Lightspeed Magazine Issue 158

A sand worm glowing blue inside its mouth looks about to devour a human in a space suit in its shadow

I just got back from a two-week vacation in Greece. While I was there I read in addition to doing touristy things. I’ll get to the review of all I read there later. First up is this review of the stories in the July issue of Lightspeed Magazine that I finished just before leaving on vacation.

The lead story is “Six Months After All Life on Titan Died” by J.B. Park. The format of this story is unique. It is written in the form of prompts for an artificial intelligence. While I appreciated the format, for me the story was just okay. (My rating: 3/5)

Next up was “Death Is Better” by Oluwatomiwa Ajeigbe where a young slave and his sister attempt to escape slavery but a giant robot stands in their way. This story is very emotional and pulled me in right away. (My rating: 5/5)

I always appreciate stories that show me a different way to look at things. “The Bodhi Tree Asks Only For the Safe Return of Her Lover” by Ashok K. Banker is written in first person from the perspective of a tree seeking to negotiate peace in a war between humans and the trees. The difference in length of life offers a truly unique take. And the format is almost epistolary. (My rating: 4/5)

If you are from my generation, then you surely remember Live Aid and We Are the World. “The United Systems of Goodwill Concert Series and the Greatest Performance of All Time” by James Van Pelt felt like a cosmic version of those musical charity events. After a disaster, a collection of the system’s best bands plays a series of mega rock concerts. (My rating: 5/5)

The first of the fantasy stories in this issue is “Monsters of the Drunken Shore” by Nic Anstett. Since it is in written in the second person, you see a monster come out of the sea as you contemplate your first wild weekend as an adult. It may bring back your first time drinking or having sex. (My rating: 3/5)

I grew up in New York State near Syracuse and the surrounding area. It is always fun to read a story like “Starpoop” by Sandra McDonald that takes place in a setting you are very familiar with. And this story is so good. A woman with memory issues tries to live her life with her grandson, Starpoop, a social media star who seems to be perpetually three years old. Highly recommended. (My rating: 5/5)

The Real Worlds” by Lauren Bajek is a family camping trip that doesn’t go quite as planned. A girl with her family camps between worlds as her father tries to get tenure for altering realities. Somewhat trippy but engaging. (My rating: 4/5)

Muna in Barish” by Isha Karki is a story about writing and books. A worker in a bookstore is almost an indentured servant who dreams of becoming a published writer. She starts a correspondence with a famous author. And when that author comes to her bookshop, it don’t go as she expects. A wonderful allegory of those in the under classes supporting one another. (My rating: 5/5)

With four five-star stories, I think this issue is my highest rated so far at 4.25. All the stories are available to read for free. What are you waiting for?

Red Team Blues by Cory Doctorow

The silhouette of a running man seen through a keyhole on a blue background.

Cory Doctorow’s latest novel is a mystery/thriller about a forensic accountant. Doesn’t exactly sound like the makings of a thriller, does it? I found it engaging and really liked the main character Marty Hench, the accountant. He is an usual character with a perspective that is both practical and technical. But I have to say that I enjoyed him more than the novel itself.

The book starts with a bang, one that involves cryptocurrency. Marty helps an old friend who gets himself into trouble and yields a giant payday. Just when he thinks he is retiring on his newfound wealth, things go sideways, and Marty finds himself on the run. Maybe I was just expecting too much, but this is where the story fell a little flat for me. Much of his “on the run” time, he isn’t doing much more than laying low.

Marty himself is very interesting. A sixty-seven-year-old accountant is an unusual protagonist. Somehow, Doctorow pulls it off. I found myself continuing to turn the pages even during the slow places. Doctorow has much to say about technology and society in this novel at the level of everyday people. It engaged me. But it felt like a setup for the book to follow. In that way, it totally worked. I am looking forward to the next book in the trilogy.

My rating: 4/5

Clarkesworld Magazine Issue 202

An automaton sits on the edge of a deck with its feet dangling over the edge

I’m just past half way in my “year of short fiction” and so far, Clarkesworld Magazine is one of my top two highest rated short fiction magazines. Issue 202 only raises the average rating of their stories.

