short stories

Short story Sunday, January 10th

I want to read more short fiction this year, and with that, I am resurrecting a series of posts that used to exist here for a brief second: Short Story Sunday. I am not going to write reviews of short stories. It is too easy to make your review seemingly longer than the story itself, and I am not looking to write long criticisms and dissect every paragraph. I’m just going to note a few really excellent short stories read that week, with links included if such exist. I have a lot of anthologies and collections that I bought and never read (or didn’t read completely), and there are a lot of digital magazines that publish great things.

If you ever sit around and think about where stories come from, or if you are suffering from a certain lack of inspiration, read Neil Gaiman’s introductions to his short story collections, Fragile Things and Smoke and Mirrors. I like him a great deal as a short form writer, more than I like him as a novelist, and he has an enchanting and wonderful way of portraying magic as hard work and vice versa.

I have read 10 short stories this week, and here are the the best of them (I am going to collapse the New Year long weekend into this week, since I missed the boat for 1/4):

Even In This Skin by A. C. Wise (Shimmer # 28, November 2015) – gorgeous story, with a gender-fluid component. I would very much like to read more things by A. C. Wise.

The next two are somewhat of a set, in that they are by the same author and are both alternate versions of queer history. The Heat Of Us: Notes Toward an Oral History by Sam J. Miller (Uncanny #2, January/February 2015) is a fantastical version of the Stonewall riots. Angel, Monster, Man (Nightmare #40, January 2016) is Miller’s short fiction take on the AIDS epidemic.

The Virgin Played Bass by Maria Dahvana Headley (Uncanny #8, January-February 2016). This one is a little longer, novelette-length. Headley is pure magic, and she combines seemingly unrelated parts of storytelling tradition in a way that is occasionally dark, or funny, but always incredibly vivid and brilliant. Her writing is just as good in novel form. I just finished her Queen of Kings and enjoyed it a lot.

Readings: Theodora Goss and the wonderfully strange

Here in our nation’s capital we are heading into that time of the year when it’s already dark at 4:30, the evenings are interminable, and one can barely get out of bed in the mornings. We don’t get a lot of snow, so winter is essentially a bleak parade of cold and disgusting days. They aren’t cold enough for fur hats and multiple layers, but they are too cold for anything more vigorous than drinking wine and reading under blankets.

It’s also the time of the year when I feel like reading something weird and strange. The problem with weird is that it is a spectrum, and it’s not always clear where on it the exact weird you need lies. Do I feel like Jeff VanDermeer-style weird? John M. Harrison? Catherynne M. Valente?

Occasionally one feels like finding something that could be described as ‘wonderfully strange’. I guess that’s what I needed, and I eventually found it in a book I bought a year ago on a whim. It’s a collection of stories by Theodora Goss called In the Forest of Forgetting.

DNOA4910The first story in the collection is a retelling of The Sleeping Beauty, and while I am normally not very much into fairy tale retellings (I like them when they are well-done, but I do not seek them out), this one was great. The second story pretty much hit the ‘weird’ I had been seeking, and so I by the time I read the incredibly beautiful third story, I was thoroughly in love with Theodora Goss and her wonderfully strange tales.

Short stories are my wavelength right now, mostly because I’m writing my own and I need to read other people’s to learn from and be inspired. I am trying to write every day, and I am hacking my brain by using Habitica to do this, because apparently doing tasks for fake gold works. The next step is to also draw every day. I don’t think it’s possible to have a more than full-time job, write, draw, read, and also get enough sleep, so something has to give. I’d like to hope it’s not sleep.

Incidentally, my next read on the ‘weird’ stack is John M. Harrison’s Light. I know a couple of people in my blog feed have been reading Harrison’s stuff, so let me join the collective subconscious that is obviously hungering for something truly odd this time.

Three Moments of an Explosion

It’s been a busy October here, with an absolutely mind-boggling number of events at work, some of them huge (Ta-Nehisi Coates, Patti Smith, and Ethan Hawke next month. Quoting my friend, ‘what is even my life?’).

