REVIEW: “The Baker’s Cat” by Elizabeth Hart Bergstrom

Review of Elizabeth Hart Bergstrom, “The Baker’s Cat”, in Liane Tsui and Grace Seybold, eds., A Quiet Afternoon (Grace & Victory Publictions, 2020): 1-11 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

Karina’s mother seemed to know the knack of making every type of cookie and bun and cake, but none of that skill passed on to Karina herself. Her loaves were flat, her cookies were hard, she burnt everything — eventually Karina decided she must be cursed. And not only when it came to baking, but in every aspect of her life! Until one night when Karina wishes upon a star, and a cat turns up on her doorstep, and everything changes, in proper fairy tale fashion.

Cakes and cats? A match made in heaven. Reading this made me hungry! So many delicious descriptions of baked goods.

REVIEW: A Quiet Afternoon edited by Liane Tsui and Grace Seybold

Review of Liane Tsui and Grace Seybold, eds., A Quiet Afternoon (Grace & Victory Publictions, 2020) — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman.

When I was offered a review copy of this anthology, it was described to me as a collection of “gentle SFF stories with satisfying endings, for readers who wanted something cozy and non-stressful” — that is, perfect for reading in the midst of a global pandemic, when sometimes all you want to do is escape from everything and read something happy and satisfying and low-stakes and so completely separated from the current dystopia we live in.

Does that describe you? Then this is totally the anthology for you! I read the stories while Covid-19 deaths were rising at an alarming rate in my adopted homeland, while facing down the reality of a new lockdown, in the aftermath of an attempted coup in the country of my birth. Every single one was a moment of peace and calm: The anthology delivered exactly what it said it would. I can’t wait to read volume 2, though I hope that 2021 will — eventually — be a year that doesn’t need it as much as 2020 needed volume 1.

As is usual, we review each story individually, linking back here when the reviews are published:

REVIEW: “A Tally of What Remains” by R.Z. Held

Review of R.Z. Held, “A Tally of What Remains”, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Issue 313 (September 24, 2020): Read online. Reviewed by Richard Lohmeyer.

The final story in BCS’s twelfth anniversary issue is a very good one. Its themes are loss and grief and hope restored amidst a sort of plague—themes that strongly resonate in this year of the pandemic. The story features two characters who are not as different as they first appear. Helena, a blood mage, finds her magic to be of little help in maintaining the small family farm where she struggles to aid survivors of the Fever who have found refuge in her barn. One of these survivors, Benedict, is reeling from the death of his husband, while Helena can’t get past the guilt of being the only member of her family to survive the Fever. Each needs to grieve and move on; instead, they take their anger out on each other. As time passes, only Benedict seems willing to confront his feelings and work through them. But when another tragedy strikes, both characters find consolation in the strength, compassion, and friendship of the other and soon begin to look forward in hope to a brighter future.  

REVIEW: “The Heart That Saves You May be your own” by Merrie Haskell

Review of Merrie Haskell, “The Heart That Saves You May Be Your Own”, Beneath Ceaseless Skies. Issue 313 (September 24, 2020: Listen online. Reviewed by Richard Lohmeyer.

Tabitha Muller (Tabby for short), the second person narrator of this excellent story, is a girl alone on the prairie engaged in a special sort of hunt. When she accidentally falls into a fissure and loses consciousness, she dreams of returning home in triumph with a unicorn slung over her back. As the story progresses, we learn what this accomplishment would mean to her, and how the society in which she lives would view it. It’s a community in which “respectable” women must capture a unicorn to win the right to marry in white and forever after sit up front in church and get called “missus.” Otherwise, women are banished to the back of the church, wearing red. Initially, Tabby calls such women “half-married” and scornfully derides them for deciding that “bearing children is better than bearing pride.” However, after being befriended by Salvia and her wife Petra following her fall, a pointed conversation leads Tabby to a life-changing and movingly written choice when she finally comes face to face with a unicorn.    

REVIEW: “Halfway Through the Dark” by Alexis Ames

Review of Alexis Ames, “Halfway Through the Dark”, Luna Station Quarterly 43 (2020): Read online. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman.

