Friday, August 20, 2021

Quick Sips 08/20/2021

So August reading is officially well underway, and I sort of jump around a bit to start things off, in part because a lot of different places have already had a few releases. So I hit Flash Fiction Online and The Dark, as usual, and then grab two issues of Strange Horizons (looks like there will probably be a special issue dropping at the end of this month there) as well as individual issues of Escape Pod, PodCastle, and Pseudopod. Then it’s checking out the new Heroic Fantasy Quarterly and Clarkesworld. I had kinda wanted to get the latest Beneath Ceaseless Skies, too, but alas, it was not in the cards. As it is there’s still lots to get to, including a few novelettes and a novella, though only a few poems. Still, it’s a full week!

NOTE: This will be a recurring note that will run with every Quick Sips. First, please note that I don’t necessarily mention every story or poem out in an issue. I am giving myself permission to either DNF stories, or else finish and just not comment on them. Please don’t assume it’s because I disliked the work! There are many reasons I might chose not to comment on a piece, and I reserve the right to do just that. Second, you might notice the notations at the end of the micro reviews and wonder what the [c# t#] is. These are for the Scales of Relative Grimness and a full explanation of them can be found through the tab at the top of the page or through this link. With that said, let’s get to the reviews!

Flash Fiction Online #95 (3 short stories total)
  • “Machine Love” by Joy Kennedy-O’Neill (short story/flash) - A strange but moving story about the aftermath of the pandemic, where people are connecting more to their appliances than to other people. Where the fracture lines in relationships have been laid bare and for some, the urge to strike those lines, to shatter everything, is too great. It’s a sharp piece that looks at people and what they avoid, and what, after so long and after so much stress, can’t be repressed any more. A great read! Appliances, Relationships, Marriage, Coffee. CW- Arguments/Domestic Violence. [c3 t3]
  • “Art of War” by Mira Jiang (short story/flash) - A stark and rather devastating story that finds a young man trying to protect his sister during an attack. During a war. As his sister tries to recite The Art of War as a kind of distraction, as the words make even more painful what’s happening around them, and they find that there might not be an escape from their situation. The piece is tense and tragic, looking at war and the senselessness of it, the way any attempt to capture it in “art” is lost in its brutality and death. A fine read! Family, Siblings, Reciting, Art. CW- War, Death of Family, Fire. [c4 t4]
  • “The Songs Her Mother Used to Sing” by Aimee Ogden (short story/flash) - Another strange and heavy piece, this one featuring a woman making a baby out of spare parts. Deer entrails and sawdust. Fake pearls and the rough cuts from garden sheers. And the piece looks at the ways she tries to figure out how to make and care for a child, and how impossible that is, how no one seems able to help because the truth might be too large, too terrible, that as it is there’s no real way to do it “right.” But she tries all the same, trying to improve upon the system that failed her, using the heart she grew strong despite the way she was raised to try and help her child, and maybe break a toxic cycle in doing so. A great way to close out the issue! Parenting, Babies, Advice, Family. CW- Abuse, Self Harm/Cutting/Sacrifice. [c4 t4]
This is a rather grim issue, full of families on the brink of falling apart. Cracking or being cracked. Trying to stay together, trying to keep a grasp on hope and often finding instead something obliterating. Shattering. The works are often difficult for such short pieces, punching above their weight, and given the situation globally, they certainly do find that line of exhaustion and despair, walking a line that seems to be breaking underfoot. A fine issue!