When I get this busy, I have a desire to only read comics and short stories. There is no attention span for anything else. Luckily, I finally picked up all my holds at the local comic shop (goodbye, groceries), so we are all set there. This year has also been pretty good for short stories. For example, almost every day I ask myself why I am not reading Clarice Lispector’s complete stories right now. I’ve only seen good reviews, one from none other than Jeff Vandermeer. But right now, I’m not reading them because I’m reading China Miéville’s short stories instead.

three-moments-of-an-explosionWhat is amazing about Miéville’s stories is that their strangeness is on the exact same wavelength as the strangeness in my brain. I mean the sense of eerie, the aesthetic of weirdness. I imagine someone has already written a paper on this, but everyone is weird in their own ways. Some might like their weird with a touch of grotesque. Some people like weird with a side of unease. Some are into clowns.

There are some stories in this collection where the weird appears not where you expect it (see Watching God). There are also stories that remind you that Miéville, in fact, has horror novels under his belt. Dowager of Bees sent a shiver down my spine at least once. In The Slopes has a certain Lovecraftian feel to it.

Miéville plays as much with form as he does with content and genre. Essentially, he shows that there are many ways to write and enjoy a short story. This is a great collection for a close read, something I’ve been meaning to do more as I write my own little pieces. If I could pick an author to emulate, it would be Miéville. Even his stuff I did not particularly enjoy (Kraken) was impressive and made me happy for this ever-present weirdness in literature.

Some gems uncovered during book purge

I feel like there are too many moving parts in my life lately. Too much of everything: too much work, too many books, too many social obligations. I already have a strong tendency to hermit, and these days it takes extra effort to drag myself anywhere for any reason.

I helped my friend pack for his cross-country move a couple of weeks ago, and in the process inherited a new bookshelf that I just couldn’t turn down. I spent the next day rearranging my entire book collection. Some stuff was purged, everything else was organized. I wanted my company to be made of paper and talk to me silently from the page. Even this was overwhelming, since the number of books in my house is quickly approaching infinity. But at least I now have more shelving space.

As is always the case with book archaeology, long-forgotten titles were discovered. Here are the few of these gems:

It’s a tiny volume. I remember reading it, and that’s all I remember about it. Away it goes.

There was a time a few years ago when for a number of months I only read non-fiction. This is the last remnant of that binge. It’s quite neat, you get to learn about and fall in love with bats (among other creatures).

This is one of the books I bought because of the indie bookseller rule: if you go to another indie, you must buy a book. This one seemed like a good choice because my own store did not have it and because I had read and loved some of Kij Johnson’s short stories before. This one is a keeper, if yet unread.

And finally, this cherry on top:

Someone gave it to me a few years ago as a not entirely ironic gift. As in, they thought I would actually read it. I never did and probably never will. I’m fairly certain the reason I never read it was not because I didn’t want to to squirm while reading about people parting with their genitals using a shaving knife, but rather the scary superimposed giant head on the cover. Off with it.

In other news, I finally got a new laptop, which means I can write from the comfort of my own chair. I’m also currently reading a delightful fantasy novel and a yet-unpublished memoir, both of which will probably make an appearance in the next post. And I finally ran for the first time in two weeks.

Reading update: Scalzi, Atwood, Leckie

It’s been a pretty good week in terms of reading. After deaccessioning some of my book collection, I once again picked up a pile of books at work because of the powerful bookstore mind control aura, and thus had to initiate a new phase of the ARC Pile Demolition Project.

I also realized that my job now includes a number of rather tedious solitary tasks that are perfect for listening to podcasts and short fiction. I have a notoriously bad history with audio books, but short fiction is just short enough to hold my attention. Clarkesworld is currently my favorite when it comes to short stories on audio.

Paper books were also consumed this week:

Lock In by John Scalzi. In my opinion, this is Scalzi’s best book so far. I’ve read most of his stuff, though I did not finish the Old Man’s War series (not because it wasn’t good, it just sort of went the way of all unfinished series, even good ones). I do not belong to either Scalzi super fan camp nor to his haters/detractors’ camp. I was not impressed with Redshirts, but I enjoy most of his books, and I definitely enjoyed Lock In. This one has great ideas and a setup that for the first 100 pages or so will make you feel like your brain is about to turn inside out.  As is with all Scalzi’s books, it’s fast-paced, dialogue-rich, and yet it’s much less funny than his other fare. It is very much social sci-fi, as it touches on health care legislation, minority group culture, and relations with Native Americans, among other things.

stonemattressStone Mattress by Margaret Atwood. Atwood is, as always, snarky, pithy, bold, and honest. This collection could almost have a subtitle of ‘people obsessed with sex’. Well, of course they are. In this case, most of these people are older, with a slew of marriages, divorces, children, and other assorted life experiences on their dance cards. The first three stories are interlinked, but the rest are standalones. Atwood is damn good whether she sticks to mostly realism, or wades into fantastical. This is out on September 16th (look! I read an ARC!)

