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LeVar Burton Reads: Season Four

LeVar Burton Reads season four included some real gems in the following eleven short stories!

Miracle by Tope Folarin

A young man, a recent immigrant, attends an evangelical Nigerian church where the congregation has gathered to witness the healing powers of a pastor who they believe can perform miracles. When he is chosen and the prophet declares that his eyes are healed, yet he still needs his glasses, he plays along for he realizes that the true miracle is the faith one holds and that his family is safely together in America.

Free Jim’s Mine by Tananarive Due

Lottie, a slave pregnant with her first child, escapes with her Cherokee husband William, and hopes for freedom. Lottie is eager to find her Uncle Jim, a former slave who is now free, in North Carolina as part of their journey as they head North. Jim warns them that he doubts their journey will end well and decides to hide them for the evening in a mine shaft. In the wet gloom, they are faced with supernatural evil, and Lottie discovers her uncle bought his freedom at a high cost. While the story starts with a historical fiction angle, it takes a dark turn and was quite effective.

Kwoon by Charles Johnson

Set in Chicago, a young man named David opens a martial art studio to not only teach fighting skills but to teach others self-control and accountability. Ed, an older new student joins and challenges David to a fight in front of other students, but fights dirty and beats David up. Although we are given Ed’s perspective of why he choose to do this, this puts David’s livelihood in jeopardy as he was shamed in front of everyone. But David perseveres in the end, not through physical fighting, but through his attitude and values. I was really rooting for the aptly named David, in what turned out to be a David and Goliath tale.

The Best We Can by Carrie Vaughn

Star Trek and other science fiction stories would lead you to believe that “first contact” is a game-changer for Earth civilizations and pushes us to discover the rest of the universe and countless other species. But this short story wryly recounts how when a scientist finds an abandoned alien space vessel in Jupiter’s orbit, how bureaucracy gets in the way of progress. This story seemed very realistic in how a discovery that you think would be life-changing ends up as almost an after-thought in the scientific world.

Mister Hadj’s Sunset Ride by Saladin Ahmed

In this old west tale, a young bounty hunter recounts his previous adventures with an older Arabian bounty hunter, whom he shared a common heritage with. The two men fight an evil preacher and his two sons and have a showdown with these men, with a bit of a supernatural twist. Often when we think of early immigrants, we think of those with European backgrounds, but this story had a welcome diversity although it also showcased how people lose their customs and family connections. This storyline reminded me of the graphic novel High Moon.

Republica and Grau by Daniel Alarcón

Maico is a ten-year-old boy who is forced to beg with a blind man on a street corner and is to bring all his wages home to his abusive father. The boy is compliant and does what he can to please both his father and the blind man until they both betray him and use him as a pawn. I was aghast at both men, whose selfish machoism affected both Maico and his poor mother. I was so proud of Maico of how he stood up to them, and what he did to end his partnership, yet…what does the future hold for him? As a reader, you hope this coming-of-age moment is the pivot for turning his life for the better, but reality is often harsh and you know he will face consequences for his actions.

The Galactic Tourist Industrial Complex by Tobias S. Buckell

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 aliens 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.

Toward Happy Civilization by Samanta Schweblin

In this surrealistic short story, a man is caught at a railroad station when the ticket master won’t give him a ticket out of town because he doesn’t have the correct change. Oddly, the ticket master and his wife take him in along with other passengers and they form a makeshift family of sorts. Eventually, they try to escape this purgatory type of existence, but the entire time I just wondered why they didn’t revolt or walk to the next station. Highly unsatisfying- my least favorite of the LeVar Burton Reads stories.

Flying Carpets by Steven Millhauser

This coming of age story was of the magical realism genre, which I typically do not like, but this story gets it right. A pre-teen youth is given a magical flying carpet to master, and although you might first think of Arabian Nights, he lives in an anonymous suburb. Master it he does and pushes it to the extreme limits before tiring of it and putting it away. The flying carpet is more a metaphor for growing up and outgrowing things you previously loved.

