[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.

[Reading Room] Thea’s First Husband by B. K. Stevens

Thea’s First Husband” was first published in the Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine and went on to be nominated for Macavity and Agatha Awards

The story is narrated by a woman who seemed to have won the lottery: plucked from behind a bar to marry an older, wealthy man who showers her with gifts and insists she not work any more. Of course, things start to go wrong as the bloom goes off their romance and Edward begins to invite younger men home…for Thea. Eventually she discovers Edward has hired a private detective to follow her around. What will Thea do next?

I was a little impatient with the amount of backstory and exposition the narrator dumped on us at the start of the story and again as the climax was being set up. It wasn’t badly done, it just seemed like the kind of thing all the writing advice columns in the world tell you not to do at all. I did, however, find myself kind of warming to Thea as she went through her dead-eyed days as a trophy wife.

I particularly liked the explanation of her motivation for staying in this loveless marriage. It was nothing dramatic: simply that she was tired of struggling and it was nice to be rich. It was a good reminder that ‘conflict’ in a story—even in crime fiction, which this is—doesn’t have to be dramatic or high-adventure. It can be ordinary and everyday and not remotely noble, as long as it is treated honestly.

I’ve read this story on two different occasions now and didn’t remember the ending, or much about it. I’m not sure if that’s good or bad.

I was a little surprised this was nominated for awards. It was solid. It didn’t wow me. But apparently it’s good enough to be nominated, so I definitely recommend taking a look.

Read The Story Online

[Reading Room] The Stars Are Falling by Joe R. Lansdale

Found in Stories: All-New Tales – Neil Gaiman and Al Sarrntonio

 

Before Deel Arrowsmith came back from the dead, he was crossing a field by late moonlight in search of his home.

I wasn’t sure where this story was going at first. I was a little surprised when it turned out to be a man returning to east Texas after fighting in The Great War.

The story moved at a laid-back pace, until it broke loose at the climax. It had great descriptive writing with character depth and complexity that I envied, without ever being boring or too slow.

We, the readers, experience everything from the point of view of the taciturn, changed older man, Deel, who has come home to his family, physically and is now trying to remake his home and family.

It was engrossing and a great example of how to create the internal landscape of a down-to-earth man traumatized by the impossible experiences war.

Want to find more great stories from last year? Here’s a round-up of the best of 2014 in Short Fiction

[Reading Room] Bertie’s New Year by L. M. Montgomery

This is a charming story about good little rich girls being nice to a poor little (good) poverty-stricken boy. The message of the piece is hopelessly outdated (the privileged should be charitable to the deserving poor, who will appreciate it, no strings), but it’s a nice story.

(N.B. I’m by no means opposed to the well-off helping those who’re struggling. I’m just not sure it ever goes as smoothly as it does in this story, and I think…no, never mind. The point is, the way this story unfolds feels very dated. And it is. So, not a crippling criticism).

Anyhoo, the thing that really struck me while reading this, was
how often LM Montgomery did things that my critique group would NEVER let her away with, if she ran the story by them before submitting it to her publisher. And none of them killed the story for me. I still enjoyed it.

So: lesson learned. Write your own story. Listen to critique partners, but don’t worry too much> Opinions are like…well, you know how that goes, right?

Story found via: Short Story Thursdays. You should subscribe, if you don’t already.

 

Read the story online here.

[Reading Room] Weights & Measures by Jodi Picoult

This is a sad story, dealing with two parents’ grief over losing their child: it’s a dangerous read for any parent. Do not attempt if you are feeling fragile.

That said, it is a very well written tale that totally lives up to the remit of the anthology it is published in: stories that keep you saying “…and then what happened?”

This story is contemporary, realistic fiction that veers into magical realism in a way I thought really fitted with the enormity of the subject. There is also a lovely helping of arcane knowledge (in this case about weights and measures) that made me happy.

My only complaint is that, while I liked the ending, I felt it swooped in a little too quickly.