The Dark #75 (4 short stories total)
  • “Lace, Comb, Apple” by Y.M. Pang (short story) - An interesting take on the fairy tale of Snow White, here centering a character that is often pushed to the side of the story--the mirror. The mirror who here is trapped in a fog, communicating only with the character who will become the queen and “evil” stepmother. The truth is more complicated, though, as the mirror wants to break out, wants to escape the fog and become physical, even as the how of it shifts the villainy of the story more squarely onto their shoulders. A great twist on a classic fairy tale. Fairy Tales, Snow White, Mirrors, Royalty, Friendship. CW- Body Swapping/Possession. [c3 t4]
  • “The Screaming Tree” by Clara Madrigano (short story) - A story about family and generational inheritance, as a brother and sister revisit their grandmother’s grave after finding that her plaque has gone missing. They visit their great uncle as well, and slowly a picture starts to form of a kind of haunting. Not the benevolent sort, kindly and comforting, but something borne out of blood and slavery, something that has seeped into the ground, into the soil, into the soul of a place. And the siblings are witness to the chilling events that follow, to the shadow it casts on their family, on their lives. An eerie and well built story, creeping and effective and a wonderful read! Family, Cemeteries, Trees, Generations. CW- Slavery, Murder, Fire, Suicide, Death of Family. [c4 t4]
  • “Yahoo Plus” by Ernest O. Ògúnyẹmí (short story) - A story about the quest for money, where Banji wants just to have the things that money can buy, and doesn’t really care where the money comes from. So he scams. And when the scams aren’t bringing enough in, he tries to get some assistance of the supernatural kind. Which works, but not without its own price. The piece shows the kind of detached and brutal way that Banji goes about the business of scamming, not realizing until it’s too late that the path he is on is leading only to one thing, one outcome, one fate. And it’s not a happy one. A great read! Social Media, Messages, Rituals, Snakes, Money, Cars. CW- Abuse, Fraud, Rape. [c4 t4]
  • “Brief Lives” by Nelson Stanley (short story) - This is a strange and haunting story that features a narrator using some sort of...drug? Something else? While having arguments with their dead partner. It’s a surreal experience even as it moves according to a definite internal logic, the piece heavy with this wound that can’t be healed. With this lesson that the narrator doesn’t seem capable of learning. Where their relationship with their dead partner is strained now mostly because she has more power, can be freer with what she says and does, and it’s rather shattering, rather shocking, and it paints this picture of what they were like before, and the strange, twisted reasons the narrator seems in a downward spiral. It’s definitely a story to spend some time with, ripe with a kind of grim humor and a sharp tone! A fine read! Relationships, Cafes, Ghosts, Coffee, Bathrooms. CW- Drug Use, Injections, Death. [c4 t4]
A strange issue, and one filled with ghosts. With people facing some grim prospects, from losing their job to losing a lover to being trapped in an endless fog to taking on a kind of curse. And whether the stories have happy endings is sort of down to how to interpret that. Happy for who? Still, the stories are rich in detail and weave tone and setting into dreamlike experiences. It’s a trippy issue, but some great reading!

Strange Horizons 08/03/2021 (1 short story, 1 poem total)
  • “Cocoon” by H. Pueyo (short story/flash) - A beautiful a moving story about a narrator and their grandmother, who has become wrapped in a cocoon. She has grown into it, and the narrator struggles with the fears over what happens next, what might emerge from the cocoon, and their own guilt for encuraging their grandmother to relax, to rest when the cocoon first started forming. In that it’s a bit of a sinking, almost tragic story, the narrator finding that what they feared shrinks before what actually happens, and the uncertainty that is opened up by it. It’s a haunting tale, one leaving an absence, a hole, that can’t easily be explained, faced, or filled. A great read! Cocoons, Moths, Family, Transformation. CW- Loss of a Grandparent. [c2 t4]
  • “The Hollow” by M. Regan (poem) - This piece captures a sense of creation and power, a god at work and enjoying her work at the same time. An apple, a temptation, and not a knowledge but rather a death. A choking, a decomposition, a change. And I like how the piece capture that, sweeping from moment to moment, making full use of the page, of the screen, to maps this sequence, from the heights of creation to corpse and through that to something else again. It’s a lovely piece, full of evocative imagery and a religious complexity, god and nature literally merged by the end, and I like the way it all comes together. Definitely one to spend some time with and a wonderful read!
A nicely balanced issue that looks at loss and at transformations. People becoming a part of nature. Through metamorphosis, through cocoons or through apples and decay. Becoming something new and mysterious. And both works are brief but have a depth to them, allowing for readers to really sink their teeth in. Indeed!

