Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Short Fiction - June 2015

Miss Auras by John Lavery

As I continue reading a story a day in 2015, I sometimes find it more difficult to articulate exactly what I like about my favorite stories than to enumerate what I don't like about other stories, but my purpose here is praise rather than criticism. So I really have to work at finding the right words.

Lately I've been finding myself thinking "this is one of my favorite stories this month because . . ." and the best I can come up with is that there's nothing about the story that I would want to change. It may not be the kind of story I would normally read, or there may be something in the story that initially niggles at me, but upon reflection I realize that no, I wouldn't want to change even that one little thing. And this gives me the irrational but pleasant feeling that the author wrote the story specifically for me.

That said, I do recognize some trends in what I like. Although I certainly enjoy stories that are simply entertaining, I really get hooked by SF that packs an emotional punch. It doesn't have to be a message story; it just has to make me really care about the characters, or empathize strongly with the circumstances in which they find themselves.

Since we're halfway through the year, here's a "by the numbers" breakdown: I've read 239 stories so far this year, at least 62 of which were published in 2015. (That number is probably much larger; I have to cross-check my lists, because I forgot to enter the publication year for several of the stories.) I'd like to get to at least 500 stories this year, and up the percentage of current year publications so that I have lots of material to consider when next year's award nominations roll around.

I also looked at the ratings I've given to each story. So far I've rated 36 stories as essentially "below average," 82 as "above average" (with about 30 of those high enough to be considered favorites), and 121 as "average." I don't have any profound insights, but I'm glad to see data indicating that I like what I read more often than not, although I suspect I'm still kind of hard to please. But it's all subjective -- often times when I dislike something in a story, I know very well it's because of some personal "button" of mine that has little to do with the writing itself.

And because I like keeping track of things, I'll go on a tangent here and also mention that writing-wise, I've made 77 submissions this year, with 29 subs currently floating around out there. It's not as impressive as I'd like, because some of those are sim-sub friendly markets and others are reprint subs. But a fair few of them are new stories, and these numbers are far higher than I've ever achieved before, so I'm pretty happy. I'd like to get the subs to 175 for the year if I can. I've had one story published this year, and have four stories that have sold but have not yet appeared.

One more observation before I get to the actual stories. Even if I do hit 500 stories read for the year, it will barely be a drop in the bucket of what's available out there. There is so much good fiction to be discovered.

Favorite Short Stories read in June 2015

(alphabetical by author)

"Hellhound, Free to Good Home" by Gerri Leen

This flash fiction story is told from the point of view of a Hellhound, who is perplexed when he happens upon a woman who not only doesn't fear him, but also seems intent on rescuing him. I happen to know the author is an animal lover -- she's editing an anthology of spec fic animal stories to benefit a rescue shelter, in which one of my stories will appear -- and it shows in this piece. It's less than 750 words long. Isn't it amazing what writers can do in so few words? Read here.

As an aside, I highly recommend subscribing to Daily Science Fiction and Every Day Fiction, both of which are free. DSF publishes a new story every weekday, and Every Day Fiction posts one every single day of the year. Trust me, you'll find some gems this way.

"We Fly" by K.B. Rylander

This story won first place in the Jim Baen Memorial Short Story Award contest this year, which seeks stories "of no more than 8,000 words, that [show] the near future (no more than about 50-60 years out) of manned space exploration."

Remember what I said about liking stories that pack an emotional punch? This one nails it. It's about a spacecraft probe operated by the uploaded consciousness of a woman named Natasha; for some reason the probe is malfunctioning and this incarnation of Natasha doesn't know why. I don't want to risk ruining the story for anyone so I won't say more. But again with the patterns: this is at least the second story this year about artificial or uploaded intelligence that I've loved (the first was David D. Levine's "Damage" from Tor.com). "We Fly" can be found here.

"Amaryllis" by Carrie Vaughn

Here's another story that pushed all the right buttons for me. It's science fiction, with world-building that I love, yet it's more about standing up for oneself, children paying for the sins of the parents, and trust. The basic premise is that the captain of a fishing boat in a post-environmental-collapse community is being treated unfairly because she herself was born in violation of population controls. I can't remember where I read this remark, but someone somewhere said that they liked this story in part because it shows a positive post-disaster world, where people have learned from history and are very careful about living in a sustainable manner. As someone who composts, pays extra for wind/solar power, and drives a Prius, yes, this!

