After Earth (Or, How Not to Structure a Story)

I watched After Earth last night. Yes, on purpose. No, I don’t know what’s wrong with me either. Actually, to be perfectly honest, it’s an excellent hate watch if you’re the kind of person who likes belligerently yelling at their TV screen. Fair warning though, you probably want to arm yourself with alcohol (or the brain-altering chemical of your choice) to numb the pain before attempting a viewing of your own. All that said, there are some valuable lessons for writers to glean from After Earth – namely: how not to structure a story.

After Earth opens with a spacecraft crash in progress. It’s a big, dramatic scene where two characters we know nothing about are in mortal danger. The craft explodes then we see what appears to be the lone survivor waking up on a planet. At which point the movie immediately shifts to a montage, overlaid with a narrative voice over giving us an info dump about the history of the world. Which is followed by a flashback designed to make us care about the characters we just saw crash. Which is followed by a flashback within a flashback designed to… You know what? I don’t care anymore.

This opening is a classic example of a trap many writers fall into, especially those just starting out in learning their craft. They write a wonderful, flashy opening to grab the reader, and then they bring the story to a grinding halt. They step back and explain their world, who their characters are, how they got there, and why the reader should care. A killer hook is a fine thing, but it cannot stand alone. Catching the reader’s attention is just the first step; you have to give them a reason to keep reading once their attention is yours.

Similarly, there’s nothing wrong with a flashback here and there to deepen the reader’s interest in your characters, but flashbacks shouldn’t be the entire scaffolding your character is built upon. Contrast the opening of After Earth with the first episode of Lost. There’s still a big, dramatic plane crash, an action-filled hook to grab the viewers attention. The episode is still rife with flashbacks as well, but – and this is the important part- they’re interspersed with the present action. The characters in the present time are still taking action. They are trying to survive on the island where they’ve crashed. They’re looking for water and shelter. They’re having conflicts with each other, engaging in power struggles, forging new relationships, and growing as characters. In short, the story is moving forward.

In After Earth, the story does not move forward for a good twenty minutes, maybe longer. The characters are only interesting (and I use that term loosely, because they are not) in the present day because of their back story. Take away the flashback scenes, and we know nothing about the characters. Which begs the question – why should we care about them? Again, there is nothing wrong with flashbacks to deepen characters, but they should grow and change and reveal pieces of themselves in the present day action as well. If you, as a writer, don’t care about the story in the present, why should the reader care? If the present day story isn’t interesting to you, why are you writing it? Maybe there’s a different story you need to tell. The story of the life-changing event that brought your characters to their situation today, and then… The End. Fade to black with your character’s worldview shaken. Leave them knowing nothing will ever be the same. And leave it to the reader to imagine the next chapter, leave them hungry for more, their mind full of where the story could go from there.

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Spring Book Love

Spring might not be the right word, given this post was written in the midst of a snow storm, but the season isn’t important. The books are the important bit. Typically I do a year-end wrap-up of books each December. I’ll still do that, but this year, I figured why wait? I want to babble about the books I love now.  Wonder of wonders, several of the books I’ve loved this year are even published in 2015. If I gush about them now, there’s even more time for other people to read them before a new year ticks over and there’s a whole fresh crop of books to fall behind on.

Karen Memory

First up, Karen Memory by Elizabeth Bear. I’d been looking forward to this novel since I first heard about it, and snapped up a copy as soon as it came out. The action centers around the “soiled doves” of Madame Damnable’s high-class parlor in a steampunk-tinged weird wild west. (If you don’t fall in love with the book based on the name Madame Damnable alone, then there’s just no help for you.) The titular Karen and the other girls of Madame Damnable’s are a family. They’re full of fierce love for each other, and they watch each other’s backs no matter what happens. They even look out for strangers, too. An injured escapee from a less reputable brothel brings the girl who helped her escape to their door, bleeding from a gunshot wound. Madame Damnable’s girls take them in, no questions asked, despite the world of trouble it’ll bring on their heads. What follows is action, adventure, and a good dose of daring. Above and beyond all of that, the beauty of Karen Memory is its focus on female friendships. It also places front and center the voices frequently overlooked by the Western genre. Instead of the typical square-jawed cowboys, we get whores and cooks, politicians and lawmen, and they all come from different backgrounds and have different body types, genders, races, and sexual preferences, showing that history is not a monolithic culture. On top of all that, there are escapes, bravery, horses, love, and gunfights. There’s even a cat. In short, it’s everything you could want from a weird, wild Western.

