Thursday, August 10, 2017

Summer short fiction reccs!

It's hard to believe that summer is nearly over. I've been traveling and working, talking walks and binge-watching anime with my kids. I haven't read as much as I would like, but then there is not nearly enough time in the world for that. 

Here is a list of some stories I’ve read. If you can, I recommend that you read them, too.

Liminal Stories

Each issue of this new magazine has impressed and moved me. Here are my favorites from Issue 3.

Lares Familares, 1981 by Rebecca Campbell 

“Lares Familares,” according to Wikipedia, were household guardian spirits of the ancient Romans. In Campbell’s story, a similar spirit may be watching over (or not?) a troubled Canadian logging family. This is a deeply atmospheric, unsettling work, beautifully evoking history and place. Campbell excels at capturing the unspoken tensions that can run through a family, the unspoken hurts and demands. The birthday dinner party described in this tale is certainly one of the most uncomfortable I’ve read. A quietly eerie piece that subtly gets under your skin.  

The Barrette Girls by Sara Saab

Such a dark, dark, surreal tale. I love the narrative voice of this, the cold and compelling anger. The narrator has a job shepherding a group of little girls through the city to a secret location. . . a job with a purpose which is only gradually revealed. On Twitter, the author described this story as one about “f*ed up people & f*ed-up personhood,” and it’s an apt description. The narrator is wounded and supremely unlikeable, and I couldn’t put this story down.

Obtrusion Rate by Jonathan Laidlow

Another tense, surreal tale from Liminal Stories (hmm, there seems to be a pattern here?) Laidlow unspools a tale of a uniquely awful workplace. Mundane office irritations (e.g. meetings and a ceiling leak which has not been fixed) are juxtaposed with hints of something much more sinister. The mystery of this particular company’s purpose is slowly unwound, and it becomes a portrait of a team, and a man, trying to cope with terrible trauma as they attempt to do their job.  

Beneath Ceaseless Skies

Beneath Ceaseless Skies consistently offers beautifully written secondary-world fantasy. Here are two that I managed to catch this summer.

Carnival Nine by Caroline Yoachim 

One of the loveliest and most poignantly understated fables I’ve ever seen. Yoachim presents a world of clockwork characters who must be wound up each day to function. But some characters get more winds (which translates to more energy, more time) than others. In the real world we, too, have limited time and energy, and neither are fairly distributed. Yoachim’s tale becomes a bittersweet allegory about this, and also about a mother’s love and the limits of that love—and by extension, the limits that we all have.

I have followed Lemberg’s Birdverse series of stories for several years now. I think this is the best one yet. A rich, strange novella of falling stars, millennia-old star-guardians, shapeshifters, lions, and flying carpets. And the desert, of course—the beautifully evoked desert of this story. An ancient and powerful sovereign of the desert meets a much younger, yet also powerful, worker of magic. The two people are immediately drawn to one another. What follows is a stunningly intimate tale of connection. This is a story of power, consent, and intimacy. It’s a story of trauma and longing, passion and lust. It’s a daring tale that takes real chances. And it’s set in the magical Birdverse universe: it deepens and expands the world that we’ve seen before. The mythic entwines with the personal and intimate. Absolutely gorgeous.

More stories from around the Internet

 Bear Language by Martin Cahill at Fireside

Such a stunning, completely absorbing story. A bear has broken into a house and trapped two children and their father on the upper floor. But who is the real threat to the children? This story is so perfectly done. It’s full of hurt and truth and love that exists but which cannot save.

The Stars That Fall by Samantha Murray at  Flash Fiction Online

A perfectly written flash piece about the doom that hangs over us all.  

Jonathan’s Heaven Has Many Cats by Rachel K. Jones at Lackington’s

This story addresses a familiar question: What kind of God would create a world with suffering in it? and addresses it in a most unusual way. It’s weird, wild, wonderful, zany, and ultimately poignant. And yes, there are cats.

Firstborn by Maria Haskins at Capricious (Issue 7)

“A mother’s love is supposed to be clean and whole. Not tattered and rent like mine. It should be pastels and flannel, hearts and cherubs. Never once was it like that for me. Always the knotted noose. Always the precipice and the abyss.”

