READING ROUND-UP: September 2019

Continuing the monthly summaries of what I’ve been reading and writing.

 

BOOKS

To keep my numbers consistent with what I have listed on Goodreads, I count completed magazine issues and stand-alone short stories in e-book format as “books.” I read or listened to 11 books in September: 10 in print, 1 in e-book format, and 0 in audio. They were:

1.       Lightspeed Magazine #112 (September 2019 issue), edited by John Joseph Adams. The usual fine assortment of sf and fantasy short stories. This month’s favorites for me were Rajan Khanna’s “All In,” Seanan McGuire’s “Hello, Hello,” and Kiina Ibura Salaam’s “Desire.”

2.       Beyond the Farthest Star by Edgar Rice Burroughs. I grabbed this off of my bookshelf when I realized that it was ERB’s birthday, mostly because it was the shortest ERB book on my shelf. It’s comprised of two novellas about the adventures of “Tangar,” an Earth human transported to a planet much further away than Burroughs’ more well-known star-faring heroes John Carter (of Mars) and Carson Napier (of Venus). There’s a ton of wonderful world-building that left me wanting more of the main character, his friends, and the planet they’re on.

3.       The Dreaming Volume 1: Pathways and Emanations by Simon Spurrier, Bilquis Everly, and others. Part of DC’s “Sandman Universe” relaunch. I was happy to see old favorite Sandman characters return (Lucien, Jack Pumpkinhead, Cain, Abel, Eve, Matthew, even Brute and Glob), and was even happier to see the return of one of DC’s horror anthology hosts from the 70s who didn’t make it into Gaiman’s run (I won’t spoil the surprise). I’m intrigued by the new characters added to the mix, but am not sure I’m happy with the way Daniel, the current Dream, is handled. Still, I’ll read the next trade collection.  

4.       The Unkindest Tide (October Daye #13), by Seanan McGuire. The latest Toby Daye book takes October into uncomfortable and unfamiliar waters – literally, as all but the opening chapters take place in a floating fairy Knowe in the Summerlands version of the Pacific Ocean. Toby still has most of her support group with her, but none of them can really help her fulfill the destiny her mother and older sister both avoided, helping the Ludiaeg end the existence of the Selkies. Lots of great twists and turns.

5.       Midnighter and Apollo by Steve Orlando, Fernando Blanco, Romulo Fajardo and others.  I really enjoyed this look at Midnighter and Apollo’s relationship, and how far they’ll each go to save or protect the other. (Someday, I really should go back and read all of their earlier appearances.) Also loved Orlando’s use of rarely-seen gay DC Comics characters Extrano and the Tasmanian Devil.

6.       Signal to Noise by Silvia Moreno-Garcia. I’m very late in coming to Moreno-Garcia’s earliest novel, and it blew me away. Magic through Music in Mexico City, juxtaposing the characters’ teen years with their present-day circumstances. I really don’t understand how Netflix hasn’t snapped this up as a mini-series.

7.       At The Bay by Katherine Mansfield.  An interesting character study of a group of women at a seaside resort for the summer. Full Review Here.

8.       The Ebon Jackal (Folley & Mallory #6) by E. Catherine Tobler. I was sad to see this series come to an end with this installment. I’ve grown to really love Elaine Folley, Virgil Mallory and their companions, and the intrigue of exactly what Anubis has been manipulating them towards over the course of these books. In the final installment, Tobler alternates the stories of Folley, her time-traveling mother, and time-traveling grandmother, to reveal all.

9.       Blood Sugar by Daniel Kraus. The October offering is a disturbing look into the mind of several potential mass murderers.  Full Review Here.

10.   The Assimilated Cuban’s Guide to Quantum Santeria by Carlos Hernandez. A really fantastic short story collection from the author of Sal & Gabi Break the Universe. Combining hard science, Cuban mythology, a bit of fantasy and even a crime story. Hernandez’ wit and wordplay shine in every story. Full Review Coming.

11.   The Storm Runner (The Storm Runner #1) by J.C. Cervantes. Another #ownvoices entry under the Rick Riordan Presents banner. It took a while for me to connect with the main character and his situation, but the second half of the book really takes off. I’m not as familiar with Mayan mythology as I am with Greek, Roman, Celtic, and Norse, and still felt like I understood the interactions and the background. (Also, made me want to seek out books of North, Central and South American native mythologies.)

 

 

STORIES

I have a goal of reading 365 short stories (1 per day, essentially, although it doesn’t always work out that way) each year. Here’s what I read this month and where you can find them if you’re interested in reading them too. If no source is noted, the story is from the same magazine or book as the story(ies) that precede(s) it:

1.       “Exile From Extinction” by Ramez Naam, from Lightspeed Magazine #112 (September 2019 issue), edited by John Joseph Adams.

2.       “Sacrid’s Pod” by Adam-Troy Castro

3.       “Hello, Hello” by Seanan McGuire

4.       “The Answers That You Are Seeking” by Jenny Rae Rappaport

5.       “A Bird, A Song, A Revolution” by Brooke Bolander

6.       “Flight of the Crowboys” by Micah Dean Hicks

7.       “All In” by Rajan Khanna

8.       “Desire” by Kinii Ibura Salaam

9.       “Come Marching In” by Seanan McGuire, on the author’s Patreon page.

10.   “Adventure on Poloda” by Edgar Rice Burroughs, from Beyond the Farthest Star.

11.   “Tangor Returns” by Edgar Rice Burroughs

12.   “Hope Is Swift” by Seanan McGuire, new novella at the end of her novel The Unkindest Tide.

13.   “The Aphotic Ghost” by Carlos Hernandez, from The Assimilated Cuban’s Guide to Quantum Santeria.

14.   “Homeostasis” by Carlos Hernandez

15.   “Entanglements” by Carlos Hernandez

16.   “The International Studbook of the Giant Panda” by Carlos Hernandez

17.   “Los Simpáticos” by Carlos Hernandez

18.   “More Than Pigs and Rosaries Can Give” by Carlos Hernandez

19.   “Bone of My Bone” by Carlos Hernandez

20.   “The Magical Properties of Unicorn Ivory” by Carlos Hernandez

21.   “American Moat” by Carlos Hernandez

22.   “Fantaisie Impromptu No. 4 in C#min, Op. 66” by Carlos Hernandez

23.   “The Assimiliated Cuban’s Guide to Quantum Santeria” by Carlos Hernandez

24.   “Brigid Was Hung By Her Hair From The Second Story Window” by Gillian Daniels, from The Dark #52, edited by Sylvia Moreno-Garcia

25.   “Our Towns Talents” by Simon Stranzas

26.   “The Ways of Walls and Words” by Sabrina Vourvoulias, read by Ezzy G. Languzzi and Isabel Schechter, on the Cast of Wonders podcast, September 27, 2019

So that’s 26 short stories in September, keeping me way ahead for the year so far. (September 30th was the 273rd day of 2019.)

 

Summary of Reading Challenges:

“To Be Read” Challenge: This month: 0 read; YTD: 3 of 14 read.

365 Short Stories Challenge: This month:  26 read; YTD: 348 of 365 read.

Graphic Novels Challenge:  This month: 2 read; YTD: 23 of 52 read.

Goodreads Challenge: This month: 11 read; YTD: 103 of 125 read.

Non-Fiction Challenge: This month: 0; YTD: 5 of 24 read.

Read the Book / Watch the Movie Challenge: This month: 0; YTD: 0 of 10 read/watched.

Complete the Series Challenge: This month: 0 books read; YTD: 0 of 16 read.

