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Short Story Review Roundup: December 2013 – January 2014

February 7, 2014

Time for another installment of short story mini-reviews! As I’ve said before, I’m doing these mini-reviews partly because I just think it is so neat that there is all of this fiction available for free online. This post is mostly podcasts (people reading free fiction to you! For free!), although we’re going to start off with two text stories.

Previous installments: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12

First up: two stories from the Tor.com five-year compilation:

The Girl Who Sang Rose Madder by Elizabeth Bear involves a rock star who used to be famous but gave up music, and is now dying of cancer. She goes to meet her sister, who is still in show business after all these years, and who has some secrets of her own. I have just about zero interest in the rock-‘n’-roll lifestyle, and the fantasy element here was relatively small and predictable, so this wasn’t the story for me. It did a good job of getting into the headspace of an aging musician, though. (Or so I would imagine.)
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In The Horrid Glory of Its Wings, also by Elizabeth Bear, a young girl, born with HIV and currently in the foster care system, befriends a harpy that lives in an alley… if befriends is really the right word for two creatures who are so painfully alone. The grim and lonely and grey mood of this story is perfectly done, and I really like Bear’s writing style. But it ends on sort of an ambiguous note, which fit the story well enough, but was not what I was in the mood for.
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All of the rest this time are from Podcastle:

In The Twa Corbies by Marie Brennan, a peddler who made the stupid (in his opinion) wish to be able to understand the language of birds overhears two ravens talking about a knight who has dropped dead (and who they are going to eat). The peddler’s instinct to investigate winds up landing him in way more trouble than he bargained for. Talking animal stories are usually not a huge favorite of mine, but Brennan managed to capture the personality of the ravens (and the hawk who shows up later) really well. I thought the ending was a little obvious, and wished there had been a little more intrigue, maybe one more twist to the story, but overall it was a fun diversion.
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In The Petrified Girl by Katherine Sparrow, a woman living on the edge of the desert outside of Tucson sees a pregnant girl who is apparently homeless and alone in the desert – and potentially has been pregnant and alone every summer for decades. This story was interesting, and I liked the writing style, but I felt like it needed the fantasy/mythology elements amped up just a little – I was more interested in the desert girl than in the protagonist, but it felt like we got more about the protagonist and less about the girl.
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In Restless In My Hand by Tim Pratt, a man receives a strange visitor who is returning to him a family heirloom: a wicked-looking battle axe, that whispers to him about the ongoing war and the need to slaughter their enemies. But how can he believe in some mythical destiny when he’s got responsibilities – a wife and a son – here at home? I liked this story quite a bit. The “what happens if the mythical hero refuses the call to adventure?” premise is a neat one, and the way it played out in Pratt’s story felt honest, if also like the author was working out some issues about fatherhood in the meantime. I would have liked the story better if it had ended about three paragraphs sooner, with the more melancholy ending… the happy-ever-after coda felt artificially sentimental.
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In The Narcomancer by N. K. Jemisin, a delegation from a tiny village comes to seek the aid of the Gatherers, since their leader was killed by bandits wielding a strange power. When I originally read “The Narcomancer” in the anthology Epic: Legends of Fantasy, I noted that it did a better job of explaining the mechanics of the magic system and the other worldbuilding details than did Jemisin’s novel, The Killing Moon, set in the same world. Listening to it in podcast form, however, I realize that the short story was published well before the Dreamblood books, well before even The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms… so maybe this was the first time she had worked out the worldbuilding, and then didn’t re-explain it as well in her novel form. (Of course, I have no idea on the order that the story vs. the novel was written, or whether one drew from the other, etc.) But regardless, I liked this one a lot, just as much on my second time through.
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In Tio Gilberto and the 27 Ghosts by Ben Francisco, a young gay comedian goes to San Francisco to stay for the summer with his uncle, who lives in a house haunted by ghosts only he can see. This story was sweet, and sad, and with a touch or two of humor. I didn’t think the protagonist’s boyfriend was particularly well developed or multidimensional, and he comes off as really unlikeable for a number of reasons. I wish the ghosts had done just a little bit more – James avoids them for the most part, which was too bad. But the unfolding of the story was well paced, and well timed, and somewhere in the space between melancholy and touching.
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Narrative of a Beast’s Life by Cat Rambo is very consciously modeled after slave narratives (I’ve never read any of the originals, but it reminded me of the Octavian Nothing books), except in this case, the slave in question is a centaur. I like the concept of this story, and the execution in terms of style was well-done. But I don’t know that the story really used the “magical creatures as slaves” concept to say anything new about the subject, something that couldn’t be said when we’re talking about humans.
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And now a bunch of “Miniatures” – flash fiction, all only a few minutes long, also from Podcastle:

