[Reading Room] Cosmogramma by Courttia Newland

This collection is a great example of what modern speculative fiction can be: fascinating, compelling, peopled by sympathetic (and not-so sympathetic) characters; surprising and familiar, inspiring, filled with mystery and a sense of discovery for the reader…and I love it when stories are connected, so I enjoyed piecing together the connections between some of the stories in the collection.

Continue reading “[Reading Room] Cosmogramma by Courttia Newland”

[Reading Room] There’s No Such Place As Bedford Falls by Joanne Harris

The Reading Room is a series of posts analyzing short stories I have read, with a writer’s eye.

This Christmas story was first published in the UK’s The Telegraph newspaper in 2007.

Opening Line

It’s six in the morning, and Santa’s on the blink.

This certainly fulfills my need for an opening line to be intriguing. (The phrase ‘on the blink’, means ‘malfunctioning’ for those not raised in the UK!)

Of course, the story very quickly delivers on the line. The Santa in question is a light-up decoration (hooray, for a double-meaning for the phrase ‘on the blink’! I’m seeing blinking lights now). Continue reading “[Reading Room] There’s No Such Place As Bedford Falls by Joanne Harris”

[Reading Room] A List of Forty Seven Lies by Steven Fischer

I keep a spreadsheet of short stories I’ve read.  I make a note of titles, authors, where I found the story and a short comment about the story, to make these posts easier.

My notes, on reading this story, simply say: “Wow”.

A List of Forty-Nine Lies is a pretty intriguing title, and the story delivers immediately.

My name is not Levi. I am not afraid. The machines that hover in swarms over the streets cannot read the thoughts inside my head.

I am not running from them. I have nothing to hide.

Continue reading “[Reading Room] A List of Forty Seven Lies by Steven Fischer”

[Reading Room] Needle In A Timestack by Robert Silverberg

Cute and slightly terrifying story of two men competing for the same woman, but this time they have the power to go back and change the past.

(Compare this to Geoffrey A Landis’s story where nothing the time-traveler did in the past could affect the future in any way.)

Silverberg does a great job of creating signposts for readers that make the effects of time travel seem almost mundane (one character tastes cotton in his mouth when the past has been changed, another gets a persistent twitch under the left eye…).

As writers today, we wouldn’t have a character stop to explain why the gadget in their pocket was buzzing (We wouldn’t write, “My phone buzzed again. It did that every time a friend send what we called a ‘text message’ from a similar device, over the wireless cell network…” No, we’d just say, “My phone buzzed. Alan again.”)

Similarly, these characters simply mention the significance of the sensation the first time and then use it in the story to signal to the reader that someone’s been time-traveling again.

It was nice to read a story with potentially disastrous technology that wasn’t completely dystopian. It did seem a little shallow at times, though, because I’m so used to ‘realistic’ takes on doomsday technologies in current stories. Not sure how I feel about that, being an upbeat and optimistic person who likes a laugh, but felt a little cheated by this story.

How Stories Age

It’s funny how stories age. I guess we can’t worry too much about that. We just have to write the best stories we can, and keep writing them as we change and age. Some of our work will survive. Some will become embarrassing. And that’s OK.

As something of a side note, it’s interesting to go back and read older short stories and find things I wasn’t expecting.

For example, I’ve never worried too much about the sex (or gender) of the person who wrote a story or of the main character. I’ve never worried too much about older social attitudes that we have, thankfully, left behind, showing up in stories where we couldn’t expect the author to have a more modern outlook.

But in spite of not going around looking for these nits to pick, I am increasingly impatient with stories in which the women are cardboard cut outs. I don’t know if I should curse Alison Bechdel for bringing it to my attention, or simply shrug and accept that there’s so much good writing out there no that DOESN’T fail the Bechdel test, that it’s OK for me to be more picky.

I’m not willing to cut myself off from a world of literary history, just because the writers weren’t inclusive (or not-horribly-racist), but I can’t seem to help having a niggling, deep down dissatisfaction when a good writer excludes half the population or is clueless about basic human dignity.

Again, I’m glad these stories were written, and I won’t not read them because they aren’t inclusive. The writers were working with what they had. Some were better than others. But me? I’m certainly becoming less likely to read and praise them just because somebody tells me I should.

