SUNDAY SHORTS: Seanan McGuire Destroys Air Travel

The “Sunday Shorts” feature is dedicated to reviewing short stories and novellas, two forms I absolutely love.

My full-time job requires me to travel fairly frequently (anywhere from one to three weeks, depending on the month) and much of that travel is by air across the continental United States. I’m pretty comfortable with the process at this point (airport security and airplane seating being what they are), although I find that I’m likely to get motion sick if I try to read or watch anything during takeoff, landing or even slight turbulence. I’ve been in one (admittedly minor) emergency landing and experienced plenty of rough air and less-than-pleasant customer service on the ground. But I’m not afraid of any aspect of flying.

Even so, two recent short stories by Seanan McGuire, both posted on her Patreon, made me squirm uncomfortably. “Carry On” was first published last year (and is reprinted in this month’s Nightmare magazine) while “Emergency Landing” is this month’s Patreon story. Each turns a different aspect of air travel in an opportunity for emotional/psychological horror.

In our present day, airlines are charging more and more for “incidentals” (in-flight snacks and entertainment, extra leg-room, checked and carry-on luggage). “Carry On” is a brutal look at a possible future where the price of fuel justifies airlines charging passengers not just for the combined weight of their carry-on luggage, but also for the weight of the passenger and their clothing. Step on a scale with your bags, and be judged before entering security. Mary, the focal-point character, has saved for ages to be able to fly cross-country to see her sister and meet her new niece; but getting past the weigh-in without having to pay, in money and embarrassment, is not easy. McGuire really captures the indignities heaped, even now, upon travelers who are overweight. The tension of the wait, the bad weigh-in, the events that follow, the recognizable emotions Mary feels at the end, are all so real. Mary feels isolated even in a large terminal with hundreds of other people experience the same trauma she is. This is the second time I’ve read the story, and it once again made me cry for the main character.

“Emergency Landing” takes place almost entirely on a plane already in the air. The narrator describes her dash to make her connecting flight out of Atlanta, her initial impressions of her seat-mates, and then the plane takes off – just before the narrator sees missiles streak towards the airport they’ve just departed. The rest of the story is a tense game of “how much do we tell the passengers about what’s happening on the ground” and “what do we do about landing since our fuel can’t last forever.” The emotional stakes are just as high as in “Carry On,” but from a different direction. While Mary feels invisible among her fellow travelers, Caitlin feels too seen because of what they think she knows. The story moves fast as Caitlin’s fellow passengers move from anguish to fear to false bravado and Caitlin must decide whether sharing her knowledge will make things better or worse. It’s not often I describe stories or books as leaving me breathless, but this one did.  I also think that had this appeared in an anthology (it would have been perfect for Stephen King and Bev Vincent’s recent Flight or Fright), it would appear under Seanan’s Mira Grant name, given that the main character is an epidemiologist.

SUNDAY SHORTS: A Time to Scatter Stones

The “Sunday Shorts” feature is dedicated to reviewing short stories and novellas, two forms I absolutely love.

time to scatter stones cover.jpg

 

 

TITLE: A Time to Scatter Stones (A Matthew Scudder novella)

AUTHOR: Lawrence Block

153 pages, Subterranean Press, ISBN 971596068933 (Hardcover)

Disclaimer: Although I bought the Subterranean Press edition, the author also sent me a free e-ARC in exchange for a fair review.

 

DESCRIPTION: (from the cover flap): More than 40 years after his debut and nearly a decade since his last appearance, one of the most renowned characters in all of crime fiction is back on the case in this new novella by Mystery Writers of America Grand Master Lawrence Block.  Well past retirement age and feeling his years – but still staying sober one day at a time – Matthew Scudder learns that alcoholics aren’t the only ones who count the days since their last slip. Matt’s longtime partner, Elaine, tells him of a group of former sex workers who do something similar, helping each other stay out of the life. Burt when one young woman describes an abusive client who’s refusing to let her quit, Elaine encourages her to get help of a different sort. The sort only Scudder can deliver.

 

MY RATING: 4 stars out of 5

 

MY THOUGHTS: It is not usually a good idea to too closely conflate a series character with the author who created them. But I’m going to do it: Lawrence Block and Matthew Scudder are both, in my opinion, living proof that getting old doesn’t necessarily have to suck. Block’s regular Facebook posts and newsletters about jaunts around his beloved New York City and new international publishing endeavors give me hope that maybe I’ll be as physically mobile and mentally sharp at that age. And based on this novella, his possibly most-famous character, Matthew Scudder, has aged just as well alongside him.

Scudder is Block’s only series character to age in real-time, since debuting in The Sins of the Fathers in 1976. He’s grown older, he’s grown wiser … and he’s grown more sedate. He’s happily ensconced (and at this point, probably common-law-married) to his longtime companion Elaine in a nice NYC apartment. They have dinner visits with friends, take slow walks around the neighborhood, enjoy local restaurants, don’t grudge each other time apart pursing their own hobbies and twelve-step-group participation, and banter like an old married couple. Oh, do they banter. One of the things I love about Block’s writing is his ear for conversational dialogue that sounds authentic without being quite as awkward as real life, including the tangents we all go off on where we kind of lose track of what our original point was. Only Block’s characters’ conversational tangents are almost always more pertinent to the plot than they at first seem.

