Beyond the Latch and Lever, Reviewed by Runalong the Shelves!

I was very pleased to discover some new authors to put on my radar and I think fans of anthologies that offer a bit of everything should give this a look!

Doors are important symbols. They protect us and they open up the world. They are in science fiction openings to other worlds be they via a spaceship, a police box or a wardrobe. In the process we enter that door and follow the road outside who knows where we go as that hobbit guy used to say. In Beyond the Latch and Lever a fine selection of tales using this concept has been assembled by the editors Susanna Skarland and Elle Blackwood giving us very different ideas on what a door can mean.

Amongst the stories I liked were

Esterbell by Elle Blackwood – the starting tale in the collection is an unusual mix of character focus with an elderly lady travelling in a hire car with a chauffeur. Both of them at a crossroads in their life. I was very impressed with the character development or in this case unpeeling of their lives in this tale and the flashbacks to Esterbell’s earlier life in WW2 were fascinating as we learn a little more of how orphans were treated. Only at the end does the fantastical take place but at this point it is well-earned.

The Two Live of Agapito Cortez by Carlos Joaquin Gonzalez – this was one of my favourites a severely injured soldier who was one of the Mexican soldiers fighting for the Union awakens in an alternate US where the Spanish element of the colonisation of America takes place. I loved the thought behind this world to show us another version of America and yet also one that held flaws in particular how Mexico was being treated. A lovely mix of history and again strong character building as we feel Agapito’s confusion, despair and then hope.

The Third Quirk by Karin Larsen – the collection then moves to SF as a woman finds her missing brother’s spaceship. This tale is part mystery and part potential ghost story, but the sibling relationship gives it more heart than you’d find in an Asimov tale which makes it really work.

Home to Skjolden by Erik Amundsen – this unusual tale has the concept of a time travel portal as a young man at crossroads in his life appears to return to an earlier time in Norway and meets key figures from his past. It could have felt very sugary, but I really liked the texture and sense of doubt that characters were going through making the pay-off feel earned rather than tacked on.

Flight of the Bumblebee by Susanna Skarland – This was another favourite as it created a disturbing future where bees have become extinct and corporations now hold people to ransom for their robotic counterparts. As well as SF this tales moves into fantasy and the mixture is really well handled so you don’t feel the story has been overloaded.

Between Hell and Fire by Bobbie Peyton – this story moves into horror in a tale of Filipina farmworkers working in the US during the 1960s. It is very interesting how it shows the naked racism the farm-owners show their staff and that they viewed life as cheap and also very firmly want people to never get out of line otherwise violence will take place. It’s a nightmarish trip and the US is definitely not a new home for this group. Troubling but illuminating on a piece of history that I was unaware of from the UK.

This was a fine anthology read and there are a host of other stories playing with the concept. I was very pleased to discover some new authors to put on my radar and I think fans of anthologies that offer a bit of everything should give this a look!

–Matt, Runalong the Shelves Book Reviews

The Magic of Bees and the Memory of Sound, A Review of Beyond the Latch and Lever

Like her mother and her mother before her, she is determined to carry on the magic that once thrived on her family’s land.

In the story, Flight of the Bumblebee by Susanna Skarland, a young couple struggles to survive in a world where the natural pollinators have died off. As a gardener myself, I can think of nothing in my garden that would exist without bees. From the tender age of a preschooler, the young woman in this story has always been in touch, connected to her family’s land and her gifts as an artist, deep-rooted lessons passed on from her grandma. Like her mother and her mother before her, she is determined to carry on the magic that once thrived on her family’s land and now lives in vivid colors on a canvas. She knows how sacred the job is of being a keeper of her beloved bees! A beautiful tale about bees existing in the real world no more.  