Read this story in The Time Traveler’s Almanac

Do you worry about reader or posterity when you write? How do you feel about stores that have aged badly in one respect, while still having other features to recommend them? Join the discussion in the comments.

[Reading Room] Ripples In The Dirac Sea by Geoffrey A. Landis

I found this story in The Time Traveler’s Almanac, (Ann & Jeff Vandermeer, Ed).

This is one of the best time travel stories I’ve ever read, and I’m a huge fan of the sub-genre.

Although this story was first published in 1988, I haven’t seen anyone else treat time travel and it’s consequences like this. In fact I’m amazed no ones turned this into a script [1. Assuming they haven’t] (it’d be perfect for Black Mirror). Continue reading “[Reading Room] Ripples In The Dirac Sea by Geoffrey A. Landis”

[Reading Room] The Death Ship by Richard Matheson

It’s tough to read Matheson’s stories now because his are the quintessential Twilight Zone type story (they were turned into several of the best TZ episodes) and have been ripped off, parodied and lovingly copied so many times that they feel cliched.

But concentrating on that takes away from the exquisite, concise, clear writing, characterization and big ideas of the original material. He really is a tremendously good writer.

His stories contain big ideas, thoughtfully dealt with in crisp prose that I could read until the end of time.

The Death Ship

This story was adapted into an early Twilight Zone episode. It comes from the early days of space exploration, when ideas were big and facts in short supply. Some of the assumptions in the story are suspect by today’s scientific standards, but that was never what these early sci-fi stories were about. (You know, unless they were written by Arthur C. Clarke, who also had a hand in inventing Radar, so he’s a bit of a special case.)

In this story three men in a space ship survey new planets, looking for new homes for the humans from the chronically overcrowded Earth. When they go down to investigate a particular planet, things start to get weird.

From that point on, the story is a purely about human nature and drama, with the space-faring backdrop becoming fairly unimportant.

That’s one of the things I find irresistible about science fiction. The writers hook you with the setting, with the gadgets and the ‘what ifs’, but then all the best stories end up being about the human condition.

They do what art is supposed to do: make life look a little bit strange, so that we can reassess our own position towards it. No matter which side of the political shouting match you’re on, it seems like that’s something our civilization could us at the moment, don’t you think?

What setting or story type could you use to reel in a reader who needs to see part of their own life with fresh eyes?

Read the story in The Time Traveler’s Almanac

[Reading Room] Paradox by Naomi Kritzer

I was blogging and podcasting a lot, last month, about short story forms, and how short stories do not have to read like mini novels.

And the month before that was all about Flash Fiction.

Today, I’m recommending that you take a look at this story Paradox, by Naomi Kritzer.

It is both flash fiction and a non-narrative story. And it’s great.

It starts,

This is the original timeline.

This is a great example of how you can make every word count, and how short fiction is a wonderful place to practice that.

That single word, “original” does all the heavy lifting. It tells you a lot about what kind of story this is going to be: confusing, time-travel-y, chatty. It conveys genre, style, and tone.

Five words. That’s all it took her to set the reader’s expectations.

(Note to self: write to the author and ask her what the original first line looked like. I’m betting it wasn’t this. Second note to self: rewriting is key!)

It is written in the first person (sometimes first person, plural) and we never find out the character’s name or gender. It plays deliciously, hilariously, with all the time travel tropes and questions out there, and talks, knowingly, to the reader.

This is no mini-novel.

And it leaves us with a flippant question at the end, the deeper question it asks is not about time-travel at all.

Recommended!

Read it online or listen here.

[Reading Room] The Girl Who Circumnavigated The Globe In An Act of Her Own Making by Julie Duffy

Read The Story Online Here

I’ve never done this before: today, I’m writing about one of my own stories.

JulieDuffy.com blog screenshot

This is a story that I wrote during StoryADay May 2017.

I’m sharing it in today’s Reading Room post to demonstrate what you can do with a writing prompt that seems to suggest you must write a particular type of story. Continue reading “[Reading Room] The Girl Who Circumnavigated The Globe In An Act of Her Own Making by Julie Duffy”

[Reading Room] I’d Rather Go Blind by Jabari Asim

From A Taste of Honey – Stories by Jabari Asim, Broadway Books, 2010, ISBN 978-0-767679-1978-4

I knew a man who only read non-fiction because he “didn’t see the point” of fiction. Would it surprise you to know that this man was one of the least empathetic I never knew?