                                                                Series fully completed: 0 of 3 planned

Monthly Special Challenge: I may not do something like this every month but September was Hispanic Heritage Month, so I set a goal to read as much stuff by Hispanic/Latinx authors as possible. It didn’t end up being as much as I wanted to read, in fact not even a majority of what I read for the month, but I did read books by Carlos Hernandez, J.C. Cervantes, and Silvia Moreno-Garcia, plus two stories edited by Silvia Moreno-Garcia, and a graphic novel that had art by two Hispanic creators.

October’s mini-goal of course is: Horror, Horror, Horror! Because Halloween!(October is also apparently German-American Heritage Month, Polish-American Heritage Month, and Italian-American Heritage Month. So I may try to read at least one book by someone from each of those backgrounds. That would be a mini-mini-goal!)

Book Excerpt: SIMON SAYS by Bryan Thomas Schmidt

I had a chance to read an electronic Advance Review Copy of Bryan Thomas Schmidt’s sci-fi police procedural Simon Says a few weeks back. I’ll let the book description that follows tell you all about the plot and focus on what I loved about the book: the seamless interweaving of three very different genres. The book is part near-future SF (androids that pass as human), part police-procedural (well-researched by the author through several ride-alongs with current KCPD officers), and part comedy (mostly from character interactions, but also near-future pop culture references that include Wolfie Van Halen’s band). It’s not easy to get these three genres in perfect harmony, but Schmidt manages it throughout the book. No one genre overwhelms the others. It’s an ideal read for folks who love books that blend genres. It’s also the start of a new series.

The excerpt that follows the book description is perhaps my favorite scene in the book that doesn’t involve car chases or shoot-outs. It also happens to combine all three elements, and features a guest appearance (of sorts) by my favorite rock band of the 1970s. Hope you enjoy it as much as I did!


BOOK DESCRIPTION


Master Detective John Simon is a tough, streetwise fifteen year veteran of the Kansas City Police Department with a healthy disdain for the encroachment of modern technology into his workplace. When his partner is kidnapped after a routine stakeout by thugs with seeming ties to connected, wealthy art dealer Benjamin Ashman, he’s determined to find the truth, but the only witness is a humanoid android named Lucas George. Reluctantly, he takes Lucas along as he begins to investigate and soon finds himself depending more and more on the very technology he so distrusts. Meanwhile, Simon’s precocious teenage daughter begins to teach Lucas how to sound more like a cop using dialogue from famous cop movies. If only he’d use them in the appropriate context.

As the two men dig in deeper, they find themselves and every witness they touch faced with danger from assassins as they begin to uncover a conspiracy that may stretch from the heights of the KCPD itself to South America and beyond. Can they identify the guilty before it’s too late without getting themselves killed in the process?

This exciting new mix of near future science fiction and procedural thriller captures the gritty realism of Michael Connelly’s Bosch, the humor and action of Lethal Weapon, and follows the classic science fiction tradition of Isaac Asimov’s City of Steel. From the editor of the international bestselling phenomenon The Martian by Andy Weir, and the national bestselling author of tales including official entries in The X-Files, Predator, and the Joe Ledger thrillers, comes this action-packed first entry in an exciting new series.


EXCERPT

"Who we looking for first?" Lucas asked from the seat beside him.

"Ashman's ex-protege, Mia McGuire—now one of his chief critics and rivals," Simon said, while waiting at a light in the left turn lane at Broadway.

"I thought when you called she wasn't in the office," Lucas said.

Simon nodded. "Yeah, but her assistant said she was at lunch with Japanese clients, Woo Song." He made the turn on Broadway and began scanning the right side for the restaurant.

"Really? What is that?"

"It's a restaurant, karaoke. I don't think the slip was intentional."

"What's karaoke?"

"People singing along to favorite songs," Simon said. "Crazy human antics. You'll love it."

Lucas pursed his lips and mumbled, "Hmmm."

Simon pulled into a small lot and found one of two open spaces, parking the Charger. Woo Song was to the north. He and Lucas got out and headed for the doors.

"Look, it would help me out if you can distract her clients somehow, while I talk with her," Simon said. "We don't want word spreading around about investigating Ashman any further than it already has."

Lucas nodded as Simon grabbed the door handle of the glass front door. Lights fluttered inside from the dance floor and pounding music leaked through to the street.

"I'll see what I can do," Lucas said.

"They're Japanese," Simon suggested. "These people love robots. Improvise."

Lucas shot him a quizzical look as Simon opened the door and they stepped inside.

The place smelled of Chinese food buffet and exotic spices. Half the tables were empty, but Simon immediately spotted two Asian men dancing and singing to Madonna on the stage. They didn't look like "Material Girls," but they were enthusiastic about making the claim.

Scanning the room, he found a dark-skinned woman in an expensive, tailored business jacket and skirt, sitting with three other Asians at a table on the right side, two away from the stage. There were six plates filled to the brim with Chinese food. The three Asians were eating with chopsticks and laughing. The woman—Mia McGuire, he hoped—was using a fork and watching the performers on the stage with amusement. The woman looked to be in her early forties, about right for a person who'd started with Ashman in her twenties and been pushed out a little over a decade later. Now they were rivals and she had her own company, smaller, but still competitive. Her lips were full, round, her eyes intense, focused, very blue, and she wore just enough makeup to highlight her features well but not seem obvious. She was important and she dressed and acted like it.

As Simon headed for the table, Lucas stood to one side, watching the stage with curiosity. The two Asians performing weren't awful as karaoke goes, and Simon had to admit he loathed karaoke, especially when it involved people with voices like cats serenading an alley. The Asians wore business suits and ties, like their three companions, but that didn't stop them from awkwardly moving enthusiastically to the rhythms in some kind of attempt at real choreography. Their voices were far better than their moves.

Simon stopped beside the table and smiled. "Mia McGuire?"

She looked up, surprised. "Yeah. Who's asking?"

Simon was reluctant to flash her a badge in front of her clients. "I need to talk with you about something important."

She frowned. "This is important. I'm with clients." She panned the table with her hand.

"Yes, but official business," he said, emphasizing the third word and locking his eyes on hers, trying to get the message through.

"Official like what? You an agent or something?" She shifted nervously in her chair, looking at the Japanese, who had quickly gone back to watching their friends and ignoring Simon as soon as they realized he wasn't talking to them.

"Yeah, something," Simon said.

The Madonna song ended, and the three Japanese applauded their friends vociferously and stood, bantering in Japanese—obviously deciding who would be next—as the others stepped down from the platform and came back to the table.

McGuire had kept her stare focused on Simon, even as she put on her best smile and joined the applause from her clients and others at nearby tables. "This isn't a good time," she said through clenched teeth.

Before any of McGuire's group could get to the stage, Simon heard the familiar strains of Styx and turned to see Lucas standing before the microphone. The Japanese businessmen brightened with recognition and began conversing, then Lucas launched into:

"Domo arigato, Mr. Roboto, Mata au hi made... Domo arigato, Mr. Roboto, Himitsu wo shiri tai..."

The android’s Japanese sounded perfect, incredibly so. Then he did the best Robot Dance Simon had ever seen. The Japanese businessmen enthusiastically raced to the stage to cheer him on and Simon found himself alone with McGuire.

He badged her. "It's about Benjamin Ashman."

McGuire scowled at the name then looked toward the stage and her clients. She sighed. "Can we make it quick?" Her gaze found his again with a look that said: not in front of the clients, please.

Lucas launched into the verse now with the Japanese handling the echoes: "You're wondering who I am (secret secret I've got a secret)..."

