spindizzy: Taiga staring over her newspaper (*reads suspiciously*)
Susan ([personal profile] spindizzy) wrote in [community profile] ladybusiness2018-07-20 11:44 am

Eight Book Minimum: Long talks about short fiction (20/07/18)

A thing that's different about this instalment of Eight Book Minimum: I've started tracking my short fiction reading as a specific thing, rather than just going "Ah yes, prose!" Not because it doesn't count towards my prose goal, just because I want to know. (Unsurprisingly, most of my prose reading has been short fiction. I know, you're all shocked.) ... I think I've honestly got enough short fiction socked away for this column that I could make it it's own specific part of the schedule, but I am all out of punny names for a regular set of posts. If anyone has any ideas, HIT ME UP.

  1. The Date by R. K. Kalaw [Jump]

  2. The Future We Wanted by Leigh Alexander [Jump]

  3. The Witches of Athens by Lara Elena Donnelly [Jump]

  4. And Yet by A. T. Greenblatt [Jump]

  5. When the Letter Comes by Sarah Fox [Jump]

  6. Waiting on a Bright Moon by J. Y. Yang [Jump]

  7. Across Pack Ice, A Fire by Marissa Lingen [Jump]

  8. Out of the Rose Hills by Marissa Lingen [Jump]

1. The Date by R. K. Kalaw [Top]
This was a rec from [personal profile] bookgazing, who knows what I like and also reviewed this story for SFF Reviews. In this case, what I like is monstrous women going on a date together. Literally; the unnamed protagonist sees Anna (not her real name) in the street and asks her out. And Anna is genuinely a monster rather than metaphorically! While she's not specifically described, it gives so many hints of all the different ways she is, from her exoskeleton and arm barbs to the reactions of the waiters at the steak house to the way that the protagonist checks for the smell of bleach in case Anna had shed the blood of previous dates there.

What I really appreciated was the way that the narrative emphasised the thrill of that danger for the protagonist? She's not unaware of it; she specifically approached Anna because of it and she's prepared (I love that the story explicitly notes that she wears flats for their date, in case she has to run), and even longing for that danger. But the best part is probably the way that the story compares this date with Anna to the dates that the protagonist has been on with men, who always wanted her to be less – to show less hunger, to want less – and the freedom Anna gives her by simply saying that she's "not afraid of your appetites." The sensation of freedom in being seen and given... Permission, I suppose, to not care what anyone thinks, is portrayed really well, and I really appreciated it. (It feels like The Women Men Don't See or The Shape of Water in that respect – of course monsters are preferable to men, when you consider it as a choice between freedom or constriction.)

(I read it as the protagonist being human and Anna being the only literal monster, and the protagonist's messy desires are the parts that she considers or has been taught are wrong, but I am open to people arguing that she is also a literal monster in disguise!)

It's short but I enjoyed it, and I'm so glad that this has apparently become my brand.

2. The Future We Wanted by Leigh Alexander [Top]
This story felt really familiar to me – not that I'd read it before, but that it was a near-futuristic spin on familiar tropes. The protagonist is a partnered mother of two, dissatisfied with her life, thinking almost obsessively about her best friend from childhood, which all crystalises when her partner brings home Augusta, a "Virtual Personality" with a robot chassis that enables them to help around the home. (This one got kinda spoilery, sorry.)

The thing that kept annoying me (in a narratively intentional way) about this story was the performative feminism, and the hypocrisy of both Polly, the protagonist, and her partner Brian. Polly goes to support group that's explicitly about supporting other women... And uses it as an opportunity to judge people instead! She does the thing of correcting a behaviour and then perpetuating it! ("You shouldn't call women crazy," / "Yes, the crazy one.") Brian babysits his children rather than parenting them (I can't get over the school calling him to pick up his child, and he asks them to call a neighbour instead of going himself, and the way that when he DOES parent, the story is explicit about how he seeks Polly's notice and approval for it, rather than just doing it), and leaves literally all of the adulting in his relationship to Polly while talking about how convenient he's made things for her. It's performative and gross and a really good depiction of That Straight Couple.

(Also: congratulations to the author on making me INTENSELY HATE a guy just through an explanation of why virtual assistants ~have~ to be gendered female.)

