Leah Schnelbach is a staff writer for Tor.com and the Fiction Editor of No Tokens journal. Her fiction has been published in Lumina and Anamesa, and her criticism has appeared on Electric Literature. She can be found on Twitter @cloudy_vision
Laura van den Berg
RaveTor.com... an excellent...unsettling short story collection, I Hold A Wolf by the Ears...grabs readers by the hand and leads them through stories of sisterhood, abandonment, natural disaster, and the hatred and horror that lie at the center of a society that is stacked against women ... Many of the stories dredge up the worms wiggling around under the rock of relationships between men and women, with women under near-constant threat ... One of the joys of the collection is the way van den Berg will pull a half-dozen disparate threads into a single story, and allow them to play off each other, without ever trying to tie them up too neatly ... van den Berg’s language is equal parts delightful and fucked up ... Florida is a character in this book. It was fun for me as a Floridian to track the movement of heat, lizards, water, thunderstorms, and to watch as character after character settle briefly into anonymous apartment complexes and temporary jobs. Refreshing to watch as van den Berg poked at different types of tourism, looking at the ways an economy built on pleasing people you sort of hate can warp your experience of home ... Van den Berg’s characters all tell their stories to you, like you’re a friend sitting with them in the bar car, landscape sliding along outside the window ignored as we lean in so no one else will hear.
Laura van den Berg
RaveTor.com... excellent ... grabs readers by the hand and leads them through stories of sisterhood, abandonment, natural disaster, and the hatred and horror that lie at the center of a society that is stacked against women ... One of the joys of the collection is the way van den Berg will pull a half-dozen disparate threads into a single story, and allow them to play off each other, without ever trying to tie them up too neatly ... van den Berg’s language is equal parts delightful and fucked up ... It was fun for me as a Floridian to track the movement of heat, lizards, water, thunderstorms, and to watch as character after character settle briefly into anonymous apartment complexes and temporary jobs. Refreshing to watch as van den Berg poked at different types of tourism, looking at the ways an economy built on pleasing people you sort of hate can warp your experience of home ... One of the most resonant themes of the collection is time and its meaninglessness—or maybe it’s better to say its constructed-ness?—which is a particularly perfect thing to explore now ... Van den Berg’s characters all tell their stories to you, like you’re a friend sitting with them in the bar car, landscape sliding along outside the window ignored as we lean in so no one else will hear. These stories are jagged, we open a door and we’re in them, living them; when the door clicks shuts a few pages later there is no doubt that the story is still playing out on the other side.
RaveTor.com...this book is taking a long hard look at work, the way a job can commodify us and strip us of our humanity, and it does it while being uproariously funny ... I would walk through neighborhoods handselling this book if that was an option ... Is Temporary the Great Late Capitalist Novel? I’ve been thinking about this a lot over the last few weeks ... What Leichter is getting at in her wonderful, slippery, surreal book is the structure of work ... By taking her Temp to extremes, Leichter is able to puncture the utter absurdity of work itself ... By the end, Temporary has wrestled with all of these questions, but in such fun and surprising ways that you might not even notice how emotional you’re getting until after you’ve punched out of the book.
RaveTor.com... this collection is wild ride through rage and gender upheaval and death and ghosts and fairy tale tropes that constantly slalomed around my expectations ... Once again Sparks proves that a short story collection can be even more rewarding than a novel, since you can really dig into a theme or a tone by exploring it through a variety of characters ... By taking the fairy tales that are fed to girls from birth and dissecting them and refashioning them into proper bildungsroman, she shows that everyone has a right to their own story, not just the stereotypes and expectations that others place on them ... Sparks creates an incredible balance between the dark comedy of the Godmother’s machinations and the grotesque situation that has trapped the Princess is in ... These tiny, potent flash fictions will stick in your brain for days. But Sparks is just as adept at relaxing into the longer stories ... As this collection points out again and again, we don’t live in a reasonable society, but Sparks is doing her best to make sure at least some of the women of our history have their revenge.