Simon nodded and sat down beside her in one of the vacated chairs. "You were Ashman's protégé, yes?"

"You clearly know that or you wouldn't be here," McGuire said. "My guess is we have about three minutes. Is that really the stuff you want to ask me?"

Simon grunted, accepting the challenge. "In your time with Ashman, did he ever involve you or himself in anything that pushed boundaries?"

McGuire raised a brow. "That's what his business is about—pushing boundaries, getting there first."

Simon clarified, "Legally."

She chuckled. "Ah, of course." She thought a moment. "Actually, he was pretty clean. In fact, shockingly so for one so rich and powerful in my experience. Didn't even make lewd comments, hit on me—like the others did. In fact, he called them out for it a time or two."

"Really?" Simon knew that wasn't always the case, even in the 21st Century, despite all the progress society had supposedly made. "So, he wouldn't be involved in illegal nanochips, data, forged art..."

McGuire turned back from the stage, stiffening and straightening in her chair. "Are you saying he is?" She seemed totally shocked at the idea.

"I'm saying someone might be," Simon said.

"At Ashman Industries?" she asked, clarifying.

Simon nodded.

She shook her head. "Wow. That would blow my mind if it's Benjamin. I mean, I am pissed at the guy for the way I got tossed aside and written off, and he's a tough competitor, doesn't make it easy for me going out on my own like this, but—" She paused, thinking a moment.

Simon waited, not wanting to interrupt her and break her train of thought.

Lucas and the Japanese hit the chorus now: "Domo arigato, Mr. Roboto, domo...domo, Domo arigato, Mr. Roboto, domo..."

"You know, most of it was Paul," she said then.

"Paul Paulsen?"

She nodded, her eyes darkening at the mention of his name, flashing a bit of anger. "Yeah, he's the one who really pushed me out. Ashman hired him out of college like me. Supposed to be his next big protégé."

"Thank you very much, Mr. Roboto, For doing the jobs that nobody wants to. And thank you very much, Mr. Roboto. For helping me escape just when I needed to..." Lucas sang.

"Thank you, thank you, thank you," McGuire's clients sang in pronounced accents. "I want to thank you, please, thank you..."

"But Paul hated me from day one," McGuire continued. "Hated women, I think. But he resented me for sure, and I thought he was a cocky, smartass kid who should have respected my position and accomplishments and let me teach him. It started that way, too. Ashman encouraged it." She took a sip of her soda and leaned back in her chair. "But Paul worked on him, earned his trust, his ear, had a couple of impressive successes that didn't involve me, showed me up once or twice—and that was it. I was out, he was in."

"So he replaced you?"

"In Benjamin's favor, yes...and then eventually in my job, too," she agreed. "I wasn't asked to leave. I felt I had no choice. I wasn't going anywhere in Ashman's company anymore, you know? And I had ambitions, goals...I was almost as good at what Benjamin does as he was, and everyone knew it. Maybe Paul targeted me because of it..." Her voice trailed off as she looked down, lost in sad memories.

Simon watched Lucas dance for a minute, amazed by the android's well designed choreography. They'd heard the song on the radio the other day but where did he get that?

"The problem's plain to see: Too much technology."

"Your friend isn't bad," McGuire said with a chuckle.

Simon nodded. "Yeah, I had no idea."

"My clients love it," she said and sounded pleased.

"So if I look at illegal activities, you think I should start with Paulsen?" Simon asked, getting back to business as the song entered repeated choruses, winding toward the end.

"Domo arigato, Mr. Roboto, domo...domo..."

"Yeah, I would," she said, sounding sad. "Hell, for all I know he could have corrupted Benjamin by now. We don't see each other or interact much and haven't for years now. But I know who he used to be, and the old Ashman wouldn't risk his hard work with such crap. But Paulsen...yeah, he's capable of anything."

She grew silent then, watching her clients dance and cheer as Lucas finished the song. Then they all gave him high fives as the android stepped down from the stage.

"Purrfect," Simon heard one of them yell.

Lucas thanked them as they followed him back toward their table and McGuire. Simon stood.

"Get what you needed?" Lucas said softly as he stopped beside his partner.

Simon laughed. "Yeah, for now."

The Japanese men were chattering and circling round Lucas like he was a celebrity.

Lucas shrugged. "You wanted them distracted."

"Where'd you learn that dance?" Simon asked.

"The Robot? It's in my programming," Lucas said sotto voce.

Simon thought it was a joke but couldn't tell for sure. "Really?"

Lucas winked.


If you enjoyed or were intrigued by that excerpt, here’s a look at the cover to Simon Says. Of course, the book is available via all online outlets, including Amazon and Barnes and Noble.

Simon Says cover.jpeg



Reading Round-Up: August 2019

Continuing the monthly summaries of what I’ve been reading and writing.

 

BOOKS

To keep my numbers consistent with what I have listed on Goodreads, I count completed magazine issues and stand-alone short stories in e-book format as “books.” I read or listened to 14 books in August: 11 in print, 2 in e-book format, and 1 in audio. They were:

1.       Lightspeed Magazine #111 (August 2019 issue), edited by John Joseph Adams. The usual fine assortment of sf and fantasy short stories. This month’s favorites for me were Carlos Hernandez’s “The Macrobe Conservation Project,” Rhajan Khanna’s “Card Sharp,” Sam J. Miller’s “Calved,” and Domenica Phettleplace’s “Robot Country.”

2.       Desdemona and the Deep by CSE Cooney. CSE Cooney gives readers a wonderful new fantasy world to explore in this novella with overlapping layers of human, faerie and goblin realms linked by a mysterious house and an ancient pact. Full review coming soon.

3.       In The Shadow of Spindrift House by Mira Grant. When Seanan McGuire writes as “Mira Grant,” I expect the work to fall in to the “science-horror” realm (things like fungal/epidemiological end-of-world scenarios, or killer mermaids, or computer/AI-based horror). This one is a mash-up: part Scooby Doo pastiche, part haunted town, part Lovecraft … but the parts add up to a fun, genre-blending whole I found really enjoyable and scary.

4.       The Other Log of Phileas Fogg, by Philip Jose Farmer. This was my third, or possibly fourth re-read of Farmer’s classic “story behind the story” take on Jules Verne’s Around the World in 80 Days. Farmer adds science fiction and world conspiracy flavors to Verne’s already fun adventure story, along with his classic penchant for sly (and sometimes not-so-sly) literary references. This book is one of the cornerstones of Farmer’s Wold Newton Family world.

5.       Hunt the Avenger by Win Scott Eckert. When you think of classic Pulp Magazine adventurers, you think Doc Savage, the Shadow, and Richard Benson, The Avenger. This “fix-up”/mosaic novel pulls together several of Eckert’s previously published Avenger short stories and adds two new chapters to the mix to tell a complete story about Justice Inc.’s battles with The Countess and The Iron Skull alongside pulp heroine The Domino Lady. A fun romp full of Farmerian winks and nods to other classic characters. Full review for this one also coming soon.

6.       Phileas Fogg and the War of Shadows by Joshua Reynolds. Meteor House is the official publisher of all authorized continuations of Philip Jose Farmer’s works. This novella picks up a few decades after The Other Log of Phileas Fogg and continues the story of Fogg, Passpartout, Nemo and the remaining Eridanean and Capellian agents on Earth. It’s a fast-paced adventure romp and of course has nods to other classic literature, as does….