As dorky as this sounds, I felt like I could practically smell the salt air while reading "Amaryllis". If I ever achieve this kind of subtle world-building as a writer, I'll be very happy indeed. I also loved the character relationships, and the nontraditional and very positive family structure that was portrayed. Read in the June 2010 issue of Lightspeed here.

Other stories read in June 2015:

(alphabetical by author)

- "An Update on the Problem of Maria" by Matthew Belinkie (2007)
- "The Adjunct" by Patricia S. Bowne (2015)
- "Bursk's Cutting Board" by Scott Cheshire (2015)
- "Superiority" by Arthur C. Clarke (1951; reprint 1987)
- "Seated Woman with Child" by Rosemary Clement-Moore (2015)
- "Breaking the 3 Laws" by Trevor Doyle (2015)
- "Crown of May" by Jaine Fenn (year unknown)
- "First Reports on Tardive Dyskinesia Patients in Time Displacement" by Fabio Fernandes (year unknown)
- "Muzak for Prozac" by Jack Gantos (2001)
- "Cool" by Becky Hagenston (2015)
- "Anniversary Project" by Joe Haldeman, (1975; reprint 2000)
- "Athena's Children" by Travis Heermann (2015)
- "Saving Time" by John Hegenberger (2015)
- "An Undercover Haunting" by Kristi Hutson (2015)
- "Ten Wretched Things About Influenza Siderius" by Rachael K. Jones (2014)
- "Voidrunner" by Rachael K. Jones (2015)
- "I’m Alive, I Love You, I’ll See You in Reno" by Vylar Kaftan (2010)
- "An Apocalypse of Her Own, One Day" by Alex Kane (year unknown)
- "The Tear Collector" by Justin C. Key (2015)
- "End Game" by Nancy Kress (2007; reprint 2012)
- "Dreams to Dust" by Jamie Lackey (2015)
- "All the Animals and Me" by Dan Malakin (2015)
- "Carry On" by Amy Morris-Jones (2015)
- "The Dollmaker's Rage" by Mari Ness (2015)
- "Who Else Would Make a World Like This" by Stephen S. Power (2015)
- "The Reflection in Her Eye" by Shawn Scarber (2015)
- "Touring Test" by Holly Schofield (2013)
- "RedChip BlueChip" by Effie Seiberg (2015)
- "I Regret to Inform You That My Wedding to Captain von Trapp has been Canceled" by Melinda Taub (2011)
- "Flash" by Lavie Tidhar (2015)
- "Parable Lost" by Jo Walton (2009)
- "Dinosaurs" by Walter Jon Williams (1987; reprint 2000)

List of the sources from which these stories came:

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

- Baen.com
- Battlefields Beyond Tomorrow: Science Fiction War Stories (anthology), edited by Charles G. Waugh and Martin H. Greenberg, 1987
- Black Denim Lit, May 2015
- Crossed Genres, June 2015
- Daily Science Fiction, various dates
- Every Day Fiction, various dates
- Fantasy Scroll Mag, June 2015
- Flapperhouse, May 2015
- Fountain of Age: Stories (collection) by Nancy Kress, 2012
- The Furthest Horizon (anthology), edited by Gardner Dozois, 2000
- Lightspeed, June 2010
- Lone Star Stories, June 2009
- McSweeney's, April 2007; May 2011
- On the Fringe (anthology), edited by Donald R. Gallo, 2001
- One Story, May 2015
- One Teen Story, June 2015
- Perihelion, March 2015; June 2015
- QuarterReads
- Strange Afterlives (anthology), edited by A. Lee Martinez, 2015

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Monday, June 22, 2015

The Library at Mount Char

Even before I became a librarian, I've always been drawn to books that feature libraries or librarians, especially the ones that are magical (such as the Ex Libris series by Jim C. Hines) or galactic-spanning (such as the one featured in Andreas Eschbach's The Carpet Makers). So I was naturally inclined to be interested in Scott Hawkins' debut novel The Library at Mount Char. Here's a bit from the back cover description of the book's galley:

Carolyn's not so different from the other people around her. She's sure of it. She likes guacamole and cigarettes and steak. She knows how to use a phone. She even remembers what clothes are for.

After all, she was a normal American herself once.

But she and the others aren't really normal. Not anymore. Not since their parents were murdered. Not since Father took them in.