Signal to Noise

Next up is Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Signal to Noise, another book I’d been looking forward to since first hearing about it, which I grabbed as soon as it was available. Set in Mexico City in 1988 and 2009, the story follows three teenagers who learn to cast spells using vinyl records. The narrative moves back and forth between the 80s, when the three were best friends, and the present day, when their friendship has long since fallen apart. Meche, the main character, comes back to her home town to attend her father’s funeral. Her return inevitably dredges up old memories, and plunges her back into a life she tried hard to leave behind. Meche is a truly wonderful character. She’s allowed to be prickly and surly angry. She’s allowed to push people away without making concessions to their feelings. She’s allowed to misunderstand and fuck up and get things wrong. In short, she’s allowed to be human – something sadly still lacking in many female characters, even today. Moreno-Garcia maintains a delicate balance. Despite her anger, Meche is never unlikable. You understand where she’s coming from, and why she acts the way she does. She inhabits a world full of other human characters, all flawed and strong in equal measures, all imperfect as humans tend to be. It is precisely because they are imperfect that you care about these characters. They are people you know. They may, at one time or another, have been you. The magic and fantastical elements here are a bonus. The real heart of the novel is the relationships. This is proved out by the last scene of the book, which is breathtakingly perfect, and a magic all of its own.

Labyrinthian

Last, but not least, Labyrinthian by Sunny Moraine. I was so eager to read this one, I apparently bent the laws of time and space and received my copy before the official release date. Take that, time! You’re not the boss of me! Ahem. Sorry. The novel is set in the same universe as Line and Orbit by Sunny Moraine and Lisa Soem. While it isn’t a sequel, it shares many sensibilities. Taur is a genetically modified human on the run from the people who made him. Theseus is a bounty hunter who accepts the job of tracking him down. As frequently happens in this sort of tale, the people who set the bounty on Taur’s head betray Theseus. Instead of paying him, they try to kill both him and Taur. With nowhere else to turn, the two go on the run. Theseus and Taur discover a budding attraction for each other, while trying to stay alive, save Taur’s siblings, and unravel the mystery behind the creation of these genetically engineered super-beings. Oh, and just in case the stakes weren’t high enough, there’s also a chip embedded in Taur’s skull, ticking down toward killing him. The novel is sexy and fun and proves definitively that romance and space opera do in fact mix. As it turns out, feelings do not ruin a perfectly good story about spaceships, genetic modification, and bounty hunters. They make it better. Also, it’s sexy. Did I mention sexy? Luckily, there are more novels set in this universe on the way.

So there you have it – three excellent books, and the reading year has just begun. There are plenty more delicious books on the way, and I look forward to devouring them. Now it’s your turn. What have you read so far this year that you’d recommend? There’s always room for more on my tottering to read pile.

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An Interview with Damien Angelica Walters

Damien Author Photo

Damien Angelica Walters was kind enough to drop by today to talk about her new collection, Sing Me Your Scars. Let’s start in the usual way, where I make introductions by shamelessly cribbing from an author’s bio…

Damien Angelica Walters’ short fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in anthologies and magazines such as Year’s Best Weird Fiction Volume One, The Best of Electric Velocipede, Glitter & Mayhem, What Fates Impose, Lightspeed, Shimmer, Shock Totem, Jamais Vu, Apex Magazine, Strange Horizons, Nightmare Magazine, and others. Sing Me Your Scars, a collection of her short fiction, will be released on March 9, 2015 from Apex Publications. Paper Tigers, a novel, will be released in late 2015 by Dark House Press. She’s also a freelance editor, and until the magazine’s closing in 2013, she was an Associate Editor of the Hugo Award-winning speculative fiction magazine, Electric Velocipede. She lives in Maryland with her husband and two rescue pit bulls.

ACW: First off, let’s start the interview with some exciting recent news. Your story, ‘The Floating Girls: A Documentary‘ is a finalist for the Bram Stoker Award. Congratulations! Where were you when you heard the news, and what did you do to celebrate?

DAW: Thank you! It feels very, very surreal. I thought nominees were notified beforehand, so I assumed my story didn’t make the ballot. I was sitting at my desk, drinking coffee and mulling over story notes when I saw that the nominees were posted. I clicked the link to see if Usman made the ballot because I hoped so–and he did!–and when I saw my story listed there, too, I blinked a few times and double-checked the link. When it hit that it wasn’t a mistake, I just sat for a few minutes, staring at the screen. Then came the flailing hands and the social media buzz, and at the end of the day, I celebrated with a glass of Merlot and a bit of chocolate.

