Deal Me In, Week 5 ~ “The Talking Stone”


Hosted by Jay @ Bibliophilopolis

“The Talking Stone” by Isaac Asimov

Card picked: Two of Clubs
From: Asimov’s Mysteries


Larry Vernadsky is the lone current inhabitant of Station 5, a way-point between the asteroid belt and Earth. He’s a jack-of-all-trades engineer with “an isolation-sharpened bump of curiosity.” He is overly excited when the mining ship Robert Q docks needing a diagnostic and a few repairs. After a wrong turn on his way to the engine room, Vernadsky discovers that the three-man crew have a “pet” silicony—an intelligent, talking, mind-reading silicon-based life form that is often found on asteroids.* Except that this silicony is about ten times bigger than any previously known specimen. The crew of the Robert Q are tight-lipped about its providence and nonplussed by its uniqueness. Which gets Vernadsky with his bump of curiosity suspicious. In his spare time, he’s read the works of famous extraterrologist Wendell Urth on the subject of siliconies.

If siliconies need gamma radiation to live and grow, then this one must be from an asteroid with a lot of radioactive materials… And if the crew of the Robert Q is so secretive and a little hostile about their pet, then they might be…uranium smugglers! If Vernadsky can prove it and locate the asteroid, an Earth-side promotion could be his reward.

He proceeds to sabotage the smuggler’s ship and contact the authorities. Of course, an accident keeps it all from going smoothly. In the end, it’s the job of H. Seton Davenport to locate the asteroid, with Dr. Wendell Urth “helping” by pretty much continuously telling Davenport that he’s a dim-wit. This is the second story with these two characters, but in story chronology and in my reading chronology.

At several points in this story (and I fear this may occur more in Asimov’s mysteries), a character figures out something by following some thought process and then slyly alludes to it. But the reader has no idea what he’s** alluding to, at least not immediately. I see no good reason for this. Asimov could have shared the entire thought process and it wouldn’t have taken away from the plot of the story.

Better use of a silicon-based alien in a murder mystery? Gene L. Coon’s Star Trek episode “The Devil in the Dark,” written a decade later.

* This is actually a slang term for the creature. Asimov does provide a more scientific name for the species.

** Since I’ve recently had long conversations with Eric about he/she/they, I will point out that “he” is completely accurate. Asimov isn’t big on female characters.

Deal Me In, Week 23 ~ “Chuck’s Bucket”


Hosted by Jay @ Bibliophilopolis

“Chuck’s Bucket” by Chris Offutt

Card picked: King of Clubs

From: Mc Sweeney’s Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales, edited by Michael Chabon

Thoughts: After a few not-so-thrilling tales, this is more like it.

Offutt goes meta with this story. The narrator is (presumably) Chris Offutt. He’s the son of genre writer Andrew J. Offutt and has been asked by Michael Chabon to write a genre tale for a McSweeney’s anthology even though he’s spent his entire career as a writer trying to be as little like his father as possible. Things are not going well for story!Chris. He’s recently divorced, he’s stepped on his glasses, his car has crapped out, his bike has a flat, he can’t finish the damn McSweeney’s story (about clones…maybe?), and he’s being haunted by ghost.

It’s the ghost aspect that piques the interest of physicist Prof. Charles Andrews, a poker buddy of Chris’s. Since there are no such things as ghosts, it’s obvious that Chuck’s newly built time machine has worked and that Chris has volunteered to be the first human subject. Why on earth would Chris volunteer? Because maybe the time machine can dump him in a future “bucket” and Chris can read the end of the story he’s supposed to be writing.

The last story I read from Thrilling Tales was Michael Crichton’s “Blood Doesn’t Come Out,” which has a similar starting point: a guy for whom things are not going well. It occurs to me that I might have been unfair to Crichton. He took crime noir to its inevitable blood-spattered conclusion. Offutt goes a pulpy sci-fi route. What’s more pulpy and sci-fi than time travel? And it might be that I simply prefer sci-fi to noir.