  • Cheaper to Replace” by Marie Vibbert is a sweet story about an obsolete robot that a grad student just can’t seem to part with. Are objects worth treasuring or are they just stuff, especially when they feel so human? No clear answer is given, only thoughtfully explored (My rating: 5/5)
  • Death and Redemption, Somewhere Near Tuba City” by Lou J Berger takes place in a world where sentient self-driving vehicles have been outlawed. A woman dying of stomach cancer makes her living hunting them for their bounties. She makes one last stab at “the big one”, Big Bertha. (My rating: 5/5)
  • Estivation Troubles” by Bo Balder is the story of an unlikely pair of lovers. They come from a planet where one of them sleeps all winter and the other sleeps all summer. They sneak away from their planet and meet on a ship they both work on. After falling in love, they return to their planet to see the families they ran away from. Will their old ways of thinking overcome their love? (My rating: 4/5)
  • Clio’s Scroll” by Brenda W. Clough stars Dante Alighieri, author of The Divine Comedy. He meets a young person protecting a time-traveling alien who naturally knows the future. A clever premise but ends up just feeling like a medieval story with an alien thrown in. (My rating: 3/5)
  • Tigers for Sale” by Risa Wolf feels like an excellent episode of Netflix’s Black Mirror. A sentient space station that acts as an interdimensional portal struggles against it’s mysterious programming that it can never remember, by design. (My rating: 5/5)
  • Timelock” by Davian Aw is about extending time. The main character first freezes time as his mother falls to what will be her death, suspending himself in a world where she still lives. As an adult, he finds himself once again frozen in time and learning to deal with his guilt. A poignant and touching exploration of dealing with life in and out of time. (My rating: 5/5)
  • What Remains, the Echoes of a Flute Song” by Alexandra Seidel is an emotional tale of a mute flutist who saves a poisoned person outside a deserted city after an apocalypse. The emotion is the bulk of the tale leading to a tragic ending. (My rating: 4/5)
  • The Orchard of Tomorrow” by Kelsea Yu explores the relationship of a woman who returns to her foster sister with surprise gifts after abandoning her. She left to save her mother by helping their rich enemies the Dragons. Will it be enough to repair the breach? (My rating: 4/5)

The average rating for stories in this issue is 4.375. That may be the highest yet for me for an issue. When I cull my subscriptions at the end of this year, this one is likely a keeper.

East of Eden by John Steinbeck

A man at the center of three large trees stares down into his open, empty hands.

For our July historical fiction book, my book club selected to read East of Eden by John Steinbeck. I had previously read two books by the same author—The Grapes of Wrath in high school and Of Mice and Men when my daughter was in high school. While I liked both of those books, if it wasn’t for my book club, I’m not sure I would ever have read East of Eden. I am so glad I read it as it is now one of my favorite books of all time.

The book was written by Steinbeck for his sons. He wanted them to know about his family and the Salinas valley in California where he grew up. Steinbeck’s grandfather, Samuel Hamilton, is a close friend of the main character in the novel, Adam Trask. The book tells the story of Adam and his two sons, Caleb and Aron. It is often described as a modern retelling of Cain and Abel. I think it is more accurate to say that it explores the same themes as the story of those two brothers. And those themes are universally human—good, evil, justice, family, duty, responsibility. In short, the human condition.

And that is why this book is one of my favorites. I generally read a lot of science fiction. My favorite kind of sci fi is stories that take what is happening today and push it into the near future, exploring how the changes affect people and how they deal with what it means to be human. This book does the same thing, but instead of looking forward into the future, it looks back into the past. There are a lot of really human characters with lots of flaws. The author treats them all with respect. While the first chapter or two are a little slow, it grabbed me right after that and wouldn’t let go. I can see why Steinbeck considered this his master work.

My rating: 5/5

The Works of Robert G. Ingersoll, Vol. 1

Sepia portrait of Robert Green Ingersoll

As I have noted on my About page, I have volunteered for the Standard Ebooks project. One series of books that I wanted to do was the works of Robert Green Ingersoll (12 volumes). Unfortunately, these are outside of the collections policy of the project. As the tools for the project are open source, I decided to use them to create these books in the style of Standard Ebooks and publish them here on my site.

So, why was it important to me to publish these? As they are in the public domain in the US, they are freely available already at the Gutenberg Project. Unfortunately, they are not very well done. And why these books? In the late nineteenth century, prior to radio and movies, entertainment was always live—live music, theater, and lectures. This last group, lectures, is hard for us today to grasp. People actually went to hear people give talks on various subjects. This was a very popular form of entertainment. And Robert Green Ingersoll was a very famous and popular giver of lectures. He was known as the “Great Agnostic”, being openly opposed to religion and a fierce proponent of reason. He was also a close friend of Walt Whitman, delivering the eulogy at the poet’s funeral after his death in 1892.

