Saturday, February 6, 2016

Go Groovy, HGO: A Figaro Follow-Up

[Members of The Marriage of Figaro cast; photo by Lynn Lane]

Last night we saw the second-to-last performance of Houston Grand Opera's new The Marriage of Figaro. We'd seen the full dress rehearsal, upon which I based my review, but I had so much fun seeing it again last night that I wanted to follow up with a few comments.

First, in my opinion there is not a single weak link anywhere in this production. As I'd mentioned, baritone Joshua Hopkins was ill during the dress rehearsal, so studio artist Ben Edquist sang the role of Count Almaviva from the side stage while stage director Ian Rutherford walked the role on stage. This worked perfectly fine for rehearsal purposes, but it was a real treat to see Mr. Hopkins, whose voice and comedic acting skills matched that of the rest of the cast, meld the acting and singing back together.

[Joshua Hopkins as Count Almaviva; photo by Robert Workman]

Speaking of the acting, this time I took opera glasses with me, and therefore got to enjoy the cast's theatrical skills even more. In particular, soprano Ailyn Pérez, who sang the role of the Countess, has the most beautifully expressive face you can imagine. And seen close-up, tenor Keith Jameson looked and acted even more like a younger, handsomer Danny Bonaduce from The Partridge Family than I remembered, which was perfect for his role as the slimy troublemaker and music teacher Don Basilio.

I took in more overall details this time around too. For instance, at the wedding reception, chorus member Dennis Arrowsmith, wearing some mighty fine 70s duds, goes around taking photographs with a flash camera. Only this time I realized it was a Poloroid, and the guests were mugging for the shots and then shaking the pictures to develop them. Did that ever take me back! I also noticed this time that Barbarina (Purem Jo) and Lauren Snouffer (Cherubino) were clearly meant to be stoned for most of the third and fourth acts. It was obvious, but somehow the first time around I just attributed it to general silliness based on their youth.

The best part, though, was seeing the production with a full house. It's like going to a Star Wars or Harry Potter movie on opening night; half the reason you're there is to enjoy the shared experience with fellow enthusiasts. The audience laughed like crazy, applauded not just the arias but also the Austin Healey, and clearly adored the dance scenes. This time I saw not only the Twist and the Monkey, but also the Macarena.

And the music! I'm still pretty new to the opera, all things considered. I still find a lot of operas just a little too long, and even in Tosca, one of my favorites, there is a particular musical sequence at the beginning that I hate. But The Marriage of Figaro represents the first opera I've seen where I want to go buy a recording and listen to it all the way through multiple times, as opposed to hopping from one favorite part to another. There's not a moment in this opera that isn't musically beautiful. And even though this is a "happy" opera, I completely got shivers during the letter duet this time.

Understandably, HGO was anxious about how this unconventional staging would be received. At the opera talks leading up to the performances, staff members encouraged subscribers to "keep an open mind," and we received e-mails of a similar ilk. Clearly, they did not want the audience going in expecting the usual and being disappointed if they didn't get it.

No more. In the e-mail I just got, reminding me that there's one more performance (Sunday February 7, 2016 at 2:00 p.m.), HGO proudly says "Don’t miss HGO’s groovy production of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro!" You go, HGO!

[Purem Jo (far left) as Barbarina, Adam Plachetka (far right) as Figaro, and members of the HGO Chorus; photo by Lynn Lane]
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Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Short Fiction - January 2016

Short Fiction - January 2016

How is it possible that January is over already? Here are my favorite stories read this month.

"Mycelium" by Fábio Fernandes

Length: 3,277 words
Category: Short story (science fiction)
Where Published: Perihelion
When Published: 2015-12-12
Link (free; link good for approximately four months)

Ariana travels in a "nulltime bubble," a dangerous mode of transport but the only way to navigate the distances between the mining asteroids without attracting unwanted attention. Ariana is a kinocchio, or living recorder, and has been sent to this particular colony in response to a mysterious accident. She quickly realizes that whatever lies behind the accident may be the key to saving what little is left of humanity.

There's a lot going on in this story. It seems to be part of a much larger picture, which is fine -- authors have been publishing excerpts of their novels as short works since the beginning of science fiction. I'm okay with not (yet) knowing more about the enemy that wiped out most humans, and I liked the bit of Arian's backstory that we got. That said, I would enjoy seeing this fleshed out as a longer work.

"By Degrees and Dilatory Time" by S.L. Huang

[Illustration "By Degrees" © 2015 Milan Jaram. Used with permission.]

