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The Empire Strikes Back: From a Certain Point of View

I love Star Wars! I love short stories! Together this second collection was a win-win for me, as I also loved the previous book Star Wars: From a Certain Point of View.

Forty authors celebrated forty years since The Empire Strikes Back was released by contributing a story of background or supporting characters from the ending of A New Hope to the ending of  TESB movie. What I especially like about short stories is you can read an entire story in bite-sized portions, perfect for when you are a full-time working mom like myself who has limited reading time but loves to read!  There are a few spoilers, but I did my best not to give it all away!

Eyes of the Empire by Kiersten White 4/5

An Empire soldier who is tasked with watching video feed from traveling droids around the universe clues in that the Rebels are on Hoth and alerts the command. When she realizes her intel led to much death and destruction, she lets some data from Dagobah go unreported…

Hunger by Mark Oshiro 4/5

The Wampa on Hoth that attacked Luke gets some poignant backstory. He just wanted to feed his family!

Ion Control by Emily Skrutskie 3.5/5

A Rebel soldier on Hoth helps transport her fellow soldiers off planet when the Empire finds their base.  Persevering while the base falls apart, she is determined to get as many to safety as she can.

A Good Kiss by C.B. Lee 4/5

Not every soldier gets to shine, behind-the-scenes drudge work is a necessity to keep troops fed and safe. But one soldier finally does get his turn to be a hero when his knowledge of the back tunnels proves invaluable. Plus, his crush returns his affections as they escape to safety.

She Will Keep Them Warm by Deliah S. Dawson 3.5/5

A mother Tauntaun who is used by the Rebels as transport has her own feelings about how her family herd is being utilized, but you know she will make the ultimate sacrifice to keep a certain someone warm.

Heroes of the Rebellion by Amy Ratcliffe 3/5

A reporter stationed on Hoth hopes to get exciting stories from Luke, Leia and Han as they are recognized heroes but realizes there are so many more heroic stories out there from everyday soldiers and civilians.

Rogue Two by Gary Whitta 3/5

A pilot who hates the cold worries that Han and Luke won’t make it back alive when they are caught outside at night and is the one who radios back that he found them the next morning.

Kendal by Charles Yu 4/5

Admiral Kendal Ozzel ruminates on the path that got him to the point where he is being Force-choked by Lord Vader. As he dies he realizes he made horrible choices that led to him joining the Empire vs the Rebels that his former-fiancé wanted to join. But before all that, he was just a child who loved his mother’s cooking.

Against All Odds by R.F. Kuang 4/5

Dak is a gunner for Luke, and views it as the highest honor, as both men work well together. But even the most experienced and competent soldiers can run into bad luck.

Beyond Hope by Michale Moreci 4/5

A soldier whose home planet was taken over by the Empire is looking for revenge and joins the Rebels. But this story is the opposite of the one before, as this soldier survives, less due to talent, but because of luck.

The Truest Duty by Christie Golden 4/5

General Veers of the Empire reveals he fed Admiral Ozzel some incorrect data which resulted in him making a bad move which brought down the wrath of Vader upon him. Now Veers has been promoted and will not let Vader down.

A Naturalist on Hoth by Hank Green 5/5

A dedicated scientist studying the flora and fauna of Hoth makes a radical decision when the base is attacked. This was a weird little tale, but I loved it.

The Dragonsnake Saves R2 by Katie Cook 3/5

A one-page cutesy cartoon about how the swimming alien on the planet Dagobah saved R2 from the swamp that he and Luke crash-landed on.

For The Last Time by Beth Revis 3/5

Admiral Piett of the Empire also stays true to Vader after witnessing Ozzel’s death.

Rendezvous Point by Jason Fry 5/5

This longer story highlights Wedge Antilles, a respected pilot from A New Hope who flew with Luke against the first Death Star. A new squadron needs to be assembled and he helps pull together new pilots. Many are rookies and he puts them through simulators but they need to fly out on a mission soon, and he needs to make hard decisions as he knows some won’t survive. This was an important story that shows the nitty-gritty of war.

