I received “A Map to the Stars” by Ashley Hutchison, published by Lost Boys Press, as an e-ARC (advanced review copy) in exchange for an honest review.
Form in literature is something that is often relegated to the province of poetry, with novels often devoid of experimentation in rhythm, grammatical structure, and arranged in the same standard manuscript formatting. Sure, over the years plots and storytelling may have changed and evolved, with traditional publishers preferring third-person narrators instead of omniscient narrators. Publishers will cater to the increasingly short attention spans of modern readers by favoring inciting incidents in the first three pages, thinking too much backstory old-fashioned, wanting to see novels written in a fast-paced, cinematic style. Epistolary novels sometimes rise in popularity, those comprised entirely of letters, emails or other documents that drive the plot forward. But more often than not, the epitome of true experimentation in the modern novel comes in the format of comic books and graphic novels.
“A Map to the Stars” breaks that mold, the kind of experiment that is made for the indie market. At the beginning the author steps outside the fourth wall to caution the reader, “Please know this memoir was written to be a movement, so it is best experienced in a single sitting. Find a comfortable chair and prepare yourself for an emotional journey.” That in itself is not like my usual reading style; I typically find myself reading with the TV on in the background, or stealing snatches of passages before bed or between breaks at work. It took me about a couple of hours to read and digest.
This is a portrait of a dysfunctional family, a painting of the scars of abuse. It follows the story of Avery’s childhood, as Avery confronts the abuse and neglect of her mother, and the instability of her upbringing. In many ways it reads like the kind of letter that you write to the family you did not choose, but then the pain is too much to handle, the emotions too raw, so you burn up the letter and never send it. The story moves from poetry, to epistolary in text messages and emails, to prose, a collection of fragmented vignettes strung together as almost a therapeutic exercise.
At times the writing style veered into a bit heavy of a florid/purple prose style for my taste, but I largely found the style to flow well. The writing adapted to the form of each vignette. In many ways this novelette was like one long primordial scream, an exercise in stream-of-consciousness expressionism as Avery tries to come to terms with her troubled childhood and the people in her past. Each chapter is introduced with a drawing of a tarot card, outlining each relationship in Avery’s life, each fairy tale inevitably turned dark, except for a strain of hopefulness throughout, a child’s faith.
At times this story was uncomfortable, but it begs you to sit with it the way you eventually have to sit with your own discomfort, when you are not avoiding your pain or distracting yourself from it. At times it was achingly beautiful. It was always raw. This story was something real, something bold and honest, and it will linger with me for awhile afterward.
I received the novella DEPART, DEPART! by Sim Kern as an e-ARC (Advance Review Copy) several months ago in exchange for an honest review, and I am finally getting around to actually reviewing it. And I have one reaction to sum up my feelings upon finishing this book at last: I am stunned by this book’s force and magic, blown away by its relevance for our times.
I also feel a twinge of regret about this book, because there are those who will miss out on its power because they will immediately dismiss it as too “preachy,” too gay, too political, too wrapped up in the politics of identity, too steeped in generational tension, trapped in this uniquely tribal moment in time of Snapchat filters and viral tweets. But those are the very people who need to read this book. We can only heal the divisiveness in our country if we understand each other.
And this book will give you an unflinching, intimate look at what it means to be queer, what it means to be alone in a country that seems against you, in a body and a religion that seems against you, and more than any of that, what it means to be human and to make unbelievable choices for yourself and for your community in the face of a climate crisis that heartbreakingly may still be prevented, or we can at least still try to prevent it.
DEPART, DEPART! is set in Houston, Texas, after a climate-change-fueled hurricane destroys the city. The whole country is simultaneously ravaged by unprecedented climate events. The novella follows the journey of Noah Mishner, a trans Jewish man haunted by the ghost of his great-grandfather, Abe, a Holocaust survivor. Noah follows the whispers of the ghost to safety, first abandoning his friends as he seeks shelter on the roof of his apartment complex as the floodwaters devastate the city below.