Now, Father is missing -- maybe even dead -- and the Library that holds his secrets stands unguarded.

Although this description is accurate, it gives almost no idea of how strange and unusual this book really is. It also doesn't convey how dark this book is. I wasn't very far in when I realized The Library at Mount Char felt like a horror novel to me, and that's something I don't read very often. Not sure whether to continue, I flipped to the back cover again and re-read the description. Then I noticed one of the blurbs, in which Hugo and Nebula Award-winning author Nancy Kress calls the book "The most genuinely original fantasy I've ever read."

Wow. That's quite a statement by an author I admire.

So I kept reading, and after a while I found myself thinking, "Hey, this really is fantasy -- dark fantasy, to be sure, but it's not just horror."

Then I read further, and thought "But wow, this is really dark. And horrible." But I kept reading, because I wanted to find out what happened, and I was certainly never bored, just feeling a little squeamish about some of the dark bits.

And I am so glad I kept going because it turns out that this is one of the most original fantasy books I've ever read. (Thanks, Nancy Kress!)

I don't want to say too much about the plot, but just a little bit more of the set-up: Carolyn is one of twelve children that "Father" has taken in. In return, he has ordered each of them to study a particular "catalog" of knowledge, complete with periodic exams. Carolyn studies languages -- all languages that have ever been, including animal languages. Michael studies the animals themselves, and occasionally goes to live among them. David studies all forms of war and combat. Margaret studies death, while Jennifer studies healing, including the healing of death.

And so on. These children, now grown, have done nothing and still do nothing other than study, study, study. They vaguely refer to everyone outside of their world as "Americans" and cannot really function among them. And they are absolutely forbidden from sharing knowledge with each other from the various catalogs -- in fact, enforcement of this rule is where an important part of the "horror" in this book comes from.

The book isn't perfect, but then again, what is? My main quibble was that there were a couple of sections that brought in minor characters for brief scenes from their points-of-view. These scenes felt intrusive, and it seemed like I could "see" the effort behind the author trying to write, for instance, from the POV of an asshole rap star. There was also a spot, maybe 2/3 or 3/4 of the way through the book, when I thought "Really? The story's not ending here? It seems like it could (or should) end here, so am I going to like the rest of this book, or is it going to drag after this?"

And it turned out that it's everything that happens after that point that makes the book one of the most original fantasies I've ever read. But don't underestimate the stuff up to that point, either, because there's nothing wasted here, not even the rap star scenes that I didn't care for. The climax is set up perfectly. I finished reading this book about three in the morning, and then lay there thinking about how much it had surprised me.

I highly recommend this book, but I also think people should be warned: there are a lot of brutal scenes in it, including rape and torture. They're not gratuitous, but they are disturbing. But even though these are usually things I avoid, I anticipate that I'll be revisiting this book comes next year's awards season.

On a different note, I wanted to mention that I got this book through LibraryThing's Early Reviewers program. If you don't know LibraryThing, it's a social book cataloging website that's a bit like GoodReads but better, in my admittedly biased opinion.
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Thursday, June 18, 2015

An Evening with Neil deGrasse Tyson

Last night my husband and I went to see Neil deGrasse Tyson speak at Jones Hall here in Houston. I'm not sure we've ever paid to hear someone just speak before; the closest was when we paid a small amount to see William Shatner speak for an hour at a convention we were already attending anyway. Neil DeGrasse Tyson tickets cost, shall we say, not a small amount.

And it was completely worth it. I wasn't quite sure what to expect, honestly. Would it be like an episode of Cosmos? Would it be a rant about politicians who refuse to consider evidence that's right in front of their eyes?

Actually, no -- it was more like stand-up comedy for scientifically minded people. The "backbone" of the talk was basically how movies look to NDT: what's right, what's not right but still cool, and what's so scientifically wrong that it's difficult to get past it. Spoiler alert: Armageddon did not fare well, but that wasn't a surprise to me, considering that the husband is an asteroid scientist, and the (to me) well-known Launch Pad Astronomy Workshop apparently uses that film to talk about everything that's wrong with science in Hollywood. (Yes, we do still own a copy of that movie. Science aside, it's a lot more entertaining than it's summer-twin-release, Deep Impact.)

