Category: Reading

It’s been a long gap between Favorites posts here on my blog, and in fact between any posts at all. Some of that silence was spent writing, some of it working, and some dealing with life’s distractions that couldn’t be avoided, but for a lot of it, I was just a little lost. Not unpleasantly–overall, it’s been a good year–but it’s lacked structure. My first attempt to get that structure back is to start logging my short fiction reading (and listening) again, and more consistently produce these posts each month with the stories that affected me most.

So here goes. I read most of the top pro SFF markets in August, and here are the four stories that made the most impact, the ones I wanted to read again and tear apart to understand why they felt so good the first time.

There Is No Road Through the Woods
by Dagny Paul, in Pseudopod
A good story is a good story anytime, but they can definitely be helped or hurt by the circumstances surrounding the first time you read them. I was primed for this gorgeous coming-of-age horror story by the Netflix show Stranger Things. I expect Dagny Paul is getting tired of the comparison, which is also brought up in the show notes on Pseudopod, and I won’t elaborate on it too much, because her story deserves to be appreciated on its own. Sufficed to say, if you like the one and haven’t tried the other, go do that. This is a classic “there’s something strange in the woods” story, but in this case, the horror isn’t necessarily either old or natural. It’s hard to say more without spoiling it, but if this post only talked about one story, it would be this one. I can’t recommend it enough.

First Light at Mistaken Point
by Kali Wallace, in Clarkesworld
Some of my favorite stories all pull off variations on the same trick, beautifully melding together a speculative mystery and a personal character story. Similar to one of my Nebula nominations from last year, “The Cork Won’t Stay” by Nate Southard, Wallace’s tale mixes the fantastic with the all too common tragedy of mundane human life. The really special thing that few authors can pull off so well is that both threads on their own would be beautiful, readable stories. Together, expertly woven, they become something wonderfully new.

Fall To Her
by Alexis A. Hunter, in Apex
This is the shortest story on the list this month, almost flash, but it is in no way the smallest. In 1300-odd words, Hunter managed to immerse me in a situation both recognizable and distantly speculative. She takes a story idea as old as Homer and spins it not only in a new way, but in a fresh and vibrant one. You can sell me nearly any SFF concept if I believe that the character believes it, and the first-person narrator of “Fall to Her” is completely believable in the expression of their tragic addictive need. The best flash is an effective uppercut, knocking you out before you know what hit you, and this accomplishes that better than most.

The Starsmith
by Jonathan Edelstein, in Escape Pod
Half of my picks this month are audio stories, both by the amazing crew over at Escape Artists. Maybe it’s not completely fair to lump audio stories in with all the others, being that they are produced as well as written, but I’m going to do it anyway, because I care less and less these days what medium a story comes in, as long as it’s compelling and smart. Edelstein’s “Starsmith” is those things in spades. At its core, this is a fairy tale, and once you’re through it, you’ll probably recognize which. But the layers built over that core are what makes this really special. The world is primarily a science fictional one, but there are fantasy elements so deeply embedded in it that I would hesitate to put it into either genre. To put it in pop culture terms, it feels more Star Wars than Star Trek: it feels like the world has existed a while. Things are broken down, things have moved and changed. There is history and culture and tradition. Edelstein does more to create a fully realized world in forty minutes or so than many novelists ever manage. It’s a great achievement.

So that’s it. Those are the ones that made me smile, laugh, and then curse their authors for doing things I want to be doing, and I have no higher compliment to give. I hope to stick to my short fiction reading schedule and publish one of these every month for the foreseeable future, because reading with this wrap-up in mind helps me to establish not only which stories work for me, but why, and that has been one of the most useful writing exercises I’ve come across yet.

2015 was fantastic. Yes, I know: terrible and terrifying things happened. The world got worse for some people, and we lost others, and it is not my intent to dance on either the sadness of the former or the graves of the latter. But this was one of my favorite years, and I’m sad to see it go.

Only a small part of this had to do with writing or reading. In fact, I wrote less in 2015 than in either of the preceding two years. But I had decent reasons to be unproductive, which for me is itself an accomplishment. I got married, which will always top my 2015 best-of list. The first seven months of marriage have been amazing. Not always easy or uncomplicated, but always better than before. My beloved soccer team won its first national championship. That may seem, especially to the sports haters among you, to be a minor thing, but it was a big deal to me. Screaming my lungs out at Paddy’s Pub in downtown Portland as the Timbers raised the MLS Cup is far below my wedding day, but it’s still a memory that I will hold tight to for many years.

Now, for the reading part. There were some absolutely amazing stories, in every medium, this past year.

I’ve limited myself to four in each category. As with my earlier monthly post, I have skipped novellas, because I am awful and have read so few. I need to do better on that. This pretty much doubles as my Nebula awards ballot, and I’m excited to see how many of these gems actually grab nominations.

Favorite Novels of 2015

I loved Library at Mount Char so much that when I put it down, I knew it was probably going to be my pick for favorite novel of the year. As much as I love Neil Gaiman, this took a Gaiman-style set of archetypal characters and plopped them into a world like ours more completely than Gaiman has ever done, a world where sometimes people are unreasonable and shoot each other. This book gave me a wonderful set of new gods and monsters, while staying very much fixed to that messy, scary real world.