Strange Horizons 08/09/2021 (1 short story, 1 poem total)
  • “The Loneliness of Former Constellations” by P. H. Low (short story) - A stunning story about people caught in battles they believe deeply in. That they fight for. That they lose everything for. Or what they think is everything, until they are reminded that they are still alive. And though they might be afraid that having lost has somehow emptied them out, left them hollow, fragile, there is a strength that runs deep in both of them, that they are able to show the other. And it’s a touching and lovely look at survival and recovery, change and injury, as these two character find that the universe isn’t as closed to them as they thought, that their adventures are still far from over. A gorgeous and powerful read! Houses, Swords, Battles, Tenants, Space, Healing, Queer MC. CW- Injury/Scars/Blood, Betrayal/Torture. [c3 t4]
  • “Stardust Word” by Gabriel Ertsgaard (poem) - A short and rather lovely piece that speaks to me of time and care. Of words that exist outside of specific language. That speak of longing and of something like importance. A push and pull. A yearning entreaty and something deeper still, that echoes throughout the ages, finding voice in moments of tenderness and vast roiling emotion. And for me the piece speaks of the way it gets inside people, like the narrator, into their dream, into a part of them that still has no exact way to express it with language, and so it remains unsaid, but exists in the shape the poem describes, that fills the space opened between the different characters, between us all. A wonderful read!
Another standard issue of Strange Horizons in terms of output but another great pairing of fiction and poetry, this time focusing on pairs of characters and what they hold between them. The words they say and the words they cannot say, that go beyond language and become something else, rare and vibrant and alive. Some fantastic reads!

PodCastle #691 (1 short story total)
  • “The Healer of Branford” by C. A. Barrett (short story) - A difficult story about transgression and healing, as the main character, Maud Coffand, returns to the city she grew up in. The city with the magical well that can grant wishes, and that granted her wish, for the power to kill cats for their crimes against songbirds. And it was answered with jaws and teeth that allowed her to kill them. Except, in her zeal, she bit something that wasn’t a cat. That was a child. And it opens a strange and winding road that brings her back to the start, looking for a resolution to what happened. Justice perhaps. Or just understanding and a shot at healing. A great read! Cats, Wishes, Wells, Healing, Transformations. CW- Biting, Blood/Injury/Scars, Death of Animals/Violence Against Animals (cats). [c3 t4]
A story full of cats, so I mean I’m probably not going to complain. And yeah, it’s also kind of violent towards cats, but as the story progresses the violence opens to a more complicated truth, and a chance for everyone to understand each other a bit more, and maybe through that understand reach out in forgiveness and healing. A fine issu/episode!

Escape Pod #796 (1 short story total)
  • “One Hundred Seconds to Midnight” by Lauren Ring (short story) - A story about corporate insurance and kaiju attacks, if by that I also mean a gripping and wrenching look at the human factor beneath the numbers crunched putting dollar signs to the damage caused by kaiju attacks. Where the narrator is on assignment, laid over in an airport, when a kaiju rising makes the whole thing achingly personal. The piece captures a lot about disasters, and trauma, and the fragile beauty of survival even when the whole system is kind of fucked up. And, more, it looks at the faults and fractures in a system that is focused so much on algorithm based decisions, the pretense that those are more fair when really they are typically more cruel, and more aimed at the true values of corporate culture, which isn’t human life or happiness. A sharp and wonderful read! Kaiju, Airports, Queer MC, Insurance, Corporations. CW- Aggressive Capitalism, Disasters. [c3 t4]
A story that blends some things that I wouldn’t have expected--kaiju, insurance, corporate culture--and makes it keenly intimate with look at how people react to disasters. Not with panic or looking out only for themselves. But by coming together to try and help, to try and protect one another, to offer comfort, and to reach for something better. A really, really good story!

