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Publisher: Bluejack

November, 2004 : Review:

A Taste of Everything at Small Beer Press

Trash Sex Magic, by Jennifer Stevenson, Small Beer Press, Northampton, MA, 2004, Trade Paperback: US$16, ISBN 1-931520-12-7, 292 pages
Perfect Circle, by Sean Stewart, Small Beer Press, Northampton, MA, 2004, Trade Paperback: US$15, ISBN 1-931520-11-9, 243 pages
Horses Blow Up Dog City & Other Stories, by Richard Butner, Small Beer Press, Northampton, MA, 2004, Chapbook: US$5, 64 pages
The Rose in Twelve Petals and Other Stories, by Theodora Goss, Small Beer Press, Northampton, MA, 2004, Chapbook: US$6, 60 pages

New releases from Small Beer Press have become a yearly event in the field—guaranteed to be intriguing contemporary fiction of a fantastic bent. Their first full-length book was Kelly Link's wonderful collection Stranger Things Happen in 2002, followed immediately by Ray Vukcevich's Meet Me in the Moon Room. Last year they put out the fine original anthology Trampoline and a glorious translated novel/story collection by Angélica Gorodischer, Kalpa Imperial. And this year they issued two new novels: Jennifer Stevenson's Trash Sex Magic and Sean Stewart's Perfect Circle. Both can be called “urban fantasy,” both are strong works (and Stewart's novel is outstanding), and both are as much about place as character. The press has also released two chapbooks—which follow a number of fine earlier chapbooks from the likes of Link, Dora Knez, and Mark Rich.

Jennifer Stevenson, a Chicago-area writer, has published a few short stories, but Trash Sex Magic is her first novel. It is set near the Fox River, in a version of St. Charles, Illinois (called here Berne or perhaps Rimville). A real estate development is going up, but a few trailer owners who are about to be displaced are holding out.

The story is made up of a complicated, one might say organic, web of interactions among a large cast. Perhaps the main character is Raedawn Somershoe, a young woman living among the trailer park holdouts. Rae holds the group together, earning most of their money, acting as something of a voice of sanity. The rest of the locals' lives are intertwined, like vines or tree roots, with Rae's life. There is her older but still aggressively sexy mother, Gelia; and Gelia's main squeeze, an elderly black man named Erny Brown. There is the extended Gowdy family: Cracker Coombs, their disreputable uncle; King Gowdy, the straitlaced son who has just returned from Alaska and wants to take Rae away from all this; Cracker's basically feral twin children, Mink and Ink; and King's brothers: Willy, who is coming to terms with his homosexuality, and Davy, a rather simple teenager.

The outsiders represent the real-estate company. Central among them is Alexander Caebeau, a Bahamanian construction worker, heartsick at tearing down beautiful trees to put up ugly buildings, heartsick even more because he's missing his home island, and falling very quickly in love with Rae.

John Fowier is a sleazy executive, scared by the sudden seductiveness of Raedawn, plotting a backhanded way to get the holdout properties for his development. And Suzy Wohnberg is John's associate, bitterly aware that the price for advancement in the company will be sleeping with John.

All of the above seems not at all fantastical, but we soon gather that Gelia and Raedawn have somewhat "elemental" powers. Many of these powers revolve around a huge tree that the two women each treat as a lover (each jealous of the other). There is a perhaps tragic family secret concerning the tree. The plot action is precipitated by the construction workers cutting down this tree. Somehow Alexander Cabeau, as he is drawn to Raedawn, also finds himself taking on treelike characteristics. And the elemental powers of the Somershoe women and their extended family manifest in other ways—the Fox river is rising, and moving in unexpected directions, and foxes turn up in other curious ways.

The novel takes place over the course of only a few days. It's told from a dizzying variety of viewpoints. I do think the multiplication of viewpoints is a bit excessive—for example Davy's and Willy's stories seem mostly superfluous. It resolves rather definitely, though, leaving a few acceptably dangling threads. I enjoyed the novel throughout and read with interest and involvement. It's a strong first novel, a wild book, well-imagined and well-written, with absorbing characters.

Perfect Circle is Sean Stewart's third consecutive novel set in Texas, after Mockingbird and Galveston. Stewart grew up half in Texas, half in Edmonton—summering in the South and wintering in the North, unexpectedly. I'm no Texan, but Stewart's descriptions of Texas landscapes and cityscapes, and of Texas people, ring utterly true to my ears. This latest novel is described on the cover as "about Texas, ghosts, and perfect pop songs."

The book centers on William Kennedy, who is in his early 30s and living in a somewhat squalid apartment in Houston. He has had and lost a series of dead-end jobs since his wife Josie divorced him, a dozen or so years ago. He tries to be a dutiful father and is apparently mostly successful, but he simply can't seem to get over Josie, who has remarried and now lives a fairly standard middle class life.

Oh—and Will sees ghosts. They manifest in black and white, and they talk. This "talent" of his is a fairly open secret in his family, though Will tries to keep it hidden. His most obsessive ghost may be that of his cousin AJ, who was killed by her boyfriend when she was just 23.

The story opens with Tom Hanlon, a cousin Will hardly knows, calling him and asking for help with a ghost. Against his better instincts, Will agrees to help. But the ghost turns out to be of a murdered girl—and Will soon realizes his life is in danger if Hanlon figures out Will knows he's a murderer. Things quickly go pear-shaped, and Hanlon ends up dead, while Will ends up nearly so. While in the hospital yet another cousin, a journalist, ambushes Will and publishes a story about his ghosts.