Sing Me Your Scars Cover

ACW: And the second bit of congratulations, your collection Sing Me Your Scars was just released. What type of stories can readers expect to find in this collection?

DAW: Thank you kindly. Sing Me Your Scars is a collection of mostly dark fantasy and horror although I selected stories with cohesive themes of love, loss, strength, and hope as opposed to by genre. You’ll find origami elephants, a magician in war-torn Lithuania, Henry VIII, women who can create bridges and building with their songs, and in the title story, an homage to Mary Shelley.

ACW: The collection sounds fantastic. You also have a novel coming up later this year, Paper Tigers. Care to tell us a bit about it as well?

DAW: Paper Tigers is about a disfigured young woman and a photo album she finds at a thrift store. At its heart, it’s a ghost story, but it’s as much about the things that haunt us personally as it is about the external ghosts.

ACW: Obviously you’re a very prolific short fiction writer, and with your second novel coming out, you’re equally comfortable with long fiction. What is your process like for a short story versus a novel? Do you find switching mental gears between long form and short form difficult? Are you able to work on short fiction while you have a novel going, or do require completely different headspaces for each?

DAW: I don’t have one set process for either. Sometimes I sit at my desk in front of a blank Word document; other times I curl up on the sofa with notebook and pen. In the first draft stage, I tend to work on one thing at a time, whether it’s long form or short. I need that focus to find the story threads and make them comprehensible.

They do require different headspaces—novels have a larger scope and more threads. But while it’s nice to spend a long time with a character or a group of characters, I enjoy writing in the short form more. I don’t have to commit to one genre, and I can experiment with form and voice and tense and points of view.

ACW: You have a knack for coming up with lovely and poetic titles for your fiction – The Serial Killer’s Astronaut Daughter; The Floating Girls: A Documentary; Grey in the Gauge of His Storm; and Such Faces We Wear, Such Masks We Hide, to name a few. What is your secret for coming up with such evocative and intriguing titles? Does the story come first, or the title?

DAW: I don’t think I have secret, but I see titles as both an introduction and an extension of the story, not just as a label. I’d say it’s fifty-fifty with respect to which comes first, although if it doesn’t come first, it usually comes not long after I’ve started writing the story itself.

Sometimes a title will pop into my head and hover there like the fading traces of a strange dream until I write the story. “The Floating Girls” was one such title, although I added “A Documentary” after the first draft was done. “The Serial Killer’s Astronaut Daughter” came to me right after I wrote the first snippet of dialogue that generated the rest of the story:

“My advice to you,” Wallace says, “is to stay quiet and dignified. Let it blow over. Two months and we’re out. The novelty will wear off.”

“Quiet and dignified? Are you fucking serious? I’m an astronaut, not a fucking Barbie doll. Would you stay quiet and dignified if you were going through the same thing?”

But sometimes I reach the end of a story, realize the original title was all wrong, and then agonize over finding the right one. It’s a bit like digging through a puzzle for the right piece or finding the perfect seasoning for the soup.

ACW: Some of your stories carry echoes of Angela Carter, Shirley Jackson, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Are any of these authors conscious influences? If not, which authors (if any) would you say most influenced your literary style? Regardless of influence, who are some of the authors you love as comfort reads, to challenge you, or to recommend to friends?

DAW: What a trio of amazing talent that is; thank you for such a huge compliment! They’re definitely not conscious influences, but I think writers are influenced by everything they read. Like the majority of authors who write dark fiction, I’d count Stephen King and Shirley Jackson as early influences, but with time I think my style and voice has developed, and is still developing, into something of its own.
Stephen King is definitely a comfort read, and I’m also partial to thriller and suspense novels, like those by Gillian Flynn and Laura Lippman. Hard science fiction is definitely a challenge for me, but I’m currently reading The Three-Body Problem by Cixin (translated by Liu, Ken Liu) and love it.

ACW: Switching away from books and writing for a bit, let’s talk about dogs. You have two rescued pit bulls. What are some of the most endearing things they do? What are some of the most aggravating?

DAW: Ripley is a lap dog, all fifty-pounds of her and it’s both endearing and aggravating. Endearing because she’s love bug; a little aggravating because fifty pounds is heavy. Kane is seventy-five pounds and doesn’t try to be a lap dog anymore; he likes to curl up next to me. It’s sweet and lovely until he farts and when he does, it’s as if he’s released a toxic cloud of epic proportions.

