REVIEW: “Things That Happened While We Waited for Our Magical Grandmother to Die – No. 39” by Kuzhali Manickavel

Review of Kuzhali Manickavel, “Things That Happened While We Waited for Our Magical Grandmother to Die – No. 39”, Strange Horizons 30 Apr. 2018: Read online. Reviewed by Danielle Maurer.

If there was ever a story I had mixed feelings about, it’s this one.

This story follows our narrator and two other characters, Kumar and Mythili, presumably as they wait for their grandmother to die (although the grandmother is barely mentioned and does not factor into the story). But the house they live in is strange, mazelike, and it is not easy to escape. Yet Mythili is determined to get out.

I like Mythili a lot, her determination to escape the house and the life it traps her into. She’s immediately empathetic. The narrator and Kumar don’t think she can escape and assume bad things would happen if she did, but Mythili doesn’t let that daunt her. Really, she’s more the main character of the story than the narrator, who does little other than simply watch and comment.

On the other hand, I cannot stand Kumar. The way he treats Mythili is reprehensible, and it almost ruins the story for me. I have no patience for a character who tries to get the house staff to sing a chorus of “stupid b****” and assaults another character and yet never gets any comeuppance for his actions.

But in a way, Mythili gets her revenge. She gets out. She escapes. And like the narrator, I too hope she forgets about the house and its inhabitants.

REVIEW: “Old Fighter Pilots” by Samuel Jensen

Review of Samuel Jensen, “Old Fighter Pilots”, Strange Horizons 16 Apr. 2018: Read online. Reviewed by Danielle Maurer.

As I’ve said before, it’s inevitable when reviewing everything from a publication that there will be stories I don’t like. This is one of them.

Normally, I would briefly summarize what the story is about, but that’s part of the problem here. “Old Fighter Pilots” isn’t really about anything. As Jensen himself writes at the end, it’s “about nothing at all really, how nothing really changed over the course of it.”

And that just doesn’t work for me. A story can be light on plot, but in exchange, I’d like to see something about the characters. “Old Fighter Pilots” is a strange, time-hopping snapshot of a particular house, and it feels too disconnected, too choppy. Not to mention that there is no goal, no growth, no conflict.

I’m sure there’s an audience for pieces like this, and those people will probably enjoy “Old Fighter Pilots” (the language and description are, after all, well-written). But for me, there’s no story to this story, and I didn’t enjoy it as a result.

REVIEW: “All of Us Told, All of It Real” by Evan Dicken

Review of Evan Dicken, “All of Us Told, All of It Real”, Strange Horizons 9 Apr. 2018: Read online. Reviewed by Danielle Maurer.

Well, this one certainly made me go “hmmm.”

“All of Us Told, All of It Real” follows our narrator Martin as he returns home to the small town of Dawson. His mother is dead, and bodies were found in her basement. As he prepares to sell the house and goes through his mother’s hoarded things, he reflects on his life growing up with her–and stumbles upon a disconcerting revelation.

The story is beautifully crafted; Dicken really nails the small-town, “everyone-knows-everyone” feel early in the piece. The level of attention paid to details heightens the story’s creepiness, because when everything feels real, those few things that are off seem even more so.

And at its core, this is a story about story, about memory, about what makes us real. The theme that runs through the piece shows up early and becomes more and more prominent as we slowly clue in to what, exactly, Martin’s mother was doing. It certainly gives new meaning to the “kill your darlings” adage.

Despite a slow start, this story’s central mystery unravels into a satisfying, if a little hair-raising, conclusion.

REVIEW: “Strange Waters” by Samantha Mills

Review of Samantha Mills, “Strange Waters”, Strange Horizons 2 Apr. 2018: Read online. Reviewed by Danielle Maurer.

Every now and then, you find a story that resonates with you on a deep level. “Strange Waters” is that story for me.

“Strange Waters” follows Mika, a fisherwoman from Maelstrom, a place where time flows in the waters off the coast and can transport ships backward and forward through history. Mika is lost in time, desperately sailing the waters to get back to her children, refusing to read anything of the years around her old life so she never loses hope.

