Short story reviews for November 2015

October might belong to pumpkin spice, but November is for wood smoke and bare branches. For winds grown biting and sharp, and tender plants withering after a hard frost. Already I’m burrowing under too many blankets and dreaming of the next hot chocolate. As we near the end of the calendar year, it seems as if every conversation turns to stories of families: found, constructed, inherited, discarded. At work, holiday and vacation plans have shifted from exotic or expensive locales to gathering or avoiding loved ones. Families crowd into the TV listings and movie showtimes in all shapes and forms: functional, dysfunctional, familiar, unrecognizable, loving, deeply disturbed. Whatever you’re looking for in a family (or the absence of one), here are a few of my recent fictional favorites:

Let’s Tell Stories of the Deaths of Children by Margaret Ronald (2800 words)
Strange Horizons, October 2015

In the mornings she shakes loose any feathers that have gathered during the night (down comforter, she explained to a coworker who noticed one in her hair; that was years ago), then before she eats or washes or does anything else, she crams her feet into her boots. Stylish boots, though that’s incidental; only custom-made boots will fit over the scabby talons that twinge and clench even after she’s shod.

She takes the bus to work. It goes by three different schools, but she usually misses their morning rush. If anyone notices her gazing out the window, they put it down to the morning sleep-glaze that still clings to most other riders.

It’s been decades since she stole any children. Centuries, maybe.

Lilly, once known by other names, built herself a new life, or fell into one. It’s small and nondescript enough to allow her to pass for ordinary. She works in the company of women and idly watches the way entertainment takes stories of tragedy and loss to fuel individual stories. In doing so, Lilly buries her nature and her past — the family she was denied, the families she destroyed and created. But she’s grown perhaps too comfortable, and we start to see the cracks in her resolve. Chief among them is the woman in her office who is hugely pregnant and unafraid to give voice to her fears: all the ways in which the world endangers children and safety and complacency. Lilly starts to remember the value of her old life, or at least to convince herself that it meets a need the world has forgotten it has.

So Much Cooking by Naomi Kritzer (8700 words)
Clarkesworld Magazine, Issue 110

This is a food blog, not a disease blog, but of course the rumors all over about bird flu are making me nervous. I don’t know about you, but I deal with anxiety by cooking. So much cooking. But, I’m trying to stick to that New Year’s resolution to share four healthy recipes (entrées, salads, sides . . . ) for every dessert recipe I post, and I just wrote about those lemon meringue bars last week. So even though I dealt with my anxiety yesterday by baking another batch of those bars, and possibly by eating half of them in one sitting, I am not going to bake that new recipe I found for pecan bars today. No! Instead, I’m going to make my friend Carole’s amazing roast chicken. Because how better to deal with fears of bird flu than by eating a bird, am I right?

A variation on a found family story that unfolds slowly enough to allow dread and hope to build in equal measure. Kritzer’s using a modified version of the epistolary format to great effect, giving her narrator’s voice in a succession of blog posts to an unknown and possibly endangered audience. We only know about the world she’s in through what non-cooking details she feels up to providing. The slow expansion of her family, as danger and privation set in, feels both as natural and unnatural as the progression of the epidemic outside. If you don’t pause partway through to check out your own home delivery options and the state of your pantry, you’re made of sterner stuff than I.

And Other Definitions of Family by Abra Staffin Wiebe (7600 words)
Unlikely Story, Issue 12

May’s doorbell pulsed, sending a subsonic wave shivering through her. She rubbed her hands over her arms to banish the goose bumps, and made a mental note to speak to Nueva Nova station maintenance about resetting the doorbell to human standards. The doorbell pulsed again, and May hurried to deactivate it.

She didn’t have a client appointment scheduled, but they all knew she welcomed drop-ins. She checked the peep-cam. Optimal lighting, background soundscape, clothing level, hairstyle, and pheromone spray all depended on the client’s species. Her eyebrows lifted involuntarily when she saw the bat-like Bitocktee male at her door.

Another unconventionally constructed family story (my catnip, if you haven’t caught on) that manages to convey both the sheer alienness of the Bitocktee as well as the ways in which social behaviors overlap with those that we consider to be human nature. The protagonist, May, is a sex worker on some type of space station, with a background in xenology — an academic discipline that she furthers with the knowledge gleaned from her interactions with clients. When Red2, the Bitocktee male mentioned above, offers May a job well outside the normal definitions of her role, she’s motivated not just by the money but by the opportunity it offers for her to see inside his society. Staffin Wiebe turns a fairly standard romance trope into something that hardly invokes romance at all, and kept reminding me of the sensibilities of classic Star Trek. One of the stickiest stories I’ve read so far this year; it stayed with me long after I’d closed the tab.