About the Author: I had deja vu as I looked up Chris Offutt’s biographical info. I had googled him before and recently. Why? And why hadn’t I added some of his books (involving rural Kentucky) to my TBR-eventually list? (Probably because that list is already stupid long.) A time-based Google search revealed all. I had read “Trash Food” back in April.

Review ~ (The rest of) Don’t Look Now

Don’t Look Now by Daphne du Maurier

Cover via Goodreads

Five long stories about unremarkable people caught up in situations beyond the boundaries of their experience.

Venice, Crete, Ireland, Jerusalem, East Anglia. The settings of Miss Daphne du Maurier’s stories are as varied as the plots. A married couple enjoying a holiday in Venice are swept helplessly into a tragedy played out against a backdrop of murky canals and back alleys. A middle-aged schoolmaster gets involved with an American couple whose fishing expeditions are very far from being what they appear. A young actress, setting out on an impulsive but innocent quest, blunders into a situation which sweeps away all the roots of youthful self-confidence. One story, subtly mocking, follows the vicisitudes of an ill-assorted little party of pilgrims in Jerusalem. Another explores the meaning of life and death in a brilliantly original tale. Such unremarkable people, following their unexceptional paths, yet all caught up in situations beyond the boundaries of their experience and outside their control. Compelling, exciting, this collection shows once again what mastery of the short story Daphne du Maurier has. (via Goodreads)

For me, Daphne du Maurier is this year’s Steven Millhauser. Last year, I delved into a collection of Millhauser’s (The Barnum Museum) and found that I was torn. I really *loved* some of his stories. Others…not so much. I’m still not sure if I’d call myself a Millhauser fan, but I’m going to repeatedly give him chances. My opinion of du Maurier is shaping up similarly. I didn’t care for Rebecca, but there were some aspects that were enticing. Luckily, I had more du Maurier on a more compulsory reading list.

Don’t Look Now is a collection of five novellas originally titled after one of the other stories in the collection, “Not After Midnight.” The change came after “Don’t Look Now” was turned into a film in 1973 with Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie. That story was included in my Obscure Literary Monsters list and I reviewed it a few weeks ago. Since I didn’t immediate pull “The Birds,” which is on my Deal Me In list, I decided to finish off the anthology. And it is definitely a mixture of great and meh from me.

The second story in the collection is “The Breakthrough.” The late 60s and early 70s spawned a number of novels and movies that dealt with science investigating the supernatural. I didn’t expect to find such a story from du Maurier. “The Breakthrough” is a solid, right out of the Twilight Zone. “Not After Midnight” continues with an atmosphere of unease as a fairly insufferable character gets caught up in what may or may not be an archeological dive. There’s one incredibly tense scene that caused me to jump out of my skin when an outside noise intruded.

But then there’s “A Border-Line Case.” I have a theory that I might not like du Maurier’s female main characters. Like the second Mrs. de Winter, Shelagh came off as flighty. Maybe that’s uncharitable. Both of these characters make her own decisions (both involving older men), but they’re such bad decisions. Then, the reader is left to suffer through an extended period of whinging from the character.

“The Way of the Cross” is the only story of which I had a neutral opinion. It’s populated by (figuratively) many the characters we’ve already encountered: the annoying, the skeptical, the swinging, the delusional, and the completely unsure. In the end, I’m not sure what point there is to “The Way of the Cross,” but it wasn’t an entirely unpleasant journey.

Publishing info, my copy: Doubleday, 1974, hardback
Acquired: PaperbackSwap
Genre: all over the place

Deal Me In, Week 20 ~ “The Albertine Notes”


Hosted by Jay @ Bibliophilopolis

“The Albertine Notes” by Rick Moody

Card picked: Queen of Spades

From: Thrilling Tales, ed. by Michael Chabon

Thoughts: At week 20, I have come upon my first DNF story of the year. More of a novella than a short story (weighing in at 61 pages), I gave “The Albertine Notes” twenty pages to keep me interested. Honestly, I only made it seventeen pages.

