Tuesday, December 22, 2015

You'd Better Watch Out: Two Christmas Stories

[National Union Catalog Christmas Tree at the University of San Francisco.]


As with my Halloween post earlier this year, I came across a single Christmas story that I liked so much that I immediately wanted to do a post about short Christmas and holiday fiction. However, I started reading for this much too late, which means there are so many Christmas stories I'd hoped to read but that I didn't get to. The rest will have to wait for next Christmas, I'm afraid, but in the meantime, here are two Christmas stories that I hope folks will enjoy as much as I did.


"St. Roomba's Gospel" by Rachael K. Jones

This delightful story is told from the point of view of a Roomba that cleans a church and has come to share the parishioners' faith. What I liked best was the way the narrative carried the Roomba's unique interpretation of the world consistently throughout the entire story. Speaking of points-of-view, I came to this story as an atheist who enjoys reading thoughtful fictional examinations of religion (such as Mary Doria Russell's The Sparrow). As such, I found this very satisfying.

[SPOILER AHEAD.] The aspect of the story I didn't quite understand was the significance of the Roomba's message at the end, when the little machine painstakingly sweeps the word "AND" into the scattered pine needles from the Christmas tree. So (magic of the Internet), I asked the author, who gave me permission to post her reply here:

Roomba's theology operates on set theory logic, where for Roomba, the Christian faith is the common set that unites it to the humans in the church, and gives it equal standing with them. The "AND" is the distillation of this [and] is a combo of programming logic (where AND, NOT, OR, etc set boundaries and dictate groups and behaviors) and another Bible verse indirectly referenced earlier in the piece (Galations 3:28 - "There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus). For Roomba the AND would have such obvious and important meaning in its understanding of the Christian faith that it could stand in for anything else it had to say on the matter. At least, that's my take on it.

This makes me enjoy the story even more. Read here in the December 2015 issue of Diabolical Plots.



"And a Cup of Good Cheer" by C.L. Holland

This dark fantasy flash piece explores what might happen if being Santa Claus is a curse -- or even a sentence -- rather than a blessing. I don't want to say much more because it's a quite short piece, but I thought it nailed the tone perfectly, and had me rooting for the main character.

Published in the January 2011 issue of 10 Flash Quarterly here.

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Sunday, December 13, 2015

Pop-Up Microfiction: Endless Suite

Tired of The Nutcracker? This little piece of pop-up microfiction says that you might not be the only one. A slightly different version of this story was originally published by Apex in December 2013, as the third place winner in their Christmas horror microfiction contest.


I couldn't resist mentioning the Houston Ballet....

Creative Commons License
Endless Suite by Amy Sisson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.


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Thursday, December 10, 2015

Top Chef: California - Episode 3 - Spines & Vines

This episode of Top Chef began with the chefs setting out on their California road trip, beginning with Santa Barbara. They made a harbor-side pit stop to pick up some sea urchins, which they took to the Sanford Winery & Vineyards, where Padma and guest judge Dana Cowin were waiting. It was interesting to see that Dana knew one of the chefs, Jason Stratton, whom she had named "Best New Chef" for Food and Wine magazine. Now, I'm sure she and all the judges are perfectly capable of being objective so I'm not worried on that count, but it seems strange to me that one of the things the chefs are competing for is a feature in Food and Wine magazine. It draws attention to the fact that we're not always getting brand new, young talent trying to break through in the same way we used to on this show. Instead, we're getting people who are already well-known in the culinary world. It doesn't have to be a bad thing, but in a way I'm still a little sad to see it.


SUDDEN DEATH QUICKFIRE

After initial greetings, Padma announced that the chefs would start their first Sudden Death Quickfire Challenge immediately, pairing uni (the aforementioned sea urchin) and wine, with 25 minutes to cook. We got lots of commentary from the chefs while they were cooking, and Grayson finally said something that kind of made sense to me, which was that she wasn't sure why people were blending the uni into other ingredients rather than highlighting it, especially since it's delicate.

The first dish the judges tasted was Jeremy's opah, which I had to look up to discover it's a kind of fish, with sour apple, cucumber, and radish vinaigrette, paired with a chardonnay. Angelina, who had said she was playing it a little safe since it was a sudden death challenge, made cacio e pepe with uni butter, also with chardonnay. Padma and Dana commented on the saltiness of the dish, but I was surprised that they didn't comment about Angelina using what I assume had to be dried pasta -- she couldn't have made fresh pasta outdoors in a 25-minute challenge so it had to be dried, right? So why go with that when there were clearly a lot of high quality ingredients there to work with?

Grayson's dish was crab salad with cucumber, grapefruit, and uni. Dana said it was bold to do so little, but that it was nice. Personally, I don't feel that a crab and uni salad with several ingredients in 25 minutes is "so little," but maybe that's me. Dana did compliment Grayson on her wine pairing, which made Grayson happy because her boyfriend is a sommelier. Jason served a salpicon seafood salad with jumbo crab. I had to look up "salpicon," of course, and found that it is "a mixture of finely chopped ingredients bound in a thick sauce and used as a filling or stuffing." I have to say, the photo of his dish didn't look like that definition to me. Dana said the balance of flavors was lovely, but Padma wished the dish had more uni.

Karen had tried to make a soup into which she would "ribbon" the whipped egg and uni, like egg drop soup, but the uni essentially dissolved instead, and Padma said all she could taste was scallion or chive. Giselle made a simple seasoned potato with onion jam and uni; personally I thought this one looked like something I would want to eat, but Dana said there was a bit of a fight between the wine, potato, and onion.

Carl made a sea urchin omelet that looked very pretty in presentation, and Dana called it a thoughtful combination. Amar made uni with shitake tempura on lime ricotta cheese and served it with a rose wine, which the judges found to be a nice combination. Francis's curry was complex, and Padma remarked that she could have edited a few ingredients out. Wesley presented creamed corn with uni, fennel, roe, and scallop, which Dana really seemed to like it (although it sounded a little like all that wine tasting was getting to her). Chad served Asian goulash with uni, rice wine, and a little lime. Padma called it intense, and Dana thought the wine went well with it, but the dish itself wasn't balanced. Isaac made an uni potato salad that they liked a lot.

In the end, the judges started with their favorite dishes, and Grayson looked pretty surprised to be chosen. Dana commented on the simplicity and the showcasing of the uni. Wesley was another favorite with his creamed corn, and Carl was also complimented for his pairing of eggs and uni (cue Giselle looking miserable because she hadn't been able to find the eggs -- did she ask anybody?). The winner, who got immunity, was Grayson. As much as I didn't care for her in the first two episodes -- and I'm sure she'll annoy me again -- I couldn't help but be happy for her.

For the least favorite dishes, Dana named Angelina's pasta with uni butter, Karen's soup due to the lack of uni flavor, and Giselle's potato, which Dana found puzzling and undercooked. Giselle ended up on the bottom, and had to pick one chef to compete against in a head-to-head cook-off. My first thought went to Angelina, who I imagine was a bit shaken by her near miss, and that's who Giselle chose.

The challenge was to cook something with ostrich eggs in 25 minutes, which was a little ironic. Giselle decided to make soft scrambled eggs with a little salsa, while Angelina wasn't quite sure at first what she was doing. I was a little annoyed at the chefs yelling out advice to her from the sidelines; it's almost as though they were giddy with being off the hook, but they weren't doing her any favors by yelling at her. She did also end up with a scramble, with charred vegetables and tomato jam. Dana didn't seem blown away by either dish, but named Giselle the winner in the end, even though she wasn't impressed with Giselle's presentation.

Overall, this was a good quickfire challenge. I noticed that the majority of the chefs seemed to choose chardonnay, which I imagine is the wine most familiar to a lot of them. I also have to say that I felt sorry for these guys trying to do this delicate plating work outside.


ELIMINATION CHALLENGE

Uh oh, it's another team challenge, and the chefs had to pick each other (apart from Grayson, who competed alone as the one with immunity). I'm not saying the show's wrong to do this, but I hate when they have to just look around and pick each other. You know some of them wish the other person hadn't asked them, but they didn't know how to say no. It's just so uncomfortable, like high school all over again. And the chefs didn't appear to choose each that wisely in a lot of cases. Angelina noted her apprehension at getting stuck with Giselle, and I couldn't blame her.

Padma then explained that the chefs would have two hours the next day to prep and cook at the Bacara Resort & Spa. Padma dangled an extra incentive; the overall winner would get to come back to the winery and choose an estate wine with his or her own label.

[We interrupt this blog post for an important message: TOP CHEF, STOP MAKING THE CHEFS RUN TO GET THE INGREDIENTS! If there's one thing that will ever make me stop watching the show, this is it.]