Capricious is a new magazine to me, although writer Maria Haskins is not. I haven’t finished reading all the stories in this issue, but I did eagerly turn to Haskins’ story first. And oh, this one hit me hard. This fiercely written tale catches all the conflicted feelings of early motherhood—the fears, the ambivalence, the seeming loss of self in the face of a new life’s overwhelming need. And the love, too.

Small Changes Over Long Periods of Time by K.M. Szpara at Uncanny Magazine 

This is a vampire story like you’ve never seen. The first lines grab you and never let go. The narrator is unwillingly bit and turned to vampirism one drunken night outside a bar. But on top of the usual complications of vampirism is another: the narrator is a trans man, and he (and the vampire who turned him) have no idea of what vampirism will actually do to his body. This tale looks at issues of bodily autonomy (and the violation of it), of choice (and the lack and denial of it). The narrative voice is intimate, compelling, and angry as hell.

Harvest by Steven Case in Bracken Magazine

A British pumpkin soldier tells tales of the war. It’s a seemingly whimsical premise, a story weird and wonderful. But by the end, this account of gourd soldiers has become poignant and haunting.

These Constellations Will Be Yours by Elaine Cuyegkeng at Strange Horizons

And ohhh, this beautifully, beautifully written piece. Empire, oppression, and resistance. Children who are taken from their families and forced to serve as ship navigators among the stars, told that all “these constellations will be yours.” A space ship who bonds with a ballerina. This is a short story that manages to feel both epic and personal; it’s sweeping, gorgeously detailed, and ultimately uplifting. The world-building and emotion are both remarkable—Cuyegkeng has imagination to burn.

Delia’s Door by Julia August at Three-Lobed Burning Eye

This is an older story (published in October 2016), but I only happened to stumble upon it this summer. It’s a lovely tale: glowing, gorgeous, and touched with real longing. A story where choirs can call up doors to other worlds, and a Vivaldi fugue conjures up a door to a summer country. . . 

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Michigan summer, slipping away

August has only begun, yet I feel the summer ending. The evening sky darkens too soon. I’ve heard geese honking overhead at night, and tonight Youngest One and I saw two flocks of them passing overhead—like harbingers of the first migrating waves, pressed dark against the blue twilight.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Some Books I've Loved (Summer Recs!)

I’m late with this, but here are some books I’ve recently loved. I hope that you, dear reader, might love them, too. 

The House of Binding Thorns by Aliette de Bodard

A year ago I read Aliette de Bodard’s The House of Shattered Wings, her first book in the Dominion of the Fallen series. I fell in love with her Gothic-tinged world of fallen angels and Parisian ruins. The sequel, The House of Binding Thorns, is a worthy successor that—dare I say it?--may be even better than the first.

The first novel was a taut, atmospheric murder mystery set in House Silverspires. In the follow-up novel, the action shifts to Silverspires’ rival, House Hawthorn. A few characters from the first novel make their reappearance. Philippe, an outcast Vietnamese Immortal, is trying to resurrect a dear (and dead) friend. Madeline, a mortal alchemist addicted to angel essence (a drug which is the distillation of angel magic), has been dragged reluctantly back to service in House Hawthorn, and is simply trying to survive. The head of House Hawthorn, Asmodeus, is back and sarcastic and cruel as ever. Much of this book, however, is given over to an entirely new cast of characters. And while I was a bit sad at seeing so little of Philippe, there is abundant recompense in these new characters. Thuan is a badass dragon prince and spy who has infiltrated House Hawthorn under the guise of a Houseless teenager of the streets. Francoise and Berith are two Houseless lovers simply trying to survive: Francois is mortal (and heavily pregnant); Berith is an ailing Fallen angel who may die before her mortal lover does. The author’s world of magic and ruins is deepened and expanded in this sequel. The watery dragon kingdom under the river Seine is more fully explored, and the fates of the dragon kingdom and House Hawthorn become entwined. We also learn more about the Vietnamese (termed “Annamite” in this book) diaspora community in Paris. Indeed, for me one of the delights of this book is seeing the strength of this human community, and how it enfolds both Philippe and Francoise (and by extension, Francoise’s partner Berith).

A murder mystery was central to the first novel of this series, The House of Shattered Wings. In the House of Binding Thorns, de Bodard deftly juggles several mysteries. Who is smuggling angel essence into the dragon kingdom? What is really behind Asmodeus’ decision to ally with the dragon kingdom? Who is kidnapping Vietnamese dockworkers and why? Dragon prince Thuan, human Madeline, and others must play detective. Multiple factions battle for power, double-crosses abound, and de Bodard cleverly ties together the different narrative threads. As always, her prose is utterly gorgeous and richly evocative. She moves smoothly from gritty urban realism to scenes of sweeping magic and primal myth (the image of a carnivorous grove of trees is particularly haunting).  

