Tag Archives: stories

2017 Writing Year in Review

This past year was a good one for placing fiction but an even better one for placing book reviews. Find below a list of writing highlights from the past twelve months, with loads of links to free content.

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A writing retrospective
Sometimes the work is slow, and in the midst of day-to-day endeavors it feels like not much is getting done. But looking back over the course of the year, it turns out a surprising amount of work does indeed get done, regardless of how it appears on any given morning. And then some of that even gets published. So here, for a moment in the sunset of 2017, I offer a comprehensive look back at what I’ve been doing over the course of the previous year. Four stories were published, including two fantasy pieces in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and ten book reviews in publications like Black Gate, Strange Horizons, and Grimdark Magazine. And it turns out I accidentally sort of wrote a book, which you can also find below.

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Fiction
Another chapter in my “Wizard’s House” series, an epic dark fantasy, British pumpkin soldiers, and hard scifi on first contact and universal dissolution. The first three you can read following the links below; the last is available in the magazine for purchase.

The Wind’s Departure,” Beneath Ceaseless Skies
Harvest,” Bracken Magazine issue 4
Deathspeaker,”Beneath Ceaseless Skies
“Color of the Flame,” MYTHIC Issue 2

 

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Book Reviews
Most of the fiction I read this year found its way into print as book reviews. You can find links to almost all of them below. For the MYTHIC reviews though, you’ll need to purchase the issues if interested.

Strange Horizons
Wicked Wonders, by Ellen Klages
ODY-C: Cycle One, by Matt Fraction and Christian Ward

Black Gate
The Man Underneath: the Collected Short Fiction of R. A. Lafferty, vol. 3
The Language of the Night, by Ursula LeGuin
Howl’s Moving Castle, by Diana Wynne Jones
In Calabria, by Peter S. Beagle

Grimdark Magazine
Three Books to Get you Stuck into Warhammer 40,000”

MYTHIC
Press Start to Play, edited by Daniel H. Wilson & John Joseph Adams,” (Summer 2017)
Federations, edited by John Joseph Adams,” (Spring 2017)
The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy, edited by Karen Joy Fowler,” (Spring 2017)

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Books
Making Stars Physical will hopefully be a part of next year’s end-year review, and I hope to very, very soon be able to unveil the cover for this forthcoming work. The folks at University of Pittsburgh Press are doing an amazing job with this, and I’m quite excited. In the meantime though I put together a small work for my father for Christmas that chronicled the history of our family in America. Along the way I found a document my grandfather had prepared of his recollections before his death, which I edited and included in the work and which blossomed into a 60-page book. I printed it via Createspace, so if any of my family are reading this update and are interested in a copy, it is available. The cost covers printing alone; it was meant to be a gift, and it includes my grandfather’s unpublished writings, so I will not make any money on the sales.

 

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Books Read:
I hope to get over this soon, but in the meantime I have a compulsion to review every book I read here on my blog. The list below are the books I read and reviewed in 2017 that did not have reviews published elsewhere.

How to Tame a Fox (and Build a Dog)
Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works
Lighthouses & Keepers: the U.S. Lighthouse Service and its Legacy
One Summer, America 1927
Beginning to Pray
Alien Phenomenology, or What It’s Like to Be a Thing
Son of Laughter
Dancing Bees: Karl von Frisch and the Discovery of the Honeybee Language
With: Reimagining the Way You Relate to God
The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate
Kindling the Divine Spark
Death and Life of the Great Lakes
Knowledge for Sale: the Neoliberal Takeover of Higher Education
Victoria: the Queen
Praying with Icons
The Marketplace of Ideas: Reform and Resistance in the American University
How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything
Octopus! The Most Mysterious Creature in the Sea
Good Boy, Achilles!
St. Siluoan the Athonite
The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World

As always, thanks for reading, and here’s to a great 2018!

New & Upcoming Writings

It’s been a good season for placing stories. Besides my latest, “Three Strings,” which appeared in the premier issue of Farstrider Magazine (more on below), I have a handful of short works cropping up in a variety of collections this year.

“The Woodcutter’s Sons,” an arboreal fable, will appear in the first issue of what promises to be the lovely and sylvan Bracken MagazineI have a short surrealist piece on something that definitely didn’t happen while writing my dissertation coming up in Pulp Literature called “Two Twenty-Two”, and my literary horror story, “Bone Orchard,” is forthcoming in Hypnos Magazine. Finally, I’m quite excited to announce that “When I Was Dead,” a story of the afterlife, will appear in Mysterion, a new anthology of Christian fiction.

It’s a pretty good track record, especially as my fiction writing has slowed down lately. I’ve begun working on a manuscript based on my dissertation for the University of Pittsburgh Press, and whatever room in my life that occasionally was filled by reading and writing fiction has recently been stuffed with the works and writings of various nineteenth-century astronomers.

