Book Review:  The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2021 Edited by John Joseph Adams and Veronica Roth

This collection has a different tone than the other best of the year collection I recently read and reviewed, The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Volume 2 edited by Jonathan Straham, and it’s not just that it includes fantasy. The selection process is different, and that has something to do with it. Straham chooses the stories for his collection on his own, while with Adams it is a dual process. Throughout the year Adams searches for what he considers the best speculative fiction stories of the year from as many traditional publications as he can find. (He does not include self-published works, which is a shame, but understandable considering how much more complex the selection process would be.) He comes up with a list of eighty, forty science fiction stories and forty fantasy stories, which he then passes on to a guest editor. This year it is Veronica Roth, author of the Divergent series. The guest editor reads the stories blind, that is, with the authors’ names removed, and chooses ten of each of the genres of science fiction and fantasy as the final selections.

One of the things I find most interesting about this collection is the inclusion of stories from literary magazines in the mix. Besides stories from the dedicated science fiction and fantasy magazines and anthologies, there are stories from The Paris Review, A Public Space, and One Story. This is a very good thing, not only because it demonstrates an inclusive expansiveness on the part of the editors of this volume, but also because it shows that the mainstream literary magazines are becoming increasingly willing to accept the value of speculative works.

When I read through these best of the year volumes, I do not expect all the stories to impress me as much as they impressed the editors, and in fact that’s not what happened. I had a mediocre reaction to several of them, and after I read a few I wondered how they managed to get published at all. Still, I am patient, waiting for that thrill of discovery that all readers look for. In this book, that ecstatic joy happened with two stories in particular. The first was “Our Language” by Yohanca Delgado, which first appeared in A Public Space. It concerns a woman in the Dominican Republic who inherits a strange curse. After marrying and having a son, she slowly begins to shrink and morph into a creature of the forest who can no longer speak in human language; however, when she leaves home she finds that there is a whole community of other women who have undergone similar changes. The other story that profoundly drew me in is “The Long Walk” by Kate Elliot. This one is about a heavily patriarchal society that condemns unwanted older women to take the titular long walk into the mountains to supposedly be consumed by dragons. After the death of her husband, a widow voluntarily takes the walk, only to discover that the reality beyond the mountains is different than what people on the other side believe.

Another excellent story is “The Plague Doctors” by Karen Lord. As the title indicates, this story concerns a worldwide plague that devastates humankind. An interesting side-fact is that Lord wrote the story six months before the COVID-19 break out, making it uncannily prescient. Daryl Gregory’s story “Brother Rifle” effectively deals with the traumatic aftermath of warfare, and Amman Sabet’s “Skipping Stones in the Dark” is a scary story about giving AI too much power, especially on a multi-generational starship.  All in all, I would say that there are enough good to excellent stories in this collection to make it a worthwhile read. There is also the undeniable fact that you may have different favorites than me. That’s what individuality is all about.

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“Prodigal” in SFS Stories

My short story “Prodigal” has just appeared in Issue #8 of the magazine SFS Stories. The theme of this issue is “Tales of Time.” You can find a copy on Amazon at this link.

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Book Review:  Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944-1956 by Anne Applebaum

This book is a heavy read; that applies to the physical weight of the book as well as the subject matter. It deals with the attempts of the Soviet Union to bring Eastern Europe into subjugation after World War II. When the conflict was nearing its end, the Allied leaders got together and divided up Europe between the Western Allies and the Soviets. Most of Western Europe fell into Allied hands, while Eastern Europe became Stalin’s personal plaything. He decided to grind the Eastern European countries into the image of the Soviet Union and compel their peoples to become part of a race of humans that Applebaum refers to as Homo Sovieticus. To accomplish this, even before the war was officially over the Soviets began taking over politics, economics, churches, organizations, publishers, radio stations, schools, summer camps, factories, shops – in short, they attempted to dominate every aspect of life.

You might wonder what caused me to take up and read such a horrific book. I didn’t choose it for its entertainment value. I wanted to see if there were lessons in it for those of us who are confused by this crazy polarized world we live in today, where people are dividing into opposing camps over whether or not to protect ourselves from a deadly pandemic, where it is difficult to tell truth from falsehood in the media, and where people with unpopular opinions can be effectively ostracized by mob consent. The first time I checked it out of the library, I weighed it in my hands, considered the depressing subject matter, and sent it right back. This second time, though, I knew that I wanted to consider what it had to say, and I persevered.