Length: 4,088 words
Category: Short story (science fiction)
Where Published: Strange Horizons
When Published: 2015-05-18
Link (free)

This is a quiet and thoughtful story about a young man who has to get artificial eyes due to cancer, at a time when some people choose to get them for occupational or even just aesthetic reasons. In my mind, the story gently makes two main points: we are surprising in our capacity to adapt, and people need to decide for themselves whether they're willing to be the "face" of a political ideology, especially when their participation in that movement is assumed based on something they can't control. Highly recommended.

"Engelbert" by Gareth D. Jones

Length: 1,464 words
Category: Short story (science fiction)
Where Published: Daily Science Fiction
When Published: 2015-08-07
Link (free)

Although I found the premise of this story a little bit of a stretch, the narrative takes some chances that pay off. At a research compound, a nanotech-enhanced sentient camel has only one friend, an analyst at the facility. Something bad has happened, and the story moves through a bit of back-and-forth chronology to bring the reader to a point of understanding. A very minor quibble is that I experienced one point of confusion that I think could have been cleared up without spoiling anything else in the story. But overall, I found this to be moving and very well-written.

"Telling the Bees" by T. Kingfisher (Ursula Vernon)

Length: 723 words
Category: Short story (flash fiction)
Where Published: Strange Horizons
When Published: 2015-12-21
Link (free)

This story was stunning in its loveliness. And a funny thing: a month or so ago I'd seen someone post that they'd read a lovely story and then found out it was written by Ursula Vernon under a pseudonym. I immediately made a mental note to go find this story -- and, naturally, I immediately forgot.

But then a few weeks later, I found it by chance, by looking to see what had been published recently in Strange Horizons. I read it, thought it was perfect (length, tone, subject), and then saw in the author bio notes that T. Kingfisher is Ursula Vernon. It was the very story I'd meant to look up. This author has become one of those whose work I'll go looking for.

"The Pixie Game" by Anna Zumbro

Length: 992 words
Category: Short story (flash fiction)
Where Published: Daily Science Fiction
When Published: 2015-06-15
Link (free)

And one more from Daily Science Fiction. I felt this short piece was most effective, and I liked that pixies were simply a given in this world. In an effort to fit in at his new school, Gage takes part in a cruel game, with unexpected consequences. Slightly chilling, in the best possible way.

Other stories read in January 2016:

(alphabetical by author)

- "Lords A-Leaping" by Sarah Crysl Akhtar (2016)
- "Reading Beauty" by Abigail Ashing (2016)
- "Bones" by Francesca Lia Block (original 2001; reprint 2010)
- "The Book of Martha" by Octavia Butler (original 2003; reprint 2010)
- "Unearthly Landscape by a Lady" by Rebecca Campbell (2015)
- "Bonsaiships of Venus" by Kate Heartfield (2014)
- "In the Cold" by Kelly Jennings (2012)
- "Vacui Magia" by L.S. Johnson (2015)
- "Mrs. Todd's Shortcut" by Stephen King (original 1984; reprint 2010)
- "Two to Leave" by Yoon Ha Lee (2015)
- "Super Goat Man" by Jonathan Lethem (original 2004; reprint 2010)
- "Bilingual" by Henry Lien (2015)
- "Ancestor Money" by Maureen McHugh (original 2003; reprint 2010)
- "Insert Line: Goodbye Mom, Goodbye Dad" by Joshua P'ng (2016)
- "Stripped to Zero" by Stephen S. Power (2015)
- "Let Us Now Praise Awesome Dinosaurs" by Leonard Richardson (2009)
- "Tin and Mercury, Gilt and Glass" by Lane Robins (2016)
- "Live Forever" by Anton Rose (2016)
- "The Retelling of Jeremiah" by Kelly Sandoval (2016)
- "The Sharing Series" by Janet Savage (2016)
- "A Note to Parents Regarding the Beginning and End of Time Diorama Presentations for Ms. Miller’s Third Grade Class" by Rebecca Schwarz (original 2014; reprint 2015)
- "Snow Crab Knife" by Christopher Shultz (year unknown)
- "The Shutdown" by Marge Simon (2016)
- "Expensive" by Jessica Snell (2016)
- "The Osteomancer’s Husband" by Henry Szabranski (2016)
- "Ghosts of the Ashwydds" by Filip Wiltgren (2016)

List of the sources from which these stories came:

