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Rebecca Roanhorse

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

LeVar Burton Reads: Season Seven

Season Seven’s theme was “surrender”. LeVar stated that sometimes we can not control our lives and the circumstances we are thrust into (Covid!), so these stories follow the idea that often we need to adapt and change to our surroundings. 

Pockets by Amal El-Mohtar

In the story, Nadia begins to discover strange items in her pockets, and some of them are so large as to not make sense that they could be found there. She confides in a friend who is a scientist, for she wants to know if this strange phenomenon can be explained. During the experiments, they meet another woman who is experiencing something similar and she helps Nadia stop questioning how and why and become more accepting of this new gift

Your Rover is Here by LP Kindred

A cab driver, Ahmad, is driving a fare out to a church and thinks his rider is singing to himself but then figures out it is actually evil chants. Ahmed then reveals he is actually a Jinn and combats the other man who was trying to hurt the congregation due to racism. This magical realism tale has a nice urban vibe and has an #ownvoices author, but didn’t excite me.

The Nine Curves River by RF Kuang

The fantasy story was devastatingly beautiful. Told from the older sister’s perspective, two sisters leave their island so the younger sister can give herself willingly to the dragon who will then end the drought in the region. Based on Chinese mythology this story of regrets and sacrifice will rip your heart to shreds. Read expertly by LeVar, he brought the dragon’s voice to life. I now want to read the author’s novel The Poppy War, for this tale is based on one of the character’s backstories.

Room For Rent by Richie Narvaez

This science-fiction tale had some bite, as you think about the different viewpoints of colonialism and how the dominating group justifies their actions. In this story, a pregnant alien is looking for a room to rent but finds out her new home is overrun with vermin, which actually turn out to be humans. We find out several types of aliens have overtaken Earth and now the original humans are being exterminated. At first, this alien seems kind and protects the humans, but soon enough her perspective changes and she condones her actions of killing them because she believes her kind deserves the land they unjustly took over. While this story has many parallels all over the world, my first thought was how whites took over Native American land and portrayed them as savages to excuse their genocide.

Cricket by Kenneth Yu

In this magical realism tale, the long-lived matriarch dies, leaving behind a large family that includes Richard the youngest son. It was his duty to take care of his mother and he looks bitterly at his older siblings whom he perceives as more successful as he. A magical cricket begins to speak to his family and says necessary truths to them all, especially about appreciating their life, but Richard in a rage kills it. A sad fable about how we need to not look outward for validation but try to improve the life we have in the here and now.

Madre Nuestra, Que Estas en Maracaibo by Ana Hurtado 

Yesenia is a put-upon mother from Venezuela who moves back to her parent’s home to care for her dying grandmother. Her marriage is ending, her children aren’t obedient, she left her unsatisfying career as a lawyer, plus then her parents heap more expectations upon her. Yesenia’s devout grandmother has always prayed for those at risk of purgatory, but when she is about to die herself, these souls come back and Yesenia has to fight them off thus helping pave a way to heaven for her Abuela and improving her life in the process.

Dune Song by Suyi Davies Okungbowa

In this post-apocalyptical desert world, a young girl struggles with surviving in a parched world. To keep villagers safe they are restricted to a fenced area, and if they leave, they are then banished. She and another youth decide to leave the safety of their village, so it becomes self vs community. The ending didn’t quite work for me, as I wasn’t sure if the wind storm signified their salvation or doom. I actually assumed the latter.

Wherein Abigail Fields Recalls Her First Death and, Subsequently, Her Best Life by Rebecca Roanhorse 

In this alternative timeline, set in the 1880s in New Mexico, Abigail is a Black young woman who is seeking revenge against the sheriff who killed her father years ago. She gives up her love interest to stay back and fulfill the covenant she made to kill him but realizes her hate is keeping her from living her best life. This story reminds me of the YA novel Dread Nation from Justina Ireland that also had an F/F romance set in the Old West with a magical realism angle. The podcast has a lengthy afterward by LeVar where he speaks of not being anti-white just because he is pro-Black. 

Low Energy Economy by Adrian Tchaikovsky

An asteroid miner on a solo space mission ruminates on his life as he mines for materials that Earth needs. He left his home hundreds of years ago, as he is put into hyper-sleep between landings, but he made the choice to take this job for his starving family would be fed for possible generations so long as his mining missions are successful. He is lonely and dying, with no way home, when upon his next awakening he is unexpectedly given the gift of seeing how his life’s work has benefitted his homeworld. A sweet tale about not giving up, even when you wonder if you are making a difference.

A Good Friday by Barbara Jenkins

Set in a Trinidad bar, a playboy meets a beautiful and religious woman but isn’t sure he wants to strike up a relationship with her because of her devoutness. But the tables are turned when she begins to take control, and ultimately he becomes her plaything. The story grew on me as it went, and because the story is framed as the man reminiscing years later, you don’t know if this new couple has a happy ending or not.

The Story We Used to Tell by Shirley Jackson

I was eagerly anticipating this story, as I have read other creepy tales by Shirley Jackson, a master of the short story. It started promisingly, with a woman visiting her recently widowed friend on her country estate when her friend suddenly disappears. After some investigation in her friend’s bedroom, she discovers a painting of the house and sees her in it, and then she herself is sucked in. I wish this eerie and atmospheric story had been a bit longer to flesh it out more. 

Little Man by Michael Cunningham

This re-telling of the Rumpelstiltskin tale will make you think how this gnome-man has been villainized unfairly (actually I always thought that!). In this story, we follow along as Rumpelstiltskin sees how a miller has gotten his daughter into an impossible situation with the king, and steps in to help. While somewhat thankful she takes up the king on his offer of marriage afterward, although he seems to be a horrible tyrant. Rumpelstiltskin tries to talk her out of it, but all she seems to want is riches and comfort, so that is when he strikes the deal with her for her first-born. That he loses and the king and queen unjustly remain in power, speaks to how life can seem so unfair at times, with the phrase “no good deed goes unpunished” seemingly apropos.

Mother of Invention by Nnedi Okorafor

This African futurism short story was longer and thus divided into two podcasts. Anwuli is a pregnant Nigerian woman who has been cast off by the father of her child after it is revealed he is married. The wife of her lover is vicious to Anwuli, placing the blame of the affair on her when her anger should be directed at the husband that betrayed her. Also shunned by her friends and family she retreats to a smart house, that cares for her when a deadly pollen storm unexpectedly hits the area and she goes into labor. The AI in her house ends up being kinder to her than any real people, and the ending was somewhat ambiguous as to what will happen next to Anwuli, her lover, his family and the houses that care for them.  An intriguing story that intertwined technology and human nature. A third podcast wrapped up this season with Levar interviewing the author Nnedi Okorafor

My favorite by far from this season was The Nine Curves River. Two others I would choose as my top picks are Room for Rent and Little Man.  As always I enjoy the stories that LeVar shares and 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 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

 

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