Ever since I discovered LeVar Burton Reads, which is an outstanding podcast showcasing short stories of all types of genres, I have listened to LeVar’s melodious voice on an almost weekly basis, and kept track of the stories through my Goodreads account. Now that I have finished season two plus his live broadcasts, I am ready to share!
Repairing the World by John Chu
Lila and Bridger are two linguists who are tasked with repairing holes in their world from other dimensions. Typically you might think of linguists as being a cerebral job, but this job is very physical, as aliens must be understood and subdued before being killed or sent back where they are from. This sci-fi short story juxtaposed futuristic inter-planetary travel with Lila and Bridger’s world being discriminatory to those who are LGBTQ+. When Lila sees how Bridger’s life is in peril for loving a man, she thinks, “If she was going to prevent other worlds from intruding, this world ought to be one worth preserving”. This ends the story on a hopeful note, for you hope that she and others will fight for change in their world, just as readers should be doing the same in our real world.
The Truth About Owls by Amal El-Mohtar
Schoolage Anisa is an immigrant from Lebanon whose family now lives in Glasgow, who is fascinated by owls. She processes her anxiety about her father who still travels to his family’s war-torn region and the memories she has of home by studying predatory owls. While she briefly rejects her family’s background and Arabic language, by the end she is starting to accept her heritage, and becomes more comfortable with herself. This was an engaging short story about embracing your culture.
Unassigned Territory by Stephanie Powell Watts
Stephanie is an eighteen year old Jehovah’s Witness, who is at a crossroads in her life. She travels the rural backroads of North Carolina with a partner hoping to bring new believers into her faith, but at times she faces skepticism and discrimination, as she is black in a typically white congregation. While a believer, she doesn’t have the same fervor for proselytizing as her friend and wonders if she should go to college or marry young to someone from her church. An unknown future awaits this witty young woman, and you will wonder what choice she will end up making.
Mrs. Perez by Oscar Casares
This short story is about Lola Perez, a 68 year old widow who lives in Brownsville, Texas near the Mexican border. Mrs. Perez put her husband and daughters first for many years, and it is only now that she is widowed that she has developed a passion for bowling. She is quite good at it and takes pride in the trophies she has won, so she takes it hard when her prized bowling bowl is stolen from her home. The quote “she wore the nervous smile of a young woman who realizes she has just boarded the wrong train” about a memory Lola has while looking at a picture of her honeymoon, was beautifully descriptive in this slice-of-life story. What Mrs. Perez does at the end of the story when she sees the thief, shows that you shouldn’t underestimate quiet women.
The Baboon War by Nnedi Okorafor
The Baboon War was my first story that I have read by Nnedi Okorafor, although I recognize her name from the YA series Akata Witch and for for penning the graphic novels Black Panther and Shuri. Known for her magical realism stories, I’m glad I was able to listen to the short story that appears in her collection Kabu Kabu. In this story, a group of three girls find a shortcut through the forest on their morning walk to school. But they are attacked by a group of dangerous baboons who steal their lunches from them. These three plucky schoolgirls refuse to give up this shortcut they find, and for ten days keep using the path while thinking up different ways to outsmart the baboons and put up with strange rain storms that only seem to occur in the forest. On the last day the girls carry no food but the baboons still attack them as they run to school. This earns them the respect of the monkey troop, and there is a strange supernatural aspect at the end of the tale between the girls and baboons.
Furry Night by Joan Aiken
Borrowing liberally from folk tales and fairy tales, this story is about a werewolf who meets his match. Sir Murdoch, a lycanthropist and famous theatre actor, plans to retire to his English estate. He employs a personal valet to combat his well-known anger which turns him into a werewolf. This young man is to inject Murdoch with wolf’s bane to turn him back into human form, but even with this precaution, there is worry that Murdoch will wolf-out as he is upset that an annual village race will infringe on his land. A young woman with a connection to Murdoch’s past gets involved with the men, and the ending was rather predictable. This story had a 70’s vibe, which is hard to explain, but I recognize the type of writing right off. While not my sort of story, I think readers who enjoy British fantasy type stories will like it.
Different Kinds of Darkness by David Langford
Different Kinds of Darkness is a perfect example of a compact but powerful story. This dystopian tale is set in a world in which some mathematical formulas have become so developed that viewing an image of it can kill you instantly. Terrorists use these images on posters and once on television to kill thousands. Parents have taken to extreme measures to keep their children safe by implanting a biochip into their optic nerves. Not fully understanding the situation, some students rebel and form the Shudder Club, in which they expose themselves to a dangerous image for longer amounts of time, which basically inoculates themselves against other images. Their motto “That which does not kill us, makes us stronger” becomes prophetic when something happens at their school. The children prove to the adults another path can be followed to combat the dangerous world they live in, but the author David Langford still expertly avoids the trope of children knowing more than adults.
The Great Wide World Over There by Ray Bradbury
A melancholy tale that really makes you wonder if it is better to have had something that is later taken away or never know what you are missing. In this short story we are introduced to Cora who is a middle aged illiterate farm woman. Her nephew comes to visit the farm for a month and helps her write letters that bring the world to her doorstep. She displays kindness to a neighbor who pretends to receive mail, by truly sending her a letter, but the summer ends on a bittersweet note when Benjy heads home and Cora realizes she never learned how to read and write herself. This is not a happy story by any means, but it will make you ponder choices made and the resulting consequences of those actions.
My Dear You by Rachel Khong
This story left me disquieted as I listened to a young woman navigate Heaven after her untimely death in an accident while on her honeymoon. This subjective view of the afterlife was surreal as her memories of her family and husband faded as the years wore on. A meeting with her husband years later felt hazy and unfinished, and my thoughts were that these lost memories of hers could be like what Alzheimer’s might feel to someone – the memories are no longer there, but the feelings of love and belonging remain.
