Category Archives: Book Reviews

Book Reviews

Trampoline Novels

Yarrow Paisley–now there’s an evocative name! His story in Shimmer #17, “The Metaphor of the Lakes,” is also evocative. If you don’t fall in love with Gracie along the way, I shall weep bitter tears, Reader. For now, let’s explore a couple recent reads with him! -ECT


I am grateful to Shimmer Magazine for this opportunity to occupy its blog. I would also like to thank You, the Reader, for putting up with me today!

I thought I might share with you a couple of strange, challenging, and fun novels I’ve read recently—books in fantastical genres that stretch the literary conventions of yesteryear into a fine, sturdy trampoline for the pleasure of readers like me (and hopefully you) who seek to jump and bounce upon their books.


Celebrant (Chômu Press)
Michael Cisco

The first page of Celebrant instructs the reader in what to expect from the novel:

I am the hallucination of a homeless man named deKlend; he does not know this because I don’t appear to him. I’m a hallucination so I seem more than I am, and I’m always good company. If there are any indifferent or boring hallucinations, I’ve never heard of any. [iii.]

True to his word, the entire novel proceeds in the form of a vast, and vastly entertaining, hallucination; there is a consistent logic and systematic world-building, but good luck making sense of it when you’re neck-deep in the lush weeds of the narrative!

The protagonist, deKlend, is a schlemiel buffeted about from event to event, unprepared for every nonsensical encounter, but blundering through, nonetheless, and making the best of every situation. (I kept picturing Woody Allen, even though he doesn’t match deKlend’s description at all!) He embarks upon a pilgrimage to an imaginary city called Votu, the existence of which is revealed to him by a lengthy article in a “geographical encyclopedia” he picks up at a market stall. Numerous chapters in Celebrant seem to present sections from that book, elucidating various details of Votu’s astonishing culture and history.

Celebrant presents so many fanciful ideas and images that I couldn’t begin to list them all; every page is a new profusion. I can provide a taste, however, by sharing a few of the prominent ones:

  • Natural Robots. “These are robots no one built, which were formed spontaneously in the mountains.” [24] There are five of them, and they are worshiped as gods; indeed, their holiness contributes much to Votu’s status as a sacred city. They are truly bizarre constructions, and their odd descriptions and activities supply some of the strangest fantastical pleasures of the book.
  • The Bird of Ill Omen. It visits the various scenes of the novel, circling above them, alighting nearby, casting its “baleful eyes” upon everything it sees. It, too, is a god, but it lives in the future: “He is only encountered in his past. Your present is his past, and his present is your future. He can be seen only as he will be, as the sign of something that is already returning to haunt you.” [220]
  • Rival bands of orphaned, animalized girls—pigeon girls and rabbit girls (as well as a snake girl named Gina). They roam the streets of Votu, seeking only to eke out their survival in a difficult environment. It is unclear where they came from, but they seem drawn to Votu’s shamanistic energy. The scenes involving these girls are the novel’s most plot-oriented and poignant sections; the characters of Burn (the chief pigeon girl) and Kundri (the chief rabbit girl, known by her nickname Kunty) are vividly and sympathetically portrayed, and their relationship (with each other, and with deKlend and his transparent lover Phryne) turns out to be very complicated indeed!
  • deKlend’s sword, which he is fashioning as an offering to bring to Votu, and which he carries in his lungs, constantly breathing it out so he can work on it (wanting it to be a perfect offering), then inhaling it back in for storage.
  • Black Radio. A signal is received from a mysterious otherwhere and rebroadcast by a large, old-fashioned black radio, which is housed in a place of religious significance. Mostly, static is heard, but occasionally a voice will emerge from the wash of noise: instructions are given, lists declared, conversations overheard out of context. (I found myself speculating that these snatches were filtered into the novel from the author’s own apartment, perhaps the music on the stereo as he wrote, or in from the open window, or from neighbors through thin walls. A kind of “independent factor” binding this dream world to an objective one beyond.)