For one thing, I trust the writer. Anne Applebaum is the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Gulag: A History, which is also concerned with a deeply negative aspect of Soviet totalitarianism. She’s a good writer and knows several East European languages, so she is able to conduct research using documents in the original languages. She has a talent for creating verisimilitude by using the individual stories of survivors. In addition, she always maintains a nuanced viewpoint, not condemning those who were unable or unwilling to rise up against this oppressive regime, but instead explaining their motivations for reacting in the ways that they did.

The Soviets wanted to prove that their system of communism was correct and that if people only became enlightened and single-minded, they would see this for themselves. And then there was of course the paranoid madman Stalin sending cruel and sadistic dictates from on high. Applebaum stresses the immediate difference in political and police pressure after Stalin’s death in 1953, although of course the pressure did not ease completely until the Berlin Wall fell in 1989.

I needed to read this book to get a reality check. A lot of evil is rising in the world nowadays. It is tempting to brush off the warnings and think that everything will fix itself if we ignore it, but that’s not how it works. The people in Eastern Europe were living in democratic societies for the most part until the Nazis swept in from the west and then the Soviets swept in from the east. They were involved in their day-to-day lives just as we are. They never expected to be plunged into a horrific war and then an ongoing occupation that was just as horrific.

The Soviets, with their meticulous planning and propaganda, thought that they would be able to persuade the people of Eastern Europe to joyfully enter a communist utopia. Some of them sincerely thought their way was the best. All they proved was that though it was possible to physically subjugate people by force, they were unable to crush their spirits, which resurrected as soon as their oppressors left.

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Keep Doing What You’re Doing

Often we create resolutions for the New Year because we are convinced that changes need to be made in our lives. Perhaps something is not right; something is out of kilter. We resolve to do whatever needs to be done to correct the error. However, many people are exactly where they need to be and doing exactly what they need to be doing and yet they still may be dissatisfied, frustrated, and sometimes overwhelmed. As example my first thought is of parents; they have embarked upon a long journey, a journey that in fact never ends. Their concern for their progeny lasts until their dying day; it does not cease even when the kids move out of the house. And yet though they have for the most part chosen this path, it is not always easy. It has its triumphs, yes, but it is also fraught with disappointment and danger. Parents accept the new lives they have brought into the world with no guarantees of success. If they are good parents, though, success or failure has no affect on the perseverance and wholeheartedness with which they plunge into the task of caring for their children.

A career that is life-work rather than mere job is another example. Not all people choose their occupations and devote themselves to them with fervor, but many people do. For instance, I am a writer. I have identified as a writer since I was seventeen or eighteen years old. I didn’t apply to become one. The fact that I am one burst upon me with the force of revelation. Now, as I approach seventy, I am still a writer and will always be one. Apart from my identity as a parent, it defines my existence. Being a writer or any other sort of creative person (and I use the word “creative” in the broad sense of a pursuit that wholly engages your mind and spirit) has nothing to do with success or failure. It is something that you are, and something that you do. It makes no sense, therefore, to resolve for the New Year that you will sell a certain number of stories to magazines and anthologies. Purchasing stories is not something you do; it is something that editors do. You can resolve to continue writing, and to produce the best words of which you are capable. But then, as a writer you probably already do that.

I am both a parent and a writer, and I am at a period of my life where I am doing the best I can in both areas. My five sons have all left the nest (although the youngest comes back from time to time during breaks from college) and I already do whatever I can to support them. I write every day, and I already compose the best words of which I am capable. I am far from perfect as a parent and as a writer, but I already try as hard as I can. My goal, then? To keep doing what I’m doing. To persevere. To be diligent. To not lose heart. To find glory and joy in the effort, even if the results fall far short of my expectations.

That said, let’s review a few of my writing accomplishments of the past year.

It was a good year for the writing. My ongoing goal is to compose five hundred original creative words a day, and in 2021 I managed to produce 176,939 words of novels, novelettes, short stories, flash fiction, essays, and memoirs. If I divide that into 365, it comes to 485 words a day, but of course I was unable to compose original words on all 365 days. On some days I needed to proofread already written words, and on some days (although only a few) I had finished one writing project and was casting about in my imagination as to what to write next. The months in which I produced the most words were May and October; in both of those months I was deeply immersed in creating works of considerable length. In May it was a linked collection of short fiction, and in October it was my latest memoir, The Relocation Blues: An Inquiry into Transitions, which should be coming out in early 2022.