So far all of these are still forthcoming, but you can find “Three Strings” online now at Farstrider Magazine. It’s fun to be part of the first issue of a publication, especially one that looks as sharp as Farstrider. I mean, just check out that cover:

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It’s everything you want good fantasy to be: comforting, warming, and familiar until you glance into the sky and realize, as Chesterton once pointed out, that “you’ve arrived at the wrong star.” It’s that juxtaposition of the expected and the fundamentally strange that makes good speculative fiction resonate, and this cover captures that perfectly.

“Three Strings” is the first story I’ve written so far that’s based around a pun. (Blame my dad. It’s in the blood.) But it made my wife snort out loud when she read it, so that’s a success in my book. If you haven’t already, take a look.

And while you’re there, you can check out the fantastic review they posted on my novel, First Fleet, which is still available on Amazon.

Shimmer #27

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Shimmer is a gem, and I don’t say that solely because they’ve given a home to two of my disheveled little pieces. Shimmer finds itself home to a lot of beautiful strays. It’s a speculative fiction magazine that has carved a place for itself for bedraggled bits of wonder, lovingly polished and arranged. I’m proud to be a part of it, especially this, its latest incarnation.

In the introduction to issue #27, the editor writes that all the included pieces all fit together if viewed from the right angle. (She says something like that.) They’re like interlocking puzzle pieces, but you have to cock your head just right to see how the combined scene flows. I like that, because it’s just true enough. You’ll come away from these stories knowing how they fit together, and I’ll come away knowing the same thing. But we’ll probably know differently.

To me, besides the gilded edges of wonder common to whatever Shimmer publishes, what held these stories together was a sense of loss. An ache. Something departed.

We start with Alix E. Harrow’s piece, “Dustbaby.”

No, we don’t. We start with the cover. Judge this magazine by its cover. The watercolors that Sandro Castelli does for each issue are one big detail that holds Shimmer together and makes it work. They’re lovely and lend a haunting consistency to the magazine’s shelf-appeal.

Now, start with Alix E. Harrow’s piece, “Dustbaby.” I don’t think I’d go so far as to call it an end-of-the-world story, because it’s not among those pieces of ecological devastation or infection or whatever that I’m getting tired of reading. It’s a bit deeper than that, and by that I mean historically richer. We’re back in the Dust Bowl, reimagined. What if the Dust Bowl had been the end, the casting off of a thin crust of tired soil so that something greener and wetter underneath could reemerge? What haunted those hills before our plows passed?

Harrow, herself a historian, does good work here. The images are rich, moving, and disturbing, and we get a reminder that some of the best stories don’t have endings but rather just larger beginnings—part of what’s so much fun about short stories.

(If you like magical apocalypses like “Dustbaby,” you might check out my own “The Crow’s Word,” published in Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show.)

My favorite piece in this issue (and yes, I might even be including my own) was K. L. Owens’ “A July Story.” Who doesn’t love a haunted house? And who doesn’t love a house with a mind, a mute tongue, and rooms stretching backward and forward in space and time? It might sound too much like the plot of an episode of Doctor Who, if “A July Story” wasn’t so steeped in character and place.

What makes this story work so well, beyond simply a compelling idea, are the characters: Kitten and Lana, and the place: the Pacific Northwest. Kitten’s a child of the English Industrial Revolution, torn out of time, marooned everywhere and nowhere. Lana’s a young girl from today. Their encounter, dialogue, and ultimate trajectories make a haunted house story a lot more than you expect. It’s also an especially strong tale because it takes place on a deeply textured backdrop of a particular time and space, which Owens makes clear in the interview following. Highly recommended.

Then you get to read my story, which is called “Black Planet.” I explained about this a bit in my interview in the issue (which you only get if you purchase the entire issue), so I won’t repeat that here. But I really like this little piece; I think it’s among the best I’ve written, and it’s for my sister.

The final piece in this work is the shortest, “The Law of the Conservation of Hair,” by Rachel K. Jones, which reads like a prose poem (and in fact might be in actuality a prose poem) about love and alien invasion and loss. Read it at least twice. Favorite line: “That we will take turns being the rock or the slingshot, so we may fling each other into adventure.”

So what about the common theme? Things get lost in different ways. Land, lives, siblings, and loves. Why do we sometimes feel richer for the loss—or rather, for the expression of the loss?

Do yourself a favor and grab Shimmer #27.

The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fist-Fight in Heaven

The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in HeavenThe Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven by Sherman Alexie

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Frustrations can lead to rash actions. Regardless of how one feels about the frustrations boiling up in cities like Boston and Ferguson and the resulting actions, my white, middle-class frustrations in response were largely regarding my own lack of comprehension. Here I am, surrounded in a comfortable middle-class environment by a bunch of comfortable, middle-class friends and family. I don’t have a good understanding the frustrations of others. I don’t have a grasp at any significant level of what it must be like to be a minority living and working in America.