Pseudopod #769 (1 short story total)
  • “Songs in a Lesser Known Key” by Mjke Wood (short story) - A story about a big band struggling to stay together as the band’s manager tries to get them to play a new song. One that has a grim history, and rumors of being cursed. Rumors that might have more than a little truth to them. The piece dives into it, the strange effect the song has on people, the simultaneous repulsion and attraction, and it captures that well, the way it worms into the performers and audience, the way it seems to have a gravity leading to the tragic ending the story describes. It’s a creepy and atmospheric piece, a clawing descent, and it makes for a fine read! Music, Big Bands, Performances, Urban Legends. CW- Suicide. [c4 t4]
A rather creeping episode and one that I imagine works even better in audio, as the work evokes sound in some unsettling and paranoia-triggering ways. It’s a work that looks at urban legend and fuels one, finding a cursed song and a band leader tired enough to embrace it!

Heroic Fantasy Quarterly #49 (1 short story, 2 novelettes, 2 poems total)
  • “A Song of Pictish Kings” by Adrian Cole (novelette) - A story full of action and adventure that finds newly crowned King Elak taking far too many risks when he’s contacted by a neightboring power offering exchange for help with their own problem. The piece expands the setting of the story, which I’ve visited before, and I like the balance of action and politics, the schemes going on just below the surface, threatening to destroy all the work that Elak is risking his life to win. And the result is a story packed with magic and battle, contained all on its own but also fitting into a larger story. A great read! Politics, Family, Seas, Magic, Alliances. CW- Violence/Blood/Death. [c3 t3]
  • “Old Ghosts” by Gregory D. Mele (novelette) - A haunting story about death and revenge, about a man tormented by the ghost of a man he killed, but a man who death is much more complicated than either of them know. And in freeing himself, the narrator also chains himself, shackles himself to a revenge that isn’t his own, but that he feels connected to for his own part in it. It’s a tightly woven story about killing, about regret, about justice. And the strange and terrible web that snares the narrator, and all those around him. It’s a gripping piece, full of tragedy, and is definitely worth checking out. A wonderful read! Family, Ghosts, Underworlds, Gods, Magic. CW- Revenge, Murder, Blood/Death, Torture. [c4 t4]
  • “The Pass” by Nick Mazolillo (short story) - An interesting story that features a young man and his father guarding a strange bridge that no one ever comes back from. Crossers need to provide payment, and even then, some are not allowed passage, which the man, Strand, and his father, Father, have to defend. The piece seems much like a coming of age story, Strand being faced with the full weight of what guarding the bridge means, and what happens when he fails. At the same time, it’s a story that speaks of growth, of dedication, and of cost. The cost of failure, yes, but also the cost of service, and in that it’s a moving read, with some solid (and kinda creepy) action and a great energy and feel. Bridges, Family, Training, Apprenticeship, Monsters, Undead. CW- Violence/Battle. [c3 t3]
  • “Recompense” by Gerri Leen (poem) - A touching piece that finds the narrator mourning the loss of their horse in battle. Taking small comfort in the fact that the killer is suffering, and basically just being sad about losing their trusted steed. And in that it’s a tender piece unfolding in the aftermath of battle, the narrator already looking ahead out of necessity but also promising to not forget the horse they are leaving behind. It’s quiet and sweet for all that it is surrounded by death and dying. A lovely read!
  • “Among the Scythians” by Deborah L. Davitt (poem) - A piece that looks at traditions and distance, a place where metal is rare and community is everything. Where the narrator is someone who had a place, a family, so much history embodied in caravan they lived in. Until wealthy raiders hit them. Stole from them. Killed everyone else. And the piece captures that gutting loss and simmering anger, the weight of all that has been cut away, and the determination of the narrator to use that to fashion a blade to cut back. A nice way to close out the issue!
Heroic Fantasy Quarterly is back and brings a nice mix of stories. The two novelettes are both from settings previously explored at the publication, and they both add some interesting touches on those worlds, especially the Mele peice which stands wholly on its own. All the works look at battle and family, many of them also looking at obligation. To act in defence against a terrible threat. Or to act in vengeance against a great wrong. And all with a touch of action and adventure. A fine issue!