And cue badass music as Tom Colicchio walks in the kitchen (which is also rather obnoxious). He arrived to tell the chefs they were now competing against each other: surf versus turf instead of surf and turf. I'm not crazy about mid-plan change-ups like this, especially when they seem designed to ratchet up the tension between the chefs. Karen and Marjorie seemed to handle it pretty well, while Phillip went the passive-aggressive route with Jeremy in their little team interview. Jason ended up at a big disadvantage; he had compromised with Francis and agree to do Thai flavors, and now he was stuck with those ingredients when it's not a cuisine he knows well. Finally, although I applaud chefs helping each other somewhat, I'm not so sure I would have helped Chad butcher his lamb chops if I were Kwame. It's not the same as lending a few eggs, it's lending a skill the other chef doesn't have, and this is a skills competition. That said, I like Kwame a lot so far.

The first chefs to serve the judges were Wesley, Amar, and Grayson, the latter of whom got to choose any of the chef pairs to compete directly against. Amar served an olive oil poached halibut with eggless Béarnaise sauce, asparagus, and morels. Tom found it delicate but the fish was a little overcooked, and Cat Cora, who was one of several guest judges, found it too simplistic. Wesley was very apprehensive about his ribeye, which he knew was too tough, and made a bigger point than he might have done pointing out the "artwork," as he called it, which was asparagus purée that he stenciled onto the plate in the shape of leaves. The judges found the meat underseasoned but none immediately commented on the toughness of the meat. Tom was snobby about the stenciling. I mean, I thought it looked pretty, but I do agree that Wesley would have done better not to try so hard to call attention to it. Grayson made a lacquered pork belly with a spiced carrot purée. Cat Cora loved the flavors, as did Richard Blais. Grayson won the round handily -- and after the chefs left table-side, Richard did comment on Wesley's meat being badly cooked.

The next pair to serve was Phillip and Jeremy. Jeremy made pan-roasted spot prawns with potato gnocchi and English peas. Cat Cora loved it, and Tom said it was all about finesse. Phillip made center-cut ribeye with rutabaga purée and nori buerre blanc from butter he'd made himself. Cat said it was cooked perfectly. The judges universally preferred Jeremy by a nose, but guest judge Suzanne Goin said she felt bad that they competed directly against each other, because either of them could have wiped out the three previous competitors. I got the feeling that Phillip is not going to take this defeat well, but he needs to remember that just because he will technically be up for elimination doesn't mean there's any chance he would actually be eliminated, based on this dish.

Next came Angelina versus Giselle. Angelina served marinated mussels with escabèche sauce (vinegary sauce with herbs and spices), fennel leek puree, and potatoes. Unfortunately, the judges found that she had neglected the mussels in favor of the other ingredients. Giselle served quail with a tamarindo sauce and a cucumber and radish salad. Tom liked the sauce. The editors cut this sequence a little short, jumping right to the win verdict being handed to Giselle without them actually polling the judges on camera as they'd done for the prior teams.

Kwame and Chad went next. Kwame made a crab salad with turmeric, asparagus, and radish, that was gorgeous to look at. Tom found it playful and fun, while Suzanne called it decadent (in a good way). Chad made spicy bean, honey and orange-lacquered lamb with asparagus mint purée, which the judges found perfectly cooked and luscious. The judges went four and four, so that Tom had to be the tie-breaker: he gave the win to Kwame. Although I thought Chad was a good sport, I'm glad that Kwame won, because Chad's meat might not have presented so well if Kwame hadn't helped him.

Isaac and Carl were up next; Isaac served a fennel-crusted halibut, English peas, and brown butter hollandaise. Tom wanted a little hit of acid, and Dana called something slightly overcooked, although I couldn't catch what she said. Carl did a roasted chicken thigh with prosciutto and English peas. I felt bad for him, because nobody wants to be the one stuck with chicken for a competition at this level, but Tom liked it, especially the white wine dijon sauce. Carl won, although it was another close race.

Next came Karen and Marjorie. Karen had difficulty plating, to the extent that she left someone's fish off the plate. I felt terrible for her. Her dish was seared rock cod with carrot orange purée, blood orange vinaigrette, and roasted carrots. The judges loved it, although Padma continued to look put out at her lack of fish. Marjorie served roasted pork loin with olive oil crushed potatoes, glazed vegetables, and citrus gremolata, which is a garnish made with chopped parsley, garlic, and grated lemon zest (yum!). Unfortunately, the pork was very dry -- Dana Cowan actually made a face, and called it 1960s food. Karen dodged a bullet there for sure.

Finally, we had Jason and Francis. Jason made a marinated grilled pork loin with steamed crudités, Thai-style egg, and green bean salad. Tom was unimpressed with the flavors, and one of the guest judges told Jason he was sorry Jason had been "bullied" into cooking something he wasn't 100% comfortable with. Well, no. Jason wasn't bullied; he compromised because he thought they'd be cooking together, not against each other. Furthermore, most of the challenges are about cooking things they're not 100% comfortable with. Francis's dish was ginger glazed black cod with jicama cucumber relish and roasted squash. Tom called it a hodgepodge on a plate, and the judges didn't appreciate the skin on the fish. Another close race, and Tom once again was the deciding vote: he chose Jason.


JUDGES TABLE

The favorite dishes were by Jeremy, Kwame, and Karen (keeping in mind they couldn't pick the really good dishes happened to get edged out in their round, such as Phillip's). The judges were full of compliments for Karen, but Padma pointed out that they couldn't give her the win when the main part of the dish didn't make it to one of the plates. Tom really liked Kwame's dish, and found Jeremy's dish well put-together and thought-out. Guest judge Michael Cimarusti announced Kwame as the winner.

The three least favorite dishes were by Francis, Angelina, and Wesley. I felt strongly for Wesley, because he'd just been hired by Richard Blais, and was embarrassed by his performance. To his credit, he made no excuses, but owned his mistakes. Angelina's dish was criticized mainly for the way she treated the mussels, taking them out of the shell so they dried out on the plate. Francis felt like her original dish wasn't enough, which is why she added the butternut squash that Tom thought didn't make sense, but the judges pointed out that she had too many ingredients. Ultimately, Francis was sent home.


DISH I MOST WANTED TO TASTE

This is based partly on personal tastes -- I'm not terribly adventurous when it comes to seafood -- but the dish I most wanted to taste was Phillip's ribeye. It looked like it would melt in your mouth. I don't care for his personality a great deal, but there's no denying he's talented.


WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?

I think that Angelina and Wesley will continue to struggle. I think they're good chefs, but they seem a little shell-shocked at finding themselves in this situation. I think Grayson will be up and down, up and down -- if there's one quality I don't see in her, it's consistency. I think Kwame and Jeremy as a team would probably be unbeatable on this show. So far, other than Phillip, I'm finding most of the competitors to be pretty good eggs (no pun intended).


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Sunday, December 6, 2015

Top Chef: California - Episode 2 - Premiere (Part 2 of 2)


ELIMINATION CHALLENGE

For the second part of the season opener, the sixteen chefs went straight to another elimination challenge. This time, they were divided into four teams of four, each charged with opening a pop-up restaurant somewhere in Los Angeles. Padma, along with guest judge Ludo Lefebvre, divided the chefs into teams based on who they were standing next to, then handed each team a key with an address. That address would determine what kind of cuisine they would have to cook, since each was located in a different part of the city with a distinct identity.

The grey team, consisting of Isaac, Marjorie, Angelina, and Amar, drove to a restaurant called "Taste of Tehran", where owner Saghar Fanisalek advised them on Persian food flavors. Isaac was a bit nervous, being unfamiliar with the cuisine, and Angelina was thrown for a loop when the store at which they shopped had no fish, but they both adapted well. Amar served grilled heirloom carrots with cauliflower hummus and vadouvan, which Wikipedia tells me is a ready-to-use curry spice blend. The judges seemed to love it, although Chef Fanisalek found the cumin a bit odd. Angelina prepared a fennel coriander crusted chicken with lemon confit and a fennel radish salad, which Tom said was nicely cooked although it could have used a little more salt and/or saffron. Isaac served a duo of meat: a lamb kofta and a spicy beef kabob with smoked eggplant, the last of which was Padma's favorite part of the dish. They noted that the dish was spicier than traditional Persian cuisine, but liked it nonetheless. Finally, Marjorie took a chance with a dessert, often thought to be the kiss of death on this show, and served a yogurt mousse with pistachio spongecake and saffron orange syrup. Tom called it very well-balanced and Chef Fanisalek said it incorporated lots of Persian flavors. Overall, Gail thought this team did very well, and Ludo remarked that they looked happier than he ever had when doing a pop-up restaurant.

