Review: Long Macchiatos and Monsters

4.5/5 stars. Buy at: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Less Than Three Press

I think I probably picked up Long Macchiatos and Monsters by Alison Evans during one of the sales; when I was flipping through my kindle on Thursday to look for something to read, I saw the title and couldn’t remember anything about it, but hey, I’m always in the mood for monsters, so why not? Spoilers: There aren’t any monsters in this novelette, but it didn’t matter that it ran counter to what I thought I was in the mood for, because the charming feel of the writing drew me in almost immediately.

Jalen loves B-grade sci-fi movies, and does not share this trait with any of their friends. They’re sitting in their favorite coffee shop trying to side if they should go alone to the theatre to catch a double feature of really bad films when in walks the handsome (and he knows it) P. They catch each other’s eye, and the story follows a series of experiences they share over the next three months.

It’s a shortish piece, falling somewhere in length between a short story and a novella, and written in first person present tense. It was an unusual choice, but it worked for me because the story itself is very immediate and in the moment; it’s essentially a series of vignettes that trace the start of a relationship through the point of view of one of the participants.

Both characters are different in the ways they’re similar. They both like monster movies, but Jalen likes the sincerity of them, and P enjoys being horrified by them. They both aren’t their assigned gender; Jalen is nonbinary and P is binary trans. They both like coffee, but Jalen likes lattes and P likes macchiatos (and both think the other’s drink is gross). They’re both amputees—Jalen lost several fingers as a child, and P has a prosthetic leg… and they share many other similar differences as well.  This may sound like a list of traits, but the story uses it as a motif to spin development between the two characters, the places where they relate and where they don’t, the things they want to learn about each other, the places where similarities immediately spike both understanding and anxiety. All these traits are ways for the two to play off each other, find the rough spots and the smooth ones, without the storytelling of it ever being made overt or hamfisted. There’s very much a theme about understanding identity by building a picture out of small things— without giving the details away, I feel like scene with the strawberry ice cream ties it all together perfectly.

Likewise, the story is about public and private spaces. Location is very important in it, and a lot of the individual scenes play off the mood and setting built in different places. Jalen’s messy apartment they share with their sister, P’s tidy and empty “display home”, and how these places change when it’s just the two of them versus when family comes over. The movie theatre if you’re intending to watch a movie, and the movie theatre if you’re intending not to be watching. A coffee shop you go to alone and one you go to with someone. Again, since this is both about the characters’ understanding of their own identity (“Do you ever wonder if you’re wrong?” “I’m never wrong.” “I wonder all the time.”) and about how identity is understood outside oneself, the constant redefining of spaces in the story is a beautifully played motif.

I found Jalen a really engaging pov character. Their sense of anxiety and frequent second-guessing is balanced by a deliberate willingness to take chances, and their mental voice is philosophical without being pretentious and has a good sense of wit to it. (Speaking of which, the line where Jalen acknowledges that P is acting super pretentious, and is both amused and horrified by how attracted they were to that really set the tone of the story to me). Conversely, P is a bit of an enigma due to Jalen being the pov. There are a lot of scenes where Jalen doesn’t know the specifics of what’s happening with him even if they get the general idea, and while as a reader this was occasionally frustrating—I wanted to know more about P too!—it fit the story’s theme of trying to learn. Some of the points still feel like a loose thread, but I’m torn on if that bothers me or not, given the shape of what Evans is doing here.

The biggest critical note I have is that the flow of the scenes was occasionally difficult to follow, and some of the shorter segments had a different tone to them than the ones around it, so I found myself rereading certain pages to make sure I understood what the switch was doing there and where/when the characters were now. In general, though, I found it a really nicely written short piece, a three month slice of two characters’ lives and how they intersected, and I felt that although I’d have liked to see more, what fit in the story worked well with the time period Evans defined.

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Review: The Bone Key

5/5 stars. Buy at: Amazon | Barnes & Noble

The Bone Key by Sarah Monette is a collection of interconnected short stories which begin the adventures of Kyle Murchison Booth, the overall ‘verse of which is The Necromantic Mysteries of Kyle Murchison Booth. It consists of the first ten stories; of the remaining five, four are not in any collection but can be found available online (The Replacement, White Charles, The Yellow Dressing Gown, To Die For Moonlight) while the fifth can be found in her short story collection, Somewhere Beneath Those Waves. While this review is only for the Bone Key, I want to help make it easy for the rest to be found because I enjoyed this collection greatly.

I nabbed the Bone Key off my shelf because I was very much in the mood for something vaguely lovecraftian, and I found that this collection scratched that itch nicely. Written as a tribute to Lovecraft and M.R. James, the stories aim to capture that unsettling air of creeping horror, but add to the mix a sense of consistent, ongoing character.

The titular Kyle Murchison Booth is a socially awkward, uncomfortable man, a rare book archivist with the Samuel Mathers Parrington museum (and I can only assume that Monette wanted us to recall that Samuel Mathers) who dislikes conversation, physical contact, and having any expectations placed on him whatsoever, while he likes, mostly, books and being left largely alone. The first story begins with a queer take on a story like Lovecraft’s The Statement of Randolf Carter, where the timid protagonist is dragged along by the stronger willpower of his more charismatic friend. By making Booth gay and the one-sided tension between the two characters homoromantic, Monette launches into a strong start at establishing a character-first take on the discomfiting terror of the genre.

Booth as a character has a lot of appeal to me—he’s neurotic and anxious and can barely get a full sentence out, but these things aren’t done for the sake of an exaggerated persona but are instead the product of a man who was emotionally abused and bullied through most of his life, and for whom every conversation is a potential trap. His mental voice is rich and full of intelligent metaphors; he just chokes on the words on the way out. I find him quite charming.

Another reviewer on goodreads noted that while none of the individual stories were 5/5, the collection as a whole was, and I have to agree. Now, I’d rate most of the individual stories quite highly, but the real charm of the collection is seeing Booth grow, his terrifying experiences snowball, and his acquaintances return with the past between them still important. Ratcliffe’s offer to go to coffee with Booth “in celebration of the fact that we are no longer fourteen” absolutely sticks with me as so much of the underlying significance of these stories—that the people in them have a life beyond those horrible moments (assuming, at least, that they survive). And then, as a collection, this satisfied the desire for my wanting all kinds of paranormal creeps. Ghosts, vengeful and otherwise; strange eldritch horrors in the woods; incubi; the horror in the walls… Something for everyone, and deeply satisfying.

I look forward to when Monette writes the next Booth story and I assure you I’ll do my best to be one of its first readers.