I can’t help but view this novel as a rebuke against the “depredation of a future self,” [121] which is an inescapable indignity of human consciousness that is described with righteous fury in the chapter titled “timesermon.” The self perceives itself eternal and immanent, even godlike, yet is mediated relentlessly by time—sliced to pieces with each tick of the clock, as the present self is forcibly severed from the whole, assassinated, mummified, and thrust into the tomb of the past—and thereby rendered impotent over its own domain, an unforgivable humiliation…. But in dreams (and hallucinations (and novels!)) potency is rendered back to the dreamer (or madman (or author))—past, present, and future selves, all are equal in Votu, a dream city where time may be traversed in both directions.


My Name is Dee (John Ott Books)
Robin Wyatt Dunn

My name is Dee. I am a magician, a word that is misleading.  Better to say that I am a perceptive man, and that what I perceive falls outside the statistical mean, a fact which allows me to affect reality in ways that are unusual. [114]

Our narrator, John Dee, named after an Elizabethan-era magician/proto-scientist, is himself a sort of magician/proto-scientist, albeit of a less courtly stripe: he is a Chandleresque P.I. and gun-for-hire who happens to be both a self-described magician and the assigned “father” of an A.I. named Albert (after Albert Einstein, I think). Dee feels guilty for having “murdered” Albert after the precocious robot-child attempted to persuade the sun to go nova; I would suggest, however, that as a justification for “moral murder,” that one certainly deserves consideration!

Besides which, it doesn’t appear to have worked (ending Albert’s life, I mean; the sun, clearly, remains intact), since this particular A.I. has installed itself in a continuum outside of time. Indeed, Albert seems to be protecting us in some measure from the appetite of a transgalactic (and apparently hungry) intelligence named Chaimougkos, who falls in love with Dee’s friend Sandra and consequently desires to devour humanity and even briefly commandeers the narration of the story before Dee reasserts dominion over his first-personhood.

I would be derelict not to inform you that this novel is thoroughly in love with Los Angeles, which serves not only as the setting, but also as one of the “characters.” Oh! and Foo fighters are critical elements of this plot … they assist in the protection of Earth even while we persist in shooting them down for the crime of stealing our cows.

The novel counts many influences. It owes much to Philip K. Dick, for example, in his late schizophrenic, “visionary” mode and perhaps, as well, to hallucinogenic drugs: many of the set-piece events feel like acid trips, although I could be mistaken since I’ve never been on one of those! The “Church of S” (i.e. Scientology) figures prominently in the novel, kidnapping Dee’s friend Sandra and establishing communication with the consciousness of Chaimougkos (by which means the monstrous entity is introduced to that young lady from Earth with whom it will fall madly in love). The Big Lebowski, I’m happy to report, receives an explicit reference … and one gets the feeling that the character of John Dee is intended as a sort of mash-up of iconic leading figures, such as Philip Marlowe (also explicitly referenced), Lebowski, and Rick Deckard (from Blade Runner).

I suspect that My Name is Dee is meant to express the author’s frustration with the publishing and film industries. After all, Dee’s gun-for-hire activities chiefly involve the assassination of outsider novelists and screenwriters, on behalf of those creative industries that prefer to remain unpolluted by fresh ideas—a rather cynical (and literal) rendition of the perennial conflict between artists and patrons!

[Please note that Robin Wyatt Dunn’s My Name is Dee was provided to me free of charge as an Advance Review Copy by the author. Celebrant I purchased with my own (regrettably) hard-earned money. (I’m always on the lookout for “easy-earned” money … anybody?)]

Holiday Reads

When I was a kid, one of the best things to find in my stocking on Christmas morning was a book. I was often gifted with books in fact, and love giving books to people even now. Since it’s that season, we at Shimmer have rounded up some of our favorites for you to consider.

Cory suggests: Carol Berg’s Flesh and Spirit and Breath and Bone. It’s a pair of fantasy books following a runaway and how he struggles with and eventually sheds his toxic past to become something better. The narrator is charming and witty, but there are plenty of times when your fingers tighten and you say, “No…” out loud, just to try and make the story go a way you know it can’t.

