Book Review: The Inner City by Karen Heuler

Karen Heuler’s collection of short stories, “The Inner City“, published by ChiZine, is a wonderfully bizarre set of stories. Reading the author’s biography, I learned that her dog is named Philip K. Dick, and I can see a Dickian obsession with a world out of joint, a phantom reality that hides something sinister in these stories.

Inner City Cover

The lead story, “FishWish”, is a great opening piece. Originally published in Weird Tales in 2011, it takes the standard three wishes tale in an unexpected direction, plumbing the depths of unfulfilled desires.

Also rather Dickian is “The Inner City”, from which the collection derives its name. A hidden power of distrust and chaos lies just beneath the surface of reality, directing the lives of others. Kind of reminiscent of The Adjustment Bureau, only with a much darker spin.

“Down on the Farm” touches on genetic manipulation, with a dark undercurrent. It’s a rather uncomfortable story, dipping into several unsavoury topics.

“The Escape Artist” explores the relationship with fear. Does one run from fear, or confront it? And if we face our fear, is it to overcome, or to welcome the cold embrace?

Perhaps less disturbing than some of the other stories, “The Large People” is a story with ecological concerns. Ecology tends to take a longer view on things.

“Creating Cow” has clear parallels with Frankenstein, but in this case, the creature has far fewer redeeming characteristics. I wouldn’t recommend reading this one right before lunch.

“The Difficulties of Evolution” is another little gem, which looks to our sense of humanity. The ending was quite appropriate.

There aren’t any duds in this collection, although some didn’t challenge my sense of reality as much as others. It’s a well constructed collection which follows a common theme. If you’re familiar with ChiZine, this should match your expectations.

Disclaimer: I received an advance eBook copy for review from ChiZine Publications. 

Essay Writing Strategies

When writing essays, I’ve tried several strategies. I’ll likely continue to try many more. I’ve yet to find one that works perfectly for me all the time.

The first roadblock is always what to write about. What is the thesis of the essay? Often, the assignment will provide a general topic, but it rarely gives enough direction to even suggest topics. Sometimes it will dictate what specific scene you should write about, but not indicate any kind of stance to take.

Often, I don’t completely narrow down the thesis right away. It rarely remains the same after several pages. It’s good to get a primary direction in place, and then revise the thesis statement after part of the essay has been written. As the different arguments are made, there are multiple ways to link them together, and it is often the possible links which provide direction for the essay as a whole.

When reading the primary text, I’ve started underlining key phrases, putting boxes around other words, and making margin notes in pencil. I haven’t yet decided on any concrete scheme for my markups. I’d really like to start a more comprehensive system of notes.

Often, I find it useful to write out single words relating to my arguments on post-it notes, and then arrange them on the wall beside my desk. I can then arrange my arguments in different ways, which improve the structure of my essay, and hopefully provide insight as to the direction of my final thesis argument.

I’m thinking about getting a small corkboard, so I can use strings and pushpins to weave a web of connections which I’m missing with post-its.

Bookstores and Customer Service

The other day, I was surprised as I was going through the drive through at a local fast food restaurant. The person taking my order was happy and cheerful, and the service was prompt and accurate. It’s a sad sign for the food service industry when I take note of cheerful service as something exceptional.

After considering some of the terrible service I’ve gotten recently at some other local establishments, this lead me to consider other aspects of our consumer-oriented economy. When book shopping, there is often a large price difference between buying a book in a local chain store, such as Chapters, and online stores, such as Amazon or even chapters.ca.

Often, the selection of books I’m interested in purchasing is also extremely lacking in store. While the store employees assure me they can order the books in, or that I can even use the in-store computer kiosk to order them myself, the fact remains that the price is still significantly higher than what I can get online.

What the in-store experience does provide is personal recommendations from staff. This requires however, that the staff is knowledgeable about the genres of books (fiction or non-fiction) that you’re interested in, and will give you suggestions within that genre, not just what they’ve read and liked. Sadly, I’ve not found this to be the case at my particular stores. While staff is perfectly capable of recommending the latest novel by a well-known author, they’re less likely to be aware of the particular niche that I’m interested in, or in recommending newer, less known authors.

Another area in which the in-store experience excels is impulse buying. I can see something new, hold it in my hands, and walk out with it immediately. This is often a very good way of learning about new authors. Browsing the spines, evaluating cover artwork, reading cover blurbs, and skimming through several pages can be a great way to find someone new to read.

Something which I’ve started to do is to look up a book review using my smartphone. Has it been favourably reviewed? Has the author written anything else? However, these are searches that are much easier to accomplish from the comfort of my own home.