Crushed by grief, and layers of grief at that, the story then shifts to Dallas, Texas, where Noah takes shelter in the Dallas Mavericks’ basketball arena. The rest of the story is centered in this setting, where refugees from the storm take shelter, and form a sort of community as they can, with all the trials and tribulations of refugees huddling together and not-so-together. Noah seeks refuge with the queer community there, all three or four of them at first, them against a world torn by hate, division and fear, even in the microcosm of this gym.
This is a story about identity, yes. It is a story about what you would do when crisis threatens everything you love and think you know. It is about the ties that bind. It’s a queer Jewish ghost story told from the view of the generation that has the brightest ideas to tun the tide on climate change. Even though this reads like a dark, dystopian novel, I found hope in it, in the end. Hope that humanity will always find a way, even now. To me, that’s the best cli-fi. The best of cli-fi (I really don’t like that term, I’ll just call it climate fiction) shows you how things could dramatically change for the worse so that we can change for the better.
And we must change, or this is our future.
Find the book on Goodreads and on IndieBound (I no longer link to Amazon. You know how to find Amazon…) It’s published by Stelliform Press and will be released on September 1. Preorders are available now.
Jonas shouldered his way through the press of the crowd. It was February 20, 1939 in Manhattan, and the chill pricked his bones. His fur-lined leather jacket felt flimsy and weak. But that was suitable armor for someone who felt weak, inside. Jonas Weber, a member of the German American Bund youth corps, Brooklyn chapter, fingered the unassuming ball of clay in his pocket that he had stolen from Rabbi Feldberg a month earlier.
The marquee of Madison Square Garden was lit with the words “Pro American Rally.” There were people everywhere; bright-eyed youth waiting to get in, and anti-Nazi demonstrators yelling and carrying signs outside the gates. Police officers stood in a line in front of the stadium. Chaos thrummed in Jonas’s veins.
As Jonas moved through the crowd, he joined the flood of brown shirts inside the arena. His breath was stolen in the swarm of people. It was George Washington’s birthday today, and his portrait was displayed in radiant grandiosity. Jonas wanted to be here when Fritz Kuhn gave his speech. He had never met Fritz Kuhn. But Fritz Kuhn would find his ball of clay useful.
The German American Bund had a plan for America, and America would pay attention after this rally. America was right to not enter the war effort. They were right to exercise caution. Even at 20 years old, Jonas knew this. Germany would win in the end. This ball of clay would help them.
His neck prickled with shame as he thought of what he had to do to get it. He had befriended Rabbi Feldberg. He had given the old man information about the German American Bund movement, names of prominent leaders. He made the rabbi believe Jonas was a sympathizer, a turncoat. Jonas recalled their long conversations, the old man’s fears, his stories of his childhood in Germany. He listened and drank warm green tea and ate Chinese food with him. Then one night he figured out where Rabbi Feldberg kept the golem and he stole it.
But Jonas did not join the crowd of 20,000 finding their seats as music played in the background, Wagner, he noted. He was not here to watch. Instead, he pushed his way to the front of the crowd, near the stage, and a set of guards that flanked the gates to the backstage area. Momentarily, he saw the giant portrait of George Washington surrounded by stripes and swastikas, and his head swam with awe and something else – a sense that he couldn’t quite place, and did not want to name.
“Boy,” one of the guards said, his blonde hair shaved in the German style. “This is a private area. Go find your seat.”
Jonas flashed his Bund membership card and fought a cascade of nerves. “I’m here to see Fritz Kuhn. I have information that could help the war effort.”
The guards laughed, their mocking sounds dissipating in the crowd noise. When they settled down, the same guard cleared his throat.
“This is a private area,” the guard said. “VIPs only.”
“Please,” Jonas persisted, growing desperate now. “It’s a matter of life or death.”
He saw his youth leader behind the line of guards, and waved at the man. “Tom!” The forty-year-old dentist met his young protege’s eyes.
“He’s fine,” Tom said. “Let him through.”
The guards grumbled, but did as they were told. Once behind the gate, Tom put his hand on Jonas’s shoulder, in a paternal way.
“What’s this now, Jonas?”
“I have information. Critical information. I need to see Fritz Kuhn right away.”
“You can’t tell me about it?”
“No,” Jonas insisted. “I need to see Mr. Kuhn.”
“Very well then,” Tom said. “I can’t say I don’t appreciate your enthusiasm. Your timing, as ever, isn’t perfect, though.”
