Friday, October 13, 2017

New story out: Taiya


A few weeks ago, my latest fiction story was published. It’s called "Taiya," and you can read ihere at The Future Fire. It’s a ghost story set in an imaginary country. And it’s been getting some wonderful reviews.

Maria Haskins included it in her September 2017 Short Fiction Round-up

A.C. Wise featured it (and me!!) in her series, Women to Read: Where to Start: October 2017 post.

The website Lady Business also has a lovely review (warning: spoilers! I’d suggest reading the story first before reading the very perceptive analysis here)

As a writer, I am of course always thrilled by good reviews and attention to any of my stories. But this one is particularly dear to me. I wrote it three years ago, and it was the first story that truly scared me to write. It wasn’t the (named) ghost in the story that scared me. What scared me was the feeling of exposure, of revealing something about myself that I perhaps didn’t want anyone else to see.

This is why some of us  write fiction. Because it lets us talk about truths we could not otherwise say.

I’m so thrilled to see people recognizing the truths in this story. Not only do I have readers who “get it”—some have pointed out truths to me in this story which I didn’t recognize myself, connections which I did not consciously plan but which are obvious in retrospect.Thank you so much to Djibril al-Ayad and the team at The Future Fire for giving this piece a good home (as they have given to other stories of mine!) And thank you to Eric Asaris for the eerie illustration which perfectly catches the mood.

Some notes on inspiration below:

--In the fall of 2014, I had only just learned of the Buddhist concept of Hungry Ghosts. I was fascinated by them—the idea of ghosts ravaged by hunger but unable to satisfy it, cursed with long, thin necks and tiny mouths so they could never eat as much as they wanted even in the face of abundant offerings. I wanted to write a story about them, but I didn’t know how.

--The summer before, I’d been reading a travel blog of Eastern Europe.

--I was taking long walks by myself. I was feeling sad.

Somehow, the idea of Buddhist Hungry Ghosts twisted and changed in my mind: they became not the eaters, but the eaten, ravaged into almost nothingness. And I took these mutant ghosts out of Asia and transplanted them into an imaginary European city. The story poured out in two and a half weeks, which is very quick for me. Then it took three years to sell. It was, for a while, That One Story. (And yes, this was the piece accepted at a new pro-paying market which folded before the story could be published.) But “Taiya” eventually found a home. I'm so happy to see it out in the world..




Thursday, October 12, 2017

Jenny Zhang's writing is a knife in the heart.


"It was my mother who tucked him in and told him that there exists a sort of love in the world that only survives as long as no one speaks of it, and that was the reason why he would never have to worry because my grandmother was never going to be the kind of mother who held her children in her arms and told them how smart and beautiful and talented they were. She was only ever going to scold them, make them feel diminutive, make them feel they were never good enough, make them know this world wouldn’t be kind to them. She wasn’t going to let someone else be better than her at making her children feel pain or scare them more than she could, and to her, that was a form of protection.

That’s how we will be with our own children, my mother told my uncle, proud that she had realized this." 
             --Jenny Zhang, "Our Mothers Before Them," from her collection Sour Heart


Monday, October 9, 2017

Aug-Sept 2017 Short Fiction Recs



On gray autumn days, there’s nothing I want so much as a cup of hot tea, a blanket, and a good story. Here are some good things I read over August and September—stories to drink in with your tea (or beverage of choice) as the season darkens and chills.

Stories strange and beautiful, dark and light


These Bones Aside by Lora Gray in The Dark

Each month, Yagra plants a new goddess to swallow the moon and save the world. This is such a hauntingly beautiful and painful story of motherhood, loss, sacrifice, and innocence. It marries mythic imagery and imagination with intimate feeling. Absolutely gorgeous.

Red Bark and Ambergris by Kate Marshall at Beneath Ceaseless Skies

Sarai was kidnapped to be a maker of perfumes for a Queen. She has the talent for it—to be a scent-maker—but what she wants is to be a poison-tamer, for it’s only as a poison-tamer that she may be able to escape her island prison. This is a beautiful and heartbreaking story of love, loss, bitterness, and accepting one’s true talent. And it’s fitting that a story about scents should be so rich in sensory details. Marshall deftly creates an immersive, beautifully realized world.

