Thursday, July 30, 2015

Short Fiction - July 2015

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

Favorite Short Stories read in July 2015

(alphabetical by author)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Testing" by Tamora Pierce

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Not a Bird" by H.E. Roulo

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

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

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

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

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

Listen or read here (full transcript provided).

"Alive, Alive Oh" by Sylvia Spruck Wrigley

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

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

Other stories read in July 2015:

(alphabetical by author)

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

List of the sources from which these stories came:

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

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

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Thursday, July 23, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Monday, July 20, 2015

Clever is as Silly Does....

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

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

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

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

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

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

I love clever stuff like this. Words are fun!

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Monday, July 13, 2015

A list of my published fiction

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

Many of my short stories are available free online. I hope you'll check out the list and see if anything appeals to you. Thanks!
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Thursday, July 9, 2015

A Trio of LGBT Fiction Recommendations

In celebration of the June 26, 2015 Supreme Court ruling stipulating that same-sex marriage is legal in all fifty of the United States, here are three books I've enjoyed that feature gay and lesbian characters. First, though, I want to say how happy this Supreme Court ruling makes me. Like many folks, I spent much of the announcement day on Facebook, refreshing my news feed and clicking "like" on my gay and straight friends' happy status updates.

I also want to say that I'm embarrassed by how ignorant I was of these issues in college. I would have become an activist much earlier if I had known then what I know now. And I gained that knowledge by 1) living in/visiting a lot of places around the U.S. and the world, thereby getting to know a wider variety of people than I'd have known if I'd stuck close to home, and 2) by reading. It's no accident that fiction readers are more empathetic, sympathetic, and tolerant in real life than non-readers. It's because we imagine, over and over, what it might be like to live in someone else's shoes.

"My Real Children" by Jo Walton

Published in 2014 and currently up for a World Fantasy Award, My Real Children relates two possible timelines created when a British woman named Patricia makes a critical decision whether to marry a man named Mark, whose less than romantic proposal is really more of a "now or never" ultimatum. Looking back as an elderly nursing home resident, Patricia knows she has some dementia, but she specifically remembers two distinct lives and two sets of children, one from her life with Mark and one from her life with a woman named Bee.

Although the idea of alternate life timelines based on a single critical decision is not new (*), Walton makes it particularly interesting by straying from real world history, although the reader doesn't know whether differing big-picture events, such as some limited nuclear exchanges following the Cuban missile crisis, have anything to do with Patricia's marriage decision. The LGBT aspect of the book stems from the life in which Patricia doesn't marry Mark; instead of settling early for a less-than-ideal marriage, she has time to work and learn and grow, and therefore finds the courage to recognize and act upon her attraction to Bee in the face of social conventions.

(* Lionel Shriver's The Post-Birthday World, first published in 2007, also does an amazing job with a similar premise.)

"Bellweather Rhapsody" by Kate Racculia

On her website, author Kate Racculia says that Bellweather Rhapsody asks the big questions, such as: "What if Glee and Heathers had a baby and sent it to band camp at the Overlook Hotel?"

That has to be one of the funniest and most apt descriptions of a book I've ever seen.

Winner of a 2015 Alex Award, which the American Library Association gives to adult books that hold particular appeal for teens, this novel follows twins Alice and Bert (nicknamed "Rabbit") to a resort hotel for an important statewide music competition. There, Alice's roommate disappears under mysterious circumstances, and Alice learns that fifteen years earlier, some kind of murder/suicide incident happened in the very same hotel room. Alice, an ambitious, talented, and somewhat manipulative girl not unlike Glee's Rachel, tries to solve the mystery of her roommate's disappearance while somewhat reluctantly learning that the universe may not necessarily revolve around her.

In the meantime, Rabbit is struggling to decide whether or not to come out of the closet. His sexuality is by no means the main focus of this book, but it's handled beautifully. When a blizzard traps everyone at the hotel, Rabbit discovers a hitherto unacknowledged desire to strike out on his own, and escape his sister's loving but sometimes suffocating attention.

This is a lovely and original book that I recommend highly.

"Totally Joe" by James Howe

Technically the second in a group of connected books, yet capable of standing on its own, Totally Joe is told from the point of view of Joe Bunch, a gay 12-year-old who is young enough that to still think kissing is kind of gross, yet old and self-aware enough to know that he likes boys, not girls.

One of the most charming aspects of this book is its format; Joe is working on an English assignment for which he must write his own autobiography with entries that start with the letters from A to Z. As such, this book, which I think would be considered middle grade or young adult or somewhere in between, is a quick read.

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Friday, July 3, 2015


Nothing says "Beat the Houston summer heat" like a snowpocalypse movie! Snowpiercer came out in 2013, and is one I'd hoped but didn't manage to see in the theater before it disappeared. Fortunately, it's not a movie that really requires a big screen, especially since 99% of the film takes place in the interior of a single train.

The movie, starring Chris Evans, starts with a heavy-handed and illogical voiceover explaining that humanity's attempts to "cure" global warming resulted in an instant freeze that killed everyone. Yes, the voice actually says that nobody survived, and then immediately explains that the few who did survive (!) did so by getting aboard a high-tech train that circles the world once each year.