I realize that there are considerable costs which much be covered in the operation of a brick and mortar bookstore, which makes cost competitiveness with the online stores difficult, if not impossible. The area in which these stores can truly excel, compared to the online stores is in customer service, something that isn’t easily achieved, except in smaller, independent bookstores. Stores like Bakka-Pheonix Books in Toronto, or Words Worth Books in Kitchener give great, personable customer service. Compared to big chain stores, they’re better equipped to greet customers on their way into the store, and tend to be more involved with the success of the store as a whole. They want you to come back as a person, not just as a number with a wallet.

Holiday Books

Books I received over the holidays include include:

  • Steampunk Prime: A Vintage Steampunk Reader. Edited by Mike Ashley
  • The Odyssey, by Homer, translated by Robert Fagles
  • Media Writing: A Practical Introduction by Craig Batty and Sandra Cain
  • After Theory by Terry Eagleton
  • Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide by Henry Jenkins
  • Steampunk II: Steampunk Reloaded edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer

I’m really looking forward to the Steampunk books, especially the anthology put together by the VanderMeers. My copy of their previous steampunk anthology is well worn, and has a lovely hand-drawn zeppelin drawn by Ann at the 2010 Montreal WorldCon.

The Media writing and Convergence Culture texts are for a course I’ll be taking in January on writing for the media. The course sounds interesting, and the regular written exercises should be good practice, thinking about writing in a different fashion.

Previous to Christmas, I picked up a few other books:

  • Necronomicon: The Best Weird Tales of H.P. Lovecraft, edited by Stephen Jones
  • Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond
  • Welcome to the Desert of the Real by Slavoj Zizek
  • Mythologies by Barthes
  • Empire of Signs by Barthes
  • How We Became Posthuman, by N. Katherine Hayles
  • Terminal Identity: the Virtual Subject in Postmodern Science Fiction by Scott Bukatman
  • Jean Baudrillard: Selected Writings, edited by Mark Poster
  • Dreadnought by Cherie Priest
  • Nothing Rhymes With Orange: Perfect Words for Poets, Songwriters, and Rhymers, by Bessie G. Redfield and Hope Vestergaard
  • The Windup Girl, by Paolo Bacigalupi
  • Retribution Falls, by Chris Wooding

I’ve finished Dreadnought already, which is a brilliant sequel to Boneshaker. It’s a stronger novel than the first, and has a much cleaner narration. To be reviewed shortly.

The Necronomicon is a wonderful black faux-leather trade paperback. I’ve not previously read much of Lovecraft. From the few short stories I’ve managed out if this text so far, his writing drips atmosphere, although the serial nature of many of his longer stories adds a great deal of repetition.

Book meme

So, I came across a book meme that I thought I’d contribute to.

What was the last book you bought?

A Canticle for Liebowitz, by Walter M. Miller Jr.

Extraordinary Engines, edited by Nick Gevers

Name a book you have read MORE than once

Till We Have Faces, by C.S. Lewis

Has a book ever fundamentally changed the way you see life? If yes, what was it?

Not fundamentally, but there’s a great deal that has changed the way I think.

How do you choose a book – eg. by cover design and summary, recommendations or reviews

Recommendations, reviews, and awards definitely have an impact. The publication history of an author, or similarities to another author already on my reading list helps as well.

Do you prefer Fiction or Non-Fiction?

I prefer fiction, but I catch the odd non-fiction as well.

What’s more important in a novel – beautiful writing or a gripping plot?

This is an interesting question, as entirely different styles of writing can be considered beautiful. There is ornately crafted prose, heavy with imagery, as well as simple but effective prose. Plots can be unique, or run of the mill, but still interesting. What I need most in novels that I read is an interesting idea or concept. Something that keeps me thinking about it after I’m done reading.

Most loved/memorable character (character/book)

Alessan from Tigana, by Guy Gavriel Kay. Definitely a memorable character.

Which book or books can be found on your nightstand at the moment?

Blindness, by Jose Saramago

Neuromancer, by William Gibson

Steampunk, edited by Vandermeer and Vandermeer

Extraordinary Engines, edited by Nick Gevers

The Savage Humanists, edited by Fiona Kelleghan

What was the last book you’ve read, and when was it?

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick

Have you ever given up on a book half way in?

This happens on occasion. Since I usually read more than one book at a time, the more compelling books are finished first. A few books never make it back to the top of the queue.

Your Turn

What are your favorite books? Play the meme if you want to (by copying the questions and answering them on your own blog). Or answer here.