Though She Be But Little by C.S.E. Cooney at Uncanny Magazine 

And oh, this is such a delight! Weird, wild post-apocalyptic adventure with a girl who is little but fierce indeed. When the sky turns silver, 65-year-old bunco-playing Navy widow Emma A. Santiago wakes up as 8-year-old Emma Anne. There are pirates, flying alligators, talking animal sidekicks, the Chihuahua Ladies, and more. This story is almost impossible to summarize, and I won’t try. I’ll just say: Cooney’s imagination is dazzling, and you want this wild fun.  

In Spring, the Dawn. In Summer, the Night. By Aidan Doyle at Podcastle 

Another feat of wild imagination, but set in a far different world and told with a delicate air. Doyle imagines Sei Shonagon, the Japanese Heian-era author of the classic The Pillow Book, as a “battle-poet.” Shonagon is the champion for Empress Teishi in a court battle of seasonal poetry—and her poetry literally fights shadows as well as the verse of competing poets. Doyle’s piece delightfully evokes and pays homage to the real Sei Shonagon’s writing and the world of delicate and elegant beauty which she described. Lovely and charming. 

The Age of Glass by Ryan Row in Persistent Visions

“The Stickmen are beautiful and misshapen. Almost human in proportion, but thin and with random extra joints or protruding nobs of glassy flesh. . . As translucent as moonlight or handmade glass.”

This is a dark, gorgeously written piece about coming of age during a glass alien/monster apocalypse. The mysterious Stickmen have emerged from the ground in the “Creator Lands,” and America seems to be in a state of perpetual war against them. Yet south of the battle lines, a semblance of ordinary teenage life goes on: the narrator goes to high school and gossips with her friend, fights with her mother, and falls in love. But the trauma of war hangs over everything, including the narrator’s veteran boyfriend. This is such a strange, dark, layered and immersive piece which unwinds like a slow nightmare. . . but a nightmare that also glitters with shards of beauty.  

Stories of family

The Dead Father Cookbook by Ashley Blooms

Like “The Age of Glass,” this is a dark and unsettling piece which skillfully blends realist detail with the surreal. Addie and Ben are a sister and brother who grew up in the “care” of an abusive and neglectful father. Under these circumstances, the siblings formed an extremely tight bond, but it’s a bond that Addie frets has been fraying since Ben left their hometown for college. When their father dies, Addie sees a chance to summon Ben back, “to get him out of the city and away from his new friends with their professional haircuts and working cars and matching dinner plates”—and to recapture their closeness. She’s not above using magic to do so. What follows is a painful, intimate, and tender story of family and trauma, of partial healing and of what can never be healed. And yes, the siblings eat their father. 

The Last Cheng Beng Gift by Jaymee Goh in LightSpeed 

Like “The Dead Father Cookbook,” this is a story of family and of a painful relationship between parent and child. But the abuse in this story is less obvious—and it’s one that the main character, a proud and socially prominent mother, does not recognize at all. Mrs. Lim has died and receives gifts from her children in the Chinese afterlife during the festival of Cheng Beng (also known as Qingming). But the gifts from her youngest daughter, Hong Yin, always disappoint her. In fact, Hong Yin herself has always disappointed her mother. This is a quiet, understated tale of parental expectations and the damage they can inflict, of disappointment, distance, and love. As in “The Dead Father Cookbook,” there is no easy reconciliation in either life or death. This is the kind of quiet story that still punched me in the gut.

Stories of the future and hope

I want to end this story round-up with two stories of hope. It’s too easy to see only despair and dystopia in our near future. In recent issues, Clarkesworld presents something different.

Pan-Humanism: Hope and Pragmatics by Jess Barber and Sara Saab at Clarkesworld

The story’s themes are in the title. In a near-future world, climate change has devastated the environment and led to large-scale water shortages in the Middle East. . . but in the wake and midst of ecological destruction is hope. While dealing with water rationing in a future Beirut, two teenagers, Amir and Mani, meet and fall in love. Both teens are idealistic and intensely driven to improve the world with their talents. They become scientists and urban planners. But though they work in similar fields, their careers take them to different countries and keep them apart. This is a story of love over a lifetime: Amir and Mani meet, connect, and leave one another again and again. Their relationship is often a source of pain. But it’s always there, even when they’re far apart; no matter what, Amir and Mani are, in the words of one of Amir’s other lovers, “locked together.”  