7.       Phileas Fogg and the Heart of Osra by Josh Reynolds. Reynold’s second Fogg novella picks right up where War of Shadows left off, moving Fogg further across Europe, this time visiting the nation of Ruritania and revealing more folks we never knew were connected to the Eridanean/Capellian conflict. Just as fast and fun as the first book. Sadly, Meteor House has to date not continued this series (although I believe Reynolds planned five novellas total).

8.       The Shadow: Midnight in Moscow by Howard Chaykin. The art is classic Chaykin, the story a nice mix of Chaykin and the feel of the pulps. There’s lots of gunplay, lots of mind-control, and plenty of blood around cutting edge technology and the Cold War. (Kudos to Chaykin for including a short scene featuring The Shadow having dinner with his Wold Newton lineage cousins, with a shot of the Wold Cottage Meteor Monument in the background.)

9.       Lumberjanes Volume 12: Jackalope Springs Eternal by Shannon Watters, Noelle Stevenson, Brooklyn Allen, and others. Another fun Lumberjanes adventure, with a twist. This time it’s their counselor Jen urging them to go out and do something potentially dangerous (search for the legendary Jackalope!) instead of the girls heading into trouble while Jen tries to keep them in their cabins and safe. There’s lots of character growth in this one stemming out of the events in the previous volume.

10.   Tarzan and the Valley of Gold by Fritz Leiber. Leiber was the first writer officially authorized by the Burroughs estate to write a new Tarzan novel, based on the script for the movie of the same name. Leiber doesn’t just deliver a novelization, he delivers a fully-realized, totally Burroughsian take on the story. It’s easy to see why this one is considered by the Burroughs estate to be a part of the Tarzan canon. I intend to get around to watching the movie and then writing a blog post comparing book to movie.

11.   Books of Magic Volume 1: Moveable Type By Kat Howard, Tom Fowler and others. I was a fan of the tossle-haired, bespectacled British boy wizard Tim Hunter long before Harry Potter came along, and I followed the character in his original Vertigo series(s) from adolescence to adulthood. Part of me wanted to be skeptical when DC Comics announced that their “new” Sandman Universe would include a Books of Magic series that returned Tim Hunter to his starting point – but then I saw that Kat Howard was writing the book and I knew our boy Tim was in good hands. And I was correct. This is a great new take on the character, a slow-boil version of Tim coming into his magic and the forces trying to stop him. And Tim Fowler’s art is expressive in a slightly cartoony way that further sets this new iteration apart from the source material, in a good way.

12.   The Quest of Frankenstein by Frank Schildiner. Like Win Scott Eckert, Frank Shildiner is one the current masters of “new pulp,” especially the type with a classic horror bent. This is the first in his new series of novels following up on the French “Frankenstein” novels which were in their turn sequels to the Mary Shelley original. This is a bloodier, more coherent-minded Monster than fans of the Universal movies of the 30s and 40s might be comfortable with, but I enjoyed the book. Oh, it also features a lot of classic vampires and weird scientists.

13.   Untranslatable by Alma Alexander. The theme of this short story collection is words from other languages that are not directly and simply translated into English. Some of the stories are reprints and some are new, and all are intriguing and excellent. I’m planning a longer review, but speculative fiction short story lovers should be picking this one up.

14.   Justice, Inc. by Michael E. Uslan, Giovanni Timpano and others. A graphic novel that gives us an alternate original for Richard Benson, the Avenger, and his ties to Doc Savage and The Shadow. Uslan tells a fun, high-stakes story, and the art is solid throughout. There are beautiful covers painted by Alex Ross as well.

 

 

STORIES

I have a goal of reading 365 short stories (1 per day, essentially, although it doesn’t always work out that way) each year. Here’s what I read this month and where you can find them if you’re interested in reading them too. If no source is noted, the story is from the same magazine or book as the story(ies) that precede(s) it:

1.       “Robot Country” by Domenica Phettleplace, from Lightspeed Magazine #111 (August 2019 issue), edited by John Joseph Adams.

2.       “Calved” by Sam J. Miller

3.       “No Matter” by Kendra Fortmeyer

4.       “The Macrobe Conservation Project” by Carlos Hernandez

5.       “The Rock Eaters” by Brenda Paynado

6.       “The Final Blow” by Scott Sigler

7.       “Card Sharp” by Rajan Khanna

8.       “A Leash of Foxes, Their Stories Like Barter” by Cassandra Khaw

9.       “Dreams and Sighs” by Seanan McGuire, on the author’s Patreon page.

10.   “Death and the Countess” by Win Scott Eckert, from his mosaic/fix-up novel Hunt The Avenger.

11.   “Happy Death Men” by Win Scott Eckert

12.   “According to Plan of a One-Eyed Trickster” by Win Scott Eckert

13.   “The Glass Lady” by Win Scott Eckert

14.   “Toil and Trouble” by Win Scott Eckert

15.   “Black Wings of Kjellmar” by Alma Alexander, from her collection Untranslatable.

16.   “Dreamshare” by Alma Alexander

17.   “The Bucket List” by Alma Alexander

18.   “Equinox” by Alma Alexander

19.   “To Remember Riobarre” by Alma Alexander

20.   “Color” by Alma Alexander

21.   “Go Through” by Alma Alexander

22.   “Leaving Via Callia” by Alma Alexander

23.   “Night Train” by Alma Alexander

24.   “She Wore Yellow” by Alma Alexander

25.   “Something That Would Shine” by Alma Alexander

26.   “The Flying Dutchman” by Alma Alexander

27.   “The Painting” by Alma Alexander

28.   “The Bones of Our Ancestors, the Blood of Our Flowers” by Alma Alexander

So that’s 28 short stories in August, keeping me way ahead for the year so far. (August 31th was the 243th day of 2019.)

 

Summary of Reading Challenges:

“To Be Read” Challenge: This month: 0 read; YTD: 3 of 14 read.

365 Short Stories Challenge: This month:  28 read; YTD: 319 of 365 read.

Graphic Novels Challenge:  This month: 4 read; YTD: 21 of 52 read.

Goodreads Challenge: This month: 14 read; YTD: 92 of 125 read.

Non-Fiction Challenge: This month: 0; YTD: 5 of 24 read.

Read the Book / Watch the Movie Challenge: This month: 0; YTD: 0 of 10 read/watched.

Complete the Series Challenge: This month: 0 books read; YTD: 0 of 16 read.

                                                                Series fully completed: 0 of 3 planned

Monthly Special Challenge: I may not do something like this every month but August’s monthly special challenge was in honor of PulpFest and FarmerCon, the annual overlapping conventions that celebrate the fiction of the Pulp magazine era and the work of author Philip Jose Farmer. By my count, I read 8 books towards this mini-challenge. One by Philip Jose Farmer, two directly inspired by and involving his creations with his estate’s approval, and 5 featuring pulp characters like The Avenger, The Shadow, Domino Lady, Tarzan, and the French pulp version of Frankenstein’s Monster, Gouroull.

September is Hispanic Heritage Month, so I’m setting a goal to read as much stuff by Hispanic/Latinx authors as possible.

Reading Round-Up: July 2019

Continuing the monthly summaries of what I’ve been reading and writing. (This one’s a bit overdue!)

 

BOOKS

To keep my numbers consistent with what I have listed on Goodreads, I count completed magazine issues and stand-alone short stories in e-book format as “books.” I read or listened to 7 books in July: 2 in print, 5 in e-book format, and 0 in audio. They were:

1.       Lightspeed Magazine #110 (July 2019 issue), edited by John Joseph Adams. The usual fine assortment of sf and fantasy short stories. This month’s favorites for me were Andrew Penn Romine’s “Miles and Miles and Miles,” Indrapramit Das’s “The Moon Is Not a Battlefield,” J. Anderson Coats’ “Mother Carey’s Table,” and Senaa Ahmad’s “Ahura Yazda, The Great Extraordinary.”

