Good Lunar Tidings

July 30 started like any other day. I brewed a cup of tea and checked my email on my phone, skimming through newsletters and staring out the window. I saw a response to a story I’d submitted. “Ah, another entry for my folder of story rejections,” I thought, as I clicked the link.

Gentle readers, it was not rejection. It was an acceptance. And thus, my short story, “Tell the Moon Your Troubles,” was published at Enchanted Conversation Magazine this month.

It makes sense that this, of all the possibilities, is my first published work of fiction. I’ve always felt an emotional connection to the moon. Looking up at her in the sky fills me with peace and a sense of companionship that has helped me through some rough moments in my life, and of course forms the emotional core of this brief story, even if Leah’s problems are very different from my own. I hope this story will inspire someone else to look up at night and feel less alone, too.

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Broken Promises

I said that I was going to review a piece of short fiction every week until the end of 2017, but have not updated this blog since September. What gives?

Technically, I did not break my promise. I am now reviewing Apex Magazine for the new short fiction review site, SFF Reviews. Due to their scheduling backlog, only one of those reviews has gone live as of today, but I’ve written one every week. It turns out that’s as many reviews as I can write on a regular basis now, on top of my other commitments and my own writing. I’ve been brainstorming other good uses for this blog, but have not yet come to any firm decisions. In the meantime, you can find my reviews of Apex Magazine here, and you can follow my general thoughts and rambling on Twitter.

“Seer’s Salad” by Barbara A. Barnett

Sometimes, I am not very good at keeping up with my podcasts. Thus I have only now listened to “Seer’s Salad” by Barbara A. Barnett, published on Cast of Wonders. And that is a damn shame, because this story deconstructs one of my favorite tropes: the manic pixie dream girl.

Tamsin is a 20-something with an unpublished web comic and an inferiority complex. Her good friend, Diya, is a glitter-loving girl with a loud personality and louder fashion sense. The action of the story follows their falling out and reconciliation, and along the way, Tamsin learns an important lesson about valuing herself.

The question, suggested by the text and posed outright by the host, is whether Diya a manic pixie dream girl. I think the answer is a clear no.

Film critic Nathan Rabin coined the term manic pixie dream girl to describe an exciting, quirky girl who livened up a male main characters boring life and has no goals or purpose of her own. Now the term is used to disparage a certain personality type – the silly, the girly, the flamboyant, the irresponsible, and the whimsical. It’s not fair. And it’s not fair to Diya. Yes, her role in the story is to help Tamsin learn something about herself. But when you read the story, you’ll see that she’s not bringing in something her friend lacks, but suggesting that her friend is just fine as she is.

I love this story because I think it is a somewhat deliberate take down of the misuse of the manic pixie dream girl label. Diya is genuinely hurt when Tamsin accuses her of playing the role of “Princess Whimsy Pants,” accusing her of having a deliberately crafted persona, instead of just being herself. She is who she is, not for someone else, but for herself. It’s not an act, and it’s not for anyone else’s benefit.

The original intent of the label was to criticize lazy story-telling and the creation of one-dimensional female characters. It was never meant to skewer an entire personality type, or to lump all quirky women (and yes, I’ve seen this term applied to real, living women) into one category and dump them in the trash. Thus, Diya isn’t a manic pixie dream girl – she’s a simply a girl.

Rant aside, this is a great story and one that I highly recommend for your listening pleasure!

Short Fiction Review: Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience

When I saw the title of Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience™, by Rebecca Roanhorse in Apex Magazine, I anticipated a biting story about plastic shamans and cultural appropriation. I wasn’t exactly wrong, but this story is so much fuller and richer than what I imagined.

Jesse Turnblatt works as a guide for a virtual reality company selling spiritual experiences in Sedona, AZ. The job is exactly what you expect – he dresses up as a movie Indian, speaks in broken English, and performs his Indian-ness in order to provide enlightenment to his (white) customers.

What most struck me was how resigned Jesse was. I expected anger and resentment and barely contained rage. But really, the main character is a guy who just wants to get by. He wants to do his job and get on with his life. Everyone around him is outraged – his wife thinks it’s ridiculous that he takes the stage name of Trueblood, and his co-worker is offended by the “Squaw Fantasy” that she’s asked to take part in – but not Jesse. He watches old westerns to get into character to portray a stereotypical version of his own identity. That kind of resignation is an angle I don’t often see towards cultural exploitation (which may be a flaw in my own reading, and not a hole in the literature), and I appreciated it. I don’t want to spoil the ending, but there’s a twist that makes you rethink the meaning of the title, in the best possible way.

