For anyone woman who has lived through parenting a newborn with an unsupportive partner, or seen a friend live through the same: This will be a hard story to read. Bree’s baby Pippa is 9 weeks old, and her entire world has changed, except for perhaps the one thing that should — she is still expected to be the smart, funny, put-together, beautiful wife who gets supper on the table every day. She’s become a mother — but Max certainly hasn’t yet become a father! (The fact that Max was Bree’s professor when they first started going out certainly doesn’t make him any more sympathetic!) In a sense, this is a horror story, one that I read the whole time hoping that Bree would find a way to get out, to escape, to get Max out of her life. I’m not sure if that’s the angle George was going for, but if it was, she nailed it. This was a deeply unsettling, vaguely disturbing story.
I really had no idea what was going on in the early paragraphs of this story — they necessitated not one but two rereads before I could keep enough of it in my head to plunge on.
If “gritty realism” and “vampire romance” don’t conflict with each other, then those are the two phrases I would pick to describe this story. It wasn’t a happy, fluffy romance; it’s more of the uncomfortable “how close can you make a relationship sound abusive without actually being abusive” type of romance. But this was definitely unlike any other vampire story I’ve ever read.
In “The Acheulean Gift,” some children have been genetically modified with DNA from pre-“Home Sapiens” humans, hoping that this will reduce some of humanity’s most descriptive tendencies. The program didn’t work as expected,
I found the “Acheulean genetics” program described in the story rather implausible, in more than one way. It’s hard to suspend your disbelief for this one, though if you are able to, then it is a pretty good story. The writing is competent, the characters were well-crafted, and I particularly appreciated the little touches the author put on the brother-sister relationship (like their playful rivalry in the ax throwing exercises).
Overall, there’s a lot to like about “The Acheulan Gift,” even though I personally could not get past the premise.
This is a story of a woman who is lost inside herself, lost inside the trapping of being a woman, being a mother, being “a support, a failsafe, for her family.” She doesn’t have time for friends, for hobbies, for anything more than a linear life of one thing after another. But there’s more to Ren’s life than that, and we the readers are given intermittent glimpses, as the unfamiliar breaks through the routine, as the fantastical interferes with the normal, as Ren herself tries to reconstruct the memories she once lost. It’s an eerie, unsettling story, smashingly done.
I was absolutely delighted to come across another story by Pueyo, whose work I’ve enjoyed before. This one did not disappoint, soaked through with Brazilian mythology and cultural history. With a two out of two record for quality short stories, I’m now very interested to read more of Pueyo’s work!
Review of Dantzel Cherry, “Tomorrow’s Friend”, in Liane Tsui and Grace Seybold, eds., A Quiet Afternoon (Grace & Victory Publictions, 2020): 65-68 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)
For such a short story, there was a lot packed in here. I think probably many fellow women reading this story will have experienced being ostracized by other girls as a teenager, and share Sabrina’s disbelief in even the very idea of another girl, or woman, who would ever want to be her friend. It wasn’t until my late 30s that I discovered what it was like to be surrounded by women who were truly there to support and uplift each other; it made me glad that Sabrina, at least, got to learn this so much sooner!
Review of Ziggy Schutz, “Sarah, Spare Some Change”, in Liane Tsui and Grace Seybold, eds., A Quiet Afternoon (Grace & Victory Publictions, 2020): 39-43 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)
This is the story of two Sarahs, the right Sarah and the wrong Sarah, who have nothing in common except for their name and the fact that they don’t like the required daily religious exercise in school, where they must separate their souls from their bodies. Together, they rebel, casting bets and trading secrets during that hour instead, and find a secret that changes their world. A sweet little story.
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:
- “The Baker’s Cat” by Elizabeth Hart Bergstrom
- “An Inconvenient Quest” by Rebecca Gomez Farrell
- “Rising Tides” by Mary Alexander Agner
- “After Bots” by Rachael Maltbie
- “It’s All in the Sauce” by Elizabeth Hirst
- “Sarah, Spare Some Change” by Ziggy Schutz
- “Ink Stains” by Tamoha Sengupta
- “Salt Tears and Sweet Honey” by Aimee Ogden
- “12 Attempts At Telling About the Flower Shop Man (New York, New York)” by Stephanie Barbé Hammer
- “The Dragon Peddler” by Maria Cook
- “Tomorrow’s Friend” by Dantzel Cherry
- “Hollow” by Melissa DeHaan
- “Of Buckwheat and Garlic Braids” by Adriana C. Grigore
Review of M. John Harrison, “Cicisbeo”, in Settling the World: Selected Stories 1970-2020, with a foreword by Jennifer Hodgson (Comma Press, 2020): 243-256. — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)
Harrison is so good at giving us intimate pictures of complete strangers. While some of his stories feel like the narrator is intrusively observing someone else’s life, in this story, it feels like we the reader are the ones intruding. The experience of the reading is somewhat uncomfortably voyeuristic, but I at least couldn’t stop “watching” the unfolding relationship car crash, because there kept being hints of something more, something deeper, something fantastic — and when the reveal finally came in the very last paragraphs, it was worth it.
(It was also worth it just to learn the meaning of the title word, a word I hadn’t come across before. Hurrah for vocabulary expansion!)
(First published in Independent on Sunday, 2003).
Review of M. John Harrison, “‘Doe Lea'”, in Settling the World: Selected Stories 1970-2020, with a foreword by Jennifer Hodgson (Comma Press, 2020): 231-242. — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)
What a strange little story. Alan’s father has died in hospital in London, and he is taking the train back to Dover when there is a train fault of some sort and everyone must disembark at the little town of Doe Lea. Alan explores the town while waiting for the relief train to come, and the way Harrison constructs the scene is full of skill: Everything seems just a little bit off, a little bit strange, and you never find out why.
(Originally published by Nightjar Press, 2019.)