“I love you,” says Mani. “Even if we never quite figure out what that should look like. You know that, right?”

This is a deeply beautiful and hopeful story. It depicts a kind of social utopia, yet it’s also a story which is nevertheless deeply aware of the unavoidability of human pain. Amir and Mani are always surrounded by love; their friends and lovers are fellow scientists and artists doing all they can to improve the world. During the course of the story, Amir and Mani live and work in multiple countries, and everywhere they go it appears that governments and people care about the earth and accept and support science—which to me seems an incredible utopia all on its own. There are no depictions of academic backstabbing or competitiveness; their work colleagues and mentors are all supportive and caring. Moreover, polyamorous relationships among multiple genders appear widely accepted, and jealousy/possessive among lovers seems nonexistent. This is a kind of utopia founded amidst environmental ruin. . . made up of people looking to heal that ruin. It’s a story of hopeful technology and science, a story of work and love which acknowledges the terrible conflicts that can occur between work and love. It’s a story about how love can be complicated and painful even in the best of worlds. And it is deeply hopeful, humane, and beautiful.

The Stone Weta by Octavia Cade at Clarkesworld

I’m cheating—I read this story on October 1, so I should really be including this in my next recs list! Yet it pairs so well with the story above that I felt I had to include it here. Like Barber and Saab’s Clarkesworld story, this is a hopeful story of scientists coming together to save the world. Unlike Barber and Saab’s story, the scientists in Cade’s story are working to do this under governments which would stop them—governments which are trying to suppress data on climate change. The parallels to current politics are clear and terrifying. Yet I found this a hopeful and uplifting story. The stone weta is an insect endemic to mountains of New Zealand, and it survives terrible winters of cold and snow by entering a state of hibernation in which “Eighty-two percent of the water in its body turns to ice.” “Stone Weta” is also the code name of a biologist who smuggles and hides climate data in the mountains. This is a story of persistence and survival—of living things, often small and unnoticed, who are able to survive under the harshest of conditions. It’s a story of resistance. It’s a story of a network of scientists working together to preserve knowledge. And it’s a story of transformation—of more than one type—and of hope.

Nonfiction

On American Identity, the Election, and Family Members Who Support Trump by Nicole Chung at Longreads.com. Excerpted from the collection, Nasty Women: Feminism, Resistance, and Revolution in Trump’s America.


This is a deeply felt and necessary essay. Chung writes of trying to have the type of conversations which so many of us are now struggling to have. She writes from her own specific perspective as a woman of Asian descent who was adopted by a white family that now supports Trump. . . but I think her confusion and pain are shared by so many of us now, of all ethnicities and family circumstances. The ending to this made me tear up. 

Bonus random rec

And while you're here. . . if you'd like to hear the voice of an angel, check out this video of a young singer from Kazakhstan instantly stealing hearts around the world as he sings a French rock opera song for a Chinese musical contest show.


Monday, August 21, 2017

Hawaiian vacation, 2017

So last month we went to Hawaii. We flew from Michigan to Honolulu. We stayed in a hotel on Waikiki Beach and on our third day there we saw this. 

It's a double rainbow! Look closely for the second, fainter rainbow to the right. 


We walked under rainbow shower trees and by flowering plumeria, among the luxury stores and high-end glitz of Waikiki. We kept going back to the Japanese food court across the street from our hotel. There, we stuffed ourselves on Japanese curry (tonkatsu with curry is the best), musubis, and ramen the likes of which we have never ever had here in the Midwest.

Rainbow shower tree in Waikiki











Japanese food so good, we just kept going back











We used Lyft for the first time and discovered that Lyft drivers are often very colorful characters. Husband and I were particularly taken with the man who was sooo excited to tell us all about his start-up business developing customized cannabis-derived cocktails to treat. . . everything, really.

Since we had no car, we hired a van driver for a day to take us to sights outside Honolulu. This chatty, middle-aged local had the best stories of any of them, and deserves an entire blog post dedicated to him and his family.