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

- Beneath Ceaseless Skies, May 2015; Oct 2015
- Daily Science Fiction, June 2015; Aug 2015; Jan 2016
- Diabolical Plots, Jan 2016
- Every Day Fiction, Jan 2016
- F&SF, Mar/Apr 2015
- Flash Fiction Online, Aug 2015; Jan 2016
- Freeze Frame Fiction, year unknown
- Lackington's, Fall 2014
- Nature, Aug 2015
- Perihelion, Dec 2015
- The Secret History of Fantasy (anthology), edited by Peter S. Beagle, Tachyon, 2010
- Strange Horizons, July 2009; Jan 2012; Jan 2015; May 2015; Dec 2015

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Sunday, January 31, 2016

Top Chef - Episode 8 - Where's the Beef?

[Pretty junk food plating by contestants Karen Akunowicz, Amar Santana, and Carl Dooley.]

This episode had a really fun Quickfire challenge. Padma explained that, inspired by a mysterious new Instagram chef, our contestants would be doing a plating challenge, and the chef with the most "likes" on Instagram would win immunity. The mysterious guest judge known as "Jacques La Merde," face and voice disguised, showed up via screen to encourage the chefs, and Padma revealed that like Chef La Merde, they would only be using junk food, such as Twinkies, Oreos, Cheetos, and so on.

In my mind, they did most of this just right. Thank God the dishes didn't have to be edible -- although I do remember the time in Season 1 when the chefs had to make an edible dish out of vending machine fare.... And thank goodness that while the winner would get immunity, this was no sudden death quickfire, so nobody faced elimination for their artistic talents or lack thereof. Most of the chefs embraced the challenge and seemed to have fun doing it, but if you had to guess who the exception was? If you said Phillip, you'd be right. He takes himself so seriously that he prowled around his dish from every side, looking for the perfect angle from which to take his Instagram photo. Based on the reactions from Padma, Chef La Merde (who turned out to be Christine Flynn) and the rest of the chefs, this probably took a lot longer than we saw onscreen.

My only issue was that the way the photos were displayed on the TV screen, "framed" by their Instagram posts, made it difficult to really see any detail. They did put up a larger size image at the end of some of the chefs' turns, but only for an moment. The whole point of this food was the way it looked; I would have liked to be able to really look at it!

[And now I interrupt this blog post with an anti-commercial about one of the stupidest commercials I've ever seen in my life: the Voltaggios trying to get us to see a new movie release called The Finest Hours. I really like the Voltaggios, especially that cutie Bryan, but to have the two of them pretending to have a "spontaneous" discussion about the movie while cooking for a bunch of water rescue folks was just ludicrous. Top Chef is incredibly skilled at tying into current things (Twitter, Instagram, current hit TV shows), but this just Did Not Work, and I find it a bit insulting that anyone would think I would go decide to see a water rescue drama because two chefs talked about it.]

And back to our regular programming.... Due to the Instagram voting, the winner couldn't be announced until the next day, so the chefs moved on to the Elimination Challenge. Guest judge Neal Fraser, a Top Chef Masters alum, appeared to explain about his Beefsteak charity events, in which people pay a lot of money to dress up, get drunk, and eat a lot of meat. The nine chefs were divided into three teams of three based on who they were standing next to. Each team responsible for one meat dish, one seafood dish, and two sides. The catch? The diners would not be using plates, cutlery, or napkins. (Personally, I would allow them napkins, but whatever.)

I was definitely surprised at some of the chefs' choices. Isaac, who was on the blue team with Chad and Marjorie, decided to serve chicken and bacon sausage rather than some kind of red meat. Chad ended up making tuna, which wasn't his first choice, but the Whole Foods store didn't have enough of the kind of fish he wanted. Marjorie chose to make pickled vegetables and bread. The latter was a risk, but it was a smart one, because that kind of hands-on, medieval dining really needs some bread.

On the green team, Phillip decided to do a rack of lamb that could be served as lollipop chops, another good choice for this type of event. Amar served grilled halibut, using an entire fish that cost over $500 at Whole Foods if I heard him correctly. Jeremy made fried brussel sprouts with bacon and cilantro, and roasted carrots with a spiced yogurt sauce. (Those carrots looked really good, by the way.) The red team, consisting of Kwame, Karen, and Carl, served a roasted beef loin with romesco sauce, plus shrimp and sides. (I had to look up romesco; it's a nut and red pepper-based sauce.)