As the orange team, consisting of Phillip, Grayson, Renee, and Francis, drove to their address in Venice, Phillip noted that it has no ethnicity, because it's a neighborhood of white people. So it perhaps wasn't surprising that their cuisine turned out to be vegan, at a restaurant called "Seed Kitchen" which is owned by Eric Lechasseur. Phillip and Renee seemed happy with this, as both their restaurants are vegan friendly and produce-centric. Grayson, alas, began whining immediately, saying that God put animals on this Earth for one reason, to be eaten.

When service started, Phillip served a dish he called "Cauliflower, Cauliflower, Cauliflower", which was four different colors of that vegetable roasted and served with red onion in lime juice. Tom liked the cauliflower itself but didn't care for the puree, which Gail agreed had a surprising lack of cauliflower taste. Chef Lechasseur also thought it needed more punch. Francis served chana masala, which was a chickpea curry with saffron and tofu chips. Padma said it was delicious and Gail particularly liked the tofu chips, but Tom (as I knew he would) had a big problem with Francis using canned beans instead of fresh produce. I think from the number of times Francis emphasized, both in the grocery store and at Judges' Table, that the can said "organic," I wonder if she's confusing the word "organic" with "fresh" -- but surely she knows that canned beans are not fresh no matter what the can says!

Renee made a stuffed beet with toasted cashews and a bitter spring green sauce. Ludo called it both dry and mushy, and Tom said that whatever was at the center of the tofu and nuts was both heavy and pasty. This was disappointing to me, as I've only recently discovered how good beets can taste. Grayson served a charred bean salad with pickled red onions. She was the only chef that Padma asked (at least on camera) how she felt at service, suggesting to me that they were fishing to see if Grayson would whine. At any rate, the judges concluded that this bean salad was the vegetable version of Grayson's uninspired meatball dish of the previous challenge, something that anyone could make at home.

Karen, Carl, Jason, and Giselle made up the purple team, which got sent to Korea town, where they were met by the owner of "Lukshon", Sang Yoon, who has been a competitor on Top Chef Masters. Karen made a grilled kalbi with nectarine kimchi, which Sang Yoon said was the most Korean of the dishes they tried. Carl made a cuttlefish and shrimp salad with avocado; while Gail liked the texture of the cuttlefish, Tom and Sang Yoon said they wished that Carl had marinated or grilled it. Jason served chilled noodles with iced broth, cucumber, Asian pear, and egg. This dish went over well, with the judges commenting on the pleasant noodle texture and the sweet note added by the pear. Giselle made spicy fried wings with cucumber salad. Karen had expressed reservations due to Giselle's lack of confidence because she'd never made chicken like this before, but Tom and Ludo both liked the wings, even if Tom was not sure they were entirely authentic.

Last but not least, Chad, Wesley, Kwame, Jeremy made up the blue team, which had to cook Mexican food. Chad had the advantage of owning two Mexican restaurants (one actually in Mexico!) and Jeremy also has a lot of experience in that cuisine. None of the chefs asked Ray Garcia, the owner of the restaurant "Broken Spanish" where they cooked, for any advice, which the judges later commented upon. Chad served carrots asado (which I think means a barbecue dish) with banana yogurt and carne seca (a kind of dried beef). Tom found the flavor good but the carrot undercooked, and Chef Garcia says he wouldn't recognize it as Mexican food with his eyes closed. Wesley served an orange and tomato stew with chorizo and hominy, another dish the judges found to be "not really Mexican" (and I thought I caught an unflattering reference to "Hamburger Helper" by the judges). Kwame made a chipotle raisin-braised shrimp with masa porridge and avocado lime puree. Tom said he did a nice job on the shrimp and masa in particular, and Chef Garcia liked the flavors. Jeremy served a grilled skirt steak and potato confit with a poblano and almond puree. While Tom thought the beef was well-cooked and well-seasoned, yet again they did not get "Mexican" from this dish, and Gail thought the sauce was not at all bold.


JUDGES' TABLE

The judges called all four teams before them, and quickly announced that the Persian team had won. Tom noted that they clearly enjoyed working together, they looked happy, and that it seemed they made good use of their "ambassador" for advice. After the judges paid compliments for all four chefs, Ludo announced that Chef Saghar wanted the winning dish to go on her menu: Majorie's yogurt mousse and spongecake dessert. I was really pleased at this outcome, because Marjorie took a chance instead of playing it safe, and she seems fairly down to earth so far. That can be pretty rare on this show sometimes.

Then came the bad news. Padma announced that the vegan team was the least favorite, although Gail was quick to point out that Kwame's dish was mainly responsible for keeping the Mexican team off the bottom (surprising considering he said it was his first time cooking Mexican food). Tom dinged Francis on the use of canned ingredients, and Grayson on the lack of inspiration behind her dish. Padma and Gail told Renee they liked the use of her spring greens, but the beet itself was underwhelming. Phillip's dish, they found, was just not a stand-out; Gail called it fussy and (I think) "tweezified," by which I think she meant that it was too much about fancy presentation and not enough about bold flavors.

In the end, I was disappointed that Renee went home. I can't fault the judges for the decision, not having tasted the dish, but based on lack of inspiration and innovation, I would have preferred to see either Francis or Grayson go home before Renee. I have to admit I'm biased against Grayson by this point; I was a little disgusted to see her complain in the Stew Room to Renee that Renee told the judges she didn't want to make "just a salad." Grayson seemed to think that was Renee's attempt to cast aspersion on Grayson, whereas I think that in the two seconds Renee had to respond to the judges' comments, perhaps Grayson was not the first thing on her mind.


DISH I MOST WANTED TO TASTE

This is a tough call. I like both cauliflower and beets, so would love to see how someone with a lot more talent and experience than I have might make them, but clearly the judges didn't think too highly of those dishes. Marjorie's dessert would be the obvious choice, but I'm just not a dessert girl. So for me, it would have to be Angelina's fennel and coriander crusted chicken. That coating looked mouth-watering.


WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?

Overall, this was a very solid episode, by which I mean that the teams were chosen fairly, the challenge was tough but not impossible, and the chefs cooked up some interesting dishes. Right now, I feel like Kwame is one of the chefs to watch. Phillip reminds me a little too much of Marcel from prior seasons. I'll be surprised if Grayson survives much longer. As for the rest of the chefs, I don't feel like I've had enough chance to form a strong impression yet.

One small complaint: I was mildly annoyed by the extremely pointed tweeting that Padma and Gail did while driving to the pop-ups. Since this was filmed weeks or months ago, what's the point of displaying those old tweets now, except to show how hip and trendy Top Chef is? I get really tired of social media sometimes... (she says while blogging).

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Saturday, December 5, 2015

Houston Ballet's Jubilee of Dance

Houston Ballet principal dancers Karina Gonzalez and Connor Walsh.

Most people, when they think "ballet" and "holidays," think of The Nutcracker, but for me, the Christmas season begins with Houston Ballet's Jubilee of Dance, a yearly one-night production that takes place on the first Friday in December. For one evening, the dancers and audience get a break from Sugar Plum Fairies, and instead perform highlights from past seasons as well as the upcoming season. Many years, there is a short video retrospective honoring a retiring dancer or a long-term employee. And although the company's principal dancers do appear throughout, I tend to think of this performance as something of an "audition" for some of the non-principal dancers, as they are often featured in significant and/or difficult roles.

The performance opened with Sleeping Beauty's "Rose Adagio", which Wikipedia describes as "one of the most notoriously difficult sequences in all of ballet." This piece featured Katharine Precourt, who along with Karina Gonzalez is one of my two favorite female dancers in the company. I can see why the piece is considered so difficult; the princess, Aurora, accepts a rose from each of her four suitors, and balances in one precarious position for an impossible length of time, while suitor comes forward to take her hand. I thought Ms. Precourt danced it beautifully. I have to admit that I wasn't crazy about the costumes, though; Aurora's tutu was a garish pink that looked even more out of place due to the lack of stage sets.

Throughout the first "act," we saw two other pieces from The Sleeping Beauty: the Act III pas de deux, featuring Sara Webb and Jared Matthews, and the Act III finale. In February/March 2016, the company will be performing the full production to honor the 80th birthday of Artistic Director Emeritus Ben Stevenson.

Other pieces were interspersed throughout the first act, including pas de deux from Giselle (which will also be staged in 2016) and Manon, the latter of which has some of my favorite ballet music, by Massenet. I was also happy to see the "Cancer" segment from the Zodiac piece that we saw last June. (Review here.)


