Snab a Short Story · 10 May 2011
Snab – To snatch, to grab
I've been reading quite a few short stories lately, in search of techniques that work well in short format fiction, and thought I'd share a few that caught my attention. All of these are available free (gratis) on the internet and they're the kind of read that you can sneak in on a quick break.
Sleeping with Bears by Theodora Goss - via Strange Horizons
I love the structure of this piece. Goss takes the familiar elements of a wedding: the invitation, the ceremony, the reception, et cetera and uses them to introduce a world in which a human girl can marry a bear.
Bit by bit we learn about the couple through snapshots of their wedding day as observed by our narrator, the bride's sister. She's the perfect mouthpiece for this story. She doesn't understand why her sister would choose a bear bridegroom and her exploration of this question becomes the reader's discovery of how little the exterior package matters as long as society is willing to treat your husband like a man.
Thanks to Becky over at A Book a Week for linking to this one.
Shards by Leah Thomas - via Daily Science Fiction
In this piece, perspective is the entry point to the story. Thomas examines a tragedy, its immediate aftermath, and its long-term consequences through the eyes of three different protagonists. It's only through experiencing the internal dialog of the first two characters that we can appreciate the irony of the last.
I particularly like how Thomas chooses to have the first character be mute by design and the second mute by choice. In using these techniques, the story makes the point that silence (no matter its origins) will fester into misunderstanding without addressing the theme explicitly. In a work this short, economy of words is particularly important, and I think this technique for introducing depth without taking away from the pacing of the story worked quite well.
Study for Solo Piano by Genevieve Valentine – via Fantasy Magazine (audio also available)
This is a longer work, leaving the author room to develop themes through repetition. The tone, like the subject matter, is lyrical, and Valentine uses asides like accents to break the gentle sway of the narration and bring the reader's attention to the harsh reality of her dystopian world.
"He thought he was used to knowing that there would be no music that did not come from him, from the brass barrel of his body and the spindly silver lengths of his arms, from the bellows on one side and the keys on the other that make him useless for work.
He thought it would please him, to have power like that. (You think a lot of strange things, before the truth sinks in.)"
The imagery syncopates between the steampunk and the fleshy elements of the characters, focusing both on what they've gained and what they've lost by choosing to survive. In this work, what I most liked about the style is the continuous touches on the themes of beauty and regret by having different characters provide their own definitions of them.
I thought the threat to the piano at the end could have been set up a better and a bit of foreshadowing in the story seems misplaced, but this story certainly whet my appetite for Valentine's recently released Mechanique: A Tale of the Circus Tresaulti set in the same world.
Though I missed the Monday recommendation, these short stories are part of my ongoing participation in The One Upon a Time Challenge
My maternal grandmother, now ninety, has kept house spotlessly and tirelessly since before I can remember. She disdains microwave ovens, is suspicious of anything digital, and uses elbow grease as her most effective weapon. She has forty year old sheets that are crisper than my new ones and sixty year old pans that still gleam.
I, on the other hand, never learned the housewifely arts. I grew up expecting to have a career outside the home and to be honest, except for cooking, chores are something I have neither inclination nor talent for. Occasionally, when something breaks around the house or someone (me) spills coffee on the couch, I bemoan my lack of skill. In short, I'm everything Ms. Child would, and did, despair of in her book.
I originally picked up The American Frugal Housewife thinking that it might be an interesting reference and provide useful housekeeping tricks and kept reading, in part because of the opening sentence.
The true economy of housekeeping is simply the art of gathering up all the fragments, so that nothing be lost. I mean fragments of time, as well as materials.
One of the timeless challenges is time. It's as true today as it was in 1832 that there is a limited amount for each of us, and no amount of money will grant us more time than we're allotted. However, Child quickly clarified her intended audience as that of the poor, and so many of the tips are advised for those that are time rich but penny poor. In this sense, the work didn't speak to my needs, but it provided entertainment nonetheless.
The writer has no apology to offer for this cheap little book of economical hints, except her deep conviction that such a book is needed . . . The information conveyed is of a common kind; but it is such as the majority of young housekeepers do not possess, and such as they cannot obtain from cookery books. Books of this kind have usually been written for the wealthy: I have written for the poor.
Lydia Maria Francis Child
Some of the advice is quite horrific,
"Eggs will keep almost any length of time in lime-water properly prepared . . . The yolk becomes slightly red; but I have seen eggs, thus kept, perfectly sweet and fresh at the end of three years," some is outdated,
"Those who are fond of soda powders will do well to inquire at the apothecaries for the suitable acid and alkali", but a good quantity is as true now as they are when they were written
"Woolens should be washed in very hot suds . . . silk, or anything that has silk in it, should be washed in water almost cold."
I think this would be a great reference for authors interested in writing about the period. Child includes not only tips for economical living but opinions on everything from the proper employment of children to the newfangled fad of traveling. She makes no attempt to couch these opinions in the guide of editorial neutrality, but provides an immediate and self-assured voice for a proclaimed expert of the time. One of the things that struck me was the sense that Americans have been struggling with the same issues for hundreds of years. For example, I expected the chapter on the education of women to be entirely outmoded, and instead I found myself agreeing with some of the author's sentiments. In deploring that women are unprepared for the likely realities of their life (in this case domestic habits), Child states:
Until sixteen, they go to school; sometimes these years are judiciously spent, and sometimes they are half-wasted; too often they are spent in acquiring the elements of a thousand sciences, without being thoroughly acquainted with any; or in a variety of accomplishments of very doubtful value . . .
