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Yellowcake by Margo Lanagan

Yellowcake (2011)

by Margo Lanagan

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Ten short stories from Margo Lanagan are anthologized here, spanning time and space. Ranging from fantasy to science fiction to horror, each tale is its own little universe, peopled with characters looking for connection, for explanation, for understanding. Whether the story plunges down to the Underworld for a day in the life of a ferryman or peels back the flapping entrance to a circus tent, Lanagan gives readers a peek into a strange world that’s not so different from our own.

I felt that the collection, as a whole, lacked cohesiveness. The only element that I saw recurring was that several stories were based on fairy tales or religious folklore. For example, “Night of the Firstlings” tells the story of the Passover as it might have appeared to one of children of the Israelites, while “The Golden Shroud” gives a rather happier ending to the characters of “Rapunzel”. But not every tale has a literary precedent, so it doesn’t serve as a true unifying element.

This is my first experience with Margo Lanagan. She has a very vague, dreamy style of writing that implies much but explains little. It’s often difficult to pinpoint anything with certainty. In some stories, like “Catastrophic Destruction”, it infuses an old narrative with new magic - but then again, if you aren’t familiar with Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Tinderbox” then I’m not sure the story will make sense, or be strong enough to stand on its own. The tales are often disjointed or jumbled. A Booklist review describes the text as “tricksy prose [that] feels as if it’s been translated into an alien tongue and back again”, and I think that’s a fairly accurate. I was often left wanting more, but not in a good way.

As with all short story anthologies, there are some strong stories that I would eagerly read again and others that I could barely finish. This is worth picking up for Lanagan’s takes on Rapunzel and “Into the Clouds on High”, a touching story about a boy whose mother keeps trying to float away into the sky, but you might want to find the book in a library first to see if the author’s labored tellings will be enjoyable or a chore. ( )
  makaiju | Dec 13, 2013 |
This is the 4th collection of short fiction by Lanagan, after Black Juice, White Time and Red Spikes. And it is the 4th I've read. Here in the states her work is marketed as YA, perhaps because the viewpoint is often that of an adolescent or a child and the prose uncongested. If one were trying to categorize her stories, one might say some were magical realism, science fiction, fairy tale or fantasy (or some combination of these), but one would only bother to do so in order to inform another.

Margo Lanagan has a remarkable imagination. The reader never knows what where they are going in one of her stories. They always start on solid, familiar ground, but soon the ground drops out from under you and well, you're on your own after that. Take my favorite story in this collection of 10 stories. "An Honest Day's Work" begins with a work crew having lunch, the banter all very familiar, but the names are not. The viewpoint is from a young person, a newbie on the team, who is somewhat handicapped. A call comes in to the leader's walkie talkie and soon there's a scrambling because a 'big one' is incoming. Here is where the solid ground drops out, and Lanagan's story is detailed, and mesmerizing; she's a bit of a tease with the clues. Whatever the 'incoming' is, it's desperately needed food and the crews are going to dismantle it.

At first, all we could see was the backlit bulk of the thing, with a few bright rags of aura streaming in the wind, thinning as it came closer. The light from the sun, which as yet was below the horizon, made the thick shroud glow, and the body shape was a dark blur within in. I thought I could see a head, against a bigger torso. But you can't be sure with these things; they're never the same twice in their build and features, in their arrangement of limbs.

At about the time when you figure out what's going on, and all seems to be going well for the crew, the unexpected happens.

For this story, Lanagan was inspired by a film she saw on ship-breaking. Honestly, who watches a film on ship-breaking and imagines something like "An Honest Day's Work"? Well, Lanagan does. I find her work, the way it unsettles me, rather stimulating. ( )
  avaland | Nov 15, 2013 |
I am just not that much of a short story person, even though I like Margo Lanagan's writing a lot, so this ended up being a strong collection of stories that I moderately enjoyed.

All the stories are very much in her style, very rich, very vivid imagery, often somewhat haunting, and generally very vaguely otherworldly or creepy -- although she's extremely versatile in the way the creepiness sets it. It's never the same type of otherworldliness. Some of these are almost science fiction-y, while others draw from traditional fairy tales or myths.