PositiveTorThis book worries at times like a small red dachshund worrying at a bone on a kitchen floor. I think it might be one of the best evocations of the experience of time that I’ve ever read—the way, as an older person, you can look back and see so many selves folded inside your mind, the way you can live inside a memory and lose the sense of time passing at all ... It also handles its surrealism in a such a beautifully matter-of-fact way that it makes even the most dedicated \'slipstream\' story seem ostentatious ... This book creates a mood that I can only come close to by saying: remember when you were a kid and you’d be outside just as day turned into evening and the moon and sun were out at the same time and you could see your family in the house, through the window, and you felt suddenly like you were watching a television show, or a diorama, of life, and you felt suddenly like there was an impassable gulf between you and that house? That reality was either on the side with you or the side with them, and you weren’t sure which possibility terrified you more? And then you’d go in and everything seemed too small somehow, and it would take you maybe until you’d slept the whole night to feel fully lodged in reality?
J. Michael Straczynski
RaveTor.comI don’t use the phrase unputdownable, because it’s a terrible ear-battering Frankenstein’s creature of a word. But it was awfully difficult to put JMS’ memoir down. Part of it was just that it’s compellingly written. Part is that I was hoping like crazy he’d be OK. I mean obviously we start the book knowing he lived, but his childhood is so operatically tragic that I kept waiting for him to get killed anyway ... This is not an easy book to read. I’ve vacillated between thinking it should be recommended to people who have survived abuse and trauma, because JMS is a kindred spirit, but also worrying about abuse survivors’ reactions when they read—since JMS is a damn good writer, his vivid descriptions of abuse might be triggering as hell. But as I mentioned, it’s hard to put down even at the bleakest moments because JMS is such a compelling writer.
RaveTor.com\"Let us begin at the ending, where I tell you that the final page of this book is one of the most beautiful things I have ever read ... A frontier ghost story, it focuses on the kinds of people who don’t often get to star in tales of the Old West. It’s a funny, weird book, that has often, over the last few weeks, jumped into the front of my brain and demanded attention ... she drops us into a past that is teeming with ghosts, that refuses to allow anyone the comforting lie of A Simpler Time ... One of the novel’s many strengths is the way it subverts tropes to look at people who were often ignored by the mythology of The Old West ... the space Obreht makes for the reality of grief, the way you simply have to move through it, speaks to the pain of waking up in this reality each day. Her insistence on the importance of memory and love make reading the book a healing experience.\
Fernando A. Flores
PositiveTor.com... an alt-/near-/quasi-/somewhat dystopic- future that is funny and weird, but with a dark undertow of social commentary that will keep it unspooling in your mind after you finish reading ... Bellacosa is one of my favorite protagonists in a while ... Flores is quite good at skewering the guest of the party without falling into clichés of how the superrich behave—or fail to behave ... Flores gives us a near-future that is often fun and rollicking, but he’s never afraid to show us the reality that is all-too-close to the world we’re living in right now.
PositiveTor.com... a futuristic noir that isn’t quite a noir; a bumpy buddy cop story where the cops are a career bureaucrat and computer program, and most of the outsized emotions belong to the computer program; a love letter to cities that actually looks at the ways cities are destroyed by systemic inequality. It’s also deeply, constantly funny, and able to transform from a breezy page-turner into a serious exploration of class and trauma in a few well-turned sentences ... [Fried] proves that he can orchestrate a tight, complicated plot, without ever losing touch with his characters. And maybe best of all he keeps his usual sharp humor, but never at the expense of heart ... My one quibble here is that as a basically humorous novel that is also a noir riff, we get a lot of violence and action scenes, and Fried keeps an extremely light touch in those scenes...But that’s a very small note in the midst of an inventive and ultimately moving book.