2.       Ormeshadow by Priya Sharma. You would think that as an English major in college, I’d have read something, anything, by Willa Cather. But if I did, I don’t recall it at all (please forgive me, Professor Malcolm Marsden!). So I’m counting this as my first Cather work. I’d like to read more by her eventually. I found this one an interesting character study. Full Review HERE.

3.       Sealed by Naomi Booth. An interesting combination of near-future environmental horror, graphic body horror, and a potentially unreliable narrator. Not for the easily squeamish, for sure. Full review appeared at Strange Horizons on August 30th.  http://strangehorizons.com/non-fiction/reviews/sealed-by-naomi-booth/

4.       Treasure Trail, by Morgan Brice. This is the first M/M urban fantasy/paranormal romance by Gail Z. Martin’s pen name that I have read, and it won’t be the last. This, the first in a new series, takes place in very haunted Cape May, NJ and introduces us to an antique shop owner with “the touch” (the ability to sense an object’s supernatural history) and a former cop turned rental property manager who sees ghosts. There’s also present- and past-day Mafia connections, because NJ.

5.       A Secret Guide to Fighting Elder Gods edited by Jennifer Brozek. A really fun anthology of Lovecraftian Young Adult stories. The stories hit all the requisite Lovecraft themes and monsters, but with settings mostly in the present day focusing on teens – and often, on teens seeing what the adults can’t or won’t see.

6.       The Trans Space Octopus Congregation by Bogi Takács. Bogi’s newest short story collection, due out from Lethe Press in October, has a wonderful mix of science fiction and fantasy, including a few stories set in a shared future setting. Eir stories touch on many present day issues, including the immigrant, transgender, and “alternate sexuality” experiences. A great read.

7.       The Triumph of the Spider-Monkey by Joyce Carol Oates. Not going to lie, this was a very difficult read for me. Long out of print and brought back by Hard Case Crime, this is a very disturbing look inside the head of a serial killer.

 

 

STORIES

I have a goal of reading 365 short stories (1 per day, essentially, although it doesn’t always work out that way) each year. Here’s what I read this month and where you can find them if you’re interested in reading them too. If no source is noted, the story is from the same magazine or book as the story(ies) that precede(s) it:

1.       “The Null Space Conundrum” by Violet Allen, from Lightspeed Magazine #110 (July 2019 issue), edited by John Joseph Adams.

2.       “The Mysteries” by Karen Lord

3.       “Miles and Miles and Miles” by Andrew Penn Romine

4.       “The Moon Is Not A Battlefield” by Indrapramit Das

5.       “Mother Carey’s Table” by J. Anderson Coats

6.       “Sand Castles” by Adam-Troy Castro

7.       “Song Beneath the City” by Micah Dean Hicks

8.       “Ahura Yazda, The Great Extraordinary” by Senaa Ahmad

9.       “Face Your Furs” by Seanan McGuire, on the author’s Patreon page.

10.   “The Good Girl” by Lucy Snyder, on the author’s Patreon page.

11.   “Freak Corner” by John Rolfe Gardiner, from One Story #254, edited by Patrick Ryan

12.   “The Story of O-Tei” by Lafcadio Hearn, from Oriental Ghost Stories, edited by David Stuart Davies

13.   “Green Glass: A Love Story” by E. Lily Yu, from If This Goes On: The Science Fiction Future of Today’s Politics, edited by Cat Rambo

14.   “The Last Adventure of Jack Laff: The Dayveil Gambit” by Steven Barnes

15.   “King Harvest (Will Surely Come)” by Nisi Shawl

16.   “Away Game” by Seanan McGuire, from A Secret Guide To Fighting Elder Gods, edited by Jennifer Brozek

17.   “The Icarus Club” by Weston Ochse

18.   “Stormy Monday” by Chesya Burke

19.   “Pickman’s Daughter” by J.C. Koch

20.   “Us and Ours” by Premee Mohamed

21.   “The Art of Dreaming” by Josh Vogt

22.   “Visions of the Dream Witch” by Lucy A. Snyder

23.   “The Tall Ones” by Stephen Ross

24.   “Just Imagine” by Tim Waggoner

25.   “Holding Back” by Lisa Morton

26.   “The Mouth of the Merrimack” by Douglas Wynne

27.   “The Geometry of Dreams” by Wendy N. Wagner

28.   “Being Emily-Claire” by Jonathan Maberry

29.   “This Shall Serve As A Demarcation” by Bogi Takács, from The Trans Space Octopus Congregation, edited by Steve Berman

30.   “Some Remarks on the Reproductive Strategies of the Common Octopus” by Bogi Takács

31.   “A Superordinate Set of Principles” by Bogi Takács

32.   “Forestspirit, Forestspirit” by Bogi Takács

33.   “Given Sufficient Desperation” by Bogi Takács

34.   “Changing Body Templates” by Bogi Takács

35.   “For Your Optimal Hookboarding Experience” by Bogi Takács

36.   “Increasing Police Visibility” by Bogi Takács

37.   “Good People in a Small Space” by Bogi Takács

38.   “Records of a More Personal Nature” by Bogi Takács

39.   “This Secular Technology” by Bogi Takács

40.   “Three Partitions” by Bogi Takács

41.   “Unifications” by Bogi Takács

42.   “The Size of A Barleycorn, Encased in Lead” by Bogi Takács

43.   “To Rebalance the Body” by Bogi Takács

44.   “Shovelware” by Bogi Takács

45.   “The Oracle of DARPA” by Bogi Takács

46.   “Toward the Luminous Towers” by Bogi Takács

47.   “Wind-lashed Vehicles of Bone” by Bogi Takács

48.   “The Need for Overwhelming Sensation” by Bogi Takács

49.   “Spirit Forms of the Sea” by Bogi Takács

50.   “All Talk of Common Sense” by Bogi Takács

51.   “Standing on the Floodbanks” by Bogi Takács

So that’s 51 short stories in July, keeping me way ahead for the year so far. (July 30th was the 212th day of 2019.)

 

Summary of Reading Challenges:

“To Be Read” Challenge: This month: 0 read; YTD: 3 of 14 read.

365 Short Stories Challenge: This month:  51 read; YTD: 291 of 365 read.

Graphic Novels Challenge:  This month: 0 read; YTD: 17 of 52 read.

Goodreads Challenge: This month: 7 read; YTD: 78 of 125 read.

Non-Fiction Challenge: This month: 0; YTD: 5 of 24 read.

Read the Book / Watch the Movie Challenge: This month: 0; YTD: 0 of 10 read/watched.

Complete the Series Challenge: This month: 0 books read; YTD: 0 of 16 read.

                                                                Series fully completed: 0 of 3 planned

Monthly Special Challenge: I may not do something like this every month. Having checked several different websites, it seems like July is not a month that lends itself to any specific reading goal (it’s the National Month of several foods, though: National Baked Bean Month, Culinary Arts Month, Grilling Month, Horseradish Month, Hot Dog Month, Ice Cream Month, Blueberries Month, and Picnic Month!) So my mini-challenge to myself was to make July Series Month, to help me catch up on one of my year-long challenges (The “Complete the Series” Challenge).

Friends, I completely bombed this self-challenge. I brought two series on a three-week business trip (Seanan McGuire’s Velveteen series, and one of the two remaining books I need to read in Chinua Achebe’s Africa Trilogy) and read precisely none of them. (In fact, I discovered on the trip that I’d brought the wrong Achebe with me, so stopped reading….)

