April short story reading post

Photo of double-page of notebook with some handwritten notes on stories (elaborated below)

This post is a roughly tidied version of my April 2022 tweets about short stories. It’s quite long (although the month’s reading was abbreviated by Covid), so I’m putting the rest of it below the cut. There’s a list of all stories at the very end of the post.

Parts will very likely end up in other posts in the future. Some emerging & continuing fascinations include point of view, worldbuilding, AI, list and vignette structures, sympathy, forests and retellings.

Previous posts:


  • See Story Shapes — Three-Mood Stories for detail.
  • I like breaking short stories into progressions of three moods (rather than beginning-middle-end, etc). It’s a useful lens, simple and intuitive revelatory, and a straightforward starting point for comparing stories.
  • Each dot point is one possible three-mood shape — one way of reading the shape of the story.
  • I use “mood” very broadly.
  • Story notes are in regular text and dot points, and my general thoughts are in bold, in case that makes it easier to skip around. I often refer back to stories mentioned earlier — ctrl+F/search will likely be your friend.
  • Very often I am working my way back to well-known maxims from first principles — it’s me studying story structure in real time.
  • The tiny descriptions of each story are notes to jog my own memory.

Many of these stories are taken from the Quick Sips Reviews 2021 Recommended Reading List.

So, to begin…

Reading through people’s lists of favourite stories is delightful & fascinating — they vary so much, it’s like listening to your most-played songs. There are overlaps, stories that commonly appear, but each list is as much a portrait of the list-maker as an assessment of stories.

  • Ratatoskr” — Kij Johnson (The Sunday Morning Transport, 2022 — in the 1960s, a girl begins to see squirrel ghosts, and gods)
    • alarm — beauty — private
    • glimpse — facets — promise
    • given — giving — consequences
    • seen — seeing — looking forward
    • awe — purpose — a life
    • remarked — marked — recognition

The story’s shape highlights the doubled echoes of religious belief and observance in it, a story less about hope than quiet certainty. Even if that certainty is opaque.

Also: squirrel gods.

Comparing it to other stories tracking a life from childhood to its end, “Ratatoskr” dedicates even less to later adulthood (or adulthood at all). I do like the way glimpses of that life are strung through the body of the story — references to things that will be learned or happen later. Which means those last paragraphs don’t wrench the attention of the story away from these earlier events, but also puts the rest of the character’s life into the context (and great shadow and watching eye) of what happens.

Compare “Ratatoskr” to e.g. Alexis Gunderson’s “All the Open Highways” (see March notes), also about a life and ghosts and roads and great-little gods and consequential appearances and kindness.

Screenshot of linked tweet

“Ratatoskr” and “Highways” are quite different, for all that their gentle questions about death and faith in America feel related (compare the violence and distress of Valente’s “The Sin of America” — February notes).

But where in “Highways” a life lived modulates the experiences shown, and therefore the accompanying moods, in “Ratatoskr”, it’s the other way around. Life will be lived in the after-image & private knowledge of these moments.

  • Ensign” — Soyeon Jeong, tr. Paige Aniyah Morris (Samovar, 2021 — two sisters and the partner of one of them have different plans re leaving or staying in their dying system)
    • knowing — avoiding — admitting
    • awkwardness — lost happiness — confession
    • choices — consequences — commitment
    • intimated — realising — confronted
    • awareness of loss — what was lost — unavoidability
    • unspoken — consequences — speaking

“Ensign” complements other stories about communication — the immense final shift of choosing to speak changes very little externally and a great deal internally.

Most of the communication stories I’ve made notes, however, on have been more explicitly about language — acquiring the words. See e.g. notes on JL George’s “Diamonds and Pearls” and Eris Young’s “Deal” (see March notes: “Diamonds and Pearls” and “Deal“).

Screenshot of linked tweet

I think “Ensign” could be usefully read alongside Miyuki Jane Pinckard’s “Boundless” (see the March post)— individual desires within a relationship, separation, acknowledgment… and a larger science-fictional situation being the catalyst for the examination of that.

There’s also an interview on Samovar with Paige Aniyah Morris about translating “Ensign”, including thoughts on working with a story set in a world which has appeared in other stories translated by other translators.

  • Thirteen Goes to the Festival” — L Chan (The Deadlands, 2022 — a junior Unloved Aunty returns from the city of the dead to the world of the living during the Festival)
    • grasping — kindness — rewards
    • hunger — unsatisfied — at peace
    • small rebellions — revelations — options
    • death — world — home

A straightforward story-shape, with something of the fable to it, which makes a strong framework or stage on which to set up the details of the world(s).

It’s also a story to add to thecoming-to-terms-with-existing-as-dead subcategory of coming-to-terms-with-death stories, which tends to stories that — if not precisely rollicking — have a degree of affectionate cheer. (At least, the ones I’ve been seeing from the past year or two — I imagine there are tides and currents here as elsewhere. I want to link to my notes on some other favourites but they’re quite recent and there’s a risk of spoilers!)

It’s delightful to find out when I’ve spotted what an author was doing!

Screenshot of linked tweet: Very correctly pointed out that Thirteen Goes To The Festival has a fable structure, definitely what I was going for.
Screenshot of linked tweet: I love that structure sometimes, there's no conflict, no antagonist, just the fable journey and at the end you are not the same person that went in

The story as path and chart.

Screenshot of linked tweet: Rereading the story, it's also more of the 4 act structure  Introduction - Narrow City  Development- the festival   Twist - the temple  Resolution - going home

To which I replied: And thank you for that breakdown! I also like that the resolution is both a closing and an opening. With the moods I’m looking for an overall mood-shape that describes a story for me, rather than trying to map it specifically to a certain act structure — often the mood shifts are part way through what might be an act or part. So I like being able to see it against the structure.