RaveTor.com\"The story is exquisitely written; the characters are perfectly drawn and pop off the page into my head ... But what makes [the book] great is that Sarah Moss leads us onto the muddy, bloodstained road that Folk Horror normally follows, and then finds side paths and valleys and hills that take us in very different directions ... This, ultimately, is where Ghost Wall becomes a triumph. By committing to her early-90’s setting, and placing very real and tactile scenes of abuse against long digression on the landscape and the Bog People, Moss points out the ways that abusive patterns have been leveraged against women for most of Western Civilization ... To say much more would be too spoilery, but I will say that the book rewarded my initial discomfort by telling a deep and, in the end, riveting story.\
RaveTor.comMight be the most densely packed fairy tale riff I’ve ever read ... Like the best fairy tales, Northwood shows us the clockwork that lies beneath society, but like the best modern fiction it asks us to confront our own acceptance of that society. It nudges us off safe paths and urges us further and further into the woods, and there isn’t a breadcrumb in sight.
RaveTor.comGrady Hendrix’s latest extravaganza of horror is wild and fun, genuinely terrifying in places, and also somehow heartfelt. It’s like The Stand and Our Band Could Be Your Life had the best baby (Our Stand Could Be Your Life?) and somebody slapped a Viking helmet on it and taught it to shred a guitar ... Hendrix digs into the subgenre and along the way gives us bits of knowledge about a lot of different types of metal ... We Sold Our Souls is an inversion of the typical rock story ... Hendrix shows us all the compromises people made for that success. He gives us a very interesting portrait of a modern artist, and interrogates the ways our current society makes it impossible to create art. And then, in a great, horrific way, he peels back the curtain and finds that sinister forces might be working against those artists ... This is, make no mistake, a horror novel. There is a chapter that was so intense I had to put the book down for a while ... Hendrix’s descriptions are so evocative some of it showed up in my nightmares ... Under the horror and the working-class realism, the touchstone is that all the real characters in this novel, all the people you genuinely care about? Music is their heartbeat ... this book is about music and found family just as much as its about an eldritch horror lurking beneath the facade of modern American life. And it rocks.
PositiveTor.comI’m pleased to say that Heng’s debut novel, Suicide Club, is a rich piece of futurism, frightening and moving in equal measure, and that I can happily recommend it to readers looking for a literary take on dystopia ... My only real quibble with the book also comes with its worldbuilding. There’s no sense that the climate has changed significantly in this future, so either we humans of the present threw the brakes on our current problems, or the climate bounced back. Also, most of the Lifers seem economically stable ... Heng only shows us the edges of the authoritarian government that looms behind her story, but even those edges are chilling. Obviously depression and suicidal ideation are strictly forbidden, and attempted suicide means being sent to truly awful support groups. That’s the other thing, though—since people have super-strength, quick-healing skin, mechanical hearts, reinforced bones—there aren’t many options left for those who want to end their lives. I would say that this is the true joy of reading this book. I’m not advocating for suicide here, but Heng’s book reminds us that honoring self-determination, bodily autonomy, or even good old-fashioned free will means allowing people to have the final say over their bodies.
Maria Dahvana Headley
RaveTor.comHeadley’s prose is as fluid and florid as Old English was guttural. Headley never shies away from violence or horror, but she shatters it into the tiny shards we experience...flashes of pain and moments of joy. When a character is overwhelmed or disoriented, so are you, the reader. When she means to put you behind a character’s eyes, that’s where you are ... The book shifts tone constantly, so at times you’re reading a satire that turns into an adventure novel that veers left into horror that can, at times, feel almost romantic. But the majority of the book is dedicated to a critique of suburban culture—specifically the way a particular type of class-obsessed suburbia can suck all the meaning out of a woman’s life ... I love a book that asks more questions than it answers. I love a book that wrestles me, and makes me think about it after I’ve finished it. If you enjoy battling monsters, I can’t recommend this book enough.