As the action builds and accelerates, I found myself reading the last third of the novel at a fast clip, hardly able to put it down. Events sweep to an emotionally satisfying conclusion. This is a wonderful read, as beautiful and brutal as the first novel of the series, and with characters who may be even more emotionally compelling.   

*I have a crush on Thuan, that sweet but badass dragon prince. His interactions with Asmodeus are delicious.
**Francoise and Berith are wonderful.
***Madeline really comes into her own. I confess that I found her viewpoint the least compelling in The House of Shattered Wings, but she captured my heart in this book.

I’ve been a fan of Gwendolyn Kiste since first discovering her dark fairy tale, “All the Red Apples Have Withered to Gray,”  in the online pages of Shimmer. I was delighted to see her first collection debut this spring. Kiste has a gift for braiding darkness with beauty, for finding the arresting image and evocative line. There are fiercely retold fairy tales in this collection, creeping horrors, a science-fiction dystopia, and--amidst the darkness and fear--glimpses of freedom and light.  “All the Red Apples Have Withered to Gray” remains one of my personal favorites, but “The Tower Princesses” (which plays with the tale of Rapunzel and tropes of trapped princesses in a contemporary setting) tore at my heart. I loved the building tension in the science fictional “The Five-Day Summer Camp.” I loved the way Kiste depicts body horrors with beauty, as in her tale, “Skin Like Honey and Lace.” And I love her exploration of painful emotional truths, as in her concluding tale, “The Lazarus Bride.” Her stories vary in subject, but they are all united by her immediately compelling voice. If you like darkness and tension illuminated with gorgeous prose, this collection is for you.

Tender by Sofia Samatar

Oh, and where do I begin with Sofia Samatar? She is one of my writing heroes. Her novels, A Stranger in Olondria and The Winged Histories, have truly changed the way I approach my own writing (my review of The Winged Histories is here). But she is master of the short form, too, and it was through her short stories that I first found her. Her first collection, Tender, is everything I hoped for, and more.

Samatar has the ability to evoke entire worlds and character histories in a remarkably short space. The first story, “Selkie Stories are for Losers" (which was nominated for multiple awards) is a prime example of this. We never learn much of the narrator’s mother, or of the mother-daughter relationship; the mother is a yawning absence in the narrative as well as in the daughter’s heart. But we do feel that absence, reflected and refracted through the daughter’s relationship with another (emotionally) abandoned girl. The story deftly evokes whole emotional worlds through rich, carefully chosen details within its brief space. Samatar performs similar magic in tales such as “The Closest Thing to Animals” and “The Red Thread”—but in these cases suggesting entire science-fictional near-future worlds as well as character backgrounds.  

Samatar’s stories range through space and time: there are stories set in contemporary America as well as historical pieces in America, Africa, and Vienna. There are stories set in rich secondary fantasy worlds, and stories set in the future. Samatar draws heavy inspiration from settings and histories in the Middle East and Africa, but she also draws from a myriad of other influences. 

While most of these stories have been previously published, not all are easily available, and two of the longer stories appear here for the first time. “An Account of the Land of Witches” is gorgeous, strange, rich fantasy that becomes progressively more surreal. And “Fallow” is a heart-breaking novella of survival in a future colony on a distant planet.

While reading, I kept underlining phrases that struck me:

“There is enough cruelty in the world,” she told me softly, “to justify all the music ever made.” (“An Account of the Land of Witches”)

 There is no end to writing, I think, no end to the project of rescue (“Fallow”)

These sentences are beautiful; Samatar’s prose is always beautiful. But I think these particular sentences also exemplify the humanity in Samatar’s work. There is the acknowledgement of human suffering, along with the acknowledgement of beauty and art. There is the concern with memory, stories, reclamation. “Fallow” is the longest story in the collection, and perhaps the most heartrending. It’s a slow, rich read that only gradually reveals the colony’s truth to the reader. And in its devastating last lines, it pays tribute to human endurance, to the decision to endure despite terrible and unavoidable loss.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Discussion at The Future Fire: Feminist science fiction/fantasy with POC characters

For those who may be interested, I wrote something for the speculative fiction magazine, The Future Fire! Head over here for my recommendation of Ken Liu's The Dandelion Dynasty, and check out the other great recommendations for works of feminist science fiction/fantasy with characters who are "people of color."