We met up with old friends, locals who took us to the Side Street Inn, where we were introduced to poke made from opihi, an expensive, locally harvested shellfish. Opihi taste like the sea, only more so. Each year, our friend told us, people are washed away and killed while harvesting these little shellfish from the rocks.*

We had dim sum in Chinatown, our 10-year old had her first surf lesson and briefly stood on a board, and both kids had a ukulele lesson at the hotel.

And after five days on the island of Oahu, we left the bustle and glamour of Honolulu for the far quieter island of Kauai. We saw otherworldly landscapes like this:

Waimea Canyon (the "Grand Canyon" in Kauai)

Deeply carved cliffs of the Na Pali Coast, seen from helicopter

Kilauea Lighthouse in Kauai


Taro fields on northeastern coast


Unlike in Oahu, we rented a car for more rural Kauai. We drove around the island, through a tunnel of eucalyptus trees, into hills that seemed perpetually covered in mist. We saw Waimea Canyon, which looked unreal with its alternating colors of red and green—exposed red rock and stripes of vegetation. We drove along the deep blue ocean, along seascapes that also looked unreal in their beauty. The hit Puerto Rican song, Despacito, blasted from the radio. We waded after colorful fish at Poipu Beach. We took a helicopter tour.

So much to see and do. But certainly, one of the highlights of the entire trip was that the children got to spend time with their grandmother, Husband’s mother, who came along with us to Hawaii and whom we rarely see.

***
We’ve been back in Michigan for nearly a month, and I’ve been struggling to write this post. I’ve been struggling to write in general. Yesterday we visited Ludington State Park, one of the treasures of our home state. We kayaked around a lake (my first time!), and then drove to the Big Lake: Lake Michigan, our inland, freshwater sea. I was reminded of the great natural beauty close to home. In the waning days of summer, I’ve been reminded of the beauty all around.

I’ve been trying to focus on that, but it’s hard. Even in Hawaii, in “paradise”, Husband and I felt ourselves unable to tear ourselves away from the political news. Ever since we’ve come back, it just seems to get worse.

I am trying to balance awareness and anger. I’m trying not to be overwhelmed with cynicism. I know that I am so, so privileged.

There are beautiful hills, and ocean, and kind people. There’s the scent of plumeria, and the taste of sugar pineapples and lychees. There is so much in the world. I hope my husband and I can take our kids back to Hawaii someday. There’s more we’d like to show them there. There’s so much to show them right here at home.

I am writing to remember all of this.  

 ________________________________

*More about opihi: Our voluble van driver had a story about people showing disrespect for this food: at a fancy party he attended, a person new to the islands grabbed a big scoop of the expensive delicacy, tried a bite, went “Eww!” and to other guests' shock and horror dumped his plate of opihi into the trash. “We were ready to kill him!” the van driver said. “We were ready to wring his neck!” (Hawaiians are clearly passionate about food.) 

**Full list of food recs. (Because my family is food-obsessed and I want this list for future reference)

Oahu

Every place we tried at YokoCho Gourmet Alley (collection of small Japanese restaurants. Tonkatsu and curry from the curry house was one of my favorites)

Opihi, fried pork chops, and kimchi fried rice at Side Street Inn

Shrimp (what else?) at Fumi’s Shrimp Truck, north shore of Oahu

Dim sum at Legend’s Seafood Restaurant, Chinatown, Honolulu. The dumplings are among the best I've had.

Malasadas at Agnes’ Portuguese Bake Shop

Tonkatsu at Tonkatsu Ginza Bairin


Kauai

Shaved ice at Wailua Shave Ice 

Poke at Eating House 1849 

Lilikoi pie at Hamura Saimen 

Spam musubis and other masubis at local 7-Eleven. (Also delighted to see char siu bao and Chinese dumplings by the cash register, although we did not try them)





Thursday, August 10, 2017

Summer short fiction reccs!

It's hard to believe that summer is nearly over. I've been traveling and working, talking walks and binge-watching anime with my kids. I haven't read as much as I would like, but then there is not nearly enough time in the world for that. 

Here is a list of some stories I’ve read. If you can, I recommend that you read them, too.

Liminal Stories

Each issue of this new magazine has impressed and moved me. Here are my favorites from Issue 3.