Despite his hesitation, Tom led Jonas through the crowded backstage area and down a corridor of rooms. On other days these were changing rooms for circus and theater production crews. Jonas led him to a room marked “5A,” and said, “Go on,” and Jonas pushed open the door. Fritz Kuhn stood at a table, smoking a cigarette with a group of other men, studying paperwork piled on the table. For a moment, Jonas was frozen with fear. Maybe this really was terrible timing. He had not quite thought this through.
Fritz Kuhn looked up, his clean-shaven, craggy face looking like that of a war admiral. “Boy, I don’t know how you got in here, but I’m not signing autographs now.”
Tom guided him forward. “He has information that could help the war effort, Fritz.”
The door closed behind them. At that moment Jonas felt the cloying pressure of his 20 years of age as the heady smell of tobacco filled his nostrils. Jonas choked down his nerves and placed the ball of clay on the table.
Fritz Kuhn laughed, and the others followed suit. “You come to me with clay, boy?”
“I stole it from a rabbi,” Jonas said. “A mystic. This is not just ordinary clay. It is a golem. A terrifying creature that could become super-human soldiers of a powerful German army.”
Kuhn’s eyes narrowed into slits. He shook his head. “The Germans are intrigued by mysticism and the supernatural,” he said. “So don’t take my laughter the wrong way. What the Germans want above all else is power, and they don’t care how they get it. Show me this Jew’s tricks. I am interested.”
Jonas started whispering the words that the rabbi had taught him, the words from the book that came in the same drawer that secreted the clay. He whispered the spell over and over again. Nothing happened. His blood started to boil. The men were growing impatient. The clay just sat on the table. Ordinary, brown, moist clay. Useless clay.
Kuhn blew smoke into the stale air. “I am sorry, boy. I am afraid to tell you that the Jews are also tricksters. It would seem you have been duped. I am sorry to hear it, too, because it was a promising story. Send him away now, please. I must prepare for my speech.”
Jonas took his ball of clay and put it back in his pocket, his eyes smarting. Tom put his hand on his back. In the corridor with the door closed, he spoke to him gently. “Don’t talk to Jews again without our approval. Will we see you next week?”
“Yes,” Jonas said, his voice barely a whisper.
“Good,” Tom said. “Now go. Enjoy the rally and forget this foolishness. We’ll talk about this later.”
But Jonas didn’t go to the rally. He left the crush of the arena and wandered the streets of Manhattan for awhile. He bought a hot dog and a soda at a food truck and ate it in a sloppy hurry, licking fried onions from his fingers. He felt defeated and embarrassed. He wasn’t sure he could show his face at the youth meeting next week. They would just laugh at him like Kuhn did.
The hour grew later and later. He didn’t want to go back home to his one bedroom apartment in Brooklyn with the neighbors who had loud sex every night and the neighbors below who rehearsed with a garage band. He didn’t have a girlfriend. His parents were dead, killed in a car wreck when he was 18. His sister had stopped talking to him after he joined the Bund. Now he didn’t know if he could go back to the Bund. He was alone.
He stopped at a street corner, the light from a street lamp blinding his eyes. The pulse of the city throbbed around him. New York was never quiet, not even at this hour. He knew he had to worry about thieves at this time of night, but he could take them. He was not worried. He was young and strong, even if he was foolish.
Jonas took the ball of clay out of his pocket, and stared at it in his hands. He began to shape it and form it in his fingers, the wet substance oily on his skin. He said the words of the spell over and over, and he started to cry. He really was a fool.
Then a bright flash blinded him as nausea roiled in his belly. He thought the street lamp had gone out. Instead, when he came to, a giant man, perhaps eight feet tall, stood in front of him. The man had a mustache and glasses and looked vaguely like Rabbi Feldberg. His body was fiercely unnatural, lumps of clay dripping with water and streaked with street dust.
Jonas stepped backward and almost fell over. “You!” he hollered at the creature. He looked around him through his tears. New York continued around them, as if they didn’t even notice the behemoth in the darkness. “Why didn’t you show yourself at the Garden? You were in the lion’s den! You could have destroyed all those Nazis!”