This was a wonderfully cosy steampunk mystery, which I enjoyed a lot. The characters felt rich and familiar, as if this was but one episode in a series of stories. I’m now interested to see if Ames has written about Kate and David before, or if she’ll write about them again in the future!

REVIEW: “Vó Úrsula’s Magical Shop for Soul-Aches” by Victoria V.

Review of Victoria V., “Vó Úrsula’s Magical Shop for Soul-Aches”, Luna Station Quarterly 43 (2020): Read online. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman.

This issue of LSQ is full of good titles — intriguing ones that draw me in and seem to tell almost as much of a story as the story itself — and this is another one of them.

The titular shop is the backdrop for the lives of cousins Benjamin and Berenice dos Santos — students at the local university involved in all the usual student activities, geometry, activism, surreptitious publication in the free press. The story is a mixture of otherworldly-fantasy (the world they live in could be any world, not ours) and descriptions (such as “The government had promised to fight crime, but much of the violence and fear that haunted the cities came from the so-called law enforcement, as well.”) that feel very much like pointed comments on our own current society.

And I’m also a sucker for the first shy blushes of a queer romance, so thumbs up from me for this story! I would totally read a longer/novel-length story based on these characters.

REVIEW: “The Leap and the Fall” by Kayla Whaley

Review of Kayla Whaley, “The Leap and the Fall”, in Marieke Nijkamp, ed., Unbroken: 13 Stories Starring Disabled Teens (Farrar Straus Giroux, 2018): 38-59 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

Spoiler alert

I wasn’t expecting this story, the way it started off, to become a horror story! But that’s what it was, complete with ghosts, a haunted carnival, and two best friends, Gemma and Eloise, who can only save each other by admitting their love. This was another story with a definite romance arc in it, but Whaley used it to good effect, making it a necessary part of the resolution.

REVIEW: Unbroken edited by Marieke Nijkamp

Review of Marieke Nijkamp, ed., Unbroken: 13 Stories Starring Disabled Teens (Farrar Straus Giroux, 2018) — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman.

This was one of my WorldCon ’19 recs — a book that was mentioned during one of the panels I attended, where I thought “I want to read that”. I especially wanted to read it to see if it would be something that I could recommend to one of my nieces, who I have a suspicious would be interested in SFF, but hasn’t yet gotten the right route in.

Not all the stories in this collection are speculative in nature — some of them are straight up realistic fiction (including some whose authors are best known for speculative fiction, which was a bit of a surprise!). Both queer and non-queer romance arcs were strongly represented across the anthology. It was this perhaps more than anything else that marked this book out as a collection of YA stories; whenever one of the romantic developments felt a bit too much, too fast, I had to remind myself that I’m not a teenager anymore and that if I’d read these stories as a teenager, they probably would’ve felt more real.

The stories don’t shy away from the difficult subjects. The range of disabilities represented was wide, from wheelchairs to anxiety to terminal illnesses. The characters are confronted with not only the ordinary vagaries of romance and other aspects of teenage life, but also with the worry of burdening others, the anguish of never being enough, the guilt of it all. One thing I really liked about this anthology as a collection was the way in which so many of the narrators voiced these sorts of internalised ableism, and the ways in which the stories themselves pushed back against those narratives, made it clear that they were not the right narratives. On the flip side, one of the things that made me uncomfortable was how some of the stories were variants on “even though a disabled person might think themselves unworthy, they can still do things that are valuable to society!” in a way that felt, to me, like it bordered on inspiration porn. Such stories were, however, the minority, and loaded towards the front of the book, so that by the end such early impressions were mostly memories.

As is usual, we’ll review the stories individually, and link the reviews below as they are published.

Having read all of them, yeah, I probably will get this book for my niece. They may not all be to her taste, as they weren’t all to mine, but if she derives joy from even one of them, it’ll be a worthwhile purchase. (And I really hope she likes Benwell’s and Duyvis’s, the two outstanding stories of the volume in my opinion.)