1. The Library at Mount Char by Scott Hawkins
2. The Dark Forest by Cixin Liu
3. Welcome to Night Vale by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Craynor
4. The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu

Favorite Novelettes of 2015

Fantasy and Science Fiction’s July issue was amazing. The rest of the year was very good, but that issue’s two novelettes managed to stand up all year as two of my four favorites. Tamsin Muir’s The Deepwater Bride still sticks out in my mind as my favorite, but Kowal’s Like Native Things is very close. Ridiculous variety and quality at this length out there this year.

1. The Deepwater Bride by Tamsin Muir (Fantasy and Science Fiction Magazine)
2. Like Native Things by Mary Robinette Kowal (Asimov’s)
3. The Curse of the Myrmelon by Matthew Hughes (Fantasy and Science Fiction Magazine)
4. The Hunger Tower by Pan Haitian (Clarkesworld)

Favorite Short Stories of 2015

This was always going to be the hardest, just because I read so many short stories in a year. Southard’s superpower story did a better job than I’ve ever read of showing me what a regular flawed person would do with special abilities. It’s never cartoonish, but manages not to slip into the grimdark grit that screen superheroes have been drowning in. Other than that one from Nightmare, Clarkesworld owned this category for me. Robert Reed is becoming one of those writers I will follow anywhere, and Sara Saab’s story jumped onto this list in the last few months, when I thought it was cemented shut.

1. The Cork Won’t Stay by Nate Southard (Nightmare)
2. Cremulator by Robert Reed (Clarkesworld)
3. Somewhere I Have Never Traveled (3rd Sound Remix) by E. Catherine Tobler (Clarkesworld)
4. In the Queue for the Worldship Munawwer by Sara Saab (Clarkesworld)

Favorite Screen Things of 2015

What a year for TV. There were some decent SFF movies, but the small screen completely dominated in my mind. Fury Road was the only big-screen movie that truly blew my mind, something that three or four TV shows were able to do. Sense8 stands out most as changing the game, but Mr. Robot was fantastic and The Flash, though sillier than the others, mostly managed to work with one of the least approachable rogues’ galleries in superhero fiction. I loved all four of these, and this is the first year I can remember that carving out reading time was harder because there was so much good on TV.

1. Sense8 Season 1
2. Mad Max: Fury Road
3. Mr. Robot Season 1
4. The Flash Season 1

I’ve been trying to write fiction for a good many years now. Every once in a while I succeed. But long before I was any sort of writer, I was a reader, and reading genre fiction continues to be one of my greatest joys. Since joining SFWA, I’ve been even more concerned with keeping up with new releases of science fiction and fantasy, because I can now nominate for the Nebula Awards and want to do so in as educated and informed a manner as possible.

And, as a confirmed and unrepentant spreadsheet geek, naturally I track what I read, both to stay aware of the authors that are putting out work I consistently like and to keep a list of my favorites come award season.

In July 2015, just now wrapping up, I read 61 pieces of 2015 award eligible fiction. Most of those were flash and short stories, but it included a few novels and longer-form pieces. The one category I completely neglected in July were novellas. I’d like to concentrate on reading some of those in August.

Here are some of my favorites in the various length categories. Even though the Nebulas and Hugos don’t separate out flash and short stories, I have chosen to do so to further break up what would otherwise be a pretty blocky list. I’m not going to describe the stories. This isn’t a review, and I have no interest in being a reviewer. I just want to publicly appreciate some of the stories that I loved this month.

Flash Fiction

I read a lot of flash (up to 1000 words or so) in July. Three were special enough to really call out in this post.

Favorite: This is the Humming Hour by Kate Heartfield, Daily Science Fiction

Also Loved:
The Pixie Game by Anna Zumbro, Daily Science Fiction
The Wanderer by Karen Lord, Popular Science

Short Stories

All the short genre heavy-hitters (Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, Asimov’s, etc.) had really solid July issues, but these three stories were the ones that really floored me. Though Nightmare had my favorite, F&SF this month was cover to cover one of the best issues I’ve read in a while and gave me a lot of stories to love.

Favorite: The Cork Won’t Stay by Nate Southard, Nightmare Magazine

Also Loved:
Dixon’s Road by Richard Chwedyk, Fantasy and Science Fiction Magazine
Paradise and Trout by Betsy James, also from Fantasy and Science Fiction Magazine

Novelettes

As we get into the longer categories, I had fewer to choose from, both in terms of what the big SFF markets offer and what I had time to read. But two novelettes really stuck out from the admittedly smaller pack.

Favorite: The Deepwater Bride by Tamsyn Muir, Fantasy and Science Fiction Magazine

Also Loved:
Like Native Things by Mary Robinette Kowal, Asimov’s

Novellas

Again, bad Ian. I did not read a single SFF novella in July. I leave this section here as a scolding reminder to do better in August.

Novels

The big one, at least in terms of length and certainly in terms of mass-market appeal. I finished three 2015 novels in July, but there’s only one I want to talk about, nay, scream my head off about at every opportunity, and that’s The Library at Mount Char by Scott Hawkins. If you have any affection for Gaiman, but sometimes want a story with a little more of our messy world mixed in with the gods and demons, I can’t recommend Mount Char enough. Right now, this is my favorite book of 2015, and it will take some effort to dislodge. Hell, I hope I read a better book this year, but the bar is now high.