  • In Case You’re the One to Devour a Star” — Tamara Jerée (Beneath Ceaseless Skies, 2021 — a firekeeper who communes with dragons descends from a monastery to find a poet-wife)
    • hesitancy — caution — acceptance
    • negotiation — incremental — gift
    • touch — show — remember
    • acceptance — reciprocity — beauty

Technically, this is a story dealing with dragons and space and communication with the unknowable and being remembered across time. So with a slight effort you could make the shape out to be eg:

  • human anxieties — cosmic wonder — preservation of each by the other
  • reaching across worlds — complementary offerings — what remains

But those more cosmic/existential/creative aspects aren’t reflected in the primary emotional moods — it’s an intensely human-level and interior story.

  • Mysteries of Visiocherries” — Rio Johan (Samovar, 2021 — a scientist disappears, leaving a trail of cryptic documents, after beginning to develop sentient fruit)
    • mystery — revelations — ominous
    • danger — increasing — remaining
    • clues — declaration — last effort

That this story maps very clearly to a “door opened — something through it — lingering dread” story-shape emphasises the (venerable) connection between out-of-hand-science stories and the Gothic.

  • Lies I Never Told You” — Jaxton Kimble (Diabolical Plots, 2021 — a girl whose father can predict the future when he writes discovers more about her parents and their past)
    • glimpses — strengthened — whole
    • acceptance — questions — understanding
    • unit — stressors — reassembly/reinforcement

That structure is rather lovely approach to a coming-of-age/growing-up story, because it’s about gradually understanding how and why the pieces that are clearly working do work, enhanced understanding deepening the world rather than shaking it.

It’s interesting to hold it up against e.g. Jonathan Louis Duckworth’s “Venturing”, (see March notes) which is a very different story (outbound and another world) but also takes a deepening faceted approach to learning about the world, and also doesn’t change the main character’s approach to it.

Screenshot of linked tweet

That “childish” — chance to learn better — refusal to change” pattern from “Venturing” is probably the closest structural match, although in “Lies…” it’s a the acceptance of a child, the questions presented by the world, and a final trust and deeper understanding of that initial confidence.

But I’d say both — and some of the personality stories, e.g. Gabrielle Emem Harry’s “Shandy” (see March notes) —belong to an “only more sure of all I thought was true” family of story structures.

  • Let the Buyer Beware” — Michelle Ann King (Kaleidotrope, 2021 — cut-price spells and commercial schemes create pocket-dimensional havoc)
    • exasperation — escalation — elation
    • domestic — trades — industry
    • carelessness — professional — leverage
    • strands — braided — connected

It’s a fairly direct “problem — attempts — solution” story, but the varied points of view lift the mood shifts a little away from that.

Also, it’s one of those romp/shutting-down-a-moment-of-chaos stories that contains its solutions in its beginnings, so it imports a bit of mystery functionality into its structure — it’s just that there isn’t an apparent mystery, until you receive the bigger explanation.

Compare it to e.g. Gwen C Katz’s “Oil Bugs” (see here in February notes) which doesn’t loop everything back together again, but reels towards greater chaos.

Also: a problem-attempts-solution story-shape is a pretty concise and common shape (at least for more action-focussed stories), and allows the bits of a world being shown to be immediately made relevant and also limited to what is relevant. It’s a self-contained sort of shape. But splicing the end back into the beginning draws the loop even tighter, condensing story and world into this one set of interlocked events.

  • Goodnight Room” — Julia Rios (The Sunday Morning Transport, 2022/2010 — a rabbit trapped in a loop of time in a sterile room considers its world and options)
    • stagnation — frustration — decision
    • loss — longing — reaching
    • sameness — certainty — potentiality
    • safety — deprivation — courage
    • trancelike — fidget — action

A fairly simple awakening story-shape, made fractally complex by the split views, the repetitions with variations, the fever-dream quality.

  • AIs Who Make AIs Make the Best AIs!” — Andrea Kriz (Fireside Fiction, 2022 — after machines achieve sentience, a harried scientist tries to teach AIs what AIs are)
    • chaos — earnest — chaotic (good)
    • intent — worry — community
    • well-intentioned — conflict — discovering intentions
    • well-meaning conflict — risk — something new

There’s a school of stories that take varying approaches but end on let’s-make-something-new. E.g. ML Krishnan’s “Bride, Knife, Flaming Horse” does it in a different way (a “why not both?” shape): “awkwardness — proliferation of options — harmony“. See Story Shapes & Extrapolation for those notes.

“AIs…” feels more about creativity & community than showing up the artificiality of a supposed zero-sum situation, but shares a good-hearted sense of abundance. Maybe a philosophy more than a structure. See also notes re this vs pain/revolution stories in the February notes.

Screenshot of linked tweet
  • Unknown Number” — Blue Neustifter aka Azure Husky (Twitter, 2021 — text messages, alternative universes, transition)
    • alarmed — processing — reassurance/acceptance
    • realisations — explanations — realisations
    • establishing — unpicking — new directions •anxiety — desperation — hope •confluence—conversation—separation

That’s an interesting one to do because while it is a story, and does have a story shape, and a big idea behind it, it’s also a very gentle and idealised conversation — starts bold, gets calmed down, then directed in useful ways.

But then while it’s a conversation, it’s not quite the same as a dialogue, at least not one you can cleanly separate into two completely distinct experiences of what’s going on.