Interspersed with the movie still frames and clips were.... several beer commercials! Probably the most "political" line of the evening was when NDT said, in response to a beer commercial in which primordial creatures don't like the taste of their water and so wait through a zillion years of evolution until Guiness is invented, that it's a sad state of affairs when a beer commercial is more scientifically accurate that some school curricula in this country. (We're looking at you, Southern states!) Apart from that, though, the evening was just a fun look at what movies do and don't get right, and what we can and can't forgive them for getting wrong.

I laughed like crazy. And here were the two best parts of the evening: 1) this man clearly loves science and the wonders of the universe; and 2) the atmosphere at Jones Hall before the talk. NDT fans clearly view this guy as a rock star, and he is. Of science.

And just for fun, off the top of my head, other movies referenced (for both good and bad) included:

  • Back to the Future
  • Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure
  • Close Encounters of the Third Kind
  • Contact
  • Gravity
  • Interstellar
  • The Lion King
  • Love Story
  • The Matrix
  • Star Wars (the real one)
  • Titanic
  • West Side Story
  • The Wizard of Oz
If you ever get a chance to hear this man speak, I highly recommend it.

[Edited to add: I should have mentioned that this appearance was put on by the Society of the Performing Arts (SPA) in Houston. Thanks, SPA!] Read more!

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Houston Ballet - The Taming of the Shrew

(Connor Walsh and Melody Mennite as Petruchio and Katherina; image property of the Houston Ballet.)

What a lovely end to the ballet season! I didn't manage to "prep" as much as I would have liked for this production of The Taming of the Shrew -- I would have liked to watch one of the film versions or listened to the play ahead of time, and I missed the recent ballet talk in which some of the dancers spoke about their roles in this season's productions of Shakespearean ballets. Any one of those things would have enriched my experience of seeing this ballet again (I saw it in 2011 as well), but it was still fine in the end, because if ever there was a ballet where you can tell precisely what is going on at all times, this is it.

The Clif Notes version is that the pretty Bianca (Yuriko Kajiya in the June 13 performance that we saw) has many suitors, but cannot marry until her older sister, the feisty Katherina (Jessica Collado) gets married herself. And that seems unlikely, because Katherina is clearly ready to fight off every man she encounters. In desperation, Bianca's three most ardent suitors team up to bribe the oft-drunk Petruchio (Linnar Looris) to woo Katherina. Although it takes a while, Petruchio manages to wear Katherina down, and she becomes the model wife. And this, of course, allows Bianca to marry her favorite beau, Lucentio (Ian Casady).

OK, feminist it's not, and there really should be better ways to deal with your new bride than half-starving and half-freezing her to death. But the tone of the ballet is so light and funny that I couldn't waste time being offended, and the story was written a while back, after all. And in any case, I choose to interpret the ballet version in the Moonlighting episode kind of way; Katherina may have learned how better to deal with and (gasp!) care for people, but she will still be Katherina, and theirs will not be a she-who-obeys-mindlessly marriage.

In my mind, The Taming of the Shrew, believed to have been originally written between 1590 and 1592, has just the right amount of "story" for a full-length ballet; it's neither too simplistic nor too complicated. There's room for "exhibition" dances -- after all, all three of Bianca's suitors must woo her separately, and some of the funniest moments are when Gremio (Rhodes Elliott) and Hortensio (Chun Wai Chan) dance, one attempting to "sing" (represented by the piccolo) and the other playing a lute, which Katherina eventually smashes over his head. I'm also a sucker for wedding crowd scenes, which in this production are nicely set off by the costumes and the pretty sets (by Susan Benson) that often reminded me of rose damask.

Unsurprisingly, the dancing was wonderful. Jessica Collado seemed very much at home in this comedic lead role, while Yuriko Kajiya had the pretty girlishness one would expect from Bianca. Linnar Looris also nailed the body language during his "drunken" dancing.

There's not a lot more to say about this ballet; it's hardly deep, after all. But it was pretty and fun and full of clever choreography. There are several more performances of The Taming of the Shrew next weekend of (June 19-21). I highly recommend it.
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Saturday, June 6, 2015

Houston Ballet - Morris, Welch & Kylian

Last night, my husband and I saw the "Summer Mixed Rep" program at the Houston Ballet, consisting of two world premieres, Zodiac by Stanton Welch and The Letter V by Mark Morris, and a returning piece from choreographer Jirí Kylián titled Svadebka, which premiered in the Netherlands in 1982 and was performed by the Houston Ballet in 2007.