The premise seemed good: After an atomic bomb is detonated in New York City, many disenfranchised people turn to the drug Albertine. Albertine allows for perfect and immersive recall of memories. And even the ability to “remember” the future. I was willing to suspend disbelief; memory doesn’t work like this, but I’d go for a speculative fiction ride. Unfortunately, the telling of this story is really muddy and repetitive.

Kevin Lee, our narrator, is a journalist tasked with investigating the claims that surround Albertine. There are long circular explanations of how the drug might work and how it might have been connected to the bombing mixed in with paranoid conspiracies involving the government and drug dealers. It reminded me of Danielewski’s House of Leaves, but without the weird feeling of impending doom. It just didn’t work for me.

About the Author: Rick Moody is pretty notable in the realm of literary fiction. Alas, I’m only familiar with his works via a movie adaptation. The Ice Storm is rather good.

Deal Me In, Week 7 ~ “The Sandman”


Hosted by Jay @ Bibliophilopolis

“The Sandman” by E. T. A. Hoffmann

Card picked: Two of Diamonds – A WILD card. Yes, seven weeks in and I’ve already drawn two wild cards. I don’t much like the deck I’m drawing from.

From: Weird Tales by E.T.A. Hoffmann, translated by T.J. Bealby, available from Project Gutenberg


This is the second story I’ve read from the Obscure Literary Monsters list. The story might be “obscure” in that I’m not sure it’s widely read, but some of the details have a curious legacy. The Sandman in his most benevolent form sprinkles sand into children’s eyes to bring sleep and dreams. I understand that this is a myth to explain the grit in the corner of your eyes that you wake up with, but I’ve always thought the concept sounded terrible. A guy sneaking around and sprinkling *sand* in someone’s eyes? Nothing about this says sleep and good dreams to me. E.T.A. Hoffmann seems to agree.

Our protagonist is Nathanael, a student at an Italian university. We learn in a letter from him to Lothar, the brother of his fiance, that he is being troubled by something that he believes he left behind in childhood: the Sandman. When he was a kid, he explains, his nurse scared the bejeezus out of him with tales of a Sandman that threw sand in the eyes of children who refused to go to sleep and then would pluck their eyes out to feed to his own children. That’s a tale that will put a kid to sleep…never again. Young Nathanael convinces himself that a particularly loathsome man, Coppelius, who occasionally visits his father late at night, is actually the Sandman. Nathanael sneaks out of his room one night in hopes of proving his theory, but he’s quickly found out and further scared by Coppelius. In fact, Nathanael is convinced that Coppelius removes Nathanael’s hands and feet to examine them, before his father rescues him. His childhood trauma culminates a few months later with an accident–a late-night explosion which kills Nathanael’s father. Nathanael is certain Coppelius, or rather the Sandman, had something to do with it What has troubled older Nathanael is the arrival at the university of a weather glass salesman who looks *just* like feral old Coppelius.

The letter ends up being read by his fiance, Clara. On one hand, Clara is level-headed about it all. Her theory is that Nathanael has blown his childhood fears way out of proportion. His nurse told him a cruel story, Coppelius didn’t care for children and delighted in scaring him, and his father died while doing some sort of chemical experiment. The monster that is dogging Nathanael is all in his head; we create our monsters.  On the other hand, Clara is sort of annoyingly optimistic.”[T]he intuitive prescience of a dark power working within us to our own ruin cannot exist also in minds which are cheerful” is sort of her final statement on the subject.