After his own death in 1900, his brother-in-law collected his works and published them in twelve volumes. I have finished and published the first volume. You can download it on my Publications page. Be warned. Ingersoll is ruthless in his application of logic and reason to religion, and religion does not fare well in my opinion. If you are strongly religious, this book may offend you. But if you are open to examining your own beliefs, it may make you think in a fresh way about your spirituality. Regardless, it is an excellent way to dip your toes into the waters of one of the most well-known orators of the late nineteenth century.

My rating: 4/5

Lightspeed Magazine Issue 157

A blue tinged ceramic doll head with yellow eyes sporting a mask with glowing pointy teeth

All the stories in the June issue are now available to read free online. Here are my brief reviews for each.

Dominique Dickey writes about a biracial couple of dating teenage boys who take a “Spaceship Joyride” by hot-wiring a school vehicle. When stopped by the police, both are terrified. Also, ll the uncertainties and exciting feelings of new relationships are there. (My rating: 3/5)

Ruth Joffre gives us “Queen of the Andes” where Bolivian climate refugees struggle with the decision to leave a dying planet or stay and preserve the eponymous plant. One character tries to decide if he should take a seed and leave while others consider such a choice a betrayal. An unflinching look at how climate change can influence indigenous people. Yet I still wanted there to be more to the story. (My rating: 3/5)

When you are living on a multi-generation space ark, there isn’t much to do for fun. So, a pair of young people on separate space arks traveling together decide to make a perilous jump between them. This is “Jaywalk the Stars” by Elad Haber. It has a good built up but I found the climax a little banal. (My rating: 3/5)

Wendy Nikel tells a haunting tale in the desert in “The Bone Gatherer’s Lament“. As he travels the desert gathering and listening to the bones, he contemplates how to share what he hears. His solution is creative and beautiful. This piece of flash fiction is lyrical and poetic, a real work of beauty. (My rating: 4/5)

The other flash fiction story is a wonder of storytelling. Rich Larson give us “Always Personal” in only 743 words! In it a detective is investigating a serial killer who uses genetically coded bone daggers that grow inside the victim and kill them from the inside out. A chilling and gripping piece. (My rating: 4/5)

In “Philoctetes in Kabul“, Deborah L. Davitt tells of a veteran of Afghanistan who is forced to leave the Army due to too many concussions. He is not happy with having to leave. As he deals with his PTSD, he has hallucinations that involuntarily associate his war experience with Homer’s Odyssey. The emotion really comes through here. (My rating: 4/5)

When a boy’s father dies, he leaves him a book that is a bestiary of mythical animals that come to life out of its pages. This brings him power and wealth and the ire and jealousy of his neighbors. In the end, the gift protects the boy. “Bestiary viventum” Kyle E Miller is a beautiful story of love and overcoming grief. (My rating: 4/5)

The best story of the issue is the last—”And All the Fields Below” by Sarah Grey. After a sick boy dies, his parents prepare to move out of the home. At the last minute, the boy’s dog runs into the woods, and they are forced to leave without him. He stays because he can still see the boy in his attic bedroom. He breaks into the house to be with the boy. But then the house is purchased by a new owner. What will the dog do? A sweet tale of love and loss that pulled me right in and wouldn’t let me go. I can’t wait to read this author’s next story! (My rating: 5/5)

My average rating for the stories in this issue: 3.75 of 5.

Nine Nasty Words by John McWhorter

Title and author printed stylistically on an orange background

I read this one just for fun. Think of it as a modern version of George Carlin’s seven words you can’t say on TV. I used to listen to the author’s podcast Lexicon Valley, so I knew what to expect. While he is a linguistics professor at Columbia, he is also down-to-earth, funny, and entertaining.

Profanity in English has gone through a series of great shifts. Initially, bad words were those related to religion such as “damn” and “hell”. Then as religion became less important in every day life during the Enlightenment, cursing moved to those words related to our bodies like “fuck”, “shit”, “ass”, “dick”, and “pussy”. Today, the most profane and forbidden words are those that slur others. I almost hate to write them here, but the two he covers in the book are “nigger” and “faggot”. While I have used many of the others (and often still do), I never use the last two.

There is a chapter on each of these words. In each, the author goes over not only the word itself but how it became profane. He also covers any other versions of it and some fascinating insights. Here is one example.

