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Anjali Sachdeva

LeVar Burton Reads: Season Nine

Season Nine was dominated by speculative fiction that LeVar loves, so he ran a writing contest looking for writers to send in short stories from this genre, with the winner’s entry read next season.

The Bank of Burkina Faso by Ekaterina Sedia

We are all familiar with the scam of a foreign-born prince who needs our help in attaining his funds… but what if were true? In this short story an exiled prince now living in Moscow teams up with the widow of a military general to recover their fortunes from the Bank of Burkina Faso. This magical realism tale weaves together dogs and dreams into a very odd conclusion.

Jealous Husband Returns in Form of Parrot by Robert Olen Butler

In this odd little tale, a husband is reincarnated as a parrot and bought unknowingly by his widow who is now dating the man that the husband had been jealous of. In fact, that jealousy had led to his death and he pines away for his wife, as a lack of communication then and now prevents him from ever being happy with her.

Dark Spaces on the Map by Anjali Sachdeva

A 107-year-old woman is interviewed about her experiences as a form of cultural anthropology and she needs to decide what she is willing to share in this speculative fiction story. Memory becomes subjective when compared to photos and verified documentation, but it also takes away emotional weight from the person remembering the past. Does everything need to be shared especially when it could put someone in a bad light or the facts can be manipulated to fit an agenda? This story was timely, for I recently saw a friend from middle school, and she shared stories that I barely remembered or remembered differently, and it made me really ponder memories and how perspective can adapt a shared experience into different memories of it.

Milagroso by Isabel Yap

Milagroso means “miracle” and that is what Marty is looking for as he returns to his hometown in the Philippines with his family. Marty is a selfish scientist who helps engineer synthetic food and had turned his back on his dying elderly father, only coming back for an annual festival that promises a special phenomenon of real food being transformed from fake food. The miracle occurs and he is torn as to whether he will allow his children to eat the authentic fruit, as he and others are so brainwashed that synthetic food is better.

The Angel of Khan El-Khalili by P. Djèlí Clark

Set in 1912 in an alternative Cairo, this steampunk story is set within the author’s Dead Djinn series. A young woman, burdened with guilt, seeks a miracle from a mechanical angel in the Ministry of Alchemy. But every gift comes with a price, and she must reveal her dark secrets to obtain a gift to help her sister. Ultimately, this is a story about forgiveness and I thought the world-building was strong for such a short tale.

The War of the Wall by Toni Cade Bambara

This story is a refreshing slice-of-life story set during the Vietnam War instead of the speculative fiction that dominates his podcat. In this short story, two youth are dismayed that an artist is creating a mural in their city neighborhood and are worried that she will ruin the wall that so many people congregate near. She doesn’t seem friendly or responsive to other’s overtures, so the boys plan to graffiti the wall. But once back from their trip out to the country to visit family they come back to see the mural beautifully finished and honoring their culture and incorporating their community into it. The story really captured personalities and capably showed how change can be viewed with distrust but can end up being for the best.

You Perfect, Broken Thing by C.L. Clark

In this apocalyptic future, a degenerative disease has taken hold of the population, and medicine is in short supply. Athletes participate in a grueling race to win shots for themselves and their loved ones, but the training also speeds up the disease’s toll on their bodies. One participant pushes her body to the limit for a chance to save her lover and daughter, with a win at all costs mentality, but her sacrifices prove worth it.

The Years of My Birth by Louise Erdrich

This excellent tale is a layered story with a moral dilemma. When a white baby girl is born disabled she is rejected by her mother, who takes home her healthy twin brother instead. Tuffy is adopted by a Native American nurse and raised on a Chippewa reservation. Her new family helps rehabilitate her, leaving her with few signs of her original diagnosis and she knows she is loved. But years after her parent’s death, her biological mother contacts her and wants to meet with her, showing her true colors with an agenda that becomes clear quickly. Tuffy is faced with an unenviable decision regarding her brother and we are left not knowing what happens next, yet knowing Tuffy’s heart, we can guess what she will do despite how reprehensible her twin is.