Nathanael seems to mostly agree. In a second letter, he admits that he’s been a bit foolish. The weather glass salesman doesn’t look *that* much like Coppelius. One of his teachers, Spalanzani, knows the guy and vouches for him. All in all, Nathanael is happy to be coming home for holidays. He relates one more thing to Lothar. Speaking of Spalanzani, Nathanael peeked through a crack in the door to catch a glimpse of Spalanzani’s daughter. She’s beautiful, but sort of vacant…

Despite the tone of the letter, Nathanael isn’t over the whole Sandman/Coppelius thing. He drones on about everyone being the playthings of some evil ultimate power. He even pens a poem in which he and Clara happily woo but when they come to the marriage altar, Coppelius shows up and plucks out Clara’s eyes. Needless to say, this poem is not endearing to Clara.  She’s not unhappy when he goes back to the university.

When Nathanael returns, he finds that the building where he used to live has been burnt down. Some of his fellow students rescued his belongings and he’s been moved to an apartment next to where Spalanzani and his daughter, Olimpia, live. In fact, often Nathanael has a direct view into the room where Olimpia sits for hours on end not really moving or doing anything. The weather glass salesman finally pays Nathanael a visit and to get rid of the guy, Nathanael buys a mini telescope from him. Now with an even better way of spying on Olimpia, Nathanael becomes utterly besotted. It’s as though, she never had life in her eyes until he looked into her eyes. Olimpia is given a coming out party, but Nathanael is her only suitor. She can dance, but is stiff in her movements. She can sing songs, but doesn’t talk much beyond saying “Ack!” But she listens to Nathanael with utmost attention. She’s the perfect woman! Alas, Nathanael is doomed. He walks in on an argument between Spalanzani and the weather glass man (who actually *is* Coppelius) about who made Olimpia’s clockwork and who made her eyes. Coppelius makes off with Olimpia’s body, leaving her eyes behind. That’s not the end of Nathanael’s story, but I don’t want to spoil it all.

I wasn’t expecting a 1816 tale called “The Sandman” to so heavily involve an automaton. (Due to the name. The subject matter–life from unlife–was definitely having a resurgence.) Other sinister versions of the Sandman have been done, but I have to wonder if there isn’t more than a little of this story in the movie Blade Runner.

About the Author: E.T.A. Hoffmann’s best known work, at least in its ballet form, is The Nutcracker and the Mouse King. “The Sandman” gets a much more light-hearted dance adaptation too with Coppelia, the story of an inventor with a life-like dancing doll, the young man who falls in love with it, and Swanhilde, the girl he was supposed to marry who saves him from himself by pretending to be the doll. Presumably things work out better for all involved in this version.

Swanhilde (performed by Leanne Benjamin). I have to think that abrupt, wooden movement do not make for easy ballet.

Review ~ Under Stars

This book was provided to me by the author in exchange for an honest review.

Under Stars by K.J. Kabza

Cover via Goodreads

KJ Kabza is back with a second, bigger round of short fiction that’s “Incredible” (Tangent), “Fascinating” (SFRevu), and “Worthy of Edgar Allan Poe” (SFcrowsnest). Featuring his freshest work from the top science fiction and fantasy venues of today, including F&SF, Nature, Daily Science Fiction, and more, UNDER STARS showcases wonders from worlds both here and beyond—enchanted hedge mazes, abandoned cities, programmable cyberneurons, alien overlords, 1,000-foot-high tides, secret dreams, and humanity’s omnipotent future. (via Goodreads)

When I read “The Soul in the Bell Jar” in the pages of The Best Horror of the Year, Vol. 6, I wondered if the setting already existed, if the short story was an “expanded universe” type of deal where an author explores a nook or cranny of the world they’ve already built in five novels. No, it wasn’t. My next question was, “Was it going to be five novels?” ‘Cause I’d totally read that! Sadly, the answer to that question is “no” too, but it’s okay.

It’s okay because K.J. Kabza puts that seemingly effortless world building into all his stories. There is no dry exposition about how any given world works. These stories don’t have time for that. As readers, we are simply put down in the story. We interact with the world as the characters do and feel like we have what knowledge we need. Each story is being told from the speculative fiction culture it’s from without the easy-mode outsider to explain everything. And as lovely as the world-building is, these stories are about the characters.