In Tooth Fairy by Jeffrey Valka, a dad explains to his child where the tooth fairy comes from and why they need the teeth. I realize this is under the constraints of flash fiction, but if the story the dad tells had been a little more elaborate, I thought the punchline would have had more punch.
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Believe by Katherine Sparrow is cute story of a school yard magic trick… or is it? I definitely sat in my grade school classes practicing my telekinesis (a la Matilda) so this story felt very relatable.
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In What Dragons Prefer by Dayle A. Dermatis, a dragon seeker comes to rid a small town of its biggest problem… but that problem is not necessarily the dragon. I can’t tell if I liked this one because it reminded me of Carrie Vaughn’s story “For Fear of Dragons”, or because I just like dragon stories in general, or both.
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In The Desires of Houses by Haddayr Copley-Woods, a woman is loved by the objects in her house, who all compete for her touch. Interesting idea, but inanimate object sexytimes are not really my thing, and I couldn’t stop thinking about the Simpsons “Treehouse of Horror” episode with Pierce Brosnan as the voice of the intelligent house.
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In The Fable of the Moth, by Peter S. Beagle, a moth warns his compatriots that there is more to life than the siren song of the candle flame. Short, but recognizable – how many of us do things we know are bad for us?
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In The Fable of the Tyrannosaurus, by Peter S. Beagle, a small mammal warns a T. rex about her impending doom. A little teleological about how evolution works for my taste, but also quite funny.
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In The Fable of the Ostrich, by Peter S. Beagle, an ostrich realizes that burying his head in the sand is not going to save him, and so seeks advice from an elderly lion about how to best avoid being eaten. Cute, although if the moral of the story was not meant ironically, it’s kind of awful.
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In The Fable of the Octopus, by Peter S. Beagle, an octopus, finding no likely candidates in the creatures around him, asks a fisherman if he is God. I was a little apprehensive when I realized the topic of the story, although it wound up being not off-putting at all. Didn’t break a lot of new philosophical ground, though.
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What about you, readers? Read (or listened to) any good short stories lately?

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8 Comments leave one →
  1. February 7, 2014 9:27 am

    I was just talking to my daughter, the college student, asking her what makes a short story. Basically, what are the guideline/parameters that make a short story, I guess, short.

    • February 7, 2014 12:33 pm

      Well, by Podcastle’s criteria, anything that takes more than 15 minutes but less than an hour to read aloud. :) It’s the “novella” distinction that always seems the most nebulous to me.

  2. February 7, 2014 12:19 pm

    I really need to flip through your posts and read some of the stories. I think that every time you do a post of them, but then never do. I am terrible with short stories…

    • February 7, 2014 12:32 pm

      My current strategy is to load up my waterproof iPod only with short story podcasts, so every time I go swim, I listen to another story or two. I probably am not making as much progress on my regular full-length audiobook that way, but the timing of a lot of these stories is usually just about the length of time of my workout, so it’s a good fit.

      If you would like me to go back through my posts and pull some that I think are particularly good, I’d be happy to!

  3. February 7, 2014 2:26 pm

    I read an interesting collection by Susie Moloney recently, Things Withered: everyday situations (lots of the characters have jobs that feature in the stories, families, daily responsibilities to cope with) but with a bizarre element that surfaces. I guess they’re marketed as horror, but that sounds a little misleading.

    The fact that you listen to these while you swim just amazes me, but it sounds like a great arrangement.

    • March 4, 2014 10:45 am

      BiP – Oh, I love, love, LOVE my waterproof iPod. I love swimming (and it makes my knees much happier than other types of exercise) but it would get dead boring – and therefore I wouldn’t do it – if I didn’t have stories/audiobooks to listen to.

  4. February 8, 2014 3:04 pm

    Thank you for the lovely review! “What Dragons Prefer” was my first short story sale, way back in the early 1990s—and my first podcast sale!

    • March 4, 2014 10:46 am

      Dayle – Thanks for dropping by! One of the things I love best about the short story podcasts is that they’re such a fun way to discover new authors… even if I am years behind!

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