The plot is as straight-forward as it sounds: happily retired PI comes out of mothballs to help a friend of his friend. The difficulty comes in how little the endangered woman knows about the man stalking her; Scudder’s rusty (by his own admission), not sure that his investigative skills are still up to the task of finding a man whose name he doesn’t know and face he’s never seen. Of course, he’s back to Classic Scudder by the end of the book, because how could it be otherwise and have the story feel satisfactory – but he’s also feeling the physical toll in a way we haven’t seen him feel it before. Getting older doesn’t have to suck, but it’s still not easy to accept that we can’t do all the things we used to do with the same ease.

I would say the book is only half about this latest case, and half about how easily we lose track of people as we get older. There’s a very nostalgia-heavy tone to this novella; conversationally, Scudder and Elaine bring up just about every major supporting character in the 40-ish year history of the 18-book series. Some of those characters actually appear in the flesh, but most are mentioned in passing. I enjoyed the tone of these reminiscences because it mirrored conversations I’m having even now, in my early 50s, with the people who have been in my life since elementary school about the people who haven’t stayed in our lives.  But don’t let this scare you out of picking the book up: I haven’t read most of the Scudder books (when it comes to Block’s series output, I’m more of a Bernie Rhondenbarr man than a Scudder or Keller man), and I never felt like these conversations about old friends threw me out of the story. Rather, they made me interested in reading the rest of the series to find out more about the characters I didn’t already know.

The hardcover edition from Subterranean Press might be close to sold out at this writing, but Block has self-published it in ebook, audio, and paperback formats.

2017 Reading By The Numbers

In which I analyze exactly what I read, in what formats and genres and such-like. (I like my personal counts to match my Goodreads page, so I count fully-read magazine issues and individually-published short stories and novellas as “books.”)

 

BOOKS

I exceeded my Goodreads initial goal of 100 books, and my updated Goodreads goal of 125. I did not attempt “To Be Read” Challenge this year.

TOTAL READ: 139

FICTION: 131

·         Anthologies: 8

o   Horror: 1

o   Christmas: 1

o   Weird West: 1

o   Transgender Spec Fic: 1

o   Pulp Adventure: 1

o   Science Fiction 2

o   Crime: 1

·         Chapbooks: 2 (both pulp adventure)

·         Single-Author Story Collections: 10

o   Horror: 1

o   Christmas: 1

o   Crime: 1

o   Mystery: 5

o   Science Fiction: 1

o   Mythology: 1

·         Graphic Novels: 37

o   Super-Heroes: 17

o   Horror: 8

o   Crime: 2

o   Comedy: 1

o   Fantasy: 2

o   Urban Fantasy: 2

o   YA Urban Fantasy: 3

o   YA Comedy: 1

o   Pulp Adventure: 1

·         Magazines: 12 (all Lightspeed)

·         Novels: 38

o   Alt-History Fantasy: 2

o   Christmas: 2

o   Fantasy: 8

o   YA Fantasy: 2

o   Urban Fantasy: 4

o   Historical Fantasy: 1

o   Steampunk: 2

o   Science Fiction: 5

o   YA Science Fiction: 1

o   Crime/Mystery: 5

o   Super-Heroes: 1

o   Horror: 3

o   Adventure: 1

o   YA Literary: 1

·         Novellas: 19

o   Christmas: 2

o   Alt-History Fantasy/Romance: 1

o   Science Fiction 5

o   Fantasy: 3

o   Mystery: 2

o   Horror: 2

o   Urban Fantasy: 3

o   Historical Fantasy: 1

·         Short Stories: 5

o   Romance: 1

o   Pulp Adventure: 1

o   Urban Fantasy: 2

o   Alt-History Fantasy/Romance: 1

 

 

NON-FICTION: 8

·         Memoirs: 7

o   Alison Arngrim

o   Carrie Fisher (x2)

o   Debbie Reynolds

o   Joel Grey

o   William Daniels

o   Dick Van Dyke

·         Book of Essays: 1 (Neil Gaiman)

 

 

OTHER DATA:

# OF AUTHORS/EDITORS/ARTISTS: roughly 107

SHORTEST READS: 20 pages (A Very Merry Blue Christmas; Caesar’s Children; In Sea-Salt Tears)

LONGEST READ: 459 (Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard: The Hammer of Thor)

FIRST BOOK READ IN 2017: Locke & Key Vol 1: Welcome to Lovecraft, by Joe Hill, Gabriel Rodriguez & others

FINAL BOOK READ IN 2017: The Bazaar of Bad Dreams by Stephen King

 

TOTAL # OF PAGES READ: 26, 987

AVERAGE # OF PAGES PER BOOK: 197

 

FORMAT SUMMARY:

·         Audio:27

·         Ebook: 26

·         Hardcover: 21

·         Softcover: 65

 

 

 

STORIES

I exceeded my goal of 365 short stories. I did not really track how many in each genre this year.

TOTAL READ: 380

# OF AUTHORS: 212

 

SOURCES:

·         Anthologies: 14

·         Single Author Collections: 9

·         Magazines: 10

·         Author Websites/Patreon/Self-Pubbed: 17

 

First Story Read in 2017: “Rate of Change” by James S.E. Corey, in Lightspeed #79

Final Story Read in 2017: “Pups” by Kate Folk, in One Story #235