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.
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.