Friday, May 28, 2010

New Review FCOS by Simon Petrie in ASIF

New Review  May 27, 2010

Finding Creatures and Other Stories

Reviewed by Simon Petrie.

C. June Wolf is a specfic writer who lives in Vancouver. Finding Creatures is her first collection of stories, several of which have appeared previously in various small press magazines and anthologies.

“Claude and the Henry Moores” features a failed artist security guard who works at the Art Gallery of Ontario, and becomes gradually captivated by the gallery’s collection of Moore’s abstract sculptures. Claude is convinced there’s more to the objects than meets the eye. This is a closely informed story with an intriguing premise. It works well, although the “aurora” scene carried less power than I felt it should have. But all up, it’s an effective and memorable story that does a good job of introducing Wolf’s style to the reader.

“Thunderbirds”, the collection’s longest story, has nothing to do with the marionette rescue specialists. Instead, it’s the story of Norman, a native North American who struggles to balance the ways of his ancestors with the necessities of modern life. It’s also the story of Chitta, a doomed alien explorer who crashes on Earth, in the woods behind Norman’s home. Told in alternating slices centering on the two protagonists, “Thunderbirds” attempts a separate resolution for the two of them. Does it succeed? I’m not completely sure, but Wolf is nonetheless adept at crafting stories that stick with you after the telling, and this is no exception.

“The Ziz” sounded, to me, to be a made-up word, which only goes to betray my level of ignorance. Ziz is in fact the aerial sibling of Behemoth and Leviathan, and Wolf’s story here is an irreverent and didactic retake on the biblical fate of these colossi. This one didn’t particularly resonate with me, but it’s nonetheless a short, fun tale with a serious subtext.

“The Coin” is a token given several times to Likner, a young Haitian streetkid, by a mysterious middle class woman who tells him each time not to lose it. There’s a sharp edge to this one, which manages to present itself as both intense and subtle. A good example of contemporary urban fantasy.

In “Finding Creatures”, Bernadette is a pious young girl who longs for a miracle to prove God’s existence. What she gets is a horse… but can anyone else see the horse? This is a charming story that plays to Wolf’s strengths: she seems most assured in characterising introspection and solitude, and these are attributes very much at play here.

“Miss Lonelygenes’ Secret” starts promisingly, but throws a few too many ingredients into the mix. Rosaleen is a phenotypic profiler, a career for which she has her pioneering, Nobel winning mother to thank, although the sentiment would not be reciprocated. For Rosaleen uses her skills to the end of pairing up lonely souls with safe, compatible lifemates. So who is she holding out for? The ideas explored here are very interesting, though I ended up feeling the overall story didn’t do them justice.

“These Old Bones” has previously appeared in the anthology SF Waxes Philosophical which, as it happens, I’ve also reviewed. Back then, I described it as “a subtle, atmospheric tale of the interaction between two loners who share an interest in palaeontology. It’s an intriguingly elusive story that’s reminiscent in style to the work of Kate Wilhelm. For me, it echoed long after I’d finished reading” and my view of it hasn’t changed.

In “Aggie’s Game”, the young narrator’s sister is overly given to theatricality, perhaps not without reason. This one is charming, principally for the exactitude with which the sister’s foibles are drawn.

In “The MagniCharisma Machine”, two young lovers attempt to make the world a better place by collaborating on a machine which engenders empathy. Despite the serious premise, this one feels more light-hearted than many of the other stories accompanying it.

“Equals” is one of the collection’s more overtly SF-leaning tales. It jarred somewhat with my own tastes in SF – and to my mind, it doesn’t quite pull off what it’s attempting – but the central ideas are intriguing.

“After Hours At The Black Hole” is a whimsical fable on the dangers of shovelling awkward things and unwanted memories under the carpet – or, as in this case, into the mouth of a black hole.

I didn’t fully fathom the significance of the title hand in “Dana’s Hand”, but it’s nevertheless a well-crafted and unsentimental story of the bleaker attributes of senility. If there’s a speculative element in this one, I missed it.

In “Kouzen Zaka”, fifty-year-old Vancouver resident Isabel is haunted by memories of her time in Haiti, with Denys, a young journalist committed to revealing those resposible for the entrenched abuses of power. Such idealism is, of course, dangerous. For my tastes, the story’s pivotal scene is inappropriately muted, but the depiction of Haiti and its people remains effective.

“Mr. Cowmeadow’s Sky” is a closely observed story of resilient old Mr Cowmeadow, whose existence creeps along in a world gone to ruin.

“Saint Francis and the Green Man” explores a mythical meeting between the two. It’s a story about belief, which manages to avoid pushing any particular barrows (and is the stronger for that.)

These are the fifteen stories in Finding Creatures . There’s a variety of tones and themes, but if I had to tease out some common threads from what I found in its pages, these would be a tendency to focus on loners (and therefore on solitude and introspection), a persistent concern with the past in all its forms, and a subtle yet unflinching quietness of observation. It’s not a book to attempt to read in one sitting, nor did every story succeed on all levels. But there are enough memorable moments here, including “Claude and the Henry Moores”, “These Old Bones”, “Aggie’s Game” and “Dana’s Hand” that I found the overall collection to be enjoyable and worthwhile.

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