But the separation that does exist disguises some of the heavy-lifting a pure monologue would need to do (compare, e.g., notes on “Fanfiction for a Grimdark Universe” — see notes in March — and how narrowing to a single voice in a single moment sort of shrink-wraps a story around the narrative musculature).

“Unknown Number” also has some very charming lines.

It’s also interesting to note the point of view feels clear, although this story is told in screenshots showing both sides of a conversation. I immediately read it aligned with the person whose life is being intruded into by the apparently strange (at least, initially). Which is neat (and your mileage may vary). But also, I feel like maybe 5 years ago, this story would have been told from the other side of the conversation? Accompanying a main character on a voyage of discovery, vs being the discoveree and unexpected mentor?

These are very vague virus-inflected vibes on my part. But there seems to be an increased frequency of stories with a gentler shape — which is not always about what happens in them as much as about the way the glass is angled.

Because I almost thought — this is a Hugo finalist, and yet would it have seen publication if it hadn’t been self-published on Twitter, and then immediately thought of a list of venues who absolutely would have published it. (And again, I’m aware the vibes are based on the lists etc I’m getting my reading from.)

Also, a very nice side-effect of this reading project has been to have already read a fair proportion of awards finalists lists when they’re announced — one Hugo short story finalist left to go.

  • Tangles” — Seanan McGuire (Magic the Gathering, 2021 — a planeswalker dryad in search of a tree and a mage whose magic has complicated matters work together)
    • solitary — individual — connected
    • separations — complications — braidings
    • pieces — knot — solution
    • unserious — cause problems — learn new ways
    • generous — suffer — wider generosity

It’s a story that’s clearly working in a larger established world, and so has the twin considerations of:

  • (a) not being a story that’s about unmaking/destroying (or indeed explaining/revealing) the world, while using pieces of that world to make a functioning, story-shaped story, and
  • (b) being a type of story (more action than interiority) that in a world belonging to a single creator would often tend to larger, world-expanding/explaining/changing events.

Although even so, there is the hint towards incremental change. And I like that — being dropped into a larger world and story and watching a character being given something that might or might not change something outside its bounds.

So that’s all the Hugo finalist short stories read. Links to notes:

  • Twenty Thousand Last Meals on an Exploding Station” — Ann LeBlanc (Mermaids Monthly, 2021 — an aquatic space station engineer caught in a time loop sets a goal of reviewing every restaurant on the station, while pursued by insurance agents)
    • focus — fighting (for it) — opening up
    • solitary — antagonistic — loosening hold
    • satisfied — possessive — accepting
    • stable — off-kilter — new normalities

This is a fun one for how timing is handled — slow changes in the first third, brief shuffling in the middle, recounted & slowing in the third. Time is often divided that way in stories but this draws attention to it and uses the flickering effect.

I also liked the use of a sibling squabble, taking the foreground from the actual disasters/crimes, while being bound up with it.

And also, I like the idea of taking positive/neutral traits and pushing them too far, until they become a problem, so that the resolution isn’t about showing someone was wrong but about giving them a bit of perspective.

  • Barnacles” — Cassandra Rose Clarke (The Sunday Morning Transport, 2022 — a bereaved bookkeeper living against a seawall goes further into their own house and family history)
    • frustration — fear — understanding
    • stagnant — stirring — stepping out
    • world as known — picking at the edges — world as it is
    • alone — searching — found

A classic, tidy structure for a story revealing a world (worldbuilding stories with these shapes have an almost a lift-the-flap — in a good way! — two-step revelation) which pairs nicely with that budding/springtime story-shape of finding out how you actually fit into it.

  • Mouth & Marsh, Silver & Song” — Sloane Leong (Fireside Fiction, 2021 — a leech-hag is hunted for prophecies of kingship)
    • the way the world works — longing — tear through into something new
    • fate — disruption — shift
    • subjected — alternatives — give & take
    • monstrous — abject — magnificent
    • visceral — thoughtful — powerful

Very different stories, of course, but there are are parallels here to the shape of “Barnacles” (above), in the sense of an opening world, although here it is being actively changed rather than more deeply understood. This sort of shifts the centre of gravity of the character’s active engagement with their world.

Both work in their stories and worlds, but it’s neat to compare. What happens if you shift a character’s centre of gravity up or down, or their default floor level away from the actual ground?

  • Certainty in Gold” — Samara Auman (Fireside Fiction, 2022 — on a mission to Mars with a friend with whom they have shared a bond since childhood, a dying protagonist tries to preserve their memories)
    • loving — bleak — gift
    • memory — present — revisit
    • reverie — grief — intentional
    • choosing terms — living with them — coming to terms
    • enchantment — loss of enchantment — re-enchantment

With its treatment of memory and augmentation (here, of memory rather than the body), love and loss, “Certainty in Gold” is playing in a similar key to M Darusha Wehm’s “The Stars Above Eos” (see March notes), although the angles of approach and the direction of processing of events is shifted.

Screenshot of linked tweet
  • From Witch to Queen and God” — LD Lewis (Mermaids Monthly, 2021 — a seawitch aspiring to godhood and her drowned troops rise up to overthrow an island and its enslaving governor)
    • violence —negotiation — ultimatum
    • ambition — desperation — determination
    • cut swathes — decisive — bargain
    • advance — slaughter — create
    • slam door open — lose momentum — regain
    • fire — dust — storm

Something this shares with the last Mermaids Monthly story I read (“Twenty Thousand Last Meals…”, see notes above) is a sense of being constantly in motion, although there’s more traditionally-defined action here (there’s plenty in “Twenty Thousand…” but a lot of it is at restaurants). But while either story would have plenty of material for thoughtful interludes, they rarely slip into that mode for long.