The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate by Ted Chiang

A lyrical Arabian Nights fable meets science fiction time traveling tale in this evocative short story. Fuwaad, a merchant in Bagdad, enters a new silver shop in the marketplace and unexpectedly is shown a time-traveling hoop that the shop owner, who is also an alchemist, explains to him. He is told three stories of people who have utilized time travel-“The Tale of the Fortunate Rope-Maker,” “The Tale of the Weaver Who Stole from Himself,” and “The Tale of the Wife and Her Lover” – and thus we begin a tale within a tale. Finally, Fuwaad tries the time travel himself, going back 20 years, as he hopes to right a wrong from his past although he is told that events can not be undone- the past or future will not change. Lessons are learned in these lovely circular tales of fate and were worth the two storytelling sessions taken on the podcast to finish.

L’Aquilone du Estrellas (The Kite of Stars) by Dean Francis Alfar

The story starts out promisingly as 16-year-old Maria Isabella from the Philippines falls in love with a young man who is an astronomer. Determined to catch his attention, she convinces a butcher’s boy to help her find all the materials she will need to construct a kite that she could fly to the stars and get the astronomer to fall in love with her. But the quest to find the materials takes her 60 years and during that time she conscripted the butcher’s boy to help, thus wasting both of their lives. Despite being her traveling companion for decades she never once asks him his name or returns his affections. Her obsession was cruel, misguided and foolish to the extreme. While she is successful in obtaining what is needed, it comes at a steep price, and I hated her for it. I was shocked the LeVar said this was one of his favorite stories, as this tale of unrequited love was one of my least favorites.

This season proved to be it’s most uneven- I had more favorites than usual, but then it had two stories that I hated. My favorites included The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate, Republica and Grau, The Galactic Tourist Industrial Complex, and Free Jim’s Mine. The two I disliked were The Kite of Stars and Toward Happy Civilization.

As of now, I only have one more season until I catch up. LeVar’s selections are always interesting (even if I don’t like them) and I have been exposed to so many wonderful authors and stories through his podcast. Listen for yourself, “but you don’t have to take my word for it.”

-Nancy

Wolverine: The Lost Trail podcast

Wolverine is back in another strong podcast from Marvel! I was a huge fan of season one which proved to be more a murder mystery, while Logan was kept on the periphery of the narrative, but in this season he is front and center.

Among the Missing

After the Burns, Alaska, disaster, Logan returns to the New Orleans area looking for his ex-lover Maureen. He had made a few calls to her when up north, so when he can’t get in touch with her, he assumes the worst and searches for her. He tracks her down to a bar she sang at, and a teen employee there, tells Logan that her disappearance might be related to another case. All the people in Marcus’s mutant village disappeared after someone mysterious had convinced him to take him to the remote bayou where they were hiding. Agent Sally Pierce is back on the case, sounding different as she wants to blend in (but also a nod to what we discovered about her in season one).

The Forgotten

Marcus tracks Logan to Maureen’s apartment where he is looking for clues. Maureen was obviously onto something, as she has newspaper clippings and a map tracking a rash of disappearances of both mutants and humans in the area.  A playing card pinned to the fridge points Logan in the direction of my favorite rogue Gambit. But Gambit doesn’t truly have much information to share, and in my opinion, he didn’t sound suave enough with the delicious accent I have come to expect, in this podcast. (If you are interested in Gambit growing up and marrying Rogue, checkout Mr. And Mrs. X)

The Cold Blooded

Logan moves on to Bourbon Street where he meets up with a flamboyant former operative, to help him get the talkative Marcus to safety. A trashy biker gang is put on the case by Pierce and they are very anti-mutant, as people in Louisana are more aware of them than they were in Alaska. Things go haywire and Marcus and Logan barely escape and head into the swamp to look for the man they believe is responsible for all the missing people.