Found in  – Stories: All-New TalesNeil Gaiman and Al Sarrntonio

[Reading Room] The Knife by Richard Adams

On first coming to the end of this taut little tale I was a bit disappointed: is that it? But then I realized that the last line was perfect and the story really was done and that was all there was to it.

This is an atmospheric and well-drawn tale of a boy in a 1938 English boarding school, being bullied and wondering if he’s found a way out. It will feel familiar to anyone who has read C. S. Lewis’s memoirs about growing up and attending a school like this…or any fiction set in English public schools (what they call fee-paying schools). Heck, it’ll feel familiar to anyone who has watched the Human Nature/Family Of Blood episodes of Doctor Who.

Nevertheless, it is a unique and engrossing short tale with a chill in its bones and an absolutely delicious last line.

Found in Stories: All-New Tales – Neil Gaiman and Al Sarrntonio

[Reading Room] A Mother’s Love by Lottie Lynn

A Mother’s Love is a chilling science fiction story that was selected for the BBC Radio 4 Opening Lines series in 2014.

The stories are supposed to “”have a strong emphasis on narrative”” and this one does. Here’s the opening:

“Child wanted something to do. Mother had left him in their room, because she had to fix a pipe. He had wanted to help; but she said no, she didn’t want him to get hurt. Child thought it was because he lacked sadness whenever she left…”

I love stories like this, where no-one really explains much and you have to figure it out from the clues in the story. And I had to keep reading when, in the second paragraph, I came across this line,

“Pulling at his wires, he began to move towards the jumbled mass of objects Mother had given him to play with.”

What: wires?!

What had started out like a twisted domestic scene had taken a turn for the strange and intriguing. Note to self: breadcrumbs in stories are essential for turning it from ‘good’ to ‘un-put-down-able’.

This year’s deadline for entries is Feb 13, 2015.

[Reading Room] This Old House Erotic Fan Fiction by Rebecca Scherm

This Old House Erotic Fan Fiction by Rebecca Scherm via McSweeneys

I approached this humorous piece with a doubtful look. Satire is so hard to pull off and I often find stories published in McSweeneys miss the mark for me.

Not this one though.

In This Old House Erotic Fan Fiction, Rebecca Sherm takes on two of the biggest genres to storm the internet: erotica and fan fiction. And she blends it with This Old House! Talk about your Fifty Shades of Grey!

Sherm uses the language of erotic fan fiction and ladles on the innuendo, but never crosses the line into crudity (or, actually, erotica). That tension is what makes the piece so entertaining.

Recommended!

[Reading Room] The Day We Were Fish by Stephen Koster

Feathertale.com

It’s just an ordinary a day in the office, when suddenly the boss notices his staff are turning into fish…

This engagingly bizarre and whimsical short story by Stephen Koster reminds me why I love the short story. Short stories let you break all the rules. They are amuse-bouche. They are wonderful places for trying out ideas you could never sustain in a novel (or maybe you could, but a short story is certainly a good place to test out the idea).

As with many of the short stories I read, this one wasn’t perfect, but it was amusing and it split my brain open and filled it with all kinds of ideas, and it inspire me to write. Can’t ask for more than that!

[Reading Room] Heat by Joyce Carol Oates

I hated this story.

Not that there was anything really wrong with it.

It painted vivid pictures of the setting that are seared into my brain.

It created realistic portraits of the twin girls around whom the story turns — fun, selfish, nice-nasty, typical preteen girls — and of the protagonist who is both a girl with the twins and an older woman looking back on things.

It wove the story really well through non-linear story-telling. It has suspense, and emotion and is terribly well written.

But.

It’s part of that school of literary stories from the second half of the twentieth century that are unrelentingly grim. Everyone’s a pervert or being hurt by someone or cheating on their spouse or living a life without hope. People are murdered, raped, declared bankrupt, abused, tortured, depressed… It’s fine, I suppose, and good that people can write about these things. I don’t want people to pretend these things don’t happen or isolate victims by not allowing them to share their experiences. But there seems to have been a sense that you couldn’t be a literary (for ‘literary’ read: good) writer unless your world was devoid of hope, humor or heroes.