The second "act" consisted of a single piece: the Capulet Ball and the balcony scene from last season's new production of Romeo and Juliet (preview post here). This time they did use the full sets, and it was as scrumptious as I remembered, with principals Connor Walsh and Karina Gonzalez reprising the lead roles.

My favorite part of the evening was the third act, Brigade, choreographed by Stanton Welch and set to music by Benjamin Britten. I'm not particularly a fan of Britten's operas, but I do like his ballet music. This piece had several movements, each featuring a different dancer or small group in classic, pale blue costumes dancing with classic technique. There was also a big finale featuring many artists. The only set dressing consisted of several crystal chandeliers, but it was enough to give the impression of a grand ballroom. I felt that this act had more energy than the others, and for me the standout performance was that of Hayden Stark during the "Waltz" movement.

In addition to The Nutcracker, Houston Ballet has four other major productions coming in the first half of 2016: the aforementioned Sleeping Beauty and Giselle, and two mixed rep performances, one of which will include pieces from West Side Story. If you live in Houston and you haven't seen what this company can do, I highly recommend going to at least one of these shows. Personally, I prefer the variety and energy of the mixed-rep programs, but you really can't go wrong with any of their performances.

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Thursday, December 3, 2015

Top Chef: California - Episode 1 - Premiere (Part 1 of 2)


And Top Chef is back! This season takes place in California, and if Tom Colicchio is to be believed, this is one of the strongest groups they've brought in. One of the first things Padma did was ask those contestants who are executive chefs to raise their hands, and that was most of them. There's one returning competitor: Grayson, who was eliminated from the season that took place in Texas about four years ago. Personally, I tend to enjoy seeing younger, less experienced chefs, but on the other hand, watching a chef who has mastered what it is they do is enjoyable in itself.

Quickfire Challenge

After introducing just a handful of the chefs -- I do like the way they intersperse the little get-to-know-you clips throughout the episode instead of lumping them all up front -- the episode dove right in to the Quickfire, the now-traditional mise en place relay. This time, the seventeen chefs were permitted to choose the ingredient they thought they could do most quickly, from among eggs, artichokes, asparagus, oranges, and chicken. That is, they were allowed to choose to a point, because as Tom put it, the ingredients were "first come, first served." Sigh.... Will they never get tired of making people fall all over each other to get to the ingredients?

Anyway, the first nine chefs to finish their prep work to Tom's satisfaction moved on to the second round, during which they were divided into three teams and told to prepare a dish featuring at least one of their relay ingredients. The twist was that they had to cook in another relay, except that the second and third legs of each team would be blindfolded so they would be starting their "shifts" without knowing what they were being handed. We've seen this before and I think it's an interesting test of a chef's ability to jump right in and cook on the spot.

Renee from Kansas went first for the blue team, pulling from the pantry such ingredients as mint, cabbage, and ponzu (a Japanese sauce made from soy sauce, lime juice, vinegar, and fish flakes). She was followed by Frances, and while I'm not quite sure what Frances did because she didn't get much camera time, she was chopping cabbage as though her life depended on it. Amar went third, and decided to go sweet and sour with the chicken and Asian slaw that he found. Padma loved the mint and said the dish had really nice flavors.

Isaac went first for the green team and decided to go Cajun. I wondered about this because it's a specific cuisine that his teammates might not have known anything about, but on the other hand, a team playing it safe isn't likely to win. Grayson followed him and decided to go Italian, which suggested to me that Isaac hadn't set things up in an obvious way. Carl, going third, seemed to have a good handle on things and finished a dish he called breaded chicken breast with brown butter, asparagus, and mushroom sauce -- although I don't think that's particularly Cajun or Italian. But Tom did call it nice and moist.

Jason, who cooked first for the red team, admitted that he had no plan; he boiled eggs, and put on a blanching pot and some chicken on the grill. Jeremy, who came next, had no idea what to do with what little Jason had left for him; he started cooking carrots in cream and put more chicken in the oven. Poor Wes, who went last, didn't know about the chicken in the oven, so he went to the grill, where the chicken was both blackened and still raw. He salvaged a bit of it, and the resulting dish was grilled chicken with carrot-orange puree, capers, and anchovies. Padma called it an appetizer-sized portion, and Tom commented that the dish contained a lot of anchovy.

In the end, Tom's least favorite dish was the red team's; he said it tasted like it was cooked by three different people, and that the anchovies overpowered everything else. Between the green and blue teams, Tom thought that the green team's chicken was beautifully cooked and perfectly seasoned. For the blue team, he thought some of the knife work was clunky but the flavors were good. Ultimately, the blue team won with the flavor, giving immunity to Renee, Frances, and Amar. Considering that Renee was also the fastest out of seventeen chefs in the mise en place Quickfire, she's probably going to be one to watch.


Elimination Challenge

Immediately after the Quickfire, Padma announced that the chefs would face two elimination challenges over the next three days. The first challenge was to make any dish that would stand out and represent that chef's personal style, to be served to 200 guests, as well as returning judge Gail Simmons and frequent guest judge Emeril Lagasse. The chefs got $500 to spend at Whole Foods, three hours to prep, and an hour and a half the next day to set up service. (As an aside, wouldn't I love to have $500 to shop at Whole Foods? I know some people aren't crazy about the chain, but I have to say that their produce puts the regular grocery stores around here to shame.)

As the chefs went shopping, I started thinking about how much fun the first episode of the season is. I have to imagine that the editing that goes into this show is pretty skilled, because it's also fairly transparent much of the time. Yet over the course of the episode, we gradually get to see the personalities and styles of the chefs that we'll come to know over the next several weeks.

Speaking of editing, some of the footage showed that Wesley apparently comes by his nickname "Cochino", or "Pig", quite honestly. I was pretty horrified to see him chopping and pureeing a tomato with the produce label still attached, and his workstation was a disaster area. To be fair, several chefs, including Wesley, commented that cooking in a strange kitchen is really hard, and I certainly can sympathize with that.

The service the next day took place outside on a cloudy day with the famous Hollywood sign in the background (trust me, the judges were artfully arrayed underneath it). I loved that each chef's booth had a wooden sign with their name and a silhouette of their home state on it; it would be nice if they get to keep those as a souvenir. During set-up, I was surprised to hear a contestant named Garret Fleming say that former Top Chef All-Stars alum Mike Isabella serves "one of the worst bastardizations of kind of Italian food in the history of the world." Really? This from the chef who claims to be mixing Southeast Asian and Italian influences? I have to say that although I can see why some people might prefer Mike Isabella in small doses, I felt he was pretty authentic when it came to his food. But honestly, at this point in the show, a lot of the chefs are looking for any excuse for bravado, to be able to say something that might stand out on camera.

On the other hand, I will say about Garret that I'm impressed with anyone who can make fresh pasta for 200 people in a few hours.

With seventeen chefs, it would be a bit much for me to list all of their dishes, so I'm just going to mention a bunch of random impressions:

1) Gail Simmons is extremely articulate in expressing exactly what she does and doesn't like about food. I really like that about her.

2) There are some dishes that just look so good but that I sadly would not eat, such as Grayson's pork and veal meatballs. I'd like to be a vegetarian but don't quite have the discipline. When I do eat red meat, though, it's definitely not going to be pork or veal. Anyway, speaking of Grayson, I'm not sure she's emotionally any more ready for this season than she was for the last time she competed.

3) Oh dear, Wesley. Did you seriously just put that spoon in your mouth and back into the food?

4) The dishes are so varied that I'm blown away.

5) All I want, as I'm watching, is to see people succeed. I love when Tom or Padma or Gail or Emeril tosses one of the chefs a compliment, and the chef just glows with it.

Back to the competition, I found it interesting that the "critics" were weighted heavily enough that they chose for the judges the top and bottom five chefs, and the judges subsequently couldn't consider anyone in between. But I do think it's probably wise to strike a balance between the judges' expert (and possibly jaded) opinions and those of the non-experts, if food bloggers and critics can be called non-experts.

Amar (meatballs), Jeremy (fish crudo), and Carl (carrot soup) had the judges' favorite dishes from the critics' top choices. The winner in the end was Jeremy, and hoo boy, it's gotta be a great feeling to win the first challenge.

On the bottom end, we had Angelina (goat cheese croquette), Garret (chicken brodo (whatever that is)), and Grayson (also meatballs). I'd thought it was obvious from the commentary that Garret probably wouldn't be going home, because Emeril thought his dish was just fine. Grayson embarrassed herself by reacting defensively to everything the judges said, and (in my opinion) should have been chosen to go home before Garret. I have to wonder if she wasn't kept for the drama potential. But in the end, it was Garret who left, and as always, I'm a bit sad for the chef who didn't get to show us a little more of what they can do.

