Short Bread – May 2015


Three plot-driven pieces this month, although I’ve read and loved a lot of unusual story shapes since last month’s review, like a collection of ragtag storyteddies, stuffing half pulled out, piled on a windowsill. I’ll tweet some stuff I liked but haven’t reviewed.

The Kingdom of the Blind by Maureen McHugh in After the Apocalypse (reprinted in Lightspeed #18)

I work in technology, so this story poked all of my 1’s and 0’s. A genetic algorithm that’s (maybe?) developing a personality, a software system that people count on for important shit, which must never go awry (hint: it’s going awry), a main character who’s battling both Impostor Syndrome and challenging personalities in the software field.

This is the best story I will ever read about fixing bugs. I loved it so.

A word about this collection, but first, a disclaimer–Maureen McHugh will be teaching at Clarion this year, and I’m attending (!), so I’m obviously predisposed to be in slight awe. That said, After the Apocalypse isn’t just a tightly woven collection of character-rich, setting-saturated stories. It is a collection that gave me permission to write–air quotes–Slice of Life stories. I’ve always known in my heart that not every genre story needs a clean cloven resolution, just like I’ve always known that not every literary story floats towards an introspective non-ending. But After the Apocalypse gave this newfound legitimacy for me, because it was THAT awesome. It showed me how goddam good a Slice of Life story can be in the hands of a professional.

The Selkie by David K. Yeh in Lackington’s #6 (“Seas”)

We meet our selkie narrator in trouble, dashed into a North Sea bobbing with mines in the middle of WWII. He’s been entrusted with a serious quest, one that could end the war with the Nazis. From this point, David Yeh’s story alternates the selkie’s own backstory, flavoured with gritty Northern myth, and the unfolding plot, as he tries to rescue himself and his mission.

I’m generally unlikely to enjoy stories based in folklore or mythology. My education (both as reader and student) and upbringing didn’t give me strong footing in world folklores, so reading stories like these, I always feel like I’m only half in on a secret. But David Yeh writes with such a compelling voice, one that’s strategic and harassed and reeks of desperation. The plot does a nice fold in on itself at the end, replacing one unanswered question with another, better resolved one.

Anna Saves Them All by Seth Dickinson in Shimmer #21

Ah, yes. So I’m now 2 for 2 on reading Seth Dickinson stories that absolutely bowl me over. Morrigan in the Sunglare was probably my favourite story of 2014. And now this. I am almost afraid to read another of his stories lest it fail to live up to the sky-high expectations I’ve built.

HOW CAN YOU WRITE WAR AND VIOLENCE LIKE POETRY? Every few lines there’s a gut punch, a perfect sentence, an absurdist tug that refracts your entire being through the space between the lines.

Anna Saves Them All is about vaulting, big things: morality and evil and the absurdity and tragedy of existence. And it’s also about a medusa-necked alien and a person called Anna in a room together. That’s all I’ll say.


Short Bread – April 2015

Sorry about the hiatus!

I continued to crunch through short stories in the first quarter of 2015 (holy shit, time is flying!), but haven’t had a chance to put together a review post. I’m now keeping a spreadsheet* listing every short story I read, and that’s helping me structure my thinking around these reviews.

Anyway, onto the good stuff.

The Land Baby by Natalia Theodoridou in The Dark #4

I mentioned last time that The Dark frequently hands out free epub/mobi subscriptions because they are quite awesome like that. I’m still working through back issues, and wanted to mention Natalia Theodoridou’s sun-soaked, Mediterranean-spiced ‘The Land Baby’ in Issue 4. Theodoridou got a lot of (well-deserved) praise last year for her Clarkesworld piece ‘The Eleven Holy Numbers of the Mechanical Soul‘–‘The Land Baby’ is a totally different character, but one with a distant family resemblance. The sea and solitude figure heavily in both.

A strength of this story is its solemn character studies–little Maria, who’s lost her mother, and her father Alekos, who could be on the verge of losing more than his wife. Theodoridou controls the POV expertly, with scenes told in tight third person from a number of characters’ perspectives.