The Final Order by Seth Dickinson 4/5

Captain Tian and Commander Canonhaus serve together on the Imperial ship Ultimatum and have a fraught conversation, as neither trusts the motives of the other. How depressing, one can never ever let their guard down as betrayals are common among them.

Amara Kel’s Rules for TIE Pilot Survival (Probably) by Django Wexler 5/5

We are introduced to a likable TIE pilot who has rules for herself so she stays alive. But she breaks them when she starts to fall for another pilot.  New recruits = “cloudflies” was dark humor at its best.

The First Lesson by Jim Zub 4/5

Yoda’s thoughts when he meets impetuous Luke for the first time.

Disturbance by Mike Chen 3.5/5

Emperor Palpatine feels a great disturbance in the Force and sees a possible future play out in his mind before he summons Vader to his chambers.

This Is No Cave by Catherynne M. Valente 2/5

This is another creature POV story, this time it’s about the animal found in the asteroid belt that the Millennium Falcon needed to escape from. While I found The Baptist by Nnedi Okorafor in the previous book and Hunger by Mark Oshiro in this book solid, this was a miss for me.

Lord Vader Will See You Now by John Jackson Miller 4/5

When a story deeply centers on a minor character, it’s a clue that this person is found in non-canon Star Wars books and graphic novels. Such was the case with Rae Sloane who needs to explain her actions first to Admiral Piett then to Vader. Her instincts prove to be correct.

Vergence by Tracy Deonn 2/5

The cave that Luke was tested in on Dagobah now has a POV too. Whatever.

Tooth and Claw by Michael Kogge 3/5

The reptilian bounty-hunter Bossk has it out for Chewbacca. I’ve always thought Chewbacca should have been more developed, but this story was just about how emo Bossk is.

STETI by Daniel Jose Older 2.5/5

A story trying too hard to be clever- this is written as if it were an edited article for the Galactic Digest from a journalist who is much too close to his news source during a bloody feud in a diner.

Wait for It by Zoraida Cordova 4/5

Boba Fett is summoned by Vader along with some other bounty hunters to capture Han Solo and the Millennium Falcon. He now lays in wait for his mark.

Standard Imperial Procedure by Sarwat Chadda 4.5/5

Ashon is an Imperial janitor, who was a former engineer who had a dramatic fall from grace. When he spots something that Boba Fett wants, his fate is sealed. This was a great story, but that ending…

There is Always Another by Mackenzi Lee 5/5

Obi-Wan Kenobi even in death regrets many of his past choices with Anakin. His thoughts on Yoda’s martyrdom and choice to reside of Dagobah made me laugh. When he tries to help Yoda talk Luke out of leaving his Jedi training, he compares Luke to his father and it pains him. This really humanized Obi-Wan and I loved it.

Fake It Till You Make It by Cavon Scott 3/5

Jaxxon, a rabbit-type smuggler tries to talk Lando into a shady deal on Cloud City, but Lando has other things on his mind. This scoundrel has a redeeming moment at the end, and turns out he is a character from older Star Wars graphic novels.

But What Does He Eat? by S.A. Chakraborty 3.5/5

Lando is trying to impress Vader and calls in his acclaimed head chef to cook a meal for him and the other Imperial guards. The chef does her best, but does Vader actually eat?

Beyond the Clouds by Lilliam Rivera 3/5

Isabalia is a lackluster newbie bounty hunter based out of Cloud City, but pivots when given a chance to join a new rebel movement.

No Time for Poetry by Austin Walker 3/5

Droid assassin IG-88 and bounty hunter Dengar form an unlikely partnership when hunting for Han Solo.

Bespin Escape by Martha Wells 3.5/5

A clan of alien Ugnaughts scramble to find a ship to get safety off Cloud City when the Imperial forces arrive.