I published three books in 2021: Adriana’s Family: A Novel; Visiting Hours and Other Stories; and Reviews and Reflections on Books, Literature, and Writing: Volume 2. I also self-published several original individual stories, and a story of mine, “Alchemy,” appeared in The Martian Wave magazine. Besides these accomplishments, the first three hardcover editions of my books appeared this year: the aforementioned Visiting Hours and Other Stories, as well as my memoir World Without Pain: The Story of a Search and the science fiction compilation Bedlam Battle: An Omnibus of the One Thousand Series.

All in all, despite the ongoing pandemic and having to move from one apartment to another, career-wise and for my sons it was a good year, and I expect great things to come.

*     *     *

As the year winds down (as I write this it is three days before New Year’s Day 2022) I would like to make one more observation. This is to assuage the uncertainty of people who are creative-minded. It is not always easy to keep doing what I’m doing. The most difficult periods are when I finish major projects and wonder what I am going to work on next. I might have been cruising along for months writing five hundred or more words a day seven days a week in a continuing outburst of creative fervor, and then all of a sudden the ground falls out from underneath me and I am in a void. I have finished the book. What do I do now? Sometimes I already have the subsequent project lined up and ready to start, but often I do not. I am used to achieving my word-count first thing in the morning no matter what else I am doing. I don’t even want to miss a single day. I flail about for anything I can get hold of, even a smidgen of an idea to keep me going, even if it doesn’t go anywhere, even if I eventually have to discard the effort. The activity of composing is a reward in itself, and I fervently desire that splendorous rush of composition.

When I recently finished The Relocation Blues, I first coped by writing a piece of flash fiction, a very short science fiction story, and then by writing several essays and a book review. After that, the void returned. I tried to write another longer story and got a thousand or so words in and it wasn’t working. I started the same story again, attacking it from a different angle, and still it didn’t catch hold of my interest and imagination as successful stories usually do, so I set it aside.

At that point, I decided to slow down, repress the urge to spit words into the wind, and spend some time in contemplation. Don’t get me wrong – I have often come up with great story ideas – even for some of my best stories – through trial and error – that is, attempting this and that until something works. This time, though, I felt the need to step back, appraise my state of mind, and reflect upon what direction I wanted my writing to take next. After all, I write novels, short stories, memoirs, essays, and book reviews; I work in the genres of science fiction, fantasy, horror, mystery, and literary fiction. Which path should I take as I head into the new year? As you can see, I haven’t stopped writing completely; I am composing these thoughts for you even as I consider my next steps.

The point of this reflection is that if you are a writer or any other type of creative person, these impasses will come up, and when they do, you have to somehow deal with them. And direction-finding in creative endeavors is part of the ongoing process of keeping doing what you’re doing. Don’t let a temporary stall throw you off course. Maybe you need to refuel; maybe you need to consult a map. As long as you have the ultimate goal in mind, you are still on your way.

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A Christmas Gift for My Blog Followers

As a Christmas gift to readers, I have enrolled electronic editions of some of my books and stories in the Smashwords End of Year Sale, which runs through January 1st. Complete books are half price, marked down from $3.99 to $1.99. Short stories and mini-collections of essays and memoirs are available to download for free. Take advantage of this sale to stock up on some great reading material.

Smashwords was the digital distributor I used when I first became involved in electronic publishing, and when I later switched to another distributor, I left numerous editions of my early works in the Smashwords catalog. You can find a complete listing at my author’s profile here.

Among the books available at a half-price discount are my memoirs World Without Pain: The Story of a Search, After the Rosy-Fingered Dawn: A Memoir of Greece, and America Redux: Impressions of the United States After Thirty-Five Years Abroad; the novels Love Children, The Misadventures of Mama Kitchen, and Sunflower; the collections The Dragon Ticket and Other Stories, Painsharing and Other Stories, Dark Mirrors: Dystopian Tales, and Opting Out and Other Departures; and the essay collection Reviews and Reflections on Books, Literature, and Writing.

