Saturday, December 14, 2013

The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening in 2013, pt.9: Alisa Alering

Of Time Travel, Murder, and Beautiful Chickens
by Alisa Alering

 One thing I discovered, looking back over my Goodreads inventory for highlights of my literary year, is that I didn't read as many books as usual--even counting the audiobooks I get through at a good clip on my walks around town. I've been working on my own novel this year, and the effort has exhausted my word centers. It's become ever more difficult to find a book that constitutes a pleasure: neither too difficult nor too facile, and most definitely not related in theme or voice to what I'm trying to accomplish.

While at the CSSF Novel Writers Workshop in Kansas this summer, instructor Kij Johnson mentioned that she found the cure for this malady in old favorites like P.G. Wodehouse, Georgette Heyer, and Patrick O'Brian. That conversation led to my current crush on O'Brian's Aubrey-Maturin series. I never imagined that novels about naval history would hold any interest for me, but the charm of these books lies in the characters. I’m four books in and I still don't know what a topgallant is, but I find it doesn't signify.

 In other reading, I discovered an interesting confluence in Lauren Beukes' The Shining Girls and Kate Atkinson's Life After Life, both of which deal with Time Travel and The Bad Things That Happen to Women. I've long been a fan of Atkinson. I'm convinced that her entire Jackson Brodie detective series is a cumulative commentary of relentlessly feminist bent (cf. The Bad Things That Happen to Women) disguised as engaging genre stories. Her non-genre latest, Life After Life continues these themes in a different way, exploring the timeline of Ursula Todd as she lives and dies repeatedly, each time learning (if unconsciously) from her fatal mistake and living on until the next. Many of her lives are at the mercy of world events (e.g., the 1918 Influenza, WWII). But others branch from Ursula's own decisions, such as how she responds to an assault by her brother's school friend on the eve of her 16th birthday.

Beukes spreads her net more widely, focusing on the lives (& deaths) of multiple women. The "shining girls" of the title are young women of the 20th century who attract the attention of a time-traveling serial killer because they "shine" too brightly. The protagonist, Kirby Mazrachi, is a survivor who fights back. She has an older male sidekick, but she does the dirty work herself. In an interview (, Beukes says her "graphic depictions of the killer's attacks are meant to upset the reader, and to keep the reader with the victim, rather than riding voyeuristically on the shoulder of the killer." It's a laudable intent, but a risky strategy. She did make me cry while walking down the street so perhaps she pulled it off.

I also enjoyed Karen Joy Fowler's, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, which seems especially relevant in light of the NIH's June decision to retire most of its laboratory chimpanzees and recent legal challenges to extend personhood rights to non-humans.

Additional shout-outs to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Americanah; Joan Slonczewski's The Highest Frontier--read in preparation for WisCon 37; Anna Funder's Stasiland, non-fiction stories about life in East Germany before and after the fall of the Berlin Wall; Elizabeth Wein's WWII-era YA thriller, Code Name Verity; and for rollicking YA supernatural silliness, Libba Bray's The Diviners.

Short stories:
• "Count Poniatowski and the Beautiful Chicken," by Elizabeth Ziemska. Interfictions 2. (2009) [reprinted in Strange Horizons,]
◦ A gorgeous story of history, culture, whimsy, science, family, grief and wonder. Probably my favorite story all year.

• "The Grinnell Method," by Molly Gloss. Strange Horizons, September 3-10, 2012.

 ◦ Winner of the Sturgeon Memorial Award 2013. Lyrical, precise, naturalistic. The closely-observed details of this story stuck with me long after I finished.

• "Pearl Rehabilitative Colony for Ungrateful Daughters," by Henry Lien. Asimov's, December 2013.
◦ Unforgettable voice, fun world-building, and my favorite thing of all: at the end of the story, the horrible little monster of a protagonist doesn't learn a single thing.

• "Holy Days," by Kodiak Julian. Writers of the Future v.29 (2013)
◦ Beautifully written examination of the consequences of some rather unusual holidays. I definitely want to see more from Julian.

• "The Metaphor of the Lakes," by Yarrow Paisley. Shimmer 17, Fall 2013.
◦ Voice, voice, and voice. This epistolary first-person narrative had me from the very first line.


• The always entertaining and educational Writing Excuses.

• My new fascination, Emma Newman's Tea and Jeopardy. Do join her for a spot of peril.


Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries (based on the novels by Kerry Greenwood), is an Australian TV series featuring a female detective in jazz-age Melbourne. Calling Phryne Fisher an independent-minded woman is a bit of an understatement. Not only does she solve murders and right wrongs, she "does exactly as she likes, does not make false promises or break hearts, and explains to her lovers that they don't own her." Though it's a bit camp overall--and ¬¬that may be part of the appeal--the first series has attempted to explore genuine social issues of the time and place. Did I mention that Miss Fisher's costume are fabulous?

Alisa Alering's stories have appeared in Clockwork Phoenix 4 (Mythic Delirium), Flash Fiction Online, and Secret Histories & Missing Links (Aqueduct Press). She is a graduate of Clarion West (2011) and winner of Writers of the Future (2013). She supervises "The Writer's Room" column for Waylines magazine. | @alering

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