 Words We Say Instead by Brit E. B. Hvide 

The story started out slow but gained traction, as a veteran space pilot is at a shady spaceship dealership, looking for old technology that has been banned by the government. Turns out years ago, she and other pilots were given AI ships that connected to their brain waves, and these ships became like family to them. When they were ordered to decommission their ships due to potential problems with the technology, she reluctantly complied but has regretted it in the decades since. Now she searches for bits of old technology that she hopes she can reinstall and seeks penance for betraying her AI ship years ago.

Shock of Birth by Cadwell Turnbull

A man who feels that he was switched into another body at a different age and in a different city plus there are details about the world at large that are incorrect, reminded me of the Star Trek: TNG episode The Inner Light. That is praise indeed, as that is one of my favorite ST episodes ever. As there is no proof and no way to switch back even if he convinced others of his new reality, he unhappily continues through life. Only at the end does he start to realize he needs to make the best of his situation and live in a manner that would honor his old life. No matter if we are time travelers or not, the message of blooming where you are planted is a good one! 

Tía Abuela’s Face, Ten Ways by Lisa M. Bradley

Coping with death can be very challenging, as a space anthropologist finds when she arrives back at Earth to find that her beloved great-aunt has died. Chided by some family members at not being there at the end of her aunt’s death, she takes it upon herself to honor her in an extreme way. Set sometime in the future, technology enables her to transform her face into what her Tía looked like. Although she seems sane, I felt this was an incredibly unhealthy way to deal with her grief. My mother and aunt both recently died within five months of one another, and while I miss them terribly and like to wear jewelry of theirs or use some of their household belongings in my own home, what this woman does is disturbing.

On the Lonely Shore by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Best described as a Victorian Gothic with a fantasy twist at the end, the story builds slowly. Balthazar is an ailing young man sent to live seaside along with his companion Judith, as his family is strangely uninvolved. A romance develops between the two, although his health deteriorates and he seems to be dying, but Judith is more aware of his condition than he realizes. This atmospheric short story has a melancholy end, and its conclusion will leave you with questions.

My favorites this season were Dark Spaces on the Map, The Years of My Birth and The War of the Wall. I look forward to hearing the winning entry from the contest next season, 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

LeVar Burton Reads: Season Eight

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 has really expanded my reading boundaries and I look forward to listening to a new story weekly for several months at a time while each season lasts.

Silver Door Diner by Bishop Garrison

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 Takeback Tango by Rebecca Roanhorse

Roanhorse crafted an excellent layered story set in space about a crime heist but also went deeper about the evils of Imperialism and the fight against cultural appropriation. A young woman who survived a slaughter of her people on her home planet, and then later of her adopted family, wants to take back cultural artifacts from the invaders. She meets a young man at the gala she has infiltrated and while it is predictable that he will become an ally (and maybe something more) their banter was delightful. I really enjoyed this short story.

Daddy by Damion Wilson

Daddy, a short speculative fiction story, deftly combined the melancholy of caring for a parent with Alzheimer’s with teleportation. The story begins grounded in the reality of a woman whose mother and sister are dead, with her recent divorce and her father’s declining mental capabilities weighing on her. When he starts appearing at locations far away from his assisted living home, she is confused. The fantasy/sci-fi aspect of the conclusion tie in nicely to this well-written tale.

Alluvial Deposits by Percival Everett

Everett is an evocative writer, he makes a town and its inhabitants come alive, so the town itself becomes a character. Robert, a Black hydrologist, needs to take water measurements in a small Utah town but runs across a racist older woman who runs him off her property but not before hurling racist insults at him. There are the required quirky small-town residents at the diner he frequents, and in the end, when he goes back with a sheriff to gain access to the property he has some compassion for the old bigot when he sees what a small life she lives. Healing and reconciliation are the themes of this short story gem.

