[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] 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
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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 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] 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”

[Reading Room] How To Become A Writer by Lorrie Moore

I approached this story with some trepidation, as I’m always wary of writers writing stories about writers. Or, in this case about aspiring writers.

But this was salted with enough wry humor to draw me in. Take the first lines:

First, try to be something else, anything else. A movie-star/astronaut. A movie-star/missionary. A movie-star/kindergarten teacher. President of the World. Fail miserable. It’s best if you fail at an early age…

The author saves the character from an annoyingly sardonic tone by baldly relating what the teenaged writer can expect after slaving over her first story.

Show it to your mom. She is tough and practical. She has a son Continue reading “[Reading Room] How To Become A Writer by Lorrie Moore”

[Reading Room] The Californian’s Tale by Mark Twain

Twain’s story is beautifully written…Even with my Scottish accent I found myself being forced in to antiquated, Southern rhythms. Oh, to find such a natural voice in our own writing! So, how do we do that?

Mark TwainSometimes it’s good to go back to the classics, and today I bring you The Californian’s Tale by Mark Twain.

Read it online here

It’s the story of a dilettante prospector towards the end of the California Gold Rush. He’s not doing any serious prospecting; it’s just an excuse to get the narrator wandering through the setting. It’s a landscape of abandoned homes and deserted dreams. Only the narrator stumbles upon one well-maintained home in the midst of this ‘lonesome land’.

With that mystery planted in our minds, the narrator investigates, finding a middle-aged man who’s waiting for his new young wife to come back from visiting her family.

“She’s been gone two weeks today,” the homesteader tells our storyteller, who — intrigued by the homesteader’s extravagant praise of his wife — asks when she’s expected home. “This is Wednesday. She’ll be back Saturday, in the evening – about nine o’clock, likely.”

The story is full of these kinds of details, which make it seem so much more ‘real’ than it would be without them. She’s not just away, she’s away ‘visiting her folks’ who live ‘forty or fifty miles away’. She’s been gone “two weeks today” and is expected on Saturday “about nine o’clock”. They all tell of a man thinking about his wife, missing her, paying attention the way we do when we’re waiting for someone to come home.

Of course, nothing is exactly as it seems.

I’ve read enough stories like this that I spotted the twist coming, but really beautiful writing (and thinking) makes up for the fact that there are no truly original plots available.

And this is beautiful writing, with that unmistakable Twain voice. Try reading it out loud. Even with my Scottish accent I found myself being forced in to antiquated, Southern rhythms.

Oh, to find such a natural voice in our own writing!

So, how do we do that? I think it’s all down to confidence: confidence that you’re writing for one person, for your ideal reader, not for some editor or judging committee, for ‘everyone’, or for posterity.

Write to please one person (even if that person is yourself) and we’re likely to come up with such a strong, confident voice in our stories.

Read The Californian’s Tale online

[Reading Room] On Cosmology by Roísín O’Donnell

I’m often wary of modern Irish and British stories because they tend to be grim. It’s not a style I enjoy and it’s not one I have much time for. So I tend to shy away from modern British and Irish stories altogether.

But it’s always good to read outside your comfort zone, so occasionally I give a new story in a genre I don’t love, a shot.

On Cosmology, by Roísín O’Donnell won the  Hennesy/Irish Times prize for August 2015. In the story, a lecturer in astrophysics wonders about the ‘gooey, alien-like creature’ which may be growing inside her.

So yes, it does deal with sex and issues of pregnancy — and in less-than-ideal-circumstance. In Ireland, no less. Certainly sounds like the recipe for a grim, modern moan, doesn’t it?

This story, however escapes being grim.

I had to think hard about what O’Donnell had done right that kept me from hating her story. And I think it came down to this: I liked the main character. She was not thrilled about her situation but she was curious. That curiosity, which totally fitted with her profession as a scientist, trumped everything else. It felt real, as if she was a real character. It gave her an optimism that transcended her circumstance.