Faith in an Old Friend by Brittany N. Williams 4/5

Piloting droid LS-37, last seen in the movie Solo, is now part of the Millennium Falcon’s circuitry. She still has a crush on Lando and helps get them to safety. It was nice to have a story about this droid that we got to know in a movie, and who I felt had an ignoble end there.

Due on Batuu by Rob Hart 3/5

Two Cloud City residents see an opportunity to escape with a package that could give them some coin if put in the right hands.

Into the Clouds by Karen Strong 3.5/5

A poor little rich girl and handsome pilot escape from Cloud City together- perhaps into a happily ever after.  This was a bit of a romance story that was just loosely tied to Star Wars, but I found it more appealing than I thought I would.

The Witness by Adam Christopher 4/5

Another story that gives an Imperial soldier some humanity. Deena, Stormtrooper TK-27342, has had enough and decides to desert at the siege on Cloud City. By accident she witnesses some of the battle between Vader and Luke. I was rooting for her.

The Man Who Built Cloud City by Alexander Freed 2/5

A delusional man who believes he is king of Cloud City is helped to safety by a security guard. So the guard put his own loved ones in danger to rescue this man??

The Backup Backup Plan by Anne Toole 3/5

This longer story was about the residents left behind on Cloud City who didn’t escape and how they skirt around the new Imperial law. Sure this took place in the Star Wars universe, but it didn’t relate to the movie.

Right-Hand Man by Lydia Kang 4.5/5

A medical droid completes the surgery on Luke to give him a new right cybernetic hand and has some surprisingly poignant and wise words for Luke. Clever title.

The Whills Strike Back by Tom Angleberger 5/5

Another amusing entry about how the Whills scholars decide on what to include in the word scroll in the introduction of each movie.  Loved the sly reference to Life Day! The author Angleberger did the same for the first book, and I hope he closes out the next book too.

This collection was strong and evolved from the first anthology, with less clunkers. It fleshed out some characters believably and added some diversity with some LGBTQ+ romances. My only criticisms there are too many creature POVs and Luke was shown inconsistently from story to story. Sometimes he was a wise God-like hero other times a petulant hothead. But all in all, a fun read for all Star Wars fans and I look forward to the next 40-year anniversary book for Return of the Jedi.

-Nancy

Noir: A Collection of Crime Comics

Noir is a “genre of crime fiction that is characterized by cynicism, fatalism, and moral ambiguity” and these black and white short stories definitely fit that definition. Chosen as this month’s pick from the Goodreads group, I Read Comic Books, I was intrigued and looked forward to reading the thirteen stories. However, the graphic novel got off to a very rough start and I almost put it down. 

Stray Bullets: Open The Goddamn Box by David Lapham and Clem Robins

WTF- why is the first story? A teen girl is kidnapped by two males who plan to rape her. She manages to escape but not before another rape occurs, and she seems to perceive it as retribution, and in a joking manner. I’ve noticed trigger warnings in more stories nowadays, and this story needs one as the story is bleak and wildly inappropriate. I’m sure as a woman this story affected me more than it would a male, but I’ve heard newer editions omit this story and for good reason. 

The Old Silo by Jeff Lemire

Luckily the second story in this collection was among my favorites, and let me continue with this book. A farmer about to lose his farm finds a bank robber who was hurt in the getaway on his property. He makes a choice that enables him to pay off his mortgage. A perfect noir story by the esteemed Lemire. 

Mister X: Yacht On The Styx by Dean Motter

The mysterious Mister X explains to a femme fatale what happened on a yacht when a tycoon went missing and whose body was later found hidden in his building’s cornerstone. There was a weird dystopian/sci-fi aspect to this story and it didn’t appeal to me. 

The Last Hit by Chriss Offutt, Kano and Stefano Gaudiano

An older hitman is given one last job, but then discovers a younger hitman is after him. He thinks they have come to an understanding, but he underestimated his opponent. 

Fracture by Alex De Campi and Hugo Petrus

I didn’t understand this almost wordless story. A woman on the subway witnesses an accident, or did she cause it? The story fractures with possible alternate realities.