The stories available for free include some of my personal favorites such as “Dark Mirrors,” “The Customs Shed,” “Life After Walden,” and “Noah and the Fireflood.”

So head on over to Smashwords and pick up some thrilling and thoughtful novels, short stories, memoirs, and essays at deep discounts and even free. Merry Christmas!

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Books Make Great Gifts

After Thanksgiving has come and gone, people commence a search for holiday gifts for family members, relatives, friends, acquaintances, in-laws, outlaws, colleagues, and sometimes total strangers. If you’re looking for fun, sophisticated, lively, intense, flamboyant, and otherwise variegated literary fare, I’ve thus far published thirty volumes in a range of genres through Astaria Books. Here are some examples of choice gifts you can bestow upon your loved ones. If you click on the titles, the links are to Amazon, but for lists of links to other marketplaces, head for my website’s Available Books page.

Science Fiction:

After the Fireflood: A Novel – During the Fourth World War, the entire Earth is engulfed in a torrent of fire, transforming the landscape and obliterating all life.  Using terraforming, time travel, and other expediencies, human survivors from Moonbase and the outer colonies attempt to cope with their devastating loss, reconstruct the Earth’s surface, and reorganize Earth sociologically to ensure lasting peace, while others plot to claim the pristine reconstituted planet for their own purposes.

Bedlam Battle: An Omnibus of the One Thousand Series – In the late 1960s, humans and sympathetic aliens based out of Haight/Ashbury struggle to stop alien-possessed psychopaths intent on a murderous rampage. Four science fiction thrillers in one volume.

Love Children: A Novel – It is the mid-1970s.  The Summer of Love and the Woodstock Music Festival have come and gone.  Into the atmosphere of cynicism and doubt following the wild optimism of the youth revolution the Love Children, raised from birth by benevolent aliens, come home to Earth.  Sexually free, telepathic and honest to the extreme, they are appalled to find that the world they left behind is full of darkness and deceit. As they set about using their extraordinary powers to bring light and unity back to their world, they run up against a sinister alien force intending to keep it in darkness.

Dark Mirrors: Dystopian Tales – These tales offer terrifying glimpses of Earth’s future gone wrong. From the author’s afterword:  “When I postulate dark futures it is not to get you to despair.  When I hold up dark mirrors before your eyes it is not so that you will see the worst in yourself and do yourself in.  Far from it.  Some of our greatest illuminations come from deep dark prose.  Dark literature is not meant to overwhelm us.  It is meant to purge us, to provide catharsis.  It is a cleansing and purifying process.  We must be aware of the evil within before we can clean it out.”

Fantasy:

Caliban’s Children – Content is being siphoned from libraries and replaced with half-truths and lies.  Weather, time, and distances are distorting like images in a funhouse mirror.  People are discovering the ability to morph into animals.  At first it all seems idyllic and magical until a dark power begins to manifest itself, assert control, and demand obedience.

Ethan is a university student caught in the midst of a kaleidoscopic confusion he cannot understand.  After journeying into the wilderness seeking answers, he realizes he has to ally himself with the beasts of the Earth and venture into a bizarre, mutating, peril-filled city to rescue his lover and attack the source of the evil.

Fear or Be Feared: Fantasies – In these fourteen weird, surreal, frightening, and fantastic tales, unwary people discover that the world is very different from what they imagined.

Thriller:

The Fantasy Book Murders – After a famous fantasy writer is murdered in his castle-like mansion, two unlikely investigators discover a pattern of similar murders suggesting a serial killer. They begin to research the killings, starting with the most recent and working backwards into the past. Danger mounts as they uncover the backgrounds of the victims and the truth begins to resemble the fantasy writer’s most bizarre and horrific fiction.