I like the narrator and the picture of her world that she paints. We, as writers, would be wise to give our characters a strong character trait that carries them through any situation they face. It can waver, it can bend, but in the end, they’ll be realistic characters if they are ultimately consistent.

So yes, I recommend it.This is a good one!

Read the story online here.

The Tuesday Reading Room is a regular feature at StoryADay.org. If you’d like to contribute a review of a short story, read the guidelines here.

Reading Room – The Weight Of A Blessing by Aliette de Bodard

This story needs to be carefully read, but it rewards that careful reading with a rich world (and the smug feeling that we’re really smart for figuring it out).

I read this story because another writer I admire raved about Aliette de Bodard’s writing. I wasn’t too sure at first, but this story of cultural taboos in a futuristic, post-war world, stuck with more more than I expected. Therefore I rate it ‘worth reading’.

de Bodard definitely created a fully-realized world. As such, it was confusing and I left the story not really sure what happened or that I understood the events. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. A little frustrating if you’re not in the right mood.

Her handling of time was fascinating though. The story follows a mother on a final visit to her daughter, who is in jail. The story handles The Recent Past, During And In-Between Her Three Visits With Her Daughter; and The Far Past, During The War. All of them combine to illustrate the theme of the story while unpacking the details of what the heck’s going on (kind of).

She leaves a lot up to the reader to puzzle out. In a way it’s great, because the narrator doesn’t over-explain, the same way we don’t explain how smart-phones work to our friends. We have a reasonable expectation that our friends already understand what smartphones are. The narrator in this story talks us as if we live in the world, but the author gives us enough clues to put it together.

The story needs to be carefully read, but it rewards that careful reading with a rich world (and the smug feeling that we’re really smart for figuring it out).

The author’s mother-tongue is French and I felt the language was a little antiquated/formal at times, but not often. (Any my French should be so good! Her English is better than most English speakers’).

I’m not sure I enjoyed this. A bit bleak. But good world building, economical…not 100% successful, imo, but certainly not boring or predictable. And with a definite lesson for writer: less is more; leave some gaps for your readers to puzzle out.

Read the story here.

The Reading Room is a regular feature at StoryADay.org. If you would like to submit a short story review, read the guidelines here.

[Reading Room] The Goat Variations by Jeff VanderMeer

What can we learn from this story as writers? Well, certainly not to try to write a story just like this…

The Goat Variations, by Jeff Vandermeer, plays with reality and alternate realities, in the best traditions of ‘what if’ speculative fiction.

It starts with a scene that most people who were sentient in Sept 2011 (or shortly thereafter) will recognize, but then things get weird.

Slowly you start to realize that things are not as they should be and your brain starts running quickly to catch up. Then things get REALLY weird…

This was not an easy read. It was mind-bending in a deliciously difficult way.

What can we learn from this story as writers? Well, certainly not to try to write a story like this. Perhaps it’s more that we should be willing to be idiosyncratic, like VanderMeer. Or perhaps it’s that a good idea is worth working, and reworking until we’re telling it in the way that it needs to be told.

Perhaps it’s that you can’t worry about taking a topic as fraught with baggage as 9/11 and telling our own story in our own way, about difficult topics.

Most of all, we can’t be afraid of other people disapproving of the things we write — or the way we write them.

(Small nit-pick: the website that I’m linking to here inaccurately casts the main character as “George Herbert Walker Bush” when in fact it is George W. Bush.)

But the story? The story is great!

Read the story here

The Tuesday Reading Room is a regular feature at StoryADay.org. If you’d like to submit a review for the Reading Room, see the guidelines here.

[Reading Room] Nightmare At 20,000 Feet by Richard Matheson

I thought I knew what I was getting into, with this story.

After all, I’ve seen the Twilight Zone episode (William Shatner!!) a hundred times and they re-used the story for the Twilight Zone movie (John Lithgow!!).

