Books, Reviews

Book review — “THE GRAND TOUR: A Jackson’s Unreal Circus and Mobile Marmalade Collection” by E. Catherine Tobler

If you (like me) love Ray Bradbury and the stranger, somewhat surreal side of fantasy, horror, and science fiction, then this short story collection by E. Catherine Tobler is most definitely for you. For years, Tobler has been writing an amazing assortment of short stories (and a novella!) set in her weird, wonderful, unsettling, and sometimes rather terrifying, Circus world. In this collection, you will enter that Circus world, and meet characters who, while they seem strange on the surface, are probably far, far stranger beneath the skin.

Like the title suggests, the stories in The Grand Tour traverse both time and space, and the scope of this collection is part of what makes it special. The main attraction, though, is Tobler’s prose. Her writing is both lyrical and visceral, and manages to simultaneously cut, shimmer, and sing. Much like Ray Bradbury’s short fiction, Tobler’s stories play out in a twilight zone all their own, and she picks perspectives and points of view that tilt and skew your vision of the world, twisting reality into dreams and nightmares, turning dreams and nightmares into reality. I love her stories for their fierce beauty and unapologetic strangeness, and for the way she skilfully weaves together strands of science fiction and fantasy, myth and fairytale, often with just enough unsettling darkness and horror in the mix that you’re never quite sure where the stories might end up, or what the characters might do.

Tobler’s characters and creatures exist on the fringes and outskirts of society and the universe–either by choice or because they’ve been forced out. Her characters can be beautiful, for sure, but they are marked by pain and rage, fear and sadness, and they all seem to struggle (and sometimes fail) to find a place in the world. Even those who can change their shape (by choice or because they are forced to), don’t always manage to fit in, no matter how hard they try.

To quote the collection’s official blurb:

Step right up! Come one, come all, to Jackson’s Unreal Circus and Mobile Marmalade. The steam train may look older than your great-grandmother’s’ china, but within her metal corridors are destinations you have only ever dreamed. They’re real, friends, each and every one—and yours for the taking.

Witness Rabi, Vanquisher and Vanisher Extraordinaire, who can make coins and the past vanish before your very eyes. Dare to visit the Beauty and the Beast, our conjoined twins who are terrible and tortured by turns. Sample Beth’s marmalade, the sticky sweetness containing the very memory of the day you turned sixteen, and your beloved’s lips touched yours once and never again.It’s worth the price, traveler. Jackson’s Unreal Circus is where you can be whoever or whatever you want. Whether it be a ride on the Ferris wheel, slipping inside a skin that is not your own, or the opportunity to live as you never have before—it is all possible on this, the grandest of tours. The train beckons you—come, come!

For the first time, E. Catherine Tobler has compiled a collection of her popular circus stories. With nine stories ranging from the first publishing within this universe to a previously unpublished piece, this is your ticket to her magical world. Welcome to The Grand Tour.

I love all these stories, but a new favourite of mine (though it was first published several years ago), is “Vanishing Act”, where Tobler gives us a luminous scifi tale blended with magic that manages to be both unsettling and oddly heartwarming. “Lady Marmalade” is another favourite, featuring Beth who can see the threads of each person’s life, the knots and deviations, the other threads they are tied to; Beth, who turns memories into magic preserves, kept in jars.

Marmalade makes an important appearance in “Every Season”, a profoundly moving story of love and lust and life that is original to this collection. Here we meet Harper who has visited the Circus several times, and now has a collection of marmalade jars in his cupboard.

The first time, all those years ago, it had been a mistake; they hadn’t known what the marmalade could do, didn’t know it contained everything a person needed. Everything they avoided. Jars full of time and memory, not just marmalade.

And if you like this collection, please also pick up Tobler’s novella THE KRAKEN SEA, which is all about Jackson, of Jackson’s Unreal Circus.

You can even read my review of The Kraken Sea if you like!

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