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!

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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!

The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories, by Ken Liu

There’s a test I like to do when I’m considering buying a book. I open to the first page and start reading. If I automatically turn to the next page, then it’s a winner. I found myself on page 4 of Ken Liu’s The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories before I managed to pull myself away. Obviously, not every story in the collection was equally enjoyable, but his writing style remains absorbing. This isn’t surprising – several stories in this collection have won awards. The title story, “The Paper Menagerie,” won the Nebula, Hugo, and World Fantasy Award.

This collection contains both science fiction and fantasy. So often, writers segregate into one or the other of the speculative genres, but Liu says in the introduction that he doesn’t see a distinction. As someone who enjoys both (though I must admit I gravitate more towards fantasy), it was fun to see how he turned his talents towards each. Of fifteen stories, we have four that take place in space, three alternate near futures, three in the past, and five in the present (or close enough that I couldn’t tell). Several stories deal with Chinese folklore, and those were my favorites, but that’s no surprise; I’ve always loved fiction that deals with folklore, no matter the source.

My sole criticism with this volume is with the order of the stories. Three of the stories about humans going into space are placed one after the other, with the result that the stories blurred together. I suspect they were each excellent individually, but as a chunk I got sick of them, which did them a disservice.

Liu offers his readers a rare gift in the form of notes at the end of many of the stories, in which he cites the scientific research or historical event that inspired him. I loved that glimpse into his mind and inspiration. He cites some cutting-edge science articles, but the notes that I found most compelling were the historical citations (no surprise there). I learned more about some ugly moments in Chinese and American relations from this book than I am comfortable admitting. “The Literomancer” (a beautiful and hearth-breaking story, and another one of my favorites) was particularly devastating. In it, an American girl moves to China during the Cold War for her father’s job, and has trouble fitting in with the other Americans at school. She bonds with a Chinese boy and his adoptive grandfather, but when she tells her parents about her new friends, the outcome had me closing the book to regroup before I could continue reading.

This collection make me tear up on the bus ride home from work more than once, for which I probably shouldn’t thank Mr. Liu, but I will anyway. These aren’t comfortable stories. He doesn’t shy away from realities of the human experience, particularly those of immigrants and their children. The title story, “The Paper Menagerie,” is a particularly poignant portrait of the pain and loss that assimilation can cause. The narrator never demonized the son who wishes to fit it, but shows the repercussions with stark clarity.

One of the themes that weaves through many, if not all, of Liu’s stories is the continued impact of history. In “Mono no aware,” Liu explores how our history on earth would impact our travel into space: specifically, how the lone survivor of what was once a country on earth might take his culture with him. “Good Hunting” shows figures from Chinese mythology (specifically a hulijing, or fox spirit, and the son of a ghost hunter) adapting to a world with new technology and a loss of magic due to colonizing influences. “All the Flavors,” more of a novella than a short story, shows how stories from home might have provided inspiration and sustenance to Chinese laborers brought over to work on the railroads.

I loved these stories and this collection. Everything in it is beautifully written. Ken Liu understands the potential of the English language, and walks the line between simplicity and lyricism. But more than that, these stories have an amazing amount of humanity in them. His characters are real – they have flaws, they hurt, they bleed, they dream, and they take the reader with them. These stories took me to worlds that I could never visit, and not just because they are science fiction and fantasy. This is a book that stretches your empathy muscle, and that is the greatest gift literature has to offer.

Review: Flying Lessons & Other Stories

Like many of you, I’m concerned about the future of America. With hate crimes against so many minority groups on the rise, things feel bleak. Our country seems to have forgotten how to treat each other with common decency and respect (if we ever really did that in the first place, which is debatable), and it breaks my heart. Which is why I’m sharing this book review today, as part of the National Day of Resistance. I want to do my part to resist casual hatred and bigotry by sharing a book full of multi-culturalism and understanding.

One of the rallying cries around social justice circles is that representation matters, and nowhere is that more important than in literature for children. Too often, the only stories told with black characters are set during either the civil rights era or slavery. Jewish characters are only seen in the Holocaust. We reduce these characters to stereotypes of struggle, rather than real people. It’s past time for these kids to see themselves in modern contexts and in stories that center their experience. Flying Lessons & Other Stories is a beautiful example of just that. The rare anthology for middle readers, this books collects stories by authors with a wide range of ethnic backgrounds, and that is reflected in the characters within.

All of these stories are realistic fiction (though one is historical, not contemporary), which I think serves the purpose of this book admirable. While I love to see more diversity in fantasy in science fiction, it’s also important for people (maybe especially kids) to see themselves as they truly exist, and to see how other people actually live. Not as stereotypes or problems, but as multi-faceted human beings.