The worldbuilding in “Strange Waters” is breathtaking. It’s hard to cram so much into so few words, but Mills gives us a fantastic universe in miniature: Maelstrom and all its variable history, influenced as it is by the knowledge of fisherwomen as they travel. There are tantalizing little drops, like the queen in the early 300s and the oligarchy that forms in the 900s. The worldbuilding even extends to the strange fauna that swim the seas, which Mika harvests for her livelihood as she fights to get back.

Mika herself is empathetic and easy to root for. At its core, the story is about a mother’s love and the lengths she’ll go to for that love, in her determination. So far, in fact, that she becomes one of the most famous fisherwomen, her name recorded numerous times in the history book of Maelstrom. And while she doesn’t get exactly what she wants in the end, it’s enough to satisfy her–and us, the reader.

This one grabbed hold of me early and didn’t let go. I highly recommend it.

REVIEW: “Princess Mine” by Darby Harn

Review of Darby Harn, “Princess Mine”, Strange Horizons 19 Mar. 2018: Read online. Reviewed by Danielle Maurer.

The irony of reviewing a short story about a TV show reviewer reviewing a TV show is not lost on me.

That said, I really enjoyed “Princess Mine.” It’s framed as a blog post by the narrator, who discovers a heretofore unseen and unannounced third season of a show which featured a has-been actress as both herself and not-herself. The third season makes the narrator realize the emptiness in her own life, the lack of connection she has been experiencing, and in a sense, it saves her life.

Like all the best stories, this one features a relatable main character. The problem she’s struggling with–and the problem the character of the TV show, in turn, is also struggling with–is common in our modern era. With everyone hidden behind a screen, it’s hard to form real human relationships, and that can make it hard to find a reason to keep living. The strange third season of the TV show serves as the narrator’s wake-up call, her warning that she needs to make a change in her life or risk ending up like the TV show character.

It’s a simple framing device, but effective at delivering the message. The writing is sharp and engaging, interspersed with “interviews” given by the actress and the narrator’s own fan script for the actress’s one big role. There are several clever turns of phrase, such as “armed with a blood alcohol level approaching godhood.”

All in all, “Princess Mine” is a strong story about finding connections and combating depression. This is yet another story I’d highly recommend.

REVIEW: “A Very Large Number of Moons” by Kai Stewart

Review of Kai Stewart, “A Very Large Number of Moons”, Strange Horizons 12 Mar. 2018: Read online. Reviewed by Danielle Maurer.

I’m not sure why, but I found this story particularly charming. Maybe it’s the prose, which is clever and witty, yet never pretentious. Maybe it’s the central idea, that of lunonomers and moon collections. Maybe it’s the actual collection of moons, a creative list running the gamut from simple (“flat moon–the moon you find in puddles”) to complex (“the moon over Berlin on August 12, 1961, as the first brick was laid to divide the city”).

Or maybe it’s the simple story behind it, the single interaction between the narrator and his visitor that demonstrates how much emotional resonance these moons can carry. The visitor has come seeking a specific moon that represents a moment of peace in a time of stress, and I think we can all relate. We all understand what it’s like to want to recapture the feeling of a particular moment.

Whatever the reason, this story struck a note with me. Short, sweet and endearing, I highly recommend this one.

REVIEW: “Of Warps and Wefts” by Innocent Chizaram Ilo

Review of Innocent Chizaram Ilo, “Of Warps and Wefts”, Strange Horizons 5 Mar. 2018: Read online. Reviewed by Danielle Maurer.

Hmmm. Well, this is a strange one.

It’s hard to discuss “Of Warps and Wefts” without explaining the central conceit: that in this world, when one marries, one begins leading a split life of two marriages, one as husband, one as wife. As far as I can tell, that includes a physical transformation. So it’s definitely an interesting way to explore gender and gender roles.

But this is also a case where the story’s concept is perhaps more interesting than the actual story. Our narrator, Chime/Dime, is unhappy with their marriages, particularly their marriage to their husband. And there’s really not much of a story here on that front: at the end, after following the narrator for the day, Chime talks to him as he is transitioning, and her husband agrees that he needs to make more room for her. That’s it. Problem apparently solved. There’s no real intermediary step, no real interaction between the two for most of the story.