August’s monthly special challenge is/was in honor of PulpFest and FarmerCon, the annual overlapping conventions that celebrate the fiction of the Pulp magazine era and the work of author Philip Jose Farmer. Tune into my next post to see how I did with that!

Sunday Shorts: Three From IF THIS GOES ON

Sunday Shorts is a series where I blog about short fiction – from flash to novellas. For the time being, I’m sticking to prose, although it’s been suggested I could expand this feature to include single episodes of anthology television series like The Twilight Zone or individual stories/issues of anthology comics (like the 1970s DC horror or war anthology titles). So anything is possible. But for now, the focus is on short stories.

 

Today I’d like to talk about three very different stories from the Parvus Press anthology If This Goes On: The Science Fiction Future of Today’s Politics, edited by Cat Rambo. I intend to read this whole anthology eventually, but figured I’d take a random sampling just to get me started.

“Green Glass: A Love Story” by E. Lily Yu. This one starts out as a classic SF love story: a man literally sends a probe to the moon to get a birthday/engagement present for his fiancée. But Yu does remarkable things with the story progression from there, revealing both the past and present (and a glimpse at the future) of the theoretically-happy couple. Yu gives us a future where the world has been largely despoiled and the working class are increasingly sicker because of it while the rich just get richer and healthier; everything this couple does to prepare for their wedding is expensive and wasteful just to make an impression. But there’s also the undercurrent that some things may never change: in an age of pre-nups that even designate how many children a couple will have, the woman still gets taken advantage of, gaslit and blindsided. I started out thinking the main characters were a bit unlikeable, grew to despise them for their excesses, and then actually felt a little sorry for the main female character by the story’s end. I think Yu manages to show us that while short fiction usually focuses on one aspect of a dystopian (or utopian, or whatever) society, the reality is that no facet of a society exists on its own and ignoring the bigger picture for the details that benefit you the most will almost always backfire.

“The Last Adventure of Jack Laff: The Dayveil Gambit” transcribed by Steven Barnes. It’s no secret that I love noir in all its forms – hard crime to SF. So it was probably a guarantee I’d love this story by one of the pioneers of Afrofuturism. The voice of the narrator/title character is gruff, macho, take-no-prisoners, and yet Barnes also imbues him with more honor and a bit less misogyny than the classic 40s-50s originals of this type. Still, a trope of noir is that the hero gets suckered, at least for a little while, by a beautiful client while ignoring his faithful and loving secretary … and Barnes leans into the trope with skill and subtlety, subverting it by staying true to it almost all the way through the story. All the classic types are here: the femme fatale, the hard-pressed secretary, the questionable businessman, and the links to an earlier case that turn out to be more important than the narrator at first realizes. Culturally, Barnes shows us a future where movements like #MeToo result in every business and personal interaction being filmed by bodycams and the footage securely stored in case of future litigation. The story takes several twists that I don’t want to spoil here.

 

“The Harvest King (Will Surely Come) by Nisi Shawl. One of the many things that impresses me about Nisi Shawl is her world-building when it comes to alternate (her novel Everfair) or future histories, and the voices she uses to reveal that world-building to the reader. Here, we get the religio-fascist future of a portion of the former United States called “Heartland” shown to us through two very different, equally sycophantic voices. The first voice is that of an American “king,” who has inherited his place from his the previous ruler (who ruled for twenty-one years), and who is now making plans to pass that throne on to the husband of his daughter (whose name happens to be Tiffany) … because in this future even the hereditary throne can’t possibly go to a woman. I’m not sure just how far in the future this part of the story is set. At first, I thought it was very near-future (a daughter/granddaughter named Tiffany), but the other voice Shawl uses – the pages of a Bible section called “Letters to the Oligarchs” makes me think that our present is a dim memory to the “king” who is about to leave his throne. The characters, all unlikeable, refer to slaves and “mud people,” and to ritual sacrifice of living “effigies” to appease the earth and guarantee a good harvest. Shawl wonderfully co-mingles pagan rituals (writ large via monster trucks and harvesters) with the racial purity ethics of a subset of our current population to posit a future where America has turned from democracy to theocracy.

Reading Round-Up: June, 2019

Continuing the monthly summaries of what I’ve been reading and writing.

 

BOOKS

To keep my numbers consistent with what I have listed on Goodreads, I count completed magazine issues and stand-alone short stories in e-book format as “books.” I read or listened to 11 books in May: 4 in print, 2 in e-book format, and 5 in audio. They were:

1.       Lightspeed Magazine #109 (June 2019 issue), edited by John Joseph Adams. The usual fine assortment of sf and fantasy short stories and novellas. This month’s favorites for me were Ellen Kushner’s “When Two Swordsmen Meet,” Caspain Gray’s “Unpublished Gay Cancer Survivor Memoir,” Isabel Canas’ “The Weight of A Thousand Needles,” and Karen Joy Fowler’s “The Last Worders.”

2.       Alexander’s Bridge by Willa Cather. You would think that as an English major in college, I’d have read something, anything, by Willa Cather. But if I did, I don’t recall it at all (please forgive me, Professor Malcolm Marsden!). So I’m counting this as my first Cather work. I’d like to read more by her eventually. I found this one an interesting character study. Full Review HERE.

3.       The History of Soul 2065 by Barbara Krasnoff. I’d previously read only three of the twenty short stories that comprise this mosaic novel that covers fifteen decades in the lives of two families. Subtle magic, strong women, strong LGB representation, strong ties to the Jewish Diaspora.

4.       Spinning Around A Sun: Stories, by Everett Maroon. Flash fiction with sometimes horrific twists, these early stories by Maroon show hints of the style he works so well in his novel.

5.       Fresh Kill (Jimmy McSwain Files, Book 6) by Adam Carpenter. Jimmy McSwain is back for another round of mysteries, and Carpenter returns to the character and his New York City setting with style. Full Review HERE.

6.       Lumberjanes Volume 11: Time After Crime by Shannon Watters, Kat Leyh, and others. The latest Lumberjanes collection gets a bit timey-whimey, but in a very different way from Doctor Who. I was happy to see the focus this time is largely on Molly, with lots of character growth stemming out of her stressful family interactions.

7.       Shout Out edited by Andrew Wheeler. This is a wonderful YA graphic novel anthology of short stories featuring pretty much the entire range of LGBTQIA+ characters across genres from science fiction and fantasy to romance (and often intermingling several genres at once). I can’t praise this one enough.

8.       Synchronicity by Keira Andrews.  I am notoriously under-read when it comes to gay romance (as opposed to gay sf/fantasy/horror with romance or erotica elements). For some reason, much of the gay romance I have read falls into the sports romance realm, and this short about a synchronized diving team at the Olympics is no exception. Nicely written with likeable characters.

9.       From A Whisper to A Riot: The Gay Writers Who Crafted An American Literary Tradition by Adam W. Burgess. I’ve really not been doing well on the whole “read more non-fiction” thing, largely because I read non-fiction much slower than I read fiction. This work by Adam Burgess is a nicely-detailed look at a critically under-represented period in gay fiction, and it is worth your time seeking out. My full review is HERE.

10.   The Drowning Girl by Caitlin R. Kiernan, narrated by Suzy Jackson. A first-person narration ghost story high on eeriness but not gore, featuring a narrator who is lesbian and “crazy” (by her own words). I love narrators who tell you right at the start that they are not necessarily reliable, and IMP is one of those narrators. This is a really great listen. Suzy Jackson captures the main character’s innocence and slow fraying as she goes off her meds while relating her tale.

