September 2016 Short Fiction Recs (and more)
The sun is shining, the world has not yet ended, and I have a free morning to write this. I’m late with my bimonthly list of short fiction recs, but let’s go, shall we?
Stories About Family
Our relationships with our birth families are often the most fraught of all—these ties we did not choose and cannot sever. The stories that have hit hardest for me of late are the ones that look at these bonds.
My Grandmother’s Bones by S.L. Huang at Daily Science Fiction
So much conveyed in such a short flash piece. The gaps between generations, the disappointments and distance and love that endures despite it all. This story is spare, understated, and devastating. I did not know the Chinese term, haau, before I read this, but I think I understand it just a little, now. Of all the “family” stories I’ve picked this month, it’s the one that I most personally connect with.
Some Breakable Things by Cassandra Khaw in the The Dark
Like Huang’s story above, Khaw’s is also about the complicated relationship between a father and daughter. It’s also about unbridgeable distances. But where Huang’s story is quiet, this one is a ferocious scream of grief. A daughter is haunted by the ghost of her recently deceased father. “I didn’t know you were close,” a friend says dismissively. It’s complicated, the protagonist replies. And how. This is visceral and heart-breaking.
With Her Diamond Teeth by Pear Nuallak in The Dark
Ah, and this is a change of pace and setting. It’s a dark, unsettling story of sisters. Taphaothang and Taphaokaew have a prickly relationship characterized by mutual cruelties. But it’s also a relationship of need, of dark symbiosis with no room for a would-be bridegroom. Nuallak offers rich prose in an atmospheric setting dripping with heat. The setting is the old kingdom of Ayutthaya, an ancient kingdom of what is now Thailand. And I admit that I got a special kick out of this story for purely personal reasons: it was a treat to see these cultural references that I recognize in a fantasy fiction setting (My parents are Thai, although I myself was born and raised in the U.S.). If you want something rich, dark, lovely and strange—this is it.
More Darkness from The Dark
The Dark has become one of my favorite regular reads. In addition to the stories above by Khaw and Nuallak, these are some of my other recent favorites from this magazine:
Some Pictures of Monsters by Rhonda Eikamp
The darkest take on Cinderella that I’ve ever seen. One of the darkest fairy tales I’ve ever read, period. An astonishing piece with a plot that twists and an ending that’s horrifying and yet also just right.
Floodwater by Kristi Demeester
Momma sees something in the rain. After a while, the child-narrator of this piece thinks she see something, too. This is an urgent, immersive piece that pulls you in, enclosing you like water.
Wheatfield with Crows by Steven Tem
Another wonderfully immersive, atmospheric, haunting piece. Years ago, Dan’s sister disappeared in a wheat field. Now he and his mother have gone back to the place where she disappeared.
Uncanny Stories from Uncanny and More
At this point, I think I can say that nearly all stories I read from Uncanny Magazine are going to end up on my rec list. It is one of the SFF magazines that most consistently speaks to me. Here are some stories from Uncanny I’ve read lately, as well as an additional story with its own uncanny aesthetic.
Snow Day by Catherynne Valente
I admit that Valente’s stories are often hit-or-miss for me. But when they do hit, they hit hard. I love this wild, weird, almost-impossible-to-summarize story of pulp erotica, environmental paranoia, loneliness, longing, bad art, and Hawaii. Also, there’s a turkey named Murray. I loved Murray. The spirit of Kelly Link is in this piece, but mated with Valente’s distinctive, richly exuberant prose.
An Ocean the Color of Bruises by Isabel Yap
A Kelly Link-type weirdness animates this story as well. But it’s also distinctly Isabel Yap’s own voice, a story that’s atmospheric and disquieting from the start. A group of friends just a year or so out of college gather together at a beach resort in the Philippines. But the beach resort is nearly empty, and there’s certainly something strange going on. This story captures the loneliness and sense of being adrift in those first difficult post-college years. It’s about a group of friends trying to recapture the easy rapport they once had, and a unique time they once had together, before the first disappointing, faltering steps into adulthood. It’s a story that takes risks—first-person plural! when was the last time you read that?—and it’s a story that succeeds. Bleak, lonely, lovely, simmering with tensions of both internal and external conflict. The final sentence is breathtaking.
My Body, Herself by Carmen Maria Machado
A strange, spare enigmatic story of death, an after-life/death, and rebirth. I admit that I wasn’t quite sure what to think after reading this, but it has haunted me. It will probably haunt you, too.
The Warrior Boy Who Would Not Suffer by Abhinav Bhat in Apex
I pair this with the Machado story above, because it is also a strange, enigmatic story of death and rebirth, although of a very different tone. A young warrior is dying in the desert, and finds himself questioned by an old man. A commenter on the Apex website describes this piece as “mystical and visceral” and I concur. I read this with a Buddhist interpretation, though I don’t know how much of that overlaps with the writer’s own intentions.
A Grab Bag of More Recs
My Father, the YouTube Star by Kevin Pang in the New York Times
Keep the tissues handy. Like the first stories I discussed above, Kevin Pang’s non-fiction essay is about the estrangement between grown children and their parents, but this is also about how those distances can be (at least somewhat) bridged. In the case of Pang and his father, it’s through food. As someone who is also the American child of food-obsessed Asian immigrants, this essay spoke to me so much. It’s so honest (and also sweet), and yeah, my eyes went blurry at the last lines.
How Books Became the Language my Father and I Found Together by David Ulin at Buzzfeed
I’ve mentioned this essay before, but in keeping with a theme I just want to link to it again. It is beautiful.
A Genius Book Review: Have you seen Michiko Kakutani’s latest book review at the New York Times? You should. You really should. I’ve long enjoyed her book reviews, but this one wins them all, as well as all book reviews forever more: it is effing genius and it is also terrifying.
Puppets to Make You Forget Your Cares: Thunderbolt Fantasy
I’ve been raving about this on Twitter, and this is my blog so I can rave about it here again if I want. Thunderbolt Fantasy is the amazing, bonkers Taiwanese puppet show/wuxia fantasy/Japanese anime mashup you never knew that you needed. Read more about it in this nice write-up here (with gifs!) I started watching this for the pure WTF spectacle (there are some amazing WTF battle moments in this show), but somewhere along the line I found that these characters had captured my heart. The story starts off as a fun but standard Heroic Quest, but then the plot twists and twists again, and you realize that nothing is what you thought. Not surprising, since the show was written by Gen Urobuchi, who wrote such dark anime hits as Magi/Madoka and Fate/Zero (but so far Thunderbolt Fantasy seems at least a bit lighter than his usual fare). The last episode is tomorrow and I will be utterly bereft. My husband and I have been streaming it from Crunchyroll.