Thursday, May 4, 2017

March/April 2017 Reading Recs

There is so much good fiction coming out this May that I’m already buried! So, before I plunge into more reading, here’s a quick roundup of some of my favorites from March and April. . .

As an homage to Senator Elizabeth Warren and women persisting everywhere, Tor commissioned this series of flash pieces by women. The entire series is worth your time, but these three struck me particularly hard:

God Product by Alyssa Wong

Everything by Alyssa Wong strikes hard. And this one of her hardest yet—absolutely horrific, heartbreaking, and stunning.

Anabasis by Amal El-Mohtar

Prose-poetry that slices with light and pain. Borders, belonging and not belonging, and a woman who persists.

A gorgeous, rich fairy tale in miniature—and with an uplifting end that will have you cheering.

Flash pieces at Arsenika

Arsenika is a new magazine of speculative flash fiction and poetry which debuted in April. The first issue establishes a strong and distinctive voice: shimmering, poignant stories and poems.

Reflected Across the Dark by Laurel Amberdine

Portals begin opening across the world, and people disappear. A flash about siblings, love, separation, grief. The last line hits hard.

An absolutely beautiful piece; a delicate, shimmering tale of family, grief, and our belief in small chances.

All the poems in the issue are also well worth reading. I particularly enjoyed the fierce Mirror, Reflect our Unknown Selves by Tlotlo Tsamaase and the lagahoo speaks for itself by Brandon O’Brien. 

Short Stories

Real Ghosts by J.B. Park

What kind of memories do we want to leave behind for our loved ones? And do we really want to remember our loved ones as they truly were? Park takes on these questions in a story of complicated family ties and “memorial holos.” A deft, thought-provoking tale.   

On Grief and the Language of Flowers: Selected Arrangements by Damien Angelica Walters at Mythic Delirium

Another take on family. A florist provides unique arrangements for a funeral. This story with an unusual format delicately evokes a life and an entire web of complex family dynamics—grief, love, and knotty relationships for which resolution is no longer possible.

The Adventurer’s Wife by Premee Mohamed at Nightmare Magazine

An elegantly crafted alt-history with Lovecraftian tones. The sense of foreboding steadily builds, and the ending is a knockout. Quietly subversive—see the accompanying author interview for her comments.

Come See the Living Dryad by Theodora Goss at Tor (novelette)

Another lovely piece of historical fiction, exquisitely crafted. In nineteenth century London, Daphne Merwin is exhibited as a side show freak—a living dryad, a beautiful woman with branches on her hands and twigs on her feet. But what—and more importantly, who—is she? One of Daphne’s descendants tries to find out. Theodora Gross’s story is quietly moving and beautiful. I think she is one of the best writers working today; her plots and story structures are often remarkably inventive, yet delivered with such quiet grace that while reading you’re absorbed in the narrative, only incidentally noticing her technical brilliance. I have seen objections that this story is not actually “speculative fiction”; indeed, it’s a historical fiction/murder mystery which could easily have been published as “mainstream literary.” But however you label it, it is utterly lovely.

And in that Sheltered Sea, A Colossus by Michael Matheson at Shimmer

Some of the most beautiful prose I’ve ever seen. A lushly atmospheric piece which immersed me in a world unlike any other. Ghosts, titans, and the weight of family. A woman living alone in a drowned land encounters a stranger who might just set her free. This piece is gorgeous.

A Complex Filament of Light by S. Qiouyi Lu at Anathema Magazine

I’ve read a few of S. Qiouyi Lu’s stories now. All beautifully written, strange, shimmering, liminal pieces. Like the other pieces I’ve read, this one shines with imagery and echoes with yearning and loss. But for me, there was also a moment of shocked recognition: of seeing a truth of my community in a place that I did not expect. Depression is a topic not easily discussed among Asian-Americans—not even among the younger generations. To see this addressed in a work of fiction is deeply meaningful to me. To see it addressed within the context of the pressures of graduate school makes it resonate even more. This is a lovely story about pain, but it’s also about hope.