Augusta's destruction felt inevitable from the moment that she was introduced, as a representation of the protagonist's frustrations (she doesn't want it but her husband insists and manipulates her into it; he promises that they wouldn't do microtransactions but then goes behind her back; her children OBVIOUSLY love the fun robot more than the mother that needs them to do things), and especially as a representation of her jealousy and frustration about Jane. It's really well foreshadowed throughout, in the way that she reacts to Augusta and thinks that she sees Augusta react to her. I think the way the author built Polly's own narrative and comparisons and expectations about Jane – and that all the clues to Jane's actual fate were right there all along – was well-handled, and Polly's reactions to Jane are foreshadowed in her reactions to Augusta.

All this said, though, I'm not sure I actually liked this story. It felt familiar – I used to read magazines full of crime stories when I was a younger, and if Augusta had been an au pair or a maid that Brian had brought home, this would have fit right in. (Her destruction would still have been inevitable.) It is good and I can acknowledge the parts where its doing interesting things, it just isn't for me?

3. The Witches of Athens by Lara Elena Donnelly [Top]
I think I found this one through Jodie originally, and I reread it when she mentioned it again recently. It's a really cool story about siblings and courage, and how helping others can give you what you need to help yourself. I loved the romance that the witches help along, and I love the dynamic between the two sisters – they are both very different people with very different styles and approaches, and the story presents them both as valid, even if not the best solution for the problem at hand. Plus, siblings who want to reach out to each other but don't know how, oh no, my kryptonite! (It helps that the writing is really good, especially the food and the different styles.) It's such a good story. I really recommend it.

4. And Yet by A. T. Greenblatt [Top]
I want to say that this one was mentioned by [personal profile] forestofglory but I honestly couldn't swear to it. The protagonist is a disabled scientist investigating parallel dimensions, using the haunted house of their childhood as the basis of their research.

It feels like the good kind of "return to the house that haunted you" story (See also: The Dionaea House in all its forms, Canaan Falls, a bunch of Stephen King stories...), with a scientific twist, and it's really fascinating. It's got all of the tension, creeping fear, and alternate ways the protagonist's (and their brother's) life could have gone that you could want from a horror story with parallel worlds. I like the use of the second person here – I mean, we all know how much I love second person anyway, but it really works for a story about alternate potentials. I especially love the way that the "And yet" runs through the story like a heartbeat, containing all the things that the protagonist doesn't say or admit to hoping for.

I really liked the touch that the protagonist knew what some of the hazards were and is shown to have practiced to get around them, because that really worked for a story about someone's life work, and the ending fed on that in a way that felt really appropriate! It was a really cool, unsettling story, and I really enjoyed it. (For smart commentary: [personal profile] bookgazing actually reviewed it for SFF Reviews!)

[Caution warning: mentions of bullying and abuse.]

5. When the Letter Comes by Sarah Fox [Top]
When the Letter Comes is a story about waiting for your letter, the one that's going to whisk you away to a world of magic and excitement instead of your ordinary humdrum life. In this case, the person waiting for their letter is Henry, a young trans girl, whose life is changed when an invitation to magic school arrives – for her younger sister. It's a story about what you do when you're left behind, and your wildest dreams are confirmed and dashed at the same time. (This one also got spoilery, um.)

I really like it. It covers Henry's teenage years and the ways that she has to cope with not only being left behind, but her parents' reactions to her coming out (slowly, in bits and pieces) as trans; they almost seem to have an easier time accepting that Gabrielle, her sister, is off to magic school than they do accepting that Henry's trans. (This seems to be based on fear for her safety, but that doesn't matter when their fear is hurting her and I think When the Letter Comes does a good job of showing that in a very small space.) I did love how supportive Henry and Gabrielle were of each other, even through Henry's jealousy, even if they aren't as close as they could be; sibling relationships are how you get me, and the one that's built here is exactly what I wanted.

The thing that I like best about this is that while it kinda feels like a Harry Potter-style magic school story, with a world-changing magical conflict – but there isn't a chosen one. There is ordinary (okay, magic-wielding) teenagers engaging with politics, and fighting with words just as hard as they're fighting with magic, which is really cool and timely. This works especially well considering that most of the conflict occurs off screen, but what we do get shows that Henry still has purpose in the combat, even though she can't fight.

I think it's just a really nice story about Henry growing up – she starts the story convinced that if she can only give up the right thing, someone or something will see her value, but it's in joining something, in choosing and being herself, that she makes herself a place. It's cool and I like that.

[Connection disclaimer: When the Letter Comes is published by [twitter.com profile] booksmugglers, who I know outside of their publishing.]