I firmly believe that fiction is more powerful than non-fiction, as a way to help us understand each other’s truths. So I used Black History Month as an excuse to seek out short fiction by writers of color. I  picked up this collection at my local library, and the first story in the collection has already confirmed my belief.

Opening Lines

“I’d Rather Go Blind” is the story of a moment in a pre-teen boy’s life during the ‘hot and forbidding’ summer of ’67.  In fact, that’s the opening line, Continue reading “[Reading Room] I’d Rather Go Blind by Jabari Asim”

[Reading Room] The Worshipful Society of Glovers by Mary Robinette Kowal

It reads like a simple story, but is, in fact, a skillfully crafted tale that hides its author’s hard work well.

This is an excellent example of how to build a story world that feels real, while still telling a story about characters we care about.

(Read it online, here)

Uncanny Magazine screenshot featuring Mary Robinette Kowal's story The Worshipful Society of Glovers

It also comes with the fabulous gift of a blog post unpacking how the author went about writing it. Continue reading “[Reading Room] The Worshipful Society of Glovers by Mary Robinette Kowal”

[Reading Room] The Provincials by Daniel Alarcón

This story comes from the 2017 collection of Daniel Alarcón’s stories The King Is Always Above The People.

I picked up the collection because I saw it on a ‘recommended reading’, highlighting non-white/non-mainstream voices.

Short story collections are a funny thing. Sometimes the whole collection hangs together and I can’t wait to read the next story. Sometimes I hate most of the stories but find a couple of gems.

This collection is like that. It’s not that any of the stories are badly-written– they’re not–I didn’t much enjoy them, on a first read-through.

Having said that, I was really impressed by the long, roughly 14,000-word story in the middle of this collection, The Provincials. 

I also found that the collection, as a whole stayed with me.

More on that later, but for now, let’s look at The Provincials.

The Opening Line

The first line of this story does a great job of setting up what is to come in the story,

“I’d been out of the conservatory for about a year when my great-uncle Raúl died.”

Think about everything we know, from that first line:

  • This is a story featuring a young adult protagonist.
  • They have graduated from a ‘conservatory’, not a technical college, not a university. This is an artistic person.
  • This is probably a middle or upper-class person (who else can go to a conservatory?).
  • They graduated a year ago, but still define themselves by the conservatory. This is not a person who has gone on to a great and immediately successful career in their art.
  • The relative who has died is a great-uncle, not a close relative, so this is not likely to be a story about grief, or about the great-uncle.  Instead, it indicates the story is going to involve family and perhaps tenuous connections to one’s roots. Maybe it’s going to be about obligation, or the ties that bind.
  • The great-uncle is called Raúl, so this story is not going to be set in WASP-y America.

That’s a fair amount that we can dig out of 16 words, only one of which is more than five letters long.

The Story

This story is about a father and his younger, adult son, Nelson, taking a trip back to the small south-American (?) town where the father grew up, to settle the estate of a distant relative. The father left the town as young man, and moved North, to the city. His elder son has since left the country, for San Francisco, and the younger son, the novel’s protagonist, is expected to join him some day. There are hints, relatively early on that this younger son will not make the big move that his father and brother did,

“Even then I had my doubts, but I would keep believing this for another year or so.”)

They travel south through the country, stopping once in a town that is not his father’s hometown but seems to offer some tastes of what small town life is like in this unnamed country: passion, connection, resentments, grief, love…

When they reach his father’s hometown, the slight awkwardness and disappointed expectations we felt between the young man and his father on their drive is amplified in the awkwardness and resentments between the father and the people of his hometown, and by extension between the son and the people of the town. As readers, we wonder if the father and son will bond, or stay distant and miscommunicative, desperate to escape from each other as well as the town, when their errand is finished.

The story becomes a fascinating reflection on what it means to be part of the more migratory generations, and what it means to stay behind.

At one point, Nelson is sharing information from his older brother’s letters from the USA, and he reflects,

“That statement was contained within one of Francisco’s early dispatches from Oakland, when he was still eagerly trying to understand the place for himself, and not quite able to process many things he saw.”

