Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet #17

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Image“The Pirate’s True Love” by Seana Graham
“All the Things She Wanted” by Philip Raines and Harvey Welles
“You Accept What You Get When You’re Eating with Death” by Christien Gholson
“The Mushroom Duchess” by Deborah Roggie
“Daylighting the Donwell River” by Alette J. Willis
“Native Spinsters” by Diana Pharaoh Francis
“‘Discrete Mathematics’ by Olaf and Lemeaux; Or, the Severed Hand” by David Connerley Nahm
“Bright Waters” by John Brown

Once again, good fortune I don’t deserve has me reviewing the extraordinary Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet by Small Beer Press, as fine a magazine from as fine an independent publisher as you are ever likely to find.

Seana Graham’s opening “The Pirate’s True Love” is the kind of folkloric and whimsical fantasy I’ve grown to expect from LCRW. Having said that I’ve grown to expect it, however, I must also add that I have not yet tired of it, and don’t really foresee doing so. In Graham’s story, obviously enough about a pirate’s lover, the lives of women left behind by the ever-endangered seafarers are examined. It’s hardly a new topic (surely even scholarly books, as well as novels, have been written on the subject), and yet Graham brings something completely new to it—as one would expect, given the story’s home. This pirate’s true love, not content with staring wistfully out to sea, organizes a Pirate Women’s Auxiliary. The activities of the auxiliary are the heart of the tale and should only be learned by reading it. Suffice it to say that they, like the story, combine humour, romance, and even a bit of believability.

“All the Things She Wanted” by Philip Raines and Harvey Welles had me licking my lips before I even started reading it. Raines and Welles collaborated on the story "The Fishie," in a previous LCRW, which completely blew my socks off. That this new offering by the pair isn’t quite as good is hardly any condemnation, since that previous story was the best I had read all year.

This offering describes a very strange and surreally blighted Washington, DC, in which young protagonist Joan and her friends restlessly search for distraction and meaning amidst a gigantic market spread over the Mall. At a fantastic market stall Joan finds the enigmatic Armitage and his even stranger assistant, Twy, who can sell her What She Really Wants. What Joan really wants, of course, is a mystery to her, and changes repeatedly. Through Joan’s increasing visits to Armitage and the varied exotic and somehow disappointing quests those visits send her on, Raines and Welles cleverly and gorgeously explore the nature of human desire, need, and knowing.

Christien Gholson may have come up with the title of the year in “You Accept What You Get When You’re Eating with Death.” It’s a small mood piece, a one page description of a nearly-empty Greek restaurant and its patrons—one of whom happens to be Death. It’s a well-written, if not overwhelmingly consequential, piece, with a fine attention to detail that strikes a hauntingly effective and apt balance between humor and melancholy.

Deborah Roggie’s “The Mushroom Duchess” is a somewhat more-traditional fantasy, in which a duchess—who obviously has a great love, appreciation for, and knowledge of mushrooms—takes a grave dislike to her son’s new wife. The obvious thing would be for the duchess to poison young Gracinet, but instead she marshals her formidable talents—and fungal friends—in a plot to alienate her daughter-in-law. Of course, in keeping with tradition, Gracinet discovers her mother-in-law’s work and turns the table (literally).  It’s really the twist added by the mushrooms, and the duchess’s use of them to do something other than simply kill Gracinet, that prevents this story from being fairly mundane fantasy. Instead, while not exceptional, it’s entertaining, light reading.

“Daylighting the Donwell River” by Alette J. Willis is a touching and enigmatic love story in which the location is both metaphor and character. Recently divorced Simon moves to a new development along the banks of a dead river, lured by the city’s promise to revitalize both the neighborhood and the river itself. While the river, and the city’s plan, stagnates, Simon finds himself drawn to an enigmatic woman. His pursuit of her revitalizes both the river and his own life, but not in the way he had imagined. It’s a magical story, filled with sparkling and meaningful transformations.

Covering Diana Pharaoh Francis’s “Native Spinsters” in a paragraph feels just wrong to me; one could probably write a thesis on this deep and engaging story. It’s a horror story, of sorts, set in colonial India, where proper English ladies sip tea, write letters, and grumble about the beastly weather, doing their best not to confront or, heaven forefend, try to understand the otherness that surrounds them. But when Francis Mary Eaton—know as Fanny (which is British slang for female genitals, by the way)—takes the even-more-reserved Caroline Hughes for a trip to some ruins, they are forced to confront the native other, as well as the real otherness that lurks within them—their own repressed sexuality. Fanny’s response is eminently believable even while it seems, to the reader, both boneheaded and a giant leap towards disaster. In “Native Spinsters,” Francis has done an admirable job of getting into the minds of her culturally and historically, even mythically, rooted characters. It’s a spooky yet erotic story, well-written, and very clever, with a powerful and meaningful ending.

David Connerley Nahm’s “‘Discrete Mathematics’ by Olaf and Lemeaux; Or, the Severed Hand” is a cipher, a story of suspense told in code. It begins with the discovery of a severed hand on the kitchen floor of a man who works in a library, keeps lists, and cares for his crippled sister, and from there the story goes backwards and laterally without really going forward, taking the form of numbered sections that mirror the lists of the narrator. The severed hand is almost forgotten as the narrator recalls his childhood and describes his daily life: ordinary, but with just enough hints of oddity to make the story creepy. The simple prose creates a sad atmosphere, making the narrator’s memories into a meditation on aging. The list-like structure of the story, narrated by a man with a suspect memory, places all of what one originally expects the story to be about—the mystery of the severed hand—off-screen, along with the strange event that leads to the story’s devastating conclusion. I’m not well enough read to know how many times, if any, this sort of structure has been explored—at least, not in the tale of suspense. But to me this story feels like a masterpiece of mood and innovation.

This quite excellent collection closes with, for LCRW, the very long “Bright Waters,” by John Brown. The story is an excellent counterpoint to “Native Spinsters,” dealing with similar themes and with a somewhat similar setting and structure. But Brown’s protagonist, the pious but fearsomely-scarred trader and trapper Jan van Doorn, interacts frequently and tolerantly with the neighbouring Mohawks. After his new wife leaves him, taking away half his goods, Jan is forced to resume trapping and trading with the Mohawks. Hoping to secure the tribe’s good will, he agrees to get a small tattoo that is supposed to aid him in finding a wife —even though his Christian beliefs make him distinctly uncomfortable in doing so. Predictably, the tattoo has its promised effect (which Jan resists), and the woman with whom Jan settles is obvious from the beginning of the story. But that’s not what the story is about—the story is about coming to terms with other cultures and beliefs, and in so doing, making peace with one’s own. 

One more issue of Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet read, one more piece of evidence backing my belief that Gavin J. Grant and Kelly Link are the finest editors of literary fiction in the genre world.