“Oh, boy,” the golem said. “You do not understand, do you? The golem does not seek to destroy. The golem seeks to change hearts and minds. The golem changes hearts and minds one at a time, in the dark, when the golem can take their pain away.”
“You can’t change my mind,” Jonas said bitterly.
Then he froze as something seemed to enter his mind and tear through the membrane of his memories. The streets of Manhattan melted away. He was 18 again. He was in the backseat of his parents’ 1937 Packard 120. They were speeding on the highway outside Tulsa, Oklahoma. His parents were arguing. It was dark.
“I don’t want to see this,” Jonas whispered.
“But you must.”
It had been a drunk driver. Jonas’s dad ran a red light. Farms passed by them in the shroud of the night. The drunk driver hit them head on. Metal fragments flew everywhere. The crush of screams and pain and blood roared in Jonas’s mind. The ambulance, later. Jonas was thinking about his chemistry final before the crash. Wishing his parents would just be like all the other parents and get along with each other.
Now they were dead, and he was alone, and it was all his fault.
Jonas was angry. Angry at everything. He wanted to punch the flashing red lights, the twisted metal of the Packard, the world. He was angry, and he was alone, and it was all his fault.
Then a voice started whispering in his ear. “It’s not your fault.”
It was his fault.
“It’s not your fault. It’s not your fault. It’s not your fault.”
The anger fell away, and was replaced by bitterness. The bitterness met emptiness. The emptiness felt hollow and dead inside. Then it overwhelmed him. The darkness stole his breath from his throat. He doubled over in pain, refusing to cry again, refusing to be weak.
“It’s not your fault. It’s not your fault.”
He was six, then, listening to his parents shout, holding his stuffed tiger in his arms in his bed, his sister weeping next to him. He heard a crash of a beer bottle.
“It’s not your fault.”
Then he felt arms around him, squeezing him, holding him tight, crushing him with dripping clay. The embrace spread warmth through the hollowness, and he succumbed to it. He still did not cry, but he accepted the Golem. He didn’t even know what he was doing. But he felt different. His head felt clearer, his thoughts sharper.
The street shuddered back into focus, the noise of the city pulsing around him, horns blaring, people talking in the distance.
On the ground he saw a streak of clay and blood. He tried to pick it off the pavement, gather it into a ball again, desperate to claim it for his own again. But it started raining. Cold, sloppy droplets poured down his skin and washed the clay into the gutter. He hissed in frustration.
But then Jonas stopped, shaken by the change in him. He realized he wasn’t going to go to the youth meeting next week. Not because he was embarrassed.
This was a story that got rejected, but I didn’t feel like looking at it again so I’m self publishing it on my blog. Enjoy!
By Denise Ruttan
Suzi did not think of herself as a strong woman.
When people talked about strong women, she didn’t know what they meant. Was that like calling a woman bossy, or feisty, because she expressed an opinion? Suzi didn’t express her opinions often, unless it was to say that she found it gloomy when it rained. She didn’t like confrontation. She hated to argue. She was, in fact, what they used to call “mousy,” back in the old days. She thought of herself as a pushover. Maybe she really was “petite” and “feminine.” That was what her mother called her. Those words did not sound strong.
She had, in fact, just left her house, and she was going for a walk to let off some steam. It was dark out, but not quite pitch black; it was that time of twilight when the light almost seemed blue and fragile. The clouds amassed in the sky, and it smelled like it was going to rain. Her husband, Brad, was a mean drunk. He had just wrapped up his latest tirade, crunching his fifth can of Natty Ice in his fist and glaring at her. “You’ll never be a registered nurse,” he said, his eyes glowering. “You’re not even smart. You never graduated high school. What are you doing up late studying, when you should be cleaning the house? Look at what a mess this place is. I don’t have the time to do it. I’m the one who should be providing for our family.”
She didn’t have the heart to tell him, “But you’re not.” She would have done so, if she was a strong woman, maybe. She would have told him that he couldn’t hold down a job because of his drinking problem. She would have told him about the bills that kept piling up on the kitchen table. She would have told him that they could have more than beans and rice, if he could stay sober at work. She would have told him that she would gladly stay home and clean, if he could hold down a job. But all those things would have really made him mad, so she held her tongue. She said, “You’re right, Brad. I was stupid to ever think about it.”
