Vegas? Well, neither had I, until I read Porters by Patrick Clark.

The year is 2069, the Earth is mid-Environmental Apocalypse, and Steve Wilson is a detective in the New York Police Department’s NTSI. The Non-Linear Time Stream Investigation Unit was formed because in 2029 a wealthy humanitarian physicist named Jacob Isaacs developed the first Porter: a machine capable of sending things precisely four decades into the future.

Emphasis on “things” – though the possibilities offered by the Porter fire the public imagination immediately, the human brain cannot withstand the porting process. Though this glitch means that time travel per se is out, local criminals, ever inventive, soon realize that 2069 is the perfect place to hide the (literal) bodies. This means that the gruff-but-honest Wilson and his partner must solve murders using 40-year-old clues and send the evidence back to their 2029 counterparts. Wilson, a veteran detective, has become discouraged in his new role since NTSI 2069 never really learns the final results of their investigations. Until, that is, he uncovers the work of a serial killer who may be working both sides of the timeline – and then it gets personal.

It’s an interesting premise, and Clark springs a couple of surprising narrative twists. He’s crafted a believable film noir atmosphere, but – perhaps because he writes so visually – there is a distracting amount of physical description. Consider the following:

Wilson closed the windows on his computer, hit the lights and left the office.

“What do we have?” Wilson asked as he walked through the door of the forensic lab.

“Sawdust,” replied David as he stood up from his desk.

“Sawdust?” asked Wilson, a little underwhelmed.

Such over-description is particularly irksome in a mystery story; Chekhov’s Guns positively litter the landscape. Too, Clark seems to be stumbling around a bit tentatively in his own transtemporal landscape – the denizens of Earth 2069 may be a bit hazy on how, exactly, time-streams work, but the author should be consistent with his own rulebook.

Though Porters is Clark’s debut novel, he excels at establishing the relationships between characters with a few deft lines. He has a positive gift for creating suspense. His imagination is ambitious, and I look forward to seeing what he can produce as his technique evolves to match it.

October 6, 2021

“Wild Blue Yonder” by Jack B. Rochester

At birth, Nathaniel Hawthorne Flowers (the protagonist in Jack B. Rochester’s fictional autobiography Wild Blue Yonder, 2011) is “given the gift” of being named after his father’s favorite author. After his dad’s untimely death, Nathaniel flunks out of his local community college and embarks on a voyage of self-discovery – i.e., he joins the United States Air Force to avoid being drafted into the Army and sent as cannon-fodder into Vietnam.

When Nathaniel – who is a bookish, somewhat prissy young man – finishes training, he is sent to San Ramon Air Force Base near San Francisco. This is the San Francisco of the Sixties, and Nathaniel immediately embraces Hippie Culture; he discovers pot, attends the first Human Be-In, goes to concerts, and hangs out in Haight-Ashbury whenever he is off duty. He hears Timothy Leary speak, and after his first LSD trip in a friend’s converted wine vat Nathaniel tunes in, turns on, and drops out (but not so far out as to get into any trouble, you understand).

Paradise is lost when a clerical error postpones a timely promotion and Nathaniel (who never really seems to grasp the whole “chain of command” concept) writes to his congressman to complain. The resultant publicity garners his promotion but makes him persona non grata as far as the Air Force is concerned. When the rest of his communications squadron is sent to Southeast Asia, he is stripped of his Top Secret clearance and sent to Kleinelachen Army Air Base in Germany to finish his tour of duty. The punishment: his dream job as a reporter for the Stars and Stripes, with the guarantee that none of his stories will ever be published. Fortunately, Nathaniel finds solace in some like-minded troops. This group calls themselves “The Children of the Future,” and Nathaniel Hawthorne Flowers spends the remainder of his enlistment smoking dope, dropping acid, and having deep philosophical discussions with the Woodstock soundtrack playing in the background.

The other gift bequeathed to Nathaniel by his high-school-English-teacher father was “a love of the world’s great literature,” and this is a passion which is obviously shared by the author. In Wild Blue Yonder Rochester pays tribute to the writers, poets, and musicians who shaped his own world-view and, perhaps, inspired his own writing career. Unfortunately, this book is what happens when someone who loves the classics tries to write them with nothing but enthusiasm to draw upon. A self-conscious attempt to combine Heller, Heinlein, and Kesey has resulted in such painful prose as, “I thought about zeitgeist. Zeitgeist, zeitgeist, the mighty light of ten thousand suns challenging infinity. Zeitgeist.” Although there are occasional gems (“’That’s a decanter full of bullshit,’ said Alan”), most of the dialogue is stilted and pedantic. The stream-of-consciousness descriptions of LSD trips are particularly appalling. Drug-induced insight is a lot like singing opera in your dreams; though it may be profoundly beautiful inside your head, when you try to share it with other people you find that you’re braying like a donkey with strep throat.

Wild Blue Yonder is the first book of a trilogy. For his readers’ sakes, let us hope that Nathaniel’s “coming of age” saga matures along with him.

October 8, 2018