6. Waiting on a Bright Moon by J. Y. Yang [Top]
I picked up Waiting On a Bright Moon based on [personal profile] forestofglory's discussion in Short and Sweet. Xin is an ansible, a woman who's part of a network that can sing portals open between planets to transport goods – which is all very well and good until someone uses their portal to send a corpse through. From there, the story spirals out into a political story of trust and revolution.

Waiting on a Bright Moon is so good. The prose is so rich and textured, I love it, and the way it jumps between the past and the present to explain who Xin is and the importance of her cluster and their connections! Plus the starmage in charge of their colony, Ouyang Suquin, is glorious – she's powerful and dutiful, and breathtakingly awkward around her crush, which is so much my narrative type that I may have actually gasped the first time I read this story. (I adore the importance of connections in this story, and the way that Xin consistently goes from resisting them with everything she has, to fiercely devoted to them.)

I did like the build up to revolution; it's a horrible, messy thing, and not everyone on their side is even a decent human being, let alone a good one. But it's so well written, especially the way that the characters have to consider their own complicity – it's complicated and beautifully written, and it's so, so good.

[Caution warning: queer tragedy in backstory, some body horror]

7. Across Pack Ice, A Fire by Marissa Lingen [Top]
And from that same Short & Sweet post: this! Across Pack Ice, A Fire centres on a sorceress who has just lost her husband in a magical plague. Her country is ostensibly a neutral faction observing one of their neighbouring countries invading another, and occasionally taking in (and mistreating) refugees, and the plague was sent to decimate them.

The narrative is very clear in its stance that there are no neutral factions; twitter likes to point out that "being neutral" means that you're enabling horrific things, and that is exactly what is happening here; the fact that Solveig not only could see that, but thought that she could somehow use her position to affect the status quo and bring change despite the prince and cultural inertia is integral to the story, because her feeling of betrayal appear to be tied directly to that. Especially because she wants vengeance for her husband, but she can't take it directly – and the way that she does it is clever, but explicitly and textually unfair to the ordinary people it affects the most, which I found fascinating.

I just really like the importance of family to this narrative (Solveig's mother keeping both Solveig and Noora, Solveig's daughter, alive, and Solveig and Noora stumbling towards affection and being a family after Per's death, and the love between Per and Solveig.), and the emphasis the narrative puts on recognising others as people. It's really clever and well done.

8. Out of the Rose Hills by Marissa Lingen [Top]
Out of the Rose Hills is a short story about a young woman and her bodyguard travelling through an uncanny land of roses to seek soldiers for a civil war her family is embroiled in. Except that they're not the only ones to come out of the Rose Hills.

I really enjoyed Out of the Rose Hills. It's really good at showing how the Rose Hills start off sweet and quickly becomes overwhelming; the immensely practical reactions of everyone involved (if you like the Ursula Vernon/T. Kingfisher's flavour of sensible characters, Out of the Rose Hills is very much in that vein!), and it has such lovely fondness between Tirene and her bodyguard, Yelen. I love their reactions when faced with the unutterable weirdness that follows them out of the hills, and their reactions – and the way that they plan to use it. (Plus, the distinction that the characters make between eating the truth and provoking it, because that is great.) It's funny and lovely, I recommend it.

Currently Reading

  • The Black Tides of Heaven by J. Y. Yang – I've got to the (first)? "destroyer of worlds" scene and oh no. Ohhhhh no.

  • Dark Run by Mike Brooks – I described it to someone as "like Firefly, but with a diverse crew" and so far I'm standing by it.

  • The Wicked + The Divine Volume 5: Imperial Phase – It has interviews with the characters at the start! That sound plausible! That is not what I expected from the end of the last volume, so I'm excited.

  • Bloodline by Jordan L. Hawk – I am about a chapter away from the point that I abandoned it last time, and I'm really struggling to get through that bit! Come on brain!

Reading Goals

Reading goal: 66/180 (8 new this post) Prose: 38/90, Short Fiction 25/38, Nonfiction: 1/12
#getouttamydamnhouse: 20/50 (0 gone this post)
#unofficialqueerafbookclub: 22/50 (4 new this post; The Date, The Witches of Athens, When the Letter Comes, Waiting on a Bright Moon)
forestofglory: E. H. Shepard drawing of Christopher Robin reading a book to Pooh (Default)

[personal profile] forestofglory 2018-07-20 01:58 pm (UTC)(link)
Yay Witches of Athens! It's one of my favorite stories! Also I'm glad you are enjoying some of the stories in my post. And Lingen is one of my favorite authors