Keffy suggests: Voyage to Kazohinia by Sándor Szathmári. I recommend this highly to anyone who likes old-school dystopian fiction. This is a Hungarian dystopian novel from 1947 that can be roughly summed up as “Gulliver (yes, THAT Gulliver) discovers communism.” Although it was published in 1947 and there was an English translation in the 70s, that translation was never available outside of Hungary. This 2012 translation is the first one to be available worldwide. The writing and translation are both pretty good, at least on this end. High-rise by J.G. Ballard. Also another old one, from 1975 this time. A high-rise apartment building cuts itself off from the rest of the world, and everything goes all to shit. This book is absolutely horrifying on so many levels. I finished reading it and then had to clean my entire apartment and had to restrain myself from going to ask the neighbors if they wanted me to clean theirs. Oh, the comforting scent of bleach and order.

Swamplandia! by Karen Russell. Coming of age story about a girl from a family of alligator wrestlers. Treads the line between fantasy and mainstream fiction beautifully. A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan. Look, it’s about time, getting old, and rock and roll. And the pauses in the middles of songs. 2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson. Great book if you’re looking for some near-future SF that isn’t about the entire world being destroyed forever and now let’s cry a lot. Has an interesting look at a society with more than simply male and female as gender options. Also, HOLLOWED OUT ASTEROID CRUISE SHIPS. 😀 There’s a plot, sorta, but as it’s a KSR book, you should read it to wander around his solar system for 500+ pages. The Revisionists by Thomas Mullen. I liked this a lot more than I thought I would. It’s a time travel novel that doesn’t suck. I KNOW. And yet, it exists. Mechanique by Genevieve Valentine. Beautiful circus novel, plays with point of view beautifully. Recommended if you like the apocalypse, the circus, apocalyptic circuses, and beautiful things. The Testament of Jessie Lamb by Jane Rogers. This is one of the best science fiction books I’ve read in years. A 16 year old girl making her own decisions in a world where a disease has made pregnancy 100% fatal. Really good, probably not for you if you don’t want to cry a lot.

Sophie suggests: Garth Nix’s Abhorsen series is great (Sabriel, Lirael, Abhorsen). It’s a crossover series that adults and teenagers can enjoy, has really kickass ladies in it, and it’s got lots of different kinds of gross monsters. There’s magic dogs and libraries and flying machines, too. The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien is a favorite book of mine to recommend for writers because it teaches so much about when to give details and when to avoid them and different ways of touching on the same event. Also refuses to be sentimental, which is something, in my opinion, that you want to avoid when writing about tragedies.

Grá suggests: Haruki Murakami’s mindblowing Hardboiled Wonderland and the End of the World puts the detective novel on its ear by putting us in the head of The Narrator, a confused and passive genius. Or at least that’s the odd chapters. The even chapters describe the quiet life of a utopian village surrounded by high walls. I was halfway through HBWatEotW before I realized half the chapters are in third person and half are in first. The revelation of how these radically different stories connect is fascinating. Everyone in Douglas Coupland’s Microserfs is a little lost. A gang of software programmers at Microsoft realize they don’t actually have ” lives” they become obsessed with building a life as they figure out money, communication and love. This book was the very first time I read anything that made me say, ” this is about me.” Fat Kid Rules the World by KL Going is straight up the best first person voice I’ve ever read. Troy’s no nonsense narration lays out why he’s suicidal, what he thinks of drugs, sex, music and how he’s planning to save the most popular kid in school from self destructing.

Nicola suggests: I’d go for The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber, a huge slab of dark Victoriana peopled with criminals, dandies and lunatics, which follows Sugar, a young prostitute as she tries to make a better life for herself.  Critics note that the book is “the novel Dickens would have wrote had he been allowed to speak freely,” and there’s a post-modern/post-feminist knowingness that gives the entire novel a voyeuristic edge; a sly wink through the keyhole that subverts the traditions that it continues. Beautifully written and atmospheric with wonderful characterization, so recommended, even to people who aren’t goth geeks like me who get overly excited about fog and cobbles and top-hats and corsets.  Next then is Kissing the Witch by Emma Donoghue, thirteen re-imagined and interconnected fairy tales that give voice to the traditional passive female characters.  It may not sound original now, but there’s a gorgeous sensuous dreamlike quality to the prose, and the way that the stories are woven together -so that the hints and fragments become a whole- is great. Oh, and I second A Visit from the Goon Squad too, loved it!

