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AnaMaria Curtis

LeVar Burton Reads: Season Eleven

Season Eleven is longer than usual, since it contained repeats from past seasons, although it was bookended by new episodes. I never thought I’d say this- but I was let down this season. I realize that IRL LeVar is a busy man (I am so happy that the third season of Star Trek: Picard will have him and the original Star Trek: The Next Generation crew in it!) but I was disappointed to have six remixed episodes in the middle be repeats from previous seasons.

I Was a Teenage Space Jockey by Stephen Graham Jones

In this interesting magical realism tale, two Native American sixth graders get bullied at an arcade and end up locked in for the night. One of them, who is worried that his older brother has left home and could have come to an untimely end, seems to get sucked into one of the video games where he sees different fates for his brother. The game ends well, giving him hope that his brother is alive. This short story was very realistic about racism and challenging family dynamics but then took a small magical detour towards the end

#ClimbingNation by Kim Fu

When a popular Instagram climber falls to his death, a former college classmate of his attends his funeral. April had followed him and felt a kinship although she lies about the level of their real-world connection to his friends and family. Worming her way into the inner circle, she sows seeds of discontent among them, especially when it is revealed he might have had a stash of gold that he was hiding at a remote cabin. This was a disquieting story, showing the fraudulent nature of connection between “celebrities” and those that follow them.

Down in the Dim Kingdoms by Tobias Buckell

Set in an alternative future, a secret civilization in the middle of our Earth has been discovered and exploited by two explorers. About fifty years later, one of the original colonizers gets a nasty comeuppance when he rewards his evil granddaughter’s behavior, and she turns on him. This was an interesting and dark little tale that I quite liked.

Family Cooking by Ana Maria Curtis

A granddaughter with magical cooking skills is tasked with preparing food for her grandmother’s second wedding but finds that her complicated feelings about her Abuela interfere with her magic. I didn’t really get the magical realism angle, but I applauded Isa for caring so much about her mother’s feelings.

The King of Bread by Luis Alberto Urrea

A refreshing detour from fantasy, this is a realistic coming-of-age tale set in the late 1960s (Star Trek is mentioned!). A Mexican-American youth is being raised by a single father after his mother was deported and recounts his life with his father, who drove a bread truck for a living. I enjoyed this bittersweet story of looking back and trying to understand your parents.

River’s Giving by Heather Shaw, Tim Pratt, and River Shaw

Written by a mother, father and teen child team, this is a sweet (but rather saccharine) tale of learning how to have a giving spirit. In this fantasy world, a village is used to receiving mysterious yearly gifts that arrive by the river. When they don’t arrive one year, a young man travels up the nearby mountain to investigate why. He discovers a dragon and teaches him to want to give, not just take. It reminded me of the classic story How the Grinch Stole Christmas.

The Usual Santas by Mick Herron (originally on S10)

Set in London, eight mall Santas discover a ninth among them at the year-end Christmas Eve party. Is one of them an imposter, or could he be the real Santa? Who then led the crime caper at the mall, in which many gifts were given to orphans and the needy the next day?

The Last Cheng Beng Gift by Jaymee Goh  (originally on S3)

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 regard 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.

The Truth About Owls by Amal El-Mohtar (originally on S2)

Schoolage Anisa is an immigrant from Lebanon whose family now lives in Glasgow, and 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.

The Simplest Equation by Nicky Drayden (originally on S5)

A sweet tale of love. Two students sit near each other in a college math class, and Mariah hopes that this new alien girl Quallah, whose species are known for their math skills, can help tutor her. The two get to know one another and fall in love, but then Quallah gets an offer to go off-world to study so Mariah uses math equations to build her a declaration of her feelings. The unique conclusion proved that the simplest equation is love!

Silver Door Diner by Bishop Garrison (originally on S8)

A young boy stops in a diner and is taken under the wing of a waitress there. Thinking he is a runaway she tries to get a few answers from him, but the conversation goes sideways when he reveals he is an alien observing Earth before a nuclear war happens and a time loop occurs. Their conversation is sweet and the ending reveals that perhaps there is a chance for Earth after all.