Also, in terms of the modes characters operate in, those in “From Witch…” are almost all — whatever side and state and however sympathetic — in constant independent & defiant mode, which adds to the momentum, both in terms of ongoing action and the sense tensions will continue.

To the extent it’s a revolution story, it’s a revolution the way a gear might turn, with purpose and to effect — bargain and leverage, not altruism — and continuously and brutally, and triumphant.

Some really fabulous stories came out of Mermaids Monthly, btw. And I say this as someone with learned caution around the genre.

  • Rulebook for Creating a Universe” — Tashan Mehta (Podcastle, 2021 — on an island that floats at the beginning of time, where the world is spun out of lotuses, a child dreams of volcanoes and breaks the rules)
    • yearning — rigidity — break open
    • growing — stifled — growing
    • crystalline perfection — beauty frustrated —sweet sorrow
    • eternity —present — future
    • enquiry — struggle — pouring out

Obviously there are thematic links to eg Cooper Shrivastava’s “Aptitude” (see here in January notes) and Yoon Ha Lee’s “Nonstandard Candles” (see here in March notes) but the shapes of all three stories (except for a tracery of transcendence) are very different.

Surprisingly (given their differences) there are some echoes in the shape of Cassandra Rose Clarke’s “Barnacles” (above) — yet that makes sense, because this story also reveals the shape of the world/universe (at least) twice.

  • A Disappointment” — Cate Fricke (The Rumpus, 2021 — a woman gives birth to a series of animals, and has to make choices about family, life, and what it is to be a person)
    • unexpected — making the best — contentment
    • crumbling — separate — family
    • animal natures — failure to tame — something more/better/between
    • expectations — first steps — maturity

Such a surreal little premise told with such a straightforward voice and shape — which I think is what gives the surreal its power.

Also, while it definitely is a coming-to-terms story, it doesn’t quite have the shape of one — it’s cozier and warmer and more content than that. Possibly even a coming-to-terms-with-contentment story. So while it has that “the way things are” final note, it’s far kinder than many stories in that register. E.g. I could absolutely imagine a Samanta Schweblin (see January notes, throughout) / Twilight Zone / body horror take on this. It’s a useful exercise to imagine that because so *little* change is needed.

Shoutout to ML Krishnan for recommending “A Disappointment) (and others) in this Twitter thread.

  • Douen” — Suzan Palumbo (The Dark, 2022 — the spirit of a dead child tries to return to their home and family)
    • bewilderment — desperate — too far
    • wanting — watching — lashing out
    • alone — small comfort — dangerous
    • left — outside — contact
    • abandoned — possessive — jealousy
    • distant — outside — luring
    • powerless — learning — power

Most of the coming-into-your power stories I’ve read lately present it as a good thing (or make it a problem early and so have a distant shape). So I like this demonstration of another use of that shape. Compare eg Alyson Grauer’s “Lavender, Juniper, Gunpowder, Smoke” (see here in January notes).

Screenshot of linked tweet

In terms of vibe, “Douen” reminded me very much of Palumbo’s own “Laughter Among the Trees” (see here in the February notes), told from the other side — and the shapes are almost mirrored:

Screenshot of linked tweet

Reverse any of those three-mood patterns and you get a hint of the story-shape of “Douen”.

  • The Office Drone” — Nic Lipitz (Future SF, 2021 — a (literal) office drone wants to make a slide deck like the (human) office drones, and the (AI) situation escalates)
    • everyday — variation — velocity
    • allied — independent — ‘traitor’
    • diligent — self-directed — seize reins
    • hopeful — stubborn — self-sufficient
    • excluded — own way — exclusive

That “everyday — variation — velocity” pattern is frequently offered as a standard story structure (see the Pixar story, etc). But, like “problem — complication — solution”, it’s usually operating below the *feeling* of the story, and doesn’t often appear as a primary mood/vibe.

The final mood is interesting and ambivalent. It’s positive from the narrator’s point of view, and you’ve been on the narrator’s side until then, but presumably you (the reader) are human and might finally disagree with an outcome. That diverging sympathy is a neat effect to play with.

Also many AI stories I’ve been reading have been *very* positive in their angle on AI (if not so much on the state of the world). See e.g. L Chan’s “A House is Not a Home” (see here in February notes) and Andrea Kriz’s “AIs Who Make AIs Make the Best AIs” (above). So the slipped-footing of the end of this story is also working with/against the broader background of what’s being written.

(It’s also intriguing to read it immediately after Palumbo’s “Douen”, in terms of coming-into-your-power not necessarily being an unmitigated good.)

Something else I’m enjoying about this approach to reading is that when I start a story with NO idea what’s going on, I can relax about it. Just sit back and ride the words and when I get to the end, look back at the big feelings, which then usually snap the story into focus.

So the shape of this story becomes quite clear — almost a fable/parable, kaleidoscoped through the rhythms of language. And I think the clarity and straightforwardness of the moods, if not the syntax and events, allows Skeete to get away with all that. (Compare this to the combination of straightforward language/shape and surreality in Cate Fricke’s “A Disappointment”, above.)

And I don’t mean “get away” in the sense of those being unnecessary flourishes. They are structural — and when approached this way, the structure slides into view like a magic-eye picture.

“According to Leibniz…” is also a very effective use of actual stream of consciousness vs lyrical processed stream of consciousness — the feeling that you’re getting them unedited, the repetition of words, the chewing on ideas, the little loops and mantras.

  • Ocean’s 6” — Elsa Sjunneson (Mermaids Monthly, 2021 — a selkie robbed of her skin by a museum curator assembles a team to get it and other stolen goods back)
    • betrayed — friends — flaunt
    • loss — purpose — action
    • vs him — + her — group
    • fury — grief — glee
    • theft — support — leverage

I like that “fury — grief — glee” progression, particularly. That little discussed stage of loss: museum heist.

