Once I discovered LeVar Burton Reads aka Reading Rainbow for adults last year, I have been enjoying listening to LeVar read short stories on his podcast on a weekly basis. As such, here are short reviews of twelve excellent stories.
Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience by Rebecca Roanhorse
The lead into season three packed quite a punch. Author Rebecca Roanhorse expertly pulls you in with a tale of cultural appropriation but then has yet another twist at the end that will make you question your assumptions.
Jesse is an American Indian who reluctantly works for a virtual reality company in Arizona that tourists pay to experience an “authentic” Indian experience that is anything but. He knows he is playing into white people’s unrealistic fantasies about spirit quests but it pays the bills. When a young white man that Jesse names White Wolf seems to really want to get to know Jesse and his real-life Indian experiences, Jesse meets him outside of the VR environment and shares what he knows. Even Jesse’s wife meets up with this new friend of his, but that is when the story goes sideways. Reminiscent of Westworld and Inception, Jesse’s life is upended by White Wolf and the level of appropriation goes way deeper than originally expected. This sci-fi story is one you will listen to again and again to pick up clues missed earlier and deserves the Hugo, Nebula, and Apex Magazine Reader’s Choice Awards that it won in 2017.
Sea Girls by Daniel Wallace
Typically I am not a fan of magical realism, but this story gets it just right. Two school mates who don’t know each other well, both encounter a mermaid who washes up a beach. While surprised to see one, they both know they exist and are fascinated by the fishy look of her, as she is not the beautiful siren of yore. The teen boy wishes to push her back into the ocean to save her, but the teen girl cautions him that all is not what it seems and to be careful. Her warnings prove to be true as the mermaid tries to drag the young man into the water with her. Despite the short length of the story, the characters are fleshed out and this tale of fantasy and reality intersecting was strong.
The Last Cheng Beng Gift by Jaymee Goh
This short story about parental expectations even in the afterlife was a bit of a downer. Mrs. Lin, a Chinese matriarch who resides in the Underworld, is still receiving gifts from her adult children during Cheng Beng, a festival honoring your ancestors. She and her other dead friends still participate in petty jealousies and one-ups in regards to the gifts they receive. Mrs. Lin, in ghostly form, visits her daughter and disapproves of her current life. While Mrs. Lin does reach a better understanding of her daughter, the entire story was rather sobering.
Fires by Rick Bass
Fires was excellent at world-building as the descriptions of the environment (you never find out where- perhaps Montana or Alaska) made you feel as though you were in the middle of bear country. A man and woman are thrown together for a season and seem suited for one another, but the woman is there simply to train for races and has to head home in the late summer, thus no romance develops. I was enjoying this slice-of-life interlude when the woman does something so mind-bogglingly foolish, that could have had huge ramifications, that the story ended on a sour note for me. While it might have been a metaphor for her feelings, I couldn’t get past the danger of it all.
Multo by Samuel Marzioli
Multo was a powerful ghost story that would be perfect to tell at a campfire. In this story, a man recounts his youth, when his family bonds with another Filipino family and he is introduced to the story of the ghost called Multo that has attached to the grandmother from the other family. During a sleepover, the ghost eerily tells the boy he will be next and years later when the grandmother dies, the man worries the ghost is coming for him…
Fantaisie Impromptu No. 4 in C#min, Op. 66 by Carlos Hernandez
Artists are said to often give their heart and soul to their work, and in the case, it is literally true. A concert pianist’s wife insists her husband’s soul is in a piano, after his debilitating illness and death. But if his soul is locked into a piano what of his eternal soul in heaven? In this tale science and faith intersect with a “deus ex machina” ending.
Fyrewall by Stefani Cox
In this short speculative fiction story, Daesha lives sometime in the future in the LA area, in which an advanced firewall keeps the city safe from raging wildfires. Her grandmother invented the technology of the wall, and Daesha is tasked with keeping it updated, yet she and her work crew seem to have lost the technical understanding in how it was created and how to truly fix it when a tear occurs and puts the city at risk. While the story mentions that the inhabitants inside are very diverse and inclusive, the story fell short on world-building, although I came away with the lesson of making sure you pass down your knowledge to future generations.
Jackalope Wives by Ursula Vernon (who also writes as T. Kingfisher)
Jackalope Wives was a delightful and atmospheric tale. It had a Southwestern feel, with Native American mythology overtones, that included the vivid imagery of fictional jackalopes dancing around a fire. When a foolish young man tries to kidnap one of these creatures to become his wife, he doesn’t complete the steps needed to transform her into a human leaving her scarred and mute, he takes her to his Grandma Harken to help. While his Grandma seems tough, she has the expected heart of gold and tries to help the girl heal. When that doesn’t work, Grandma heads into the desert with her, to meet up with someone she believes will help despite knowing there will be a price to pay. While I saw the twist coming, I was very pleased with the conclusion and how poignant it was.
The Cell Phones by Karen E. Bender
A Jewish woman celebrating Rosh Hashanah at Synagogue ruminates on her life and her worries about the direction the nation is headed in. A bit of magical realism creeps into the story when her cell and everyone else’s cells also go off during service and people’s complaints fill the building for everyone to hear. Only when the calls are acknowledged and not hushed do the phones stop ringing. The parallel is clear- we need to recognize other people’s worries and not blow them off, as everyone deserves to be heard. *I ended up reading the entire book collection by Bender for I felt she connects our changing 21st century with precise character studies and offers insight into the cultural dissonance that many of us are feeling right now.*
Singing on a Star by Ellen Klages
In this troubling short story, a kindergartner (I think the character should have been older) goes to her friend’s house for a sleep-over and her friend takes her through a portal to another dimension. Uneasy with the people she meets there, for it gives her an uncomfortable vibe, she is relieved when they go back home. Her friend swears her to secrecy, and she keeps to it, even when her friend later disappears. The disquieting conclusion has her gain a way to enter the other dimension on her own, and I cringed at the idea that this dangerous new world held any appeal to the girl. Readers are left wondering what she will do next, and the mother in me thought of parallels in which a child could be so taken in by obvious danger. An adaptation of this story could be a good match for a Twilight Zone or Ray Bradbury Theatre type of episode.
Yiwu by Lavie Tidhar
Yiwu combined science fiction and magical realism in an urban future. At first, you are transported to a timeless bazaar in China where a shopkeeper sells lottery tickets in which a winner’s deepest wish is realized. When someone’s winning ticket doesn’t result in a change the shopkeeper heads to the lottery offices to explore why. The new setting is jarring and took me out of the story, but the conclusion wraps up the story in a sweet way, as not everyone’s happy ending needs to be big and dramatic
Morning Child by Gardner Dozois
This short story with an apt title sucked me in immediately. The world-building was strong and the particular situation with John reminded me of the fantasy novel A Spell for Chameleon (I was a huge fan of Piers Anthony’s Xanth series in middle school- although I find them very problematic now). The ending was obviously melancholy as you wonder how William will cope with John’s untenable condition long term.
My favorites this season were Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience and Jackalope Wives, as I have thought about those two stories quite a bit since listening to them. 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.”