(Note: Lu’s story appears in the first issue of Anathema Magazine, a new journal dedicated to publishing speculative fiction by queer people of color. The other stories I read in this issue are also gorgeous and well worth your time.)


“We have Ren Hang’s work; we no longer have Ren Hang. We have photography with its miraculous might, yet again we are reminded it cannot stop suffering, and is no match for death.” 

I had not heard of the Chinese photographer Ren Hang until his death this year. Clearly, he was a talent who will be missed. Chan presents a gorgeous, moving essay on Hang’s work and what it meant to him, accompanied by photographs which are erotic, mysterious, playful, and beautiful.

A Chronology of Touch by Kayla Whaley at Catapult

An extraordinarily beautiful essay about self-touch, shame, and innocence.

Stunning and moving. This aching piece entwines memoir with history, discovery, and the open spaces of the American West.

Touched by Stephen M. Phelps at Aeon Magazine 

The best science writing I’ve seen in some time. Phelps, a neuroscientist and professor of integrative biology, describes the science of touch perception and gives us an explanation of the “sheathless” (unmyelinated) neurons which mediate both pain and the pleasures of sensual touch. Interwoven with the science is the progression of a personal love story. This essay is wondrous—enthralling, gorgeous, moving, and a bit heartbreaking.

“Saudade” is a Portuguese word for longing. And while it feels a bit awkward to link to one of my own previous blog posts, it in turn contains multiple links to great writing (and a song!) on longing and sadness. 

Monday, March 20, 2017

Interview with author Mary Fan at her blog, Zigzag Timeline!

Today science fiction and fantasy 
writer Mary Fan  graciously 
interviewed me at her blog, Zigzag 
Timeline. I ramble about writing and
my novelette, The Lilies of Dawn. I also fangirled hard for writer Sofia Samatar, one of my writing heroes, and a major influence and inspiration for The Lilies of Dawn.

If you're curious, you can check out the interview here: 

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Thoughts and links on saudade, sadness, longing

I have been listening to sad songs in languages I cannot understand. It started when I stumbled on a Twitter link to this song. I cannot understand Mandarin; I had not, until recently, ever followed either of the musical artists featured in the video. I am not in exile, far from home and family. And yet I’ve been obsessed with this song of homesickness, listening over and over to the ache in the vocals, the clear longing in every line.*

There is a word in Portuguese for longing. Months ago, I stumbled upon this BBC travel article describing it: saudade. Saudade is untranslatable, writer Eric Weiner asserts before translating it thus:
Saudade is a longing, an ache for a person or place or experience that once brought great pleasure. It is akin to nostalgia but, unlike nostalgia, one can feel saudade for something that’s never happened, and likely never will.
At the heart of saudade lies a yawning sense of absence, of loss. Saudade, writes scholar Aubrey Bell in his book In Portugal, is “a vague and constant desire for something. . . other than the present.”

That’s it, I thought when I learned this word. That’s what I’ve felt all my life. A longing for something, some place. . . else.

I remember when I felt this most keenly. After college, I moved straight to a new city for graduate school, and like many grad students I felt lost and unmoored for the first years. I missed my college friends; I missed the network I’d built up there, the sense of familiarity and structure. I didn’t know what I was doing in my new field of study; I felt that I was floundering. I missed home deeply. And yet “home” wasn’t the college I’d just left--that world was over and done. I didn’t want to return. And “home” wasn’t the town where I’d grown up; it wasn’t my family there.

But I was homesick, deeply, helplessly. Homesick for where? For what?

The city’s light rail transit system had a station at the university medical campus where I was studying. I passed that station every day as I walked to and from my apartment and the research laboratory where I worked. It was the last station before the airport, where the train line ended. I remember walking past that station in the evenings, sunsets burning above the train tracks, dramatic swirls of red and pink amidst the gray block buildings of the medical center. Each evening I imagined boarding a train for the airport, buying a plane ticket at random, and jetting off forever into that sunset sky for some unknown country, never to come back.

I never did this, of course. And things got better, as they usually do. I met someone, and years later I’ve made a home with him. Yet still, off and on, underneath my contentment, underneath the placid surface of my days, I’ll feel a thin current of longing. A vague yearning for elsewhere, for a place I don’t know and can’t even describe. 