And I hate that. It’s why I fly to cozy mysteries and space opera and anything where I can find a hero and a bit of relief. [updated: And I totally respect that you might find this kind of writing challenging, rewarding, comforting, or sublimely moving, and may hate my kind of humor-laced frippery-faves. I think I mostly get annoyed by the seeming ubiquity of grimness in “literary” fiction.]

So, I’m glad I read this story because I will come back to it to see just how Ms Oates created that indelible sense of place; and how she made her characters so realistic; and how she wove that story so well. But I’ll never like it. And I never want to write this kind of thing.

What about you? Do you rage against a particular style of writing? Harlequin Romances? Happy endings? What gets you so angry that you feel moved to write something just to prove that stories can be better than that? Let me know in the comments:

[Reading Room] Golden by James Scott Bell


Author James Scott Bell, as well as being a successful lawyer, novelist and writing coach, has been a good friend to StoryADay (giving us both an interview and a writing prompt for last year’s StoryADay May).

So of course, I wanted to like his new story, which veers from his usual style. No mysteries here, no fast-paced action, just the story of a guy dealing with the legacy of something in his past that he’s not proud of.

Writing (and publishing) this story was a big leap for Bell (as he explained when he announced it). he was nervous. It wasn’t like anything he’d ever written before and he was worried that he might fall flat on his face.

Don’t you feel like that, a lot of the time when you sit down to write? I know I do.

So I went into this story wanting to like it. but I wasn’t sure I was going to. I mean, what do I care about a middle-aged, middle-class divorced father on a playdate with his son?

Well, Bell quickly made me care. He does it by using all the craft available to him. Within the first paragraph I’ve learned a lot about the guy, his divorce, the ex-wife. Look how much information he packs into sentences 3 & $ of the story — and not just information, but attitude, character background, exposition, the whole shebang:

“Judy and I reached an amicable settlement on custody, mainly because I didn’t want to fight her anymore. Her family is well off and were not shy about retaining the biggest shark tank in L. A.”

The story is about more than just a bitter divorcé, though. Rather it is about a father reliving something that happened when he was a kid, a little older than his son.

One of the things I noticed about this story (and all of Bell’s writing) is the strength of the narrator’s voice when he’s writing in first person. It is always dipping with character, attitude and is firmly rooted in wherever the character is from (usually L. A.). In this story, even when he takes the character back in time to his teenage years, the voice is distinctive and unmistakably the voice of a teen,

“That’s what got him in bad with Robbie Winkleblack…”

“I ran away, too, but I wasn’t laughing. I was thinking it was all over for me now. I’d be kicked out of school, maybe thrown into juvie.”

How can you make readers care about your characters whether or not they think they are going to?

Read James Scott Bell’s article on why he wrote this and why short stories are so awesome

[Reading Room] Dr. Heidegger’s Experiement by Nathaniel Hawthorne

This is a story that, as well as being enjoyable and stuffed with great language, is firmly rooted in short story history.

Dr. Heidegger invites five old reprobates to his study for an experiment (as apparently all men of learning did from time to time if Hawthorne and H. G. Wells and all the rest are to be believed). Of course, it turns out that the guests are the subjects of the experiment and, of course, it doesn’t go well.

As I was reading it I was aware that the style is so far from our modern style of writing and talking as to be almost as foreign as Shakespeare (in fact, it probably will be in a couple of generations). It’s not quite as dense as Dickens, not quite as antiquated as Washington Irving, but has that strong third-person narrator that not so many writers use any more (with apologies to Terry Pratchett, who lets the narrator visit from time to time).

