[Reading Room] A Medieval Romance by Mark Twain

I failed utterly to see the ending coming…

Oh, this one made me laugh.

Not just for the unexpected ending, but for the constant, very modern thoughts that crowded my head as I was reading it.

Basically, this is the story of a ruthless old king who, not having any sons, has his daughter raised as a boy, then sends her to assume his brother’s throne (after the ruthless old king has ruined the good name of his brother’s only heir).

It’s a knotty, Shakespearean set up and I was so consumed with thoughts of the delightful ways a modern writer could treat the topic, that I failed utterly to see the ending coming. Continue reading “[Reading Room] A Medieval Romance by Mark Twain”

[Reading Room] A Haunted House by Virginia Woolf

This story is definitely not bound by the rules of “rising action”, or “character arcs”…

Often, when I talk about how to write a short story, I get caught up in talking about traditional, narrative tales that might be structured in a similar way to a novel.

But one of the things I love about short fiction is its ability to transcend that and be so much more (or less-but-more, perhaps).

This story, A Haunted House by Virginia Woolf, is a lovely example of that. Continue reading “[Reading Room] A Haunted House by Virginia Woolf”

[Reading Room] Your Mama’s Adventures In Parenting by Mary Robinette Kowal

Last week I talked about reading and writing stories with divided storylines that come together at the end.

The example I gave, Shakedown by Elizabeth Gonzalez, had a fairly traditional narrative structure. While it wasn’t clear how the two storylines would interact, at first, it was an easy-to-read story.

Shaking Things Up

Continue reading “[Reading Room] Your Mama’s Adventures In Parenting by Mary Robinette Kowal”

[Reading Room] Shakedown by Elizabeth Gonzalez

I picked this book up because a, it was written by a Pennsylvania writer and b, because of the glowing review written for it by Karen Russell and short story writer and novelist whose writing I love (literary but not stuffy).

(Incidentally, this is a great way to discover new writers: Continue reading “[Reading Room] Shakedown by Elizabeth Gonzalez”

[Reading Room] Surface Tension by James Blish

Verdict: Fabulous.

Surface Tension is a science fiction story originally published in 1952 and so qualifies as being either from (or near) the so-called ‘Golden Age’ of science fiction. (I found it in The Big Book of Science Fiction, edited by Ann & Jeff Vandermeer.)

Fear not, this is not all heros saving damsels in distress and wearing silly outfits in space. It is very different from anything I’d ever read from that era, and from most sci-fi that I’ve read from later eras. Continue reading “[Reading Room] Surface Tension by James Blish”

[Reading Room] Apollo by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

This story opens the 2016 edition of The Best American Short Stories, edited by Junot Diaz.

It begins with a man visiting his parents, where a chance comment sparks a memory from his childhood. It’s clear, as the story goes on, that the man regrets his action as a child, but the author manages to convey this without ever being as heavy-handed as to say so.

The Opening Line

The story opens with a line that tells us a lot and paints a vivid scene in delicate brush strokes.

Twice a month, like a dutiful son, I visited my parents in Enugu, in their small over furnished flat that grew dark in the afternoon.

Think about how much we know:

  • The son visits, but is only acting ‘like a dutiful son’. He doesn’t want to be there, but he goes, by rote, because that is what one must do.
  • “Enugu” tells us that where this story is taking place. Even if we don’t know where Enugu is (do you?) it tells us where it is NOT taking place.
  • “Small, over furnished flat” suggests that the parents have downsized after a retirement or other change of circumstances
  • “That grew dark in the afternoon” – the son is not happy with this place. It suggests to me that the parents once had a larger, lighter, more expansive home. The son feels claustrophobic in this new flat – how much of that is real and how much psychological, we can’t know yet, but it certainly introduces the concept straight away.

The second sentence begins

Retirement had changed them…

For me, as a reader, this pulls me in straight away. I know this is not going to be wholly a naval-gazing story about a middle aged man. It’s inviting me to ask questions: how has it changed them? How has/will retirement change me/my parents?

And the changes that the son chooses to focus on are interesting: his parents are more credulous than they used to be. Several times he insists “my parents would have scoffed at these stories”. It’s not clear where the story’s going, but the ‘first act’ of the story ends when a lurid story relayed by his parents bring up a former acquaintance — a servant or ‘house boy’ — from his childhood, who has got into trouble as an adult.

“…the ringleader was Raphael? He was our houseboy years ago, I don’t think you’ll remember him.”

I stared at my mother. “Raphael?”

“It’s not surprising he ended like this,” my father said. “He didn’t start well.”

My mind had been submerged in the foggy lull of my parents’ storytelling, and I struggled now with the sharp awakening of memory.

My mother said again, “You probably won’t remember him. There were so many of those houseboys. You were young.”

But I remembered. Of course I remembered Raphael.

And we’re off. Of COURSE we’re going to keep reading, because once again the writer has invited us to ask questions. Why does he remember Raphael? What went down between them? And what does it have to do with his later rabble-rousing?

The rest of the story recounts the narrator’s life as a twelve year old boy, the son of older, intellectual parents who could afford to have servants help raise him and tend the house.

But Aidiche doesn’t really tell the story. She paints it. We live through the boy’s obsession with Kung Fu; we feel the sanded down wood of the nunchucks Raphael makes for him out of old mop handles; we see a still-life of the ‘patient’s altar’ his parents make by his bed when he is sick (“orange Lucozade, a blue tin of glucose, and freshly peeled oranges on a plastic tray”)

And when the story ends, we know that the seeds of the man’s later regret are planted in the moment the twelve year olds. The author doesn’t have to beat us over the head with it.

