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LeVar Burton Reads: Season Nine

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

The Bank of Burkina Faso by Ekaterina Sedia

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

Jealous Husband Returns in Form of Parrot by Robert Olen Butler

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

Dark Spaces on the Map by Anjali Sachdeva

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

Milagroso by Isabel Yap

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

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

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

The War of the Wall by Toni Cade Bambara

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

You Perfect, Broken Thing by C.L. Clark

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

The Years of My Birth by Louise Erdrich

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

 Words We Say Instead by Brit E. B. Hvide 

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

Shock of Birth by Cadwell Turnbull

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

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

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

On the Lonely Shore by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

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

My favorites this season were Dark Spaces on the Map, The Years of My Birth and The War of the Wall. I look forward to hearing the winning entry from the contest next season, so in the meantime I suggest you check out his podcast if you haven’t already, “But you don’t have to take my word for it.”

-Nancy

Love Death + Robots

I am late to the game in discovering this outstanding animated anthology series on Netflix. With a scifi/fantasy concept, the different episodes somehow play to the themes of love, death and robots (although not every episode has a robot per se) and are very adult in nature. In fact, a quote that they are for “mature, messed up adults” is right on the money. I feel seen by that description!

Season one (18 episodes) came out in 2019 and season two (8 episodes) recently came out in May, with a third season promised for next year. Another bonus is that the episodes are all short- the longest about twenty minutes, but several less than ten. Instead of summaries for all the episodes, here are my favs with some spoilers:

Suits:

A farming community is under attack by aliens and they use their advanced technology to combat them. The portal closes and they are safe once again, but as the episode concludes you realise this group are actually the invaders as they have created domed communities across the planet.

Beyond the Aquila Rift:

A spaceship captain awakens from suspended animation in a space station that he wasn’t piloting to and is confused when an ex-girlfriend greets him and tells him his ship and crew accidentally came thousands of light years to this station. He rekindles his relationship with her, and they have a very graphic sexual encounter, but afterward he keeps on questioning her on how his ship got so off course. Then the horrific truth is revealed, his ship is caught in a huge space web and the spider-like alien is giving him and others caught in the web dreams based on their memories.

Shape-Shifters:

Two soldiers stationed in Afghanistan are revealed to be werewolves who are assets to their teams, yet derided by many of their fellow soldiers. When one of the soldiers is killed by a local werewolf, the first soldier wants revenge. Dog tags take a new significance in this poignant episode.

The Secret War:

Red Army soldiers stationed in Siberia valiantly fight other-worldly creatures. A high-ranking government official is shown to have accidently unleashed demons when a ceremony goes awry, but his mistake is covered up, so as to avoid bringing blame upon the higer-ups. Instead hundreds of lives are lost, with the potential of more, just to save face.

Snow in the Desert:

Snow, an immortal man with regenerative abilities, lives alone in a desert hideaway. Hirald, a woman bounty hunter, helps him escape from some others, but tries to convince him to come with her so scientists can study him. When other bounty hunters come to ambush him, a secret of Hirald’s is revealed, but it ends on a hopeful note, as Snow and Hirald might have a chance at love. The world-building in this episode was superb, and I read in another review that the author Neal Asher has a science fiction series that this episode fits into.

All Through the House:

Two English children think they hear Santa and sneak down to see him, but instead see a grotesque alien creature creeping around. They are cornered by the monster but found to be good and given a slimy present. Later they muse what if the alien had found them bad. This was a fun tongue-in-cheek episode.

The animation styles differed wildly episode to episode, with some being cartoony while others were photo-realistic. Some of the stories were funny, others heartbreaking, but all were good in their own way. Often in a collection of short stories there will be some clunkers, but all of the episodes were strong. I highly recommend this series if you haven’t watched it yet. I look forward to season three!

-Nancy

Header picture is from Luckbox Magazine and grid picture from El-Shai.com

Covid Chronicles: A Comics Anthology

This second Covid Chronicles short story collection (that came out a few months after the similarly titled Covid Chronicles that was penned by Ethan Sacks and illustrated by Dalibor Talajić ) is an anthology that incorporates many different authors and illustrators. It gives these creators chances to recount their experiences or share commentary about the pandemic to varying degrees of success.

My favorites:

COVID-19 Diary by Jason Charfield

This first story in the collection kicks off with a cartoony day-by-day diary of the author’s experience when he had COVID-19.

Librarying During a Pandemic by Gene Ambaum & Willow Payne

As a librarian, I was of course interested in how other librarian’s dealt with patrons once they reopened. While I didn’t run into the scenarios illustrated, it was an amusing story.

And This Is How I Leave You by Sean Seamus McWhinny

A poignant recounting of the author’s last days with his mother as she lay dying in a hospital and he was unable to be with her.

Small Acts by Stephanie Pitsirilos & Seth Martel

We can’t save the world, but our small acts of kindness can help. Lovely use of color in one of the best illustrated stories.

