Collection Review: At the Bottom of the Sea by Zachary Jernigan

When Zachary Jernigan’s debut novel No Return came out earlier this year, I wished that I could review it as part of Short Story Review; alas, I could not find any justification for reviewing a novel on a website devoted to bringing more attention to short stories. Thus, when I heard that he would be releasing a short story collection, At the Bottom of the Sea, I immediately asked for a copy. I’m glad I did, because it’s one of the most original collections I’ve ever read.
At the Bottom of the Sea contains five stories in all: four previously published, and one new to the collection. In his introduction, Jernigan says that he has rewritten some of the stories. Since their publication, he says, he has improved vastly as a writer, and in a couple of cases, he has revised to correct for mistakes he feels that he made, content-wise, upon the first writing. He has also tuckerized several friends, changing the original names from the stories; I am one of those tuckerized, though I won’t say when or where. Part of the fun is figuring these things out, after all.
The best story in the collection, for me, is the brand new “Fear of Drowning.” Set in the same world as No Return, “Fear of Drowning” is about Cee, the lover of a God-Queen. When the God-Queen takes Cee along on a trip with the goal to kill another demi-god for crimes she will not fully explain to Cee, Cee goes along with her, thinking little of it. However, there’s much more to the dichotomy between the two demi-gods than Cee knows. This is a subtle story, as much of Jernigan’s writing is, rich with place. It’s clear that Jernigan is comfortable in this world, and that he knows it well, as he moves through it with ease.
My second favorite — and after this story my ranking breaks down — is the title story “At the Bottom of the Sea,” another incredibly subtle work which originally appeared in pax americana. An old blind man, Mihir, keeps a developmentally disabled boy in his care, to lead him to and from his house. When the boy disappears for a while one day without the old man telling him to, it upsets the old man’s appearance of control over the situation. The main character here is simultaneously deplorable and sorry. Jernigan’s prose is beautiful and sad in this story.
The other three are stories that I like equally well. “Pairs” and “The War is Over and Everyone Wins” both previously appeared in Asimov’s. “Pairs” is a strange and wholly original science fiction story about the last “survivors” of the human race, tasked with carting and selling the imprisoned souls of our dead. But the main character’s, one of those “survivors,” employer is an ass, to say the least, and the main character wants revenge.
In “The War is Over and Everyone Wins,” a son returns home for his grandfather’s funeral in a world where white people have been wiped out by a biological weapon designed, in part, by the main character’s father. But the racial tensions form a backdrop for a story that is at its heart truly about familial tension and regret.
The final story, “All My Ghosts,” appeared in Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction #31; this one is about an immortal who sacrifices his immortality to save his son, and his struggle to figure out his own reason why he has made such a sacrifice. As he treks through the snow, attempting to bring his boy to safety, he is visited by the ghosts of people he has known throughout his immortal life. Haunting, understated, and unforgettable, as I’m happy to report all of Zack’s stories in this collection are.

Novella Review: Maurice Broaddus’ "I Can Transform You"

Part of the Apex Voices series, Maurice Broaddus’ “I Can Transform You” is not the kind of novella that I would pick up on my own. Why? Well, for one thing, it’s a noir mystery, which is not a genre I often read. But “I Can Transform You” is a pleasant surprise, as it’s a different kind of mystery, one that breaks open some of the old mystery tropes.

“I Can Transform You” tells the story of Mac Peterson, a for-hire tough man and investigator ex-cop who gets dragged into a murder case when he finds out that one of the victims was his ex, who was also a cop. Ade Walter is the detective officially assigned to the case; he lets Mac tag along, despite it being against the rules and despite Ade’s insistence that rules are there for a reason. But there’s more to the world of “I Can Transform You” than meets the eye; for one thing, Ade Walter’s got a cybernetic implant, and strange alien towers and blue lights have appeared in the sky. There’s all the stuff of a typical mystery: wrong turns, banter, unveiled corruption, a good cop/bad cop push-and-pull between the two protagonists, whose dichotomy provides even more of the tension than the murder mystery itself. Oh, and aliens.