On a craft level, the use of the second-person narrative is skillfully handled, putting the reader fully into Jesse’s point-of-view without feeling bossy or prescriptive. It reminded me of how well N.K. Jemisin handled second-person in the Broken Earth trilogy. In a way, the choice of second-person POV is almost foreshadowing the ending.

Above all else — beyond theme and POV — this is a good read, with interesting characters and a well-developed plot.

Short Fiction Review: Death at the Dragon Circus

This one isn’t quite a short story, but please bear with me. I just discovered a serialized fiction podcast (Sheep Might Fly), and fell madly in love with the first complete story that I listened to: “Death at the Dragon Circus,” by Tansy Rayner Roberts, originally published in And Then… The Great Big Book of Awesome Adventure Tales.

Before you get scared by the phrase “serial podcast,” know that this one is short – only six episodes, all of which are less than 20 minutes long. So each episode is very manageable, and you’re not committing to a story for eternity. Though you might wish you were once you get listening, because this one is a lot of fun.

The premise: former assassins known as the Hammer and the Dove have decided to retire from the life. They are now calling themselves Kurt and Inga Frostad, and before they get far into developing these new identities (and their new sibling relationship), they fall in with a dragon circus. Of course the circus is in trouble, and Kurt and Inga are just the ones to fix it. It’s a rollicking good time.

Plot-wise, this is a tidy adventure/mystery, with just enough of the Frostad’s past to give them flavor, but the real focus is on the present day adventure – getting to know the circus, finding their places, and then discovering (and helping to thwart) a nefarious plot.

The narration is close third, with Kurt in the drivers seat. He’s a good narrator – funny and observant and self-deprecating and gruff. He doesn’t want to get involved with the circus, but allows himself to be sucked in because it makes Inga happy (though I also got the sense that he didn’t dislike the circus nearly as much as he let on). Like so much short fiction, I’d say that the voice is the best part of this story. It’s consistently fun, and often funny. I hope she revisits these characters in the future. I’d love to see what other trouble Inga and Kurt get up to!

I highly recommend this story for when you are feeling down and need a pick-me-up.

I can’t wait to check out Tansy RR’s other serialized stories through the podcast, and of course her published fiction.

Short Fiction Reviews: Kat Howard and Laura Chow Reeve

As I try to improve my own writing and get more publication credits under my belt, I’ve been paying closer attention to what I read, and I thought it would be fun to share of what I notice about my favorite stories, whether that’s short fiction or my favorite novel of the month. So I’m trying a little experiment. For the rest of 2017, I’m going to share weekly reviews. Mostly, I’ll be doing short fiction (whether from online publication, anthologies, collections, or podcasts), and the last week of the month I’ll talk about my favorite book that I’ve read that month (or maybe just a favorite book in general, depending on the month and my mood).

For this first week, I want to talk about A Nest of Ghosts, a House of Birds, by Kat Howard, and 1000-Year-Old Ghosts, by Laura Chow Reeve. Both of these stories feature mother-daughter and grandmother-granddaughter relationships, with some striking similarities.

A Nest of Ghosts, a House of Birds, by Kat Howard, sang to me the moment I started it. I kept stopping and staring into space, needing to take a moment to process how much I loved it. But why? Howard weaves the utterly magic into our mundane world in a way that I deeply admire. The voice and tone of this story won me over.

Howard doesn’t worry about the ordinary world in this story. Instead, she focuses on the lushness and mystery of inheriting a house full of birds, 20 years after the narrator’s grandmother dies. She grounds the magic in concrete details – the specificity of each bird, their behavior and nesting material – in a way that drew me in. The narrator’s reaction – surprise, followed by curiosity, fondness and eventual acceptance – was perfect, but it was the house and the birds and I loved most.

The mystery of the birds – what are they? and when that is answered, what does it mean? – is interwoven with a more personal arc. Over the course of the story, the narrator comes to understand why her mother and grandmother were estranged, and to empathize with both of them. The ending suggests a change of heart on the part of her mother. That was unexpected, but makes for a nice emotional resonance with the rest of the ending, which I will not spoil for you.