Novels of the Counterculture:

The Misadventures of Mama Kitchen – Sarah Tabitha Jones, a twenty-year-old fascinated by the youth culture of the late 1960s, leaves her middle-class home and wanders to a wilderness commune and then to the Haight/Ashbury in search of truth. On the way she encounters many strange characters: bikers, draft dodgers, Vietnam War veterans, peyote worshippers, heroin dealers, Jesus people, feminists, violent anarchists, Black Panthers, and science fiction fans. She experiments with drugs and sex, but at the same time helps out those she can; though often disillusioned, she believes that hippies should unite to create a better world. In the midst of all this she finds herself pregnant. Eight and a half months later, undaunted, belly bulging, she travels to Woodstock for one last attempt at finding the love and unity she seeks. The Misadventures of Mama Kitchen will appeal not only to those who lived through the disconcerting era of the 60s and 70s but to those younger who are curious about what took place back then. It will also resonate with anyone who is idealistic and in search of personal fulfillment, as well as those who simply enjoy a wild tale: sometimes comic, sometimes tragic, sometimes violent, sometimes sexy, always extreme.

Sunflower: A Novel – In early 1970 a new era, the Age of Aquarius, is dawning. Penny, who adopted the name of Sunflower on the way to the Woodstock Music and Arts Festival, attends another rock concert touted as Woodstock West, at Altamont Speedway near San Francisco. Seeking to enhance the transcendent experience, she instead comes away covered in the blood of a man brutally stabbed to death in front of the stage. Has the new youth experience descended from idealism to anarchy? Confused and disillusioned, Sunflower embarks upon an odyssey across an America torn by violent anti-Vietnam War protests, racial tension, and gangs of hard drug dealers. From a search for a shared social experience it becomes a personal quest for fulfillment that leads her on a journey across continents.

Memoirs:

World Without Pain: The Story of a Search – In the 1970s, after the Altamont Rock Festival, the Manson Family cult murders, and the fiasco of the Vietnam War many young people, disillusioned by the hippy movement, began to leave their homelands and travel to the far places of the world.  Hoping to find drugs, sex, freedom, and excitement, they more often were confronted with destitution, despair, disease, loneliness, and culture shock. As a young writer wishing to break out of the familiar rut in which he was stagnating, Walters hit the road during this time, first to Europe, then onward to the Indian Subcontinent.  He sampled Buddhism and radical Christianity; he wandered alone in the Himalayas; he listened to strange gurus spouting stranger doctrines; he watched the people around him deteriorating and dying in the lands of the East.  As he traveled onward he became fascinated with the road itself, and determined to discover its secrets. He wondered what it was that gave the road its alluring power, and he forsook everything else to find out. His story will appeal to those who lived through the turmoil of the 60s and 70s, to those who are hungering after spiritual fulfillment, to writers and other artists in search of their voice and their inspiration, and to anyone who loves a true story of adventure and excitement in strange lands.

After the Rosy-Fingered Dawn: A Memoir of Greece – Greece has always been regarded as the birthplace of western civilization and a Mediterranean paradise.  In The Iliad and The Odyssey Homer uses the magical epithet rosy-fingered dawn to describe the sunrise over a land of myth, fascination, and mystery.  But when preconceptions and illusions are swept aside, what is Greece really like? John Walters has lived in Greece for over fifteen years.  He has hitchhiked over many of its roads; traveled by camper; journeyed by plane, boat, bus, car, taxi, motorcycle, and on foot.  He has lived and worked and raised a family among Greeks.  He offers insight from an intimate perspective on aspects of Greek society and culture of which tourists are unaware. Many have visited Greece and afterwards acknowledged that the country has profoundly changed them.  This memoir is for those who feel something special when they think of Greece and Greeks, those for whom Greece holds a special thrall, those who have visited and have their own memories of the place, and those who would like to visit someday and know that when they do they will obtain new insight, new clarity, and will never be the same again.

America Redux: Impressions of the United States After Thirty-Five Years Abroad – In 1976 John Walters left the United States in search of adventure and literary inspiration.  He lived for many years in India, Bangladesh, Italy, and Greece.  He married and had five sons.  Finally, faced with the economic catastrophe in Greece and the lack of opportunities for his sons, he returned to the land of his birth.  Without home, without job, without resources, he confronted his own country as if for the first time. This is a memoir of someone who, late in life, was forced to leave everything behind and start fresh in what for him had become a new land.  It will appeal to those who are confronted with major life changes in these troubled economic times; to those who, though they may desire rest and retirement, must continue toiling to make ends meet; for those who desire insight into the vast, multifaceted culture of the United States from a fresh perspective, unencumbered by familiarity.