Tomorrow night ... Part 2!
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Monday, November 30, 2015

Short Fiction - November 2015


Short Fiction - November 2015

I feel as though I've done my short story reading a disservice this month; it's been more fragmented than usual, and I've had to play catch-up a couple of times. On a more positive note, I've started in on award reading in earnest -- you can see from the list of stories below that I've mainly been reading works published in 2015, so I can be ready to nominate and vote for the Hugos, Nebulas, and World Fantasy Awards next year. I'm also entering into the home stretch of my read-a-story-a-day goal. Of course, we all know how busy December is, but I think I can do it!

(For those who are interested, you can see a public "Nebula Suggested Reading List" from the SFWA, or the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. These aren't nominations at this point, just suggestions, but it's fun to see what works have begun percolating up to the top in each category. You can also sort the lists by author or publisher if you prefer.)

In any case, here are two stories that stood out for me among those I read in November:

"Recipe: 1 Universe" by Effie Seiberg

List format stories are becoming a harder sell for me as I read more of them, but this one completely charmed me. It's exactly as advertised, a recipe for creating a universe. It's full of warmth and humor and lovely imagery. It's available in the September 2015 issue of Galaxy's Edge magazine, which can be purchased here. I believe it will also soon be available on the author's website. (Update: free link to story on author's site here.)



"Experience Arcade" by James Van Pelt

Here's a flash story from Daily Science Fiction that I wish I'd read in time for my Halloween post several weeks ago, because it really nails the dark, creepy atmosphere that I look for in a horror story. And it does so by questioning what attracts people to horror in the first place, and what might happen if watching horror movies somehow was no longer enough.

In a way, it's odd that I liked this story so well, because although I definitely like dark films, I don't like traditional horror films at all. When I was a kid I watched Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street to go along with the crowd. In fact, a group of us used to see Nightmare on Friday and Saturday nights at the midnight movies, where we would MST3K it. But ultimately I started having Freddy Krueger nightmares, and then I had a nightmare about the Chucky doll even though I'd never seen any of those movies, so I stopped watching horror films altogether. (Seriously, who gets nightmares from previews?!) Even The Sixth Sense, which I think was brilliant, was almost too scary for me, because I hate being startled by things jumping out or appearing suddenly from behind.

But back to this story: what appealed to me was the narrator's mixture of despair mixed with cynicism. I highly recommend this short story, which is available at Daily Science Fiction here.



Other stories read in November 2015:

(alphabetical by author)

- "No Spaceships Go" by Annie Bellet (2010)
- "Honk if You Love Jesus" by R.L. Black (year unknown)
- "Checkmate Charlie" by Gustavo Bondoni (2015)
- "Forgiveness" by Leah Cypress (2015)
- "Fishing Lures" by G.L. Dearman (2015)
- "Nine Ways to Communicate with the Living" by Sarina Dorie (2015)
- "Fathers' Faces" by Robin Wyatt Dunn (2015)
- "Nakamura-san" by Robin Wyatt Dunn (2015)
- "Lirazel's Heart" by Robert B. Finegold (2015)
- "Sea Monkey Business" by Paul A. Freeman (2015)
- "The Broken Doll" by Robert Green (2015)
- "Schrödinger's Schrödinger" by Benjamin Jacobson (2015)
- "A Brief History of the New Brighton Toy Poodle" by Lex Joy (2015)
- "Here is My Thinking on a Situation That Affects Us All" by Rahul Kanakia (2015)
- "Junk Dreams" by Damien Krsteski (2015)
- "Last" by Rich Larson (2012)
- "The Word of Unbinding" by Ursula K. Le Guin (1974)
- "Spellcasting" by Gerri Leen (2015)
- "Lady of the Skulls" by Patricia A. McKillip (original 1993; reprint 2010)
- "Lilly" by Melissa Mead (2015)
- "To Fall, and Pause, and Fall" by Lisa Nohealani Morton (2015)
- "Rain Like Diamonds" by Wendy Nikel (2015)
- "The Last of Time" by Ken Poyner (2015)
- "Silent Familiar" by Cat Rambo (original 2009; reprint 2015)
- "Charlie" by Carla Richards (2015)
- "Loving Grace" by Erica L. Satifka (2015)
- "The Maker's Mark" by Mark Silcox (2015)
- "Giraffe Cyborg Cleans House!" by Matthew Sanborn Smith (2015)
- "The Plausibility of Dragons" by Kenneth Schneyer (2015)
- "My Wife is a Bear in the Morning" by David Steffen (2015)
- "Looking for Nanna" by Gerald Warfield (2015)
- "Noise Pollution" by Alison Wilgus (2015)
- "Rock, Paper, Scissors, Love, Death" by Caroline M. Yoachim (2015)


List of the sources from which these stories came:

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

- Ain't Superstitious (anthology), edited by Juliana Rew, September 2015
- Asimov's, February 2015
- Clarkesworld, September 2015
- Daily Science Fiction, various dates
- Diabolical Plots, November 2015
- Epic: Legends of Fantasy (anthology), edited by John Joseph Adams, 2012
- Every Day Fiction, various dates
- Fireside, February 2015
- Freeze Frame Fiction: v2 flash fiction: YA, year unknown
- Lightspeed, November 2015
- Perihelion, October 2015
- Podcastle, November 2015
- A Quiet Shelter There (anthology), edited by Gerri Leen, September 2015
- Robotica (anthology), edited by Elizabeth Hirst, October 2015
- The Secret History of Fantasy (anthology), edited by Peter S. Beagle, 2010
- Strange Horizons, April 2015

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Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Spectre


I've decided that maybe I don't want Daniel Craig to make any more James Bond movies.

If you know me, you know this is an almost heretical statement. I am not exaggerating when I say that I love Daniel Craig as James Bond. In fact, he is the only Bond I've ever taken seriously, the only Bond for whom I always see the movie in the theater (and often on opening weekend). The only other Bond I found interesting was Timothy Dalton, because I felt his face showed more character and emotion than our other smooth-faced heroes. To be fair, Daniel Craig has had the benefit of excellent writing, whereas most Bonds got little more than bad puns and over-the-top villains. But still, I really do feel that Daniel Craig was made for this part.

But back to the point: the reason I would be OK with Daniel Craig calling it quits is because Spectre very nicely completes a four-film arc encompassing both plot and emotional development. Questions are answered. Old friends and foes are revisited, even the ones who are dead.

MAJOR SPOILERS FROM THIS POINT FORWARD

As a brief summary, soon after the movie opens we learn that Bond had received a video message from M (the Judi Dench one) upon her death, directing him to kill a certain man and be sure to attend his funeral. At said funeral, Bond befriends the widow (Monica Bellucci, from the second and third Matrix movies), whose life is in danger because she knows too much about her dead husband's secret organization. Bond gets her to safety and infiltrates Spectre, a group that indulges in human trafficking and also engineers terrorist attacks to get governments to willingly give up the keys to their intelligence offices. Bond is shocked when the group's leader, Blofeld, turns out to be someone he knew long ago and believed dead.

Shortly thereafter, Bond travels to a remote snow-bound chalet where he finds a dying Mr. White, whom we saw in both Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace -- the very man behind the blackmail that got Vesper killed. White is disinclined to give Bond information about Blofeld, until Bond agrees to find and protect White's daughter, Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux). Who, as it turns out, is less than happy to be reintroduced to a way of life she thought she left behind.

In the course of navigating a number of captures and escapes, James and Madeleine sleep together, but it's different than Bond's usual encounters save one: Vesper. Madeleine isn't Vesper, but it's no accident that her and James's mutual attraction first becomes apparent during a formal dinner aboard a train, or that Madeleine asks the same kind of penetrating questions that Vesper once asked, about choices and what compels a man to kill for a living. However, before Bond goes off to try and save the world yet one more time, Madeleine says goodbye, saying that she can't go back to an existence filled with violence, but she also knows she can't change him. Without words and not even very much in the way of facial expression, Craig still manages to convey just how heavy a blow this is for James. But he is 007, and he still has a job to do.

I won't go into too many more details, except to point out one other parallel between James's relationships with Vesper and Madeleine. Both women serve as a direct reason that James decides not to kill a villain when he could. In Vesper's case, it comes at the end of Quantum of Solace (which is my opinion is simply the second half of Casino Royale). James finally gets to confront the man who pretended to be Vesper's boyfriend so that Mr. White's organization could control her, yet James leaves this man alive. He does so in part because the man has important information, but I think he also does it because he knows Vesper wouldn't want him to kill when he doesn't have to. The same thing happens in Spectre; James can kill Blofeld in the end, but realizes what he actually wants more is to walk away with Madeleine, who is now willing to be with him because she sees this change as it happens.