  • It is a Pleasure to Receive You” — Ziggy Schutz (Clarkesworld, 2021 — a solitary occupant of a communications satellite establishes a connection with a prospector on a waterlogged planet and a guerrilla artist)
    • two — three — one
    • placid — charmed — adrenaline
    • teased — tempted — yielding
    • meeting — sharing — together

A charming story, with definite echoes in its shape/themes of M L Krishnan’s “Bride, Knife, Flaming Horse” (see Story Shapes & Extrapolation for that story, and also discussion at e.g. “AIs Who Make AIs Make the Best AIs!”, above). The shapes don’t exactly match, but you can see how “awkwardness — proliferation of options — harmony” could also suit one reading of Schutz’s story.

There are fainter echoes of “According to Leibniz…” (above), but I think you could put the story-shapes into conversation: that move from interiority to externality, the gradual winkling out of someone from a closed-loop of thinking.

A quick note that when I’m pointing out echoes, it’s in the mood-patterns and gear changes of a story, the mechanics and emotions they’re using, rather than saying they’re the same on a text level.

  • The Art and Mystery of Thea Wells” — Alexandra Seidel (Diabolical Plots, 2021 — a survey of mysterious paintings by an artist who died in circumstances that appear to echo them)
    • beauty — mystery — supernatural
    • skill — questions — evidence
    • pool — disturbance — ripples
    • window — something through — lingering
    • scholarly—surface—into world
    • hinted—emerging—always there

This is definitely a Gothic story shape, although with a definite sense of more of a window than a door, through which things are glimpsed and/or emerge. That sense of watching at a remove, and then of realising something has always been there (vs is still here) adds to the window-ness.

Considered as a set of vignettes, one for each painting and the intro/conclusion, none of them stand on their own as story shapes — they consciously build, then tie together, as follows:

  • painting (beauty/mystique) — reaction (x 7)
  • terminal consequences — painting (mystique)

Compare the structure to e.g. Sarah Turi Boshear’s “A Short Story in Seven Looks”, which also uses a list of descriptions of artworks (fashion, in this case) — see here in March notes.

Screenshot of linked tweet

“A Short Story in Seven Looks” is much more explicit about where the list is going — fitting, because it’s got a much more definite implied ending, vs the mystery of Seidel’s ending. And in each section, the description + implication has another beat:

Screenshot of linked tweet

If Seidel had done that for “The Art and Mystery…”, I think it would have belaboured a point that needed to be kept delicate.

Compare, too, Nelly Geraldine García-Rosas’ “Still Life with Vial of Blood” (see here in February notes), also a set of descriptions of artworks, augmented by footnotes. In that case, the dawning alarm is much more interior, pulling you into the narrator’s own simultaneous reaction.

Seidel, on the other hand, keeps the reader at a remove, before allowing them to glimpse the possibility that something is circulating in the world with them.

  • Hello From Tomorrow” — EC Myers (The Sunday Morning Transport, 2022 — after the narrator strikes up an online conversation with a Korean Mars rover that speaks like her father, the space agency involves her in their problems)
    • doubt — understanding — discovery
    • curiosity — communication — yielding
    • distraction — focus — hope
    • suspect — know — certainty
    • jagged — affectionate — loving
    • regret — chance — farewell

Adding to notes re “The Stars Above Eos” (see here in March notes), this is a positive take on the digitally-preserved personality/AI story.

Screenshot of linked tweet

And “Hello From Tomorrow” slots into the conversation between that and “Proof By Induction” (see here in February notes).

Screenshot of linked tweet

Here, the unchanging personality is celebrated, and if you reverse the patterns of “Induction”, there are moods and rhythms that suit “Hello From Tomorrow”.

  • Returning the Lyre” — Mary E Lowd (Kaleidotrope, 2021 — after Orpheus dies, Eurydice descends to return his lyre to him, and is offered the chance to return with him, instead)
    • determination — reversal — doubt
    • intention — overset — contaminated
    • making peace — a chance — precarity
    • ritual — emotional — unsettled
    • threshold — return — dissatisfied/haunted

A retelling, this time by direct role-reversal (vs the indirect reversal by application of knowledge in Alix E Harrow’s “The Long Way Up” — see here in February notes), and relying on knowledge that is inverted at each step, rather than twisting the ending of the known tale, as in eg Valente’s take on the same story, “L’Esprit de l’Escalier” (see here in January notes).

Amusingly, given the difference in stories (although I suppose preserved-personality stories are a variation on the looking-back-on-the-unattainable element of Orpheus & Eurydice), the shapes of “Returning the Lyre” are almost the reverse of “Hello From Tomorrow” (above). Appropriately, given one is about acceptance and understanding and moving forward, and the other deals with the opposite.

Regarding previous thoughts on purgatorial stories, this one seems to fit the criteria best after the return from Hades — the restricted (metaphorical) horizons, the consequences of choices that seem disproportionate, the sense of love and of stories devouring themselves…

  • Armed With Such Stories, I Roamed Into The Woods” — Evan Marcroft (Cast of Wonders, 2021 — a boy, armed with his mother’s stories, meets a monster while foraging in the woods, and it follows him home)
    • fright — dread — horrified determination
    • error — strongarmed — revenge
    • help — serve — gather
    • brave — bewildered — stand firm
    • flee — cower — fight
    • stories — realities — wonders

Not a strict retelling, although trailing echoes of stories of wolves and woods and flowers, but a story about the uses of stories told — to warn, to mask, to render less fearful, to hint.