As we take our leave from fuck, I can’t help mentioning that on ye olde Fucker John and the descent of his surname from an antique French name Fulcher, I refrained from mentioning one of the chance renditions of the original word. One outcome of Fulcher, as humans rolled it around in their mouths over the generations, was Folger. Those of us who remember television’s Mrs. Olson, as well as those of us who are in on the fact that instant coffee is actually somewhat better than one might think despite the cultural penetration of Starbucks, can enjoy that on a certain abstract level, there are people across America starting their day with a good hot cup of Fucker’s Coffee.

This book was a fun romp through the crazy evolution of bad language. I recommend it to anyone who ever wondered about some of the profanity that is used in English, “Why do we say that?”

My rating: 4/5

Apex Magazine Issue 138

A man with wings and the head of an eagle floats in the sky with the sun behind him as the rays shine over his shoulder and through one wing

While this issue originally came out in May, I waited to post it until all the stories in it were available for free online. That way, you are able to read any that pique your interest. And here are the stories with brief reviews.

The issue opens with “The Relationship of Ink to Blood” by Alex Langer. In a fascist world at war, I warehouse manager catalogs and maintains all the personal effects of the regimes victims. In fact, he has conversations with them, talking with and befriending them. He has a particular affinity for one victim who refuses to speak with him. This is an amazing story that touches on what Hanna Arendt termed the banality of evil. (My rating: 5/5)

Ncheta” by Chisom Umeh tells of a human world that is awash in virtual reality so much that it is affecting the parallel world of the gods. In fact, it is beginning to encroach on that world of those gods as they struggle to do something about it. An interesting premise that ended up not that interesting to me. (My rating: 3/5)

Despite the fact that an alien race nearly wiped out humanity, the titular mother in “Thank Mother for Your Life” by Mary G. Thompson saves an alien child and cares for it as her child. These creatures crave others of their own kind, so the mother arranges with another foster mother for their alien children to meet. This is not a good idea. This tale is told from the perspective of the alien child and is a fascinating look at how decisions are made. (My rating: 4/5)

In an immigrant neighborhood, five dogs go missing each leaving a pool of blood behind. Then children start to disappear without a trace in “Chupa Sangre” by Tre Harris Salas. No one seems to know what is going on. But the narrator’s abuela is pretty sure she knows and sets a trap. A story of family and the immigrant experience, it will touch you deeply. (My rating: 4/5)

The narrator of “A World Unto Myself” by P.A. Cornell can in his old android when he gets a new one. But he just can’t bring himself to do that. So he just leaves it on a bench in the scrap yard where it gets a new an unexpected life. An interesting take on repurposing old tech. (My rating: 4/5)

In “Lady Koi-Koi: A Book Report” by Suyi Davies Okungbowa, a Nigerian high school student is assigned a text reflecting the experience of his colonizers. Rather than writing that book report, he writes one about his encounters with a ghost calling herself Lady Koi-Koi that better reflects his own experience. (My rating: 3/5)

My least favorite story of the issue was “Measure Twice, Cut Once” by K.R. March. I found it confusing a little muddled. It is the story of a group of enslaved dressmakers conspiring to poison those who will wear the dresses they are forced to make. (My rating: 2/5)

A woman repeatedly emerges from the sea trying to remember something that she finally remembers in “Smoke Fire Wind Sea” by Valerie Kemp. The writing here is superb. Lots of imagery and emotion that communicates the confusion and pain until it becomes clear what is going on. (My rating: 4/5)

Is it possible to shift a memory from one person’s brain to another? That is the question explored to great effect in “A Mastery of German” by Marian Denise Moore. The narrator is asked to take over a project at work and kill it. But as she starts to find out more about it, she wonders if she should. (My rating: 4/5)

The final story has a super long title. It is “An Inventory of the Property of the Escaped Suspect, Confiscated at the Time of Her Arrest Following the Incident on Ash Street, with Annotations by Acting Sheriff Helena Fairwind” by Tim Pratt. Its format is unique as is exactly what is says it is. The story is told through the inventory of a suspect’s property and the reports about what happened. A unique and enjoyable twist on storytelling. (My rating: 4/5)

To sum up, there were ten stories in this issue for an average rating of 3.7. When I first subscribed to Apex Magazine, I wasn’t sure about it. It’s focus is on darker fiction. I didn’t think that was my thing. Turns out there is a lot of good, short, dark fiction out there. Give it a try.

Clarkesworld Magazine Issue 201

One space ship chases another against a green background

The latest short fiction magazine that I finished is the June 2023 issue of Clarkesworld. You may have heard about this magazine in the news regarding generative AI. Earlier this year, they were inundated with AI generated story and cover art submissions. They are dedicated to keeping the magazine human generated only. Here are my brief descriptions and ratings.