Into the Swamp

This was a bridge episode- not a lot happened but we were privy to some character development about Logan. We also get some clarification on Agent Pierce and her connection to Weapon X. The man they are after is revealed, and while it was who I thought it would be, I was abashed at how long it took me to think him up, as I am rusty on my Marvel villains. I should have guessed who Wyngarde was right off based on Marcus’s first description of him.

Riverboat Revival

Logan’s mind had been wiped clean several times by Weapon X, and while some memories occasionally bubble to the surface, Marcus realizes Logan needs help retrieving them so he can find Wyngarde and his mysterious compound Greenhaven. They meet with a fortune teller to help Logan access his memories, and her characterization is such a broad stereotype that it made me cringe to hear her talk. Marcus is scared off by Logan’s dark past and runs off just to meet up with Gambit again. The sound effects in this episode were confusing and made me lose track of what was supposed to be going on.

Blood on the Bayou

The biker gang is intent on killing Logan, although that goes against the wishes of Agent Pierce who only wishes for him to be captured alive. The hate the leader of the gang expresses towards mutants is very reminiscent of the classic X-Men story, God Loves, Man Kills.  Pierce is showing some uncharacteristic empathy these last few episodes, which is quite different from her brusque personality from last season. Gambit and Logan work together to save Marcus from the bikers, and off they go again in search of Greenhaven.

Welcome to Greenhaven

Marcus and Logan arrive in Greenhaven but they both have different experiences when reunited with their loved ones. Not surprisingly, all is not what it seems at the mutant haven, led by the cult-like leader Wyngarde. What is Wyngarde really planning?

The Proposition

Maureen and Logan are reunited, but Maureen’s demeanor seems off- how much has she been affected by Wyndgarde’s telepathic powers? Their memories are suspect, and you begin to wonder what really happened between them and Wyngarde when all three escaped together from Weapon X.  After Maureen leaves, Pierce arrives and makes a proposition to Logan that he reluctantly accepts. No one is to be trusted at this point, with conflicting motivations and intentions.

Greenhaven is Everywhere

Maureen and Pierce meet, as do Logan and Wyndgarde. Betrayals and alliances are forged, but as the Weapon X sentinels are arriving to wage war with the mutants, everything is up for grabs. Will Wyndegard be able to dominate the world with his mind tricks? Plus, the first reference about Gambit and Logan being X-Men in the past together is mentioned, which ups my confusion- why aren’t they X-Men any longer??

Deal with the Devil

All hell breaks loose at Greenhaven as the sentinels arrive. Marcus tries to escape with his mother, as Maureen and Pierce come up with a plan to stop the robots. That leaves Logan and Wyngarde to battle it out, and as not to spoil how it all ends, let’s just say there is double-cross after double-cross. I was relieved that Logan finally listened to Maureen, because a trope that annoys me is the “noble” person who sacrifices everything for their loved one, but never consults that loved one. I enjoyed the epilogue which both brings the story to a close, yet leaves enough plot threads open to continue.

These two podcasts about Logan/Wolverine have been excellent. In some ways, I enjoyed season one more, as the narrative was more atypical, and this season was the classic superhero story. I read that the Fantastic Four might get the next podcast treatment, and if so, I will check it out, as writer Benjamin Percy has shown himself to create superior stories that capture the audience’s attention and never let’s go!

-Nancy

Voice Cast:

Richard Armitage as Logan / Wolverine

Bill Irwin as Jason Wyngarde / Mastermind

Bill Heck as Remy LeBeau / Gambit

Rodney Henry as Marcus Baptiste

Christina Bennett Lind as Agent Sally Pierce

Blair Brown as Bonnie Roach

Mugga as Ruby Baptiste

Rachael Holmes as Maureen

LeVar Burton Reads Live

I have stated the LeVar Burton is the celebrity I most want to meet, and perhaps I will, as Burton now travels around sharing short stories with a live audience. These eight stories appeared between season three and four on Burton’s podcast and included interviews with the authors afterward.