Lares Familares, 1981 by Rebecca Campbell 

“Lares Familares,” according to Wikipedia, were household guardian spirits of the ancient Romans. In Campbell’s story, a similar spirit may be watching over (or not?) a troubled Canadian logging family. This is a deeply atmospheric, unsettling work, beautifully evoking history and place. Campbell excels at capturing the unspoken tensions that can run through a family, the unspoken hurts and demands. The birthday dinner party described in this tale is certainly one of the most uncomfortable I’ve read. A quietly eerie piece that subtly gets under your skin.  

The Barrette Girls by Sara Saab

Such a dark, dark, surreal tale. I love the narrative voice of this, the cold and compelling anger. The narrator has a job shepherding a group of little girls through the city to a secret location. . . a job with a purpose which is only gradually revealed. On Twitter, the author described this story as one about “f*ed up people & f*ed-up personhood,” and it’s an apt description. The narrator is wounded and supremely unlikeable, and I couldn’t put this story down.

Obtrusion Rate by Jonathan Laidlow

Another tense, surreal tale from Liminal Stories (hmm, there seems to be a pattern here?) Laidlow unspools a tale of a uniquely awful workplace. Mundane office irritations (e.g. meetings and a ceiling leak which has not been fixed) are juxtaposed with hints of something much more sinister. The mystery of this particular company’s purpose is slowly unwound, and it becomes a portrait of a team, and a man, trying to cope with terrible trauma as they attempt to do their job.  

Beneath Ceaseless Skies

Beneath Ceaseless Skies consistently offers beautifully written secondary-world fantasy. Here are two that I managed to catch this summer.

Carnival Nine by Caroline Yoachim 

One of the loveliest and most poignantly understated fables I’ve ever seen. Yoachim presents a world of clockwork characters who must be wound up each day to function. But some characters get more winds (which translates to more energy, more time) than others. In the real world we, too, have limited time and energy, and neither are fairly distributed. Yoachim’s tale becomes a bittersweet allegory about this, and also about a mother’s love and the limits of that love—and by extension, the limits that we all have.


I have followed Lemberg’s Birdverse series of stories for several years now. I think this is the best one yet. A rich, strange novella of falling stars, millennia-old star-guardians, shapeshifters, lions, and flying carpets. And the desert, of course—the beautifully evoked desert of this story. An ancient and powerful sovereign of the desert meets a much younger, yet also powerful, worker of magic. The two people are immediately drawn to one another. What follows is a stunningly intimate tale of connection. This is a story of power, consent, and intimacy. It’s a story of trauma and longing, passion and lust. It’s a daring tale that takes real chances. And it’s set in the magical Birdverse universe: it deepens and expands the world that we’ve seen before. The mythic entwines with the personal and intimate. Absolutely gorgeous.

More stories from around the Internet

 Bear Language by Martin Cahill at Fireside

Such a stunning, completely absorbing story. A bear has broken into a house and trapped two children and their father on the upper floor. But who is the real threat to the children? This story is so perfectly done. It’s full of hurt and truth and love that exists but which cannot save.

The Stars That Fall by Samantha Murray at  Flash Fiction Online

A perfectly written flash piece about the doom that hangs over us all.  

Jonathan’s Heaven Has Many Cats by Rachel K. Jones at Lackington’s

This story addresses a familiar question: What kind of God would create a world with suffering in it? and addresses it in a most unusual way. It’s weird, wild, wonderful, zany, and ultimately poignant. And yes, there are cats.

Firstborn by Maria Haskins at Capricious (Issue 7)

“A mother’s love is supposed to be clean and whole. Not tattered and rent like mine. It should be pastels and flannel, hearts and cherubs. Never once was it like that for me. Always the knotted noose. Always the precipice and the abyss.”

Capricious is a new magazine to me, although writer Maria Haskins is not. I haven’t finished reading all the stories in this issue, but I did eagerly turn to Haskins’ story first. And oh, this one hit me hard. This fiercely written tale catches all the conflicted feelings of early motherhood—the fears, the ambivalence, the seeming loss of self in the face of a new life’s overwhelming need. And the love, too.