Writing as a Metaphysical Experience – From the author’s introduction: “For me, writing is metaphysical because it is inseparable from who I am and my conception of the universe and my place in it.  My interpretation of writing goes far beyond the definitions of hobby, job, or career – it is rather in the nature of a calling.  It is something that blossomed from within me and, though invisible to instrumentation, has been as integrally a part of me as my flesh, bones, and internal organs.  How this transpired and how it manifests itself is the subject of this book. This is not a how-to book on writing, although in its course I offer many practical tips and suggestions.  It’s more like a travelogue, a story of the life’s journey on which my writing has led me.” This journey has led Walters on a decades-long quest from the United States to Europe to the Indian Subcontinent and back in the pursuit of voice, inspiration, and literary excellence.  On the way, he has written and published novels, short story collections, essay collections, memoirs, and numerous individual novellas, novelettes, short stories, and essays.

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The Days It Doesn’t Happen

Every writer has a different approach to the process of putting words on paper. Some who write long novels or major works of nonfiction prepare backgrounds or research for months or even years and then binge-write until the work is completed. Afterwards it may be many months before they put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard again. This doesn’t work for me; I enjoy writing too much. I don’t like to let a day pass without transcribing the thoughts in my head and the emotions in my heart. For this reason I prefer the methodical approach of a minimum daily word count, and I have kept to this system for decades.

During this period of my writing career, I adhere to a minimum count of five hundred words per day. I maintain this habit, with pleasure, seven days a week. Occasionally urgent life events intrude that make it impossible for me to sit down at a keyboard. When this happens, I don’t get all bent out of shape or force myself to double my word count the following day. I simply carry on when I am able with the five hundred words or more. However, what happens when I complete a piece of writing the day before and then I have to start fresh the following day? This comes up frequently because I write literary works of all lengths: novels, memoirs, novellas, novelettes, short stories, and flash fiction. Obviously it is easier to dive in and compose a minimum word count on a longer work that has already been initiated, but I am particularly fond of writing short stories. This means that I frequently need new ideas.

I try to plan for this by jotting down random ideas in a special file. When I encounter the need to begin a new project and I don’t have anything specific in mind, I peruse this list and see if anything ignites my curiosity and imagination. If nothing does, though, I have a few options. In a perfect world where money is not a problem, I might spend the day attempting various methods of jumpstarting my imagination, but in the real world, I have to go on to ghostwrite another one or two thousand more words of blog posts or articles for which I receive quick payment.

Sometimes I simply give myself a day or two to come up with a solid new idea. There’s almost always a moment of despair after I finish what I consider a good piece of writing when I wonder how I will ever come up with a new idea again. However, that feeling quickly passes when I realize that my imagination and creativity have never failed me yet, and they won’t this time either. Sometimes, depending on my schedule and circumstances, I might make another attempt at the five hundred words in the afternoon or evening. Sometimes this works, and sometimes it doesn’t. The main thing I have to keep in mind in these situations is that this is not writer’s block. I am simply finding first gear so I can once again get moving. That initial phrase or sentence can be the spark that ignites the conflagration of a whole new work.

Sometimes I will get a few thousand words into a new story and then be unable to proceed. That’s okay too. I put these incomplete stories aside and come back to them later. Sometimes I am able to continue and complete the story, while other times I realize that the fragment is a dead end. It doesn’t matter. More often than not I finish what I start and am pleased with my work. Maintaining a steady continual flow of words works well for me. If that flow is occasionally interrupted, I am disappointed, but I also accept the inevitability of these interruptions, cast about for what’s next, seize the next idea, and carry on.

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Book Review:  The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Volume 2 Edited by Jonathan Straham

This is the second year of Strahan’s new best of the year science fiction anthology series, one that he has deliberately modeled after the late Gardner Dozois’s classic decades-long series. (Strahan acknowledges Dozois in the introduction.) With all respect to Dozois, who was one of the greatest speculative fiction editors of all time, this series has some distinct advantages over the previous one, at least in format. Strahan has decided not to include novellas, but instead sticks to short stories and novelettes. I think this is a wise decision. It makes the book shorter (although this volume is still almost six hundred pages) and easier to physically manage; and most importantly, it is in a larger more readable font. Like Dozois’s, it includes a roundup of the year’s news in science fiction writing and publishing, which you can read or skip depending on whether keeping up with such things is important to you.