Playing Nice with God’s Bowling Ball by N.K. Jemisin

Playing Nice with God’s Bowling Ball was an enjoyable short story that juxtaposed a police procedural with a fantastical crime. When Jeffy, a young boy, confesses to a detective that he is responsible for a playmate’s disappearance, she needs to investigate. What Grace, the detective, finds out about Jeffy defies logic, with an explanation that points to a black hole, aliens and a possible world collapse. Still not entirely sure of what truly happened, Grace takes precautions to safeguard the future by helping Jeffy come to terms with his power. This was a fun story that had elements of the X-Files, Guardians of the Galaxy and Law and Order in it.

Asymmetry by Kendra Fortmeyer

Asymmetry was an interesting short story that kept you off-kilter, as the reader isn’t sure if the story is supposed to be fantasy or a metaphor. The story begins with a fantasy element-two women both show up for a date and it turns out they are clones of one another. Reeling from a recent divorce the women go home together and take turns going into work while the other stays home. Although they are the same person, one of the women begins to recover faster from her heartbreak while the other holds onto her grief, but then begins to shrink in size. The ending makes it seem as if the story is a metaphor for getting over sorrow, but no matter, it was an enjoyable story.

The Vishakanya’s Choice by Roshani Chokshi

Sudha is a Vishakanya, a poison maiden who is utilized as an assassin in the Middle East. She is forced into this role, for her fates said she would be a young widow, so Sudha is told she will serve her king better in this role. Assigned to kill a rival king, Sudha reluctantly heads to his kingdom to do so, but finds him ill and almost at death’s door. He recognizes her purpose and the two come to an agreement of how they both can help one another. I found this story a perfect length, as Chokshi is a lyrical writer who brings her culture’s folklore to life but can tend towards purple prose in a full-length novel.

Four Stations in His Circle by Austin Clarke

At first, I hated the story- as a Barbados immigrant tries to social climb in Toronto and loses his cultural identity in the process. This man was so goal-orientated on buying a particular house in a tony neighborhood that he rejects his mother dying back home on the island and all his former friends, so he can save money and be accepted by his neighbors when he finally is able to move there. But by the end of the story, my opinion had changed for while I still hated the main character, his empty life of not fitting in either world made me reflect on losing oneself for the sake of appearances.

In The City of Martyrs by Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam

This short story reminded me of the novel 1984 with a dash of The Hunger Games. A young man sees a woman on a crowded city street whose face gives him déjà vu and gives him a memory that tickles his thoughts without him being able to fully realize it. He searches her out at the city palace and finds out his connection to her plus how the corrupt regime has been able to send so many young soldiers to war. This fantasy tale was solid, with some parallels to real-world kidnapings by authoritarian governments.

A Dark Night by Edward P. Jones

The story description is “a stormy evening leads to a dark night of the soul,” and while part of that was true, it felt disjointed and cobbled together. The story begins with several senior citizen women gossiping and reminiscing about their past and ends with two women fearfully waiting out a storm. The characters were written with precision, but the beginning, middle and end of the story didn’t mesh together well.

Driftglass by Samuel R. Delany

In this particular story, an amphiman (surgery has been developed that gives humans gills) who was hurt in a deep-sea explosion in his youth now lives by the seaside in a village of fisherman. Life goes on around him, and he is an integral part of village life, as dangerous work continues in the ocean trenches and he is worried about how it will affect his loved ones. I view this story as speculative fiction, for although it reads like magical realism now, it was written in 1967 so the author was speculating on what he thought might happen in the future, yet it has a timeless feel.