But beyond representation and concept, these stories are eminently readable. I enjoyed every single one immensely. None of them felt like they were moralizing. All the kids felt very real, with strengths and weaknesses, and they all dealt with their problems in ways that felt plausible for children. And the stories are fun! Surprisingly, one of my favorites was the first in the collection, which is a story about basketball. It’s only surprising because I am not a sports fan, but De La Peña tells a great story about perseverance. Which is to say, these are stories that transcend subject.

While this book is targeted at kids, it’s very enjoyable as an adult, as well. I genuinely adored every single story in here! I highly recommend it for anyone who wants to see more diversity in their reading material, and in their authors.

2017 Diverse Reading Challenge

I am not, in general, a fan of New Years resolutions. Too much pressure, not enough room to adapt and adjust with the year, and way too much potential for turning the inevitable backsliding into a sign of failure for my taste. But I do like goals, especially frivolous seeming ones that actually support my larger hopes and dreams. I have one such goal for 2017. Namely, to make sure that half of the books I read this year are by minority authors.

With everything going on politically, with the rise of fascism and actual neo-nazis and hate crimes and fear, this seems like literally the least I can do. Supporting authors from all walks of life is important for a diverse and democratic society. Plus, I can’t effectively fight hate if I don’t make sure to listen to other points of view, and one of the easiest ways to do that by reading.

I don’t want to mislead you into thinking that I’m only reading political books this year. Not at all! Or at least, not overtly political books. I think that every book – no matter the subject or genre – carries the authors experience. So a fantasy novel written by a black woman or a Chinese American man is inherently coming from a different place than what someone who looks like me would write (not that everyone in the same ethnic group is coming from the same place! We all have different experiences, but race, religion, gender, and sexuality certainly influence our lives in ways that tend to be similar).

I agonized over my criteria. Do I count LGBTQ authors? Not everyone is publicly open about their sexuality, nor do I expect them to be. Do I include Jewish authors? I am half-Jewish, so maybe that doesn’t count as broadening my horizons. In the end, I’ve decided to be liberal in my definition of minority writers. Brown, black, Asian, Muslim, Jewish, queer, they all count.

So how does this support my larger hopes and dreams? One of those dreams is to see America become more open and accepting of all of its people, embracing the truth of different viewpoints. Reading from backgrounds other than my own is a very small step in that direction, but it is a step, particularly because I work in a bookstore and can then recommend those books to others when appropriate. The other dream/goal is to improve my writing, and reading excellent books by talented authors who I might not otherwise seek out can only help my own writing to improve.

I’m doing pretty well so far. I’ve finished three books, which is sort of insane for January 6, but two of them were graphic novels (Saga, volume 5 and 6, to be precise). The third book was The Kingdom of Gods, by N.K. Jemisin. So technically I’m behind, since I’m counting number of books read and not page count (I’m going by my Goodreads tally for “official” purposes), but that will even out soon enough. I’m already half-way through Brown Girl Dreaming, by Jacqueline Woodson, and I have at least five more books lined up to help me on my way. But if you have any suggestions, please do send them my way!

Breathe for Hope

I wrote this shortly after the Presidential election. This is a reflection of my personal experience and what I needed to hear at that time. I’ve come a little bit further in my understanding since then, but have decided to share my original response in its original format, in case it speaks to anyone else.

Take a deep breath, and let it out. In this moment, you are safe. Take a deep breath. Feel your lungs expand into your chest and belly. Let it out. You are alive. There is hope.

I know you afraid (Take a deep breath, and let it out). It turns out that our country is not what you thought it was, what you hoped it would be. (Take a deep breath). But there are people who care about the earth, and about people different from themselves. People who are even now figuring out how to fight. (And let it out).

It’s scary, the things that we think are coming. The changes and the peeling away of civil rights and the perceived freedom to live our lives (Take a deep breath, and let it out). There’s a lot that you don’t have control of. That’s nothing new. (Take a deep breath). So try to focus on what you can control, to figure out what that is. Learned helplessness is a real problem right now, and you’re fighting our way free of it as fast as you can. (And let it out).

But that’s not enough, is it? It’s never enough or fast enough or strong enough to save everyone who needs saving. So you save no one. (Take a deep breath and let it out). You’re going to have to let go of that, though. Save one person. Take one action. Don’t think about what you couldn’t do or didn’t do. One foot in front of the other. (Take a deep breath). You can’t give up before you’ve begun. There’s too much at stake. There was always too much at stake. (And let it out).

See your fear of failure. Recognize it. Shake its hand. It isn’t going anywhere any time soon. (Take a deep breath and let it out). Refuse to give it the keys to the car of your life. It can ride with you, because it must, but don’t let it drive your actions. (Take a deep breath). Since you’re currently safe, then you’re going to have to be strong. Not fearless, because that’s impossible, but strong enough to step up as an ally and a human being. (And let it out).

You’re going to be ok. You’re scared, but you know that in your bones. (Take a deep breath and let it out). But not everybody will be ok. Find out what they need. Listen. Learn. Support. (Take a deep breath). Together, we can do this. (And let it out)