Then I looked at the fiction I was reading and realized it was more of the same: it wasn’t helping me reach any sort of understanding of minority perspectives. My books are like my friends: a bunch of white guys I love to death. But not terribly diverse. So I made what may have been a rash decision. It’s certainly a decision that looks kind of pathetic in light of the backdrop of unrest in which it was made. But it’s a step, and one has to start somewhere. I decided for the rest of the year I would start reading works of fiction exclusively by minority voices. Call it an affirmative action program for my own reading list, a way to swing the balance a bit from a life of reading in which Harper Lee and Flannery O’Conner were about the extent of my diversity.

(Note I say “start”– this allows me to finish the couple novels I’ve already begun by old white guys, and it doesn’t hold me to finish a novel if I pick a few duds. I should be able to be colorblind when it comes to not finishing crappy writing. But it does mean I finally get off my metaphorical butt and read some of the things people have been telling me to read for quite a while.)

The first book on my list was Sherman Alexie’s The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, which had been recommended by a friend and which I’ve wanted to read for quite a while. I’ve read several works of nonfiction on the Native American narrative in North America, and I was told Alexie was the person to read if I wanted a view into the life of contemporary Native American society. (Alexie uses the term “Indian.” I’ve been taught that this isn’t a politically correct term to use, but is it more awkward using a term they don’t use for themselves? This is an excellent example of the awkwardness Adam Kotsko discusses in his book Awkwardness where fear of causing offense presents an additional barrier to dialogue across social or ethnic divisions.)

Lone Ranger and Tonto is the collection of short stories that rocketed Alexie, a Spokane Indian who grew up on a reservation in Washington state, to the national spotlight. Alexie’s “reservation realism” is supposed to capture aspects of the essence of life for Native American youth today. The stories are spare, sad, and for the most part revolve around the day-to-day frustrations, disappointment, and lost wonder of Alexie’s generation. The characters drink, fight, play basketball. Portions, Alexie admits, are autobiographical in some sense. Fatherhood is a common theme throughout, both on the side of sons losing their fathers and– in what I thought were two of the most powerful pieces of the collection, “Jesus Christ’s Half-Brother is Alive and Well on the Spokane Indian Reservation” and “Junior Polatkin’s Wild West Show”– becoming fathers with varying degrees of reluctance.

Yet I had to keep reminding myself these weren’t white people. I don’t know if that means I’m colorblind or that I have difficulty extricating my own racial prejudices in visualization when I read. On some level, Lone Ranger and Tonto seemed a collection of windows into the lives of people my peers used to call “white trash”– living with nowhere to go in trailer parks, watching days pass without aim or intent. It was only when Alexie reminded me with descriptions of ribbon shirts or the color of skin or braids or references to pow-wows that I switched the colors in my mind. I’m not sure what this means.

For the most part, Lone Ranger and Tonto is a collection of haunting stories, tinged with despair and yet also beauty. It’s the beauty of a bleak field, of peeling paint, of the winter sky and bare branches. It’s the stories of a community stripped of hope and purpose, a community unrooted and lost even as it has absorbed the Diet Pepsi, diabetes, television, and alcohol of the culture in which has been lost. Yet the parts where it seemed most “Indian,” most indicative of a different view of the world, are the parts where the narrative is least realistic, least straightforward. It’s where the narrative veers toward magical realism or even surrealism, as in the post-apocalyptic dreamscape that pervades the middle of the volume. In that particular story (and more subtly throughout) we get the reminder that in some sense the reservation is already post-apocalyptic: these are the survivors of a culture that was utterly overwhelmed, nearly destroyed, and transformed beyond recognition. They’re all survivors here.

In these narratives, where the Western realism slips, we seem to get a glimpse into the mind of another culture. And here’s where I must tread carefully, because on the one hand a work like this shows us how similar we all really are; yet on the other hand the work– I think– can illustrate how unlike we are as well. Not that race need divide, but that culture informs our perception of the world, and straightforward narrative prose seems a dominantly Western approach. Alexie at times approaches something that I think Lafferty (himself not an Indian) accomplished in his work Okla Hannali: a story told in the way you half-believe a real Indian would tell it, an Indian who knew that stories didn’t have to make logical sense to be true or realistic to be life-like.

The important of stories is the backbone of this collection of stories. Many of the stories, especially those featuring the character of Thomas Builds-the-Fire, are stories about telling stories. There’s something significant here, and something I think is central to the experience of any marginalized people: the stories become a way of survival, essential to culture and identity to an extent we– whose narratives are so dominant that our own stories are ubiquitous and we begin to believe they are the only stories– cannot grasp.