I think of how existential longing is threaded through so many of the stories I write. A selkie-girl longs for the sea. A snow-maiden longs to be human. Children raised on the Moon yearn to return to Earth. These are fairy tales of impossible longings, longings which can seemingly never be resolved.

In real life, longing is often so painful. But what about it makes us seek it in art? Why is longing at the heart of so many of our most beloved songs, movies, books, and stories?

I think of a post by blogger Lindsey Meade, which I bookmarked and read years ago. She writes of the loneliness, the sadness, at the core of human life. 

I thought everybody felt this vague loneliness at the center of their experience, this unnamed, ineffable emotion that waxes and wanes depending on the day, week, or hour.

In her post, Lindsey Meade references comedian Louis C.K. and the famous video clip where Louis C.K. explains why he won’t give his children a smart phone:

You need to build an ability to just be yourself and not be doing something. That's what the phones are taking away, is the ability to just sit there. That's being a person. Because underneath everything in your life there is that thing, that empty—forever empty.

Forever empty. It's one way to describe it, this sadness, this yearning, this existential loneliness at the heart of being human. And I agree with Louis and Meade here: that so much of our distracted behavior is simply a way to not feel that emptiness. Obsessive checking of iPhones (I do this!), eating, drinking, drugs, sex, working 60+ hours a week. . . It's a way to not feel, to forget the loneliness, the ineradicable darkness beneath. 

I think this why we seek out sadness in art. Sad songs and books and movies and stories—they give us permission to sit with the sadness, to experience it in a safe way and even share it with others. American culture does not encourage sitting alone with one’s sadness. That doesn’t look productive, after all. We’re encouraged to be happy, positive, and as productive as possible. To push the darkness away from us as much as we can.

But we can feel it through art. That’s socially sanctioned; that’s okay. Fun is good. Contributing to the entertainment industry with our dollars is good. Having fun in a way that also taps into that undercurrent of sadness? That’s also. . . okay.

More than okay.
Saudade can be pleasurable, that BBC article asserts. The Portuguese even celebrate a kind of “joyful sadness” to be found in saudade. The writer of the BBC piece interviews a Portuguese clinical psychologist, Mariana Miranda:
Sadness is an important part of life, she told me, adding that she can’t understand why anyone would avoid it.
“‘I want to feel everything in every possible way. Why paint a painting with only one colour?" By avoiding sadness at all costs, she said, we diminish ourselves. “There is actually lot of beauty in sadness.”
I think there’s truth in what this woman said. There’s truth in what Lindsey Meade writes in her blog:
It’s through sitting with the emptiness, eschewing the behaviors that numb us to the darkness at the core of this life, that we learn to be human. 
And yes, sometime the sadness is too much and leaves us unable to function. But I’m not talking about that. I’m not talking about clinical depression, and neither are the writers I’ve cited here. I’m just talking about that base level of sadness, of unavoidable loneliness. That sense of homelessness even when we are at home warm and safe with our loved ones; a sense, for me, that manifests as an inarticulate longing for a home I’ve never known, which I know doesn’t exist, and yet which I still vaguely intuit.
A place of belonging, true belonging, which I think is not possible for us, we sentient beings with our individual consciousnesses, separate from the world and from each other.**
I think that to long for something is to be alive. I think sometimes we need to sit with that oft-buried sadness to remember this, to be fully alive.
*The rapper in the video is Namewee, a Malaysian-Chinese musical artist. The pretty one with the aching vocals is Leehom Wang, an American-born singer/songwriter/actor of Taiwanese heritage. Both men are apparently Big Deals in Asia, particularly Leehom Wang who is a mega-star of the Chinese pop music scene. The music video here is about exile, about migrant workers in Beijing. But it’s also easy to read this song (written by Namewee) as Namewee’s own story of leaving Malaysia (Google it), and to also consider that Wang, too, is no longer in the land of his birth.

**I think of this line from the first elegy of Rilke’s Duino Elegies (Steven Mitchell's translation)
      . . . already the knowing animals are aware
           that we are not really at home in
            our interpreted world.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Winter Fiction recs! A Taste of Honey and more (Dec 2016-Feb 2017)

It's been a while since I’ve done one of these. I’d set a rhythm of reviewing short fiction bimonthly and then. . . just lost the rhythm. Life intervened, I would say, although in truth I have not been particularly busy (okay, I’ve been busy panicking over U.S. politics? But that’s not really productive. . .)