Mac Peterson is a great character; throughout the story, it’s evident that his grief is what’s driving him to keep going. But the best, and also eeriest, character in the novella is the city itself; the towers that see more falling, or pushed, bodies by the day, the blue lights which provide such a vivid and surreal ambiance, the dilapidated buildings inhabited by familial gangs. I felt often as though I knew the place, as though I had walked through it myself.

“I Can Transform You” shares some similarities with another book I just finished, Walter Mosley’s Futureland. And as with that book, there is no happy ending for the characters in Broaddus’ “I Can Transform You.” But Broaddus seems to have a good grip of the dark and familiar territory in which he writes; he seems fully aware of the tropes of this particular genre, and it seems as though at times that he is poking fun at some of them. The end of the book is both unlike what you would expect from a noir mystery and exactly what you would expect from a noir mystery. I trust that this was Broaddus’ intention, as he is a completely capable master of prose and pacing, a writer who makes me trust him with his words. I will certainly be keeping my eye on his work in the future.

Also included in the book is a steampunk short story “Pimp My Airhsip.” To purchase “I Can Transform You,” visit the Apex Publications page for a full list of retailers.

Stonecoast Stories

As some of you already know, mainly because I mentioned it in my last review, mid-July I graduated from University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast MFA in Creative Writing. Come next January, when it’s time for yet another Stonecoast residency up in Freeport, Maine, I won’t be there, and neither will the rest of my class, or the classes that graduated before me, with the exception of some lucky students close enough to visit. I will miss my Stonecoast friends immensely, though I hope to make certain that July will not be the last time I ever see them.

There is a lot of talent in the Stonecoast community. For this week’s Short Story Review, I will highlight four stories published by either current Stonecoast students or Stonecoast alums. There are, of course, far more than four, and more, certainly, to come. If you’re a Stonecoast student, current or past, feel free to post a link to one of your published stories in the comments below.

“Paradigm Shift” by Julie Day

Free read in Electric Velocipede, Issue 26

I met Julie my first residency at Stonecoast, and she graduated my third. We are, I will admit, part of the same writer’s critique group, and this short flash story was, in fact, penned as part of my Art & Words Show. It was one of my favorites, written in response to a painting of the same title by artist Trayce Cochran. It’s no wonder that after the show, it was accepted for publication by Electric Velocipede.

A little girl is forced into the pageant life by her overbearing mother. Despite her hard work, she never wins a trophy. At sixteen, the girl undergoes an operation to turn herself into a cyborg. This flash fiction is short, but it packs a punch; powerful writing here from a master of weird stories. “Paradigm Shift” is an intense piece of fiction, and captivating until the last sentence. The mother is a genuinely creepy presence who invades even the parts of the story in which she is absent. There are suggestions of an interesting and complex world outside of the story’s parameters, a world in which these elective cyborg surgeries are somewhat common, that enhance the weirdness even further.

“The Taste of Salt” by Rachel Halpern

Free read in Daily Science Fiction

Rachel Halpern’s “The Taste of Salt” is a flash fiction about Aina, a young woman in a small town where a cult’s attempt at summoning a demon actually worked. The demon now requires sacrifices, and sorcerers make sure that the demon gets them. The background sounds kooky, but Halpern’s crisp writing makes certain that it’s taken seriously. Aina even recognizes the cliché of the robed sorcerer masters making sure the surviving humans don’t escape, a self-awareness that saves the setting. Besides, the story isn’t about this takeover. It’s about Aina and her relationship to the world, specifically her relationship with the next sacrifice, Evan, who is waiting to be consumed. The story is surprisingly both hopeful and dark, a combination of moods that I greatly admire.

“Dirty Dishes” by Cristina Perachio

Free read in Apiary

Cristina’s fiction is not speculative; it’s about as real as you can get. Though Short Story Review mostly focuses on realistic stories, I feel that I have to include Cristina because of just how talented she is, and how good this story is.