Pam suggests: Killing Lincoln by Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard.  A detailed and unbiased view of the end of the civil war and the assassination plot.  It also follows the hunt for Booth and the aftermath of all the conspirators.

Elise suggests: Karin Tidbeck’s collection Jagannath bundles up thirteen stories that each contain touches of our world and Something Else. Perhaps I have a soft spot for Tidbeck, as “Some Letters for Ove Lindström” appeared in Shimmer #14, but even if that hadn’t been the case, this book would have won me over. Season of Wonder (Prime Books) has eighteen holiday stories between its covers, with glimpses into traditions and the destruction thereof. And well, if the gorgeous cover with the rideable polar bear on it doesn’t get you in the holiday spirit, what will? Who hasn’t wanted to ride a polar bear across the arctic wastes while fleeing ice krakens? (At least that’s what goes on in my head when I see that cover!) A seasonal classic: The Hobbit, preferably without a movie tie-in cover, eh? Read this one aloud to your favorite kidlet…or yourself!

Sean suggests: Wind Through the Keyhole by Stephen King.  I think of the Dark Tower books in the same way I’ve heard other writers talk about the Lord of the Ring books.  For me, when I was in my late teens, these book completely blew me away, set fire to my imagination, and made me want to write the most epic, intense, GIGANTIC stories.   Wind Through the Keyhole is a strange book.  The original series wrapped up with book 7 a few years ago, but King felt the need to go back to the world (which, as a die-hard fan, I love him for).  However, the characters from the previous seven books are only on the page for a few chapters.  This is really a story within a story (within a story).  It is essentially a fairy tale from the world created and laid out in the previous seven books.  These kind of self-indulgent writerly shenanigans may not be for everyone, but for someone like myself who loves the world(s) King created, and loves the magic of a fairy tale created and told by the inhabitants of that interesting world–it was an amazing experience.

The Hollow City by Dan Wells. The Hollow City’s main character is a schizophrenic named Michael who starts the story in a hospital bed, with the last few weeks of his life list to amnesia.  I know!  Should have been called The Cliché City, amirite?!? But!  Dan Wells is one hell of an author, and a damn smart one at that.  I literally read this story in a day, because it was so interesting and exciting, I just could not stop.  Dan Wells took great care to present a schizophrenic character that was real, and not something inaccurate and shallow.  As such, we care deeply for the main character and his adventures, and we are never quite sure if what he is experiencing is real or in his own mind.   A fantastic, thrilling read.

Beth suggests: Caitlin Kiernan’s The Drowning Girl, totally batshit insane and wonderful. The Red Tree, claustrophobic and slowly creeping sense of horror. Justine Larbaleister’s Liar. A girl is a werewolf — or is she?  Shirley Jackson, The Haunting of Hill House. The grandmother of haunted house stories. A real classic. Jonathan Carroll, From the Teeth of Angels, an elegant meditation about death. Death is a character but it actually works (unlike stories featuring death in our slush pile). I enjoyed Mira Grant’s zombie series, even though each book was more ridiculous than the last.  Chuck Wendig’s Blackbird and Mockingbird are wonderful, if you like deeply deeply flawed protagonists. The obvious big ones: George R. R. Martin’s Fire and Ice series, and Rothfuss’s Kingkiller Chronicles.

Marcia suggests: American Gods by Neil Gaiman. It combines Americana elements with a road trip and a lot of mythology. It has some very beautifully written passages, and the different incarnations of mythological entities are interesting, as is the depiction of the worlds “new gods.” Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor. Beautiful, lush descriptions of Prague and the Underworld. Nice re-imagining of some mythological entities and the characters have interesting quirks. It’s Romeo and Juliet with monsters. And finally all of the books in The Dresden Files by Jim Butcher. The books are fun, fast, and witty. They’re highly entertaining and filled with plenty of monsters, magic, and mayhem. I’ve read all of them at least twice.