I listened to 1000-Year-Old Ghosts by Laura Chow Reeve on episode 9 of the fantastic podcast Levar Burton Reads, so for me this story received the benefit of Levar Burton’s soothing voice, but I think I’d still have loved it, even without that bonus. It’s not exactly fantasy, but it does contain fantastical elements. This is a story about a young woman and her Chinese grandmother, who teaches her how to pickle – and thus forget – unpleasant memories. The story alternates between the narrator’s experience growing up with this unusual practice – as well as her mother’s acute disapproval of said practice – and brief scenes of her grandmother’s earlier life with her now deceased husband.

The dual perspectives give the reader a sense of how wounds and coping mechanisms have been passed down through generations. With only the grandmother’s POV, we wouldn’t see how her choices have repercussions on the future, and with only the granddaughter’s POV, we wouldn’t understand where the pickling of memories really comes from, as a tradition and a habit.

The daughter’s naivete, the mother’s concerns, and the grandmother’s stubbornness and pain all felt authentic and sympathetic, even (especially) when they disagreed. For such a short work, the characters were deftly realized.

This doesn’t have the same kind of happy ending as Howard’s story, but that’s ok. The ending (which I will not spoil here) is inevitable and beautiful, bittersweet but not tragic. While I would love to know how the narrator’s life continued after the last line, the story ended on a resonant note.

Both of these stories explore how certain affinities can skip generations, and how a daughter can sometimes be closer to her grandmother than her mother ever was. Howard’s narrator was not close to her grandmother in life, though her death allows them to bond in a way that was not possible with her mother. In Reeve’s story, I got the sense that the grandmother, though the pickling of memories, had given her granddaughter a coping skill that her mother would not, and that was part of the basis of their relationship. In both cases, gifts skip a generation. I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Heroine Complex, by Sarah Kuhn

Heroine Complex, by Sarah Kuhn, is quite simply one of the most fun books I have had the pleasure to read. I’ve waited a week to write this review, to decide whether the initial infatuation would last (I’ll admit to sometimes being a tad hyperbolic about books I’ve just finished), but that first flush of joy has blossomed into an enduring admiration. This book is a winner, not just because it brings some much needed diversity to the world of superheroes, but because it is effortlessly fun and light. This is prime vacation reading, people!

The premise of the book is delightful. Some years ago, demons tried to invade San Francisco. It didn’t work, but the event gave low-level superpowers to a thousand or so locals. The invaders haven’t been back, but portals continue to open, and decidedly less menacing demons (referred to at one point as “puppy dog demons”) show up on a regular basis. Aveda Jupiter (real name: Annie) is the world’s first superhero, protecting San Francisco from these low-level demonic hordes, not with her own superpower, but through a lot of physical training and fight practice. She is aided by her childhood best friend, Evie, who hates the spotlight and fears her own superpower. The cast is rounded out by Lucy, Avedra’s bodyguard/personal trainer, plus Evie’s little sister, a cute demonologist, a nosy blogger, and the blogger’s sycophantic best friend.

The very first scene features a swarm of demons who have taken the form of cupcakes (their portal formed in a fancy bakery, and they imprinted on the first baked food they saw). This is featured on the cover, in all of it’s sharp-toothed, pink-frosting-ed glory. The style is over-the-top and a tad cartoonish, but that is clearly a deliberate choice. This book is a classic superhero cartoon, not a gritty urban fantasy. If you’re looking for something more grounded, then this book is likely to feel silly and cliched. That’s not how I experienced it, but I can understand how some people might feel that way.

The pacing is divine. The plot moves forward with gusto, never making us wait too long for what we know is coming. Then, with masterful strokes, Kuhn introduces something else for us to anticipate, and before too long, we get that, too. Repeat until the end of book. It’s a delightful change from real life, where patience is so frequently required from us. The plot doesn’t feel rushed – every battle, social media incident, and interpersonal conflict is given exactly as much time as it requires, but not a sentence more.

The world needs more women of color in the role of superheroes, which is why Chinese Aveda and half-Japanese Evie are so important. The author, Sarah Kuhn, is Asian herself, so we can trust that she has handled this from a place of knowledge and experience. This sort of #ownvoices writing is extra important as Hollywood keeps casting white women to play Asian characters.

It does my heart good to see a superhero story with so many strong friendships between women. It’s the most realistic part of the book, the backbone that makes the frosted-demons believable. Aveda and Evie have been best friends since they were six years old, and while they have some serious baggage, all twenty years of their friendship sing through the page. Evie and Lucy (the bodyguard and personal trainer) have known each other for far less time, but have an easy camraderie that feels no less authentic. There’s not a ton of character background and history, but they feel authentic to me.

My favorite part of this book? Knowing that the sequel, Heroine Worship, is coming out in July!