“Like Mama with her plants, Grandma taught me well, taught me her gift. She hummed as she painted, matching her tone to the width of her brush strokes. Loud and deep for broad blocks of color, soft and high for delicate details marked with a zero round. She infused her paintings with a breath of life.” For me, this line captured the essence of this character: “I dip my brush into my paints and hum the song of forests and foragers, of predators and prey. I hum the song of my family passed down from generation to generation, the song of our lives, both bitter and sweet. I sing for our unborn child. I sing for the bees.” 

In The Third Quirk by Karin Larsen, the narrator must come to terms with their grief: “The tears didn’t come gently. They came like my lungs were being ripped out of my body. They came like Fire would explode from my veins. They floated off my face and hung in the air. They glistened in the emergency light, shimmering like crystal, but I couldn’t find them beautiful.”  The grieving process for the narrator is going to persist, no matter if his feet are planted on solid ground, or he’s flying solo, alone in the darkness of space. The sadness is heavy, very heavy… Even when devoid of gravity, the recall of memory or sound of a voice cannot be lifted so easily. “… Surrendering to grief… sometimes all you can do is cry.”

—Gloria Smith, Painted Rock Press

Beyond the Latch and Lever Review by Author and Creative Writing Professor, Michael G. Hickey!

Edited by Susanna Skarland and Elle Blackwood, the eleven stories in Beyond the Latch and Lever are equally captivating and charming. Each tale, in its own unique way, taught me a lot! They are compelling, page-turning, white-knuckling adventures into what’s possible vs. what’s not, and when I was finished reading, a light switched on in my brain. I finally realized that attempting as I had for years to delineate the lines of demarcation between science fiction and speculative fiction, between fantasy and magic realism, was an exercise in futility. Those literary constructs are for agents, publishers, and literary critics. The real question for readers is, does the story grab you by the collar, pierce your heart, and rearrange what you thought was your imagination? Does it make you reconsider what’s real? And for me, the answer is a resounding yes!

The characters are multi-dimensional, the plots unpredictable yet thoroughly believable, and the poetry unmistakable. Like this line from Elle Blackwood’s protagonist in Esterbell, an elderly woman who revisits the château where she grew up in post-WWII France. It is an enormous, long since abandoned edifice that tests and reimagines the complexity of “place.” Ester had her very own gargoyle to fight off the demons roaming her past. And this dialogue with her driver: “Have you ever lived in the past?” she asks, searching his face. “Could it be that the past trails after us?” Clearly, Ester and her driver have a complicated, sometimes adversarial relationship with the ghosts from their respective pasts. Ester folds her arms as if she’s trying to hold herself together.

Bobbie Peyton’s Between Heaven and Fire is the harrowing, haunting story of migrant farmworkers and with all due respect to Mr. Steinbeck, the plot is far beyond anything in The Grapes of Wrath. My eyelids sag as I stand on the deck. I grip the knife in my pocket. A radio warbles a familiar song, “You Don’t Miss Your Water.” I close my eyes and imagine the sun setting on the blue horizon. I taste the ocean air and see the andadasi and mimosa leaves folding closed.                

By the end of the first page of Carlos Joaquin Gonzalez’s exquisite The Two Lives of Agapito Cortez, the senses have been assaulted, and the reader tossed headfirst into the deep end of the Civil War. This hallucinatory hike through history was perfectly complete and left me trancelike. Amazing writing throughout. Agapito’s ears rang from the thunder of cannon fire. His skin was clammy and hot, the chills wouldn’t stop, and the pain—his left arm was on fire, torn to shreds by Confederate bullets.

And in Erik Amundsen’s Home to Skjolden, the question is not just, can you go home again? The bigger conundrum is, can you make up for lost time? This story is a cocktail of reflection and nostalgia with a dash of hope, and the ending was so… so… well, I’ll let you see for yourself, but it gave me a reason to live! I scramble up the hill to the house, and my lungs hurt like hell. I come up over the ridge and see the car still in the driveway. It gives me a surge of energy, but a few meters from the door, doubt crushes me again.

