Book Review: The Djinn Falls in Love & Other Stories.

The Djinn Falls in Love & Other Stories – Edited by Mahvesh Murad and Jared Shurin (Solaris 2017)

I love the variety and surprises that short story collections often bring.  I was intrigued by this book which aims to showcase global storytelling and to showcase the djinn (alternatively jinn or genie) as an element of folklore with “immense contemporary” relevance.

The stories are written in a variety of styles.  Classic fairy tales, fantasy, science fiction and ‘weird’ feature amongst others.  Many of the writers bring contemporary issues into focus through a lens of magic.

I’ll highlight a few of the stories that stood out:

The Congregation by Kamila Shamsie – This has a traditional feel and is about a boy, fathered by a jinn, who wishes to feel whole again by being possessed by his jinn brother.  There is a lovely line it where a character says “There is no evil here, only love.  God save us from a world that can’t tell the difference.”

Hurrem and the Djinn by Claire North – Tells a tale of the Sultan’s favourite lady who is believed to be a witch.  It’s about the suspicion and rumour that dogs women of influence and the hatred they face.

Glass Lights by J.Y YangThis is a lovely story of Mena, a Muslim girl who was told by her grandfather that she is a djinn.  Mena quietly helps others without expectations.  It is a tale of everyday life, passing encounters with strangers and the mundanity and randomness of the working day.

A Tale of Ash in Seven Birds by Amal El-Mohtar – The immigrant experience is writ large in this tale.  We are told that “Nations are great magicians; they pull borders out of hats like knots of silk.  Here, says the wizard nation, here are the terms of a truce: be small, be drab, above all be grateful, and we will let you in.”  This is a prose piece rather than a straightforward story.

Reap by Sami Shah – US based drone operatives spend long shifts watching and analysing a small village in Pakistan.  Through heat signatures and movements they watch a supernatural horror unfold.  Tense and very effective.

Message in a Bottle by K.J. Parker – Witty and mediaeval in style.  Some of the dialogue is a bit too contemporary to fit in comfortably but an excellent story nevertheless.

Bring Your Own Spoon by Saad Z. Hossain – Great dystopian sci-fi about the poor and dispossessed.  A Djinn, a cook and a smuggler set up a kitchen and shelter to provide for the poorest.  Well written.  The descriptions of the simple meals cooked made my mouth water.

Somewhere in America by Neil Gaiman – Taken from his novel American Gods.  This is just excellent.  Funny, explicit, moving and empathetic.  It works as a standalone short story.

Overall an engaging, though provoking collection.

 

 

 

 

Book Review – Two Hundred And Twenty-One Baker Streets : Edited by David Thomas Moore (Abaddon Books – 2014)

A book for fans of Sherlock Holmes, science-fiction and fantasy.  This collection consists of 14 tales of Holmes, Watson and other familiar characters in not-so-familiar settings or even bodies. 

It’s great fun and, unusually for short story collections, not one is a duffer.  All have their own appeal.

In A Scandal in Hobohemia by Jamie Wyman, Holmes is Sanford ‘Crash’ Haus, owner of a travelling circus.  Watson is black veteran soldier Jim Walker.  Members of the travelling show are being murdered and Jim Walker finds himself being drawn in by the weird genius of Haus. 

Black Alice by Kelly Hale sets Holmes in the 17th Century investigating accusations of withcraft.  There is a lovely piece of imagery in ths tale which sees Watson dreaming of dumplings.  At one stage, Holmes forthright and indelicate questioning leads to him retreating swiftly closely followed by a barrage of hurled crockery. 

In The Adventure of the Speckled Bandana, J.E. Cohen imagines Homes as a 1970’s New York consulting detective, investigating a bizarre crime on the West Coast.  The story is set in a waxworks and made me think of a Scooby-Doo cartoon, although there are no Scooby Snacks and the perpetrator is not just the janitor dressed up in a sheet. 

Emma Newman’s ‘A Woman’s Place’ puts the focus on Holmes’ landlady, Mrs Hudson, whose interest in Holmes’ pursuit of Moriarty may be caused by a little more than the wish to get a vicarious thrill.  Mrs Hudson certainly hides her light under a bushel. 

A Study in Scarborough by Guy Adams sees Holmes and Watson as a comedy double act.  The story is written from the perspective of a fan looking back on their careers with nostalgia.  Watson demonstrates the true feelings of the straightman.

Ian Edginton’s ‘The Small World of 221B’ is one of the more sci-fi stories and includes time-travel and Matrix like imagery.

One of my favourite stories was The Final Conjuration by  Adrian Tchaikovsky.  Holmes is still Holmes as we have always known him.  However, he is transported as a powerful demon into a world ruled by seven great wizards.  This is a great fantasy tale.  The wizard’s servant who summons Holmes is named Wu-Tsan. 

The Patchwork Killer by Kasey Lansdale is set in the future where Holmes can be cloned into existence when necessary.  It’s a very funny and includes lines like “The worlds has changed.  The technology has changed.  Holmes, however, is the same smug bastard as always.”

The final story is called Paralles and is by Jenni Hill.  This is a birilliant story in which Holmes and Watson are teenage girls Charlotte and Jane.  It’s written as fanc fiction about fan fiction and is extremely engaging.

it’s unusual for me not to skip over a story or two in such a collection but this very entertaining book kept me reading all the way through.  Recommended. 

Book Review – Inconstant Moon – Larry Niven (Sphere Books 1986) first published 1973

So, a book by Larry Niven.  He wrote Ringworld right?  That’s pretty good isn’t it?  This collection of short stories might be worth reading then, mightn’t it?

Unfortunately no.  This collection of seven short stories written in the mid to late 1960’s starts off poorly, improves imperceptibly and then occupies a plateau of disappointment to the final page.  The only reason I stuck with it is because it is only 200 pages and the pain was short-term. 