And, of course, it’s a story about forests and the stories you find in them, and the stories that find you there, and the stories they keep you away from, and the deaths and selves and worlds and paths they conceal, and how they’ll change you, or how perhaps they’re merely the site for change.

See e.g., Jonathan Louis Duckworth’s “Venturing” (see here in March notes), also involving a meeting, a return, and a new respect for a world yet to be encountered (and a determination to encounter it).

Screenshot of linked tweet

The shapes are in interesting conversation with each other, as the characters are held back in different ways, and return at different points, and are followed home by monsters in literal vs metaphorical ways.

For a rather different into-the-woods(-with-wolves) tale, I loved Marika Bailey’s “Daughters With Bloody Teeth” (see here in March notes).

And of course I, too, am a frequent committer of stories-we-met-in-the-forest stories. See “Merry in Time” (and one with wolves in it coming soon)

Forest as stage, forest as story-space, as story-time, as frayed edge, as place of possibilities, where the improbable and impossible are made manifest, forest as gullet and sanctuary and witness, as seal and promise and death, as repository of life, of lost things, of all the things “wolves” can mean, forest as dream to be woken from, as dream that can never be woken from, as contagion, as blessing, as home, as never-hone-again, as confirmation, as whispering doubt, as a place between the worlds, as a world itself, as time, as eternity, as time-outside-of-time to breath or rest or fear, as Story itself.

  • Old People’s Folly” — Nora Schinnerl (Future SF, 2021 — a grumpy, isolated woman in a world after a climate apocalypse is haunted by a digital ghost and the sufferings of a young man)
    • disgruntled — grumbly — *fine*
    • rejection — aggravation — tolerance
    • jangle — first challenge — bigger challenge
    • winkling out — redirecting — new focus
    • unwelcoming — ungracious — grimly good

It is (in part) a digitally-preserved-personality story, but takes a different angle from many I’ve read — the personality not mourned by those who knew her, but inflicted on strangers many years later, bracketing changes in the climate/planet. So the preserved person becomes not only a voice across time, but a voice of conscience and an irritant causing change as well as seeking some degree of release if not redemption.

This also necessarily makes it a cyclical story, tying it into the ongoing-revolution/chronic-pain stories (see e.g. in February notes) — this one landing somewhere between incremental change and not letting past loss be for nothing.

  • Consigned to Moonlight” — Shaoni C White (Fireside Fiction, 2022 — an investigation into the complicity of the sister of a runewriter accused of treachery)
    • hints — preceding — fallout
    • defiance — bitterness — scuffle
    • fulcrum — lever — shift
    • bitternesses — powerless — the trick
    • loss — frustration — satisfaction

Something fun about a story stitched together from bits of documents is that the POV and the person-experiencing/transmitting-the-mood keeps getting handed on.

In this case, it’s pretty clear from the jaunty defiance of the opening whose side you’re on, but while you follow the story they’ve set up, you (as reader) are then trying to settle something compatible with that alliance on a new character

It’s a neat trick — one of my favourite openings to a (not unproblematic but memorable) country house murder mystery does something similar, anchoring your initial sympathy to a house and ridiculously privileged little golden world, so that IT’s the thing most in danger. It’s a fun way to play with movement of/in a story, and with alternative definitions (and locations) of conflict.

(The country house murder book is Michael Innes’ Hamlet, Revenge!)

Also, that’s a tidy trick/trap/twist/comeuppance story-shape, putting the pieces in place slightly out of order, and then snapping them together. It operates at short-story scale, and can give a caper effect with minimal characters or extraneous worldbuilding.

Consider a rather different story: “Let the Buyer Beware” (see above) has a different shape — and doesn’t flag the interaction of elements until the end. But it also sets out its pieces and then levers/flips them into a new shape, and it also uses a story-shape that very tidily locks into a short-story size.

AND ANOTHER thing about “Consigned to Moonlight”: that point-past-consequence structure, combined with the unanchored pov does something to the mood progression. instead of a linear flow from one to the next, that initial gleeful defiance stays unchanged. The following moods add layers and harmonies and echoes.

Also, as far as worldbuilding goes, that concise shape lets it be minimal and efficient but oh, how evocative! The implications of moonlight and the sky!

  • Wives at the End of the World” — Avra Margariti (Future Fire, 2021 — after an apocalypse, a couple revisit scenes of things they love)
    • play — reality — decadence
    • idling — grim — romantic
    • decay — bleak — rich
    • among the ruins — mortality — dance
    • fallen apart — hold it together — wealth

The story deals with choosing and maintaining a mood, vs succumbing to externalities. It would have been easy to match mood to worldbuilding throughout (bleak — horror — hopeless), but while that glints through, the characters are resolute. There’s a waver in the middle for the reader to have time to doubt, but the wives persevere.

If you shuffled the moods around just a little, I think it would be very easy to create a masque-of-the-red-death / party-at-the-end-of the world story. Put the bleakness at the beginning or end, lean on the decay part of decadence. But Margariti has reversed the effect. And that puts the story into conversation with the acceptance-of-inevitable-apocalypse(/revolution/climate-disaster/singularity) stories, the ones about what was worth it, and what remains human.

  • Haja Hoje” — Anna Martino (Strange Horizons, 2021 — a narrator with the power to briefly bring back the dead goest through the remnants of life with their beloved, trying to bring them back again)
    • determination — anger — grief
    • (past/present) plans — failures — breakthrough
    • look to what was — “” other — “” self
    • initial loss — incremental loss — final (forced/willing) loss
    • grasp — rail against — crack

It’s a coming-to-terms-with-loss story, and you can trace that strong classic grief-story shape.