ACW: With your steady conquering of the world of short fiction and novels, what are you working on next?

DAW: I’m attempting to wrestle my love of short fiction into the long form by way of a portmanteau novel, a series of stories connected by a larger framing story revolving around stories and storytelling and families and the secrets they keep.

ACW: Sounds fantastic! I can’t wait to read the collection, and the novel(s). Thanks for dropping by!

DAW: Thank you so much for asking me here!

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Unlikely Story 11: The Journal of Unlikely Cryptography is Here!

Unlikely Story #11: The Journal of Unlikely Cryptography is live! The issue features all new fiction by Lauren C. Teffeau, Levi Sable, Curtis C. Chen, Barry King, Fiona Moore, and Joseph Tomaras. This is our second foray into the world of unlikely cryptography and, as always, we’re extremely proud of these stories, and delighted to share them with you.

In other unlikely news, we just announced the table of contents for our next mini issue, The Journal of Unlikely Coulrophobia, which will be published on April 1, 2015. We have other plans up our sleeves in relation to this issue, but you’ll just have to wait for further details.

In the meantime, please enjoy the stories of hacking, coding, surveillance, technology, and cyberpunk in the current Journal of Unlikely Cryptography. Let us know what you think of our stories, and if you like them, please tell your friends! Also, don’t forget you can subscribe to Unlikely Story for free.

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An Interview with Alex Shvarstman

Alex Shvartsman was kind enough to drop by today to talk about his debut collection, Explaining Cthulhu to Grandma and Other Stories. First off, introductions, which I will accomplish by shamelessly stealing from Alex’s author bio…

Alex Shvartsman is a writer and game designer. His adventures so far have included traveling to over 30 countries, playing a card game for a living, and building a successful business. Alex resides in Brooklyn, NY with his wife and son. Since 2010, Alex  sold over 70 short stories to a variety of magazines and anthologies. His fiction has appeared in such venues as Nature, Daily Science Fiction, InterGalactic Medicine Show, Galaxy’s Edge, and many others. Find him online at www.alexshvartsman.com

ACW: Congratulations on the publication of Explaining Cthulhu to Grandma! Can you give readers a sense of the kind of stories they’ll find in this fine collection?

explaining cthulu cover

AS: I started writing in 2010 and hadn’t gone in for doing what the popular kids do and writing a novel. Instead, I hunkered down and wrote lots and lots of short stories. Gathered within this book is my best work, but it is not unified by genre or style.

In this collection you will find Vatican investigators charged with verifying miracles in outer space, fraudster magician taking on Donald Trump, a cybernetic assassin who can’t feel pain, and a kabbalist who teams up with a hacker to break into the metaphysical Book of Fate.

There are humorous stories and really dark ones, urban fantasy and space opera, serious examination of issues like free will, immigration, and ones’ humanity alongside terrible cat puns.

Most of these stories have previously appeared in professional publications (though there is a pair of brand-new tales), a number of them made Tangent Online Recommended Reading lists, and the title story won the WSFA Small Press Award for Short Fiction last year. It is my hope that every reader will find something to like in this book.

ACW: I frequently find titles to be the hardest part of a story. However, Explaining Cthulhu to Grandma strikes me as the kind of title just begging for a story. Which came first, the title or the tale?

AS: In this case, the title definitely came first. Fellow writer and friend Sylvia Spruck Wrigley tweeted that she was having a difficult time explaining Cthulhu to grandma, and I immediately responded that it would make for a great story title. She graciously allowed me to use it, and the story unfolded from there.

 ACW: What do you find appealing about playing with Lovecraftian themes? On a related note, what do you find appealing about combining horror and humor?

AS: I’m actually not a fan of Lovecraftian fiction. Sorry! In fact, the title story was, in many ways, my examination of what the heck all these other folks find appealing about the sub-genre. I put poor Cthulhu through many indignities. He’s stuck in a pocket dimension shaped like a snow globe, and at one point grandma wants to sell him off by the pound to the sushi chains.

And while I’m being cantankerous here, let me also say that I don’t believe humor and horror can be combined well in fiction. The idea of a horror story is to evoke dread, and the idea of a humor story is to elicit the exact opposite response. So I cringe inwardly when people refer to ‘humorous horror’ as a thing. Which is not to say that you can’t tell a funny story featuring vampires and zombies and other horror tropes — or tell a wonderful tale utilizing dark humor. In fact, dark humor is the focus of my next anthology. However, I wouldn’t consider too many of my own stories to fall within this category.