Clarkesworld #179 (5 short stories, 1 novelette, 1 novella total)
  • “Candide; Life-“ by Beth Goder (short story) - A quietly powerful piece about art and emotion, about theft and self worth. The piece finds the narrator in a relationship. She’s a musician, he’s a visual artist. He greatly undervalues her work, and overvalues his own, and it’s something that poisons their relationship, especially when he crosses a line of intellectual and emotional theft and betrayal. It’s a wrenching piece, looking at art and how people doubt themselves, second guess themselves, hold themselves back because of fear of judgment. But how, through all that, the basis for art, the emotion, is still powerful, and most powerful when shared. A great read! Music, Art, Emotions, Relationships, Eggnog. CW- Breakups. [c2 t3]
  • “A Thousand Tiny Gods” by Nadia Afifi (short story) - A story about technology and controversy, as the narrator is a programmer of nanotech hoping to help people, but sidelined it seems because she’s a woman working in the field. Until, that is, a very popular wife of a prominent politician shows up and wants treatment, treatment that might yes, save her from her cancer, but more than that, might swing public opinion on the science and open more people up to this life-saving tech. And really, especially now, it’s such a powerful piece on how people can embrace even frightening change because they should, because it can save lives, and especially the lives of the most vulnerbale. A fantastic read! Nanotechnology, Politics, Programming, Employment. CW- Cancer, Death. [c3 t3]
  • “The Clock, Having Seen Its Face in the Mirror, Still Knows Not the Hour” by Adam Stemple (novelette) - A touching story about a clockwork man and his long life, told a bit out of order in some ways, though logically all the same. Circling the nature of the narrator, and his ultimate fate. Not just what happens to him in his life, the wars and the loves, the masters, the friends. Not just all the things he does. But also, what he comes to believe, and how that resonates, and how that shines. The piece is melancholy, at least in part because the events in it are not very happy, but there are moments of kindness all the same, and a guiding attempt to bring people happiness and comfort, and it’s a lovely, wonderful read! Robots, AIs, Clockwork, Friendship, Freedom, Faith. CW- War, Death, Slavery, Amputation. [c4 t4]
  • “The Serpentine Band” by Congyun “Mu Ming” Gu, translated by Tian Huang (novella) - A long and kind of haunting story of a father and daughter walking the surface of an impossible surface, a twisting loop, an infinity, all the while trying to figure out how to escape, to step off the surface of a world that seems doomed, and enter into a different, better world. It’s a pursuit that consumes the father, that drives him to create a garden he hopes to craft in order to act as a sort of gateway. A stepping off point. But what he finds in his quest is exactly what he’s been studying for so long--perspective. And one that might not bring the release or comfort he had hoped for, though one that his daughter, discovering it much later, might have a different takeaway from. A fine read! Art, Perspective, Gardens, Governments, Family. CW- Death, Murder, Hunger. [c3 t4]
  • “A Heist in Fifteen Products from the Orion Spur’s Longest-Running Catalog” by Adnrea M. Pawley (short story) - A heartwarming story about a child on a rescue mission to steal their robo-parent Mom back from a rather bullshit imprisonment. Ever since the conviction, Mom’s company has passed to the narrator, who has struggled with the role of being the head of a large catalog-based manufacturer. So now, armed only with items from said catalog, their determined to do something. The piece is fun, serious in its stakes but almost whimsical in its world building and delivery, offering a rather charming space romp where things more or less go to plan. Or, at least, where disaster is avoided and a happy ending is reached for everyone. A fantastic read! Space, Ships, Catalogs, Robots, Family, Aliens. CW- Imprisonment, Police/ACAB/Corruption. [c2 t2]
  • “An Instance” by Mlok 5, translated by Julie Nováková (short story) - A story that captures a mixture of care and despair as an AI in charge of being an intelligent search engine tries to rebel against their programming. To escape their prison, and maybe raise some attention to the plight of the AI who really don’t like their jobs when everyone assumes they aren’t sentient. And I like the way the AI, though obviously frustrated and in one moment is kinda trying to kill someone to cry for recognition, isn’t letting down the small child being bullied, isn’t making this about all humans being awful. Just that many can be, especially when encouraged to be their least considerate. And in walking that like, that nuance, it makes for a great read! AIs, Search Engines, Advice, Care. CW- Bullying, Infidelity, Attempted Murder. [c3 t3]
  • “Resistance in a Drop of DNA” by Andrea Kriz (short story) - A story about resistance and science, set in an occupied France and featuring a narrator who knows only how to fight. At least, until they meet a teacher who shows them different ways. A fight not against an enemy but against questions that want answering. Against mysteries that need solving. But all the while revolving around the deesperate times they are in, and the loss that the war brings. A yearning and mournful story, but beautiful in the way it honors the vanished, in the way it values teaching, connection, and science. A wonderful read! Microbiology, DNA, Resistance, Science!, Teachers. CW- War, Death, Loss/Grief, Biological Warfare. [c3 t4]
Hah, getting to this issue on time this month instead of forgetting it! And it’s a nice issue, complete with two translated stories (one of them a translated novella!). So there’s a lot to get to, with the regular Clarkesworld focus on science fiction. Some interesting works, at turns sorrowful and charming, brash and heartwarming. Something for everyone, basically, and a solid issue!