Something particularly interesting is that the story is set up to rely on a magical device, which never comes into play — or rather, never has the anticipated effect. This lifts attention away from that classic shape, so that coming to terms with this apparent magical inability takes the place of direct processing of grief, until the two finally converge.

Iona Datt Sharma’s “All Worlds Left Behind”, in a different way, does something similar, displacing & misdirecting the apparent focus of loss (see here in the February notes). And I think these approaches are such a subtle, gentle use of misdirection — not for a twist, just to lever loose the edges of a strong story-shape ever so slightly.

  • Welcome, Karate” — Sara Saab (The Dark Magazine, 2021 — an aging woman returns to her home town to open a martial arts studio, but something is happening behind the locked door in the gym)
    • return — delving — struck
    • home — changed — what remained
    • door — door — through it
    • decisions — carried through — (re) convergence

It’s a neat little rearrangement of a classic Gothic story shape (door — things through it — lingering knowledge), with the last two moods swapped, which gives a tone of confirmation, of acceptance of a thing expected.

Also, to compare it to other story-of-a-life stories, this is compressed into two days, and the life told in reminiscence, which focuses the events of that life on and through that final point.

  • The Steel Magnolia Metaphor” — Jennifer Lee Rossman (Escape Pod, 2021 — a young autistic inventor creates a robotic magnolia for her dying mother)
    • assumptions — distraught — adjust
    • differences — denial — readjustment
    • denial — double-down — new role
    • inventions — rejecting/self-isolating — reassessment
    • focus — intensifies — opens up

The story is a blend of a growing up story and a coming to terms with grief story — or rather, it’s about achieving one via the other, and those story-shapes reflect both. Even just looking a few stories above to “Haja Hoje”, there are some parallels.

screenshot of linked tweet — reproduced earlier in post at description of "Haja Hoje"

Viewed as a story of creativity/making things, the story shapes also reflect some of that process.

Also, while “The Steel Magnolia Metaphor” is a very different story, it shares with “All Worlds Left Behind” (see here in the February notes) a process of dealing with anticipated loss, and displacement of those emotions onto or into another concern — a plant robot here, portal worlds and wedding planning there.

  • One Hundred Seconds to Midnight” — Lauren Ring (Escape Pod, 2021 — an insurance salesperson weathers a kaiju attack in an airport)
    • irritant — reality behind that — human level
    • corporate — desperate — loving
    • soulless/ugliness — beauty — power
    • background static — anticipation/dread — immediacy
    • problem — real problem — weathering

This story really worked with its structure — not a problem to solve, but a deepening understanding of an approaching event, and a clarifying resolution/narrowing of focus as it arrives. But it doesn’t just zoom in — it changes angle, so the problem changes as it’s experienced.

Lovely voice, too — a maturely cinematic confidence, which for some reason strikes me as natural for kaiju stories (of all things!). Possibly because something like that tone showed up in a lot of early 2000s Australian kaiju stories (and there were quite a few!), with authors who were both hitting their stride and just having a lot of fun. And it’s a genre with such a specific visual tradition/vocabulary/origin that the element of spectacle (even if peripheral) doesn’t feel indulgent.

You could of course choose to reduce this story to a “problem — attempts to solve it — (alternative) solution”, if that were the structure you were looking for. But it isn’t really what holds up the shape of the story. Depending on the problem, it is the thinnest thread (finishing the report) or the plot merely happens to the main character (dealing with kaiju), or it’s rather esoterically expressed and not immediate/visceral (cog in machine).

I think that’s why I personally find that description of a story unhelpful for writing purposes, or understanding what makes a story tick (although I do find it useful for solving some problems in revision, and it’s fine for analysis).

In terms of another common writing yardstick, “what a character wants”, it’s interesting to see how that keeps shifting over the course of the story. And while it is a story mostly about what happens to a character, that character remains decisive and in motion, even if they can affect very little (apparently).

Anyway, I think this story would be useful to approach from several angles. This is a note to myself for future workshops, etc.

  • Sorry We Missed You” — Aun-Juli Riddle (khōréō mag, 2021 — the narrator and their mother run a restaurant from a spaceship while travelling home to see the narrator’s grandmother)
    • business — worry — home
    • brisk — memories — love
    • in transit — others’ memories — own memories
    • call — reflection — response
    • turn — momentum — power

That “call — reflection — response” shape is a nicely short-story sized pattern for a thoughtful tale.

The story could be seen as a set of stacked vignettes, each based around a location and a significant menu item. Roughly:

  1. Anxiety — work — deeper worry
  2. Reminiscence — education — another’s reminiscence
  3. Freedom — memory — affirmation
  4. Off-kilter — anxiety —answers
  5. Unfamiliar — reassurance

The first four sections feel like they have *almost* a story shape — it’s just that the final mood of each doesn’t quite land/close a loop. They’re all gathered up & anchored by the final paragraphs.

As between the vignettes, you can see overlapping patterns, a gentle push and pull of work, memories, anxiety, affirmation.

(See discussion of list/vignette-based stories earlier in this post, after “The Art and Mystery of Thea Wells“.)

But what struck me here was how well a linked-vignette structure suits a short story involving a journey, snipping it into stages, beads on a wire, and allowing an awareness of physical relocation and movement to link the scenes.