The 5:22 by George Harrar
With a bit of a Twilight Zone vibe- Walter, a staid man who craves routine, has his train commute schedule upended to his dismay and doesn’t know what to make of it. While plausible explanations are given, the reader needs to decide was the story edging into magical realism, or was it simply odd coincidences that led Walter down a different (and possibly better) path?
A Fable with Slips of White Paper Spilling from the Pockets by Kevin Brockmeier
When the story began first began I thought the premise was too similar to Chivalry by Neil Gaiman, but this story took the idea of a mortal finding a holy item in a better direction. In this case, a man finds an overcoat of God’s in a thrift shop and discovers that prayers from nearby people appear as slips of paper in his coat pockets. Often he can do nothing about the prayers, but on occasion he is able to intervene and help certain individuals. This fable makes you realize that we never can help everybody, but we can always help somebody, and this help could make a huge difference in someone’s life. So if everybody helps somebody, we might just be answering someone’s prayers!
Childfinder by Octavia Butler
I was impressed with how Butler combines science fiction into a larger narrative about racism and being true to yourself. In this story a black telepath who has the unique ability to discover children with untapped psi abilities is threatened by a white woman from an unnamed society that controls and harnesses telepaths and is upset that she left the organization to work only with black children. This telepath mentor is able to shield her young protégés, but at a cost to herself. Butler makes a brilliant connection early in the story with Harriet Tubman, that parallels what happens later in the story.
The Winds of Harmattan by Nnedi Okorafor
A melancholy tale, this story is set in Africa during the slave trade with a woman who is born a magical Windseeker, and despite advice she marries a man who seems to accept her power at first. After a few years of marriage and having two boys, she still goes into the forest to levitate, which leads the villagers to accuse her of witchcraft. The ending brought me to tears as the male patriarchy won- there was no redemption for her, and even her beloved boys forgot her. But unfortunately this magical realism tale was true to life, as sometimes there are no happy endings no matter how hard you want it to end otherwise.
As Good as New by Charlie Jane Anders
As Good as New was a clever short story that combined the unlikely elements of an apocalyptic disaster, a genie-in-a-bottle and playwrights into one story. Marisol is a pre-med student who cleans houses for extra money to get through school when a devastating earthquake occurs and she is lucky enough to be in a mansion that has a fully stocked safe room. Two years go by and she leaves the room to find the world ravaged by a fungus and improbably discovers a genie who used to be a theatre critic. Granted the typical three wishes, Marisol realizes she needs to plan the wishes carefully and a talky battle of wits occurs. The narrative was very meta in how the story played out, in relation to the criticisms that the genie mentioned in how he critiqued plays in the past and it all tied together in a pleasing way.
Money Tree by Nalo Hopkinson
In this particular story a brother and sister listen to Caribbean folklore about their family’s connection to the water with a mamadjo/mermaid mother and a tale of lost pirated gold. This allegorical tale makes connections between greed and familial relations, and incorporates the transformative value of water with the sister in healing from her grief.
Black Betty by Nisi Shawl
This short story was about racism through the perspective of a dog who is given a voice modifier and can “talk” to humans. At first I thought this story of Betty the dog was going to be like Black Beauty and follow the travails of a dog through many families, but it took an interesting turn, and went deeper than that to touch on prejudice and belonging. There was a touch of humor when Betty meets a cat who can talk, then there was a worrisome interlude, before ending on a hopeful note. While the story was a bit uneven, I listened to the last half again so I could pick up on some details I missed the first time around, and enjoyed it more the second time.
The Fliers of Gy by Ursula K. Le Guin
The Fliers of Gy began as a science fiction narrative, describing the humanoid but feathered inhabitants of the planet Gy, but turned into a fascinating allegory about different types of personalities and how they shape us. Despite having feathers, the inhabitants of Gy typically do not fly. Only about 1 in 1000 of them develop true wings after puberty, but it is an excruciating experience and afterwards they are pitied for this new development. While you might think the ability to fly would be envied, and many of the flyers embrace their new ability, the wings are prone to catastrophic failure which makes every flight a risk. The last lines of the story with a flyer who chose to remain grounded so he could raise a family was beautifully melancholy: “Do you ever dream of flying? Lawyerlike, he was slow to answer. He looked away, out the window. Doesn’t everyone? he said.” This story brought into focus for me the difference between those who are ordinary and responsible and those who are artistic and bold. I have always been a person who can be counted on and is practical to a fault, yet I do have some tendencies towards creativity. I currently am balancing motherhood, work and sick parents and feel very overloaded, so the yearning for freedom is something that I very much related to. This was a lovely story that I will think on for awhile.
Season Two had some excellent entries with Different Kinds of Darkness and The Fliers of Gy being my favorites. If for some strange reason you haven’t discovered LeVar’s podcast, you must tune in, “but you don’t have to take my word for it.”
Check out my reviews for Season One!
June 15, 2019 at 9:46 am
What a coincidence , I was looking for a new podcast to listen to .
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June 15, 2019 at 6:19 pm
No matter the short story genre, LeVar makes each tale special. Hope you like it!
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June 20, 2019 at 8:57 am
When I heard she was going to be writing the ongoing ‘Shuri’ title for Marvel, I checked out Nnedi Okorafor’s novel ‘Who Fears Death.’ I really enjoyed it! It was heavy, at places, and dealt with some serious themes but the characters were dynamic and engaging and, as you mention above, the magical dimensions she wove into the world were fascinating. She’s since been on my list of authors I want to return to and the short story collection you mention may be a fun place to start.
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June 20, 2019 at 4:46 pm
Okorafor’s two stories each had a strong #ownvoices narrative which I really appreciated. I imagine her Black Panther and Shuri books are excellent.
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