Mono No Aware by Ken Liu

In this sci-fi/dystopian story, a meteor is headed on a collision course with Earth, and countries are scrambling to build space ships to escape. A Japenese boy, Hiroto, is able to board a US ship that is the only ship that was able to leave orbit in enough time, and thus he tries to represent his home country nobly as the years go by and the ship looks for a welcoming planet to make a home on. When a malfunction occurs and he is the only one that can repair it, he makes the ultimate sacrifice to make sure everyone on board gets back on course to safety. The title refers to a Japanese term for the awareness of impermanence, or transience of things, and both a transient gentle sadness at their passing as well as a longer, deeper gentle sadness about this state being the reality of life (translation from Wikipedia).

All eight live readings were delightful, and I enjoyed hearing the interview with the writers afterward. Hearing the authors share what they were thinking as they wrote their stories was illuminating and gave more insight to the story. Make sure you tune in to this podcast,  “but you don’t have to take my word for it.”

-Nancy

Wolverine: The Long Night podcast

Although I am a fan of Marvel and especially the X-Men, I have read remarkably few graphic novels about them recently. I heard about this Wolverine podcast during a commercial on the LeVar Burton Reads podcast that I listen to, so after I wrapped up season three of that podcast, I decided to give this one a try. I’m so glad I did!

The set-up of this ten chapter series: following a string of mysterious deaths in Burns, Alaska, Special Agents Sally Pierce and Tad Marshall arrive to investigate. They soon find there’s more going on than meets the eye.

A Thousand Ways To Die In Alaska

In this first episode, FBI agents Pierce and Marshall arrive in Burns, Alaska to investigate a fishing boat massacre that seems to be more than a drug run gone bad. When slash marks are found in the boat hull, we know that Logan, aka Wolverine, is tied in- because that’s what the podcast is all about, hence the title!

Goodnight Nobody

The agent’s line of questioning of the local police and townspeople point to them suspecting Logan, although they won’t admit that they are there under false pretenses. For a podcast based on Wolverine, he as a character has factored in very little yet. He is described by others and in some of these remembrances his voice is heard, but he has yet to play a significant role. The agents are also questioning the supposed bear attacks of two local women recently and the quote “Goodnight Nobody” tattooed on one of the victims leads them to a new mysterious cult.

Underground

Additional suspicions are raised about the Aurora cult, a reclusive group that has settled in the area recently, led by Nicholas Prophet. Agents Pierce and Marshall investigate, accompanied by young Deputy Bobby Reid (who sounds incredibly like Tom Holland of Spiderman fame), to see if the Prophet could shed any insight on the rash of deaths in the community. Their compound is creepy, but no big clues to connect the cult with Logan are obvious as of yet.

Hunters

More suspects are interviewed by agents Pierce and Marshall.  The rich Langrock family, who are benefactors to the town but are  (not surprisingly) not what they seem, become the newest suspects. Could they be behind the drugs that one fisherman saw on the fishing boat before the bags disappeared? Other clues point to eco-terrorists in the area, and one family with feral children have connections to Logan. Descriptions of Logan are shattering my view of him as the dreamy Hugh Jackman, as he is described as short, squat and ugly. Sigh…

Into the Woods

The Langrock family sponsors a hunt to find the bear that has supposedly killed two women and the night before attacked yet another woman. Are they doing this as a true public service to the community or are they trying to distract the agents from the real killer? Clues would point to a double-cross, as video footage viewed by the agents show the local police in the Langrock’s back pocket, and they advise young deputy Reid to not be so subservient to those in power.

Archeology of the Night

A sacred grove of old-growth trees located in a canyon with ancient petroglyphs is scheduled to be logged by the Langrock family, and this news ties in with the eco-terrorists, the cult, the woman most recently mauled and Logan. A web of clues is slowly coming together, but more clues are needed such as who is the creature that is doing the mauling, that doesn’t quite sound like Logan (of course we all know he didn’t do it). And we find out some surprising news about Reid, and that perhaps his aww-shucks persona is hiding another agenda.