In this anthology you’ll find Strahan’s selection of what he considers the best science fiction stories that were published in the year 2020. Of course, any such selection of stories is a subjective appraisal of the field. I usually read two or three best of the year anthologies of science fiction and fantasy when they come out, and I am always struck by the fact that there are very few matches. Each editor has their own ideas about what constitutes the best writing in the field.

One distinction of this anthology is that I managed to get through every story from beginning to end. Usually when I am reading anthologies I find a few stories that I just can’t get into and skip over; not so in this one. That said, I have to add that though some stories are very good, none of them absolutely blast me away with their brilliance. Have I become jaded and spoiled by the standard by which I measure every story I read: the genre-shattering brilliant stories of New Wave writers of the late 1960s and 1970s? I don’t know.

In this anthology I was surprised at the number of stories of cute and clever robots, which except for a few modern embellishments might have been at home in Golden Age science fiction anthologies of the 1950s. At the other end of the spectrum, there are some cutting edge stories that showcase the recent emphasis on the writing and publishing of African American speculative fiction. For instance, “The Transition of OSOOSI” by Ozzie M. Gartrell is an excellent story of hackers that create new types of virtual superheroes to bring about social change. “How to Pay Reparations: A Documentary” by Tochi Onyebuchi is exactly what the title suggests: a description of a fictional documentary of the social and financial implications when one city votes to distribute reparations to its African American residents.

Although the robot stories provide light entertainment, the most profound stories are those that deal with human situations and emotions. A good example is “The Bahrain Underground Bazaar” by Nadia Afifi, which concerns an old woman obsessed with her imminent death who comes to realize that her obsession is hurting beloved family members. Another touching story is “An Important Failure” by Rebecca Campbell, which tells of a violin maker striving to find the right wood to create an instrument fit for a virtuoso in a world decimated by global warming. Rich Larsen is a writer who seldom disappoints; in “How Quini the Squid Misplaced His Klobucar” he gives us a gritty heist story whose characters have deep heartfelt motivations. “Sparklybits” by Nick Wolven is a wonderful observation on parenthood. Other fine stories that effectively combine deep human emotion with the wonder of provocative ideas include “Yellow and the Perception of Reality” by Maureen McHugh and “The Mermaid Astronaut” by Yoon Ha Lee.

In conclusion, this is an entertaining anthology; whether you like light humorous fare, incisive social commentary, tense action, or heartfelt emotion, you’ll find something to please you.

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Book Review:  Harlem Shuffle by Colson Whitehead

The two books of Colson Whitehead’s that I have read previous to this one, The Underground Railroad and The Nickel Boys, have been exciting and original works of fiction, and both, incidentally, have won the Pulitzer Prize. Along with his newest novel, Harlem Shuffle, they are all set in some form of the historical past. The Underground Railroad takes place in an alternate history in which the railroad is an actual physical railroad instead of a series of hideaways and routes that would transport escaped slaves to freedom in the 19th century. The Nickel Boys, which takes place in the 1960s, is based on a real reformatory in Florida that was rife with abuse, torture, and death; after it closed the remains of many students were found on the grounds in unmarked graves. And now, with Harlem Shuffle, Whitehead gives us an inside look at Harlem as it was in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

The main character, a man named Ray Carney, manages to survive while balancing interactions in the honest and dishonest sides of Harlem’s milieu. Ostensibly he is an upstanding businessman with a thriving furniture store catering to black clientele. He keeps up with the latest designs and models and is always striving to introduce new product lines into his showroom. He is also, however, a fence of stolen goods. He’ll take in “gently used” televisions, appliances, and other items that have obviously been stolen; he also has contacts to dispose of jewelry, coins, and other more expensive items. His wife Elizabeth, who works at a travel agency specializing in helping African Americans find safe places to vacation, has no idea of the shadier side of Carney’s business. His cousin Freddie is a ne’er-do-well who invites trouble along wherever he goes. There is also an extensive cast of fascinating supporting characters.

The book is split into three parts. The first part takes place in 1959 and concerns a robbery Freddie is involved in that goes amiss; Carney attempts to get him out of trouble by fencing some jewels Freddie has stolen. The second part happens in 1961. A crooked banker swindles Carney out of some money, and Carney concocts an elaborate scheme of revenge. To pull it off, though, he needs to enlist the assistance of various members of the Harlem underworld. The third part also has to do with a jewel theft, and it takes place just after the Harlem riot of 1964.