“Dirty Dishes” is about a young girl working in a restaurant. Actually, “Dirty Dishes” is about being a young girl working in a restaurant, and it’s all refreshingly true-to-heart. Anyone who’s ever worked in a restaurant can identify with this story. Any woman can identify with this story. Anyone who’s ever known a woman can identify with this story. It’s a story about being young. A story about the often fucked-up dichotomy between men and women. And it’s both hilarious and heartbreaking.

“Failsafe” by Karen Bovenmyer

The Crimson Pact Volume Five

Karen Bovenmyer read part of “Failsafe” for her graduating student reading; we were partnered together, and so she read it after I read my own story, “The Wanderers.” I’m glad that she went second, as I was able to get my nerves out of the way so that I could fully engage with Karen’s story, as it’s extremely creepy and compelling, with a main character, Kira, whose voice is one of the most distinctive I have ever read.

Kira’s the captain of a salvage ship, the Recovery. She lives a lonely life, her only company the Recovery’s emotionless AI. When she receives a message from the terraforming ship, the Queen – a little girl’s voice says that everyone is dead – she is obliged to board, as the little girl is still alive, and Kira’s contract states that she is required to rescue any survivors. What she finds aboard the Queen is her worst fear: bodies. And beyond her worst fear, too, something she never would have thought up: a demon that inhabits those bodies. “Failsafe” is not a light story; it’s gory, and the trials that Kira and the little girl, Walkabout, face are long and frightening. It is well-told, thoroughly engaging, and memorable. Especially that ending.

Novella Review: "The Ugly Tin Orrery" by Rachael Acks

On July 20th, I graduated with my MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast program, one of the few MFA programs with a Popular Fiction focus. Being out of school is new for me; graduation has thus far been accompanied by a strange bittersweetness interspersed with a wash of relief with a subsequent wave of utter hopelessness. This, I hear, is perfectly normal.

I could use a breather, and this week’s novella certainly provided me with one. Rachael Acks’ “The Ugly Tin Orrery,” published by Musa Publishing and part of an ongoing series, is a steampunk adventure story which, much like being out of school, is totally new for me. I have yet to jump on the steampunk train, though I have tried on several occasions only to end up falling off. Steampunk, I have told several friends of mine, is just not for me. Well, I was wrong, because I couldn’t put down “The Ugly Tin Orrery.”

A mystery is at the heart of this novella. Captain Ramos, a hardass pirate with a tendency to get herself both in and out of trouble, discovers the ugly tin orrery of the title during a freight train robbery. She pockets it without much thought, until she and her crew realize that its previous owner has been murdered, and his murder appears to have something to do with the rivalry between the Grand Duchy of Salt Lake City and the Grand Duchy of Denver. Captain Ramos and her crew are compelled to solve the mystery, and thus the plot unfolds, taking them through skirmishes and heartbreaks and meetings with old friends.

The world of “The Ugly Tin Orrery” is rich and feels layered; it is not fully contained in this one novella. It is clear that there are many more stories to be told, what with the mystery of the Infected, who appear to be a spin on the zombie. The idea of the Infected are skated across but never delved deep into during the course of this one particular story, though their presence has clearly affected the world a great deal. But although this novella is part of a series, I didn’t feel like I was missing out on anything because I have not read the other pieces – though reading those other novella would certainly make the story even richer – and in fact I was left feeling curious about the other novellas featuring Captain Ramos and her crew.

The characters in “The Ugly Tin Orrery” are rich and textured. Captain Ramos is an intriguing leader with potential, and her faithful companion, Simms, put me in mind of Watson from the Sherlock Holmes stories. The perspectives switched among Ramos, Simms, and other secondary characters, which is interesting, as it allows different facets of the story to be told simultaneously. Such characterization is a good sign for a series such as this one.

If you’re in need a page-turning adventure/mystery, I would highly suggest “The Ugly Tin Orrery” by Rachael Acks. This novella and Acks’ others in the series are available for purchase through Musa Publishing.

SF Signal Guest Post: Top 10 Fairy Tale Short Stories

I’ve got a guest post up today over at SF Signal: my picks for the Top 10 Fairy Tale Short Stories.

Includes stories by Theodora Goss, Elizabeth Hand, Neil Gaiman, Rachael Acks, Kelly Link, and more!