Anyway. I’m still reading, even if I’m not writing very much. Reading helps. It always helps.

Here are some stories that have stood out for me over the past few months. They’re beautiful, moving, and alternately shot through with darkness and light. Maybe some of these will help you, too.

Free to read online

Zombies in Winter by Naomi Kritzer in Persistent Visions 

A zombie story that doesn’t unfold as you’d expect. When the narrator’s friend Tom falls victim to a plague which robs him of personality and mind, the narrator steps in to care for his best friend—even though his friend no longer recognizes him. The narrator cares tenderly for the zombie that Tom has become, in tribute to the man Tom once was. This is a quiet, tender, heartbreaking tale. Editor Heather Shaw explains it all in her introduction to this piece: “I bought ‘Zombies in Winter’ by Naomi Kritzer because it’s centered on a beautiful example of compassion and of a close, platonic, male friendship.” I’ve only read a few pieces from Naomi Kritzer, but everything I’ve seen from her is suffused with humanity and generosity (Read her So Much Cooking --another plague story!—if you haven’t already. Also, read more from Persistent Visions, a relatively new magazine which is consistently publishing top-notch work).

Das Steingeschopf by G.V. Anderson in Strange Horizons

Another story of quiet heartache, although the love featured here is of a different kind.  In an alternate pre-World War II Germany, a Jewish craftsman (more precisely, a man who is perceived and treated as Jewish) begins his first commission for the Schopfer’s Guild. His task is to restore a valuable statue. But the statues in this world are not like ours; they are living statues made of a material called Queckstein, which draws upon the sculptor’s emotions, memories, and self. To restore this statue, the narrator must draw deeply upon his own emotional memories. This is a beautifully crafted, aching story of untold love. The foreboding atmosphere of pre-World War II Germany, under which the narrator faces prejudice (of more than one kind) is finely evoked.

The Dancer on the Stairs by Sarah Tolmie at Strange Horizons 

This is one of the most fascinating stories I’ve read all year. A dancer wakes on a mysterious staircase, in a mysterious world. She’s disoriented (like the reader), and only slowly begins to grasp the rules of survival on the staircase and beyond. Few fantasy stories show really alien cultures, but this one does. The people in this world are human, but their culture of rituals and dance feels both truly unique and convincingly detailed. This slow-burn of a story reminds me of some of Ursula K. LeGuin’s “thought-experiment” stories: stories that create alternate worlds to explore philosophical abstractions. A truly different, thought-provoking tale.

The Death of Paul Bunyan by Charles Payseur in Lightspeed 

Johnny Appleseed is working in Chicago (“Green spaces. Planned communities. Beautification projects”) when he gets the call that his old lover, Paul Bunyan, is dead. What follows is a moving, startlingly original take on American myths—not just the folk heroes of Bunyan and Appleseed, but the myths surrounding the settling of America, the clearing of the forests and taming of the land, our Manifest Destiny. The premise sounds as though it may be satire or humor, but it’s not; Payseur takes his premise with dead seriousness. This story is immediately compelling, gorgeously written, and shot through with loneliness and regret. The accompanying author interview, in which Payseur discusses his story’s themes, is also well worth reading.

A Lumberjack’s Guide to Dryad Spotting by Charles Payseur in Flash Fiction Online

This flash pairs well with Payseur’s story above; it’s another tale set in the North Woods of Wisconsin, featuring a pair of (more down-to-earth) lumberjack lovers. Longing and desperation suffuse this tightly written flash piece.

Postcards from Natalie by Carrie Laben in The Dark

And oh, this blew me away. The narrator’s older sister, Natalie, has run away from home and sends postcards from the road back to “little Mandy.” The speculative element is slow to kick in, but the realist story of family conflict and love is so well done that I would have been perfectly happy without any fantasy. This isn’t just a realist tale, however. Slowly, subtly, we get hints of something more. The buildup is fantastic. The ending is somehow both uplifting and devastating—a kick in the teeth. One of the best stories I’ve read this year.

Shadow Man, Sack Man, Half Dark, Half Light by Malon Edwards in Shimmer

In a dark, steampunk Chicago lit by gas lamps, a little girl fights a monster. This is the sequel to Edwards’ previous publication in Shimmer, The Half Dark Promise,  which you should go read now if you haven’t already. Both these stories are tense, beautifully written, atmospheric pieces singing with distinctive rhythm and snippets of Haitian Creole. The endings will make you want to cheer.