 ACW: In addition to your writing, you’re also an accomplished editor, with titles including the Unidentified Funny Objects series, and Coffee. Do your writer brain and your editor brain play well with each other? Are there ways in which knowing both sides of the process help you, or hinder you when you’re wearing either the writer or editor hat?

AS: The editor and writer brains play wonderfully together: which is to say, editing is a great excuse not to write. Whenever there’s a writing deadline I’m inclined to edit and read slush and do a million other things involved with putting an anthology together, and when the anthology deadline looms I find myself wanting to pour a story out onto the page. My (overall) brain is a total bastard that way.

Seriously though, reading submissions and working with authors to improve their stories and shepherd them toward publication definitely improves my own writing. I find flaws in others’ work that I later recognize and strive to avoid in my own. It also takes a bit of the sting out of rejections: having been on the other side of that experience really makes one appreciate the process, and drives the point home that editors are rooting for you and are super-excited to find the next great story. And sometimes, they have to reject submissions because of fit and word count and a dozen other factors that aren’t indicative of the quality of the story itself.

 ACW: As if writing and editing weren’t enough, you also translate fiction. How do you approach the translation process? Do authors come to you with translation requests, or do you seek out stories you love that you want English language audiences to read and suggest translations? How closely do you work with authors during the translation process? Are there certain things you feel just don’t translate from one language to another?

AS: I was born in the former USSR and Russian is my native language. As such, I frequently read fiction in Russian and love being able to share stories that I really enjoy with the English-speaking world. So far, I’ve been the one to approach authors about translating their stories (I haven’t been turned down yet!). Typically I read the Russian equivalent of the “Best Of” anthologies and contact authors whose work has impressed me.

I generally complete a translation and then sent it to the author for approval, rather than involving them more deeply in the process, but this is because English and other foreign languages aren’t taught as well in Russian schools as math and sciences, and most of the authors I’ve worked with to date, while able to communicate in English, would have a difficult time with some of the nuances of translation.

The trick to translation is to try and maintain the voice and tone of the author instead of recasting the story into something Alex Shvartsman would write. It’s a fun process and while I only do translations occasionally, it’s something I would love to find more time for in my schedule.

 ACW: Switching topics a bit, I’m intrigued by the line in your bio about playing a card game for a living. Care to elaborate?

AS: I made a living as a professional Magic: The Gathering player in the late 1990s. I traveled to every continent and over 30 countries to complete in tournaments, and won over $100,000 over the course of my career. I also set the record for most Grand Prix top 8 finishes (21!) It took another player nearly a decade after I retired from professional play to overcome that record and, as far as I know, I still remain second on that list.

ACW: Going back to books, you’ve run successful Kickstarters for several of your projects now. What’s your secret?

AS: As part of my day job, I consult on Kickstarter campaigns for gaming companies, so I had a lot of knowledge about the platform and marketing going in, but I had to adjust and re-learn many things because book kickstarters are actually quite different from game ones.

The best piece of advice I can offer someone considering a crowd funding campaign is: make sure there is something unique about your project and give potential backers an excellent reason to be passionate about it. It could be a worthy cause (think Women Destroy Science Fiction) or just a cool item that backers would really want to own and that no one else has thought to create yet (like my Coffee anthology.) It’s much more difficult to fund a project that doesn’t stand out (yawn: another space opera anthology, or another zombie tome), even if the book is perfectly good otherwise. Want more advice? You can always hire me to consult on your next project!

ACW: Now that you’re well on your way to conquering the world of short fiction as author, editor, and translator, what’s next for you? Any plans for longer form fiction? What other projects do you have in the works?

AS: I’ve been working (very, very slowly!) on my first novel. It’s called Eridani’s Crown and my 10-second elevator pitch for it is: the setting of Game of Thrones meets the character arc of Breaking Bad. At my current pace, you can look forward to reading it by 2020. With any luck, I will find a way to write faster. Or slower, if interesting short story ideas, anthology projects, or translations get in the way!

ACW: Thanks for dropping by!

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Month of Letters 2015

TypewriterLetter Month is almost upon us. Are you excited? I am. If you can’t be bothered to click on the link, the short version is, it’s a month where you send people real, physical things in the mail, and they send you things in return. It’s awesome. You should do it.