You’re Next

Clues on how the Langrock family is managing to smuggle the drugs between their fishing cannery and their logging company is revealed through research at the local library (be still my heart!). The sacred grove and a recently discovered cave with mystical symbols reminds me of the Pet Semetary novel by Stephen King and is furthered by a reference to a Wendigo monster that an Inuit man brings up…yet the Wendigo monster is a mythical creature from Native American tribes on the eastern coast of the United States and Canada and not of Inuit folklore. This hallowed area is also referred to as the Tarrack—a spiritual nexus that has the power to exact revenge on those that wish to destroy the region.

The Red Sunset

When a prime suspect is found dead, the agents are thrown for a loop, especially when the cult is found worshipping in front of the dead body and Prophet speaks of another future sacrifice.  A young woman with a strong allegiance to Logan clues them in to look into another suspect that I guessed earlier would be the true culprit. References are made by the agents about mutant genes, yet they seem slow on the uptake that there could be another mutant local to the town, besides Logan.

The Changing

In this penultimate episode, we find out definitively who the killer is (it’s who I thought it would be!) and there is a deep pathos in the person’s background that twisted them into a cold-blooded killer when their mutant power kicked in. Used as a pawn for revenge against others, the killer has a break with reality and fights Logan, just to run off and disappear into the woods. As we head into the last episode, questions remain about how the cult ties into all of this, and what the agents know about Logan’s past and mutant powers. I do want to mention that the sound effects in this podcast are excellent, with the noises heard in a pivotal scene in this chapter really adding to the atmosphere.

No Escape

What an ending! Turns out there was a huge secret that brusque agent Pierce and easy-going agent Marshall were hiding, and I was completely surprised, although there had been a tiny clue in the last chapter. What I liked is that some of the plot’s threads remain open, there is no neat conclusion to what happens to all the residents of Burns, Alaska. Logan finally takes center stage in the last chapter as he meets one of the agents, and through some references he makes to his past, I remain a bit muddled on his timeline in the X-Men universe. But no matter what, Weapon X (btw, that’s not a spoiler to the big secret I mentioned earlier) won’t give up on capturing what they consider their biggest asset, and I’m sure that will play a big part in Season Two- The Long Trail.

This podcast was beyond good! The voice actors were perfect for their roles, with Logan, Pierce and Marshall standing out. There is a graphic novel based on this story available, and I look forward to reading that to compare how the visual and the auditory versions match up. I will definitely be listening to season two, and between that and the LeVar Burton Reads podcast, I have much to enjoy listening to on my commute to work!

-Nancy

Voice Cast:

Richard Armitage as Logan / Wolverine

Celia Keenan-Bolger as Agent Sally Pierce

Ato Essandoh as Agent Tad Marshall

Andrew Keenan-Bolger as Deputy Bobby Reid

Scott Adsit as Sheriff Ridge

Brian Stokes Mitchell as Nicholas Prophet

Bob Balaban as Joseph Langrock

LeVar Burton Reads: Season Three

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.”

-Nancy

Catch up on previous seasons at: Season One, Season Two

 

LeVar Burton Reads: Season Two

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.”

-Nancy

Check out my reviews for Season One!

LeVar Burton Reads: Season One

Ever since I discovered LeVar Burton Reads, which is an outstanding podcast showcasing short stories, I have listened to LeVar’s melodious voice on a weekly basis, and kept track of the stories through my Goodreads account. Now that I have finished season one, I am ready to share!

Kin by Bruce McAllister

Kin is a short story that builds momentum as you suddenly see how the title relates to the relationship between an Earth boy and an assassin alien. Young Kim contacts an Antalou alien and convinces him to prevent the forced abortion of his yet-to-be-born sister. At first you will wonder why this alien follows through on the boy’s request, but this quietly menacing story will show you how the mercenary alien recognizes that the two share a kinship of character. Evil can put on an innocent face and the alien knows Kim’s true nature will soon reveal itself.