“That’s right, woman,” he’d said, and that’s when she’d grabbed her coat and hat and umbrella, and stormed out the door, slamming it behind her as he hollered after her to get him more beer. She ignored him. But strong women would not just go for a walk to escape the fight. Strong women would leave a man like Brad.
Suzi didn’t know how she was feeling. She thought she was angry, but she was too tired for rage. Anger was for strong women. She didn’t have the strength to keep it simmering. Anger ate her from the inside out, hollowed out her core, frayed her edges. She was, in truth, exhausted. Her bones were tired. She didn’t know what she was doing either, going back to school to become a registered nurse. She first had to get her GED, so that was why she was studying. Then she would have to go to college for four years. She was 40. She worked as a janitor, cleaning the hallways of the hospital where she dreamed bigger dreams than making the floor gleam. She watched the nurses doing their work, rushing from patient to patient with purpose and light in their eyes, drawing blood. She wanted to do that. She wanted to help people.
But maybe it was too late. Maybe it was too late for someone like her. Maybe she wasn’t smart enough.
She sighed, and kept walking. They lived in an apartment complex in a suburb, and in the dim light she saw everyone’s manicured lawns and their houses painted to HOA specifications and heard the sprinklers running. She thought of the families who lived there whom she’d never meet. Maybe the husband was a doctor and the wife was a lawyer and because they were both busy people they made sure to sit down with their two children every night for supper. She wondered what it was like to fulfill your dreams.
She kept walking. There was nobody on the road. It was strangely quiet. She could not even hear birds or the wind. The sky did look threatening, though. And she really did not like rain. But she did not want to go back to Brad yet. The thought filled her with dread. She couldn’t, either, just walk away, go to a shelter, like some women did. She couldn’t do that. She needed money. She relied on Brad. He really wasn’t that bad of a guy, actually. He never hit her. He was not violent. He was just an alcoholic with no ambition who put her down all the time. That was what guys were like, wasn’t it? That was what her father was like.
Lost in thought, she crossed the street at a crosswalk. She didn’t even look both ways. She didn’t see the car coming. Suddenly, she heard the whine of insects buzzing. Her eyes filmed over with mist and midnight. She held her hand in front of her face and it became a stranger’s hand, translucent in the crepuscular light.
The car kept going. It never stopped. Maybe the driver was drunk. Maybe the driver just didn’t care.
No one emerged from their beautiful middle-class houses to help Suzi. But she stood up. Her bones and the sinews of her muscles stretched with heat. She wiggled her fingers and toes. She was not hurt. Miraculously, she was not hurt, other than a shot of pain in her neck.
She curled her hand into a fist. Her heart pumped blood through her veins. Iron blood. Her eyes blazed fire. She straightened her shoulders and stood up tall. Her skin felt hard. No longer soft flesh, feminine curves.
I submitted a drabble to a publication so now I’m experimenting with very short fiction, between 100- and 300 words. I thought flash fiction was a difficult length. I don’t have much to say these days because I am working on DRAGON GIRL so I thought I’d work on these as well to keep my blog active.
“The Creature That Steals Bodies”
The detective’s hands are large. If I were a nurse, I would think what good veins.
I am not a nurse.
I study him as he studies me in the dark. What does he know? Why can he see me, when others can’t? I think it will take more than the usual to spook him. He does not startle easily like other humans. Perhaps he is not even human.
I crawl up his pant leg, a shadow, a cold breeze seeking answers. I find none. I skitter away. He could crush me, but he doesn’t. What is his game? Perplexed.
He doesn’t like this. The way the stars feel in his hands. All cold and rotten, slimy, like the fish he ate for dinner. He wants to clean himself. He desires to see his skin again. Empty of the callouses of the constellations.
Will it ever be home? Will he ever come apart at the seams and become stardust, like the time when he was 17 and a girl asked him on a date for the first time and he said no because he was afraid? Will it be like that?
Or will he become salmon skin, fragile, falling through the universe, atom by atom? Ripped apart? Torn at his sinews? Will he ever feel like that again?
Or maybe it is just a basketball and a court on a sunny day and it is his turn to shoot.