But even more than that, the setting evoked here is just so melancholic and sultry, saline and seaweedy and sun-baked. The setting makes it even easier to mainline the encroaching sorrow, leaving you staring at the last words.

All That We Carry, All That We Hold by Damien Angelica Walters in Fantastic Stories of the Imagination April 2015

I’m not much of a crier, but yeah, goddamit. Walters is an author whose stories I make an effort to read, but I’m more used to her horror and dark fantasy offerings. I’m really glad I read this one.

(I must admit, I was pulled in by the fantastic story art, ETA: by Jay O’Connell — see Robert’s comment below.) It’s a story about love and family and death–aren’t all the good ones?–but it’s set to a backdrop of space exploration.

Put that way, the story’s themes seem familiar and well-trodden. But Walters’ treatment elevates them. The pacing is dreamlike; the prose is stylish and serves to heighten the emotional impact of the main conflict (conflict is a weird word for it), so that when the story gets dark and heavy and stabby, it tears you all the way down with it.

Remember I said crying? Yeah, crying.

What the Highway Prefers by Cassandra Khaw in Lackington’s #5 (“Beldams”)

Weird fact: I’m a huge sucker for stories about roads. Not metaphorical roads. Actual roads made of gravel and tarmac and stuff. So this little piece by Cassandra Khaw in Lackington’s had me by the eyeballs from the first sentence.

The story is cloudy, mysterious–we have Aunt Fatimah, a warden of the highway, protecting its travelers from an insinuated and terrible fate. To do this she must complete a ritual that grates at her faith.

The plot was intriguing enough, but it wasn’t the reason I loved this so much (and I really did). Rather, I fell for the gritty, slashing, don’t-give-a-fuck poetry of the piece; the bricolage of the words, the unrestrained metaphor, the prism-in-an-oilslick colour of the writing.

I’m so glad Lackington’s picked this odd little story up: it’s a story shape we don’t see often in SFF markets, and one that I wholeheartedly enjoyed.

*there’s nothing a spreadsheet can’t solve.

Short Bread – January 2015

Ogres of East Africa by Sofia Samatar, originally in Long Hidden (Rose Fox and Daniel Older eds, 2014)

I read this in Cicada Magazine’s Nov/Dec 2014 issue, and was in love with it from the first sentence. This is a story narrated in the margins (literally) of a catalogue of fantastic beasts, protected from the eyes of Alibhai’s racist and boorish employer by the serendipity of the latter’s bad eyesight. ‘Ogres’ is a perfectly executed musing on the way cultures and religions meet, and how power resolves at the intersections. And also, most delightfully, it’s a musing on where the mundane and the unexplained meet.

The thing is: in Samatar’s story, the mundane and the unexplained are twined together, fastened by the melancholy of hardship. This hardship wears different guises for each character, but is felt by our protagonist Alibhai; the curious, mysterious Mary, his primary source of information; and the ogres of East Africa themselves:

[Kisirimu] will be betrayed by song. He will die in a pit, pierced by spears.

I said ‘perfectly executed’ – ‘Ogres’ really feels like a master at work. The style is clean and limned with poetry, the words are neither too few nor too many, the pacing is flawless, and the story itself is one of the best I’ve read in ages.

A Universal Elegy by Tang Fei (trans. John Chu) in Clarkesworld #100

Man, Tang Fei’s stories are weeeird.

This is the second of her pieces I’ve read in Clarkesworld, both translated by John Chu. The first I read, ‘Pepe‘ (Clarkesworld #93), about two kids in an amusement park, was weird like a sensation you can’t decide whether you’re enjoying or hating–of a tattoo gun grazing skin, or a muscle stretch the moment it starts to burn. ‘A Universal Elegy’ is a completely different story to ‘Pepe’. It’s a far-future sci-fi, told in letters from the narrator to her brother back on Earth, but that same almost-uncomfortable weirdness permeated my reading.

The narrator drops hints about her mental health, is unreliable, and herself often confused; she meets an alien called Hull, who becomes her lover and convinces her to travel to his home planet, Dieresis. Here, she’s convinced to stay indoors and is fed a special diet to encourage her body to evolve. All is shadowy; conspiracy and foreboding seem to lace every word. The central mystery–of what it is that the narrator will become under Hull’s sculpting/tutelage, and what it is that everyone else on Dieresis already is–resolves in probably the strangest way of any published story I’ve read in the last two years.