The action itself begins at the back of the train, where people live in squalor and eat protein bars that are delivered at regular intervals by machine-gun-armed guards. Curtis (Evans) is biding his time and planning a revolt, advised by the elderly Gilliam (John Hurt) and accompanied by his young friend Edgar (Jamie Bell). When a swanky representative from the front of the train arrives and takes two children away from tail-dwellers Tanya (Olivia Spencer) and Andrew (Ewen Bremner) under the guise of a "medical examination," they too risk life and limb by joining the uprising instead of staying behind in relative "safety."

(MINOR SPOILERS AHEAD) As I'm sure is already obvious, the set-up of this movie is absolutely ludicrous and also quite grim. Yet it somehow worked for me, in exactly the same way as the highly illogical Looper (2012) did. Like most people, I like rooting for the oppressed underdog, and I also enjoy post-disaster set-ups and reluctant heroes with checkered pasts. It was also fun to move through the train with the rebels, seeing the surroundings gradually improve until the decadent opulence of the front-most cars is revealed. There were tons of moments in this movie when I thought "oh, no!" because I could see exactly what nastiness was about to happen, but there were also moments when the visuals caught me off guard and delighted me. The movie shows no embarrassment about going over the top; for instance there's a meat locker car with hanging carcasses, but no evidence where the live animals are kept until it's time to slaughter them. Since the train cars are in one straight line, well, the rebels would have to have go through the livestock cars too, so where are they? The greenhouse car is almost believable, but I feel like the aquarium car would require Tardis-like technology to exist as shown.

Similarly, some of the acting is over-the-top, particularly Tilda Swinton as Mason, the spokesperson for the reclusive creator of the train, Wilford (Ed Harris). Mason likes to make speeches, wearing ridiculous eyeglasses and prominent false teeth, yet it completely works, and in particular provides a nice contrast to Chris Evans' appropriately understated performance. Oh, and along the way the rebels pick up a man, Namgoong Minsoo (Kang-ho Song), and his daughter, Yona (Ah-sung Ko) from the prison car, which keeps its prisoners in morgue-like drawers (bathrooms? food?). Curtis bribes this drug-addicted pair to open the "gates," or doors between cars, along the way, but there is more to them than meets the eye. Another absolutely surreal moment is when they arrive at the classroom car, where every child on the train is about the same age, and is taught about the glorious history of Wilford by a Stepford-wife teacher.

(MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD) Predictably, the rebels are gradually winnowed down, ultimately leaving Curtis to face Wilford alone. There'd been a bit of foreshadowing, when Gilliam advised Curtis to cut Wilford's tongue out rather than let him talk, but of course Curtis does let him talk. Wilford explains that he and Gilliam have been in regular communication between the front and back of the train, and that the only way anyone continues to survive is because Wilford allows semi-regular revolts to winnow the population when needed. (So maybe it made sense that all the children are the same age, if they're born in cycles?) This isn't an especially surprising reveal at this point, but audiences also like circular plots, and it's a satisfying revelation.

We also learn that the two seized children have been brought up to the front not as sexual playthings for Wilford, but rather because they're small enough to perform critical functions that keep the train's engine running. Furthermore, Wilford makes an almost unconscious hand motion mimicking what the kidnapped children are now required to do over and over in the bowels of the engine. Mason, too, had earlier made this motion, which implies that both Wilford and Mason's roots -- and their distinct brands of "Crazy" -- originated because they too had been co-opted as children and had spent years in solitary confinement and mind-numbing labor.

At first I thought this was a combination of a Matrix/Dread Pirate Roberts scenario, meaning that 1) the people have been on the train much longer than the 18 years they believe have elapsed, and 2) this Wilford is not the original Wilford, who could not have invented the train if he worked as a child inside its already-functional engine. On the other hand, Curtis specifically remembers that he's been on the train 18 years and knows he has seen the outside world, although he says he chooses not to remember it. On the other other hand, this could easily be a memory planted by Gilliam, and what the train dwellers believe is one "year" could actually be much longer. I myself like the idea that this has all been going on much longer than 18 years, but I'm not sure the movie managed to convincingly "sell" that idea.

The movie ends when Namgoong Minsoo and his daughter manage to blow open the door of the train, which also causes an avalanche that knocks the train off the tracks. I fully expected to see Curtis emerge from the wreckage, and have the movie end on one of those scenes where a few survivors are shown straggling out, implying that they will band together and somehow survive, like when we see people emerging from Manhattan buildings near the end of The Day After Tomorrow (2004). But we only see Yona and Tonya's little boy Timmy (Marcanthonee Reis) appear, wearing convenient Inuit furs (but no mittens). And then we see a polar bear look at them curiously from a distance. I took this as a "it's a new world and there's hope of survival" sign, whereas my husband interpreted this as "Yona and Timmy become polar bear food."

So all that made me start wondering: could they survive? On the one hand, there are lots of fresh dead bodies to provide food for a while. On the other hand, if they're really the only two survivors, well, that's bad. And I'm not sure they still have any means of generating fire -- a big deal is made out of their last match being used to light the fuse to blow the door, so if they can't find a way to ignite things to burn, that's going to be a problem. It's also not clear how many of the derailed train cars are still accessible to them, because some of the cars toppled off at various points on the track and could be down in unreachable mountain crevasses.

In the end, though, as ridiculous as this movie was, I couldn't help but like it. It horrified me, it surprised me at times, and it made me think about it for quite a while after it was over. Again, just like Looper, and also a bit like Edge of Tomorrow (2014).

Plus, you know, Chris Evans, showing that he can play roles quite different from the rigidly upright Captain America. I also recommend his movie Push (2009), in which an adorably tween-aged Dakota Fanning co-stars.
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