My New Normal: Rinse and Repeat by Rob Kraneveldt & Mike Garcia

A woman goes about her new normal routine and all her issues are swept under the rug in a fake blog entry in which she pretends everything went well that day.

Between Two Worlds by Julio Anta, Jacoby Salcedo & Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou

Excellent side-by-side comparison of how white people and POC have to deal with authority figures when they start venturing outside during the pandemic. The POC are harassed while whites flaunt the rules with no recourse.

Covid Hardball: World Leaders Step Up To The Plate by Rich Johnson & Eli Neugeboren

Illustrated to look like trading baseball cards, leaders have the facts about their response to the pandemic shared. Trump is vilified (in this story, in addition to a few others throughout the book). Dr. Fauci gets the MVP card.

Same by Jazmine Joyner & John Jennings (the only artist I was familiar with)

A woman locked down in a city apartment begins to experience paranoia and visions. But her cat shows her an alternate way out…

Author/illustrator Rivi Handler-Spitz was given several one page spreads throughout the entire book, and they were always spot on.

Frankly, I was not a fan of this very uneven collection of 63 stories. I’ve read many other anthologies such as Love is Love, Puerto Rico Strong and Where We Live (the best of the bunch), but this book just didn’t pass muster. Many of the stories lacked depth, were trite or were not illustrated well. I hardly recognized any of the contributors, so while I so appreciate their effort and intentions, readers who want a timely and poignant retelling of the horrible pandemic we all have been suffering under should read the Sacks/ Talajić graphic novel instead.

-Nancy

Brazen: Rebel Ladies Who Rocked The World

I loved Brazen! Stories of 29 kick-ass women are shared- spanning centuries and continents.

I only recognized a few names- Margaret Hamilton, Josephine Baker, Temple Grandin, Betty Davis, Nellie Bly, Hedy Lamarr, Mae Jemison and Peggy Guggenheim. The other twenty one women were new to me, but now I want to know more about all of their lives!

Author and illustrator Pénélope Bagieu gave each woman three to five pages and would start their story at their birth before proceeding chronologically and would touch on what made each woman so unique. Many of the women are from years past, but Bagieu is able to capture the time period and mores of the era, to showcase how the woman (or sometimes women as there were two groupings of sisters) were rebels for their generation. She covers their lives in broad strokes, glossing over many aspects of their lives, yet sharing the fundamentals and getting to the essence of the story. These stories were also perfect to read in bite-sized portions, I could read about a few women at a time, and looked forward to the next time I could pick up the graphic novel and read a few more short biographies.

Nellie Bly

Each page typically has nine panels and is done in a cartoony manner, yet is accurate in how the women looked and their various environments. Color is used sparingly, to add contrast or to heighten the effect of a momentous event. Bagieu saves the real artistry for a closing two-page spread that is filled with color and symbolizes what they stood for. I looked forward to how she would convey their lives and what art style she would use- Art Deco, Surreal, Nouveau, Impressionism (both Neo and Post) or Modern Art are among the different types. My favorite was Betty Davis’s, for I had to turn it sideways to understand it, and all it’s parts perfectly came together to form a complete picture and vibe.

I applaud the diversity found within, for Bagieu choose an Apache warrior, a Chinese empress, an astronaut, a volcanologist, a Greek gynecologist, athletes, singers, painters- even a bearded lady! I do wonder where she got her information from, for a brief work cited would have led additional weight to her character studies. But I have spent time myself looking up additional information about the women in this book, and that is always a good sign of a strong non-fiction book when I want to know even more about the subject or person at hand. In the end, she lists 30 additional women to learn about, and I’m all in for reading another book about more brazen women!

-Nancy

LeVar Burton Reads: Season Eight

I love being introduced to new authors by LeVar’s podcast, and then serendipitously finding that author in other works and books soon after. This podcast has really expanded my reading boundaries and I look forward to listening to a new story weekly for several months at a time while each season lasts.

Silver Door Diner by Bishop Garrison

A young boy stops in a diner and is taken under the wing of a waitress there. Thinking he is a runaway she tries to get a few answers from him, but the conversation goes sideways when he reveals he is an alien observing Earth before a nuclear war happens and a time loop occurs. Their conversation is sweet and the ending reveals that perhaps there is a chance for Earth after all.

The Takeback Tango by Rebecca Roanhorse

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

Daddy by Damion Wilson

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

Alluvial Deposits by Percival Everett

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

The Regression Test by Wole Talabi

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

Flyboys by Tobias Wolff

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

Killer of Kings by Anjali Sachdeva

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

An Equal Share of the Bone by Karen Osborne

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

Salt by Rosemary Melchior

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

Getaway by Nicole Kornher-Stace

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

Vaccine Season by Hannu Rajaniemi

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

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

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

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

-Nancy

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

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