Thursday, July 30, 2015

Short Fiction - July 2015

So much good fiction this month! I have more stories to talk about than usual, and that's not including some amazing stories in a single-author collection that's so strong it needs to get its own post when I've finished the entire book.

Favorite Short Stories read in July 2015

(alphabetical by author)

"Your Past Life Interferes With My Very Important Studies" by C.L. Holland

I've said it a few times now, but I feel as though I've begun a love affair this year with flash fiction. One of my favorite stories this month was this fun little flash piece in which a woman, Kay, leaves notes for Mike, her significant other, primarily about the inconvenience of having one of his past reincarnated selves (PL = "past life") hanging around the place. It's very clever, and less than 650 words. It's also accompanied by a cute cartoon illustration by Dario Bijelac. Read it here in Flash Fiction Online.

"The Anarchist's Guide to Fine Art" by J.C. Nathans

Here's another flash piece, this one at less than 500 words if you can believe it. Mash Stories runs a quarterly contest in which writers are given three words that must appear in the story in that exact form (i.e. no tense or plurality changes). This last quarter's words were art, congress, and jealousy. Mash puts short-listed entries up on its site throughout the quarter, and allows readers to vote for them -- well, to "like" them, really, because the final winner isn't determined solely by reader votes.

In any case, I thought that this story had a unique construction, and I loved the use of numbers throughout. But the best part was that once you've read the story, it's even better to read it backwards from the bottom up, paragraph by paragraph. It gives the story the same meaning but more so, and with a different flow. Read here.

I also want to give a shout-out to another short-listed story from this same quarter: "The Itch" by Lisa Finch (read here). It's a snapshot of a marriage, and beautifully done. That's the wonderful thing about creative writing: the three-word prompt can result in stories that are unbelievably different from each other, in tone, form, and genre.

Next quarter's words are taxes, vinegar, and carpenter.

"Testing" by Tamora Pierce

It's funny that 95% or more of the stories I read are science fiction or fantasy, and Tamora Pierce is generally known as a young adult fantasy author, yet this story, which is my introduction to her fiction, is 100% mainstream.

And I absolutely adored it. "Testing" was written in 2000 for an original mainstream YA anthology titled Lost & Found, edited by M. Jerry Weiss and Helen S. Weiss, with a descriptive blurb that says "award-winning authors sharing real-life experiences through fiction."

"Testing" is told from the point of view of a resident in a group home for troubled teenage girls. The residence has two housemothers that alternate weeks; the narrator and her fellow residents are fond of long-time housemother Renee, but when the other housemother, Shoshana, leaves to get married, the girls "test" Shoshana's prospective replacements, and usually drive them out quickly with their shenanigans. But then "X-ray" shows up, so nicknamed by the girls because she's so nondescript and colorless that they think of her as invisible.

Naturally, there's more to X-ray than meets the eye.

What did I love about this story? I love the characters, and I love the way X-ray deals with the girls in a way that is realistic and human yet strong. She knows she's being tested. She's up to the task without being combative, and she doesn't let the girls get the best of her.

I also enjoyed reading Ms. Pierce's story introduction, which is something I only do after I've read the story, and not always then. "Testing" really is based on her experiences working as a housemother for a group home, yet she made the story from a resident's POV instead of the housemother's. For me as a reader, that absolutely feels like the right choice. If X-ray were telling the story, it might have unintentionally come off as condescending.

If there are any aspiring writers out there who think that short stories don't matter, there are at least some readers who follow the trail back to the author's longer work. I'll definitely be checking out more of Tamora Pierce's fiction.

"Not a Bird" by H.E. Roulo

Partway through this story, I wasn't sure if I would like it; I was losing patience with the mother who suddenly regrets the genetic modifications she and her husband have had bestowed, pre-birth, upon their daughter. But by the time I reached the end of the story, I was quite moved by it -- and this is speaking as someone who has never wanted to have children. It's a short enough story that I don't want to say too much more about it, but I was impressed by how much it affected me. My only minor quibble is that I didn't see what possible benefit the baby's feathers would confer, but I'll admit that that modification did add to the story's imagery. Read in Diabolical Plots here.

"How to Become a Robot in 12 Easy Steps" by A. Merc Rustad

Although this story was originally published in Scigentasy in March 2014, I listened to it at Glittership, a fairly new website that bills itself as an "LGBTQ science fiction & fantasy podcast." Now, I am not the dedicated podcast listener that a lot of people are these days, in part because I'm way behind the tech curve on smartphones and other devices, and also because I sometimes have difficulty absorbing words that are read aloud to me (in college I hated it when professors read from their notes instead of simply speaking). However, I'm really glad that's how I experienced this particular story.