Service was ... odd. If I were wearing a gown at a black-tie charity event and was not allowed cutlery or napkins while eating, I sure as heck would want the apron bib to cover a lot more of my clothes. And what was someone thinking, dressing Padma in white? But what was really odd is that judges almost seemed like they were drunk. It's great that they were having fun, but while they were acting silly and trying to one-up each other with clever remarks, they seemed to forget that the chefs who had just busted their butts getting this food ready were standing right there and hearing some of it. The judges are there to criticize, not ridicule. Maybe I'm being oversensitive, but I thought the judges were really disrespectful this week.

In terms of the specific criticism, the judges' biggest complaint was that a lot of the food was too dainty. They felt that Isaac's sausage, Carl and Karen's beef loin, and Phillip's lamb fit the parameters of the challenge most closely, but Isaac's sausage was dry, and the steak was too small on the plate. They were definitely not impressed with any of the seafood. Both of the fish dishes were way too dainty, and Kwame's shrimp was apparently quite unappetizing in its preparation. But it's hard for me to imagine seafood prepared in such a way as to fit the medieval dinner atmosphere. I picture turkey drumsticks, sausage, and other meat on a stick. Seafood is a lot more fragile. I think it would have made more sense if the challenge had been to prepare at least two different proteins and two side dishes. Then the judges would have gotten a lot more of what they were looking for.

At judges' table, the first order of business was to announce the winner of the of the Quickfire Challenge: Karen, who maybe had the most adorable reaction ever when she practically shouted "Shut UP!" at the judges upon hearing her name. Her immunity didn't really come into play, though, since the red team was neither on the top or the bottom. Not surprisingly, the green team had the judges' favorite meal, with Phillip taking home the win for his lamb. I don't really like Phillip, and this win is not likely to improve his appeal, but I was glad to see the other chefs congratulate him and seem to mean it. This is a pretty nice group of people so far.

The blue team was the least favorite. It was quickly clear that Marjorie would be safe, with her nicely prepared vegetables and bread. I think it was a close call between Isaac's sausage and Chad's tuna, but ultimately Chad went home.

So, this was an episode that started out strong for me, but made me a little unhappy as it went on. I'm also a little nervous about next week's "Restaurant Wars." Although in recent seasons they seem to have gotten away from making the chefs worry about decor, the previews here showed them hanging artwork on the wall. Really? And they'll be serving both lunch and dinner. I think I do like the idea that each person must serve at least once as Executive Chef or front of the house, because those are always the danger spots and I'm happy to see the risk spread more equally. That's probably the reason for making the chefs do two services, but in a way it also feels like setting them up to fail. We shall see.

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Friday, January 29, 2016

2015 Short Fiction Reading: A Summary

First things first: this is not a post about fiction published in 2015. Rather, these are my thoughts on the 445 short works that I read in 2015, from just over 100 different venues including magazines, collections, anthologies, and author websites.

I started on January 1, 2015, with the goal of reading at least one short story every day for a year. The "rules" I set for myself meant that I could catch up when necessary, but I couldn't read ahead. So if I missed two days while away for a weekend, I had to make up those dates. But if I was caught up and still felt like reading a few short stories on any given day, those did not count towards future dates. Hence the 445 stories in a 365-day year. While the number sounds impressive, I feel compelled to mention that a lot of the stories I read were flash fiction, which I define as under 1,000 words.

Another "rule" was that stories had to be published, so the dozens of unpublished stories I've critiqued for both online and in-person groups were not counted.

I had two main reasons for doing this. First, I hoped that reading so many short stories would allow me to absorb some wisdom that I could incorporate into my own writing. Second, I wanted to become a more informed voter for the Hugo, Nebula, and World Fantasy Awards. I feel as though I definitely accomplished the latter, although I'm also hopelessly aware that these stories are barely a drop in the bucket compared to what's out there. Whether my own writing has gained any benefit from this experiment, I can't say. I'm submitting and selling more than ever before, but I think that has more to do with how much I'm writing rather than how much I'm reading. That said, reading can never be bad for a writer, and I do not understand writers who say they don't read other authors' work.

In any case, because I love data, I kept very detailed records. Here are some observations:

What I Read Most

The publication I read the most was Daily Science Fiction, with 76 stories. The second most was QuarterReads (47 stories), but in a way that doesn't count, because QuarterReads wasn't doing any kind of editorial oversight and most of the works had been previously published elsewhere. (In fact, there was a distinct difference in quality in that I didn't like most of the stories original to QuarterReads nearly as much as the others). The third most was Every Day Fiction, another daily flash market, with 37 stories. Other magazines for which I read at least seven stories included Perihelion SF (12), Clarkesworld (10), Strange Horizons (9), Crossed Genres (9), Lightspeed (8), One Teen Story (8), Diabolical Plots (7), and Nature's "Futures" (7).

