January 9th, 2013

there!, Hello

Considering Stories Installment 1: A Word From Our Reviewer

Welcome to the first installment of Considering Stories. Today's item up for, well, consideration is the 2011 collection from Chesya Burke. Some readers might be scratching their heads. Why start with something so, uhm, old? Isn't this a column for reviews? Shouldn't attention be paid to something more, well, current?

Actually, no.

That mentality is connected to a different sort of review site. One I used to be a contributor to and editor-in-chief of, in fact. Here's an inside scoop: A lot of sites only keep their attentions on the current releases or soon-to-be published material for one of several reasons. Three big ones are: 1) they don't want to get bombarded with requests to check out someone's ten-year-old, out-of-print book in some misguided attempt to drum up interest, which an author can leverage into another publishing contract, 2) they want to get free books from publishing companies, and those companies often only have a limited attention span, and 3) they believe that readers are more interested in what's coming that what's been. There are more reasons, but the above two cover some pretty good ones. Those three are quite valid, in fact, but they are not the guiding theory for this column.

Currently, the interests here are to look at stories. As a reader, I am a cantankerous person. Nothing turns me off to reading something faster than someone else shoving it into my hands (or face) and telling me, "You have to check this out!" My own orneriness has made me a latecomer to some bandwagons (e.g., I skipped reading the Hunger Games until recently, which is a shame), but I soldier on.

Likewise, I am a creature of whim. I often get hit with a bug to read X book (or even X-kind of book) and I will give in to that urge.

The fact is: I read a lot. Some books stick with me. Some books are worth revisiting (or visiting for the first time), even if they are two or twenty or two hundred years old. My interest here is to consider stories. And Let's Play White has some excellent ones.

For now, my only guide to what's allowable for consideration are these three precepts: 1) is it currently available in a hardcopy or eBook format, 2) does it contain a story worth considering, and 3) is it something worth sharing?

Also, unless specified in the review itself, I purchased a copy of whatever I am reviewing. I freely admit I like to buy books. I'm something of a glutton, that way.

If any publishers or authors want me to consider reviewing their book (and wants to offer me a gratis copy), feel free to drop me a line. Be aware I will not pull punches or look upon things favorably just because you sent me something for free. I am inherently judgmental.

Also, if anyone has a recommendation, I hope you'll feel free to send it my way. Leave a comment here, send me a message, hit me up on Facebook or Twitter. I might not be able to get to it (see the whimsy part, above) at all speedily, but I'm always excited to see what people are interested in.

This entry was originally posted at dreamwidth.org. Comment there or here as you choose!
there!, Hello

Considering Stories Installment 1: Let's Play White

Let's Play White by Chesya Burke

Reviewed by Daniel Robichaud

Let's Play White is disturbing in the best sense. These stories pry open genre expectations and set them turning in new ways. Burke's fiction is not content to regurgitate clichéd material, which is to this book's benefit.

For only containing eleven stories, Let's Play White has plenty to offer its readers. Here grim crimes stand alongside urban horrors. Here, people grapple with African mythology or psychic powers or their own obsessions and the results are unexpected and memorable. Reading Chesya Burke's first collection is an exhilarating experience, at once exciting, disturbing and sometimes frustrating.

The excitement arises because of Burke's craft. This is moody stuff, at turns atmospheric and gross, thoughtful and passionate and always emotionally honest. There's a wonderful amount of range here. Some of the stories veer into magical realism ("Walter and the Three Legged King"), some into poetic nightmare ("What She Saw When They Flew Away"), some into crime-horror ("I Make People Do Bad Things") and at least one pure gross out tale that would give any splatterpunk pause ("Purse"). As different as they can be, all the stories have a uniting worldview and a thematic interest in exploring issues--racial, gender, familial and socio-economic. While these big idea threads pervade the stories, they seldom intrude enough to beat the reader upside the head. Instead, they run through the stories, part of the background, as ignorable to the uninterested as a humming power line.

For example: Do we really need a new story about zombies? EVER? Well, in the case of a piece like "CUE: Change", the answer is "Yes, we do." Why? Simply put: the story leaves our expectations in the dust. Reading between the lines, the modern zombpocalypse narrative has evolved from its siege-cinema roots and can now be typified as a bunch of middle class white folks watching their consumer culture world torn asunder by the disheveled, the distressed and downtrodden. As the threats often arise from decayed urban environments, it is not a stretch to correlate the fear of the zombie to the same middle class fear of the inner city that led to an exodus to the suburbs some decades ago (this is an exaggeration perhaps, but not a gross one). With "CUE: Change," Burke gives this subject a new twist. At first, the walking dead seem to be acting in the overly familiar (if not 100% predictable fashion), but then the protagonist and readers discover these walking dead folks are not quite the mindless appetites the readers and characters have come to expect. As Catherynne M. Valente's "The Days of Flaming Motorcycles" did, Burke's prose makes the often seen and somewhat boring creature unique again. These dead operate under a different paradigm, and the story gets rather disturbing for it. "CUE: Change" is without doubt the standout piece in this volume.

With so much good to say about the book, how can it also be a frustrating reading experience? Let's Play White collects material from across the author's career. The early works are high on passion, but they don't necessarily demonstrate the virtuosity found in later stuff. Oh, there's some fair storytelling in every piece. Any collection has its lackluster stories, and Let's Play White has a few.

The most egregious is "Chocolate Park," which has promise and ambition. When "Chocolate Park" remains grounded in a nightmarish but not unbelievable inner city drama, the story works best. However, a supernatural element never quite fits comfortably with everything else. It's too intrusive, robbing the story of immediacy, and rendering some character conflict superfluous. "Chocolate Park" is ambitious as hell, and I respect its use of several narratives to tell an overarching story. However, the piece never achieves the completely satisfying experience of a novella like "The Teachings and Redemption of Miss Fanny Lou Mason."

Also told through several narratives, "The Teachings . . ." features the titular Miss Fanny Lou Mason (a hoodoo woman) arriving in a racially charged southern town to help a pair of twins understand and control their supernatural gifts. Here, the characters, their conflicts, the situations and the supernatural are intrinsically linked. One element never renders the others less significant. They work together in an effortless display, and the result is pure storytelling magic.

Let's Play White demonstrates talent and the kind of quirked outlook this genre needs. Enough with the familiar tropes recycled and reused. Horror fiction is capable of delivering novel horrors as well as another go with stuff that has worked for centuries. Chesya Burke's weird, fantastic and often upsetting visions are a welcome addition.

Let's Play White
Chesya Burke
Published by Apex Books
Buy a paperback at Amazon.com
Buy a kindle copy at Amazon.com
Visit the Publisher's Website
Visit the Author's Website

This review is copyright 2013 by Daniel R. Robichaud.

This entry was originally posted at dreamwidth.org. Comment there or here as you choose!