It's hard for me to judge short stories. I liked this, but there're just all too short to me to feel that invested in them. I am impressed though, that almost all of the settings felt like they could be the environments for other, longer books that still made sense. ( )
  delphica | Sep 5, 2013 |
Quick—someone teach me how to review a short story collection. I’m afraid I didn’t take notes on individual stories as I read this, so just a few words on the collection as a whole.

The book’s afterword explains not only Lanagan’s inspiration for each of these stories, which I found interesting to read, but also that the majority of these stories have been previously published elsewhere. If you’ve been a dedicated YA short story anthology reader, particularly of the SFF kind, then you may have read some of these stories already. It’s probably a good idea to know this, in order to avoid buyer’s disappointment.

The best audience for YELLOWCAKE is devoted Lanagan fans, or readers who have read a book or two by her and are curious for more. I fall into the latter, perhaps moving into the former. Like her other books, the stories in YELLOWCAKE don’t seem like they should work, but they do. In each of them is a vague echo of something familiar: I felt like I had read the essence or the ideas of some of them before. But in Lanagan’s uniquely skillful hands, the ideas turn into phantasmal sights, old and new at the same time.

I’m not sure if there’s a connecting thread running through all these stories. Sometimes I felt like I could catch hold of a connection, but then the next story comes along and dashes my tentative theories into pieces. The best I can come up with is that this short story collection persuasively argues, in a peripheral, is-it-or-is-it-not kind of way, the importance of having a little more magic—however you define it—in our lives. ( )
  stephxsu | May 14, 2013 |
I got a copy of this book to review through the Amazon Vine program. Previously I had read Lanagan’s Brides of Rollrock Island and really loved it. This was a collection of short stories that I enjoyed overall. Some stories were spectacular and some were a bit hard to follow.

This is a collection of stories that span fantasy, horror, and paranormal genres. Some of the stories are really well done, a couple I had to reread to figure out exactly what was going on. In general Lanagan tends to be a bit vague in her writing, leaving the reader to draw their own conclusions about what really happened. This can lead to the reader having more questions than answers by the time they get to the end of a story.

This is aimed at young adults, but there is one story “Catastrophic Disruption of the Head” that was very adult. This story had a ton of violence including a rape scene and discussion of mutiple rapes on a young woman...so just be aware of that.

My favorite stories of the bunch were: The Golden Shroud (a beautiful retelling of Rapunzel with a happier ending than the traditional fairy tale0, Into the Clouds (a story about a young boy whose mother gets called to go somewhere else), Ferryman (a story about how the young Sharon got the job as Ferryman of the dead) and Eyelids of the Dawn (in which a building decides it needs a vacation).

All of the stories included are listed below along with ratings and brief descriptions. I haven’t read any of Lanagan’s other short story collections yet, so I don’t know how they compare to this one. I did enjoy The Brides of Rollrock Island a lot more than this story collection.

Overall it was a decent collection of stories. I will be checking out more of Lanagan’s short story collections. I recommend to those who love quirky and slightly ambiguous fantasy/horror stories. A lot of these stories are very creative and very different.

The Point of Roses (3/5 stars)
The first story is about a boy who can make things come true from objects. Very vague and a bit hard to follow.

The Golden Shroud (5/5 stars)
A retelling of Rapunzel with a happier ending than the traditional fairy tale

A Fine Magic (4/5 stars)
When two young girls reject the attentions of an old wizard, he gets his revenge on them.

A Honest Day’s Work (4/5 stars)
About a town where the workers harvest creatures of gelatinous goo from the ocean.

Into the Clouds on High (5/5 stars)
Story about a boy whose mother is called to the sky.

Night of the Firstlings (3/5 stars)
About a family who survives a sickness and an attack, only to be forced to journey from their home. Another story that is very vague and was a bit hard to follow.

Catastrophic Disruption of the Head (4/5 stars)
Story about a soldier who comes across an old woman with magical dogs. A bit hard to follow since it jumps around in time, also very graphic violence.

Ferryman (5/5 stars)
Story about how Sharon came to be the Ferryman. Wonderfully done and clever.

Living Curiosities (4/5 stars)
A story about people living at a circus and a suicide.

Eyelids of the Dawn (5/5 stars)
When a building gets uncomfortable it decides to take a vacation out to sea. This was a fun story that was easy to follow and very creative. ( )
  krau0098 | May 7, 2013 |
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A collection of ten short stories of unusual people, places, and events, including reimagined classic tales and original works, most of which were previously published.

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