The writing is brilliant in every story, and every page, but to say these pieces are well-written misses the point. Beyond the Latch and Lever challenges the reader to reconsider the word “real.” Each story is replete with multi-faceted characters worth rooting for (or against), and the narrative arc starts with a quagmire that is almost imperceptible at first but upon closer examination, abundantly real. (Or is it?)

I loved this book!

The book’s theme revolves around the concept of doors: where they lead us from, where they lead us to, and the limitless possibilities in-between. As I hungrily consumed one story after another, I couldn’t help but think about the William Blake quote, the one for which Jim Morrison famously named his band in the 60s. “If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is. Infinite. For man has closed himself up till he sees all things through narrow chinks of his cavern.” And that’s exactly what this book did for me—allowed me to open the door of my mind and see the infinite possibilities outside the confines of my sequestered little cavern.

A few years ago, I saw the Canadian speculative fiction writer Nalo Hopkinson do a reading and Q&A. Afterwards, a colleague introduced us, and I blushed when I admitted I don’t accept fantasy fiction from my creative writing students because they’re cheap knockoffs about zombies and vampires. But Nalo’s book had nothing to do with those cliches, and neither does Beyond the Latch and Lever. This book is alive. This book makes the impossible—possible!

—Michael G. Hickey, Professor of Creative Writing at South Seattle College and the author of How to Talk to Girls, Counterclockwise, and A Dress Walked by with a Woman Inside.

A Review by British Fantasy Award-Winning Author, Ray Cluley!

With such a range, Skarland and Blackwood have ensured there’s something for everyone to like.

Beyond the Latch and Lever is a collection of stories, a collection of doors, that’ll take you to places far and wide. There are personal and global histories here, science fictions and fantasies that explore lost opportunities and second chances, and with such a range Skarland and Blackwood have ensured there’s something for everyone to like.

For all the enjoyable speculative elements and different writing styles, what I liked most about this anthology was the focus on the human, the relationships we make (and sometimes lose), and how our decisions have consequences. I also particularly liked the wide range in locations which highlighted the similarities we all share as people. This is a book not really about doors but those who open and close them, and that emotional core is what makes this book well worth your time.

Ray Cluley, British Fantasy Award-winning author of Probably Monsters

Meet the Authors!

Here they are! Eleven contributing authors whose stories are featured in our upcoming speculative fiction anthology, Beyond the Latch and Lever!

Erik Amundsen is from a small Norwegian village north of the Arctic Circle. Surrounded by forests, mountains, and fjords, he spent his youth hiking, fishing, and cross-country skiing. When he wasn’t outdoors, he had a book in his hand, reading mysteries and westerns before he was old enough to start school. After college, Erik lived in Oslo, worked in IT, and became a genealogy researcher. He had nearly forgotten about books until he married a writer. Erik divides his time between Norway and the Pacific Northwest. He has over 70,000 relatives in his family tree. 

J. S. Artz spent her young life sneaking into wardrobes searching for Narnia. When people started thinking that was creepy, she had to find other ways to explore her passion for mystical adventures. Now she finds those long-sought doors to magical story worlds in her work as an author, developmental editor, and book coach. An active member of the writing community, she volunteers for SCBWI and Pitch Wars and is a member of EFA and AWP. Julie lives in an enchanted forest outside of Redmond, Washington, with her husband, two strong-willed teenagers, and a couple of naughty furry familiars. 

Elle Blackwood is a writer, poet, and editor with a bachelor’s degree in creative writing and English literature. She is the author of A Map of My Existence, an autobiographical poetry collection published under her pseudonym, Elle Wonders. When crafting prose, Elle writes magical realism and literary Gothic fiction infused with folklore. She creates landscapes of dark woodlands, lochs, and rugged moors, with old mansions and thatched cottages that serve as central characters. Elle lives in a small Victorian river town with her husband, son, and a big black poodle with a penchant for solving mysteries. When Elle isn’t writing, she’s painting, traipsing through old graveyards in search of lost stories, or browsing antique shops. She collects obscure antiquarian books, lonely teacups, and vintage photographs of people she doesn’t know. 