For me, the main problems were the unsympathetic characters, corny dialogue and an unshakeable feeling that the stories were written backwards from the big idea or reveal that the author wanted to impart.  

A case in point is the eponymous first story, Inconstant Moon.  Freelance science writer Stan notices one night that the moon is brighter than it normally is by a huge amount.  He wonders why this is and, being of a scientific persuasion, reasons that the Sun has gone nova and that the dayside of Earth has been barbequed.  Stan realises that his time is short and the remainder of the story revolves around him acting as a lothario with one of his girlfriends whilst having illuminating scientific insights. 

One of the lines Stan uses on his girlfriend Leslie is “Tonight isn’t a night for sleeping.  We may never have a night like this again.  To hell with your diet.  Let’s celebrate.  Hot fudge sundaes, Irish coffee…”  Without a reasonable explanation many of us might respond with “Go back to sleep you daft bugger, it’s 1am in the morning.”  However, his lines seem to work on Leslie who duly gets up to go in search of hot fudge.

Astoundingly, there has been no news of what fate has befallen the other side of the Earth.  Not a word.  This conceit is necessary to generate some kind of suspense in the story.  The suspension of disbelief is necessary to make stories work but I felt like I would have to be cretinously gullible to accept this story.

Stan has a thought about the US space program.  “The men of Apollo Nineteen must have died in the first few minutes of the nova sunlight.  Trapped on a lunar plain, hiding perhaps behind a melting boulder…Or were they on the night side?  I couldn’t remember.  Hell they could outlive us all.  I felt a stab of envy and hatred.  And pride. We’d put them there.  We reached the moon before the nova came.  A little longer, we’d have reached the stars.”

The story ends with Stan and Leslie organising an impromptu picnic and wondering whether their children will recolonize Europe and Africa.

Things got worse with the next story, Bordered in Black, which was an excruciating read.  It featured two space explorers ‘driven mad’ by what they had seen on another planet.  Rather than having the ‘Right Stuff’ these ‘spacers’ act like capricious, brooding teenagers.  The word ‘stroppy’ also springs to mind.  The dialogue was truly awful, there are amateur writers out there who can do much better.

How the Heroes Die is a story based on a Mars colony on which a man called John Carter (yes really!) threatens the lives of all the colonists because he killed a man in a homophobic rage.  In Niven’s world NASA seems to have become less rigorous in its selection and training procedures.  Perhaps they recruit at the Jerry Springer studios.

The story boils down to a slow buggy chase in which Niven hopes we will be gripped by mental calculations of distance from the based versus the remaining air supply.

Things did get better, but only marginally, for the remainder of the book. I’ll spare you the details as I’m sure you get the picture by now.

Not recommended at all.  Avoid. 



Book Review: Twelve Tomorrows. Edited by Bruce Sterling (Technology Review Inc -2014)

I’m occasionally surprised by the books and magazines at the WH Smith bookshop in London’s Euston Station. I was immediately attracted by the 1960’s style typeface and had to pick it up. Sadly, it turned out to be less exciting on the inside.

This book contains nine short stories, some artwork by John Schoenherr, one book review and an interview with Gene Wolfe. There is also a preface by the editor Bruce Sterling but that isn’t counted otherwise they would have had to call it Thirteen Tomorrows, which wouldn’t sit as well on the cover and would just be plain unlucky.

My favourite part of the book was the Q&A with Gene Wolfe, I was hoping to like the stories a lot but sadly, this wasn’t to be. Many of the stories imagine a dystopia where technological advances are often more of a curse than a blessing.

Slipping by Lauren Beukes is the story of South African athlete Pearl, whose ruined body has been re-built and massively enhanced allowing her to achieve great speed in races alongside other similarly enhanced runners. A scene in which Pearl’s stomach in unhooked and replaced by a plug of hormones and nanotechnology before a race is particularly memorable. Running is Pearl’s chance to escape her poor background but the exploitation she is subject to from those supposedly helping her is clear to see.

Business as Usual by Pat Cadigan is a light-hearted affair in which free-choice is increasingly limited by the dictates of health-insurance companies and kitchen appliances. The message of the story is fine but the science is ludicrous. A talking fridge that rings a human operated helpline to discuss the meaning of free-will does not feel like an imaginable future to me. I will apologise if ever my fridge reports my fondness for cheese to my doctor.

Cory Doctorow’s Petard: A Tale of Just Deserts is the best story in this collection and imagines a near-future where technology and a greater understanding of chaos theory means that big corporations the ability to extend their control and increase profits at the expense of choice and dignity. It is set within MIT itself and is a nice tale of rebellion against ‘the man’.

Shipping Forecast is by Warren Ellis who I know primarily as a comic book writer. The style feels like a literary long-form treatment of a graphic novel. It has an interesting line in it about Segways not changing the world because they over engineered a problem that wasn’t really a problem. As an aside, this felt like a theory that applied to many of the stories in the book.

Death Cookie/Easy Ice by William Gibson remains a mystery to me. I read it twice and I still have no idea of what it is about. I suspect I may not be clever enough to understand.

Pirates of the Plastic Ocean by Paul Graham Raven is a good story where the main character, Hope Dawson, finds herself manipulated into assisting a fabulously wealthy would-be mentor who views macroeconomic growth and ruin from close up, purely as an academic exercise. The end of the story gives a nice sense of redemption and freedom.

The Various Mansions of the Universe by Bruce Sterling feels, like many of the other stories in this collection, a good idea screaming out for a story. In fact it feels like the story happened before we arrived and we’re now just viewing the happy ever after or at least the ‘moderately tolerable ever after’.

Overall, I was disappointed by this collection despite 2 or 3 highlights. IMG_0083.JPG