I love the circular nature of these four films.

Other thoughts, in no particular order:

  • I adore the fact that we get to see more of Moneypenny (Naomie Harris), M (Ralph Fiennes), Q (Ben Whishaw), and Tanner (Rory Kinnear). Perhaps my memory of earlier Bond movies is sketchy, but it seems to me that previously, Q and Moneypenny existed to serve up humor and provide a vehicle for Bond's innuendo, respectively. But they have so much more to contribute in the new films! And I like both Judi Dench and Ralph Fiennes as their respective M's. I'm not 100% sure I understood this correctly, but it sounded to me like the Fiennes M not only has more field experience than most people know, he either was or still is a double-O. (Although I have to admit that it does seem odd to me that nobody would know this -- everyone knows Bond is one.) And how wonderful that Q finally got a little field action, albeit not intentionally.

  • I enjoyed Andrew Scott as C in this film. In the U.S. at least, Scott is best known as the BBC Sherlock's Moriarty. For me, that character occasionally goes a little too far over-the-top, but here, we get the intelligent menace without crossing that line.

  • While I liked Blofeld's connection with Bond's past, I actually thought it was going to be even closer than it turned out to be. Basically, Blofeld is the son of a man who took Bond under his wing when Bond was orphaned. Presumably unbeknownst to James, the slightly older Blofeld became consumed with jealousy because he thought James was taking his place. James had always believed that Blofeld died in the same avalanche that killed Blofeld's father, but it turns out the son murdered the father and faked his own death.

    So, where I thought this was going was that Blofeld was going to be James's biological brother, and that it just hadn't been mentioned that the older brother was killed along with James's parents. I probably wouldn't have had this misconception if I'd been able to get a closer look at the guardianship papers James received among his personal effects from Skyfall, but I couldn't read quickly enough, and I also struggled with spoken names in this film. (If I see a movie I really like, the first thing I do is buy the DVD and watch it with subtitles, which always clears up a bunch of things I missed the first time around.) Ah well, Blofeld as Bond's real brother probably would have been too much for me, but a part of me wonders.

  • I'll be interested to see where this franchise goes next. I suspect it will be very difficult to top these past four films, especially when taken together as a whole, but I'm willing to keep an open mind.

  • Calling it now: if the films are still being produced twenty years from now, I think Matthew Lewis, who played Neville Longbottom in the Harry Potter movies and who I think of as a young Clive Owens, could certainly play the part.
Hmm, I wonder how long until this comes out on DVD. I feel a marathon coming on.

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Friday, October 30, 2015

Short Fiction - October 2015

[Clip art courtesy of Dover's weekly free samples.]


Short Fiction - October 2015

In addition to some favorite Halloween-themed fiction that I've read recently, here are my favorite stories that I read in October.

As an aside, I'm up to almost 400 short stories read this year, and I'm not even remotely getting tired of my one-a-day goal. On days when I'm pressed, I can always read flash, after all. And I am always interested in hearing what stories my friends have read and liked, so I'm getting great recommendations that way.


"Virtual Blues" by Lee Budar-Danoff

I've seen a lot of stories that deal with "wired society," in which people interact almost exclusively via virtual interfaces, but I think this was the first story I've seen in which some people's bodies simply reject the implanted interfaces in spite of anti-rejection drugs. And if the rejection doesn't happen immediately, a person may quickly get used to being wired, and then have to live without. Can you imagine your life without the Internet now? Probably not, or not easily, and this kind of "wired" goes significantly beyond what we have today. Imagine the eerie silence of a crowded public space in which nobody is interacting with anyone else who is physically there.

But what makes this story special is that it's also about creating and playing music, and the bond created between a performer and a live audience. I found it quite moving, and I felt like the author completely "gets" jazz, as well as music and performing in general.

Published in March 2015 in Diabolical Plots (read here).



"James and the Prince of Darkness" by Kevin Lauderdale

This humorous "deal with the devil" tale shows that sometimes, it's all in the story's execution. James, a Wodehouse-style valet, proves very resourceful when he learns that his employer displayed a serious lack of judgment whilst drinking at his club the night before. This story's tone is pitch perfect and wonderfully consistent, with some truly funny lines.

This was published in Third Flatiron's 2015 anthology Ain't Superstitious, and is available for purchase here.



"The Demon of Russet Street" by Jessica Reisman

This story, at about 5,500 words, is so incredibly rich that I'm experiencing world-building envy. It's slightly steampunkish and slightly godpunkish, yet filled with other little odds and ends too -- I loved, for instance, how bits and bobs from the sea were incorporated into everyday life. The story follows a farrago named Rusk, who was bequeathed autonomy and wealth when his deviser passed away. Rusk is asked by the authorities to look into the "disassembling" of another farrago -- murder, really, but under the law, the only penalty for someone who destroys a farrago is compensation to its owner. The author incorporates magic, some amazing technology, and creature rights in a way that made me want to see a lot more stories set in this world.

Dare I say that I was even reminded, flavor-wise, of Ted Chiang's work? And that's not something I would say lightly. There was just a sort of fearlessness in the world-building, if that makes sense.

Read in the September 2015 issue of Three-Lobed Burning Eye here.



"Every Other Emily" by Joseph Sloan

Published in the September 2015 issue of One Teen Story, this mainstream YA piece consists of Emily's e-mails to Paul, who has gone off to Yale. Emily vents to Paul about the $600 per hour IQ coaching her parents have forced her to take. They want her to get into an exclusive school for a "gap year" after high school graduation, all so she can get into a college good enough to be suitable for their lifestyle. Emily also writes about how much she misses Paul, and says that he represents the only thing she ever decided on her own that she wanted.

This is beautifully written. I wasn't surprised at the turn the story took (although I didn't know what the details would be), but I was satisfied with the resolution.

I also want to mention again how much I like this publication. One Teen Story publishes a single story per issue, delivered in a little print chapbook. I've read eight issues so far, and I've rated half of them at 4 out of 5 stars or higher, which I suspect is a much higher average than I get for most other publications. We all have a limited amount of money we can spend on subscriptions, but this little magazine is one I really look forward to getting in my mailbox each month. It's an offshoot of One Story, which has the same one-story-per-issue concept, but has a much more adult literary feel. I like One Story, but it's much more hit and miss for me than One Teen Story.

Available from the magazine's website here.



Other stories read in October 2015:

(alphabetical by author)

- "A Marriage" by Kiik A.K. (original 2014; reprint 2015)
- "The Great Old Pumpkin" by John Aegard (2004)
- "The Half-life of Chocolate" by Nancy Fulda (original 2011; reprint 2015)
- "The Last Book" by Guanani Gomez (2015)
- "8 Steps to Winning Your Partner Back (From the Server)" by A.T. Greenblatt (2015)
- "Possessed of a Fierce Violence" by Alexis A. Hunter (2015)
- "Genie From the Gym" by M.K. Hutchins (2015)
- "Message from Beyond" by José Pablo Iriarte (2015)
- "Something Wicked This Way Plumbs" by Vylar Kaftan (2007)
- "Dis-Orientation" by C.I. Kemp (2015)
- "And in the End, They All Lived Happily Ever After" by Michelle Ann King (2015)
- "Spirit Board" by D.J. Kozlowski (2015)
- "Crystal" by Ken Liu (2015)
- "The Devil Is Beating His Wife Today" by Sandra McDonald
- "The Cats' Game" by Michelle Muenzler (2015)
- "The Burger Bargain" by Wendy Nikel (year unknown)
- "Bloody Mary" by Norman Partridge (2013)
- "When the Circus Lights Down" by Sarah Pinsker (2015)
- "The Mirror Man" by Andrija Popovic (2015)
- "Summer in Realtime" by Erica L. Satifka (2015)
- "Super-Parents Last All Childhood Long" by Erica L. Satifka (2013)
- "The Librarian's Dilemma" by E. Saxey (2015)
- "Night Witch" by Shawn Scarber (2015)
- "Bump in the Night" by Linda M. Scott (2015)
- "Stalked by Night" by Michael Seese (2015)
- "The Terrible" by John Wiswell (2015)
- "The Grim Rufus" by Peter Wood (2013)
- "Have You Heard the One About Anamaria Marquez?" by Isabel Yap (2014)
- "Grim Hunter" by Tina Yeager (2015)


List of the sources from which these stories came:

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

- Ain't Superstitious (anthology), edited by Juliana Rew, September 2015
- Daily Science Fiction, various dates
- Every Day Fiction, various dates
- Expanded Horizons, October 2015
- Fantastic Stories of the Imagination, July/August 2015
- Havok 2.4, October 2015
- Nightmare, October 2013; March 2014
- One Teen Story, September 2015
- Page & Spine, October 2015
- QuarterReads
- Shimmer, Halloween 2007
- Strange Afterlives (anthology), edited by A. Lee Martinez, 2015
- Strange Horizons,
- Three-Lobed Burning Eye, September 2015
- Uncanny, March/April 2015
- Unlikely Story: The Journal of Unlikely Academia, October 2015

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Friday, October 23, 2015

Pumpkin Time: Recommended Halloween Short Fiction


[Image of pumpkin made from a book by Anthology on Main, an Etsy seller specializing in book page "flowers" for weddings and upcycled book holiday centerpieces. Photo used here with permission. Click here to view the Anthology on Main Etsy shop.]


