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Cadwell Turnbull

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 Five

Season Five, y’all! Twelve stories are part of this season, with the fantasy genre being the most dominant of the short stories.

The Simplest Equation by Nicky Drayden

The Simplest Equation was a sweet tale of love, quite a difference from the toxic love found in the previous story of Levar’s podcast (in season four). 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!

Shoggoths in Traffic by Tobias S. Buckell

This magical realism story begins with two co-workers from Michigan who steal a car from a criminal and plan to drive it to Miami for a significant payout but run into a problem in Indiana. Witnessing a hit and run, they are leery to help due to them driving a stolen vehicle, but try their best to get the motorcycle rider to the ER. That their navigation keeps glitching ties into the unlikely connection between magic and technology. I wasn’t entirely sold on who the dude they were helping claimed to be, but it was a fun story nevertheless.

Cuisine des Mémoires by N.K. Jemisin

Ever since I listened to this I have been seeing the author, N.K. Jemisin’s name everywhere! This tale evocatively showed how we often pair food with memories, as a birthday dinner at a mysterious restaurant promises that any meal can be recreated. A divorced man is skeptical and orders a meal made by his ex-wife and it is recreated to the last spice. Memories flood him and he tries to figure out the mystery but learns more about himself in the process.

Small Medicine by Genevieve Valentine

In this futuristic tale, a young girl’s grandmother dies, and the grandmother is replaced by a robot to ease her family’s grief. While these robots are built to look like loved ones that have passed on and meant to be a solace to grieving family members, they end up confusing them and not letting them move on. The disquieting story makes you ponder what happens to the natural order of things when life becomes too modified by technology.

Face Value by Sean Williams

Face Value reminded me of a Sherlock Holmes or Inspector Poirot caper set in a speculative future with transporters and fabricators. In this tale two peace-keepers listen to an inventor talk up his newest invention, a supposedly rare metal that he wishes to turn into currency. Of course, all is not what it seems, and the first inspector called in the second just so he could pontificate on how he figured out the inventor’s ruse.

Blur by Carmen Maria Machado

I grew frustrated with this magical realism tale. It began very promisingly as a woman on the way to visit her girlfriend, who loses her glasses at a rest stop, which renders her unable to continue driving. Stricken with fear that her abusive girlfriend will be furious with her, a man she meets decides to help her finish her journey, but then the story goes sideways. While there is a lot of symbolism about her accepting that she needs to step into a new reality and leave her girlfriend, I believe the message got muddied with the surreal aspect of it.

Tiger Baby by JY Yang

Felicity is an accountant in her 30’s, who unhappily still lives at home and dreams of being a tiger. In fact, the dreams are so regular and realistic, she actually feels she is the wrong body. Dismissive of her parents and newly pregnant sister, instead she takes great pleasure in feeding the neighborhood stray cats, but at this stage, I pitied and disliked her for her delusions and inability to connect with people. When she loses her job, something magical happens to Felicity but it is not quite what she had always dreamed about but might be more what she needed.

The House on the Moon by William Alexander

In this futuristic short story set on the moon, a disabled middle school student on a field trip visits a castle that had been shipped up from Earth. The rich owner had been an eccentric man who had been part of the Eugenics War but had been pardoned by the government and allowed to move to the moon. Some disquieting truths are brought up, and we realize the boy almost lost his life because of his disability. The ending was implausible, but there were enough interesting threads to think on, that I wish this story had been longer as to delve deeper into how discrimination affects people with disabilities.

The Water Museum by Nisi Shawl

In a future drought-affected world, a man is tasked with assassinating a woman named Granita who owns the rights to the Great Lakes watershed and runs a water museum. Granita was quite a character and I found her very appealing as she toyed with the man she picked up hitchhiking, who didn’t realize what he had gotten himself into. However, in the end, the reader realizes Granita is profoundly selfish as she used her wealth to hoard water and deprive thousands of people of its use for her own wasteful and narcissistic purposes. A lesson in that a pretty face and charismatic personality can hide a dark heart.

Jump by Cadwell Turnbull

I really engaged with this tale, as I connected with the couple Mike and Jesse who inexplicably experience something so fantastic that it can not be explained or recreated again. Mike is desperate for it to happen again, but this miracle or glitch in the universe’s design can’t be replicated, although he and Jesse try for years to do so. Eventually, Mike’s obsession begins to rend their relationship apart and the couple divorce. As they say their final goodbyes, Mike asks Jesse to try one last time, and… we don’t know what happens next! Although the conclusion was very predictable that it would end that way, I actually found it perfect.

The Specialist’s Hat by Kelly Link

This spooky tale was very ambiguous, and that made it stand out, as you will wonder what just happened when the story is over. Twins Claire and Samantha have recently lost their mother, and have moved with their father into their ancestral mansion out in the country- a typical setup for a horror story concerning children. Many plot twists are thrown in such as missing presumed dead ancestors, an absent father walking in the woods with a mysterious woman, a ghostly babysitter, a creepy twin vibe and a strange hat up in the attic. More questions will be raised than answered by the end of the tale, and you will not be clear what elements of the story are fantasy, horror, psychological or symbolic.

The Hofzinser Club by Michael Chabon

As coincidence would have it, I am two/thirds of the way through the novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, in which this story is now found in- although it originally was a short story first, and then dropped into the novel as a backstory for one of the main characters immigrant Joseph Kavalier. In this tale, Josef (before he Americanized his name in the novel) Kavalier, who lives in Prague in the 1930s, is a promising escape artist. He and his brother Thomas wish to join The Hofsinzer Club, an exclusive club for magicians. While talented, Josef’s wish to emulate Harry Houdini goes awry and the boys nearly drown during a dress rehearsal of an escape trick in the river. A very evocative story, and a refreshing step away from the fantasy stories that have been dominating the podcast lately. The author and Star Trek fan, Michael Chabon, is now executive produce of Star Trek: Picard and I am hoping Burton’s inclusion of the story means we will see his Star Trek character Geordi LaForge in the Picard series.

I struggled with this season, as not many of the stories really affected me. If I have to pick favorites they would be Jump and The Hofzinser Club, but they both pale to some earlier favorites I have had in previous seasons. But nevertheless, I look forward to season six, “But you don’t have to take my word for it.”

-Nancy

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