This is a weighty anthology. Twenty-two stories, only a few of them are 2-3 pages in length, and a section of “poetry.” It’s broken into three sections: Fiction, Fantastic; Fiction, Science; and Limericks, Dirty.

I’m picky about my science fiction, so the first section worked the best for me. “The Soul in the Bell Jar” is here with its gloriously squwicky concept of stitched souls, but I would as easily love to spend more time with the sandcats of “The Color of Sand” or in the dictionary of “Neighbors: A Definitive Odyssey.” Some of the usual fantasy cast are also given a treatment: vampires, trolls, unicorns, and (ahem) dragon riders.

This isn’t to say that the SF stories are chopped liver. There is a lot of tech fun to be had in extrapolating surf culture into the future with a story like “Gnarly Times at Nana’ite Beach.” “Copyright 2113” does what good science fiction should do: *gently* show how humans might end up interacting with technology (in this case DRM on memories) instead of being preachy and/or pessimistic about it. My favorite story of this section though is “The Land of Stone and Stars,” a poignant tale of loss set in a subtly different world. Again, these stories are about the characters, not the settings, even as fully rounded as the settings seem.

The limericks? Well, they’re limericks. Naughty nerdy limericks. Fun at parties and apparently cons. If I could go back in time, I would have read them between the story sections as a palate cleanser.

Publisher: KJ Kabza
Publication date: October 27, 2014; Available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Smashwords, Apple & Kobo
Genre: Speculative fiction.

#COYER ~ Short Reviews of Short Works

And, they’re all free online! Yes, I know #COYER is supposed to be about cleaning out your ereader, but who doesn’t love free fiction?

“Abigail Abernathy: All-Night Analytical Engine Analyst” by T.R. Goodman

Cover via Goodreads

All Abigail Abernathy wants is a respectable job where she can put her knowledge of analytical engines to use. The Royel Trading Company of Bristol provides her with just such an opportunity, but not everyone is pleased to have her aboard. Between incompetent management, clients helpless beyond her imagination, and a disgruntled former analytical engine analyst who will stop at nothing to take back the job she unknowingly took from him, will her credulity, not to mention her sanity, be up to the task? It’s going to be a long night. (via Goodreads)

While I’m not much of a fan of the “improper” female Victorian character that spends time thinking about how improper she is, this was a fun story. This quick introductory tale is sort of what it might be like to be sys admin in a steampunk world.

“Abigail Abernathy: All-Night Analytical Engine Analyst” at Amazon

“The Rose of Fire” by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

Cover via Goodreads

Set at the time of the Spanish Inquisition in the fifteenth century, “Rose of Fire” tells the story of the origins of the mysterious labyrinthine library, the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, which lies at the heart of Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s novels The Shadow of the Wind, The Angel’s Game, and now The Prisoner of Heaven. (via Goodreads)

Zafón’s Cemetery of Forgotten Books series has been on my TBR list for a while now. “The Rose of Fire” was written between the second and third books, but is a prequel of sorts for the whole series. It’s a nice slice of background and doesn’t require any knowledge from the other books. My only disappointment is that the file on my Kindle includes an excerpt from The Prisoner of Heaven and I was looking forward to the story being much longer than it was.

“The Rose of Fire” at Amazon

“Strigoi” by Lavie Tidhar

Cover via Goodreads

First published in Interzone #242, September 2012. Cover artist, Warwick Fraser-Coombe

Lavie Tidhar is another author I keep meaning to read more of due to intriguing concepts. “Strigoi” takes the concept of the Romanian vampire and the shambleau from C. L. Moore’s story of the same name and sends it into space. The story focuses on Carmel, the turned victim of a strigoi. She left earth to see the universe and returns to Central Station in search of fitting in somewhere. I really liked the mash up of science fiction and traditional supernatural elements, but the story seemed to lose focus near the end.

“Strigoi” at Lavie Tidhar’s website