I taught a short story class for professional writers in June, writers who’ve either been published or had some degree of success in their writing careers. I worked those folks hard, and in turn, they worked me hard.
Many of them mailed their stories to possible markets (Note to editors: buy these stories), but several decided to make the stories available electronically. I gave one assignment to the students who had had me for another class to write a sequel or tie-in to a previously published work. Some of those are available now. I’m recommending the ones I liked and know about (not everyone let me know if they indie published) below.
In addition to all of that reading, I read some novels and quite a few magazines. Here’s what I recommend from a month of intense reading:
Barzak, Christopher, “Map of Seventeen,” The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year: Volume 5, edited by Jonathan Strahan, Nightshade Books, 2011. Wonderful, wonderful coming of age story, about being different, about being seventeen, about learning what life really is. Spectacular. Worth the price of the anthology all by itself.
Bawdy, David, “Tiffany Gets Her Boobs,” Pentucket Publishing, Kindle Edition, 2011. I thought, based on the title, that I would hate “Tiffany Gets Her Boobs.” But I had to read it: Dave wrote it for the short story workshop. The story’s an off-shoot of Bubba Goes For Broke, his novel, and that was the assignment: write a stand-alone story that works for people who haven’t read the other work. Well, “Tiffany” works beautifully, and by the end of the story, I had fallen in love with this savvy, determined, and somewhat crazy woman. Everyone who has read this story remembers it and likes it. You will too.
Burges, Michael, “Attack of the Sand Gnomes,” Glittering Throng Press, Kindle Edition, 2011. I read this story at a workshop last summer, and the story is still so fresh in my mind that I can quote from it. I would have bought this story if I were still editing F&SF. It’s wonderful. Michael has found that honest voice that few writers have when writing horror. Stephen King has it, and Michael has it. Check it out.
Doctorow, Cory, “The Jammie Dodgers and the Adventure of the Leiceister Square Screening,” The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year: Volume 5, edited by Jonathan Strahan, Nightshade Books, 2011. A marvelous sf tale about a near-future world clearly extrapolated from our own. A small event, a film showing, becomes something monumental. Good writing, great voice, nifty glimpse into a possible future. I’d tell you there’s a great message here too, but I don’t want to distract you from the good read.
Dobbs, David, “My Mother’s Lover,” Kindle Singles, 2011. A few months ago, Kindle started a program where it sold short things—an article, a story, an essay—and highlighted that short thing for a week. One of those short things is this essay by David Dobbs about his mother. Just before she died, she told her children she wanted to be cremated and buried at sea where she last saw the love of her life, a man named Angus who had died in the Pacific Theater of World War II, long before her children were born. She died shortly thereafter. Dobbs had never quite realized what this Angus meant to his mother until that day, so he decided to track down who Angus was.
The journey is interesting, but what happened to the lives connected to his mother and her lover is even more interesting. I’m not going to spoil this for you. It’s a fascinating meditation on life and love and how people are so much more than we realize, particularly if they’re members of our own family.
Fey, Tina, “Lessons From Late Night,” The New Yorker, March 14, 2011. Clearly this is an excerpt from Fey’s memoir, Bossy-Pants, which I’m probably not going to read. But the section on being one of the few women to rise in the ranks of Saturday Night Live is wonderful, and the rules here are great. I particularly like #3 “The show doesn’t go on because it’s ready; it goes on because it’s eleven-thirty.” I try to teach writers that all the time. Write and release, write and release.
In that little section there’s this: “What I learned about bombing as an improviser at Second City was that, while bombing is painful, it doesn’t kill you. What I learned about bombing as a writer for Saturday Night Live, is that you can’t be too worried about your permanent record. Yes, you’re going to write some sketches that you love and are proud of forever—your golden nuggets. But you’re also going to write some real shit nuggets. You can’t worry about it. As long as you know the difference, you can go back to panning for gold on Monday.”
Yep. Writing is the same no matter what medium you work in. Which is what made this little excerpt fun for me. I can’t learn that lesson enough. (I also like the phrase “shit nugget.”)
Gaiman, Neil, “The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains,” The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year: Volume 5, edited by Jonathan Strahan, Nightshade Books, 2011. Neil uses a fable setting to tell a dark tale of greed and revenge. It’s beautifully written (as is all of Neil’s work) and has great power.
Genge, Sara, “Sins of the Father,” The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year: Volume 5, edited by Jonathan Strahan, Nightshade Books, 2011. I had trouble getting into this story, but once I did, I was in for a treat. It’s an sf story, although it reads like fantasy, and the twist is truly inspired.