  • No One Knows How This Feels” — Maureen McHugh (The Sunday Morning Transport, 2022 — in a supermarket in a heavily mechanised and monitored world, the narrator strikes a small blow of rebellion)
    • anxious — alarmed — tense
    • cautious — at risk — successful
    • conviction — fear — courage

It’s a very small story, and could have almost been a vignette, but the smallness of the story and the action is the point, as the end makes clear. It fits into the little-actions-matter-even-if-only-a-little stream of revolution/resistance stories. And so the very simple progression of the story shape (carrying out an action) gains and gives power. Focussing on that task honours it.

  • Throw Rug” — Aurelius Raines II (Apex Magazine, 2021 — an unlikely boy takes up wrestling, against the odds, while his supporters and opponents try to understand what powers him)
    • scepticism — resistance — forces arrayed against
    • anxiety — delight — suspicion
    • persistence — success — triumph
    • certainty — competence — joy

It’s a story with six different narrators, each of whom progresses the story a bit further forward in time (while in three instances filling in background, as well). This makes the moods of the story slightly iridescent things — the narrator’s pov differing from the protagonist’s.

Each section would stand as a little vignette, almost story-shaped except that the last mood of each doesn’t quite complete the story.

Here’s a quick look at the separate sections:

  1. exasperated — anxious — puzzled
  2. disdain — puzzled — disgraced
  3. love — worry — decision
  4. on edge — communication — betrayal
  5. promise — attacked — triumph

I like the way those trade off moods between them, connecting the sections, until the last one brings them all together by revealing the protagonist’s version of events and explaining what’s happening.

The last one could pretty much function as a tiny story, but would be bland and brief without those preceding layers.

It could be an interesting exercise to extract a vignette from a story like this and work out what would be the bare minimum necessary to give it the weight of a complete story-shaped object.

I also like that the story teases a retelling/allusion and then turns out to be doing something else that’s been kind of out in the open all along. And also its blend of metaphor and magic into something that feels both indistinguishable and true.

  • A Study in Ugliness” — H Pueyo (The Dark Magazine, 2021 — an unlovely girl at a boarding school where beauty is equated with morality is fascinated by her mysterious new roommate, and drawn into a series of midnight transactions)
    • out — dabble — in
    • unloved — conspiring —seeking a place
    • uncomfortable situation — conducting tests — scheme
    • arrival — transgressions — grotesques
    • opposites — bonding — terrible things
    • reflections — mirror — exchange
    • something through — examining the door — drawn in

There’s a Gothic/horror knife-twist to the approach of establishing sympathy with the outsider, tempting them (or realising in retrospect they’re driving it), and then letting them do terrible things.

  • At the End of Purple Meadow Road” — Marisca Pichette (Fireside Fiction, 2022 — a narrator with certain fascinations and abilities describes her garden-bounded house, her correspondents, and her quiet life to an observer)
    • mortality/nature — living — suspended
    • beauty — solitary company — understanding
    • peace — communion — elegaic
    • admire — see — understanding
    • loving — persisting — accepting

The story is almost a musing or a fragment, but it does have a story-shape, as it spreads out, billows, and is draw in again — almost entirely mood-based, and with a sense of having said all it intended & needed to say.

  • AITA for Using My Side Hustle to Help My Boyfriend Escape the Clutches of Death?” — Aimee Picchi (Flash Fiction Online, 2021 — after the narrator’s boyfriend mistakes a tonic for mortally ill pets for a cocktail, their opinions on consent, death and energy consumption begin to differ)
    • clash — separate — engage
    • hurt — disconcerted — satisfied
    • defensive — disapprove — turned tables
    • morbid humour — unintended consequences — smug/tidy

An extremely small, tidy story shape (problem — complications — spin on a solution), and it feels like this flash-fiction piece is exploring the length that can still be supported by that joke-shaped structure. The charm of the AITA-and-replies format, however, helps drive and carry a lot of both the humour and story-structure load.

It’s really interesting to see how that imported structure (loaded question — opinionated engagement — update) operates with what’s going on.

An interesting exercise is to consider what the story would look like told in another format — where extra information might be needed that this structure allows the story to leave out, etc. (E.g., exactly what happens to lead to reconciliation.)

(Also, I particularly enjoyed the central reanimative considerations of the story.)

  • My Mirror, My Opposite” — YM Pang (Beneath Ceaseless Skies, 2021 — a prince rescued against his will by a mermaid who yearns for a soul recounts his conflicting desire for the sea and peace)
    • yearning — envy — trade
    • desperation — apathy — determination
    • failures — questions — chances
    • hate — anger — purposeful pain
    • desire — persistence — distress

As a retelling, it flips and reconsiders the original, but also runs alongside it, touching and explaining it at key points — not quite a secret history but expressly a version (or a truth varied by telling).

And I like how, rather than “redeeming” the original and its ending, it KEEPS so much (including the original ending), while bringing to it a wealth of grief and anger that alters only slightly how the original finishes, but changes how it hits.

(The older I get the more I understand and like how the original story of “The Little Mermaid” ended, AND, to get controversial, I appreciate the Disney movie for holding space for me to love a version of Andersen’s story until I was old enough to get it. In fact, a lot of Hans Christian Andersen’s writing hits differently the older I get. “The Little Match Girl” sure has “tell me you’re a tormented writer without telling me you’re a tormented writer” undertones.)

And that’s the end of April! I’ll try to remember to add a link to May’s thread once I start it.

Here’s a list of the stories covered in this post, with links back to their first references:

All April Stories (with internal links to the first place they’re discussed)

4 thoughts on “April short story reading post

  1. Pingback: March short story reading post | Kathleen Jennings

  2. Pingback: February short story reading thread | Kathleen Jennings

  3. Pingback: January 2022 Big Giant Three-Mood Story Reading Thread | Kathleen Jennings

  4. Pingback: April 2022 — round-up of posts | Kathleen Jennings

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