365 Days of Women Writers

Women writers only – no boys allowed

Archive for the ‘short story’ Category

Day 50: Bread and Circuses by Genevieve Valentine

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Much like dragons, circuses make everything better, so I was a little disappointed that there wasn’t an actual circus in Bread and Circuses. However, there was quite enough here to like even without an actual circus.

Instead, there is only a refugee from a circus, Valeria who becomes a walled town’s new baker. The narrator, Tom, is the one who stokes the fire for her over, is her jailor, and belatedly her friend.

This town is a prison that locked itself in a cycle of fear – their greatest fear being that someone will steal their wheat and attempt to sell it to the neighboring town. Sadly, there is no theft, there is simply not enough to go around. (That’s how they lost their last baker, in a year of famine she was made the scapegoat. Tom and Valeria have been set up to fill this role again.) Their community is a fragile, suspicious thing.

This story reminds me of one of my favorites from SCI FICTION, The Water Master” -the shortage in the water master is water, not food, but both the water master and the baker take a similar spot in the society – the outsider who fills a role that’s essential to the community well being but at the same time is demonized for it.

The narrator here is a bit naïve and oblivious. He was the last to realize that he has been made her jailer. One day he watches her sift dirt into the dough and does not comment. Then:

The third day when I looked up at her, waiting, she shook her head silently, made little pockets in the bread so it looked bigger than it was. (I was too crushed by her silence, I didn’t think much of her doing it; I didn’t realize that her worries had begun in earnest.)

He wraps his hopes into the circus – the thing that he experienced only briefly and from the outside, it is a childlike and melancholy hope, but Valeria tries to protect him:

Her hands were shaking as she turned back to the dough, and I knew she wouldn’t speak another word about the circus—not even for her own sake, but for mine.

The story ends with escape and death, but also with defiance.

If I jumped, I would land outside the city walls. That would be enough; whether or not I lived, I would have been even once outside the gates.

(The aerialists had done the same—you held your breath and jumped as far out as you could, and hoped the wind would carry you.)

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Written by Chance

November 7, 2010 at 3:46 pm

Day 49: Heart of a Mouse by K.J. Bishop

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There is a fable about a mouse who is turned into a lion, but is still afraid of everything because he’s still got a heart of a mouse. Bishop has taken this fable and literalized it –people are turned into who they are inside.

Some people are turned into volk which seem to be gun-nut Christian right types, they carry around AK-47s and shout purity slogans. Some folk have been turned into cats and dogs and pigs or angels or dreams or bactyls (mindless eaters of some sort).

The narrator has been turned into a mouse, a giant bear-sized mouse, but a mouse none-the-less. As you read the story you get a sense that he wasn’t a particularly nice man before the great “search and replace” happened.

Before he was a cop, a bully, divorced from his wife for reasons we don’t know, but it’s not too hard to guess that it was probably his fault:

Well, I can understand that. It’s how she was, anyway. Vain creature. Wanting someone to look after her but never wanting to be obedient or altruistic. Yeah, that’s the kind of power she’d give him if she was real.

a man who beats his son and tries to make it sound like he had to do it to:

So I have to hit him, not out of hurt feelings, of course, but because there’s no way I can look after him and keep him safe if he doesn’t respect me and do as I say.

Yep, this guy is a real prince and who would want to spend the apocalypse with him? (You can’t help but to compare this story to The Road what with the endless travel and the idyll in the found house that is common to them both. Unfortunately, Bishop easily loses that comparison.)

He starts to change when he finds a hut, and against his better judgment decides to stay there for a while, making a home, and in the process grows, but he doubts himself.

This seems like my old way of thinking coming back, the way I used to think in the days before, making justifications and excuses–murky, weak thinking, pretending to put others first when actually I’m only trying to look after myself–deceitful, slimy thinking. The thoughts a bactyl would have, if it could.

And perhaps he’s been given the chance to be more of a man than he would have ever been in the pre-change world, but at the end of the story when he needs to move on again, he’s afraid he’ll become who he was before:

What I’m worried about most of all is that now we don’t have the hut anymore, now we’re back to where we were before, he’ll change back, lose the brains and guts that last night’s episode proved he’s grown, and the sensitivity I’m seeing in him now. And that I’ll lose what I got back too. I don’t think he understands that, though. He’s only a kid.

I didn’t find this story affecting. It was interesting for the worldbuilding, but the emotional arc the narrator goes through left me cold. Something about the narrator failed to engage me – I wasn’t even terribly repulsed by his brutish behavior. Overall, I felt like the story was trying so hard to move me it ended up being very on-the-nose and had the opposite effect.

Written by Chance

November 7, 2010 at 3:23 pm

Day 48: You Leave Them by Mona Simpson

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I first enjoyed the uncomfortable pleasure of watching fame seeking when watching Star Search (you go Ed McMahon!) though the real winner of this category is clearly American Idol.

You Leave Them is all about the stage mother and her daughter who travel across the country in search of fame and fortune.

“My name is Heather,” I said. While we were driving she told me I could pick a new name for myself in California. It would be my television name.

“Heather, then. You know who I mean.” She sniffed me, “You smell,” she said, and handed me a towel. “Let’s have some scrubbing action. Get undressed and hurry up.”

I washed standing on one leg, the other foot on my knee, swishing the towel around lightly. Other women’s faces sealed the mirror. My mother didn’t notice women leaving the restroom but she saw that I was embarrassed. All of the sudden she saw that. And it must have seemed like a defeat. She’d driven all that way and now we were here and I was ashamed of her.