Chandler Klang Smith
RaveTorChandler Klang Smith has unleashed her own slipstream, genrefluid monster of a book—that also happens to be fun, visceral, heartbreaking, and genuinely funny. The Sky Is Yours is bursting with ideas and characters, and I’d advise you take a break after reading it, because other books are probably going to seem a bit black-and-white for a while ... Smith’s language is incandescent, but more important it’s fun ... There were times I realized I was reading so fast that my brain couldn’t catch up with my eyes, and I finally had to force myself to slow down and reread an entire section—any book that can capture me that much is one I’m going to recommend ... The Sky Is Yours may be a rollicking adventure, but it also has a bracing, honest heart.
RaveTorHere we have a woman obliterated through objectification. Not even the text gives her a name, or any dialogue other than protests. We see the entire story through the male narrator’s point of view … I see a story about stories, about who gets to be a hero, and how a man striding around the world, blindly flattening everything in his path and never examining his own motivations or the consequences of his actions, can wreak utter havoc … In Ice the way she writes about the helplessness of both of her main characters left me queasy. This was not an easy book, and I wouldn’t call it fun, but it is stunning.
RaveTorLike Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation and some of Maggie Nelson’s work, the book is written in tiny intense snippets that are more like scraps of poetry than traditional prose. This can make the book a quick read if you want, but so much emotion is packed into each moment that my advice is to read slowly and savor each section … Interjections work perfectly to connect this brief story to epic tales that came before it. It gives the tiny triumphs and sorrows of the narrator’s new life a feeling of cosmic importance.
Carmen Maria Machado
RaveTor\"Carmen Maria Machado is the best writer of cognitive dysphoria I’ve read in years ... Her collection reads like someone trying to list every possibly nuance of physical failure: plagues, environmental collapse, madness, terminal illness. She gives us woman after woman who could star in their own books ... Obviously, I loved this book. And if you love intricate, weird writing, skewed fairytales, Law & Order, queerness, complex female characters, and emotionally vital writing that might cause nightmares, you will find something to love, too ... Across the span of the book, people are filmed without their consent, asked to give up names and secrets, hit, thrown across rooms. Always Machado comes back to the idea that violation is constant, and that each one, from the tiny unthinking questions all the way up to rape, are horrific acts ... Did I mention that this book is gleefully, relentlessly queer? Because there’s that, too. In my reading life as in my real life, I try to be open to everyone’s stories, but it is a relief to relax into a book knowing that the queer women are going to be real characters, not clichés or pastiches of male gaze.\
RaveTorThe fun in the book is the way Jemc explodes all the haunted house clichés ... like all great haunting stories, the great thing is how quickly reality is overturned and shown to be the flimsy construct it is. Is the house exerting a horrible control over them? Are spirits following them even to as wholesome a place as the ice cream shop? Or is it their own minds that are closing each other out, and creating paranoid scenarios? ... By layering in a lot of different histories and making them all plausible, she creates a diffuse sense that any house in the town could be haunted. All of us have tragedies in our lives, right? ... Jemc gives us this empathy by leaning into Julie and James’ status as millennials. She lets us into their desperation, their dwindling resources, and the panic that comes with each new decision.
Osama Alomar, Trans. by C. J. Collins
RaveTor.comHis book, The Teeth of the Comb and Other Stories, is a delicate, sometimes hilarious, and often starkly heartbreaking collection of modern fables ...Alomar manages the trick I never can: his parables are never didactic. They’re warm, human, occasionally terrifying, but at no point do you feel the author sitting you down to deliver wisdom ... The book’s darker themes become apparent quickly, and are returned to often ... It isn’t even so much the shadow of war that hangs over this book — it’s the utter fact of human destruction ...this book is incredibly funny, and that’s part of the point.
RaveTorThe Changeling is a horror story, a fairy tale, an epic myth, and a modern, urban fiction. It’s about parenthood, and toxic masculinity, and internet privacy, and a horrific world of magic hiding behind a veneer of civilization, and it’s one of the most New York books I’ve ever read. But most of all it’s about what happens when a Black man is the hero of a fairy story ... LaValle dips into a whole world of story for this book. Myths both Greek and Norse, comics, the Rocky movies, children’s classics, To Kill a Mockingbird—all are put into the blender of his books and characters, and used in unexpected and gorgeous ways ... This is the first book I’ve read in years that engages with age-old myth in a way that feels as vital as [Neil] Gaiman’s best work, but it’s even more alert to the ways race, class, and prejudice can infect every aspect of a person’s life. The Changeling is an instant classic.