The idea for this post came about by accident; one day in early September, I had about fifteen minutes to spare while waiting for my husband so I went in search of a short podcast by clicking on the "miniatures" tag on the Podcastle website. The story that caught my eye was "We Clever Jacks" by Greg van Eekhout, and it put me in such a Halloween mood that I decided to go out looking for more Halloween fiction. The stories below were some of my favorites. They're not all creepy or scary -- some are funny or even moving instead, but for me, they all say "Halloween" in some way.


[Alphabetical by author]


"The Great Old Pumpkin" by John Aegard

This was published back in 2004 in Strange Horizons, and I remember being delighted by it then just as I was upon rereading it now. Part of the joy in this story is realizing just what this parody mash-up consists of; the clues come quickly, so it won't take you long. I don't want to say more than that, but trust me, this story is funny and wickedly clever. (And I really wish I could draw well enough to whip up an illustration for it!) Read here.



"The Scream" by Nancy Fulda

This is a horror story (some might call it dark fantasy) about a boy named Pete. His brother Kody, who has a troubled past, sticks his knife into a pumpkin in order to carve it for Halloween, only to release an evil psychic scream that takes up residence in Kody's head. I found the resolution uncomfortable, but that was kind of the point. This story, at approximately 3,900 words long, is very well-written, and I recommended it for those who like the darker stuff.

This was published on NewMyths.com and is available here.



"Night Witch" by Shawn Scarber

This story isn't as Halloween-oriented as the others, but for me, it still has the right feel for this time of year. And it technically is about a witch, so there you go. In this story, the "Night Witch" refers to a Russian female bomber pilot during World War II; they were so called for their tactic of silencing their engines right before a bombing run. A German Bf 109 squadron encounters a Night Witch, and there's more to her than initially meets the eye.

I first heard this story read aloud at a writing event earlier this year and have been meaning to go back and read it ever since I heard it had been published. It perfectly suited my mood for this month, with just the right amount of creepy atmosphere. I also thought the aerial battle was particularly well written. This appears in a 2015 anthology titled Strange Afterlives, edited by A. Lee Martinez.



"Strong as Stone" by Effie Seiberg

This is a sweet, beautifully written story about a girl made of stone, who spends much of her time in the hospital while doctors study her condition and try to deal with some of the unique physiological problems that she faces. She begs her parents to be allowed out on Halloween, assuming she will finally fit in since that's the day everyone deliberately tries to look and be different. Alas, she discovers that Halloween is not a holiday from cruelty, but she also learns, with the help of a new "neighbor" in the hospital, to appreciate her own strength and beauty.

This story appears in an unusual venue for fiction: a fashion magazine that describes itself as "edgy." The story is "illustrated" with stunning photos of a woman looking at roughly humanoid figures made of stone. In a way, the photos don't go with the tone of this story, but at the same time they didn't feel wrong, if that makes sense. I was glad the photos were there, because they're gorgeous to look at -- but I'd also love to see this story specifically illustrated for children.

This link goes to a PDF that is a portion of the magazine issue; just click forward through a few pages to get to the story.



"We Clever Jacks" by Greg van Eekhout

And last but not least, I absolutely loved this story. And although I think I would have loved just as much if I'd read it as text, for me it's one of those stories that just begs to be read aloud. Here, reader Marshal Latham infuses the story with wry humor, and the background music adds yet another layer of quirky creepiness. The story is narrated by a Jack, a Halloween pumpkin. He (I'm going with he because they're all named Jack, although of course they don't all have to be male) goes through a roll call of the neighborhood Jacks, including Laughing Jack, Shrieking Jack, Happy Jack, and Wailing Jack. But it's Grimacing Jack who has big plans for the "holiday" this year.

This is a perfect Halloween story for kids, because it's delightful and creepy but not at all gory or violent. It's not scary, really, just very atmospheric. (Podcastle rates it as "PG.") This was originally published on the author's blog here in 2007, and reissued as a podcast by Podcastle in 2012 here.

* * *

I know there are likely to be all kinds of great new Halloween stories published this week, but I didn't want to wait until Halloween to talk about Halloween fiction -- I love the time leading up to holidays, but once the day itself passes, I am very much done with that holiday until the next year! In the meantime, I'll be posting at the end of the month as usual, about some favorite stories read during October that don't happen to be Halloween-themed. In the meantime, Happy Trick-or-Treating!

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Monday, October 19, 2015

October publications

October has been a big month for me publication-wise, with three stories just out and one more to launch on October 31. Funny, I just realized that three are sort of love stories -- does that mean I'm a romantic? The fourth is a piece of Halloween flash fiction.


"My Eyes Molly Brown"

Eric's miniature horse, Molly Brown, isn't just a pet; she's a companion guide animal that helps Eric navigate through an increasingly challenging near-future world. And she's also his best friend.

"My Eyes Molly Brown" appears in A Quiet Shelter There, an October 2015 anthology edited by Gerri Leen. Read the Publishers Weekly review here; order the print book from Amazon or directly from the publisher, Hadley Rille Books. E-book editions should be available soon in a variety of formats.


"Dressing Mr. Featherbottom"

When AnnaBella Frostwich insists on dressing her robotic companion, Mr. Featherbottom, in the latest fashions, her mother doesn't know what to think! This will appear in the Robotica anthology, edited by Elizabeth Hirst and published by Pop Seagull Publishing, to be launched on Halloween weekend at Can*Con in Ottawa. I'll be there for the launch party, along with several of the other authors.


"Minghun:
Unlikely Patron Saints, No. 5" (podcast)


When an unmarried Chinese daughter dies too soon, her parents may follow the tradition of minghun, or arrangement of an afterlife marriage. But what if that daughter doesn't want a husband, even in death? This story originally appeared in Strange Horizons in 2007; it has now been re-issued as a podcast, read by S. Qiouyi Lu. Listen free in the October 7, 2015 issue of Glittership here.


"Dear Editor"

A concerned citizen expresses his doubts about a certain demonic practice that has had . . . unintended consequences. This micro-story appears in Havok 2.4 (October 2015), which is their special "Shivers and Screams" Halloween issue. Available for purchase here.


Click here for a complete list of my fiction publications.
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Friday, October 16, 2015

O Columbia

[Soprano Pureum Jo as Becca in O Columbia; photograph by Lynn Lane appears with the Wall Street Journal review of the production written by Heidi Waleson.]


This is a shamefully overdue review of the O Columbia, which we saw on opening night on September 23 (the first of only two performances).

This chamber opera was everything I'd hoped it would be.

Although we've seen bits and pieces of this opera throughout its entire development over the last year and a half, this was the first time we heard the full music played by the chamber orchestra, and it was gorgeous. I don't know why -- possibly because all the creators behind O Columbia are so young -- but somehow I wasn't prepared for how full and rich the music would be. Now? We'll be on particular lookout for opportunities to see composer Gregory Spears' work performed. And by this time, Royce Vavrek's libretto was an old familiar friend (in addition to the workshops, I saw a preview event at NASA the previous Friday, in which the cast performed some excerpts). I've loved this libretto all along, but it was really special to hear the words in their intended context.

The production was staged in the Revention Music Center (formerly the Bayou Music Center), an open warehouse-like venue that not only hosts concerts, but also roller derby matches and wrestling entertainment. The stage was set with a billowy white backdrop, with the small orchestra, consisting mainly of strings, seated in front. Dressed in black with white sneakers, the cast initially sat in a ring of white chairs surrounding a bed and a small stand with a record player: the bedroom of Becca, portrayed by Pureum Jo, a young girl who daydreams about going into space one day. Along with her classmates, Becca first contemplates Sir Walter Raleigh (Ben Edquist), who sings about the inherent risks of exploration and traveling to the New World. He also mourns the lost Roanoke colonists, and says that the best way to honor them is to continue exploring.