Which means, oddly enough, that Will now has an unexpected career option—ghost finder. (What use that is, since he can't actually do much about the ghosts, is hard to see, though Stewart suggests one cute possibility.) This might be of some help to Will financially, and he's going to need this help, because now he has a vengeful ghost of his own: Tom Hanlon. And Hanlon seems ready to take aim at Will's loved ones, especially Josie and their daughter, Megan.

It is clear that this novel is most centrally about families. So it is appropriate that the climax occurs at a family reunion organized by Will's mother. Will must deal with all his ghosts—with Tom Hanlon, of course, and also with his cousin AJ, and with the "ghost" of his relationship with his ex-wife, and ultimately with his first ghost, his Uncle Billy. As with Sean Stewart's other novels the main character learns a lot, and many of the lessons he learns are hard lessons.

There is no fairy tale ending (even Stewart's explicit fairy tale, Nobody's Son, was about what happens after the ending), but the conclusion is believable and honest. Will is realized dead center—a more complete character than the protagonists of Mockingbird (where I felt at times Stewart was trying too hard to portray a woman from the inside) or Galveston (where I thought Stewart was if anything too concerned with avoiding any sense of triumph for his characters). Will is a protagonist we root for, but at the same time not entirely a good guy—he has a violent streak, and is definitely to blame for many of his personal problems. I think Perfect Circle is clearly one of the best fantasy novels of the year.

One of the traditional uses of the chapbook format is for what one might call "starter" collections. They are a great way to present early work from an up-and-coming writer who might not yet have published enough for a full book. This year Small Beer features two writers who have definitely attracted attention with stories that tend towards the slipstream end of the spectrum (end? spectrum? isn't that sort of directionality just what slipstream denies?).

Richard Butner has rather quietly published some interesting stories over the past several years, including a good one this year at Sci Fiction. Horses Blow Up Dog City collects five pieces, two of them new. The title story is the oldest, from the anthology Intersections (which he co-edited) back in 1996, about a puppeteer who becomes a surprising media star. Decidedly offbeat and moving. "Drifting" is odd as well, from last year's Say...what time is it?, about a waiter, his wannabe screenwriter friend, and a very odd woman called the Zen Mistress. "Ash City Stomp", from Trampoline, is a first rate encounter with the devil story—maybe the best thing in this chapbook. The new stories are "Lo-Fi," a pretty funny piece about the future of race car driving and one such driver's relationship with a supermodel, and "The Rules of Gambling," which suggests that knowing the future may not be what a gambler really wants. Good stuff—the foundation of a fine career, I hope.

Theodora Goss is one of the most exciting new writers to appear in this century. The Rose in Twelve Petals collects five stories (one new) as well as nine poems. The title story, ironic in tone and contemporary feminist in viewpoint, first brought her to my attention in 2002: a Sleeping Beauty retelling in twelve sections, moving through time and changing points of view. "Lily, With Clouds," from the first issue of Alchemy, tells of a woman coming home to her sister's house to die, accompanied by her dead husband's mistress, and her husband's paintings. Mostly it's simply a picture of three woman: the conventional, prudish sister; the once rebellious dying woman; and the rather eccentric mistress—but the ending is just beautiful, an inevitable surprise. "The Rapid Advance of Sorrow," from Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet, is a rather poetic piece about a man reminiscing about his affair with a provincial student. "Professor Berkowitz Stands on the Threshold" attracted plenty of well-deserved notice last year in Polyphony 2. It’s a lovely philosophical piece asking the title character—and the reader—one simple question. "Her Mother's Ghosts", the new story, is short and evocative, about a Hungarian woman, and her mother, and about another woman (perhaps the author, perhaps any reader) and her mother. Of the poems, I am particularly impressed by "The Ophelia Cantos," meditations on Hamlet's lover; and by "By Tidal Pools," a fine lyric about a woman (Penelope?) missing her lover.

Small Beer Press doesn't put out as many books each year as the bigger houses, but the average quality is remarkable. This remains one of the genre publishing stories of recent years.

Copyright © 2004, Richard Horton. All Rights Reserved.

About Richard Horton

Rich Horton contributes a monthly short fiction review column to Locus Magazine. His other reviews of short SF and novels can be found in many places, including Locus Online, The New York Review of Science Fiction, and Black Gate. By day he is a software engineer for a major aerospace firm.


Oct 25, 23:07 by John Frost
Discussion of this press, or Rich Horton's coverage of same.

(For the article itself: click here.)
Oct 26, 07:00 by Lois Tilton
Just a local note on Stevenson's =Trash Sex Magic=: The town called "Berne" is morelikely Geneva than St Charles. Both have a bridge with a dam, but I think the bridge with the foxes is the one in Geneva.
Oct 26, 18:49 by Richard Horton
Thanks, Lois!

Geneva and St. Charles are just far enough away in the wrong direction from my place of birth (Naperville) that I didn't know them well enough to recognize them. (I jumped to conclusions based on Stevenson's bio.)

Oct 28, 03:37 by Gregory Feeley
I'm not sure why Rich calls the appearance of Small Beer titles a "yearly event," since Small Beer has published a couple times a year since their founding. (And he forgot the two Carol Emshwiller titles.)
Oct 28, 20:21 by Richard Horton
I did forget the Carol Emshwiller titles -- unforgivably, as those are two outstanding books. (A novel, <I>The Mount</I>, and a story collection, <I>Report From the Men's Club</I>.)

As for "yearly event", that's how I perceive the books' timing -- though they may actually appear in different months, I have tended to notice their release in clumps. Certainly I bought <I>Trash Sex Magic</I> and <I>Perfect Circle</I> at the same time. But I apologize for any imprecision.

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