Despite including a picture of a typewriter here, I (alas) do not actually have access to a functioning Underwood typewriter at the moment. I do however have a fancy new quill set given to me by my lovely spouse, which I’m dying to try out. So, if you want a smeary, illegible, possibly disastrous missive from me, sent by honest to goodness mail, you should sign up and friend me. I’m on as A.C. Wise.

Fair warning, I may mail you glitter. I promise to at least try to keep said glitter somewhat contained. (Guarantee void in all places you may live/visit/ever pass through, just in case.) Join me! I look forward to sending you things!

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Highlights of My Family History

For my birthday, my mother gave me a lovely hand-written book detailing our family history, pieced together from old documents and passed-down legends. She included family trees, showing how everyone is related – helpful since my family has a tendency to re-use names – and photos to put faces to the names. Some of the stories may be exaggerated or guess-work, as family histories can often be, but regardless, it’s fascinating. Here are a few highlights from the Irish-English-French-Danish side of my family.

  • When my great-great grandfather on my grandmother’s side was 11 years old, his father came after him with an axe. He ran into the forest and hid, and when he came out the next day, his father had been taken away to an insane asylum.
  • Henry’s son, also Henry (see how this gets confusing?) married a woman named Maggie who wouldn’t let him go back home to England to visit his family. When his family tried to visit them in Ireland, Maggie set her own kitchen on fire to keep them from coming.
  • My great-great-great grandmother was known in her town by the name “Ma” Dymond. She and her sons were supposedly the equivalent of the local mafia in the 1850s.
  • My great-uncle caused a minor scandal in the family by abandoning his fiancee to marry a French-Canadian Catholic girl he met while on a business trip to Montreal.
  • There is actually a woman in the Danish line of my family whose last name was Hubbard. She was also a mother, and a presumably at some point in her life, old.
  • My great-uncle Augustus died at age fourteen while saving another child from drowning. There is a plaque commemorating him in his home town.
  • My great-great-great grandfather on my grandfather’s side was a coffin-maker. His son went on to open a very successful brewery at Cheese Lane and New Bread Street (Best. Address. Ever.)
  • At least two men and one woman among my ancestors ditched the person they were engaged to in order to marry someone else they met while traveling.
  • My great-aunt was talked out of marrying a suitor her family thought “wasn’t good enough for her” and remained single for the rest of her life. Her older brother, on the other hand, had an affair with the woman living next door as a teenager, and fathered a child with her. Their youngest sibling, my grandfather, grew up down the street from grandmother. They officially “met” when he drew a pig on the back of her shirt in kindergarten class. They were married for over 60 years.
  • In the 1940s, just before they were married, my grandparents went to gender-swapped fancy dress parties together. (There’s photographic evidence of this one!)

So those are a few highlights of my family history, at least on my mother’s side. Anyone else have fun family stories to share?

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Giveaway: Whispers from the Abyss

WhispersAbyssOne year is almost over, and a new one is about to begin. What better way to celebrate this transition than with tentacles? Lest Old Gods be forgot… and all that. In the spirit of wishing you all a tentacular New Year, I’m giving away not one, but two copies of Whispers from the Abyss, an anthology full of Lovecraftian madness penned by the likes of Silvia Moreno-Garcia, Nick Mamatas, Tim Pratt & Greg Van Eekhout, Erika Satifka, and me! Drop a note in the comments by January 3rd, and the random number generator will pick a pair of winners. Good luck!

ETA: The random number generator has declared Bogi Takacs and Isabel the winners!

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Favorite Reads of 2014: Short Stories

Following up on my favorite novels and anthologies for 2014, here is the promised short fiction post to accompany it. Of course I’m nowhere near caught up. There are so many fabulous stories out there, there’s no way I can keep up with all of them. However I did do better in terms of reading things actually published this year than I did with novels and anthologies. In my opinion, 2014 was a strong year for short fiction as you’ll see from the length of my list. There were other works I enjoyed throughout the year, but these were the ones stuck out and stuck with me the most.

Jackalope Wives by Ursula Vernon – a fresh take on the idea of animal brides, which strips away the romance to leave the brutal and painful truth at the heart of the legend.

21 Steps to Enlightenment (Minus One) by LaShawn M. Wanak – a story about family, and finding your place in the world, wrapped in lovely, poetic language.

Who is Your Executioner by Maria Dahvana Headley – a story that perfectly captures just how creepy most children’s rhyming and chanting games are.

The Tallest Doll in New York City by Maria Dahvana Headley – a charming, glittering tale about architecture in Manhattan.