The Albanian by M.K. Perker

An Albanian janitor witnesses a bloodbath in the office building he cleans, but he escapes unscathed. Why he gave his son the murder’s puppet escapes me. I actually wondered if the puppet was evil and would hurt the child later. 

Kane: the Card Player by Paul Grist

A burglar leaves numbered playing cards behind and a crime lord seems to be mad about it. A cop is on the take and the burglar is killed. At the end, I felt a pivotal scene had been left out to explain things. 

Blood on my Hands by Paul Geary

A husband who loses his job is worried about his wife cheating on him. He wants his wife and lover killed, but accidentally sends a hitman against the wrong couple. Whoops. This twisted confessional was strangely effective, and dare I say, sweet.

Tru$tworthy by Ken Lizzi and Joelle Jones

This story was mostly text, with only a few illustrations, so it was kind of jarring to include in this graphic novel, although it actually was one of my favorite stories. A woman tries to con her way out of a bad situation, by sleeping with a man she intends to make a patsy.  But he turns the tables on her at the end.

The New Me by Garry Phillips and Eduardo Barreto

An out-of-shape woman goes to the gym whose trainer is known for getting results but also for sleeping with all his clients. Over the course of a few months, she becomes a hottie and she seduces him. But the whole time she had an ulterior reason, and in an out-of-nowhere sci-fi twist, she uses him to help her invalid husband. I liked this one, although the premise was kind of ridiculous. 

Lady’s Choice by Matthew and Shawn Fillbach

A gangster’s moll is tired of her current asshole and wants to move on to a new shady character. 

21st Century Noir by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips

A woman seduces a younger man and reveals she is abused by her husband, and this man says he will help her. The lover goes to confront the husband, but there is a dark and perverted twist you won’t expect. 

The Bad Night by Brian Azzarello, Fabio Moon and Gabriel Ba

The story begins blandly with a man being sent out to commit a robbery against a rich couple, but the last page takes the story in a whole new direction, once you realize who the couple and their little boy are. Bravo for that last little twist that most people familiar with DC should recognize.

All in all, an adequate anthology of stories, for as with any collection there are bound to be some strong entries but then some clunkers. I absolutely hated Stray Bullets, but Old Silo, The New Me and 21st Century Noir were excellent. My recommendation is to pick up a newer edition without the first story and I wish dearly that my Goodreads group had suggested that. 

-Nancy

Venus in the Blind Spot

Having recently read Uzumaki: Spiral Into Horror, a classic in manga body horror, I was impressed by the author and illustrator Junji Ito. When I heard that a collection of his short stories was being released, I was anxious to read more of Ito’s macabre stories.  His ten stories include three written by others, but all have his distinctive art style and otherwordly terror. The book also includes some full-color artwork in the beginning, which is a treat because most of the stories are in black and white only. Get ready for a grotesque set of stories! 

Billions Alone

Michio is a teen who has isolated himself from the world for seven years, but is coaxed out by former classmates who wish him to join them in their graduation ceremony. But the town has had some gruesome murders, with people being discovered sewn together. It seems groups meeting together are being targeted, with mass murders and elaborately staged kill sites. People are scared and begin to isolate themselves, but paradoxically Michio is lured out more and more by his love for a classmate who has shown him kindness. 

The Human Chair (Edogawa Ranpo)

Adapted from a 1925 story, this tale is of obsession but was more ridiculous than scary. A young wife discovers that a man who is in love with her has hollowed out her favorite chair and lives in it, so he can always be with her. Defying credibility, he kills her husband and the wife falls in love with him and joins him in the chair. The ending has a modern-day chairmaker explain that he is descended from them, as they had children together. In a chair???

An Unearthly Love (Edogawa Ranpo)

A new wife discovers her husband is unnaturally attached to a life-size doll. When she destroys it so his affections will return to her, he can’t bear it. 

Venus in the Blind Spot

A group of UFO enthusiasts fall in love with the club president’s daughter Mariko, but all begin to have vision problems that they are unable to see her if she is directly in front of them. It turns out the girl’s scientist father has done something to the men, but the plan backfires spectacularly when the men turn on Mariko. 