This was a great reminder to me, as a writer who lives in a place I did not grow up in, that it’s not always a bad thing to have the outsider’s view. That searching for meaning, for understanding, can be a great source of energy in a story.

This Is A Looooong Story. Does It Work?

I love the punchiness of short stories, the way they draw characters in deft sketches. I often get impatient with long short stories, but in this case, it is where this author’s best work is done (at least in this collection).

In this, the longest short story in the collection, we are given a chance to get to know the men in the story (we also get hints of his girlfriend’s personality. There had been few women in the preceding stories and none really qualified as a character. The protagonists had been young, inexperienced, or callous towards women).

In the shorter stories I found myself impatient with, and mostly disliking the protagonists. In The Provincials, I didn’t like start out liking Nelson or his father any more than I liked any of the other protagonists, but at least I got to know them better, which made me more sympathetic towards them.

Alcarón’s writing style  benefitted from the roominess of the larger word count. It allowed him to do things like pause in that first village, which provided a satisfying structure to the story when they pause there again, on the way home. It allows him to paint the scenery through the eyes of an outsider—but not an awed tourist. It even allows him to tell part of the story in the form of a mini-play—which makes sense, as the first-person narrator is an aspiring actor.

This story has a strong sense of place (unnamed though it is) that feeds into the character development. At the start of the story, as they leave the city, the narrator observes,

“A few hours south of the capital, the painted slums thinned, and our conversation did too, and we took in the desolate landscape with appreciative silence. Everything was dry: the silt-covered road, the dirty white sand dunes, somehow even the ocean. Every few kilometers, there rose out of this moonscape a billboard for soda or beer or suntan lotion, its colors faded since the previous summer, its edges unglued and flapping in the wind.”

This sets up a lot of the tension between old and new, country and city, the past and the present, but it doesn’t beat you over the head with it.

The Structure

The story starts and ends outside the capital city, which is nevertheless the focus of a lot of the protagonist’s energy. They travel through a village on the way to the father’s home town and, after their visit. The structure of the story echoes the themes of migration and dislocation, and the ‘nesting’ of locales (everything that happens in one direction, is closed out in the other direction on the way home) feels very neat and satisfying, even as the plot leaves questions open.

This is a great lesson in how you can avoid tying all the character questions up in a too-neat bow, but instead use the structure of the story to create a sense that the story is complete.

Also, I think this story has a last line that works spectacularly well. Read it and see what you think!

 

Do We Need Diverse Books?

I didn’t like the young men who populated this collection. I didn’t enjoy many of their stories, well-written as they were.

But I don’t think that’s always the most important factor in choosing what I read.

People in the #WeNeedDiverseBooks movement often talk about the importance of readers being able to find characters like themselves in fiction. I absolutely agree and applaud that. But it’s also important for people like me, secure in the white, Euro-centric tradition, to read outside our own experience.

These characters come from a world that is utterly foreign to me. Their experiences, their lives, their values are different from mine. It wasn’t a laugh-riot, to read about their lives, even though there was humor in these stories.

What is important, however, is that the voices in this collection had something in common with each other. And by visiting their world, over and over, though the various  stories, I became aware of life beyond my own experience. I might not like the characters, or their lives, or some of their choices, but I understand them a little, now.

And if I were to meet a guy like this, out in the real world, I might recognize him, just a bit. I would certainly see him as more than whatever he projected on the surface.

And I can’t think of a better reason for people like me to read and promote  literature from voices that are different from our own.

Read the story here

Do you read diverse books? Do you read books that you don’t necessarily enjoy? Is it worth your time? Leave a comment:

[Reading Room] Golf Etiquette by Jim Davis

image: woman golfing

I’m thinking a lot about mysteries these days. I love them, so I’m trying my hand at writing them.

There is no better way I know to get myself writing, than to sit down and read, preferably in the genre I’m tackling.

This week I read Golf Etiquette by Jim Davis, found in the Feb 2011 issue of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine.

Though I had some quibbles with the style until I managed to turn off my inner critique-group-reader, I couldn’t argue with the power of the first line: Continue reading “[Reading Room] Golf Etiquette by Jim Davis”

[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] 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.

[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