The Lighthouse Keeper by Daisy Johnson

This magical realism short story tells of a solitary woman who is a lighthouse keeper. One night while swimming in the ocean she comes across a unique fish and becomes entranced with it. Worried that the local fisherman will catch it, she tries to protect it, although many townspeople think her actions strange. While the tale was poetic and filled with symbolism, I did not connect with the woman or the narrative in a larger sense.

Empty Places by Richard Parks

Empty Places, a high fantasy short story about a wizard and a rogue, started slow but ended quite satisfactorily. The wizard employs a thief to put an unknown package in the nursery of the newborn prince. The thief, having some morals, asks if the package will hurt the child and the two have a battle of wits as they journey towards the castle. While you might assume the wizard is up to no good, there was a surprising and poignant ending.

What It Means When a Man Falls From The Sky by Lesley Nneka Arimah

Author Lesley Nneka Arimah quickly world builds and establishes believable characters in this short story. This story is an interesting mix of magical realism, sci-fi and even folk lore with the idea that “grief counselors” can use advanced math equations to take away people’s grief. But as the story advances we learn that taking on other’s people sadness is too heavy a burden and there are repercussions. This tale is layered and you will think of the metaphors in the story long after you finished it.

Graham Greene by Percival Everett

The short story Graham Greene is refreshing, not only in how it’s told but that it is set on a Wyoming Arapaho reservation. The story subverts your expectations and details a story about Roberta, an 102 year old woman, who is looking for her son before her death. She claims she has not seen him in decades and entreats Jack, who had worked on a water project on the reservation years ago, to find him. Given a picture, but few additional details, Jack goes out into the community to search for him. Not only does Jack make some assumptions about the son, but so do people who see the picture he has (hence the name of the story). The ending is bittersweet and you will think back to Roberta’s motivation for the favor and why she specifically asked Jack to do it.

Chivalry by Neil Gaiman

This short story was sweet- no more, no less. A British matron finds an interesting chalice in a local thrift sale only to discover it is the mythical Holy Grail when Sir Galaad comes to her door in search of it. Mrs. Whitaker lives a quiet peaceful life, so her reaction to a knight requesting this holy relic is surprisingly subdued. She puts him off as she is fond of the chalice on her mantle piece- not because she is hoping for some great power for owning it. Sir Galaad persists and offers her several rewards, but she ends up giving it to him more out of kindness than any desire for what he is offering her in return. She is content in simple pleasures while he wants a grand adventure, but ultimately both are chivalrous to one another and both are happy with the end result.

The Second Bakery Attack by Haruki Murakami

The Second Bakery Attack is a short story that details an unusual robbery by newlyweds. This odd tale has a husband and wife wake up in the middle of the night ravenously hungry, and while they search their apartment fruitlessly for food, the husband shares that he once robbed a bakery store with a friend back in his college days. The wife believes they must rob another bakery store to break the curse of their hunger, but they end up robbing a Tokyo McDonalds of 30 hamburgers instead. Mysteriously the wife has a sawed-off shotgun that her husband knew nothing about, so you begin to wonder how well this married couple truly know one another.

1,000 Year Old Ghosts by Laura Chow Reeve

A bittersweet short story about how a family tried repressing memories to avoid pain, but the practice has long term consequences for the women. The story is told from the granddaughter’s perspective, and she recounts how her grandmother taught her how to remove her bad memories and pickle them in jars. The Chinese grandmother and granddaughter share a kinship, while the mother disapproved of the practice, and soon you see why. By removing the bad memories, gaps are left and the entire memory becomes corrupted. The good memories left become hazy, with no corresponding bad memories to balance them. A coping mechanism started in one generation ends up affecting future generations, and you hope that the granddaughter will stop this practice and appreciate and cope with the life she is living now.