R.L. Castle writes science fiction, fantasy, and speculative fiction—from robotics and elementary particle physics to dragons and wizards. He has a soft spot for writing realistic family dynamics, despite fantastical settings and circumstances, and slays the page with love and loss. He holds an M.F.A. in writing for children and young adults from Hamline University and writes in all forms for young readers and adults alike. When not writing, he can be found battling monsters on Pokémon Go. 

Steve Garriott has always been a voracious reader and writer. He enjoys all genres of fiction and non-fiction, with a special love for books about Presidents Lincoln and Grant, and the works of Mark Twain, and Kurt Vonnegut. In 2016, Steve’s three submissions were chosen as the winners of the Everett Public Library flash fiction contest. He has navigated ships, taught writing to high school students and adults, been a corporate trainer, and currently works as a technical writer. A regular participant in National Novel Writing Month, Steve has numerous unfinished novels scattered on flash drives. 

Carlos Joaquin Gonzalez is a Chicano writer who grew up in a household filled with music and books. He became absorbed in storytelling at a very young age, and being half Mexican mestizo, half European-American, he has two distinct cultures to draw from. An autodidact by nature, Carlos has been a lifelong historian and is fascinated with alternate history. Aside from writing and researching, he loves grunge music, concerts, and single-malt Scotch. Carlos is majoring in Chicano Studies at the University of Washington and will graduate in 2021. 

Evvan Land is a writer who grew up immersed in storytelling of all kinds—through books, role-playing games, movies, and a wicked sense of humor. Evvan is drawn to philosophical ponderings, mathematical proofs, and astrophysics. When he’s not writing or calculating, you can find him playing piano, practicing Japanese, reading, and eating peanut butter. A Pacific Northwest resident at heart, Evvan is pursuing a degree in Mathematics from the University of Colorado, Boulder. 

Karin Larsen fell in love with writing during a childhood filled with arts and music in the American Midwest. She pursued a degree in sacred music, combining writing and music composition to create and direct a stage musical for her capstone project. When fibromyalgia ruled out the world of collegiate-level teaching after a few years, she turned her energy towards her family and faith communities. She now works as music director of a small Lutheran church, and her writing often focuses on family and relationship dynamics. She lives in the state of Washington with spouse Keith and daughter Phoenix. 

Bobbie Peyton is a writer of Filipino and European heritage. Born in the Philippines, she moved to the United States as a baby and grew up in an idyllic small town in Oregon. Bobbie now lives in northern California with Tillman and Wonton, her two little (but ferocious) dogs, where you can find her at work on many writing projects, especially for younger readers. A former high school special education teacher, Bobbie has master’s degrees from Tufts University and Hamline University’s M.F.A. program in writing for children and young adults. 

H. K. Porter is new to writing, but not to stories. She’s been an avid reader since she was three years old and is currently an active member of two book clubs and National Novel Writing Month. In addition, she is a beta reader and provides critiques for the books of indie author and publisher, Heather Marie Reaves. Ms. Porter lives in the Pacific Northwest, and aside from reading, she loves cooking with her partner, gardening, and exploring thrift stores for unusual objects as inspiration for short stories. 

Susanna Skarland is an editor, author, and unicorn, holding an M.F.A. in writing for children and young adults from Hamline University. She is a member of SCBWI and volunteers for PNWA and the Society of Young Inklings, providing editorial support. Susanna writes fantastical, adventurous fiction about ancient dragons and flighty faeries. A sucker for playful language, she flagrantly fashions fanciful fractal fricatives. All of Susanna’s stories weave in a strong thread of science and the natural world, the residual effect of a substantial career in biological research. Her home is under the clouds of the Pacific Northwest, where you will find her with a cup of tea in hand and cat underfoot.