I hardly know where to start with this one. The main character, Tesla, makes lists as a way to cope. The first list Tesla shares is titled "How to tell your boyfriend you are in love with a robot." Tesla then encounters said-robot (a J-90 SRM service robot at a coffee shop) and imagines asking it out on a date. Before long, the story becomes both more and less about robots, as Tesla explains -- again, via lists -- that their boyfriend Jonathan has just found an actual boyfriend for himself; Tesla and Jonathan have a deep friendship, but it's also one of convenience as their parents don't know they're gay. Or, more precisely in Tesla's case, not heterosexual. Tesla is probably asexual, in fact, which may be no easier to explain to parents than homosexuality would be. That's not to say that Tesla is a robot without feelings, but Tesla would like to be one, because "robots are never condemned because of who they love."

One of the reasons I'm glad I listened to this story instead of reading it as text is that the reader, Keffy R.M. Kehrli, gives it exactly the right matter-of-fact tone that conveys not a lack of emotion, but of a sort of numb despair. At least that's what I got out of it. This is an amazing story, and I wish I'd known of it in time to consider it during this year's award nominations.

Listen or read here (full transcript provided).

"Alive, Alive Oh" by Sylvia Spruck Wrigley

A finalist for the Nebula award for short story award in 2014, this story was originally published in the June 2013 issue of Lightspeed. A woman describes raising her daughter on a toxic, sterile alien planet, although it was never her intention to do so. The child finds the mother's stories of the sounds and smells and sights on a planet where you can actually walk outside to be fascinating and unreal, and the mother feels as though she's losing her daughter.

One of the things I liked most about this story was that it reminds me that we really don't know much about surviving on other worlds, and even if we can do it, will there be much quality of life if we have to constantly protect ourselves and hardly interact with the environment? On the one hand, I've read plenty of stories where people are perfectly happy living in their protected environment, as with Arthur C. Clarke's Imperial Earth, which takes place partly on Titan. On the other hand, maybe only people born to that kind of existence can truly be at peace with it, and maybe not even them as long as there are unhappy people around them who remember lost possibilities and experiences. It's a thought-provoking, meaningful story. (Read here)

Other stories read in July 2015:

(alphabetical by author)

- "The Butterfly Disjunct" by Stewart C. Baker (year unknown)
- "Sirocco Catches Marl" by Bokerah Brumley (2015)
- "Endgame" by Barry Charman (2015)
- "The Keepsake" by Gary Cuba (year unknown)
- "The Man's Smile" by J. Robert DeWitt (2015)
- "Dreamboat" by Robin Wyatt Dunn (2015)
- "The Itch" by Lisa Finch (2015)
- "World Away" by Alan Garth (2015)
- "As Skinny Does" by Adele Griffin (2000)
- "Can't Do It" by Tom Hadrava (2015)
- "And Now, Playing Us Out, The Sweet Sounds Of Legendary Jazz Trumpeter UNCO-895i" by Paul A. Hamilton (2015)
- "Non-Zero Probabilities" by N.K. Jemisin (2009)
- "Through a Window" by Angela Johnson (2001)
- "A Certain Future" by Karl Lykken (2015)
- "A Policy for Visitors at Reynold's Home for Retired Time Travelers" by David Macpherson (2015)
- "The Little Thing in the Bottle" by S.R. Mastrantone (year unknown)
- "Galaxy Gals" (Galaxy Quest fan fiction) by merriman (2014)
- "This is Telepathy" by Megan Neumann
- "The Princess in the Basement” by Hope Erica Schultz (2015)
- "Life on Earth" by Lisa Shapter (2015)
- "Food, Glorious Food" by Joey To
- "Noted" by Steffany Willey
- "Green Fairies on a Starry Night" by Caroline M. Yoachim (year unknown)
- "Rachel's Vampire" by Paul Zindel (2000)

List of the sources from which these stories came:

(alphabetical by anthology title, magazine title, website name, etc.)

-, December 2014
- Daily Science Fiction, various dates
- Diabolical Plots, June 2015; July 2015
- Every Day Fiction, various dates
- Expanded Horizons, January 2015
- Freeze Frame Fiction, July 2015
- Glittership, April 2015
- Lost & Found (anthology), edited by M. Jerry Weiss and Helen S. Weiss, 2000
- The Mammoth Book of Nebula Awards: SF (anthology), edited by Kevin J. Anderson, 2011
- Mash Stories, June 2015; July 2015
- On the Fringe (anthology), edited by Donald R. Gallo, 2001
- QuarterReads
- Perihelion, June 2015; July 2015

Read more!