The first piece was Zodiac by Stanton Welch, a world premiere set to new music by Ross Edwards commissioned especially for this piece. I really hope that a recording of this music will eventually be available, because it was gorgeous and I would buy it in a heartbeat. It was sophisticated and dramatic, and it created a unique musical "signature" for each of the twelve signs, which couldn't have been easy. (The Houston Ballet En Pointe blog has a brief interview with Mr. Edwards here.)

So, twelve movements, each representing one of the zodiac signs -- what an irresistible concept! And it was simply stunning. You would think that with twelve short movements, each lasting only 3-4 minutes, that they would all run together in a blur, but they really didn't. Several of the movements stood out in particular, but there wasn't a single one I didn't like. The piece started quietly, with the only sound coming from the slowly pounding feet of twelve helmeted ancient warriors against a backdrop of stars and a stylized eclipse. A woman came forward to remove one dancer's helmet, and the individual movements began with Aries. Each movement featured a male dancer with the astrological sign painted on his chest, and, except for Libra, differing numbers of additional male and female dancers, with several signs conveyed by a pas de deux. The piece ended in reverse, with the woman replacing the warrior's helmet, once again to the sound of stomping feet.

My favorite movements were Aries, in which first soloist Aaron Robison performed a series of breathtaking turns that went on for an impossible length of time; Gemini, which incorporated a certain amount of mischievousness in the twins' leaps and turns around each other; and Aquarius, in which the steps at times gave the impression of running waters. I loved Eduardo Sicangco's costumes, which like the music were unique for each sign. (Go here for another Houston Ballet blog post about the costume designer. This sketch, and the photograph at the top of this post, show the concept design and the finished costume for Taurus, danced by Madeline Skelly.) I should also mention the lighting design by Lisa J. Pinkham, something one doesn't always notice in a dance production. Again, it was unique for each sign, and very striking, especially the patterns on the floor that changed for each movement.

The second piece, Svadebka by choreographer Jirí Kylián, was wildly different from Zodiac, which is the beauty of mixed rep programs. I felt like I was seeing a Russian-wedding-slash-Amish-barnraising during which dancers from Fiddler on the Roof and West Side Story appeared on the scene. And I mean that in the best possible way! This piece was odd, with dramatic music by Igor Stravinsky including vocals by the Houston Chamber Choir, but it was rich and beautiful and I didn't want it to end. It's a wedding, but is it a happy occasion? Is it arranged? The bride (Jessica Collado) seems reluctant at times, and the mother (Katherine Precourt) seems to project a tragic inevitability, but is that because of the specific union, or because this community is in the depths of poverty or even war? I don't mind not knowing; regardless of specifics, I came away from this piece feeling the energy and earthiness of it.

Unfortunately, the Mark Morris piece, The Letter V, did not quite work for me. The music, Symphony No. 88 in G Major by Joseph Haydn, was gorgeous, but it was also sedate, and there just wasn't a lot of energy or intricate steps or even visual interest to keep the audience engaged. I also felt the costumes were distracting. When the first ballerina appeared in what looked to be a green and black striped leotard with a flowing cream-colored chiffon (I'm guessing) overlay, I thought that it was pretty. But when three other female dancers appeared in the same costume, the stripes began to overwhelm, and it was made worse when the male dancers joined them. That group was eventually joined by four more pairs wearing what looked like green and black checked gingham, which was also puzzling.

To be fair, the dancing in this piece was still lovely, and it probably suffered unfairly in comparison to the two previous pieces. I've seen other work by this choreographer, who is critically acclaimed and rightly so. This piece just didn't click for me; I couldn't feel inspired because I couldn't see it as inspired.

Overall, it was a wonderful evening, and every time I see a mixed rep program, I begin to suspect that I secretly prefer them to the full-length ballets. I think what I actually like the best is classical technique mixed into contemporary dance, and I certainly feel like I got that here. I'm going back to see it again at tomorrow's Sunday matinee; I can't wait to see what nuances I missed the first time around.

And just to prove how subjective this all is, I just found this review in the New York Times, which comes to the exact opposite conclusions that I do! The reviewer, Alastair Macauley, knows orders of magnitude more about ballet than I do, while all I can do is comment on what I do and don't like. For that reason, I don't read other reviews until after I've written my own, but I like to read them then because I can learn from them.

All images property of the Houston Ballet.
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