Small Changes Over Long Periods of Time by K.M. Szpara at Uncanny Magazine 

This is a vampire story like you’ve never seen. The first lines grab you and never let go. The narrator is unwillingly bit and turned to vampirism one drunken night outside a bar. But on top of the usual complications of vampirism is another: the narrator is a trans man, and he (and the vampire who turned him) have no idea of what vampirism will actually do to his body. This tale looks at issues of bodily autonomy (and the violation of it), of choice (and the lack and denial of it). The narrative voice is intimate, compelling, and angry as hell.

Harvest by Steven Case in Bracken Magazine

A British pumpkin soldier tells tales of the war. It’s a seemingly whimsical premise, a story weird and wonderful. But by the end, this account of gourd soldiers has become poignant and haunting.


These Constellations Will Be Yours by Elaine Cuyegkeng at Strange Horizons

And ohhh, this beautifully, beautifully written piece. Empire, oppression, and resistance. Children who are taken from their families and forced to serve as ship navigators among the stars, told that all “these constellations will be yours.” A space ship who bonds with a ballerina. This is a short story that manages to feel both epic and personal; it’s sweeping, gorgeously detailed, and ultimately uplifting. The world-building and emotion are both remarkable—Cuyegkeng has imagination to burn.

Delia’s Door by Julia August at Three-Lobed Burning Eye

This is an older story (published in October 2016), but I only happened to stumble upon it this summer. It’s a lovely tale: glowing, gorgeous, and touched with real longing. A story where choirs can call up doors to other worlds, and a Vivaldi fugue conjures up a door to a summer country. . . 


Saturday, August 5, 2017

Michigan summer, slipping away


August has only begun, yet I feel the summer ending. The evening sky darkens too soon. I’ve heard geese honking overhead at night, and tonight Youngest One and I saw two flocks of them passing overhead—like harbingers of the first migrating waves, pressed dark against the blue twilight.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Some Books I've Loved (Summer Recs!)


I’m late with this, but here are some books I’ve recently loved. I hope that you, dear reader, might love them, too. 


The House of Binding Thorns by Aliette de Bodard


A year ago I read Aliette de Bodard’s The House of Shattered Wings, her first book in the Dominion of the Fallen series. I fell in love with her Gothic-tinged world of fallen angels and Parisian ruins. The sequel, The House of Binding Thorns, is a worthy successor that—dare I say it?--may be even better than the first.

The first novel was a taut, atmospheric murder mystery set in House Silverspires. In the follow-up novel, the action shifts to Silverspires’ rival, House Hawthorn. A few characters from the first novel make their reappearance. Philippe, an outcast Vietnamese Immortal, is trying to resurrect a dear (and dead) friend. Madeline, a mortal alchemist addicted to angel essence (a drug which is the distillation of angel magic), has been dragged reluctantly back to service in House Hawthorn, and is simply trying to survive. The head of House Hawthorn, Asmodeus, is back and sarcastic and cruel as ever. Much of this book, however, is given over to an entirely new cast of characters. And while I was a bit sad at seeing so little of Philippe, there is abundant recompense in these new characters. Thuan is a badass dragon prince and spy who has infiltrated House Hawthorn under the guise of a Houseless teenager of the streets. Francoise and Berith are two Houseless lovers simply trying to survive: Francois is mortal (and heavily pregnant); Berith is an ailing Fallen angel who may die before her mortal lover does. The author’s world of magic and ruins is deepened and expanded in this sequel. The watery dragon kingdom under the river Seine is more fully explored, and the fates of the dragon kingdom and House Hawthorn become entwined. We also learn more about the Vietnamese (termed “Annamite” in this book) diaspora community in Paris. Indeed, for me one of the delights of this book is seeing the strength of this human community, and how it enfolds both Philippe and Francoise (and by extension, Francoise’s partner Berith).

A murder mystery was central to the first novel of this series, The House of Shattered Wings. In the House of Binding Thorns, de Bodard deftly juggles several mysteries. Who is smuggling angel essence into the dragon kingdom? What is really behind Asmodeus’ decision to ally with the dragon kingdom? Who is kidnapping Vietnamese dockworkers and why? Dragon prince Thuan, human Madeline, and others must play detective. Multiple factions battle for power, double-crosses abound, and de Bodard cleverly ties together the different narrative threads. As always, her prose is utterly gorgeous and richly evocative. She moves smoothly from gritty urban realism to scenes of sweeping magic and primal myth (the image of a carnivorous grove of trees is particularly haunting).  