The Three Nights of the Half-Gent by Mario De Seabra Coelho in Strange Horizons

Coelho is a new writer to me. This is a gorgeous, mysterious, darkly evocative tale in which a dead man finds the courage to live.

Next Station, Shibuya by Iori Kusano in Apex

A lovely, quietly melancholy love story between a girl and a city.

First of Her Name by Elaine Cuyengeng in Lackington’s

Cuyengeng is killing it in horror. First, she came out with The House That Creaks in The Dark. Then she followed up with this horrific, horrific tale of ants? bees? a colony of social insects invaded by Something Which Does Not Belong. This story had me ranting/raving at dinner with my family the day that I read it. At the end, startlingly beautiful imagery is interwoven with the horror. Original and haunting.

For purchase (novella)

A Taste of Honey by Kai Ashante Wilson, published by Tor. Available for purchase at Amazon.

I’d heard so much about this novella, and about Wilson in general. This weekend, I finally made time to read it. And . . . it’s worth the hype. Aqib, minor royalty and son of the Master of Beasts and the Hunt, is walking the prince’s cheetah back to the Menagerie when he meets Lucrio, a handsome foreign solder from a visiting embassy. What follows is a whirlwind romance between two men which thrillingly captures the feeling of first love. But tension is also threaded through this story; Aqib and Lucrio met only ten days before Lucrio is to leave Aqib’s country forever. Moreover, they must keep their love secret, for homosexual relationships are forbidden in Aqib’s country (although not in Lucrio’s), and Aqib’s family is pressuring him to marry a woman of high social status so as to lift the family’s fortunes. The story flashes between the unfolding courtship and glimpses of a future where Aqib seems to have settled into a life without Lucrio. The drama of the story—will they be together? will they not?—had me flipping the pages furiously. A Taste of Honey isn’t just about the exhilaration of first love; it’s also a meditation on the choices we make, the alternative lives we might have had, and the love and loss that meet us no matter what fork in the road we choose. This is all wrapped in gorgeous, distinctive prose and set in a lushly realized secondary world of magic, mysterious technology, and sensuous detail. I loved the moments that highlight the cultural differences (and misunderstandings) between Aqib and Lucrio. I loved the author’s (justly praised) use of dialect in dialogue, and the evocation of complicated family dynamics. Most of all, I loved the characters and especially the character of Aqib. In the Tumblr/Twitter/Internet fandom parlance of today, Aqib is a “cinnamon roll”—a sweet, pure character you want to protect. Which certainly isn’t to say that he’s flawless. The young Aqib is adorably innocent, gentle, tender. He’s also haughty, completely clueless, and unthinkingly accepting of his privileges within his society’s class structure. And he’s passionate, brave, and strong in a way that’s not always recognized by others (for instance, by his abusive, stereotypically masculine older brother). A Taste of Honey is a lovely, passionate work with an ambitious plot structure (a non-linear chronology) and a twist which I won’t spoil here. But I will spoil the ending just a little bit to say: it made me happy. This story, although heart-wrenching in places, made me very happy. And to bring a bit of happiness and loveliness into the world is no small thing at all.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Goodbye to Berlin by Christopher Isherwood: Quote

Just finished reading Christopher Isherwood's Goodbye to Berlin, a slim collection of linked short stories set in in Berlin, Germany during the early 1930s, on the eve of Hitler's rise to power.

The stories are primarily sharp, vivid sketches of the many eccentric characters the narrator (an Englishman named, like the author, Christopher Isherwood) meets during his stay. There's much lightness and humor in these adventures, but a thread of sadness also runs through these stories, and the tone of foreboding grows stronger as the book proceeds.

The most chilling passage occurs in the last pages, as the narrator prepares to leave Berlin as the Nazis take power. His German landlady is distraught, asking why he feels the need to leave. He thinks:

"It's no use trying to explain to her, or talking politics. Already she is adapting herself, as she will adapt herself to every new regime. This morning I even heard her talking reverently about "Der Fuhrer" to the porter's wife. If anybody were to remind her that, at the elections last November, she voted communist, she would probably deny it hotly, and in perfect good faith. She is merely acclimatizing herself, in accordance with a natural law, like an animal which changes its coat for the winter. Thousand of people like Frl. Schroeder are acclimatizing themselves."