My short story obsession continues with something like four anthologies and  collections in progress/rotation. I also rediscovered my long-dormant love of horror, so dark and disturbing tales will crop up in my post in the next few weeks. If short stories are your thing too, you can join Matt at Books, Brains and Beer for his Jagannath readalong, which is a fantastic little collection of stories.

I have also attempted to consume my bookgroup book for this month, Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice. This is my second attempt, and it is with great sadness that I announce my inability to get past page 50. This book is now officially the Ulysses of my genre reading. I really wanted to like it, and there are some interesting themes in it, but the prose seemed so bland that I felt my eyes just moving along the page without capturing any meaning.

Also, my laptop keyboard gave up the ghost and now types zeroes between every letter. Useful for my KGB missives, not so useful for blog posts. It’s going to be that kind of week.

Bookstore trip and short fiction readathon

What do booksellers do on their day off? They go visit a different bookstore, duh. Yesterday, two of my fellow book slingers and I went to Second Story Books, a used bookstore in Dupont Circle. To my shame, I had never been there until our trip. At this fine bookselling establishment I saw a giant poster of Lenin (for sale) and picked up two books. ONLY TWO. I honestly don’t know what was wrong with me (besides abject poverty, which also prevented me from purchasing the aforementioned likeness of the long-dead-but-not-yet-buried Soviet leader). Here’s the photo of my loot:

IMG_20140818_194839

I was very excited to find Theodora Goss, and I had no idea this novel by Tiptree even existed. One of the booksellers at the store also told me that at one point Tiptree lived just a few blocks away (probably when she was getting her degree either from American or George Washington).

In other news, short story reading proceeds apace. I finished the mammoth Best Science Fiction And Fantasy Of The Year, Volume 6, edited by Jonathan Strahan. Mr Strahan and I seem to have similar tastes in short stories, so I will definitely be reading his other anthologies. This collection included quite a few stories that I would simply classify as ‘strange’, rather than as ‘fantasy’ or ‘science fiction’. Here’s the table of contents with a list of my favorites:

0817141305Neil Gaiman, The Case of Death and Honey

Caitlin R. Kiernan, Tidal Forces

Catherynne Valente, White Lines On A Green Field (I really like Valente’s shorter works than her novels, same with Gaiman)

An Owomoyela, All That Touches The Air

Paul McAuley, The Choice

Dylan Horrocks, Steam Girl

Peter S. Beagle, Underbridge

Robert Shearman, Restoration

Libba Bray, The Last Ride Of The Glory Girls

Nnedi Okorafor, The Book of Phoenix (Excerpted from the Great Book)

Kij Johnson, The Man Who Bridged The Mist

K. J. Parker’s A Small Price To Pay For A Birdsong was also excellent, but while I can objectively say that her stories are well-done, I get no emotional punch from them at all. They are sort of like brilliantly executed, yet not expressive, piano pieces.

And Ellen Klages’s Goodnight Moons made me cry. Avoid reading this one in public, particularly if you have a small child.

I’m continuing my short fiction reading with The Year’s Best Science Fiction, 28th Annual Collection, edited by Gardner Dozois (I’m basically going by what I have at home). This one looks like it contains stories that could be confidently labeled as ‘science fiction’, which means I will probably get a bit tired of it and have to switch to a different collection. It’s just pure luck that I have In The Forest Of Forgetting by Theodora Goss now…

Reading update: the not-yet-published weird edition

After my complete re-read of Locke & Key, I went back to my ARC pile decimation. That’s when things got weird. Here’s what I read in the past few days:

IMG_20140618_112520Stephen Collins, The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil. This is not out till October 2014, so you will have to wait a few months to find out what the deal is with evil beard. It’s a graphic novel, and it’s delightful.

20763852The Wilds by Julia Elliott. The cover. That’s pretty much why it found its way into my hands. And a mention of ‘brain-restoration procedure’ on the back. (Publishers, take note: if you want me to read a book, choose unsettling cover images and just write BRAIN PROCEDURE in giant letters on said cover. Easy.) Much weird indeed is happening within this collection of short stories. Feral dogs, almost feral humans, diseases. Also not out till October, which seems like the perfect month for it, given Halloween and all.

Next post will feature books already in print and easily obtained, I promise.