Surely there was nothing Matheson could do to scare me (or even retain my interest) in a story I knew so well.

Ha!

The writing is FABULOUS and I thoroughly recommend you read something by Richard Matheson today.

Within the first two paragraphs he conjures up the sense of being on a plane in the 1960s, when this story was written. He describes an everyday action (like smoking a cigarette), but it tells you so much: Who, what, where, the place, the time, the state of mind of the character and the tone of the story to come:

“…the sign above the archway which led to the forward compartment lit up — FASTEN SEAT BELT—with, below as its attendant caution — NO SMOKING. Drawing in a deep lungful, Wilson exhaled it in bursts, then pressed the cigarette into the armrest tray with irritable stabbing motions.”

(Of course, everyone in my critique group would have crossed out that word ‘irritable’ as unnecessary, but that just goes to show that sometimes you can ignore people’s pet peeves without killing a story!)

Moving on,

“Outside, one of the engines coughed monstrously, spewing out a cloud of fume which fragmented into the night air. The fuselage began to shudder…”

Isn’t that a great opening for a story that you know is going to be a creepy story? He’s not being melodramatic at all (planes DO shudder as they start up), but the vocabulary is just perfect.

This is a much longer story than I expected, after having watched the two filmed versions. It’s a psychological nightmare, as promised in the title, by a master short story writer.

Highly recommended.

[Reading Room] In Cretaceous Seas by Jim Shepard

This story starts off magnificently,

“Dip your foot in the water and here’s what you’re playing with: Xiphactinus, all angry underbite and knitting-needle teeth, with heads oddly humped and eyes enraged with accusation, and ribboned bodies so muscular they fracture coral heads when surging through to bust in on insufficiently alert pods of juvenile Clidastes. The Clidastes spin around to face an oncoming maw that’s in a perpetual state of homicidal resentment.”

Shepard takes us on a tour of the ‘monsters’ of the deep in the Cretaceous era and then, suddenly, the story swings into the modern day human world.

It’s disorienting and not at all what I was expecting. I was a little disappointed, to be honest. The writing in the first few paragraphs evoked a world unknown to me, with power and vivid images. It seemed to promise one thing and then veer away.

But as I read on, I was swept along on the language as we examined the life of one tortured middle-aged, suburban man. I didn’t much like him — I don’t think I was supposed to — but I did end up having some sympathy for him.

And the language…wow.

I had to go back and read the story again to figure out what the heck happened when we switched from the Cretaceous to modern suburbia, but that was OK because I wanted to.

I read the story without the introduction found online, which made it even more disorientating, but see what you think:

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[Reading Room] The Care And Feeding of Houseplants by Art Taylor

This story won multiple awards in 2013 for Best Short Story and I can see why.

The Care And Feeding of Houseplants is crime fiction, though it’s not clear for a very long time where and when the crime is going to come in…but I didn’t care because the writing was so engaging.

As is often the case in mysteries, the passion at the heart of the story is all about infidelity. As in Thea’s First Husband the husband is complicit in his wife’s decision to stray. Unlike that story, however, this tale is visceral and full of raw imagery. Information is doled out during the story, rather in great gobs of ‘telling’.

In this story we really get inside three out of the four characters’ heads, even when not narrated from their viewpoint: the way the lover views his conquest’s “beige linen business suit…folded carefully across a chair by his bedroom window’ tells us as much about her character as about his self-congratulatory tendencies; the wife comments on her husband’s character during their courtship, saying “He’d brought her an orchid for their first date. He’d typed up tips for taking care of it”, which speaks volumes about both the husband who did these things and herself, who noticed.

I really enjoyed this story. It was more than a mystery, more than a crime: it was a story that pulled me along from the start to the deliciously dark ‘reveal’ near the end. I was, if you’ll pardon the pun, rooting for and against the characters exactly as the author intended, and I loved every minute of it.