The Foster Portfolio by Kurt Vonnegut (originally on S6)

The Foster Portfolio, set in 1951, was a fascinating peek into human nature. A young investment counselor meets the modest Foster family to help them with their finances and discovers the husband is sitting on a huge inheritance that he is keeping from his wife. The repressed husband is intent on providing for his family with his own labors and doesn’t wish to touch the money, despite having to work two jobs and pinch pennies to afford things for his wife and son. He wants to honor his mother who sacrificed for his family when his father left his family to play the piano and get drunk in bars. This all seems decent until you find out he is hiding a double life from his wife- but it’s not what you would think. The ending made me think of secrets in a marriage, and the judgments we place on our children and spouses, and how some obligations can become warped if not addressed. You must watch this delightful 2017 short movie (19 min) adaptation of the story: https://vimeo.com/399253153

Wok Hei St by Guan Un

This clever title can be read as Wok Heist or Wok Hei Street, both of which have meaning to the story. This magical realism tale is set in Malaysia during a televised cooking competition when a cherished wok is stolen from one of the contestants, and a man with some magical powers who owes the first contestant favors retrieves it for her from the other dishonest chef.

The Lady of the Yellow-Painted Library by Tobi Ogundiran

I hated this story, for it made librarians look evil and crazed. A traveling salesman mislays a book, and the supernatural librarian is bent on retrieving it. Predictable ending.

The Golden Hour by Jeffrey Ford

Haunting time travel story about a married couple who get separated from one another during their travels. The elderly man awaits his wife to find him again, and in the meantime is befriended by a writer, who harbors his own mysteries. The explanation of time travel was unique and the narrative has several layers to be thought about once you are finished with the story.

Mister Dawn, How Can You Be So Cruel? by Violet Allen

Sometime in the near future, dreams can be controlled, so the rich hire dream concierges to give them a perfect fantasy of their choosing. Esther is quite good and is hired away by a rival company where she gets to develop new software to reach more customers. But this new company turns out to be morally corrupt, and when Esther finds out what her dream research might be truly used for, she puts on blinders so she can keep her research money and keep on working on her pet project.

The Destination Star by Gregory Marlow

In this tender story, a generational ship is traveling towards a far-away planet to save humanity, but without warp drive, it will take many generations to arrive. Ben is an older man who does maintenance on the ship and he reminisces about his early years on the ship and when it was revealed to him and his peers that they would be a generation that would live their entire lives on the ship. He has come to accept the bittersweet truth that they need to work for the greater good, although they will never reap the benefits themselves. In the end, LeVar ties it into how many generations of slaves never experienced freedom, but they had to go on living their lives and raising future generations having faith that there would be a better tomorrow for the descendants.

D.P. by Kurt Vonnegut

Set in Germany a decade or so after WWII, a bi-racial orphan wonders about his parentage, especially because the local villagers have nicknamed him Joe Lewis, after a famous boxer from America. When a group of American soldiers is camped nearby, the boy steals away to meet them, hoping his father is one of the soldiers. A Black soldier takes pity on him, recognizing the boy feels like a displaced person (hence the title of the story) and treats him kindly before returning him to the orphanage. A poignant story that makes me want to read Vonnegut’s short story collection, Welcome to the Monkey House, which also includes The Foster Portfolio.

Down in the Dim Kingdom, I was a Teenage Space Jockey, #ClimbingNation, and The Destination Star were my favorites of the season.  I suggest you check out his podcast if you haven’t already, “But you don’t have to take my word for it.”

LeVar Burton Reads: Season Ten

I love being introduced to new authors by LeVar’s podcast, and then serendipitously finding that author in other works and books soon after. This podcast always expands my reading boundaries and I look forward to listening to a new story weekly for several months at a time while each season lasts.

The Wishing Pool by Tananarive Due

Careful what you wish for! An adult daughter, Joy, finds her widowed father in ill health when she visits him at the family cabin, both physically and mentally as he has worsening dementia. She remembers a nearby wishing pool that she and a childhood friend would visit in the nearby woods, but her wish for her father has (of course) unintended consequences. This story was a perfect blend of the harsh reality of caring for elderly parents and then the fantastical.

Different People by Timothy Mudie

In this story, a man meets a refugee from another dying but similar dimension whose first husband was him in their world, and they end up marrying themselves. But he begins to doubt that they should be together, as he is jealous of the other him, and wonders if they were meant to be together in this world. This multi-verse storyline is very popular in sci-fi tales, as there is a lot to explore in why things are the same or different in other worlds and what that means to the characters living through it all.