At heart, this dark, discomfiting story is a story about relationships, and compromise, and falling in and out of love. Sound blahblah, rehashed? Believe me, it’s not.

It’s not just Tang’s weirdness I love though, because it turns out I do enjoy the weird sensation of reading her stories. It’s also the memorableness of her writing. I thought about ‘Pepe’ for months after I read it, and there is a particular scene from ‘A Universal Elegy’ I don’t think I’ll ever forget (no spoilers!).

Another Mouth by Lisa L. Hannett in The Dark #1

Every now and then, The Dark thinks it’s SFF Christmas and hands out digital subscriptions for free. I snagged one, and have been making my way through the issues, starting from the beginning. Hannett’s story in the very first issue, ‘Another Mouth’, was the first standout I hit: a dark, desperate horror story set in what feels like a rural eighteenth century Scottish coastal town.

Can I just say this about Hannett: I’ve heard her read a different story (‘Sweet Subtleties‘) and have now read this one, and based on this small sample, I’m building a hypothesis that food-slash-eating descriptions are a powerful device in Hannett’s stories. And it’s kind of awesome that she can make eating broth a mega-creepy plot device in a horror story.

Another thing I loved here was that the narrative moved beautifully even though the setting never changed from the protagonist’s small kitchen. Neat trick.

Short Bread – December 2014

I’ve decided to do a regular roundup of short stories I’ve read and loved recently. They may not be fresh out the oven; they may not be gluten-free–but they will definitely have left me with something, an earthy taste, an indelible warmth or grain or moment.

This will also give me something to look back on for Nebula noms and end-of-year roundups in the future.

She Dances on Knives by Keffy R.M. Kehrli in Three-Lobed Burning Eye #26.

A gorgeous story told in an interwoven diptych–a small mermaid in the pitch-black of the ocean bottom, a bruised suburban relationship on land. The mermaid bits were swirling and inky, the small-town relationship striking in its realism. How is it that we drift so far from our lovers that we forget not just why we’ve loved, but also what excuses we’ve used to stop loving?

The Man Who Bridged the Mist (pdf link) by Kij Johnson, originally in Asimov’s Oct-Nov 2011

I’m near the end of Kij Johnson’s collection, At the Mouth of the River of Bees, and, by and large, it’s lived up to expectations so far. It gave me an excuse to re-read the exquisite and cringeworthy Spar, which is a massive personal favourite, and usually the first story I recommend to non-SFF readers when they show an interest in SFF short fiction. But this isn’t about ‘Spar’, it’s about my first read of ‘The Man Who Bridged the Mist’–Johnson’s Hugo and Nebula award-winning novella. This story. Man. I can’t say why I loved it so much. Was it the ever-present, bright, foamy, whorly presence of the mist, a capricious antagonist in the background of this vividly rendered world, sad and mysterious as the sound of wind in a canyon? Was it the humble, understated passion for both duty and masonry that bizarrely swept me off my urban feet? Or was it the strong women characters, both on-screen and off-? [Rasali Ferry is one of the best characters I’ve read this year.]

Another thing: this story had a strange, delicate, uncommon narrative shape. It progressed with the progress of seasons and bridge-building, set up more like a novel than a short story. It didn’t start urgently, and it didn’t have a central conflict, and it wasn’t busy trying to solve itself, but it was–hmm, beautiful. The word is beautiful.

I won’t forget this one in a long time.

How to Become a Robot in 12 Easy Steps by A. Merc Rustad in Scigentasy 4

I followed this link after seeing recommendations from a few different people on Twitter. And OK, I had other things to do, and did not have time to read a story right then and there. But I did read it. I couldn’t help it. A story made of lists, about the guises of love. A story about ROBOTS. Apparently I love stories about robots. But with the foil of the robot (!) stopping this from short-circuiting into something terribly, frighteningly dark, it could say things that were personal and true and important. That balance is hard to get right on paper, and Rustad pulls it off.