RaveTorFrom this ecologically-minded update of Joan of Arc Lidia Yuknavitch creates a masterful book that is concerned with the stories we tell ourselves, and how we choose to tell those stories. When humanity is at its endpoint, facing its ultimate destruction, what story will we whisper into the dark? ... As the book twists and turns and changes shape it becomes far less the familiar story of a young girl leading a war, or becoming a nation’s sacrificial lamb, and becomes much more about women having control over what is done to their bodies ... This would all maybe seem too on-the-nose if it wasn’t for Yuknavitch’s stunning writing. This book is terrifying. The lushness of her prose, the way she describes pain and fear, and above all the utter hopelessness that she expresses through her characters, who are all looking at what might be the end of humanity, makes TBOJ, at times, a difficult read. But I would say it’s a necessary read.
RaveTor...[a] funny and moving debut novel ... A key to the book’s tone can be found in his use of humor. Kalfa? takes us on a wild ride, and he packs a lot of world history-level tragedy into his book, and this could have ruined the story. You’re already asking us to follow the first Czech into space, then there are his relationship problems, a giant alien spider, and, oh yeah, the fall of communism. But he makes it all work seamlessly by giving us quiet moments that balance grief and humor ... That’s where this book’s greatness lies. By giving us a character who is a culmination of Czech history, Kalfa? is able to tackle half a century at once. And by giving that character a deeply personal problem, he’s able to ground the politics in heartbreak.
RaveTorThe truth is, this book would have been vital if it had been released in 1950 or 1980, or on September 12, 2001. It will still be necessary in three hundred years, whether or not humans are here to experience it—maybe by then the cockroaches and ants that inherit the earth will have learned to read, and it can inspire them to be better than we have been ... Saunders takes this sliver of grief and turns it into a meditation on loss which in turn becomes a consideration of the Civil War and the existence of America itself ... The fact that his first novel, a work of historical fiction, happens to come to us during our most Saunders-ian (?) era yet is (probably) an accident, as he’s been working on this book for almost two decades. But through whatever alchemy or serendipity or sheer chain of coincidence, he has given us the perfect book for our time.
RaveTorBy page 60, I was freaked out enough to take a break. Such is the power of John Darnielle’s writing ... The best thing about good horror like this, though, is that Darnielle makes you care about these people. They are good people. You don’t want to see them getting hurt by the darkness at the edge of the story, but there it is, creeping in and popping out at them during videos they’ve rented, invading the privacy of their own living rooms, catching them when they were safe at home ... Universal Harvester is not a typically scary book, but the horror, when it comes, is all the worse because it will touch all of us reading this book, and we’ll all have to struggle to keep our humanity in its face.
PositiveTor...what are we to make of this novel, that can’t quite figure out what it wants to be? ... There’s a grisly fifteen-hour long operation (essentially the centerpiece of the book) that I absolutely loved reading, but if you’re made queasy by blood and gore, you might want to skim this bit ... Lethem’s book often seem to ask whether people have any bedrock of self at all, or whether we’re all just collections of masks, swapping faces and identities as necessary ... I think there is a fascinating book dancing on the edges of this one.
PositiveTorThis story is told as an ingenuous picaresque ... Anyone who has ever cared about comics, cons, cosplay, The X-Files, or geek parenting will relate to at least one of this book’s threads, and Proehl does a great job of outlining the different facets of the world ... Some things don’t work. Proehl wants to tie some thematic elements of the book to Tony Kushner’s masterpiece Angels in America but the references don’t really go anywhere. Also, and this is a bigger problem, Alex is a little too precocious ... will non-comics folk care about this? I’m going to tentatively say yes.