Navigators by Mike Meginnis

This short story grew on me, as you start to realize how the title of the story ties in with the narrative. Joshua is a young boy living with his newly divorced father who bond over the RPG Legend of Silence they play together every day. The twist in the game is not to level up, but for the heroine to lose her power by the end of the game. This parallels their lives, as father and son are living in diminished circumstances, with unpaid bills and food rationing. You hurt for this little family, for as they pour their attention into navigating the game, they are not navigating real life well. Joshua’s mother is not in the story, yet her presence is felt, and you hope that once they reach the conclusion of the game, the father will find some stability for them both.

The Paper Menagerie by Ken Liu

Bi-racial Jack is a young boy who is comforted by his Chinese mother one night after a nightmare as she folds him an origami collection of paper animals. She breathes life into them and the small menagerie become Jack’s favorite play toys. But as Jack grows up, he becomes embarrassed by his mother in his American neighborhood, and tries to fit in with his peers by rejecting her language and customs. His mother becomes silent, stung by his exclusion, and his origami animals are forgotten. During his college years, Jack’s mother is dying of cancer, and only after her death does he receive a letter from her in one of the origami animals that explains how she came to be a mail-order bride to Jack’s white father. The tale of her youth was heartbreaking and explained so much, but it was too late for Jack to rectify their relationship. The excellent story about identity brought into sharp focus how some mistakes can not be fixed, and how becoming Americanized can sadly lead to rejection of one’s culture and heritage.

No Man’s Guns by Elmore Leonard

Author Elmore Leonard is known for his Western tales and crime/thrillers, some of which have been adapted to screen- Get Shorty, Out of Sight, Hombre, 3:10 to Yuma and Jackie Brown. In one of his earlier Western short stories, No Man’s Gun, a newly-discharged soldier runs into trouble on his journey home, and he must fight for his innocence in a case of mistaken identity. He has to convince a group that he is not an outlaw as to avoid a lynching. He narrowly avoids the quick frontier justice by out smarting someone who was trying to double-cross him, and there is a hint he will ride off into the sunset with a woman he recently met on the trail. If you are a fan of westerns, this short tale will interest you.

Goat by James McBride

When a 12 year old boy shows a talent for running, which could lead to scholarships and further schooling opportunities, a well-meaning teacher tracks down the family of her student, nicknamed Goat. She finds out the family has more needs than she ever envisioned, but she is determined to do right by the family, and helps them with paperwork that will help Goat at school and for an older brother to avoid being drafted into the Vietnam War. The story seems to be going in one direction, when the birth certificate twist at the conclusion of the story changes everything and puts a pall on the entire story.  That ending…no, just no.

These twelve episodes were a varied lot- different genres included magical realism, western, sci-fi, fantasy and realistic fiction. I will absolutely be listening to further episodes, as LeVar sucks you into the story no matter if you think you’ll like the story or not. Check out the podcast LeVar Burton Reads yourself, “but you don’t have to take my word for it.”

-Nancy

LeVar Burton Reads

LeVar Burton + short stories on podcast = Reading Rainbow for adults!

As I detailed in an earlier post about choosing my perfect Star Trek crew, LeVar is the celebrity I most want to meet- from his portrayal of Kunte Kinte in Roots, to his love of literacy in Reading Rainbow, and then his Star Trek TNG role- I kinda love him. He has rightly been associated with reading for decades and there is a whole generation who would recognize his melodic voice anywhere. Thus, there are adults like myself who went from listening to him reading storybooks in Reading Rainbow to having their own children watch the show, and who now listen to his podcast.

LeVar selects short stories from many different genres and at the end puts the story in context and explains why he choose it. While some well known authors such as Neil Gaiman, Ursula K. Le Guin and Octavia Butler have been chosen, lesser known authors are also showcased. He voices the stories expertly, and brings them to life for the listener. He ends each podcast with his catch phrase “I’ll see you next time, but you don’t have to take my word for it.”

The LeVar Burton Reads podcast is not to be missed, and I want you to take my word for it, and check it out if you haven’t already!

-Nancy

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