Kristi suggests: I’ve mentioned several times in my MFA program (the little “Hey, who are you?” introduction that you always have to fumble through) that my favorite book is The Silmarillion, and everyone has thought I was insane.  Yes, it reads like The Bible.  Yes, it’s very difficult to read quickly, and you have to work slowly and process it to understand it.  But the language is so hauntingly beautiful; the descriptions make you believe in things that you never thought you could.  Tolkien is a master of suspension of disbelief, and I believe The Silmarillion is his shining example of why he’s so beloved.  The incredible depth of history that he has created is incredible, and it makes you wonder in the back of your mind if just maybe some of it could have happened, far in the reaches of time–because surely he couldn’t have come up with such a detailed world without a little inspiration from Somewhere Else.

Selene suggests: First off, Kit Whitfield’s Benighted. A werewolf story that never, ever uses the word “werewolf,” and focuses on the lone non-shifter in a world where everyone changes. A tale that I find pulls at the heartstrings in just the right way. My other selection would be the book that turned me from a Science Fiction only snob to a full Speculative Fiction Reader. Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Firebrand. It’s a retelling of the fall of Troy, but from Cassandra’s perspective.

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making

by Catherynne M. Valente (Feiwel and Friends, May 2011)

3 draughts Wonderland, 2 swallows Oz, 1 trickle Labyrinth, 1 dribble Narnia, 1/2 measure Victoriana, 1 pinch Shakespeare, 1 dash Greek myth

Mix all ingredients thoroughly and when bound into a smooth dough, lift and slice the shadow free. Any blood droplets should be kneaded back into the dough. Set to bake for one hour, until the house smells of vanilla and maple syrup. Serve warm with honey butter on the back of a penny farthing, shared with your very-red wyvern and your best blue boy.


Does every child dream of escaping their life and running into a land where the cities are made of bread or brocade? Does every child wish they might slip through a wardrobe or a window and discover a thousand new adventures? Surely most do–I did–and so does September, who, if one traced her family tree back, might be sister to Dorothy, Alice, and Persephone. Girls who longed for something different, and got it–in spades.

September doesn’t think she has much of an exciting life, living with her mother and washing teacups aplenty, so is thrilled to bits when the Green Wind arrives to carry her to Fairyland. Fairyland, however, has many more rules than September anticipated, and not every adventure is the lark she thinks it will be. When she accepts a quest from a trio of witches–retrieve their spoon–little does September realize what she has actually embarked upon.

In a bright orange dress and a green smoking jacket which knows how to appreciate its own lines, September sets out to cross Fairyland. She will encounter fabulous friends and terribly enemies, for this is the way of such stories. She will make sacrifices and receive gifts she never imagined. She will learn the worth of herself as well as her own opinions; when September sets out upon the ship in the book’s title, I cheered, for rarely does one find such a brave (and naked) heroine in YA lit.

September’s adventures will take her to lands that are eternally autumn, to the snow-locked north, to the horn of Fairyland where storms cling, and to the capital city itself. Pandemonium has some in common with Valente’s own Palimpsest, a city that is a character in its own right. Much of the landscape here comes to actual life; it only seems right that one finds beaches of gold and gems, migrating bicycles, and prisons of cold glass.


When I was a kid, graduating to chapter books was a bummer, because I knew I would miss the illustrations. But when I discovered that some of the best chapter books had illustrations before each chapter, my gloom fled. Charlotte’s Web, Little House on the Prairie, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Every chapter would hold a special surprise, because one never knew what they would see. Even Harry Potter continues the tradition today. The Girl is no exception. Each chapter is illustrated by Ana Juan, and her style perfectly captures the wonder of Valente’s Fairyland.

I would have adored this book as a child. Lucky me, I can treasure it even more as an adult.

Review: Perchance to Dream

Perchance to Dream, by Lisa Mantchev

Picking up where the enchanting Eyes Like Stars left off, we rejoin Beatrice Shakespeare on the journey of a lifetime, to free a pirate from a sea witch. The outside world is nothing Bertie expected though; despite her steadfast friends, nothing goes as she imagined.