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Houston Grand Opera's "O Columbia" World Premiere tickets on sale

If you're in the Houston area, or can get here, I highly recommend this short (approximately 70 minutes) chamber opera that celebrates the spirit of explorers in general and astronauts in particular. I've been lucky enough to see pieces of this opera all through its development, and it's going to be quite exciting, especially because it's being staged in the round at the Bayou Music Center instead of the usual opera hall.

There are only two performances, on Wednesday September 23 and Thursday September 24. Here's what HGO has to say about it:

O Columbia, a new chamber opera — developed through interviews with Houston-based NASA astronauts, scientists, and engineers — celebrates dreamers and explorers of all kinds. Created by a constellation of rising opera stars and featuring HGO Studio artists, this production takes place in a breathtaking and unexpected setting at Bayou Music Center (across the street from the Wortham Theater Center).

Tickets are general admission and are only $20. Don't miss it! (Link goes to Ticketmaster; you can also call the Bayou Music Center directly.)

Here's an extended article about the opera. I note that Megan Samarin, who was so wonderful as Johanna in HGO's Sweeney Todd this season, sings the role of Lady Columbia.

Read more!

Monday, July 20, 2015

Clever is as Silly Does....

In a fit of randomness, I decided today that I need to review a silly, clever book I just read, called Y is for Yorick: A Slightly Irreverent Shakespearean ABC Book for Grown-Ups. It's written by Jennifer Adams, the author behind the BabyLit board books, which are charming, uber-basic illustrated editions of classics such as Pride and Prejudice (a counting primer), Anna Karenina (a fashion primer), and Don Quixote (a Spanish language primer), among others. But while those books are actually suitable for babies and toddlers, Y is for Yorick really is, as the subtitle declares, for grown-ups. It's not "adult" per se, but the humor is the kind that grown-ups who like Shakespeare will appreciate.

For instance, we learn that "P is for Polonius," who was a "long-winded blowhard who was always giving unwanted advice. Eventually Hamlet killed him." Then, because many of the letters get bonus entries, we learn that "P is also for Prospero," who "was a bit of a control freak who liked the special effects. But who knows what any of us would do with unlimited time on a deserted island and a book of magical spells?" As often happens with alphabet books, whether for children or adults, the author has to reach a little for X and Z, but I think she does a pretty good job (and no, I'm not going to give spoilers on those!)

Aside from the text, the illustrations in this book, by Hugh D'Andrade, are both humorous and charming. They're all done in the same silhouette style shown on the cover: black (with the occasional spot of white) against a colored background, with faint pencil marks still showing. One of my favorites is the one above, showing Benedick pulling Beatrice's hair. I do find it a little odd that the illustrator's name doesn't appear on the book's cover, nor is there an "about the artist" blurb to go along with the author's bio on the back dustjacket flap. The illustrations, as well as the book's overall design (by Ron Stucki) really make this little volume, and I think the artist should be given more obvious credit (although I was pleased to see the author thank him in her acknowledgments).

And reading this fun bit of fluff reminded me of another book I stumbled across a few years ago, likely on a bargain table somewhere: The Not-So-Very-Nice Goings On at Victoria Lodge by Philip Ardagh, which carefully notes that the book is "without illustrations by the author." That's because the entire conceit of the book is that the author has written a silly little story around illustrations from issues of The Girls' Own Paper that appeared in the 1890s.

So how does that work? Well, you know those decorated/illustrated drop cap letters that used to start off chapters or sections in publications of old? Early in the story we see a picture of a lovely begowned lady standing by the letter "M"; the "narrator," Thelma, helpfully explains that her "tragic tale began when my eldest sister Edith was tending to the letter M in the shrubbery. We had a number of letters in our garden and it was her duty to feed and water the consonants from J to T."

How funny is that? And the plot (and shrubbery!) thickens when sinister attempts are made on Thelma's family's lives, such as when her younger sister is playing the piano when her music teacher "was shot through the window by a markswoman in a hot-air balloon," a moment that's illustrated with a drawing of a woman dramatically holding her hand to her forehead while leaning to look out a window. It's hard to convey how well this little set-up works just by describing examples, but it really does work, and I laughed out loud a couple of times.

I love clever stuff like this. Words are fun!

Read more!

Monday, July 13, 2015

A list of my published fiction

Although this is primarily a reviews blog, I needed an online place to stash a list of my own fiction publications, so I've created one here.

Many of my short stories are available free online. I hope you'll check out the list and see if anything appeals to you. Thanks!
Read more!