 

 

STORIES

I have a goal of reading 365 short stories (1 per day, essentially, although it doesn’t always work out that way) each year. Here’s what I did read and where you can find them if you’re interested in reading them too (with some short notes for stories that really stood out to me). If no source is noted, the story is from the same magazine or book as the story(ies) that precede(s) it:

1.       “Between The Dark and the Dark” by Deji Bryce Olukotun, from Lightspeed Magazine #109 (June 2019 issue), edited by John Joseph Adams.

2.       “An Advanced Readers’ Picture Book of Comparative Cognition” by Ken Liu

3.       “The Harvest of a Half-Known Life” by G.V. Anderson

4.       “Warhosts” by Yoon Ha Lee

5.       “The Last Worders” by Karen Joy Fowler

6.       “The Weight of A Thousand Needles” by Isabel Canas

7.       “When Two Swordsmen Meet” by Ellen Kushner

8.       “Unpublished Gay Cancer Survivor Memoir” by Caspian Gray

9.       “Dust to Dust” by Tochi Onyebuchi

10.   “Sun Sets Weeping” by Seanan McGuire, on the author’s Patreon page.

11.   “The Clearing In the Autumn,” by Barbara Krasnoff, from her collection The History of Soul 2065.

12.   “Sabbath Wine” by Barbara Krasnoff

13.   “Lost Connections” by Barbara Krasnoff

14.   “Hearts and Minds” by Barbara Krasnoff

15.   “Cancer God” by Barbara Krasnoff

16.   “In The Loop” by Barbara Krasnoff

17.   “The Ladder-Back Chair” by Barbara Krasnoff

18.   “The Sad Old Lady” by Barbara Krasnoff

19.   “The Red Dybbuk” by Barbara Krasnoff

20.   “Waiting For Jakie” by Barbara Krasnoff

21.   “The Gingerbread House” by Barbara Krasnoff

22.   “Time and the Parakeet” By Barbara Krasnoff

23.   “Under the Bay Court Tree” by Barbara Krasnoff

24.   “An Awfully Big Adventure” by Barbara Krasnoff

25.   “Rosemary, That’s For Remembrance” by Barbara Krasnoff

26.   “Stoop Ladies” by Barbara Krasnoff

27.   “Escape Route” by Barbara Krasnoff

28.   “Sophia’s Legacy” by Barbara Krasnoff

29.   “The Clearing in the Spring” by Barbara Krasnoff

30.   “The History of Soul 2065” by Barbara Krasnoff

31.   “Chamber Speed” by Everett Maroon, from his collection Spinning Around A Sun.

32.   “Crazy Making” by Everett Maroon

33.   “Connaissieur” by Everett Maroon

34.   “Dead Martha” by Everett Maroon

35.   “Lost Boy” by Everett Maroon

36.   “Conception” by Everett Maroon

37.   “Mummy” by Everett Maroon

38.   “Desperados” by Everett Maroon

39.   “The Seamstress” by Everett Maroon

40.   “Cold Statues” by Jay Lake, from The Many Tortures of Anthony Cardno, a charity anthology.

So that’s 40 short stories in June, keeping me way ahead for the year so far. (June 30th was the 181st day of 2019.)

 

Summary of Reading Challenges:

“To Be Read” Challenge: This month: 0 read; YTD: 3 of 14 read.

365 Short Stories Challenge: This month:  40 read; YTD: 240 of 365 read.

Graphic Novels Challenge:  This month: 2 read; YTD: 17 of 52 read.

Goodreads Challenge: This month: 10 read; YTD: 71 of 125 read.

Non-Fiction Challenge: This month: 1; YTD: 5 of 24 read.

Read the Book / Watch the Movie Challenge: This month: 0; YTD: 0 of 10 read/watched.

Complete the Series Challenge: This month: 0 books read; YTD: 0 of 16 read.

                                                                Series fully completed: 0 of 3 planned

Monthly Special Challenge: I may not do something like this every month, but I set a June goal to try to read primarily work by Queer authors or centering Queer characters, since June was Pride Month.

I think I was pretty successful with this one. I’m unsure how many of the writers in the June issue of Lightspeed Magazine identify somewhere on the Queer spectrum. But Will Cather was a lesbian, Everett Maroon and Caitlin R. Kiernan are transgender, and Adam Carpenter and Adam W. Burgess are gay. Many of the creators of the Lumberjanes series and most, if not all, of the creators of the stories in the Shout Out graphic novel anthology are Queer-identifying as well. And while Barbara Krasnoff is straight, The History of Soul 2065 heavily centers two queer couples with a third couple mentioned.

Having checked several different websites, it seems like July is not a month that lends itself to any specific reading goal (it’s the National Month of several foods, though: National Baked Bean Month, Culinary Arts Month, Grilling Month, Horseradish Month, Hot Dog Month, Ice Cream Month, Blueberries Month, and Picnic Month!) So my mini-challenge to myself is going to be making July Series Month, to help me catch up on one of my year-long challenges (The “Complete The Series” Challenge).

Sunday Shorts: Snyder, Gardiner and Hearn

Sunday Shorts is a series where I blog about short fiction – from flash to novellas. For the time being, I’m sticking to prose, although it’s been suggested I could expand this feature to include single episodes of anthology television series like The Twilight Zone or individual stories/issues of anthology comics (like the 1970s DC horror or war anthology titles). So anything is possible. But for now, the focus is on short stories.

 

Every now and then, these posts end up being a mish-mash of recent reads that have no obvious connection. This is one of those posts.

“The Good Girl” by Lucy V. Snyder (from her collection Soft Apocalypses but also June’s selection on the author’s Patreon). This is not the first time I’ve read “The Good Girl,” and it probably won’t be the last. But I have to say that between readings, I’d sort of forgotten just how wonderfully sly Snyder is at easing the supernatural aspect into a story whose premise is already horrific: a young woman having to return home to the father who abused her and the mother who let it happen, for one last chance at a goodbye to a sister she’d abandoned to her fate. There are so many directions the story could go on that description alone, and Snyder keeps you guessing as to exactly which direction she’s leading you in. The narrator struggles with her own guilt and her own justifications on the drive to the family homestead; the characterization is deep and nuanced, the narrator unsure of whether she qualifies as the “good girl” of the title either now or in the past. There’s also a delightful secondary character who provides a little light humor in an otherwise dark story, because we all need a good chuckle before the final scare.

“Freak Corner” by John Rolfe Gardiner (from One Story #254, June 20 2019). Abuse, or at least neglect, of a different kind confronts the narrator of this story. It is 1953, and while the narrator’s small town neighborhood is in an uproar about how Alfie Kipps is now Margaret Kipps, the narrator has a more immediate concern: his deaf sister’s education. The story shines a light on just how recently American Sign Language was considered a fake language, a cheat for deaf people to avoid learning to speak properly, at the same time that transgender issues were just starting to come to the public conscious thanks to Christine Jorgensen. It also shines a light on how far we have, and haven’t come: ASL is a recognized language after a long-fought battle; transgender people are still ridiculed, shamed, and threatened just for existing. Gardiner’s story is less about trans-acceptance than it is about ASL-acceptance, but the narrator’s sister, Gayle, is bolstered by the support of this other social outcast even while her brother falters between supporting her and toeing the parentally-set line of “speak, don’t sign.” There’s also an undercurrent of “false nostalgia,” the narrator saying, without saying, that “the good old days” weren’t so good for a lot of people.