The Wizard’s House

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I like the idea of flying castles. I’m a big fan of Hayao Miyazaki’s Howl’s Moving Castle (not technically a flying castle) and Castle in the Sky. I love the idea of something so heavy and earthbound given levity, drifting through the sky like a cloud. (There’s a flying castle at the beginning of Wolfe’s Wizard Knight series as well.)

That idea was the germ for writing “The Wizard’s House.” I wanted to play in a landscape similar to that of Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (another Miyazaki film). I wrote this piece about a young man and his search for a wizard’s flying house, and then I wrote the second installment, called “The Unborn God.” It was the second installment that was picked up first and ran in an earlier issue of Beneath Ceaseless Skies, garnering a positive review from Locus. Now the “prequel” has appeared, and you can read it here.

I’m not sure how I’d categorize these stories. BCS publishes “literary adventure fantasy,” and that probably fits pretty well. I might also affix descriptions like “surrealist” or “magical realist” to these. I try to describe the fantastic elements in as concrete, everyday language as possible, as they would appear to the characters. And I’ve had quite a bit of fun with these characters: the timepiece, the wizard, and Sylva.

These were enjoyable stories to write, and I hope you enjoy reading them. My favorite parts are the descriptions of the clouds through which the characters pass on their travels. I love watching the skies from airplane windows; the shifting cartography of clouds and the landscape below. That’s what I’ve tried to capture here.

(Artwork above by Takeshi Oga.)

Drying Grass Moon

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Last week was a good one as far as publication go, as I had two stories go live in two different online magazines. The first appeared in AE: The Canadian Science Fiction Review, a quarterly magazine in which one of my previous stories, My Bicycle, 4500 A.D., appeared a few years ago. One of the cool things about having a story in AE is that each one is illustrated, so I get the treat of seeing how an artist interprets what I had to say. (The illustration above is by Al Sirois.)

I wrote “Drying Grass Moon” on a sleepy Sunday afternoon, which is when a lot of my writing seems to take place: sitting in bed with the kids playing upstairs and my wife napping beside me. Like many of my stories, it was based on a fragment I had sketched out in one of the voluminous free-write files that I try to keep regularly with varying degrees of success. The title itself, an old Native American (I think) designation of one of the full moons, had stuck in my mind. I wanted to play with that image, imagining settlement and abandonment on the lunar surface.

One of the challenges was trying to write about the passage of time on the Moon, about what that would actually look like. The Moon is tidally locked with the Earth, so the Earth remains motionless in the lunar sky. Your location on the Moon determines the Earth’s position in your sky, and that position does not vary over the course of the month-long lunar day. The Earth would, however, go through phases in its fixed spot in the sky. I wanted those realities to be the background of the story, as well as the developing reality of exoplanetary discovery and how that might transform the way we view human expansion into our own planetary system.

The twist in the story is about old age, youth, companionship, and– of course– sexbots. I’ll let you tell me whether or not you found it effective. Read “Drying Grass Moon” here.

Polycarp on the Sea

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I still place the blame (or credit) on Gene Wolfe’s fiction for setting me on the literary track that led to the all classical pieces of writing that I should have read in high school, if not before. Until reading Wolfe, it had been possible to enjoy science fiction and fantasy and bluff my way through an understanding of the classical allusions writers made at times. With Wolfe’s writings though, this was no longer possible. I realized I needed at least a rudimentary basis of culture to catch what he was often laying out in his stories– or at least, to try to catch more of it.

So I read, among other things, Dickinson’s translation of the Aeneid. What particularly struck me was the story of Palinurus, the faithful but hapless navigator who was sacrificed at the conclusion of Book V to appease Neptune and allow the surviving Trojans safe passage to Italy. I wrote a story based on this episode, but in the strange evolution of ideas the character of Palinurus was replaced by St. Polycarp.

There are metaphors here, to be sure, and maybe I was even trying to make them: Polycarp at the helm of the early Church, perhaps. His journey toward Rome and martyrdom. Maybe it also had something to do with what other books I was reading at the time and the idea (surely misplaced) that could write about an early church father more easily than an early Latin hero.

In any case, I wrote a surrealist retelling of this episode from the Aeneid with Polycarp standing in for Palinurus. It was short, haunting, and (I thought) poignant–but it was also rather eclectic. Indeed, it wasn’t until Pulp Literature’s call went out for especially unique stories– I think the editors said something about “those stories that you’ve been hiding under your bed”– that it found a home and has now seen print.

And what lovely print it is. The folks who put together the print magazine Pulp Literature make it look easy and elegant. Their latest issue– Winter 2015— is now out and on sale, and if you pick up your copy, you’ll find my Polycarp bit, complete with illustrations.

Doooooo it. Support writers (like me). But more importantly, support the lovely people who collect stories and publish them with such love and care.