The Days When Papa Takes Me to War by Rahul Kanakia – an effective story about ants, human brutality, and Ernest Hemmingway.

The End of the World in Five Dates by Claire Humphrey – sometimes the world not ending can be an apocalypse in itself, and you have to learn to live with the potential messiness and pain that comes with just being alive.

Starcrossed by M. Bennardo – a story of love across lifetimes, and the idea that even destiny isn’t always a sure thing.

The Colorless Thief by Yukimi Ogawa – a story about race, objectification, and the sacrifice required by beauty, shot through with lovely imagery.

In Her Head, In Her Eyes by Yukimi Ogawa – a retold fairy tale that gives agency back to its main character and lets her take control of her own story.

The Devil in America by Kai Ashante Wilson – a twist on a classic deal with the devil story, woven in with painful issues surrounding race relations and slavery.

Falling from Earth to Haphazard Sky (Tadople Remix) by E. Catherine Tobler – a gorgeously poetic story about coming home (or not), and the alienation of being human.

A Box, a Pocket, a Spaceman by E. Catherine Tobler – another story wrapped in lovely language, poking at the reality under the tropes of the genre.

The End of the End of Everything by Dale Bailey – a decadent apocalypse, soaked in art and blood.

The Earth and Everything Under by K.M. Ferebee – a more grown-up take on the idea of a romantic, mystical quest to the underworld, and the lover left behind.

Communion by Mary Anne Mohanraj – a story that explores the meaning of family, death, and the possibilities and complications unlocked by genetic manipulation.

The Paradox of Color by A.M. Dellamonica – a time travel story centering on hard characters and hard choices.

The Contemporary Foxwife by Yoon Ha Lee – another story exploring the animal bride motif, expected gender roles, and the idea of servitude.

A Cup of Salt Tears by Isabel Yap –  a grown-up take on a familiar tale, this time the trope of the supernatural lover.

Anna Saves Them All by Seth Dickinson – a story about making impossible choices and living with the consequences.

Last Dance Over the Red, Red World by Gary Klosterman – a lovely, futuristic take on Poe’s Masque of the Red Death.

We Are the Cloud by Sam J. Miller – a painful story about love, heartbreak, and the exploitation of the most vulnerable members of society.

A Stretch of Highway, Two Lanes Wide by Sarah Pinsker – sometimes an arm is also a highway, and sometimes the loveliest stories are the ones that don’t feel the need to provide an explanation for why such a thing might be so.

Like a Wasp to the Tongue by Fran Wilde – a story of fierce women, reckless dares, and a medical mystery, all hinging on wasps.

Hunting Monsters by S.L. Huang – a mash-up of fairy tales with darkness at their core.

The Husband Stitch by Carmen Maria Machado – an incredibly tense re-telling of an old ghost story that also looks at gender roles and trust.

Mothers by Carmen Maria Machado – a twisty, slippery tale of broken relationships, blurring the line between what is and what might have been.

What Glistens Back by Sunny Moraine – a beautiful story about falling, memory, and finding peace in the last moments of life.

A Whisper in the Weld by Alix E. Harrow – a ghost story exploring the brutality of life on the home front during WWII, told from an often overlooked and marginalized viewpoint, that of a woman of color.

Persistence of Vision by Orrin Grey – an unsettling apocalyptic story full of creepy imagery and unexplained supernatural occurrences.

The Mussel Eater by Octavia Cade – yet another take on the animal bride motif and the idea of changing, taming, and possessing another person under the guise of love.

Skin in the Game by Sabrina Vourvoulias – a story about the power of family and community, mixed with the supernatural.

Griefbunny by Brooke Juliet Wonders – sometimes grief manifests as a giant rabbit, and that’s okay.

The Drawstring Detective by Nik Houser – a story perfectly balancing charm, heartbreak, and humanity, all encapsulated in the titular character – a most remarkable wind-up toy.

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Favorite Reads of 2014: Novels and Anthologies

As usual, most of the books I read this year were not actually published this year. If the award nomination process for 2014 happened in, say, 2020 or so, I’d probably be golden. However, I did manage to read a few current books this year, and for the sake of (hopefully) making this post useful for folks thinking about award nominations, I’ll mostly stick to those. Just so they don’t get neglected, I’ll also include an ‘honorable mentions’ section for non-2014 books at the end of the post. Of course, now that I’ve said that, I’m going to break my own rule and start with a non-genre book that came out in 2004. After that I’ll stick to 2014 stuff, I promise.