It wasn’t just influenced by the past, though. I could clearly see how this story (and others like it) had influenced another generation of writers: the early science fiction and fantasy writers; the people who wrote for The Twilight Zone and other early TV shows. There’s a strong dose of the mysterious, the tricksy, the twisty ending (though this one doesn’t twist so much). I could clearly imagine this, updated and dusted off, in a Twilight Zone episode.

In fact, it occurred to me that this would make a perfect story to use in the CopyCat Workshop component of the StoryADay Warm Up Writing course. If you already have your copy, why not dig out that workshop and give it a try today?

[Tuesday Reading Room] Orange by Neil Gaiman


One of the things I love about short stories is the way they can play with form. They are, at their best, unpredictable. “Orange” by Neil Gaiman (which I found in the Best American Non-Required Reading 2011 anthology)  is a perfect illustration.

Written in the form of answers to a police interrogation, the story never actually tells you what those questions were, leaving you to both speculate and laugh out loud at times. It unfolds gradually from the shallow answers given by a teenaged girl about her less-than-perfect homelife, to something much more complex and true. And funny and touching and hopeful and sad.

That the protagonist is answering a interrogation tells you immediately that something has gone wrong and you read in part to find out what. But after a while, as I often find with Neil Gaiman’s writing, you are reading just for the sheer joy of it. His use of language and character are masterful, engaging and accessible.

After reading this story, I immediately called over my precocious nine-year old son and read it again, over his shoulder. Upon finishing, he flipped back to the start to read it again too. It’s like that.

Highly recommended if you feel you’re getting into a rut with your short story writing and need some inspiration for a shake up. Or if you just want to read a fine, well-written short story.

Tuesday Reading Room – Brooksmith by Henry James

from Fifty Great Short Stories (Milton Crane, Ed. Bantam Classics reissued 2005)

I don’t know much about Henry James, though I have struggled through more of his short stories than I have novels. I’ve never formally studied his writing, so don’t know what the prevailing literary criticism theories are…but I can tell you this: I dislike his characters and I dislike his outlook and I always end up, as I did at the end of this story, wanting to punch at least one of the characters in the nose.

Which is, I suppose a kind of a compliment to the writer.

Brooksmith by Henry James

As much as I say I don’t ‘like’ Henry James’s stories, I do recognise the work of a master craftsman. (I wonder if I would have liked him any better if he had been writing today [1. Probably not.])

The first thing I admired about this story was the way he pulled me in right from the first sentence. You might not think of the slow-paced Henry James novels as belonging on the same shelf as Ian Fleming or James Patterson, but there is, nonetheless, plenty of suspense to keep the reader hooked:

We are scattered now, the friends of the late Mr. Oliver Offord, but whenever we chance to meet I think we are conscious of a certain esoteric respect for each other.

Who was the late Mr. Oliver Offord and why do his friends only ‘chance to meet’ and share a ‘certain esoteric respect’ – and what does that really mean?

James continues to ratchet up the suspense in the very next sentence,

“Yes, you too have been in Arcadia,” we seem not too grumpily to allow.

Why was it “Arcadia” (and why would they ordinarily be grumpy with each other)?

The story turns out not to be about Mr Offord at all, but about his butler, Brooksmith and the perils of allowing the servant class to rise above their station.

I’m not sure which side Henry James would really have taken on the issue of class and station, but his narrator has a very fixed, extremely anti-egalitarian viewpoint that makes him supremely unsympathetic to the modern reader.

He is, however, so unrelentingly shaped by his societal norms that he is absolutely believable and ‘true’ – and loathsome, I might add.

It really struck me — after putting down this book with a sneer on my face and a punchy urge in my fist — that my writing could benefit from a bit more loathesomeness. I’m really a very nice person, trained in life to be fair and tolerant and to give everyone the benefit of the doubt. But being well-brought-up can create a tendency to be too nice to my characters, too forgiving.

If I want to create characters as ‘true’ and real as Brooksmith‘s unworthy narrator, I have to risk creating characters that someone 111 years from now might want to punch.


What do you do to make your characters ‘real’? Please do leave a comment!