The Usual Santas by Mick Herron 

Set in London, eight mall Santas discover a ninth among them at the year-end Christmas Eve party. Is one of them an imposter, or could he be the real Santa? Who then led the crime caper at the mall, in which many gifts were given to orphans and the needy the next day?

Drones to Ploughshares by Sarah Gailey

A sentient government surveillance drone is captured while out on a mission and must determine what to do next when offered freedom. Is it a trap? A sweet, but somewhat light, AI story.

To Jump is to Fall by Stephen Graham Jones

Told in first person, a telepathic spy gives us a stream of consciousness as he freefalls after a jump off a plane. When he realizes his mission has gone sideways and he and the pilot are purely collateral damage, he makes a radical decision.

The Placement Agency by Tobias S. Buckell

A fresh take on the “Hitler Dilemma”- what do you do with mass murderers from history when time travel is available and you have a chance to rewrite the past? The short story started out slowly but gained traction as you realize the true nature of the temporary job that is outside of time and space.

The Galactic Tourist Industrial Complex by Tobias S. Buckell

*This story was originally in Season Four, but remixed with new sound* I found this tongue-in-cheek short story delightful. Sometime in the future, Earth has become a tourist playground for wealthy aliens, with Manhattan being the favored location. While aliens are looking for authentic experiences in the city, life for humans actually living on Earth has become anything but, as the entire economy is based on the service industry and catering to tourists. A cab driver, whose flying taxi is on its last legs, has to deal with an alien falling to their death from his vehicle and trying to avoid an interspecies war when the alien’s family investigates. While this tale is amusing, it’s also a reflection on how our society relies on social media with trying to make their life look perfect when really it’s only a facade.

The Final Performance of the Amazing Ralphie by Pat Cadigan

In deep space, an AI magician is utilized to entertain hospice patients, and during a performance, the patient dies. The caretaker, who already had strikes against them, tries to explain what happened during a review and discovers that the AI saw a situation unfolding and took steps to offer comfort to the dying patient. I didn’t vibe with the narrative- although LeVar offers commentary at the end of the story, I didn’t really get this story.

Open House on Haunted Hill by John Wiswell

A sentient house, not quite a haunted house, aches for new owners. During an open house, it utilizes some powers to convince a father and daughter that it would be the perfect house for them. The house just wants someone to love it and live in it! A charming little story.

John Dillinger and the Blind Magician by Allison M. Dickson

Set in an alternative magical world in 1934, mobster John Dillinger goes to a speakeasy to find a magician to help him escape the feds. Two magicians get roped into the scheme, and of course, there was a double-cross. Meh.

Troll Bridge by Terry Pratchett

Set in author Pratchett’s Discworld (he has written 41 books set there!), this wistful short story includes a grizzled Cohen the Barbarian crossing a troll bridge and how the two old-timers reminisce about times gone by. This is a bittersweet tale, that stands on its own, about lamenting the past and reflecting on how much has changed in one’s lifetime. My husband and I recently had a conversation about how much has changed since we were children, and how things you take for granted then, are not around as an adult. While set in a fantasy world, this tale is universal and will pull at the heartstrings of adults who can relate.

The Last Truth by AnaMaria Curtis

The winner of LeVar’s first ever short-story contest was this bittersweet tale of how memories define us. Set in an alternative world, Eri is an indentured thief, who is forced to pick locks for her mobster employer. However, locks are opened by revealing memories, that then disappear from their minds, which results in a great cost for the thief. Eri meets a musician on board the ship they are on, and both wish to escape together, but will Eri be Eri any more once she completes the last required lock-picking? As Eri faces an uncertain future, readers will ponder if friendship, music and/or love can reestablish old memories. Will a possibility of good new memories renew her?

Afterlife by Stephen King

I am a huge fan of Stephen King’s short stories, so I read this story before in his collection The Bazaar of Bad Dreams, but as with other short stories that I have read before listening to on the podcast, LeVar can put an interesting twist on it. In this story, a man who recently died of cancer is given a chance to relive his life again, hoping to correct the wrongs he committed. But we find out he has done so numerous times, with no change, even to the atrocious sin he committed while in college. A disquieting tale, but I expect no less from King.

My favorites this season were Different People and Troll Bridge. I enjoyed listening to the winning entry, The Last Truth, from LeVar’s contest and hope he does one again. So, in the meantime I suggest you check out his podcast if you haven’t already, “But you don’t have to take my word for it.”

-Nancy

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