The Regression Test by Wole Talabi

A regression test “is defined as a type of software testing to confirm that a recent program or code change has not adversely affected existing features”, and in this story, an elderly woman is asked to test some new software that is based on the mind of her mother, who was considered a genius during her lifetime. As she asks this AI some probing questions, she realizes there must be some glitches, and then the story takes a hard turn. Author Wole Talabi is also an engineer, and I like how he combined his skill set with a sci-fi twist.

Flyboys by Tobias Wolff

Flyboys was such a poignant coming-of-age story about the changing nature of friendships. Two boys are creating an elaborate airplane and realize they need a key component that a third boy has in his family barn. The boys head over to the third boy’s house, and the narrator shares that he used to be good friends with this third boy but had recently drifted away from him as he didn’t know how to handle that his friend had some medical problems and that his big brother had died. Instead of being there for his friend, he took the easy way out and befriended the rich boy, but that new friendship wasn’t balanced. The three boys work well together and the first two head back home with the part they need. What will happen next? Will the two let the third into their project and social circle? Or will they remain a twosome, excluding the third, as he was only good for what they could get from him? This story really made me look back at friendships from my youth. There were times I felt left out and discarded, but I also know there were times I did the same to others. Friendships ebb and flow, but a sudden ending of a friendship can be heartbreaking, and this story really brings that message home.

Killer of Kings by Anjali Sachdeva

This fantasy frames the real author John Milton who wrote Paradise Lost, as being inspired by an angel who becomes his muse. The angel inadvertently reveals some doubts about God’s infallibility, which works itself into his writings, and is later replaced by another angel to Milton’s dismay. This short story is solid, but I myself was not moved by it.

An Equal Share of the Bone by Karen Osborne

An Equal Share of the Bone was a melancholy sci-fi short story that grabbed me by my heart and didn’t let go. A trio of space sailors are on the hunt to kill a theriida, a type of space whale, filled with plasm that could make them rich. When they successfully capture one and begin the harvest, things go terribly awry, and hard decisions are made. Greed, loss and regret are capably shown, but a small nugget of hope remains at the end of the tale.

Salt by Rosemary Melchior

Sigga is a teen who has been banished to a penal colony on an icy island because her community declared her a witch when she spoke out against some injustices she witnessed. But her quiet determination hints that she is not to be underestimated as she leaves the relative safety of the penal settlement and heads northward towards her goal. What she is seeking to obtain revenge against those who wronged her was the perfect twist in this evocative story.

Getaway by Nicole Kornher-Stace

In this Groundhog-inspired tale, a heist goes very wrong, and the five women are caught in a never-ending time loop. The getaway driver tries hundreds of different scenarios but the outcome is always the same. But slowly as she learns from her mistakes, she realizes the loop is expanding to include more time, so perhaps sometime far in the future she will escape the loop, so she just learns to live with what she is given in the here and now.

Vaccine Season by Hannu Rajaniemi

A young boy visits his estranged grandfather in this speculative fiction tale, in hopes of giving him a vaccine that would help him in the post-pandemic world. His grandfather resists and shares some poignant back-story to explain why. In a moment of danger, the grandfather has to make a split-second decision in regards to his grandson. While it had a hopeful and thought-provoking ending, I did feel a choice was forced upon him unfairly.

St. Valentine, St. Abigail, St. Brigid by C.L. Polk

A sapphic love story about a teen who finds out that the magic she uses to help her girlfriend comes at a cost. The tale has fairy-tale underpinnings as Theresa Anne was given to her mother as a first-born price paid by some anonymous couple who wanted some wish granted, similar to Rumpelstiltskin and Rapunzel. She and her mother are witches aided by magical bees with sacrifices and destiny tied up into this melancholy short story.

This was an enjoyable season with Flyboys, Salt, and The Takeback Tango being my favorites stories. Try listening to the podcast yourself, “but you don’t have to take my word for it”. Plus, now that the season is over, give LeVar what he wants- the Jeopardy hosting gig!

-Nancy

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