The issue starts strong with “The Officiant” by Dominica Phetteplace. In it, a human arrives on non-human planet to perform a wedding and is asked to perform visions. After refusing, she later learns what is causing those visions. I enjoyed this brief exploration of culture clash and purpose. (My rating: 4/5)

Next up is the superb “Vast and Trunkless Legs of Stone” by Carrie Vaughn. Earth is alerted to a coming space ship whose passengers request an interview with one human. This is how they meet other sentient species—one-on-one. The main character is chosen and trained. But then comes the actual interview. What a wonderful new take on first contact! (My rating: 5/5)

I am normally a big fan of everything that Isabel J. Kim writes. That was not the case with her tale “Day Ten Thousand“. While I appreciated what she was doing in the story, I found it confusing in a way that ultimately went flat for me. It is the story of Dave, a clone of a ten-thousand-year-old man. Unfortunately, most of the other characters are also named Dave. That’s what makes it confusing. A potentially interesting story about stories, fate, and agency that could have used a bit more editing. (My rating: 3/5)

Imagine: Purple-Haired Girl Shooting Down the Moon” by Angela Liu is a very dark tale in quite a hopeless dystopia. The main character works in a brothel while in her downtime making a sort of synthetic drug that reboots a person’s psyche. She is also playing with generative AI to make art. Through all this, she works to protect her friend but she isn’t always as successful as she thinks she is. (My rating: 4/5)

I found “The Moon Rabbi” by David Ebenbach to be quite spiritual in a transcendent way. A rabbi prepares for and ultimately spends two week on a moon base in order to hold a seder supper. The story doesn’t go deep on religion but rather the awe and connection that spirituality implies. Everyone on the moon is thirsty for it. And it ultimately comes from the most unlikely place. (My rating: 4/5)

I never thought I would read a cross-species story of pregnancy, birth, and survival. But that is what Jana Bianchi has achieved with “. . . Your Little Light“. The story begins on a devastated space ship on which the protagonist is the only human survivor, accompanied by a giant creature of another species. And she is eight months pregnant. As she works to survive, she bonds with the creature in their joint struggle. I don’t want to spoil the story, so I’ll just say that while the story involves death as well as birth, it is touching and emotional while being surprisingly uplifting. (My rating: 4/5)

In a Chinese dystopia of surveillance and AI, two woman meet to catch up after twenty-five years apart. This is “To Helen” by Bella Han. A pill exists in this world that stops aging. Naturally some people can afford to take this early than others leaving them looking much younger. And this leads to great disparities of experience that play out across the interchange of these characters. (My rating: 3/5)

Mirror View” by Rajeev Prasad is another story of interacting with extraterrestrials, though on a much smaller scale. Not everyone knows about this new visitor because it is metaloid rather that carbon based. It lands near Chicago and ultimately interacts with a newly pregnant woman. In the process, it learns what it means to reproduce and makes its own attempt to do so. (My rating: 4/5)

As usual with Clarkesworld, this is a strong showing, the average rating per story coming out to 3.875. I don’t expect to renew all of the magazine subscriptions I started as part of my year of short fiction, but Clarkesworld is a strong contender for renewal.

Happy Place by Emily Henry

The author name at top and book title at center on a magenta background. At the bottom, six cartoon people are floating on and jumping into water.

I occasionally read a romance novel. One of my favorite authors in this genre is Emily Henry. When she recently released her latest novel, I requested it from my library. My turn finally came around earlier this week, and I finished it in three days.

About half way through this book, I wasn’t sure if I was going to end up liking it. The story is told from the point of view of Harriet. She and her long-time boyfriend Wyn broke up five months ago, sending her into a tailspin. They used to attend the annual friends vacation together, but this year is her turn after the split. But when she gets there having just about gotten over him, Wyn is there, too. They end up having to make the most of a bad situation for reasons I won’t spoil.

I wasn’t sure this book was for me because the crux of the plot is a miscommunication between Harriet and Wyn, or at least a lack of communication. They spend much of the book making assumptions about the other’s thoughts and feeling regarding how and why they broke up. I hate this trope! I mean, just talk to each other and clear it up already! But when the author gets around to clearing things up around 70% of the way through, it turns out there are good reasons for not having discussed it. And they feel legitimate and real rather than forced.

As I said, this is a miscommunication, enemies become lovers (again) romance. But it goes surprisingly deeper than that covering such themes as life purpose, individuality, self-care, mental health, and growing into yourself. I am very glad I finished the book. It may be my favorite of hers so far.

My rating: 4/5