Although there are exciting scenes and tense situations, these are secondary to Whitehead’s accomplishment of bringing the Harlem of the fifties and sixties alive through the viewpoints of his characters. Telling the story through three incidents taking place in different years creates a complex, multilayered effect that allows readers to grasp what life was like for black residents of Harlem back then – the opposition that they faced from the white community and what they had to go through to survive.

Colson Whitehead is an excellent writer. Pulitzer Prizes for one novel after the other make for a hard act to follow, but this book does not disappoint. It is exciting, fun, touching, tragic, intense, and profound.

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Book Review:  Forever Young: A Memoir by Hayley Mills

Although I was significantly younger than either of them, my two biggest film star crushes when I was a child were Judy Garland and Hayley Mills. Judy Garland, of course, I knew as the vulnerable but determined young woman wandering through a fantasy land and longing to get back to her home in Kansas in The Wizard of Oz; this movie appeared as a special on TV almost every year when I was young. Hayley Mills was Disney’s most famous child star, first appearing in Pollyanna, and then in a string of other films. When my siblings and I were young, our parents would only let us go to films that were made by Disney; they figured that if the wholesome Disney Studios made them, they must be safe. So we had a lot of exposure to Hayley Mills, who also appeared in the original version of The Parent Trap, In Search of the Castaways, Summer Magic, The Moon-Spinners, and That Darn Cat, all for Disney. An interesting side note: after prolonged persuasion, our parents finally broke down and decided to allow the older kids to see the new James Bond film Thunderball. However, when my father drove us downtown, we found out that the box office line of people waiting to get into Thunderball was wrapped around an entire city block; we ended up having to make a substitute, so we went to see Hayley Mills in That Darn Cat instead.

In this memoir, Mills looks back on her early filmmaking years, especially when she was under contract to Disney, from the perspective of a woman now in her seventies. She writes in a sweet and lucid style, casual but detailed. When she was an adolescent and through her teen years, she was famous throughout the world; she even won a special Academy Award for her performance in Pollyanna. I was talking with one of my adult sons, though, and telling him about this memoir, and he admitted that he had never heard of Hayley Mills, and the only one of her movies he’d heard of was The Parent Trap – only he had not seen the original but the remake with Lindsay Lohan.

Hayley Mills is the daughter of the famous British actor John Mills, who won an Academy Award for his performance in Ryan’s Daughter. Hayley had no ambitions to be an actor, and her first appearance in films came about by accident. She was playing in the garden with her younger brother one day while her father was having a discussion with a producer/director about the need to cast an exceptional male child actor for an upcoming film. Watching Hayley, the producer decided on the spot to change the boy into a girl in the script and cast Hayley instead. This was an independent British film called Tiger Bay. When Walt Disney saw it, he became determined to cast Hayley in his new production of Pollyanna. He offered Hayley a studio contract for multiple pictures which her parents initially turned down. They only agreed to let Hayley sign on when Disney also guaranteed John Mills the leading role in Swiss Family Robinson.

The book emphasizes the difficulties that child stars undergo. Although Hayley readily took to acting and usually enjoyed it, she was subject to fits of insecurity and despondency. As she grew older, she also became self-conscious about her weight and for a time she was bulimic, binge eating and then throwing up. When she was twenty years old, she married a producer/director who was thirty-two years older than she was; the marriage only lasted a few years before divorce. Another tragedy that befell her around the same time was the loss of the trust fund that had been set up to hold her earnings until she turned twenty-one. After a years-long court battle, the British Treasury took almost everything, taxing the entire trust fund at over ninety percent and then adding on extra legal fees.

To accompany the reading of this book, I watched a couple of Hayley’s old movies on Disney Plus. The Moon-Spinners is a thriller about a jewel theft set in Crete; it’s the first Disney film in which Hayley has a romantic interest. However, it’s rather bland and unexciting by today’s standards. The original version of The Parent Trap, though, is well-acted, well-paced, and funny, even by modern standards. It made me wonder why they bothered with a remake.

This memoir may appeal mostly to Baby Boomers who remember Hayley Mills, but for people of all ages it provides a fascinating glimpse into Hollywood, the Disney Studios, and filmmaking in general in the 1950s and 1960s.

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