As the action builds and accelerates, I found myself reading the last third of the novel at a fast clip, hardly able to put it down. Events sweep to an emotionally satisfying conclusion. This is a wonderful read, as beautiful and brutal as the first novel of the series, and with characters who may be even more emotionally compelling.   

*I have a crush on Thuan, that sweet but badass dragon prince. His interactions with Asmodeus are delicious.
**Francoise and Berith are wonderful.
***Madeline really comes into her own. I confess that I found her viewpoint the least compelling in The House of Shattered Wings, but she captured my heart in this book.




I’ve been a fan of Gwendolyn Kiste since first discovering her dark fairy tale, “All the Red Apples Have Withered to Gray,”  in the online pages of Shimmer. I was delighted to see her first collection debut this spring. Kiste has a gift for braiding darkness with beauty, for finding the arresting image and evocative line. There are fiercely retold fairy tales in this collection, creeping horrors, a science-fiction dystopia, and--amidst the darkness and fear--glimpses of freedom and light.  “All the Red Apples Have Withered to Gray” remains one of my personal favorites, but “The Tower Princesses” (which plays with the tale of Rapunzel and tropes of trapped princesses in a contemporary setting) tore at my heart. I loved the building tension in the science fictional “The Five-Day Summer Camp.” I loved the way Kiste depicts body horrors with beauty, as in her tale, “Skin Like Honey and Lace.” And I love her exploration of painful emotional truths, as in her concluding tale, “The Lazarus Bride.” Her stories vary in subject, but they are all united by her immediately compelling voice. If you like darkness and tension illuminated with gorgeous prose, this collection is for you.


Tender by Sofia Samatar

Oh, and where do I begin with Sofia Samatar? She is one of my writing heroes. Her novels, A Stranger in Olondria and The Winged Histories, have truly changed the way I approach my own writing (my review of The Winged Histories is here). But she is master of the short form, too, and it was through her short stories that I first found her. Her first collection, Tender, is everything I hoped for, and more.

Samatar has the ability to evoke entire worlds and character histories in a remarkably short space. The first story, “Selkie Stories are for Losers" (which was nominated for multiple awards) is a prime example of this. We never learn much of the narrator’s mother, or of the mother-daughter relationship; the mother is a yawning absence in the narrative as well as in the daughter’s heart. But we do feel that absence, reflected and refracted through the daughter’s relationship with another (emotionally) abandoned girl. The story deftly evokes whole emotional worlds through rich, carefully chosen details within its brief space. Samatar performs similar magic in tales such as “The Closest Thing to Animals” and “The Red Thread”—but in these cases suggesting entire science-fictional near-future worlds as well as character backgrounds.  

Samatar’s stories range through space and time: there are stories set in contemporary America as well as historical pieces in America, Africa, and Vienna. There are stories set in rich secondary fantasy worlds, and stories set in the future. Samatar draws heavy inspiration from settings and histories in the Middle East and Africa, but she also draws from a myriad of other influences. 

While most of these stories have been previously published, not all are easily available, and two of the longer stories appear here for the first time. “An Account of the Land of Witches” is gorgeous, strange, rich fantasy that becomes progressively more surreal. And “Fallow” is a heart-breaking novella of survival in a future colony on a distant planet.

While reading, I kept underlining phrases that struck me:

“There is enough cruelty in the world,” she told me softly, “to justify all the music ever made.” (“An Account of the Land of Witches”)

 There is no end to writing, I think, no end to the project of rescue (“Fallow”)

These sentences are beautiful; Samatar’s prose is always beautiful. But I think these particular sentences also exemplify the humanity in Samatar’s work. There is the acknowledgement of human suffering, along with the acknowledgement of beauty and art. There is the concern with memory, stories, reclamation. “Fallow” is the longest story in the collection, and perhaps the most heartrending. It’s a slow, rich read that only gradually reveals the colony’s truth to the reader. And in its devastating last lines, it pays tribute to human endurance, to the decision to endure despite terrible and unavoidable loss.