In the second part, Becca is in her Houston bedroom awaiting the return of the Columbia space shuttle, and carries on an imaginary conversation with an astronaut (also sung by Edquist), in which she asks him what he sees, and asks for a role in the mission. She is, of course, devastated upon hearing the news of the shuttle's disintegration, but still determined to go into space.

In part three, Becca looks to the future, to a time when humans are exploring beyond the solar system, looking for habitable planets elsewhere. Lady Columbia (Megan Samarin) appears to tell the astronauts that she is watching over them as she does with all explorers, including those who are lost.


The hardest part to convey here is how original and inspired director Kevin Newbury's staging was. Except for Lady Columbia, all of the singers, dressed in black with white sneakers, remained on stage for the entire 70-minute opera. In addition to the chairs, they each had a simple, stylized astronaut helmet, and used the chairs, flashlights, and even the bedding to various effect. I was moved when I realized that the chairs, now stacked in a jumble, were meant to signify the shuttle wreckage. As the seats were general admission and we got there at the last minute due to dinner plans beforehand, we ended up sitting high up to one side, but I didn't feel we missed anything from that vantage point, because the singers were constantly in motion and facing different directions all the time.

Honestly? I think the only thing I might have been tempted to change would be to dress Lady Columbia differently than the other singers, especially as she did not come on stage until part three. I understand why dressing her the same as everyone else makes sense, but I kept picturing her in a draped white gown to go with the laurel wreath upon her head.

After the performance, we stayed for the "Talk Back", or Q&A, with the creators, and then went to an informal celebratory gathering at the Okra Charity Saloon. This was especially fun for me, because although most of the performers weren't there, I did get to chat with one of the Ensemble cast, Teresa Proctor, who performs frequently with HGOco. I also had a truly fascinating conversation with the opera's lighting designer, Michael James Clark. I know so little about that part of the opera world, and I'm afraid I pestered him with all sorts of questions.

The other nice thing is that I'm finally starting to feel like HGO is not just an opera company, but my opera company. That may sound silly, but for me, it's been harder to feel connected to the opera because the lead roles for the main stage productions are imports, whereas with the ballet, we get to watch the same dancers over the years. But now that we've gotten to see some HGOco productions, we get to see those singers as well as some of the HGO Studio artists. This season, we're going to see all three leads from O Columbia in main stage productions: Megan Samarin as Olga in Eugene Onegin, Pureum Jo as Barbarina in The Marriage of Figaro, and Ben Edquist in Eugene Onegin, The Little Prince, and Carousel. How cool is that?

In the meantime, I have my fingers crossed that O Columbia will be picked up by other companies, especially in places where there is a NASA center or a higher-than-average interest in the space sciences. The Phoenix Opera, for instance, would be ideal for this piece, because both Arizona State and the University of Arizona have planetary science programs, plus the Planetary Science Institute is located in Tucson, just a short trip down the highway. And Phoenix already has a built-in opera audience. Then there's Washington D.C. (NASA Headquarters), Los Angeles (Jet Propulsion Laboratory), and Orlando (Kennedy Space Center). Seriously, more people need to see this.


[Megan Samarin as Lady Columbia, Pureum Jo as Becca, and Bed Edquist as Sir Walter Raleigh/Astronaut. Photo by Lynn Lane.]
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Monday, October 5, 2015

Pop-Up Microfiction: That'll Learn 'Em

I hope you enjoy this little pop-up piece of microfiction. It's an embedded PDF that can be clicked to enlarge or download. (I promise it's clean; I don't have the slightest idea how to embed nastiness into files! It took me about two hours just to figure out how to get this in a post.)



©2015 by Amy Sisson. Free to share with correct attribution. Read more!

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Houston Ballet Fall Repertory


Last night we saw Houston Ballet's Fall Repertory program, and if you'll forgive me for gushing, I believe that may be the most perfect evening of dance I've ever seen. I've said for a while that I actually prefer the mixed rep nights more than the full-length ballets, but normally there's at least one of the pieces that I didn't quite like as much as the others. Not so this time; they were all incredible.

The performance began with Stanton Welch's "Tapestry", which was set to Violin Concerto No. 5 by Mozart. We saw this piece when it premiered in 2012, and I was happy to see it again. There are three main movements (although I'm not sure I'm technically using the term correctly here), and perhaps it has to do with my food-centric short story reading in September, but I thought of each movement as a food course. This probably won't make much sense to anyone but me, but the first part made me think of blood orange creamsicle mimosas, the second of sweet and tart green apples, and the third of butternut squash and russet apples. Hmmm, remembering how I thought of last season's Romeo & Juliet costumes as raspberry sherbet, I'm beginning to think I have some weird music-color-food synesthesia....

But back to "Tapestry" itself ... I've often thought that Stanton Welch hears music and sees its movement, which he then teaches to the dancers. Not one possible movement for those notes, but the specific movement that was intended when the melody was created. There was only one moment when it felt a tiny bit too literal for me, which was when female dancers timed jumps into the males' arms and froze in place. It seemed almost jarring, and took me out of the moment. On the other hand, I don't know what another solution would be, since the music does stop that suddenly.

In any case, I felt that the rest of the piece was pretty much perfect. There was one part in particular, when principles Connor Walsh and Ian Cassidy lightly tossed Karina Gonzalez between them and it was so light and airy she seemed like a handkerchief fluttering from one to the other. I mean, it looked effortless. There was also a part that beautifully showcased three exciting male dancers: Aaron Robison, Oliver Halkowich, and Harper Watters. Last but not least, violin soloist Denise Tarrant was amazing, and received a tremendous round of applause.



The second piece was Christopher Bruce's "Ghost Dances", which premiered in Bristol, England, in 1981 and in Houston in 1988. The program describes the opening scene, in which "three skeletal figures with matted hair await the next consignment of the Dead." The piece begins in silence (something I struggle with, because then I notice the audience's every last cough and shift in their seats) with these three figures on a sort of rocky shore. Then, a group of men and women arrive in various types of dress. I hadn't read the program description before seeing it, but it was easy enough to interpret that these people were dead. To me, they seemed to be puppets, or animated corpses trying to hang on to life, not knowing that it has already been taken from them.

This ballet also had a post-apocalyptic feel to me -- rather than seeing these people as just a handful who happened to have died recently, I felt as though the whole world had died. Very specifically, I got a kind of Avatar-meets-Mad-Max-zombies vibe, and I was also reminded of a very intense young adult book I read a few years ago, The Marbury Lens by Andrew Smith. It was about a boy who kept transitioning between the real world and a cannibalistic, post-apocalyptic version in which he finds the counterparts of many of his real-life friends. Of course, there's no relation between the ballet and this book, not even remotely, but I mention it because it shows that we all bring our own powerful associations to any art form that we experience. Just as no two people read the same book, no two people see the same ballet.

At the risk of gushing again, I also have to say that any time James Gotesky is on stage, I can't take my eyes off of him. I also loved the recorded Chilean folk music by Inti-Illimani, and will definitely seek out some of their work.


The third piece was a world premiere: "Reveal", choreographed by former Houston Ballet dancer Garrett Smith. This ballet had some of the most dramatic, effective lighting I've ever seen in a ballet. It was set to music by Phillip Glass, and primarily showcased a female dancer and her reverse-negative mirror image. In the program, the choreographer says "As dancers, you're always constantly training and trying and sculpting your body, constantly looking in that mirror all day to the point of obsessing with this love-hate relationship of ballet. In Reveal I wanted to try to let go of that and just embrace and accept what you have been given in life."

It's hard to describe this ballet more specifically than that, as it was fairly abstract, but it was absolutely haunting. I also loved its genderbending qualities, and thought that the music made it seem as though the stakes were life and death.

There are two more performances of this mixed rep production: tonight (Saturday October 3) and tomorrow afternoon (Sunday October 4).

[All photos property of Houston Ballet. Top: Connor Walsh, Karina Gonzalez, and Ian Casady in Tapestry. Middle: cast of Ghost Dances. Bottom: Karina Gonzalez in Reveal.]

Edited to add: A friend of mine named Cole Mikeska, who also sees all of Houston Ballet and Houston Grand Opera's performances, had something to say about "Ghost Dances" that I found intriguing. He said that he thought the "dances between the group marching in and out were flashbacks to their individual lives and what they remember. As a few fell out, that was the point that they realized they were dead." He also said about "Reveal" that he would describe it as "the ego becoming aware of the id via the mind of David Lynch."

This is what I mean every time I say I support the arts, and write fiction myself, because I want to be "part of the conversation." Every time we see a piece of art and talk to others about it, we get to see something new in it through their eyes as well.

My friend's blog, "The World According to Cole", is here. Check it out for interesting reviews, including "30-second movie reviews," and commentary on social issues.

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