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.