This story is a wonderful example of how to infuse a moral message into a story without making it read like a fable. It also illustrates how to introduce readers to a different culture, without great sections of exposition, but rather through select details and dialect/language choices.

[Reading Room] The Sentry Branch Predictor Spec: A Fairy Tale by John Chu

Oh, this was fantastic: experimental science fiction by John Chu

Supposedly the story of a technological development, as told by one of the inventors, this is not an easy read. It doesn’t sweep you up in character and stakes and plot points. It does, however, do all the things I love about short fiction: confuse, confound, sweep you along on a torrent of language, and spit you out at the other end, shaking yourself and going ‘whoa!

(For the record, I also like nice narrative stories with heroes and adventure and all the traditional elements of story, but short stories have a unique ability to skirt all that and still give you a good time)

Just throw out whatever anyone’s ever told you about short story structure and read this. The story is not where you think it should be.

Since I’m no computer scientist (and perhaps even if I was) I found myself having to let the words pour over me, for the most part, and search for the story where the author had cleverly hidden it. (Take a look. You’ll see what I mean).

Clever and artistic and unlike anything else I’ve read. I’m not saying I’d like EVERY short story to be like this, but it certainly was refreshing and kind of exciting to remember that short fiction can be … this!

Read it here
Have it read to you

Consider supporting Clarkesworld by subscribing (they are one of the few newer publications that commit to paying their authors. Gasp! I know!)

The Reading Room is a series of short story reviews that are posted (usually on Tuesdays) in order to inspire you to read more short fiction in order to become better at writing it

[Reading Room] The Vaporization Enthalpy of a Peculiar Pakistani Family by Usman T. Malik

I found this richly-detailed story in the Nebula Showcase 2016.

This story is structured in sections, each one headed up by a scientific description of one of the states of matter (solid, liquid, gas, plasma). Each, loosely, represents a theme for the following segment.

The story is deeply personal and universal (dealing with the challenges faced by those living in modern Pakistan) and at the same time veers into a kind of magical realism that opens it up wide.

Reading this story brought home to me the difficulties and rewards of reading stories from different cultures:

  • It’s difficult because the language flows differently, and because cultural details and assumptions can catch you out.
  • It’s rewarding for all the same reasons, plus you get to challenge your own world view and assumptions. Best of all, you hear poetry in the language that you’d never encounter if you only read within your own culture.

This story slowed me down, and rewarded me for savoring it.

Read it online here

[Reading Room] The Fish Merchant by Tobias Buckell

clarkesworldmagazine.com

If you want to read an incredibly skilled story that is engaging and moving and gritty and touching, written by a writer with a sure hand, give The Fish Merchant by Tobias Buckell a try.

(It was originally published in Science Fiction Age but I found it in Clarkesworld Magazine)

Just look at this opening: Continue reading “[Reading Room] The Fish Merchant by Tobias Buckell”

[Reading Room] The Rules Are The Rules by Adam Foulds

I like complex stories. But I want them to be just as satisfying on a FIRST read as they are on a second or third.

I liked the fact that this story was about a man who happened to be a vicar and who happened to be gay, rather than being About A Gay Vicar. It makes me feel like we’ve evolved as a species, when stories about marginalized or minority characters can be about more than the thing that marginalizes or defines them.

At the start, the main character, Peter, is struggling at the start with many things: his job, the kids on the soccer team and their parents (he doesn’t really like them), his faith, his urge to be a father himself…
Continue reading “[Reading Room] The Rules Are The Rules by Adam Foulds”

[Reading Room] Dress of White Silk by Richard Matheson

I can see why so many episodes of the Twilight Zone start with the words “From a story by Richard Matheson”…

GREAT story!

This creepy little story starts with a kid who has been locked in a room by ‘Granma’, and we don’t know why, yet.

It’s told in the voice of the little kid, and I mean, really in the voice of a little kid:the grammar’s all wrong and there are no apostrophes in the contractions. The story can be a little hard to read at times, because of it, but the errors keep us firmly in this kid’s head the entire time — no narrator’s voice, here. This is a great technique for a writer to steal borrow, if you’re bold enough.

Continue reading “[Reading Room] Dress of White Silk by Richard Matheson”

[Reading Room] We Was Twins by Fiona Maazel

This story takes place against the backdrop (as they say) of the Occupy Wall St movement. As well as being a really good story, it’s a great example of how you can take a hot news story and use it to ground your story without risking it seeming dated, later.

How does that author do this? Well, let me set the scene for you. Continue reading “[Reading Room] We Was Twins by Fiona Maazel”

[Reading Room] The Appropriation of Cultures by Percival Everett

Described as a ‘delightfully subversive’ story, “The Appropriation of Cultures” by Percival Everett is definitely both of those things.

I listened to this story as part of a Selected Shorts podcast. It was read by Ruben Santiago-Hudson (who I knew as Captain Montgomery from Castle . He turns out to be a wonderful storyteller who gets out of the way of the story and is blessed with a voice I could listen to for days).

It’s described in the show notes as a ‘delightfully subversive’ story and it is definitely both of those things.

The story starts with an affluent college graduate who seems like a bit of a wastrel, spending his time living off inherited money, reading and playing jazz with ‘the old guys’ at some dive bar.

The story’s trucking along just fine until one night Daniel is playing at the bar and some college frat boys come in and request that the band “Play Dixie for us”. Continue reading “[Reading Room] The Appropriation of Cultures by Percival Everett”