 

The Story of O-Tei by Lafcadio Hearn (from Oriental Ghost Stories, Wordsworth Tales of Mystery & The Supernatural edition). I’ve been trying (with varying success) to read at least one short story by an author on their birthday, mixing authors I’ve long loved with those I’ve never read. This is the first Lafcadio Hearn story I think I’ve ever read, despite owning both the Wordsworth Edition paperback collection sampling stories from Hearn’s several books as well as the hardcover compendium the Library of America recently issued. I maybe should have chosen a longer story to sample, but even this short simple tale I think captures Hearn’s tone. In “The Story of O-Tei,” the titular woman is betrothed to a man she really wants to marry but she falls ill before the wedding can be performed. She promises him that if he waits, she’ll return to him. He asks for a sign, and she says it’s not in her power to give, but he’ll know her. In the hands of a more modern author, the misfortunes that befall the man when he marries another woman under family pressure would probably be the focal point of the story; Hearn glosses over them except to show that they are not really road-blocks to the fated reunion. Is that reunion happy or horrific? I won’t spoil that for the potential reader. But I loved the way Hearn tells the story: not full of the heavy detail of his Victorian peers, but full of heart and acceptance that the supernatural is part of life.

Series Saturday: VICIOUS

Series Saturday is a series about … well, series. I do so love stories that continue across volumes, in whatever form: linked short stories, novels, novellas, television, movies. I’ve already got a list of series I’ve recently read, re-read, watched, or re-watched that I plan to blog about. I might even, down the line, open myself up to letting other people suggest titles I should read/watch and then comment on.

Vicious DVD covers.png

Warning: Mild Spoilers Ahead (Yes, for a sitcom.)

Vicious didn’t last long, but I think it’s possibly in my Top 5 favorite sit-coms. Had it had more episodes per season or lasted longer, my opinion might have changed. But the short, sweet run it had (14 episodes over a three-year span, including the extra-long Finale) was I think just enough to fall in love with these bitter, snarking characters and not grow tired of them.

Created by Gary Janetti and Mark Ravenhill, Vicious originally aired in the UK before making its way to the United States on PBS, which is where I saw the first season and bits of the second. I bought the DVDs to watch the episodes my DVR had somehow failed to record (including the Finale). Because of course I did. The series focuses on Freddie (Sir Ian McKellan) and Stuart (Sir Derek Jacobi), a couple who have been together for forty-eight years at the start of the first season. In short order, they (and we) meet their new, cute-as-a-button, young upstairs neighbor Ash (Iwan Rheon) and the speculation starts as to whether the young man is “family” or not (Spoiler: he’s not.). Freddie and Stuart’s lifelong friend Violet (Frances de la Tour) also takes a shine to Ash, although the couple’s other close friends, absent-minded Penelope (Marcia Warren) and acerbic Mason (Philip Voss) don’t seem quite so enamored of Ash at first.

The first season feels the freshest and most tightly written, perhaps because the writers are so invested in getting us to understand the characters and their relationships that they wrote seven mostly stand-alone episodes. Other than Ash being drawn more completely into the older characters’ circle, there’s no real “season arc” to speak of. Each episode sets up a situation, hits certain expected moments, and resolves by episode’s end. The running joke of Stuart constantly reintroducing Ash to Violet (“You remember our friend Violet,” often delivered as though the two have never met before) is the closest the writers come to a situation that lasts several episodes and then is resolved in the season finale. Season Two’s more structured lead-up to Freddie and Stuart’s wedding after fifty years together, coupled with a change in episode structure (every episode of season one started with Stuart on the phone with his mother and some Freddie-Stuart ribbing; season two’s episodes start with the two conversing as they walk down the street and something about the on-location filming feels out of place to me) makes the season feel less improvised and thus less fresh. There are still wonderful moments of comedy and character development, but there’s a lot of run-of-the-mill dialogue and situational slapstick as well (I’m looking at you, Mason, Penelope and the wedding cake!).

Both leads deliver their quips with just enough of a wink that the viewers understand these are two men who have developed a verbal shorthand where almost everything they say means “I love you and I wouldn’t change you for the world.” Relationship-wise, it’s clear that Freddie is a bit more dominant, Stuart a bit more submissive – and when the writers reverse the relationship (for instance, in the season two opener, when Freddie has to play subservient butler to a “straight, macho” Stuart to help Violet during a visit from her condescending sister), the writing is at its best. It helps that Sir Ian and Sir Derek obviously enjoy feeding off of each other’s energy, and one has to wonder how much of their banter was ad-libbed. (I also think it’s interesting that Sir Ian says they each had crushes on the other during early acting school days, but neither ever confessed to the other. I wonder what having them as the First Gay Couple of British Theater in real life would have been like.)

The characters’ styles are very different as well. In both dress and personality, Freddie is a bit haughty, Stuart more demure. Stuart wants to be liked/loved, while Freddie just assumes he is. They are both capable of delivering a cutting bon-mot towards their friends, however, and sometimes seem gleeful in inflicting pain. I do wish we’d seen more of what brought these five people together and just a hint more of the love they feel for each other; it’s the one true negative about the lead characters. Sure, in the season two wedding episode, they show some affection – but there’s a lot of dismissiveness and derision before that point. One starts to wonder why Violet, Penelope and Mason have hung around for so long. (Frances de la Tour has a great moment of honesty with Ash in the Finale on this very topic, but it reads as a bit too little too late despite how very good she is in the scene.) Every so often, one of the three scores some equally cutting points on the two leads (Penelope in particular).

And while Violet is pretty well developed over the course the two seasons (de la Tour’s boozier and more lascivious line reads and sub-plots made me wish this show had done a crossover with Absolutely Fabulous), Penelope and Mason fare less well. In the second season we get a bit more of a sense of Penelope’s life and the brave face she’s putting on (Marcia Warren is brilliant in those scenes, most particularly in the ballroom dancing episode and the Finale), but the reveal that Mason is actually Freddie’s younger brother is the definition of a throw-away line for shock’s sake, as is the line about Mason also being gay. Philip Voss does the best with what he’s given, but he’s given the least of the series regulars to work with until the Finale when he has a poignant exchange with Penelope about being there for her to the end, and an almost-poignant moment with Freddie over a good memory from their apparently otherwise horrific childhood.

Then there’s Ash, the young innocent thrust into this biting, sarcastic, awkward family unit. I think it’s a credit to Iwan Rheon and the writers that the character never loses than innocence, never really takes on Freddie and Stuart’s way of interacting with others (except in one episode, with disastrous results). Even though Ash is straight, this consistency in his character points up a generational difference: the biting humor of the old queens doesn’t quite work in younger relationships. Unfortunately, there are a few episodes where the writers decide that innocent = goofy/stupid, especially in season two and the early parts of the Finale. It’s a tendency lots of sitcoms fall into, making the innocence or good-nature of a character too broad. In another example the show subverting expected tropes, it’s not the old gay men who slobber over Ash (or, more common, old straight men making lewd suggestive comments to a beautiful young woman), but their friend Violet. The Violet-Ash dynamic is the second most interesting relationship in the show, but the writers show a remarkable restraint in just how far they let it go before resolving the tension.

In the end, for me it really comes down to my enjoyment of watching three great older actors (McKellan, Jacobi, and de la Tour) work their craft, and watch an at the time relative newcomer hold his own with them.

Check out Vicious on DVD or streaming if you like: sitcoms that center gay characters; snarky humor with an undercurrent of love; watching a group of old professionals knock it out of the park; Iwan Rheon not playing a Bastard (yes, that’s a Game of Thrones reference).