The Licking Woman

This story was WEIRD. A mysterious woman accosts people on dark streets and licks them with her poisonous tongue. Then the tongue takes on a life of its own. 

Master Umezz and Me

Autobiographic in nature, Ito shares how his love of manga began as a child. He especially idolizes manga artist Kazuo Umezz. 

How Love Came to Professor Kirida (Robert Hichens)

A misanthrope professor has a woman’s spirit attach to him, as she is obsessed with him. Disgusted by her desire, he shares his haunting with a friend who is a priest. These two men have unhealthy boundaries and I wondered why women would want to be with either of them.

The Engima of Amigara Fault

An earthquake reveals a fault line in which silhouettes of people’s bodies are revealed. People begin to flock to the area to see this phenomenon, and some people discover the holes are a perfect fit for them. The people fit through the holes and disappear into the mountain never to be seen again. But where are they going? Months later when explorers find the other side of the fault, a creepy visual shows what happened to them. 

The Sad Tale of the Principal Post

The shortest of all the stories, a man gets caught under the supporting post of his new house and his family lets him die there instead of damaging the house. Ok, sure. 

Keepsake

This unnatural tale was an excellent way to end the collection. A baby is discovered in the grave of a woman who died nine months before. Her husband, who quickly remarried, takes the baby to his new wife who has a child of her own, as they had been having an affair before the first wife’s death. We learn that they poisoned the wife, but while the husband was holding vigil over her body before she was buried, had sex with her body. The second wife is horrified, and the conclusion has a similar circumstance, and you find out the husband is now married to a third wife…

As I said in my Uzumaki review- the creatures are macabre and Lovecraftian in nature, so even if the narrative dips into absurdness at times, the art keeps you riveted- and this collection follows suit. This was an interesting collection, and many of the stories are extreme and unbelievable, but you must suspend your disbelief and just enjoy the experience of Ito’s amazing imagination!  

-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 Six

I have to admit I was somewhat disappointed with season five of Burton’s podcast, but this season more than made up for it! In fact, I had so many favorites, that I would consider this season the best yet. Plus, I finally caught up with the podcast and was current when he released each story. Before I had been a year behind but worked diligently to listen to each story as it was released in real-time.

Tideline by Elizabeth Bear

In an apocalyptic future, a lone surviving war machine, Chalcedony meets an orphaned human boy. Chalcedony (who is named for a lovely form of quartz) is a sentient robot and teaches Belvidere how to survive, but also teaches him about past civilization and culture from her databases. She helps raise him to maturity, always teaching him, and also building necklaces to memorialize her lost comrades. But her power cells are degrading and she knows she will eventually shut down. She prepares him for rejoining the scattered humans that remain and sends him off with her memorials and tells him to share her memories and knowledge with those he finds. A beautifully melancholy story about sacrifice, humanity and sharing our knowledge for the good of others.

Valedictorian by NK Jemisin

Zinhle is a senior in a near-future dystopia who is true to herself and refuses to lie about her abilities or mask her intelligence even when she knows she will be “culled” at graduation, along with the ten least performing students. Her walled-off society is small and rigid and is not accepting of people who are different, so there is the possibility that the unknown outside world could actually be more welcoming. Reminded me of the 1986 Twilight Zone episode Examination Day and the short story The Lottery by Shirley Jackson.

As Worlds Collide by Stephen Michell

A newly married Canadian couple adjust to a new world order as mythical creatures begin to inhabit their world. They try to make sense of it, as everyone else does, but are rewarded for their quiet observation when two of the creatures speak to them. Later they calmly face un uncertain future together as shrines begin to open around the world, knowing that everyone’s lives are about to change, but it can be viewed as a beginning, not an ending…

SPAM by Savannah Burney

This short story dealt with a mildly racist (can you be mildly racist or are you just plain racist?) bed and breakfast owner who reluctantly shelters a mother and child who have been displaced because of an apartment fire. The curmudgeonly owner has no patience for the girl’s persistent questions, as he is a creature of habit with OCD tendencies, but at the very last moment, he extends a bit of grace to the child. This story included some great character studies, and I appreciated the bit of hope at the end that people can change for the better.