What’s more interesting is the stress of living a double life; all the married characters seem to be feeling it, to some degree, and dealing with it in different ways. Chime’s husband is lost in her new wife; Dime’s wife has taken on destructive drug and alcohol abuse. Yet we’re barely able to explore any of this. This is one case where I think the story and characters would benefit from a longer setting.

An interesting story, with a lot of unrealized potential.

REVIEW: “Early Morning Service” by Irette Y. Patterson

Review of Irette Y. Patterson, “Early Morning Service”, Strange Horizons 19 Feb. 2018: Read online. Reviewed by Danielle Maurer.

This story struck me as a bittersweet reflection on the nature of present-day Christianity. Our protagonist is the stereotypical “old church lady” at an African American church in Georgia, though she’s anything but ordinary. She has some kind of power, fueled by faith and worship. But the church she patronizes is slowly dying, and so, therefore, is she. When the story opens, she can’t even conjure candy anymore.

She has a rival, of sorts. Someone who “feeds” off the stadium-seated megachurches. He is still powerful, still able to use the abilities that Miss Geneva, our main character, has lost in her quieter, more personal world. The story isn’t 100% clear on who he is, but it’s implied that he’s some form of Jesus, though not the humble, kind Jesus Christianity teaches. This one is associated with coldness, and “ebbing power” attracts him.

But there’s still hope here, a reprieve in the kindness of a child. Miss Geneva has a strong will to persevere, and the end rests on her determination: not today. She will not give up today. “Early Morning Service” is a quiet, yet powerful tale.

REVIEW: “Her Beautiful Body” by Adrienne Celt

Review of Adrienne Celt, “Her Beautiful Body”, Strange Horizons 5 Feb. 2018: Read online. Reviewed by Danielle Maurer.

This is one of those stories that makes you go “hmmm.”

The premise is simple enough. A woman’s body is being featured as a museum exhibit, and you are invited to experience the exhibit. The narrator is your tour guide, pointing out interesting features of her body, as well as commenting on the “activists” who are angry about the exhibit.

On the one hand, wow. What a metaphor for the objectification of women. This is literally a woman reduced only to the value of her body; the guide summarily dismisses the mind, saying that the body “could [not] possibly be improved by something so intangible and distant as consciousness.” The activists who focus on her life, on the things less physical that made her a person, are also dismissed by the narrator. Instead, we are left only with her body as an object to study and worship.

On the other hand, there’s something oddly beautiful and accepting in the description of the woman’s body. She is not perfect, but rather perfect in her imperfection. She has blemishes. And, as the guide states, “there are stories in her beautiful body.” This is true of anyone’s body, and there’s an almost empowering message there for women, who are so often judged by how closely their body meets society’s standard for perfection.

I’m really not sure how to feel about “Her Beautiful Body,” but perhaps that’s the point. It made me think and feel, and that’s some of the highest praise I can give to a story.

REVIEW: “Obscura” by Yoon Ha Lee

Review of Yoon Ha Lee, “Obscura”, Strange Horizons 29 Jan. 2018: Read online. Reviewed by Danielle Maurer.

There are plenty of stories floating around the world about Faustian bargains and cursed objects. The trope is commonly associated with musicians and artists. So it’s no surprise that in “Obscura,” as the name would suggest, the object in question is a camera which takes pictures of absences.

The fourteen-year-old narrator (it’s never definitively established whether the narrator is male or female,) meets a strange man with a stranger camera, and the stranger ends up bequeathing the camera to the narrator after warning the narrator not to use it on people for fear of what it might show. Humans aren’t so great at resisting temptation, however.

The story showcases Lee’s gift for words. The sentences are rarely long or flowery, but there’s a power in the bluntness, in a single, precise sentence of description. The camera itself is fascinating, as are the brother and sister who bring it into the narrator’s life. However, I found myself a little confused at what, exactly, the camera’s powers were. In a novella or novel, there would be more time to learn by osmosis, but here I would have loved a slightly clearer explanation.

That said, the story is still captivating. It draws you in easily, hooks you just as the narrator is hooked, and its climax and denouement are equally memorable. Well worth a read.