Written by Chance

November 4, 2010 at 9:51 pm

Day 47: The Famous Torn and Restored Lit Cigarette Trick by Elizabeth Gilbert

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Sometimes with a story you want to start a generation back. Two generations. Three. Seventeen generations back, and start with the pig who slept on the lawn.

There’s not actually a pig in this story, but there is a bunny.

“If you do the tricks for the children, you should have a rabbit,” he told her.

Esther hugged him. She said, “I never had a rabbit.”

Hoffman lifted the rabbit from the cage. It was an unnaturally enormous rabbit.

“Is it pregnant?” Esther asked.

“No, she is not. She is only large.”

“That’s an extremely large rabbit for any magic trick,” Ace observed.

Esther said, “They haven’t invented the hat big enough to pull that rabbit out of.”

“She actually folds up to a small size,” Hoffman said. He held the rabbit between his hands like it was an accordion and squeezed it into a great white ball.

I don’t know why, but I laughed really hard at “She is only large.”

This story sprawls. It’s a skinny teenage boy who sits with his legs and arms spread so wide it takes up the entire couch. It starts with a Rose Water mogul and his widow who squanders her fortune on séances. It quickly moves to a old fashioned comedy club, then a brutal murder, and then the bunny. And then bunny-napping:

“Is Bonnie in your house, Mr. Wilson?”

“Is Bonnie the rabbit’s name?”

“Yes.”

“How would Bonnie get in out house?”

“Perhaps you have some broken window in the basement?”

“You think she’s in our basement?”

“Have you looked for her in your basement?”

“No.”

“Can I look for her?”

“You want to look for a rabbit in our basement?”

The two men stared at each other for some time. Ronald Wilson was wearing a baseball cap, and he took it off and rubbed the top of his head, which was balding. He put the baseball cap back on.

“Your rabbit is not in our house, Mr. Hoffman,” Wilson said.

“Okay,” Hoffman said. “Okay. Sure.”

Hoffman walked back home. He sat at the kitchen table and waited until Ace and Esther were both in the room to make his announcement.

“They took her,” he said. “The Wilsons took Bonnie.”

Hoffman’s crazy is funny and then sad, and when it does turn out that the bunny was in fact -napped by the Wilsons, I thought I’d be annoyed, by Gilbert sticks the ending.

Written by Chance

November 3, 2010 at 9:17 pm

Day 39: Melanie by Aliette de Bodard

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The world Sf blog is kicking off two months of free fiction and it starts with good friend Aliette de Bodard.

How can I possibly resist a story about studying to become an engineer, especially one where math is something mystical, casting an aura to those who have the second sight:

He’s staring at the other students–all shining, all gorged with light: the light of numbers and curves, the endless dance of the formulas that rule the world. And, as it always does, his gaze fastens on Mélanie.

[…]

She’ll be here next year, Erwan thinks, his heart sinking. There’s not an engineering school that will open its doors to her, not an entry exam that she’ll pass–not with so few numbers, so few equations trapped within her. It’s as if the maths had washed right over her, forgotten as soon as she’s read them.

And if you like this story, you should know that she has a book out today.

Written by Chance

October 26, 2010 at 8:20 pm

Day 38: Bitterdark by Eljay Daly

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I’m always a bit fascinated by what editors choose as the pull quote for stories. The pull quote for Bitterdark is:

Mizein had become a summer queen, clad in brilliant color: a gown of iris petals, deep blue veined in purple; ropes of lapis, amethysts, amber; hair as brown as wild earth.

Which for me on the do-I-want-to-read-it scale is a pretty decided “meh.”

I’d be more compelled by the story open:

The faerie sleep only a little, a few sluggish heartbeats in bowers of pine and slate—but once-kings not at all.

Aelyn lay awake in his mortal wife’s bed while she snored. He counted the tiny countries bordered by eggshell cracks in the ceiling—six hundred and three, never more, never less.

But if I were picking I think I’d go for:

These mortals had their own magic: loud voices and fists and bluster. Mizein didn’t like them at all. They were worse than the Bitterdark, these brutish old women.

In the actual pull quote we mostly learn that this is going to be a story about fairies. There are a lot of stories about fairies, and lots of stories about summer queens. The descriptions aren’t particularly memorable and there isn’t really a reason for me to click on the story.

In the story open, I think there’s more to draw you in. That fairies don’t sleep is new to me, and I like the juxtaposition with the mundane activities Aelyn occupies himself with during the night.

Why do I like my chosen pull-quote? I like the sense of a human magic made up of utterly mundane things I like the idea of a not-mortal creature being a bit cowed by them. It nicely turns on its head the usual relationship of fairies and mortals, and I like the slightly petulant tone of it. (ok, if it were really a pull quote I wouldn’t know they were fairies, but I would soon.)

I enjoyed the first half of this story because of the interaction of Aelyn and his mortal spouse. But there’s a twist and it’s one that doesn’t go for me, so the ending fell flat.

Written by Chance

October 25, 2010 at 8:04 pm

Day 37: The Rememberer by Aimee Bender

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My lover is experiencing reverse evolution. I tell no one. I don’t know how it happened, only that one day he was my lover and the next he was some kind of ape. It’s been a month and now he’s a sea turtle.

On his last human day, he put his head in his hands and sighed and I stood up and kissed the entire back of his neck, covered that flesh, made wishes there because I knew no woman had ever been so thorough, had ever kissed his every inch of skin. I coated him. What did I wish for? I wished for good. That’s all. Just good.

I am rather mentally drained right now so thoughts of proper posts have been getting thinner and thinner, but I think this story sells itself. (I do hope to get some energy back very shortly and post things more interesting soon.)

Written by Chance

October 24, 2010 at 4:46 pm