Goss, Theodora, “Fair Ladies,” The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year: Volume 5, edited by Jonathan Strahan, Nightshade Books, 2011. Great historical fantasy with so much power that I teared up at the end. It’s beautifully written and memorable, although the title isn’t. I remembered the story, but had to search for it in the volume because I couldn’t remember it from the title. Still, really powerful, very well done.
Hand, Elizabeth, “The Maiden Flight of McCauley’s Bellerophon,” The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year: Volume 5, edited by Jonathan Strahan, Nightshade Books, 2011. One of the things I miss the most about editing F&SF is reading Liz Hand’s novellas the moment they arrive. She publishes the novellas in a variety of places now, so I have to track them down, sometimes years after they got published. She’s one of my favorite writers, and “The Maiden Flight…” doesn’t disappoint. It’s more slipstream than pure fantasy or sf, but that’s what makes it work. Things happen out of the corner of your eye, and you’re supposed to wonder, is that the fantastic element? Top notch fiction by a top-notch writer.
Hicks, Tennessee, “The Trailer Park of Dead Things,” Glittering Throng Press, Kindle Edition, 2011. This story came from the same assignment as David Bawdy’s story above, and honestly, I cringed at the word “Zombie.” I’m so tired of zombies. Of course, I’ve never been fond of them in the first place. But this piece, about a TV crew (with hopes of being the next Ghost Hunters) that goes to a trailer park to investigate some unusual happenings, is creepy and funny, and not really about zombies at all. Or not about zombies in that mindless “braaaaaiiiiiiins” kinda way. Now I have to read the related novel. Dammit. (Note: I would’ve bought this story for F&SF too. And for Pulphouse. It’s one of those rare stories that would’ve fit in both magazines.)
Kamensky, Jane, “Novelties: A Historian’s Field Notes From Fiction,” Historically Speaking: The Bulletin of the Historical Society, April, 2011. Fascinating piece written by a historian for historians. She wants these historians to use the techniques of fiction to make history come alive. She discusses how history can inform fiction and using techniques like using all five senses from fiction will make history more vivid. Worth reading if you’re a historian or a fiction writer.
Kessel, John, “Iteration,” The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year: Volume 5, edited by Jonathan Strahan, Nightshade Books, 2011. Inventive and clever, with good writing and great characters. He creates (several) worlds in about five pages. I can’t say more, but except admonish you to read this one.
Landis, Geoffrey, “The Sultan of the Clouds,” The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year: Volume 5, edited by Jonathan Strahan, Nightshade Books, 2011. I’ve been lucky enough to read Geoff Landis’s stories since we went to Clarion together in 1985. Geoff was good then; he’s even better now. He’s one of the best hard sf writers in the field. The world-building he did here is breathtaking, but world building means nothing if the story is awful. The story is even better. An adventure story with heart. I loved this piece.
MacDonald, Sandra, “Seven Sexy Cowboy Robots,” The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year: Volume 5, edited by Jonathan Strahan, Nightshade Books, 2011. Truly wonderful story about love and the meaning of humanity. That makes this sound pretentious and it’s not. It’s about a woman who divorces a very rich inventor, and one of the conditions of the divorce is that she gets seven sexy cowboy robots to service her every need—and I mean every need. The robots are flawed—they have blades on the bottom of their feet, so they ice skate. But they become individuals and characters we root for. The future is fascinating too. All of this in less than 20 pages. Another one that’s worth price of the anthology.
Nicita, Carolyn: “Penyon’s Useful Guide To Demons in the Wild,” Aeolita Media, Kindle Edition, 2011. One thing we discussed in the workshop was enhanced e-books. In addition to her many other talents, Carolyn Nicita is an excellent artist. She decided to combine some of her artwork with a story that she wrote in the workshop. I insisted that the story stand alone, which it does, but oh, man, when you add the art, you have a spectacular piece. If you have an iPad or a color Nook, use that to read this piece. You can see it on the Kindle, but you miss a bit of the flavor. No matter what, though, enjoy.
Peterfreund, Diana, “The Care and Feeding of Your Baby Killer Unicorn,” The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year: Volume 5, edited by Jonathan Strahan, Nightshade Books, 2011. Clearly this is part of a much larger piece. The ending is abrupt, and doesn’t quite work, but that doesn’t matter because the rest of the story is spectacular. It does what the story should do—it points you to the larger work. I will be searching for the rest of Peterfreund’s killer unicorn stories because of this one excellent piece.