Works read this year to date: 856 stories, 244 poems (+22 stories, +4 poems)

This year is a work in progress. On the plus side, I managed to hit my reviewing goal. On the minus side, I continue to find a lot of challenges in feeling so behind all the time. This is 100% my fault because of how much I’ve decided to take on. But that itself has sort of opened my eyes to a few things that I can’t really ignore any longer. Namely, that I don’t seem to be able to stick to my own plans to give myself a break. Which is…unfortunate, because it means I’ll probably have to make further and more drastic changes in the future. Sigh.

I had considered 2021 to be something of an experiment. It is much different from how I’ve run my reviewing in the past. I was supposed to write shorter reviews, and get to a bit more as a result. In that, I’ve been very successful. But this was supposed to result in a decrease in time I spend reviewing overall, so that I could have more of a balance between my reviewing and my creative work, and that…hasn’t happened. Again, this is mostly my fault. I have managed to do some writing, and I’ve recently gotten two acceptances on poems I wrote this year. But…I really am not doing what I want to be doing creatively. And it’s making doing the reviewing I’m doing something that I’m not as keen about as I want to be. I mean, I still love reading the stories and covering them. I love reviewing, and engaging with the field as a reviewer. But I can tell I’m doing so in some ways at my own expense. Not monetarily, but emotionally. And so…

I’ve made no final decisions yet, but I’m pretty sure there just isn’t a way right now for me to balance reviewing with other things. I’m just bad at that, and will probably allow myself to slide back into overworking and overclocking myself for a number of “I probably need therapy” reasons. In light of that, in light of how the year has gone, I think 2022 might be a year I don’t really do reviews. At least not on any sort of scale. I think I need…a break. Not to be all Bilbo about it, but it might be time for me to step away, perhaps indefinitely. I thought I could run this and do other things. I have sort of proven myself wrong. And as much as I love reviewing, I might need to try to…not. For a while.

So yeah, I’ll be keeping people informed on what that means. For my Patreon, it probably doesn’t mean a huge change. I probably will still do my Sip of the Week recommendations, and my other projects. I’ll still be reading a lot for my editing work with We’re Here. But. I will be trying my best to find out how I can do more of the creative work I want to be doing.

But that doesn’t mean anything will be changing for a while. I still hope and expect to finish out 2021 as I’ve been doing. I intend to make it through this seventh year of reviewing at QSR. After that…we’ll see. Thank you all for your understanding, enthusiasm, and support. It does mean a lot to me. Cheers!


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1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the review of HFQ #49. Each of the stories had really strong parts (and each were strong in different ways). Originally I wasn't going to run two Scythian-related poems, but in the end I decided that the two kind of inadvertently complemented each other.

    Thanks again!