No one sees every twist and turn to a story, least of all Bertie. She knows that freeing Nate from the sea witch won’t be an easy thing, but surely doesn’t expect her own father to complicate the mission. Her heart proves another complication, for Nate and Ariel both tug at it. Nate’s love for Bertie may prove a good defense against his prison, but Ariel is at Bertie’s side every day, drawing her ever close.

Magic and wonder abounds in this second volume; not only is our amusing cast traveling around in what seems a gypsy’s wagon, they encounter a delightful circus which can’t help but woo the reader. While it would have been easy to have the story follow predictable lines, Mantchev strengthens Bertie in this one and has her wondering who she is–beyond the young men she loves.

Peaseblossom, Mustardseed, Cobweb, and Moth are, of course, back for more adventure and sweets–the opening paragraph of this book may well be one of my all-time favorites. Mantchev stays true to the world she created in Eyes Like Stars, yet gives us an ever-widening look at it, as we finally move beyond the walls of the Theater.

Brava, brava! Act 3, So Silver Bright, is due this fall.

(And the cover art? Get out! Jason Chan is amazing, and really captures the feel of the characters and Mantchev’s world here. Just beautiful.)

Review: Shades of Milk and Honey

Shades of Milk and Honey

by Mary Robinette Kowal

There are some books you never expect to steal your heart; the first time I tried to read Pride and Prejudice, I found it a terrible bore. Perhaps I was too young, for the second time I picked it up, it latched onto me. Shades of Milk and Honey latched on from the first chapter and didn’t let me go.

The sisters Ellsworth are two sides of a coin: one beautiful and one not, one skilled in glamour and one not. While Melody basks in the attention of young men, Jane is seemingly content to better learn the craft of glamour, weaving art throughout their world. At twenty-eight, Jane knows her own chances at marrying are slim, but she begins to envy the path Melody is on.

Enter one Captain Livingston, young and dashing and home from the war; mix in the rakish Mr. Dunkirk; swirl with the surly Mr. Vincent. You have a pot that fairly seethes with intrigues and secrets, all tightly-wrapped of course, being that this is the proper Regency era where one was expected to mind one’s manners. Still, if you put a lid on a seething pot, what happens? Yes, Reader, it overflows.

Jane’s journey is one to enjoy, and what a delight to see women forming friendships and not sniping at one another. Yes, the relationship of Jane and Melody has its moments, but in the end they are sisters–Rossetti said it best: “there is no friend like a sister / In calm or stormy weather.” I’ve read “complaints” that the book is “light” and “airy,” but I don’t see how this could possibly be a failing. Sometimes, you don’t want a 1000-page doorstop of a book, do you? Sometimes, light and airy and magical is precisely what your brain calls for.

You can tell Kowal enjoyed writing this; the pages fairly seem to glow with happiness–Shades of Milk and Honey has a glamour all its own.

Strange Men in Pinstripe Suits

The landscape here is strange and if you see a man in a pinstriped suit along the side of the broken road, you are advised not to stop. Keep your windows drawn shut and if you’re walking, run.

Still, you may be inclined to slow. I know how these things go. You will want to collect the postcards from this strange world. You will pause outside the tents, peer inside. In most cases, you will allow yourself to be drawn deeper, to see the young girls in their candy-colored dresses, to stroke your fingers over the fluff of a dandelion, to hear the possible rumbling of a scarecrow’s stomach. You will want to know why the men in the pinstriped suits do what they do, and how the frog came to meet his bride. You will bring a paper bird home as a souvenir.

This land may be called Wonderland or Nowhere, but whatever the name, Gardner maps it with careful, melancholy strokes. Where the map wanders is where it grows most distinct; “above us there is no sky,” and yet we don’t seem to care, transported to moments where we don’t need a sky.

Strange Men in Pinstripe Suits collects twenty-four stories from Gardner (ten of them exclusive to this volume), each one a strange and wonderful discovery. Gardner knows her way around this world and effortlessly gives readers a behind the scenes tour.

Strange Men in Pinstripe Suits, Cate Gardner from Strange Publications, 2010