Favorite Publications

Before running the numbers, my memory and instincts told me that my tastes seemed to align best with those of Crossed Genres and Diabolical Plots. In looking at those magazines for which I read at least five stories, my average ratings on a scale of 1 to 5 were: Flash Fiction Online (4.08), Clarkesworld (3.80), Diabolical Plots (3.79), Lightspeed (3.69), Strange Horizons (3.67), Nature Futures (3.50), One Teen Story (3.38), Daily Science Fiction (3.31), (3.30), F&SF (3.20), Crossed Genres (3.17), Every Day Fiction (3.05), and Perihelion (2.71).

It's worth mentioning that these are all actually good ratings. If I rate a story 2.5 stars, that means that I think it was average, and the things I like and dislike about it are about equal. So anything above that means better than average. I also had at least one 4 or 4.5 star rating for most of those publications. Most, but not all, were science fiction or fantasy.

It's also important to note that this is by no means random. I'm always listening to other people's recommendations, so if someone has described this great story that they read on Lightspeed or Clarkesworld and I like the sound of it, it has a much better chance of pleasing me than a story I've picked at random from a small publication. And that's OK -- this reading is for me. Finally, I should mention that lots of magazines ended up with even higher average ratings, but they were based on only a couple of stories.

New Favorite Authors

I'm developing a list of my favorite short fiction writers. Ted Chiang was already on that list (duh!), but I now deliberately seek out short stories by Caroline Yoachim and Ursula Vernon too. That's not to say I love every piece by every one of these authors -- there are even a few Chiang stories that don't do it for me -- but I'm excited to read their new work and I enjoy it more often than not. (And the best part is that Caroline and Ursula both have tons of work I haven't read yet!) Finally, I want to get back to Hannu Rajaniemi's collection -- I loved some of his stories and would have included them as favorites in my monthly round-up posts, but decided I wanted to do a post on the entire collection. That's on the to do list.

Story Length

I've learned that I definitely prefer shorter stories. Not necessarily flash, but a story has to be brilliant for me to want to keep reading past, say, 6,000 words. I'd say my sweet spot is probably about 3,000-4,000 words. But speaking of flash, if you're ignoring it because you think it's all gimmicks, you're missing out. I have nominated a few pieces of flash for either the Hugo or the Nebula (or both), and will continue to do so when warranted.

A Few Dead Markets

I was extremely disappointed to learn that both Crossed Genres and QuarterReads are no more. I adored the way Crossed Genres did themed issues, one per month, and then published three stories, one of which was always by a debut author. And QuarterReads was such a fun concept: pay a quarter to read a story, with the option to tip the author if you really liked it. Unfortunately, this venture only lasted about a year, and although the proprietor said he plans to pay authors what they're owed, even if they haven't yet reached the $10 threshold, I am not holding my breath. As a reader, I also feel short-changed, because I can still use my remaining quarters (I just tested it), but no new work is being added. Oh well.

What I'll Do Differently in 2016

For this first part of the year, my intention is to read as much 2015 work as possible for award nomination and voting purposes. That's my intention, but I have to admit that when a Daily Science Fiction story shows up every day in my inbox, it often catches my eye and I read it. And if I then get busy, well, I've already read a story that day and have less incentive to go looking elsewhere. I'd also like to spread my reading around a bit more, but at the same time, I want to read a lot of stories from the same markets. Maybe I should be going for two a day....

Data-wise, I'm now keeping more careful track of story word counts so that I don't have to scramble later, trying to remember if it's a short story, novella, or novelette. And I'm keeping the spreadsheet as I go, so I don't have to spend all of January next year compiling a year's worth of information! I also want to be able to easily run the numbers for how many stories I read that were published in a given year.

One thing I won't change: in my monthly posts, I talk about my favorite stories of the month. I list everything I read, but I have no plans to discuss stories I didn't like. I think the closest I might come is if I love most of a story but one thing breaks it for me -- but even that I'm not sure about. That said, if I list a story as read but don't discuss it, that doesn't necessarily mean I didn't like it. In fact, I might like it a lot. I may just not have anything to say about it.

So yeah, it's been fun. You know that recent meme on Facebook? Here's my version:

This is Amy. Amy reads lots of short fiction. Amy is smart. Be like Amy.

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