Price, Jenny, “Brave New Blogs,” On Wisconsin, Spring, 2011. There’s always something interesting in Wisconsin’s alumni magazine. This quarter, it’s a column on how important blogging is becoming to academia, with links to some very interesting-sounding blogs, including Deborah Blum’s blog on science. (I recommended Blum’s book, The Poisoner’s Handbook, last year.) Check this out, if only to discover some fascinating blogs.
Putney, Mary Jo, Nowhere Near Respectable, Zebra Books, 2011. I love Mary Jo’s Lost Lords series, and this new entry does not disappoint. In fact, it’s my favorite so far. Lady Kiri Lawford is part Indian as well as the sister of a duke, so must deal with the bigotry in British society. I fell in love with her in the first chapter after a particularly horrible incident in which she narrates in true Regency fashion: “It would be bad form to kill her hostess.” The bad form part is the part I like: no doubt that the hostess should die for her actions, but It’s Just Not Done. Wonderful.
The adventure goes from here, and has everything from great India details to smugglers to kidnappings to endangered princesses. Mary Jo weaves in a real historical plot against the prince regent and his family. Real history is not that common in Regencies and was a delightful bonus to an already fun book. Read and enjoy.
Rankin, Ian, Blood Hunt, Little Brown Edition, 2007, first published in the UK in 1995. I got this for my birthday. I haven’t read Ian Rankin’s non-Rebus books until this year when I realized I wouldn’t have any more Rankin if I continued my ban on non-Rebus books. I recommended one earlier this year, and now I’m recommending this. Blood Hunt isn’t a mystery; it’s a thriller. At its core is some rather graphic stuff about Mad Cow Disease which had become a big boogey in Great Britain by the mid-1990s. If you’re squeamish, don’t read this over dinner. But read it. It’s a great ride.
Smith, Dean Welsey, “Dried Up,” WMG Publishing, Kindle Edition, 2011. I love Dean’s Poker Boy stories and as his first reader, I get to read them before anyone else. This one has marvelous imagery—you’ll never forget the static electricity scene—and some very real tension. Plus I laughed out loud at the end. I couldn’t want anything more.
Smith, Dean Welsey, Five From the Felt and Women of the Felt, WMG Publishing, Kindle Edition, 2011. Dean’s putting his Poker Boy stories in short collections, usually focused on a theme. I like the stories in both of these.
Smith, Douglas, “Going Harvey in the Big House,” Lucky Bat Books, Kindle edition, 2011. I first read this story in a workshop nearly a decade ago. Since then, Doug sold it to a number of different markets and it was a finalist for Canada’s prestigious Aurora Award. Now it’s out in e-book format. I read a lot, as you can tell, and I don’t remember most stories the next day, let alone decades later. The images and the power of the story have stayed with me all this time. That’s one of the strongest recommendations I can give.
Sterling, Bruce, “The Exterminator’s Want-Ad,” The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year: Volume 5, edited by Jonathan Strahan, Nightshade Books, 2011. Another near-future story, but this one is extremely dark, and quite satisfying. If I say too much more about it, I’ll ruin it. But it’s vintage Sterling.
Strahan, Jonathan, editor, The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year: Volume 5, Nightshade Books, 2011. I debated putting this volume on the list. In fact, I wasn’t going to until I wrote up the various stories that I wanted to recommend that I realized I needed to recommend this. Strahan tries to cover all the subgenres of sf/f, and he does so very well, even though his volume doesn’t have the word count of the annual Dozois volume. I don’t like all the sf/f subgenres, so by default, I’m not going to like a goodly portion of the stories here. The ones I did like, however, I loved. Even the stories I wasn’t fond of I often read to the end, which speaks to their quality. So the problem here isn’t one of the editor, but one of the reader. Don’t expect to enjoy all of it unless you love all of the field’s various subgenres. But you’ll like enough of it to make reading this book worth every minute of your time.
White, Randy Wayne, Sanibel Flats, St. Martins Press, 1990. Sanibel Flats marks the first appearance of White’s hero Doc Ford and is, in fact, White’s first novel (so far as I can tell). Wow. Well done. Often when you start with the 18th book in a mystery series and then go back, you can see how much the writer needed to learn. Yes, there are things that White did better in his 18th novel, but this one still has power. If you want to read the Doc Ford books, you can start here and not hurt your enjoyment of the series.