End Game by Nancy Kress

An excellent short story with a nasty bit of a twist at the end. Two young men meet in school, and one goes to become a renowned scientist who wishes to quiet his mental static so he can focus more on his work at hand. He has a medical breakthrough using a junior scientist as a guinea pig and all goes well until it doesn’t. His friend realizes what is happening with the contagious spread, so it’s Twilight Zone ending has an uncomfortable parallel with what is going on in the world today with the Covid-19 virus.

Skinwalker, Fast-Talker by Darcie Little Badger

The beginning opens with the catchy “No shit, there I was”. A journalist for a tabloid-type magazine is assigned a job to research a possible Skinwalker aka a Coyote of Native American lore and is surprised as anyone to find out this conman is the real thing. She is able to con him into revealing his true self but knows that the public actually believing the story is another thing entirely!

Staying Behind by Ken Liu

This story was devastatingly beautiful and well-done. In this speculative fiction tale, technology has advanced so far that human consciousness can now be downloaded, and the world population does so in mass, leaving behind a devastated and depopulated world for those who do not wish to do so. Is this thought-provoking tale the reader ponders what is the better choice- having a utopian online life yet no corporeal existence or living in a world where the remaining population is struggling for existence as the populace loses its technological abilities and they slide towards frontier living. The short story is told through the lens of one family and the ending will gut you, as you can’t help but wonder what you and your family would do under the same circumstances.

A Kiss with Teeth by Max Gladstone

Vlad is a vampire who gave up his bloodthirsty ways when he fell in love with a vampire hunter and had a child with her. He has worked hard to masquerade his supernatural powers and his young son seems none the wiser. But he feels trapped in having to always suppress his urges and is very close to breaking his blood fast by killing his son’s teacher. But this “mid-life” crisis is discovered by his wife and she councils him to be more true to himself so he can be a better father. The ending was pleasing, and I enjoyed the premise of this short story, however, the middle really dragged.

Let Those Who Would (aka The Segment) by Genevieve Valentine

Very 1984 with how the news was being manipulated and shown to the public. In this world, the news agencies would rather create their own stories with actors instead of interviewing real participants so that way they can control the narrative. Orphaned children are used as pawns in these stories, and one young woman helps another realize how much danger she will be in if she acts in the next segment. This is the second story that was found in the anthology that I read several years ago,  After: Nineteen Stories of Apocalypse and Dystopia. The story gained deeper meaning through LeVar’s reading of it.

Recitatif by Toni Morrison

The story begins in the 1950s when two young girls, Twyla and Roberta, meet at an orphanage although both of their mothers are still alive. You are told they are of different races, but Morrison deliberately does not give any obvious markers of who is who, to force the reader to decide according to their preconceived notions. These two will meet again at different stages in their lives- in the late 1960s and then again several times in the early 80s. As adults, their marriages and life stations differ broadly, and they get caught up in some racial strife as their town is redistricting their schools and it affects their children. In addition to the ambiguity about their race, how memories can be imprecise was addressed, which made me reflect on my childhood memories with a friend I had a following out with. How I remember some shared experiences could be very different from hers and gave me a lot of food for thought. Considering this story came from Morrison, I am not surprised that it is among my favorites from LeVar’s podcast.

The Foster Portfolio by Kurt Vonnegut Jr

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

My favorites this season were Tideline, Staying Behind, Recitatif and The Foster Portfolio. Burton visited some of the same authors he has featured before, but for good reason, as I enjoyed listening to each story. As I am finally caught up, I now will turn to Marvels, a podcast about the Fantastic Four, since I loved the two seasons of Wolverine’s podcast. I look forward to season seven of LeVar’s podcast, “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

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

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

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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