This argument could just as easily pertain to the public school debate today, in which the value of rote memorization and the ability of a shallow, breadth-based, education to prepare children for the responsibilities of adulthood is still being questioned.
Finally, The American Frugal Housewife is a wealth of period recipes. About half the book is dedicated to food preparation, and provides insight into daily American eating, from our evolving definition of cupcake to answering exactly what constitutes gruel. This book will remain in my reference library as a comprehensive source for recreating period American fare.
The Michigan State library reports that there are at least thirty-five printings of the book. The Kindle version I reviewed is the twelfth edition, published in 1832. The book is also available on Project Gutenberg.
Did I miss yours? Email me or comment to be added.
Free Kindle Batch of Books · 8 April 2011
Free Kindle recommendations. Because your time is valuable.
From top left to bottom right. Dead Drop: A Lawson Vampire Bonus Story by Jon F. Merz, Necromancer: A Novella by Lish McBride, Fallen from Grace: A Bonus Dark Mirror Short Story by M.J. Putney, The Golden Acorn (The Adventures of Jack Brenin) by Catherine Cooper, Raising the Dead by Mara Purnhagen, Remedial Magic by Jenna Black, Retro Demonology by Jana Oliver, and Turned at Dark: A Bonus Shadow Falls Short Story by C.C. Hunter
The latest batch of downloads was a set of short stories and novellas that were all linked together via a “Customers who bought this ” trail whose entry point was Fallen From Grace (I couldn't resist the artsy cover). Except for The Golden Acorn, which is a children's book, and Dead Drop and Necromancer, these are all from the young adult genre.
I'm a lot harder on short fiction than long fiction, perhaps because it's a harder medium to write. In a novel, the author has plenty of opportunities to develop character, setting, and plot. A short story has the same demands, but less space in which to meet them. In a shorter work, it's even more imperative that non-essentials get stripped out and that the focus of the story is tight, but not so isolated as to be trivial.
These selections are the first works I'm reading from each of the authors but most of them were written as adjuncts to already established series. This type of story seems to both presume the reader is already interested in the world and its inhabitants and to attempt to convey it's major ideologies all at the same time. I was left unsatisfied on the first hand in many cases, feeling that the work did little to motivate my interest in the characters and their battles and rushed in the second, during which what are probably well developed points of factual interest from previous novels thrown out as banalities.
And now the ones I'd recommend.
Necromancer contains a preview of the book Hold Me Closer, Necromancer and the short Death and Waffles. The format of the Kindle file is a bit confusing because there's an author's note introducing Death and Waffles, followed by the preview chapters and then the short story. Format griping aside, these were both fun reads.
Death and Waffles is a vignette showcasing Ashley, better known as one of Death's harbringers, and her mortal friend Matt. Ashley has a love of waffles. Despite the awkwardness of the mortal/immortal divide, Matt obviously has a love of Ashley, but since she's perpetually ten to his aging seventeen, he hasn't really learned how to deal with it. When Ashley knocks on Matt's window one night, they embark on an outing that forces him to acknowledge the nature of Ashley's new job and of their relationship.
'Death. Right.' Mrs. Clausen looked over at me. 'And who's he, the Muffin Man? Santa?'
I cleared my throat. 'I'm Batman.'
Ash threw me a dirty look, and I just shrugged at her. It was all I could think of.
This is a sweet story about how a childhood friendship grows into adulthood when the friendship survives one of its members dying. In some ways the tone reminded me of the movie My Girl with its blend of innocence and earthyness. McBride does an excellent job of showcasing the sunny nature of friendship and the far reaching shadows of its loss. There's very real humor interlaced with incredible poignancy, making this story my favorite of the bunch.
This offering included the short story Dead Drop and the first few chapters from the fifth book in the Lawson Vampire series, The Kensei.
The job was easy enough: unload a dead drop . . . I had a key to the flat. And once I spotted the load signal . . . I'd wait five minutes, retrieve the material, and then be on my way home to Boston.
Except dead drops never are.
And just like that, Merz has the hook he uses to shift perspective seamlessly between present day Lawson and his memories of the past, giving insight into his current hardboiled outlook and his early influences.
Dead Drop relates two of Lawson's assignments as a Fixer, a vampire sanctioned by the vampire Council to assassinate vampires who get out of line. As Lawson reminiscences about his first dead drop, one laced with adrenaline and surprises for a new Fixer, he sludges through the mundanities of the current one, until its apparent the two incidents share similarities.
Lawson's skills have developed between the two dead drops, but what I found more interesting were hints that he's lost some vital spark along the way. Merz uses the device of the dual timelines to highlight the difference in Lawson's attitude, and the way he ties the pieces together hints that Lawson may have been better off in the past, despite his inexperience.
Dead Drop makes you curious to know more about Lawson, but doesn't leave you hanging.
The Golden Acorn
I'm only partway through The Golden Acorn, but it's a solid children's fantasy read in the tradition of the hero quest. So far, the style and format reminds me quite a bit of Magyk (Septimus Heap, Book 1) and I wanted to get this post up before I finished it, because I've noticed that while all eight of the books pictured above were free at the time I downloaded them, a few have gone up in price since. I just got The Golden Acorn tonight, so hopefully it will be available as a free Kindle download for a few more days.