My absolute favorite read of 2014 was Set This House in Order by Matt Ruff. This book wasn’t even on my radar until I received it in last year’s All Hallow’s Eve Book Exchange. That being the case, I went in with no expectations, and ended up being floored. The central characters in the novel are the fractured ‘souls’ that occupy two bodies with multiple personality disorder, bodies primarily known as Andy Gage and Penny Driver. The novel is a fascinating look at trauma, perception, identity, gender, subjective reality versus objective reality (and whether such things even exist), conformity, or refusal to conform, coping, and the way people choose to see or not see what is ugly and dirty and doesn’t fit happily into their world view. It is a brilliant and complex story full of characters with rough edges, sometimes fitting together, and sometimes not. It’s the kind of book that stuck with me long after putting it down, and one I suspect will continue to linger for quite some time.

KingfisherClub

As for books actually published in 2014, I recently discussed a few of them over at Weird Fiction Review. I won’t repeat myself here too much. I’ll just say I adored the relationship between the sisters in Genevieve Valentine’s The Girls at the Kingfisher Club, which is a retelling of the Twelve Dancing Princesses set in the era of prohibition.  Jo in particular is a character to fall in love with, as the sister tasked with holding everyone together. She is just as fierce and heartbreaking as you’d expect given her circumstances.

I’ll also say get your hands on copies of Kaleidoscope edited by Julia Rios and Alisa Krasnostein and Long Hidden edited by Rose Fox and Daniel Jose Older because the stories in both anthologies are consistently strong and they are all well-worth your award consideration.

The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison was a surprise favorite for me. I never thought I’d find a novel about the intricacies of court manners and personal politics so intriguing, but the rich world made up of tiny details in this novel ended up being enthralling. There’s a mystery surrounding an assassination, but it’s entirely background to the story of Maia, the titular Goblin Emperor, struggling to fit in to his new role as ruler after a lifetime of living in exile as a bastard son, and having no exposure to high society at all, let alone experience being the center of the highest society of all.

RingsofAnubis

I knew I would love Rings of Anubis: A Folley and Mallory Adventure by E. Catherine Tobler based on the author’s short fiction, and this novel did not disappoint. Aside from being good fun, full of adventure and airships, danger and daring, gods and gadgets, Tobler creates a world so rich and sensual you feel like you’re walking around touching, tasting, and smelling everything as you read. At the same time, it’s a highly visual book, one that’s just begging to be made into a movie. (Could someone get on that, please?) I cannot wait for more adventures from Folley & Mallory.

The Poor Boy’s Game by Dennis Tafoya isn’t remotely speculative fiction. It’s a crime/thriller, but it deserves mention here for its often lovely and poetic writing, which stands out in a genre known for generally being terse and stripped-down. It also does something that is disappointingly rare – it features a female main character who is allowed to be a human being. Frannie Mullen is flawed and angry and broken and distant and determined and strong and capable of being hurt physically and emotionally all at once, and these things aren’t seen as contradictions. Whether or not you think you like the crime/thriller genre, I suggest giving this one a read.

Fearful Symmetries edited by Ellen Datlow is another one I was bound to enjoy. I’m a sucker for horror, and a sucker for short fiction, and Datlow is the master of curating both. Like Kaleidoscope and Long Hidden, Fearful Symmetries is packed with strong stories, all of which are well-worth your time and consideration.

ETA: Steve Berman points out that his anthology, Handsome Devil, was indeed published this year, so I will add to the list… Handsome Devil edited by Steve Berman. Who doesn’t love a good seduction story? The ones in this anthology avoid falling back on tired cliches and tropes, offering surprisingly bittersweet ghosts stories, tales of first loves, tales of magnetic animal attraction, and men and women who enter into relationships with the supernatural with their eyes wide open, armed with enough wisdom to know what they’re getting into and plunging over the edge anyway. Not that one should judge a book by its cover, but it doesn’t hurt that a handsome man with horns happens to grace this one either.

Honorable Mentions (aka books I loved this year which were not published in 2014)

The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker
Glitter and Mayhem edited by John Klima, Lynne Thomas, and Michael Damian Thomas
At the Mouth of the River of Bees by Kij Johnson
Brown Girl in the Ring by Nalo Hopkinson
The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes
Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs
A Natural History of Dragons by Marie Brennan
Love Minus Eighty by Will McIntosh

Lest the stories get lost in the shuffle, I’ll do a separate post focusing on short fiction soon. Stay tuned!

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